Thursday, July 29, 2004

Security Theatre in New York

The NY Times reports on a weird trend in the city - mock police alerts.
"It goes something like this: On a typical block in, say, Midtown Manhattan, as many as 80 police cars quickly stream in out of nowhere, in neat rows, their lights and sirens going. The drills seem to take place on blocks with restricted parking, and each car executes a fast back-in parking job against the curb.

Sometimes, depending on the block, they park perpendicular to the curb; sometimes at a slant. The officers - scores of them - get out of the cars. They do not rush into a building. They do not draw their guns. They pretty much just stand around for half an hour or so. Then, officers pile back into their cars and, again in formation, the cars pull away from the curb and drive off.
I'm rather surprised that they don't stock up on bottled water and canned all day breakfasts whilst they're at it. Mind you, this says something about the strategic thought-process behind it:
""He said they all gather at one point and then swarm an area," Mrs. Wright said the officer told her. "See if there's any terrorist activity going on.""
Well, that's bound to do it. More seriously, this bears out a point of mine about security/civil defence that appeared on this blog last year. The distinction between security theatre and real preparation is public involvement. It's a British tradition to mock emergency planning relentlessly (cf Zoe Williams in the Guardian the other day - according to her it is "an accepted truth" that nothing in the cold war public information leaflets would have helped. Really, Zoe? ), and what I know of the "Preparing for Emergencies" leaflet sounds like common sense, but I don't think the government has taken it terribly seriously. Crucially, it hasn't inspired the local authorities to do much, and they are the key. The problem with cold-war civil defence planning was that everyone imagined attack as being one big flash and out. Of course, if you are in the target area of a nuclear explosion nothing short of a deep bunker will help. But the point was the millions of people living on the edges of the targets. Even the practices in the much maligned Protest and Survive would have done them some good. Because no British government put a very high priority at the centre on civil defence, though, the local governments didn't either and shared in the blanket slagging.

I suspect that Preparing for Emergencies could do better, but I have to say that it will probably do you more good than a cynical blog post in the event of attack.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Exile.ru on Fallujah

Excellent post from Russia on the Fallujah disaster.
"Joint patrols"! That was it! Bush went on TV to tell the suckers that, "the situation in Fallujah is returning to normal." Well, if "normal" is leaving the enemy in possession of the city, letting them ambush any Marine patrol they want, then Hell yeah, Fallujah was as normal as it gets. He also said the joint patrols would make the city "secure." But to be fair, he did admit there were, and I quote, "pockets of resistance" still operating in Fallujah. Yeah. Like there are pockets of gambling in Vegas.

I wanted to spit on the TV screen.

So the battle of Fallujah was over, and we lost. The Marines were ordered to withdraw from the city. From now on they went in only as part of these ridiculous "joint patrols." Since then we've only attacked the city from the air, because that way we don't risk any casualties. Of course we also don't have a chance of dislodging the enemy, and we leave them in possession of the field, and we make our brave soldiers look ridiculous -- but I guess none of that is as important as PR for the election campaign."


Indeed, which was rather what I said here..

I'm finding it hard to work up enthusiasm for this war

Medecins sans Frontieres has decided to withdraw from Afghanistan due to the degree of danger its staff are working in, as well as alleged manipulation of aid for military ends.

Things are of course getting better, just as they are in Iraq. And why doesn't Blair add "Heroin - now better and cheaper than ever before!" to his list of achievements? After all, which would you choose between a government approved summer camp where all the kiddies have their own number - and cheap smack?

Saturday, July 24, 2004

A Bout in the kidneys

Further developments on the Viktor Bout scandal are filtering through the blogosphere. Laura Rozen reports that a firm called something like "Jetline" associated with the colourful African aviation identity/evil quartermaster to world terrorism has been delivering goods to US armed forces PX stores in Iraq. This story then firmed up via Rozen and Douglas Farah, the first journalist to interview Bout, who quotes sources as saying that Bout had held a lucrative contract to deliver "munitions" to Iraq for the US Department of Defense.

What is a Jetline when it's at home? Publicly available data lists two airlines of this name - one was a Spanish start-up that failed without flying in 1998, and the other is "Jetline International", registered in Equatorial Guinea but based in Tripoli and Ras al-Khaimah, UAE. Does the combination start to sound a little ominous? It is officially described as existing to provide "VIP flights" to the "Sahel-Sahara Community governments". However, the fleet seems rather large for this purpose and oddly made up, containing a majority of Il-62 aircraft ("VC-10skis"), DC-8s and an Il76 heavy freighter, besides sundry BAC111s and Boeing 727s. Interestingly, some of the aircraft have followed an odd path. Il-62 serial no. 4648414 seems to have been sold or otherwise transferred from the Russian presidential fleet to Jetline and from there to Viktor Bout's Air Bas, before returning to Jetline. In the process it went through 3 registrations in 3 countries. (EL-ALM, 5A-DKT or 3C-QQR) All very interesting...

Update, 1517 25/07/04

More interesting points on Jetline Intl. Strangely, although there are numerous photos of business jets belonging to them on the net, none of the Il62s seem to appear in any publicly available photo. Business jets, of course, fit Jetline's declared purpose far better. Although the Il76 has been repeatedly photographed by spotters, several different registrations are attributed to it. They only differ by one letter, though. Question - are there several Il76s operating under one or two registrations, or one aircraft and several registrations? Or are they hallucinating? Photos also exist of an An26, although I've not found any details of such an aircraft at Jetline.

And what about this? BAC111 3C-QRF, manufacturer's serial no. 61, is said to be owned by Jetline but operating for San Air General Trading. Yes, that's the San Air that received huge payments from the Liberian shipping registry on behalf of Richard Chichakli. Amusingly, one of its former owners was none other than Hustler magazine.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

UKIP's Bloom: a character type

The UKIP (or Swivel-Eyed Loons, as blogging SOPs oblige me to call them)'s Godfrey Bloom, MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber has made a fool of himself by trying to get on to the European Parliament's women's rights committee despite his obvious handicap. To the obvious handicap he lost no time in adding several more that might not have been obvious at first sight: that he's an arrogant, misogynistic and childish little get. Mr Bloom declared that he wanted "to deal with women's issues because I just don't think they clean behind the fridge enough", and further explained that he was "going to promote men's rights".

Exactly what these might be was clarified when he went on to state that he "was here to represent Yorkshire women, who always have dinner on the table when you get home". (Note: the comma is the Guardian's. I'm not sure if the last 11 words were originally a relative clause, in which case all Yorkshire women by definition have dinner on the table etc etc, or if they are a run-on sentence, in which case he only represents those Yorkshire women who etc etc and no others. I suspect in the latter case such women would probably agree that he didn't represent them.) In a further effort to get out his philosophy, he stated that "the more women's rights you have, it's actually a bar to their employment...(ed: never mind the grammar)...no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age".

Strange. If that's a matter of "men's rights", I suppose Bloom believes that anyone who has a small business is a man. How odd. Mind you, one criticism that can never be aimed at Bloom, unlike his party leader, is a vague grasp of policy.
"Mr Bloom explained that he would like to overturn EU maternity legislation if his position allowed. He said maternity laws that gave women six months of paid leave and the option of another six months unpaid leave, had resulted in women losing jobs and employment. Many businesses only employed women over 40, he said."
How did he get that way? The answer is in the widely published photo of him, which sadly is unavailable on the web. Fat-faced, he stands in a boxy black suit and a glaring yellow tie with a huge knot, armed with an old-fashioned and clearly expensive briefcase and, dear God, a bowler hat. To those familiar with Yorkshire, the signs are all there.

There is a particular kind of Yorkshireman who expresses all the stereotyped characteristics to excess - plain speaking is taken to the level of pointless verbal brutality, pride to arrogance, hard work to an obsession with money, respect for tradition to philistine provincialism. The type is usually found somewhere in the triangle York-Harrogate-Leeds, often talking extremely loudly in a pub, bar or other place of entertainment aimed up-market. He (it always seems to be he) has his own peculiar variant of the dialect, the vowels squeezed into a compromise between Yorkshire and the south, and his own distinctive style. This combines ultraconservatism with lavish expense and a gadget fetish. He may dress like a City lawyer in 1953, and spend a fortune to look like that, but he will use a mobile phone more powerful than his own brain and insist on telling you all about it. 15 years ago he would have driven a Rolls Royce. Now it will either be an extravagant sports car in lurid tones or a gigantic Range Rover in British Racing Green. He reads the Yorkshire Post and considers the national press effeminate, with the occasional exception of the mighty FT when he visits London. He is either in business or else, the law, and can be found sweating menacingly down his braces as he lumps in an office chair.

Politically, it goes without saying, he is tribally conservative. Although his natural habitat is urban or suburban (see above), he likes to seem countrified. He is driven into a rage by the abolition of foxhunting but has very likely never hunted. His anti-Europeanism is intense. He enjoys aggressive, boozy socialising and machismo, and this marks his political views. Everything is the fault of someone else, preferably a foreigner. In groups they can poison the atmosphere of an entire pub in seconds, swilling ale, braying, tormenting the barmaid, spilling ale and lumbering against bystanders. It is similar to the southern, rugby union and rowing, hooray but with the distinction that these don't grow out of it - they behave like this from 16 to death or incapacity. Just the budget and hence the locale alters. Politically they are much like that, as Bloom has neatly shown, blundering aggressively about blurting unacceptable nonsense and telling jokes in catastrophically bad taste, before bleating if they encounter superior force.

The key to understanding him is that he and his brothers are the only social group who try to be nouveau riche, even when they are not. Taken individually, they can usually control themselves up to a point. They are unlikely, despite telling nigger jokes at the drop of a hat, to disgrace themselves if put to the test. But in the security of the herd, they become a menace.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Der Standard - Private jailers claim US official involvement

Story (in German)

It is reported that the three US civilians accused of operating a private jail in Kabul (see below) have claimed before an Afghan court that they acted with the knowledge and encouragement of the US Army in Afghanistan. Their leader, Jonathan Keith Idema, claimed to have handed over "international terrorists" on two occasions to the authorities and said he could substantiate his claims with documents.

Those Defence Cuts: Jacko's Message

Well, perhaps the longest and most tiresome defence policy spin war in memory is over and the full details are out. In some ways it wasn't as bad as the tireless briefers kept suggesting to susceptible papers like the Telegraph - the maximum horror versions included, for example, the scrapping of both the RAF's Jaguar and Harrier aircraft, the scrapping of many of the RAF support helicopters and the Army's Gazelles, plus swingeing cuttage for the Navy and the disbandment of the entire Royal Irish Regiment and more.

Well, either the Torygraph was as credulous as usual on such matters or the spinners were successful. The Irish stay, and the Scottish Division is to lose one battalion instead of the positive massacre some suggested. Where the pressure goes is the RAF - the Jaguar fleet is to be retired early, and its base at Coltishall will close. I suppose there is a degree of sense to that, as many people have pointed out the oddness of having three bomber types (Jag, Harrier and Tornado GR4). The Jaguars in a sense fell between two stools - neither having the "first night of the war" status of the Tornados (or the shared maintenance) nor the VTOL capability of the Harriers. Unexpectedly, though, a Tornado F3 air defence squadron is to be disbanded. The Navy's planned new carriers are upheld, though it's anybody's guess if they will appear or when. However, the Navy will have to see six ships go - the three oldest Type 42 destroyers and three Type 23 frigates. (Note - this is on top of a reduction in the order for the Type 45 ships, and the retirement of the Sea Harrier. Not that the 42's were much use, but the navy's air defence looks less assured still.)

The big change was in the army. Aside from the cut of 4 battalions - one in Scotland and 3 from England - the arms plotting system, established in 1882, is to go. This means that infantry units will no longer be rotated through different roles and bases but will have a fixed base and a speciality. Soldiers will be posted between the battalions, which implies some sort of merger between regiments. What looks likely will be the formation of regionally based regiments with several battalions each (possibly allowing symbols to be preserved). The point is to avoid the problem that units stop being available every so often when they retrain for a new role under arms plotting - this is meant to more than make up for the cut. ("a. Operational Availability. An order of battle comprising 36 battalions which are always available will be more capable than one of 40 drawn down by a significant number of battalions moving, re-roling and re-training") I think they'll be lucky.

So, it seems, does General Jackson if this quote from his message to the army today, a copy of which I obtained, is anything to go by:
"But I am conscious that some of the changes may appear counter-intuitive to an Army which is under sustained operational pressure, and which may – at least in part - see these changes as a threat as much as an opportunity."
You're not kidding, Jacko. But I can't imagine anyone believing this snippet:
"It would be quite wrong to think that the re-balancing in FAS is driven by money"


The message is here for those who like that sort of thing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Naughty, naughty, very naughty

Boo! to the Voice of America thanks to one of their employees, who searched the web for "phone lines porno sao tome" and somehow hit the Ranter (we are the 30th Yahoo result for that). What the broadcaster desperate for West African dirty talk (or possibly information on dialler scams) got would have been the first Viktor Bout article, here.

Disappointing, I think.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Bye By Election - Blair Blitzed, Beaten But not in Brum or by Butler - quite

Yet another crisis week for the government has gone by without apparently doing any damage. The Butler report punched in but again failed to either nail down the prime minister or to convincingly clear him. Where Lord Hutton's report denied that anything was wrong, Butler's made it abundantly clear that plenty was wrong, but crucially avoided assigning blame to any individual or indeed organisation. The government was left to moan that there have now been four inquiries "producing over a million words" of examination. Can't we please move on? It ought to be superfluous to point out the flaws in all four inquiries - the Foreign Affairs Committee's Labour majority and lack of access to papers, the Intelligence and Security Committee's position as the creature of the prime minister, Lord Hutton's restricted remit and Butler's specific instruction to comment on "processes and systems" as opposed, presumably, to individuals. After all, to misquote Mark Twain, you can't hang a clue for murder. The same, I suppose, goes for a system.

It is worth recapping a little. The huge release of papers to Hutton made various things clear. We now know that the dossier was repeatedly re-drafted and that in this redrafting process the language was altered and various qualifiers were removed. We also know that members of the prime minister's political staff commented on the drafts to the intelligence officials, most famously in No. 10 chief of staff Jonathan Powell's email to JIC Chairman John Scarlett asking for more compelling intelligence. Even Lord Hutton was willing to concede that efforts to produce the most persuasive paper possible might have "subconsciously influenced" the drafters. Now, Butler has produced the drafts themselves. It is clear that somebody was trying to boost - to sex up - the dossier, and Butler as good as says so. Lest we forget, yer man Godric Smith told the Hutton inquiry that "on the presentational side" Alastair Campbell did indeed take part in producing the dossier. It's a slow burn, but as far as I can see the infamous Gilligan story is being corroborated.

Which means no-one should be surprised to see a swing against Labour of 26%+ when it turns up. Despite frenzied and extremely bad-tempered campaigning, Labour saw a rock solid seat like Leicester South evaporate and effectively relied on a small split vote to the Galloway fan club in Birmingham. Everyone politically is now saying - well, it's a byelection, the Lib Dems can't repeat at the general election.

No-one has yet to say why.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

From the search requests

We are the no. 1 Google result for "UK disposable soldier". We are also no. 18 for "email contacts of sweethearts company in asia". Trust me, it's as bad as it sounds.

BBC Stupidity

Essential viewing tonight - not just one but two BBC documentaries on Saudi Arabia (This World, 2100, BBC2, and The House of Saud, 2320, BBC2), and another produced from 6 months' secret filming of BNP meetings (The Secret Agent, 2100, BBC1). Highlights include their shirt-pocket f├╝hrer Nick Griffin ranting madly about Muslims raping white girls to a pubful of supporters in Keighley. Too close to home.

In an egregiously stupid act, the Beeb has scheduled the BNP and Saudi docs to go out simultaneously! So it's a choice - Saudis or fascists? (Is there a logical flaw here?) The reason appears to be that the 50minute This World is to go out after an hour of GOLF HIGHLIGHTS! Do they have highlights in golf? And why couldn't they show the hour of golf in the BBC1 9pm slot, instead of the BNP film - which would have allowed them to show it before the Saudi one? You wonder how decisions like that get made.

Blogs for today

Spyblog agrees with my reaction to the Mexican microchip story - astonishment and horror-fixation, roughly - quoting a AP story including some even weirder implications. Jewelry and mobile phones loaded with RFID chips indeed. Of course, the next step would be to carry your own scanner so as to know if anyone was pinging the chip - one imagines the habitues of that Barcelona nightclub warily eyeing the read-out on their diamond-studded mobys and wondering if it was just a routine security check or the preparations of a tech-savvy murderer.

Gregorian Ranting has some amusing stuff concerning books..."People get startled whenever they see how many books I have. Sometimes their jaws drop and they say things like 'You have so many books... have you read them all?'" ...and quotes Flann O'Brien:
"On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary"
At school, I remember, there was a curious phrase in constant use. People spoke of any book that was not a textbook as a "reading-book", which begs the question what other kind of book there is.

Of course, it was really a distinction between exercise books, text books and the like and anything you might read without being forced to.

Jason Kitcat has been the target of a handbagging by the Austrian foreign ministry after his presentation to an e-voting conference in Bregenz apparently offended them. I wouldn't worry too much, anything that annoys the current Austrian government is probably a good thing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Interesting

It was considered sensational when an Airbus A300 belonging to DHL was hit by a surface-to-air missile near Baghdad last year(link, picture), narrowly surviving after the crew succeeded in manoeuvring back to the airport and landing without the hydraulics - they could only control the aircraft by varying the thrust on the engines separately.

It seems, though, that another civilian aircraft survived a SAM hit over Baghdad on the 28th of April. The plane, an Armenian-registered Antonov 12, serial number 8345607, registration EK-12555, leased to Daallo Airlines in Djibouti, suffered flap and aileron damage at around 8000ft altitude on departure but landed safely, being in the words of my source "built like a brick shithouse". (After all, the type was conceived with two purposes in mind - tactical transport for the military and rough field operations in Siberia.) It would appear that the story was originally hushed up. I thought this might have been a Viktor Bout-related matter, but Daallo are apparently respectable.

Bloody idiot

Man shot self in testicles after drinking 15 pints of lager and "arguing with lifelong friend over whose turn it was to buy beer".

Kidnappers and RFID chips

It is reported that senior Mexican officials including the attorney-general have had identifying chips implanted into their persons. These are intended to control access to sensitive information and provide a means of locating them in the event of kidnapping. Presumably the "chips" are RFID devices, which would emit a radio signal containing a unique identifier when queried by a transmitter.

Of course, they would also provide a means of tracking their location whereever they go. Supposedly, it is widely believed in Mexico that this technology is in common use - a kidnapping gang has emerged that strips its victims and demands under threat of mutilation that they reveal where the device is. The implication is clearly that they would then hack it out of their flesh.

This is, I think, a grim example of a future trend - the increasing use of advanced security technology as a form of class distinction, and its exploitation by the criminals against whom it is directed. After all, the equipment used to query an RFID chip is fairly cheap general purpose technology. If the police, or private interests, can track your location to assure your safety, the kidnappers could use the same technology to find you. They might discover the identity signal, and either monitor the frequency for it or actively broadcast the "ping" to trigger it - giving them the ability to locate and identify you. Sao Paulo has become in recent years a helicopter Mecca as the demand for transport by helicopter ballooned. Fear of kidnapping drove even the middle classes to take to using air taxi services, which was good news for Portuguese-speaking helicopter pilots but probably no-one else. This is the information equivalent, as is the Barcelona nightclub whose members can use an RFID chip to beat the queue past the velvet rope and order drinks on account. That is comic, but the Mexican story is probably more significant.

The danger is that strategems like this, desperate responses to a public sphere and social fabric utterly lacking, will spread. If you can use your RFID tracking gear in Mexico City, why not in London? It is in the nature of complex and interdependent systems that changes in the ephemeral surface can bring about major changes to the structure. When computers were installed as furniture in office buildings, the building services had to change, which could mean quite radical changes in the architecture. The Mexican officials with their microchips have effectively drawn the frontier between Raymond Aron's "world of order" and "world of chaos" on their bodies - kidnapping as a common crime seems to be a phenomenon of those cities on that frontier, like Mexico City, Sao Paulo or indeed Baghdad.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Hmm..file sharing Ipods. Nice. (warning techy post)

The Register reports that a group of Romanians have invented wireless mobile music sharing.
"Instead, it's a small two-man smartphone software company based in Bucharest. Best known for its Symbian Series 60 software, Simeda recently introduced a small piece of file discovery software for wireless Pocket PCs which implemented Apple's Rendezvous service. Now they've gone a step further, and begun to make the iPod truly social.

In a bundle that hooks a Pocket PC up to an iPod - with the iPod as a USB slave device - the entire contents of the yuppy's music hoard can now be shared with the rest of the world: via streaming or file transfer."

The battles of Amara

Sunday Times report

Almost all the news concerning the British sector in Iraq has involved the area around Amara in one way or another, but it's been hard to pull together. The Sunday Times (Sunderer, perhaps?) has done a good job though, with this story on the Princess of Wales' Royal Regt in the area. Apparently in 3 months they were involved in some 300 contacts, culminating in the famous bayonet charge at checkpoint Danny Boy.

Impressive though the story is, and confirming how silly it would be to cut the real army for the sake of whizzy gadgets (eh, Plastic Gangster) this is not a good news story. Good news from Iraq would be boring - order, calm, quiet. The progress of a counter-insurgency campaign is marked not by battles but by the lack of them - the Americans' fallacy in Vietnam. That, a year after "the war" was over, a single battalion in the supposedly "quiet Shia south" was involved in 300 combat incidents and had to call on heavy tanks, Tornado and AC130 aircraft, before finally going in with the bayonet, is a marker of how badly things are wrong in Iraq.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Did Blair really wobble that much?

NO question as to what the main story at the moment is. The suggestion that Blair was talked out of resigning last month is a beauty, whose importance is only borne out by the race by cabinet ministers to distance themselves from it. A small industry has already grown up producing weird conspiracy-ish explanations. One that has some official support is that the whole story was somehow cooked up to make Blair look nicer. A strange argument - if we give the impression that I'm on the point of giving in, they'll love me again. Doesn't sound too likely.

Apparently, Blair was persuaded by the love of a good woman not to throw it all away - whoops, by the intervention of four ministers. It should come as no surprise to see which ones - John Reid and Charles Clarke, ex-Kinnockites who have taken over the role of being closer to Blair than any others from the "special republican guards" like Alan Milburn. Patricia Hewitt - another of the old Kinnock team, and one of the first to retool. Tessa Jowell is a deep Blairite anyway. Everyone involved is now involved in the complex task of both denying anything happened and also confirming that they did indeed go to see Tony B - after all, if they hadn't offered him a shoulder to cry on (even though, of course, he wasn't crying) they wouldn't be proper Blairites, so they can't deny it! British Politics suggests that someone was trying to make a major demonstration of loyalty by putting out the story. Well, it's an explanation, I suppose. Maybe all those Big Intervention banners had some effect, eh.

During the course of Friday, I'd consumed two national newspapers, BBC radio and TV news for breakfast and after dinner, some overseas news sources and a swag of blogs. Binge newsing. The next morning, I didn't listen to the BBC, and although I read part of the Guardian on the way, I was utterly foxed when members of my family greeted me with comments about Blair going. They seemed to think from the Big Intervention banners on this blog that I'd known something about it. I didn't even know it had happened. They, though, had listened to Today that morning. Moral: If you don't listen to the BBC, you know nothing.

Friday, July 09, 2004

What now? Mystery of free lances and their own little jail

The Guardian reports that Afghan police in Kabul have uncovered a group of mercenaries who were operating their own prison under the cover of an "import business". In the building they had several people hanging upside down, who had apparently been beaten up first. Lovely.
Although the group's leader is apparently one Jonathan Keith Idema, who claims to be a former member of US special forces, and they were all dressed in US battledress, it is claimed that this was a "freelance counter-terrorist mission" and that they were "bounty hunters" after the rewards offered for various al-Qa'ida leaders.

Mr. Idema has a curious background, having displayed himself copiously as a "security expert" on television and - bizarrely - sued Dreamworks over the plot of the film The Peacemaker, in which George Clooney played an officer on the trail of nuclear smugglers. There is much hagiographic comment about him on the net, but most of it appears on low-credibility right wing sites like Newsmax and WorldNetDaily, best known for rumours and ads for quack remedies. Or gun-nut conspiracy sites..link But this is surely hardly relevant. More interesting was that he rocked up in Afghanistan during the original war, and appeared on telly with supposed "al-Qa'ida training camp footage" showing evil terrorists "practising to take over schools". Again, the story seems to have been pitched to a careful selection of outlets (Free Republic, WND, Fox...yuck.) What exactly was he doing? Further, and interestingly, it seems his special forces time was spent as a quartermaster, which fits with the business he went into (making fancy webbing kit). Despite having spetn his career in the stores with the rats, rats, rats as big as cats, he managed to claim that he made operational parachute jumps with his dog. Very plausible.


Curiously, the US military in Afghanistan had been briefing the press prior to the arrests that Idema had nothing to do with him. This seems to argue foreknowledge. It would be an easy conclusion that the Afghan police blundered into some sort of super-spook CIA operation. But Idema's curious Walter Mitty background and fraud convictions would argue against that. As would his various schemes to make a blockbuster movie about nuclear smugglers. After all, back in the early 1990s, the possibility of nuclear material or even complete weapons vanishing from the former Soviet Union was a fashionable issue. Despite considerable attention, real cases were rare. What were much more common, as various hacks and police forces found to their cost, were chancers trying either to pass off innocuous material as weapons-grade when they had a customer, or to secure rewards from the authorities. Nuclear smuggling was a dog that didn't bark (though I bet Idema's would have done if it had ever been on an operational parachute drop), but nuclear fraud was quite another matter. But a lot of the same stories have been recycled by War on Trrr boosters, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of the same people were.

But we are still nowhere near an explanation. As Josh Marshall points out, why would you want your own jail?
"It just seems like someone must have been paying this guy to do something, unless it's like a blog where you just set up shop and figure that someday a revenue stream might turn up."
Most amusing. The man in question is now in the tender care of the Afghan intelligence service. God pays debts without money, as my mother would say, but what the hell was going on?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Result!

Firm whose washing machine cooked worker fined £325,000

This case, which I blogged at the time, has finally been nailed down. To recap, Paul Clegg ventured into a 40ft long industrial washing machine to clear it of sheets tangled in the workings. He was overcome by heat inside the thing, but although people outside knew this, no-one could help. They could not help because none of them knew there was an escape hatch in the side of the machine. Not even the engineer on duty knew that - hardly surprising as he had received no training and had never even read the machine manual. When the fire brigade arrived he assured them there was no access, leaving them to hack through the steel drum by force. By the time they broke in, Mr. Clegg was dead.

Yesterday, Bournemouth Crown Court fined the firm £325,000 and ordered them to pay £16,500 costs.

That migrant flood, crime, and prohibition

Back in May, I asked readers to contact me if you saw any signs of a flood of Eastern European migrants after their failure to arrive. Despite, I'm sure, your best efforts to locate them I had concluded that somehow they must have been mislaid, all 2 million of 'em, by the tabs, Tories and 'kippers somewhere between Estonia and Dover. The figs are now out, and they suggest a net gain of 10,000 since May 1st, at least as far as the worker registration scheme goes. link But an important point is revealed by the Guardian story in that link, and that is the convergence of the legal and illegal job markets. This is a very serious factor for everyone who has opposed the Asylum Cry, as it breaks down one of our best arguments. I usually argue that anti-immigrant policies never work in the sense of preventing immigration - even on an island like the UK, people still turn up - but do have the effect of creating a criminal industry in people-trafficking. The demand and supply remain, and cutting off the legal routes transfers it to the illegal routes. This means that the immigrants who do arrive end up working in fearful conditions in a criminal environment. The smuggling industry grows and demands more and money from its passengers, and after a certain point it starts to vertically integrate with the low-end of the labour market.

Those employers who are willing to take on people whose discovery could get them nicked are likely also to be willing to pay them peanuts, extort "deposits", "fees", "repayments" and a pornographic catalogue of other exactions from them, welsh on them, and resort to violence or blackmail if they resist. The smuggler gangs will be only too happy to discipline them for a fee. Ordnung muss sein, and a bigger organisation always seeks to control its environment. That means securing the end market by linking up with employers and agencies. Going into the gangerman business yourself is the next stage, as it keeps as much profit as possible in-house as well as laying a foundation for going legit, should it become necessary. It's a whole new world of criminality.

The counter, I usually argue, is to increase legal migration - starve the beast, as they say. Who would get involved with this scum if there was any alternative? But this story suggests that there is no longer an alternative, even with full freedom of movement in the EU.
"Richard Kowalski agreed, adding that many Poles he knows have been duped while looking for work. He said: "Some of the ads are from people who lie about money. They are stealing money and for two or three weeks promising money."
In particular, he says his friends have become wary of jobs for food packing at the airport. "They are working one week and they don't get paid, they [employers] say that is deposit. Working another week they say bosses don't come with the money. It's like that, they just don't pay."
Although Mr. Kowalski and his fellows are now legal and, according to our solemn obligations in the EU treaties, should enjoy the same employment protections as the rest of us (there are no transitional arrangements or opt-outs on this), they are getting the same mistreatment as the Chinese of Morecambe Bay. The same features come up again and again in this story, and they are the same ones I just described...
"dealing with unscrupulous landlords and Polish thugs trying to steal his passport, and enduring back breaking building work at £3.50 an hour."
"When they do promise £40 a day, the end of the week brings just £100, a shrug of the shoulders and a "maybe we can pay you more next week""
The culture of reliance on illegal labour, and the criminal structure around it, are infecting the economy. The same features - welshing, exploitation, cooperation of employers, immigrant gangsters and smugglers - are appearing in the legal world. Is it too much to suggest that the tough line policies of the last decade have led to a criminalisation or barbarisation of parts of the "legitimate" economy?

Yes, Minister! Public service productivity

The BBC achieved a small triumph last night when it managed to follow a repeated Yes, Minister episode from 1981 concerning a hospital with no patients with a Newsnight special on the difficulty of measuring public-sector productivity and the temptation for politicians to exploit this by using dodgy figures. This is something the Ranter touches on quite frequently, especially when Oliver "Chubby" Letwin is concerned. (Note - I've given him Roy "Chubby" Brown's nickname not least because he'd look better in Roy's famous helmet.) Astonishingly enough, PMQs today was all about public service productivity figures.

The basic problem, of course, is of valuing a non-marketed product and of measuring its quality. This is illustrated by the Teacher's Fallacy - if you measure the labour productivity of a school by the throughput of pupils over the number of teacher hours, the productivity figure goes up the more kids you stuff into each class. But no-one in the world thinks that increasing class sizes does the children anything other than a power of bad. Obviously the missing dimension is quality. Grades are one measure, but the problem arises of linking this to expense (either on teachers or on goods), even without considering the problem of comparing widely varying schools. The vacuity of most statistics on these issues gives loads of scope for the obfuscation we discussed on here a while ago. Newsnight picked up on this, pointing out Chubby Letwin's love of comparing irrevelancies - the Department for Work and Pensions being as big as Sheffield, for example. On that one, Chubby was pinged with the obvious question as to which town it should be as big as. He replied that suggesting a city would be "invidious", which begged the question why he did it.

All in all, the juxtaposition went a long way to reminding me how much of politics is ritualised and never changes at all. Some things do. Yes, Minister's scriptwriters were working in the late-70s/early-80s cuts culture and the row was about a new hospital with 500 staff and no patients. The principle holds.

MS patents skin networking

It is reported that Microsoft has patented technology for networking mobile electronic devices through the user's skin. Gear like PDAs, phones etc would communicate by using the skin's electrical conductivity. Further applications could supposedly include producing power for such devices from your movements, rather like a self-winding watch, and even displaying information on the skin.

All very sci-fi, but the problem is obvious. Just wait for the Microsoft security holes in this system to come out, probably when some bunch of Russian students with time on their hands develop a hack that makes you come...out, or streams porn ads on your forehead. At least it will be a great new excuse, though. "How can I ever make it up to you, my love...I swear I must have opened an e-mail attachment or something.." "Your Honour, my client contends that his skin network was hacked by person or persons unknown, who gained control of his movements and literally forced him to commit this bestial act.."

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic. A corollary might be that sufficiently unwise technology is indistinguishable from paranoid fantasy.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Helicopters, horses, Martin van Creveld - what can it all mean?

Numerous reports in the main media suggest that the Ministry of Defence is going to come out very badly in the current public spending round (yes, I know it's not called that any more). In so far as the leaks agree, they seem to be suggesting a 1% budget increase. Whether this is real terms or cash terms is not clear. Even in the best case assumption that it is a real terms figure, though, it will still be a serious cuts-demanding crisis. After all, there's that Iraq thing to pay for, not to mention the astonishing cost of transition from cash to resource accounting (accounting for the notional Treasury capital charge hits the MoD savagely, since by its nature it has huge stocks of materiel that earn no income and stand still until called on although they are indispensable). And this is before we get to those BAe cost overruns on all the Forces' new stuff.

The effects are largely unknown. Much of the media reporting must be treated as radioactive and handled with tongs, especially that found in the Daily Telegraph as this is part of the routine of defence politics. The Torygraph, although it maintains one of the bigger specialist staffs on military issues, seems to have absolutely no ability to see when it is being used. Constantly, the Tele's "defence sources"' latest goss/political spin is printed without question - I've lost count of the times they have reported in frenzied terms on the armed forces being handed over in their entirety to "Europe", on gigantic cuts that never happened, or actual military operations that turned out to be nonsense. I recall the Sunday Tele headlining with a supposed British airborne landing on Kabul airport in the autumn of 2001 and stating not only which unit (2 Para) would land but also the tactics to be employed (an airlanding (TALO) rather than parachuting). Needless to say it just didn't happen, perhaps fortunately given the Telegraph's security fart. It is a well worn tradition that whenever any change or consideration of anything to do with defence is possible, all the armed forces' interest groups run off to brief the Times or Torygraph in bloodcurdling terms. It is almost as traditional that it all turns out to be shite. You would think they'd learn. However, getting back on the topic, some regularities are apparent.

Everyone seems to expect swingeing personnel cuts and the disappearance of several army regiments and possibly either ships or RAF units. Worst casers suggest that an entire aircraft type, HMS Ark Royal, and four infantry battalions might go - but this must be treated as above. The justification for cuts if/when they come is exactly the same as the justification for the government's whole defence policy, although policy has changed. New technology is meant to stand in for armour and numbers. By this, we really mean the Westland-assembled version of the AH64D Apache helicopter. When they speak of deployability and lightness, they mean relying more on attack helicopters for tasks usually given to tanks or artillery. (There are many other equipment programmes grouped under this heading, but with the exception of the Bowman communications system most are looking at cuts.) Originally, this was seen as a way of enabling the forces to respond to threats that might come from anywhere, now that the Cold War is gone. Now, though, with the various supporting schemes going and the rank and file being cut, it is seen as a cureall to fill gaps cheaply.

Apaches in the UK have had some problems, mostly due to the crappy PFI deal for pilot training. But there is a more fundamental problem. Relying on a UK Air Assault or "Air Cav" capability means a much bigger reliance on many more choppers and fancier ones. And this is where we get to the horses. It's no longer an original statement that the military enjoy a horse/helicopter analogy. The US Army's decision to make the 1st Cavalry Division the first air-assault division helped, but there are deeper reasons - the drama and speed involved and the proliferating entourage of specialist trades, as with the cavalry, boosts an image of elite dash and institutional pull. That isn't the point, though. Martin van Creveld's Supplying War reminded the world of a lost point about the campaigns of the horse-drawn world - the dominance of fodder. As a horse eats roughly 10 times as much as a man by weight, fodder was the most difficult item of supply to obtain. Just putting the horses to grass worked for a day, but an army would eat out the land in a weekend. And after all, transporting fodder meant even more horses.

Helicopters show signs of being the horses of today. In the war against Iraq, at times the US Army's Apaches required one C-17 load for each helicopter each day. This is bad enough, but attack helicopters are meant to operate very close to the fighting, using Forward Arming and Refuelling Points (FARPS) placed as far forward as possible to maximise the time each chopper spent in the target area. You can't expect to land a C-17 there. The stores must be forwarded by road transport, by C-130 if possible, or at worst by support helicopters (who of course suck up logistic resources too). The bill is astronomical and the number of vulnerable groups of technicians and kit, not to mention vulnerable transport, huge. In the Falklands, the main constraint on British operations by land was the lack of support helicopter capacity as there was no other serious overland transport. Many of the choppers went down aboard Atlantic Conveyor to worsen the problem. When, however, late in the war a sufficiency of lift was provided (with the arrival of more aboard Atlantic Causeway and the conversion of antisubmarine Sea Kings), a new problem was created - suddenly the navy faced a struggle to keep up[ as the helicopters "drank incredible quantities of fuel" in the words of Commodore Michael Clapp. After all, fuel had to be handled through improvised gear at San Carlos because the fuel handling gear had been sunk with Conveyor, and anyway fuel meant bringing tankers into the danger area.

Moral? Geoff Hoon should resign. Funny, I seem to have said that almost daily.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Is this the explanation for the Bout scandal?

The Financial Times reports that US counter-terrorist efforts in West Africa are being strengthened after increased scrutiny of the former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's alleged links with Hezbollah and al-Qa'ida. Reportedly, more staff have been assigned to help in financial investigations there, and a further legal attache (a FBI representative) is to be appointed. The September 11th commission surprised various people when it decided that al-Qa'ida did not finance itself through the illicit diamond trade, especially, it seems, the FBI itself and the Congressional committee that watches it:
A Federal Bureau of Investigation team this year found "pretty definite" evidence of a link between al-Qaeda operatives and the smuggling of Sierra Leonean diamonds, according to the head of the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees the FBI. In an interview, Frank Wolf, chairman of the House commerce-justice-state and the judiciary appropriations subcommittee, expressed surprise at the September 11 committee's scepticism about the tie and said he would check that it had access to FBI reports on the issue.

Mr Wolf said he asked the FBI team to visit Liberia to investigate concerns about alleged dealings in diamonds by radical Islamic groups groups such as Hizbollah in Lebanon. The investigation established that al-Qaeda operatives visited Liberia to buy diamonds, although Mr Wolf warned that confidentiality laws prevented him from giving details.

"I can tell you that, to my satisfaction, there is a connection to al-Qaeda," Mr Wolf said. "Now the question is how much, how extensively, is it still going on?"
This may yet reveal important facts on the Viktor Bout scandal, as reported here back in May. To recap, it emerged that the well-known arms trafficker had been working for the US in some connection with Iraq, as well as his more usual clients (Charles Taylor, UNITA, various Congolese factions, Rwanda, the Taliban). The big question was the why, of course, which remains mysterious. The new development is the suggestion that Charles Taylor, whose regime in Liberia was pretty much dependent on the Bout organisation to export diamonds and timber and import armaments for its numerous wars, had links with the US of a nature that could have led to a blind eye being turned to terrorist-related activities there.
The text mentions that the al-Qa'ida representatives were in town during the same period as the Liberian shipping registry was sending huge sums of money to San Air, one of Bout's operations with a base in Texas (see here). Or, you could put it this way!
"Alex Yearsley, of London-based Global Witness, alleges that the CIA and FBI long had tried to publicly minimize links between conflict diamonds and Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaida. The U.S. security agents feared exposure of their own longtime links with Charles Taylor, the ousted Liberian leader who played a main role in West Africa's insurgencies and blood diamond trade, Yearsley said. Taylor received CIA payments until January 2001, Yearsley claimed in a telephone interview."
Laura Rozen quotes this crucial par from the FT, but careful readers will spot that it's missing from the FT article. In fact, everything after Yearsley's first sentence calling for a full report to be published has been snipped. The current version has only the following ultra-diplomatic formulation:
"Some observers have suggested the US is reluctant to admit that it failed to spot links between al-Qaeda and Liberia before the September 11 attacks."

I suppose it vanished into the legal department. Hmm....

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