Sunday, February 27, 2005

Hercules Mystery Bubbles Away

Back on Monday, 7th February I blogged on the suggestion that a jury-rigged SA-4 might have been responsible for the destruction of the RAF C-130K on election day in Iraq. We went into some detail about the SA-4 system and flagged the secondary optical guidance as a possible candidate. We can now say with confidence that this possibility was taken seriously enough by the powers-that-be that Russian experts, either from the manufacturer or from the Russian air defence forces, were summoned to take part in the accident investigation. Apparently they concluded that the aircraft had not been hit by such a rocket, but also that its use was a distinct possibility and that the insurgent video distributed after the incident might show a genuine launch.

Since then, the US Air Force has grounded its fleet of E-model Hercules (the oldest in service) for urgent investigation of possible fatigue cracking in the central wing section. The Ministry of Defence, however, has so far been at pains to deny that this might affect British aircraft, claiming that ours are "different". The RAF operates two types of C-130 aircraft with two subtypes in each. The first are usually termed C-130Ks, but they are not equivalent to the US "K model". The "K" in this case is a purely British designation not used by Lockheed-Martin - it refers to the fitment of British avionics and more powerful engines to a C-130E airframe (such beasts are known in the US as Super Es). The structure is the same. The same went for all the Hercules delivered to the Royal Australian, Canadian and New Zealand Air Forces at the same time. The others, for completeness, are new C-130Js - in this case the terminology is not anomalous, their structural integrity is unquestioned, and we can happily forget about them and save confusion. All post-1975 Hercules have either a new wing introduced that year or another introduced in 1983, fabricated from a different alloy.

But MOD press spokesmen have stated to several media organisations, including the Times, PA News and the Evening Standard, that the British aircraft were "different", "completely different", "built differently" and "used for strategic flying" - none of which is true. Strangely, early in the investigation, those same nameless spokesmen were happy for the readers of the Sun to see the headline "THE WING CAME OFF" over their breakfasts: was this leaked because they were still concerned that the aircraft had been shot down at the time, and wanted to give the impression of an accident? Now, though, they seem keen to deny the possibility of - an accident.

At the same time as the RAF, the South African Air Force also received C-130s shortly before the US cut off military aid to South Africa. They therefore received no manufacturer support until the 90s. The South Africans have now grounded seven out of nine aircraft all with the same wing.

The other distinction is between short-body and long-body aircraft. This distinction is important as the RAF only uses the "short" aircraft for the most demanding tactical flying. In British official terminology, the "short K" is a Hercules CMk1 and the long K a Hercules CMk3. This should tell us something at once; unsurprisingly the Mk. 1 is the first to enter British service in 1967 and hence the oldest. Now, the K's are used for the mass of the RAF's tactical transport - dropping parachutists and loads, flying in and out of very restricted airstrips, navigating at low level in darkness - and the Mk.1s for the heaviest of the lot, supporting British special forces. Only five of them exist, and hence they are worked hard. And they share a structure with the USAF C-130Es - so why has the MOD not taken the same precaution?

However, there are still further questions; the aircraft (XV179) that crashed in the rebel-haunted desert north of Baghdad had been modified in 2002 with the installation of a new, stronger outer wing section. So surely the problem doesn't apply? Or did the fix shift the strain elsewhere? Or possibly hostile action really did play a part? The Special Forces support aircraft of 47 Squadron (one of which 179 was) are said to have often been overloaded for operational purposes, including operations Bleed and Dbamien in Afghanistan during the winter of 2001/2.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Eurosceptics: Is There Nothing That Doesn't Look Like a Straight Banana?

Over on the BNN, our dear colleague Richard North runs with a scare story regarding the European directive on compensation to air passengers in the event of delays. Apparently
"On the basis of what we know, however, the commission, despite its obsession for "consumer protection" should perhaps have named its new directive: "denied safety"."
Terror! Evil Eurocrats bring jets crashing on your head! What he seems to mean with this is that perhaps, if they have to pay more compo to passengers if the flight doesn't leave, airlines might decide to fly when it would be safer not to. This is a serious charge; he gives in evidence the recent diversion to Manchester of a BA Boeing 747 that suffered an engine failure on take-off from Los Angeles and continued on three engines, alleging that the decision to continue was taken for commercial reasons. This is an even more serious charge, and one which is not sustained by evidence.

It is actually not that uncommon for 4-engined commercial aircraft to continue to destination after an engine failure. Except in the case of a common mode failure (that is, one that might affect other engines), which it wasn't, there is no reason why a second failure would be any more likely after the first. As the 747 can operate on 3 engines and land on 2, as long as the aircraft remains within reasonable range of diversion airfields there is little to worry about. In fact, it basically becomes a 767 or 777 for planning purposes. (In fact worse; 777s are permitted to operate up to 3 hours away from diversions, with two engines to start with.) The problem is, though, that flying at lower altitude with greater drag and perhaps on a longer route means using more fuel; this is what led to the diversion to Manchester, as well as the fact they were unable to get a more efficient flight level from Air Traffic Control part way across the Atlantic.

Quoting a report in the Times, he claims that a return to LAX would have cost some £100,000 in compensation. He does not make clear if this was in addition to the pre-directive cost, whether it is over and above the costs of the unscheduled landing or including them, or what the extra cost of making repairs at LAX rather than at BA's maintenance base would be. In the print edition, the story is accompanied by a photo showing a 747 apparently resting on its belly - this is either an unrelated photograph, or one taken from a misleading angle as this did not happen. It seems clear that the Times decided to take this as an anti-EU hit piece and hang the facts. And so did our man.

Friday, February 25, 2005

What Is Wrong With These People?

Via Nadhezhda's, news arrives that the US Department of Homeland Security have picked a chappy called D. Reed Freedman to sit on their "Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee". Freedman's other job is as Chief Privacy Officer of Claria Inc, the company that gave the world Gator, one of the net's worst spyware infections. As far as malware goes it's a beast - you can catch it by clicking a popup once or using some shareware, and it does not appear under its real name in your program list so as to make it harder to remove. It pukes adverts at you, but there's worse - one of the best ways to catch it is to download a program that offers to remember your online passwords.

The kicker is, though, that it sends back information about the websites you visit to a server in some distant light industrial facility. (And the passwords? They ain't telling.) By November 2003, they had already accumulated the world's seventh biggest database - some 12.1 terabytes of mass surveillance of the unwitting. Now, if anyone can tell me what the job of "Chief Privacy Officer" to these scum entails, I'd be glad to hear it. Surely the only way of protecting their victims' privacy would be to drag those servers out and hurl them off a motorway bridge, before collecting up the smashed hard disks and jumping on the bits?

Now, I'm not going to jump to conclusions about exactly why the DHS want to know this fellow, but I am going to put a question. If you wanted advice on electronic privacy, would you ask a spammer? I mean, are these people physically capable of doing anything without being evil and stupid and depraved? On this evidence you could set Republicans to pass a bill granting free ponies to little girls and they'd find a way to turn it into some kind of Orwellian horror show. I just can't see what's conservative about this.

Speaking of DHS, I notice someone there's developing an interest in Viktor Bout. They searched Google for "victor bout richard chichakli" and ended up here; they returned six times and read pretty much the lot. Not just that, but our old friend's been back, and someone in France searched for "An12 msn 4341803", an aircraft we've had dealings with before. Stand by for action on the Bout front.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

What Would Hunter Do?

Another day, another sign that Dr. Duke really is in charge: The Washington Post reports on efforts by the Pentagon to overturn the principle of chief of mission authority, under which the US Ambassador in a given country can permit or refuse the admission of other US government employees to that country. Specifically, they want to deploy special forces without telling the State Department first. (You know, when you find it necessary to deceive other bits of your own government as a matter of course, it's not a good thing.)

The Dukery kicks in half-way down page one:
" In one instance, U.S. commanders tried to dispatch Special Forces soldiers into Pakistan without gaining ambassadorial approval but were rebuffed by the State Department, said two sources familiar with the event. The soldiers eventually entered Pakistan with proper clearance but were ordered out again by the ambassador for what was described as reckless behavior. "We had SF [Special Forces] guys in civilian clothes running around a hotel with grenades in their pockets," said one source involved in the incident, who opposes the Pentagon plan.

Other officials cited another case to illustrate their concern. In the past year, they said, a group of Delta Force soldiers left a bar at night in a Latin American country and shot an alleged assailant but did not inform the U.S. Embassy for several days."
Damn, you can almost smell the sunglasses. No wonder, then, that there's been another rash of reports about Pakistani/Afghan frontier incidents and even suggestions that US-supported forces operating on the North-West Frontier might be fired on by the official Pakistani military. Enough snark. (Link). Soj remains the best source for this stuff, pointing out that these incidents are getting more frequent and dangerous.

That Metastability Thing: A Balance of Financial Terror

Some time ago, I described the situation with regard to the dollar and central bank reserves in terms of metastability, the idea of a position that is both very stable in the short term and also subject to a radical flip triggered by comparatively small events. I think I also linked this up in another post with the idea of a Nash equilibrium, the situation where a small number of actors have arrived at the strategy that minimises their losses relative to each other and therefore have no incentive to change. Econoblogger Brad Setser today links to a column in the FT concurring with this, and also to a rather funnier version of it here.

There's also a good paper on the same theme by Setser. As they point out, "social peace in China is at the expense of political peace in the US": with the monster trade deficit in the US matching the monster trade surplus in China, the currency market intervention is basically keeping Chinese industry running at full capacity and hence, presumably, keeping the streets quiet. In a sense, it's also cushioning the impact of recession in the US by keeping imported consumer goods cheap, but only up to the bang, of course.

Now, I'm mildly sceptical of grand predictions for the Chinese economy; there have been a lot of disappointments back to Lord Macartney, and I really wonder if the social structure can stand the strain of really huge inequality. When we speak of the Chinese economic boom, we mean the boom in the cities of eastern China. The countryside is still full of a majority of peasants so poor they sell their blood to eople who give them AIDS. And the simultaneous dismantling of the communist economy brings up more problems - most of the world thinks a welfare state of some form is needed for a socially stable capitalism. China has dismantled the famous iron rice bowl, but what if anything is replacing it? What about the environmental strain? Or the dodgy banking sector? I mentioned AIDS, and that's a really big problem too; one that's only being addressed now after years of denial.

All these problems look a lot better if the economy is clattering along nicely. Everyone likes having a trade surplus (although, of course, it's impossible for all to have one - like the class where all the kids are above average). High employment growth soaks up the migration from the land, buoyant tax revenues pay for the infrastructure, and the accounts look OK. But, as J.K. Galbraith put it, there's no audit like a recession. The cost of keeping down the renminbi against the dollar is showing up in that the process of intervention is driving rapid growth in the Chinese money supply. It's also helping Chinese banks lend cheaply, and hence making it easier to fund projects that perhaps might be better left. Investment is approaching 45% of Chinese GDP. That's a lot of capacity being built; it's obviously going to be a key problem how it stays utilised. Roubini and Setser point out that maintaining the dollar-renminbi peg at current rates is a proxy for this, as it requires ever-growing exports. Their numbers suggest that, to satisfy this condition, Chinese exports to the US would have to exceed US imports of petroleum within four years, which would take them to 20% of Chinese GDP. I don't know about you, but this sounds to me like a bubble.

Is a hybrid Communist politics/Texan economics polity best placed to handle these social strains if there's a sharp downturn?

This puts another twist in the Nash problem; the longer it goes on, the worse it gets - but this is also an incentive for those with most to lose to keep it going. Setser points out that this means the smaller players become crucial - having not gone as far down the road, they have more to save. And they aren't that small; totting up Taiwan, South Korea, India and Russia's reserves comes to more than China's. Two of these have already shown signs of edging towards the door. Another crucial point emerges with regard to oil. Setser and Roubini state that oil exporters have less of an incentive to not sell dollars because they don't compete with Chinese industry. The other point, of course, is that they have a lot of dollars coming in at the moment - the high oil price makes this a very hot issue. They could well be the first to jump ship.

BTW, read the damn thing. It's only 55 pages. You will be scared. Very scared.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Finance Investigation as Endgame?

Broom of Anger suggests an interesting interpretation of the political crisis in Northern Ireland: is the mammoth follow-the-money investigation part of a tactic by the Sinn Fein leadership to finally end the IRA? Specifically, it's suggested that the Irish government's Criminal Assets Bureau, established after the great corruption scandals of the 80s, has been passed information on the IRA's finances and business interests as a means of getting rid of potential opposition.

Although it's not said, such opposition would presumably be opposition to an "act of completion" like the official "stand-down" or demobilisation of the Provisionals. BOA suggests that this would lead to a collapse of Sinn Fein itself and that "this would suit the governments". I doubt it; the peace process is structured around formally realist negotiation between defined blocks. Chaos would only suit "the governments" if they really wanted a return to war - six weeks before the general election? That ain't realistic, either in the IR theory sense or the ordinary sense.

Interestingly, of course, (and as BOA points out up-blog) one of the implications is a much bigger role for the Irish Republic in the whole political structure. I've often thought that the endgame in Ireland will be a virtual united Ireland; rather like the idea of "meeting up again in Europe". That, of course, relies on acts of non-stupidity by all sides. One wonders what Adams's appearance at an IRA rally with men in camo uniforms and black berets meant - a finely tuned countermessage to balance the finance investigation? Or conflicted panic?

Read This Now. Now, I Tell You!

Steve Gilliard on Dr. Gonzo, blogging, journalism and the economics of bad writing. Then, read the comments too. It's bloody brilliant. And it also leads on nicely to an interesting new project: the Blogger News Network at The plan is to build a big-media style site fed by a, well, news network, of, well, bloggers. Looking at the staff they have already gathered, it would seem to be a wonderfully disputatious and noisy outfit. There's me, and there's Richard North. There's some guy raving about Howard Dean "insulting blacks and Republicans", and there's someone editorialising that America is becoming a fascist state. This could either be great, or like the Guardian opinion page edited by Hunter S. Thompson's ghost, with contributors paid in crack cocaine.

It's certainly going to be interesting, especially when the site gets more interactivity. (No comments/reviewing or RSS at the moment, but I'm sure that will change.)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Yet Another Candidate for a Trip to the Crossroads

After the FAZ, it's the turn of the London Evening Standard to reverse the attribution on Dr. Thompson's obituary of Nixon. What is it with these people? Here's the link to their story. Scroll down a little, and it's cock-up ahoy in paragraph 11:
"At the height of the Watergate scandal he was described by President Nixon as representing "that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character".
To go round it once again, no, he was not! President Nixon was described at the height of the Watergate scandal as representing that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that every other country on earth has learnt to fear and hate, by Hunter S. Thompson - not the other way around.

Now, having seen this twice today, I began to worry that in fact it was me who was twisted and that everyone else was right - hell, that would be normal - but a few web searches show that no-one before Thompson's death seems to have mentioned Nixon saying it. You would have thought it would be a memorable utterance for a serving President and one to go in the Nixon canon along with "my dog, Checkers", "inoperative statement", "pathetic helpless giant", "silent majority", "secret plan to end the war in Vietnam" and the rest. But no. No trace. No electronic trace at least. So I think it's fair to say that the general scholarly consensus on the authorship of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail can rest intact.

The Infrastructure War against Baghdad

The New York Times reports extensively on the Iraqi insurgent campaign against Baghdad's infrastructure, specifically oil refining, electricity production and water supply. According to the Iraqi oil minister:
" "There is an organization, sort of a command-room operation," Thamir Ghadhban, the Iraqi oil minister, said Thursday in an interview. In his area of responsibility, Mr. Ghadhban said, "the scheme of the saboteurs is to isolate Baghdad from the sources of crude oil and oil products."

"And they have succeeded to a great extent," he said.

Mr. Ghadhban supported his assertions with a map showing that in November, December and January, in widely scattered attacks, insurgents simultaneously struck all three crude oil pipelines feeding the Doura fuel refinery in Baghdad. The refinery is the nation's largest producer of gasoline, kerosene and other refined products. During that period, more than 20 attacks occurred on a set of huge pipelines carrying things like oil, kerosene, gasoline and other fuels to Baghdad from oil fields and refineries in the north. In contrast, in the same region, the map shows an economically crucial crude oil pipeline - one that carries oil for export - was not attacked even once.

The map was prepared by his ministry by cataloging the exact coordinates, dates and nature of the attacks and combining that information with a detailed schematic of the web of pipelines, fuel depots, roads and refineries in and around Baghdad.

Those attacks caused widespread disruptions, including severe gasoline shortages. And Mr. Ghadhban said that when he tried to make up for the shortages by trucking the fuel in with tankers, saboteurs went after the fuel convoys and the bridges that they crossed to reach Baghdad."
Apparently, the campaign is now so well-organised that the targeting seems to take account of information as deep as the government's holdings of spare parts. Attacks on oil exports have apparently been canned in favour of a strategy of denying fuel to Baghdad, rather along the lines our dear colleague John Robb speaks of.

What could be the aim? Robb argues that it is to render the maintenance of the city itself increasingly costly and difficult. Presumably this would be intended to keep Iraq ungovernable with the pay-off that, were an insurgent-supported government to emerge, the squeeze could be lifted at once thus offering the public an immediate reward. But this also involves possibly undermining support for the insurgency among Baghdadis: choking off the city's energy sources is about the most indiscriminate weapon possible. Robb also used the term "controlled chaos" with regard to the use of "loyalists" in Iraq, as we discussed this weekend, and I think this is actually more like it. If they have the subtlety to control their campaign with regard to holdings of spares, then they also have the subtlety to control it according to political events and to geography/demography. Perhaps the aim is a sort of economic ethnic cleansing: if the shutdowns bear more heavily on the poor, and the poor of Baghdad are disproportionately Shia, this could be an effort to drive them out to the south.

The Chalabi Files

Abu Aardvark brings up the old question of the Iraqi secret police files that somehow wandered into the possession of Ahmed Chalabi after the fall of Baghdad. It was widely accepted that ownership of the papers might be a potent source of political pull, permitting blackmail of almost anyone. The Aardvark points out that they have disappeared, strangely enough, from the political stage.

This brings up a couple of questions: for a start, with the orgy of coalition-making (always the most evil and twisted form of politics, its crack cocaine) now bubbling in Baghdad, you'd have thought Chalabi would be pulling out all the blackmail he could. But so far, nothing. Curious. And then, there's the international issue. So far, the various Oil-for-Food scandals have all been based on documents allegedly issuing fromm exactly those files. This is why so many of the allegations, like those against George Galloway, end up being taken back or ripped to shreds by libel lawyers.

Now, back when Chalabi fell out with the Americans, you may recall that auditors were commissioned to investigate the allegations of fraud. They had a problem, though, because Chalabi and his organisation wouldn't let them see the documents. Not just that, but a computer belonging to the auditors was mysteriously hacked and wiped on the same day as the US raid on Chalabi's house. (Rant here) So - either Ahmed Chalabi is indeed using the documents, frenziedly blackmailing his way back up the tree, or perhaps we don't hear of them because he's discovered that, in fact, they are much less useful than he thought, or possibly discreditable to his good self. Question for extra points: what would Hunter have made of Chalabi?

Prison Riots in Iraq

The Washington Post reports on the background of the election-day riot and shooting at Camp Bucca, Umm Qasr, the main coalition jail in Iraq.
""What happened here on January 31st has changed the dynamics" of managing such situations, said Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, who oversees U.S. military detention operations in Iraq and toured the facility last week. "It showed that the prisoners could hurl rocks farther than we could fire nonlethal weapons. It also showed that we have to do a better job of understanding who we have in detention."
It would appear, as so often already in Iraq, that a little sense and calm and common decency would have saved a deal of blood and screaming. The riot broke out after a cell search for contraband during which, according to the prisoners' imam, a number of Korans were damaged.

Hunter S. Thompson is dead.

We don't have to believe it if we don't want to, but then that's conservative talk. Dr. Hunter Stockton Thompson shot himself in the kitchen of his Aspen bunker yesterday. He is dead. I would like to report that he screamed across the firmament of a clean blue sky in a thundering scimitar of dirty orange flame as hypocrites beat their breasts and women wept, but unfortunately he went by his own hand for some silly reason he didn't make clear. One hopes there might be some kind of posthumous documentation still to be published that might enlighten us as to his motives in leaving us when arguably we needed him most.

Today's absurd world, frankly, looks like Thompson might have designed it for his own ends. Billions in crispy greenbacks pile in the dank basement of a conquered tyrant's marble palace as every paramilitary shyster from Hereford to Pietermaritzburg by way of Fort Bragg cram onto mystery jets for their share of the action. Slick press secretaries field plant questions from gay porno veterans, the New York Times confidently declares that a man painted orange from head to foot will revolutionise European politics by dint of talkshows, and the poor are fatter than the rich. As the good doctor put it, it looks like the site of some disastrous zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas. The terrifying news is that he was right, right, right all the way up.

Who can forget one of his many verdicts on Richard Nixon? "It is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise." Indeed. (You can read the obituary here.) But who could have predicted that, some ten years later, even he would seem greatly preferable?
"Richard Nixon looks like a flaming liberal today, compared to a golem like George Bush. Indeed. Where is Richard Nixon now that we finally need him?

If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a "liberal" candidate, and he would probably win. He was a crook and a bungler, but what the hell? Nixon was a barrel of laughs compared to this gang of thugs from the Halliburton petroleum organization who are running the White House today -- and who will be running it this time next year, if we (the once-proud, once-loved and widely respected "American people") don't rise up like wounded warriors and whack those lying petroleum pimps out of the White House on November 2nd.

Nixon hated running for president during football season, but he did it anyway. Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for -- but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush-Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him."
Link Very true. If nothing else, Nixon and Kissinger would never have got involved in a crusade to Spread Democracy - why spread stuff you don't yourself believe in? I don't care if Thompson was adolescent, degenerate, arrogant or elephantine - all well-deserved epithets - because it was all brilliant and outrageous (to use the phrase from Tom Wolfe's review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He promised to jangle the buggers down to the core of their spleens, and delivered in spades.

Some people, of course, manage to miss everything. Try this report on the Doctor's passing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the great global papers of record: link.
"Thompson, so meinte es schon Richard Nixon zu wissen, repräsentierte die „dunkle, bestechliche und unheilbar gewalttätige Seite des amerikanischen Charakters”
In English this says that "Even Richard Nixon claimed to know that Thompson represented the "dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character". No he didn't. At least he didn't dare say so. The FAZ has successfully misattributed our lost leader's seminal judgement on Nixon to Nixon himself. This is the kind of howler that would send some men to the crossroads at dead of night to sell their souls, but then, this is journalism and he'll probably get over it.

Finally, Thompson's ultimate judgement on our times, from a interview: "One of the problems today is that what's going on is not as complex as it seems." Exactly. It really is that bad.

A minute's silence? An insufficient memorial, and wrong in kind as well as quantity. I propose perhaps a minute's noise in which all basically decent citizens scream out our justified hatred and rage. Oh, and before I quit: write. As it says on the little button on the Blogger Dashboard: create.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

More Mystery Jets

Newsweek reports at some length on the operations of the so-called "torture flights", the two no-titles jets allegedly used by certain parts of the US government to transfer suspected terrorists to countries where they may face a worse fate. The Ranter of the 15th of November 2004 covered a previous version of the story, however a variety of more extreme left blogs and online communities had been working on it for some time. The aircraft in question, so far as they are known, are a Boeing 737 Business Jet version (BBJ) registered N313P and a Gulfstream V bizjet registered N8068V. The registrant is a near-anonymous company whose registered address is an estate agency. The story is of some interest, so read.

A Note on ID Technology

The outstanding Gene Expression has a brief post with links to a variety of guides on how to spoof automated fingerprint readers. It's clear that, using fairly simple and widely available technology, spoofing is feasible. It's also clear that, whatever the ID-control technology, criminal creativity will catch up with it - after all, the same people who came up with one of those also successfully fooled an iris scanner using only a high-quality photo of their eyes.

By the way, Gene Ex. are always worth reading and have one of the finest comments sections in the blogosphere.

Loyalists (2)

Phil Carter's Intel Dump reports on a Wall Street Journal story on a rash of apparently unauthorised irregular forces appearing in Iraq. (Note: original story is locked in a subscription ghetto) It is reported that
The unplanned units -- commanded by friends and relatives of cabinet officers and tribal sheiks -- go by names like the Defenders of Baghdad, the Special Police Commandos, the Defenders of Khadamiya and the Amarah Brigade. The new units generally have the backing of the Iraqi government and receive government funding.

While regular units of the Iraq Army have taken up residence on rehabilitated army bases, the others camp out in places like looted Ministry of Defense buildings, a former women's college, an old Iraqi war monument and an abandoned aircraft hangar. Frequently, U.S. officials don't find out about them until they stumble across them. Some Americans consider them a welcome addition to the fight against the insurgency -- though others worry about the risks.

"We don't call them militias. Militias are...illegal," says Maj. Chris Wales, who spent most of January tracking down and finding these new forces. "I've begun calling them 'Irregular Iraqi ministry-directed brigades.' " The "pop up" label comes from other U.S. military officials in Baghdad."
Well, Phil seems to think this isn't perhaps such a bad idea. He frames the concept as one of identifying the warriors who would naturally make up a real army in Iraq, as laid down in US military assistance doctrine. This is true, up to a point. It seems that some of these outfits are more effective than the official Iraqi army or National Guard, although that wouldn't be difficult.

But that isn't enough. Note the key line that many of these militias - whoops - irregular Iraqi ministry-directed brigades are "commanded by friends and relatives of cabinet officers". This is significant in two ways - if they are carefully selected for their loyalty, then they are less likely to be infiltrated by the rebels, but they are also more likely to be the instruments of civil war. Private armies are not historically a source of stability, and a force built purely on feudal allegiance can be turned on anyone. The second part of trying to seek out a warrior caste in Iraq and to put them to work for the Iraqi government is integrating them into a national army. Feudal militias are unlikely to be amenable to such a move, especially as the Shia politicians who now await power have made clear that they plan to incorporate the various Shia militias into the army in short order. It would be counterproductive for their purposes to break up the Badr Corps, the Sadrists etc and form mixed-manned Shia/Sunni units - so the result will be not an army but a federation of feudal militias.

Encouraging paramilitarism is a time-honoured device, but its record is not great. Generally, it can have impressive short-term results and terrible long-term results. "Collusion" with the Northern Irish loyalists helped to discredit Britain and also to reinforce the rejectionist side of Unionism. The various Israeli-backed paramilitaries in Lebanon either grew into part of the problem, or melted away when push came to shove. It is very hard to see any positives from the activities of the Colombian or Mozambican or Turkish "loyalists". Perhaps the ultimate example of this was the Israeli support for Hamas in the 80s; by helping them undermine the PLO factions, they built up a more intransigent and vicious opponent. The historic record displays a long and grim story of endemic blowback. (Another US blogger who discusses this is John Robb of Global Guerrillas, whose analysis may be found here. Unlike Carter, he gives more consideration to the downside risks, specifically in terms of long-term instability and institutionalised criminality.)

In fact, the extreme case is far worse. These highly personalised irregular groups of old soldiers remind me of nothing more than a Freikorps, one of those groups of political gunmen in post-1918 Germany who formed the supporting scene of fascism. The German Social Democrats who took over in 1918 made a fateful bargain when their defence minister Gustav Noske sent in the Freikorps to suppress the Spartacist rising of January 1919; the short-term aim was achieved at the cost of legitimising the paramilitary scene, some units of which were already beginning to wear the swastika. Once the step of accepting them was taken, the military soon found it progressively more beneficial to incorporate them into defence planning, to save German military capability from the Allied weapons inspectors by transferring arms and organisation to the private armies, to channel secret funds to their accounts. Adolf Hitler was first spotted as a political prospect by one of the intelligence officers who ran this effort - Hauptmann Karl Mayr of Wehrkreis IV's intelligence cell, who later became disillusioned with Nazism, organised the SPD's countermilitia, went into exile in France, but was tracked down by the Gestapo and died in Buchenwald.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Bloody hell!

I've only been watching the Great Gannon Hunt in passing, but this is amazing: it is said he knew about the opening of the Iraq invasion four hours beforehand. Now this is even more important than the link makes out: H-hour in Iraq was brought forward by 24 hours at the last moment, because of an intelligence report that Saddam Hussein was at a particular location in Baghdad. An airstrike was laid on to attack the fleeting target, which failed in its mission. The decision was taken, though, to start the advance into southern Iraq anyway as the game was now given away. This was closely held information to say the least, if that is what the story refers to. Note that the so-called "Shock and Awe" bombardment of Baghdad began three days into the war (presumably it was originally intended to be two days before the change of plan). But the bombing wasn't announced as such; Bush's big address was to announce the beginning of the war, after the F-117 raid on the presumed location of Saddam.

This could be a killer if true. Recapping other developments, since I blogged on Gannon/Guckert's claim to have entertained Tony Blair a variety of new stuff has appeared - for example, naked photos and reviews - glowing reviews - of "Jeff"'s performance as a stud on a site devoted to such client feedback. Further, more information emerged about his ties to other Republican Party organisations and about the bizarre fact that he was a regular visitor to press briefings at the White House before his website even existed. (well, his news website..)

How interesting! (Science day!)

The website of a man who can see in ultraviolet light, unlike the rest of us. The reason is that he had an artificial lens inserted into one of his eyes to treat a cataract - our lenses filter out UV, but the replacement doesn't. He experiments with cameras, in order to show us something of what he sees...

The flower on the right was photographed in normal light, the one on the left in ultraviolet (he goes into the technique in some detail). Once you've oohed over those, you might like to follow the link above and look at the comparison of two Monets, painted before and after he had similar surgery. Thanks to Ray Girvan. Pictures mirrored to be kind to his site.

Also via Ray, this crazy-arsed nut's site about using improvised filters to explore the edges of your own visual spectrum. I say crazy-arsed nut because, as well as the obvious caution about not looking at the sun, he mentions driving with his goggles on. Which was especially foolish, because he found that the red traffic lights were invisible. Stupid boy! Another link from Ray's explains something I'd been wondering about - I recently came into possession of a digital camera, and I've found that images from it tend to have an odd bluish cast. I had enough scientific awareness to realise that the camera must have a different spectrum to me and that this hadn't been corrected to provide "white balance" - now I know that, yes, digital cameras pick up infra-red and some ultraviolet light.

Saying One Thing and Doing Another

Juan Zarate, US Assistant Treasury Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crime, gave a long testimony to the Senate Financial Services Committee yesterday. It's good to see that, in his words:
"Treasury is also working with the interagency community to identify and shut down illicit financiers who have penetrated the diamond and precious commodity industries in support of criminal activities. Under Executive Order 13348, the Department is pursuing economic sanctions against members of the former Charles Taylor regime and a number of its supporters who financed criminal and terrorist activity though engagement in the diamond and timber industries, including a key Taylor supporter - the Russian-based arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

Arguably the largest private arms dealer in the world today, Bout uses his fleet of Soviet-era cargo aircraft to supply guns and bullets by the ton, as well as advanced equipment such as attack helicopters to anyone willing to pay his price. In Liberia and elsewhere, Bout's organization has reportedly accepted payment in diamonds which can be easily and profitably unloaded in the Middle East or Europe.

All of these efforts - using a variety of tools available to us -- form part of a comprehensive strategy to deal with the vulnerabilities associated with the precious commodities market."
So why aren't I jumping for joy? For a start, in the paragraph above, Zarate mentions that William Fox, director of the Treasury's Financial Crime Enforcement Network, addressed the World Diamond Council in Dubai back in March, 2004. He said many good things about addressing the black market in diamonds. So how, then, were US representatives at the UN trying to get Viktor off the hook two months later? Surely the State Department didn't come up with that policy without consulting Zarzate's department, who would appear to be the responsible authority? Or did the Pentagon act behind the Treasury's back?

And why, why, why are aircraft belonging to outfits as notorious as Transavia Export, one of the very first Bout firms, still operating into Iraqi airports under US security control? Our old friend, the Sharjah Airport website, tells us (scroll down) that a Transavia bird is due in from Baghdad at 1700GMT today. Two hours before that, there should be a Phoenix Aviation arrival from British-controlled Basra. That's not counting movements by suspect firms like Airline Transport, Click and Georgian National (which is NOT the national airline of Georgia) into Baghdad and also Balad Airbase. Transavia are also flying to Kabul. If the US government doesn't act on its declared policy, why should anyone else with more to lose?

The problem with EO 13348, anyway, is that the annex to it contains a list of persons but not of companies, with one exception, and hence isn't much cop as a blacklist. Document here (pdf).

Update!: The Baghdad departures list for Dubai airport shows us that our friends British Gulf are still going to Baghdad. Although the Biman Bangladesh logo is shown on the list, the ICAO code BGK begins the flight number - BGK is the code for BGIA. Also, the aircraft is detailed as being an Antonov 12. Biman does not operate An12s. Further, there's a "Click" Il-76 and an Irbis Yak-42, this one listed as Royal Brunei but using Irbis's ICAO code and aircraft. To cap the lot, there's also a Phoenix 737-200 service.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

In all the other excitement...

I didn't say anything at all about the death of Arthur Miller, or the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, or even the row around Ken Livingstone. On Miller, I remember vividly studying The Crucible at school: our class was assigned parts to read, and I got Governor Danforth, the menacing state authority who appears towards to end. Here's a lesson: I really, really enjoyed Danforth's lines. Fascism can be fun.

Read and Enjoyed in the Corridors of Power

God, the stats log's been entertaining in the last few days. After the folk who were looking for porno pictures of the president of Yemen, and the crazed trolls, now we have someone at the Elysée Palace. At 0816 hours, Thursday 17th February 2005, IP address searched French Google for "KH-55" and hit the Ranter as the highest result that wasn't in Chinese (as you can see if you load the search). The IP range belongs to the "service informatique"=IT department of the French President's office, as this whois makes clear.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Do They Got the Intuhweb in Europistan?

My referral log informs me that several people have come this way from a thread on, the web's home of rabidly rightwing trolls. Will I give them the dignity of a link? Pah, it can't do any harm. You can go and read, here. Obviously, I wouldn't want anyone to take that as encouragement to register over there and start baiting them with offensive nonsense. No sir. But frankly, have you seen the state on these people?
"They need to focus on issues that bother Britons about their liberal government. Let them moan about what bothers them but guide the threads toward conservative solutions. The heart of the lion still beats in Britain and I believe that they will surprise the world. I really think that once the British start thinking about solutions and that any truck driver, teacher, soldier or mechanic is free to offer them, they will get very excited. To give an example, there is a home tobacco growing forum and wine making site in England which is in essence a discussion forum site. The person who runs it started it due to the burdens and restrictions imposed on the common man by the government. The site focuses on solutions to topic related problems. The moderator is both strict and encouraging to his members. I know just from visiting that site that the British can run one heck of a discussion forum with much humor and grace. I look forward to visiting a good conservative British site in the future."
Well, whadddayaknow? Those little English can run a discussion forum! Bless their mother lovin' cotton socks! God hell, the voice of our colonial masters speaks! Could it possibly get any more patronising? I mean, really, truly, has humanity just reached the summit of condescension?

It gets worse, though. For some reason, they see fit to post half the blogroll from Fistful of Euros, including me. They also seem to think that you need to crawl under a flaming limbo bar (or something) to get the internet in Britain. Sigh...the last time I checked I think broadband uptake is higher in the UK. But, hell, they are faith based.

And can it be true that they haven't heard of the Conservative Party? No, they seem to think that conservatism would be a brand new import to the UK. Oh, for fuck's sake.

Rant switch to safe, please.

ID Cards: Law by the Back Door

Lib Dem blogger-MP Richard Allan has sounded the alarm on a serious possibility that might get the ID Cards Bill into law without a full debate through the Lords. The government has already demonstrated its willingness to push through the Bill by applying a guillotine to all the Commons stages, shortening the available time for debate and line-by-line scrutiny. Surely, a little more of the aforementioned scrutiny might have picked out horrors like Section 6, the clause that permits the government to discriminate between different "specified groups" of citizens and force them to have (or not have) IDs - and the explicit exclusion of such people from the provision supposed to guarantee that no-one will be denied NHS treatment (for example) if they don't have an ID card. Or maybe, had there been a little more time, the MPs might have spotted the clause that gives the Home Secretary the right to NOT correct the identity database even if it is proved to be wrong and he or she accepts that! Perhaps someone might have raised the questions of safeguards against unauthorised access to the data, the transfer of data to other countries or organisations, the enormous cost of the scheme, or the likely IT procurement fiasco.

Or perhaps, given the chance, our representatives would have wasted it and sheeped off for another very long lunch at the Cinnamon Club. But we'll never know.

Allan points out that there is now the possibility of the Bill being passed under the wash-up procedure, which permits Bills that have not completed the legislative process at the end of a Parliament to become law if they have the "support" of both houses. This means it would skip much of the Lords stage and dodge a final vote.

So, if you haven't already, would you consider heading off to WriteToThem and make it clear that this is not going to happen? Talking points: it's not the card it's the database; it won't do anything against card-not-present fraud, the biggest category of identity crime; it will only help fight terrorism if the terrorists are polite enough to register with their real names; it certainly will record every time and place the card is checked, monitoring everyone's movements; all other government IT projects are disastrous so why not this one?;why can't they say how much it will cost?; what about Section 6?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

What can I say? I made a crude attempt to forecast the turnout in the Iraqi election on the basis of partial figures, here, and I got it wrong. Badly wrong. At least the key meaning - that only the Shia and Kurds would get in - got through, but then that was the easy bit.

Mind you, whoever did the second official forecast on election night, 58%, was uncannily accurate....

Whilst we're on the theme of corrections, I also misspelt Christine Deviers-Joncour yesterday.

More on Sirven

Le Monde has an excellent article on the death of Alfred Sirven. There's more coverage here. If you read French, read'em before they vanish into subscription hell.

CPA Corruption: case studies!

The Washington Post reports on a lawsuit that has resulted in the publication of extensive allegations by former Coalition Provisional Authority staff that the organisation was corrupt, incompetent, and spectacularly hopeless with money. Interestingly, much of the dirtstorm centres around the security contractor CusterBattles, who Ranters will remember from this story from January. If you recall, a savage $300 million in raw cash somehow got flown out of Iraq aboard a plane bearing "CusterBattles Levant" titles that happened to have a number of far-right Lebanese political identities on board too. Reportedly the cash was used to purchase arms - from whom, we might well ask - outside the financial controls imposed on the transitional government.

If that wasn't dodgy enough, it now appears that CB was handed impressive sums drawn on Iraqi revenues for work that was never carried out, and indeed was never needed. You can get the text of the CPA's former senior aviation official Franklin Willis's statement here (pdf). It makes damning reading. Willis describes vast amounts of crisp $100 bills literally crammed into a dank basement. Payments to contractors were made by simply handing out bags of cash. CusterBattles were meant to provide security for civilian air operations at Baghdad Airport, but (according to Franklin) no such operations took place. But they still received great wedges of green from the cash basement. They used this to build up a large camp for up to 300 employees and a large number of dogs at the airport, the base for their other business activities.

What is odd about Willis's testimony is that there were - still are - civilian air services to Baghdad. Royal Jordanian Airlines operated daily to Amman through the life of the CPA. Not to mention the cargo charters, from DHL to British Gulf and Air Bas. He describes with vigour an atmosphere of financial anarchy, administrative chaos and incompetence that could well explain how the Boutcos were hired...if it wasn't for the big question. That is, if it was all a mistake in conditions of chaos and raging crisis, why did they try to get Bout off the asset freeze lists instead of immediately and effectively getting rid of all contracts with him, and if possible seizing any aircraft within their control? No-one has yet given a plausible explanation of this paradox.

Unless, of course, this Asia Times report on alleged efforts to arm Sunni "loyalist paramilitaries" in Iraq is true. Back at the start of the story, a source suggested such was the case. I'm not sure if the Asia Times is believable, though.

Another interesting sidelight is this comment by Willis:
also should have made much better use of the British at the CPA. (After all, they are more experienced than we in this kind of stuff!) Jeremy Greenstock and Andy Bearpark are two of the finest civil servants I have encountered, but they and the other British were not brought into full participation by the American side."
Remember this?

More on the Ukrainian AS-15 sales

Pavel Felgenhauer of the Moscow Times follows up the discovery, as blogged on the 3rd of February, that a number of Kh55 (Nato name AS-15 KENT) strategic cruise missiles had been sold on the black market by Ukrainian officials at the time when the remaining 578 Kents in the Ukraine were returned to Russia. The highly capable long-range missiles had apparently been misappropriated and sold to Iran and to China. We speculated a little about the implications, and showed a pretty picture of a Tu-160 Black Jack bomber, designed to carry them.

Felgenhauer links the story to an agreement between Iran and Russia to launch Iranian satellites on Russian rockets - allegedly, the satellites are those required to provide the Kent's navigation data. It's also possible that the satellite program might include a capability for tracking shipping - a use for the Kh55's tactical variant would be to attack US aircraft carrier groups from long range. Mind you, he also charges that Iran has acquired the elements of a Pakistani nuclear weapon, which may reduce credibility on other charges.

Today's Brief


Admin! Enetation are still down, lying in a pool of their own credibility, for the third day. Blogger comments should be available today.

Stuff! The French press is reacting to the death of Alfred Sirven...The Moscow Times has a story on those AS15 Kents mentioned below....there's a major revelation on corruption at the CPA that throws a little light on the "planeload of cash"..and one of my sources' theory about Viktor Bout gains support.

Any other business: it would seem to be time to admit that my turnout forecast for the Iraqi elections was hopelessly wrong, and I ought to at least mention the assassination of Hariri at some point. Oh yes, and Arthur Miller.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The world's most wanted man: no more!

Alfred Sirven, the disgraced General Affairs Director of Elf-Aquitaine who became the world's most wanted fugitive in the late 1990s after the exposure of the complex of scandals around President Mitterand, has died at his home in Deauville. This man's remarkable career took him from fighting in Korea with the Foreign Legion to a meteoric rise through the French petrochemical industry (passing via the robbery of a bank in Japan whilst he was on leave) and a position of immense political power, to notoriety and exile.

The state-owned oil corporation, Elf, had been created in the 1960s at the behest of Charles de Gaulle to guarantee French access to African oil supplies. With the retreat of the French empire, it developed a further role as an arm of state policy, shoring up French influence in Africa. In a sense, it is hard to say whether France's oil company pursued French interests in order to retain exclusive control of oilfields, or whether control of oilfields was used to further other French interests; perhaps it doesn't matter. In the 1980s and 90s, Elf became the key to a whole undeclared foreign policy pursued by Mitterand and his closest advisers on the Elysee staff. At one end, Elf money paid out by the company's agents provided huge kickbacks to Taiwanese politicians in order that they might buy warships from French shipyards. At another, immense sums were channelled to Angolan politicians to secure exclusive French control of contracts to develop Angola's oil. Not just cash, but masses of arms procured with Elf funding by the fugitive arms dealer and Republican donor Pierre Falcone were sent to help the Angolan government defeat UNITA. In the end, the Angolan state oil company Sonangol chose to go with Elf. It is very likely that Viktor Bout, who was operating in Angola at the time and buying arms from the same Slovak arsenals, was on the payroll.

The corruption was not confined to distant Taiwan and Angola, though. When Elf bought the Leuna oil refinery in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the local Christian Democrats were induced to agree with yet more cash. Some of that money, as well as direct contributions from Elf, ended up in the Federal CDU's coffers - a very good reason for the excellent ties between Mitterand and Helmut Kohl that was only exposed years later in the "Spendenaffäre" scandal that finished Kohl's career. Another object of the graft was none other than France's Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, who was plied with gifts, cash and the attentions of Christine Deviers-Joncour, the self-appointed "Whore of the Republic" whose memoirs finally burst the scandal.

It was a hell of a story.

Sirven's role had been crucial; he had signed off the money, helped to decide the targets and dispatched Andre Tarallo, Elf's director of corporate affairs, with actual bags of real raw cash to dish out the payoffs. When the story broke, he vanished with uncommon success. For several years, his location was a mystery. Later, journalists tracked him down to the Philippines, but the Filipino authorities were strangely unable to find him. The reason was no doubt financial. After President Estrada was deposed in a revolution, though, the Filipino police suddenly realised where he lived. A hundred cops converged on his beach house, but he still managed to eat the SIM card of his mobile phone to prevent the relevation of his contacts in Manila. It was back to France, and the courts.

In court, Sirven ratted on everyone else involved, boasting that what he knew could bring down the republic five times over. (The republic, however, survived.) He got a light sentence as a result - most of the jail time went to Elf's CEO, Loik Le Floch-Prigent. Remarkably little of his republic-toppling knowledge ever got out, and now it would appear it never will, absent a surprise memoir or will.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


Vodkapundit has an interesting project, a map of the world redrawn to reflect the interpenetration of nations better than the traditional black lines of absolute sovereign independence. He draws the US-Mexican border as a blur showing Mexican immigration into the US on one side and US investment in Mexico on the other. It's not much as yet, but the idea is fascinating. If we stick to the economics and finance for the moment, then, we shade land according to foreign investment flows and presumably trade links too. I suspect this will be simple enough along the big fracture lines, between the core and the periphery, but it will be when we get to the globalised world, the extended West, McWorld, the intelligence special relationship, the functioning core, the rich or minority world or whichever fancy IR-theory name you want to use that things get interesting.

Briefly, just as US capital spills into Mexico, so European capital flows into the US: masses of it at the moment with the monster twin deficits. On the other hand, US finance owns quite a lot of things in Europe - or anywhere else. Lumps of capital investment from surprising places will also be discerned: the national investment portfolios of oil states, the capital-flight of third world potentates on the take. Much the same goes for goods: the great mass of trade is between the industrialised economies (yet another term for those places we love where there's internet access, clean toilets, and a gratifying lack of malaria or cleaver-brandishing religious mobs), and it's diverse. All of them trade with all the others. (This paragraph could be summarised as "that globalisation stuff".)

What will emerge, unless a really subtle technique is used for the map, is a sort of brown blur of mixed colour that marks out the (here it goes again) free world from, well, everywhere else. It will get fainter and gain more individuation as you move from north-west Europe, say, to Turkey, and then crack open in a riot of colour once you cross the eastern border of NATO into the Middle East. I await the map with interest. Another interesting map would plot the world by density of telecoms, the denser nearer the centre. (If anyone's done that, please send me a link!)

Apropos drones

Thinking about unmanned flying things, an interesting point comes to mind: the answer to the question "will UAVs make pilots obsolete" is one of economics, not technology.

Think about it - proponents of the things argue that you can save on training human pilots, send them into greater danger, and make them do manoeuvres beyond the human tolerance for g. Counterarguments include that weapons will have to remain under human control, that some tasks seem very resistant to computing (autoland, for example, is unusable with gusting crosswinds - apparently this can only be done by a human being with an acceptable degree of reliability), and that communications will act as a bottleneck. But the real question is economic. When the proponents of a UAV revolution say that they can be sent into greater danger, and that they do not need to be engineered to the same standards of reliability and redundancy that manned aircraft do because they have no crew, what they essentially mean is that more losses would be tolerable if there were no human losses. Now, if they are right, they will be exposed to greater risk and more will be destroyed. This means that the number of drones needed to support a given front line figure will have to be higher.

Adding in a higher accident rate - if there wouldn't be a higher rate of accidents, there'd be no advantage in being able to tolerate it - and it's clear that if UAVs are to take over from manned combat aircraft, they will need to be numerous. This brings us to the economic kicker: surely, as the capabilities of the drone increase, so will its cost. Reaching the equivalent of the best plane of its day will cost much more than a current UAV. Now, that cost must be multiplied by the number required - and if the stock of UAVs turns out to be more like a stock of missiles than a stock of aircraft, this could well be more expensive than a manned platform, even taking the cost of training into account.

This brings up some other points: to know whether or not it will work, we need to know how the cost/capability equation will pan out. The most famous is Moore's Law that the processing power of a CPU doubles in relation to cost every 6 months. Moore's would suggest that over a few years the UAV fighter should easily be a reality, but then again Moore's Law would predict that almost any computing problem will be solved without trouble if we wait and spend. Processing is only part of the story in the laptop I'm writing on, and even less in a fighter-drone. Between the central processor and the surface would be several layers of limiting factors, software being a huge one, bandwidth a biggy, and operating procedures huge as well. So the one we need would be Moores divided by X. The question is: what is the required rate of technological progress in relation to cost that would permit this solution to be cheapest? Or, debollocksing, will the technology get cheaper quickly enough over the project's lead time?

For my money I suspect not: with UAVs, the space is at the bottom with simple devices buzzing around the mud - at this level, the technology is cheap and the real problem is working out tactics. (Will Phil and Joel (I know what you do!) please comment on this once the comments are fixed?)

Drones over Iran

The Washington Post reports that the USAF has been overflying Iran with drones, apparently in an effort to reconnoitre Iranian air defences. Apparently the first flights took place in April, 2004, and an extended effort began in December. This surge in activity led to the operation's becoming public after Iranian civilians repeatedly spotted mystery aircraft. Many apparently took them for "UFOs", but the Iranian Air Force identified them as UAVs. (Presumably these are Global Hawks, long-range UAVs suitable for collecting electronic intelligence, rather than the various small ones.) An official protest at the violation of sovereignty was made to the US, who denied that "manned aircraft" had been over Iran.

That's what is technically known as a "non-denial denial", I think.

What's it all about? Well, radar is the heart of air defence, so the first step in defeating an integrated air defence is to disrupt its supply of information. This means targeting the radars - which is of course a chicken and egg problem. The answer is to use the various techniques of electronic warfare to jam or deceive the system temporarily so that (if desired) aircraft or missiles can destroy key radars and headquarters. The phrase "soft kill" is used to describe jamming a radar, in order to then move on to a "hard kill" - i.e. blow it to pieces. In order to co-ordinate the "first night of the war" - the very complicated process of defeating the air defence system, requiring electronic warfare, fighter operations against enemy fighters, precision attack on radars, HQs, SAM sites etc and the tanker and AWACS support needed by everything else - it's first necessary to locate and identify the other side's radars.

The Iranians apparently suspect that the drones' main purpose is to explore their air defence, inducing alerts and the activation of more radars so that satellites, the EC135 Rivet Joint electronic-warfare planes and (perhaps) sensors on the drones themselves can pick up the transmissions. This hoped-for electronic aggression display would likely be of more intelligence value than whatever the drones collect themselves. There are, of course, countermeasures. One is to shoot down the drones (incidentally running the risk of exposing the locations of the SAMs used). Another is to produce a deceptive response of some sort. The simplest countergame strategy is simply to turn off all the radars and give nothing away. That is exactly what the Iranians did.

As always, of course, there's a cost. You lose the use of those radars, at least until you decide to switch them back on (light them off, as they say). There's a cost to the drone activity, too. As the article makes clear, monitoring the drone sightings told the Iranians where the US intelligence and reconnaissance effort was focused. They say they proceeded to concentrate defences in those areas - although, of course, this could be disinformation. Once you know where they're looking, you can show them what you want them to see. Note this paragraph:
" But it did not work. "The United States must have forgotten that they trained half our guys," the Iranian official said. After a briefing by their air force three weeks ago, Iran's national security officials ordered their forces not to turn on the radar or come into contact with the drones in any way.

"Our decision was: Don't engage," the Iranian official said. Leaving the radar off deprives U.S. forces of vital information about the country's air defense system, but it also makes it harder for Iran to tell if an attack is underway."
The nameless "sources" quoted go on to some considerable extent about using the drones to check for radioactive particles in the air, but I suspect the ELINT reconnaissance is more important (monitoring for particles doesn't require the risky step of illegal overflights; they drift on the wind).

Very interestingly, the Iranians apparently consulted with Russia about the "UFOs". I can't be the only reader who thinks this is transparent nonsense. They signed an agreement with Russia to find out more about the drones - this is the only realistic interpretation. What form such cooperation takes remains open. Did the Russians help to identify the sightings? I wonder what capability Russia has in the field of electronic intelligence in the Middle East. If they still have southward-facing long range radars or were monitoring the radio links that control the drones, they might well have been able to give a full account of the activity. They may have given advice on countermeasures in return for full reports of the activity. I'm sure Russia would love to know more about the UAVs.

In fact, that makes me think - surely electronic countermeasures against the signals that control UAVs are about to be slap bang on top of the agenda?

Saturday, February 12, 2005

A Night In in Baghdad

Abu Aardvark reports on spending a night with three different Arabic TV channels, Al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya, and the US-funded al-Hurra (who, of course, had a journalist shot in Basra last week). It's worth reading, even if some of the methodology leaves something to be desired ("p.s. the jazeera and arabia presenters are WAY hotter than any woman I've seen on Hurra so far.") - especially, the management at al-Hurra seem to have a problem with running too much bought-in hohummery (a sports roundup that reminds me of that Channel 4 early-morning show that always had breathless reporting on weird and obscure pursuits and very little else, a documentary about the US Border Patrol...) and not enough news-wallop. After all, when Al-Jaz was running with a report on Condoleeza Rice and Al-Arabiya had a two-way with their man in Gaza, al-Hurra was reporting from the exciting world of Tunisian sports.

Our man also points up at least one fairly disastrous gaffe (yes, Muslim Arabs are just gagging for news about Serbian basketball players...) and some lesser botches. For example, I bet Iraqi TV viewers see enough Americans running about with M-16s and leaping on and off Blackhawks looking out of their windows without needing more on telly. He also mentions that "rumour has it" that the people running al-Hurra are Lebanese Phalangists - this may of course be crap, but then again just what were Amin Gemayel's son-in-law and another Lebanese Forces MP doing on the planeload of cash in Baghdad?

So many questions...but if I was to be snarky about this story, I would have to say that the problem is that al-Hurra sounds *exactly* like, well, all the American TV I've seen. Bizarre sports no-one else in the world cares about, pabulum documentaries and really braindead news? Yuh.

India now up for a chunk of Yukos

The public prints have it that the Indian minister of oil and natural gas is off to Moscow to discuss buying into a chunk of Yukos's assets. This comes at the same time as the intrigues surrounding exactly how the Yuganskneftegaz/Rosneft deal (and the subsequent Rosneft/Gazprom deal) was financed, and specifically what the involvement of China was. A group of Chinese banks apparently put up $6 billion via a Russian bank, and now it seems that the Indian state might chip in for another $2 billion via its Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.

Two possible ways of looking at this: either you see it as India and China competing to register a claim on Russian oil production, which is quite rational, or as evidence of increasing India/Russia/China cooperation. Russian politicians have frequently said that they seek an alliance of these three states, but this has so far mostly been in evidence in terms of arms sales and military technology-transfer from Russia to China and India. (Note the Backfire lease to India, sales of Sukhoi-30+ fighters...and joint Russian/Chinese army exercises.) Russia might well see an oil carveup as improving relations with both, as well as providing alternative financing and a means of counter-leverage with them.

On that West African theme...

Le Monde reports rioting in Togo after the semi-coup that installed the old dictator's son. They go on to speculate that the Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States might apply sanctions: interestingly, a source in the area told me last night that he expected ECOWAS intervention as the Nigerians had pointedly not been invited to the swearing-in!

Slight Return to the Ivory Coast

Back in November, I blogged on a curious incident during the French intervention in the Ivory Coast. Recapping, when the French army there moved into Abidjan after the Ivorian air-raid on one of their outposts, they established an HQ and registration point for evacuees in the best hotel in town. There they discovered that someone else had also moved in - a group of Israeli "private contractors" operating a signals-intelligence and phone-tapping centre for the Ivorian president. The 46 men were "invited" to leave "for their own safety" and were shipped out of the country without further ado. When the French destroyed the Ivorian air force, they also seized a drone which apparently had been sold by an Israeli firm to the Coast.

This was obviously interesting and gave rise to a valuable comments thread here.

Today, Ha'aretz reports that the French government has requested that Israel provide details of all arms sales to the Ivory Coast. At the time, we recall, the French demanded and got an embargo on any further deliveries. Now it would appear they are attempting to draw consequences for those responsible. Ha'aretz's Yossi Melman correctly, I think, picks out the nub as being that the French believe they were partly responsible for the Ivorian airstrike that killed a dozen Frenchmen and triggered the rupture of the ceasefire. The Le Monde report I linked to at the time claims that the drone was used to recce French positions in Ivory Coast preparatory to air attack by the Sukhoi 25s. The Ha'aretz report suggests that the Frogfoots themselves may have been procured with the aid of Israeli arms dealers, too.

It also names names: one Moshe Rothschild is said to have provided aircraft, parts and ammunition from Eastern Europe, whilst Hezi Betzalel is accused of supplying surveillance equipment. Aeronautics Defence Systems are named as selling the drones. I wonder who hired the pilots (said to have been Belarussians)?

Morning (just) Briefing

Starting with the admin, please note that the comments service is unavailable. I have been promised that it will soon return.

G2: There's some follow-up on the Ivory Coast/Israel arms story we covered over at Ha'aretz. More semi-results have appeared from the Iraqi elections, we shall be having a look to see if the prediction I published is still good. The Moscow Times reports that India's minister of energy has been in town after a stake in Yukos's assets. Oh, and a source checks in with Bout information.

G3: Abu Aardvark has an interesting analysis of a night's telly on three Arabic stations (al-Jaz, al-Arabiya and al-Hurra). With an interesting sidelight on the $300 million flight affair. The Gannon/Guckert story progresses further as he is outed as a tax evader and a member of a crazy-arsed militia website.

G4: Did I mention the donate button?

Friday, February 11, 2005

That Jeff Gannon Story: British Angle

Hear that clattering of keyboards racing in from the east? See the blackly glittering screens? It could only be the Kossacks charging after a story. And, of course, they got one. The whole sorry tale about "Jeff Gannon", the pseudonymous conservative who mysteriously got a White House press pass in his false name whilst working for a news agency owned by the same Texan Republicans as a website called "GOPUSA", was somehow given the memo identifying Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, and turns out to have registered a whole wedge of gay porn domain names, has been rumbling away in the Kos comment threads and several blogs for weeks. They identified his real name. They uncovered the porno sites. They discovered naked pictures of the man himself.

Finally, he resigned from his "news agency" - at least, the pseudonym did. You might think this was a parochial Washington story, but it affects us too. In two ways: for a start, the substance of the whole sordid business (the link above leads to a summary) is of interest. For those of us who remember, Valerie Plame is the wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson, the official who was sent to Niger to verify the truth or otherwise of the claim that Iraq had been buying yellowcake (uranium ore) there. That claim was first published in the now-legendary British dossier on "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction", although the CIA (it turned out) thought at the time that Britain was exaggerating. It turned out that the only documentation for the claim was a risibly poor forgery, which seems to have been given by Italian military intelligence to the UK and US intelligence services (and also some of the people involved in the AIPAC scandal. Complicated, innit?). When Wilson went public with the fact that his mission had effectively debunked the yellowcake story, efforts were made to discredit him.

Amongst other things, a journalist was somehow allowed to discover that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative, a fact that was promptly published. (Recall that at the time the administration was spinning that The Company was dangerously liberal and off-message.) This in turn led to the opening of a criminal investigation into how her cover was blown. Crucially, "Gannon" seems to have received the same classified document as the first journo (Robert Novak). Under his real name, he is one of those who were subpoenaed by the FBI investigation into the leak. How he got the memo is a mystery.

Almost as mysterious as how and why he came to claim that he "entertained the Prime Minister of Great Britain". An alleged man-whore turned propagandist for the Republican Party - and Tony Blair. What a gathering that must have been. (Insert your own how-did-they-tell-the-difference joke.) More seriously, Guckert/Gannon is associated with Clifford May's "Foundation for the Defence of Democracies" - that's right, the guys who employed the Iraqi woman who appeared at Bush's State of the Union address (post). What on earth could they have been discussing? Those of you with really long memories may recall this story from the Ranter of April, 2004, regarding the role of two matching spin-doctor teams in the UK and US in the run-up to war with Iraq.

In London, the "Iraq Communications Group" chaired by Alastair Campbell included the chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett, the No. 10 Downing St. foreign policy adviser David Manning, and also Edward Chaplin - now UK Ambassador to Iraq, it strikes me with coffee-spilling force. In Washington, something called the White House Iraq Group was established in August, 2003 - shortly before the ICG - headed by Karl Rove. The two organisations' mission would seem to have been identical: the ICG wrote the September 2003 dossier, and WHIG wrote a National Intelligence Estimate that, according to the Washington Post, was rejected by Condoleeza Rice because it wasn't "strong" enough. That wasn't the last example of curiously similar trans-atlantic spin; we've already touched on those very grateful Iraqis at party conferences, and then there's this perceptive blog entry on Bush's sudden taste for "conversations" in town halls as a form of campaigning.

Not necessarily big conversations, but it's still uncannily similar.

Update: this story in the Google cache would suggest they had quite a bit to discuss.


Well, after an intense squabble, a wedge of Treasury files on the 1992 sterling crisis, "Black Wednesday", have been released. The most interesting feature, though, would seem to be the incredible psychological rationalisations of the participants. Let us recap. At the time the pound sterling was under a fixed exchange rate with respect to the Deutsche Mark under the European Community (as it was at the time)'s Exchange Rate Mechanism. The ERM was intended to be the second step towards an eventual European single currency. Britain joined in 1990 in the last days of the Thatcher government, after the chancellor of the day (John Major) convinced Maggie that this move would help to kill inflation and also reconcile the Tory pro-European faction to her. Unfortunately, as was typical, she decided to join at once, with the result that an unusually high exchange rate was locked in.

A whole string of events then conspired to create a crisis. Germany's decision to apply a tough anti-inflationary policy at reunification helped to cause an economic slowdown right across Europe. It also meant high German interest rates and a strong mark, which created pressure on the pound's fixed rate. The British economy was tanking anyway, and the high interest rates and high exchange rate only made it worse. Mind you, John Major, now prime minister, thought this was fine as it was "fighting the battle against inflation". Things built up until another rise in the German interest rate brought about the raging crisis. A wave of selling tore through the currency market, and nothing would stop it. The Bank of England intervened massively, but that didn't cut it. In a succession of cabinet meetings whose circumstances are still hotly disputed (Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine both claim that they took place in a room in Admiralty House with not even a phone, with the only source of information being a civil servant who dashed in and out with bits of paper. Major and Norman Lamont deny this.), the decision was taken to put up interest rates twice in the day.

Still the sell-off raged. Finally, after an unsuccessful cash-call to the Bundesbank, they bit the bullet and quit the ERM. The pound devalued drastically. Interest rates were cut. John Major was publicly humiliated, not for the last time. The tabloids had a field day: "Now we've all been screwed by the Cabinet" was the Sun's headline; "Out Of Control!" the Mirror's; "Torpedoed By the Germans" the Daily Mail's. It also gave rise to a classic conversation between Major and the Sun's editor, during which the editor declared that "Prime Minister, I have a vast bucket of shit on my desk, and I'm going to pour it all over your head."

Bizarrely, given the pain, it turned out to be one of the best things that had happened in years. Freed from the penally high interest rate and export-crushing exchange, the economy recovered rapidly. Chancellor Lamont was disposed of and replaced by Clarke, who espoused a policy of taking advantage of the devaluation as much as possible. Everyone quietly forgot about the ERM. The forex traders moved on to target the remaining ERM: by 1994 it was a dead letter, with the remaining member currencies in fluctuation bands so wide as to be meaningless.

Time heals all wounds. The words of the participants now reveal a lot about how you can convince yourself of anything you want to believe. John Major:
"In the end the public, he hopes, "will place the £3.3bn cost against an economy without inflation that has lasted for 13 years and is certainly worth far more than £3.3bn".
So - he still thinks it was justified in The War Against Inflation. But , if you accept the Tories' claim of a golden economic legacy, you surely have to accept that the post-crisis policy of keeping sterling and the interest rate down - an inflationary stance - was responsible for it. Does he believe that, had it all not happened and had he been able to continue his chosen policy, things would have turned out exactly the same? Or is he giving himself more credit for Machiavellianism than we might think? Heeeereeeee's Johnny!
"Norman has made it absolutely clear that we would not have got inflation down without the ERM and we would not have moved to the excellent economy we have now got if we hadn't got inflation down,"
So - we had to go into the ERM to get inflation down so we could then change policy? Does he really mean that he was planning this all along? In that case, why didn't he make an orderly shift instead of wasting all that money and making a fool of himself? To put it another way, if the Tories want credit for the economic recovery, they ought at least to admit that it happened under a policy regime diametrically opposite to the one they themselves chose. They didn't choose to devalue. They were forced to. This is like a drunken driver who claims credit for the fact he was arrested before crashing the car. But there's more, too:
""When Gordon Brown boasts that we have had the longest run of economic growth in economic record he is right. What he doesn't say is the Conservative party got rid of inflation to start with, the Conservative party carried that through, and half the period of this long run of economic growth was under the Conservative government."
But this only adds up to anything he can take credit if he really believes he deliberately set out to reverse his policy. It gets weirder, too. Lamont was at pains yesterday to stress that the Labour Party supported ERM membership. But he was his own man. He wasn't dependent on Labour votes to do it, so why should he have done it if he didn't think it was the right policy - and he claims still to think it was the right policy, squeezing out inflation and all that (remember?). It's a sad business all right.

Briefing for Today

Right, I've decided to have more structure in day-to-day bloggage here, so we'll begin today with a short briefing.

G-1 (Admin/Personnel): Work begins today on another new Ranter template option. When complete it will be on my testblog for user comments. The first one has now been definitively junked after unfavourable feedback.

G-2 (Intelligence): Is there a British angle to the Jeff Gannon story? Interesting fallout from the release of Black Wednesday files. Recap on ID cards. And more.

G-3 (Operations): The UK Today/Bloggerheads crowd have opened their latest campaign, Backing Blair. On other fronts, the ID Cards Bill has now headed into the House of Lords, where it will die. Die, I tell you!

G-4 (Logistics): Can it be true that no-one has ever in the history of the blog used the donate button? Be aware that the new template might include advertising if there is no progress on this key issue.

The rest are all operations-normal for the moment.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Sign of the times

Soj appears very pleased that the government of Romania has taken the step of permitting foreigners to hold bank accounts denominated in local currency.

The reason is instructive: because otherwise, Soj's US dollars were depreciating in real terms. Strange days, these, when the Romanian lei is a safer bet than greenbacks...remember this post?

RFID Madness: Let's Brand the Children!

Oh man, sometimes I feel that big, big rock's rolling back on me.Can you believe this? (Kos) A school in California has decided to make all the kiddies wear badges containing RFID chips so they can follow them everywhere. What a good idea! According to this AP story, the detectors are placed in the entrances of all classrooms so the school, and any hackers who may pass by, knows exactly which kids are in which classrooms. Hold on, they had a system very like this when I was at school! It was called - a register! And it must have cost all of £10 a year in notepads and biros to run. Well, thank God we've got expensive and unnecessary electronics to save all that taxpayers' money.

As is the way of these things, the head is trying to talk down the proposal whilst evidently being mad keen to expand it for all it's worth. On the one hand, he says only the 7th and 8th grades are actually being monitored and that "they merely confirm that each child is in his or her classroom, rather than track them around the school like a global-positioning device". On the other hand, everyone's got to wear'em and he wants to place readers in the toilets too.

This is of course deeply stupid. For a start, global positioning devices do not track anybody anywhere - contrary to popular belief, a GPS receiver tracks the satellites not vice versa. (The clue's in the "receiver" bit.) Secondly, if you can monitor movement in and out of the classrooms and the toilets (and possibly also the dining hall and the library) then you've already got near-total coverage of most school buildings. Thirdly, if you can read an RFID so can anybody else with the equipment - policemen, paedophiles, Cory Doctorow or - who knows? - me. Fourthly, if the point is to "increase student safety", why are they on badges? Presumably if you are evil enough to kidnap schoolchildren, you will be sufficiently ruthless to...take the badge off the child! (You think? That's crazy talk!)

But, as usual with schools, the headmaster has one all-purpose argument to fall back on:
" What's more, he says that it is within his power to set rules that promote a positive school environment: If he thinks ID badges will improve things, he says, then badges there will be.

"You know what it comes down to? I believe junior high students want to be stylish. This is not stylish," he said."
Why? Because I tell you! Ah, happy days. This reminds me of an incident at my own school, where two girls who donned Comic Relief red noses for a class photo were retouched out of the picture like the victims of a Soviet purge. I certainly wouldn't put having all the kids bugged past Mr. Gasper, Deputy Head (Discipline), for example.

Mind you, as Woodward and Bernstein would have put it, follow the money. As is very often the case, the RFID system's manufacturers have added several thousand papery green reasons to their argument in favour of mass surveillance: tag your children and we'll give you a lot of money!
" This latest adaptation of radio frequency ID technology was developed by InCom Corp., a local company co-founded by the parent of a former Brittan student, and some parents are suspicious about the financial relationship between the school and the company. InCom plans to promote it at a national convention of school administrators next month.

InCom has paid the school several thousand dollars for agreeing to the experiment, and has promised a royalty from each sale if the system takes off, said the company's co-founder, Michael Dobson, who works as a technology specialist in the town's high school. Brittan's technology aide also works part-time for InCom."
Smell that? That's the sweet smell of municipal corruption drifting up from your keyboard, no?


It's surely been suggested somewhere that newspaper diarists were perhaps the first bloggers. Well, The Guardian's Marina Hyde managed to demonstrate that yesterday when her column, Britain's leading source for gossip about Labour Party PR flacks, ran an item substantially identical to a post of Nosemonkey's, without attribution...
Meanwhile, we are forced to call Tory central office on reading that top brass there have decided to issue proceedings against the Times for a story saying Michael Howard has been advised to give up hopes of winning the election. Could you settle an argument, we ask party media manager John Deans? In terms of cretinous things to do in the run-up to an election, is suing a Murdoch newspaper more or less obviously suicidal than, say, Neil Kinnock's Sheffield rally? A pause. "Good afternoon," says John. Click, brrrrrr."
(The Grauniad, 09/02/05

Compare and contrast, Nosemonkey at Europhobia:
"How to lose a General Election
Step 1: Have no policies to speak of
Step 2: Be led by a shifty bloke who everyone blames for the Poll Tax
Step 3: Sue the single biggest media owner in the country

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Conservative party: political fucking genius.

(Links later when they appear. Rest assured, the Tories are suing the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times newspaper, thus ensuring the hostility of Sky News, The Sun and The News of the World to boot. The Sun and The News of the World - lest we forget - having more readers between them than pretty much every other newspaper in the country put together...)"
Europhobia, 08/02/05. Did yer see what she did there? Anybody spot that batsqueak of recognition and gratitude? Thought not.

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