Tuesday, August 24, 2004

It's Over. EFTA is not repeat not coming back.

Here at the Ranter, one of my regular targets is the delusion held by many Conservatives that somehow, if they could just get into the Foreign Office, they could create a mighty alliance with such great powers as - er - Denmark and Estonia to rewrite the European Union treaties in such a way as to make it "Atlanticist" or "liberal" or "sceptical" - all of which are code for "not having any enforcement mechanism so we can discriminate against the New Europeans". There are numerous flaws with this - the first being the assumption that the Central Europeans are all really shire Tories struggling to get out, the second that there is sufficient common ground between them as well as between them and the UK for a coherent alliance, and the third being that such an alliance would have the power to achieve this substantial geo-political revolution - which lead me to conclude that it is a Napoleonic neo-imperial delusion that really ought to be dumped. Tories have been going on about this sort of thing since the late 1950s without ever producing anything of substance, but they seem to find it impossible to revise their beliefs on the subject whatever happens. The Atlantic-whoops-Mediterranean-whoops-Eastern-whoops-Central-whoops-New Europeans will all agree with us and won't join! They did. They will agree with us and form a loose trading block! They didn't. They will refuse the Euro! They didn't. They will refuse the draft Constitution! One of them nearly did but in the end - they didn't! Each and every Conservative leader has brought this stuff up and been crushingly disabused, or have simply declined to try. But, despite the utter failure of this "policy" at every opportunity, it still keeps turning up like a bad cent. (Recall IDS's trip to Prague - thought not.)

In a rare variant of this phenomenon, the Plastic Gangster notes an article in the grindingly rightwing US National Review which shows an American who believes in it. This very rarely happens in real life, so we ought to Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest whilst the opportunity presents itself. PG wisely points out that the central tenet of the current Tory view - a supposed UK/Italian/Polish alliance - is not worth banking on, as it relies on a tenuous personal link between Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps Europe's least popular politician and a man sitting atop one of the most pro-European electorates around. PG goes on to criticise the stereotype assumption that Poland is "pro American" and will stay that way, especially when the EU subsidies begin to flow. This, I think, is quite right, but more importantly there is little community of interest between Poland and the UK in some crusade to kill the EU. Poland - agricultural, Catholic, security importer, EU net beneficiary. UK - industrial/services, Protestant but frankly heathen, security exporter, EU net contributor. Poland has every direct financial reason to maintain and uphold a mercantilist view of Europe. What about Italy? Well - mixed industrial/agricultural (although very subsidy intensive in the south), net beneficiary, Catholic, passionately pro-EU - can anyone else see where this is going?

Basically, we can't split off nice cosy little clubs within the EU of people who stroke Tory egos. We will just have to do business with them all. Is that so hard to grasp?

What you can, and cannot, bring into Canada (NON SERIOUS)

The Smoking Gun has a list of pornographic comics and films that were either seized or permitted by Canadian Customs on the US border. "Housewives at Play" - verboten! "Housewives and Hot Moms at Play" - all well and good. How d'you reckon they work these things out?

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Jetline and the Caribbean

Some time ago it was suggested to me that the US Government fuel contracts with Viktor Bout's airlines had some connection with the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British tax paradise in the Caribbean. You may recall from the Ranter passim that the contracts were numbered in the series TBTC followed by 2 digits. The first two letters give the status of the contract, and the second in this case might mean the Turks and Caicos. (I'm indebted to Nicholas Confessore of the Washington Monthly for this suggestion.)

I've yet to find any connection, but reviewing the story, I am interested to note that our latest suspects, Jetline International, are operating an aircraft in Aruba. The beast in question is a BAC111, serial no. 88, registration P4-CBH. Interestingly, the Jetline BAC111 I mentioned earlier as supposedly operating for Richard Chichakli's San Air General Trading (serial no. 61) was previously registered in Aruba as P4-CBI to a private operator believed to be Jetline, before being re-registered in Equatorial Guinea as 3C-QRF. (This is the one formerly belonging to Hustler magazine.) In all, Jetline has some four aircraft in the P4 (Aruban) registry.

Dunno what it all means yet...

Evidently not under fire, then...


Thurlow said he had lost his medal citation for that incident over two decades ago and stood by his account that there was no enemy fire at the time.

His account was further called into question by a battle damage assessment report on another Swift boat, PCF-51, involved in the March 13 action. The report listed three .30-caliber bullet holes in the superstructure of the 50-foot patrol boat.

The Swift boat veterans also have cast doubt on Kerry's account that a second mine explosion damaged his boat, PCF-94, and blew an Army Special Forces officer, Jim Rassmann, overboard. Kerry's Bronze Star was awarded for his rescue of Rassmann, who credited Kerry with saving his life.

Among the records was a battle damage report filed the following day, March 14, which stated that PCF-94 had three windows blown out, radios and radar inoperable, the boat's auxiliary generator inoperable, screws curled and chipped, aft helm steerage control not working."

Curious search request

The Ranter is no.2 on Altavista for "x-ray photo public domain".

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Best Blog Awards

It's the time of year for the Washington Post Blog Awards. Click the button in my sidebar to nominate me. Please.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

MoD's mad Doc in committee brain fart

The Torygraph reports on what must have been a memorable day at the independent inquiry into Gulf War syndrome after the former medical adviser to the MoD's own "health assessment programme" turned up in a US Army uniform and accused British servicemen of alcoholism and malingering.
"He was scathing of the British soldiers he examined, many of whom he claimed smoked, had criminal records and were alcoholic or obese. "All the eight Sandhurst Gulf war veterans that I examined were alcoholics and six were obese."

He even accused Lord Guthrie, the last Chief of Defence Staff, a former SAS officer and the regiment's current colonel-in-chief, of being "obese". He made a number of personal attacks on other veterans. "The Gulf war veterans who have complained to the press, thereby breaching their own confidentiality, are liars," he said."

Where do we start with this lot? Dr. Quack seems to have a variety of curious views. Having claimed that British soldiers were unfit he prescribed that the MoD ought to ban contact sports. Curious. He also seems to suffer from a common complaint in the Ministry, an exaggerated respect for American power. Apparently he still has his boots from Vietnam and wore the uniform "to show how much better it was". He further claimed that the US Army must be better because it won in the US War of Independence and declared an admiration for George S. Patton, before declaring that "most if not all" Gulf veterans he examined were "malingerers". It should come as no surprise that he got the bum's rush in short order for "loss of trust", neither would it surprise anyone that the MoD went on paying him £1,000 a day for some time after his sacking.

There is a slightly more serious edge to this though. The good doctor appears to hold a form of ideological belief that post-conflict medical problems do not exist physically, and should not exist mentally. He is quoted as saying that "all war syndromes since the US Civil War" have no "physical cause", and gives the strong impression that any mental symptoms cannot be real. Patton, of course, would hav agreed strongly. This was after all the man who punched one of his soldiers in a field hospital, calling him "a coward", after being told that the man was suffering from shell shock. It would be typical of the MoD's attitude if they had sought out Hall with a view to discrediting the Gulf veterans.

Allawi a Shi'ite?

"Muqtada said that calling Iyad Allawi (he didn't mention him by name) a "Shiite" was like calling Saddam Hussein a "Muslim."

From Juan Cole. I have to say, right back to last year, Cole has consistently pointed out that Allawi was nothing but trouble. His actions in the current crisis have only borne that out. I didn't think much of him, either.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Bout vs Farah

Doug Farah has an interesting new post on Viktor Bout and Jetline International. Apparently an aircraft registered 9L-LEC was leased by Jetline to something called Skylink and used in Iraq. Mr. Farah requests info on Jetline. He shall have it. Skylink may be a a Russian company, Skylink Express, listed as operating between 1994 and 2001. Its fleet consisted of two Il76 and an An12BP, which also saw service with more than one Boutco. 9L-LEC is listed by AeroTransport.org as being an An12, not as given by Farah an Ilyushin, manufacturer's serial number 4341803, active with a "private operator in Sierra Leone" but with a note to the effect that Skylink are the owners. It was formerly owned by another privateer in Kazakhstan, and interestingly by a company called Trans Air Congo. (Farah's source states the aircraft is currently in the DRC.) Before this period, little information is available.

This leaves problems. 4341803 is with a "private operator", but perhaps Skylink? Is this the right Skylink? Careful examination reveals that Skylink's "official" An12, MSN 1347909, has passed through a variety of highly dodgy operators including known Boutcos like Space Cargo and GST Aero Aircompany. It is currently leased to "Afrique Cargo Services" of Senegal. Was Skylink keeping 4341803 off the books, or was it operating under a false identity?

Trading car park tickets; economics and community

I'm about to do the stereotype blogger "A funny thing happened at the supermarket" thing, so please bear with me. It's the only one so far.

Round our way, there's a council-owned car park behind the Tesco, and the tickets are sold for fixed periods (1 hour, 2 hours, whatever). A custom has grown up of people who have completed their shopping within that time offering their used tickets to people coming in. It struck me that this was an interesting economic phenomenon. Now, the first part of the analysis is pretty simple. If the council can set the unit in which they sell parking time, then they can effectively sell the time several times, given that at least some of the parkers will leave before their time is up. This is an economic rent to the council and a deadweight loss to society, as it's an incentive to use parking less efficiently. It's no surprise that a) the tickets are marked "non-transferable" or b) that a secondary market has arisen.

If the parkers who have surplus time give their tickets to others, the free parkers are in effect getting the equivalent of the council's economic rent back. Also, society's resources are slightly more efficiently allocated (fewer people are paying for nothing). The problem is that the tickets are not traded but given away. Where is the incentive for the person who actually bought a ticket to give it away? I have two explanations. One is that you give the ticket away in expectation of a deferred benefit; as the whole thing depends on tickets being given away, doing so today increases the likelihood that you may get a free one tomorrow. The alternative, more of a Richard Layard answer, is that you gain utility from the satisfaction of helping others (and indeed of outwitting authority) and taking part in society. Likely, both are in operation.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

I can't believe this

Torture quite OK really, says High Court

The High Court has ruled that evidence gained through torture is admissible so long as the torture was not "connived at" by agents of the Crown. This is insane. What happened to the "poisoned tree"? (the legal principle that any evidence gained by illegal means, even evidence gained as a consequence of other evidence gained by illegal means, is tainted) What is wrong with us? But, of course, ordinary real people don't care about this. What they care about is Anti-Social Behaviour. So you can now be arrested for dropping litter.

I know Keeping Britain Tidy is important, but isn't torture a tad worse?

Power! (sorry, the electrical kind)

Some interesting developments on the energy politics front. For a start, a giant contract has just been signed by Centrica (which owns the British Gas name) and a Malaysian oil firm to import huge quantities of liquified natural gas into the UK. This has been one of the running long term stories of the last few years, as the North Sea gas production runs down and the quantity of electricity produced from gas goes up. One answer is to import Russian gas through the interconnector pipeline from Holland, squirting it back into the old gas fields for storage. It's a neat idea, but there are some well publicised problems, not least that a crisis anywhere upstream of the UK along the pipe to Russia could cut us off. So, the idea of diversifying the supply of gas is welcome. As is finding a use for those old Milford Haven oil terminals, one of which is going to be reactivated and converted as a huge LNG port.

There are a couple of interesting security/defence implications. Gas is transported in gigantic tankers and stored in tanks so cold that they create permafrost around them. And it explodes. I recall being told that maritime terrorism was limited in effect because a laden oil tanker won't actually explode, for example the French VLCC Limburg which was attacked by an al-Qa'ida suicide boat off Yemen in 2002. Although a big hole was blown in the ship, she survived. An LNG tanker is a more dramatic proposition, as the gas must be kept at very low temperatures to be liquid - if the tanks are breached, it would expand rapidly. Not to mention being explosive. Most of the planned gas imports will come from Egypt or Algeria.

So nowhere dangerous or unstable, then.

It's no wonder that the First Sea Lord, Sir Alan West, was recently quoted as saying that al-Qa'ida was a threat to merchant shipping. It's also very little wonder that the Government was so keen on celebrating the 300th anniversary of British rule in Gibraltar.

Another interesting sidelight on energy appeared in the Guardian today, in the form of a report on how some environmentalists are now reconsidering their opposition to nuclear power in the light of climate change and energy security problems. The story is here. Wouldn't that be a turn up for the book?

Monday, August 09, 2004

How not to own a pub (warning - Yorks identity post)

Whitelocks Luncheon Bar in Leeds is possibly the best pub in the world. Hidden in one of the oldest surviving parts of Leeds (Turk's Head Yard), on the site of a Knights Templar cross, it is an astonishing Victorian fantasy of black wood panelling, mirrors, plush and porcelain, divided by a curtain between a long copper bar and an even more plush restaurant like something that escaped from the Orient Express in 1901. It is famous for - among other things - being the first public place in Leeds with electricity, serving fantastic home-made pies, real ale and bloody wine. The current building and the interior date from the 1890s, when it advertised with two Hollywood premiere style searchlights sweeping the sky over the doors, which were guarded by an Irish giant to keep anyone from bothering the dwarves.

Yes, I did say dwarves. At the time they employed dwarf waiters. I don't think you'd get away with that now.

It's been favoured by a variety of people: writers and hacks, old ladies, Leeds City Council bigwigs, escapees from the Leeds Festival. Me. Peter O'Toole. Whatever. Now, though, it has become part of a thing called the "Spirit Group" that bought it off Scottish & Newcastle Breweries. They have classified it as a "City Day Pub" and assigned it model customers called "Mick and Ruth". The fury really should have been predictable - on the 2nd of August, the Yorkshire Post devoted most of page 2 to a ferocious slagging. The branding document concerning Mick and Ruth and their taste for pinot grigio was run hard, backed up with a vitriolic review by their restaurant critic, who accused the new owners of microwaving the potatoes (for shame!). Today, the story broke nationally in the Guardian, with a report on a campaign by "old farts of all ages" to resist the evil onslaught. Good luck to 'em.

You may recall that...

A while ago, on the 1st of July the story broke via the Financial Times that the US was to intensify counter-terrorist efforts in West Africa after revelations concerning Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's connections both with the CIA and Al-Qa'ida. This was covered both here and also at Laura Rozen's War and Piece. The Financial Times story included a sensational paragraph quoting Alex Yearsley of Global Witness as saying 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..". However, this bombshell vanished from later editions and the FT website after everything beyond an anodyne call for a full investigation was spiked.

The recent Boston Globe story on the cancelled US raid into Liberia to seek an AQ financial expert seems to bear out the original version of the FT story.

Admin notice: RSS feeds

Due to the failure of Blogstreet's RSS panel service, there has been no Ranter Coverage section for a while. There is now a temporary version in operation courtesy of BlogFuel. This may have to become permanent, as Blogstreet has now been dead to the world for a week, all login and contacts pages pointing to 404 errors and its forum filled with Chinese spam. No signs of recovery are apparent.

Unfortunately, I'm not at all sure I have the full list of RSS feeds we were showing, so if I've offended you, please inform me. As for the Ranter RSS at http://feeds.blogstreet.com/24822.rss, I assume this is also toast...whoops, it is still working, so where there's life there's hope tha knawst.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

When Punctuation Attacks!

Anthony Wells has an amusing post about compulsive parliamentary candidate Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boakes, who stood for election at every opportunity from 1951 to 1981 on a platform that varied from being a democratic monarchist campaigning for equal pay for women to being the "Air, Road, Public Safety White Resident" candidate (rather less fun). All very interesting, but the English language intervenes when Wells describes some of Boakes' other eccentricities.
"Fast moving traffic held no fears for Boaks, his other passtimes included sitting in the middle of the fast lane of the M40 on a deckchair, reading the Daily Telegraph, and deliberately pouncing onto Zebra crossings into the path of oncoming traffic, pushing a pram full of house bricks."
Very amusing, but I wasn't aware that reading the Daily Telegraph was quite as dangerous as hurling yourself in front of moving cars. Possibly it's even less enjoyable, but that isn't what that comma after "deckchair" suggests, even if the alternative gives the impression of a deckchair fascinated by conservative newspapers.

Or maybe he meant it.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Keeping up the mood of paranoia and intrigue...

Back last summer I blogged on the destruction of a US Army tank in Iraq by insurgents using an unusual weapon. Wild speculation ranged at the time from a 1940 Soviet antitank rifle, perhaps souped up with new ammunition, to the first-ever use in anger of an electro-magnetic railgun. In the fullness of time consensus gathered that it was an RPG with a new and rare warhead.

A little strange, then, to find railguns in the list of "golden nuggets" sent by John Scarlett to the Iraq Survey Group as suggestions for their next book...whoops, their final report. (The Scotsman)
"The message, Mr Mangold said, suggested ten "nuggets" of information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs that could be included in ISG reports.

Among the "nuggets" were claims that Saddam had a secret smallpox programme, that Iraq had developed mobile chemical weapons laboratories and that the country possessed or was building a "rail gun" as part of a nuclear project.

None of those suggestions have been supported by the evidence found by the ISG.."
So - does Scarlett get his information from casual web rumours?

Progress on the Bout story? The Liberian angle

Multiple blogs report that the US Defence Department planned a raid into Liberia to capture the al-Qa'ida agent Khalfan Ghailani in November, 2001, but then cancelled it. Ghailani was eventually captured in Pakistan last week. Ghailani is said to have been sent to Liberia in 1999 to head AQ's diamond trading activities, (link), where he lived in the base of Charles Taylor's so-called Anti-Terrorist Unit. UN investigations suggested that he and several other senior jihadis met Taylor, and a US "intelligence source" informed the Boston Globe that Taylor personally received some US$ 1 million from them, apparently to buy his protection. Despite this, the 9/11 Commission controversially stated that al-Qa'ida did not fund itself by trading in diamonds. (See Doug Farah, here.) Further, the FBI stated in June, 2003 that there was no - no - al-Qa'ida presence in West Africa. Farah claims that the 2001 mission was scrapped at least in part due to the lack of anyone who spoke the local language. But who were they after if there was "no presence"? Why bother? Polytropos makes the obvious suggestion that the FBI had a good reason to keep the matter quiet in the spring of 2003 - after all, no-one wanted folk to think the terrorists weren't in Iraq after all.

Another important point about all this is the possibility of a Bout connection. Successive investigations have concluded that, throughout the late 1990s and early 00s, Taylor's regime and Viktor Bout's West African business were functionally integrated to the point where you could argue they were one and the same. Taylor's main industries - diamonds, timber and flags of convenience - fed into the airline system. (the rocks being exported by air and sold, partly paying the bill, and the open registry providing both a home for the planes and another source of money.) Bout's aircraft brought in the sinews of war that maintained Taylor in power - or, in a word, in control of diamond mining and shipping registration. In late medieval Europe, the cannon to knock down the barons' walls brought with them their tax revenues and hence the ability to pay for the cannon. An analogous military-economic-political system drives the wars of modern Africa. If, as many suspect, Taylor was protected for his past services to the CIA, the whole history of our time may have been blowback on a biblical scale. If...if..if. Whilst Bout was operating in Liberia, Ghailani and his comrades were too. That was the period when the Liberian shipping registry was sending large sums of money to Boutco San Air General Trading. It was also the period when Flying Dolphin was flying, not dolphins, but weapons to Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Yorkshire Assembly referendum - are they serious?

Just back from a trip to god's own county. Sighted in Bradford - billboards for the approaching referendum on a devolved government for Yorkshire. Now, I'm in favour of this, and I was a little surprised to see the lack of much campaigning activity. I would have thought that nothing would be an easier sell than pandering to Yorks local chauvinism, but the ads have done it. "Would an Elected Regional Aszzzzzzz" Sorry. Let's try that again. "Would an Elected Regional Assemly helpzzzzzzz" It keeps happening. "Would an Elected Regional Assembly help put decent homes where they're needed?"

Well, there's taut, punchy, sales directed ad copy if ever I saw it. Dull, dull, dull. And the capitals give it a beautiful air of Public Information Broadcasts. The vote has recently been put off, supposedly due to trouble with the postal ballots, and I wonder if the government are really trying to win? After all, a major election in Yorkshire at the moment would very likely be a double whipping for the government - probably BNP trouble in the mill towns, UKIP trouble in the fox hunting Vale of York and Lib Dems coming out of the woodwork everywhere else. Not to mention possible far left ructions in the Labour fortress constituencies (isn't proportional representation great?).

So - one way out would be to let the whole policy die of natural causes.

Security Crisis! Well, four years ago

Well, the latest Orange Alert didn't need much debunking - apparently the information involved originates from 2000.
"Federal authorities said on Monday that they had uncovered no evidence that any of the surveillance activities described in the documents was currently under way."

This was, of course, widely predicted after the New Republic story that an important al-Qa'ida member would be found in Pakistan shortly after the Democratic Convention. Personally, I think the last thing to fear is another skyscraper bombing - they don't repeat themselves, and there are plenty of really serious industrial targets where nothing much has been done about security.

The US alerts remind me increasingly of the way investment analysts in the boom began issuing all kinds of new ratings instead of plain old buy or sell - "accumulate", "strong buy", "market perform". Strangely, they were all on the upside. There wasn't a "strong sell" or "dump this dog right now and stockpile canned food" rating. More recently, several of the investment banks have set up rules stipulating that the number of sells must equal the number of buys. The terrorism alert levels have this problem. It only goes up. A sensible version would be balanced around normality (VERY LOW, LOW, NORMAL, ELEVATED, HIGH) - but that would make it far less sexy.

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