Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Oh! An ID titbit

Having just bollocked Gerald Haworth for capitalising on the dead, I suspect I may be about to indulge in the same vice myself. Via Phil Carter, an interesting point relating to the explosion that slaughtered US soldiers in Mosul last week. Apparently Iraqis permitted to enter US Marine bases, as well as the citizens of Fallujah, are being registered in a biometric database and have their retinas scanned. Not that it kept the killer out of Forward Operating Base Marez, though.

This is a central issue in countering the idea that ID cards will make us safer. Biometrics tell you that a person is the same person who registered a particular set of details. They don't tell you whether those details (called the biographical footprint) were accurate. They also don't tell you what the database doesn't record. Before any of this can help you arrest a terrorist, though, you need to know who you're looking for - which set of details in the files is the one you're after. First, catch your fish. You need to find out who is the enemy, before you can worry about who the enemy suspects are. This can only be done by investigative work. And if you have worthwhile evidence against them, you can charge them just as well under their assumed name anyway.


What the hell does Gerald Haworth, Conservative MP for Aldershot, think he's doing with comments like this? It must take a very special degree of shameless self promotion to get a dig in at the government on the back of the drowning of some forty thousand people, just two days after the event. But he managed it, though. Apparently Jack Straw should "investigate" the Foreign Office's "inadequate arrangements".(link)

You'd think that if you were going to make a political point out of this, it would have to be good. But this is sad stuff. After all, they have been arranging to have locksmiths meet evacuation flights from Thailand for those evacuees who have lost the keys to their homes, so the scope is not fantastic. And was this the best he could really come up with: a self-investigation into why, if lots of people call the same telephone number, they may find it hard to get through. You'd have thought he could be making better use of his time - querying the bizarre suggestion that 3,000 British troops, many his constituents, might be sent to Darfur when they're already meant to be going to Afghanistan, perhaps, or getting his local party to collect money for the victims.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Ceasefire

Just to let you know, the Ranter will observe its traditional Christmas ceasefire until some time on the 26th of December. That is all. Anyway, what would you be doing reading blogs on Christmas Day?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

What can I say? Plenty!

Well, only 93 MPs were willing to reject ID cards. Sad, really. But with the right encouragement they can do better. We have to be tough on deadbeat MPs and tough on the causes of deadbeat MPs. I'll come back to this downblog.

Let's recap. ID cards will force all of us to give up our privacy. ID cards will cost us all £85 in the first instance, and again every time we move house. ID cards will force us to report to the government when we move. The ID card monster database will record every time our cards are checked - as Charles Clarke wants us to have them checked every time we do things as trivial as renting videos, that means that we will be followed everywhere. Mr. Clarke thinks it will cost some £5.5 billion - but that's without counting the card readers he wants to be in every video store. If you're a business person, think - you are expected to buy the gear, and there is nothing to stop the government charging you to use the system. He also reckons the state loses £50 million a year through identity fraud. So - the monster database, even if it only costs what the government hopes it will, will take one hundred years to pay for itself.

Further on, the biometrics that are meant to make this system unbreakable are unproven. In Germany, a computer science student was able to fool iris scanners using nothing else but a photo of his eyes. Do you feel safer yet? The monster database will contain the key to all the records the government has on you, and any private ones that include your Citizen Reference Number. If anything goes wrong - that's it. Safer? Only weeks ago, a civil servant at the DVLA was convicted of passing information from his huge database to real, actual terrorists - animal rights nuts this time, but who tomorrow? Safer? Other ID schemes the government have dreamed up include a monster database of everyone involved in education - including details of the income and employment of schoolchildren's parents. Safer? Guess who invented that little beauty! None other than yer man, Charles Clarke. His civil servants say that this - a system capable of identifying us all by social class - can be bolted on to a national identity card. Safer? But Charlie isn't terribly good at these things. Yesterday he claimed in the Commons that the new poll tax card and its monster database would offer "enormous practical benefits" to anyone who applies for credit, rents a video, or goes abroad on holiday.

Charlie doesn't rent videos very often. Or he'd know that it isn't really £5.5 billion difficult. Hell, my Blockbuster card is based on an out-of-date provisional Queensland motorcycle licence. Charlie probably doesn't shop much either. Otherwise he'd know that department stores tend to offer store cards to pretty much anyone who pitches up at the checkout these days. But then, we're talking about a fella who invited a young lady to his flat for coffee, vanished into the kitchen, and returned with the coffee and without his trousers. I think we can be pretty sure he sends a woman instead. As far as foreign travel goes, he obviously hasn't read the ICAO biometric passport standard that, er, doesn't include the biometrics he wants on our passports. And he obviously missed the bits of the brief that mentioned that the proposed ID card isn't a travel document. So - what would swingvotery security moms Worcester Womaning off to holiday wintersun joy in Triangulationville, New Blairland actually need it for?

We have to be tolerant, of course. When his article in the Times appeared, with exactly the same points as his speech in, he'd only been Home Secretary for 24 hours. Of course he spent most of those scribbling a few well-turned pars for the Thunderer. Naturally. Only a terrible cynic would suggest that Home Office head of news John "Your marriage is over! Understand!" Tozer or someone like him might have penned the piece. No. Who can make themselves an instant expert in just 24 hours on such a huge portfolio?

But then, who could have the arrogance to plunge straight on with the biggest project their new department has ever taken on - despite evidently knowing little of it? Someone, perhaps, who doesn't mind the fact that no British citizen has ever voted for it. The new poll tax was not in any party's manifesto. Not this time, nor last time, nor the time before that. The Government has as good as committed to an election in the spring. It is therefore operating on the last few months of a mandate issued in the late spring of 2001, without any mention of ID cards. Why does Charles Clarke - who has had a good weekend to become an expert on data protection, network engineering, fraud investigation, security engineering, biometric identification, the constitutional ramifications, ICAO, video shops and more - feel he can dash into this and get it off before the election?

Why not seek real democratic legitimacy for this monster project? If it is as fantastic and as popular as he claims, why not? If it is so non-urgent that it can be put off to 2008 and beyond, as his documents prove, why not?

The why is clear. Why? Because we are going to win. The only way to get away with this is to stitch up Parliament in the last weeks available, to take advantage of Michael Howard's - a politician completely captured by the Home Office's control bureaucrats - term as Tory "leader" to push through this Establishment beatup before anything democratic might happen. If you don't have one of the 93 MPs, hold them responsible. That's the stuff, isn't it? Personal accountability. We're all on the market now. I remember a very big demonstration in February. We are going to win.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Aid, Development, Peacekeeping

Frans Groenendijk has an interesting post about the politics of international development aid, specifically the question of whether or not it's working. Holland prides itself on meeting the UN target of 0.7% of gross national income, but it seems (if I have his argument aright) that there is a growing disagreement as to whether or not the focus on this number has distracted Dutch politics from the uses it's put to. Of course, the far right hasn't been slow to get involved, demanding an investigation (presumably of the sort that starts off with the conclusion and works back).

The Social Democrats, though, apparently want to broaden the focus and reconsider which policy fields can be defined as "aid". As Frans says, there is much to be said for this because you can't do development without addressing the wars. But (as I commented) there are serious risks inherent in any inclusion of peacekeeping in the aid target. After all it wouldn't be the first time that rich states attempted to use aid to favour their own economic and strategic interests, and who wants to find George Bush boasting about how much the US is contributing in "aid", having redefined the military payroll in Iraq as such? Another problem would be that of letting governments off the hook - if the Treasury can grab the public kudos of hitting the 0.7% goal without putting up any cash, just by altering the accounting definitions, you can bet they will.

But there is a genuine point here. Take Sierra Leone, for example. No, please. It's probably fair to say that none of the money spent in aid there during the 1990s did any good at all except in the sense of pure humanitarianism - feeding refugees and the like. Until the diamond-fuelled civil war was brought under control, no efforts at lasting change were worthwhile as they simply vanished under the next surge of violence. In the end, the only way to end the war in Sierra Leone was for one side to lose - they had already demonstrated their unwillingness to respect compromises. The British/UN intervention in 2000 was successful precisely because it demonstrated that the government of Sierra Leone would win, without ratcheting up the military insult to the country yet further like the Nigerian-led ECOMOG peacekeeping force had done after the coup in 1997, hammering Freetown with artillery and enriching its senior officers with diamonds. (If you're interested, there's an excellent account of the whole episode in Gwyn Prins's The Heart of War: Power, conflict and obligation in the 21st century. Which you should read anyway.) Surely it would be fair to consider Operation Barras and its various continuations a contribution to the development of Sierra Leone? If folk like Hernando de Soto are right, and the key to progress in the Third World is extending property rights to the poor, wouldn't (say) aid in creating an honest police force come under this heading?

Unfortunately, I suspect this is a good idea doomed by the fact it relies on politicians being honest. You can easily see how a security subheading of the aid budget could be used to camouflage or render nice the transfer of arms to countries that already have more than enough.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Admin: TYR User Consultation

I have had the long-term project of redesigning the Ranter for some time. In the last few weeks, work on a new Ranter has proceeded apace and a nearly complete template has been in use on a test blog for several days. The test blog's purpose is to check the new template's performance, accessibility and standards compliance in real conditions. It is currently working and is written in valid XHTML 1.0. With the exception of the Blogger Navbar (which is not under my control), all CSS used in it is also valid.

I now feel sufficiently confident of the new template to ask for some user feedback.

The testblog can be found here. Comments please in the thread below.

Work remaining to be done on the template is as follows: Install search function. This is taking longer than expected because I have decided to junk the Atomz search currently on the Ranter, frankly because it frequently fails to find searches I know for a fact have appeared in the text. Implement feeds coverage. This is slightly more difficult as I have yet to find a really satisfactory service. Blogstreet, which integrated very well, has been offline for months. BlogFuel is hideous, and the current FeedSweep service behaves differently in IE and Firefox, streams unwanted content along with the feeds, and is infuriatingly unreliable. Further, some webring code will need editing to be XHTML validation compliant before it can be deployed.

IE users should be aware that the clock will be on the new site as soon as I have finished vetting the code for validation and to ensure that other browsers will accept it.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Wicke's resignation explained

Not so long ago, I mentioned that the director of the Rudolfinerhaus, Lothar Wicke, had resigned on the same day the clinic announced that it had confirmed that Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned. This resignation, officially due to overwork, was the basis for a brief flowering of conspiracy theories at the time. It seems there was indeed a conspiracy, but just not the one they thought.

The mighty FT ran a rather complicated story yesterday in which they succeeded in explaining the incident in some detail. It seems that Dr. Wicke is an intimate of Leonid Kuchma and doctor to many of those close to him. (Kuchma's children, it turns out, were born in the Vienna clinic.) When Yushchenko pitched up in the place riddled with dioxins, Kuchma's son-in-law and campaign chief made a dash to Vienna accompanied by a group of spin doctors hired from the French PR firm EuroRSCG, who persuaded Wicke to hold a press conference denying the suggestion that the illness was indeed poisoning. No wonder he feels - ah - overworked.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Round-Up of some recent things

I'm about to do that stereotype blogger thing of doing an unfocused round-up post for want of inspiration, so please bear with me. In the Ukraine, for example, more details are out from AP (via Neeka) about the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko. Apparently, he has the second highest concentration of dioxin ever recorded in a human being. The British toxicologist John Henry, one of the first people to suspect dioxin poisoning in the case, remarks that the chloracne only appeared late in his illness - suggesting that, had the poisoning killed him, it would never have been discovered.

Back in October, during the great RDX affair, I mentioned that John A. Shaw, Pentagon Deputy Undersecretary of Defence for International Technology Security and possibly the owner of the world's largest business card, had probably been lying when he fed the Washington Times a story that the Russian army had removed the missing explosives. I said that despite his exposure, he wouldn't be resigned. Rather to my surprise, though, he's been fired over a corruption scandal.

You may also remember this bizarre tale of mercenaries, business jets, fundamentalists and tax-evaders in Papua New Guinea. (more, here) The latest is that several people involved including the pilots were convicted of several offences in air law by the PNG courts, after a chaotic case that exposed the PNG authorities as not knowing very much about the realities of the position. Another case continues concerning attempts to have the plane released. The PNG newspaper The National has alleged that arms were aboard the aircraft.

File Under "I wish I hadn't heard that"

Caller to BBC Radio 5 discussion on today's court ruling against the indefinite incarceration of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh: "I believe in the majority, not the individual!" It was almost enough to make me sympathetic towards Patrick Mercer, the Tory who is luckless enough to be "shadow secretary of state for homeland security" - that is, shadowing a ministry that doesn't exist - who appeared on the programme too. Mercer made the sound point that, if we are serious that these men are evil terrorists, we should put them on trial, and that legal powers already exist for this.

I wonder if he will be present at the vote on the ID Card Bill? Many of the Tory front bench are supposedly going to be unaccountably absent after Michael Howard decided to support the Bill over their objections. He now supports both Labour's worst policies - is he the first politician to castrate himself twice?

What the devil went wrong?

Yesterday's Times carried this article concerning binge drinking. Bizarrely, the print version of this contained a large pull-quote about half-way down the story which read
"Teenage drinking is out of control - ministers have been all talk"
Now, your keen and agile mind will recognise the "all talk" bit as a major Conservative talking point. Michael Howard barely lets a day go by without using the phrase "all talk and no delivery" at least once. So how did it get there when it doesn't appear anywhere in the text? None of the people quoted in story actually say it. The quote in itself was not attributed to anybody else. And it sounds exactly like something a Conservative spokesman would have come up with.

Getting your priorities right

The US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, one of the various US agencies involved in policing sanctions, terrorist finance and dirty money, is being sued by the US committee of PEN and a variety of academic organisations over regulations that (they claim) prevent books originating in countries the US maintains sanctions on being published in the States. Here is the writ, with details on exactly what they are arguing about. Amongst other things, they point out that the regulations effectively mean that other countries' censorship is in a sense extended to the US, because only works that have already been published there may be republished.

The same organisation took until the 22nd July this year to add Viktor Bout to its blacklist, and even then didn't think to include any of his companies or aircraft. So unless he showed up in person, it wasn't much use. In fact, it was only this year that they got around to adding the Taliban as an organisation to the list.

But they did manage to pass regulations on which books you can read.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Look What Happened Last Time

Well, with almost uncanny relevance to the logistics issue I mentioned in the last Viktor Bout post, the New York Times' Eric Schmitt reports that the US forces in Iraq have increased their demand for airlift by some 29% in the last month as security on the roads slips away.
"Responding to the threat of roadside bombings and ambushes of American ground convoys in Iraq, the Air Force is sharply expanding its airlift of equipment and supplies to bases inside the country to reduce the amount of military cargo hauled over land routes, Air Force officials said Tuesday.

Dozens of Air Force C-130 and C-17 transport planes, and contracted commercial aircraft, are ferrying about 450 tons of cargo a day, including spare parts, food, water, medical supplies and other matériel that normally moves by truck or trailer, a 29 percent increase in the past month.

Even trucks are sometimes shipped in by air.

In just the past month, the increased air operations have kept more than 400 trucks and about 1,050 drivers with military escorts off the most dangerous roads in Iraq, said an Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Mike Caldwell. American military convoys have been suffering about 100 deaths and injuries a month."
No wonder an Irbis Air plane is said to have been in Iraq during November, or that despite the announced cut-off of contracts to Falcon Express a source tells me that they are still flying to Iraq, including both the An-12 and Il-76. The LA Times also reports the story above but doesn't seem to tie it up with their (outstanding) Bout report yesterday.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Shameless Self Promotion

Nominate ME for a 2004 Koufax Award. You know it makes sense.

Arrested for doing his job

The BNP's leaders, John Tyndall and Nick Griffin, have been arrested and charged with "incitement to commit racial hatred". I always thought that was what they were for.

Update - Bout Story Goes Critical

What happens when something reaches critical mass? I'll tell you - a huge ball of really hot radioactive stuff spreads out in all directions in instants. That's roughly what's happened since earlier this morning with The Story. The LA Times has an impressive story giving quite a lot of detail on the whole thing. Apparently, although the contracts via Falcon Express were spiked in August, an Ilyushin 18 belonging to Irbis Air Co. turned up in Balad as recently as the 22nd of October. Igor Zhuravylov, BGIA's flight ops director, was interviewed and gave the following insight into the stringent background checks applied to the Defence Energy Support Centre's fuel accounts:
"In December 2003, he said, he struck up a conversation with a U.S. military fuel truck operator at the Balad airfield. Zhuravylov said the soldier gave him a blank government form, urging him to fill it out and mail it to military officials.

In April, "to my big surprise, I received a plastic card for each of our planes which allowed us to get military fuel," Zhuravylov said. British Gulf's business boomed.

"It was really so good," Zhuravylov said. "All by the mail. No inspectors, nothing like that. Write a letter, fill a form, get a card."
Well, I laughed my arse off at that one. It's also interesting that although Viktor Bout himself was blacklisted on the 22nd of July, none of his businesses or aircraft were. Did they think he accompanied every flight in person?

One explanation for this remarkable incompetence, of course, would be that somehow their hearts weren't in it. Nick Confessore appears to have picked up a crucial point in this direction, pointing out just how the case came to light in the first place. Remember, it was the fact that suddenly the US and British governments didn't want Bout's name on a UN asset freeze list (when it had been their policy for years to close him down) that initiated the whole story. Now, the initial reaction seems to be that it was all a terrible mistake. Somehow they just slipped through the net. But if that was so, and the officers, officials, and contractor executives involved just didn't know what was going on, how could both the State Department and the British Foreign Office have changed their policy? Confessore also picks up another key point, which I covered in this post back in May. This is that the contracts are dated to the same period as the first Sadr uprising, when the US rapidly lost control of the roads and faced a serious quartermaster crisis. Even the Green Zone was on half rations for a while. You could see why large heavy-lift aircraft suitable for near-tactical flying (basically, the equivalents of the USAF's C-130s and C-17s) were at a premium.

That doesn't explain, though, the fact that BGIA apparently became aware of the fuel credit system in December, 2003, nor that photos place 9L-LEC in Baghdad in January 2004, nor that S9-DAE was photographed in Mosul, December 2003, nor that according to the LA Times the CIA were "concerned" about possible dealings with Bout in October, 2003.

Another thing it doesn't explain is the fact that apparently it was the British Government who chartered Jetline (or perhaps Jet Line) twice.

Bout: The Story Blows Wide Open

Newsweek has blasted the Viktor Bout scandal wide open, at long last. Key message:
"In an effort to crack down on one of the world's most notorious international criminals, President George W. Bush last summer signed an order barring U.S. citizens from doing business with Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout. But not long afterward, U.S. officials discovered Bout's tentacles were wider than anticipated: for much of this year, NEWSWEEK has learned, a Texas charter firm allegedly controlled by Bout was making repeated flights to Iraq—courtesy of a Pentagon contract allowing it to refuel at U.S. military bases. One reason for the flights, sources say, was that the firm was flying on behalf of Kellogg Brown & Root, the division of Halliburton hired to rebuild Iraq's oilfields."
Halliburton and Bout both, eh? That's something like a Bush administration perfect storm. I certainly didn't think it would be anything that obvious when I published details of the fuel purchase agreement that the Newsweek article is built on, back in May. (If you want a quick rundown, this post contains a summary and links to all the Bout content pre-28th September. Since then, we've also published picture of one of his planes in Baghdad,this report on suspicious aircraft, and this slab of speculation on his activities in Rwanda.) Apparently Air Bas have been landing some five times a week at various points in Iraq, running ammunition. It's just what we've been saying all along. The Newsweek guy seems to have looked up Richard Chichakli, Viktor's accountant and financial manager, who is known to read this weblog occasionally (Hi!), who confirms a past story that the UAE-based company Falcon Express had passed a contract on to Bas.

Falcon Express, a small operation with four Beech 1900s based in Dubai, has been said for some time to be operating an Antonov 12 and an Ilyushin 76 for bigger loads. TO clarify a little, we will have to go through the names. Here goes. During the summer, a new set of names in the scandal appeared. As well as British Gulf International and Air Bas, we now began to hear of "Jetline" and "Skylink". I initially thought that the Jetline was Jetline International, a former charter broking company now supposedly operating VIP flights for Sin-Sad community governments. Several of the aircraft on its books have a history with Bout, especially the Il-62 5A-DKT which has been reported under the registration 3C-QQR with Jetline, two other regs with Air Bas and now its current registration back at Jetline. Further, a BAC111 registered 3C-QRF is said to be operated for none other than Chichakli's San Air General Trading.

Other investigators, especially the excellent Douglas Farah, concentrated on SkyLink Air & Logistics, a large Canadian firm that operates airports in war-zone reconstruction. It has a subsidiary called Jet Line, that operates Ilyushin 76 aircraft out of Moldova (a previous Bout base). SkyLink operate Baghdad Airport. Surely these were they? But there is also another Skylink, Skylink Express, based in Russia. One of its aircraft, An-12BP serial number 1347909, is currently operating for GST Aero, a dubious Kazakh-registry outfit based (where else?) in Sharjah. It previously worked for a string of more or less dodgy companies in Angola and the DRC. (Oh, and the UN, who seem to hire aircraft from the Bout empire more often than suggests due care and attention.) Throughout its wanderings, though, two things have been constant - a lack of identifying titles, and an Aeroflot callsign, although it hasn't been part of the Russian flag carrier for years. One Il-76 photographed in Baghdad and Mosul is registered to a "private operator" in Sao Tome and Principe but based in Sharjah - where, on the 17th of February, 2004, shortly after being seen in Mosul in December 2003 and Baghdad on the 24th of January, 2004, all traces of "Skylink" were removed. 9L-LEC was in town on the same day, as was UN-11007, a veteran of Boutcos Irbis Air and - Air Bas!

You could rapidly lose track of these things. Of course, that's exactly the reason for this intrigue and complexity. None of the aircraft above appear directly on Air Bas's official roster, but we know from the fuel records that it's them. Perhaps the fact that Bas has a US corporate registration in Texas made it a favourable figurehead for operations in Iraq - it's more reassuring than - say - Kyrgyzstan or Sao Tome and Principe, even if the planes are registered in either Equatorial Guinea or Kazakhstan and based in the UAE. It's going to be very interesting to see what gets shaken out of the story now Big Media are on the case. Still, they had their chance back in May. Both the Financial Times and Le Monde had at least bits of the story - the French were even the first to put a name to the suspects - but it seems that neither of them Googled "British Gulf International Airlines" when Le Monde printed it, which would have given them the fuel contracts and a king-hell scoop.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Kerik in Baghdad (2)

Newsweek reports on Bernard Kerik's time in Iraq. Apparently he preferred going out on night raids after the "bad guys" with other officials' South African bodyguards to working with the Iraqis. That throws a little light on how he became known as the Terminator of Baghdad, I suppose. No wonder Doug Brand had to beg the MoD Plod for staff and discover the structure of the Iraqi police force from first principles when he got to Baghdad.

Further, Talking Points Memo reports on his mafia connections. You wonder just how wrong it's possible to get it.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Who comes up with these operation names?

In distant Afghanistan, meanwhile, the US Central Command has launched another offensive, this time entitled Operation LIGHTNING FREEDOM (Link). Phil Carter of Intel Dump reports on the strategic orientation of this new push, specifically that it doesn't seem to be focused on "The Hunt for Bin Laden" but more on an effort to secure more of the countryside.

What I think he could have said, though, is that this isn't actually a straight dichotomy - glamourous superspook terrorist vs wussy school repainting. The "Hunt for Bin Laden" has been a roaring failure so far precisely because it hasn't secured the countryside. And frankly, when you find yourself framing your strategy in Tom Clancy book titles it's time for an agonising reapprisal. All the "nation building" and "peacekeeping" tasks are integral to finding The Terrorists, because if you can get real security control of the countryside you constrict their ability to move around, their sources of supply and their authority. You will get them in the end - it will take a long time, but it can be done.

Historical example - Malaya. The British army's much bragged of success in counterinsurgency there took the form of gradually spreading control in the most important parts of the country first. It worked. It took from 1947 to 1960 before the state of emergency was officially ended, though. (although by then much of the country had been exempted from the emergency legislation as being free of terrorists, and was well on the way to normality) And that wasn't all - the key communist cadres kept operating with a diminishing band of followers, excluded to the deep rainforest of the mountains on the Thai frontier, until their general secretary Chin Peng finally called it a day - in 1989! Not, though, that anyone in 99% of the country had noticed their existence for twenty years. But the lesson is clear enough - firstly, that "The hunt for..." doesn't work, and secondly that the alternative policy of gradual squeeze takes a very long time to work.

Blogs: we don't report the news, we write it!

Whether it was the nanny, the money, the dodgy behaviour in Saudi, or the common or garden failure in Iraq, Bernard "Political Criticism is the enemy's best friend" Kerik is not going to be Homeland Security Secretary. Ha.

More on Poisoning

Meanwhile in Vienna, more details are out about the poisoning of Yushchenko. It is reported (German language) according to the doctors that he had something like a thousand times the normal level of the stuff in his flesh, which implied an original dose of something under a gram. Damage to his intestines suggested that the poison was administered by mouth. (In a Viennese touch, the good doctor speculated that the dioxin could have easily been concealed in a bowl of Schlagoberssuppe.)

According to Dr. Zimpfer, the diagnosis had been especially difficult due to the poison being consumed orally rather than inhaled - he states that very few cases of oral dioxin poisoning are known (can anyone with requisite expertise support or criticise this?) and that it led to an entirely different presentation of the disease (Krankheitsbild).

The comments threads at Der Standard are running wild about this, with a mixture of crazed conspiracy theories about obscure sects whose colour is - orange! - and withering sarcasm directed at them. Perhaps the least crazed version is that he might have taken the dioxin himself in order to gain sympathy. The best argument against this is probably the long term effect of the stuff on your system - apart from the galloping acne (now there's a phrase you don't often hear), the symptoms can include deformities, cancer, immune system deficiency, sterility, birth defects if that is not the case, as well as radical changes in your balance of hormones. It's one of those disturbing pathologies that can affect literally any part of your body.

And another thing: there's a lot of it about. If you remember, this happened to Anna Politkovskaya on her way to cover the Beslan school siege:
"We have long stopped talking over our phones openly, assuming they are tapped. But this is an emergency. Eventually a man introduces himself as an airport executive: "I'll put you on a flight to Rostov." In the minibus, the driver tells me that the Russian security services, the FSB, told him to put me on the Rostov flight. As I board, my eyes meet those of three passengers sitting in a group: malicious eyes, looking at an enemy. But I don't pay attention. This is the way most FSB people look at me.

The plane takes off. I ask for a tea. It is many hours by road from Rostov to Beslan and war has taught me that it's better not to eat. At 21:50 I drink it. At 22:00 I realise that I have to call the air stewardess as I am rapidly losing consciousness. My other memories are scrappy: the stewardess weeps and shouts: "We're landing, hold on!"

"Welcome back," said a woman bending over me in Rostov regional hospital. The nurse tells me that when they brought me in I was "almost hopeless". Then she whispers: "My dear, they tried to poison you." All the tests taken at the airport have been destroyed - on orders "from on high", say the doctors."

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Now confirmed.

Der Standard, Vienna's newspaper with a website that really could be better organised, reports that Yushchenko's doctors have now confirmed that he was suffering from dioxin poisoning.

The short article in German basically says that Drs. Michael Zimpfer and Nikolai Korpan informed the press today that they diagnosed a dioxin poisoning. Interestingly, though, the medical director of the clinic (Lothar Wicke) is reported to have resigned. Apparently he received death threats during Yushchenko's treatment and was offered police protection, but the article strongly implies that the resignation was in some way connected with the confirmation and then non-confirmation of the diagnosis earlier in the week. All concerned are denying this, and Wicke gave overwork as the reason for his departure.

Reviewing, Recalling Rybkin: A Poison Post

Does anyone now remember Ivan Rybkin, the Russian politician who vanished during the presidential campaign back in February and who claimed to have been drugged by the secret services? He turned up in London having been missing for several days, and announced in a bizarre press conference hosted by zillionaire exile Boris Berezovsky that he would not return to Russia but would continue to campaign, perhaps giving interviews by video link. (In the end, the plan to broadcast campaign material from the UK was blocked by the Central Election Commission.)

The whole business was intensely odd - first he vanished, then his campaign manager said he'd just been spending a weekend in Kiev and hadn't been watching TV, then a member of the Duma security committee said he was being held at a sanatorium run by the presidential administration, then retracted this and claimed he was joking, before he finally rocked up in London. According to his statements at the time he had been lured to Kiev, drugged and forced to take part in a pornographic video.

At the time, after the first shock had worn off, his allegations were treated with derision by an impressively wide spectrum of opinion. But how would your answer change, as they say, in the light of continuing and credible suggestions that Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned and considerable evidence of Russian interference in the Ukrainian election? After all - what exactly is the job description of a "political technologist"?

Whilst we're on the subject, the Exile has an excellent article about the eastern Ukraine. Fact grab - Donetsk oblast has the highest rate of wage arrears in the country.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Keighley Rooftop Protest!

Meanwhile in Keighley, two women have climbed onto the roof of the Territorial Army drill hall to protest feared plans to disband one or more Yorkshire infantry regiments. Good luck girls, but I fear the aroma wafting over the road from the chippy and the bar of the Volunteers may take hold as the evening wears on.

Slavery - Not That Bad Really

Atrios reports on a US school that is teaching its pupils that "slaves lived a life of plenty, of simple pleasures". There's more, if you can stomach it, but just a thought: if you're worried about US domination, wait a generation. One day George W. Bush will seem intelligent.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Vote for ME.

Fistful of Euros is holding a Blog Awards competition. Categories are Best UK Blog, Best Political Blog, and the Satin Pyjamas Best European Blog. Don't just stand there - nominate me, your first choice for unmarked jets, Black Sheep Bitter, war fever, sliding dollars and ranting.

Or you'll have me on your hands.

Bernard Kerik, and the South Yorkshire Police

The new US Secretary of Homeland Security, former New York cop on duty at ground zero on the day, and Saudi royal bodyguard, Bernard Kerik, has been encountering a certain amount of blogosphere criticism since his appointment. Amongst other things, he's been accused of partisanship (he was the chap who said during the election campaign that there would be another September 11th-scale terrorist attack if John Kerry was elected and that political criticism was our enemies' best friend), of dubious financial probity (a million dollars in rebates from tobacco firms on cigarettes bought by the city of New York mysteriously turned up in a foundation headed by Mr. Kerik, where some $140,000 of it was used by the treasurer to pay for phone sex calls), and of disappearing early from his post as chief advisor to the Iraqi Interior Minister. (He initially said he'd be there for at least six months and perhaps eighteen, but he vanished after three - strangely enough, just after the first big car bombs in Baghdad.)

A curious British angle has emerged through Josh Marshall's efforts to clarify exactly when Kerik left Iraq. Specifically, this Torygraph piece mentions a bounty being placed on the head of his replacement, Douglas Brand. Brand is an assistant chief constable (actually, a more senior Deputy Chief Constable) of South Yorkshire Police, who is described in the article as having moved to Iraq from Sheffield in July, 2003 - implying that Kerik pulled out even earlier than previously thought. Interestingly, Sidney Blumenthal in today's Grauniad mentions friction between Kerik and British police advisers - apparently they surnamed him the Terminator of Baghdad and considered him a "reckless bully". One wonders if Kerik's swift departure from Iraq might have been rather less voluntary than most comment has so far suggested. Marshall, for example, suggests he might have been offended by the degree of corruption and mismanagement he encountered in the CPA. Or perhaps he was simply fired, possibly after an Anglo-American falling out?

It's obviously time for some facts, so here is a press release from the British Embassy to Israel issued on the 13th of July, 2003. Note this paragraph:
"DCC Douglas Brand of South Yorkshire Police travelled to Iraq on 4 July to take up a position as senior mentor to the Iraqi Chief of Baghdad police. It will be his job to assist and advise the CPA on the training of the new Iraqi police force"
So, Brand was on the spot by the 4th of July . Mind you, the English is a little scrambled - was he "senior mentor" to the chief of Iraqi police, or the chief of the Baghdad police, or both? But the job description is pretty damn clear and the Torygraph's description of his role agrees. This clarifies a little:
" Douglas Brand went to Baghdad on 4 July and is the chief police adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Director for the Ministry of the Interior."
Basta! The Guardian's Rory McCarthy further reports that he was still in charge on the 21st of June this year. Brand's own opinion of his role also argues that he has Kerik's old job:
"Where else can you design a national police force, design a ministry of interior and mentor a police chief?"
Indeed. These things are tough, as this Ministry of Defence Police mag would suggest.
"A third request was received from the FCO around early October, this time for assistance in support of DCC Douglas Brand of South Yorkshire Police, who was working in Baghdad as Senior Police Advisor (North) to the interim government. That assistance comprised a staff officer, project managers and general support around his administration. (Douglas Brand had been out in Baghdad since July but had no real support or infrastructure to work with.)"
Well, well, well. Given that he also felt it necessary to sack the entire internal affairs directorate, I suppose his job title could have been expected to move around a little. He also has some fairly tough things to say about the US military posture:
""Every police station out of 58 was totally trashed," Brand says. There were too few American troops on the ground and so police stations, ministries, army camps and government buildings were left wide open to the mobs. Almost every police vehicle was stolen, and weapons simply disappeared."
In fact, a sweep around the web reveals that Brand's role in Iraq has frequently been one of struggling to undo past errors. Try this Washington Post report on the aftermath of the first Sadrist rising last spring.
"The decision to hire back as many former policemen as possible, even without training, had been meant to reassure Iraqis by putting more officers on the street. But it also put thousands of ill-prepared men, some with ties to the insurgency, into uniform -- a problem that the CPA long feared but did not fully grasp until the Sadr rebellion.

"Quantity overrode quality," said Douglas Brand, a British police commander who has served as a senior CPA adviser to the Iraqi police force. "We scooped up a whole lot of people who didn't meet our criteria and put them into the police force."
Or perhaps this, from The Observer, 14/09/2003:
"The impact of drugs on Iraq's well-documented crime problems, especially in Baghdad, has been noted with alarm too by the international advisers brought in to help Iraq's new Ministries and police service. Among those concerned by the impact of the 'capsilun' on criminality in Baghdad is deputy chief constable Douglas Brand, an officer with the South Yorkshire police who served for 23 years in the Metropolitan police: 'These drugs seem to embolden people to do crimes and they have no sense of what they are doing.'

What worries him most is the 'impactive nature' of Iraq's new criminal drug culture on a society that has, thus far, been largely shielded from a drug culture.

'What worries us,' he said, 'is the risk of a second-phase drug abuse problem that draws in wider Iraqi society and sets up its own economic dynamic.' Already, Brand said, specialist drug intelligence officers had been drafted in, and advisers were grappling to get the capsilun off Baghdad's streets."
Meanwhile, back at the MOD, Brand's MOD Police staff officer Chief Inspector Mel Goudie had this to say about the root causes of their multifarious problems (Link)
"MDP officers arriving in Baghdad for the first time found that the Iraqi police had a lot in place of which we had been unaware - they had three separate policing services, existing as separate entities, which we hadn't known about."
More damning it doesn't get.

CIA Officer "forced to change WMD report"

Washington Post story

It is reported that a lawsuit has begun involving a CIA man who was allegedly run out of the services because he didn't agree with the official version. Key:
" Those investigations, the lawsuit asserts, were "initiated for the sole purpose of discrediting him and retaliating against him for questioning the integrity of the WMD reporting . . . and for refusing to falsify his intelligence reporting to support the politically mandated conclusion" of matters that are redacted in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit marks the first public instance in which a CIA employee has charged directly that agency officials pressured him to produce intelligence to support the administration's prewar position that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were a grave and gathering threat, and to suppress information that ran counter to that view."
One day, we'll get to the bottom of this.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Strange Times

Unless I'm very much mistaken, The Markets now consider Italian short-term government debt less risky than US Treasury Bills.

Maturity Coupon Price Yield Change

Italy 09/06 2.75 100.7700 2.30 -0.01
04/09 3.00 100.5400 2.89 -0.02
02/15 4.25 103.9400 3.81 -0.03
08/34 5.00 108.8080 4.51 -0.01

US 11/06 2.88 99.8750 2.94 +0.02
11/09 3.50 99.5859 3.59 -0.12
11/14 4.25 100.1563 4.23 -0.01
02/31 5.38 107.0000 4.90 -0.01
Figures from the mighty FT (pdf), correct at 2300 hours yesterday.

I'm not sure anybody expected that when the euro was invented. That's even with the stories about whether or not the Italian government cooked the books to get through the Maastricht criteria for entry to the €. (linky, more) Mind you, when you take a look at this sort of thing (Brad DeLong), it all makes much more sense. One question that arises from those figures, though, is why UK Treasuries with similar coupons are yielding more than the Italians. It's not as if the UK Government is any more likely to default or monetise than Italy. Could it be that this is pricing in the situation where the dollar declines faster against sterling than against the euro - leaving the UK uncompetitive on both sides? And isn't that just what so many pro-Europeans used to say about the pound as a "punchbag currency" between the dollar and euro zones?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Wisdom from the blogosphere!

Kevin Drum has this impressive piece of insight:
"Boys these days are obsessed with videogames because boys throughout history have had a remarkable ability to obsess about things for uncounted hours: video games, computer programming, throwing balls around, practicing their swordfighting, whatever. The ability of young men to lose themselves to obsession is probably responsible for both more progress and more suffering than just about any personality trait I can think of."
Young men = dogs with better PR. I know. I am one.

Vladimir Putin and Iraqi Elections

It's just been put to me that Vladimir Putin's recent speech about Russia supporting the Iraqi elections is an indicator of important political events. Specifically, that the next president of Iraq will be - Viktor Yanukovich by a landslide!

Thanks, Dad.

ID Cards: You Too Can Have the Fallujah Experience

The Boston Globe reports on the frankly sinister plan for the inhabitants of Fallujah now that "it's over". The US Marine Corps is apparently going to bring back the 300,000 or so people who fled the city in time for the elections. So they can fully enjoy the benefits of democracy, certain special arrangements have been made.
"One idea that has stirred debate among Marine officers would require all men to work, for pay, in military-style battalions. Depending on their skills, they would be assigned jobs in construction, waterworks, or rubble-clearing platoons.

"You have to say, 'Here are the rules,' and you are firm and fair. That radiates stability," said Lieutenant Colonel Dave Bellon, intelligence officer for the First Regimental Combat Team, the Marine regiment that took the western half of Fallujah during the US assault and expects to be based downtown for some time.

Bellon asserted that previous attempts to win trust from Iraqis suspicious of US intentions had telegraphed weakness by asking, " 'What are your needs? What are your emotional needs?' All this Oprah [stuff]," he said. "They want to figure out who the dominant tribe is and say, 'I'm with you.' We need to be the benevolent, dominant tribe."
The militarisation of labour, eh? Leon Trotsky would have been pleased. The whole thing's worth reading, especially for connoisseurs of stupidity ("Suhad Molah, a young woman in a veil that showed only her eyes, was indignant that a translator said she might be Syrian because of her accent, implying she was the wife of a foreign fighter. "I am Iraqi," she said, adding that she and her children had been trapped in their house for weeks."), but this is a point that really stands out:
"Under the plans, troops would funnel Fallujans to so-called citizen processing centers on the outskirts of the city to compile a database of their identities through DNA testing and retina scans. Residents would receive badges displaying their home addresses that they must wear at all times. Buses would ferry them into the city, where cars, the deadliest tool of suicide bombers, would be banned."
I feel a slogan coming on. Perhaps "David Blunkett - Bringing Fallujah to a high street near you."

You will be assimilated! (Warning - long post)

Cabalamat Journal has an interesting post on the European Union and its influence in the world under the amusing title The European Union is the Borg. They've also started blogrolling us, so have a link! They refer to this article in the Washington Post by Robert "Paradise and Power" Kagan.

Some points - I think Kagan is right that the prospect of EU membership has been a powerful force for peace and democracy in the ex-communist bloc and that this will go on. Mind you, I'm not as clear about how this can be reconciled with the practicals of enlargement and the EU's institutional structure. Once you get past Turkey things get tough - is an EU much like the current one, with its capital in Brussels, really credible if the eastern border is the Pacific? Really, of course, this is just the old traditional question about where Europe ends to the east in a new form. And I think there's a danger, especially when folk like Robert Cooper (favourably quoted in the article) talk about the EU as a voluntary empire (in Geir Lundestan's words, an empire by invitation), that a degree of geographical and intellectual hubris sets in. Kagan:
"By accident of history and geography, the European paradise is surrounded on three sides by an unruly tangle of potentially catastrophic problems, from North Africa to Turkey and the Balkans to the increasingly contested borders of the former Soviet Union. This is an arc of crisis if ever there was one.."
Note that he seems to conceive of the whole perimeter around the EU (hell, forget the Arctic Ocean) as one entity. Which suggests that the lure of membership should be applied southwards, as well as eastwards and southeastwards. Now, you could make a case for this. After all, the countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean were once the subjects of Ottoman Turkey - which was a European power. Surely - say - the politics of Algeria might be progressively rendered less vicious and more democratic if they had the prospect of membership as a motivator. Look at Turkey itself! And there's natural gas in them thar sands!

Then, of course, you've got a problem, because the southern border is suddenly an ill-defined line pushing against some of the world's nastiest crisis zones. What you might call Vulgar Kaganism would suggest that we now open accession negotiations with the Central African Republic. And then Burkina Faso. Over on the eastern front, meanwhile, the shining lure of membership will surely be gradually snaring the states of the Caucasus, whether via the northern route (after the Ukraine and Russia) or the (perhaps less difficult) southern route (via Turkey). When the next border dispute, upburst of Islamist violence or nuclear accident erupts, of course, the answer will be to commence talks with Uzbekistan. Hell, why not Afghanistan and Iran? Finally, somewhere near the Dzungarian Gate, the Schengen area's ever expanding frontier collides with China and (hopefully) recoils. There's a name for this phenomenon, classically elaborated by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in Africa and the Victorians. It is called the Crumbling Frontier, and it is important because its crumbling can bring on cycles of intervention beyond it, often followed by bursts of retrenchment, as the great power within the frontier searches unavailingly for security. Gallagher and Robinson describe how, during the 1840s, the frontier of British South Africa was pushed out in an effort to keep the expansion of Boer settlement under control and (it was thought) prevent war with the Zulus. Every time British sovereignty was extended, not surprisingly, the Boers just moved on out of it. Not that the Zulus and Xhosas were too happy, either. As the length of the frontier grew, security became less and less likely. Then London intervened and ordered the governor at the Cape to wind his neck in and cut costs. Did he really have to administer all those miles of windswept veldt and lonely kopjes at taxpayers' expense? So they went into reverse and decolonised back to the last-but-one start line.

Then, of course, the trouble began all over again. (Note - if you're reading this, Professor Stockwell, I hope you're impressed that I remember all that crap about the annexation and dis-annexation of British Kaffraria, Sir Harry Provo and the Sand River Convention from your lectures. Taking the way I behaved in that first term into account, it's a wonder I remember which courses I took let alone British Kaff-Bleeding-Raria.) Now for the Ranter take-home message: When do you get a crumbling frontier? When you're an empire and you run into people who don't want to be part of it - or more importantly, don't really understand what all your crap about courts and lawbooks and policemen with funny hats and water mains and railways is about and don't care. And what's the problem with it? That once it gets going, you can't control it. All that stops it is usually when you run into somebody too big and nasty to deal with, or something natural. Like the sea.

And how do you think the Africans and Russians will look at us with our fantastic all-purpose peacemaker when we rock up and suggest they take a seat back in Brussels? Yep, just another bunch of honkies who know what's best for us. Bah. The whole thing about "soft power" is that it doesn't look like an empire.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Reject ID Cards: Scare Tactics

If the current Identity Cards Bill is passed, remember that appealing against decisions involved is a crime. Well, not quite. Even though most of the monster fines - up to £2,500 a time if your card fails to swipe properly and is considered "damaged" - will be treated as a "civil penalty" rather like an Anti-Social Behaviour Order, it isn't any better. You can't get legal aid for civil cases. And if you dare to object to the New Poll Tax - Section 34(3) of the Bill gives David Blunkett the power to increase the fine for troublemakers like you.

What is the purpose of this? Or rather, can anyone tell me any other purpose than to scare the public off challenging decisions by the ID bureaucracy? Remember, the ID Cards Bill explicitly states that the Home Secretary has no obligation to correct false information on the National ID Database. If you have given yourself the right to hold falsehoods - potentially libellous ones - against all our names, objections would get in the way so. Dave's time is likely to be short, filled up with consultations with the Treasury Solicitor over who should pay for the latest billion pound cost overrun. So just whack those troublesome people with a threat of a million quid fine if they lose - most will run like hell.

This is now the basis of British governance. Vote Labour.

Blunkett in love: the bit they've missed

Among the portfolio of accusations against David Blunkett, there is one I suspect is the most significant of the lot but hasn't got the ink it deserves. In accordance with the best Labour traditions, of course, it's also one of the matters that the Home Office's self-investigation doesn't cover. Mind you, the Sunday Torygraph did get it today - if you can bear it, the link is here (use Bugmenot if it don't work). Now, I suspect that the allegation that he pulled rank to secure a visa for his lady's nanny quicker than usual will probably die. A civil servant or two will be sacrificed and a ton of waffle dumped on the issue like sand on an oil spill. Blunkers will be helped by the fact that his department tend to be incompetent in both directions - visas are known to take either years or no time at all to process - and that a policy in place at the time fits the story. The rest (railway ticket, lifts in official car) is trivial.

But the killer might be the allegation that, on the 13th of August, Blunkett's principal private secretary, Jonathan Sedgwick, and the Home Office's head of news, John Toker, took part in a meeting with Mrs. Quinn and her solicitors. It is claimed that they attempted to get her to sign a statement that her marriage was "over in all but name". Now, if verified this is dynamite - Blunkett would have outed himself as a total bastard, and more importantly one who ordered civil servants to do his dirty work. Non-UK readers may not realise the full significance of this. In Britain, the divide between politicians and officials, and even more the impartiality of the civil service, is considered very important (not least by civil servants). It has also been a difficult issue for this government. Hence the inclusion in the government's denial of the apparently ridiculous point that Sedgwick and Toker were "in their lunch hour" - that is, not being paid for their time by the state. If the only one involved had been his private secretary, Jonathan Sedgwick, this might have been excusable. But the departmental head of news's involvement implies that the Home Office had an official line on this. It makes it a political matter.

If this turns out to be more than spin - the Torygraph goes so far as to claim that the solicitors have a detailed record of the meeting - this could catapult the whole thing into Hutton country.

ID's: Chris Lightfoot Gets It

Chris Lightfoot runs a detailed critique of the ID Cards Bill, and pulls up exactly what I did on Tuesday. That is, the Bill's killer clauses that give the Government powers to force us to carry the cards (despite their denials), to force us to show them to use the NHS, public education and social security (despite their denials), and to discriminate between groups of citizens (despite their denials). A clause in Section 15 - the bit the government will spin as preventing the card's use to control access to public services - explicitly removes this protection from anyone forced to register under Section 6. This legislative landmine means that once, as planned, the card becomes compulsory, people without them will be banned from using public services. It's that simple. Another beauty in section 6 gives the government power to oblige "individuals of a description specified in the order" to register. This provides for the creation of a class of people who would be forced to carry ID cards when everyone else does not - or for the creation of a class of people barred from carrying them when everyone else must. Either way, for the first time we will have legislation designed to create second-class citizens.

Well, if they don't intend to use these powers, why are they so keen to legislate them?

Just to add to the chorus of joy, may I offer this report (in French) from Le Monde? According to the French Commission on Citizens, Justice and Policing, more cases of police brutality occur during ID card checks than any other procedure. This is perhaps not very surprising as ID checks are common, but that is small comfort to the chap described in the article who had his head cracked against a car. It also shouldn't be terribly surprising that some 60% of cases were inflicted on foreigners, and that many of the other 40% involved persons whose "appearance or name might cause one to think they were of foreign origin" (I quote). The commissioners concluded that:
"the legality of identity checks carried out "preventatively", whose multiplication has provoked more disturbances of public order than they prevent, should be brought into question". (my translation)
Well said.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Lest we forget

Today is the 20th anniversary of the world's worst ever industrial accident, at Bhopal in India. Thousands - we don't know exactly how many - of people were gassed when a huge tank of methyl isocyanate leaked at Union Carbide's plant there. Multiple layers of safety should have been present but were not. The victims died in horrific pain, shitting themselves and eventually drowning in their own blood and lung fluids. Those who survived are mostly still suffering twenty years later.

Union Carbide abandoned the site after the accident. The plant and tons of chemicals are still in situ and the water supply is contaminated. Neither UC nor their new owners, Dow Chemical, have even bothered to say exactly what (as well as the MIC) escaped on the night. They originally claimed the stuff was no more deadly than teargas but eventually admitted that 3,800 people died. The Indian government estimates between 10,000 and 12,000 people. Organisations in Bhopal itself reckon some 20,000.

Nobody has ever admitted responsibility.

If you want more detail, try here.

That Awful Obscene Wallpaper!

The FT reports, via Suburban Guerrilla, on a bizarre request by US cinema distributors to the director of a film version of The Merchant of Venice. Michael Radford was a little surprised when he was asked to "paintbox the wallpaper", as he didn't think wallpaper existed in the 16th century. Closer examination showed that the wallpaper was in fact a priceless Venetian fresco by Veronese.

On the fresco, a cupid. On the cupid, insufficient clothing for their sense of decency.

You couldn't make it up.

Ohio: Blackwell Before Beak

Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has been summoned to Congress' Judiciary Committee to answer a detailed list of electoral irregularities. It's too long to repost here, but as a taster, it includes places where there was a 124% turnout, others where 5,000 more people voted for a Democratic judge than for a Democratic president, a district where huge numbers of voters apparently registered in 1977 (a year when there were no federal elections)....it's all very Ukrainian. I wonder what he'll come up with?

Thursday, December 02, 2004

UN Peacekeepers for 119 Farringdon Road?

The Guardian's separatist insurgency gathers pace towards all-out civil war. After the now-notorious articles on the Ukraine by Jonathan Steele and John Laughland, it was the paper's liberal-hawk tendency's turn to hit back. On Tuesday, columnist David Aaronovitch delivered this rant about Mr. Laughland, who returned fire in the letters page the next day. Bizarrely, Laughland claimed that Aaronovitch had done nothing more than "an internet trawl", but didn't say why this made his statements wrong. No wonder he was angry, though - who wouldn't when one of your colleagues gets outed as denying that there was ever a genocide in Rwanda of all places? On Thursday, it was the turn of Tim Garton-Ash to weigh in with this piece, which is perhaps the best writing I've yet seen about the Ukrainian situation. As well as an elegant analysis of the row, there is (of course) a stinging rebuke for the other side. I've previously blogged about rows in the Grauniad as a form of ritual on the left, but if this one keeps up they'll end up with blue helmets policing the ceasefire line between facts and comment, behind a barricade of overturned desks.

This isn't really a row about the Ukraine, though. This is a very local British problem indeed, despite TGA's references to Italian and German papers. In some ways it's part of the last echoes of the boom in the British far left of the 70s and 80s - although the Communist Party of Great Britain was well into its decline by then, a variety of Trotskyist and other far-left groups were able to recruit intellectuals and trade unionists in considerable numbers. (In 2001, no less than six government ministers were extreme-left veterans.) The Revolutionary Communists (at least three versions of), the Workers' Revolutionary party, the Socialist Workers' party - they all had their heyday, and their main achievement was to infiltrate the Labour party and have some really good rows. All those old conflicts are rolled up on the broader left in Britain - the ex-Trotskyists and ex-Militant types, the traditional Labour left, the traditional Labour social-democratic right, the non-socialist liberals. Any understanding of either the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties has to take this into account (the Lib Dems' version of this is the tension between old-fashioned economic liberals and the post-Social Democrats who left Labour because of the Trotskyists....and now because of Tony Blair..).

The same goes for the Guardian, a newspaper without a proprietor, regulated by a charter that binds it to "Liberal principles", editorial independence of management, and the paper's continued financial independence. Or should those be "liberal principles"? Its origins in Manchester were as the paper of - well - Manchester Liberalism, which would put it quite a distance to the right of its position for the last forty years at least. But it has spent much of the intervening period aligned with the Labour party (but sympathetic to the Liberals), and its staff is without doubt the most leftwing in Britain. I get the strong impression that, faced with the problem of defining a left/liberal consensus in their newsroom, the Guardian's editors have decided instead on creative ambiguity. You might get Hywel Williams, a Welsh nationalist who made his career in the Conservative party (work that out). You might get Seamus Milne or George Monbiot. There are two ways of looking at this - one is that this offers real diversity and debate. The other is that it tends to let through too much nonsense.

French Socialists say YES

The French socialist party's membership has voted yes to the European Constitution in an internal referendum. This probably kiboshes the former prime minister Laurent Fabius's attempt to rebuild his career after his disgrace in the contaminated blood scandal. I'm not sorry, especially given some of the No camp's arguments - Fabius argued that the constitution wasn't socialist enough because it didn't provide for European tax harmonisation. This may seem counterintuitive for British readers, who are more used to seeing it criticised either as a mechanism to prevent socialists from putting up taxes, or else a means of forcing everyone to have higher taxes. Fab's argument was just that - that tax rates outside France should be pushed up so as not to compete with French industry. A depressing and negative view of socialism, I think, and one with a big problem.

Namely, if as he said Estonia has a zero corporate tax and France has 30%, what reaction can be expected from the Estonians? I think we can exclude "joy", "goodwill", and "gratitude" from the list. "Fury"? "Resistance"? "Grumpiness?" "Francophobia?" All possibles, surely. This is a key point about Europe. Whatever the central institutions are like, they have to be a zone of consensus between the member states - and this is most likely to be achieved if the amount of stuff to argue over is minimised. Trying to prejudge the basic political direction of member states is well over the mark. If you want a more socialist settlement, you'd do well to start at home, or in the European Parliament. Nobody will thank you for trying to rig the constitution to your advantage.

Le Monde report

Losing the roads...and possibly your shirt

AP reports on the collapse of security on the roads of Iraq, including the route to Baghdad airport. Although the military now call it RPG Alley and the British Embassy has banned its staff from using it, the alternatives are even worse. After all, the route to the western border passes through Ramadi and Fallujah. The northern route out goes via Mosul. The southern route goes through the main battle area at the moment - the Iskandariyah area - and then Najaf and Karbala, and the southeastern route passes through Amarah where carjacking is common. Looks like it'll have to be the airport then. Stand by for Iraq's first air-taxi service. Bound to happen.

And then we'll know we've really lost.

On the same theme, Back to Iraq is - well - back in Iraq, and reports that the mobile phone network is failing because the insurgents are destroying the base stations. Oh, and the electricity's going to buggery again. But that doesn't stop some of us - like Dr. Omar al-Damluji for example, Iraq's Minister of Housing and Construction:
"Finally, a flunky brought me and my photographer into the room to behold His Excellency. He was holding a meeting and didn’t bother looking up as we came in. For 90 minutes he listened to his subordinates and answered their questions about concrete and tar factories. Then he told them he wanted all the factories profitable so they could be privatized and sold on the Baghdad Stock Exchange, noting approvingly of Margaret Thatcher’s actions in Britain in the 1970s and ’80s. Later, in the few minutes I had with him after the meeting, he admitted that he also wanted foreign investment but that he worried that if the companies weren’t profitable, there wouldn’t be any buyers."
As Michael Herr would have put it, "what could you say to that except "Colonel - you're insane!"?" No electricity. No security. No phones. And the good doctor's still daydreaming about loading up on skyrocket soaraway Baghdad equities. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux describes meeting the South Vietnamese Minister of Tourism in 1974. The Minister describes his plans to advertise beach resorts and tours of Hue (a shelled-out city under siege). Theroux's reply was as follows: "But - the tourists might be a bit worried about getting shot!" The same, of course, would go for Dr. Pangloss's foreign investors. Mind you, the Minister did have a suggestion for the Iraqis:
"We will appeal to their curiosity - people in America. So many had friends or relatives in Vietnam. They have heard so much about this country." Sounding distinctly ominous he said, "Now they can find out what it is really like."

Mr Ngoc said, "Places like Bangkok and Singapore are just commercial. That's not interesting. We can offer spontaneity and hospitality, and since our hotels aren't very good we could also appeal to the more adventurous. There are many people who like to explore the unknown..."

Shredding the Documents

The Kyiv Post reports on the frantic events yesterday in Ukraine (separatist referendum called off due to insufficient supply of separatists, vote of no confidence in the prime minister, prime minister says he will ignore it, talks break down, talks back on, agreement reached - maybe..). Broadly, the government side agreed to the principle of new elections and the opposition agreed to lift the siege of major government buildings (but not to leave the streets). Both parties renounced force and any actions likely to affect Ukraine's territorial integrity. Well, that's all good, but the argument will now be about implementation, specifically it seems about the date of the new election. The government want to push the vote off as long as possible in the hope that the protest movement will tire or develop splits. On the contrary, the opposition want to conserve their momentum and go for a quick end.

Another reason to spin things out as long as possible was pointed up by a regrettable incident outside the Ministry of the Interior, when
"Earlier in the day, independent broadcaster Channel 5 showed footage of protesters who had halted a dump truck attempting to leave the Presidential Administration. In the truck, protesters found huge piles of shredded and partially destroyed documents hidden under snow."
Ah, the shredder, the emblem of our times. It is to be hoped they don't shred in alphabetical order, because the Viktor Bout file would be revealing in the extreme. In a bizarre way, though, tolerating a degree of Aktenvernichtung might help to ensure a peaceful resolution - one reason to cling on to power is to forestall the investigation of your past actions, as several politicians much closer to home than the Ukraine could tell you.

Simon Jenkins in the Times has a rather pompous article about mobs.
"The mob may have been outdated by democracy, or at least by opinion polls, but it can still play its lethal game. It made America’s withdrawal from Vietnam inevitable. It reformed and decentralised France after 1968. It signed the death warrant of Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax in 1990. But it does not always win. The largest crowd ever to gather in Britain, against the Iraq war last year, had no impact on the Labour Government. Nor did the pro-hunting crowd in Parliament Square this year.

Such crowds are the manifestation of failure. They suggest that constitutions have lost consent and democratic institutions collapsed. They are an extension of politics in the direction of civil war. A crowd in the street is not an argument won but an argument lost. Its leaders merely hope that crude numbers will silence the guns and get the cameras rolling, to drive forward the blitzkrieg of publicity in support of the great god, No! We may accept the mob as a necessary evil, but should remember that evil it remains."
"The Great God, No?" Or "the great god. No!" I'm not sure what that bit means, but let that pass. There's a more important point here, though. "They suggest that constitutions have lost consent.." Jenkins doesn't seem to consider the situation when the constitution, far from losing the public's consent, is ignored by the powerful. Arguably this is perhaps the most common event that brings out the mob. It certainly is in Ukraine - there, an impeccably democratic constitution exists, one identical with the Russian federal constitution, but the government does not obey it. Just as in Russia, to give a simple example, the ministers are meant to be responsible to parliament. But the so-called power ministries, defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs, in fact serve at the president's pleasure - but this is not stated in the constitution. Neither is the role of the presidential administration, which both in Russia and in the Ukraine is located in the former Central Committee Secretariat with most of the same personnel and many of the same tasks. When the state itself ignores its own constitution, it is pretty poor stuff to blame the public for not consenting. Of course a mob is undesirable, but the alternative is a functioning democracy in which power is constrained by law. One of the features of the Ukrainian situation is that the previously government-dominated parliament and supreme court have begun to function, to provide that constraint and criticism.

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