Friday, March 25, 2005

Interesting Stuff

....from the US Army's Strategic Studies Institute. Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency. Off you go and read.

Jet Line lose a Jet

An Ilyushin-76TD belonging to suspected Boutco Jet Line International has crashed into Lake Victoria immediately after take-off from Mwanza. All 8 crew were killed. The aircraft was ER-IBR, serial number 43454623, belonging to Jet Line of Chisinau, but apparently operating as Airline Transport, another suspect outfit from Moldova. Unlike Aerocom and Jet Line, Airline Transport doesn't share an office, but it has flown to Iraq.

Reports have it that the aircraft carried "fish" on its way to Croatia, but then Viktor Bout has frequently claimed that his aircraft carry only "fish and flowers", so frequently that it has reached the status of an aviation joke that an aircraft loaded with "fish" probably contains contraband. (Perhaps the smell of fish transported in tropical heat keeps Customs away.)

This continues a bad year for Viktor B. Not only do aircraft keep crashing, one of his closest partners, the Dutch hotelier and intimate of Charles Taylor, Gus van Kouwenhoven, is rumoured to have been arrested on charges of "complicity in crimes against humanity" when he took an ill-advised trip to Holland. Van Kouwenhoven owns or owned the Hotel Africa in Monrovia, where all of the network's aircrew passing through Monrovia stayed, and was a partner in the main logging companies connected to Taylor and Emmanuel Shaw (Royal Timber and the Orient Timber Company). He is also connected to the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry, based in Virginia, which infamously paid large sums of money to Richard Chichakli's San Air General Trading, presumably for services rendered and goods supplied. I haven't been able to trace more than one story on the arrest, though.

Admin Notice/Metablogging: Blog Eruptions

Well, this is the end of the second week of my career. So far, we've had good moments, like interviewing chief executives at Claridges - and less good ones, like proof correcting articles on telephone billing systems. You will no doubt have noticed light blogging, which is hardly surprising given that my previous existence as a student and full-time blogger gave me near-infinite resources of time (and internet access). But on the whole I think I've managed to keep the blog together. However, it does tend to take the form of sudden blogdumps rather than a steady stream of updates. Perhaps you could all read one post a day, thus simulating the original Ranter experience?

Or perhaps you could read Soj instead for daily coverage? It's truly odd how he/she/it/they and I have had so much parallel development - we both independently dug into the Bout thing at the same time and worked for months on it before I became aware of other investigators, Soj has described the aim of the Simian as "a sort of one-person CIA" or daily intelligence briefing, very close to my initial conception of this blog. (I considered the title The Drone, as in reconnaissance drone.) There are a lot of common interests; the former Soviet Union, unconventional warfare, piracy, all kinds of stuff. In fact, a good collaborative-blogging project might be the Blogistan Intelligence Service (perhaps Bloggers' Legwork Operations Group or BLOG for short).

Another issue is that I've recently had a side project on, connected with the Viktor Bout thing - three weeks ago I'd have been delighted and would have had all the time in the world for it, but as it stands I'm having to fit it around work and the continuing blog. By the way, if any readers have more information on Aerocom in particular, please avail yourselves of the comments function.

Those "80" Guerrillas

The Washington Post picks up on gathering doubt about the claims of 80+ guerrillas killed in a fight near Samarra earlier this week. I previously blogged (briefly) on the droll fact that AFP was reporting that some 40 guerrillas were still hanging around the scene of the supposed firefight, and their leader denied any knowledge of a battle. Instead, said the guerrilla, 11 had been killed in an air raid. AFP got this information because they actually sent a reporter to the incident, rather than quoting Green Zone briefers. In the Post's report, there is much of interest.

For a start, the US military spokesman they spoke admitted that the figure 11(ha!) had validity, although the figure might be higher. They also got some details of the actual operations and how the figure of 85 was arrived at. It seems that the crews of a helicopter fire team (2 Apaches and a Kiowa Warrior scout chopper) claimed 80 to 100 kills - aircrew claims of anything are always subject to overclaiming, so this needs to be treated with scepticism to start with. But, when "additional US ground forces" arrived at the scene, there were no 85 corpses actually kicked, bagged and counted. The reference to "additional" is strange: surely, if there were US ground forces there to add to, they would have their own estimate? Or were there no actual troops present? Or perhaps just a Forward Air Controller team, who spotted a bunch of rebels and called in the choppers, whilst getting the hell out? In Vietnam, by the way, FACs got a reputation for wildly overestimated reports of casualties from air action, and also for counting civilian dead in with the enemy. (By the way, I keep telling you to go and read Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie. Are you finally going to do it, you buggers?)

Major Goldenberg suggested that the lack of bodies was because the enemy had carried off their dead, in Vietcong fashion. But if you assume it takes at least one man to carry one, that must mean a force of 160+ guerrillas even assuming 50% fatal casualties, of whom at least 80 are still wandering around the countryside, giving interviews to French reporters as they go. This would seem to me a worrying prospect. Goldenberg, perhaps wisely, put them onto the Interior Ministry for an answer before saying anything stupid.

The rebels, moving on from their PR campaign, have now proceeded to blow up 11 Iraqi Ministry of the Interior Commandos (aren't they getting a lot of ink lately?) just outside Ramadi. Not just that, but they also murdered five women in Baghdad, translators for the coalition, who were machine-gunned on the streets as they returned from work. The FAZ has a good roundup of yesterday and today's mayhem, including as well as the above a serious blue-on-blue incident in Mosul, where the Iraqi police shot it out for 10 minutes with the Iraqi army, who had turned up in civvies and were hence taken for rebels. Presumably this was an undercover operation that went pear-shaped.

There was a mass demonstration by electricity workers in Baghdad, demanding an end to attacks on the infrastructure. Does this represent a real appeal to the insurgents to lay off, chaps, or was it more in the nature of the demonstrations of shipwrecked seamen Winston Churchill organised in 1917-8 to shame striking munitions workers? Or were they marching to demand protection? The Wichita Lineman may still be on the line, but even he would be put off by security conditions for people doing his job in Iraq. Hard to say, because no-one else seems to have reported it at all. On the topic of mass demonstrations, one occurred in Basra demanding that the minister of oil be a Basraite. This is another case of something I occasionally cover - growing southern independence. I hope UK Political Advisers (POLADS) there are not encouraging it, it would not be a good thing although perhaps attractive from a cynical British standpoint.

Stupidity: the wave of the future

So said Homer Simpson. The Home Office sometimes seems to me like some crippled retainer or mangy hound, that the king whistles for and sees it keel over embarrassingly before reaching the throne. "Homeoffice!" "Here, sire.." "Urgh..not again!" This impression is in no way dispelled by reports of a succession of ridiculous acts displaying egregious stupidity that have reached the Ranter recently.

For a start, Spyblog reports that, up in Nottingham, the courts have been releasing persons sentenced to be electronically tagged to addresses where there is no land-line phone. This is crucial, because it seem that the tag is dependent on a landline to function - no GSM/GPRS technology, still less GPS, just a gadget that rings up the Control Room if the tag goes out of range. So, now you know how to circumvent electronic tagging - just ask someone at home to pull the phone out of the BT socket before the hearing. You'll be free, and can use a mobile anyway to organise your continued criminal career.

Don't say you don't learn anything from blogs.

Apparently, a "touring detector van" is meant to pass by the houses involved. But there is an answer, still; in this case, the tagee took the thing off (which should trigger an alarm, but of course didn't because he had the sense not to do it while any white vans were outside). So, the tamper alarm doesn't stay on; it is transient, so having removed the tag he just needed to leave it there in case the van passed by. The lad in question used his regained freedom to participate in a jewel heist which ended in two people being shot dead, but I'm sure none of my readers would be so foolish.

Now, these tags are also used to monitor those alleged International Terrorists subject to Charlie the Safety Elephant's Control Orders. Feel safer? Do you feel that warm sense of security flooding across your neurons? Then try this. The Guardian headlined yesterday with an exclusive interview with one of these men, Mahmoud Abu Rideh gained (wait for it) by the simple means of him walking into 119 Farringdon Road. For our terrorist, it appears, is free to walk the streets; as long as he's back at home by 7pm. (Or until he disconnects the phone.)

Can we stop here to savour the full absurdity of this, please?

This man is such an imminent danger to national security that he was locked up in Belmarsh Prison's maximum security wing for three years without trial, without even being told the charges against him, without even charges being laid, in fact, because he is so dangerous that the information of what he is supposed to have done cannot be given to him for fear he will somehow contrive to commit terrorist acts with it. But - apparently - only at night! By night he schemes to crash jets flaming into the silvery towers of Canary Wharf, to scatter a silent dust of anthrax spores in the corridors of Parliament itself, to riddle the glowing high-end retail spaces of Heathrow Airport with machine gun strikemarks and spilt blood, yes, even to consume all London in the momentary sun of a nuclear explosion. But by day, he is an absolute pussycat, as dangerous as a potato and as remarkable as a commuter, free and weird on the streets!

Under the terms of his Banning Order under the Suppression of Communism...sorry..Control Order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, he is forbidden from meeting anyone not approved by Charles Clarke in advance. Indeed. No meetings! You can see why - blazing kerosene, gas, germs, broken glass, thousands fleeing in terror, all that stuff. But between the hours of 7am and 7pm, he may drop in on anyone in the United Kingdom, you for example or even me (he'd be welcome, I'd like to apologise to him, after all I voted for Tony Blair), and discuss anything he likes.

In order to help him make sense of his situation, it appears that the Home Office has a "helpline" for those subject to Control Orders.After all, we are not beasts. But, wonderfully enough, it is an answerphone. There is also apparently a "voice recognition" device involved: it beggars belief that the government is labouring under the illusion that these are of any worth, but thar ye go. (I think I've mentioned before that my father once encountered a senior Home Office bureaucrat responsible for computerisation, sometime in the early 90s, who told him that Microsoft Windows was a "passing phase" and that the MS-DOS Shell was the thing. I'm convinced that man is now In Charge.) Naturally, someone is making a profit from this, too, as the tagging is carried out by a thing called "Premier Monitoring Services".

And for this gain in security, we had to tear up the principles we cherished since 1215, indeed earlier, all the way back to the first justices of the peace and the principle of being judged by your peers, habeas corpus, things like that. We absolutely had to get this on the statute book - no time to waste, election coming! So yer man can be subject to all the restrictions suitable for International Terrorists (but only out of office hours).

Or perhaps Clarkey is right: maybe he's a part-time terrorist, a weekend warrior, a Territorial Terrorist! It was said by someone, possibly Karl Kraus, that Austria-Hungary was saved from tyranny by incompetence, and looking at this utter absurdity perhaps we can indeed feel a little safer.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Van Creveld, Moshe Dayan, Vietnam, and Iraq

The mighty Martin van Creveld has a sizeable essay in the Boston Review on Iraq by way of Moshe Dayan's stint as a war correspondent in South Vietnam. (I personally didn't know he'd been one, so there you go.) Dayan prepared meticulously for his assignment - being a world-famous hero tends to get you good contacts, and he travelled to Saigon the wrong way round, via France, the UK and the US, in order to call on old friends.

He kicked off in France, visiting a couple of generals he knew (one of whom had just got out of jail for his part in the OAS putsch attempt). One of them, an air force officer, predictably thought the answer was to bomb 'em to their senses. The other (the ex-rebel) argued that the Americans' problem was one of intelligence and reconnaissance - his answer, involving small parties (five to seven men) probing the jungle edge, bears a close similarity to SAS concepts and indeed to their operations in Malaya and Borneo. He warned that otherwise much of the US force deployed would go to waste, blasting jungle futilely as the Viet Cong laughed (quietly...).

From there, our man kicked on to Britain to see another pal. Field Marshal Montgomery, in fact. Now, his strategic judgement was usually excellent - it was just applying it to himself that he found difficult. Monty's critique of the US strategy in Vietnam, as told to Dayan, can hardly be bettered. Firstly, the Americans had no clear objective. Following Clausewitz's logic, not having a clear top-level aim means you cannot have a coherent plan to achieve it, all the way down the levels of analysis to the soldier in the mud. Secondly, in this vacuum of purpose, the field commanders would naturally attempt to control their environment - that is, they would seek battle as they saw fit and demand all the resources they wanted. Without a defining strategy, the war machine would run faster and faster, throwing out more and more conflicting projects and doing more and more damage. Alternatively, if the commanders were refused more resources it would chug on ineffectually.

Monty himself was nothing if not prone to both flaws, of course. Few generals have ever had such an addiction to firepower, or such a conviction that their front was the vital theatre of war. Sometimes Monty was right on these (El Alamein, Normandy in general). Sometimes he was wrong (Operation Charnwood at Caen in particular, Arnhem). He does not seem to have recognised that these flaws applied to him too, but he was still damn right. Another Monty feature was linguistic extremism, and this too was present: he wanted Dayan to tell US leaders, in his name (that his name would carry extra conviction was also characteristic), that they were insane.

Dayan's further experiences were also telling; he went on to meet the Best and the Brightest, hearing Walt Rostow, Maxwell Taylor (yet another second war hero) and Robert S. McNamara. Only Taylor offered anything that could be described as a plan, but could not say how close it was to being fulfilled. He then proceeded to Vietnam, and the war. There he went on to get himself shot at by crashing around the underbrush with the Marines in a company led by the Fleet Marine Force Pacific chief "Brute" Krulak's son and leaping off helicopters with the Air Cav - but still no-one could tell him why.

His conclusion was that the Americans were "not fighting against infiltration to South [Vietnam], or against guerrillas, or against North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, but against the entire world. Their real aim was to show everybody—including Britain, France, and the USSR—their power and determination so as to pass this message: wherever Americans go, they are irresistible." An interesting judgement, surely, and one I'm not sure I agree with.

Now, what exactly is the strategic aim in Iraq? We all know the platitudes: democracy in the Middle East and such. But that isn't a strategic goal in Iraq. That would be one that said what kind of government Iraq will have, what our relations with it will be, and how the war there will terminate. At the moment, the scheme appears to be to build up Iraqi forces, hope the government gains authority, and perhaps one day begin withdrawing troops. But that is not an aim. That is a method, and its illogic becomes clear under close scrutiny. So, Iraqi government forces (and/or loyalist paramilitaries) will gradually relieve US and allied forces of responsibility. But that suggests the war will remain, to be fought by another army. Leaving a war in progress in a highly unstable, perhaps indeed a failed state, in the heart of the Middle East - is this a strategic aim?

And further, is the strategic aim to establish a democratic Iraq and then to leave, or to establish a pro-Western democratic Iraq and stay - and what if the two last adjectives conflict? If the second option is chosen, unless the war is somehow ended, remaining US troops in their "enduring bases" will remain both targets, and actors in the war. That is to say, the aim will remain unachieved.

This week has been one of carnage in Iraq (again). It has been characterised by large (by local standards) infantry engagements, for example the major convoy ambush south of Baghdad and the reported "80 guerrillas killed" action outside Samarra. This has been presented as success, but it also means that the enemy are moving about in large groups. This is not good. Two arguments can be made; either they are easier to catch that way, or they are more formidable that way. Time will tell. Concerning the reports of 80+ guerrillas killed when a "training camp" was raided near Samarra, AFP reports that the figure may be as low as 11; by the radical means of sending a reporter to the scene of the action, AFP was able to ask questions of members of a group of around 40 guerrillas, who claimed the casualties were the victims of air attack.

Official reports attributed the success to the Iraqi "Ministry of the Interior Commandos" (that Soviet phrase again), but even the official line seems confused - initial reports spoke of several guerrillas being killed when a "camp" was discovered by "US forces" and a major fight elsewhere involving the MOICs. This then morphed into one single action with a camp and the MOICs - or are they meant to be in two places at once?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

AS-15: Further Analysis

In the continuing story of the vanishing AS-15/Kh55 cruise missiles, it emerges thanks to the Ukrainian investigation and a commenter to this site that one Oleg Orlov is implicated in the affair of the missing missiles. Orlov is mentioned in a seminal UNSC report by the team around Johan Perelmans on arms trafficking into West Africa as an associate of Viktor Bout. Some reports suggest he is currently in Czech custody. Note, though, that an unrelated man of the same name is the well-known Russian human rights group Memorial's Chechnya spokesman (perhaps an instance of the Bout network's tendency to include supposed "Russian celebrities"?).

The Ukrainian government is now auditing the transfer of nuclear weapons to Russia amid fears that more stuff might be missing. Orlov's role in earlier years seems to have included buying arms in Bulgaria for African delivery - it would not be too wild to suggest that he acts as the upstream contact for the organisation.

In a document in the Ranter's files, taken from the accounts of Air Pass for 1998, there is a small mystery. Among the (gigantic) expense accounts run up by members of "VB's staff" against company funds, there is one for a man named only as "Dr. Oleg", who spent fearsome sums on mobile phone calls (suggesting an important person), and also drew sizeable amounts of money for the needs of several women whose relationship with him was not made clear. Could he be Orlov?

Note that the FT report also contains a brief mention of a statement that the missiles were handed over to the state arms export agency (Ukrspetsexport). This would not be at all surprising, as this organisation was implicated by practically all the UN Expert Panel reports in supplying arms via the Bout airlines. It's been suggested to me by a source that some of their products were used to arm Iraqi "loyalist paramilitaries".

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Anatoly Chubais - politics of electricity

Yesterday, the Unidentified Gunmen attempted to kill Anatoly Chubais, former Russian cabinet minister and head of UES, the Russian electricity monopoly. Apparently there was an explosion by the roadside - funny how these things get around - followed by small arms. Chubais's bodyguards shot it out with the attackers and he survived.

It should never be any surprise that a Russian tycoon has plenty of people who want him dead, but Chubais is worth discussing in some detail. He was responsible, back at the end of the Soviet Union, for preparing a shock-therapy economic plan that foresaw the rapid privatisation of everything, preceded by the overnight termination of price controls. This procedure certainly achieved one of its goals - converting Russia out of communism - at the cost of truly massive social horrors. Over great tracts of Russia, the social and economic structure just vanished - the kolkhoz buses stopped calling, wages were no longer paid. The traffic lights weren't switched off, but it wasn't that far off.

Chubais's answer to who should own Russia's industry became a classic. "Speed is more important than accuracy" was the motto - what mattered was getting something that looked like capitalism at least installed. This meant that some truly evil things could happen without anyone noticing very much who wasn't directly affected. In many firms, the plan was that everyone would get vouchers. They would entitle you to either convert your voucher into shares in your firm, or swap it for shares in another. But if you are an oilfield fitter in some godforsaken Siberian driller camp and your wages aren't being paid, owning a few hundred shares in the refinery is a bit of an abstract concept. The reason why your wages weren't being paid, by the way, is in part because Chubais couldn't at this stage persuade the other CIS states not to let their new central banks issue rouble credits. As they proceeded to inflate like hell, Chubais then had the Russian central bank crank down the money supply to mop up the inflation - which put a liquidity squeeze on industry, but didn't stop the inflation because, after all, you could borrow from the other CIS states.

Now, Chelsea fans may wish to skip this paragraph, cowards that they are. Roman Abramovich got his start in business due to these linked phenomena. Basically, he borrowed a shedload of roubles. He got them because Russian banking was a tad wilder than your local HSBC manager at the time. He then went off to Siberia with his rouble s and travelled around the oil towns offering cash for the vouchers. Needless to say, anyone who had hung on and converted their voucher would have bee far better off - but they were hungry, so they accepted, and very quickly yer man had a controlling stake in what became Sibneft. Now, he of course had to do something about the debts he'd contracted. This is where the inflation played a role: by the time he got back from Siberia, his debts were worth peanuts, as was the cash he'd paid out to the oil drillers. He was now in the perfect position to be in a big inflation - sitting on a real asset, and one whose income stream is paid in hard currency too. So he became insanely rich.

Now, by the mid-90s, everyone was tiring of this kind of scam. It became painfully clear that Chubais was never going to be president, because around 70% of the public hated him in the blood. He settled for the directorship of United Energy Systems, the old Soviet national grid, and being joint kingmaker in the Kremlin. UES, you see, was more than just a really big public utility. Like the other kingmaker - Gazprom - it was also an arm of government power. One way of getting Russia's way in the "near abroad" and also internally was to give the people you like cheap gas and electricity; and if they pissed you off, to turn off the lights. This wasn't new: a crucial factor in holding the Soviet bloc together had always been the subsidised gas and oil the USSR pumped to its allies. (A question for future blogging - what role did the counter-oil shock of 1985 play in the break-up? Suddenly, central Europeans could get cheap fuel elsewhere.)

So - in conclusion, there is an endless queue of folk who have a motive to shoot the bugger and no shortage of means either. There is absolutely no reason to think of him as a "Western-leaning liberal reformer".

Google, Libraries and Jacques Chirac

A little while ago I had some fairly harsh things to say about the French national library's response to Google's project to put major library collections on the internet (Google Print). I basically said that their objections were based on chauvinism, and asked why they were doing nothing constructive in placing their own collections in a state of free availability - surely if you are concerned about not enough French works being online, denying large numbers of them to the web is not the best solution.

Well, it seems there's been some movement..Le Monde reports that President Jacques Chirac has in effect called in M. Jeanneney for a tea-and-no-biscuits briefing on the issue. Suddenly, everyone is mad keen both on a "European partnership" to digitise books and also on developing search technology to go with it. And, into the bargain, cooperating with "other international networks" including the search gnomes of California.

Do I need to remind you that someone at the Elysée reads the Ranter? (see here) You know it makes sense, Monsieur le Président. Or you'll have me on your hands...


Via IT Week's in-house blogger, I learn that Apple are going to introduce a mouse with two buttons. This is good news, I suppose, but I'm not going to jump for joy, because I'm currently experiencing my first extended use of the computer designed for graphic designers by graphic designers.

And it's like rolling in broken glass. I have never encountered a computer as insanely irritating. And that entirely circular mouse deserves to meet the cat. Another thing - Safari. This is a browser that makes IE look impressive - everything is maddeningly slow, and tends to choke on far too many sites. Obviously Firefox will help, but this is not good enough. Frankly, fancy icons that get bigger when you point at them aren't enough to put up with stuff that doesn't work.

Pakistan: why isn't everyone else worried?

Why is it that only Soj and me seem that worried about the events in Pakistan, where it is reported that serious fighting is going on between the Pakistani army and Baluch rebels. Al-Jazeera is reporting that at least eight soldiers were killed (it isn't clear whether that includes casualties suffered by the Frontier Corps too), and that a sizeable force from the Corps was cut off at a place called Sangseela. Apparently, the military had called on attack helicopters in the operation to relieve them.

A tribal leader (a Nawab, dear God - is it possible to write about this without sounding like Rudyard Kipling?), Akwar Bughti, is quoted as saying that "The Pakistan government has started operations against us. They've started and we will see who will finish this game", which is hardly encouraging. Baluchistan, as previously blogged, contains Pakistan's reserves of natural gas and hence has an important role in the economic balance between the various provinces - this is what started the trouble. It's not very good news, and you wonder if anyone else is worrying. They don't seem to be yet.

In other Pakistan news, Le Monde reports that a Shaheen-2 ballistic missile with a range of 2000km was test-fired yesterday. About the only good thing that can be said about that is that the confidence-building arrangements with India, which require prior notification of any missile launch, are functioning.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Ukrainian Govt. Admits KH-55/AS-15 Sale

A little while ago I blogged that an unusual arms deal had been exposed in the Ukraine - the sale of some eighteen Kh-55 (Russian terminology)/AS-15 KENT (Western) strategic cruise missiles to China and Iran by the Kuchma government, back at the time of the 1999 agreement on the handover of strategic air materiel to Russia. The story has been confirmed to the Washington Post, with the relief-inducing remark that the nuclear warheads were not sold with the missiles: artificial sunshine was apparently an optional extra on this model. The Washington Post, it seems, agrees with me that Iran might deploy them or weapons developed from them on their Sukhoi-24 FENCER aircraft. Thanks for that, Post..

There are some names, too. The prosecutor in the case claims a Russian, Oleg Orlov, and a Ukrainian, E.V. Shilenko, were the names on the falsified end-user certificate. Time to go over the files, methinks.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

DSRs, and an Admin Notice

There have been a few Disturbing Search Requests lately: Telephone numbers for cheerleading teachers Beirut-Lebanon brings us up as the third result on Yahoo. One wonders why you'd pass up the chance of belly dancing instead. The music's better, after all, and less common. Really worrying, though, was the chap - it must have been a chap - who searched Yahoo for female suicide bombers that wear swimsuits when they blow themselves up. We don't need that shit here.

But this is really sick: Robert Kilroy-Silk Lives In Sheffield on Google brings up the Ranter as the 4th result.

That done, on to business. You may have noticed light bloggin' recently. There is a reason for this - I now have a job. Not just a job, but one as a Working Journalist. Indeed. I am now a staff writer on Mobile Communications International, the world's longest established publication for the mobile telephone industry. Be not afraid, though. The Ranter will rant on.

Informal empire....

Juan Cole reports that Iraq's southernmost provinces are making concrete steps to declare a confederation similar to that in Kurdistan. This has been on the Ranter before - although there might well be some short-run gains from a cynical British point of view in supporting separatism in the British zone, history does not sound encouraging. From a longer view, we don't want to undermine the unity of Iraq - even though, yes, there is oil in the south, less violence (usually) and access to the sea. The French in the Ruhr after the first world war thought similarly and succeeded in enabling a good deal of Nazi and paramilitary activity.

Modernly, such a zone would be both wildly provocative to both Sunnis and central Iraqi Shia and also geopolitically tempting for Iran to get involved. Not good.

Fun with high-performance jets

It is reported that tension on the airspace boundary between Greece and Turkey has been hotting up, with some 160 violations of the Athens Flight Information Region last month. Last Wednesday, apparently, there were some 33 interceptions of Turkish aircraft by the Greeks. That's a lot of that curious Cold War modern jousting, last-minute QRA dashes to scramble for a fake confrontation.

Why the Turks (if this is not a Greek-biased story) would crank up this pressure is unclear - the report connects it with their application to join the EU, but that makes no sense at all.

The Aegean sky was, back in the last really serious crisis in 1996, the scene of a rare incident. An F-16 was shot down in air-to-air combat - not something that the Fighting Falcon's manufacturers like to accept. It's fortunately rare that the ultra-latest western types come into conflict, but back then a two-seat variant of the F-16 engaged in action. The combat began with a pair each of Turkish F-16s and Greek Mirage 2000s, but during the high-G manoeuvring the pairs split up. The Greek Mirage 2K got inside its opponent's turn, closed in and launched a French Magic missile - a hit. The F-16 was destroyed. The crew survived, though - which very possibly annoyed the Turkish government more than anything else, for one of them was an Israeli officer attached to the Turkish air force.

That might have been covered up, if he hadn't been taken to a hospital in the middle of Istanbul to recover - from where he vanished...

More on Maskhadov's end

A Step at a Time follows up on the many stories about the death of Chechen rebel president Aslan Maskhadov. Specifically, he quotes a Russian Newsweek report that in fact, Maskhadov may have died much earlier without Russian assistance - his body, in this version, was sold to the Russians after death. On the day, I blogged a German report that Ramsan Kadyrov, the Russian appointed boss of Chechnya, had said that Maskhadov had been killed by a negligent discharge of a weapon during negotiations. According to the Independent, Kadyrov later took this back and said it was a joke. Funny ha ha! Another version given by suggests Kadyrov's private army gave the job to the Russian army in fear of the vendetta that would follow Maskhadov's death.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

IoS: SAS Squadron operating in Yemen

The Independent on Sunday reports that a Squadron of SAS has been stationed in Yemen since last summer:
"No British special forces are believed to have been involved in the search for al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan since before the Iraq invasion. But The Independent on Sunday has learnt that since last summer a squadron of the SAS has been stationed in Yemen, Bin Laden's birthplace. They are working alongside local security forces against al-Qa'ida, which draws support and numerous recruits from Yemen.

The 50 SAS soldiers, about a quarter of the regiment's strength, are believed to have been involved in firefights with terrorists in Yemen, although no British soldiers are thought to have been injured or killed in the operation. The regiment has long experience in Yemen, where it fought against guerrillas in the 1960s. It was also deployed there in a search for Bin Laden in late 2002.

A source close to the SAS said: "Just think how much demand there is on the regiment at the moment, especially for Arabic speakers in Iraq and elsewhere. That gives you an idea of how important Yemen must have become in the hunt for Bin Laden."
This is very interesting if true, especially if you remember this post regarding the continuing flights by Viktor Bout's Irbis Ar Co. to Riyan Mukalla in the Yemen. If you recall, there's a huge (Heathrow-sized) runway and not much else there, except for three Irbis Il-18 flights a day from Sharjah. What on earth is going on there?

Who the hell do I vote for now?

Well, after all the ping pong and parliamentary theatrics, it's over. The Prevention of Terrorism Bill became law, without the amendments, with all the evil bits intact. Yes, so there will be a "review" in a year's time. There will be a new Bill. Parliament would be able to repeal it. But these are not concessions. Parliament can repeal any act - including this one, right now. This "concession" is not a concession at all. It should also be obvious enough that, whatever happens in the intervening 12 months, the new bill will be worse still. The control bureaucracy, having got what it wanted, will always demand more powers. And once given, they are always used. You, or I, or any of us, can now be placed under house arrest, denied telecommunications, and forbidden from meeting anyone without the permission of Charles Clarke, on Clarky's "reasonable suspicion". We will not be told why. Although we will be able (after seven days) to challenge this in court, we will not be told the charges or the evidence against us.

How this differs from the good old apartheid practice of the Banning Order is not clear. What is worse, no-one seems to be willing to do anything. Yeah, yeah, thirty-one hours, peers kipping in corridors, blah. But when it was put to the ultimate test, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats caved in. They accepted the "review" flabble, and let go crucial, vital questions like the standard of proof. Why? It was bad enough that at the best possible time to kill this monstrous legislation, in the Commons, with unimpeachable democratic legitimacy, we failed because we couldn't be bothered to turn up. It was worse that, after all the kiddy games with late night debates, we caved. According to the Guardian, Charles Kennedy accepted the "review" and the Tories folded because they were "exposed". According to Richard Allan, the Tories caved and left the Liberals out. After all the peacetime bullshit, the so-called real opposition couldn't hack it. Standing up to the politics of fear? Defending civil liberties? Insufficient, Mr. Kennedy.

Not, though, that the Conservatives came out of it that well. There was nothing to stop them clinging on to their eternal majority in the Lords. Michael Howard must answer the question as to why he and his party were willing to die in the ditch about a pissant squabble like fox-hunting, to knock back successive bills, to go all the way to the Parliament Act, to force a 24-hour sitting on the Disqualifications Bill in defence of the rights of the perjurer Jeffrey Archer to continue his political career, but got cold feet over the introduction of unrestricted detention without trial on the basis of secret denunciation. Is there not a problem of priorities here?

Meanwhile in reality, the men released from Belmarsh Prison are beginning their new-style modernised public-private internment partnership in a variety of cheerless lodgings (at one, the police had to break a window to let the chap in before boarding it up) and in one case, a psychiatric ward. It remains unclear how they will eat, as they may not leave, cannot work, and presumably cannot sign on for state benefits. (Unless, of course, starvation as punishment is part of The Project of a Progressive Century.) I await the first source close to Downing Street to give Rebekah Wade the list of addresses, through the usual channels - I reckon about a week before the election. I shudder at the thought that no serious political party was willing, in the final analysis, to oppose this dread Bill. I am faced with the prospect of resigning from the Lib Dems before ever managing to attend my party branch meeting.

But at least we're safe from the appalling prospect that the chap with no arms will race up the aisle of a 747 in his wheelchair, bash down the cockpit door (with no arms), overpower the crew (did I mention he's not got arms?) and crash the jet on Westminster with his toes.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Another Bout of Madness

Doug Farah breaks a crucial Viktor Bout story: Aerocom, the Boutco whose AOC was revoked by Moldova for cocaine-running, is flying personnel from Aegis Defence Systems, British mercenary Tim Spicer's company, about the Middle East on US government business. The former boss of Sandline International is also, it seems, connected with Bout's partner Sanjivan Ruprah through his partner in Executive Outcomes, Anthony Buckingham. Tim, of course, was also associated with the "Mark Thatcher" coup plot in Equatorial Guinea.

Let's let that sink in....not only are they still using Viktor's services, but they are using an airline that had an aircraft seized by the DEA with a load of blow last year, whose reputation is so filthy they were thrown out of Moldova. Just what is wrong with these people? Interestingly, Aerocom's historic fleet includes aircraft that were both acquired from Jetline International (operators of Richard Chichakli's private BAC111 3C-QRF) and also ones they transferred to Jetline. Not only that, but they also used aircraft belonging to Jet Line International - another Moldovan Boutco. This may be an emerging answer to the question of whether the "Jetline" in Iraq was Jet Line or Jetline (if you see what I mean) and hence whether a link between Chichakli and the Iraq contracts exists.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

How not to improve your image

Killers: We're so sorry. Is there anything we can do to make it up to you, like...kill more people?

FAZ on the death of Maskhadov

The FAZ reports in detail on the death of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov at the hands either of spetsnaz commandos or perhaps his bodyguard, depending on who you read.

Interestingly, the mighty if perhaps not terribly exciting German broadsheet reports, quoting sources in the pro-Russian boss of Chechnya's staff, that Maskhadov's death might not have been all the FSB cracks it up to be.
"Man habe ihn lebend fassen wollen, doch sei er durch den „unachtsamen Umgang mit Waffen” getötet worden, sagte der stellvertretende tschetschenische Regierungschef Ramsan Kadyrow am Dienstag nach Angaben der Agentur Interfax. Man habe gehofft, daß Maschadow sich ergeben würde, und habe ihm eine ranghohe Stellung innerhalb des tschetschenischen Sicherheitsapparats anbieten wollen."
For non-German speakers, the deputy boss of Chechnya Ramsan Kadyrov says that they hoped Maskhadov would come quietly and intended to offer him a senior position in the (pro-Russian) security apparatus. Unfortunately, he was killed through "careless handling of weapons". Now, that could either be a cover for his blatant execution, or the truth - what the British army calls a negligent discharge, for which soldiers are traditionally fined a day's pay. I doubt there's a standard procedure for the case where your ND hits the state's most wanted man.

In an effort to dispel doubt, the FSB published photos of Maskhadov's corpse, one of which Neeka posted. (Thanks, Neeka - I wasn't expecting it and I nearly puked on my keyboard.)

Many voices have suggested that Russian efforts to discredit and now to kill Maskhadov, who was elected president in an OSCE-observed election in 1997, would strenghten the position of hardliners and international Islamists in Chechnya. Well, statements on their websites suggest precisely that has happened, feh.

Shocking and disappointing

The city council in my beloved Bradford has been caught spying on its own citizens. Jason Teasdale of the Telegraph & Argus (in the roof of whose offices I did work experience with the Rugby League Express) reports:
" Bradford Council has been branded a "Big Brother" authority for allowing more and more of its CCTV cameras to be used in so-called "covert" police and customs investigations. Figures obtained by the Telegraph & Argus under the Freedom of Information Act [good work, T&A!] show Council officers approved more secret surveillance operations in the last year than they did in the previous four years combined.

Just 13 incidents of undercover filming were approved between 2000 and 2004, but there were 17 last year. Fifteen requests came from the police and two from Customs and Excise. The former chairman of Bradford Council's community safety sub-committee, which oversaw the network's installation in 1990, is outraged and has called for discussion on the issue.

Councillor John Ruding (Lab, Tong) said the system was never meant to be used in this way: "We are beginning to be `Big Brother' to the community of this district and we were never elected to be that," he said. "We are not MI5 or the police; they have cameras of their own." Coun Ruding said it was unacceptable that an officer can make covert use of the Council's CCTV without any elected member being involved.
The key here is that the council-run camera system is being used for what is described as "directed surveillance" - that is, monitoring of specific persons or premises as opposed to simply watching and waiting for crimes to be committed. As Councillor Ruding points out, the police have their own mobile equipment, and anyway are the only authority (with Customs, Immigration, MI5 etc) allowed to carry out directed surveillance. Further, the council system is funded by Bradford taxpayers - the cash wasn't, as it happened, voted for following people around, and there's no suggestion that They are paying Bradford Council for the use of their cameras.

The distinction between "directed" and any other kind of surveillance may sound like sophistry, but it is crucial. We are a free society. That means that we should not follow citizens around as a matter of course; if we must, we only do so in order to prosecute specific criminals for specific criminal acts. If surveillance can only be carried out with equipment placed for the purpose, then it is far more likely to be removed when the case is closed. If wide-area CCTV systems are re-purposed for this, though, there is no way for the ordinary citizen to know that it will ever stop. Hence the importance.

Horror in Iraq (again)

"Five soldiers were killed overnight in Iskandariya when a coffin attached to a car's rooftop exploded near their checkpoint, the Iraqi army said."

Via Juan Cole. Note that, adding them up, the current daily deathrate seems to be about 30 assorted people.


I am the third highest Yahoo! result for yorkshire wank groups. What have I done to deserve this?

Dave of Backword has had a whole clutch, though, including the unbeatable are commoners good in the government or bad?, strangely enough a search carried out through Swiss Google. He ought to check the IP address, there's always the chance it's Prince Charles.

A Very Independent Financial Advisor

Some time ago, I ran this post regarding dubious Afghan airline KAM-Air. Since then, of course, KAM has made itself notorious in another way by flying a Boeing 737 full of passengers into a mountain. Back on the 16th of January, I mentioned that Kam's fleet included aircraft from Phoenix Aviation in Kyrgyzstan, the 727 formerly operated by Chris Barrett-Jolley, and a 727 leased from something called "Financial Advisory Group" of Sharjah and formerly Miami. However there has been no such company in Florida since 1989. After correspondence with a reader, I have learnt more about this otherwise mysterious outfit.

FAG were the owners of another 727, like 3D-JOY (21090) in Afghanistan an ex-American Airlines beast, that crashed in Cotonou, Benin with substantial loss of life on Christmas Day 2003. That aircraft, 3X-GDO serial no. 21370, was operated at the time by a Guinean firm called UTA. UTA, though, were leasing the plane first from a Swazi firm called "Alpha Omega Airways" and then from Financial Advisory Group directly. FAG apparently bought the plane from an intermediary, Pegasus Aviation, who bought it from AA in late 2001 and first tried to sell it to Ariana Afghan Airlines. Somehow this deal fell through (although the modifications to comply with two Airworthiness Directives were carried out in Afghanistan, so it must have gone there), and FAG bought the jet. First it was registered 3D-FAK in Swaziland (a frequent locale for Viktor Bout's activities) and leased to UTA, before being registered in Guinea as 3X-GDO. At UTA it replaced the immediate sister of 3D-JOY; serial no. 21089.

During a ramp check in Beirut, it was discovered that the aircraft's operating documentation was split among all these firms; the insurance policy applied to a different plane, the tech log was from Ariana, the MEL (the list of the minimum equipment required for safe operation) was the American Airlines one, later replaced by a Swazi one that hadn't been approved by the Swazi authorities. These institutional flaws complemented a long list of physical ones. None of this should be surprising; UTA's chief pilot wasn't qualified on the B727 and neither was anyone else there. The tech manager was trained on the Lockheed Tristar and DC8, and the strong impression is given that literally no management structure for 727 operations existed. When the plane failed to achieve take-off, killing dozens of people, the state of Benin asked the French government to carry out a full accident investigation.

It was the French investigation that lifted the lid on these bizarre dealings, including two further key facts. Firstly, they traced the Financial Advisors to the Virgin Islands, a tax paradise where (incidentally) a number of Jetline International planes are registered. (Unfortunately the report does not specify the British or US Virgin Islands.) Secondly, they discovered that 3X-GDO had somehow acquired two of the engines belonging to serial no. 21089, the former N862AA. This aircraft is believed to have passed through Afghan hands too (attracting the registration YA-FAL) before its stint with UTA. From there it ended up in store in Libya. Bizarrely, though, its UTA registration (Guinean) 3X-GDM was transferred to an Antonov 12 belonging to a completely different airline on another continent. Something called "President Airlines" of Cambodia - I kid you not - has it. The most recent photo of it I can find puts it in Phnom Penh on the 27th July.

It will surprise no-one that, despite its official Cambodian nature, their planes show up regularly in the UAE, in particular in Sharjah. Which is also where FAG's phone number is; the UAE Online Yellow Pages puts them under "Air Charter", next to Jet Line and Jetline. (It's 06 557 0700, for full disclosure.) Its location is in the Sharjah Airport Free Zone - just like BGIA, Air Bas, and so many others. It also seems that one Imad Saba of FAG is also associated with East/West Cargo - a Boutco that has operated into West Africa and Iraq and recently lost an Ilyushin 76 in Sudan. He is supposedly a Palestinian with US citizenship. There is also a PFLP activist of the same name, but I suspect they are not the same man.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Rapid Update: Hercules

The RAF Board of Inquiry has completed its interim report on the RAF C-130K loss in Iraq, a previous subject of Ranter coverage. So far all we have to go on is the content of a statement to Parliament by Geoff Hoon, which is here. The meat is as follows:
"Based on the evidence currently available, the BOI has ruled out a number of possibilities. These are bird strike, lightning strike, mid-air collision, controlled flight into the ground,[none of which were realistic] wire/obstacle strike, restriction in the aircraft’s flying controls,[not really either] cargo explosion, engine fire, sabotage (including the use of an improvised explosive device)[very interesting] and aircraft fatigue."
So - a fatigue failure was utterly ruled out? Most interesting. That list doesn't really leave any other possibility but hostile action - I wonder if the SA-4 is a runner again? In a way, this is both good and bad news - the C130K fleet isn't about to fall apart in flight, but it also suggests the Iraqi insurgents have developed a more serious threat to aircraft than before.

Zack Exley, Triangulation and a Blog Row

Various British blogs, especially around Tim Ireland's Bloggerheads, are getting terribly het up about the news that Zack Exley, an internet activist from, has come over to the UK to work on the Labour campaign team. Tim has got to the point of crossing Atrios and the Washington Monthly off his blogroll because they haven't immediately pelted Exley with pigshit, or something. Frankly, I can't see the point.

Yeah, it's too bad he's going to work for Tony Blair. But I'm not sure Atrios or Kevin Drum is actually responsible for that. And I'm also not sure it's as obvious to US Democrats that Blair is a shitbag as it is here. A lot of the left half of the US blogosphere still see New Labour as an example of effective centre-left politics and policy, which should not be surprising given the relative degree of success the two parties have had since 1996. I strongly suspect they haven't really read into Blair's policy very deeply and are under the impression that things must be better because the right party is in charge. Hence, it's a very big leap to suddenly decide that one of their compadres ought to be drowned like a kitten in a sack, or something.

Further, is there any need for a civil war on the Left of the anglophone blogosphere? Haven't we got better things to discuss? If our Number 1 priority is to flame our ideological allies for not being nasty enough to their own, then Nosemonkey will have been damn right when he wrote "UK Blogging - a pointless waste of time?". Can we officially kill this before it gets traction, please?

On the more serious topic of why Democrats still like Tony Blair, I recommend the following post from Talking Points Memo. Josh has this to say about the nature of current politics (edited for brevity)
"But I too think Clintonism is best left in the 1990s. And that's not because I've changed my view of his presidency or his policies. I simply think we were are operating in a profoundly different political moment and that the strategies and tactics that really did make sense then do not make sense now. The key point for me is that the difference is really not at heart an ideological one. And thus, to me, Klein's reference to a 'reactionary left' I think mistakes the point Krugman was making.

I want to leave the longer discussion of this issue to another post. But just to briefly describe what I'm getting at. First, we are now involved in political contests that cut to the very heart of the kind of polity we live in. Many are simply not compromisable. And I don't mean that merely or mainly in the sense that they involve points of principle that can't be compromised. I mean many are literally uncompromisable. They involve basic decisions over which way our society will go. Decisions must be made. When the boat is leaving the dock, at one point you've got to decide: stay on the dock or hop on the boat. It can't be compromised. There has to be a choice."
Exactly. This is exactly what I've been saying for some time - triangulation, the religion of New Labour and the New Dems, is dead. Polarisation is the reality of our times, and the triangulators who are still in power are becoming increasingly incoherent as they struggle to cover increasingly divergent positions. (Look at Blair trying to hammer through control orders and ID cards with one hand and fabbling about childcare with the other.) Just after the US election, I posted here that:
"The reason is that appealing to a centrist majority only works if the majority really is centrist. Look at the election map - doesn't look terribly amenable to compromise, does it? Look at the figures - the focus on so-called "values". These are things people consider to be of identity importance. Principles. You can't be a moderate neo-conservative, and if there's one thing the Republicans showed this time out it's that they understand and embrace and enjoy the era of polarisation we are living in"
I also covered this back here - pity about the title!. Well, it's good that it's soaking through.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Bibliothéque Nationale and Google Print

The director of the French national library, Jean-Noel Jeanneney, is not, it seems, happy about Google's project to put the collections of major libraries online in full text. Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, the Public Library of New York, and the Bodleian have signed up. It's certainly an inspiring aim - to make everything in the great libraries available, free of charge, to anyone with internet access. But M. Jeanneney is not going to play.

His beef is apparently that he thinks that it will mean "Anglo-Saxon domination". But what, in terms of search engine design, would that actually mean? Presumably he does not really believe that, if you were to search for a quote from La Rochefoucauld, you'd be confidently directed to Philip Roth. That would be absurd and make a mockery of the entire project (as well as rendering all other results from it unreliable). Of course, it's not put in such terms. He relativises at length about the "miroir américaine" and the "sensibilité européenne".

Blah. What does it mean?

The proposal is that the texts would available to all, searchable by keyword - it would be very difficult to conceive of a usable search system that selected results by nationality without the user's knowledge in this context. A search engine, at bottom, matches the input text (which, being digital, is language-neutral) with the content of its index and measures the relevance of the result according to some rule. Although the exact algorithms are trade secrets, it is well known that Google's Pagerank system works by treating links from other sites as votes for the quality of a page. The more people refer to you, the logic runs, the more reliable you must be. This concept should not be utterly foreign to M. Jeanneney, as it has a long tradition in academia around the world (they are called citations). Given at least that all the books are catalogued with metadata in the same format, there should be no problem. Cross-linguistic search is difficult, but the metas could be given in multiple languages. Cataloguing citations of scientific papers (a serious worry for Jeanneney) would help to bridge the language gap, and anyway, one can always put search terms in another language.

As a thought experiment, then, imagine the result of uploading a mass of French texts into such a system. It should be obvious, if Jeanneney is right and there is some mystical Weltanschauung that would prevent French and American scholars from reading each others' work, the links between the Francophone writings would buoy them up the ranks. With the various texts together on one page, it is to be expected that the distinction would melt away over time. If he is wrong, of course, there is no problem anyway.

What would achieve the goal of keeping French writings from the eyes of users? Exactly M. Jeanneney's policy. If he does not participate, then quite obviously the only French texts in the system will be whichever ones belong to the Oxford or Harvard holdings; and surely they certainly will have been filtered through his "régard Anglo-saxonne"? What on earth is wrong with the man? One has to ask if he has ever used the internet (PS: it's like Minitel, but good). Perhaps the strangest part of the whole rant arrives when he gives the conditions on which he would agree to participate. (You can read the interview here) Apparently, he would be happy to participate in the event that a European search engine of comparable power existed. Let us run by that one again; he will only open the archives when and if a European Google appears. Is there any sign of such a development? I haven't seen it. Surely he does not think it would be a good idea to have the world's libraries divided by trading block? Or would he then set out to re-digitise all the books available on Google Print - neatly doubling at least the total cost?

M. Jeanneney goes on at more length about the European social model (does he think that Google ranks pages by Republican donation? What does it mean, in concrete practical terms?), but why does he want to refuse the BNF's treasures to researchers in the Third World for whom the cost of travelling to Paris might not be as trivial as travelling to them no doubt is for him? If he is concerned about the welfare of the Francophonie, surely this should be uppermost in his mind? But no; it seems his cross-hairs are poised over his toes with laser precision.

One point I would take issue with Google's project about is its relations with other universal library schemes. Project Gutenberg, if anyone but geeks like me remembers, have been hammering the world's great books into computers since the Web was born, without hope for gain. But our man would probably reject them on nationalistic grounds, as they are located in San Francisco. The new Public Library of Science, which aims to publish current scientific research for the free access of any interested person, would seem to be much more worrying in terms of scientific publishing. But M. le Directeur does not seem to have heard of it. How will Google's scheme connect up with these? It would seem a terrible waste to catalogue reams of journals twice, and locking them into many small and mutually incompatible sites would render the whole thing pointless. There's a need to sort out interoperability, and also to avoid trampling the volunteer-led schemes like Gutenberg.

Finally, we come to the increasingly hackneyed point of search governance. Clearly it's stupid to lock books up in national ghettos. Even more stupid would be building several mutually interfering internet libraries. Perhaps the best solution would be for the texts to be published in an agreed format by the libraries themselves on their websites: that way, full-text search would be open to all comers in the search engine business. In order not to prejudice existing contracts, Google could keep the copies on their own servers - perhaps they would get a slightly quicker result - but the principle of not permitting offprinting or republishing (in order not to piss off the publishers) could be maintained. The goal would be to make the libraries and the PLOS available to anyone with an internet connection.

Why doesn't the Bibliothéque Nationale propose something along those lines and do something constructive?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Some Ugly Numbers

Not so long ago, a comment drew my attention to the heavy losses of officers the US Army and Marines were suffering in Iraq. I've been putting off a full blog post on this for a while, because it involves maths and ghoulishness, but after I saw this at the Washington Monthly:
"The Army is currently having to eat its seed corn to maintain the rotations. The Army Times reported that 44 students were removed from the Command and General Staff Officers Course to bring the 4th ID up to strength in majors before its redeployment to Iraq. Other individual and unit training is being either canceled or shortened to maintain the rotations.

This week's Time reports that there is a major shortfall in the number of sergeants (E-5s or three stripers for you civilians) and so all E-4s will be considered eligible for promotion to sergeant rather than having their individual qualifications examined."
I thought I'd better get on with it. Now, the figures we need are obviously the breakdown of casualties by rank, with if possible some longitudinal series so we can look for a trend. (You can get the stats here).

Now, the official categorisation (as here - note the figures are not entirely comparable because they exclude losses before the 1st of May 2003 and are current at the 26th of February) in the US forces breaks down into three groups: officers, grades E5-E9 and grades E1-E4. Doing the sums, 57.6% of the dead were in the lowest band, 32.5% in the E5-E9 (sergeant) band, and 11.0% were officers. The figures for the wounded (for this we have to use the not fully comparable figures here) are as follows: officers made up 6.39% of the wounded, senior NCOs 31.78% and junior ranks 61.83%.

What does this mean? Was my commenter right when he compared this to the British army at the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917? For this we need to know what percentage of the forces each group make up, as well as some historic data for comparison. One point is already clear; the rank and file are more likely to become casualties and survive. Their leaders are more likely to die. (Note, this is not an stats error - when I did a draft calculation using the less-current figures only, a similar relationship was evident.) This is shown more strongly with regard to officers, but is still present for the E5-E9 band.

The officer corps is roughly 15% of the total force. Totalling up the (slightly late) figures, we get a figure for officers of 7.6% of the total casualties; so, a marked underrepresentation. However, this takes no account of the sizeable number of staff officers in various large headquarters in Baghdad who are not really exposed. No officer above lieutenant colonel has been killed (although six of that rank have been), so the real base of comparison would be the percentage of officers up to that rank. Leaving out 4,539 Army and Marine officers of colonel's rank and above gives us a figure of 14.0%, but this includes all units and organisations anywhere in the world. The second, senior-NCO band, are some 31.7% of total casualties, but make up only some 24% of the force worldwide - a marked overrepresentation. Plugging the figures back in, 38% of the force (assuming the MNF Iraq has a similar demographic to the US Army and Marine Corps worldwide) accounted for 42% of the dead.

For comparison, officers made up 12.1% of the US dead in Vietnam. It has been widely remarked on that Western armies have tended to suffer fewer deaths as a proportion of total casualties over the last century, a consequence of better medical treatement - which would suggest a similar or higher implied danger in Iraq. Another complicating factor is whether or not psychiatric cases are included in the casualty figures.

What's the point of all this? Well, it is not as bad as we may have thought; but it's still not good, and the death rate for the army's leadership core is significantly higher than that for the majority of its members. This is much more marked for the crucial layer of senior NCOs.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Suburban Collaborators?

Nick Barlow has been doing an excellent job digging into the various God-bothering groups involved in the Jerry Springer - The Opera protest and the utterly disgusting campaign against the Maggie's cancer centre for accepting a donation from the Springer production. He connects the interlocking front groups to a right-wing Catholic organisation called "Tradition, Family, Property", apparently based in Brazil. Now, that motto might strike you as more than a little authoritarian - fascist, even. Several commenters at Nick's felt that way, especially Phil Hunt (of Cabalamat fame) who opined that it seemed Franquist to him.

What no-one there seems to have noticed is that it's very similar to the motto of Pètain's Etat Français. That was as follows - Travail, Famille, Patrie. Did you see what he did there? The choice of words is different - the French one translates as Labour, Family, Patriotism - but it's certainly striking that they hit on exactly the same acronym. Horribly, TFP uses the old Carlist battle cry from the Spanish civil war, Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King! Well, at least it's not Muerta la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte!) There is of course a website, here. It's pretty horrible, although they do have an article with the cheering headline Wither Bush? Well, we can but hope. God, famously, is in the detail, and I'm going to consider that little typo a sign.

They also find it necessary to asterisk-out the word "vagina": "v*****". Is this not deeply sick and twisted? That's like asterisking "leg" or "pancreas". Bizarrely, I've yet to spot any incidences of "p****", "p******" or even "c***" or "d***", although their site is nothing if not compendious.

If you want a laugh, I recommend this enlightening text by their founder on Elvis Presley.
"And this contagious drunkenness, which spreads like a new St. Vitus's dance to millions of person, is much more dangerous than that of alcohol because it indicates a fundamental disorder in the soul which does not pass away like the effects of wine. Such rock and roll singers by putting millions in delirium have helped to make the light of reason wane in the general public and have stimulated the growth of hippyism which passes easily into nudism, arbitrary terror and Satanism.

Below the photograph of this lamentable manifestation of the interior indiscipline of so many youths of our day, the German Catholic students who participated in the Katholikentag of 1954 present a shining contrast, as shown in the photo at the lower left, and are for us a fine standard and beautiful example of youth....[snip]....The frame has a bearing from which every kind of softness is excluded and which makes us see in these young men not only future intellectuals but also men disposed for action and combat.

The traditional attire of these German students corresponds completely to this concept of youth. On one hand, their clothing is multicolored, cheerful, varied and practical as is suitable for young men. On the other hand, it has the distinction proper to students who know to respect themselves and the things of the spirit to which they dedicate themselves. The sword medievally reminiscent of the heroic combat, adds a note of militant idealism, and simultaneously perpetuates the tradition of fencing, the intellectual sport par excellence since it is admirably apt in forming attention, astuteness, initiative, and panache at the same time that it puts the whole body into action. In this picture, everything makes one think of the great truth enunciated by Claudel: "Youth was not made for pleasure, but for heroism.""
If that isn't the discourse of fascism, then I'm a Tory. There's an illustration of those glorious lads, too..

Dunno why the filename is "soldiers.gif" though - a Freudian slip, perhaps. Now, on to business. This lot were founded in 1960 in Brazil. That would have been immediately before the military dictatorship. I wonder what role they played? The Brazilian mother-house's site, here, offers some pointers. Although I don't read Portuguese, it seems that he was responsible in 1959 for having several bishops pronounce that no Catholic could accept land from a land-reform scheme of the time. One hopes for the sake of our man's soul that none of them starved as a result. He also seems to have had a deal of trouble with François Mitterand over his ideas of self-management - now, it's fair to take issue with the old fellow and I personally think he was a crook, but a tool of the Devil? Looking at the French site, they also have an unpleasant tendency to rhetoricising about germs and infections and epidemics.

Interesting, and rather worrying too (Fun with Electronic Warfare)

Via Wampum, this article regarding an unusual application of WiFi networking - setting off claymores! The US Army in Iraq is apparently using the well-loved 802.11 standard that makes grand people's laptops connect to the net in airports to control command-detonated mines used for perimeter defence. Great. The weapon concerned is not technically a land mine in the legal sense, as it's fired on command rather than being hidden for the unwary to tread on. Hence it's still permitted. They are often used either (as here) to cover vulnerable parts of a defensive position, or aggressively to lay an ambush (like the Iraqi insurgents do with their roadside bombs).

The traditional sort, though, are fired by a squaddy hiding in a ditch pulling a string (sometimes literally), which limits where they can be placed. Using a radio link means they can be placed pretty much anywhere, although the limiting factor is that the controller must be able to see the proposed kill-zone. Like any radio device, it means squawking out a signal into the world. And this is where the problems start. The fact they are using good old Wifi for this means, of course, that anyone with savvy and suitable gear can pick up the signal; and, of course, if you can identify it you can jam it, interfere with it, direction-find it or even transmit it yourself. Given a Wi-Fi laptop, then, the mines could be swept by remote control without danger to the sweeper by spoofing the signal - a dramatic version of the "evil twin" wifi exploit in which an identical access point is set up near another in order to hack computers connected to it.

The stated advantages of this would then be turned on their heads; the spoofer could trigger any combination of them, presumably waiting for the best moment. Yet another one to file under Really Bad Ideas.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Moldova; worth reading

Mark Ames of the Exile has an excellent report from the Moldovan election campaign. Read it, it's good and terrible.

Privatised Interrogators in Corruption Scandal

Why am I not in the least surprised by this? Titan, Inc., one of the companies involved in supplying privately-employed interrogators at Abu Ghraibh, has been caught paying out huge bribes to the president of Benin in order to get contracts. They shelled out two wedges of a million bucks each for him, and tossed in a pair of earrings for his wife. Seriously. You wonder how much more they'd have needed to pay for the whole country. Not that I'd want Benin, personally, but owning your own sovereign state brings with it all kinds of opportunities; you get an aircraft registry, a shipping registry, a corporate registry and a top level domain for FREE, just to start with. There's always a demand for this stuff - impunity services, you might say. And you can write your own banking code. Then there's the central bank; it takes some more investment, but once it's up and running you can pull all sorts of scams like paying your bills in hyperinflated shinplasters while booking your revenues in hard currency. You can even issue your own end-user certificates for weapons shipments - there's a real profit opportunity that any state, however flyblown, can seize - and passports, even diplomatic ones. Sometimes I wonder if these people really have What It Takes to Succeed - no real ambition or creativity. Or they'd have done it.

Because they failed to take such steps, they got caught and fined $28 million. Ha. But, to the best of my knowledge, nobody at Titan has ever been punished in any way over the fact that one of their employees, John Israel, raped a little boy in Iraq and could not be prosecuted because as a private contractor, he was excluded from Iraqi justice at the time. US courts martial had no jurisdiction over him because he was a civilian, and neither did the ordinary courts, as it happened outside their territorial jurisdiction. He got away scot-free - no, my mistake - he got away with only an official reprimand on his file. He got a bad job reference - that's it! Well, nobody seems to have done anything about his employers, either. A short, easily overlooked, point in the Washington Post story on the corruption is worth remembering:
"The company said it told its largest customer, the U.S. Navy, about the plea agreement and has been negotiating a separate administrative agreement that will allow it to continue to receive contracts."
You'd think they would at least stop giving them more taxpayers' money, but then, Viktor Bout's planes are still flying to Baghdad from Sharjah and Dubai, every day.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Curious search requests

Steam locomotive explosion, Ukraine....east/west cargo airline cia....and the best of the lot, nick the chicken bulgarian gangster.

Des Browne: Slimeball

Immigration Minister Des Browne has just been on BBC Radio 5! As we haven't had any ID knocking copy for a while, I think some of his points deserve scrutiny. For a start, can anyone take his answer to a caller complaining about the cost of the scheme seriously?

Mr. Browne felt moved to reply to the man, who referred to his own experience of World War 2-era national registration, in the following terms. "It (the 1939 scheme) wasn't actually free; everyone had to pay for it, in their taxes - I mean..they...they had to pay for it indirectly. We're going to be much more honest about this" So, does this mean, then, that the government is going to offset the £85 new poll tax against your income tax? After all, if it's no less free than the original scheme paid for out of general taxation, surely no tax funds should go into it? I wonder if Browne would agree, by extension, that the NHS is not "free at the point of us" because we pay for it out of our taxes, or that education is not provided free for the same reason? Or would he defend a proposal to privatise the police on the grounds that, no, policing is not free to the citizen because we pay for them in our taxes, and hence paying for policing would not be any more money?

This is one of the slimiest exercises in sophistry I've heard for a long time, and that's saying something. But at least he 'fessed up to the bill actually being £85.

It didn't get much better. On the question of why ID cards did not prevent the Madrid bombing, he replied that he had visited Spain and had been told by the Spanish government that (in some convoluted way I didn't quite follow) they did help fight domestic and international terrorism "because they know who they're looking for". EH? If you "know who you're looking for" your problem is already solved - you don't need ID cards to lock them up. Why would ID cards help to find out who is a terrorist anyway? And if they are such an advantage in the fight against terrorism - then why did the Spaniards get blown up and we, ah, didn't? If you take the IRA and ETA as comparable, then there doesn't seem to be a great difference in performance between us. If you look at "international terrorism", well, it would seem so far to be 1-0 to no identity cards. Or 2-0. After all, the hijackers' papers were all, without exception, in order.

Now, you could say that this just shows we're lucky. But then, what about all those evil plots to blacken the sky and stop the hens laying (or whatever) Charlie the Safety Elephant constantly says our great secret service has prevented? Surely he can't be (refined shudder) lying? After all, even without ID cards, we know there are Hundreds of Evil Terrorists! out there. Tony Blair said so. So what are they for?

Browne also repeated various routine government talking points which we have been through before. The usual funny figures about false identities used by terrorists, as always without any breakdown between false British identities and others unaffected by the pass laws, the usual inaccurate claim that we will "have" to have this technology "for passports". But no explanation of why, then, the government wants to use technology that is NOT standards compliant with the proposed ICAO passports, why we have to have an ID card as well, or why the ID Cards Bill has to be so draconian. Bah.

Whilst we're on the topic, a source tells me that Home Office civil servants have been receiving phone calls from people with South African accents (eh?) apparently carrying out a survey related to the ID card scheme. The questions are described as being "apparently intended for shops or restaurants, rather than law enforcement" - yes, they do want card readers everywhere! - and irrelevant. From the kinds of questions being asked, it would seem that the unpublicised "survey" is part of a Systems Analysis/Requirements Engineering study. My source was asked how many outages would be acceptable on a scale - he replied "none" - and how much downtime after each failure would be acceptable. Apparently the downtime scale ran from a week to six hours, which gives a strong impression of just how infuriating, intrusive, expensive and incompetent this thing is going to be.

Ironically, part way through the quiz, the Safety Elephant's telecoms security system cut off the call. Doh!

The South African-ness (my man reports hearing people speaking Afrikaans in the background) of the survey is interesting; I wonder if this means Dimension Data have been hired? Which would be interesting, as they are one of a small minority of major IT contractors who have yet to make a hash of a British government contract. Or perhaps whoever carried out the survey just outsourced the job to a South African call centre?

Does sending all that Sensitive! information to some poor nameless phone sheep chained to a desk in a striplit hellhole in God-knows-where really sound like a good idea? Thought not.

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