Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The joy of headline

Just to put this on record - the Daily Express is running with "THE TEEN BOMBERS" as its (huge) headline today. The story is apparently the arrest of a suspected al-Qa'ida cell as detailed below, but the headline sounds so much like a band that I had an odd feeling that I might have been to one of their gigs. Strange. The Sun, of course, produced its usual contribution to race relations by running "MOSQUE FULL OF BOMBERS!" At least they couldn't find an asylum seeker.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

BBC NEWS Terror suspects held in raids


Police have seized half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, in a self-storage warehouse near Heathrow Airport. Further action resulted in eight arrests. Those arrested are apparently all British. (What was that about fighting a war on terrorism in Iraq?) The stuff in question is a old favourite in the terrorist kitchen. Mixed with diesel or something similar and provided with a small quantity of something stronger as a detonator, it is an effective low explosive. The legality and cheapness of the ingredients mean that, although the power by weight is low, quantity can easily make up for it. Practically every terrorist group has used it at some time in the past, especially the IRA.

Now, I seem to remember suggesting on this blog that self-storage is a weird and alien phenomenon. I wait for David Blunkett to announce new restrictions on them... Curiously enough, I noticed a business-page share tip the other day for a self-storage firm. (Full disclosure, and Ranter investment advice: it was Lok'n'Store plc.) Apparently, "there is roughly 14 times as much self-storage space per capita in the United States, so the only obstacle to growth appears to be finding suitable sites". Quelle horreur!

Juan Cole - how the Israelis got it wrong and helped us do likewise

Juan Cole's Informed Comment link

"A subcommittee of the Israeli Parliament has issued a report sharply critical of Israeli intelligence failures concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It notes that Mossad thought Iraq's programs and stockpiles were a threat, which they were not, and yet seemed unaware of how much progress Libya had made on nukes.

The fact is that Israeli intelligence failures in Iraq contributed to drawing the United States into the war (pace the Knesset report). Undersecretary of Defense for Planning Douglas Feith, a representative of the American branch of the Likud Party, met repeatedly with Israeli generals at the Pentagon (who were not properly signed in, contrary to post-9/11 regulations), and they gave him fodder for his pre-determined insistence on ginning up a war against Iraq, reinforcing what was being said by liars like Ahmad Chalabi. They were conveying Israeli intelligence to a key American policy maker, and it was wrong..."

Cole theorises that something similar to the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and the White House Iraq Group must have existed in the Israeli security establishment - hence the dodgy information passed to the Americans. It is a feature of psychology that we are more likely to accept information that appears to come from multiple sources. This is rational enough, but it is also true that we seem to rate information from sources close to us (or better still, first-hand information) far above even the most massive evidence from less familiar sources. People tend to generalise from these first-priority sources in forming their images of the world - given just a little external support, especially from a familiar source, we can become extremely resistant to even overwhelming refutation. It's all part of our evolutionary heritage, I suppose - a useful way of organising the flood of data pouring in - but it can easily be toxic. It seems plausible that the neo-conservatives' image of policy was reinforced by the fact that their information came from their closest allies - Israel, Chalabi, and Britain. From a British perspective, the fact that the Americans and Australians were so convinced must have had a similarly powerful effect. The exchange of information across the Atlantic was then doomed to be a self-confirming dialogue.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Security: the occult way!

As a further contribution to our occasional series on aviation security, I'd like to call this to your attention.
"A psychic's warning that a bomb might be on a Dallas-bound passenger jet at Southwest Florida International Airport prompted federal and local officials to search it with bomb-sniffing dogs."

Well, I have suggested in the past that the US Transportation Security Administration could improve its methods of analysing the terrorist threat by using the golden legacy of Roman civilisation - dispensing with intrusive, expensive data mining and surveillance and instead killing a chicken and reading the auguries of its entrails before despatching each flight. It could hardly be worse. It would appear from this report, though, that the TSA is showing the rest of American government a good example by listening to world opinion and, hence, doing as I say. Perhaps the workers who put themselves through an X-ray screening machine to "see what their brains looked like", far from being pig-ignorant victims of a clearly hopeless selection procedure, were attempting to divine the future the modern way?

Sunday, March 28, 2004

"Not actually doing anything wrong" - but Miliband wants our kids locked up


David Miliband, the quintessential Blairite (he was the head of the No.10 Policy Unit before feeling - y'know - a need to get back to the, ah, communities - and getting himself elected for South Shields, a Labour fortress so safe that it is usually the first seat in the country to announce its election results) and School Standards Minister, has issued a rant in which he heaped praise on Swanlea School in East London for keeping its pupils in the school at lunchtime. Not an astonishing leap of policy, you might think, but Mr. Miliband attributes all kinds of good things to this simple measure.
" end to the tipping out on to the streets at lunchtime. Pupils here are in school all day, no exceptions, end of story.....A culture of high achievement helps to reinforce good behaviour. Of course, children need a break at lunch. And they need something healthy to eat to set them up for the afternoon. But they don't have to be out of school, roaming the streets, to do it."

Mr Miliband said that at Swanlea, in Bethnal Green, "students stay on the school premises, and the school provides an enriching lunchtime programme of mentoring by local business people, reading groups for support with literacy, sporting activities supervised by youth workers, as well as a wide range of language classes.

"That is the kind of innovation I support. Good for pupils. Good for the school. Good for the reputation of education in the local community."

So - it makes them cleverer! Wow! We shall note a couple of points regarding this speech. First, notice the fingerprints of our most tiresome and usually wrong politicians. "All day, no exceptions, end of story" - feel the hacked language, the unconvincing tough-guyisms, and the hectoring tone. Smell the cliches - roaming the streets! There's one I haven't heard in years. In fact, I haven't heard it since I was a teenager myself, in the defunded paint-peeling years of Major when it rained every day (at least that's how I remember it) and the government was trying to make "music characterised by repetitive beats" illegal. It seems positively antediluvian now, on the other side of a cosmic cultural chasm. Were we really that lame? But suddenly, it seems that the mid-90s are with us once more - the decade of revival fashion is itself about to be revived. Michael Howard, the icon of the time, is back on the front bench and pages. Malcolm Rifkind is back in the Commons. The government is quite evidently a bunch of bunglers with the credibility of a fortune cookie in a weather station and the morals of a crack-riddled goat. This time, it could even be worse - after all, the first bunch of goatish incompetents are the alternative! And the music is so much worse this time! Listen to the headteachers' association president has to say:
"Sometimes people, particularly old people, feel intimidated even when the young people are not actually doing anything wrong."

By 'eck! This is so familiar as well! Let us recap - Mr. Miliband feels that children ought to be kept in school grounds - locked up, I suppose - in case they do not actually do anything wrong. Great. I remember Howard being very proud of legislating to give the police powers to stop "youths" and take their names and addresses, and inform their parents. Why was never made clear, but it at least gave the police another reason to alienate the citizenry in case they ran out. Instead, Mr. Miliband wants the little buggers to be subjected to "an enriching lunchtime programme of mentoring by local business people, reading groups for support with literacy, sporting activities supervised by youth workers, as well as a wide range of language classes." I'm sure the reading groups are all very laudable, even if you may wonder what they do in class if they have to have classes at lunchtime. But I strongly suspect that an enriching lunchtime programme of mentoring by local business people translates as "being forced to give up your lunch break to absorb the platitudes of unwilling small-town car dealers". And what kind of sense does it make to have compulsory voluntary sport at lunchtimes if you can't have it in games lessons because Mr. Miliband's previous advice to the prime minister on finance means that the school doesn't have a playing field? What is the point of preventing kids who might otherwise play football in their lunch break from doing so, in order to force them to (after, of course, an improving talk from your friendly local dealer)?

Which answers, I suppose, the question of why Mr. Miliband found it necessary to tell us that he supports innovations that are "good", presumably as opposed to bad ones. You might have been forgiven the mistake. One day, could we possibly have a policy initiative that doesn't involve somebody being locked up?

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Blair appoints former John Major spin doctor

Like asking the Kennedys for security asking Jeffrey Archer to look over your taking a nap at Dr. Shipman's wouldn't think anyone would seriously seek PR advice from the chap who ran John Major's 1997 campaign. But that's just what the prime minister has done! The man chosen for the new job of Permanent Secretary for Government Communications is one Howell James, who ran the Tory '97 campaign and was also briefly the Hinduja brothers' PR. This job was created post-Hutton on the odd, semi-theological grounds that if the Government's PR was run by someone who was officially a Civil Servant rather than a Special Adviser, then there was no chance that any spin might creep in. How the government communications service can possibly not be accused of serving the government's interests bewilders me, I have to say. Isn't that what it's for? And what sort of mysterious breath of heaven cleanses these characters of any possible political taint? Couldn't a life spent in the service of the State render you more, not less, likely to bow to the will of power?

But exactly what makes Mr. James an impartial civil servant and not a political appointee is hard to say. He has leapt directly into a permanent secretaryship from his business without passing through any time spent in the public sector. Whoosh! I know that, of course, his appointment is under the Nolan rules and was carried out by a selection panel blah, blah, blah - but it does sound vaguely like patronage still. He will be pulling down a salary somewhere between £121,000 and a thick £203,000 annually. Now, whatever they may say, it is utterly certain that Mr. James's efforts will be irrelevant to the front line delivery of public services or to the formation of sound policy. He is a propagandist. Which is odd, when the Civil Service is meant to be disposing of 40,000 employees. As a comparison, the job of deputy head of emergency planning for London was advertised yesterday. The salary? A princely £31,000. Now that's what I call efficiency, and far more important than the Tory beef that James is a friend of Peter Mandelson, as if that was a vetting criterion.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Monday, March 22, 2004

Whacking the lies - Madrid and Iraq

As a brief guide, here are some reasons why the bashers who are still spewing vitriol about the Spanish elections are lying. Now, their main line is that this is "appeasement". Further to this, they claim that the PSOE was "opportunistic" and "took orders from terrorists". The point is apparently that "you cannot run away from terrorism". We shall take this point by point.

1. Appeasement.

The point of this is to recall the language of the 1930s, trying to position the global Right as the opponents of Nazism - and everyone else as either weak Chamberlains or complicit Lavals. (The special viciousness of applying this to Spanish socialists does not need or deserve further highlighting.) Obviously, the idea of appeasement implies that there is a morally and pragmatically better course of fighting. And this relies on the central belief that invading Iraq is in fact the "war on terrorism". Otherwise, how could not taking part be "appeasement"? We will hear more of this. In passing, note that the use of the language of 1938 has a two-fold effect: not only does it portray your opponents as the next best thing to real Nazis, but it validates your own Churchill fantasies.

2. Opportunism.

Simply disposed with. If the PSOE were "opportunistic", they must have changed their policy to take advantage of opportunity. They opposed the deployment of Spanish troops in Iraq before the deployment. They still opposed it the day before the blasts. They opposed it the day afterwards. I suppose they stuck to their principles - opportunistically?

3. Taking orders from terrorists.

See 3. Policy determined months beforehand. Logically insane.

4. Running away.

This implies that invading Iraq was a blow against al-Qa'ida, and that the continuing war there is a struggle against it, and that our anti-terrorist interests are best served by war in Iraq. Otherwise, what would be shameful about liquidating a wasteful and unnecessary commitment? Let us recall a few facts. No-one has produced one scintilla of evidence to show any al-Qa'ida presence in Ba'athist Iraq or Iraqi involvement in al-Qa'ida activity. What good did the Spanish brigade's presence in Iraq do for the fight against al-Qa'ida? The bombs exploded in Madrid. They did not explode in Hillah. The attack was prepared by Moroccans (it seems) in Spain. Would the soldiery not have been better employed elsewhere? Let us consider the effects of the British invasion fo southern Iraq on our own anti-terrorist efforts. The emergency planning budget - which funds the local authority emergency departments who would have to cope with the logistics of recovery after a major attack - has been pegged at £19 million since April, 2001. April! That means that its value has FALLEN. The deployment in southern Iraq is estimated to cost £125 million MONTHLY! Muslim opinion has been provoked as never before. The real pursuit of al-Qa'ida was effectively shut down for months. Our army is (to use a Churchillism) sprawled in costly and rewardless occupation, its budget drained, its reserves raided, its stocks exhausted, rather than crouched and ready to spring at opportunity. What a brilliant success! Heroically, with undiminished resolve, the neocons and their pals march doggedly forward - in the wrong direction!

First with the news, and the death of Sheikh Yassin

On Wednesday, I reported that Ha'aretz was covering a British programme of semi-military aid to the Palestinian security organisations in Gaza. By Saturday, The Guardian was running this.
"The British involvement is initially modest, limited to providing financial, logistical and other support on security matters to the PA. But if the pilot schemes are successful Britain intends to offer much more in the way of finance and personnel.
This would include sending security staff experienced in Northern Ireland and helping to rebuild the Palestinian security infrastructure, such as police headquarters and prisons, destroyed by the Israelis."

Who says blogs aren't the wave of the future? But enough basking. This morning, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was killed by an Israeli air raid. (
details) This has brought the expected storm: of outrage in Gaza, self-congratulation in Tel Aviv, of diplomatic platitudes everywhere else. Certainly, Hamas are the big problem in terms of terrorist potential in Gaza. I'm sure Yassin bore some responsibility for Hamas's actions, even though not even Ariel Sharon believes he had any operational role. But I doubt blowing up an elderly priest in a wheelchair will do anything at all to prevent further terrorist attacks. Not when they are willing to attack with axes. It wasn't as if crazy-eyed kamikazes filed past his zimmer frame to personally draw explosives from his very hands. The argument for his assassination is that he "inspired" them. The problem with people who inspire others, as ideas, idols, icons, is that they don't have to be alive. In fact, their symbolic power is often greater dead. The leader myth can only be exploded in the metaphorical sense, not the physical.

And if there is anywhere on earth that the power of martyrdom and the myth of the dead hero should be blindingly obvious, it is the Holy Land. You don't need to go back as far as Christ - the dead Lebanese warlords whose recorded voices were broadcast daily by their factions' radio stations through the 1980s to incite their followers are an equally harsh and much closer example.

Those British advisors' job just got even worse.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Please Note: Our RSS Feed

Blogmatrix, providers of our RSS feed, are no more. We are now back to Blogstreet, and the feed is now here. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Dancing terrorism banana

The dancing banana visible in the sidebar's colour shows the current Homeland Security terrorism alert state. Thanks to Victor is Dead and Supermum.

Blogroll: The Hegemo and The Fudgie Project

The Ranter welcomes two new blogs linking to us: The Hegemo's Creative Class Warfare, and The Fudgie Project. The last one belongs to Jenny Paton, who is currently researching the blogging phenomenon and recently emailed questions to numerous bloggers. Thanks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Brits in Gaza...

According to Haaretz, plans for British security assistance to the Palestinian Authority are already underway. "With grudging consent from the Americans, the British are now setting up two new operation control rooms, one in Ramallah and one in Gaza, for Palestinian security organizations. The money that Britain is spending is earmarked for the purchase of a new communications system, ancillary equipment and vehicles. The new operations room in Ramallah has already been completed and the facility in Gaza will be completed soon." We are apparently making an effort to help wallop Hamas, thus (hopefully) reducing the chances of either further suicide bombings or Israeli raids. And furthering peace. I'd be the first to call it fantastic, but there are some flies. There has recently been some talk of UK military advisers being sent. That sounds like a hiding to nothing to me - no power to give orders, a target for continued Israeli air raids and armoured drives, and a target for the terrorists. Wonderful.

Not that Haaretz's Ze'ev Schiff noticed it, though. He was more concerned with our outrageous ingratitude in telling Yasser Arafat about it:
"Experts in Israel believe that the British have sincere intentions, but harbor immense suspicion of the Palestinians. It is strange that Britain is prepared to cooperate with Arafat on security matters, since he has declined to take a single step toward implementing reforms in the Palestinian security organizations (among other things, reducing the number of men under arms, and ensuring their genuine subordination to the prime minister or the interior minister). The fact that he is the boss and that everything has to go through him, including all security matters, does not justify cooperation with him under these conditions. If the postponed meeting between Qureia and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon takes place and Qureia raises the matter, he will presumably be met with a negative answer to the proposal for cooperation, in the same way that were he to request that he be consulted on the disengagement plan, this too would be turned down."

Obviously, we are all meant to conveniently forget that the US does not appoint the Palestinian government. He was elected, dammit! And I really don't want to hear any more about soft Europeans and Brits who won't risk their skins, got that? Good luck to the advisers - they'll need it..

A Gun in my Suitcase, a Dove at my Window...

In our occasional series, When Aviation Security Attacks, we bring you this, the story of a man who:
"discovered the weapon while unpacking in Israel after a visit to Germany, reports Israeli daily Haaretz.

He immediately reported the find to the police only to be told that the weapon, which had been de-activated, was part of a security drill for airline staff.

Security officers sometimes put replica guns in luggage to keep bag checkers on their toes, Haaretz says. "
Link Good job he didn't transfer to another flight..

Just been reading the Commons Defence Committee's Iraq report..

An interesting document to say the least. For a start, there is that old Ranter issue concerning Geoff Hoon and his remarkably confident denials that anything had gone wrong at all. You may remember that he stated in Parliament that: "All the requisite numbers of boots and clothing and equipment were there and, having only had a brief opportunity of inviting editors of newspapers to devote an appropriate amount of space to the success of the equipment, given the hugely disproportionate amount of space they wasted on making facile criticisms of equipment that proved its worth in the conflict, I am still waiting to see any signs of apology from either individual journalists or from their editors. I am certainly suggesting that, in a force of around 45,000 people across three Services, there may have been the odd person who, for example, did not get the right sized pair of boots. There may have been the odd soldier who one day did not get his lunchtime ration pack. There may have been the odd soldier who did not like his ready-to-eat meal of the sort issued by the United States to their forces."
Now, I dealt with that here. Geoff was lying. Otherwise, how did the Royal Marine pictured in the NAO report in southern Iraq manage to be wearing woodland camouflage?

The Committee took evidence from the chief of joint operations at Permanent Joint HQ, Lieutenant General John Reith, on the kit scandal. Here's what he had to say:
"251. Notwithstanding the Secretary of State's comments in May 2003 about desert boots and clothing, Air Marshal Burridge told the Committee in June 2003 that that he had encountered personnel wearing black boots when he visited Basra on 23 April.[380] This was confirmed during our visits when we were told that some desert boots and combats arrived after the major combat phase. In July 2003 General Reith told us that:

!Turning to the clothing and the boots, I was not concerned about that at all. The temperate equipment we have, the combat clothing is designed up to 39 degrees centigrade and the boots up to 35 degrees centigrade."[381]

252. General Reith's comment that he was not concerned about the desert clothes and boots issue appears to ignore the fact that green combat clothing does not provide the same camouflage effect as desert clothing in an environment such as Iraq. It also begs the question as to why MoD procured desert clothing and boots specifically for the combat operation."

Indeed. It also begs the much-asked question as to why Mr. Hoon has yet to resign in disgrace. But there is much, much more. The Committee repeats the previous bashings about the supply of nuclear, biological and chemical defence gear, hopeless asset-tracking and all the stuff we already know. Curiously, given Hoon's crack about meals "of the sort issued by the United States", the MPs were especially impressed by the cooks' efforts. But the interesting stuff was much earlier. According to General Reith, the US Central Command was working on plans in the spring of 2002. General staffs exist to plan for anything, all the time, but I have a real feeling that this may have had baleful political implications. Especially as,
it sez here, the British forces were already discussing UORs, urgent operational requirements (the process by which extra kit needed for a given current purpose is purchased), with industry. Curiously, both Sir Kevin Tebbit and the director of policy at the MoD were convinced nothing had been said that would make a commitment - especially not before June. But if materiel was already being purchased in May? It has a smell of 1914 and railway timetables. And Geoff Hoon, of course, said that no decisions on a specific military operation had been taken before the prime minister's statement of the 24th of September, 2003.

Besides the pure Iraq-war bash factor, some interesting points arise concerning close air support, the key to the MoD's wishes for a new, lightweight, highly deployable and networkcentric army. The entire idea that these jargon words convey is one of substituting army aviation, especially the new Apache helicopters, and air power for tanks and heavy artillery. For this to work, for aerial firepower to be as present as a tank, what is needed is very close integration of the army and the air force at the lowest possible level. A couple of tiresome blots on the flawless Hoon escutcheon might suggest this remains to be achieved - like the Household Cavalrymen who were slaughtered by the US Air Force. Pars 100 to 102 of the report are better:
"100. An innovation for the RAF in Iraq was the use of 'kill-box interdiction and close air support' or KI-CAS, long practised by the United States' air forces (Navy, Marines and USAF). Air Vice Marshal Torpy explained the concept:

There are two discrete, different bits to this. Close Air Support is when air is used when forces on the ground are in close contact and need air support quickly. Kill box interdiction is a more methodical way of attacking targets in particular areas. A kill box is an area which has been defined. Aircraft are tasked into that area to attack mobile targets—so fielded artillery, tanks and those sort of targetS.[154]

But we have heard that the targeting pods (the sensors that allow the pilot to identify a target) on British aircraft were not sophisticated enough to support the kill-box approach, which requires the aircraft to identify small targets from a medium to high altitude. The Air Component Commander conceded there was a problem:

One of the lessons that we have learned out of the campaign, [is] that our targeting pods need longer range, better fidelity… positively identifying that a target is a military target.[155]

101. He also accepted that more needed to be done in terms of air-land integration:
I think we are probably victims of past campaigns in that Operation Desert Storm was a discrete air operation followed by a short land campaign, and very little integrated air-land operation took place. Afghanistan was the first time we saw closer integration between air and land, but on a relatively small scale in terms of the land component. This was the first operation that I have certainly seen for many years where we have seen such close linkage between the air and land components…we have forgotten some of the things that we were quite good at during the Cold War…We have probably neglected the exercising of those over the years.[156]

Worryingly we heard reports that there was a serious lack of air to ground communications capability, with RAF aircraft unable to communicate with the forces on the ground in the vast majority of missions flown. Additionally there was a lack of understanding on the part of land force commanders about the need to have cleared specific targets to be struck from the air through the appropriate channels. We heard reports of some one third of missions being aborted because of problems in the air-land interface. The intention is now to increase the RAF involvement in the BATUS exercises in Canada and to improve the use of targeting pods, extending it to all aircraft that engaged in KI-CAS and to exercise the whole command and control organisation from the Combined Air Operations Centre.[157]

102. During the ground campaign there were also some delays in the provision of air support. This was a matter of concern to some UK land forces. General Brims, however, believed that overall the system had worked well and particularly highlighted the work of the ANGLICOs discussed above:
"Utilising 3rd MAW, the Marine Air Wing, as a tactical air wing; in order to do it, we had to receive…ANGLICO battalions…they come with communications, life support vehicles, and everything else, and you could say to them, 'We need the fire there,' they will call for it, and we had them embedded throughout our chain of command and it worked wonderfully well.[158]"

Any big change to an organisation requires two things: the take away, of whatever is supposedly no longer needed, and the add, of whatever good stuff is considered to be progress. It would seem that the takeaway is well under way - it is budget positive and hence career enhancing - but no add has arrived yet. How Hoon...

Saturday, March 13, 2004

A new word - "security theatre"

An interesting article in Wired seems to agree rather with my last post, as well as giving me the priceless gift of a new word, "security theatre", or official activity intended to convey a false impression of security. (Thanks due to Slugger O'Toole)..Mind you, it also bears out something I think I lost given the surprising doom-sodden tone below, which is that even if it is impossible to prevent terrorism, the numbers are on our side. Given the chances of being a victim, and the effectiveness of fairly simple precautions, it's possible to knock a big chunk out of the odds. The best may well be the enemy of the good here - it's very possible that, in a futile search for absolute security, we render life intolerably vexing, expensive, inefficient, oppressive and wearyingly paranoid.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Barking up the wrong tree in an infinite forest

I'm beginning to think that the real strength of terrorism is the fact that its targets can be diversified faster than countermeasures. Whatever is hardened or checked or monitored, there will always be something else. Probably because the nature of terrorism is to use the social infrastructure as a weapon - trains are of course a near perfect way of placing your explosives at a given time, in fact at given times, into a concentration of people. And they even publish timetables. God forbid anyone has a go at the utilities - power, gas, water... (In fact we may already have narrowly escaped a mass water attack. When I were a lad, a deranged citizen of Leeds whose psychosis included an obsession with Hitler prepared to add cyanide to Eccles Reservoir before being arrested for an unconnected murder.) Not so long ago I was told by a former naval person that maritime terrorism was rare "because it's difficult, and the oil in a tanker won't explode". (We'll set aside the vapour in the empty tanks) He did concede the possible vulnerability of a liquid petroleum gas tanker - they come from Algeria and would explode with the power of a small nuclear warhead - but, to my mind, didn't really imagine it could happen. I wonder if we are committing the fallacy of trying to solve social, mental problems with hardware.

Mind you, this is where the historical fallacy of taking either side in the structure/free will debate bites - whatever the deep social forces bubbling and heaving suggest, a different action would so often have changed life entirely. If it's foolish to believe (say) that had Gavrilo Princip been unable to shoot straight, the world would have remained at peace, it's equally foolish to imagine that the 2000 US presidential elections were entirely defined by inevitable economic and demographic shifts, or that the development of population structure in the Middle East would have meant much if the suicide hijackers had been searched at Boston airport. History can be seen as a struggle between those vast narratives, megatrends, and the perpetual and equal power of accident and defiance. In this case, Al-Qa'ida's addiction to deep history - the Spanish Reconquista as equally pertinent as the Gulf War - set against its true enemy, the security guards and cops, cleaners and track inspectors most likely to foil them. What is the point? Probably that although defensive measures (taking away dustbins, installing radiation detectors at the container wharves of Felixstowe) are certainly of value, and that offensive ones may also help, terrorism can only in the end be contained, managed, endured. It's usual that any terror group with a sufficient base of support can only ever be kept in bounds - victory is impossible. With traditional terrorists, this was the moment of negotiation. That would have been the course I would have suggested for Spain, but if the Madrid massacre is Eta's work, I wonder if it is still possible? Have they not joined the new terrorists, Walter Laqueur's postmodern terrorists - no concrete aims, or wildly impossible ones, like that of reversing the last 400 years of history and revolutionising the world, reconquering the lost and, I'm sure, ungrateful kingdom of al-Andalus.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Blogroll: Gregorian Rants, Life in the Crescent

The Ranter welcomes two new blogrollers, Gregorian Rants, and Life in the Crescent. Thanks.

I think I'm going to give up Radio 5

Why? Because it scares me. Because it endangers my mental health by inducing me to snarl and grrr at the babbling noisebox in my living room. Because it makes me feel fascism is coming soon. No, this is not the beginning of a counter-I Believe in the BBC campaign. It's not the reporting or the presenters or the guests - it's the public! I realised I must give it up this morning when I was desperately tempted to do the unthinkable and take part in a phone-in myself. The horror. Shuddering, I placed the spared mobile back on a table and took deep breaths. That way madness lay. I'd looked into the abyss and for a moment had thought - it wasn't that deep after all!

They had been discussing the return to the UK of several Guantanamo Bay inmates, who have been arrested on arrival in order that the Metropolitan Police can formally decide whether or not they have committed a crime. The string of callers were sick-shocking. Here, behold the chappie who first of all demanded to know "If some Christians had gone to fight for the Serbs against...the KLA, would they have got a Catholic priest? Eh? WELL WOULD THEY?" The answer is in fact "yes, it's in the Geneva Conventions, and British forces' standing orders on these things require it", but no-one had the wit to wap him with that one. No, he was convinced that it was a special and unfair privilege granted to Muslims that they might have the services of a priest. Oh dear. It only got worse, though, as he wanted them to be shot. "Of course, you would put them on trial first". No. He nearly bust an eyeball over this. "What were they doing in a war zone? That's what I wanna know!" But he stuck by the proposal of extrajudicial shootings.

It didn't improve. A string of dopes came out with the same war-zone remark, usually demanding that the men "explain what they were doing in Afghanistan". No-one raised the idea of presumption of innocence, prima facie evidence etc. Tiresome details. Apparently the same government who had invaded Iraq and detained a number of persons right here without trial or charge were "wimps". From evil and stupidity we descended to corruption. First a Sikh, then a Muslim came on the line to denounce treachery and demand greater viciousness. "I think they should go to Afghanistan if they want to be there - I love England!" A Cockney Wanka: "And I'll buy the ticket!" No notice to the point that one poor man had actually been seized from a Taliban prison. No inkling that no evidence has ever, anywhere, in any way been offered to even suggest their involvement. The constant reiteration of the phrase "war zone". This needs scrutiny.

So many said that (in effect) the alleged fact of their presence in a "war zone" was proof of guilt - specifically of direct acts against British interests. What can this mean? Especially as a) some of the men involved were arrested many hundreds of miles from the area of the fighting, and b) some may actually have been in Pakistan at the time. Clearly, it is assumed by these folk that all of Afghanistan was in effect a free fire zone: everyone there was "in the war zone", hence on the enemy side and hence legitimate targets. Not to mention the fact that after the main fighting was over, guerrilla activity went on and US forces conducted large cordon and search operations, that is to say encircling a given locality and then searching it. Obviously, anyone within the cordon was possibly subject to arrest. As most of this activity took place near the Pakistani border, that might easily include persons trying to leave the "war zone". There is no status in law for any presumption that civilians of any nationality or none in a "war zone" are aiding one side or the other. Justifications like this have been used by all sorts of very unpleasant armies: the Germans on the Eastern Front in 1941-5 were exhibit A, effectively declaring the eastern theatre of operations to be a zone without law.

It's frightening to see just how many people of all races in one's country are potential concentration camp guards - harbouring the justifications of war criminals..

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

How to have a constitutional crisis: advice!

1. Somebody has to be unnecessarily arrogant.
2. Someone else has to be unreasonably stubborn.
3. Both have to develop severe target fixation.
4. The whole must involve the institutions society sets up to prevent these occasions.
5. Stir.

So - all these have now been followed, and we have a crisis! Now, the Ranter would like to offer some useful hints as to how to beat back the nonsense both parties to the crisis will offer in the next few days. Because they will. David Blunkett has already been snarling about "unelected judges blocking the will of parliament". Various conservative types have predictably pomped that it is outrageous, unthinkable etc to tamper with ancient institutions of blah without even consulting the Queen (unproven, AFAIK) blah blah. The conservative response to the constitutional reform bill should remind us of one thing: much of it is a good and honest idea. The lord chancellorship is a weird beast - an unelected legislator who is also a judge and an equally unelected minister - and it is overdue that it changes. But the deep purpose of the bill is not that. We all know that it is a quick fix to "complete" House of Lords reform without doing anything scary, difficult or democratic. The rest has been included as a sweetener. And this is the problem - the basic project has gone badly wrong.

The Government will appeal to a crude understanding of democracy as identical with a parliamentary majority. This may be described as the "will of parliament", "democracy", "the voice of the people". It is untrue. Democracy does not mean the absolute power of whoever had majority support up to five years ago in entirely different circumstances. On that understanding, the government might declare an end to elections - it has a majority! - and force it through by the Parliament Act, and we should all be expected to clap. Where is our protection against the government, or against the ultra vires actions of its agents, between elections? In Parliament? Only given a minimal majority. A working majority means no effective protection. Anything over 50 means we have to rely on the courts. Why? Here Blunkett will say that judicial review is only recent. What of it? The doctrine that the Crown itself is as subject to the law as its subjects is first stated in Magna Carta. Like any legal principle, it is meaningless without an operational tribunal of judgement with the executive power of redress. If Mr. B means what he says, he believes in fake rights, fake law. You can have impressive rights in law, but no redress should he wish to violate them. And this is very foreign indeed. The raison d'etat has no status in the British constitution - all power stems from law.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Ballet, war and blogs

"Ballet is the one form of theater where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening—nobody on the stage at least. That's why it becomes so popular in any civilized country during a war."

Edwin Denby, Dance Writings from
Dual Loyalty.

Very wise. I wonder if, had he heard about this, his attitude might have been different? And who would have thought that French ballet dancers were represented by the Communist and metal-bashingly, red-meat chompingly blokish CGT? Like the cheminots, shipbuilders, truckers etc? What a strange affair conference must be... This has to be the most French event anyone could imagine, anyway.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

The Iraq Communications Group, Valerie Plame and something called WHIG

Does anyone remember something called the Iraq Communications Group? It was the team of spindoctors and spooks chaired by Alastair Campbell in the run-up to the war with Iraq that - depending on who you believe - either did or didn't sex up the dossiers. After all, Ali C stated to the Foreign Affairs Committee that this outfit was behind the "dodgy" dossier (link) but that it had explicitly not had anything to do with the nonupsexed September dossier. Later, the Hutton inquiry exploded this denial, when it transpired that the people who took part in the initial meetings preparing that fateful document were the same men (and they were all men) who later formed the ICG - they just weren't called that yet.
"At a meeting on September 5 a group of advisers gathered to discuss how the dossier would be produced. This group went onto become the Iraq communications group, and those present included Mr Campbell, Mr Scarlett, David Manning, Julian Miller, Tom McCane, Desmond Bowen, Paul Hamill, Edward Chaplin and Stephen Wright."
Obviously, this close connection between propagandists like Ali C, spooks like John Scarlett, and No.10 in the person of David Manning, the Prime Minister's foreign policy advisor was the sort of stuff that made it very likely that political influence had been exerted, especially as the same bunch went on to give the world the second dossier with its ripped-off thesis material. What has not been widely known was that the Americans had one too. The White House Iraq Group has only been mentioned once before this week in the media, in the Washington Post of the 10th of August 2003. Thanks to Talking Points Memo, its possible significance has been pointed up. The grand jury investigating the otherwise unrelated Valerie Plame affair (when the White House blew the cover of a CIA agent who happened to be married to the guy they sent to Niger to find out if the story about Iraq buying uranium was true...) has demanded the WHIG's papers, as well as the phone records for a whole week on Air Force 1, the week immediately before she was outed. What's the connection?

Well, look at the sort of people who made up WHIG and its role:
"Systematic coordination began in August, when Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. formed the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, to set strategy for each stage of the confrontation with Baghdad. A senior official who participated in its work called it "an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities."

In an interview with the New York Times published Sept. 6, Card did not mention the WHIG but hinted at its mission. "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," he said.

The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Among the regular participants were Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio; and policy advisers led by Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, along with I. Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff."
Washington Post link

So - a team of spin doctors and National Security Council staff (i.e. semi-spooks), headed by the man who is Bush's top spinner and virtual office chief, Rove. Does that sound at all familiar? And look what it was up to:
"In its later stages, the draft white paper coincided with production of a National Intelligence Estimate and its unclassified summary. But the WHIG, according to three officials who followed the white paper's progress, wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence.

The fifth draft of the paper was obtained by The Washington Post. White House spokesmen dismissed the draft as irrelevant because Rice decided not to publish it. Wilkinson said Rice and Joseph felt the paper "was not strong enough."

Now that's almost uncannily similar to - ah - certain other alleged events that may or may not have happened to a not entirely unrelated document being prepared by a possibly similar group in a certain country shortly afterwards. (Post-Hutton mode OFF.)
In fact, it's absolutely upsextastic. I strongly suggest you read the whole Washington Post story - it's total dynamite, and a reminder of what a shithot paper it is, and what a poisonous bunch of mendacrats are in charge of the world. I also suggest you all ponder the meaning of this:
"We conclude that the degree of autonomy given to the Iraq communications group chaired by Mr Campbell and the Coalition Information Centre which reported to him, as well as the lack of procedural accountability, were contributory factors to the affair of the "dodgy dossier".
the FAC report again

The what? The Coalition Information Centre, that's what. The long-memoried will recall that this was a British-American spin office set up in November, 2001 to counter bad publicity in the Afghan war (official description here), with the deep involvement of Ali C and other British spin doctors. There are 3 CICs, in London, Washington and Islamabad. Now, I wonder what role this curious form of spinner-to-spinner diplomacy might have had? And wouldn't it be nice to live in a country where inquirers can demand the comms records from the president's plane?

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Massacre in Iraq - is this the first shot of the civil war?


The terrorists - and I mean terrorists, no Robert Fisk fastidiousness with language this time - are back in town. At least 140 dead in two attacks on mosques on the holiest day in the Shia calendar, one in Baghdad and one in Karbala. Hard not to read the symbols - Karbala, the holy city, and Baghdad, the seat of power. Hard not to read the message - which one depends on who you are, though. For the Shias: we're still here and there's nothing Sistani can do to protect you. For the Sunnis: we're still here and the Americans can't stop us - PS, you'd better toe the line. For the West: you don't know who we are, but that doesn't matter. Whether the "we" was al-Qa'ida or Sunnis or Shia extremists trying to discredit Sistani or Ba'athists - the message was that no amount of interim councils could solve this one. The style was al-Qa'ida - maximum extreme horror, staged for total outrage - but the methods seem to have been more Ba'athist or ex-Ba'athist. Both attacks are believed to have used concealed mortars, an ominous old IRA move.
And the tribal, sectarian targeting speaks of a very local Iraqi motivation. But on the same day, 41 more Shias were slaughtered in Quetta, Pakistan, with very similar tactics.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has already lashed the coalition for failing to secure the borders. Mobs reportedly set on army medics treating the wounded, a grim portent if ever there was one. Is this revolutionary terror, intended to whip up rage that might turn against the west, or is it pure religious cleansing, a horrific re-assertion of Sunni power?

In reality, I suppose, it doesn't matter. Whatever the aim was, the result will likely be the same - escalating chaos. And the real result is completely independent of any such babbling - pain.

How the great power blackouts happened..

Interesting article, if a little techy, on the giant power failures in the USA last summer and their cause - the gap between the engineering realities of the electricity system and the tortuous attempt to impose a market system on it. Basically, the problem was that the marketisers saw the system as a large number of competing factories selling a location-neutral product - when in fact it was "the world's largest machine", as closely interconnected as the players in an orchestra.

Feel free to draw your own conclusions on rail privatisation, Britain's national sport of infrastructural crisis, and that old Ranter standby - tax deficiency...

Monday, March 01, 2004

US Transportation Security Administration follow the Ranter

Reuters - US to station inspectors at foreign airports

Well, I proposed the establishment of British security controls on British aircraft and shipping in US ports right here on the blog not so long ago, in response to the regular US-inspired security scares. But it seems to have become US policy to do the opposite - to send (I suppose) agents from the failed TSA to major airports outside the US. Like Heathrow. Here's the link

The obvious objection is that this way madness lies - will every major airport soon be a weird multinational broth of policemen? And, of course, I objected to the sky marshals on those grounds among others. Here's the problem - this will eventually happen if there is no confidence in land-side states' efforts (or indeed good faith) and continued alerts, because things will get intolerable.


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