Friday, February 29, 2008

And the Winner Is....

The Northrop-Grumman/EADS has been selected as winner of the Air Force KC-X contract, supplying the next generation of refueling tankers for the service. Based on an Airbus jetliner, the KC-45 will be the first tanker built on a foreign design. The new aircraft will be assembled at a plant in Alabama.

Huge blow to Boeing, whose entry was based on its 767 airliner.

Protests over today's decision are almost inevitable.

One of Their Own

TV anchor/reporter Suzanne (Page) Wangler, in a promotional shot from her last station. (WLAJ-TV photo via the Detroit News).

Outside of Michigan’s lower peninsula, few people had ever heard of Suzanne Wangler. But in Detroit, Traverse City, Lansing, Cadillac and other cities around that region, Ms. Wangler was a well-known local TV news reporter and anchor for more than 20 years.

For a while, Ms. Wangler seemed to lead a storybook life. She married a former star quarterback for the University of Michigan, began a family, and bought a large house in the suburbs. Her television career was also moving along nicely. By the early 1990s, she was reporting for Channel 50 in Detroit, then a Fox affiliate.

A few years later, Wangler moved up to WDIV-TV, the local NBC outlet, where she worked primarily as the station’s helicopter reporter. Personally and professionally, her future looked bright.

But just as quickly, Ms. Wangler’s life began to spiral out of control. Her marriage faltered, amid allegations of domestic abuse and personal protection orders that were later dismissed. After her divorce, Wangler’s personal woes only multiplied; Mike Martindale of the Detroit News continues the sad narrative:

She quit her $73,000-a-year job at WDIV with 18 months still on her contract. Both Wanglers were ordered to undergo counseling. She was later ordered into psychiatric counseling but the findings of those sessions were kept confidential.

She had a series of career changes, including as a financial adviser to investors. In November 2002, she sold the Greenleaf house for $629,900, and was later sued for not paying the Realtor his contracted 6 percent commission. Along the way she was evicted from a Birmingham apartment for non-payment of rent, bounced checks and was subject of several lawsuits. She later moved into a $1 million home on Vinsetta Boulevard in Royal Oak, a few doors down from her ex-husband's home, but she quickly fell behind in payments and the house went into foreclosure.

In 2003 she worked part-time at WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) on a $200 a day contract, and also as a financial planner, but eventually filed for bankruptcy.

The reporter found herself the subject of a news story in 2005 after she was arrested, accused of stealing more than $600 in groceries from the Westborn Market in Berkley. Workers, who got the license plate number off her Lexus, told police it wasn't the first time she had walked out without paying for food.

In December 2005, Oakland Circuit Judge Cheryl Matthews ordered a forensic evaluation of Wangler's stability and ability to parent and a psychological evaluation for purposes of determining custody of her children.

Last summer Wangler was placed on probation after she was convicted of drunk driving and child endangerment involving an incident in Royal Oak, but in September landed a TV anchor job in Lansing as Suzanne Page and was putting her life back together.

Then, Wangler’s last station in Detroit, WXYZ, learned of a new scandal involving its former reporter. Investigative correspondent Heather Catallo discovered that Wangler had been accused of embezzling almost $150,000 from a man who hired her as a financial planner. Catallo’s heavily-promoted report on her one-time co-worker aired prominently last week, part of the February “sweeps” period, when TV audience ratings are closely watched.

Shortly after the segment aired on Channel 7, police arrested Wangler at her home. At the time of her arrest, the utilities at Ms. Wangler's home had been cut off and the temperature inside the dwelling (according to her attorney) was 32 degrees. Released on bond, she subsequently failed a sobriety test, one of the conditions for her probation on previous DUI and child endangerment charges. After flunking the court-ordered alcohol test, Wangler returned home and hanged herself.

She was 43 years old.

WXYZ’s report--and its aftermath--has ignited a minor firestorm in TV news circles, particularly among those who knew and worked with Suzanne Wangler. Defenders of the station note that Channel 7 has a well-deserved reputation for tough reporting. Steve Wilson, the station’s senior “investigator” has been at the forefront of exposing an on-going sex scandal and secret “whistle-blower” arrangement that may end the career of Detroit’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick.

As for the Wangler story, WXYZ clearly had its facts straight and gave her ample opportunity to respond. After declining to discuss the matter with Ms. Catallo outside her TV station in Lansing, Wangler subsequently called the reporter and claimed that the client had “given” her the money and was stalking her.

Shortly after that, Channel 7 aired its story, triggering the final sequence that culminated in Suzanne Wangler’s suicide.

Friends of the late TV anchor claim that WXYZ’s “investigation,” was overblown. Financial planners bilking clients is nothing new, they argue, and without Wangler’s status as a public figure, the story would not have aired.

Others accuse Channel 7 of hounding a clearly-troubled woman, with a heavily-hyped report. Someone posting under the moniker of “Zoomtoblack” offered these thoughts on TV Shoptalk, an on-line forum for broadcast journalists:

I question the accuracy of WXYZ's reporting. Did they mention Suzanne was their former employee?

Viewers also question the reports. Mostly they question whether WXYZ pushed Suzanne over the edge. They're viewers, not journalists. They see that one day Suzanne was the target of their highly promoted investigation. They see that within hours she was dead.

They wonder. As do all of us who look at the case without blinders. WXYZ was determined to spin the facts. If they were simply reporting facts they would have reported her earlier DUI, of which they had "exclusive video." They had an angle on her they wanted to support. They did. With gusto.

Ms. Wangler was buried earlier this week and debate over how her story was covered will gradually fade, even in the heated world of television news. But that won’t change the fact that four children are without their mother, and what’s left of Wangler's reputation is forever in tatters—largely because of the choices that she made.

But we’re also cognizant that Channel 7’s “expose” was a marginal story at best, the “news value” largely rooted in Wangler’s status as a local TV news star. Compared to the Kilpatrick controversy, the case of Suzanne Wangler was relatively small potatoes.

And, there are at least a couple of ironies in all of this. First, we’ve always found it a bit odd that (some) media types plead for privacy when one of their own is facing scandal, or is going through a rough patch in life. Are they more entitled to refuge in times of crisis than the other, unfortunate souls that find themselves in the media glare?

A few years ago, we watched a Memphis TV reporter ask relatives of a murdered teenager if they knew the young woman was dead. That particular “journalist” is still employed by the same station that sent him on that ghoulish assignment. Broadcast news types who believe Channel 7 was unfair to Suzanne Wangler might demand the same rights for the target of their next, exclusive “investigation” or ambush interview.

We also find it ironic that the task of reading Ms. Wangler’s obituary on WXYZ fell to none other than Heather Catallo, during her regular shift as an anchor. By all accounts, Catallo handled the assignment without any mawkish emotions, or displays of personal feelings—assuming she had any.

“She did her job,” said one poster on Shoptalk. “I’d hire her.”

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Renewed Focus

The Air Force has unveiled another measure aimed at preventing nuclear mishaps like the one at Minot AFB, North Dakota last year.

General Michael Moseley, the USAF Chief of Staff, announced today that B-52 bomber crews will concentrate exclusively on training for their nuclear mission for up to six months at a time. Currently, bomber crews--and fighter pilots assigned to nuclear strike units--train for nuclear and conventional missions at the same time.

According to the Associated Press, the nuclear-focused training could last for up to 12 months at a stretch, but that detail has not been decided. It was unclear if the new training program will include crews that fly the Air Force's other nuclear-capable, long-range bomber, the B-2 Spirit.

The planned change in bomber crew training was announced by Moseley at a Pentagon press conference on Thursday. He said renewed focus on nuclear training is designed to improve aircrew focus on on the "stringent safeguards built into the nuclear mission."

General Moseley said the change in B-52 training will "happen shortly," but did not provide a specific timetable for implementation. He also commented that the "nuclear only" training period could last for as long as 12 months, but that detail "has not been decided."

Fallout from the Minot incident made changes in crew training inevitable. Members of the B-52 crew were supposed to check the cruise missiles mounted on their aircraft before last summer's scheduled transfer mission between Minot and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Had the crew--specifically the radar navigator (bombardier) examined the weapons more thoroughly, he would have discovered that six of the missiles still had their nuclear warheads.

Instead, the nuclear-tipped missiles were mistakenly removed from a storage bunker and loaded onto the bomber. Not only did the weapons pass over seven states in their journey to Louisiana, they also sat on the ramp at Minot and Barksdale--with minimal security--before the flight. The nuclear warheads were eventually discovered by a maintenance crew at the Louisiana base, 30 hours after they were removed from their bunker in North Dakota.

The incident has been described as the nation's worst nuclear security breach in 20 years. Four senior Air Force officers were fired as a result of the mishap, and the Pentagon has conducted three separate probes to determine what went wrong. Changes in B-52 crew training are one result of those investigations.

Explaining the new training regimen at the Pentagon, Moseley told reporters "“We need to somehow allow the squadron commander to focus on that (nuclear mission) and that alone” instead of assuming these units can switch back and forth regularly without a loss of focus."

But the revised system will also create major challenges for unit commanders, aircrews and others involved in the training process. Historically, crew training has been based on six-month cycles, covering all aspects of a unit's mission. That allows pilots and other crew members to maintain currency in conventional and nuclear operations.

There's an old saying that you can "waiver anything" in terms of aircrew duties, but (without some changes in the rules) it's going to be tough for Buff crews to maintain their "conventional" currency while spending up to a year on the nuclear mission. We don't envy the squadron and group training managers, flight examiners and intel personnel who will spend the next few weeks scrambling to develop the revised training plan. The same holds true for the B-52 crews who will operate under the new system.

And that raises other, serious questions about the training initiative: what about fighter crews who serve in "dual-role" units? Various Air Force reports suggest that nuclear standards have slipped "across the board," so how will the service ensure that tactical nuclear units retain the same, required focus? And, with B-52s routinely deployed to Guam and the Middle East, how will the USAF balance operational commitments against the new training requirements.

Lots of folks at Minot, Barksdale, Air Combat Command and the Pentagon will be earning their paychecks in the coming weeks, trying to find practical answers for those questions.

England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty

Prince Harry in a photo taken during unit training in the U.K.

Britain’s Prince Harry—third in line for the throne—has been serving in Afghanistan since December, and has been involved in combat, according to Matt Drudge.
The prince, a junior officer in the Blues and Royals, and third in line to the throne, has been a "magnificent soldier" and an "inspiration to all of Briton."

Prince Harry is talking part in a new offensive against the Taliban.

Ministry of Defense and Clarence House refuse all comment. Army chiefs have managed to keep the prince away from media and have encourage fellow soldiers in his squadron to stay quiet.

More on Harry’s duties from the U.K. Times. Apparently, he’s serving as a Forward Air Controller (FAC), directing air support against the bad guys. As the job title implies, being a FAC is demanding work, with no margin for error. A few transposed coordinates or insufficient detail on ground locations, and the ordnance lands on you, not the enemy.

We wonder if U.S. and British pilots had any idea that they were receiving a “9-line” briefing from a member of the Royal family.

As Desperate as Hillary?

Last year, we mourned the passing of the Weekly World News, the late, great supermarket tabloid that amused readers with repeated “discoveries” of Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and space aliens masquerading as world leaders. As we observed at the time, the WWN could hold its head high as it faded into history; at least they were honest about their journalistic fraud.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of The New York Times. Last week, the Grey Lady published a story on GOP presidential candidate John McCain, suggesting that he had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist. The article was so inconclusive—and poorly sourced—that the Times would have better luck in claiming that McCain fathered an alien love child, cheekily citing the same “experts” and “leading scientists” that were stock-in-trade for exclusives in the Weekly World News.

Never mind that the Times was roundly criticized for the McCain/lobbyist “investigation.” Even the paper’s Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, admitted the article failed to substantiate its salacious claims. Reader reaction to the story was overwhelmingly negative, and the anti-Times backlash actually produced a spike in donations to the McCain campaign.

Undeterred by that little setback, the NYT is at it again, reviving the “musty” debate over Senator McCain’s eligibility for the presidency, based on his birth in the Panama Canal Zone 71 years ago. The Constitution, of course, states that only “natural-born” citizens can hold the nation’s highest office.

But, as Times reporter Carl Hulse suggests ominously, the meaning of the term “natural born” is subject to legal interpretation:

“There are powerful arguments that Senator McCain or anyone else in this position is constitutionally qualified, but there is certainly no precedent,” said Sarah H. Duggin, an associate professor of law at Catholic University who has studied the issue extensively. “It is not a slam-dunk situation.”

Mr. McCain was born on a military installation in the Canal Zone, where his mother and father, a Navy officer, were stationed. His campaign advisers say they are comfortable that Mr. McCain meets the requirement and note that the question was researched for his first presidential bid in 1999 and reviewed again this time around.

But given mounting interest, the campaign recently asked Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general now advising Mr. McCain, to prepare a detailed legal analysis. “I don’t have much doubt about it,” said Mr. Olson, who added, though, that he still needed to finish his research.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of Mr. McCain’s closest allies, said it would be incomprehensible to him if the son of a military member born in a military station could not run for president.

“He was posted there on orders from the United States government,” Mr. Graham said of Mr. McCain’s father. “If that becomes a problem, we need to tell every military family that your kid can’t be president if they take an overseas assignment.”

The “growing interest” in this matter appears limited to “internet buzz” and conjecture by immigration professors, attorneys and law students. At one point in his article, Mr. Hulse even acknowledges that Senator McCain’s citizenship “was established by statutes covering the offspring of Americans abroad and laws specific to the Canal Zone as Congress realized that Americans would be living and working in the area for extended periods.”

Case closed, right? Well, not according to the Times. One of McCain’s supporters, former Oklahoma Senator Don Nickles, says he “wouldn’t be surprised if someone tries to make an issue out of it. But Nickles quickly added: “If it goes to court, I think he will win.” We might also add that (so far) there’s no real suggestion that anyone plans to legally challenge Mr. McCain’s status as a natural-born citizen, given the rather inconvenient facts of the case. We rather doubt that Mr. Olson's research into the issue is one of his--or Senator McCain's--top priorities.

Let’s see. Both of his parents were natural-born; Mr. McCain’s father was a naval officer, stationed in the Canal Zone (then American territory) at the time of his son’s birth. His assignment there was based on official government orders, and he was born in a U.S. military hospital. And, according to at least one poster on another blog, children born to military parents in the Canal Zone--and other overseas locations--receive papers from the government, identifying them as “natural-born” U.S. citizens.” Contrary to the assertions of Professor Duggin, it sounds like a slam-dunk case to us.

But then again, we’re not lawyers—or reporters for The New York Times. Patterico
summed up the non-story rather well,
asking if the Times has become “as desperate as Hillary.” We’d say the answer to that one is as clear as John McCain’s status as a “natural-born” U.S. citizen.


ADDENDUM: Patterico also has a link to a detailed discussion of key laws and legal precedents on this issue, courtesy of Simon Dodd at Stubborn Facts.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back Under the Magnifying Glass

Air Force Times reports that the Air Combat Command (ACC) Inspector General Team will return to Minot on 25 March, for a repeat of the wing’s Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI). Inspectors will visit the unit a second time in mid-May, for a follow-on Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI).

Successful completion of both evaluations will allow the unit to resume its nuclear mission, suspended last September after six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were accidentally shipped to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on a B-52 bomber. The incident was described as the nation’s worst nuclear weapons incident in almost 30 years, and resulted in the firing of four senior officers and multiple investigations of the Air Force’s nuclear safety program.

The March INSI represents a repeat evaluation for members of the 5th BW. Members of the ACC IG team conducted the preliminary inspection at Minot in December, but discovered continuing problems with training records and the certification of nuclear weapons technicians. In From the Cold was the first media outlet to report that the 5th BW received a “not ready” rating during that inspection.

While not considered a failing grade, the “not ready” mark indicated that the bomb wing needed more time to prepare for its recertification. Originally, unit leaders—and senior Air Force officials—hoped that the 5th BW could complete required inspections as early as January.

At one point, inspectors planned to conduct the bomb wing’s NSI at the same time as Minot’s 91st Space Wing. The ICBM unit completed (and passed) its unit compliance inspection in mid-January. Results of its concurrent nuclear surety inspection have not been revealed. As recently as last November, the new commander of the bomb wing, Colonel Joel Westa, predicted that the wing might recertified by February, and there were some suggestions that the two wings might have their NSIs at the same time. The 5th BW last successful NSI was in 2006, when it earned high ratings.

The bomb unit’s “remake” of the INSI in late March is consistent with Air Force inspection policy, according to a retired senior non-commissioned officer with more than two decades of experience in the nuclear weapons career field.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the former weapons expert noted that the same procedures allow an on-the-spot re-inspection. But, given the problems discovered during the December INSI—and publicity surrounding the original mishap—he said it’s no surprise that the repeat inspection was pushed back to late March.

Officially, the Air Force has not disclosed the results of the 5th BW’s INSI. But sources familiar with the situation at Minot told In From the Cold that many of the problems stemmed from poor leadership by senior NCOs in the bomb unit’s munitions maintenance squadron. At least five were fired in the wake of the transfer incident, resulting in the transfer of other NCOs to take their place.

According to the 5th BW’s Chief of Public Affairs, Major Laurie Arellano, those positions have now been filled, and the new NCOs are “having a positive impact” on maintenance quality assurance and training programs. Major Arellano said the wing was “not at all disappointed” with the pace of filling those key positions.

She also emphasized that there “was no set schedule” for re-certifying the wing, despite initial plans for inspections in early 2008. “The process for recertification isn’t set on a date,” she observed, “it’s based on the determination that we are ready and capable to successfully conduct the mission.

Major Arellano indicated that the unit has made substantial progress in recertifying individual airmen for the nuclear mission. She said that “most” of the technicians who can be recertified have regained the necessary qualifications. Airmen who can’t regain their certification are being reassigned, she reported. As many as 60 technicians lost their nuclear certification in the wake of the accidental transfer. Most were assigned to the 5th BW.

As the B-52 unit prepares for upcoming inspections, the Air Force has concluded three major assessments of its nuclear safety program. Results of those inquiries—two internal reviews and a DoD investigation--were briefed to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

Four Air Force generals testified before the panel and all agreed that the service had lost focus on its nuclear mission. To remedy that problem—and prevent future mishaps like the one at Minot—the service has unveiled 132 recommendations, aimed at improving the security and accountability of nuclear weapons.

A retired Air Force nuclear weapons inspector (a veteran of past evaluations at Minot and other bomber bases) praised the candor of the reports provided to Congress and the Pentagon. “I’m actually surprised that the assessment is as honest as it is. They do seem to level the blame squarely at leadership for allowing nuclear expertise and focus to lapse throughout the Air Force." The former inspector also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

During their Congressional testimony in mid-February, senior Air Force leaders suggested that the nuclear inspection process needs modification. Retired General Larry Welch, who headed a review by a Defense Science Board task force, believes the current evaluation process is too narrow. As Air Force Times reports:

“Our report found that the problem with the inspections is the scope is just too limited,” Welch told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12. “Over time, the scope has been more and more limited, to the point where they really don’t demonstrate operational readiness.”

The Air Force also is taking its most comprehensive look yet at the breadth and depth of the nuclear surety inspection process, said Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, who directed the Air Force’s blue ribbon review into the incident, which produced an internal report Feb. 12.

Lt. Gen. Daniel Darnell, deputy chief of staff for air, space and information operations, told senators that now nuclear units might receive less warning before an NSI takes place.

“We think that there may be some value to a limited-notice inspection for units,” he said.
An executive summary of the blue ribbon review report, obtained by Air Force Times, said Peyer’s team of 30 airmen visited 29 locations and interviewed 822 people. The report criticized the inspection process, the waning focus on the nuclear mission, the lack of experience in the ranks and the aging equipment used to maintain the nuclear stockpile.

“We did see a diminished focus on the nuclear mission,” Peyer said in an interview. “You can kind of trace it back to 1991 and the end of the Cold War.”

The Air Force referenced the blue ribbon review’s 36 recommendations as justification for adding 11 items, totaling $99.5 million, to the unfunded requirements list it sent to Congress.

These requests, designed to shore up nuclear security, include nuclear test equipment, intercontinental ballistic missile transporters, UH-1N helicopters to monitor missile fields and nuclear munitions storage trailers.

But funding for those requirements may be delayed. Air Force officials said the requests can’t be included in the 2009 budget, which has already been submitted.

During the public portion of the Senate testimony, several lawmakers expressed concern over the erosion of nuclear safety. Documents cited by Air Force Times indicate that problems with nuclear weapons expertise, safety and accountability began in the early 1990s, when Strategic Air Command was dissolved, and the service’s long-range nuclear forces were split between ACC and Air Force Space Command.

Since then, the number of units failing nuclear inspections has increased. According to AFT, only half of the units receiving NSIs in 2003 passed their evaluation—an “all-time low,” according to the Air Force Inspector General. A decade earlier, USAF nuclear units in Europe faced similar problems, with only seven of twelve passing their NSIs in 1993.

While various investigations and reviews have focused on “institutional” issues, including declining experience among weapons technicians and decreased focus on the nuclear mission, unit commanders are also emphasizing individual responsibility. Earlier this month, Colonel Henry Andrews, Commander of the 498th Armament Systems Wing Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, sent the following e-mail to his troops:

“From a root cause perspective, the precipitating events for the [Blue Ribbon Review] were not about leadership, unit-to-unit relationships, mission focus, culture, history, safety, surety, training, force development, transportation, accountability, tracking, scheduling, security, organization, or resources. In point of fact, the events happened due to the lack of personal discipline exhibited by the ‘Individual Airmen’ involved.”

The 498th is charged with the sustainment of nuclear munitions and cruise missiles in the Air Force inventory.

The Man Who Shot Down the Satellite...

..or more correctly, the commander of the U.S. Navy vessel that downed that defunct spy satellite last week. His name is Captain R.M. Hendrickson, and he's skipper of the USS Lake Erie, the Aegis cruiser that destroyed the satellite with a modified SM-3 missile.

U.S. News has posted an interview with Captain Hendrickson. A very interesting read.

H/T: Noah Shachtman at the Danger Room.

McCain’s Political "Courage"

John McCain’s physical courage is indisputable. The abuse that he (and other POWs) suffered in North Vietnam is the stuff of legend. Resisting the enemy under such brutal conditions—and keeping faith with his fellow prisoners—left no doubt about Mr. McCain’s ability to endure and triumph against long odds.

Unfortunately, Senator McCain’s political courage remains in doubt. Over the past two decades, he’s demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to cross the aisle, supporting or sponsoring Democratic legislation that runs counter to the interests of his country, and his own party. McCain-Feingold, anyone? McCain-Kennedy? McCain-Lieberman? Opposition to the Bush tax cuts and judicial nominees. And this man is supposed to “unite” the conservative base?

Mr. McCain also has a nasty habit of throwing people under the bus to suit his various whims. A couple of years ago, he torpedoed the career of an exceptionally able military leader, General Gregory “Speedy” Martin. Selected as the first Air Force officer to lead
U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Martin’s nomination was scuttled by McCain, who cited the general’s “involvement” in a Boeing proposal to lease refueling planes to the Air Force.

General Martin was never sanctioned or disciplined in the matter, although a civilian Air Force contracting official was sentenced to jail, for accepting a job offer from Boeing. But, because Martin’s name appeared in a few e-mails (out of thousands collected by McCain’s staff), that was enough to destroy his nomination, and elevate another Navy Admiral to the PACOM post. The withdrawal of Martin's name for the position was enthusiastically supported from McCain, the retired-Navy-Captain-turned-U.S. Senator, and the son of a former CINCPAC.

McCain’s fecklessness was also evident in Cincinnati, where he rushed to “repudiate” remarks by Bill Cunningham, a local talk show host who is also syndicated nationally. Warming up the audience before McCain appeared, Cunningham used Obama’s middle name (Hussein) in three references to the Illinois Senator. Cunningham also described the Senator as “the product of Chicago-Daley” mob.

Wow. Really slanderous stuff there. Never mind that a Democratic politician—former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry—was the first to make hay of Obama’s Muslim roots and middle name. Or that any Democratic candidate from Illinois needs the support of the Chicago-Daley machine (or what’s left of it) to get ahead.

For good measure, Mr. Cunningham also made reference to Obama’s ties to Tony Rezko, a Chicago land developer facing trial on extortion and public corruption charges. Mr. Rezko, a prominent Obama supporter, participated in a controversial real estate deal with the Senator, buying a lot adjacent to Obama's South Side mansion on the same day that the Senator and his wife purchased their home.

Obama has not been accused of wrong-doing in his ties to Rezko. But the Chicago developer also has ties to other shady characters, including a British-Iraqi billionaire who loaned Rezko millions in the weeks before the land deal—money that (apparently) allowed Rezko’s wife to buy the lot next to Obama’s home. Portions of the lot were later sold to the Obamas, increasing the value of their property. Did we mention that the Senator and his wife acquired their property at $300,000 below the asking price?

Ties between Rezko and the British financier, Nadhmi Auchi, were exposed earlier this week by the U.K. Times. The London paper notes that Rezko was practically insolvent at the time of the loan; why was Auchi (a former associate of Saddam Hussein), so anxious to lend Rezko money, when the Chicago developer already owed him $27 million? Was Auchi—who has a history of corruption and influence-peddling in Europe—looking to exploit Rezko’s ties to Obama, already a rising star in Democratic politics?

Those are legitimate questions in a presidential campaign. And Mr. Cunningham had every right to ask about the connection between Barack Obama and Tony Rezko—God knows the U.S. national media has no interest in such matters. In fact, Bill Cunningham’s remarks one of the few times that the Rezko matter has surfaced on the campaign trail.

But, Senator McCain would have none of that. After his little stump speech, McCain made a beeline to the assembled press corps, and quickly disavowed Bill Cunningham’s remarks. As reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

After his campaign rally in Cincinnati today, Republican presidential candidate John McCain apologized for remarks by conservative WLW talk show host Bill Cunningham that McCain said he thought were offensive to Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

"I take responsibility and I repudiate what he said," McCain told reporters after the rally.

Cunningham came out on stage to whip up the crowd as he often does at Republican campaign events in Cincinnati.He repeatedly referred to Obama using his middle name -- Hussein -- and said that Obama was a product of the "Chicago-Daley mob.'' McCain was not on stage when these remarks were made but was told of them later.

"I will not tolerate anything in this campaign that denigrates either Sen. Obama or Sen. (Hillary) Clinton,'' McCain said.

Cunningham said later that he stood by his comments at the rally. He told his listeners: ‘”I’ve had it with McCain. I’m going to throw my support to Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

Cunningham, a conservative Republican who also hosts a Sunday night syndicated radio show, said he was asked Monday “by a McCain operative” to introduce the Republican front-runner at Memorial Hall.

He spoke to the crowd and left, without meeting or speaking to the candidate, because he had to do his WLW-AM talk show at 12:30 p.m.

Here’s a little newsflash for Mr. McCain: what Bill Cunningham said about Barack Obama is positively tame, compared to what and other Democratic attack dogs will say about the Arizona Senator. Last week’s New York Times article about McCain’s “inappropriate” relationship with a female lobbyist was merely the opening salvo. George Soros and his minions will spend whatever it takes to sully McCain and his reputation.

The Senator's desire for a “clean” campaign is laudable, but it’s also hopelessly naïve. Political contests devoid of mud-slinging and personal attacks disappeared with the Edsel and 10-cent hamburgers. While the Senator has promised not to denigrate his Democratic opponents, we don’t recall a similar pledge from Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama or the Democratic attack machine.

As for Mr. Cunningham, he’s merely the latest, convenient “scalp” in John McCain’s political career. He now joins General Martin (and countless others) who were willingly sacrificed for the cause. It’s getting a bit crowded under the bus.

William F. Buckley, Jr., RIP

Bill Buckley has died. Written expressions of eloquence--of which Buckley was a grand master--cannot describe the loss.

I never had the honor of meeting Mr. Buckley. But his books, newspaper columns, innumerable television appearances and of course, National Review, had a profound influence on my life, and millions of others who found a home in the conservative cause.

Before Rush Limbaugh; before conservative talk radio; before Fox News Channel; before the Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, the Heritage Foundation and even Ronald Reagan, there was Buckley and his magazine. He burst upon the scene in the early 1950s, articulating concepts and ideas that were largely dismissed in that era--and even more out of favor in the 1960s. Still, Mr. Buckley never wavered, and his brand of conservatism became part and parcel of the Reagan Revolution that followed.

Fifty years after the founding of National Review, we can only hope that such ideas once again resonate within the GOP. There could be no more fitting tribute for Bill Buckley. He created a movement that, in the words of his AP obituary, led conservatives from the political fringe back to the White House. Now, it's up to all of us--who subscribed to his magazine, watched Firing Line, read his columns and marvelled at his erudition and wit--to carry on.

Rest in peace, Mr. Buckley. You are indeed, irreplaceable, and you are already missed.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


We’ve often criticized the military public affairs community—and for obvious reasons.

At various turns, the P.A. “pros” in the armed services have demonstrated an appalling ignorance of today’s ever-changing media landscape. During the early days of the Iraq War, they were reluctant to embed bloggers with combat units—never mind that many of the citizen-journalists were more balanced in their coverage than the MSM, and more than a few had prior military experience.

More recently, some public affairs officers have supported efforts to restrict (or even ban) blogging by military personnel. Instead of recognizing milbloggers as a new outlet for information—outside the filter of the MSM—P.A. types tried to maintain their monopoly, not caring that their “plan” was doomed to fail in an era of near-universal internet access, even from the battlefield.

And, when the public affairs community decides to engage the “media,” their efforts often fall flat, or produce unwanted embarrassment. The latest example was on display Sunday night, during the annual Academy Awards telecast.

Someone in Hollywood apparently thought it would be neat to have troops in Iraq introduce nominated films—a minor nod to the armed forces. You know, the troops that the entertainment industry supports, even if they oppose the mission. The military chain signed off on the idea, and Sunday night, a group of public affairs specialists introduced the nominees for “Best Short Subject Documentary.”

Nothing wrong with that, you say. Think again. On the same night the troops appeared, the Academy show-cased three feature-length documentaries that were decidedly against the War on Terror, Bush Administration policies, and by default, the U.S. military. “No End in Sight offers what New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls a "clear, temperate and devastating account of high-level arrogance and incompetence in Iraq."

Operation Homecoming” is built around the “recollections of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.” One of the film’s highlights is a former soldier reading his fictional composite of several events, which recounts the shooting of an Iraqi farmer by an American solider. The episode, according to Times’ reviewer Stephen Holden, reaches a tragically absurd conclusion in which the American treats the farmer, whose “vital organs were piled on top of him” with an IV.

The third anti-war film, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” tells the story of Dilwar, an Afghan cab driver who was detained by U.S. forces in 2002 and died in custody at Bagram AB a few months later. According to Mr. Scott, the film charts a path to Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, all the while insisting that the brutal treatment of prisoners in those places was hardly the work of a few “bad apples,” as Pentagon officials said. Instead, the sexual humiliation, waterboarding and other well-documented practices were methods sanctioned at the very top of the chain of command.

Never mind that multiple investigations have debunked those claims—and recent testimony revealed that only three prisoners were waterboarded. If you accept “Taxi’s” premise, the U.S. military is filled with bad apples, ready to torture anyone in their custody. Incidentally, “Taxi” won the Oscar for best documentary, and in his acceptance speech, director Alex Gibney delivered the obligatory anti-American diatribe: ““Lets hope we can turn this country around, move away from the dark side and turn back to the light.”

So, in other words, U.S. troops in Iraq wound up “sharing” the stage (even by satellite) with film makers who depict them as sadistic, traumatized, or willing dupes for a criminal administration. And, I don’t care how much time elapsed between the short and feature documentary segments, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not be pawns for the Academy, or the public affairs community. New York Post film critic Kyle Smith (a veteran of the first Gulf War) spoke for many military personnel—current and former—with this observation:

Given that the most recent statistics show that approximately 97.4 percent of all documentaries present America as a scary place and of those 97.4, most are meant to present the troops in Iraq as overmatched at best and as abusive, sadistic criminals at worst, it’s pretty cheeky of the Oscars to have troops serving overseas present the Oscar for best documentary short subject.

“Move away from the dark side and back to the light,” the director of “Taxi to the Dark Side” says. I doubt our troops agree that we are stuck in the dark side. I think they would argue that the vast majority of them abide by the law, by the rules of engagement and by their own moral compasses, yet they get little feeling of support from their country because those who work in the media are bent on presenting sordid, depraved and illegal acts committed by members of the military and intelligence services (which are of course elements in this war, as they are in every war) as the norm in order to undercut the war and defund the troops.

My only critique of Mr. Smith is that he gives too much “credit” to the Motion Picture Academy and not enough to the Pentagon bone-heads who signed off on this project. The young P.A. specialists who provided the introductions were inadvertently placed in a difficult position. They performed admirably before a hostile audience (applause inside the Kodak Theater was middling, at best), but they should have never been placed in that position.

Someone in the Pentagon public affairs hierarchy will probably get a medal or a performance award for Sunday night’s spectacle. They should be fired.

The Story You Won't See in the U.S. Media

The U.K. Times reports that a British-Iraqi millionaire loaned millions of dollars to one of Barack Obama's key supporters, just weeks before a controversial land deal that saw the presidential candidate--and the supporter's wife--buy adjoining property in Chicago.

The money transfer raises the question of whether funds from Nadhmi Auchi, one of Britain’s wealthiest men, helped Mr Obama buy his mock Georgian mansion in Chicago.

A company related to Mr Auchi, who has a conviction for corruption in France, registered the loan to Mr Obama's bagman Antoin "Tony" Rezko on May 23 2005. Mr Auchi says the loan, through the Panamanian company Fintrade Services SA, was for $3.5 million.

Three weeks later, Mr Obama bought a house on the city's South Side while Mr Rezko's wife bought the garden plot next door from the same seller on the same day, June 15.

Mr Obama says he never used Mrs Rezko's still-empty lot, which could only be accessed through his property. But he admits he paid his gardener to mow the lawn.

Mrs Rezko, whose husband was widely known to be under investigation at the time, went on to sell a 10-foot strip of her property to Mr Obama seven months later so he could enjoy a bigger garden.


Mrs Rezko’s purchase and sale of the land to Mr Obama raises many unanswered questions.
It is unclear how Mrs Rezko could have afforded the downpayment of $125,000 and a $500,000 mortgage for the original $625,000 purchase of the garden plot at 5050 South Greenwood Ave.

In a sworn statement a year later, Mrs Rezko said she got by on a salary of $37,000 and had $35,000 assets. Mr Rezko told a court he had "no income, negative cash flow, no liquid assets, no unencumbered assets [and] is significantly in arrears on many of his obligations."

Mrs Rezko, whose husband goes on trial on unrelated corruption charges in Chicago on March 3, refused to answer questions about the case when she spoke by telephone to The Times.


Mr Rezko has since been indicted for allegedly scheming to pressure companies seeking business with the state of Illinois for kickbacks and contributions to the governor Rod Blagojevich's campaign. He goes on trial on March 3.

A prosecution document filed last month alleged that a "political candidate" - identified by the Chicago Sun-Times as Mr Obama - received a $10,000 campaign contribution from what is said to be a $250,000 kickback in the corruption case. That means Mr Obama's name could figure in Mr Rezko's trial, although he is not accused of any wrongdoing.

Rezko is currently awaiting trial in a Chicago jail of, after violating terms of his bail by failing to disclose the loan from Mr. Auchi. But the British billionaire has his own shady past, as the Times' details:

Mr Auchi was convicted of corruption, given a suspended sentence and fined £1.4 million in France in 2003 for his part in the Elf affair, described as the biggest political and corporate scandal in post-war Europe. He, in a statement from his media lawyers, claims he is appealing against the sentence.

However, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Wretchard at The Belmont Club found more on Auchi's sleazy dealings, detailed in a 2003 column from Nick Cohen of the U.K. Guardian:

Allow me to introduce you to Nadhmi Auchi. He was charged in the 1950s with being an accomplice of Saddam Hussein, when the future tyrant was acquiring his taste for blood. He was investigated in the 1980s for his part in alleged bribes to the fabulously corrupt leaders of post-war Italy. In the 1990s, the Belgium Ambassador to Luxembourg claimed that Auchi's bank held money Saddam and Colonel Gadaffi had stolen from their luckless peoples. In 2002, officers from the Serious Fraud Squad raided the offices of one of Auchi's drug companies as part of an investigation of what is alleged to be the biggest swindle ever of the NHS.

The fact that Auchi actually stood trial in the Elf scandal--and received a 15-month suspended sentence--was something of a legal miracle. French authorities issued an arrest warrant for Auchi in 2000, but Britain's Home Office refused to deport him for three years.

So, why was Britian's 13th-wealthiest man, involved with Mr. Rezko, whom Hillary Clinton has described as a "slum lord?" Various attorneys and media accounts depict the two men as long-time business associates, and financial records indicate that Auchi virtually owned Rezko; at the time of that loan, the Chicago "developer" owed the British billionaire more than $27 million. According to court records, the Auchi planned to forgive the outstanding loans, in return for a stake in a 62-acre development. Money from Auchi clearly helped Mrs. Rezko swing her real estate purchase, made on the same day that Mr. Obama bought his mansion--for $300,000 below the asking price.

Mr. Auchi must be very forgiving, or that development must be hottest property in Chicago. Or maybe the Iraq-born billionaire was looking for something else. Aside from the development, Tony Rezko had little to offer Auchi in the summer of 2005, save his close ties to a rising star in the Democratic Party. Nick Cohen claims that Nadhmi Auchi collects British politicians the way other people collect stamps. Perhaps Auchi was looking to expand his portfolio, or at least hedge his future bets in American politics.

For the record, there is only limited evidence that Obama and Auchi actually met--and only on one occasion. But the ties between Auchi and the senator's fundraiser, Mr. Rezko, are well-established. That trial in Illinois next month could prove rather interesting.

Just don't expect much coverage from America's MSM.

The Revolving Door at the Airport

If you never see the same security screeners at your local airport, there’s a good reason for that. Aviation security blogger and journalist Annie Jacobsen has discovered that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener force—the first line of defense in preventing future 9-11-style terrorist attacks—is, quite literally, a revolving door.

Until now, the number of employees who have left the agency has been a closely-held secret. But Ms. Jacobsen found the information, oddly enough, on TSA’s recently-established blog. The agency’s disclosure paints a disturbing picture of an organization beset by a massive employee exodus, which has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. As Ms. Jacobson observes:

In an entry from February 15, 2008 called, “The TSA, Our Officers, The Public and Theft,” Christopher [White] from the TSA Evolution Blog Team,” addressed a recent news story about a screener caught stealing gift cards from a passenger’s bag at O’Hare”

“To date, we have terminated and sought prosecution for about 200 of our employees who have been accused of stealing, either from checked bags, passengers’ carry-ons or fellow employees. While 200 out of more than 110,000 employees is a minuscule percentage (less than one half of one percent) over the short life of the agency, one theft is too many when you are in the position of public trust as we are.”

Here’s the translation, broken down, in plain English.

· The TSA has a work force of 43,000.

· TSA blogger Christopher [White] says TSA has had a total of “more than 110,000 employees” in its six-year history.

· That means more than 67,000 individuals who entered into employment contracts with TSA have left the agency over this period of six years.

That’s not attrition. That’s exodus. And it’s egregious fiscal waste.

Bob Marchetta is the Executive Vice President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) local 2222—a union for TSA screeners. Marchetta is also a former TSA Screener, a member of TSA’s second graduating class. “TSA has spent as much as $40,000 for an individual’s training,” Marchetta said. “That number has been trimmed down, and is now between $15,000 and $20,000, per individual, for training.”

Multiply the lowest-end estimated training costs by 67,000 employees who’ve left the agency—that’s more than $1 billion dollars into thin air.

Obviously, any large organization is going to suffer some degree of personnel turnover, and employees leave for various reasons. But Ms. Jacobsen is correct in characterizing the TSA situation as an “exodus,” rather than normal attrition. If the figures in the agency blog are correct—and we have no reason to doubt them—TSA has lost an average of 12,000 employees a year, more than 30% of its workforce.

Most of those leaving the agency are Transportation Security Officers (TSOs)—the screeners you see at the airport. Ms. Jacobsen notes a Congressional Quarterly report that found “when TSA's Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) are removed from the equations, DHS' attrition rate drops to 3.3 percent.” Figures in the CQ article indicate that 17% of agency’s TSOs left their job in 2005, and 14% exited the following year. Security screeners represent one-third of the organization’s workforce.

When the TSA was organized in 2001, Congressional supporters claimed that the new agency would “professionalize” functions like passenger and luggage screening, eliminating the turnover and training issues that plagued the previous security system, which was run by private contractors, working for the airlines.

Almost seven years after 9-11, key air security functions are still being handled by a highly transitory workforce, plagued by the same experience and attrition issues that plagued the airline-run system. Yet, the government assures us that airline safety is vastly improved.

True, there have been no hijackings of U.S. passenger jets since that fateful September day in 2001. But an essential tool in deterring future attacks is a competent, experienced cadre of security screeners, stationed at the nation’s airports. That was one of the immediate security goals in the aftermath of 9-11; years later, it’s a goal that has yet to be achieved.

Follow the Money

PJM has a fascinating read, by journalist Craig S. Karpel, on The New York Times’ “financial” motivation for running that recent hit piece on John McCain. As Mr. Karpel explains, the parent NYT Company is girding for a key election that is focused on boardroom, rather than presidential politics.

How does that relate to John McCain? According to Karpel, it’s part of a plan to get the Times back in the headlines, increase shareholder value and keep some unwelcome outsiders off the corporate board:

“..I’m talking about the election that’s genuinely crucial to the newspaper’s senior management, the one that’s going to be held on Tuesday, April 22, 2008, the one that decides who the directors of The New York Times Company are going to be.

Have a look at a chart of the company’s Class A stock and you’ll see why. (The holders of the Class B shares, 89 percent of which are owned by descendants of Adolph Ochs, who bought the Times in 1896, elect nine of the company’s 13 directors.) In 2002, Times shares were as high as $53. The stock is now trading below $20. During the same period, the S&P 500 index has gone from about 1,000 to more than 1,300.

The decline of the A shares has had two effects. It has attracted the attention of a group of investor/kibbitzers who, as you read this, are engaged in a proxy battle to have their slate elected to the four Times board seats that represent shareholders unfortunate enough not have been born into the Ochs-Sulzberger family. The group hopes its directors can hector the clan’s directors into selling off the company’s non-core holdings (e.g., 17 percent of the Boston Red Sox, not to mention full ownership of that journalistic bastion, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, circulation 7,400—I kid you not) and buy additional Internet-based businesses with the goal of obtaining most of its revenues from Web advertising by 2013. And it has wonderfully concentrated the minds of the paper’s senior managers.

Nothing can be done about the overriding tribulation of the dead-tree press: the enormous expense of growing, cutting, pulping, shipping, printing, folding, and delivering the end-product of the deciduous deceased. But dead-tree diehards believe the value added to the newsprint product can be increased, while simultaneously being leveraged into digital content. The key to it all, as they see it, is that old standby, the scoop. And the best kind of scoop a newspaper can have is the kind where the paper itself becomes the story.


Sources at The New York Times have told me that “the masthead”—the paper’s top 13 editors, from assistant managing editor on up—has been under relentless pressure from publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. to come up with stories that will themselves make news. In Sulzberger’s view, the only instance in which the Times has shot and scored during the tenure of the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, who was appointed in mid-2003, was its coverage of warrantless surveillance of phone calls to and from the U.S., for which James Risen and Eric Lichtblau received the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

So it’s not a coincidence that the McCain-Iseman story was published the same day—February 21—as The New York Times Company submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) the preliminary proxy statement for this year’s annual meeting. The statement warns shareholders: “Please note that Harbinger Capital Partners NY, LLC and certain of its affiliates have notified us that they intend to solicit proxies for and nominate at our Annual Meeting their own slate of four nominees for election as directors, in opposition to four of the nominees we have selected. Our Board of Directors unanimously recommends a vote for the election of each of our Board’s nominees on the enclosed WHITE proxy card and urges you not to sign or return any proxy card that you may receive from Harbinger.” [Boldface and capitalization in the original.—CSK]

So far, the Sulzberger strategy of “making the paper the story” has been a major flop. The Times was roundly—and rightfully—criticized for publishing the McCain story. Even public editor, Clark Hoyt, slammed the paper’s “coverage.”

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap.


A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

Readers will note that Mr. Hoyt’s post-mortem makes no mention of the “pressure” on editors at the Times to put the paper back in the headlines, or the looming proxy battle. And, in fairness, it’s quite possible that Hoyt was unaware of Sulzberger’s “strategy,” or the attempt to bring fresh blood to the NYT corporate board.

Still, one would think that the Times owes its’ dwindling readership a little more disclosure—the same thing it has demanded of politicians, government institutions and business conglomerates. But, if you’re expecting the NYT to generate a 5,000 word examination of the Sulzberger “strategy” and its impact on news coverage, forget about it. That sort of introspection and analysis is reserved for organizations and individuals targeted by the Times—certainly not the paper’s parent company, and the latest Sulzberger who’s driving it into the ground.

Couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Stix Nix Oscar Pix

It’s official: last night’s Oscar telecast laid an egg. According to A.C. Nielsen estimates, the ABC broadcast will go down as the least-watched in history, with 14% fewer viewers than the 2003 Academy Awards telecast, which had an audience of only 33 million.

By comparison, Super Bowl XLII, broadcast by Fox earlier this month, attracted a record 97.5 million viewers. Last week’s running of the Daytona 500 (also on Fox) had an average audience roughly half that of the Academy Awards, and the race was broadcast on Sunday afternoons, when viewership is a fraction of the Sunday night audience.

Whenever Oscar bombs, there is inevitable finger-pointing in Tinsel Town. After all, the annual awards show is Hollywood’s big night, and quite naturally, the film community wants to reach the largest possible audience. So, don’t be surprised if Jon Stewart doesn’t return as host next year, or veteran producer Gil Cates gets the boot. And there will be the inevitable tinkering with the show’s format, regardless of who’s in charge of the broadcast, or handling the hosting duties.

But that ignores the dirty little secret of the Academy Awards: with a few exceptions, most Americans have lost interest in the movies, particularly those held up as the year’s “best.”

Quick, how many of you can name the films nominated for this year’s “Best Picture” award? And, how many of you have actually seen all five? If you don’t fall in either category, don’t feel bad—you’re not alone.

With the exception of “Juno” a comedy about a pregnant teenager, none of nominated films grossed more than $65 million at the box office. In other words, they bombed, in part because many of the films are dark and violent in their outlook. “Atonement” tells the story of lives and relationships shattered by a lie; George Clooney, the title character in “Michael Clayton” is a fixer for a powerful, but sleazy law firm (is there any other kind in the movies?), desperate to protect its evil corporate client.

Still not depressed? “There Will Be Blood” is the portrait of a ruthless oil tycoon, and “No Country for Old Men” has been charitably described as a study of incomprehensible evil. In case you missed last night’s broadcast, “No Country” took home the Oscar for best picture, and Javier Bardem, who plays the merciless assassin in the film, was named Best Supporting Actor.

We understand that the Academy Awards aren’t a popularity contest, and there’s no requirement that nominated films be encouraging or uplifting. But, given the relentlessly bleak tone of those pictures, is it any wonder that most Americans didn’t see them at the multi-plex—or watch last night’s Oscar telecast?

Fact is, Hollywood’s view of America, as depicted in its most “serious” films, is largely devoid of reality. It’s a world populated by relentless killers, corporate criminals, robber barons, shady lawyers and half-witted cops. And, if that’s not bad enough, check out the string of anti-war documentaries that dominated that category. No wonder “Alvin and the Chipmunks” did $212 million at the box office.

Does the film community have a problem? Conventional wisdom says no --not as long as teenagers shell out $10 (or more) for a ticket to “Transformers,” or there’s another sequel in the “Harry Potter,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” franchises.

But the real numbers tell a different story. Ticket sales at theaters in North America grew by only four percent last year—but attendance was flat. That followed a narrow increase in 2006, and three years of declining attendance between 2003-2005. It's also worth noting that the 2007 rise in ticket sales was influenced by a large crop of popular sequels: Pirates, Spider-Man and Shrek, to name just a few. Without a similar boost in 2008, totals for ticket sales and attendance may remain flat.

John Hinderaker at Powerline summed it up well: the attitudes and values evident in the telecast--and the nominated films--suggest a film industry that has lost touch with much of America, and has no interest in reestablishing those ties. And many of us who once sat enthralled through Saturday matinees or double-features are returning the favor. Regarding Hollywood and the Academy Awards, our sentiments can be summarized in a line from the Best Picture winner from 1940. When it comes to the motion picture industry of today--and its annual awards orgy--most of us in flyover country simply don't give a damn.

Today's Reading Assignment

Danielle Pletka and Michael Rubin, writing in the WSJ, on the real agenda of Mohammed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A few particularly salient paragraphs:

Mr. ElBaradei's [latest] report [on Iran's nuclear program] culminates a career of freelancing and fecklessness which has crippled the reputation of the organization he directs. He has used his Nobel Prize to cultivate an image of a technocratic lawyer interested in peace and justice and above politics. In reality, he is a deeply political figure, animated by antipathy for the West and for Israel on what has increasingly become a single-minded crusade to rescue favored regimes from charges of proliferation.

Mr. ElBaradei assumed the directorship on Dec. 1, 1997. On his watch, but undetected by his agency, Iran constructed its covert enrichment facilities and, according to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, engaged in covert nuclear-weapons design. India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices. A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear godfather, exported nuclear technology around the world.

In 2003, Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi confessed to an undetected weapons effort. Mr. ElBaradei's response? He rebuked the U.S. and U.K. for bypassing him. When Israel recently destroyed what many believe was a secret (also undetected) nuclear facility in Syria, Mr. ElBaradei told the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh that it is "unlikely that this building was a nuclear facility," although his agency has not physically investigated the site.


IAEA technical experts have complained anonymously to the press that the latest report on Iran was revamped to suit the director's political goals. In 2004, Mr. ElBaradei sought to purge mention of Iranian attempts to purchase beryllium metal, an important component in a nuclear charge, from IAEA documents. He also left unmentioned Tehran's refusal to grant IAEA inspectors access to the Parchin military complex, where satellite imagery showed a facility seemingly designed to test and produce nuclear weapons.

At various times over the past decade, the U.S. has tried to get ElBaradei fired from his post, for obvious reasons. Now is the time to renew that effort.

Moving Towards an Unmanned Bomber

$1.5 billion of your tax dollars, burning in close formation: smoke pours from Saturday's B-2 crash at Andersen AFB, Guam.

Prospects for a new, manned bomber went down in flames (quite literally) with Saturday’s crash of a B-2 at Andersen AFB, Guam. . While both pilots ejected safely, the crash reduces the B-2 inventory to only 20 aircraft. Further losses—considered all-but-inevitable in any military aviation program—will place additional constraints on the nation’s B-2 fleet, and potentially limit employment options in a major conflict with China, or a resurgent Russia.

Admittedly, the remaining B-2s are still a potent striking force. The “Spirit” is the most powerful bomber in aviation history, with a combination of range, stealth and precision-strike capabilities that allow it to travel vast distances, penetrate dense air defenses and deliver weapons with pin-point accuracy. B-2s played a major role in the early phases of bombing campaigns against Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. They would represent a critical element of any U.S. effort to target nuclear facilities in Iran.

While the Air Force still has enough B-2s for most scenarios, the Guam crash highlights the dilemma facing military planners. Key elements of various war plans are built around a small number of strategic assets, with decreasing margins for combat losses, or non-availability for other reasons. The U.S. Navy, which one commissioned 24 aircraft carriers of a single type, now has only twelve carriers in all--and that number will drop to eleven with the projected retirement of the USS Kitty Hawk.

Our bomber fleet has experienced a similar decline. Today, the Air Force has a total of 171 heavy bombers (67 B-1s, 20 B-2s, and 94 B-52s). While that sounds impressive—and today’s models are vastly more capable than their predecessors—its worth remembering that the USAF once purchased 744 B-52s and more than 2,000 B-47s.

Ah, for the good ol' days when a strategic bomber could be purchased for roughly one-tenth the cost of an F-22. But, with B-2s priced at $1.5 billion each, and $300 million for a single B-1, we’ll never see a return of the massive bomber units of the 1950s. But it’s equally apparent that the Pentagon can no longer afford relatively small numbers of strategic bombers, no matter how matter how stealthy or precise they might be.

That’s one reason the lost B-2 (nicknamed the Spirit of Kansas) won’t be replaced, and the Pentagon has resisted Northrop-Grumman’s offer to reopen the assembly line. With the Air Force scrambling to finance the JSF, KC-X and CSAR-X programs (to name a few), building more B-2s makes no fiscal sense whatsoever.

Which brings us to the service’s plans for its next-generation bomber, set to appear sometime toward the end of the next decade. As we noted a few months back, the Air Force has asked prospective contractors to develop manned and unmanned versions of the new aircraft. Taking crew members out of the cockpit would save billions in training and personnel costs, while retaining the most desired features of the new platform—range, precision and stealth. That would allow the USAF to buy more UAV bombers, at a substantially lower unit cost.

That’s why the young men and women flying today’s Buffs, Lancers and Spirits may go down as the last bomber crews. Despite their consummate flying skills (including an admirable safety record), there are limits to what the Pentagon can afford, even in an era of $500 billion defense budgets. The sudden loss of a single, billion-dollar aircraft was a sobering moment for the Air Force and defense planners.

In the span of a few seconds on Guam--the time required for the B-2 crew ejected from their stricken aircraft--$1.5 billion in state-of-the-art defense technology became nothing more than expensive debris, and a UAV emerged as the leading candidate for our next long-range bomber.

The era of manned bombers, which began almost a century ago, isn’t over yet. The venerable B-52 is expected to soldier on past 2030, long after current crew members have retired. B-2s and B-1s will also remain a part of our military calculus for years to come.

But the handwriting--or more correctly, the fiscal analysis--is already on the wall. Last Saturday’s B-2 crash may didn't mark the end of manned bombers, but it may represent the beginning of the end.

Back in the Bottle?

General James Cartwright, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs reporters on last week's successful intercept of a defunct spy satellite.

In the wake of last week’s successful shoot down of that defunct spy satellite, a few members of the arms control crowd—and their friends in the Democratic Party—are still bemoaning the “political ramifications” of that event. From their perspective, knocking down the dead satellite essentially “destroyed” any chance of preventing the militarization of space (bad pun intended).

As Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, noted gloomily before the intercept:

I don’t know how to express the political risk. Not knowing the risk, however, is different from it being “zero” — which is how the Bush Administration, at best, seems to count it. At worst, some members seem to assign a positive value to conducting an ASAT test.

The Chinese will use this to excuse their January 2007 test and, perhaps, future ones. The Russians seem interested in playing along, too. I’d like to be able to argue that they’re wrong; That this is different.

I have argued, in the past, that we have a strong interest in constraining the development of debris-creating anti-satellite weapons. Sadly, our intercept will make that outcome harder to achieve, not easier.


But what loser is going to go to bat for confidence building measures in outer space when there is a giant tank of hydrazine bearing down on a Cub Scout Jamboree and one really awesome, heroic chance to blow it out of the sky? Hell, I bet the thing explodes into fireworks with red, white and blue stars and streamers like over the Mall on the Fourth of July.

Let’s face it, supporting the shot is the “safe” thing to do. After all, the debris risk will probably work out ok, while we’ll never know if the satellite would have hit a populated area. The cost, in terms of space security, is so difficult to identify, that one can simply explain it away with facile counterfactuals. “Oh, the Russian’s were just looking for an excuse, they would have done it anyway.”

We’ll give Dr. Lewis credit for consistency. He has long been an advocate of space weapons control, though one might argue (at this point) that limiting militarization of space is tantamount to putting the genie back into the bottle. More on that in a moment.

And quite predictably, key Congressional Democrats are expressing similar concerns. As Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey told The New York Times:

“The geopolitical fallout of this intercept could be far greater than any chemical fallout that would have resulted from the wayward satellite.”

Mr. Markey said: “The Bush administration’s decision to use a missile to destroy the satellite based on a questionable ‘safety’ justification poses a great danger of signaling an ‘open season’ for other nations to test weapons for use against our satellites. Russia and China are sure to view this intercept as proof that the United States is already pursuing an arms race in space, and that they need to catch up.”

The key word here is “catch up.” In some respects, both Moscow and Beijing have, arguably, moved ahead of the United States, most notably in the areas of anti-satellite (ASAT) technology and weapons aimed at defeating early warning systems and ballistic missile defenses.

We’ve written about these efforts (at length) in the past. China’s successful test of a “killer satellite” in January 2007 raised genuine concerns about new threats to platforms operating in low earth orbit (LEO). Not only did the Chinese intercept occur at a much higher altitude, it was the latest in a series of tests that demonstrated Beijing’s growing proficiency in placing killer satellites in close proximity to their intended targets—and taking them out.

But China’s ASAT arsenal isn’t limited to space interceptors. Five months before the “killer sat” test, a high-powered, ground-based laser in China reportedly “dazzled” a U.S. spy satellite, highlighting the ability of terrestrial systems to target space-based platforms. The “dazzling” incident and the ASAT test represented the culmination of decades of work, and the investment of billions of dollars.

And, it’s worth remembering, the Chinese development continued apace, despite the general suspension of U.S. ASAT efforts. After successfully intercepting a defunct satellite in 1986 (with an interceptor launched from an F-15), the U.S. shelved its anti-satellite program, because of the potential military, political and commercial implications of the test.

That’s one reason that many experts consider the 2007 Chinese test to be the “most serious escalation” of space warfare in 20 years. Both the United States and Russia backed away from their ASAT efforts at the end of the Cold War, but Beijing plunged ahead, with heavily-funded “priority” state programs that yielded killer satellites and ground-based lasers capable of blinding overhead sensors. China has also developed a space warfare doctrine, aimed at using its weaponry to cripple U.S. capabilities in that arena, while preserving Beijing’s access to the high frontier.

While Chinese space warfare capabilities have received considerable scrutiny over the past year, Moscow has been far from idle. In early 2006, Russian officials announced a “successful” test of a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). Mounted atop an ICBM, the HGV is designed to penetrate and maneuver against ballistic missile defenses and existing early warning systems (emphasis ours), making it a particularly dangerous and destabilizing weapon. Moscow’s HGV project reportedly has the personal support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, ensuring that the system will remain a funding priority, and likely reach deployment status in a few years.

Why should the U.S. be concerned about these efforts? For starters, it underscores the inherent hypocrisy in the respective positions of Russia and China. Despite their stated concern about the “militarization” of space, neither Moscow nor Beijing has shown any willingness to abandon their ASAT and HGV programs. Indeed, past Russian and Chinese proposals on limiting space weapons have been narrowly focused, conveniently ignoring their own development efforts.

That’s why Washington should follow-up on last week’s spysat shoot down, with a new, comprehensive proposal for a space-based weapons treaty. Put everything on the table—killer satellites, ground-based lasers, and of course, missile-mounted HGVs. Chinese and Russian willingness to talk about (and potentially abandon) those systems will reveal just how serious they are on the militarization of space.

The U.S. could even offer a few incentives to spur negotiations, such as limiting development of the Navy’s AEGIS/SM-3 system, which knocked out the defunct satellite. Both the radar and missile used in the operations received special modifications, and the intercept occurred near the maximum range of the SM-3. Converting the naval platform into a true ASAT weapon would require extensive re-engineering, something that Washington could exchange for elimination of existing ASAT systems and nuclear-capable HGVs.

In fairness, we should note that some in Washington saw last week’s intercept for what it was—a one-time effort aimed at decreasing the risk from hazardous satellite debris, and preventing sensitive wreckage from falling into the wrong hands. Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, got it right with this observation:

Our forces and technical experts are to be commended for destroying this malfunctioning satellite before it posed any threat to people on the ground. This was an exceptional case, and I reiterate that this action should not be construed as standard U.S. policy for dealing with problem satellites. We abandoned the pursuit of anti-satellite technology two decades ago due to concerns about the consequences of its use, and our country has no plans to renew those efforts. Congress will closely monitor U.S. policies concerning our space assets in the coming days.

If anything, we’d say that last week’s intercept provides new opportunities for serious discussions on space warfare. But, the ultimate fate of those talks won’t hinge on a one-time shoot down of a defunct spy satellite. Instead, future accords will reflect the willingness of China and Russia to abandon not only dedicated ASAT platforms, but entire categories of weapons that support the militarization of space. Don't be surprised if both Moscow and Beijing reject such proposals.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Friends of John McCain

On the evening of August 1, 2000, Arizona Senator John McCain was in New York for the Republican National Convention. After delivering a televised speech endorsing the presidential nomination of his former rival, George W. Bush, Mr. McCain adjourned to the city’s landmark Tavern-on-the-Green restaurant, for an early birthday party.

While Senator McCain was actually born on 29 August, the New York event gave him a chance to celebrate with some of his closest friends—from the MSM. The list of attendees reportedly included a number of luminaries from the broadcast and cable networks, as well as various print outlets. By some accounts, the media types outnumbered Republican politicians and party officials at the McCain bash.

But the heavy media presence was hardly a surprise. McCain had always actively courted the press, making him something of a rarity among senior Republican pols. And the media largely returned the favor. McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” was a hit with political reporters; the Senator spent hours in the back of his campaign bus, offering doughnuts and swapping stories with correspondents, producers and technicians who covered his presidential bid.

Flash forward eight years and McCain remained a media darling. As recently as a few weeks ago, some pundits believed that press coverage of this year’s campaign “would be a wash,” because the Arizona Senator was just as popular with the media as his Democratic rivals.

But most of us knew better.

In a press corps that votes for Democrats by overwhelming margins, it was just a matter of time before they turned their sights on this year’s presumptive GOP nominee, John McCain. And sure enough, today’s New York Times print is leading the attack, with claims that the Senator might have had a romantic relationship with a female lobbyist during his first run for the White House. There are also charges that McCain did legislative favors for the lobbyist’s clients. But, as Allahpundit observes, this so-called “scandal” seems awfully thin:

A sex scandal that may not be a scandal tucked inside an ethics scandal that may not be an ethics scandal tucked inside an ethics scandal that was a genuine scandal 20 years ago, and for which McCain has begged forgiveness ever since. The Paper of Record.

The media halo’s gone, Maverick. Nothing personal. Just business.

According to Matt Drudge, this “story” has been under development for quite a while. Originally, the NYT was trying to prove that the lobbyist had actually written parts of a telecom bill sponsored by McCain. But that accusation didn’t make the final cut, another indicator of how weak the reporting actually is.

Still, the article’s substance doesn’t really matter. Today’s NYT piece signals the start of the media war against John McCain, a campaign that was inevitable, given his party affiliation. In fact, the only folks that seem surprised by the media offensive are with the McCain campaign, which released this angry statement:

“It is a shame that The New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign. John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election.

“Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics, and there is nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career.”

That may be true, but the Times little expose provides an opening for the media to examine every aspect of McCain’s public career, a period that covers more than 40 years. Lest we forget, McCain's public life began well before he entered politics. He became a national hero for his conduct as a POW in North Vietnam, and was (arguably) one of the nation's best-know naval aviators after his return from Hanoi.

And, as we've noted in previous posts, McCain's conduct during that period was sometimes less-than-sterling. By his own admission, McCain was an unfaithful husband during the late 1970s, and his first marriage fell apart. Long-standing rumors suggest that some of McCain's paramours were women under his command--a claim that the Senator has steadfastly denied.

But, if Senator McCain's "relationship" with a lobbyist eight years ago is fair game, what about his conduct as a senior naval officer? We can only wonder if the NYT (and other MSM outlets) have been poking around the Navy's aviation community, looking for anyone who can detail McCain's romantic exploits from three decades ago.

Afterall, adultery was--and is--a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and romantic relationships between subordinates and superiors are also prohibited. Besides, accounts of McCain's behavior during that period would fit the template established by the NYT article, suggesting a man given to personal and ethical lapses.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this episode has been the reaction of the McCain camp. In a press conference in Ohio this morning, the Senator again expressed "disappointment" in the Times. As if he actually expected the mother church of liberal media orthodoxy to treat him fairly. If that accurately summarizes the candidates' perception, both Senator McCain (and the GOP) have a serious problem.

Michelle Malkin said it best: "lie down with MSM dogs, get up with stories like this." And, here's another point-worth-pondering for the McCain campaign. Imagine if all the time and effort devoted to courting the media had been spent with a more important group, the Republican base. The Senator would still get his share of hit pieces in the NYT, but he might find more Republicans voting for him in the primaries, and more conservatives leaping to his defense.

A Shot in the Light

The Wall Street Journal does an excellent job contrasting our successful shoot-down of that dead spy satellite, and last year’s Chinese ASAT test. By any standard, our public announcements on the planned intercept--and concurrent diplomatic efforts aimed at reassuring the world community--were models of disclosure and openness.

Quite a contrast to Beijing's anti-satellite test of January 2007, which was conducted in secrecy, with little regard for the political or military consequences. As the Journal observes, there is some reason to believe that senior Chinese leaders were unaware of their nation's test until it was actually conducted. By comparison, our decision to intercept the defunct spy satellite was made by civilian leaders, at the highest levels of our government.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's a Hit

AP military correspondent Robert Burns reports that an SM-3 missile from a U.S. navy vessel successfully struck a defunct spy satellite over the Pacific tonight. The intercept was aimed at destroying the satellite before it reenters the earth's atmosphere, lessening the danger from falling debris that survives reentry, including the platform's large propellant tank, filled with toxic hydrazine.

The missile was launched around 10:30 p.m. EST this evening, and struck the satellite shortly after. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the final decision to conduct the intercept.

Earlier in the day, it appeared that heavy seas around Hawaii would delay the intercept attempt. But the weather improved in the later afternoon, allowing the launch to proceed.

Pentagon officials say it may be a couple of days before the status of the fuel tank and its cargo are known. However, early reports suggested that the tank was destroyed by the missile impact.

It was, by any measure, an impressive test. Plans for the shootdown moved from the drawing board to execution in barely three months, after it became apparent that the dead spy satellite would soon reenter the earth's atmosphere.

The intercept was conducted by three U.S. Navy vessels, the cruiser Lake Erie and the destroyers Russell and Decatur. It is believed that the SM-3 that engaged the satellite came from the Lake Erie. All three ships had been modified for the shootdown mission.