Monday, June 27, 2005

All The Viktor Bout Stuff Is Here

I've had a request in comments from Frans Groenendijk for a round-up of all the Viktor Bout posts. There's also been a traffic spike in the last few days after a discussion at linked us. As a service, here is all the Viktor Bout stuff..

Finally, print media discover the Viktor Bout story. This post, from the 28th of September, 2004, contains links to all the 12 previous Viktor-related stories back to May, 2004. All reports post-28th September are given below.

Viktor Bout Aircraft in Kabul, 16th September, Baghdad, 24th January 2004. A giant Russian transport plane.., Bout's Antonov 12 in Baghdad (PICTURES), Bout and the upcoming Rwandan invasion, The Bout Story Blows Wide Open, Update: Story Goes Critical, Look What Happened Last Time, Getting Your Priorities Right, But He Does a Lot of Work for Charity, A Sudden Bout, Viktor Bout - Some Recent Developments, Why Is The Lying Bastard Still Lying To Me?, Reader Mail (KAM Air), What's Up in the Yemen?, 300 Million flown out of Iraq, Even THEY won't go to Baghdad now, "Someone high up in the contracting world must want to use Bout companies", KAM Air: Disaster in Afghanistan, Iran, Liberia, Viktor Bout, World's Most Wanted Man, No More, CPA Corruption - Case Studies, Saying One Thing and Doing Another, A Very Independent Financial Advisor, Another Bout of Madness, AS15-Further Analysis, Jet Line lose a Jet, A Wave of Boutery, (UN-11)007: Licence to Kill, Hypocrite, Farah Has Some Viktor Bout News, Hip Down: A Look at SkyLink, Viktory!, Congo Incident, What is, in fact, going on in the Yemen, Evening Standard Censored?, If Not Mystery Jets..., Mystery Prop Update - Transafrik, Mystery Jet Update, June 17, and finally Those Departures, Iraq's New Economy, New Mystery Jet Developments, An26 Down in DRC, Shocked To Find Gambling In This Casino!.

VB comes up next in this post on networking theory: Scalefree networks: the Internet in't. Then it's back to the routine. Royal Airlines, Natalco: Slight Return, and Bulgarian issues, and Irbis: Back in Baghdad.

Then, in November, 2005, came the first Black Site posts. Black Site Flights, Black Sites: A Brief Update, and Black Site Update 2. These aren't strictly VB posts but do have some cross-references.

There follows: Touroterrorism, before Operation Firedump begins.

The first Operation Firedump post is here. Firedump: 3C-QRF is the first effort to get 3C-QRF confiscated in Romania. This Slight Update covers both a bit of Bout and some black site flights. I reply to some questions on the Falcones and Wayne Madsen. BGIA: Off to Bagram. Time to liven up the Firedump reviews this, adds detail that the Falcones used the same PR man as George Bush. Bout aircraft sighting in the Azores on Christmas Day. Operation Firedump: Surveillance gives details on an Irbis plane sighting.

Riddle me this, in early February, deals with Iraqi Airways weirdness. Then, Mr Capone, about that tax return, and More on Falcone deal with Sonia Falcone's arrest. 9L. concerns revelations regarding Hezbollah/AQ/Sierra Leone connections and Paddy McKay. This is my two cents about the DP World-P&O deal. Most recently, we have Firedump: 3C-QRF May Escape and Firedump: A6-ZYD.

Don't miss our interview with Paddy McKay.

I will add all future mystery jet posts to this one, and put a link in the sidebar for speedy reference. That makes, so far, a total of 83 Viktor Bout/mystery jet posts.

And, I'm amused to see, a rock band has appeared calling itself the Mystery Jets..

Abolish the Home Office!

Well, it's IDDay tomorrow as the ID Cards Bill heads for a second reading in the Commons. Gratifying signs of impending failure are breaking out all over it, what with the London School of Economics study, the card's possible rejection by two major trade unions, and a wave of hostile press comment. If you want to help, get your arse down to Parliament tomorrow, 1130 hours, and help us demonstrate.

That's the public service announcement over with. This weekend, the Independent on Sunday wapped everybody by claiming that the government was going to sell the information from the National Identity Register to private interests. Now, I wouldn't put it past them, but on reading the story it appears what they meant was that the government intends to charge businesses for the ability to check IDs. Not very good journalism, but it did point up an important aspect of the scheme which has otherwise not been mentioned very often. If a company can read the cards and presumably look up the database, then it can also store the replies. In this way it would be possible to, in effect, reverse engineer the database for your customers. If you were (say) Tesco, you could build a shadow database of most of the records in the real one. You might even portray it as making the technical challenge simpler by locally caching the replies, thus relieving the load on the central system. The risk exists that multiple, not necessarily updated, part-NIRs will appear.

Just yet another reason to reject ID cards. And, of course, the Database State.

I wonder what will happen when the ID Cards Bill falls? After all, as I've said before and been proved right on, we are going to win. My bet would be that, in three or four years' time, the Home Office will bring the bugger back, or one of its many stealth versions, like the national database of children. This is a key feature of the Home Office. It has about three ideas, which appear in rotation. These are: Prison for everyone, compulsory boils for asylum seekers (or whatever), and ID cards. As far as I can see, defeat does not change them at all; they just shift on to the next stereotype. When ID cards fail, there will be a new assault on asylum seekers (hell, they are already happy to send people back to Zimbabwe), and when the limits are reached they will start bingeing on incarceration again. Once the prisons are jammed beyond capacity, the Treasury will call a halt and there will be a period of purging, before the next cycle begins with the ID Cards (2010) Bill. With the crazed proposal to use troops (troops!) to repress "anti-social behaviour", we can already see this happening.

What I want to know is: what does the Home Office do for our society?

After all, it is a long-standing British principle that policing should be local and accountable. Police forces already answer to elected police authorities, with the exception of the MOD Police, UKAEA Police (Tony Benn's private army) and the dear old British Transport Police (the railway plod). Now, the first of these is a military responsibility. The second ought to be as well. What the third is actually for defeats me. Even the Blairite prison-hawks like the idea of "elected sheriffs" because it sounds American, and the Treasury geekmeisters love to talk about "new localism in our public services".

The control of the borders is split between Customs (part of the Treasury) and the Immigration Service. We have seen quite enough poisonous, Sun-driven ministerial meddling with the assessment of claims for immigration or asylum in the UK, so it's time to depoliticise the issue. Bang goes another function. The secret services are currently split between departments, and live outside proper ministerial and parliamentary accountability. In fact, they have the reverse problem to the Immigration Service. That leaves - what? The National Criminal Intelligence Service? Feh. And the prisons. Those.

I propose we kill it before it grows, as Bob Marley so wisely put it. Managing the individual police forces should be devolved and democratised (perhaps to the regions I suggested). The civil nuclear security task should go to the military, and the Transport Police tasks go to the local forces. The sensible Liberal Democrat proposal for an independent Immigration Agency should be taken up. Something like two-thirds of prisoners are illiterate; perhaps the Department for Education and Skills should take over the system, or seeing as similar numbers have at least one mental illness, the Department of Health. MI5 should go to a new Secretary of State for the Intelligence Services, taking over GCHQ and MI6 into the bargain - and why not a reduced NCIS combined with the National Crime Squad? The Intelligence and Security Committee should be released from the prime minister's power and beefed up as an Intelligence Supervision Committee. This would provide a single lead for anti-terrorism, into the bargain.

Marsham Street, it's time for you to go...

Now That's What I Call Investing

Anyone who puts their money into this must be either a fool or a hero: INTREPID gold explorers have extended their search for the precious metal to Iran, a country largely untouched by Western mining companies.

A small mining play whose field of operation is, ahem, Iran. One for my Completely Crazed Business Ventures list, alongside the Baghdad Stock Exchange and Totally Honest Air Charter Ltd.

Good Luck, Phil!

Phil Carter of the outstanding Intel Dump has been mobilised into the 101st Airborne Division. This represents a considerable improvement, I think, in the US Army's capabilities. Phil is a former paratrooper (or more accurately, now he is again), Civil Affairs specialist and Military Police officer turned lawyer, whose coverage of the US Army's manpower crisis and the intersection of law and strategy has been some of the best stuff in the blogosphere.

Best of British, as they say.

(Is it just me, or are Phils over-represented in the set of decent bloggers? Phil Carter, Existing Actually Phil, Phil Hunt of Cabalog...)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Identity, and a good idea

John B. has an interesting post up about British and English identity. His premise is that, in effect, England doesn't exist. Or at least, there are parts of the geographical entity of that name that do represent the stereotype "England", but they should not obscure the parts of England that don't. Now, I've been known to say this too, usually after drinking too much beer and feeling the need to say something provocative. But, more soberly, I think he's right.

You often hear of (usually rightwing) people who argue that, if there is Welsh and Scottish devolution, "why won't Blair give us an English parliament?" (yes, I know this sentence is in bad style, but the original phrasing is worth keeping.) This fits with a particular strain of Euroscepticism which enjoys conspiracy theories about the Labour Party "hating the UK" and wanting to "break up England" (note the conflation of England and Britain), one which is usually found in what I call hard-core Euroscepticism, Liam Fox as opposed to Michael Howard.

Now, there's an obvious argument that with devolution, the House of Commons and parts of Whitehall have a strange position where they have at once a central role, a federal role in US terms, and an English-only role. But countering this with "devolution for England" is not a good idea, for the simple reason that England as a single unit in a federal UK would be destabilisingly dominant. Not just that, it's quite possible that "England" isn't a sensible political unit in itself (in fact, the current territorial boundaries are hardly aligned with any of the pre-Union Englands). Many of the problems of a diverse state with centralised Whitehall rule would remain - and what then? Devolution within devolution?

My further argument is that England, as opposed to Britain, doesn't exist. Being English to me is being British, but not Scottish, Welsh or Irish. Most of the things that might be given as common features of an English identity from the Solway Firth to Dover are equally common with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and New Zealand, for that matter), so pubs, old maids biking etc etc, sailing ships and Protestantism don't help very much. This is where the problems kick in: as you narrow it down, it's like zooming in on a bitmap graphic. It breaks up into dots. A lot of the high-Tory stuff about fox-hunting, Kentish lanes and cricket sounds pretty alien in Bradford. But white roses, dark satanic mills, Rugby League, dry stone walls and real ale look just as foreign in Guildford. I grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, and although there were plenty of sheep and a certain amount of cricket I wouldn't have known where to find a hunt. (But if you go up beyond Skipton towards the Lancashire border, you'll see plenty of Countryside Alliance favours - probably a result of the foot and mouth epidemic, which was especially bad around there.) And the current layout would assume Yorkshire was exactly the same as Oxfordshire, and Birmingham interchangeable with St. Ives - because administrative England includes Cornwall.

Further, the centre of "England" is without doubt London, a vast multinational city inimical to the English-parliament people with their rants about the "metropolitan elite". And which happens to be the seat of central government, and also itself devolved from administrative England. Where else, then? Birmingham? But isn't the second city rather too unlike the rural-conservative territory that English identity is supposedly built on? Bristol? The city of Tony Benn, Tricky, and Airbus's aerodynamic design department, for fuck's sake? Newbury, perhaps..oops, that's already the capital of Vodafone.

John attempts to answer this conundrum in the best, and I think the only way: disaggregate the fucker. If there really is a constituency for the whole bunch of Victorian tosh, it's (as he says) the rural South outside London. Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, across the gap between London and Birmingham, over to Bristol and down to the coast. Mind you, there's a good few outliers in there: Portsmouth/Southampton, Brighton, Reading, Bristol aren't necessarily a good fit. But then, who says politics is easy?

There's one way to gauge the realities of such a plan, which is to look at the electoral map. Yes, there is the great Lab/Lib concentration of London, with the marginal suburban belt. Yes, there is the similar urban block of the West Midlands. Across the Pennines you have the big concentration of Labour urban and semi-urban seats, with a varying fringe of (in the hills) alt.conservatives like David Curry and the odd Liberal Democrat or (in the Fylde and the Vale of York) big-farm, standard issue Tories. Across Cumbria you get a lot of slightly unusual Tories with red spots up the industrial west coast, and the north-east has its own balance between solid Labour in Newcastle and Durham Tories.

And, sweeping over from the Wash, there is indeed a southern Tory belt that squeezes between the red Midlands and London, dropping down to the south coast and going as far west as a curious line somewhere west of Poole where people start voting Liberal. Such a scheme would, I think, work rather well. UKIP and co. would likely act as a sort of Southern League, passing resolutions to leave the EU in the security of Norwich or whereever. (Note: I would probably find myself in Thatcherstan, so rest assured I'm willing to take responsibility.)

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Those Departures..

Looking up those Sharjah Airport departure boards yesterday, I thought it might be an idea to collate the Boutcos as a psuedo-timetable. So here goes.




0900 TEB1102 Kabul ("Tenir Airlines")
1500 PHW051 Hyderabad (Phoenix Avn)
1545 TKY118 Baghdad ("Thai Sky" - a new one on me)
1600 AWZ202 Khartoum (Airwest/East West Cargo)
1800 RQ005 Kabul (Kam Air)


0030 AWZ201 Khartoum
0113 P1019 Dubai
0119 BIS6331 Riyan Mukalla (Irbis)
0200 GFG971 Baghdad (Georgian National)
0330 CGK4365 Baghdad (Click)
0400 CGK4367 Baghdad
0430 CGK717 Baghdad
0430 CGK913 Baghdad
0500 CGK4371 Baghdad


1000 CGK4366 Baghdad (Click Airways)
1030 CGK4368 Baghdad
1130 CGK4372 Baghdad
1230 TXC4163 Frankfurt (Transaviaexport)
1245 AWZ336 Khartoum (Airwest)
1330 CGK718 Baghdad
1400 CGK914 Baghdad
1600 PHW005 Dubai
1800 AWZ017 Frankfurt
2030 PHW786 Dubai


0030 AWZ201 Khartoum
0100 TEB1101 Kabul
0320 TXC4162 Kandahar
2330 TXC4163 Frankfurt


24/06/05 ARRIVALS

1400 P31020 Baghdad (Phoenix Avn)
1400 BIS6376 Baghdad (Irbis)
1430 BGK1230 Baghdad (British Gulf International)
1530 BGK1232 Baghdad
1700 P3606 Baghdad (Phoenix)
1700 PHW604 Baghdad
1800 RQ005 Kabul (Kam Air)
1830 BIS6372 Baghdad


0600 BGK1229 Baghdad
0630 BIS6371 Baghdad
0630 BIS6375 Baghdad
0700 BGK1231 Baghdad
0800 TEB1101 Baghdad
0815 P31019 Baghdad



0200 CRD090 Kabul (Aero Corridor)


0600 CRD091 Kabul

Well, that was anal, wasn't it? And there are a LOT of flights to Iraq on there, including the repeatedly-banned Irbis Air Co. of Kazakhstan, Houston and Sharjah, as well as the equally repeatedly-banned Transavia going to another western-controlled airport in Kandahar (not to mention Frankfurt!).

A note: Georgian National and Thai Sky are cases I am less certain of. In fact, Thai Sky Ltd. seems to have been created in Bangkok this year, with three aging Lockheed Tristars and no immediately obvious reasons for suspicion (yet). Tenir, though, seems to share an ICAO code (and a route network) with Teebah Airlines, the company belonging to a prominent Iraqi tribal sheikh that supplied all Iraqi Airways' aircraft (which all happened to be registered in Sierra Leone for some reason). Aero Corridor, oddly enough, is registered in Mozambique but uses only Phoenix Aviation aircraft and has been reported as operating in Iraq.

And, just for more mystery-jet goodness, one of cocaine-runners Aerocom's Antonov 24s was in Baghdad on the 6th of May: Photo.

EDITED to replace formatting chewed by Blogger.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Let's be having you!

My HOWTO Occupy Tunisia post has been attracting referrals from, a forum set up by the US Army for officers returning from or going to Iraq to share experience and knowledge. A sensible idea. I'm rather pleased they read it. However, because as far as I know those of us outside the US DoD can't get to the site, let alone read it, can the chap who lunk to it please get in touch and tell me what they say about the HOWTO?

In other Iraq-related news this morning, I see that a rightwing American journalist has been going around saying that things are getting better in Iraq, because a lot of people have mobile phones. Obviously, he didn't realise why: they're good for letting off roadside bombs. They also have the advantage that carrying one is not suspicious, unlike other radio devices, and the calls are even encrypted. Granted, no doubt the US military have long since cracked the GSM encryption, and more importantly the core network is probably lousy with official bugs. But it is probably good enough for tactical use, as such things take time, and you at least can't be overheard directly. And, as everyone else in Iraq is on the same net, choosing whose line to tap is a non-trivial question.

Oh, and the other reason; we bombed the landline exchanges, although if the mobiles work we must have either spared or restored the long lines and such. Eerily, Mr. Zinnmeister also refers to the number of satellite TV dishes he 1969, John Vann used to take journalists on tours of the Mekong Delta in his helicopter, proudly pointing to the number of TV aerials they saw.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

It Just Keeps Iraqing In Here

(Expanded from a comment at AFOE)

The LA Times reports in detail on the recent insurgent company-sized assault on Abu Ghraibh prison. It was deeply scary: they staged diversionary raids all round the area to hinder relief and confuse the issue, then assaulted the position from three directions at once, having laid down a bombardment with mortars and RPGs used as mortars (a tactic from the Afghan war) to drive everyone's heads down. The US relief party encountered a rebel stop-group as far as four miles away, showing clearly that they had carefully isolated the battlefield first.

Then, they sent in three suicide trucks, one of which was apparently meant to crash the prison wall and explode, aiming for the base of the guard tower nearest the cell blocks (clearly detailed reconnaissance had been carried out). The only reason they failed to storm the place or spring the prisoners seems to have been that this particular wagon went off prematurely.

While all this was going on, the prisoners were rioting. The riot began at the same moment the assault did, which argues coordination. Personally I suspect the aim was to stage a jailbreak - it would have given them immense prestige to be the liberators of Abu Ghraibh, and no doubt there were people in there they wanted out.

But the really bad bit is this: after half an hour, the battle suddenly stopped...just like that.
"By 9, it was quiet. "It was almost as if everybody blew a whistle," Melanson recalled. "Almost everybody stopped firing, and they disappeared."

No doubt, after the attempt to breach the wall failed, some commander decided to break off the action and make an orderly retreat before the QRF arrived with the heavy metal. And that's just what they did - they even carried off their dead, as they only found two corpses outside the wire. Now, breaking off a battle without being counter-attacked is very difficult. It requires excellent training and discipline, as well as good leadership and effective communication, to say nothing of prior planning. And it's all about recognising when to stop and cut your losses.

An enemy that can do suicide car bombing as well as break-contact drills is truly formidable; it's like the alpha and omega of war. The Americans have been talking about two kinds of enemy in Iraq, the calculated ex-Ba'athist roadside-bomber types who care deeply about living to fight another day, and the crazy-arsed jihadis who just want to die gloriously and couldn't care less about breaking contact in an orderly fashion. It looks like they're on their way to finding a Hegelian synthesis.

At the same time, the enemy's hardware is improving too. Last week they blew up a humvee, killing five US Marines: but this Hummer was special, being one of the ones that did get its extra armour. The New York Times's David Cloud has the details:
Insurgents have long been able to build bombs powerful enough to penetrate some armored vehicles. But the use of "shaped" charges could raise the threat considerably, military officials said. Since last month, at least three such bombs have been found, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing this month.

The shaped charge explosion fires a projectile "at a very rapid rate, sufficient to penetrate certain levels of armor," General Conway said, adding that weapons employing shaped charges had caused American casualties in the last two months. He did not give details.

A Pentagon official involved in combating the devices said shaped charges seen so far appeared crude but required considerable expertise, suggesting insurgents were able to draw on well-trained bomb-makers, possibly even rocket scientists from the former government. Shaped charges and rocket engines are similar, the official said.

Infrared detonators are an advance over the more common method of rigging bombs to explode after an insurgent nearby presses a button on a cell phone, a garage-door opener or other device that gives off an electric signal. That approach is vulnerable to jammers, however, and a shift to infrared detonators, which rely on light waves, underscores the insurgents' resourcefulness."
Rocket engines, eh...Readers of this blog will probably remember that I covered the loss of an RAF C130 on Iraqi election day in some detail. The Times, I see, got hold of a leak of the official verdict and I missed it. Link. Apparently it was operating at very low altitude, carrying out a reconnaissance of possible landing zones in support of SAS tasks in the area (whatever *they* were), when rebels fired at least five missiles or rockets at it simultaneously, thus flooding the defensive-aids suite (DAS) on the aircraft. The Thunderer's source suggested that its take-off from Baghdad had been observed and, presumably, communicated to the shooters.

Michael "Downing St. Memo" Smith, for it is he, seems to have discovered a *very* fruitful source in the MoD. And I was wrong as hell about the SA-4. On another point, I've mused in the past that the tendency of the southern provinces of Iraq, the ones that make up the MND(SE) zone, to integrate might be being encouraged by British political advisers to the army. The putative Shia entity (I hesitate to use the word state) now has a name: "Sumer". And I'm beginning to think that if we aren't encouraging it, maybe we should be. Because I can't see any remotely plausible exit strategy otherwise.

At least we got the zone with a coast.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Mystery Jet Update

It's been brought to my attention that the ever-informative Sharjah Airport online departures board shows that an Irbis Air Co. flight departed for nowhere else than Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan this morning. (Thanks, Hannah!) Further digging down the lists shows that, in fact, Irbis is running a regular service to the base, which has acquired an infamous reputation after two prisoners died in captivity there. There's a flight into SHJ at 0640 (BIS6345) and a flight to Bagram at 0900 daily, flight no. BIS6355. Furthermore, British Gulf International Airlines are back on the Baghdad and Kabul runs. Ex-Dubai, flights to Iraq are continuing under Irbis's ICAO code (BIS) although they are listed as Royal Brunei Airways. Royal Brunei's code is BI.

Nobody in their right minds thinks Irbis is anything other than one of the core Viktor Bout companies, including the United Nations, the British government, and the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC have put Irbis on their list of companies whose assets are to be seized. I doubt, somehow, that the Irbis plane was impounded in Bagram. What the fucking fuck is wrong with these fucking people?

Elsewhere, you might like to scoot over to Carlos's, who has a wealth of information about the missing 727 and its ties to Imad Saba, and his ties to etc etc etc. Suffice it to say that I seem to recall seeing a DOD fuel contract for one of his firms mentioned in Carlos's story, Air Van. I haven't substantiated it yet, but I'll check, and I'm fairly sure I saw one.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

More Iraq (Sorry!): Languages at War

Phil Carter has an interesting post on why the US military establishment is still failing to provide the language skills and area knowledge its soldiers need. Rather, the post is good, but the comments discussion is cracking! Phil's basic point is that there are nowhere near enough Arabists in their forces (no surprise, perhaps, given the way "Arabist" was repurposed as a neo-con term of abuse), and that this is equivalent in importance to not having enough guns.
"Indeed, in today's operational environment, cultural competency must be regarded as an element of combat power — and something to be measured when one assesses the readiness of our forces."
You said it. Let's go back to that Washington Post report I linked down-blog. (Link)
"Last month, three trucks filled with two dozen soldiers from Charlie Company were ambushed near a Tigris River bridge. Instead of meeting the attack, the Iraqis fled and radioed for help. The Americans said the Iraqis told them they had lost 20 men, had run out of ammunition and were completely surrounded. When a U.S. quick reaction force arrived, the area was quiet and the Iraqi soldiers were huddled around their trucks. Four were missing; it was later learned that they had hailed taxis, gone home and changed into civilian clothes. One soldier, the company's senior noncommissioned officer, refused to come out for several hours, saying he continued to be surrounded by insurgents.

After the incident, McGovern said he summoned an interpreter, asked him to translate the soldier's words verbatim and "disgraced" the Iraqi soldiers. "You are all cowards," he began. "My soldiers are over here, away from our families for a year. We are willing to die for you to have freedom. You should be willing to die for your own freedom. If you continue to run away from the enemy, the enemy will continue to chase you. You will never win." McGovern asked the interpreter, Nabras Mohammed, if he had gone too far. "Well, you shouldn't have called them women, and you shouldn't have called them" wimps, Mohammed told him...[snip]...U.S. forces then ordered the Iraqis to arrest everyone inside the mosque, including the respected elderly prayer leader. The Iraqi platoon leader refused, U.S. soldiers recalled. The platoon leader and his men then sat down next to the mosque in protest.

"We wanted to tell the Americans they couldn't do this again," Dhanoun said. In a measure of the shame they felt, the men insisted they had not entered the mosque. "You can't enter the mosque with weapons. We have traditions, we have honor, and we're Muslims," Dhanoun said. "You enter the mosque to pray, you don't enter the mosque with guns."
Well, that's set the bounds of the problem nicely. Compare and contrast my HOWTO Occupy Tunisia post, containing pages from a British Army handbook issued to all ranks in Tunisia, 1942. The very first piece of advice is: DON'T enter mosques! It goes on to give useful advice on a wide range of topics, including the desirability of healthy scepticism towards the French colonial power, the inadvisability of starting fistfights, and the importance of treating the civil population with dignity.

I commented on Phil's post, and I'll reiterate one of my points here. Another Second World War lesson is that Britain found that it was possible to teach "difficult" languages to considerable numbers of men quickly. The Joint Services School for Linguists, a wartime innovation, had to evolve new teaching methods, and chose to concentrate on language-as-communication over formal teaching, as well as using total-immersion teaching. Postwar, it went on teaching Russian to high standards for large numbers of conscripts screened for linguistic ability up until the end of National Service in 1962. (It also made a considerable contribution to English literature, oddly enough. Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Dennis Potter, DM Thomas and Sir Peter Hall were all graduates.) The course aimed at producing translator-standard linguists in less than a year, and it ran through 5,000 conscripts in its postwar existence.

So - it can be done. Why it hasn't can perhaps be seen in the reasons the JSSL succeeded. Those were: commitment to understanding Russian language and Russian culture, strict meritocracy, considerable investment, and innovation. I suspect 1) and 2) are the keys.

Sunday Iraq Blogging

Ministers were told of need for Gulf war ‘excuse’, says the Murdoch Times. Another memo, it seems. The leaks are coming thick and fast now, no?
"The warning, in a leaked Cabinet Office briefing paper, said Tony Blair had already agreed to back military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein at a summit at the Texas ranch of President George W Bush three months earlier.

The briefing paper, for participants at a meeting of Blair’s inner circle on July 23, 2002, said that since regime change was illegal it was “necessary to create the conditions” which would make it legal.

This was required because, even if ministers decided Britain should not take part in an invasion, the American military would be using British bases. This would automatically make Britain complicit in any illegal US action."
Yep, it was the Crawford ranch meeting. May - the decision. June - contacts with industry about the UORs, as exclusively blogged here. July - military planning began in detail, and first mentions of the White House Iraq Group/UK Iraq Communications Group. August - ? September - the dossier. Now, surely with all that time, they could have got all the details squared away?
The Washington Post: "In its introduction, the memo "Iraq: Conditions for Military Action" notes that U.S. "military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace," but adds that "little thought" has been given to, among other things, "the aftermath and how to shape it."....[snip]..."Saying that "we need to be sure that the outcome of the military action would match our objective," the memo's authors point out, "A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise." The authors add, "As already made clear, the U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point. Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden."...[snip]...A March 14 memo to Blair from David Manning, then the prime minister's foreign policy adviser and now British ambassador in Washington, reported on talks with then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Among the "big questions" coming out of his sessions, Manning reported, was that the president "has yet to find the answers . . . [and] what happens on the morning after."

About 10 days later, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote a memo to prepare Blair for a meeting in Crawford, Tex., on April 8. Straw said "the big question" about military action against Hussein was, "how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be any better," as "Iraq has no history of democracy."

Straw said the U.S. assessments "assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq's WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured. . . ." Later in the summer, the postwar doubts would be raised again, at the July 23 meeting memorialized in the Downing Street Memo. Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, the British intelligence service, reported on his meetings with senior Bush officials. At one point, Dearlove said, "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."
Also from the WaPo:
" An hour before dawn, the sky still clouded by a dust storm, the soldiers of the Iraqi army's Charlie Company began their mission with a ballad to ousted president
Saddam Hussein. "We have lived in humiliation since you left," one sang in Arabic, out of earshot of his U.S. counterparts. "We had hoped to spend our life with you."
But the Iraqi soldiers had no clue where they were going. They shrugged their shoulders when asked what they would do. The U.S. military had billed the mission as pivotal in the Iraqis' progress as a fighting force but had kept the destination and objectives secret out of fear the Iraqis would leak the information to insurgents.

"We can't tell these guys about a lot of this stuff, because we're not really sure who's good and who isn't," said Rick McGovern, a tough-talking 37-year-old platoon sergeant from Hershey, Pa., who heads the military training for Charlie Company."
Read the whole thing, it's positively painful. As if summoned by a stage direction, then this happened:
Link "Earlier in the day, a former commando wearing a uniform blew himself up during roll call at the heavily guarded headquarters of an elite Iraqi police unit, officials said.

The attack at the two-story Baghdad headquarters of the Wolf Brigade followed weeks of accusations against the Shiite Muslim-dominated force by Sunni Arab leaders, who accuse it of kidnapping and killing Sunnis, including clerics. Jabr said the attacker was a former Wolf Brigade member who was targeting the commando force's commander, Brig. Mohammed al-Quraishi.

"Today's attack does not constitute an infiltration of the police forces," Jabr said. "The only thing left of the bomber was his head and feet." Three people were killed in the blast, Jabr said, adding that police were searching for two of the suspect's former colleagues."
So he was a Wolf, in uniform, on their base, and that does not constitute an infiltration of the police force? We're into what the former FBI head of counter-intelligence James Angleton called the Wilderness of Mirrors here; defectors are false, policemen are rebels, rebels dress as policemen, policemen dress as rebels. The one certainty is paranoia, that and paralysing confusion. Angleton was a drunk and an obsessive Anglophobe, but if that worries you, the decision loop describes it just as well. They are within our decision loop, always ahead in observation and orientation - and when the enemy get within your decision loop, the classic effects are disorientation, immobility and uncoordinated action.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Happy Blogday Everyone!

Two years ago today, The Yorkshire Ranter was born in a striplit computer room in Royal Holloway College's International Building. Since then we've had ranting, spam, funnies, mystery jets, vituperation, stupidity, more ranting, and some terrible afternoons spent with HTML and frustration. I've picked over yards of extremely dull official documents, debated the EU with Chinese telecoms people (one of whom, I later learned, had previously tried to bribe my editor), been shouted at by a red porker with a CIA badge at the Hutton inquiry...and the most popular post in the lot was some twaddle about trams carrying freight in Vienna, which was picked on by and resulted in a surge of 2,578 hits over four days, including 1,000 on 22nd May 2005.

Mind you, some of the Viktor Bout posts attracted three-figure days, too, so I can't be too dismissive of the readership. People from all parts of the world read the Ranter, including Finland, the DR Congo, .arpa addresses, the Elysee Palace, the British Antartic Survey, and various parts of the US Department of Defence. Oh yes, and the North Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce, who visit daily. And some of you search for the most remarkable things. I'm not sure if my favourite is "thatcher unguents", which conjured up the image of some fool trying to replicate Maggie's "beauty" regime, or "2005 mail contacts of flying boat mechanics Ukraine", which came in from a cybercafe in Kinshasa. Whoever it was, I hope you got your flying boat fixed. If you're still stranded, I don't think I can help, but Carlos W might. He knows his flying boats, and according to his latest post carries the kind of stuff in his rucksack that would probably do the job. "Male bulging bellies", though, was just sick. But I'm proud to be the only Yahoo! result for colombian ghetto music, tunisian tribal music and italian national anthem.

I'm even more proud that Richard Chichakli and friends got their bank accounts frozen. Solid! I'd like to thank everyone who's helped so far by sending useful information, and even non-useful information. I'd also like to remind y'all that so far, no-one has ever used the PayPal donate link. Not even, who researched his Viktor Bout story right here in considerable depth (read every last post, so he did), never got in touch with me, and finally published without any acknowledgement at all. Shame on you. I now have a job, but it's the principle of the thing.

But before you rush to send money, there's something more important I want from you: your comments. I'd like to hear what you want from this blog in the future.

Thanks for reading. Double thanks for commenting. Triple thanks for linking. And finally, this comment left at Tim Worstall's:
I've no idea why you persist with reporting this sort of twattish idiocy from the Yorkshire Ranter. There are plenty of good left-of-centre blogs out there - eg Harry's Place, Normblog - why not quote one of their articles instead of yet more wrong-headed nonsense from the Yorkshire Ranter.
Why indeed.

The Press, GPS, and road tolls

Why is it that nobody ever gets it right about GPS? Every time the magic navigation system is mentioned in the national press, someone always tells us that the satellites "track" the user. This time, it was the Grauniad, and worse still, it was its normally fantastic science supplement, Life. In a report about the government's delightful road-charging scheme, they said this:
"Darling wants to levy varying fees from 2p to £1.30 a mile according to the distance, time and type of road. The idea is that a black box in each car, roughly the size of a DVD player, will be tracked using global positioning systems (GPS). Many family cars already have GPS, and Ellen McArthur used a similar device to navigate the high seas. The in-car box is typically monitored by several satellites, which combine and "triangulate" to give accurate coordinates."
No, the black box will not be tracked. No, it is not "typically" monitored by satellites. It is never monitored by satellites. They nearly got it right in that it involves triangulation, but again, the satellites do not triangulate: the box does. But that wasn't it, though...
"New Galileo technology will improve this by using perhaps eight or 12 satellites to pinpoint each black box."

Let's get this straight. The NAVSTAR satellites that make GPS work do not track, monitor, pinpoint or do anything else to the receiver. They are essentially highly accurate clocks. The whole system architecture is exactly the opposite of this: for a good reason. Like the internet, it's a stupid network - all the intelligence is at the end-point. There's a damn good reason for this, too. GPS was designed to work anywhere and at any time, even in a nuclear war. If the satellite control centre in Colorado Springs or wherever is blasted down to nothing, the system functions just as well, because it all happens on the user device. What happens is that the user device contacts the satellites and records how long it takes for them to send back a signal, which tells it how far away each one is at that precise moment; where the circles intersect is your position, so long as you're within the satellites' orbit. The receiver tracks the satellites. Monitors them. Not the other way around. Is that completely clear?

It's an interesting question why they always get it wrong. If it was purely ignorance, you'd expect the mistakes to display a normal distribution. Given that there are essentially two possible options, this would suggest a fifty-fifty split. In practice, there will be a small but significant chance of someone saying it works with skyhooks, fairies and Miracle Whip, so it won't be exact, but being right or wrong would be equally probable. But in this case, they always get it wrong in the same way. (Pity about the rational expectations hypothesis, eh.)

I wonder if the idea that it tracks you, not the other way around, is some kind of unconscious reflection of one's fears of total surveillance? You won't be surprised to learn that I think Alastair Darling's scheme is poison, especially as he's already pledged to make an equivalent cut in fuel duty. This is so stupid as to be unbelievable: the one policy lever that gets right to the problems caused by cars (i.e. pollution, climate change and resource depletion), has been demonstrated to work, and requires absolutely no new administrative apparatus or technology, and he's carefully ruled it out? Under Darling's idea, drivers of monster SUVs in the suburbs will actually benefit.

Another point is that the proposed box is vulnerable to fiddlers precisely because of the way GPS works. It tracks the satellites to work out where it is. Then, every so often, it rings up and says where it's been (just like the electronic tag used on criminals). Of course, that gives the hacker a week or so to break into the thing. Now, a navigation device that did track the user would be far better, as it would require only a very cheap client and would collect the information centrally and in real time. But there aren't any at the moment. It's conceptually possible, but I doubt it would be better enough than GPS/Glonass/Galileo to make it worthwhile, especially as centralisation in computer networks means complexity and cost.

Stupid idea, stupid government, stupid press.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

How to get on in the civil service

Remember all that kerfuffle about the 2004 local elections in Birmingham? When three Labour councillors were kicked out by a special election court because it turned out they'd been forging huge quantities of postal votes? When Judge Richard Mawsley said that the election "would have disgraced a banana republic"? Where the police discovered two of the men in question in a warehouse at dead of night, surrounded by piles of ballots they claimed to be "taking to the count"?

Well, the chief executive of Birmingham City Council at the time is now the director of the Immigration Service. The woman in question - the heir, if you will, of Joseph Chamberlain's municipal socialism - is one Lin Homer. She wasn't accused of rigging the vote herself. No. But she was named on the petition to the court, though. Alongside the councillors themselves, there she is (Hansard reference). What did the judge have to say?
BBC West Midlands: "The petitioners also accused the city's returning officer and chief executive Lin Homer of failing to discharge her duties in accordance with electoral law.

Judge Mawrey said that Ms Homer "threw the rule book out of the window" to deal with overwhelming numbers of postal vote application forms received."
Memo to IND HQ, Lunar House, Croydon: don't let the rule book hit you as it departs the window. Shall we have a concrete example of what she could have done to prevent the fraud? As it happens, I've got one here.
The Daily Telegraph: "Mr Mawrey said: "Postal ballot packages are sent out by ordinary mail in clearly identifiable envelopes. Short of writing 'Steal Me' on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands."
Great, eh? What about this little beauty?
The Birmingham Post:"The elections officer for Birmingham was suspended last night after the discovery of a hidden box containing an estimated 1,000 uncounted postal votes from the 2004 local authority elections...."I went to the elections office with the head of the fraud squad, Dave Churchill.

"Lo and behold there was an orange crate high up on a shelf. When we took it down it was full of envelopes." Coun Hemming said the envelopes had not yet been fully examined, but he believed they contained postal ballot papers from between ten and 15 wards."
And there's more from the Post, which sounds like an impressive local paper:
Birmingham Post:"Mr Mawrey was critical of the council's elections office and returning officer, Lin Homer, who allowed "corners to be cut" when sorting and counting postal votes.

But he said her decision was understandable given the quantity of postal ballots, which Mrs Homer and the elections officer John Owen could not have foreseen.

Although Mrs Homer's decision to allow postal ballot papers to be transported to the count in plastic shopping bags was "the direst folly", it was not a serious enough breach to declare the result unsafe."
I like the bit with the carrier bags. But there was worse:
The Times: "Lin Homer, the city council’s chief executive, gave evidence that there was widespread anxiety about postal voting fraud during the campaign. Cheating reached such depths that a pillar box was set alight in an attempt to destroy completed ballot papers, she said."
Widespread anxiety, eh? Pity it wasn't anxious-making enough to induce her to actually do anything. But, of course, everything was cleared up in time for the far more important general elections, wasn't it?
The Times, Again: "
20,000 missing votes heighten Birmingham postal fraud fears
By Jill Sherman and Dominic Kennedy
SOME 20,000 missing votes became the focus of Britain’s biggest election count early today. Early indications showed that a third of postal votes issued for the 11 constituencies in Birmingham had not been returned.

Explanations include late delivery, fraudsters afraid of filling them in because of extra police attention, or low turnout. However, postal voting typically results in high turnouts of up to 80 per cent because voters are seen as more motivated. Birmingham is the scene of several marginals where the parties have used mass postal voting to try to capture or hold seats. The total number of postal votes issued in the city was 59,000 compared with 16,000 at the last election.

But Lin Homer the returning officer disclosed last night that only 37,000-43,000 arrived. She said: “It might be that people have thought again about postal voting because of the uncertainty. Some of it could have been because of the work we have been doing. We have conducted 700 door-to-door interviews and forensically examined data.”
Does anybody like the way she tries to make the disappearance of ~20,000 ballot papers sound like a good thing? Naturally, of course, even if there had been no time to make changes before the election, our darling Lin was right on the case as soon as the dust settled to ensure that nothing like this could possibly happen again. Or perhaps not.
The Guardian: "n the meantime, Mr Khan, who stood for the Liberal Democrats against former cabinet minister Clare Short in Birmingham Ladywood, is planning to meet West Midlands police and the returning officer for Birmingham city council to discuss his fears.

It follows claims that a Labour party activist in the constituency kept a ballot box at his home the night before polls opened. The activist, whose daughter was a presiding officer for one polling station, has strenuously denied any impropriety.

But Mr Khan, who brought a successful petition against postal vote fraud in last year's local elections, said he would be raising the issue of how the general election was run with returning officer Lin Homer. He said it was "alarming" that ballot boxes were kept with presiding officers who were not council employees, particularly if they have links to a political party."
Naturally, the activist had no intention of interfering with the ballot box in any way. Nuh. He felt sorry for it. It looked lonely. So he thought he'd take it home. As a pet. The children would love it..especially his daughter.

If you can't trust local government to run an election honestly or at least without letting it degenerate into a catastrophic farce through sheer incompetence, surely you can count on central government to weigh in. Surely the G-men will soon be on their way from headquarters to clean up our democracy's Sin City? Well, the people in question are the brand-new Department for Constitutional Affairs. But there's a problem. They may not even know what's going on in Birmingham. Why? A source at DCA, who can be identified only as "Shallow Neck", informs me that DCA staff are forbidden to read blogs. Not just this blog, but all blogs are barred by the DCA web proxy.

Desperate DCA staff mob local cybercafes every lunch hour like swarming filth ants, thirsty for blog. Exactly how they determine what is and isn't a blog is unclear. Tests conducted there show that even independently-hosted blogs are barred, so they aren't just blocking Typepad and Blogspot. Neck was told that "it was decided that blogs could be a problem". Strangely, though, the BNP's website is available. And so is Sinn Fein's. Terrorists - Yes. Blogs - No.

Lin Homer's new job carries a salary of £170,000 a year.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Mystery Prop Update: Transafrik

In our last mystery-aircraft post, we were looking into the affairs of a firm called Transafrik, which operates 11 of CIA frontco Southern Air Transport's Hercules aircraft in Angola and holds UN contracts in various places. TA was based in Sao Tome for years, and I recently discovered that a Swiss merchant named Hellinger started it, but he sold up in 1993 or 1994. The biggest shareholder now is some strangelet entity called International Aircraft Management and Consulting. Well, the only Google result for that is on the TA website, but International Aircraft Management Consulting Ltd. apparently exists or existed in the Anglo-Caribbean taxdodger elysium known as the Turks and Caicos Islands, at 107 Duke Street, presumably in the capital Cockburn Town. It seems to have existed in 1994 (i.e. when Hellinger sold Transafrik).

At the time, Viktor Bout had a lucrative operation flying fuel to locations in Angola, both for the government and also for UNITA. Transafrik is described in a French TV documentary (thanks Cargodog!) as doing the same, on contract with Angolan state oil (Sonangol). Graft fans will remember Sonangol as being at the heart of the Elf-Aquitaine scandal, Angolan department, in which Elf was paying huge bribes to Angolan politicians in order to get their signatures on a contract with Sonangol to develop the country's oilfields. Further to that, the French government (the owner of Elf) was supplying arms from the ZTS Osos arsenal in Slovakia to the Angolan government via a state company, Sofremi, for which Charles Pasqua was responsible, and the arms dealers Arkadi Gaydamak and Pierre Falcone. Interestingly, the documentarists describe Transafrik as operating Boeing 707s - but no such aircraft has ever been registered to them.

However, informed sources in Angola say Transafrik served the MPLA side, and hence the government. The 707 may be a mistake, of course. 727s are present in their fleet, and the documentarist might have mistaken one of their DC8s for a 707. Possibly, the Transafrik they reported on was Trans African?

But the first time I ever heard of Viktor was in connection with Boeing 707 tankers in Angola. And can anyone tell me what on earth S9-BOP, Lockheed L-100 serial no. 4477, was doing getting itself destroyed in Luzamba, Angola whilst apparently wearing a Kazakh registration, UN-485, two months after arriving at Transafrik? Apart from delivering diesel fuel, that is. It wouldn't have surprised the plane any, though, as whilst it was with SAT it got photographed in Germany wearing "Alaska International" colours.

Being Europe: Part 2, After the Fall

Well, the referendum week is past and the people have spoken. As usual with referendums , though, deciding what they said is already proving to be tough. No is clear enough, but it is increasingly obvious that there were as many noes as there were voters. That's democracy for you. It's also one of the reasons I don't like referendums on principle, as they simply don't provide for the expression of views in any detail. And understanding the diversity of no is vital, because exactly what they said no to will define what Europe needs to do next. British Eurosceptics, of course, have been hopping up and down with glee, convincing themselves at least that the Hour of EFTA is at hand. The institutions will go! Minimal free trade area! Yay! But this is chucklehead stuff.

Very simply, try telling the French "no" who said that they voted against the constitution because they "didn't believe European workers should compete with each other" that they voted for Tim Worstall's utopia. (Imagine trying to get the Treaty Dis-establishing a Constitution for the European Union through a referendum in France.) Or alternatively, try telling the Dutch that what we need is a wider, looser Europe including Turkey and the Ukraine. One thing nobody in the UK has picked up on is the strange revival of the French Communist Party; the French no-vote splits broadly into the angry left and the angry right. And neither of those groups shares anything much with the Brits - the angry left wants proletarian internationalism in a "social Europe" (but no international proletarians here, thank you very much), and the angry right wants French nationalism in one country, complete with tariff barriers, border controls and certainly no British competitors.

The only French noes who agree with British eurosceptic discourse are the vanishingly tiny group around what's left of Alain Madelin's following. And, frankly, nobody cares about them. The most economically Anglophone of serious French politicians is Nicolas Sarkozy, and he was stumping the country for a yes vote. UKIP ally Philippe de Villiers, meanwhile, achieved more profile than he ever had before but couldn't deliver a no in his home powerbase in the Vendee (which went marginally yes). The guy my partner calls Le Fou du Bocage (roughly, the madman in the woods) was rejected by his fellow outback weirdsters.

Bizarrely, though, the discourse of the lefty noes has sometimes been eerily similar to the far right. They are at pains to deny it (some of them turned up in the Guardian complaining that the British no campaign was outrageously flirting with the right, a remarkably hypocritical statement), but this is absurd. There was the chap who said he wasn't against the Polish plumber, but the underpaid and exploited Polish plumber...well. It's clearly OK for the hypothetical plumber to stay underpaid and exploited so long as he does it in Poland, where he isn't on the Frenchman's conscienceh. The chair of Attac France lowered himself to alleging in Le Monde that Spain had only ratified because they were recipients of EU funds (missing out that the structural fund, which redistributes money to infrastructure projects in poor parts of the Union, is about to stop funding the western members almost completely as it reorientates to the new joiners, who need the cash more), a charge that could have been copied from the BNP's manifesto and is anyway a fine example of the art of chutzpah given the amounts of agricultural subsidy that flow to France every year. All that now separates José Bové from Jean-Marie Le Pen are their views on the future Europe: their critique and their campaigning have converged.

That brings us to Lenin time. What's To Be Done? Well, the first thing is to accept that the treaty is dead as a dead thing. Yes, there are arguments for pressing on, but they aren't very good arguments. It's true that the ratifier countries have a right to make their voice heard. But in any vote there are people who find themselves on the losing side. It's true that it was in the plan. Well, no plan long survives contact with the enemy, and neither do plans often survive contact with the voters. Clearly it wasn't a very good plan, anyway. The argument against pressing on is far stronger.

First, the people who rejected the treaty deserve to have their views respected. Second, if we agree there is a democratic deficit in Europe, let us do some democracy and respond quickly to popular criticism. Thirdly, the treaty cannot realistically come into force, so the whole affair is a waste of time and money. A national referendum in a country of 60 million is not cost-free. And most importantly, letting the treaty stagger on along a Via Dolorosa of months of rejection is dangerous. As long as it is mathematically, theoretically possible to try to salvage it, some people will refuse to believe it needs dramatic change. People like the tired old mediocrity Jean-Claude Juncker, for example. But throughout this period, the EU is going to be unstable and fractious. Serious business will be on hold, political time and capital tied up, and the ground rules uncertain.

As voting no, or yes for that matter, will be without cost, you can expect a outpouring of demagogy and nonsense. But this will have real effects. We've seen the Euro have a wobbly Wednesday crisis this week brought on by a cocktail of post-referendum tension and loose talk. A year of this will do the economy a power of no good. It's time to spike the treaty. The institutional paralysis feared by so many has not yet happened under the current Nice Treaty arrangements. There's no reason to fiddle with them unnecessarily. Whilst everyone was agonising over the fate of political Europe and the Euro, under the ice the Handelsblatt was reporting a rush by German entrepreneurs to incorporate companies in London - not to set up there, but simply to use British company law to create firms cheaply and speedily. This is one of the things that will do Germany a lot of good (can you spell "Mittelstand"?), and it's all down to the EU. It was reported in the International Herald Tribune that the US was considering turning to the EU as an honest broker in the North Korean nuclear dispute. And Switzerland is having a referendum on joining the Schengen area, without joining the EU of course.

Right. That's step one. What next? First of all, we need consensus on aims. And this demands self-consistency. You can't argue for keeping the Polish plumbers in Poland and simultaneously enjoy the freedom of movement around Schengenland. I doubt, at bottom, that a majority of Frenchmen would not agree with the aims of free movement of persons, capital, goods, ideas and organisations around Europe. I also doubt that a majority of Dutchmen would disagree with Europe being a zone of peace and democracy. A lot of people have moaned about the constitution being too long, the reductio ad absurdum on this being a commenter at Wallstrom's who thought it should be limited to two pages of A4. Well, my student union's constitution took up twenty or so pages, plus about the same length of caveats, amendments and such. What is needed to start with, though, is a short paper on aims and principles.

This could be tossed to the European Parliament, sitting, say, as a committee called to review the constitutional treaty (thus sparing its drafters' blushes). Let us have proposals to it from the national parliaments. Then let us have an act of democracy to approve it. In six months' time (at the finish of the UK presidency), we could have a working set of principles sitting on top of the treaties. Then we can decide whether we need to go for a single document rewrite of those, or whether we can amend them as necessary to implement the principles.

In the meantime, let's concentrate on managing the business of Europe, dealing with concrete issues and sane solutions. And - can we perhaps get some new national politicians? One of the problems, perhaps the biggest, is that the key national leaders are a depressing bunch. In France we have the unprincipled old crook Jacques Chirac, currently in the process of trying to stage a death-battle between the never-elected Dominique de Villepin and the loathed Nicolas Sarkozy. In Germany we have another slimy operator, Gerhard Schröder, on his fourth wife and his last chance. In Italy, the execrable Berlusconi. In Austria, the ridiculous Wolfgang Schlüssel and his increasingly weird extreme-right coalition partners. In Britain, the hopelessly discredited Blair. In Brussels, the Luxembourgers are in the chair, with Juncker, a decent mayor in a bad year who seems to have been permanently in Brussels for as long as I can remember. The politics of the Czech Republic seem permanently mired in scandal. What a bunch!

You have to go to Spain, Sweden or Poland before you find anyone who doesn't stink of death or money. As so often, a better Europe will have to start with better national politics.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

If Not Mystery Jets...

Then at least mystery turboprops.

The New York Times has a big story on the CIA's air proprietaries, the new-old network of anonymous charter airlines that provide spook transport with deniability (at least until those pesky journalists get at them). Flying has been a CIA business since the agency was founded - the year after, it bought into the assets of Claire Chennault's postwar business venture, China Air Transport, to save it from the Communists. That became the core of what was known to the public as Air America, operating a gigantic fleet of aircraft in all kinds of places you wouldn't want to go out of a huge base in Taiwan. Pretty much anywhere the US had interests in the cold war, you could find one of the morass of frontcos they used - CAT, AA, Southern Air Transport, CNRRA, Continental Air Transport, Intermountain, Pacific Helicopters, Western Heli, Atlas Air - operating the same kind of aircraft (Dakotas, Curtiss Commandos, C-119, -123, and -130s, Twin Otters, Pilatus Porters, Helio-Couriers and choppers. Machines for the hairy of arse and horny of hand..) with the same kind of crews (madmen), doing much the same thing (delivering guns, cash, and drugs).

In fact, very often they were the same aircraft and the same crews. In the mid-80s, the Sandinistas shot down a C-46 that had been with them since the 1940s, manned by a crew who'd been with them since the 1960s..but that's enough babbling.

They had among other things the ability to strip whole C-130s, shuffle the parts like a deck of cards, and put them back together as aircraft that had officially never been built, at least as far as Lockheed knew. Most of the aircraft were on free lease (the technical term was "bailed") from the US Air Force, which drove the USAF liaison people to distraction. They, after all, had to justify their budget to Congress; and they couldn't very well say "Senator, the reason we keep buying more C-130s is because the CIA keeps crashing'em". The liaison officer, Colonel Fletcher Prouty, developed a system of collecting the fuel receipts from US bases to keep track of the aircraft (can anyone guess why I was interested in the Viktor Bout fuel contracts?).

Now, according to the Times, all the old-line features are there: there's even a Dakota still on the roster. Nobody will be very surprised to know it's these aircraft that have been hauling secret prisoners around.

This may throw light on some aspects of the Viktor Bout system. I've recently been asked for information on any C-130s operated by Viktor. The reason is that they have been spotted operating for "Air Mero", which according to Ruud, fellow Bout stalker, is a name used by both Aerocom and Jetline/Jet Line for their KBR contracts in Iraq.

Now, western aircraft are rare in the Bout inventory. But there is a possibility that something called "TransAfrik", a Sao Tome-based company set up by investors in Ireland called "IAS Group", may be at the heart of this. TransAfrik, as well as nearly sharing a name with Trans African (who, by the way, have swapped planes with Jetline in the past), own some 11 Lockheed L-100s. A Lockheed L-100 is simply a C-130 Hercules sold to a civilian owner.

These Hercs have a past, though. They all belonged to none other than that Air America isotope, Southern Air Transport.

However, Transafrik was set up in 1986. Which fits with the liquidation of SAT, but not with the only air-related IAS Group I've heard of (a KLM-owned firm established in 1994). The current owners are apparently something called TWL Ltd. Questions, questions...

On another point, the NYT story is accompanied by a nice photo of one of Aero Contractors' CASA CN-235s. The registration is N168D, which is registered to Devon Holding & Leasing, Inc. Serial no. is C135. Another Devon ship is N187D, serial C143, another CN235. Interestingly, there's one lonely CN235 knocking around the US Air Force's inventory, too, usually in Afghanistan. (Photo here.) Its serial is C-42, military reg. 96-6049. And it, too, frequents rural North Carolina..(Link)

Does that satisfy your craving for mystery aircraft, Tim?

The Not-Real Cost of Air Travel

The Independent got its head caught between the cheeks this weekend (If you wonder why I'm so behind, it's because blog builds up over time and I have to find opportunities to vent spleen). They ran their usual screamer front page with a giant headline "The Real Cost of Air Travel" and a map of European destinations giving the figures for CO2 emissions and fuel consumption, along with various size-of-Belgium type comparisons. (For example, Oslo was the weight of four reindeer in carbon.)

Unfortunately, the figures given couldn't possibly be right.

I thought they sounded high, and reading the small print explained why. Their working assumption was that the aircraft was always a Boeing 747, whereever in the world it was supposed to be going. Now, there are many good reasons why nobody flies London-Paris with a B747, but one of the biggest is that it would be wildly uneconomic due precisely to the spectacular waste of fuel! The 747 was designed to be efficient over intercontinental distances, just as 737s and Airbus 320s are to be efficient in short haul.

Unsurprisingly, they didn't say whether they assumed a 747-400 or Classic - which would have been significant.

This drives me up the wall with inchoate fury. Surely, surely, surely it helps no-one to give people dodgy figures? Even if the idea was to scare them, the risk is that they will never believe any environmental stats again.

Blair In Blatant Corruption Scandal, No Bugger Notices

Last week, the London Evening Standard, or the Daily Mail with a lobotomy as I prefer to think of it, carried a significant report about the plans for the final, much-belated commercial use of the Millenium Dome. The Standard loyally swooned over the two huge arenas, the indoor street of bars and restaurants, the exhibition, concert, conference, and sporting facilities. They even found fairly friendly words for the news that mobile network operator O2 (BT Cellnet as was. I can't stand this trend for fancy names in the industry - a phone company should call itself something like PTT Globtelnet, not pretend to be Nathan Barley's PR agency) was to paint the biggest corporate logo in the world on top of the bugger.

Hold that thought - the biggest corporate logo in the world. Kinda fitting end for Blair's Dome, no? I was personally counting on the place for a mausoleum to Blair, where his mortal remains could lurk in a granite coffin stuffed with his native earth, next to Alastair Campbell and Rebekah Wade's identical sarcophagi. After all, the war crimes trial and public execution could have been staged in the place, too - plenty of room and a truly dramatic setting, good security and lighting.

Bah well, I'm sure we'll find somewhere.

The Standard mentioned, indeed headlined, that part of Philip Anschutz's plan for the monster was a "Las Vegas-style casino". But they completely missed the significance of this. Remember the fantastic Gambling Bill our lovely and intelligent culture secretary Tessa Jowell rammed through Parliament immediately prior to the election? That originally foresaw monster casinos springing from the earth pretty much everywhere (I paraphrase), but after an outbreak of conscience spread through the back benches, the government was forced to slash the Bill dramatically in order that it didn't meet the ID Cards Bill's fate and die horribly when Parliament rose.

Crucially, they hacked the number of big casinos permitted - their backbench critics wanted no part of them at all, and secured two successive reductions. But the government was insistent that some big casinos must make it, before the election. Finally they got down to permitting only one single casino. There, though, they stuck and refused to budge. The Bill became law, with one large casino permitted. Which was an improvement, at least, on the original plan under which Britain would have become one large casino.

Can you tell what it is yet? More precisely, have you guessed exactly where the one large casino is going to be yet? And precisely why we have to have a large casino?

Got it in one. It's the dealbreaker on the sale of the Dome. Casinos are a great way to make money, so long as you're not a punter. And the best ones are like this one: big, and plonked somewhere that draws herds of cow-eyed tourists. The old-fashioned Mayfair high-roller job is worse, because it's a far safer deal to scoop the house percentage on thousands and thousands of little bets than to run the risk of Sheikh Whoever having a winning streak with million-quid chips. London Clubs International, the operator of most of London's casinos, occasionally has to wap the stock market with profits warnings after the 'rollers get lucky. This doesn't happen with slot machines and video poker.

So, as they say, where's the outrage? Apart from right here...I wrote in my column for the Brussels Sprout this month that British Eurosceptics have a one-eyed view of corruption. They went ape about Barroso's holiday on Latsis's yacht, but say nothing about Latsis pére's massive financing of the Conservative Party. More broadly, corruption, to the British in general, is something that foreigners do.

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