Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jihad, Hired Guns, and the Camberwell Carrot

Because I have been busy recently, I won't have the time to write exhaustive comments on each of the following links that caught my eye over the past week, so just a few remarks on each.

The Beeb reported last week that a US citizen was jailed for 24 years for "attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and lying about it". The prosecution offered what Amy Waldman in an article for The Atlantic Monthly last year aptly called "an accretion of circumstantial but ugly evidence" of his "jihadi mind", including expressions of "hatred towards the United States", praise for the murder of Daniel Pearl, and calling George W. Bush "the worm". Other evidence included his owning extremist literature. The Atlantic Monthly article gives a good overview of what is interesting about this case, namely the notion of "preeemptive prosecution" and the admissibility of belief as evidence for the prosecution in court. Also interesting is the clash of expert witnesses brought by the prosecution and defense alike, who duelled in the courtroom over the finer points of Islamic theology. Notably, the witnesses for the prosecution included this chap:
Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian academic who emigrated to the United States in 1990, at the end of Lebanon’s civil war between Muslims and Christians. In Lebanon, Phares’s political activities included participation in the Lebanese Forces, a coalition of right-wing Christian militias that the defense said the U.S. State Department had labeled anti-Muslim. El Fadl, his fellow prosecution witness, calls Phares an “Islamophobe,” and at trial the defense sought to demonstrate as much. By his own characterization, Phares, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, was outside the academic mainstream until 9/11.
What the article fails to mention is that Phares is also on the salary list of Benador Associates, a prominent part of the right-wing spin machine that sold the "Global War on Terror" and the Iraq invasion to the American public. He can therefore hardly be regarded as an independent, impartial, or disinterested professional in the matter. Another interesting expert witness - Waldman's article doesn't say whether for the prosecution or the defense - is Reuven Paz, formerly of the Israeli Shin Bet internal intelligence service and more recently the academic director of the International Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel.

Next, a quick look at this video posted at Crooks and Liars, a CNN interview with Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Mercenaries working for Blackwater were shelled while travelling in a convoy in Iraq on Sunday. They opened fire on passersby on the street, killing 11 people, including one policeman, and injuring 13, according to the WashPost. A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry announced that Blackwater's license to operate had been withdrawn and that the responsible employees would be prosecuted. This will be an interesting test of the Iraqi government's sovereignty - after all, foreign "security contractors" in the country have so far been largely immune from prosecution. Scahill points out that
...the Bush administration failed to build a coalition of willing nations to occupy Iraq, and so instead, the administration has built the Coalition of Billing Corporations. Right now, in Iraq, private personnel on the US government payroll outnumber official US troops. There are about 180,000 so-called "private contractors" operating alongside 165,000 to 170,000 US troops. So really, now, the US military is the junior partner in this coalition. The mercenary component of that private-sector involvement has been totally unaccountable. They operate with impunity, they kill Iraqi civilians, and no charges are ever brought against them in Iraqi law, US law, military law.
He correctly points out that this is not the result of an oversight, but "political expediency on the part of the Bush administration" because dead mercs are not included in the official US death toll and they can act with free rein as their acts go unreported and undocumented. Scahill also notes, in the context of the current Petraeus/"surge" debate, that "there’s been a surge on for four years of the private sector in Iraq, this mercenary army that the Bush administration has built up all over that country."

Also, just to wrap up today's post on less of a bum note, here is a report from today's Guardian (and you may consider this either good or bad news):
The unpublished results of authoritative research into cannabis confirm the "skunk" now on sale in England is stronger than it was a decade ago, but demolish claims that a new "super-strength skunk" - which is 20 times more powerful - is dominating the market.
The recent Europe-wide campaign of hysteria surrounding the alleged "schizzo skunk" was really getting on my nerves. The allegation circulated by politicians and research-averse journalists alike, just as efforts to legalize weed were getting under steam in a number of countries, has been that today's weed is exponentially more powerful than the grass smoked by the hippies, i.e., today's parent generation.
But the findings of the two studies to be reported in Druglink, the drugs charity magazine, contradict recent claims that most of the skunk on sale in Britain now routinely has a THC-content of more than 30%. One of the studies showed that only 4% of the skunk that had been seized by the police had a strength level higher than 20%.
Having, at an earlier stage of my life, experienced the hassle and likely ripoff associated with procuring weed (read: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme) in England, I almost broke into uncontrollable and hysterical laughter at reading the above paragraph, but then remembered that those days are over.
The claims earlier this year that a new strain of "super-strength skunk" cannabis that was up to 20 times more potent was dominating the British drug market and triggering mental health fears led Gordon Brown to order a new review of the legal status of the drug in July.
OK, this is really ridiculous. Notions like "20 times more potent" being openly discussed in public, when the actual figure is one-tenth of that... either people were just making wild and uneducated guesses, or they actually knew better and were counting on people's complete gullibility. You may argue that such "experts" only have in mind the protection of young people, but these policies - and the media campaigns to back them up - ensure that teenagers are criminalized, ostracized, and lose all faith in a public health and policing system that clearly cannot be trusted to be truthful and honest. Not to mention the many adult smokers who can make responsible decisions about their own health without government interference. No, cannabis is not a harmless drug, and there is some really heavy shit circulating out there, but as anybody can imagine, it is possible to put less weed into a joint if you know it is of stronger potency. The same applies to alcohol - which is why we drink some kinds of alcohol out of glasses like this

and other kinds of alcohol out of glasses like this:

Likewise, joints can be adjusted in terms of both size and potency, as demonstrated by Dan the Dealer in the excellent British movie, "Withnail and I":

Withnail: What are you going to do with those?
Danny: The joint I am about to roll requires a craftsman and can utilise up to twelve skins. It is called a Camberwell carrot.
Marwood: It's impossible to use twelve papers on one joint.
Danny: It is impossible to roll a Camberwell carrot with anything less.
Withnail: Who says it's a Camberwell carrot?
Danny: I do. I invented it in Camberwell and it looks like a carrot.
Cut to Danny on the sofa. The Camberwell carrot is complete and is indeed of prodigious proportions. As Danny lights it we see only the end but as he hands it to Withnail we see the true size. It is enormous.
Danny: This will tend to make you very high.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fart in the Duck

Less than a month into its existence, this blog already features an excessive bias towards serious and sometimes depressing issues. Many of the security and international relations topics covered here originally arose due to people having misunderstood, misconstrued, or sometimes simply misheard what someone else said. Like the time Bush thought Tenet had assured him that there was a "slam dunk" case for Saddam having WMD, when what Tenet actually said was that such reports were all "damn bunk".

To illustrate the perils of such misconstrued words, especially in a transatlantic context, and for some lighthearted diversion on the sixth anniversary of the terrible events of 7/11, please have a look at this video, which comes to you via Boing Boing and OK Future, from Youtube.com. Probably the most misheard lyrics ever - phonetically transcribed from a Belgian children's television show. More evidence, if any was required, that there is something seriously wrong with the Belgians.

Gear list for US forces in Afghanistan leaked

Wikileaks has just published a set of documents detailing "the full equipment register of every US Army managed unit in Afghanistan from psychological operations ("PsyOps") and interrogation units to Kabul headquarters". This documentation complements an earlier leak of corresponding equipment list for all US units operating in Iraq, which can be found here.

According to the Wikileaks analysis,
The document reveals that half of all US army equipment purchases in Afghanistan have been diverted to dealing with home made mobile phone and radio bombs ("IEDs"). Not since the US 1945-1951 nuclear build up has there been such a decisive shift in military purchasing priorities. The 2007 May-July period saw 203 US military deaths from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, accounting for 66 percent of all US combat fatalities.
Among the equipment used for protection against IEDs, the gear list includes the following items:
  • at least 2,769 “Warlock” radio frequency jammers, which prevent radio signals from triggering explosives;
  • 1,734 “Acorn” improvised explosive device jammers;
  • 42 portable explosives detectors;
  • 61 “PSS-14” mine detecting sets and 86 other mine detecting sets;
  • 6 “Boomerang” sniper detection sets;
  • 42 portable explosives detectors;
  • 9 “Husky” mine detection vehicles;
  • 5 “Meerkat” mine detection vehicles.
A Congressional Research Service report recently detailed US military spending in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters of operations since 11 September 2001. Wikileaks estimates that there is currently about US$1.1 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan. This equipment also apparently includes "M7 Grenade Dischargers" for gas grenades as well as FN303 riot guns made by Belgian arms company Fabrique Nationale, which "can fire pepper-spray impregnated projectiles", according to Wikileaks. The WL analysts also extracted the prices for about 5/8ths of the items from the database at the CECOM (Communications & Electronics Command) website and found that three rocket launchers were delivered at a price of US$0.01 per piece, though the ordinary listing price is US$822. (Sounds like the Pentagon finally got a bargain, after paying one million bucks for two plain washers in a recently discovered scam... see my post last month on "Screwing the Pentagon")

In total, this is a huge volume of information; the analysis supplied in the appendix alone runs to 300 pages, and can be found here.

Acording to Wikipedia, the Wikileaks project "allows whistleblowers to anonymously release government and corporate documents, allegedly without possible retribution. It claims that postings are untraceable by anyone attempting to do so." There have also been some accusations that the project may in fact be a CIA front to solicit classified information; however, I have seen no conclusive evidence that this is more than just a rumor.

The Guardian recently ran a story on "The Looting of Kenya", based on material made public by Wikileaks.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Drunken Liar

Robert Draper's new book on George Bush, "Dead Certain", claims that Bush believed until last year that WMDs would be found in Iraq - that is, two-and-a-half years after the Interim Report of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) headed by David Kay, and one-and-a-half years after the ISG's Duelfer Report, both of which made very clear that there were no such weapons in Iraq.
"Though it was not the sort of thing one could say publicly anymore, the president still believed that Saddam had possessed weapons of mass destruction. He repeated this conviction to Andy Card all the way up until Card’s departure in April 2006, almost exactly three years after the Coalition had begun its fruitless search for WMDs." [p. 388]
[h/t Think Progress] NB, this was after Bush had publicly conceded that the Duelfer Report invalidated his stated pretext for going to war:
BUSH: The chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, has now issued a comprehensive report that confirms the earlier conclusion of David Kay that Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there.
Now this: According to Sidney Blumenthal, writing in Salon.com, Bush was told by former CIA chief George Tenet in unequivocal terms, in September 2002, that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs, as confirmed by a top-level source inside Saddam's inner circle of advisers, namely Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri.
On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam's inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail.
The headline of the Salon article, "Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction", is misleading; a more accurate, though less pithy version would probably be "Bush was told Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, but refused to believe the best available intelligence, instead choosing to trust in the words of a fabricator, con man and former Iraqi taxi driver posing as a chemical engineer", the source now known as "Curveball":
According to a US presidential commission looking into pre-war intelligence failures, the basis for pivotal intelligence on Iraq's alleged biological weapons programmes and fleet of mobile labs was a spy described as 'crazy' by his intelligence handlers and a 'congenital liar' by his friends [... A] US official was surprised to find Curveball had a hangover and said he 'might be an alcoholic.' By early 2001, the Germans were having doubts of their own, telling the CIA their spy was 'out of control'.
A "crazy" man described as a "congenital liar" even by his friends, assessed as an "out of control alcoholic": Could it be that Bush felt a certain kinship with this man, since they have so much in common? In fact, the headline of the Guardian/Observer story quoted above, "US relied on 'drunken liar' to justify war", had me thinking of Bush before I realized it referred to the Curveball source. But let us return to Blumenthal's story:
Nor was the intelligence included in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which stated categorically that Iraq possessed WMD. No one in Congress was aware of the secret intelligence that Saddam had no WMD [...] The information, moreover, was not circulated within the CIA among those agents involved in operations to prove whether Saddam had WMD [...] Tenet never shared Sabri's intelligence with then Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to the former officers, the intelligence was also never shared with the senior military planning the invasion, which required U.S. soldiers to receive medical shots against the ill effects of WMD and to wear protective uniforms in the desert.
Powell apparently also realized, without having access to Sabri's views, that the information he was given was not holding up to scrutiny. Preparing his testimony to the UN Security Council in February 2003, which he delivered with George Tenet sitting directly behind him, Powell reportedly
tossed several pages in the air. "I'm not reading this," he declared. "This is bulls- - -."
The French and US intelligence service reportedly paid Sabri "hundreds of thousands of dollars" for information about Iraq's banned weapons programs. Blumenthal's CIA sources confirm that Sabri stated Iraq had no such weapons. However:
Instead, said the former officials, the information was distorted in a report written to fit the preconception that Saddam did have WMD programs. That false and restructured report was passed to Richard Dearlove, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who briefed Prime Minister Tony Blair on it as validation of the cause for war.
Dearlove must have suspected he was being treated to a snow job, since the notorious "Downing Street Memo", of which, he is believed to be the author, noted that "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Bush's determination to overthrow Hussein was such that he decided to ignore the intelligence provided by Sabri and presented to the president by the CIA director:
The next day, Sept. 18, Tenet briefed Bush on Sabri. "Tenet told me he briefed the president personally," said one of the former CIA officers. According to Tenet, Bush's response was to call the information "the same old thing." Bush insisted it was simply what Saddam wanted him to think. "The president had no interest in the intelligence," said the CIA officer. The other officer said, "Bush didn't give a fuck about the intelligence. He had his mind made up."
I have long refused to believe that the rationale for invading Iraq was based on a genuine error, which is the version being spun by the neocons today - that the White House did believe it had solid evidence for Iraq's alleged weapons programs, and that the "intelligence failure" was the fault of the CIA. Instead, the "best available evidence" now indicates that the US government either actively manipulated the intelligence or - and this is the most charitable interpretation possible - came to believe in its own propaganda. You decide which is worse.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Shadow Boxing for the Rubes

A friend of mine who is a reserve officer in the Swiss army mentioned today over lunch that some of the older brass in the general staff were "quite happy and relieved" to see Russia return to its old menacing form, making threatening noises and underlining its aspirations to be treated as a superpower. For armies everywhere, an assertive Russia means a return to bigger budgets for tanks and other expensive hardware. Then later this evening, I saw a news report saying that Norwegian F-16s and British Tornado jets had been scrambled to intercept eight Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers heading towards the UK:
The RAF scrambled to intercept eight Russian nuclear bombers heading for Britain yesterday in the biggest aerial confrontation between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.
Sounds pretty scary, doesn't it? Whenever you see the words "nuclear bombers" and "confrontation" in the same sentence, that can't be good news. Of course, there was no "confrontation" at all:
Defence sources said that the Russian pilots turned away as soon as they spotted the approaching Tornados and did not enter British airspace.
This is the second time that has happened in recent weeks; in August, two Tornados were sent from Scotland to head off another Bear in a similar situation. So what is this all about? As noted, Russia wishes to be treated as a global force to be reckoned with, and has recently started resuming air patrols of the sort that were discontinued at the end of the Cold War. On 9 August, two Tu-95s flying out of Blagoveshchensk in southwestern Russia made a 13-hour round trip just to buzz the US base on the island of Guam in the Pacific. So for whose benefit are these sorties being flown, since they serve no real military purpose? They are primarily in order to convince the Russian public that their Dear Leader Putin is just as much of a macho man as his US counterpart. Of course, we in the West are mature enough to see right through such blatant manipulation by the government and the military, right? Er...
MoD officials at the time played down the incident last month as a "picture-led story" and an opportunity to show off the air defence role of the Typhoon, an expensive and long-delayed aircraft originally designed during the cold war to engage in dogfights with Soviet planes over northern Europe.
"Quite happy and relieved" that the Bolshies are back in business, that just about sums it up, I think. Again, for whose benefit are these sorties being flown, on both sides? For you and me, the gawkers at the air show, the suckers at the carnival, the rubes at the circus (there's one born every minute). And, naturally, For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, as John Lennon put it:

In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!
Mr. K. in this case being Messrs. Putin, Brown, Bush, and all the others in varying need of self-assertion. And of course Henry The Horse dances the waltz!

In any case, I have decided to seize the opportunity to mess around with embedded video for the first time; here is "Mr. Kite" by the Beatles, unfortunately mainly audio, since the picture is only the cover of the Sgt Pepper album for the duration of this song, together with the no less genius-soaked "Within You Without You" from the same album. If you think that the visuals are kind of boring, compare this video, which inexpicably features Freddie Mercury and Queen halfway through.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all. But please, Vladimir, Brownie, Dubya... careful with that Hogshead of Real Fire.