Friday, February 27, 2009

What About the Families?

Even by Washington standards, there's something particularly feckless about the change in media coverage rules for the homecoming of our fallen troops.

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the press will be allowed to cover the return of their remains to Dover AFB, Delaware, but only on a case-by-case basis. Before being allowed to report (and photograph) the arrival of those flag-draped coffins, media outlets must gain permission from the families of slain personnel.

Think about that one for a moment, and let it sink in while we review the "mechanics" of this decision.

Mr. Gates made his choice after President Obama ordered a policy review. After consulting with the Army (which has suffered the largest number of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan), Gates elected to modify coverage guidelines. The change reverses a policy that had existed since the first Gulf War, when President George H.W. Bush banned the press from photographing return ceremonies at Dover.

The Delaware base is the first stop on American soil for military personnel killed in the line of duty. It is home for many of the cargo aircraft that transport the bodies of fallen troops, and the site of the military's largest mortuary.

Pressure to end the long-standing coverage ban has been building for some time. Anti-war activists and journalists have been clamoring for the "right" to cover homecoming ceremonies at Dover for years.

Members of Congress also got involved; earlier this year, Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey approached the administration about changing the rules. Sensing a shift in the political winds, Mr. Gates decided it was time to change the coverage policy.

But Blackfive raises the same question we have, namely, who speaks for the soldiers? While veterans and Gold Star families who oppose the war generally support the new rules, no one claims those groups represent a majority of military, or the families of war dead. In fact, many in latter groups have voiced disappointment--even anger--over the change in coverage guidelines.

And rightfully so. By shifting permission from the Pentagon to the families, Mr. Gates has only compounded their agony. Facing the most difficult moment of their lives, the survivors must now deal with an intrusive media, anxious to photograph the return of their family members.

Supporters claim that media coverage at Dover reminds all Americans of the sacrifice of our war dead. But that's something of a red herring; fact is, the press has provided extensive coverage of our fallen heroes, usually in conjunction with their final homecoming.

The area where I live is home to one of the nation's largest military communities. Over the past seven years, scores of personnel from this region have made the ultimate sacrifice and returned home in those familiar, silver coffins. But I can't think of a single case where media representatives weren't allowed to interview family or friends outside the funeral home or church, or cover the burial service--from a respectful distance at the cemetery.

That's why the previous policy made eminent sense. It allowed for a private, reverential return, without the prying eye of the media. Reporters who were interested in telling the stories of our fallen troops--as opposed to making a political statement--had to do more than simply stand on the ramp at Dover. Those who made the sad journey discovered exceptional young men (and women) whose short lives were defined by valor and service.

That should be the real legacy of our war dead--not some fleeting image from Dover AFB, aimed at advancing a certain point-of-view. Secretary Gates should learn to respect the wishes of most military families and the majority of those who have served in the War on Terror. As the Pentagon's most powerful official, Dr. Gates has the obligation to disagree with his boss--when the situation warrants--and tell the media "no."

This is one of those times.

Similar thoughts, eloquently expressed, from McQ, another blogger at Blackfive.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Waiting Game Continues

Since intelligence analysts detected North Korea's preparations for the latest test of its Tapeodong-2 long range missile, there has been much speculation about how the U.S. will respond.

Before the last launch in 2006, the Bush Administration put land and sea-based missile defenses on alert, and announced plans to shoot down the TD-2--if it threatened American territory, or our allies in the region. But the planned intercept proved unnecessary after the North Korean missile broke apart, only 100 seconds into its flight.

This time around, President Obama hasn't revealed how our military forces might react. Earlier this week, we suggested that (perhaps) the new commander-in-chief didn't want to tip his hand. Alternately, there's the possibility that Mr. Obama and his advisers are still formulating response options.

If the president has decided on a course of action, he hasn't shared it with the Commander of U.S. Forces in Pacific--the man who deals with the North Korean threat on a daily basis. In an interview with ABC News, Admiral Timothy Keating said military forces are prepared to shoot down the TD-2--if President Obama gives the order:

"If a missile leaves the launch pad we'll be prepared to respond upon direction of the president," Keating told ABC News. "I'm not a betting man but I'd go like 60/40, 70/30 that it will, they will attempt to launch a satellite. There's equipment moving up there that would indicate the preliminary stages of preparation for a launch. So I'd say it's more than less likely."

"Should it look like it's not a satellite launch -- that it's something other than a satellite launch -- we'll be ready to respond."

North Korea says the rocket being prepared for launch is a booster, designed to lift a satellite into orbit. But there are ample reasons to reject that claim. Space tracking assets never detected a satellite after a similar test in 1998 and the most recent launch (in 2006) was clearly a missile test. But Pyongyang is sticking by its story, realizing that the U.S. would be face severe criticism for interrupting a satellite deployment.

Admiral Keating did not say whether ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California have been placed on alert. The same assets were on alert for 40 days before the 2006 test.

The U.S. can also dispatch Aegis cruisers and destroyers with the SM-3 missile to intercept the TD-2 from positions in the Sea of Japan. While hose assets are not yet on station, Keating told ABC they could be deployed "in a moment's notice."

The U.S. 7th Fleet, based in Japan, includes at least five BMD-capable vessels, led the Aegis cruiser USS Shiloh. Additionally, 15 destroyers in the Arleigh Burke class will have the same capability by the end of this year. Japan's Kongo-class destroyers can also utilize the SM-3 for missile defense. However, the TD-2 intercept mission would almost certainly be assigned to an American naval vessel.

That's assuming that Mr. Obama okays the deployment, and grants permission to engage. Admiral Keating's carefully worded comments suggest that he's still waiting for guidance.

"The Iran-Israel Nuclear Endgame is Much Closer"

That's the assessment of investigative journalist Edwin Black, writing in today's edition of the Jerusalem Post.

Mr. Black bases theory on a number of recent developments, including Tehran's recent, successful launch of a satellite; an admission by the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had underestimated the size of Iran nuclear material stockpile; plans by the Iranian military to acquire the S-300 air defense system from Russia, and Benjamin Netanyahu's recent election victory in Israel.

We can't disagree with Black's analysis; in fact, we've been saying the same thing for several months. Here are some of our recent posts on the gathering storm, from November and December of last year, and another piece published last month.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Credit Where It's Due

It's no secret that we often disagree with President Obama. Many of his policies strike us as naive and ill-informed, even dangerous.

But the Commander-in-Chief also deserves credit when he's right. And Mr. Obama is correct in questioning the planned replacement for the presidential helicopter fleet. As the "Marine One" replacement program becomes a lightning rod for gold-plated Pentagon spending, President Obama suggested that the current squadron of VIP helicopters is perfectly fine. He's also asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to put the program on hold.

Mr. Obama's comments may be the death knell for staggeringly expensive replacement effort, which has almost doubled in price in only seven years. Originally pegged at $6 billion (for 28 helicopters), the program's cost is now at $11.6 billion--and rising.

The project began on an unexpected note. When the contract was awarded back in 2005, the Pentagon by-passed firms (Sikorsky, Boeing) that have long supplied military helicopters in favor of Lockheed-Martin, which offered a version of the European-designed US-101. It also represented the firm's first foray into a major helicopter competition.

Over the years that followed, there were battles about how the chopper would be outfitted. Dubbed the VH-71, the new helicopter was supposed to withstand potential threats (including advanced MANPADS) while offering improved range and communications capabilities.

While that sounds reasonable for a presidential helicopter, some of the requirements were extravagant. Someone decided the new aircraft needed a secure video teleconference capability, akin to what the commander-in-chief has in the White House, and aboard Air Force One. Never mind that Marine One's primary crisis role is getting the president to a secure ground site, or a rendez-vous with a NAOC aircraft. The teleconference gear became just addition to the VH-71, one of 1,900 changes made to the original specifications.

As the price tag soared, the bean counters made a stunning discovery. At $400 million a copy, the new presidential helicopter would be more expensive than the Boeing 747s that serve as Air Force One--even when their cost is adjusted for inflation.

That should have been the last straw for the VH-71, but don't assume the program is facing imminent cancellation. The helicopter is well into its testing program and the first models are scheduled to join Marine Helicopter Squadron One next year. That means that DoD has already sunk billions into the project, money that would be lost if the project is scrapped.

The VH-71 also has powerful friends in Congress, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer. As you might have guessed, much of the work on the new helicopters is being done in his state.

But it may not be enough. With expected cuts in defense spending, the demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Mr. Obama's comments about the presidential helicopter program, the VH-71 may be heading for cancellation.

No one doubts that the current generation of presidential choppers is getting long in the tooth. And, the leader of the free world deserves a helicopter that is more survivable against current and projected threats. But there has to be a more cost effective way to meet those requirements.
Clearly, the VH-71 ain't it. Terminate the program and get back to the drawing board. Better luck next time.

ADDENDUM: If the Obama Administration needs another reason to kill the VH-71, here it is: the same airframe being used for the Marine One program is also a contender for the Air Force's next-generation combat search and rescue helicopter (CSAR-X). Some analysts believe the US-101 is a poor candidate for that demanding mission. Last March, a contributor to this blog reminded us that Canada was forced to ground its version of the chopper due to persistent cracks in the tail rotor. Maintenance costs for the Canadian helicopter are also running 200% higher than originally forecast.

Waiting on Washington's Response

Sometime in the coming days, North Korea will launch a Tapeodong-2 long-range ballistic missile from its test complex on the Sea of Japan. Officially, Pyongyang says the rocket is being used to put a communications satellite into orbit.

But no one really accepts that explanation. North Korea's space capabilities are primitive; any communications platform launched by the missile will do little more than beam martial music or the collected speeches of Kim Jong-il from earth orbit. The real purpose behind the test is to improve the reliability of the TD-2, the only DPRK missile capable of hitting U.S. targets throughout the Pacific.

At this point, the launch is not a matter of "if" but "when." According to the The New York Times, Pyongyang has acknowledged on-going preparations at the Musudan-ri test site. North Korean officials did not say when the launch will occur, but it's the clearest indication yet that a test is in the offing.

The DPRK claims that an Unha-2 booster, being prepared at the Musudan-ri, will lift a "Kwangmyongsong-2" communications satellite into orbit. North Korea staged a similar event in 1998, but western space and intelligence agencies never detected the Kwangmyongsong-1, which was supposedly launched on another TD-2.

As the Times notes, a long-range ballistic missile with a warhead flies a profile that is very similar to that of a rocket delivering a satellite. Analysts (typically) distinguish the two events through the detection of a new satellite on orbit. The failure to detect the Kwangmyongsong-1 eleven years ago suggests that the satellite claims were nothing more than a ruse.

While the NYT--and other American media outlets--have diligently reported the test preparations, they have avoided the matter of how the U.S. will respond. During her Asian trip last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged North Korea to cancel the launch, saying it would be "very unhelpful" and "provocative."

Needless to say, Mrs. Clinton's warnings did not achieve the desired effect. The TD-2 is still on track for liftoff, possibly by week's end. That raises the next question; having failed to deter Pyongyang with diplomatic rhetoric, how does the Obama Administration plan to deal with the imminent launch?

Facing a similar test in 2006, the Bush Administration put land and sea-based missile interceptors on alert, and announced plans to shoot down the TD-2, if it threatened U.S. territory or allies in the Pacific. That plan became moot when the North Korean missile broke apart, roughly 100 seconds into its flight.

This time around, there has been no talk of a possible military response. In a recent blog entry, Aviation Week's Michael Bruno suggests that mid-course interceptors, based in Alaska and California, are "probably" on alert. But he also cautions there has been no official word from defense officials--or the White House.

In preparation for the launch three years ago, our interceptor missiles were placed on an extended, 40-day alert. Officials with the Missile Defense Agency and the system's primary contractor (Boeing) said the drill was beneficial, allowing them to "shake down" the system and fix bugs that might have gone undetected.

While our missile defenses have clearly improved since 2006, there's no indication that the Obama Administration is prepared to use them. Faced with another serious challenge from Pyongyang, the White House seems prepared to let Kim Jong-il test his missile, regardless of where it might land.

In fairness, there may be other reasons for the White House's vague response. Perhaps Mr. Obama doesn't want to tip his military hand, or--given the president's preference for diplomacy -- there may be secret talks underway, aimed at preventing the test.

But don't bet on it. Beyond Hillary Clinton's fuzzy warnings last week, the administration seems genuinely puzzled about how to deal with Pyongyang. That is music to the "Dear Leader's" ears and it's one more reason that TD-2 is sitting on the launch pad.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Who Do You Believe?

Way back when, the intelligence community operated under a simple rule. Disagreements over analysis were worked out in private and when the community spoke, it was with one voice.

Ah, for the good old days. Unfortunately, in today's "leak culture," analysts--and the agencies that employ them--are anxious to air their assessments, even if they highlight divisions within the community.

Consider yesterday's revelations from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. In the matter of a few hours, both organizations offered highly conflicting views on domestic terror threats. After reading their respective opinions on these matters, members of Congress (and the public) have every right to be confused.

The dust-up began when FBI Director Robert Mueller, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, warned that terrorists "with large agendas and little money" can use rudimentary weapons to launch Mumbai-style attacks in the United States. As the Washington Post reports:

Mueller said that the bureau is expanding its focus beyond al-Qaeda and into splinter groups, radicals who try to enter the country through the visa waiver program and "home-grown terrorists."

"The universe of crime and terrorism stretches out infinitely before us, and we too are working to find what we believe to be out there but cannot always see," Mueller said.

One particular concern, the FBI director said, springs from the country's background as a "nation of immigrants." Federal officials worry about pockets of possible radicals among melting-pot communities in the United States such as Seattle, San Diego, Miami or New York.

A Joint Terrorism Task Force led by the FBI, for instance, continues to investigate a group in Minneapolis after one young man last fall flew to Somalia and became what authorities believe to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing. As many as a half-dozen other youths from that community in Minnesota have vanished, alarming their parents and raising concerns among law enforcement officials that a dangerous recruiting network has operated under the radar.

But later in the day, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security downplayed the domestic terror threat:

"We are not immune to an attack from a home-grown terrorist, but the probabilities and sustainability of such an act are very low," said DHS spokesman Michael Keegan.

Keegan said the American immigrant story is one reason the United States is less vulnerable to home-grown terrorism than other countries.

"People come to the United States to be part of something special, to practice their beliefs without worries of persecutions based on their religious faith, political views or personal life styles," he said. "When you give citizens the opportunity to live in an environment that promotes personal growth and happiness, you're essentially promoting the wellness and safety of an entire nation rather than a community of homegrown terrorist cells."

Mr. Keegan will get brownie points for political correctness, but there is a certain fallacy in both his logic and his assumptions. True, the overwhelming majority of immigrants in this country are law-abiding and hard-working, but there are radicalized elements within that broad community, particularly among Muslims.

We assume that Keegan is familiar with the Fort Dix 6. That terror plot, aimed at killing soldiers at the New Jersey army post, involved recent emigres from various Islamic countries. And the Fort Dix conspiracy isn't the only foiled terror attack that originated among Muslim immigrants or their offspring.

So, does that automatically disqualify the comments of Mr. Keegan and the assessments of his department? Not necessarily. DHS has its own analytic resources, though they pale in comparison to those of the FBI. While that doesn't give the bureau a monopoly on the truth, the comments of the FBI Director should carry more weight than a p.r. flack from DHS.

Normally, we're not fans of Congressional hearings, but this public disagreement practically begs one. The chairman of the House and Senate intelligence committees should summon Mr. Mueller, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and their top analysts for a closed door review of the intelligence.

Disagreements within the intelligence community are hardly new and they can actually prove beneficial, forcing agencies to develop a consensus on critical topics. But issuing such divergent opinions--only hours apart--does little to inspire confidence. On matters as important as domestic terror threat assessments, we need more convergence and less conflict.

H/T: warnewsupdates

More Thoughts From the Speech Police

Air Force Colonel Who Banned Anti-Obama Comments Clarifies Position, But Subordinates Remain Confused

by Nate Hale

The Air Force Commander who banned negative comments about President Obama--and raised concerns about restrictions on free speech--has issued a new e-mail, clarifying his policy. But members of his unit remain confused about the ban and the motivations behind it.

Colonel Jack Franz, Commander of the 677th Aeronautical Systems Group (AESG) at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, recently sent a second e-mail to members of his unit. The message, dated 9 February, was aimed at "clarifying" his initial directive, which was issued shortly after last year's presidential election. Franz also said he hoped that the e-mail would provide a "bit of context" to help explain the situation.

In his original e-mail, Colonel Franz expressed "concern" about "several political comments in the local media, and I'm sure around Wright-Patterson AFB."

"Our local news radio station (WHIO) is playing up Rush Limbaugh's comments about our new president and his cabinet," Franz wrote, a reference to the conservative host's remark that he "didn't want Obama to succeed." In subsequent interviews, Mr. Limbaugh made it clear that his opposition was based on Obama's policies, not personal reasons.

But Franz described the host's comments as "inappropriate and un-American," and emphasized the similar criticism would not be tolerated in his unit.

"We need to be very clear," the Colonel stated in his e-mail. Our mission is to support and defend the constitution of the United States. That means supporting our elected officials, as well as the officers appointed over us, and ensuring they succeed."

Franz also warned that similar remarks in the 677th AESG or at "official functions" would be grounds for removal. The commander said the edict applied to all members of the group, including military personnel, civilian employees, contractors and even visitors.

The Colonel's policy touched off a minor firestorm after the e-mail was reprinted by In From the Cold and other outlets. Franz was widely criticized for extending his policy to non-military personnel. While all of the armed forces limit political speech for military members, those prohibitions do not extend to Defense Department civilians, contractors and civilians.

Others were puzzled by his reference to Rush Limbaugh, wondering why he used the host's comments as a foundation for his policy. Mr. Limbaugh has never served in the military and has no formal ties to the armed services. Critics of Franz noted that the talk show king was simply exercising his First Amendment rights in criticizing Obama--rights outlined in the same Constitution that the Colonel has vowed to defend.

In his latest message, Franz writes that "some of you raised legitimate questions about my e-mail regarding political activities and discussions in the workplace."

"We at Wright-Patterson are committed to safeguarding the rights of all our employees (both military and civilian) to free expression, while at the same time maintaining good order and discipline within our units," he continued.

But Colonel Franz also urged his personnel to be "vigilant" in focusing on mission accomplishment and unit cohesion, claiming that "politically-related comments have been made that were [at best] potentially destructive to good order and discipline, and at worst reflected discriminatory undertones among some of our personnel."

The commander said these remarks "only serve to divide and distract us" from our common mission under the Constitution. However, Franz did not say how many comments were overheard, or what made them so objectionable.

Franz's latest e-mail has created confusion among some personnel. One member of the 677th, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he was not aware of "any" derogatory remarks about President Obama by unit personnel. "I don't know what to think," he said.

Other individuals assigned to the group described Colonel Franz as a "good guy," but expressed shock about the original note.

A retired Chief Master Sergeant, with years of experience as a First Sergeant and Senior Enlisted Adviser, suggested that Franz's concerns might be misplaced. If the problem genuinely exists, the chief suggested, the group may have discrimination and racial problems that require more action than an e-mail.

In his clarification message, Colonel Franz said his purpose was to "make clear our shared obligation to respect and honor the authority of our duly-appointed leadership," and "to maintain our historical posture as a politically-disinterested military under civilian control."

The commander also expressed hope that situations involving potential discrimination can be "resolved amicably," while cautioning that "continued violations of good order and discipline may bring more serious repercussions as necessary and appropriate."

The full text of Franz's latest e-mail is provided below. Neither the Colonel nor Air Force public affairs officers at Wright-Patterson have responded to requests for comment.


From: Franz, John H Col USAF AFMC 677 AESG/CC
Sent: Monday, February 09, 2009 6:02 PM
To: 677 AESG All Personnel
Subject: Clarification


Some of you raised legitimate questions about my email regarding political activities and discussions in the workplace. I want to clarify my intentions for you, and also provide a bit of context that I think helps explain the situation.

Let me start by reiterating what I hope most of you know - that we at Wright-Patterson AFB are committed to safeguarding the rights of all our employees (both military and civilian) to free expression, while at the same time maintaining good order and discipline within our units. Over the past several months, many of us have enjoyed the right to engage in various aspects of the political process, both formally and informally. While we certainly do celebrate these freedoms, we in the 677th AESG must also be vigilant to maintain our focus on mission accomplishment and unit cohesiveness.

In the weeks following the 2008 election, some politically-related comments have been made that at best were potentially destructive to good order and discipline, and at worst reflected discriminatory undertones among some of our personnel. These kinds of comments only serve to divide and distract us from our common mission under the Constitution. The purpose of my email was to make clear our shared obligation to respect and honor the authority of our duly-appointed leadership, and to maintain our historical posture as a politically-disinterested military under civilian control.

We will always address situations involving potential discrimination on an individual basis, often in an informal manner and certainly with regard to the rights of our personnel. These situations can often be resolved amicably, but it is possible that continued violations of good order and discipline may bring more serious repercussions as necessary and appropriate. It is my hope that such actions will not be necessary.

I understand that some of you read my earlier email as attempting to unduly interfere with your freedom of expression, while at the same time making a political statement of my own. I sincerely apologize for causing any confusion, and I hope this email clarifies both my personal intent and our unit's policy.

Thank you for what each of you are contributing to our work, and to the defense of our nation. If you have further questions or concerns about this, please let me know or use our anonymous feedback link. Below are links to additional information helpful in understanding our rights and responsibilities as Air Force members.

For information on political activities by members of the U.S. Air Force, see

For information on dissident and protest activities by members of the U.S. Air Force, see

For information on Civilian Employees' Participation in Political Activities, see

For information on the Hatch Act, see



677th AESG, Commander (AFMC)
Training System Product Group

The Top Six

It's no secret that defense spending has grown exponentially over the past eight years. The cost of fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with force modernization efforts and supplementary spending, have pushed the Pentagon budget past $600 billion a year.

But much of that growth has been in programs not related to current operations, or new military hardware. Personnel costs represent the second largest "piece" of the budgetary pie; DoD plans to allocate $125 billion for personnel this year, roughly 20% more than it will spend on acquisition.

While increased pay and bonuses account for some of that increase, the real growth has been on the health care side. According to Michael Fabey of Aviation Week, the Pentagon's health care budget has grown 144% since 2001. As you might expect, a portion of that growth reflects combat medical costs in Afghanistan and Iraq. But according to defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, most of the increase can be traced to "the constantly escalating costs of routine medical services."

In other words, the Pentagon is paying more to operate its own medical facilities and for TriCare, the DoD-sponsored health insurance program for military personnel, retirees and their dependents. That should come as no surprise, since other, government-run medical programs have experienced similar increases over the same period.

But it does create problems for future Pentagon budgets. By various accounts, President Obama wants to trim defense spending by 10%, or roughly $60 billion a year. Our gradual withdrawal from Iraq will achieve some savings, but there's no guarantee that we can reduce troops levels quickly enough to hit budget targets.

More importantly, the downsize-to-save approach carries grave security risks. If our gains in Iraq become jeopardized, plans for a major withdrawal would (presumably) be put on hold, negating projected cost savings. Besides, the troops will still get paid--and need health care--whether they're deployed or at home station. The only way to achieve savings in those areas are by limiting benefits or downsizing the force--both equally improbable.

Instead, the Obama Administration is (reportedly) taking a hard look at various procurement programs. By some accounts, the White House may adopt portions of an "alternative" defense acquisition plan, issued by the Congressional Budget Office last fall. The CBO program calls for dramatic decreases in key weapons programs (cutting F-35 purchases by the Marine Corps and Air Force, for example) and the cancellation of others, including the next-generation tanker project.

Following the CBO outline, Mr. Obama could save more almost a trillion dollars over fifteen years, by cutting various acquisition programs. But that would be tantamount to a second "procurement holiday," akin to what the Pentagon suffered under Bill Clinton. During the eight years of his presidency, Mr. Clinton deferred or cancelled major weapons purchases. It was a nice budgetary trick that saved billions, but it's also a reason that the Air Force (and other services) are stuck with large numbers of aging aircraft.

We'll get a better idea about the president's defense spending priorities in the coming days. Mr. Obama is expected to make a decision on continuing production of the F-22 fighter, beyond the 183 currently on order. Keeping the Raptor line open would preserve thousands of American jobs--and help assure our air dominance for decades to come.

But with the president vowing to cut the federal deficit in half by 2012--and looking for programs to cut--there's no guarantee that the Air Force will get the additional F-22s that it's looking for. The rising cost of military health care will put even greater pressure on the budget, making the request for more Raptors even more problematic.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Another Low for the AP

Memo to the management of the Associated Press: Please pull the plug on your "Impact" series before you get embarrassed--again.

Designed as a showcase for hard-hitting analytical and investigative pieces, the Impact series has also generated a few clunkers. One of the more infamous examples came a decade ago, with a series of articles on the alleged massacre of innocent civilians during the Korean War. A team headed by AP reporter Charles Hanley reported that U.S. troops killed scores of civilians near the village of No Gun Ri, at a critical bridge crossing.

The purported atrocity occurred in July 1950, less than two months after North Korean forces crossed the DMZ. The ROK Army had essentially dissolved under the enemy onslaught, leaving a handful of poorly trained and equipped American units to hold the line.

One of those units was the famous 7th Calvary Regiment, assigned to the No Gun Ri crossing. Fearing that North Korean troops would attempt to blend in with columns of fleeing civilians--and seize key road and rail junctions--U.S. commanders issued orders to fire on anyone attempting to pass through American lines.

While it's unclear how widely the directive was disseminated and followed, members of the 7th Calvary did fire on civilians at No Gun Ri between 27-29 July 1950, and there were casualties. As part of the investigation, the AP produced radio logs which recorded receipt and transmission of the order to "fire on everyone." For their efforts, Mr. Hanley and his team won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

Unfortunately for the AP, the credibility of their report was seriously damaged by the research of an Army historian, then-Major Robert Bateman. Combing through Army files and other records, Bateman determined that the "massacre" was on a much smaller scale than the wire service indicated.

According to Bateman, there was probably a single incident of civilians being fired on by U.S. troops, the result of poor leadership and other factors. Bateman's work suggested that the number of civilians who died was between eight and 35--a far cry from the 400 reported by the Associated Press.

More importantly, Major Bateman completely debunked the veracity of the AP's "star witness," Army veteran Ed Daily. In the original series, Hanley identified Daily as a member of the 7th Calvary who fired his machine gun into crowds of civilians at No Gun Ri, killing scores of them. The AP also reported that Daily received a battlefield commission in Korea, scores of decorations (including the Distinguished Service Cross), and was trapped for a time behind enemy lines.

But Bateman's examination of Army records exposed Daily as an utter fraud. While he served in Korea, Mr. Daily was actually a vehicle mechanic who was never assigned to the 7th Calvary, and never stationed at No Gun Ri. In fact, Daily later served a stretch in federal prison for collecting $400,000 in VA disability benefits, based on bogus claims about his "service" at No Gun Ri. When confronted with the distortions and inaccuracies in their account, the AP team launched a smear campaign against Major Bateman.

A decade later, the Impact Team is back on the military beat, this time looking at the operations of Army Emergency Relief, the official charity of the U.S. Army. Based on its analysis of the organization's tax records (and other documents), the AP concludes the charity is "hoarding" millions of dollars meant for military members and their families.

Between 2003 and 2007 — as many military families dealt with long war deployments and increased numbers of home foreclosures — Army Emergency Relief grew into a $345 million behemoth. During those years, the charity packed away $117 million into its own reserves while spending just $64 million on direct aid, according to an AP analysis of its tax records.

Tax-exempt and legally separate from the military, AER projects a facade of independence but really operates under close Army control. The massive nonprofit — funded predominantly by troops — allows superiors to squeeze soldiers for contributions; forces struggling soldiers to repay loans — sometimes delaying transfers and promotions; and too often violates its own rules by rewarding donors, such as giving free passes from physical training, the AP found.

Founded in 1942, AER eases cash emergencies of active-duty soldiers and retirees and provides college scholarships for their families. Its emergency aid covers mortgage payments and food, car repairs, medical bills, travel to family funerals, and the like.

Instead of giving money away, though, the Army charity lent out 91 percent of its emergency aid during the period 2003-2007. For accounting purposes, the loans, dispensed interest-free, are counted as expenses only when they are not paid back.

Never mind that these practices are perfectly legal. Or that AER has been operating successfully since 1942, serving groups that were largely ignored by other charities. Instead, the experts interviewed by the AP believe that the Army charity should be dispensing more aid, with less of a cushion for future expenses.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it should. In December 2007, the Washington Post ran a similar piece on a wider range of military charities. But the conclusions were strikingly similar, and the AP tracked down some of the same critics contacted by the Post, including Daniel Borochoff, President of the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP). We should note that the Post article was based on a report from Borochoff's organization.

But that assessment also revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of how the AER--and its Air Force and Navy counterparts--operate. In his 2007 report, Mr. Borochoff wondered why the charities didn't spend more money on homeless veterans. Apparently, he didn't understand there are virtually no homeless among the groups served by these charities--active-duty military personnel, retirees and their families.

The AP wisely avoids that narrative, but many of their complaints are petty. For example, they decry the charity's "intrusion" into an applicant's finances when a soldier applies for assistance. But that misses the larger point; if the individual is having serious financial problem, that can easily affect their job performance, family life, security clearance and a host of other issues. Given those realities, it makes sense for the charity to do a little digging.

Beyond that, there are questions about the Army offering "incentives" for soldiers who make contributions to the charity--a violation of the rules that govern AER. The AP is also concerned about the service cracking down on personnel who don't repay their loans. Did the wire service ever think that the charity--and the personnel who administer it--are trying to teach fiscal discipline and responsibility, so the applicants don't need AER in the future?

But such distinctions are clearly lost on the AP. In fact, reporter Jeff Donn freely admits that the charity has helped thousands of soldiers and their families through the years. And even the wire service might admit that the charity's "hoarding" was prudent. Despite the recent decline in the stock market, AER still has a $214 million portfolio, giving the charity a cushion to weather future financial storms--and still help the troops.

Hollywood's Health Care Hypocrisy

There's never a shortage of hypocrisy in Tinsel Town. The world's entertainment capital practically invented the double standard and lives by a simple edict: do as we say, not as we do.

After all, it's the Hollywood crowd that lectures us on free speech, then black-lists anyone who doesn't tow the liberal party line. Hollywood is the same place that rails against the evils of capitalism, but never blinks an eye when top stars cash a $20 million paycheck for a single film.

We've also heard members of the film community demand nationalized health care, citing the examples of Canada and various European countries. But when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, Hollywood comes up (predictably) short.

The latest example can be found at the retirement complex operated by Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) in Woodland Hills, California. For decades, the MPTF has operated a hospital and long-term care facility for aging actors, studio employees and film technicians. The health care complex is funded through a combination of MediCare and Medi-Cal payments; private medical insurance and donations from the entertainment community.

However, the health care center is facing an uncertain future. Last month, the MPTF announced that it would close the hospital and long-term care facility later this year, citing unsustainable financial losses. Representatives of the fund claimed it was heading towards insolvency, thanks to increased costs at the hospital and long-term care facility. Dreamworks mogual Jeffrey Katzenberg, a chief fund-raiser for the charity, claimed the MPTF was losing $10 million a year on the health care complex.

But there's one little problem with that scenario; it doesn't appear to be true. After the fund announced plans to close the hospital and long term care facility, reporter Andrew Gumbel of, a newly-launched entertainment industry news site, did a little digging and obtained copies of recent tax returns and audits. They paint a much different picture of the MPTF and its finances:

The numbers being bandied about by Jeffrey Katzenberg, the MPTF’s chief fundraiser, and other officials do not square with the organization’s own official accounting numbers and tax returns.

Those documents – the most recent filed with the Internal Revenue Service in November 2008 – show no $10 million losses, or any losses at all. The fund’s assets – described in one press release as “draining… at an alarming rate” – actually increased in 2006 and 2007, the last year for which figures are available.

And while it is true that Medi-Cal reimbursements have indeed declined since last summer for hospital care (though not for other medical and nursing-home services), the fund’s accounts show a net increase in government reimbursements for both 2006 and 2007.

One nursing care expert who has looked closely at the reimbursement numbers, Betsy Hite of the California Association of Health Facilities, characterized the MPTF’s explanation of the closures as “hogwash.”

Officials from the United Healthcare Workers union, which concluded a nine-month long contract negotiation with the MPTF last April, said they researched the fund’s finances extensively and found no cause for concern.

Confronted with the contradiction between their public comment and financial statements, representatives of the MPTF have gone silent. Mr. Katzenberg has only offered explanations through Hollywood blogger Nikke Finke, and refuses to be quoted directly. Meanwhile, the MPTF board remains resolute; the hospital and long-term care facility will close later this year, meaning that 100 patients--many in their 80s and 90s--will be looking for a new place to live.

There is, of course, a simple solution to all of this. Katzenberg and some of his friends could stage a few more fund-raisers, or increase their annual donations. For roughly of what Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie will make on their next film, the supposed deficit would be erased, and the health care complex could remain in operation.

Instead, the MPTF board is planning to replace the hospital and long-term care facility with an assisted living condo complex. Details of that project have not been released. Meanwhile, a follow-up report by Mr. Gumbel reveals that the MPTF spends almost $60 million a year on salaries and related expenses. That means the average MPTF employee makes $80-90,000 a year, although the union representing health care workers at the Woodland Hills complex claims its members make far less--about $17 an hour for nursing assistants and $35 an hour for registered nurses.

Meanwhile, the two top officials at the health care complex earn $600,000 and $350,000 a year, respectively. While we don't favor Obama-style caps on executive pay, the MPTF pays its top administrators about six times the national average. The facility's CEO, Dr. David Tillman, received a 20% pay raise while Mr. Katzenburg was complaining about "unsustainable" losses.

Incidentally, the MPTF held its "Night Before" fundraiser in Los Angeles on Saturday evening. The annual event, which benefits the fund's "charitable health care" and other community services, was headlined by a number of Hollywood swells, including Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Jennifer Anniston, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few. The benefit was expected to raise at least $6 million for the fund and its various projects. If nothing else, the $6 million could make a nice down payment on that condo project.

No wonder so many in the entertainment community are excited about "Obama Care." With a little help from the feds, the film and TV crowd can wiggle out of that 80-year-old pledge to "take care of their own," at least as far as health care is concerned.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Coming to America, Redux

Last month, during the transition between the Bush and Obama Administrations, there was a major homeland security "war game." For two-and-a half hours on a day in mid-January, senior federal officials reacted to a series of simulated, terrorist bombings across the country, responding to medical needs, managing the investigative process and ensuring that protective forces were deployed.

The exercise was unique for a couple of reasons. First, the Bush team allowed their Obama counterparts to "sit in" on the exercise and ask questions, giving them a foundation for their own drills and policies in the future. Secondly, the war game scenario was based on a familiar threat, one that remains at the forefront of homeland security concerns. According to Jake Tapper of ABC News (one of the few journalists to write about the event), the half-day exercise condensed two days of IED attacks, targeting economic and transportation centers across America.

Obviously, there's no potential shortage of threats for a homeland security exercise, from a nuclear blast in a U.S. city, to a sudden anthrax epidemic unleashed by terrorists. That's why the IED focus is particularly illustrative. Almost almost eight years of combat in Afghanistan--and nearly six years into the Iraq mission--security officials are acutely familiar with the threat from improvised explosive devices, and they remain concerned about similar attacks here in the homeland.

We're written about the IED threat in the past, most recently in 2007 after a "mass graduation" of Al Qaida suicide bombers at a training camp in Afghanistan. More than 300 terrorists participated in the ceremony, which was recorded by a Pakistani journalist. The tape included warnings in English that some of the bombers were destined for targets in the west.

Fortunately, those attacks failed to pan out. Many of the suicide bombers were probably diverted to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they were killed by allied forces. Others were rolled up by domestic security operations between Pakistan's tribal regions and their intended targets.

But those measures aren't 100% effective. Sooner or later, a suicide bomber or IED cell will slip through and launch a bloody campaign on American soil. And, in many respects, the domestic end represents the weakest link in the security chain. Our nation is filled with thousands of potential targets, including shopping malls; "big box" retailers, transit stations, schools, community centers, hotels, churches, hospitals and other locations were Americans gather, work or shop in large numbers.

Protecting all of these facilities is virtually impossible. But it's more disconcerting that security many of these stores (and other public facilities) ranges from lax to virtually non-existent. Admittedly, members of the general populace aren't privy to all protection measures--nor should they be. But anyone familiar with basics of physical security can get a general grasp of the plan at their local mall, "box" retailer or other public place.

Many of these institutions have invested heavily in security cameras that cover the interior and exterior of the building. There's also (typically) a uniformed security staff and a few undercover store detectives as well. But these precautions are aimed more at shoplifting than the terrorist threat.

Clearly, no one expects the security staff of a store or public building to stop a terrorist attack by themselves. That's where local, state and even federal authorities come in. But getting them to respond quickly can be problematic; potential terror targets are sometimes located on the edge of town, or in high-traffic areas.

A determined psychopath or a team of terrorists can inflict a lot of damage before the local SWAT team arrives. That was painfully evident when a lone gunman, with a history of mental problems, opened fire in an Omaha mall two years ago. Police officers responded in less than 10 minutes but by that time, the gunman had killed eight people, including himself. A few months earlier, an 18-year-old man shot and killed five individuals at a Salt Lake City Mall. Only the quick actions an armed, off-duty police kept the carnage from being much worse.

According to a RAND Corporation study (released before the Omaha massacre), shopping malls and big box outlets could reduce their vulnerability to such attacks by implementing a series of security measures. The cost? Between $500,000 and $2 million per location.

That may seem like a relatively small price to pay, but no one's rushing to add new layers of security. The commercial real estate and retail sectors are hurting in the economic slowdown; mall owners and their tenants would balk at the cost of new security measures, which would further impact their bottom line.

But defeating domestic terror requires more than effective physical security at the site of a potential attack. It requires planning and coordination with local law enforcement, and periodic response drills. Unfortunately, such exercises occur infrequently; there's the matter of cost, and no one wants to really highlight the fact that a local store, mall, school or hospital could be a terror target.

And, as The Wall Street Journal observed in 2005, there's the matter of national priorities and leadership. During the first half of the decade, Israel suffered though the latest--and bloodiest-- Palestinian intifada; more than 1,000 civilians died at the hands of terrorists, mostly through suicide bombings.

When diplomatic overtures failed to produce any results, the Israeli government took more tangible steps. Palestinians suspected of supporting the terror campaign were locked up; the leaders of bomb cells were targeted for assassinations. Physical barriers between Israeli and Palestinian population centers made it much for difficult for terrorists to reach their targets.

Those measures reduced the number of bombings--and civilian casualties--by more than 90%. As you might expect, the Israel anti-terror campaign was widely criticized by law and human rights advocates. But the crack-down achieved its desired results.

Here in the U.S., we haven't faced the threat endured by Israelis. But suicide bombings are IED attacks in the homeland are not a matter of "if," but "when." It's no surprise that such threats formed the scenario for last month's homeland security drill. Experts believe that type is almost inevitable in the coming years.

At some point, the Obama Administration must tell the public how it will deal with such threats, and prevent them in the future. Hopefully, the Obama team will realize that the bomber threat requires more than a "law enforcement" response--before that first explosive device goes off.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Arming Up

Syrian dictator Bashir Assad is looking for improved relations with the United States, now that Barack Obama is in office.

In an interview with the U.K. Guardian, Mr. Assad described Washington as the "main arbiter" in the Middle East peace process, and said he looked forward to the appointment of a new U.S. Ambassador--the first in almost four years.

"There is no substitute for the US. An ambassador is important," he said. "Sending these delegations is important. This number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria. What we have heard from them - Obama, Clinton and others - is positive."

Reading Assad's comments, it's obvious that he expects new overtures from Washington. But we'd also ask what gestures--if any--that the Syrian leader would offer in return. Fact is, the Assad regime is proceeding with a dangerous build-up of its chemical weapons stockpile, a move that will further destabilize the Middle East. And, as you might have guessed, Mr. Assad shows no willingness to surrender part of that arsenal, as part of a broader peace process.

As the U.K. Telegraph reports:

Syria has maintained stockpiles of chemical weapons, including Sarin gas and blister agents, for decades. But satellite images from two operators, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, appeared to show significant efforts to update known facilities.

The Janes's report said that new structures for warehousing and manufacturing complex chemical materials had been built. The buildings had sophisticated filtration systems and cooling towers. Bays for specially adapted Scud missiles had also been built.

It has long been suggested in intelligence circles that Syria had acquired chemical weapons munitions from Iraq in the run-up to the US-led assault on the country. An analysis by JIR suggested that the work on the al-Safir facility in the north-west of the country had started in 2005, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and was continuing last year.

Jane's analysts said that al-Safir was among the most significant chemical weapons production, storage and weaponisation sites in Syria. "Its presence indicates Syria's desire to develop unconventional weapons either to act as a deterrent to conflict with Israel or as a force enhancer should any conflict ensue," said Christian LeMière, editor of JIR. "Further expansion of al-Safir is likely to antagonise Israel and highlight mutual mistrust, even as peace talks between the two neighbours progress intermittently.

But the upgrades at al-Safir are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Damascus has long had an active chemical weapons program, conducting periodic tests with live agents. Almost six years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the U.S. had "evidence" of live CW tests during 2002 and early 2003. In 1999, the Washington Times reported that a Syrian MiG-23 had dropped a chemical weapon on a bombing range. The test was detected because the agent left a tell-tale sign on the soil around the impact point.

There is also evidence of subsequent testing at Al Jufway, the bomb range where that MiG-23 released that CW weapon a decade ago. The periodic missions are a reminder that Damascus retains a potential chemical arsenal and its fighter aircraft are a primary delivery platform. Alternately, some analysts have suggested that the air drops are a sign that Syria has experienced difficulty in perfecting a chemical warhead for its short and medium-range missiles.

However, work on the missile option is continuing. The aforementioned al-Safir facility has reportedly housed a joint Syrian-Iranian project, aimed at developing chemical warheads for ballistic missiles. These efforts have continued, despite a disastrous 2007 accident that claimed the lives of "dozens" of Iranians and at least 15 Syrian military personnel.

According to Janes Defence Weekly, the mishap occurred as the Iranians tried to fit a warhead filled with mustard gas to a SCUD-C missile. A massive explosion destroyed the missile, its warhead and other containers of chemical agents, spreading VX and sarin nerve agents (along with mustard gas) across the compound.

Then, of course, there's the little matter of Damascus's apparent nuclear program, which suffered a severe setback when Israel bombed a secret complex in September 2007. While the function of that facility has been debated, the IAEA announced earlier this week that it had discovered traces of uranium and other nuclear-related materials at the site. The IAEA is pressing Syria to provide more details on the facility.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Assad wants closer ties with the U.S.--and the Obama Administration appears determined to fulfill that request. The Bush Administration had ample reasons to downgrade relations with Damascus, and WMD was only a small part of that rationale. Assad's regime still sponsors terrorism and allowed thousands of Al Qaida terrorists to transit his territory enroute to Iraq. The Syrian government has also been responsible for political assassinations in neighboring Lebanon.

Not much of a resume for better relations, but Washington has a recent history of overlooking aberrant behavior and broken promises by rogue states. North Korea is a prime case in point; the Six Party process continued despite repeated stalling by Pyongyang, a refusal to live up to the bargain and that nuclear complex they built in Syria.

Now, Damascus is playing a similar game. And sadly, we seem to be playing along.

The Succession Crisis

During the Korean leg of her Asian visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of her way to express concerns about a potential succession crisis in North Korea. It's a timely question; with Kim Jong-il experiencing health problems--he reportedly suffered a major stroke last year --there are questions about who might replace him, and increased instability during the transfer of power.

But, if recent reports from South Korea and Japan are accurate, the succession picture in the DPRK is now a bit clearer. According to the U.K. Telegraph, officials in both capitals are now confirming a long-standing rumor: the North Korea leader's youngest son, 25-year-old Kim Jong Un, is being groomed to replace his father.

It would be the second hereditary succession in one of the last remaining communist dictatorships. Kim Jong-il took power 15 years ago upon the death of his father, Kim il-Sung, the founder of the North Korean state.

At the time he took charge in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il had been groomed for power for more than 20 years, handling an ever-increasing portfolio of titles and responsibilities. Kim il-Sung helped pave the way for his son' succession, securing support from key members of the North Korean military. The younger Kim also curried favor with younger officers, and has promoted them since assuming power.

Obviously, Kim Jong-Un is much further behind in the succession process. A product of European schools (with a fondness for German cars, baseball and sushi), Kim Jong-un has recently registered as a candidate for the DPRK's Supreme People's Assembly (the rubber-stamp national legislature), the first step in his preparation for power. Japanese and South Korean analysts also claim that Kim Jong-Un will assume important political and military posts in April, further enhancing his resume.

Kim Jong-il has two older sons from a pair of marriages. But 37-year-old Kim Jong Nam seems to share his father's passion for women and liquor. He is sometimes spotted in the casinos of Macau and is best remembered for an embarrassing diplomatic incident in 2001.

Visiting Disneyland in Japan with two women and a young child, Kim Jong Nam was briefly detained by local authorities for traveling on a forged passport. The South China Morning Post also reported that Kim's elder son lived in Macau for almost three years (until 2007), suggesting that he had fallen out of favor--and out of line for succession--in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Nam subsequently returned to North Korea, and took a senior government job. However, Kim's chances for replacing his father were further diminished by his parentage. Kim's mother was the first wife of Kim Jong-il, a woman that did not meet the approval of Kim il-Sung.

That means the line of succession begins with Kim Jong-un and his 28-year-old brother, Kim Jong Chul. Right now, the odds favor the younger son; a former family chef describes Kim Jong Chul as "soft" with the "heart of a woman"--hardly desirable qualities for a prospective, totalitarian dictator.

The real issue is whether Kim Jong-un has enough time to get ready for the top job, and secure the right backing to keep himself in power. Kim il-Sung lived to age 82, giving his son years to prepare. Given his father's recent health crisis, Kim Jong-un may not have that luxury, setting the stage for a potential succession crisis.

Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Mr. Kim and his family's hold on power. While Kim Jong-il recovered from last year's stroke, his brother-in-law essentially ran the country for three months. There were no reports of increased dissent, to potential threats to the regime's authority. With the backing of the military, a caretaker figure could run the country until Kim Jong-un is deemed "ready" for the top post.

And, ironically enough, the DPRK recently vowed its loyalty to Kim Jong-ils's youngest son. That pledge (subject to reversal) is another indicator that Kim Jong-un is the anointed heir, destined to replace the "Dear Leader" at the appointed time.

If Kim Jong-un follows his father's example, he will lavish gifts and resources on his officer corps, doing whatever it takes to keep them happy. While millions of North Korean peasants starved to death in the 1990s, the DPRK military remained relatively well off (read: they had enough food and perks to retain their loyalty). With the backing of the armed forces, both Kim Jong-il and his regime have exceeded expectations. In 1994, more than a few Korea experts were predicting a brief reign for Kim Jong-il, believing that he could never sustain the support of the military.

Whenever he assumes power, Kim Jong-un will inherit a bankrupt country with the world's fourth-largest army and a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Those factors, coupled with the younger Kim's inexperience (assuming that Kim Jong-il passes away in the next 3-5 fives) is not a combination for a peaceful transfer of power. It happened before, but the odds of a second, smooth transition in Pyongyang are decidedly long.

And that poses the real question, one that Mrs. Clinton didn't answer in Seoul. What is the U.S. plan for a sudden implosion of the DPRK?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bill Moyers and the Sex Police

Today's Washington Post reports that the FBI once investigated the sexual orientation of Jack Valenti, the former aide to President Johnson who later spent decades as head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered a probe into Mr. Valenti's sexual preferences in 1964, shortly after he joined the Johnson White House. The inquiry was prompted by rumors of a relationship between Valenti and a commercial photographer in Houston.

While President Johnson initially tried to block the investigation, the Post says he relented under pressure from Hoover. Agents never found any information to corroborate the rumor. Valenti had married Lyndon Johnson's personal secretary in 1962; they raised three children and remained together until his death in 2005.

There is, of course, a certain irony in all of this. Hoover's sexual orientation has long been a matter of speculation; he never married and was often in the company of Clyde Tolson, his longtime aide at the bureau. Mr. Hoover's reported peccadilloes have been gist for psychologists, historians and the gossip mill since his death in 1972.

Valenti wasn't the only person whose sex life came under scrutiny. Hoover was apparently fascinated with the personal preferences of the rich and powerful. Inquiries about their sexual habits have turned up in a number of FBI files that have been declassified in recent years. That doesn't excuse the practice, but it is a reminder that the 1960s were a different time, when the mere suggestion that someone was gay was enough to destroy them.

But perhaps the most interesting element of the Post account comes in paragraph six, which reveals that FBI agents weren't the only individuals digging into the sex lives of administration officials. Turns out that Bill Moyers, the LBJ aide who became a liberal journalistic icon, was also on the case. Records obtained by the paper show that Mr. Moyers was gathering information on the sexual habits of White House staffers.

Contacted by the Post about his role in the sexual investigation, Moyers offered only a vague reply, saying that his memory is "unclear" after so many years. In an e-mail to reporter Joe Stephens, Moyers suggested that he may have been looking for "details of allegations first brought to Johnson's attention by Hoover."

That parsed reply reminds us of something else: Bill Moyers is one of the biggest hypocrites in the history of American politics. What the Post fails to mention is the Mr. Moyers was up to his neck in political dirt-digging back in 1964. As recounted by the Church Committee in the mid-1970s, Moyers was the White House aide that ordered FBI "name checks" on 15 members of Barry Goldwater's staff, looking for evidence of homosexual activity.

According to the committee's final report, Moyers "publicly recounted" his role in the name check request, and the account was confirmed by FBI files. But others have suggested that Moyers subsequently tried to change his story. In a 2005 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Federal Judge Lawrence Silberman, who served as acting Attorney General for President Ford, recounts a "revisionist" phone call he received from Mr. Moyers, after the committee released its findings:

When the press reported this, I received a call in my office from Mr. Moyers. Several of my assistants were with me. He was outraged; he claimed that this was another example of the Bureau salting its files with phony CIA memos. I was taken aback. I offered to conduct an investigation, which if his contention was correct, would lead me to publicly exonerate him. There was a pause on the line and then he said, "I was very young. How will I explain this to my children?" And then he rang off. I thought to myself that a number of the Watergate figures, some of whom the department was prosecuting, were very young, too.

Readers will note that Bill Moyers requested dirt on Goldwater's aides about the same time that Jack Valenti's sex life became a matter for FBI inquiry. Coincidence? Well, the Washington Post story on the Valenti investigation reveals that Mr. Moyers also asked the bureau to investigate "two other administration officials suspected as having homosexual tendencies."

Was the future PBS commentator merely trying to protect the White House, or did he see an opportunity to go after Valenti, who established himself as Johnson's closest aide after the JFK assassination? When President Kennedy visited Dallas in November 1963, Valenti wasn't even a member of the administration; he was a Houston ad man, hired to handle the press during the Texas trip. But Valenti was one of the first people Johnson called after JFK died, and appears prominently in the famous "swearing in" photo on Air Force One. He even lived in the White House for two months after moving to Washington.


ADDENDUM: In fairness, it's worth remembering that the Johnson White House had its own reasons for an internal probe. During the 1964 campaign, one of the president's senior aides had been arrested for allegedly having sex with another man at the Washington YMCA. The GOP was reportedly looking into the matter, hoping to use it as a campaign issue. Worried about that possibility, Mr. Johnson had obvious political motivations for checking on other staff members.

But as the Church committee detailed, Bill Moyers was more than a minor participant in these matters. The order to "name check" Goldwater staffers came from him, at the direction of the president. Far from merely verifying rumors dug up by the FBI, it was Moyers who sent the bureau after political opponents. Forty years later, it's enough to make you wonder about the original source of the Valenti rumors, and why memories suddenly grown fuzzy.

For the record, the Valenti probe began after a man called an FBI official in New York, and asked them to investigate the White House aide as a "sexual pervert." The man's name has been redacted from the files provided to the Post.

Similar thoughts from Peter Wehner at Commentary Magazine.

Done Deal?

Facing the loss of a key airbase in Kyrgyzstan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have tried to assure us that "no base is irreplaceable."

We'll soon find out if Mr. Gates and Mrs. Clinton are correct. Yesterday, the Kyrgyz Parliment voted overwhelmingly to cancel to U.S. lease on Manas AB, near the capital of Bishkek. Without access to the installation, the Pentagon will find it more difficult to increase troops levels in Afghanistan, a move ordered by President Obama earlier this week.

By a 78-1 margin, Parliament members supported the government's plan to end the American presence at Manas. Once the measure is signed by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, U.S. forces will have 180 days to vacate the base, which has served as a critical point for airlift and air refueling operations in support of the Afghan conflict.

Despite the Kyrgyz decision, Mr. Gates doesn't seem overly concerned. According to the Associated Press, the defense secretary still believes that Washington can reach a new lease agreement with Bishkek:

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Poland for NATO talks, said the United States would consider paying more rent to continue using the strategic base. Speaking after the parliament vote in Kyrgyzstan, Gates said he considers talks still open over the future of the base.

Gates also accused Moscow of pushing Kyrgyzstan to close the base. The Russians have denied that, but Bakiyev announced plans to end the lease arrangement after Moscow promised more than $2 billion in aid--substantially more than the U.S. pays in rent.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the U.S. has "yet to receive any formal notification of a change in status of Manas so our operations there continue as normal.”

But the real question is what happens when--and if--that notification is received. The U.S. has received permission to send non-lethal supplies through Russia and Kazakhstan. American officials are also studying logistical options in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Collectively, they provide some flexibility in maintaining the so-called "northern route" into Afghanistan. Those corridors have become increasingly important in recent months, with the Taliban interdicting southern supply routes through Pakistan.

Still, there are limits to what can be shipped through Russian and Kazak territory. Uzbekistan once allowed U.S. military forces on its soil, but that agreement ended in 2005. U.S. logistical teams are unsure how much material could be transported through Tajikistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan also represents our best--some would say only hope--for a "new" airbase in the region. As we've noted previously, basing rights in Kyrgyzstan were critical for resupply and refueling operations in the Afghan War. Tankers flying from Manas could spend more time over Afghanistan, providing greater offloads to fighter, bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. The Kyrgyz base was also a critical hub for personnel and air cargo; by one estimate, more than 15,000 troops--and 500 tons of cargo--moved through the installation each month.

If the Uzbek option falls through, USAF tankers will probably move to bases in the Persian Gulf. They can still reach Afghanistan from those locations, but their loiter time and fuel offloads will be significantly decreased. That means more sorties, fuel and money to provide the same level of support. And with Mr. Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan--and the requirement for more air missions--the bill for the tanker mission will be even higher.

Maybe Mr. Gates (or someone else) can pull a rabbit out of the hat and preserve our basing options in Kyrgyzstan, or make similar arrangements in a neighboring country. Unfortunately, such thinking appears to be optimistic--at best. Officials in the Bush and Obama Administrations took their eyes off the ball, and our military forces may pay the price.

With the lease at Manas up in the air--and strained relations between Washington and Bishkek --Moscow found a way to fill the vacuum, promising the financial aid needed to eject U.S. forces and increase Russian influence in the region. In this latest variation on the "Great Game," the Kremlin looks like a winner, while the U.S. scrambles to save face and find a new airbase.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Missile Swap?

Less than two months ago, Iran's acquisition of the S-300 air defense system appeared to be a done deal. In late December, a senior intelligence official told the AP that Moscow was selling the S-300 to Tehran, although deliveries of the surface-to-air missiles--and support hardware--had not been detected. The intelligence assessment followed Russian press reports that made similar claims.

While those accounts were considered credible, they may have been premature. Reuters now says that Iran's defense minister made a pitch for the delivery of air defense systems during a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Tuesday. If that report is correct, then Tehran's purchase of the S-300 is anything but a fait accompli.

That also raises an interesting question, namely what happened to the air defense deal which seemed to be a virtual certainty just weeks ago? A couple of possibilities come to mind.

First of all, those earlier reports may have been wrong. If we had $100 for every report of an S-300 deal between Russia and Iran over the last eight or nine years, well...we'd have a nice chunk of change in our pockets. Last December wasn't the first time that sources in Moscow (or Tehran) claimed that a sale was in the offing.

More importantly, the December reports marked the first time that senior U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the deal. While our intelligence community has made more than its share of bad calls, the recent confirmation of the sale was based on more than Russian press reporting. Based on imagery, SIGINT, HUMINT--or a combination of those sources--our analysts became convinced that the S-300 was finally heading for Iran.

A second theory suggests that Moscow put the transfer on hold. That would also be something of a shocker; the deal is worth at least $800 million, with the potential for more sales in the future. Russian arms dealers--and their friends in the Kremlin--don't like to leave that much money on the table, even on a temporary basis.

Obviously, it would take a powerful incentive to get Russia to delay or cancel the sale. And what would that incentive be? How about major U.S. concessions on missile defense in Europe. Earlier this month, a senior Obama Administration official told Reuters that the U.S. might slow development of Europe-based missile defenses--if Russia agreed to help with Iran, and dissuade their nuclear ambitions.

If that's the strategy (and no one at the White House has denied the Reuters account), then it's not hard to imagine a similar request on the S-300. By cutting a deal with Moscow, the U.S. can keep a state-of-the-art SAM system out of Iran, a system that would pose a serious threat to American aircraft in the (remote) possibility that we decide to go after Tehran's nuclear facilities.

But at what price? Missile defense advocates fear that these overtures may ultimately result in the cancellation of the planned BMD shield in Eastern Europe. As defense writer John Doyle notes, that prospect has created dismay in the region, which has looked to U.S. for security guarantees, particularly after last year's conflict between Russia and Georgia.

For Moscow, the apparent "understanding" with Washington would represent the deal of the century. For a little pressure on Iran--and interruption of the S-300 deal, Russia achieves a major policy goal: getting the U.S. to defer missile defenses in Moscow's back yard.

Make no mistake--that's exactly what the Obama team is proposing. While Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would "pursue" BMD during a recent speech in Germany, that pledge came with the usual caveats--the missile defenses must be affordable and meet steep performance criteria. You don't need to be rocket scientist to understand what that means. By setting impossible test criteria, the new administration can assure the ultimate cancellation of key missile defense programs.

Meanwhile, Moscow will be free to pursue its own strategic modernization, without having to worry about advanced BMD systems that could (ultimately) protect against a Russian attack. Indeed, the Obama Administration has been talking about a new strategic arms treaty with Moscow that will sharply reduce the nuclear inventories of both sides. But there's been no suggestion about cuts in new systems like Russia's SS-27 ICBM, which is also being deployed on ballistic missile submarines.

Followed to its logical conclusion, the Obama policy would leave us with no missile defenses in Eastern Europe--and down-sized, aging nuclear forces--facing a resurgent Russia with newer and more capable land-based missiles. That doesn't mean that the strategic balance will tilt inexorably in Moscow's favor, but it does grant concessions that are simply jaw-dropping.

Put more succinctly: this is one "missile swap" that we don't need.

Mr. Young Continues His Anti-CSAR Crusade

An Air Force HC-130P refuels an HH-60 Pave Hawk in flight. The USAF is now locked in a battle with a senior Pentagon official over a potential replacement for the tankers, which are among the oldest C-130 airframes in the service (Wikipedia photo).

As we noted last month, Pentagon acquisition chief John Young has serious doubts about the Air Force's Combat Search-and-Rescue (CSAR) mission. Late last year, he bluntly asked the service why it needs a dedicated force for those missions.

Since Vietnam, Mr. Young noted, the USAF has conducted relatively few aircrew rescues--the core mission for CSAR forces. Today's rescue units are more likely to be tasked for humanitarian missions; the infiltration or extraction of special forces personnel, or the pick-up of other ground elements. When Air Force choppers perform those tasks, there are inevitable cries of mission "poaching" by the other services, most notably the U.S. Army.

In response, USAF leaders offered the following points: (1) The service's rescue units represent the only dedicated CSAR force within DoD; (2) Air Force rescue squadrons have saved over 2,800 personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, flying missions "in high risk areas that the other services cannot support," and (3) USAF rescue crews can deploy more quickly for humanitarian missions overseas, as they did during the 2006 tsunami relief operation in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, the importance of Air Force CSAR capabilities is apparently lost on Mr. Young and some members of Congress. After Young's initial inquiry, the House Armed Services Committee also questioned the need for standing rescue forces, and plans to spend $15 billion on the next-generation CSAR helicopter.

And if that weren't enough, the Pentagon acquisition czar has added a new element to the debate. As Aviation Week's Michael Fabey reports, Mr. Young has decided to eliminate the HC-130Js that had been programmed for rescue squadrons, shifting those airframes to MC-130 Combat Talon units assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

While the CSAR mission conjures up images of sophisticated helicopters and daring rescues, the HC-130 is an equally important member of the team. Nicknamed "Combat Shadow," the HC-130's primary role is the in-flight refueling of rescue helicopters. The aircraft can also provide communications relay for CSAR forces or limited tactical delivery mission, dropping pararescue specialists or equipment needed by special forces teams.

By comparison, the MC-130 is a dedicated SOF platform, specializing in the infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of those units. Its secondary missions are psychological operations and the in-flight refueling of special ops helicopters. Mr. Young believes the tanker mission can be consolidated in the MC-130 community, prompting him to shift those new, J-model airframes to AFSOC.

But there are a few problems with that scenario. First, the newest MC-130 variant (the "H" model) carries a price tag of $155 million, making it far more expensive than the HC-130J. By most estimates, the dedicated tanker version is less than half the cost of an MC-130; the Air Force could get more bang for its refueling buck by purchasing the HC-130J.

Additionally, there's the problem of "freeing up" MC-130s for the tanker mission. As with other SOF assets, MC-130 aircraft and crews are heavily tasked. Shifting J-model airframes to AFSOC will create some flexibility, but rescue helicopter crews are rightly concerned that tankers assigned to other squadrons--in another command--may not always be available.

Under the Air Force's current operational structure, the helicopters and HC-130s are assigned to the same squadrons and train together on a daily basis. Continuing that arrangement, as part of a dedicated CSAR force, makes eminent sense. The USAF should continue its fight to overturn Mr. Young's decision, and hope that he decides to return to the private sector--sooner, rather than later.
ADDENDUM: According to Aviation Week, at least two senior commanders have asked John Young to reconsider the shift of C-130Js to AFSOC. General William Ward, commander of the new Africa Command (AFRICOM) and General Gene Renuart, who leads U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) have voiced strong support for the HC-130J. Excerpts from their e-mails to Young were published in the Aviation Week article:

In a Jan. 8 e-mail to Young, Gen. William Ward said, “I also would recommend against deferring HC-130Js from the program. The ranges and added performance features required for potential personnel recovery activities in Africa, as available in the HC-130J, are absolutely needed. Both aircraft will play an important role in AFRICOM.”

The same day, NORAD and Northern Command (NORTHCOM) chief Gen. Victor Renuart sent Young an e-mail saying, “I commanded the HC-130 units during my tenure as Wing Commander of the 347th Wing at Moody. Our current active duty HC-130 fleet is based on the oldest airframes in the inventory. The need to modernize these airframes is critical, both in terms of recapitalization and mission effectiveness.”

He continued, “The added performance of the ‘J’ models would have prevented a couple mishaps we had in the early days of combat rescues in Afghanistan and the much improved systems integration and cockpit design of the HC-130J will provide our CSAR crews the best chance for success in a very tough mission environment.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Iran's New Plan for Air Defense

Still worried about a potential strike by Israeli--and looking for ways to integrate equipment more effectively--Iran has announced plans for a separate air defense force.

According to the Associated Press, the new branch will integrate air defense assets previously assigned to other organizations, including the "regular" Air Force and the Revolutionary Guards. Under the new organizational structure, the air defense command will become the "fourth" branch of the military, joining Iran's Army, Navy and the Air Force.

Gen. Ahmad Mighani announced over the weekend that Iran's supreme leader ordered a new branch be split off from the air force to deal specifically with any threats to the country's air space. The order rearranges the regular military into four branches — the ground force, the navy, the air force and the air defense force, he said.

The commander of the new force will oversee radar, military intelligence gathering equipment and anti-aircraft missile units, Mighani said. He did not elaborate.

We put the "fourth" designation in quotation marks because in reality, Iran has dual ground forces, navies and air forces. Since the Iranian Revolution, the ruling clerics have been suspicious of the "regular" military and lingering concerns about its "western" influences. Until 1979, Iran's armed forces based on the U.S. model--and largely equipped with American hardware.

We also provided training for hundreds of the Shah's officers, some of them remained on active duty well into the 1990s. Try as they might, the revolutionaries couldn't completely purge the western influence, since U.S.-trained officers were generally the most capable in the Iranian military.

Unable to completely eliminate its American-trained cadre, Tehran did the next best thing, creating ground, naval and air units within the Revolutionary Guard. While those elements were decidedly loyal to the regime, they were also less proficient than members of the "regular" armed forces. As Revolutionary Guard units slowly gained experience, "regular" forces still played a key role in defending Iran.

As you might imagine, the competing militaries were a nightmare in terms of training, equipment and control. Regular units and their RG counterparts competed for funding, resulting in a dual units that were often resource-starved. While the Revolutionary Guard gained the upper hand over the past decade (receiving most of the new equipment and the lion's share of funding), the regular military soldiered on, and will apparently be a part of Iran's military for some time to come.

By melding regular and RG air defense units into a single command, Iran believes it can eliminate many of those problems. Tehran also hopes the new structure improve the often-contentious relations between the two organizations. In recent years, there have been reports of AAA guns, manned by "regular" air defense personnel, firing on aircraft and UAVs assigned to the Revolutionary Guard. And as you might imagine, RG crews have returned the favor, shooting at "regular" Air Force jets, or failing to report track data to SAM batteries operated by the "senior" air defense service.

Iran's new air defense organization also reflects a growing Russian influence. Tehran has already taken delivery of the SA-15 advanced mobile SAM, and is expected to receive the long-range S-300 system later this year. Russian advisers recognized the folly of the old Iranian system, and we expect they lobbied hard for Tehran to put those state-of-the-art SAMs in a more workable operational structure.

There is, of course, a Russian precedent for this type of organizational scheme. Students of the former Soviet military may recall that Moscow had its own, separate air defense branch (PVO Strany) for many years. It ranked third, in terms of importance, behind the Strategic Rocket forces and the Red Army. However, the budget crunch of the late 1990s forced consolidation of the air defense mission into the Russian Air Force. And despite Vladimir Putin's efforts to restore prestige--and funding--for Russia's military, air defense forces have not reemerged as a separate branch of the armed services.

Will the Iranian version prove more successful? We'll be charitable and say the jury will be out on that one for several years. While getting rid of the "dual" service structure is a step in the right direction, old habits, hatreds and rivalries die hard. It will be interesting to see who winds up in charge of the air defense forces, and who dominates the senior command structure. Our money is on the Revolutionary Guard, which is slowly gaining the upper hand on its rivals from the regular military.

But even if it's dominated by the RG, the new air defense branch will still depend on regular units that operate some of the older SAMs and radars. Achieving cooperation and integration between regular and RG elements will be Job #1 in making the new air defense branch a viable military organization. But don't hold your breath. Iran has been trying to crack this nut for 30 years, with only marginal success.