Thursday, May 31, 2007

Today's Pop Quiz

MSN is offering a short quiz on the "basics" of World War II. I've posted a link below, and if you don't make a perfect score, shame on you. Better yet, offer this quiz to your school-age kids or grandchildren. From my own experience, I've discovered that "government" schools do a lousy job teaching military history--or any kind of history, for that matter. If your youngster aces this quiz, it's probably because they go to private school or do a lot of reading on their own. I'd be surprised if a "typical" government school student could score 100%, based solely on what they've learned in the classroom.

Take the Quiz.

The Murphy Saga Continues

The Commander of the Air Force District of Washington, D.C. (AFDW) has ordered an Article 32 investigation into charges filed against the former commander of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency, Colonel Michael Murphy. You may recall that Murphy was removed from that post last November, after it was revealed that he had been permanently disbarred in both Texas and Louisiana, and had served as an Air Force attorney--for more than 20 years--without the necessary legal credentials.

Major General Robert Smolen, the AFDW Commander, deliberated less than 24 hours before deciding to proceed with the Article 32 investigation of charges filed against Murphy. Roughly equivalent of a civilian grand jury, the Article 32 process determines if there is sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. According to Air Force Times, Colonel Murphy is accused of being absent without leave; failing to obey an order/dereliction of duty; making a false official statement; larceny; and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

I'm not an attorney, and I'll leave any legal judgments to the current and former JAGs in the audience. But, from a layman's perspective, some of the charges leveled against Murphy are rather interesting, and suggest that investigators cast a wide net in their preliminary probe. Absent without leave? What does that have to do with the fact that Colonel Murphy was not a member of the bar during his Air Force career? Larceny? Again, I'm not an expert, but is that charge related to any special pay or travel benefits Murphy, based on fraudulent claims that he was a member of the bar and licensed attorney? I suppose we'll have wait for the Article 32 to find the basis for those accusations.

The rest of the charges seem straightforward enough; making a false official statement (an apparent to his claims that he had never been disbarred, beginning with his entry into the Air Force two decades ago); dereliction of duty (his refusal/inability to obtain the credentials required for his job); failing to obey an order (he was probably directed to produce the required credentials and couldn't), and of course, the old catch-all, "conduct unbecoming."

At the present time, Colonel Murphy is being represented by a military lawyer, Colonel James Sinwell, who declined comment on the charges. I'm told that Sinwell has an excellent reputation in military legal circles, and it will be interesting to see what sort of defense he plans for Colonel Murphy. Upon completion of the Article 32 investigation, Colonel Sinwell will almost certainly try to cut some sort of deal for his client, a guilty plea on reduced charges, in exchange for retirement at a lower rank, and preservation of Murphy's military pension.

If a plea deal can't be reached, Colonel Sinwell may build the defense case around several factors that work in Murphy's favor. First, his performance as a JAG was superb; assignment as Commander of the USAF Legal Operations Agency is proof that he was highly regarded, and on the fast track for bigger and better assignments. Secondly, there's little evidence that the Air Force was concerned about his legal credentials once he joined the service, despite the fact that Murphy served in a series of increasingly-demanding jobs. And finally, the service's own regulations on bar membership/credentialing were apparently murky. In the wake of the Murphy revelations, the Air Force had to clarify those rules--and conduct a quick review to determine that none of its other lawyers had been disbarred (none had).

But those may not be enough to sway a court-martial panel, assuming that Murphy's case actually makes it to court. As one of the Air Force's senior legal officers, Colonel Murphy was supposed to know the rules and set the standards. In that regard he failed, covering up his disbarment for more than 20 years. And, if that weren't enough, Murphy has the misfortune to be the first senior Air Force JAG to be accused of misconduct since the Fiscus case. In that episode, the service's senior legal officer, Major General Thomas Fiscus, was accused of inappropriate relationships with a number of women, dating back more than 10 years. He eventually retired as a Colonel, but there were accusations that Fiscus "got off easy" because of his status as a flag officer.

The charges facing Colonel Murphy are much different, but if this case goes to trial, the "ghost" of General Fiscus will certainly be in that military courtroom. That's one reason that Colonel Sinwell has his work cut out for him.

The "New" Arms Race

As we noted a couple of days ago, there's an element of hypocrisy in Russia's claims that limited missile defenses proposed for Eastern Europe will somehow trigger a new arms race. Various Russian officials--including President Vladimir Putin--have claimed that Tuesday's test of a modified SS-27 Topol M ICBM is a direct response to U.S. plans to install a limited number of interceptor missiles and a defensive radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively. Mr. Putin, no stranger to hyperbole, claims that the missile defense deployment will turn Europe into a "powder keg."

And, with a discipline that Joe Stalin would envy, Putin is sticking with his talking points. Speaking today in Moscow, the Russian leader said the deployment of missile defenses and other U.S. assets in Eastern Europe is triggering a "new arms race."

"In a clear reference to the United States, he harshly criticized "imperialism" in global affairs and warned that Russia will strengthen its military potential to maintain a global strategic balance.

"It wasn't us who initiated a new round of arms race," Putin said when asked about Russia's missile tests this week at a news conference after talks in the Kremlin with Greek President Karolos Papoulias.

Putin also condemned the U.S. and its NATO partners for failing to ratify an amended version of the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty, which limits the deployment of heavy, non-nuclear weapons around the continent.

"We have signed and ratified the CFE and are fully implementing it. We have pulled out all our heavy weapons from the European part of Russia to (locations) behind the Ural Mountains and cut our military by 300,000 men," Putin said.

"And what about our partners? They are filling Eastern Europe with new weapons. A new base in Bulgaria, another one in Romania, a (missile defense) site in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic," he said. "What we are supposed to do? We can't just sit back and look at that."

From Putin's description, you'd think that George Patton had risen from the grave, and was resurrecting his army for a march on Moscow. Fact is, the planned U.S. presence in Eastern Europe will be limited in scope. Unlike the massive, Cold War-era American bases in Germany, Britain and Italy, the installations in Eastern Europe will be much smaller in scale, providing training to limited numbers of troops on short-term rotations, or serve as a jumping-off point for operations in the Middle East. The planned basing scheme is hardly a military threat to the Russians, but it does move the NATO trip wire farther east, a move welcomed by the Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Bulgarians and others who have suffered at the hands of the Russians in the past.

Mr. Putin also fails to mention that the 1990 CFE Treaty was something of a godsend for his nation. With the collapse of communism (and a corresponding decline in the Russian economy), Moscow could no longer afford the massive conventional forces that once dominated its military machine. In that environment, cutbacks in Russian defense forces were inevitable; the CFE Treaty simply provided a convenient mechanism for both sides to reduce their conventional stockpiles, build trust and generate a little international goodwill in the aftermath of the Cold War.

We've also noted that the missile tested on Tuesday--the SS-27--is also a product of that era, when the Russians realized that conventional forces could no longer serve as a strategic deterrent. With the Army foundering, the Russian Navy literally rusting at the peer and tactical air forces in disrepair, Moscow began shifting most of its deterrent capabilities to its nuclear forces, and embarked on a modernization program that included the SS-27 Topol M. Over the past decades, Russian defense officials and military journals have talked openly about using strategic nuclear weapons to respond to regional conflicts. In many respects, it's the only trump card they have left.

But you won't hear any of that in the soundbites coming out of Moscow. And sadly, you won't find that context and perspective in MSM reporting on the subject, either. Most reporters are content to take Vladimir Putin at his word, without asking about the "new strategy" behind that "new missile." In fairness, I do understand their reluctance. In today's Russia, reporters who ask tough questions about the Putin regime wind up dead.

But that's no excuse for journalists who cover defense and security matters in the U.S. or other western countries. Tuesday's SS-27 test represents much more than a reaction to planned BMD deployments in Eastern Europe. It's more evidence of a revised Russian strategy that's been evolving over the past decade, and is firmly rooted in new, long-range missile systems and the potential first-use of nuclear weapons.

Now, that's something that could spark a new arms race.

Unfinished Business

We've written at length about the Valerie Plame affair, which began when Scooter Libby and other Bush Administration officials supposedly "outed" Ms. Plame, who was described as a "covert" CIA employee. Mr. Libby was eventually indicted (and convicted) in the case, but not for the crime of exposing Ms. Plame, but rather, for lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. He is scheduled for sentencing next month.

In hindsight, the decision to prosecute Libby alone--and not for the "original" crime--seems a bit odd, because Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has produced information that suggests Ms. Plame was "covert" at the time her identity was revealed. In a 18-page sentencing recommendation for the Libby case, Mr. Fitzgerald included a declassified summary of Plame's employment history during the period when her identity was revealed. According to the information (provided by the CIA), Ms. Plame was considered a "covert" employee when her agency affiliation was disclosed in Robert Novak's July 14, 2003 column.

A number of liberal pundits, including the Nation's David Corn, have been positively gleeful over this revelation, claiming that Fitzgerald's disclosure proves that Plame was indeed, a covert agent, and that administration officials were out to "get" Ms. Plame and her husband, former Ambassador (and Bush critic) Joe Wilson.

Not so fast. The CIA summary begs the most obvious question: if Plame was a covert CIA employee, then why did Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald take a pass on indicting anyone for revealing her identity? True, the current law presents a rather steep legal challenge; divulging the name of a covert agent is only a crime if (a) the individual was undercover at the time of the disclosure, and (b) the leaker deliberately provided information about someone known to be covered by that law.

But if Mr. Fitzgerald and his staff were able to convince a jury to convict Lewis on four of five felony counts, they were up to the task of persuading jurors that Richard Armitage, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and God Knows Who Else were part of a campaign to smear Mr. Wilson and his wife. But only Mr. Libby is facing sentencing this week; Fitzgerald is essentially closing up shop and says he has no current plans to indict anyone else in the Plame affair. History will record that Mr. Armitage was perhaps the first to discuss Ms. Plame's employment with reporters, but there was (apparently) no consideration of indicting him. Why?

Over at Captain's Quarters, Ed Morrissey was among the first to reach the most obvious explanation. Indicting Armitage, Libby or anyone else for "revealing" Plame's covert identity would have opened a Pandora's box for the prosecution, raising serious questions about the CIA, it's non-official cover program for covert agents, and Ms. Plame's own recklessness in "protecting" her identity. As we've said before, Valerie Plame's affiliation with the agency was one of the nation's worst-kept intelligence secrets. Consider these inconvenient facts:

--Plame's identity as a covert agent was first exposed to the Russians in the mid-1990s by one of their U.S.-based operatives, possibly CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames. And, if that weren't bad enough, Cuban intelligence also learned of her affiliation, when documents bound for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana fell into their hands. These "outings" (which occurred years before the Novak column) were the primary reason that Ms. Plame was manning a desk at Langley in 2003.

--According to the CIA employment summary cited by Fitzgerald, Ms. Plame traveled overseas
at least 7-10 times in the years leading up to the disclosure. On some trips, she traveled under an assumed name; on other occasions, she used her own name. But she always traveled using cover--whether official or non-official (NOC) --with no ostensible relationship to the CIA" [emphasis mine]. If Ms. Plame was trying to conceal her agency connection, you'd think that she would at least show some consistency, and use an assumed name on all overseas trips.

--Federal election records show that Plame donated money--under her own name--to Al Gore's 2000 Presidential campaign. Her employer is listed as Brewster Jennings, the CIA front company that provided her NOC for many years. As we've noted before, Brewster Jennings was well-known in some intel circles as a CIA front for years; allowing the campaign contribution to identify Plame with the front company suggests one of two possibilities. Either (a) Ms. Plame was incredibly careless, or (b) she realized that her "cover" had been blown years before (by the Russian disclosure), and saw little reason to further mask her tracks.

Protecting the identity of a covert agent is clearly a two-way street. The agency must provide cover that effectively "hides" the operative's affiliation, while allowing them to carry out their assignment. The agent, in turn, has their own responsibility to protect their identity, and prevent their identification as an intelligence operative. In these regards, both the CIA and Valerie Plame failed miserably. As a "front" Brewster Jennings was a sham; it's home office" in Boston lacked a working phone number, and reporters found no evidence of employees or activity at its listed address. Ms. Plame, in turn, used her real name in connection with the flimsy front company and official agency travels--activities that highlighted her CIA connection long before Scooter Libby entered the picture.

Equally curious is the CIA's willingness to go along with Fitzgerald's investigation, despite its potential impact on national security. According to the agency:

"...the public interest in allowing the criminal prosecution to proceed outweighed the damage to national security that might reasonably be expected from the official disclosure of Ms. Wilson's employment and cover status."

Remember, a CIA front company often provides cover for multiple agents and other employees. The revelation that Valerie Plame was covert--and affiliated with Brewster Jennings--possibly put other agency operatives at risk for exposure, even death. But the folks at Langley were willing to take that chance, in support of Fitzgerald's search for "the leaker." And, lest we forget, this is the same agency that has consistently dragged its feet on leaks within its own ranks. Over a 10-year period (1995-2005), the intelligence community tabulated 600 unauthorized disclosures of classified information--many from the CIA--but there wasn't a single, successful prosecution. FBI and Justice Department officials indicate that the agency--to no one's surprise --often stonewalls leak investigations.

But when the opportunity arose to go after an enemy from the White House, the CIA was only too happy to cooperate, national security and institutional practices be damned. There was likely some victory dances at Langley when the Libby verdict was announced, and there will be more celebrating when the sentence is handed down next week. Amid the euphoria, there may also be a sense of relief. By refusing to go after the original charge--exposing a covert agent--Mr. Fitzgerald did the agency (and Valerie Plame) a huge favor. He saved them the embarrassment of having to tell the court how they blew her cover years before. Maybe that's why the CIA was so eager to cooperate with the special prosecutor.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Medical File

For better or worse, western intelligence agencies spare no expense in trying to gather information on hostile regimes and their leaders. This has led to a at least three "cottage industries" in the intel business, focusing on human factors, psychological profiling and medical intelligence related to world leaders.

During my spook career, I had a chance to work with (or at least converse) with professionals in each of those endeavors. While I certainly respect their work, there was always the nagging suspicion that such "analysis" was more alchemy than science. After all, who can explain the vagaries of a complex personality like Saddam Hussein? Before August 1990, the human factors teams and psychological profilers certainly recognized the sinister (and opportunistic) elements of Saddam's psyche, which translated into a brutal and oppressive regime. But despite our recognition of those traits, no one saw their ultimate manifestation in the invasions of Iran (1980) and Kuwait ten years later.

The same holds true for medical intelligence assessments of global leaders. Late last year, then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte suggested that Cuba's Fidel Castro was (literally) at death's door. There were even reports of parties in Miami's Cuban-American community, celebrating the impending demise of El Comm andante.

Flash forward six months, and it appears that reports of Castro's imminent death were premature, at best. True, the Cuban dictator hasn't resumed day-to-day management of The Workers Paradise in the Caribbean, but at last check, he was still alive and apparently in command of his faculties. Those celebrations in Little Havana are apparently on hold, at least for now.

Castro's apparent recovery from an intestinal condition (or at least the stabilization of his condition) underscore the difficulties in assessing the health of a head-of-state. For starters, such information is a closely-guarded secret, particularly in dictatorships where concerns about internal threats and regime preservation are paramount. Aside from a few propaganda videos from Cuba's state media (and some silly statements from Hugo Chavez about Fidel's amazing recovery), we didn't hear much about how sick--or well--Castro really was. We face similar problems in trying to learn about potential health problems among the leadership of Iran, North Korea and Syria, just to name a few places.

So how do we assemble those medical profiles? From a variety of sources. Video of a leader delivering a stem-winder speech may reveal tremors (or other physical symptoms) associated with Parkinson's Disease, or other neurological disorders. Television and still images can also reveal other changes in appearance (such as rapid weight gain or loss), which might suggest other physiological conditions.

We can also glean evidence from defectors or opposition groups, who may have access to medical information, though such data is often second-hand and appropriately suspect. However, these sources can sometimes steer us toward the "foreign" doctors and specialists who are often imported to care for an ailing dictator. Castro's intestinal surgery last year was reportedly performed by a Spanish physician. If we can debrief the "imported" doctor--or perhaps a confidant--we can gain additional insights into the patient's condition.

And, in the information age, there are also certain (ahem) tools that may allow us to "mine" medical data from selected sources. But even those capabilities are limited. Treating patients like Castro, foreign doctors are carefully controlled in their movements, record-taking and communication. It's likely that the Spanish surgeon was not allowed to carry any information on Castro's condition out of the country, except for the data stored in his brain. Factor in the human tendency to forget things, potential sympathy to Cuban cause and doctor-patient confidentiality rules, and it seems likely that Castro's "imported" physician didn't provide any meaningful information on his condition or prognosis.

That's why we should take reports about Kim Jong-il's deteriorating health with a grain of salt. According to NBC News, U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials are "taking seriously" claims that the North Korean dictator is suffering from high blood pressure and advanced diabetes. Reports of Kim's possible health problems first surfaced last month, in South Korea's Chosen Ilbo newspaper last month, and were based on information from the ROK National Intelligence Service. Quoting an anonymous government official, the paper said that Kim's diabetes and heart problems had worsened, and that the information was "more reliable" than former rumors.

As evidence of Kim' s supposedly-declining health, intel agencies in the U.S. and South Korea have noted a decrease in the North Korean leader's public appearances. Chosen Ilbo claims that Kim's public activities are at about "half the level" of a year ago; he hasn't been seen publicly since late April and his last reported public appearance (on 5 May) wasn't carried on North Korean state television.

However, there are other possible explanations for Kim's sudden absence. He's disappeared for extended periods before, most notably, after the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung in 1994. That touched off speculation that the younger Kim was having trouble in cementing his hold on power, or that some sort of internal struggle might be underway. Eventually, Kim Jong-il reemerged and demonstrated that he was fully in charge of the regime.

At age 66, it's doubtful that Kim Jong-il is in the pink of health. He's a big fan of Dunhill cigarettes and Hennessy cognac, and reported trips to that multi-story "Pleasure Palace" in Pyongyang have (perhaps) taken a toll as well. But, while U.S. intel official told NBC that there are concerns about Kim's health, he believes it's unlikely that Kim is on his death bed. We'll second that notion, with the caveat that medical intelligence on dictators and despots is often exaggerated, and rarely accurate.

Today's Reading Assignment

From today's Denver Post--hardly a bastion of conservatism:

CU Prof Churchill's Dismissal Finally Due

And the Post gets the reasoning right: Churchill should be fired for his long history of academic misconduct: "intentionally falsified research, plagiarized and ghost-wrote articles that he later used as references to prop up his own research." His remarks describing 9-11 victims as "Little Eichmans" were clearly beneath contempt, but they were also protected free speech. Colorado University officials have wisely focused on Churchill's academic fraud (which is not protected) and more than sufficient grounds to send him packing.

But the Post also raises the question we'd like to ask; namely, when will Professor Churchill finally be fired? He's appealed every ruling against him, and a university tenure and privilege committee recently split on a decision to fire Churchill, or merely suspend him. At this rate, the America-hating professor will run out of appeals after he's retired, or dead.

From our perspective, the case for Ward Churchill's ouster (for academic misconduct) couldn't be more clear. In the words of the Post, he's "been given the appropriate due process--and then some." Now's the time for university leadership to step up, fire Churchill, and make it stick.

The Ultimate Sensor

This item, from last Friday's on-line edition of Air Force Times, certainly caught my attention, because it highlights one of the key issues facing our military. Six years into the Global War on Terror, should the Pentagon continue its emphasis on gold-plated weapons systems, or begin migrating toward tools that might be more useful in the fight, namely advanced sensors.

In a speech last week at Offut AFB in Omaha, Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula came down squarely in the sensors camped. Speaking to the annual ISR Symposium sponsored by Offut's 55th Wing (which operates the Air Force RC-135 fleet), General Deptula described an evolving enemy, and the challenges associated with that threat:

“The enemy is evolving and adapting, and is highly malleable, like a liquid that gravitates toward our weakest points and defies our efforts to hold it in our grasp. Infesting urban areas and hiding among the civilian population, just finding the enemy has become our greatest challenge.”


Deptula said the Cold War left the U.S. with a “shooter-heavy footprint,” that is no longer applicable to today’s fight. What’s needed now, he said, is an investment that makes ISR platforms and programs the centerpiece of the “global war on terror.”

“Today’s enemy is not massing on the other side of the Fulda Gap,” he said. “One of their primary goals is to deny us a target and negate our firepower advantage, so ISR now makes up the majority of our current operations.”

General Deptula currently serves as the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), so he definitely has a dog in the fight. A massive investment in advanced sensors would clearly benefit the service's ISR community, which is pressing--with the Air Force's blessing--for control of all medium and high-altitude UAVs in the DoD arsenal. Since many of these sensors would be mounted on those same UAVs (or Air Force controlled satellites), the proposed "sensor revolution" would give the service a tremendous leg up in control of ISR systems--and the intelligence information they provide.

But Deptula's remarks are also telling because the general is not a career intelligence officer. He spend most of his career flying F-15s and first gained fame as director of the "Black Hole" targeting cell in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. In that position, Deputla played a major role in developing the air campaign that routed Saddam Hussein's forces. It was the ultimate application of shooter-heavy systems on the battlefield, an era that, according to General Deptula, has now passed.

However, it should come as no surprise that Lieutenant General Deptula does manage to find room for one advanced "shooter" his proposed quiver of sensors and ISR systems. He said the F-22 Raptor and other fifth-generation fighters "are still needed" because their capabilities run the gamut of Air Force ISR, precision strike and electronic warfare missions. He also suggested the need to discard the idea that such aircraft are merely air-to-air combat platforms (yes, those words came out of the mouth of an F-15 pilot). “It’s not just an F,” he said. “It’s also an F/A, an EA, an AC, RC and a G.”

General Deptula also said that the service needs to capitalize on the ISR investment that's already been made. He noted that "non-traditional" ISR assets like targeting pods are not being sufficiently exploited, denying potential information to the warfighter. He added that the top priority should be to "eliminate" ISR as a low-density, high-demand asset, fielding adequate numbers of sensors, platforms, support systems and personnel to meet operational requirements.

As a former member of the Air Force ISR community, there's a natural tendency to jump up and offer an "Amen" to those comments. If ISR is the centerpiece of modern warfighting, then we need to make the necessary investment to ensure the availability of those systems. Of course, fitting them into the acquisition budget (and after that, the POM) are a completely different matter. The Air Force has a lot of big-ticket items in the pipeline and while sensors aren't as expensive as, say, a new manned bomber, they aren't cheap, either. Factor in the additional budgetary pressures from the War on Terror, and the fiscal picture becomes even more bleak: those new sensors should be a priority, but there's no guarantee that the Air Force will get everything it wants--or needs.

Additionally, the pursuit of new sensor systems should come with a caveat: improvements in airborne or overhead ISR should be matched with a corresponding investment in the most important sensor of all, that pair of human eyes connected to the Mark I brain. As we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's no substitute for timely, accurate human intelligence (HUMINT) in fighting an insurgency. Indeed, many of our recent successes against terrorists have been based on information provided by local residents, through networks established (and cultivated) by intel officers on the ground. As Ralph Peters noted a few months ago, there's been something of a revolution in HUMINT in Iraq, and we need to institutionalize that success. Otherwise, the hard lessons gained in Fallujah, Al Anbar and Sadr City will be forgotten, and we'll be forced to relearn them again, at a cost of more blood and treasure.

General Deptula is right: fighting wars in a post-modern world will require a focus on ISR and the sensors that support it. But as the Air Force (and the other services) plan for the "next" ISR revolution, they would be well advised to incorporate the ground-based "human" sensor into their strategy. Visiting an Air Force Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) Site, you'll find links to various platforms and sensors, scanning the battlefield around the clock. In many respects, DCGS is the hub for the ISR-centric warfare described by Lieutenant General Deptula. But the mission crew at a DCGS site doesn't include a HUMINT officer, with experience in theater, and access to the local networks that provide such vital information. The absence of that capability needs to be corrected in order for DCGS (and Deptula's ISR vision) to reach their potential.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mr. Putin's New Missile

Russia has announced the successful test of a "new" multi-warhead, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), designed to overcome missile defense systems like the one the U.S. hopes to build in eastern Europe.

A spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Moscow told Reuters that the RS-24 missile was fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk cosmodrome about 800 km (500 miles) north of Moscow, and successfully struck a target on the Kamchtaka Peninsula, north of Japan. The missile's flight followed a path typically used for Russian ICBM tests, allowing Moscow to test the accuracy of its missiles at near-maximum ranges. By comparison, U.S. ICBM test launches are usually staged from Vandenburg AFB, California, flying downrange to the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific.

At this point, we don't know much about Mr. Putin's new missile. It's unclear whether the ICBM tested today is a truly new design, or perhaps another variant of the SS-27, which is already in service and capable of operating from mobile launchers and fixed silos. Russia has decades of experience with both multiple warhead and mobile ICBMs. The single-warhead, road-mobile SS-25 has been operational for more than 20 years, and there have been a number of Russian ICBMS with a MIRV capability (multiple independent reentry vehicles), most notably the SS-24 Scalpel, which carried 10 warheads. Moscow has previously announced plans to put multiple warheads on the aforementioned SS-27 Topol M, part of an overall modernization plan for Russia's strategic forces.

Various Russian officials--including President Vladimir Putin--are using the ICBM test as "proof" of their ability to overcome missile defenses, including those proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic. But that argument is something of a red herring; as we've noted in the past, Moscow already has enough weapons to saturate the planned defensive shield, which is aimed at deterring threats from the Middle East, not Russia. Additionally, if the ICBM tested today is truly a new design, it was likely on the drawing board long before the U.S. announced plans for missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Consequently, the new missile--and its capabilities--represent just another ploy for attacking Russia's favorite bogeyman, ballistic missile defense.

Indeed, Mr. Putin has accused the U.S. of "turning Europe into a powder keg" and stuffing it with new weapons, a reference obviously aimed at the projected BMD deployments. Putin's comments make a provocative soundbite, but they fail to explain how a handful of defensive missiles and their associated radar will push the continent to the brink of the apocalypse.

On the other hand, Russia's continued attacks on the proposed missile shield deflect attention away from other, more sobering realities: First, the rogue nation WMD programs that pose an increasing threat to Europe are based heavily on Russian technology and designs that were exported by Moscow (during the Soviet era), and proliferated by long-time client states like North Korea.

Secondly, Russia's strategic modernization program is designed to compensate for the veritable collapse of its conventional forces following the Cold War. As the U.S. discovered in the 1950s, it's cheaper to invest in nuclear arms--and delivery platforms--than massive, conventional forces. Unlike the Soviet era, the Russia of today relies heavily on its arsenal of nuclear warheads and ICBMs for strategic deterrence, even in response to limited conflicts. That position was codified in a 2003 Defense Ministry "White Paper," which envisioned nuclear strikes emanating from a regional conflict. That sort of thinking--coupled with improvements in Russia's ICBM force--represent a far greater threat to regional security than the missile shield envisioned for eastern Europe.

But then again, the Russians have always been masters of maskirovka--the art of military deception. By focusing the debate on missile defense (rather than its own nuclear forces and doctrine), Russia can nullify the BMD threat before it poses a serious challenge to their warheads and delivery systems. And, there's some evidence to suggest that Moscow's approach may be working. Last week, a Senate panel voted to slash more funding from our BMD programs. That must have been music to Mr. Putin's ears, and it doubtlessly encouraged him to continue the attack on U.S. missile defense programs. From his perspective, the best missile strategy is a modernized Russian arsenal, against a weakened (or preferably, non-existent) American defense shield.


ADDENDUM: A late AP dispatch from Moscow indicates that the "new" missile is actually a variant of the SS-27 Topol M.

So Long, Cindy

When Cindy Sheehan first entered the public spotlight, we predicted the eventual end to her career as a celebrity/anti-war activist. Even during the heady days of "Camp Casey" in Crawford, Texas--when Ms. Sheehan's moral authority as the mother of a dead solider was unquestioned--it was easy enough to spot the underlying motivations for her crusade. Ms. Sheehan was a convenient prop for the anti-war movement, and she was clearly seduced by the siren call of fame. As we noted in August 2005:

Has Ms. Sheehan's grief morphed into righteous anger? Perhaps, but I believe there's another explanation for her dramatic change-of-heart. Quite simply, I believe Ms. Sheehan has filled the sudden emptiness in her life with the siren call of celebrity. Suddenly, she's being beseiged with requests for interviews, and seeing her name and picture in the newspaper. It can be heady stuff. Consider the example of Marc Klass, the California father whose young daughter, Polly, was brutally murdured more than 10 years ago. That ordeal elevated Mr. Klass to celebrity status, and he's always on TV whenever there's a high-profile kidnapping or murder case involving a child. I might be reading him wrong, but Mr. Klass strikes me as someone in love with the sound of his own voice. I see a similar quality in Ms. Sheehan, who appears willing to trade on personal tragedy in pursuit of the public spotlight.

Now, Ms. Sheehan is calling it quits, announcing today that she done being the face of the anti-war movement. In a brief interview with the AP (and a "resignation letter" posted at DailyKos), Sheehan signed off a verbal barrage aimed at her erstwhile friends in the Democratic Party, and the American people that refused to blindly endorse her anti-war campaign:

"I've been wondering why I'm killing myself and wondering why the Democrats caved in to
George Bush,
" Sheehan told The Associated Press while driving from her property in Crawford to the airport, where she planned to return to her native California...

And from her resignation letter:

"Good-bye America ... you are not the country that I love and I finally realized no matter how much I sacrifice, I can't make you be that country unless you want it.

"It's up to you now."

To her credit, AP reporter Angela Brown found the real reasons behind Ms. Sheehan's sudden "retirement." Kristinn Taylor, a conservative activist who posts frequently at, believes that dwindling crowds at Sheehan's recent "events" may have led to the decision. BTW, Mr. Taylor has been influential in organizing counter-protests and "support the troops" rallies that have been effective in challenging the anti-war movement. Readers will note that he's never received a fraction of the publicity afforded to "Mother Sheehan," and unlike the "absolute moral authority," Mr. Taylor has never abandoned his cause, even when times were tough.

Kristinn Taylor also echoes a point we made a couple of years ago. Namely, Cindy Sheehan was used by the anti-war movement, and would be cast aside after she served her purpose:

There is also a personal danger in Ms. Sheehan's approach. In some respects, she reminds me of Norma Jean McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case. As Ms. McCorvey noted years later, she was essentially "used" by abortion advocates, seeking to overturn Texas' anti-abortion law. After the Supreme Court decision, Ms. McCorvey was dumped by her feminist supporters, leaving her alone to cope with the consequences of the ruling, and her personal decision to have an abortion... It doesn't take a media spin doctor to understand that Sheehan may become the Norma Jean McCorvey of the anti-war movement. Once the Iraq War ends--or they simply find a more coherent spokesman, Ms. Sheehan will find herself on the ash heap of celebrity, alone to mourn the loss of a son, and her brief media career.

We'll second Kristinn Taylor's notion that Ms. Sheehan was deeply hurt by the loss of her son, and deserves a chance to heal. But we're also sticking by an observation we made a couple of years ago. After the death of her son in Iraq, Cindy Sheehan missed an opportunity to channel her grief and anger into more productive pursuits--say, actually supporting the troops. Instead, she opted for a few minutes in the spotlight, as the media flavor of the month. Now, alone with her grief, she may discover just how bitter the world of former activist/celebrity really is.

And perhaps there is some justice in that; as Cindy Sheehan fades from the public view, we can finally remember the real hero of the family: her son Casey, the Army specialist who volunteered for a mission to rescue his fellow soldiers and gave his life in the process. The sacrifice and heroism of Casey Sheehan is worth remembering; his mother's career as activist and media darling is best relegated to the trash heap of instant celebrity.


ADDENDUM: Tammy Bruce "translates" Mother Sheehan's resignation letter.

We're Against the War, But...

...we support the troops.

How many times have you heard that line from a liberal celebrity (yes, I realize that's an oxymoron), or a Democratic politician, as they try to reconcile two positions that are clearly irreconcilable.

Apparently, some of their friends on the kook fringe didn't get the memo. Not only do they oppose the war, they also despise the troops, some of whom died decades ago. From the AP:

ORCAS ISLAND, Wash- Vandals burned dozens of small American flags that decorated veterans' graves for Memorial Day and replaced many of them with hand-drawn swastikas, authorities said Monday.

We're still waiting for a statement of outrage from Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. Ditto for Washington Congressman Rick Larsen, whose district includes Orcas Island.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Don't Be So Sure

This week's UN-mandated deadline for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment efforts passed with little notice, largely because the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Tehran has stated repeatedly that it has no plans to give up its nuclear program, and so far, the World Community has been unable to devise an effective strategy for dealing with the problem, aside from some tepid sanctions, the occasional, sharply-worded diplomatic letter, and years of fruitless, European-sponsored negotiations.

Feeling his oats, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Friday that the western powers are "unable to act" against his country. And, at first glance, there seems to be an element of truth in his claim. The aforementioned western "strategy has done nothing to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions; cynics would even argue that the current cycle of talks and sanctions has provided an inadvertent boost to the program. With the west unwilling (so far) to consider more decisive, collective action, the Iranians view our current, hesitant approach as a green light to continue their activities.

However, this is not to say that Tehran's nuclear program is completely beyond the reach of the U.S. and its allies. This past week, several media outlets reported that the U.S. had initiated a sabotage campaign against Iran's nuclear efforts, intercepting equipment and parts bound for that country's nuclear facilities, and replacing them with sub-standard or defective components. The idea, of course, is that the faulty items will slow Tehran's efforts to enrich uranium, or even trigger an accident that could set back key programs by weeks, or even months. There are no indications as to how successful the program has been, although the public disclosure will almost certainly doom future attempts.

The notion of sabotaging enemy systems is hardly new. During the first Gulf War, the U.S. allegedly intercepted a printer bound from a French manufacturer, to one of Saddam Hussein's air defense sites. The printer was uploaded with a virus before resuming its journey to Iraq. The virus was reportedly programmed to go active during the coalition air campaign, rendering portions of the Iraqi air defense system inoperative.

I've never been able to fully verify the printer story, but I am familiar with a similar effort, spearheaded by the USAF, NSA and special ops personnel. With detailed knowledge of the communications lines that linked Iraqi air defense nodes, the U.S. decided to insert a virus through a network cable buried in the Iraqi desert. The job of creating the virus rested with the Air Force and NSA; one of the key architects, I am told, was a young airman who came to the attention of NSA because of his repeated success in penetrating their network security systems. Once the virus was developed, the snake eaters took it into Iraq, located the cable, and the rest is history.

If we are attempting a sabotage campaign against Iran, I'm guessing that the effort wouldn't be limited to defective parts and components. At some point, the computer networks which service (and link) Tehran's nuclear facilities have some sort of interface with outside systems (or even the internet), which could provide potential attack points.

Ahmadinejad's claim that the west is "unable to act" against his country may be correct--at least for now--and in terms of our publicly-declared strategy. But we have other ways of reaching out and "touching" rogue states, tactics that may also be employed, if those media reports are true. Along with his pursuit of more advanced missiles and a viable nuclear weapon design, the Iranian madman may also find it necessary to invest in something more mundane, like more secure computer networks.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Space Race

Along with its coverage of PRC ballistic missile programs, this year's edition of Chinese Military Power also focuses on an important event that occured earlier this year--Beijing's successful test of an anti-satellite weapon.

As we noted at the time (mid-January), the ASAT test represented a watershed event for the PRC. Over the past decade--and at a cost of billions of dollars--the PRC has successfully developed both space-based and ground-based anti-satellite weapons, giving them the potential to target platforms in low earth orbit (LEO). That's the arena where our imagery intelligence satellites operate; given our reliance on overhead reconnaissance systems, the possible targeting (and loss) of these assets could be devastating.

Interestingly, some U.S. analysts believe that we're somehow to blame for Beijing's ASAT program. They claim that the Chinese have been pressing us for years to negotiate a space weapons treaty. Our reluctance to enter into such an agreement has, in their view, pushed China to spend billions of dollars on state-priority ASAT systems.

However, that argument rings hollow, as we've noted before. As a rule of thumb, you don't negotiate away systems that can degrade (or even defeat) an adversary's critical capabilities, particulary when your enemy has let his own programs grow dormant. The last U.S. ASAT test occurred more than 20 years ago, and we've haven't actively pursued anti-satellite capabilities to avoid the "militarization" of space.

Secondly, the agreement that Beijing is pushing for would not include the weapons recently tested (surprise, surprise). And, given their investment (and recent, successful tests), it's doubtful that the PRC would go along with a comprehensive space weapons ban, something the U.S. might actually be interested in.

The Chinese Military Power report called it right; China's emerging ASAT capability is a direct threat to the U.S.--and any other nation--that wants unfettered access to the high frontier. And the idea that we've somehow "forced" Beijing to develop these weapons is pure bunk.

Star-Crossed Lovers, Part II

When the Lisa Nowak scandal broke a few months ago, it was obvious that the Navy Captain (and NASA astronaut) was in a lot of trouble. After a 900-mile drive to confront a romantic rival--outfitted in an official space diaper, no less--Captain Nowak proceeded to assault the woman, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, and reportedly planned to kidnap her as well. Weapons found in her car allowed Florida prosecutors to file even more charges against her, and Nowak was summarily dismissed from the space program. She has since been reassigned to a desk job with the Naval Training Command, while awaiting her trial in Florida.

At the time, we also speculated about the fate of her lover, fellow astronaut (and Navy Commander), William Oefelein. While Commander Oefelein was single, we observed that he could still face potential problems. His love triangle had created a public relations nightmare for NASA, and as a naval officer, Oefelein could still face punishment for adultery, since Nowak was married at the time of her affair. However, more enlightened pundits in the blogosphere dismissed that notion; Commander Oefelein, like Captain Shipman, was a "victim" in this sordid mess. Had Lisa Nowak never made her infamous road trip, the matter would have never become a public scandal, etc.

We'll soon discover the Navy's plans for Oefelein because yesterday, less than four months after Nowak's arrest, it was announced that her former lover's assignment to the space agency is coming to an end. Commander Oefelein learned Wednesday that his detail to NASA will end on June 1st, and he will return to duty as a naval officer. A statement from NASA officials tried to put a positive spin on the move, saying that Oefelein had completed his assignment as pilot of a shuttle mission last year, and both the agency and the Navy had "mutally agreed" to end his assignment to the space program.

It is true that some astronauts do return to military assignments after a tour at NASA; former shuttle commander Kevin Chilton is a case in point. Since leaving NASA, he's become a four-star general in the USAF, and now leads Air Force Space Command. However, General Chilton didn't leave NASA under a cloud of scandal. Moreover, many military officers are allowed to remain with the space agency almost indefinitely, provided that their performance is satisfactory, and the service doesn't have more pressing plans for them. Prior to Nowak's arrest, there was no indication that the Navy had immediate assignments for her or Commander Oefelein. The resulting scandal--and now, Oefelein's short-notice return to the Navy--indicates that his reassignment is, in fact, a de facto dismissal.

As for his future in the Navy, prosecution for misconduct is a possibility, although the service (like NASA) would prefer for this debacle to quietly fade away. Depending on what NASA and the Navy have learned in their investigation, Commander Oefelein may escape punishment, but I don't think the service has any plum jobs awaiting him. Like Nowak, Oefelein will likely be assigned to a back-water position while the service deliberates his fate. Unlike his former girl friend, Oefelein isn't facing any charges from civilian authorities, but the problems he caused for NASA and the Navy are enough to wreck his chances for promotion. Now, the real question is whether senior naval leaders believe Oefelein's conduct warrants some sort of punishment beyond his removal from NASA, say a Letter of Reprimand or even an Article 15.

We can offer one sure prediction about Commander Oefelein's new assignment: it will be far, far away from the desk now manned by Lisa Nowak.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Underestimating Beijing

The Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power--set for release today-- will highlight Beijing's continued development of land and sea-based ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States, according to the Financial Times.

Reporter Demetri Sevastopulo interviewed officials who have seen the assessment, and they tell him that this year's edition will focus on China's continued development of the Jin-class ballistic missile sub, which will be capable of hitting CONUS targets at ranges up to 5,000 miles. The report also examines the strategic implications of the PRC's pending deployment of the DF-31A mobile, land-based ICBM, which also has the range to reach the United States. The Jin-class boats will carry the JL-2 sub-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which is the naval version of the DF-31.

Yearly assessments of Chinese military power are always controversial; critics often accuse DoD of overstating the PRC threat, and there may be an element of truth in those charges. While both the DF-31 and Jin-class/JL-2 represent quantum technological leaps for Beijing, the Chinese trail the United States in the numbers of deployed missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles (both land and sea-based), nuclear warheads and the accuracy of those weapons. By most assessments, the JL-2 is roughly equal to an early-model Trident C-4 SLBM, which first entered service with the U.S. Navy more than 25 years ago. Still, the new Chinese missile can carry 1 one megaton warhead, and its accuracy is much improved over the first-generation SLBMS carried on the single, Xia-class missile boat, which was built in the 1980s, but spent much of its career in port.

The DF-31 is also range limited, but as a mobile system, it will be much more difficult to track and target--presenting the same sort of challenge posed by Russia's SS-25 road-mobile system. Beijing plans to complement the DF-31 with the longer-range DF-41 ICBM, which is current in development. Current estimates indicate that the DF-41 will have a range of 10-12,000 km, allowing it to strike targets throughout the CONUS. The DF-41 is expected to enter operational service around the end of the decade.

Beyond the updates on Beijing's new strategic systems, this year's China military power report will also be revealing in other respects. First, the final tone and content of the document have always been the product of an internal DoD debate over the nature of the Chinese threat. Some analysts have consistently downplayed the threat, noting the gap between the PRC defense budget and our own. They view the military power document as being unnecessarily provocative when (in their view) we should be taking a more cordial tone toward Beijing. It will be interesting to see if the 2007 report makes any efforts in that area, or takes a harder line toward the PRC.

However, it is worth noting that one of the former leaders of the "less hostile" camp, Ronald Montaperto, was convicted last year of passing classified information to the Chinese. Obviously, not every analyst or official who advocates better relations with China is a spy, but Bill Gertz (and other journalists) have detailed a massive PRC campaign to gather intelligence and buy influence inside the United States. Remember the infamous Hughes-Loral deal, sanctioned by the Clinton White House, which gave China the technology needed to mount multiple warheads on its ballistic missiles?

While the U.S. still enjoys a sizable strategic advantage over China, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate Beijing. In the mid-1990s, a few analysts scoffed when the Chinese announced plans to deploy more than 500 short and medium-range missiles opposite Taiwan, creating a force capable of devastating the island's ports, airfields, military bases and missile defenses. A decade later, the number of CSS-6 and CSS-7's stationed along the Taiwan Strait is between 700-900, backed by the logistics, maintenance and C2 systems needed to support those missiles. The Chinese have also refined the technology associated with each missile system, improving both their accuracy and lethality. The result? Beijing now has the ability to saturate Taiwan's defenses and obliterate its Patriot batteries in short order, making the island even more dependent on U.S. military assistance and protection.

The Taiwan example shows that the PRC is quite serious about meeting its military goals. Five Jin-class SSBNs are currently under construction. As one analyst told the FT, the scope of that single project sends quite a statement. Couple that with the deployment of the DF-31 and the development of the DF-41, and it's clear that China will have a much more capable strategic force in the next 5-7 years. The U.S. will retain its lead for a while, but Beijing has the resources--and apparently, the willpower--to close the gap and at some point, establish quantitative superiority.

It's happened before; when JFK used the "missile gap" as a campaign issue in 1960, the ICBM balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in our favor. Barely 15 years later, at the height of detente, the advantage had shifted to the Russians, and their economy paled in comparison to what the Chinese have achieved. If Beijing keeps spending--and the U.S. loses its resolve to modernize its strategic forces--it's not inconceivable that we could see a similar shift in the coming decades.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Just Keep Talking

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says he agrees with CIA estimates that Iran is "three-to-eight years" away from obtaining nuclear weapons, and encouraged the U.S. and other powers to engage in negotiations with Tehran.

According to IAEA Chief Mohammed ElBaradei, the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is "through a comprehensive dialogue." Mr. ElBaradei made the comments at a news conference in Luxembourg, one day after his agency released a new report showing that Iran is increasing uranium enrichment activities--in defiance of U.N. demands. The report also cautioned that the IAEA's knowledge of Tehran's nuclear activities is shrinking.

In other words, that "three-to-eight year estimate" may be a bit off. Like other aspiring members of the nuclear club, Iran has been proficient at hiding the scope and existence of key activities. Barely a week ago, IAEA inspectors expressed surprise at Iran's growing array of nuclear centrifuges, used to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that can be used for weapons, if sufficient purity levels are obtained. A recent IAEA visit to the enrichment facility in Natanz revealed that Iranian scientists have 1,300 centrifuges in operation, with the ability to add another 1,700 by late June, and raise that total to 8,000 by the end of the year. Assuming that the Iranians can keep most of the centrifuges spinning (and raise the purity level to 90%), the time line for a bomb could be shortened.

It's also worth noting that these "public" time lines are based largely on observed activities. There is a chance that Iran has also established a covert nuclear program, pressing towards weapons development outside the scrutiny of the IAEA or western intelligence. While activity at declared facilities like Natanz complex, the Arak heavy water plant and the Bushehr nuclear complex can be monitored by technical means, critical nuclear research and development can also be accomplished in nondescript buildings the size of a warehouse--with virtually no external indicators.

North Korea used a similar approach in the 1990s, supposedly suspending its nuclear program under the "Agreed To" framework with the U.S. and South Korea. While the "official" site at Yongbyon sat idle, under the gaze of IAEA inspectors and those cameras that John Kerry harped about in the 2004 campaign, North Korea's program simply moved underground, and weapons development continued apace. Tehran is certainly aware of North Korea's successful deception effort, and may be using the same tactic right now.

While it's difficult to judge the progress of a covert program, it's doubtful that even an advanced effort would produce a weapon over the short term, say, within the next year. An expanded centrifuge array--producing HEU at required purity levels--could generate enough material for a bomb in about 12 months, but Iran still has to produce a workable weapons design, test it, and make the bomb small enough to be dropped by an aircraft, or carried by a missile. Those goals are not insurmountable, and with technical assistance from North Korea or the remnants of Pakistan's A.Q. Kahn network, Iran could certainly produce its first nuclear device in 3-4 years (perhaps a bit sooner), but within the time frame outlined by the IAEA.

As we've noted before, building a nuclear capability requires more than just the weapon. You need a delivery system (or systems), and a targeting database to effectively aim the device. And, Iran has not ignored those elements of its nuclear program. Tehran already has medium-range missiles (Shahab-3 variants) capable of striking Israel, and more recently, they purchased the BM-25 intermediate range system from North Korea. The BM-25 acquisition is particularly significant, since the original Russian version was designed to carry a nuclear warhead.

Additionally, Iran has been purchasing commercial satellite imagery of "areas of interest" for at least a decade, and is expanding its access to space-based intelligence systems. Those latter upgrades will improve Iran's ability to target its nuclear weapons, once they become available. More importantly, both the BM-25 and the upgraded imagery capability will be in place before the weapon is built, making it (literally) the final piece of the puzzle.

As for averting this conflagration-in-the-making, ElBaradei's solution is hardly new (or useful, for that matter). Iran's nuclear program has steadily progressed, despite three years of on-again/off-again talks with the EU-3. And, it doesn't take a diplomat to understand that Iran would welcome the chance to keep the talks going. Borrowing another page from Kim Jong-il's playbook, Tehran understands that the west now equates pointless negotiations with "decisive action." So there's no penalty for stringing along the world community for a few more years, while continuing with the nuclear work at hand.

In a recent WSJ column, former U.N ambassador John Bolton recently noted the folly of protracted nuclear negotiations with North Korea. Over the past 15 years, those efforts have produced two major agreements and we're still waiting for Pyongyang to live up to its end of those bargains. By continuing negotiations with Tehran--without tough sanctions or the threat of military action to back them up--we're headed down the same futile (and dangerous) path.

Today's Reading Assignment

Victor Davis Hanson on America's purported decline, reprinted at RealClearPolitics.

The Same Old Danger Pay Scam

Hawaii Congressman Neil Neil Abercrombie wants to hold hearings one of the oldest scams in the military: the well-timed trip into a combat zone that entitles the service member to two months' of danger pay and tax exclusions. Abercrombie, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee air and land forces subcommittee, accuses mid-level and senior personnel of planning trips into Iraq and Afghanistan that have little purpose--other than qualifying those service members for danger pay and tax benefits.

“I am outraged,” he said in a Tuesday interview with the Military Times. “This has got to stop. There are people out there being shot at every day for real, not for some made-up reason. There are people cheating, and they know who they are if they are making up reasons to visit the war zone just for the benefits.

“I am talking here about honor. How much is your honor worth?” he said. “If you went in a combat zone just for the pay on a made-up mission, it is not the same thing as being in a combat zone.”

To prevent abuses of the danger pay benefit, Mr. Abercrombie wants to restructure the current system, switching to a daily rate or establishing a minimum number of days before personnel become eligible. Currently, military personnel can receive the full danger pay allowance ($225 a month) for any amount of time spent in a combat zone,-or (in some cases) by simply flying over the same territory, even if ground fire can't reach your aircraft. The trip also exempts military pay from federal income taxes for the same period.

Mr. Abercrombie deserves credit for calling attention to a little scam that's been going on since the danger pay benefit (and its qualification criteria) were created. Go to any war zone, and you'll find an influx of mid-level and senior personnel toward the end of the month, with the same folks usually departing after the first day of the next month. Under the present system, that gives them credit for two months of danger pay and tax exclusions. Officially, the visitors are "there" for legitimate purposes--usually some sort of meeting or inspection--but the timing of their trips is suspect, to say the least.

My only problem with Congressman Abercrombie is the (apparent) selective nature of his outrage. He's been a member of the House since 1991, a period which includes the Clinton Foreign Policy Roadshow of the 1990s, as well as the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same type of abuses were also present during our military presence in the Balkans.

As an aircrew member during Operation Deny Flight, I spent a couple of tours as an operations advisor at NATO's Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy. As part of my CAOC duties, I routinely reviewed passenger manifests for military flights into Italy, Bosnia and Croatia, looking for anyone who might be planning a visit to my unit. The number of flights--and passengers--always increased at the end of each month. The travelers and their itinerary were completely predictable; mid-level and senior officers and senior NCOs, flying into Italy for a day of shopping (ahem) meetings, then flying on to Zagreb or Sarajevo before returning to EUCOM or NATO headquarters. And, the same personnel would show up again in 30 or 60 days, just in time to qualify for more danger pay, and extend their tax exemptions.

From what I can gather, Mr. Abercrombie (who entered the House in 1991) voiced no objections to the abuses of danger pay and combat zone tax exclusions that existed during that era. But then again, that was a period when his party occupied the White House and ran the Defense Department. If the Congressman from Hawaii is genuinely interested in "honesty," and "honor," he should examine payments (and pay records) for the past 15 years, and not merely limit his probe to current conflicts. By hook or crook, Abercrombie has stumbled into one of the longest-running military scams, a practice that began well before those recent, end-of-the-month trips into Baghdad and Kabul.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Did the Governor Suffer a Lingering Head Injury?

As you know, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine is still recovering from a near-fatal automobile accident last month. En route to Don Imus' apology meeting with the Rutgers University women's basketball team, the governor's SUV (driven by a New Jersey state trooper) went out of control and crashed, leaving Corzine with serious injuries. The investigation revealed that the governor's vehicle was traveling 91 mph at the time of the accident, and Corzine wasn't wearing his seat belt.

Based on his latest pronouncement, we're also wondering of the governor didn't hit his head on the dashboard or windshield during the accident. At a news conference on Tuesday, Corzine called for the closure of the Warren Grove Bombing Range in southern New Jersey, scene of a recent fire that burned over 11,000 acres. The blaze was caused by a flare dropped by a New Jersey Air National Guard F-16, which was conducting a training mission on the range..

“I would like to hear the pros and cons in a rational presentation of the facts, but it’s going to be a hard sell to convince me Warren Grove should remain open,” Corzine said.

The governor noted a history of mishaps at the range, including inadvertently causing wild fires, three plane crashes and the accidental strafing of an empty elementary school.

“We’re kind of in the three-strikes-and-you’re-out zone as far as I’m concerned,” Corzine said.

As we noted last week, there are some very compelling reasons to keep Warren Grove open, namely to save jet fuel in an era of skyrocketing energy costs, and more importantly, to maintain the tactical proficiency of Jersey and Pennsylvania Air Guard pilots. Without the Warren Grove facility, New Jersey F-16 pilots and A-10 drivers from Pennsylvania would have to use more distant ranges like the Dare County complex in North Carolina. Factor in additional costs for fuel, flight time and maintenance, and you'll see that closing Warren Grove would be a very expensive proposition.

Regrettably, brush fires--including large ones--are an occasional result of having a military training range in your area. The Pentagon has already promised to pay for damages (as it has after past incidents at Warren Grove), and redouble its efforts to improve range safety. But that isn't enough for Jon Corzine. Trying to cash in on anti-military sentiment in the wake of the fire, Govenor Corzine figures he can secure a few more votes by running the Air Force out of southern New Jersey.

Of course, Corzine doesn't seem to understand that his own troops--the New Jersey Air National Guard--will be among those most affected by the range closure. The beauty of having a training range close-by is just that: it maximizes the time pilots can spend honing combat skills, while minimizing transit time (and the fuel required to get there). New Jersey pilots can probably get required training at other ranges, but it won't be as convenient--or cheaper--than using Warren Grove. We're also wondering if Governor Corzine is prepared to compensate other states in the event that one of his jets crashes--or starts a fire--while using a range in another state. Why should DoD pay for future mishaps, put in motion by Jon Corzine's latest example of political petulance?

We wish Mr. Corzine well in his recovery, but his misguided position on Warren Grove suggests that he's still feeling the effects of that accident. Is there a neurologist on call for the governor's mansion?

Another Reason to Reject the Immigration Bill

As they debate the so-called immigration reform bill in Washington, members of Congress would be well-advised to read a timely--and illuminating--investigative series in the San Antonio Express-News.

The four-part report (which concludes today) traces the flow of illegal immigrants from high-risk countries and the potential security threat they pose. Express-News reporter Todd Bensman spent six months working on the series, traveling to Syria, Central America and the Mexican border, following the trail of "special interest aliens." That's the term used by federal officials to describe immigrants who come from 43 nations where terrorist groups operate. The fear, of course, is that these same organizations are sending operatives across our borders, to launch new attacks in the United States.

As Mr. Bensman notes, these "special interest aliens" constitute a relatively small percentage of the millions who flood across the border every year, but they are a cause for concern. In recent years, the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies have intercepted several illegals with apparent terrorist connections. They include:

Mahmoud Kourani, convicted in Detroit as a leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah. Using a visa obtained by bribing a Mexican official in Beirut, the Lebanese national sneaked over the Mexican border in 2001 in the trunk of a car.

Nabel Al-Marahb, a reputed al-Qaida operative who was No. 27 on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list in the months after 9-11, crossed the Canadian border in the sleeper cab of a long-haul truck.

Farida Goolam Mahammed, a South African woman captured in 2004 as she carried into the McAllen airport cash and clothes still wet from the Rio Grande. Though the government characterized her merely as a border jumper, U.S. sources now say she was a smuggler who ferried people with terrorist connections. One report credits her arrest with spurring a major international terror investigation that stopped an al-Qaida attack on New York.

One U.S.-bound Pakistani apparently captured in Mexico drew such suspicion that he ended up in front of a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay.

"They are not all economic migrants," said attorney Janice Kephart, who served as legal counsel for the 9-11 Commission and co-wrote its final staff report. "I do get frustrated when people who live in Washington or Illinois say we don't have any evidence that terrorists are coming across. But there is evidence."

How many special interest aliens are in the U.S.? Citing government statistics, Mr. Bensman reports that the Border Patrol and Customs Service have apprehended more than 5,700 immigrants in that category since 2001. But that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Over a four-year period (2001-2005), other law enforcement agencies arrested more than 34,000 emigres from Syria, Iran, Sudan and Libya, after it was determined they were in the country illegally.

More disturbing is the fact that many are never caught. Based on rule-of-thumb estimates used by homeland security agencies, somewhere between 20-60,000 special interest aliens have slipped across our borders since 2001, and the government (of course) has no real idea where they are, or what their plans might be. And our enemies are well aware of our lax border security; Bensman cites a recently-declassified intelligence report which says Al Qaida views crossing the border illegally as a "secondary" alternative for smuggling operatives into the United States.

While some officials downplay the threat--a Hispanic state representative in Texas says he isn't worried because the Middle Easterners arrive in "onesies and twosies"--Mr. Bensman's series raises troubling questions. He follows the efforts of a single Iraqi Christian to enter the U.S., noting that if he could do it (at a cost of roughly $4,000), then why couldn't an equally-determined, and presumably, better-financed terrorist?

Why indeed? The infrastructure is already in place; smugglers and middlemen in places like Damascus can provide legal or forged travel documents to get the aliens to countries like Guatemala, which has become a way station on the path to our southern border. In some cases, the documents are approved by "honorary consular" officers that represent Latin American nations in Middle East capitals. And while those officials claim that they interview all applicants for travel visas and other documents, the Express-News investigation suggests otherwise.

The series also highlights some successes in keeping terrorists from crossing the border illegally. The government of Mexico is providing (surprisingly) strong support, realizing that any major terrorist attack on U.S. soil with a "Mexican connection" would mean the end current "relationship" between the two countries. Mexican authorities have arrested scores of Middle Easterners passing through their country, and they allow U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials to question the detainees. Anecdotal evidence suggests the recent crack-down has reduced the flow of Middle Eastern aliens into the United States.

But the system is far from perfect. Readers are left with the realization that for every terrorist (or would-be terrorist) who is intercepted in Mexico or along our southern border, others are getting through. And we can only imagine what their intentions might be.

Mr. Bensman's reporting is not unsympathetic to the Middle Easterners who try to enter the U.S. The immigrant profiled in his series--a young man names Boles--seems to be the prototypical Iraqi refugee that would receive sanctuary under a recent White House proposal. But the Express-News series also provides more evidence that the administration-backed reform plan is fatally flawed. Any notion of "fixing" the current system should come after our borders are secure, and we have a better handle on the "special interest aliens" already living in this country.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Closing Down the Parts Store

A hat tip to Sharon Weinberger at the Danger Room, for this item on Congressional efforts to prevent the possible sale of F-14 parts to Iran. As reported yesterday, the House of Representatives has voted to ban the Pentagon from selling Tomcat spares to anyone but museums. The legislation is aimed at making it harder for Iran--the only other nation with the F-14s--to buy parts and keep its Tomcats in the air.

With the U.S. Navy's recent retirement of its last F-14s, there are (presumably) more spare parts available, and Iran would certainly like to buy them. According to recent intelligence reports, fewer than 10 of Tehran's Tomcats are still flyable (out of 60 that were originally purchased in the 1970s, before the Islamic Revolution). Of the handful of F-14s that remain airworthy, many lack working radars and other key components, rendering them virtually useless in air combat.

Making matters worse, Iran's entire inventory of active-radar "Phoenix" missiles is also assessed as inoperable, leaving the Tomcats without their vaunted long-range weapon. The Iranian F-14s still carry older versions of the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow and the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder (which is IR-guided), but they're no match for the advanced missiles found on U.S. and Israeli jets. Still, the parts restriction is probably a good idea, since existing gaps in Pentagon sales policies allowed buyers for China, Iran and other countries to obtain sensitive equipment for the F-14, along with other aircraft and missile systems. Law enforcement sources tell the Associated Press that at least one batch of spare U.S. parts actually made its way to Iran.

On the other hand, you've got to wonder how much the Chinese (or the Iranians) could actually gain from F-14 technology. In terms of keeping jets in the air, a few parts here and there won't make much difference. The number of "flyable" Tomcats in Iran has declined steadily over the past decade, suggesting that whatever Iran was buying on the black/gray arms market, it wasn't enough to sustain--let alone improve--their mission-capability (MC) rates.

And from the technology-exploitation perspective, engineers at various R&D centers in China might welcome the chance to examine the Tomcat's AWG-9 radar, or put a Phoenix missile on a test bench. But there's actually a much easier way for the Chinese--or anyone else--to access that technology. Just pick up the phone and call the folks at Mikoyan, or what once was Russia's premier aircraft design bureau. In the late 1970s, Mikoyan introduced the MiG-31 Foxhound, with features/capabilities that were remarkably similar to the F-14. Like the Tomcat, the Foxhound had a long-range, electronically-scanned phase-array air intercept radar (nicknamed Flashdance), which supported a long-range missile, the AA-9/AMOS.

The Russians eventually built more than 150 Foxhounds, and there were unconfirmed reports that later MiG-31 upgrades were supported by a "captured" F-14, reportedly obtained from Iran after the 1979 revolution. Russia also tried to export the Foxhound (without success) and even offered the weapons system to the PRC in the early 1990s. Suffice it to say, there's a decent chance that Chinese scientists and technicians have already been exposed to F-14 technology, or at least Russia's version of it. Buying a few spare parts through arms brokers would be cheaper, but it's no substitute for buying an entire weapons system. And did we mention that F-14 technology is more than 30 years old?

We're also a bit puzzled about the scope of the House measure (which still requires Senate approval). From what we can tell, the bill is aimed almost exclusively at preventing the possible sale of F-14 parts. That's all well and good, but Iran also operates a number of other U.S.-made systems which pose a (potentially) greater threat to U.S. and allied military forces. But the legislation--from what I can tell--really doesn't address

For example, the aging F-4 Phantom II remains the front-line interceptor for the Iranian Air Force; there are probably 30-40 that are operational on a daily basis, roughly six times the number of flyable F-14s. Obviously, Phantom technology is even more dated than the Tomcat, but in terms of a numerical threat, we'd be advised to put the squeeze on Iran's efforts to buy F-4 parts. Ditto for spare missiles, launchers and components for the I-HAWK surface-to-air missile system, also purchased from the U.S. in the 1970s. More than a dozen I-HAWK batteries are still operational in Iran, and the system remains the backbone of Tehran's air defense system.

Of course, we sold the F-4 and the I-HAWK to practically everyone, so stemming sales of those spares would be much more difficult. As we learned during the Iran-Contra scandal, Tehran could rely on a number of sources for parts for U.S. made equipment, with (and without) our approval. To some degree, many of those pipelines are open to this day, so it would take some heavy lifting from legislators, diplomats and law enforcement to preventing Iran from buying rebuilt F-4 engines, or refurbished seekers for its I-HAWKS.

The difficulty of that proposition is one of the main reasons that the House bill is focusing on F-14 parts. The idea looks good on paper (and makes for a good sound-bite), but it also ignores the larger problem, associated with older--but lethal--military technology that still makes its way to Iran.


ADDENDUM: The Iran technology measure is being co-sponsored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, whose new-found concern for security is a bit ironic. Two years ago, Mr. Wyden exposed a highly classified U.S. satellite intelligence system in open Senate debate, in an effort to kill the program. Saying that Senator Wyden's security concerns are misplaced might be an understatement.

Today's Reading Assignment

Another Ralph Peters gem, in the pages of today's New York Post:

A Taste for Terror: The Long Palestinian Suicide.

In his column, Colonel Peters clearly identifies the real victims of the latest violence in Lebanon and Gaza--and those who encourage it:

Obviously, Israelis continue to suffer from Arab terror-as-self-actualization. But the global media hates Israel. So don't expect to hear much about the rockets raining on Sderot, beyond a perfunctory aside from a dismissive anchor-babe.

Of course, the Lebanese have been the long-standing victims of meddling Arab powers and the refusal of larger and far richer Arab states to give Palestinians hope for better lives. If the Saudis love the Palestinians so much, why not build a model city in the Kingdom for the 400,000 or so stranded in Lebanon? (Actually, few Palestinians would choose to live in such an oppressive place.)

And couldn't the tasteless Donald Trumps of Dubai spare at least one of those gold-plated, gated condo developments for deserving Palestinians?

The truth is that other Arabs want the Palestinians to continue to suffer. It's useful as an excuse for all their failings. They have about as much sympathy for the refugees as all those good Germans had for the Jews whose real estate was suddenly available.

But the ultimate victims of this round of Palestinian violence are the Palestinians themselves.

After passing up so many chances for peace and statehood, they can no longer be classed as victims of Zionism. Yet the Palestinians are victims - of the other Arabs who exploit them and neglect them. And of the madmen spawned from their own kind.

The Murder Case You've Never Heard Of

Despite the advent of the new media and the information age, some things haven't when it comes to stories that attract--and hold--the attention of reporters. Sex scandals, missing person cases and murders still sell, and the press (typically) spares no effort to give us the latest, sordid details. Remember the Duke lacrosse case? Three young men were practically tried and convicted by a calculating prosecutor, race-baiting "activists" and a truth-challenged victim until public outrage prompted an independent investigation that cleared the players.

Before the Duke case, there was the sensational tale of Natalie Holloway, the Alabama teen who disappeared during a senior class trip to Aruba. Fox News' Greta van Susteren practically took up residence on the island, offering non-stop coverage of the search for Ms. Holloway, who--presumably--was the victim of foul play. Ms. Holloway's body has never been found, but the case (and its breathless coverage) has been forever ingrained into our public consciousness. Ask anyone who watched cable news that summer and they can probably name at least one of the suspects implicated in Holloway's disappearance. By comparison, 21% of the nation's college students recently indicated that the First Amendment guarantees our right to drive a car.

We can argue all day about misplaced priorities in media coverage, the education system and our popular culture, but the inescapable fact remains: we are fascinated by stories about death, disappearance and mayhem, while more important matters are relegated to the back of the bus. In fact, it's sometimes noteworthy when a particularly violent or lurid case doesn't attract national attention, because that speaks volumes about our society as well.

Such a case is currently playing out in the justice system of Knoxville, Tennessee. In January of this year, a 21-year-old University of Tennessee student, Channon Christian, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Christopher Newsom, were raped, tortured and killed. It was, by all accounts, a brutal and horrific crime. A recent AP report--which focuses primarily on the lack of media attention from national outlets--provides an outline of what happened to the couple:

Christian and Newsom were last seen Jan. 6. Authorities have refused to say where they were carjacked and have suggested the attack was random.

Newsom's burned body was found the next day along some railroad tracks, and Christian's body was found two days later a short distance away in a trash can. Both had been sexually assaulted.

Web sites describe gruesome details that are not in the public record.

Four defendants have been arrested and face numerous charges in connection with the slaying. A fifth defendant is being held on federal charges related to the crime:

Lemaricus Davidson, 25; his brother, Letalvis Cobbins, 24; and George Thomas, 24, were indicted on 46 counts, including first-degree murder. Cobbins' former girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 18, was indicted on 40 counts, also including murder. Some have implicated others in statements to police, but it remains unclear what prompted the crimes...A fifth defendant, Eric Boyd, 34, is being held on a federal charge of being an accessory after the fact for allegedly helping Davidson. No state charges have been filed against him.

The AP and Knoxville news outlets have covered the Christian-Newsom murders at length since they occurred, but the case has attracted virtually no attention outside east Tennessee. Certainly, Ms. van Susteren hasn't set up shop outside the local courthouse, or assembled her panel to discuss the legal aspects of the case, which will go to trial next year.

And that lack of coverage begs an obvious question, particularly in a society that can't seem to get its fill of sensational murder cases. Why is the national media taking a pass on the savage murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom?

Could it be the fact that the victims were white, and the accused killers are black?

That's the allegation making the rounds in the blogosphere. Actually, I think there's a slightly different (but related) explanation for the lack of media interest, as suggested by Ted Gest. He's the president of a group of journalists who cover crime, court and prison beats. According to Mr. Gest:

"As bad as this crime is, the apparent absence of any interest group involvement or any other 'angle' might also explain the lack of coverage."

And there you have it. To my knowledge, neither Al Sharpton nor Jesse Jackson has made a trip to Knoxville, to demand justice for Channon Christian and Chris Newsom. Nor, have the same activists convicted these defendants in the court of public opinion, as they did with the Duke lacrosse players. At the local level, a spokesman for the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP said his group has been meeting with city and police officials, taking a low-key approach. "We don't want to add fuel to the fire. Our goal is simply to keep the peace," he said. Would the group adopt a similar stance if the races of the victims and the suspects had been reversed? So far, no one has apparently bothered to ask that question.

Regrettably, the lack of national media interest in the Christian-Newsom murders tells us a great deal about the current state of American journalism. Some issues--including black-on-white crime--are seemingly too hot to handle. And for cases that cross the racial divide, national news outlets are often content to follow the "activists," and let them establish the coverage template. You may remember that early reporting out of Durham suggested that three young white men had brutally raped a black woman, a charge endorsed by Revs. Jackson and Sharpton. Only later did we learn that the truth was very different from the activists' accusations, and the carefully-timed media leaks from Mike Nifong's office. When the Duke players were finally cleared, Jesse and Al were nowhere to be found (surprise, surprise).

As for what happened in Knoxville, the evidence offered so far seems both convincing and clear. Based on what we've been told, it seems doubtful that the Knoxville case will result in the stunning reversal we saw in Durham. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and predict that all of the defendants will be found guilty, with some copping a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. That's the way our justice system works, for better or worse.

It's also clear that the Knoxville murders will never receive the attention devoted to the Duke case. And that's a damning indictment of our national media, which finds some story angles a tad inconvenient, particularly when their favorite spokesmen aren't around to help frame the coverage.


Glenn Reynolds, who lives and works in Knoxville, says he has seen no evidence to suggest that the killings were a hate crime. While I will defer to his judgment in that area, it doesn't diminish the gravity of the murders. Certainly the brutal slaying of two young people in Knoxville deserves the same attention as the search for missing women in Georgia and Illinois, and the hunt for a young British girl, apparently abducted during a vacation trip to Portugal. These stories have dominated certain cable news shows in recent weeks--the same programs that have ignored Channon Christian and Chris Newsom.

ADDENDUM: John Leo, Michelle Malkin, LaShawn Barber and Flopping Aces (among others) are also on the case. Ms. Malkin already sees parallels between the Knoxville murders and two other cases, the almost-forgotten Wichita Massacre (another black-on-white rampage that left four dead in 2000), and the tragic murder of Jesse Dirkhising in 1999. Dirkhising, a 13-year-old Arkansas boy, was raped and murdered by two homosexual men during a marathon torture session.

In his New York Sun column, John Leo notes the obvious contradiction between coverage of the Dirkhising case--which received virtually no attention outside Arkansas--and the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was murdered in Wyoming. Shepard's death attracted national attention, and prompted passage of hate crimes legislation. But then again, Shepard's murder fit the MSM template of widespread bigotry and hatred toward gays; the case of two pedophiles sodomizing and murdering an innocent boy represented--in the words of a Time commentary--"nothing but the depravity of two sick men." John Leo captures the hypocrisy of that argument well: "Shepard's death advanced a cause we [the MSM] care about, and the Dirkhising death didn't.

Sadly, the same rule seems to apply (at least so far) to the coverage of the Christian-Newsom murder case.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Back to the Air Defense Drawing Board

USA Today is reporting something we noted last week; the terrorist "air defense network," believed responsible for that rash of helicopter losses earlier this year, is now apparently on the ropes.

A senior U.S. commander in Iraq tells the paper that recent raids have broken up the terrorist network responsible for the attacks, which resulted in the downing of eight helicopters in January and February. Major General James Simmons described the effort as both an "operational and intelligence success." He declined to specify the number of terrorists detained in the recent raids, saying only that it was "less than 100."

Still, USA Today reporter Jim Michaels couldn't resist taking a few digs around the way. He strays from the topic of helicopter losses to those familiar stand-bys of Iraq coverage, troop casualties and violence levels. Mr. Michaels claims that violence hasn't decreased, based on the number of troops killed since late March. Apparently, Michaels isn't aware of the recent, dramatic decline in attacks in Al Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad. Additionally, he ignores recent analysis that suggests that troop casualties have declined over the past month, despite increases in the number of soldiers and Marines in the field, and the tempo of their operations. Clearly, the loss of even a single military member is too many, but there are signs that their efforts--and sacrifice--are making a difference. Sadly, that sort of information doesn't fit the media template.

Equally laughable is Michaels' observation that defeat of the terrorist air defense network "gave allied forces more control in the skies over Iraq." Excuse me, Mr. Reporter, but it's hard to improve on total air dominance, which coalition forces have enjoyed since the invasion of Iraq four years ago. True, the helicopter losses earlier this year were a cause for concern, but they never impacted our ability to fly where we wanted, whenever we wanted. Additionally (as we've noted in the past), stories about chopper shoot downs were placed in the proper context; the military assesses aircraft losses per 100,000 flying hours. Despite the shoot downs earlier this year, the number of helicopters downed by hostile fire in Iraq is less than 40. That's a cumulative loss rate of three choppers per 100,000 hours of flight time--a measure considered more than acceptable by combat standards.

Obviously, the eradication of the terrorist air defense network won't end the threat faced by our helicopters. The battle between insurgents and aviators is a tit-for-tat affair. They modified their tactics and we responded; the ball is now back in the bad guys' court. In the coming months, they will likely try new wrinkles to produce a few more shoot-downs, and predictable headlines in organs like USA Today. However, short of new weapons--like the SA-18 shoulder-fired SAM, it seems unlikely that modified tactics can substantially bring down more helicopters. The intelligence and operations system that broke the back of this terrorist network can be equally effective against future air defense cells. That assumes that we remain less predictable in flight activity and vigilant in our analysis of insurgent activity.