Wednesday, July 30, 2003

BBC NEWS | Business | BAE wins key aircraft deal

RAF will after all buy more BAE Hawks

The cost overrun may begin. But at least there's a few that won't be sold to mutant dictators...

Tories - party of honesty, efficiency and respect for our soldiers

BACK, back, many years ago, in 1996, the Conservative government sold the Ministry of Defence's married quarters - housing estates for servicemen and their families - to a Japanese bank, Nomura Securities. The deal worked like this. The houses were originally run by a thing called the Defence Housing Executive or DHE. This body sold a 999-year lease (why is it always 999 years and never 1,000?) of all its houses to another thing, called Annington Homes, a company majority-owned by the Japanese bankers. This firm would collect rent from the families of the soldiers and would maintain the houses. But - unlike most landlords - it would also have the right to grab back the cost of maintaining them from the Ministry of Defence. That is, us. Although it's the responsibility of the landlord to maintain the property, and this is usually the running cost of being a landlord, Annington were clearly special. Effectively, that meant every penny of rent above the interest on the cost of buying the houses was clear profit. But that wasn't the clever bit. No. The clever bit was that Annington has the right under the contract to sell several hundred houses every year and pocket the price. In an environment of land frenzy, one can imagine how lucrative this was. That it meant that the stock of houses available to the soldiers' families could only ever go down is just as clear.

Annington's corporate motto is "A completely new way of selling second hand homes".

The division of Nomura involved in the deal was their well-known Principal Finance unit, which specialised in buying up cash-generating but unfashionable assets (famously, several thousand pubs) using either their access to in-house funds or financial engineering (issuing reams of bonds secured on the cash flow to buy the stuff, meaning that the bond holders paid and got the income but Nomura got the capital). This organisation was until recently run by Mr. Guy Hands, a renowned City figure and one of Mr. William Hague's best friends.

The sum brought in by the DHE sale in November, 1996 - £1,662 million - was roughly equal to a 1p overall income tax cut, the cut that was indeed made in the 1996/7 Budget as an election bribe. Mr. William Hague was a member of the cabinet that took these decisions. Mr. Hands was a very close friend of Hague's, at Oxford and McKinsey's - close enough to advise him to "forget about the leadership for 5 years and spend them fucking your brains out".

Some of the houses in Devizes are on sale at the moment. Prices start at £122,950. The original price worked out to around £10,000 each. But Annington and the MoD really, really Care about the people in them. You can clearly tell from the sweet, carin'sharin' corporate social responsbility cool pastel colours on the website! After all, they've given a whole, fat, hyper-generous 2% discount off that 122K to service families.

A private soldier in the Infantry is paid £241.22 a week.

That Uranium Feeling

Beirut Calling, the Lebanese blogger whose efforts can be found under Blogs of Distinction, has done it again. Apparently the Italian woman who claims to have been the source for the claim that Iraq had been buying uranium from a mine in Niger - although Niger had nothing to do with Iraq and the mine is controlled by France, and the documents shown to the press were phony, and the minister who was supposed to have signed them hasn't been in post since 1988 - works for a mag called Panorama - owned by one Silvio Berlusconi. A small world, no?

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Tony Martin - why he should have stayed banged up

Much media attention has been focused on Mr. Tony Martin's release from jail. Mr. Martin, we may remember, was the Norfolk farmer who killed a 16 year old boy, Fred Barras, who he suspected of burgling him. Mr. Martin had before the crime given every sign of being obsessed with burglars, weapons and security measures, not to mention displaying an aggressive hostility to Gypsies (he had spoken of putting them in "one of his fields surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gunning them"). On the night, Barras and Fearon had indeed entered Martin's property, committing a crime, when Martin noticed their presence. He armed himself with a loaded 12-bore pump-action shotgun - a powerful and illegal weapon - and concealed himself in a position to watch the exits from the house. Barras and Fearon appear to have been disturbed, as they ran off empty-handed. Martin was at no time attacked or threatened, nor did he ever face either of the burglars. As the two men ran away, though, he opened fire at their backs from his concealment, killing Barras and severely wounding Fearon. He claimed self-defence, saying that they had shone a torch in his eyes as he lay in bed upstairs - but forensic evidence showed that the shots had been fired downstairs. How one can be attacked arse-first was not explained. Nor was why he left Barras' body lying where he fell for 15 hours.

It further emerged that Mr. Martin had a history of dangerous behaviour involving guns. He had at various times menaced a woman with a Luger before shooting a pigeon in front of her, threatened to kill various people, and smashed the windows out of his brother's house with a shotgun. Even more interestingly, he spent much time at the Swaffham estate of Andrew Fountaine, founder of the National Front and his uncle by marriage, where Mr. Fountaine held "Aryan summer camps" for members of fascist groupings from across Europe. All in all, a very fitting man for the tabloid press to fall in love with.

But why, when they found the lawsuit brought by Mr. Fearon against Mr. Martin so iniquitous, could the Daily Mirror bring itself to give Martin £100,000 for his crime - sorry, for his story? I recall David Mellor, disgraced Tory, radio presenter and self publicist, declaring with regard to Jamie Bulger's killers "It's a policy of kill a kid and get a house!". (I'm sure the parody of Private Eye's "Kill an Argie and win a Metro!" Falklands spoof was unconscious) Whatever you may think of Mellor's apparent belief that disturbed 11-year-olds were motivated by real estate, the fact remains that Tony Martin did just that. And the Mirror's given him, if not a house, then enough cash to do a really nice Changing Rooms job on his old place. Maybe they'll run a special edition with Charlie Dimmock saying where he should hang his rifle rack.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Lord Black goes ape - again

Conrad Black, Daily Telegraph owner and Canadian immigrant, has been at it again, printing a lengthy tirade against "the greatest menace facing the country" in his rag. What might that be, Connie? Innurnashnal trrism? Global climate change? Economic decline? AIDS? Don't tell me - the danger of a ban on fox hunting? The lack of compulsory school prayers curdling our precious bodily fluids? Mobile phones?

Apparently it's the BBC. And their crime is to "destroy and supplant the government as the source of authority in this country". Since when has it been desirable for us - independent and intelligent citizens - to treat everything the government tells us as gospel, as this implies? And why, if governmental authority is both so sacred and so vulnerable to criticism, does the Telegraph spend so many column inches daily ranting and railing against the government and all its works - indeed, against government on principle? If you or I were to write this shite in a letter to the Torygraph, they'd throw it right in the green ink bin. If we were to call a public meeting to declare it, they'd ship us off to a psychiatric hospital. But Lord Black is sufficiently rich for safety, and has a pet newspaper to ventilate his prejudices. I have to make do with a blog. Of course, it was such a courageous and independent decision for the Torygraph's letters editor to publish the Canadian hammer of asylum seekers' animadversions....

Thursday, July 24, 2003

US raid for Saddam's sons

Well, the Americans have something to cheer however briefly. The corpse photos are out. I see the point, after all there are plenty of people here who don't really believe in scientific proofs - but it's a tad barbaric. Why not stick their heads on a pole and parade them through the streets of Baghdad..that's not a suggestion, by the way. Although Ann Coulter or someone like that (her of "we should conquer their countries, introduce them to democracy and convert them to Christianity" fame) probably would. The US are clearly hoping that out of the two main elements of Ba'athism as practiced in Iraq (modern bureaucratic dictatorship, and feudalism), feudalism will win out. Get the king and the followers will melt away. There is a certain logic in that - tribal and dynastic rule was very important, and old traditions have re-asserted themselves immensely (Patrick Cockburn's article in today's Independent makes the point that Ramadi, a centre of resistance, has been famous for highwaymen and banditry for at least a hundred years) - but the surge of killings following Monday's raid argues against it. There are for one thing a hell of a lot of people who have loyalties not to the "king" but to the Ba'ath, the army or one of the various security outfits. Was creating a couple of martyrs sensible? After all, the idea of a hiding or sleeping hero is an ancient motif of folktales throughout the world, that has always been a potent rallying force for rebels. And you only have to recall the Shi'a belief in the 12th or Hidden Imam who will return one day to realise the potency of it in Iraq.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Under the Eiffel Tower - Watch the vid

This is an act of god-like genius.

Neat little blog..

Now that's just plain un-American

So that's what happened on the Syrian border...

Beirut Calling blogged a very interesting story concerning that US/Syrian frontier it is..

EXCLUSIVE: U.S. Syria raid killed 80
By RICHARD SALE, UPI Intelligence Correspondent

Depicted by the Pentagon as a mere border skirmish, the June 18 strike into Syria by U.S. military forces was, in fact, based on mistaken intelligence and penetrated more than 25 miles into that country, causing numerous Syrian casualties, several serving and former administration officials said. Although diplomatic relations between the two sides have been frosty after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the two nations have close intelligence ties, which have become strained as a result, these sources said.

"I think this was a deliberate effort to disrupt cooperation between U.S. and Syrian intelligence agencies," an administration official said.

According to a report in The New York Times, administration officials said that attack, carried out by Task Force 20, a Special Operations force, was based on intelligence that a convoy of SUVs, heading for Syria, was linked to senior fugitive Iraqi leaders. "The (intel) was that senior Iraqis, perhaps even (former Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein were getting out of the country," a State Department official told United Press International. The ensuing raid "was conducted under the rules of hot pursuit," an administration official told UPI on condition his name not be used.

In the same Times report, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the attacks, saying it was based on "solid intelligence."

"We had good intelligence, and it indicated that there were people moving around during their curfew close to the border in a convoy of SUV's and our forces went in and stopped them," the Times quoted Rumsfeld as saying.
But one administration official described the intelligence as "totally false," and a former CIA official labeled it "flimsy" and another former U.S. intelligence official called it "almost non-existent." One former senior CIA official with access to current intelligence information said he believed the source of the intelligence was Israel, which for months has said either Saddam or weapons of mass destruction were being smuggled into Syria. "The Izzies (Israelis) have been pitching this to anyone who would listen," the former CIA official said. Chief Israeli Embassy spokesman, Mark Regev, said only: "I simply don't ever discuss such matters."

But Anthony Cordesman, national security expert that the Center For Strategic And International Studies, defended the intelligence and the attack it triggered: "You have to act quickly on rumors in that situation. You have zero time."
He also pointed out that U.S. means of intelligence-collection in the area suffers from "extremely serious limitations."
For one thing, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones "can produce only a limited coverage of patterns" while even signals intelligence "can be fragmentary and unreliable," he said.

And the question of Israeli intelligence? "Do we tend to over-rely on the Israelis? Probably, but you have to remember too that the CIA is permanently pissed by Israel and likes to discredit it," he said. A former very senior CIA official told UPI: "Too often the Israeli intelligence product is hard to distinguish from Israel political messages." The Times report said Task Force 20, supported by helicopters and AC-130 gunships, struck the convoy and a housing compound "in a village not far from the Syria border." Task Force 20 captured 20 Iraqis, all of whom were later released, the Times and other news reports said. But one senior administration official told UPI the attack crossed "25 miles or more" into Syria, and the Pentagon had initial reports of 80 Syrians "who were KIA (killed in action)."
Cordesman said he believed this to be possible because "the fighting between our forces and the Syrians was extremely intense."

But instead of capturing any high-value Iraqi targets, the Task Force destroyed "a gas smuggling ring," a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. This official labeled the attack "a colossal blunder." His view was supported by a half a dozen administration officials interviewed by UPI. The former senior U.S. intelligence official said the Task Force had destroyed SUVs "on both sides of the border" that had been fitted out as mini-gas tankers. The Task Force blew up "a great number of these vehicles," causing huge explosions and fireballs when they were hit, he said. "The explosions could account for the casualties," he said. A spokesman from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said: "We are unable to comment on any cross-border raids, especially if they involved Special Forces."

Serving and former U.S. intelligence officials attributed a political motive to the attacks, alleging they were designed to disrupt cooperation between the CIA and Syrian intelligence. "Syria has given us invaluable help on hunting down members of al-Qaida, and they were instrumental in ex-filtrating some major Iraqi fugitives back to Baghdad," one former senior CIA official said. "That is not to everyone's liking." In early May, two top Iraqi biological scientists who had been hiding in safe havens in Syria were ex-filtrated back to Iraq where they were captured by U.S. military forces, former CIA officials said. A U.S. intelligence official told UPI: "It was a gift to Secretary of State Colin Powell" and also an effort by Damascus to compensate for its apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups, which are on Washington's list of terrorist organizations.

But CIA-Syria cooperation was far more extensive, former and serving U.S. intelligence officials said.

According to these sources, Syria and the CIA have a joint exploitation center based in Aleppo, plus Syria turned over to the agency all its intelligence networks in Germany as well as all of Syria's cover companies there. As a result, the agency learned that Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta once worked in Germany for a Syrian cover company, these sources said. "Syria was not the only source, but they were very helpful in this matter," a former senior CIA official said.
The CIA was also grateful to Damascus for giving early warning of a planned al-Qaida attack on U.S. installations in Bahrain, using an explosives-laden glider, which would be invisible to radar, according to these sources. "The Syrians have been an incredible help in sharing intelligence," one serving U.S. intelligence officer said.
Senior Pentagon leaders, who administration officials describe as being very close to Israel, have been unhappy with the increasingly close CIA-Syria ties and used the June 18 attack to disrupt the CIA-Syrian intelligence relationship.
"I think that certain Pentagon officials want to see (Syrian president) Bashar Assad deposed and Syria sign a peace treaty with Israel," said former senior DIA official Pat Lang. But other U.S. officials disagreed.

"Syria is playing a double-game," said one administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Hamas terrorists are returning to Damascus, a lot of towns in East Syria are nothing but transit points for Iraqi officials who are free to go in and out. I wouldn't put much trust in Syria." But a serving U.S. intelligence official disagreed. "Syria is obviously making an effort. It has gotten the message of our military victory and our aim of democratizing the region." He added: "Syria clearly realizes that it has a great deal to gain by being a friend of America and everything to lose if it turns away from friendship."

As of now, the Pentagon had ignored State Department requests for additional details on the June 18 strike, administration officials said. Four days of phone calls to the Office of the Secretary of Defense brought no comment from any Pentagon official.


The fix is in....

It didn't take long for the government's line of attack to become obvious after the death of Dr Kelly, and it could hardly have been more depressing, more unworthy or more dishonest. The strategy is obviously to whip up a BBC-bashing campaign in the Murdoch press, always willing to have a pop at their oh-so-inconvenient competitors, in order to demonise the BBC and divert attention from the government. A succession of voices were put up for this task - the first being Lord Barnett on Radio 5 this Saturday. Barnett is a Labour peer and former minister in the Wilson-Callaghan administration, and was once one of the BBC governors. He couldn't get going quickly enough. It was the BBC's fault. They had clearly sexed up their story. No mention of the clear and evident fact that the dossiers are a crock of shit - practically nothing in them appears to be supported by reality, and there are absolutely no points on which they err towards caution. All the falsehoods support the government's view - an interesting coincidence. Whether or not Alistair Campbell personally altered them after the intelligence services had finished is irrevelant - the government lied. Gilligan's report is in fact broadly true - the dossier bears as much relation to reality as a porno film. Lord Barnett is largely remembered for the Barnett formula, the arcane mechanism by which UK government payments to Scotland are calculated and which means that the government must needs spend considerably more for every Scot than for anyone else. If that was my political legacy, I'd shut up, but his lordship clearly finds it necessary to do Ali C's dirty work from beyond the political grave.

No amount of BBC bashing can explain or excuse the fact that MOD, having apparently initiated a witch hunt for Kelly, then decided to ask journalists to put forward their names for the source, promising to tell them if they were right. (That the ministry knew demonstrates that the witch had already been located.) This unpleasant, gangster proceeding effectively made the hacks accomplices in the Whitehall effort to silence criticism within the civil service - for what else was it? - and guaranteed a maximum of publicity. Why were MoD policemen sent with him to the select committee? Why, in the account of the Guardian's Patrick Wintour, was one of the Modplod taking notes of Kelly's evidence? After all, they could always have read the transcripts. Yesterday, I saw on the cover of the Independent the face of Geoff Hoon - the chubby arrogance, the tiny piggy eyes, the vast braying mouth, the nauseating hauteur - and it struck me that it was the face of a Tory, a disgraced and disgraceful reactionary. Born to rule. And - I felt absolutely nothing. It's the end. For the first time, I really don't care whether they stay in government.

What can we expect? It depends, I suppose, if the No.10/Murdoch campaign against the BBC sticks or not. If the spin offensive succeeds in getting a high-profile scalp at the BBC, the media machine will move on and the government will have got away with it yet again. And they will ask us to forget all about their lies, and all about Dr Kelly. Will we? Somehow I doubt it. Blood will out, and this is the first British scandal with a body for years. I doubt, though, if that will be enough to shift Blair if he succeeds in bullying the Beeb. In this case, we will go on much as before with a government increasingly the butt of general distrust and alarmingly intense loathing, a furiously excited press and a prime minister more and more deluded by power. The government will continue to rule by virtue of incumbency, without the real consent of the public. It is to be expected that the government will attempt to take revenge on the BBC, roared on by Tories and the Sun. This could take a few forms - intensive bullying of senior staff and interference with appointments, with the invaluable aid of the coming renewal of the Royal Charter as a big stick. Call it Berlusconisation. Or perhaps Railtracking - a forced reorganisation with the effect of making the corporation ineffective and of raising a certain amount of money by partial privatisation? Either way, in this case Blair will either finally fail in trying to control the BBC, or he will Texanise the media (even if he doesn't want to) and leave us without a real news network, but with really cheap cable repeats.

If the scandal cannot be shifted, though - what then? It is hard to imagine Clare Short's "elegant succession" being realised, as Blair will doubtless convince himself everyone still loves him. But in this case, he can hardly survive. There will be an undignified scrabble followed by abject scuttle as those MPs whose morals are sufficiently weak to back him finally feel the waters rising and flee the ship. (Think of Eric Illsley, of the Foreign Affairs committee, who today declared that the BBC reports were "made up". So where are the weapons then Eric? And how long will he stay so loyal before betraying? I'd give him about five minutes.) Unfortunately, he's too young to disappear into decent obscurity, and will hang around annoyingly for years. Let's drain the swamp. We could...have a general election. Now there's an idea - perhaps we could even call it democracy.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Beirut Calling..

Is an excellent blog. Welcome to my Blogs of Distinction.

Picture of the day

"There goes another pesky journalist!"

Which "-Gate" will this one get?

As is well known, all scandals are given a designation ending in -GATE in much the same way as tropical cyclones are given names and US invasions are given codenames according to where they occur. (Ops. DESERT SHIELD, DESERT STORM, DESERT FOX - all Iraq, Ops. INFINITE REACH and INFINITE JUSTICE were both Afghanistan. In case you've forgotten, REACH was the 1998 raid on Afghanistan that missed Osama bin Laden by 40 minutes. And everyone back then accused Bill Clinton of starting a war to distract attention from Monica's dress stains. Don't those Republicans have short memories? Pity about the Sudanese aspirin factory though. INFINITE JUSTICE, the invasion, was named on the principle that everything to do with Afghanistan was INFINITE, but the name was changed after a public outcry. Outcries against the names of military offensives - it's a strange world...) More recently, of course, the Tories had Iraqgate, Labour had Cheriegate, and the Lib Dems decided the word gate was offensive to the gateless. But what will they call the worsening furore about Mr. Blair and the War of No Reason? Weaponsgate? Dossiergate? Campbellgate?

Yesterday was bad enough, with the rigged select committee hearing in which Mr. Gilligan was dragged into a private session with only the government members present. Truly an Old Labour, union boss way of winning an argument - call the meeting when they're least expecting it and the right people only are present. But it is no way for a parliamentary body to behave. When the hearings began, hopes were high that the Foreign Affairs Committee would do the deed. But they have managed to become so captured by government as to be absurd. The nobbled committee hearing was an exercise in the rare pastime of political self-castration - what kind of democratic control is this sorry bunch now meant to offer? But today's news wasn't so much the last straw as the last steel girder dropping from a great height on this poor camel. Dr David Kelly, weapons inspector and alleged whistleblower, has been found dead in (as they say) mysterious circumstances. Surely, surely, surely, someone will now be punished? A judicial inquiry has been promised - it is amazing how much we are coming to rely on the judges to keep the politicians in check. Good luck, Mr. Justice Cocklecarrot - you'll need it...

Monday, July 14, 2003

That pensions thing

The NEF's basic idea is that when a public authority of any kind has a capital project on, they could form a mutual pension fund to finance it. The members would sign up and pay in their pension contributions + employer contributions and the like, and the fund would build the project and lease it to the government for 30 years. The lease payments would provide the income stream to pay out the pensions. The members would own the fund, which would be internally democratic. Obviously, the fund could only fail if the government decided to close out the service without replacing the building - but if the lease had not yet been paid off, the assets would revert to the fund. The constitution of the fund would stipulate that it could not be converted to a private company. To get the ball rolling, the current right to contract out of the second state pension and have your contributions placed in a privately managed fund would be replaced with a clause alowing you to put them into one of these instead. Although the money would leave the national insurance fund, it would return to government as the funding for public construction projects. As the pension payments would replace either PFI payouts or interest repayments on the national debt, the whole thing would be cash-neutral. (Comparing it to the private finance initiative as a means of financing government construction, it would likely be cheaper.) Seems like a good idea to me.

NEF suggest that the schemes be as small and localised as possible, but I feel this could be a problem - after all, projects below a certain size would be uneconomic to set up, and even bigger ones might be problematic in the sense that members would need to join several to get a living income. And how will they achieve such democracy then? But this is probably soluble - funds could of course take on a group of small projects, or a large institution like a city council or Regional Development Agency could set up a single big'un. Comments please.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

That 727 story - update

Well, it would appear there are two B727s making the news...PPRuNe link.....but it appears from the next page of the thread that it's all over. The aircraft was apparently sold to a new owner after its repossession - who knew nothing of its dodgy and dramatic past. Haven't we all met people like that! It would seem that the *other* 727 was a red herring, due to the fact that its registration was confusable (N344AA and N844AA). So, spooks, you can all go home...


I'd composed a long post on the New Economics Foundation's proposals on a form of mutual finance scheme for public construction as a pensions solution, but it's mysteriously disappeared. You can still get the document under "Downloads" below.

UK/Colombia - a curious connection...

If you have been paying attention, you might remember that a while back, several IRA Volunteers were arrested in Colombia of all places, where they were alleged to have been engaged in co-operation with the FARC. (Supposedly, the men had been testing weapons and equipment. At the time, the news aroused indignant denials from all concerned (except for the Colombian cops) and yet another of Northern Ireland's frequent political crises. Oddly enough, though, it seems that while the Provos were helping out their fellow terrorists, the British state was lending a hand to the Colombian military. And possibly also, whether intentionally or not, Colombia's vicious right-wing terrorists. The Guardian
reported yesterday at some length on this....Link to report

According to the Grauniad story, British military, intelligence and quasi-police assistance to the Colombian government has been rapidly expanding in a variety of fields, of the conceptual kind and, I should think, the coca and battle kinds too. It's hardly surprising that after the US introduction of "Plan Colombia", America's Gurkhas would be called on. Neither is it too surprising to see an increase in such activity as the Colombian war escalates. But the full details of British involvement are rather more remarkable. It has been an open secret for some time that small numbers of SAS soldiers have been training Colombian troops and gendarmes/police commandos (the mission goes back to 1989), and the Royal Navy publicises drugs busts made by its West Indies guardship heavily. The news that an MI6 station leading the operation exists in Colombia is hardly surprising - nor is the idea that those maritime drugs busts might be aided by a special force or policing mission there. The weight of British involvement in the civil war, though, has so far either been much less or much more secret. After all, the people always described in the English-speaking world as "narcotics police" are called the Fuerza Jungla. I don't speak Spanish, but that sounds very much like "Jungle Force" to me. And that isn't quite the same thing as yer friendly (or not) local drug squad.

Also in that direction, British Army trainers have been working with army mountain battalions, which is some distance over the line from merely pursuing drug smugglers. (Although BATTs - British Army Training Teams - are active in many countries around the world.) The curious connection with Northern Ireland, though, shows up in the people who the Blair government have sent to Bogota - a Northern Ireland Office head of security (what could be more emblematic of the secret state?), Sir John Steele, as well as the controversial former commander of the 22 SAS Regiment, Sir Michael Rose and an old Chief of the General Staff, Sir Roger Wheeler. Curiouser yet, a Colombian general has been "received in Belfast". "The intention of the exchanges was partially to improve the Colombian security forces' respect for democratic government and human rights". Well....this sort of "defence diplomacy" has been a theme of Labour's foreign policy. And
however bad things have been in NI, Colombia can trump them by several orders of magnitude. But what the hell did the Foreign Office mean when it declared that Britain had provided advice on "urban warfare techniques, counter-guerrilla strategy and psychiatry"?

Now there's respect for democratic government and human rights for you. After all, what was the next Colombian news story but this? I wouldn't be too astonished if a fair number of British servicemen might soon have a good reason to learn Spanish and pack mozzie repellent by the gallon.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

This is all they - or we - need....

The BBC reports that the Pakistani embassy in Kabul has been sacked by a mob protesting about supposed Pakistani interference in Afghanistan. Worse, there have apparently been several frontier incidents between Pak and Afghan troops, including exchanges of fire. The Afghans have every reason to suspect and fear Pakistani machinations in their country - the Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, through the Pakistani policy of seeking "strategic depth", was famously deeply involved in the creation of the Taliban movement, backing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the civil war and even, some say, plotting to hide Pakistani nuclear arms in Taliban territory in the event of war with India as a kind of cheap second strike capability.

Since Sep. 11 2001 and the beginning of the current world crisis, Pakistani soldiers have been sent into the tribal areas on the Northwest frontier for the first time in an effort to subdue al-Qa'ida activities up those mountains. Reports of mysterious western special-force people (CIA operatives? Green Berets? UK or Aussie SAS?) have not been uncommon - one hopes the Americans have not been foolish enough to encourage Pakistani forces on these operations to cross the border. Even US or British soldiers might not be as unpopular as Pakistanis there, as evidenced by the embassy riot.

Monday, July 07, 2003

But what was it all for?

Memory, Forgetting, Alistair Campbell and Iraq

It would appear that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report has let the Downing St Director of Strategic Communications, Alistair Campbell, aka Consultant Spin Doctor, "Riviera Gigolo", hate figure of the Right, the Left, the Media and probably the church too, wannabe Scotsman, reformed alkie and all-round political thug off the charge of interfering with the now-infamous dossier on weapons of you-know-what in Iraq. What a bore! Mr Campbell's defence strategy has in effect been to start a blinding row with the BBC and hope that a) everyone forgets about the war, and b) the Sun et al get into the spirit of the thing and start a hard right hue and cry about "liberal elite....politically correct media....journalists" and the usual 80s-Republican imported rubbish. Ali's beef is basically that BBC defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan published the original story that he doctored the dossier on the back of a single spook's tale. The full absurdity of this argument is best shown by a thought experiment - what would Campbell have done in his old life as political editor of the Daily Mirror, faced with the same story? The only realistic answer is that he would have clamped down like a starving crocodile and splashed the fucker all over page one at all costs. Think about it - it was a killer news nugget and no journalist in the world would ever have missed it for all the expenses in Fleet Street. Mr C - as I'll call him from now in homage to East London rock'n'roll sensations, Daryl C and his C-Men - made his career as a scurrilous tabloid politician basher, before defecting to the west as a scurrilous, tabloid journalist-basher. There are 2 possibilities - he's turned overnight into the reincarnation of Pulitzer, or he ain't playing straight. And he's paid for the second.

What does he want us to forget? The full technical and military absurdity of trying to say that Iraq was just tipped to the toes with evil chemical germs, that somehow disappeared overnight when they were needed most. The September dossier - the one the government didn't admit to faking - gave the powerful impression that Iraq had a genuine, operational system for the use of chemical and/or biological arms. If such arms could be "deployed" within 45 minutes of an order, they must have been prepared for use as weapons - i.e. artillery rounds or rockets, warheads for ballistic missiles, aerial bombs or missiles - and produced in quantity. Even if "deployed", as the Foreign Office now contend, only means delivered to units, this means that arrangements must have existed to transport them to those units wherever they were - which means that the war stocks of such weapons had to be held at logistically convenient points around Iraq. Not in a remote cave or secret bunker lab, but an ordnance depot with excellent road access, railway links, and major warehouse-type facilities. Not too hard to find - like looking for a supermarket distribution centre, airport cargo terminal or the like, in inconvenient fact. Another hint - special weapons are of course stored and handled under extreme security precautions.

Further forward, the units chosen to fire them would quite clearly have needed to prepare. They would have had to keep and deliver the chemical munitions separately from the conventional ones. They would have had to train their personnel in the use of nasties. They would have had to keep extra protection and decontamination gear and take precautions against the special stuff being exposed to enemy fire or detected before its use. Deployment could mean various things, but can hardly have been less than the delivery of the WMDs to the unit echelons. It could also mean their delivery to the firing points. Those units chosen for this role would be permeated by preparations for chemical or biological war (if not by the stuff itself...), quite apart from the complex transport arrangements needed.

One of the crucial issues with regard to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is "C3" - command, control, and communications, as they are the most deadly weapons in existence. Plutonium is not a thing to play with. Further, to use them is the biggest military-political decision there is. The decision to authorise such use is usually reserved at least to the supreme military command, if not to the supreme political leadership. Even if weapons are released to the control of lower formations, they generally require approval if possible. This makes a special and sophisticated command system necessary. It is obvious, first of all, that the unintentional use of a weapon is prevented as far as possible. It's also obvious that the enemy might try to interfere with communications in order to prevent their use. From an Iraqi point of view, keeping the perpetrators of a coup from using them would also be crucial. Various solutions exist, but all require complicated encipherment and identification as well as some form of split channel, so that no one man can fire the missile.
The Soviet answer, for example, was to split control of the rocket from control of the warhead. Authority to launch stayed with the commander, but the warhead could only be primed by the Communist Party commissar (who answered to the General Political Administration and ultimately to the 4th chief directorate of the secret service). On a nuclear submarine, for example, the launch order would come in a naval cipher restricted to the Captain. Having decoded the signal, the Captain would use this key to fire the missiles. But the bombs would only go off if they had been primed by the Commissar's key - and this could only happen on receipt of another signal in a Naval GRU intelligence cipher known only to the Commissar. The strong influence of Soviet military technique on the Iraqi forces would suggest some version of this structure.

This all means that Iraq, were anything in the dossiers true, would be awash with people (to say nothing of materiel) trained as part of this system - much of the artillery arm, for a start. And not one of them - now penniless - would be tempted to talk? Is this realistic? If the government was not lying in its teeth, then the information provided by the intelligence services was so wrong as to be absurd. Suspiciously so. What they want us to forget is that we have apparently gone to war for no reason at all. That people have been killed. That we find ourselves in occupation of a vast ruined territory where the people sometimes shoot, for an indefinite period. That the cost has been insane. That no - absolutely no - concrete benefit has come of it. Only pain and hate and distrust and waste. They hope we will forget. They hope that those oh-so-handy silly season soaraways about footballers being kidnapped and evil asylum seekers stealing the Queen's swans will screen their getaway. They hope against hope that we will forget the hopes of 1997 and the steady grey betrayals ever since. Milan Kundera said that "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

That 727 story.....

Has today resurfaced in The Guardian. Apparently, a Canadian pilot named Bob Strother recognised it in Conakry under a new Guinean registration (3X-GOM), where it is supposedly being used by local business interests. (Guardian report) According to the paper, "an American official in the region said this was the first he had heard of the plane since its disappearance from Angola's capital, Luanda, on May 25. People have been looking for this thing everywhere," the official said. "We've had reports that it crashed, that it was in South Africa or Nigeria, but nothing for sure, not like what you've just told me."

But a "Western official" in Sierra Leone was closer to the story...

"A western diplomat in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, said it was more likely the plane had simply been snatched from Luanda be cause its owner was reluctant to pay year-long airport taxes, totalling around £30,000.
"There's always a shady side to business around here," he said. "But as for the terrorism stuff, that sounds like a complete load of rubbish."

Maybe he rants too.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Better blogging..

Compare that heap of mad tosh with, an excellent US site blogging news on workers' rights to protection from injury at work. This is a great example of a serious blog covering real live news that is insufficiently reported elsewhere. They've earned the right to a permanent Ranter link. Note - net dogs need not apply...

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