29 December, 2005

"a goddamned piece of paper"

For those who missed it elsewhere, I want to link to the original publication. Capitol Hill Blue has, in my expereince, a good record of getting the facts that the typical press-release-reprinting "journalist" doesn't bother to dig up. In this case, the story fits with what we hear elsewhere of the president's temper, and there seem to be three independent sources confirming it. So judge for yourself. The key section:

Last month, Republican Congressional leaders filed into the Oval Office to meet with President George W. Bush and talk about renewing the controversial USA Patriot Act.

Several provisions of the act, passed in the shell shocked period immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, caused enough anger that liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union had joined forces with prominent conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Bob Barr to oppose renewal.

GOP leaders told Bush that his hardcore push to renew the more onerous provisions of the act could further alienate conservatives still mad at the President from his botched attempt to nominate White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

“I don’t give a goddamn,” Bush retorted. “I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way.”

“Mr. President,” one aide in the meeting said. “There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution.”

“Stop throwing the Constitution in my face,” Bush screamed back. “It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!”

I’ve talked to three people present for the meeting that day and they all confirm that the President of the United States called the Constitution “a goddamned piece of paper.”

Many presidents chafe against consitutional restraints. That's why the restraints are there. But this sounds like Richard Nixon on a bad day.

Gold and oil

I gave my wife several presents for her birthday. Among them was a pair of earrings. And thus I had my most recent exposure to the rising prices of precious metals. Why the rise? I heard more than one explanation. One salesperson told me the price of platinum was rising due to increased wartime demand for (unnamed) military procurements. But the trend seems to be that everything is rising, as if in anticipation of rising inflation.

The recent announcements by the Federal Reserve that it will no longer publish many of its standard indicators of the money supply may be fueling the concern. The date on whch the Fed will stop publishing--March 23rd, 2006 (reporting, of course, the week prior)--happens to correspond to the announced date --March 26th--when Iran is switching from dollars to euros for purchases of oil.

And how might these events be connected? Here's a little speculation from somebody who keeps a close eye on the gold market:

Call me silly, but has anyone noticed that the Fed’s last report of M3 just happens to be the week prior to the first day of trade on the IOB? You see, if countries like Japan and China [and other Asian countries] with their trillions of U.S. dollars no longer need them [or require a great deal less of them] to buy oil - does anyone suppose they might begin a wholesale liquidation of their U.S. Bonds [the primary instrument where foreigners ‘store’ their U.S. dollars]?

Well, count me in coach – because [barring an accidental war or invasion of Iran] the demand for Petroeuros [and subsequent liquidation of dollars] could have – in Greenspan parlance – highly undesirable effects on foreigner’s willingness to hold vast sums of U.S. debt obligations.

If [and I’m afraid when] foreigners begin wholesale liquidation of U.S. debt obligations, there is no doubt in my mind that the Fed will print the dollars necessary to redeem them – this would necessarily imply a an absolutely enormous [can you say hyperinflation] bloating of the money supply – which would undoubtedly be captured statistically in M3 or its related reporting.

I find it hard to believe the Fed could pump that much money into the system without somebody talking about it, but in this kind of situation having a little extra warning may be very important for currency speculators. And I fear that even if the Fed isn't planning anything, the rumor that it might could have serious repercussions. Nobody wants to be the last one to hold a falling dollar. So will there be a rush to the exits? This policy might encourage the sort of behavior it is supposedly designed to prevent.

27 December, 2005

Starbase One

From a recent Fox news report:

LONDON — Virgin Galactic, the British company created by entrepreneur Richard Branson to send tourists into space, and the state of New Mexico announced an agreement Tuesday for the state to build a $225 million spaceport.

Virgin Galactic also revealed that up to 38,000 people from 126 countries have paid a deposit for a seat on one of its manned commercial flights, including a core group of 100 "founders" who have paid the initial $200,000 cost of a flight upfront. Virgin Galactic is planning to begin flights in late 2008 or early 2009.

I usually have no desire to be especially wealthy, but I wish I had the money for a ticket.

24 December, 2005

No Such Agency, No Such Program

In all the discussion of whether or not GWB has violated the law in ordering a broad program of warrantless wiretaps, two questions aren't getting the attention they deserve:

1) What, exactly, did the president order?

2) Why didn't the executive bother to use the FISA process?

I suspect the answers to these questions are connected. Taking the last one first, there are a number of possibilities. Some of these make more sense than others.

Perhaps the administration believed that the FISA court (and attendant offices) has been compromised. This doesn't make sense. If it were the case, there would be a investigation and removal of court personnel, not simply bypassing (or misleading) the court. To do otherwise would be to miss the whole point of what the court is about.

Perhaps the process of application is too complex and/or time-consuming to work through the court and still get the surveillance done. Leaving aside the constitutional issues for a moment, this still doesn't make sense. First, the track record for the court is that it has been very supportive of requests from the intelligence agancies. Second, the act allows for a retrospective approval process--spy now, justify later--so time isn't the critical problem.

Perhaps the adminstration knew it didn't have (and would never have) a sufficient case to justify the intercepts, and chose to ignore the process. This is possible. Then the question is why?

Perhaps, as some have suggested (Defense Tech and William Arkin, for two) the technology of the program was (is) somehow sufficiently different to make the process irrelevant. For example, approving a wiretap presupposes the ability the identify an individual target, or set of targets. It may be a particular person, so a particular phone, or a particular (limited) system. What if the plan is to intercept everything, filter it, process it, and then use this information to determine who needs to be targeted more directly? Data mining is growing more and more practical. Pattern analysis can show who the unusual cases are--but only in contrast to everthing else. Thus, the "everything else" has to be monitored, too. And that, by most standards, would be a violation of the 4th amendment beyond anything the FISA court is able to approve.

Also consider Congress' reaction to the "Total Information Awareness" proposal floated after 9/11. It was too much, Congress said. TIA "died". But the desire remained, and the technology remained, and there are lots of places to hide a similar program under another name.

Add to that the likelihood that major telecom carriers have voluntarily (or otherwise) provided access to supposedly confidential conversations.

No wonder several of the key people in Congress now say they registered complaints. But in the system as it now stands that's about all they could do. To raise the issue--even with their colleagues in Congress--would be a violation of the security oaths they took to have any access to the information in the first place.

Which leads me to wonder: who leaked the story to the New York Times?

09 November, 2005

Cruise ships and sonic weapons

A little-commented-upon aspect of the failed attack on a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia was that the pirates were driven away, at least in part, by an advanced, nonlethal, sonic weapon similar to the ones now being deployed in Iraq. The whole story is in The Sunday Times of Britain. The key paragraphs:

The Seabourn Spirit, owned by the cruise giant Carnival, was on its way from Alexandria in Egypt to the Kenyan port of Mombasa. It offers the height of luxury, with huge suites, marble bathrooms and more than one crew member to each passenger. Cruises aboard the liner cost from £6,100 for a 16-day sail to £18,270 for an epic 46-day voyage.

The liner used a sonic blaster to foil the pirates. Developed by American forces to deter small boats from attacking warships, the non-lethal weapon sends out high-powered air vibrations that blow assailants off their feet. The equipment, about the size of a satellite dish, is rigged to the side of the ship.

I don't remember seeing anything like that the last time my wife and I took a cruise, but then again we weren't on a luxury ship off the coast of Somalia.

The secret is finally out

I got a good chuckle out of this. Even if you can't trust the courts, you can count on someone to screw up. From the New York Times:

November 8, 2005

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 - In an apparent slip, a top American intelligence official has revealed at a public conference what has long been secret: the amount of money the United States spends on its spy agencies.

At an intelligence conference in San Antonio last week, Mary Margaret Graham, a 27-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and now the deputy director of national intelligence for collection, said the annual intelligence budget was $44 billion.

The number was reported Monday in U.S. News and World Report, whose national security reporter, Kevin Whitelaw, was among the hundreds of people in attendance during Ms. Graham's talk.

"I thought, 'I can't believe she said that,' " Mr. Whitelaw said on Monday. "The government has spent so much time and energy arguing that it needs to remain classified."

The figure itself comes as no great shock; most news reports in the last couple of years have estimated the budget at $40 billion. But the fact that Ms. Graham would say it in public is a surprise, because the government has repeatedly gone to court to keep the current intelligence budget and even past budgets as far back as the 1940's from being disclosed.

Carl Kropf, a spokesman for the office of the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, said Ms. Graham would not comment. Mr. Kropf declined to say whether the figure, which Ms. Graham gave last Monday at an annual conference on intelligence gathered from satellite and other photographs, was accurate, or whether her revelation was accidental.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, expressed amused satisfaction that the budget figure had slipped out.

"It is ironic," Mr. Aftergood said. "We sued the C.I.A. four times for this kind of information and lost. You can't get it through legal channels."

It should be interesting to see the CIA and DNI twist themselves into knots trying to reclassify a number in the public domain.

Another thought: maybe it wasn't a mistake? If the DNI thinks the CIA's old policy is wrong, the best way to circumvent it would be to "accidently" announce the number. Let's see if it happens again next year.

07 November, 2005


I suppose it's only a matter of time before someone makes a connection with globalization.

06 November, 2005

Government as insurance

The more I think about it, he more I'm inclined to see the central role of government as an insurance policy. Thus, the criticism that one doesn't get one's taxes worth of government misses the point. You don't pay insurance premiums hoping to receive a payout. You pay the premium in order to have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that help will be there if you need it.

But what about the other consequences of this approach? Police and fire services fit within the model, for the most part. It's very rare that a cop actually stops a crime. He comes into action in order to mitigate harm and restore the status quo. Likewise, one can make a case for a national catastrophic health care system. But unlimited welfare? No. Food stamps? No. Institutionalized government-managed charity would, in this model, be limited to short-term assistance.

Government has the added problem that it is, at least for some, a coerced insurance system. Keeping everyone "enrolled" has the effect of spreading the risk, but at the cost of the freedom to opt out. Then again, in a modern interdependent society the idea of opting out is more than a little problematic on the best of days, so that doesn't bother me all that much. What really bothers me is that it is a monopolistic coerced insurance system.

Insurance companies can raise their premiums for risky behavors. As a rule, governments don't: they simply prohibit the behaviors. For most othe risky behaviors--fire code violations, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, unprotected sex--there is little expectation of arrest, let alone a serious expectation of punishment. But whether or not one breaks the law, the payoff in a disaster is the same. Thus, it is "criminals," broadly defined, who get both freedom and support, and if they are engaged in risky activities they are also the people most likely to get a payoff. This is not a system conducive to either minimal regulation (as governments try to cut costs) or compliance with the law (as it doesn't effect payoffs). It also crowds out all non-governmental mechanisms for community and mutual support in daily life.

Sound familiar?

What would happen if taxes (premiums) could be better linked to risk? Probably they'd end up being so politicized that the current tax code would look simple in comparison. But what if there was real competition for some of the functions of government, based on competing insurers? I suspect that some people (especially the indigent and or retarded) would fall through the cracks. So maybe a competititve model could be coupled with a "mandatory minimum insurance" provision, similar to what we do now for drivers?

That sounds like it has possibilities. Not perfect, by any means. It still needs work. But it might be an improvement over what we have now.

30 October, 2005

Feeling good

Tech Central Station published a little essay of mine last week. It's a good feeling every time I see my work in print. And every time something like this happens I ask myself--why don't I do it more often?

24 October, 2005

ICANN and the UN

Proposals to place the internet under some kind of international control, an "authority" for the good of all, continue to emerge from a slew of people who see open systems as a threat, and who want to turn this "global resource" into a source of wealth and power for themselves.

It's all for the "common good," of course. Of course it is.

There are two good things about this mess: (1) the people who want to take charge of the internet are the same opportunists who have mismanaged so many other programs, and (2) there are too many people--in too many positions of power--who profit from the present arrangement. Any deal to transfer the administration of the internet to the control of one of more IGOs would have to promise at least the same rewards to those influentials as they have now, if the proposal is to have sufficient support to be enacted.

Like so many other situations, the best hope for the little people is the way in which the various powerful actors watch and block the actions of one another.

22 October, 2005

The Precautionary Principle

From a recent Stratfor policy analysis of the reactions to biotechnology and nanotechnology:

The most ambitious attempt to make fundamental changes in the structure that regulates new technologies is being offered by ETC Group, which is calling for an international convention on the public's right to accept or decline new technology -- the International Convention on the Evaluation of New Technologies. This step, which essentially calls for the politicization of scientific and technological progress, has long been an objective of anti-chemicals and anti-biotechnology advocates. Some of these advocates have relied on a radical interpretation of the precautionary principle, which argues simply that a new product should be "proven safe" before it is allowed on the market. Taken to its logical extreme, of course, this would stifle all new technology by demanding that creators prove a negative (that it is not possible for their products to be harmful). This clearly being the case, the only way to certify that the negative "no harm" has been achieved would be to turn to political judgments, rather than scientific ones.

The precautionary principle desribed above is actually the intersection of two fundamental (and all too common) logical fallacies: (1) to measure the costs without regard for the gains, and (2) to demand nothing less than certainty in a fundamentally uncertain world.

But all that, after all, may be irrelevant, if the proponents of the principle are only interested in a prohibition based on a 'moral' (ideological, religious) absolute, while looking to cloak it in the vocabulary of a cost-benefit "rationality" that they in fact reject.

This is both the strength and the weakness of fanaticism. It's not possible to argue with a fanatic. On the other hand, once most people recognize the fanatic for what she is, the fanatic loses.

Thomas Schelling

I was moved by a post from Steven D. Levitt on his class with Thomas Schelling. How I wish I'd had that class--Schelling's books were on the short list that got me interested in political economy and strategy. It seems that whenever there's an interesting idea to explore, Schelling got there first. He was long overdue for the nobel prize he received this year. Now I learn he was (is) a great teacher, too. How does he do it?

19 October, 2005

Human Security Report

The Human Security Report is out, and surprise! The world is getting better. I wonder if it could have something to do with the spread of capitalist globalization?


Here's an interesting item from the NTI's Global Security Newswire. Apparently clinical (nonhuman) testing has proven positive for "antisense technology" that reduces the lethality of Anthrax, Marburg, or Ricin. It appears to be gene-specific, not a universal "magic bullet," but this could have some interesting defense applications.

10 October, 2005

Bombs away

UNICEF, in order to increase shock value and raise donations, has prepared a short ad in which the village of the tiny, friendly, good-natured Smurfs is attacked from the air, leading to death and destruction for the "smurfalicious" elves.

I've often considered the idea of bombing the Smurfs, but I'm surprised that an agency of the UN would actually do it.

P.S. What is it about Smurfette, anyway? One woman in a village of men? What are Smurf mating habits like? Where do little Smurfs come from?

Reorganizing the Special Forces

Some things are interesting enough to deserve a long quote. The source is William Arkin's "Early Warning" Blog of 5 October. William Arkin, for those who don't know him, is committed to exposing American military programs. He has a particular love for code names, and his most recent book is a digest of classified programs. His methods are basically OSINT + contacts in the defense establishment. Sometimes he claims to know more than he does (I was part of a group, long ago, that he contacted for information. We didn't give it to him. He published his best guess anyway. He was wrong.), but he does get a lot of open-source information and restricted documentation out to a wider audience. Here's what I found so interesting:

...November 1, SOCOM will formally activate its new Center for Special Operations as the nerve center to coordinate global operations and actionable intelligence, particularly against "high value targets." Previous directorates of operations, plans and policy; and intelligence and information operations; have already have been consolidated into the new Center under three groups: the Intelligence Support Group (J2), the Operations Support Group (J3), and the Campaign Support Group (J5).

The director of the Center is Lt. Gen. Dell L. Dailey, the commander of Joint Special Operations Command from 2001 to May 2003. Dailey was the overall clandestine special operations commander after 9/11, operating from Oman and then from Afghanistan as Commander, Task Force Sword (later called TF-11). Unlike Gen. Brown, who himself is rumored to be less than enthusiastic to be given responsibility for the war on terrorism; Dailey is considered one of the administration's primo shadow warriors.

At Rumsfeld’s request, SOCOM has drafted a global offensive counter-terrorism war plan that specifies procedures to be used by overt and clandestine special operations forces and supporting military forces and intelligence agencies in seeking out and attacking designated terrorist organizations.

"Our problem today is how to find a terrorist," Brown said in the interview. "...Osama bin Laden is a No. 1 priority for the CIA, for SOCOM, [and] for [the] Department of Defense."

The Unified Command Plan also assigns SOCOM the responsibility for "operational preparation of the environment," a symbolic change in language from the previously used phrase "operational preparation of the battlefield." The State Department argued that those parts of the world where military forces weren't predominant were not "battlefields."

Operational preparation of the environment includes the use of SOCOM's independent and clandestine intelligence collectors -- the so-called Gray Fox and other special mission units -- who would conduct surveillance and "prepare" for attacks on high value targets, renditions, and assaults, called "direct action" missions.

The section of the Unified Command Plan 2004 dealing with SOCOM reads:

In addition to functions specified in sections 164(c) and 167 of Title 10, USSOCOM’s responsibilities include:

A. Providing combat-ready operations forces to other combatant commands when and as directed.

B. Training, to include joint training exercises, of assigned forces and developing appropriate recommendations to the Chairman regarding strategy, doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures for the joint employment of special operations forces.

C. Integrating and coordinating DOD psychological operations (PSYOP) capabilities to enhance interoperability and support USSTRATCOM’s [Strategic Command's] information operations responsibilities and other combatant commanders’ PSYOP planning and execution.

D. Exercising command and control of selected special operations missions, as directed. [Author’s Note: "Selected special operations missions" refer to the clandestine operations of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and other classified special mission units].

E. Serving as the lead combatant commander for planning, synchronizing, and as directed, executing global operations against terrorist networks in coordination with other combatant commanders. CDRUSSOCOM [that’s Commander, US SOCOM] leads a global collaborative planning process leveraging other combatant command capabilities and expertise that results in decentralized execution by both USSOCOM and other combatant commands against terrorist networks. In this role, USSOCOM’s specific responsibilities:

1. Integrating DOD strategy, plans, intelligence priorities, and operations against terrorist networks designated by the Secretary.

2. Planning campaigns against designated terrorist networks.

3. Prioritizing and synchronizing theater security cooperation activities, deployments, and capabilities that support campaigns against designated terrorist networks in coordination with the geographic combatant commanders.

4. Exercising command and control of operations in support of selected commands, as directed.

5. Providing military representation to U.S. national and international agencies for matters related to U.S. and multinational campaigns against designated terrorist networks as directed by the Secretary.

6. Planning operational preparation of the environment (OPE); executing OPE or synchronizing the execution of OPE in coordination with the geographic combatant commanders.

It will be interesting to see the results, if any. Then again, it they are really good, we may not see anything for a long time.

09 October, 2005

Earthquakes and opportunities

The most successful examples of American Foreign Policy have been the ones in which the US does well for doing good. Aid without some payoff is very difficult to maintain. Profit without providing real help is a recipe for resentment. How do we do both?

The current earthquake on the border of Kashmir, while horrific, also allows US rescue teams and medical personnel to enter places and talk to people who otherwise would never talk to Americans, in a region noted for Islamist extremism. Would we make such friends that some local would be inclined to turn in Osama Bin Laden? I doubt it. But it would open doors and establish contacts. Some of the rescuers would be military, and they would see all sorts of interesting things. We would demonstrate that the US might not be the Satanic monster portrayed in the Madrasses. Perhaps some locals are wondering what they did "to deserve this", and maybe that will lead to some new ideas.

Earthquakes shake things up in lots of ways. The US should be helping because it's needed and because we can. But at the same time we do good for others we should keep in mind how to do well for ourselves.

08 October, 2005


The Department of Homeland Security is reorganizing. A first look at the plans shows, yet again, that there are few things that are so badly done that a committed effort can't make them worse.

19 September, 2005

Another bad idea

There's rumblings that the administration wants to repeal (all or elements of) the Posse Comitatus and Insurrection Acts, so soldiers can contribute to civilian law enforcement. This is a staggeringly bad idea. Soldiers aren't cops, and blurring the distinctions between them makes things worse for law enforcement and for the military. That's one of the reasons the military is opposed. You really have to work to find an idea so bad that both the Defense Department and the American Civil Liberties Union unite in opposition to it.


Some concern over labels is warranted, but much of it is simply an excuse to avoid looking at reality. With this in mind, I was pleased by this column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. A taste:

Arafat was murdered.

No, not that Arafat (Yasser) but the other Arafat (Moussa). The latter was the cousin of the former and at one time his head of military intelligence. When Yasser Arafat died, Moussa was demoted by the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and named an adviser. Last week in Gaza he was dragged out into the street and shot.

His murder -- an execution, actually -- followed a 30-minute gun battle between Moussa Arafat's security people and the 100 or so armed men in 20 vehicles who had come to get him. The killing attracted little international attention, which is pretty remarkable because it says more about the prospects for peace in the region than do the assurances of the Brioni suit set (assembling now for the U.N. session) that everything is going just fine. This would be particularly the case, we are told, if only the Israelis would cooperate by, among other things, limiting themselves to a block or two of Tel Aviv.

Think about it, though. Doesn't it say something -- and something troubling -- about a political entity (the Palestinian Authority) that two armed groups could battle for half an hour and not one of the PA's security forces could get to the scene and intervene? It is an odd state -- if a state is what it is -- where brigands can show up at the door and fight it out without anyone's calling 911. This, though, is what passes for Palestine.

You can argue that for all the calamity that the creation of Israel has meant to the Palestinians, it has been greatly exacerbated by the corruption and ineptitude of their own leadership. Israel, of course, is hardly blameless. It is out of Gaza, but it remains an occupying power on the West Bank, and its policies there are sometimes not pretty. Still, the Palestinians seem intent on making matters worse. As a society, they have exalted suicide bombings, tolerated senseless and atrocious terrorism and for years they apathetically supported the kleptomaniacal Yasser Arafat, whose peace plan consisted, basically, of waiting for Israel to evaporate. He died very rich but presumably very frustrated.

At the recent Ambrosetti conference of Italian and other notables in Cernobbio, Italy, both Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned against blunt talk. Moussa insisted that anyone who questioned whether Arabs could have a democracy was a "racist." And Erekat, for his part, insisted that the term "Islamic terrorist" was likewise an expression of bigotry. This caused the plain-talking Sen. John McCain, a conference attendee, to suggest that the word "banana" be substituted for "Islamic" while I, exhaustively searching for the proper PC term, chanced upon "persons of terror." That cannot offend anyone.

Referring to the pattern of Israeli policy towards Palestinians as "not pretty," is disengenous at best. However, the main point is valid. It's hard to make a legitmate demand for a state if you are incapable of operating as one.

It seems to be a tradition among the Palestinians to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I suspect this was part of what Sharon has had in mind all along with the transfer of Gaza: encourage the natural tendency to civil war, and (behind the wall) get out of the way.

When I taught a class on terrorism last spring my proposal was criticized for using the word "Islamist" to describe a substantial number of the terrorists now operating around the world.
Is there a label that would keep everyone happy? I doubt it, but if it does exist it would probably be devoid of all meaning.

11 September, 2005

Looking ahead to repeat the same mistakes

People are looking to West Africa as the next big oil field, and already worrying about terrorism and piracy. Of course, they might want to reduce oil dependency, but that seems too difficult.

07 September, 2005


It's been long enough now that we can begin to see the shape of the political disaster that followed the hurricane. A few obvious points:

  • If you build city below sea level, you should plan for the worst.

  • The city, in particular the mayor of New Orleans, blew it. You don't call for the evacuation of a city and do almost nothing to make it work. There were hundreds of buses left unused. Traffic flow could have been improved by the simple expedient of using all but one of the lanes of the interstate highways for outgoing traffic. Obvious things were left undone.

  • The governor of Louisiana blew it. Sometimes, you have to make decisions and adapt to reality. It appears she was unable to do either.

  • FEMA is not a first-responder organization. It wasn't meant to be. Too many people think it is.

  • FEMA is a seriously screwed-up organization. If cable news networks can manage communications from the disaster zone, it should be well within the capability of a federal agency. The agency arrived late, and if stories are to be believed its mismanagement made things worse.

  • In the final analysis, people have to be prepared to take care of themselves and the people around them, at least until help arrives. It's not necessary to get as second mortgage and build a bomb shelter in the basement (although, if you have the cash, it's not the worst way to spend it). Just setting aside a few things may be enough. Look, for example, at this and this.

Anyone who says the flooding was "impossible to forsee" is an idiot or a liar (these are not mutually exclusive catagories). I spent a spring break in NO a few years ago as part of a service-learning group working in the area. The potential for catastrophe was obvious. It was commented upon, by visitors and by locals. It was the subject of jokes (a common reaction when people don't want to face difficult facts). The natural disaster that was Katrina was nothing more than the "worst-case scenerio" told to me by people in New Orleans all those years ago. Everyone knew the "hundred-year storm" was coming, but everyone hoped it wouldn't arrive in their lifetime. It was too easy to pass the buck. Nobody wanted to spend political (and financial) capital without a personal payoff. It was too easy to procrastinate in the hope that it would eventually become somebody else's problem. It was human. It was predictable. And now thousands of innocents pay.

Perhaps now somebody will recognize that the Department of Homeland Security was one of the worst bureaucratic disasters of the past fifty years. It was wrong in concept, wrong in design, and wrong in implementation.

06 August, 2005

Al-Qaeda: a brand you can trust

I see interesting parallels between the "Al-Qaeda" label and the more conventional brand names and trademarks used in the global economy. Brands are valuable: they allow consumers to avoid the trouble of researching products every time they buy. Protecting a brand name can be a major priority for a multinational corporation. (Don't believe me? See what happends if you label your drink "Coka-Cola". Look at the effort by the Xerox Corporation to prevent their name from becoming a synonym for photocopier.)

Why did the group commanded by al-Zarqawi change its name from Tawhid and Jihad to Al-Qaeda in Iraq? Not because of any substantial ties to the core of the Bin Laden network, but because it was a cheap way to get brand recognition. Prior to coming to their present accomodation, there were signs that Bin Laden wasn't happy with al-Zarqawi or his strategies. But Bin Laden had to recognize the inevitable: al-Zarqawi was going to link himself to the brand name, and Bin Laden was in no position to stop it. So al-Zarqawi pledges allegiance to Bin Laden, runs his operations to suit himself, and grabs the spotlight. Coke or McDonalds would never have stood for it.

It's a pity there isn't trademark protection for criminal organizations or ideologies, isn't it?

Why won't anyone in authority admit what's going on?

According to sources cited in the New York Times, bombs used in Iraq are being designed and assembled in Iran, and closely match designs used by Hezbollah in Israel.

At the same time, "U.S. officials said they had no evidence of the Iranian government's involvement."

Anyone else sense a contradiction here?

04 August, 2005

Measures of effectiveness

Operationalize and test. A key to evaluating any policy is to (1) decide what you are trying to accomplish, and (2) figure out a way to measure your results. Number (2) is hard, and if done incorrectly the measuring device can be more misleading than helpful. (Remember body counts?) Number (1) is harder. All too often we don't know what we are trying to achieve, and/or different people are supporting the same policy in order to achieve different ends. These problems can be papered over in the politics of coalition-building, but they don't go away. Agreeing on an adequate measure of success or failure forces us to look at the problem.

Consider Iraq. What is the goal? What is the ultimate goal, and how do we know if we are getting there?

At least some people recognize the problem.

Addendum (thanks to Instapundit): You want numbers? I got numbers. Compiled by the Brookings Institution, and very interesting. A few preliminary conclusions, based on what I skimmed:

  1. Things were much worse last year than they are today.
  2. The general political and economic trends continue to be in the right direction.
  3. The native resistance is fairly large (around 20,000 and recruiting enough each month to more than cover losses), but what most of them are fighting for is an end to the shame of occupation by foreign powers.
  4. There is a small core of commited Islamists (in the low hundreds), mostly from Saudi Arabia, who see the struggle as being about creating a base for a global religious/ideological war.
  5. The vast majority of the population is focused, and rationally so, on getting clean water and reliable electricity. They are generally optimistic about the future. I suspect they'd be happy to see the ideologues kill one another and leave their families alone.

I'm still reading. Very, very interesting, and much more telling than the crap on the evening news. A major limitation to keep in mind: people taking polls in a war zone are more likely to tell the interrogator what they think he wants to hear. I don't think its a significant problem, since the poll numbers appear to reflect facts on the ground, but keep it in mind.

Goodbye to article 9

The ruling party in Japan is proposing changes to the "pacifist" constitution enacted after WWII, and China is worried.

03 August, 2005

Friends and allies

It's a truism of international relations that states don't have friends--only interests. Here's a case in point: in 1958 the British sold Israel twenty tons of heavy water, essential for the development of plutonium-based atomic weapons, without ever telling the U.S. The Americans had already announced that they wouldn't supply anything like that without solid assurances that it wouldn't be used in weapons development. The British, for "reasons of state" (including money) decided they wouldn't be so picky.

Friendship isn't trivial. But it only goes so far.

20 July, 2005

Can you get there from here?

I posted the following on R.J. Rummel's Democratic Peace website today. To be honest I'm still thinking this through, in large part becasue I don't like the answers I keep coming up with.

[I want to] talk about two things at once--the general "freedomist" principles, and the War in Iraq--and how one can support the first without necessarily supporting the other.

I think Kenneth got the gist of what I meant by the "liberation from above" remark. I'm trying to draw the distinction between *formal* rights and institutions and the practice of everyday life. It's important to remove impediments, and outsiders can contribute a lot to that. But removing the chains from a slave doesn't necessarily make him free--if he has adopted the mindset of a slave. Education helps, institutions help, law helps. We can encourage people to be free, but people have to want to be free, and to believe freedom is a real possibilty for themselves, and to be willing to tolerate the freedom of others.

As for Iraq, I opposed the war not because I thought Iraq wasn't deserving, but because in a world with finite American resources the U.S. has to pick its battles, and I concluded that this particular battle was too costly in terms of the probable results. It was a judgement call, and I understand how others could disagree.

I hope I was wrong.

The Iraq case also raises another point, which is that whatever the practical arguments for and against an American invasion of Iraq, it was (without a Security Council resolution) clearly a violation of international law.

Now, that might not bother some people. I think most of us would agree that international law is wrong to place national sovereignty over the rights and lives of individuals. Before WWII individuals had the relation to the state under international law that is similar to the relationship between a pet and its owner, and the law (made by states for purposes of state) has been very slow to improve. Any new, better set of rules will require a degree of consensus (or hegemony) that doesn't exist.

Some kind of international law is required, if there are to be relationships across borders. The current system of international law is far from what I (and I think most of us) think it should be. Improving the present system is at best a long-term project. (A global cataclysm or war would probably speed things up, but at a terrible cost, and not necessarily for the better.) So what do we do now?

18 July, 2005

Another reason to get off this rock

"Earth is a crumb in a supermarket full of resources."
Peter Diamandis, originator of the X-prize, at this year's TED conference.

From the people who brought you the oil for food program

...the UN is debating what to do about the administration of the Internet. Please excuse me if I have little faith in any UN involvement in this. There are too many UN member governments who perceive freedom of speech as a threat to their continued rule (in many cases, because it IS a threat). The best outcome for this would be if the organization, as usual, fails to accomplish anything. The status quo is almost certainly better than anything these people might agree on.

14 July, 2005

Austrian versus Public Choice (Bi)Cyclists

This is short and captures much of the essence of a critical debate in social sciences.

A radical idea

If the powers-that-be can look past their nose (and budgets), this makes a whole lot of sense. It's interesting to me that on 9/11 the only plane to be brought down was by civilians. The death toll at the WTC would have been much higher if not for the courage and creative thinking of so-called "average" people.

Perhaps in an age where "super-empowered" terrorists can threaten so much damage, it makes a lot of sense to "super-empower" the average citizen.

It's something like the old NRA bumper sticker: when citizens are discouraged from thinking and acting for themselves, only the terrorists will be powerful.

Not a good day for Karl Rove

Somtimes the most important thing is what is not being said.

Update: On the other hand, it all depends on what "is" means.

Child-killers in Baghdad

Some acts taken in the name of the US are evil and stupid (see next post), but nothing like this. The people responsible for this deserve to die. The Washington Post reports

A woman whose son had been wounded and taken to the hospital said responsibility lay solely with the insurgents and their leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi. "I swear to God," said the woman, who identified herself as Umm Salam, "if my son dies, I will drink from Zarqawi's blood."

That sounds about right.


It's disappointing to learn how widespread was (is?) the use of humiliating and terrifying techniques to interrogate prisoners at Gitmo, even before Abu Graib. I suspect these methods had more to do with the unprofesionalism and emotion of senior leaders, who wanted to inflict as much pain as they thought they could get away with, than with local personnel. This is a case where where morality and pragmatism lead to the same conclusions. Evil, ineffective, stupid.

More to the point, it's amazing how many leaders seem to take pride in posturing as "tough guys." It sometimes seems that having a criminal record (in Iran-Contra, for example) is a prerequisite for key positions.

02 July, 2005

30 June, 2005

Cleaning up at the ACLU

Today has been a day for cleaning up the trash, moving furniture, and reorganizing at the Pittsburgh office of the ACLU. Lots of volunteers. Lots of hamburgers to place on the grill. Lots of rain. I hope that isn't some kind of metaphor.

More seriously, it seems to me that there is lot of ground between groups that usually don't talk to each other. The ACLU has a lot of common ground with the LP, for example. I'm a member of both of them, don't entirely agree with either of them, and can work with either. So why do they ignore (or worse, belittle) one another?

I'm orthogonal to the "left/right" axis. From where I am, I can barely see the differences.

Now, back to the party...

29 June, 2005

Playing by the local rules

As many of you know, I have an interest in the commodification and privatization of the use of force (i.e., mercs, Private Military Companies, etc.). It looks like at least one former hostage in Iraq has decided to play by the local rules.

I wonder who he's found to take the job? Local or outsider? Amateur or professional?

Branding and marketing

There are a number of pundits trying to figure out why the Democrats lose so many elections. I suspect the analysis would improve if more of the pundits leave the cities and talk to people in the "blue counties". Meanwhile, Jane Galt has stimulated an interesting dialogue on applying market metaphors to political movements. Take a look.

Another speech. Not much change.

No single speech is going to change the politics of the Iraq war overnight, and the administration is correct in noting that wars don't operate according to timetables.

I find myself of two minds on this. I opposed the war. in large part because I could see this coming. (I also have enough experience with intel to recognize when it is being slanted in favor of a policy already decided upon.) But now we're there. The United States, its leaders and its people, have a moral and a practical duty to repair much of the damage. Iraq is now a training ground for terrorists, and leaving the field to them before the Iraqis are able to take care of themselves would be a blunder akin to how we left Afghanistan when the Soviets pulled out. Although I still believe the odds of building a unifed (undivided territory), liberal democratic (non-theocratic) Iraq are low, they are worse if the new government is abandoned.

An interesting observation from the Strategypage: the Iraqi Civil War has already begun. It has taken the form of Kurd and Shi'a volunteers operating as police in Sunni-dominated areas. This has been an opportunity for lots of people to settle old scores. I'm amazed the pro-government forces have been so restrained, considering what they went through under Saddam and what they deal with from the Sunni insurgency today.

For a grounds-eye view of the fighting, I recommend this. For a good analysis of the editorial reaction to the president's speech, look here.

27 June, 2005


It will be interesting to see just how far local governments and privledged developers will go in taking advantage of the recent Supreme Court ruling expanding the power of eminent domain to take private land for a wide range of "public goods"--including higher tax revenues. The Washington Times reports

The Supreme Court's ruling that local governments can take private property for commercial use is expected to bring a number of contested local projects -- including the District's plans to build a baseball stadium -- closer to fruition.
The ruling angered property owners who could be displaced, including those who have fought plans to build the Washington Nationals' new baseball stadium in Southeast near the Anacostia River waterfront. The court said a commercial venture that brings tax revenue or jobs to the city is a public good and, thus, is eligible to benefit from the power of eminent domain.

How far will it go?

UPDATE: Freeport, Texas, joins the (gravy) train.

24 June, 2005

Where the time goes

For those with an interest, here's a summary of what's been going on. People with something better to do, skip this post.

Susan's at work during the day, and immediately into bed when she gets home. A painful skin rash, with swelling, is beginning to get better. Recovery from NF is a long process, and she hates to allow people to see just how sick she is. Sometimes, when she's having a very good day, I can fail to see her pain myself. But it's there. All the doctors told us this would be a long recovery, and so it has.

The house we thought we had sold last August, only to have the bottom drop out of the deal, we think we will be able to sell next month. Meanwhile, we still have an unwanted "country house" in another town. Damn time sink. Doesn't help the finances, either.

My five-year review was due at school. I put off writing it for as long as I could. I didn't want to look back, and in particular I didn't want to look back on the past year. But it's done, and it some ways the report has been cathartic for me. A lot of anger boiled up in what was to be an administrative exercise. Most of it never made it past the first draft, but putting the anger on a page helped (a little).

The new neighborhood, a mile or so from the Pittsburgh Zoo, is everything we hoped for. I'm glad we made the choices we did, even if some of them have been harder to implement than I had imagined. I'll be especially pleased when my final ties to the old town (Butler, PA) are cut. After nine years, neither of us felt at home there. This is home.

I alternate between working too hard and hardly working at all. I need to find a balance between mania and exhaustion.

Please pardon the absence

Three months?

08 March, 2005

Freakin' incredible

Democracy on the march.

The battle's far from over, but it's progress.

What more can I say?

Look for yourself.

The value of the collegiate bull session

One of the better classes in a while happened last week when my class on terrorism got onto a series of interesting side issues, including
  • autonomus robot soldiers
  • artificial intelligence
  • the nature of consciousness
  • the connections between neural networks and spontaneous social orders
  • the prospects for evolution of software at computer speeds
  • the assumptions about human nature common to tragic and utopian views of politics
  • the difficulty of transcending the fact/values divide (and Hume's Law)
  • the difficulty of having a discussion about politics when dealing with contested concepts
  • the relevance of the most recent research on evolutionary psychology for political philosophy
  • (and other stuff)

We never did get to the original topic for the day, but who cares? I suspect everyone learned more that day than we would have ever covered in the "prepared" class. Sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is get out of the way. It can be more fun, too.

Flat tax?

A flat tax might not meet the lofty goals associated with progressive taxation, but in the real world it's seldom the rich who pay the bills. If the rich want to avoid taxes, they lobby legislators and pay tax attorneys and move assets out of reach. (I'm amazed by how many people think that becasue they give a job to government it will somehow escape selfishness and/or corruption. If anything, the history of taxation argues the opposite.) At least with a flat tax, the burden is more clear, and avoidance is more transparent.

Yet the U.S. government, among others, resists the idea. No wonder--what would all the tax attorneys and lobbyists do if they were no longer supported by an indirect government subsidy? What would the bureaucrats do if they had to administer a code so clear? There would no room for "prosecutorial discression" (read, arbitrary decisions) and that would reduce their power.

The competition between countries for investment, however, is pushing governments in directions they would rather avoid. Flax taxes are becoming the norm in eastern Europe and Russia--and they are succeeding. Western Europe, dependent on VATs and the politics of income redistribution, is left behind. Where will the United States fall?

For all the talk of Social Security reform, the single greatest thing the Bush adminnistration could do is a radical restructuring of the tax system to remove the debris from the experiments of the past century.

Bolton to the U.N.

Not Michael Bolton--John R. Bolton. He's one of the U.N.'s most articulate critics. This should be fun.

Underground nuclear sites

Iran admits that some of its nuclear facilities are constructed underground, supposedly out of fear that they will be subject to attack.

Meanwhile, the plans for a bunker-busting nuke proceed...

01 March, 2005


My Dad's back from the hospital. He had a heart attack last week. He doesn't want the quadruple-bypass the doctors recommend ("not for now," at least). I hope he's making the right decision.

It seems that as one person I love begins to recover, another comes close to death. This is not a pattern I want to continue.

Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq

Things are looking up. The pro-Syria government of Lebanon resigns. Saddam's half-brother is turned over to the Iraqis. Although the weekend car bombing was a horror, it shouldn't obscure the fact that the number of applicants for the security forces is increasing, and that's good news for the legitimacy of the new government.

I opposed getting into this war. I wanted to focus on Bin Laden. I still think the intervention was illegal, and I still hate the deaths. But we are there. What next? Two points come to mind:

(1) make the war about something larger than the particulars of the case. If it's just another example of aggression, it's worse than useless--it's a bad example. If, however, we can really link this war to aims that transcend Iraq and principles we can be proud of, it should be done. GW Bush's second inaugural was a step in the right direction.

(2) win.

And Now a Word from Osama

The Department of Homeland Security is sending bulletins to remind people that Al Qaeda would love to strike the American soil. The interecepted message from Bin Laden to al-Zarqawi dosn't actually mention the U.S. but analysts are drawing the inference. Should we be especially cautious?

No more than usual. The fact that the communication was intercepted is a good sign that the connections between the two leaders are under stress. The fact that Bin Laden feels the need to call on al-Zarqawi for support indicates there is less he can do on his own. Add to this the reality that al-Zarqawi hasa been criticized by OBL for his prior tactics, without producing any change in those tactics, and this sounds more like a "plea" than a "command". It's heartening, actually.

One small problem: why didn't U.S. sources keep this information secret? The information in the message is less significant for homeland defense than the fact of the intercept. Did U.S. intelligence just get lucky, and expects to never duplicate the event, or has some fool warned the targets that their communications are being intercepted?

03 February, 2005

Iraqi elections

In case anyone is wondering, I think the Iraqi elections were wonderful. The elections don't provide a legal justification after the fact for invading the country, any more than the observation that we're better off with Saddam and his regime out of power. But if we're there anyway, for whatever reason, we owe it to the people whose territory we are occupying to help them make the transition to a working democracy that respects the rights of every individual.

Cultural imperialism? Maybe. In response, let me suggest that

(1) the political culture we're trying to export is a lot better than the one they had, and

(2) the response of the people to the opportunity suggests that the Iraqi people agree with me.

"Shocked! Shocked!"

There's a memorable scene in the movie Casablanca where the Chief of Police, who has been gambling in Rick's Cafe all night, finds that he is required by Vichy politics and Nazi complaints to close the place.

"I'm shocked! Shocked! To find gambling in this establishment!"

Waiter: "Here's your winnings, sir."

"Thank you. I am required to close this cafe!..."

Somehow, it comes to mind when I read about the U.S. position on the oil-for-food scandal. As long as it served our interests, we failed to officially notice it. And now,

"We're shocked! Shocked!"

Mysterious death in Georgia?

I hope this was just an accident. After the poisoning of Yushenko in Ukraine, I get nervous.

It was probably an accident.

Wasn't it?

27 January, 2005

Welcome to the village. You won't be leaving.

Is there any limit remaining to what a supposedly liberal constitutional government can do to people? Evidently not, so long as it is done by proxy, or outside of the territory of the offending State. Take a look at this.

Asking questions

At least there's one member of Congress with the nerve to ask the right questions. Unfortunately, he's a marginalized member and former libertarian candidate for president. While I don't always agree with Rep. Paul (no surprise there--I don't entirely agree with anybody) I respect him.

20 January, 2005

Where are they?

The Fermi paradox nags at me. Now a team of Americans are arguing (again) in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society that we should have evidence of our being surrounded by one or more galactic civilizations. It sounds to be another review article and I suppose it's meant to be encouraging. Yet while the logical and statistical agrgument looks sound, we still don't have a contact so clear that it can be replicated by independent teams of observers. Granted, scientists may find it convienient to not look, or to misinterpret data that doesn't conform to preconceptions, but there are too many observers who are sympathetic to SETI to make "scientific closed-mindedness" an adequate excuse. At least some galactic civilizations (assuming technologies millenia in advance of ours) should be obvious--so obvious that all but the most stubborn would have to admit that something is going on.

So back to Fermi's question: where are they?

Whatever the answer, the consequences for politics (and for everything else) are profound.

18 January, 2005

Iran, intervention, and intelligence

Seymour Hersh's latest piece on Iran and American intelligence has made a few waves with its assertion that the US has conducted
secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer. Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical, and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids.

There is also understandable concern about the CIA covert action mission being taken over by the Department of Defense. But all of that misses what I consider to be Hersh's critical point: with or without the intelligence, no matter who is put on the ground, the mission is NOT about Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is about changing the fundamental (if you'll pardon the expression) dynamic in the region.

Despite the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration has not reconsidered its basic long-range policy goal in the Middle East: the establishment of democracy throughout the region.

Rumsfeld is quoted that

“This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone,” the former high-level intelligence official told me. “Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign. We’ve declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah—we’ve got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism.”

Swell. Can anyone say "imperial overstretch"? I knew you could.

A first sign of spring?

I don't want to get carried away, but stories like this give me hope.

15 January, 2005


She's home. and resting. She's a little sore, but there's no evidence of a recurrence of the NF. We're planning to take it easy this weekend. Like 99 prtcent of Pittsburgh, we'll probably watch the playoff game between the Steelers and the Jets.

You can guess who we'll be rooting for.

14 January, 2005

Flesh eating bacteria

My wife, Susan, is in the hospital tonight for observation. At the end of September she was diagnosed to be suffering from subdermal necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as "flesh-eating bacteria," and underwent emergency surgery. When that began to heal, the skin grafts began. She spent nearly three months in the hospital. We finally got her home a week before Christmas, and although one wound from surgery is still healing it seemed the worst was over.

Last night she began to feel the same symptoms she had before her hospitalization. The greatest problem with NF is that it shares symptoms with so many less-dangerous conditions, like the flu or muscle strain. Often, by the time it is recognized the damage is already extensive.

We spent today arranging to see the doctor who is monitoring her recovery. He, and the surgeon who removed the original infection, both advised that she be hospitalized tonight for observation, blood tests, and IV antibiotics. It's probably not a recurrence of NF: the treatment for subdermal necrotizing fasciitis is to surgically remove all infected tissue, and then to remove the tissue around the infection. There's no reason to believe any of the disease remains inside her body. Moreover, she actually felt better tonight. She almost didn't agree to stay for observation. But the mere possibility that she might be hit by it again is frightening.

So tonight she's not home. For that matter, neither am I: this house will not be home until she returns. With luck the doctors will declare all this to be a false alarm, and all the precautions a waste of time. Most likely she'll be home tomorrow. Meanwhile, we wait.

13 January, 2005

11 January, 2005

A new semester begins

I like the start of a semester. It feels a little like a first date, but without the crossed signals, second-guessing, and possiblity of an STD.

I intend to invite students to post here--especially the ones in my Terrorism and Foreign Policy classes. Sometimes a conversation starts that's too large to fit in the available minutes. Sometimes we can use this forum to highlight outside sources. Sometimes, it's just nice to lean back and shoot the proverbial breeze.

I know from expereince that things are about to get very hectic very quickly. I'll do my best to keep up. I will not make this blog a priority. So if you don't see a new post, or get an immediate reply, I'm not shunning you--I'm stuck under a pile of papers.

As long at it continues to be fun, I'll stick with it. Here's to the experiment.

Who am I to resist a trend?

I've talked for years about the liberating efffects of new media. It's time to get invovled.