Friday, July 31, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come, Redux

In a recent post, we wondered if the American health care system--or, at least Barack Obama's vision of it--would come to resemble that of our military. With certain exceptions, the armed forces already operate a "single payer" system, featuring limited choices and bureaucratic decisions that govern the quality of care.

While many military doctors (and hospitals) are considered excellent, others have a less-than-stellar reputation. There's a standing joke in medical schools that 75% of the graduates are referred to as "doctor," while the bottom 25% are called "Captain." Other physicians wind up in the armed forces because of past difficulties, including an inability to maintain malpractice insurance. Practicing medicine in uniform, physicians don't have to worry about malpractice coverage and the Feres Doctrine protects them from lawsuits by military members and their dependents.

But beyond those concerns, the military health care system faces more basic problems. Stretched thin by the medical requirements of two wars, at least one of the services is finding it difficult to provide required services to its core clientele. According to USA Today, the number of Army medical centers and clinics that provide timely access to routine medical care has hit a five-year low. As a result, more soldiers and their families are being sent off-post for treatment, by civilian doctors.

About 16% of Army patients, particularly family members, can't get appointments with their primary physicians and are sent to doctors off the installation, according to the results of a nine-month Army review finished late last year. Some of those patients end up in emergency rooms or urgent care centers, says the study, which the Army provided to USA TODAY.

Army records show that 26 of its medical centers, hospitals and clinics are unable to meet the Pentagon standard requiring that 90% of patients get routine care appointments within seven days. Those are the worst results since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a 13% increase from 2005 in the number of medical facilities unable to meet the standard.

To some degree, this problem was inevitable--and preventable. Almost eight years into the Afghan conflict (and six years after the Iraq invasion), the Army knows how many doctors, nurses and other medical specialists are required to support deployed operations, and the "gap" that creates back home. But according to the USA Today article, the Army surgeon general has only recently authorized the hiring of more physicians.

And, as you might expect, getting doctors to "sign on" with the service (in uniform, or as civilians) is difficult. As a newly-commissioned officer, military physicians earn only a fraction of what they could make in private practice; the same hold true for doctors who accept civil service positions with the armed forces or the VA.

So the military winds up with more doctors that have (ahem) "fewer career options" than other physicians. That, in turn, brings us back to the quality-of-care issues that have long plagued DoD's health care system.

Thankfully, the Army still has the option of moving patients into the civilian system, and the on-going drawdown in Iraq will ease pressure on the service's network of clinics and hospitals. But there is a cautionary tale in the problems now facing the Army. Creation of a national, government-run system (the ultimate goal of many Democrats) would result in the same types of access problems that Army members and their dependents are now experiencing.

Consider Great Britain, where 60 years of socialized medicine have prompted many physicians to opt out of the system (and work exclusively in the nation's small, private health care network), or seek more lucrative employment in the United States. As a result, the U.K. has been forced to recruit more doctors from abroad, creating potential security problems. Five of the eight individuals arrested in connection with the 2007 Glasgow Airport terror attack were Muslim doctors, recruited to work for Britain's National Health System.

Beyond security risks, there are the more pressing concerns of access and quality-of-care. Almost everyone has heard horror stories from the U.K. and Canada where patients died awaiting their turn for "rationed" procedures, or were denied expensive medications by health care bureaucrats.

In our country, military members and their families can tell similar stories. Getting certain types of medications through an on-base pharmacy can be difficult--if not impossible--because of cost. Conversely, almost everyone in uniform has a seemingly endless supply of 800 mg Motrin, the pain-reliever-of-choice in the armed forces health care system.

We certainly hope the situation improves for Army members (and their dependents) who are now having trouble getting needed health care. Thankfully, the service still has our current hybrid system to fall back on, allowing it to send patients to physicians and hospitals off-base. But we wonder how long that option will remain, given Democrats' 60-seat majority in the Senate, and the willingness of House "Blue Dogs" to roll over on the issue.

There's also the matter of past, broken promises on military health care. Military retirees were once guaranteed access to on-base medical facilities, with virtually no out-of-pocket expenses. But along came something called TriCare and more than a decade later, most retired military personnel and their dependents are in a system that gives them more choices, but at a higher cost.

Army families now struggling to see providers on base should remember this lesson from the TriCare episode: military promises on health care aren't always kept. The same applies to grandiose promises associated with current efforts to "fix" our health care system.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Your Tax Dollars at Work

A lot of folks in Arizona are hopping mad. And rightfully so.

KPNX-TV, the ABC affiliate in Phoenix, found dozens of teacher's lounging poolside, at a four-star resort in Tucson. Trouble is, the educators were supposed to be participating in a training conference at the hotel--a conference funded by the taxpayers.

But, as reporter Josh Bernstein discovered, many of the teachers simply blew off the training sessions and used the conference as a paid vacation. One teacher reportedly spent five hours at the pool, while he was supposed to be in class. Others brought along their kids--most of school districts provided vehicles for their educators to drive to Tucson. Some whiled away the hours drinking beer and watching the British Open in a hotel lounge. Average cost per teacher: $1,000, all on the public dime.

You can see Mr. Bernstein's report here:

To be fair, many of the teachers were participating in the training programs they signed up for, sitting dutifully at their laptops in a meeting room. But even some of those teachers were wasting their time--and the taxpayers' money. KPNX found some of the training participants were playing games on their computers, or surfing the web.

As you might imagine, Mr. Bernstein has had a hard time getting Arizona school districts to go on the record about the conference, and provide figures on the number of teachers who participated and how much it cost. However, he has learned that the state Department of Education sent at least 20 staffers to the conference; this, as Arizona contemplates selling the state capitol building due to the current recession.

Ironically, your humble correspondent was in Atlanta this week on business, and he came across an even larger education conference. The event was the Department of Defense 2009 Worldwide Education Conference, held at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. A hotel employee told me that more than 2,500 people attended the event. Included in that total were most of the base education officers in DoD and representatives of colleges and universities that provide college courses to military personnel and veterans.

From what I could tell, the attendees at the Defense Department meeting were better-behaved than their Arizona counterparts. I didn't see many folks hanging around the pool, indeed, most of the attendees were hustling from from room to room where various workshops and seminars were apparently underway. From my observations, the DoD/academia crowd seemed to be better stewards of the tax dollar (and university budgets) than the slackers in Tucson.

Still, in this day of skyrocketing budget deficits, you've got to wonder if some of the business couldn't be transacted by video teleconference, or--here's a novel idea--a webinar. We were told that the DoD conference is only held once every three years, so its periodic scheduling offers some cost savings. Still, sending hundreds of Defense Department employees to a swanky hotel isn't exactly cheap. One participant I spoke with told me the 2006 conference was held in Orlando, and the 2012 is already scheduled--for Las Vegas.
ADDENDUM: Josh Bernstein, who exposed those lazy teachers in Arizona, is the same reporter that uncovered an even more expensive retreat for Social Security Administration managers, held recently in Phoenix. It's nice to know that some journalists still take their jobs seriously.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Today's Reading Assignments

A couple of worthy articles, which remind of an axiom from George H.W. Bush. As the 41st President once observed, "What you don't know about domestic policy will keep you from getting re-elected; what you don't know about foreign policy will get a lot of people killed."

Flash forward 20 years; so far, Barack Obama's international miscues haven't resulted in mass casualties, but the potential for catastrophe is clear. Writing in today's Washington Post, Michael Gerson writes that the President's policy of "engagement with our adversaries" (above all else) has been a colossal failure when it comes to Iran and North Korea:

North Korea responded to administration outreach by testing a nuclear weapon, firing missiles toward U.S. allies, resuming plutonium reprocessing and threatening the United States with a "fire shower of nuclear retaliation." During congressional testimony, Clinton admitted, "At this point [it] seems implausible, if not impossible, the North Koreans will return to the six-party talks and begin to disable their nuclear capacity again."

The Iranian regime's reaction to engagement was to cut the ribbon on a nuclear enrichment facility, add centrifuges, conduct a fraudulent election, and kill and imprison a variety of political opponents. Regarding administration overtures, Clinton recently told the BBC, "We haven't had any response. We've certainly reached out and made it clear that's what we'd be willing to do . . . but I don't think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now."

As Mr. Gerson observes, the Obama team has blamed "non-engagement" by previous administrations (read: George W. Bush) for non-existent relations with Pyongyang and Tehran. But such claims are hardly accurate; during his second term, Mr. Bush and his advisers, led by Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, made a several overtures to both regimes. In return, Iran accelerated its nuclear development program and increased its meddling in Iraq; North Korea conducted its first-ever nuclear test, and introduced its first crude ICBM, capable of reaching Alaska and Hawaii.

Besides, the "Blame Bush" rationale is getting a little lame. Six months into his presidency, Mr. Obama owns both problems--for better or worse--and what happens next will be determined largely by his actions, not those of Bush #43.

"...can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran -- or with North Korea -- now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves."


The Obama administration's public campaign of engaging enemies is headed toward an entirely unintended consequence. Eventually it will raise expectations for action. As the extended hand is slapped again and again, the goals of North Korea and Iran will be fully revealed and the cost to American credibility will rise. Already the administration has given Iran a September deadline to respond to the offer of talks and has threatened "crippling action" if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities. Congress is preparing sanctions on Iranian refined petroleum, which would escalate tensions significantly.

Making matters worse, both Pyongyang and Tehran are fully prepared to call Washington's bluff. With Mr. Obama refusing to respond--or responding with half-hearted measures--Iran and North Korea will escalate the regional crises, and the U.S. will be exposed as impotent on the world stage.

At that point, the Israeli Air Force will head east; Iran will respond with its counter-attacks, and the Middle East's nuclear genie will permanently escape his bottle. On the Korean Peninsula, Kim Jong-il (or his military) will continue to ratchet up tensions, conducting more missile and nuclear tests that will likely lead to a clash with U.S. and South Korean forces. After that, anything could happen. The number of lives lost in both regions could be staggering.

In a similar vein, Thomas Sowell offers the following observation in his latest National Review column: "..if the worst that Barack Obama does is ruin the economy, I will breathe a sigh of relief."

A scary thought, indeed.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ookie Gets (Partially) Re-instated

We've been a bit remiss in our coverage of Michael "Ookie" Vick, the disgraced NFL star who was sentenced to 23 months in a federal penintentary for sponsoring a brutal dog-fighting ring.

Since we last checked in on Mr. Vick, he has finished his stints in Leavenworth and a half-way house, and is now back home in Newport News, Virginia. There's still the matter of his bankruptcy, which is still winding its way through the court system. But, in an effort to show that he has changed his ways, Vick has been working, first on a construction site, and more recently, as a counselor at a youth sports complex.

Of course, Vick's real aspiration is to return to the NFL and even that scenario seems more likely that it did a few months back. Late today, League Commissioner Roger Goddell partially re-instated the former Falcons quarterback, allowing Vick to sign with a team and participate in training camp, including the final two pre-season games. However, he would likely serve a league-imposed suspension at the start of the regular season, requiring Vick to sit out the first 4-6 games. That means Mr. Vick could complete the final portion of his league suspension and return to action, full-time, by early October.

Supporters argue that Vick has served his time and deserves another chance. But others wonder if the one-time NFL sensation is truly repentant, and can be the type of "model citizen" that the league now demands. If Ookie will spend the rest of his career under a magnifying glass, then he didn't help matters with a recent evening "excursion," as reported by various media outlets:

Apparently former Falcons QB Mike Vick was released from federal custody on Monday and wanted to get a sweet, sweet taste of freedom. That, and the sweet, sweet smell of cheap perfume. Numerous Internet reports say that one of the first places he visited was a strip club in his native Virginia. Oh, and that Allen Iverson was with him.

A blog called "Young, Black, and Fabulous" posted this:

Said YBF reader spotted Mike at a popular Gentlemen’s club called Atlantis in Virginia Beach last night. And he was partying it up with Allen Iverson and his wife. Hmmm. One of the dancers also said that Allen didn’t throw out a single dollar all night despite bragging about being a “money making machine.”

To be fair, both Vick and his attorney have denied the report. But if perceptions matter in our society--and they do--then Ookie would be well-advised to stay away from such establishments. And he might want to get the "money-making machine" on board as well. To our knowledge, Iverson hasn't denied the strip club story.

Go figure.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dust-Up in the Media Pool

There's a media fracas that's gained steam in recent days, and it promises to become a full-blown donnybrook before everything is said and done. On one side, there's a Navy public affairs officer, Commander Jeffrey Gordon. On the other, reporter Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald.

Commander Gordon serves as the Pentagon's chief spokesman for issues pertaining to the western hemisphere, including the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Ms. Rosenberg has been the Herald's reporter on the Gitmo beat for several years, and she has frequently clashed with Commander Gordon.

But "clashed" is probably a bit mild in describing encounters between the Navy PAO and the Herald reporter. In a letter to the paper's executive editor (dated 29 July), Commander Gordon accused Ms. Rosenberg of sexual harassment and unprofessional conduct. directed toward himself, other public affairs representatives and even other members of the media pool.

In his complaint to Herald executive editor Anders Gyllenhall, Gordon calls for an investigation to "end" Rosenberg's "appalling behavior," that includes alleged comments about his sexual orientation. Fishbowl D.C. obtained a copy of Commander Gordon's letter; excerpts were re-printed by TV Newser.

To me, in front of another journalist with reference to why 9/11 co-defendant Mustafa Al Hawsawi was seated on a pillow in court:

"Have you ever had a red hot poker shoved up your a**? Have you ever had a broomstick shoved up your a**? Have you ever had anything in your a**? How would you know how it feels if it never happened to you?
Admit it, you liked it? No wonder why you like to stay in South Beach on your Miami visits."

Rosenberg, to CNN's
Jamie McIntyre in front of roughly 15 journalists in the Guantanamo Commission's press center:

To Jamie - "Aren't you in the BOQ (Bachelor Officers Quarters)? I didn't think you were in tent city because these people (military public affairs escorts) are so far up your ass that I figured you must be in the BOQ."

To Me [Gordon] - "Why isn't he in the BOQ? You're kissing his ass so much that I can't believe that you're letting him stay with the rest of us. Do you love him?"

And for good measure, Ms. Rosenberg told a group of enlisted troops that [seeing] Gordon without his shirt on in the tent city was "the most repulsive thing I've ever seen."

By any standard, Rosenberg's comments are clearly beyond the boundaries of professional conduct and good taste, particularly in these politically correct times. But the Herald isn't rushing to suspend the reporter, or even offer a public complaint on the matter. As of today, Ms. Rosenberg is still on the Gitmo story, despite Commander Gordon's allegations.

The irony of these events cannot be understated. Consider, for a moment, if similar complaints had been lodged against the Navy PAO. Not only would Commander Gordon be out of a job, he would also be facing the end of his Navy career. And rightly so; comments about an individual's sexual orientation (or items inserted in someone's hindquarters) have no place in professional conversation.

Still, no one in the media appears willing to criticize Ms. Rosenberg. Contacted by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, other veterans of the Gitmo story described the Herald reporter as "exceptionally aggressive," someone who likes to "push the envelope" in obtaining information.

Call us old-fashioned, but there's a clear difference between "aggressiveness" and "nastiness." For years, Mike Wallace was the prototype aggressive reporter; from his days on Nightbeat to his long career on 60 Minutes, Mr. Wallace made more than a few of his subjects sweat. But I can't think of a single example of Wallace utilizing tactics similar to those of Ms. Rosenberg.

During my own days as a journalist, I had my share of dust-ups with corporate spokesmen and public affairs officers. I can remember making--and taking--apologetic phone calls, when one of us felt we had overstepped the lines of professional conduct. But neither I (nor the PAOs I dealt with) had to make amends for comments like those of Ms. Rosenberg.

As we read the complaint against the Herald reporter, we were reminded of another group of military correspondents. During World War II, a public affairs officer dubbed them the "Wrighting 69th," reporters who were accredited to cover the 8th Air Force and its bomber missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. The late Walter Cronkite was a member of that group; so was Andy Rooney.

Back in those days, war reporters had a slightly different take on covering the military and our adversaries. On one mission, Cronkite took the place of an injured B-17 gunner and helped defend the bomber against enemy fighters. There is no record of Cronkite--or any other war correspondent--referring to public affairs officers (or other members of the military) as "Nazis," "lazy," or "incompetent."

Had they used such terms, the line to "punch out" the war correspondent would have stretched around the block, and the offending journalist would have been searching for another line of work. A single telegram from Ira Eaker or Jimmy Doolittle, and the reporter would have been on the next boat back to the states, hoping for a new gig with Grit.

These days, boorish behavior by the press corps is accepted--even encouraged--and there is no attempt to discourage it, or demand better by members of the fourth estate. The refusal of other reporters to criticize Rosenberg speaks volumes about the state of today's news media.

We're also disappointed that Mr. Kurtz omitted a salient question in asking other reporters about Carol Rosenberg's behavior. The real issue isn't her aggressiveness, but whether such methods should be tolerated and excused. Readers will note that Howard Kurtz failed to ask the reporters if their own employers would allow such conduct. Sadly, we're guessing that the answer to that question is not a uniform "no."

ADDENDUM: We're also wondering what happened to Commander Gordon's "top cover." In his current position, Gordon works for some very powerful (and influential) military officers and DoD civilians. Yet, not one of them has stepped forward to defend their PAO, or suggest that Ms. Rosenberg's behavior has been unprofessional. In fact, most of those officials seem to be hiding in the tall grass, letting Gordon battle the churlish reporter on his own, and hoping the whole thing is resolved before their careers are impacted. No wonder Commander Gordon has put in his retirement papers.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come?

Whenever the subject of health care reform comes up, there is almost no mention of the "single payer" system that's already at work in the United States.

And no, we're not talking about the gold-plated program for our elected officials, or the premium plans available to most federal and state employees. Many Americans forget about another group of government workers who make do with limited choices and care that is sometimes awful.

The "employees" in this case are members of the U.S. armed forces. Their health care is largely provided by the military's network of doctors, hospitals and clinics. The system is based on the obvious need to create a system capable of caring for personnel injured in combat. It is also a long-standing "benefit" of military service, promising low-cost (or "no cost") care for service members and their dependents.

To be fair, many military doctors and treatment facilities have a well-deserved reputation for excellence. The Air Force mobile hospital at Balad AB near Baghdad has saved literally thousands of wounded troops; many go on to state-of-the-art rehabilitation centers in the U.S. that have produced their own share of miracles.

But talk to anyone who's served in the military for any length of time, and you'll hear horror stories about a system that is often inadequate. In some cases, base pharmacies don't stock the latest medicines due to cost. Advanced medical treatment is also difficult to obtain; the only transplants conducted at military hospitals are kidney transplants, a procedure that was only offered decades after their introduction at civilian facilities.

In other cases, military medicine can kill you, or leave a patient disabled for life.

Consider the plight of Airman First Class Colton Read, an intelligence specialist assigned to Beale AFB, California. On 9 July, Airman Read underwent surgery to have his gallbladder removed laparoscopically at Travis AFB near Sacramento.

Laparoscope surgeries to take out a gallbladder have become routine in recent years. Doctors across the U.S. perform the procedure hundreds of times every day. But something went terribly wrong during Airman Read's surgery. Somehow, the surgical team nicked or punctured his aorta, the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to other parts of the body. Doctors managed to repair the damage enough to save Read's life, but the tear began leaking, disrupting blood flow to the lower extremities.

Airman Read was airlifted to the UC Davis Medical Center, where surgeons were forced to amputate both legs. Over the past two weeks, he's undergone 10 additional surgeries to remove dead tissue from what's left of his lower limbs. Meanwhile, the diseased gallbladder is still in his body; complications from the original, botched surgery have prevented surgeons from removing it.

The Air Force has launched an investigation into what went wrong in the operating room. Airman Read's military career is likely over and his family cannot sue the doctors who almost killed him. Thanks to a federal law called the Feres Doctrine, members of the armed forces (and their families) can't sue military doctors who make catastrophic medical mistakes.

A bill now before Congress would end the prohibition. Normally, we're not friends of the tort bar, but this is one situation which cries out for legal remedy.

What happened to Colton Read is hardly isolated. An organization called Veterans Equal Rights Protection Advocacy (VERPA) claims that hundreds of military members have died or left permanently disabled by incompetent military doctors. From our own experience, we know of cases where members of the armed forces were misdiagnosed.

In one example, a retired NCO was told his severe chest pain was nothing but "indigestion," and sent home. He died hours later of a massive heart attack. At the same military hospital, a woman complaining of low back pain was given Motrin and told to "rest." Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. The Air Force doctor who made the original, mistaken diagnosis was later reassigned to administrative duties, not as a result of the mistake, but because the service couldn't confirm that the man (who was born overseas) had actually graduated from medical school.

If you want a taste of nationalized health care, just take a look at the military medical system. Some of us have seen the future--or Barack Obama's version of our medical future--and it isn't pretty.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Margin of Victory

By a 58-40 vote, the U.S. Senate voted today to remove funding for additional F-22 stealth fighters from a $680 billion defense bill. President Obama had threatened to veto the measure if it contained more money to sustain F-22 production.

Our latest column for looks at the impact of that decision. We're reminded that key weapons programs of the past often survived by narrow Congressional majorities, and become indispensible in combat (the B-17 and B-29 come to mind). In light of the F-22 vote, we can only hope that today's legislative majority (19 votes) doesn't provide a future margin of defeat.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The "Irreversible Collapse"

What a difference a year makes.

Last July, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, boasted that his nation would add six carrier battle groups to its fleet, with construction of the new vessels beginning in 2012.

Most analysts were dubious about that claim, but Moscow had one factor working in its favor. With oil then trading at $150 a barrel, Russia was suddenly flush with cash, and military leaders could once again dream on a grandiose scale.

Twelve months later, Admiral Vysotsky is no longer talking about six new carrier battle groups. In fact, he sounds a lot like his predecessors of the late 80s and early 90s, who simply tried to maintain some semblance of a Russian fleet against overwhelming financial pressures. During that decade, the once-proud Soviet Navy became a shadow of its former self; ships spent almost no time at sea and out-of-area operations were virtually unheard of.

The decline was most evident in Russia's SSBN fleet. Over the past 10 years, there have been periodic "gaps" in deployments by Russian ballistic missile subs--something that never occurred in the Cold War. In some cases, a Russian "boomer" doesn't go to sea until months after its predecessor returned to port--an operations schedule that was inconceivable before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As Reuben Johnson of The Weekly Standard explains:

The reality now is that not only is the idea of Russia building and operating carrier battle groups an impossible dream, but just building enough new ships to replace those that are worn-out after decades of use is also not feasible. A recent analysis by the authoritative Moscow-based weekly, the Independent Military Review (NVO), entitled "BMF RF (Naval Military Fleet of the Russian Federation) on Foreign Warships" states that the Russian Navy is currently in a situation of irreversible collapse.

The analysis piece states the chief cause is the state of the Russian shipbuilding industry, which is incapable "of producing warships in either the quantity or at the level of quality that the navy customer requires" for the future. According to those interviewed, the Russian Navy's leadership "understands that this is a hopeless situation and are looking for a way out by considering the purchase of naval vessels from abroad."

Russian naval leaders are acutely aware of this situation--and the economic realities they now face. In a recent conversation with reporters, Admiral Vysotsky said Russia is considering joint ventures with the French (to build aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships), and the possible purchase of submarines from Germany. However, it is exceedingly unlikely that Moscow can pay for these vessels, giving credence to prediction of the fleet's eventual demise.

Still, the disappearance of the Russian Navy would create security problems for the west. Moscow has not abandoned its desire to be a great power, and must find ways to compensate for evaporating naval strength (and in particular, the sea-based leg of its nuclear triad).

The solution? Play to your strengths, which in today's Russia are (a) Its ICBM force, and (b) U.S. willingness to cut its own strategic arsenal. As we noted in previous posts, current discussions between Moscow and Washington are focusing more on delivery platforms, rather than a reduction of nuclear warheads.

An agreement based on that foundation would force deeper cuts among U.S. forces, forcing the retirement of more land-based bombers and (possibly) ballistic missile submarines, to get us under the new limit. The potential reductions would also limit our ability to project power around the world, since many of the delivery platforms--most notably the bombers--can be used for conventional or nuclear missions. A decline in our global strike capabilities would suit Moscow just fine; with the collapse of their fleet, the Russians want to "downsize" our capabilities as well.

And President Obama appears anxious to give the Moscow what it wants.

ADDENDUM: We should also note that the "end" of their navy will make Russia more dependent than ever on nuclear weapons as a tool of statecraft. For more than a decade, Russian military writers have discussed the employment of nuclear weapons at much lower thresholds than during the Soviet era. Their rationale is simple; without the massive conventional forces of the former USSR, Moscow would be forced to utilize nuclear forces in regional conflicts and even as a response to a devastating terrorist attack.

The Showdown Approaches

UPDATE: An amendment to strip F-22 funding from the defense spending bill is heading for a vote today (Tuesday). The measure is sponsored by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin (Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and Arizona Republican John McCain. Once again, Senator McCain is proving that he is no friend of the Air Force.

If you're wondering how much sway Barack Obama has over members of his own party, keep an eye on Congress. There's a real budgetary donnybrook shaping up, and we're not talking about the President's health care plan, either.

Instead, we refer to recent actions involving the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and an alternate engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Last week, supporters of both efforts drew budgetary lines in the sand, defying a veto threat by Mr. Obama.

In a mark-up of the Fiscal Year 2010 military spending bill, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee (chaired by none other than John Murtha) added $369 million for additional F-22 production and $560 million more for development of another engine for the F-35. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill if Congress provides more funding for either program.

But the defiance didn't end there. Mr. Murtha's subcommittee added an extra $400 million to the administration's request to salvage five aircraft from the now-cancelled V-71 helicopter program. The money will be used to make at least five of the choppers operational. Originally, the VH-71 was supposed to be the new presidential helicopter, but the program was cancelled after costs skyrocketed, making the choppers more expensive than the Boeing 747's now used as Air Force One.

As Mr. Murtha explained to Aviation Week:

“We think that will take care of five to seven helicopters,” Murtha said, adding, “you just can’t cancel programs and get nothing for it.” Murtha conceded, however, that the money in the subcommittee bill might not be enough to field that many helicopters.

He also believes that Congress can strike some sort of deal with the White House, and avoid the promised veto. “It won’t come to that,” Murtha said. “We will work it out. We want to work with [the Obama administration].”

The question, of course, is whether President Obama wants a fight with influential members of his party. While the commander-in-chief and his defense secretary, Robert Gates, want to terminate the F-22 program, the fifth-generation fighter enjoys strong support among key Democrats, including Washington Senator Patty Murray (did we mention that Boeing is a primary sub-contractor for the Raptor), and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, where the Raptor's engines are built by Pratt and Whitney.

As for the alternate JSF engine, that has long been the pet defense earmark of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. By some estimates, Mr. Kennedy has added up to $1 billion in defense earmarks for the General Electric product, which the Pentagon says it doesn't need.

Even the bloated VH-71 program has friends in high places. Lockheed Martin planned to build the chopper (under an agreement with its British and Italian developers) at a plant in New York. The state's senior Senator, Charles Schumer, has long been a backer of the program, along with the rest of the New York congressional delegation. They support House efforts to pour more money into the VH-71, in hopes of getting a few operational aircraft.

In ordinary times, Mr. Obama could easily veto the proposed defense bill, with little concern for the consequences. But with his national health care plan already in trouble, the president will need every vote he can muster in hopes of passage. That means avoiding unnecessary fights with senior members of his own party, folks like John Murtha and Ted Kennedy who have defense priorities that don't match those of the White House.

Against that backdrop, the F-22, the JSF alternate engine and even the VH-71 may survive. Unfortunately, the engine project and the helicopter program deserve a presidential veto; they represent defense pork at its worst and both should have been cancelled long ago.

However, the Raptor is worthy of continuation. If the U.S. wants the assured air dominance into the middle of this century, then we need more F-22s, pure and simple. Regrettably, getting those aircraft (apparently) means defiance of Mr. Obama's veto threat, and millions more for defense programs we don't need. That's how "things get done" in Washington.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite Remembered

Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite passed away this evening at the age of 92. Recent media reports suggested that Mr. Cronkite had been in failing health for several months.

Describing him as a broadcast and journalism icon would be an understatement. He personified television news as CBS's primary anchor in the 1960s and 70s, an era when that network's evening newscast dominated the ratings, and Cronkite was hailed as the "most trusted man in America."

He was at the anchor desk for the biggest stories of that period, including manned space flights. As Apollo 11 roared aloft in July 1969, Cronkite (in a rare, unguarded on-camera moment), offered his own words of encouragement: "Go, baby, go." A few days later, when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, the CBS anchor fell silent. He later faulted himself for having nothing to say at a such a moment.

By that time, Mr. Cronkite had been working at CBS News for almost two decades, and a journalist for more than 30 years. But for many viewers, Walter Cronkite didn't really enter the public consciousness until the afternoon of November 22, 1963, during the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. As the newly-installed anchorman of the CBS Evening News, Cronkite was in the network's New York newsroom when the first bulletins began moving across the AP and UPI wires.

With the passage of time, memories of that day have become a blend of fact and fiction. Popular legend suggests that Cronkite and CBS were the first on the story. In reality, the first broadcast bulletins were delivered on WNBC-TV in New York, and moments later, on the entire NBC network, by staff announcer Don Pardo (yes, that Don Pardo). Cronkite was on the air moments later, but the audience only heard his voice. In those days, it took a few minutes for cameras to warm up, delaying the anchor's appearance on screen.

Cronkite was a steady, reassuring presence in the studio that day, and CBS also benefited from strong, on-scene reporting. The local CBS affiliate in Dallas, KRLD-TV, was among the first to learn that Kennedy had died, and passed that information to the network. CBS's recently-hired Dallas bureau chief (a fellow named Dan Rather) found a second source, a Catholic priest at Parkland Hospital (the facility where Kennedy was treated). The priest confirmed that the President had, indeed, died from an assassin's bullet.

While Cronkite was widely praised for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, the space program and political conventions, it would take several years to overcome the NBC team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who had topped the evening news ratings since the late 1950s. After Huntley's retirement in 1970, Cronkite and CBS became dominant, and never relinquished their lead. In those days before personality journalism, Cronkite's no-nonsense, wire service approach attracted millions of viewers, although the anchor became a celebrity in the process, much to his chagrin.

Yet Mr. Cronkite wasn't above an occasional touch of vanity. In his book Air Time, broadcast historian Gary Paul Gates recounts an exchange between the Evening News anchor and John Hart, who then helmed the CBS Morning News. Hart asked Cronkite's support for a journalism fellowship he was involved with. Cronkite agreed, but warned his colleague, "Be careful how you use the name." Not "my name." "The name."

While Cronkite ruled the ratings throughout the 1970s--and made millions of dollars for CBS--he left the anchor chair in March 1981 and retired. Laudatory profiles at the time suggested that the anchor was a victim of CBS corporate policy, which mandated retirement at the age of 65.

But that version of events is something of a red herring. As the CBS anchor prepared to hang it up, the network signed Mike Wallace--only two years Cronkite's junior--to a new contract. It was the first in a series of deals that kept Wallace on 60 Minutes for another 25 years. From the perspective of CBS executives, it wasn't a double standard, just a nod to the bottom line. The news magazine was--and is--far more profitable than the Evening News, and Wallace was instrumental to its success. So much for mandatory retirement.

Mr. Cronkite's departure solved something of a succession problem for the network. Dan Rather's agent had been offering his client's services to ABC and NBC, with the threat that Rather would move if he didn't get the top job at CBS. Cronkite's "retirement" allowed Rather to move into the anchor's chair, where he remained for almost 24 years, and took the Evening News from first to third place in the process.

After stepping down, Cronkite wrote a couple of books, made occasional TV appearances and even began a newspaper column in his late 80s. His retirement pension was (reportedly) more than $1 million a year, and he earned additional income from speeches and serving on corporate boards, including a 10-year stint as a director at CBS. And why not? His place in the pantheon of television news was secure, and Cronkite's stature only grew as Rather struggled and CBS News lost much of its former glory.

Still, if Mr. Cronkite represented the zenith of broadcast news, he also helped create the culture of bias that caused many viewers to turn away from the networks, in favor of talk radio, the internet and outlets like Fox News. We refer, of course, to Cronkite's 1968 documentary on the Vietnam War. At the end of the program, the CBS anchor described the conflict as a "stalemate," and urged an American withdrawal. A few weeks later, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek another term as President, figuring if he had "lost" Walter Cronkite, he had lost the support of most Americans.

At the time it aired, Cronkite's documentary was roundly praised. But critics contended that the CBS anchor got it wrong, noting that the Tet Offensive was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, not the U.S. That conclusion was later affirmed in Peter Braestrup's masterful The Big Story, published in 1977. Braestrup, a former Washington Post reporter, described media coverage of Tet as a "potrait of defeat" that contradicted events on the battlefield. Mr. Braestrup also concluded there was a causal relationship between press reporting and the willingness of American leaders--and the public--to continue the war.

Ironically, Mr. Cronkite admitted the North Vietnamese suffered a military defeat on the February 16, 1968 edition of The Evening News. But that conclusion was missing from his special report, which aired two weeks later. To our knowledge, the CBS anchor never bothered to correct the record, or consider the impact of media reporting on the eventual fall of South Vietnam and the bloodbath that followed.

By any standard, Walter Cronkite was an exceptional broadcast journalist who helped define his craft. But the plaudits he deserved must be balanced against obvious mistakes. On one of the biggest stories of his career--the Vietnam War--Mr. Cronkite got it horribly wrong, and his reporting helped shape policy mistakes that produced a catastrophe. That too, is part of Walter Cronkite's legacy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Scandal That Isn't

Barely a week ago, a U.S. drone launched Hellfire missiles on a Taliban convoy and hideout in the Karwan Manza region of South Waziristan. At least 50 people--most of them terrorists--were killed.

According to press reports, it was the 24th such attack by American drones inside Pakistan this year. Since 2004, there have been at least similar 48 strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, eliminating scores of terrorists and elements of their support infrastructure.

Did we mention that many of these attacks were carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency? While the missile strikes have been widely publicized--and the CIA connection was loosely established--the extent of the agency's involvement wasn't disclosed until last year. That's when the U.K. Times reported that CIA drone operations originated from an airfield in Pakistan, with the cooperation and support of the Islamabad government.

But the program remains shrouded in secrecy. Less than a month ago, an article in Asia Times claimed that the CIA has refused to share even "basic data" with other intelligence agencies on its drone attacks against terrorist targets. According to the Times, the secrecy surrounding the program was being used to "hide abuses" and "high civilian casualties" associated with the UAV strikes.

Intelligence analysts have been unable to obtain either the list of military targets of the drone strikes or the actual results in terms of al-Qaeda or civilians killed, according to a Washington source familiar with internal discussion of the drone strike program. The source insisted on not being identified because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue.

"They can't find out anything about the program," the source told Inter Press Service (IPS). That has made it impossible for other government agencies to judge its real consequences, according to the source.

Since early 2009, Barack Obama administration officials have claimed that the predator attacks in Pakistan have killed nine of the 20 top al-Qaeda officials, but they have refused to disclose how many civilians have been killed in the strikes.

Continued U.S. reliance on the drone campaign has drawn criticism from some military experts. The left-leaning Center for a New American Security (CNAS) issued a paper in June, condemning the widespread use of UAVs to hit Al Qaida targets. Nathan Frick, the former Marine officer who serves as the think tank's CEO--and co-authored the paper--said that CIA officials claim the drone strikes have killed over 300 terrorists, but refuse to say who is included in that total. They also refuse to discuss the issue of civilian casualties, or share critical data with other intelligence organizations.

If the CIA won't provide that information to their intel partners, it's a pretty safe bet that the agency has been less-than-forthcoming with Congress. But recent revelations about the drone campaign (and the secrecy that surrounds it) didn't elicit so much as a peep from Congress. And of course, CIA Director Leon Panetta hasn't rush to the Hill to brief relevant congressional committees, or promise to cancel the program.

That's a stark contrast to the latest, phony scandal to snare the intelligence community. Last month, Mr. Panetta scrambled to terminate a secret CIA effort, purportedly aimed at kidnapping and eliminating top Al Qaida leaders. The initiative apparently began during the Bush Administration, but never moved beyond the planning stage. Members of Congress say they were never informed, and (if recent media leaks are accurate), former Vice President Dick Cheney told the agency to keep the program a secret.

As you might expect, Congressional Democrats were positively aghast. California Senator Diane Feinstein suggested that "laws might have been broken," when Mr. Cheney issued his reported directive, and the CIA went along, never bothering to inform Congress. Of course, Senator Feinstein's committee has yet to hold hearings on the matter, and some intelligence officials insist that Cheney is "getting a bad rap," since the program never came close to being operational. But Ms. Feinstein clearly understands the importance of setting the template for a story.

The irony of this ploy is simply staggering. After establishing legal restrictions and rules of engagement (in the 1990s) that made it virtually impossible to apprehend or eliminate senior Al Qaida operatives, Democrats spent much of this decade criticizing President George W. Bush for "failing" to get Osama bin Laden. Now, after learning of a plan to achieve that goal, the Democrats are atwitter, because they weren't "fully briefed."

Indeed, Congress ought to congratulate the CIA for even considering the operation. After Congressional excesses gutted the agency's operations directorate in the 1970s and 80s, it's amazing that anyone at Langley still have the guts to recommend a direct action plan. The fact it wasn't implemented speaks volumes about long-term fallout from the "reforms" implemented by Congress more than 25 years ago. In many regards, the CIA remains an organization that lives in fear of another Pike or Church Committee, and stages its operations accordingly. The days of bold action and original thinking at the agency are long since past.

Meanwhile, there's another inconvenient truth that should give the Democrats pause. Turns out the "secret" program really wasn't so secret after all. As former terror prosecutor Andrew McCarthy noted in a recent column for National Review, the CIA initiative was part of a Bush Administration finding, aimed at killing or capturing senior Al Qaida leaders. Congress was acutely aware of that finding; CIA "planning" was nothing more than an attempt to satisfy that presidential mandate. Is there an actual mandate for the CIA to brief every idea floated in response to a presidential directive? The lawyers will debate that one for years, but the logical answer is a resounding "no."

There are a number of reasons that the secret program never reached operational status. One is the enormous risk to agency operatives (or SOF personnel), on the ground, attempting to kidnap or assassinate key terrorists, in one of the most inhospitable and unforgiving environments on earth. And besides, the CIA found a more effective way to eliminate Al Qaida personnel--those drones that have killed scores of suspected terrorists since 2004.

Under President Obama, the frequency of those attacks has increased dramatically, despite Afghan complaints about collateral damage and civilian casualties. Apparently, Mr. Obama has overcome his concerns about U.S. military forces (and intelligence agencies) "air-raiding" Afghan villages.

To be fair, the drone strikes are effective, and President Obama is well advised to ramp up the effort. By one estimate, those attacks have wiped out a significant number of Al Qaida's "middle managers," although senior terror figures remain elusive. Still, the impact of CIA Predator attacks shouldn't be underestimated. Terrorists killed by those Hellfire missiles are essential for Al Qaida operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and around the world.

So why isn't Congress concerned about the secrecy that veils the CIA drone war? Obviously, the Democrats don't want to cross the commander-in-chief, who has made Predator attacks an integral part of his anti-terror strategy. Additionally, tough questions about the UAVs would raise new questions about their basing in Pakistan, and Islamabad's assistance in the operation.

As you'll recall, those elements had never been fully confirmed until earlier this year, when they were accidentally disclosed during an open Senate hearing. The offender? None other than Diane Feinstein. Needless to say, Senator Feinstein's little slip has greatly complicated our targeting efforts in Pakistan.

You'd think that Ms. Feinstein--and her fellow Democrats--would understand that some secrets are worth keeping. We'd also hope their party would recognize the difference between a genuine national security scandal, and one largely invented for political purposes. But then again, we're talking about a party that has largely lost credibility on defense and intelligence issues, given Democrats' willingness to play politics with such matters.

Just more of the same.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Reports of His Pending Demise

Our latest column at looks at potential succession scenarios in North Korea--and the limits of our medical intelligence. A South Korean broadcast report--picked up by Reuters--suggests that Kim Jong-il has pancreatic cancer. Patients with that disease (typically) live only three to six months after diagnosis, meaning the DPRK could have a new leader by the end of this year.

But it may be premature to write Kim Jong-il's obituary. Juding by past examples, medical intelligence on foreign leaders is often bad, and reports about the North Korean dictator may prove inaccurate as well.

Friday, July 10, 2009

About Those Losses....

Moscow's independent Center for the Analysis of Strategy and Technology (CAST) is offering new details on Russia's air campaign against Georgia last year.

CAST was one of the first analytical organizations to report that Russian air losses over Georgia were significantly higher than the Kremlin claimed. CAST researchers have determined that the Russian Air Force lost at least eight aircraft in fighting with the Georgians--twice the number officially reported.

In its latest assessment, CAST confirms that Russian forces lost eight aircraft to adversary air defenses and fratricide. The four additional aircraft--which the Russian Air Force has acknowledged as combat losses--include the following:

--SU-24MR Fencer E reconnaissance aircraft, shot down on 8 August
--SU-25 Frogfoot CAS aircraft, lost on 9 August
--SU-24M Fencer frontal strike aircraft, downed on 10 or 11 August
--Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship (loss date undetermined)

CAST also reports that Georgian air defenses damaged at least three other SU-25s, which managed to return to base.

Officially, Moscow has claimed that it lost only four aircraft during the Georgian campaign, a TU-22M Backfire bomber and three SU-25s, all shot down on the first day of the war (8 August). Russian Air Force officials say the four jets were downed by Georgian SA-11 SAM batteries.

As for those "other" losses, CAST claims the Fencers fell victim to shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles while the SU-25 was downed by friendly fire--specifically, a MANPAD SAM launched by a Russian ground unit.

The think tank also repeats its assessment that Russian Air Force units were unprepared for operations against a relatively modern air defense system. We second that notion, and believe it's worth repeating a related point, which we made last August. Moscow's lack of preparation is largely inexcusable, since it already knew that Tiblisi had purchased the SA-11 (and other air defense systems) from Ukraine. The embarrassment is compounded by the fact that the systems which knocked down those Russian aircraft were originally designed--and built--in Russia (emphasis ours).

Moscow claims that it overcame the initial setbacks and eventually destroyed the Georgian air defense system. But we take those statements with a grain of salt. To our knowledge, the Russians have never released UAV imagery (or other evidence) that would support those assertions.

Additionally, Georgian air defense teams proved adept at concealing their locations during the war, using a combination of denial-and-deception and mobility tactics. There is every reason to believe that some Georgian SAM batteries and MANPAD crews survived the war, gaining combat experience and valuable insight into Russian tactics and employment strategies.

CAST also offers a couple of new wrinkles in its revised assessment, though we can't confirm either one. They claim that Georgia complemented its Russian-made SAMs with an Israeli air defense system, built around the advanced Derby and Python-5 air-to-air missiles. The Israeli SAM is believed similar to ground-based versions of the U.S. AIM-120, nicknamed the SLAMRAAM.

Russian defense analysts are depicting last year's air campaign as the first conducted against a relatively modern air defense system. And, there's an element of truth in that. Previous air operations (Desert Storm; Allied Force; Iraqi Freedom) were largely waged against older air defense systems, which are more vulnerable to jamming, anti-radiation missiles and other counter-measures.

Still, western air forces are better prepared for advanced SAMs than their Russian counterparts. Threat emitters used on training ranges in the U.S., Europe and Israel simulate the radar signals from "double-digit" air defense systems, giving pilots a chance to practice against them, before entering combat. Modern air defenses are also replicated during major force employment exercises, including Red Flag.

Russia, on the other hand, has a ways to go in providing realistic threat training for its aircrews. Calling that ironic would be an understatement. For 50 years, Russian scientists and engineers have produced some of the world's most lethal air defense systems. But Moscow never believed its pilots would have to fly against Russian-built SAMs. That's one reason the Russian Air Force learned a hard lesson in Georgia last summer.

H/T: Aviation Week.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Bert Bank, R.I.P.

We were saddened to learn of the recent passing of Major Bert Bank, U.S. Army (Retired). Bank, a World War II veteran, died last month in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the age of 94.

Mr. Bank's name probably doesn't ring a bell unless you grew up in western Alabama. Around Tuscaloosa, Bank was known as a pioneering broadcaster, civic leader and politician. He put two of the city's first radio stations on the air, and ran them for more than 30 years. He was involved in countless community projects and was elected to both the Alabama House and State Senate, where he served in the 1960s and 70s.

Mr. Bank also earned the undying loyalty from fans and alumni of his alma mater, the University of Alabama. In 1953, he put together the first state-wide radio network for broadcasts of Crimson Tide football games, and produced those broadcasts for almost 40 years. Even in retirement, he remained a fixture in the press box at Bryant-Denny Stadium and was named producer emeritus for Alabama sports broadcasts, a title he held until his death.

By any standard, Bert Bank crammed an amazing amount of achievement and service into his 94 years on this planet. But it's equally amazing that Mr. Bank lived long enough to become a broadcast executive, a pillar of his community and a successful politician. In fact, it's remarkable that Bank lived to see his 30th birthday, given the horrors and deprivation he endured as a member of the U.S. military.

You see, long before Bertram Bank bought that first radio station or won his first political campaign, he survived the Bataan Death March and nearly three years of hellish captivity in a Japanese POW camp. Many of his comrades weren't as fortunate; thousands perished during the march to the camp, or during their years as "guests" of the Emperor.

Readers of Ghost Soldiers, Hampton Sides' masterful account of the Death March, the camps and the ultimate liberation of the POWs by Army Rangers know something of Bank's ordeal. He was interviewed at length by Mr. Sides, and is one of the book's central characters, offering a dramatic testimony of defeat, captivity, and (ultimately) his return to freedom.

As recounted in the book, Mr. Bank's passage to Bataan began (oddly enough) during his college days. A classmate suggested he would look good in uniform, so Bank joined the Army ROTC program at the University of Alabama. After graduation and commissioning, he spent a brief stint with a coastal artillery unit before transferring to the Air Corps, with an assignment as a B-17 bombardier at Clark Field in the Phillippines. He arrived in the fall of November 1941, just a few weeks before the Japanese attack.

Mr. Bank's flying career was cut short on December 8, 1941, when Japanese aircraft destroyed most of the B-17s at Clark and other airfields in the Philippines. The few surviving bombers--and trained crew members--were dispersed to other bases and eventually moved to Australia. Other personnel (including Bert Bank) were reassigned to the infantry for the defense of Bataan, the narrow peninsula where General Douglas MacArthur planned to fight a holding action against superior Japanese forces.

Working as a G-2 (intelligence officer), then-Lieutenant Bank was given the task of determining the enemy's location. "But that wasn't hard to figure out," Bank later told Hampton Sides, "The enemy was everywhere."

As the battle raged, the situation on Bataan went from bad to desperate. U.S. and Filipino troops were desperately short of food, ammunition and medical supplies--with no hope of resupply from the United States or Australia. Despite exhortations from Washington to "hang on," General Edward King, the senior commander on Bataan, surrendered his forces on April 9, 1942. It was the largest capitulation in U.S. military history.

Mr. Bank was among those Americans who passed into captivity with General King's surrender. A few days later, he became one of the thousands of sick, emaciated men who were force-marched to prison by their enemy.

As Mr. Sides describes it, the Death March represented a clash of cultures and poor planning by Japan's high command. Under the Bushido code, surrender was considered shameful--Japanese troops could not imagine that most of the exhausted Americans and Filipinos would choose surrender over death on the battlefield. As a result, they found themselves with many more prisoners than they had estimated, and Japan lacked the transportation and logistical resources to handle thousands of American and Filipino prisoners.

But those problems do not provide a rationale for the brutal treatment of American and Filipino prisoners by the Empire of Japan. Mr. Bank's eyewitness account of the march and the camps affirms all of the atrocities associated with those events. Walking towards Camp O'Donnell--the former U.S. military post that Japan converted into a POW camp--Bank saw the worst of it. A Lieutenant Colonel he had been holding up slipped from his grasp and fell into the road; instantly, a Japanese solider ran him through with his bayonet. He was later forced at gunpoint to bury several Filipino prisoners who were severely wounded, but still alive.

Conditions in the camp were equally grim. Thousands of prisoners died from beatings, illness, malnutrition or a combination of those factors. But Mr. Bank persevered, a reflection of his courage and good humor that inspired other prisoners as well. They nick-named him "garbage mouth," not because of Bank's language, but his willingness to eat the often-putrid "food" offered by the Japanese.

But the years of captivity took their toll. The lack of necessary vitamins in his diet caused Bert Bank--and hundreds of other prisoners--to lose much of their vision. Bank also suffered from a form of neuropathy that left his feet numb. Both conditions would plague him for the rest of his life.

Mr. Bank and his fellow POWs were finally liberated in early 1945 during a daring raid by the U.S. Army's 6th Ranger Battalion. The story of that mission--and the men who carried it out--form the other half of Ghost Soldiers, and it's a compelling read. The Rangers, led by their charismatic leader, Lt Col Henry Mucci, marched 30 miles into Japanese territory, freed more than 500 Allied POWs, and escorted them back to American lines.

Bert Bank was one of those men who made the dangerous journey, despite his condition. The raid--and liberation of the prisoners--came just weeks after the Japanese began to systematically exterminate many of the remaining POWs. In fact, plans for the raid were put in motion after a handful of captives (including Army Private Eugene Nielsen) escaped and reported the execution campaign. Guerilla leaders provided similar information to U.S. intelligence, adding urgency to liberation efforts.

After a stay in military hospitals, Mr. Bank returned to his hometown, embarking on his broadcasting career. He launched the Alabama football network just five years before a former classmate moved back to Tuscaloosa, and became the head coach of the Crimson Tide. His name was Bear Bryant.

In his book, Hampton Sides observed that the Bataan Death March--and the men who survived it--have been largely forgotten by history. And despite a flurry of interest that accompanied the publication of Ghost Soldiers (2001) and the film it inspired (2005's The Great Raid), Mr. Sides' assessment seems accurate.

This year, on the 67th anniversary of the march--and the 64th anniversary of the POWs return to freedom--Japan actually did more to commemorate the event than our own government. In March, Japan's ambassador to the U.S., Ichiro Fujisaki, addressed the final convention of Bataan and Correigdor survivors, and offered a belated apology for the Death March. Only 71 veterans of that campaign were present at the reunion; with Bert Bank's recent death, their ranks have dwindled yet again.


More on Mr. Bank and his remarkable life from the Tuscaloosa News.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The (Cyber) Mouse that Roared

If someone asked you for a quick list of nations capable of mounting a major cyber attack, it's doubtful that North Korea would be included.

After all, the DPRK is one of the least-wired nations on earth. Aside from a few government agencies and Kim Jong-il's various residences, there is virtually no internet access. Just a few years ago, a North Korean government official said the nation's "young men" were still "trying to figure out the net."

Apparently, North Korea's IT fledgling cadre has made a lot of progress in recent. Hackers loyal to the DPRK--operating from North Korea or other locations--are believed responsible for last week's cyber assault that paralyzed government and commercial websites in South Korea and the U.S. The attacks began on July 4th, and their effects were still being felt four days later.

It was, by all accounts, a sophisticated, well-planned strike. As the U.K. Telegraph reports:

The South Korean intelligence agency told members of parliament that it believed Pyongyang or its agents abroad were behind the attacks.

“This is not a simple attack by individuals,” Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in a statement. “The attack appeared to have been elaborately prepared and staged by a certain organisation or state.”

The Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed member of parliament who said that the NIS had suggested that the attacks were the work of North Korea or “a pro-North Korean force”.

Experts said that there was no indication of data theft, but because the websites were still affected four days after the attacks began, an unusually sophisticated denial of service attack had probably been used.

Thousands of computers were infected by a virus that flooded websites with traffic, then overloaded their servers and forced them to shut down.

In the U.S., the official websites of the Treasury, Transportation and State Departments were hit with similar attacks. However, agency spokesmen and members of Congress refused to link the strikes with those in South Korea. But media reports suggested the American websites were hacked by the same groups that targeted South Korean government sites.

The weekend attacks offer another reminder of the vulnerability of our computer networks and related systems. Even a nation like North Korea--or its sympathizers--can marshal the resources conduct a large-scale cyber assault on technologically advanced adversaries. Meanwhile, the DPRK is less vulnerable to a similar counter-attack, given its limited access to the internet.

At least one analyst described the assault on U.S. and ROK systems as a probing attack, designed to test our computer defenses. The hackers targeted a variety of business and government sites with a denial-of-service (DOS) attack. On the commercial side, targeted sites included the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ and

The Obama Administration had previously announced plans to appoint a "cyber czar" to oversee computer security in the public and private sectors. Additionally, the Defense Department has created its own cyber command to oversee the military's information operations and computer network defense functions.

And not a moment too soon, judging by the impact of last weekend's attacks. The successful strike reminds us that virtually all future conflicts will contain a cyber element, and some will be built around those operations. As one of the nation's most dependent on the internet, the U.S. is among the most vulnerable. Creation of the cyber czar and cyber command are steps in the right direction, but they represent steps that should have been implemented years ago.

Oddly enough, three Air Force Captains suggested this type of attack would be part of a crippling, asymmetric first strike inflicted on the United States by North Korea and its "coalition" partners. Their scenario was first published in 1998. Events last weekend remind us that such an attack is not only possible, it is becoming increasing probable. Unfortunately, our preparations for that type of contingency remain weak.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The 80-Year-Old Fraud

Over the past four years, we've tried to do our part in exposing military phonies. From our perspective, there is nothing worse than a veteran--or someone who never served--offering bogus claims of valor and sacrifice. Real heroes (see our previous post) are an increasingly rare commodity; their exploits should never be cheapened by the frauds and charlatans.

With that in mind, we propose a special place in the Military Hall of Shame for Howard Manoian. Since the late 1940s, the Lowell, Massachusetts resident (and World War II veteran) has masqueraded as a former paratrooper.

For 60 years, Mr. Manoian told anyone who would listen that he served in combat with the 82nd Airborne Division during some of its toughest battles. As a member of the iconic unit's 505th Airborne Regiment, Manoian said that he jumped into Normandy on D-Day and Holland during Operation Market Garden. He also claimed two battle wounds.

It was all a lie.

Last month, about the time that Manoian was receiving France's highest military award, he was finally exposed as a phony. The Boston Herald, using information unearthed by military researchers, discovered that Manoian was never a member of the 82nd, or any other airborne unit. He served in Normandy, but as part of a chemical decontamination battalion. When it became obvious that the Germans would not use chemical weapons, Manoian's unit became a supply outfit.

Since then, the European edition of Stars and Stripes and a British paper have picked up the story. Mr. Manoian, as you might expect, has been reluctant to discuss his real military record. He's been living in France for several years, in a village (Sainte-Mère-Église) where American paratroopers landed on D-Day. But, when a Stripes reporter attempted to contact Manoian, his French landlord reported that the phony paratrooper had returned to the U.S.

Make no mistake; Howard Manoian served honorably in World War II. His unit came ashore on Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion and ran the supply dump for that sector. But apparently, that resume wasn't exciting enough, so he fabricated his service as a member of the 82nd.

At his age, Manoian probably won't be prosecuted for his fraud. But he deserves lasting enmity for his decades-long charade. When it comes to stolen valor, there is no age limit, or statute of limitations.

Remembering a Real Hero

Amid today's orgy of adulation over Michael Jackson, we should pause and remember real heroes--men and women who paid the ultimate price for this nation, but whose lives go uncelebrated.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Brian Bradshaw was one of individuals. He died on June 25th, the same day that Michael Jackson passed away. But Lieutenant Bradshaw didn't die in a Hollywood mansion from a drug-induced heart attack. He was killed on a road in Afghanistan, when his vehicle was targeted by an improvised explosive device.

More on Brian Bradshaw from the Seattle Times.

Paul Bradshaw, of Steilacoom, Pierce County, said his son joined the Army and went to Afghanistan "to try and help people" and to make the lives of the people there better.

"That was his hope. He didn't go to win a war."

Lt. Bradshaw was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division in Fort Richardson, Alaska. He was
deployed to Afghanistan in March, his father said.

Paul Bradshaw said he talked to his son by telephone on Father's Day.

"He said that where they were at you couldn't recognize if they were making a difference, but they had made friends in that area."

The danger was obvious, his father said, but whenever his son spoke about it "he was worried about all his men ... not himself."

Lieutenant Bradshaw's death might have gone unnoticed outside his home state of Washington, except for his aunt, Martha Gillis. In a recent letter to the Washington Post, she bemoaned the lack of coverage of recent combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, while describing non-stop tributes to Jackson as "totally ridiculous" and laughable.

Since Mr. Jackson expired last month, Lieutenant Bradshaw--and 12 other American warriors--have died in Afghanistan alone. Keep them (and their families) in your prayers. They deserve our gratitude and thanks.

Regrettably, most of our celebrity-crazed citizens aren't even aware of their sacrifice.

H/T: Blackfive


Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Green Light?

A pair of reports, published this weekend, suggest that Israel has received tacit permission for a raid against Iran's nuclear facilities.

The first account, from the U.K. Telegraph, claims that Saudi Arabia has assured Israel that it will "cast a blind eye" to IAF jets flying over the kingdom, during any potential raid against nuclear targets in Iran.

The head of Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, has assured Benjamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.

Earlier this year Meir Dagan, Mossad’s director since 2002, held secret talks with Saudi officials to discuss the possibility.

The Israeli press has already carried unconfirmed reports that high-ranking officials, including Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, held meetings with Saudi colleagues. The reports were denied by Saudi officials.

“The Saudis have tacitly agreed to the Israeli air force flying through their airspace on a mission which is supposed to be in the common interests of both Israel and Saudi Arabia,” a diplomatic source said last week.

Use of Saudi airspace would solve enormous logistical, planning and tactical challenges for the IAF. Without a direct route (through Saudi Arabia or Iraq), Israeli pilots would be forced to use corridors through Turkey or around the Arabian Peninsula. As we noted more than three years ago, longer routes put added pressure on Israel's small tanker fleet, which would be used to re-fuel strike aircraft on the Iran mission.

Estimates vary on the exact numbers of tankers in the IAF inventory, but most analysts believe there are only 5-7 KC-707s. These aircraft would be an integral part of any long-range mission to Iran, providing aerial refueling and (possibly) command-and-control functions, such as radio relay. Israeli aircraft use the same "boom" refueling system as the USAF; fighters maneuver behind the tanker as the "boom operator" extends the refueling probe into the refueling receptacle of the receiving aircraft. Once contact is established, the tanker begins pumping fuel to the receiver, at a rate of several hundred pounds per minute.

The number of tankers available, coupled with their potential offload, will limit the size of any Israeli strike package. Again, estimates on the size of the formation vary (depending on the number of targets to be struck, fighter payload, target distance and airspeed), but many analysts believe the Israelis would launch 4-5 tankers, supporting no more than 30 strike aircraft, divided roughly between F-15Is and F-16Is (which would attack the nuclear facilities) and other F-15s and F-16s, flying air defense suppression and air superiority missions. Divide the number of "bombers" (say 15) by the number of nuclear complexes (four), and you'll see that the IAF has virtually no margin for error.

Flying across Saudi airspace would not only decrease in-flight refueling requirements, it could also allow the IAF to add additional strike aircraft to the package, and increase their munitions load, improving prospects for success. Utilizing a corridor through Saudi Arabia would also provide "plausible denial" for two of Israel's most important allies, Turkey (which controls northern approaches to Iran), and the United States, which controls Iraqi airspace.

But if securing the Saudi route is critically important--and it is--why leak the information? A couple of possibilities come to mind. First, there's the chance that someone in Israel or Saudi Arabia decided to leak the information, trying to deter the attack for political reasons.

Secondly, the leak may be designed to send a message to Iranian leaders. Saudi complicity means that Israel has overcome one of the last major obstacles in striking Iran's nuclear facilities. That means an attack would come at any time, giving the mullahs something to contemplate as they set strategy in Ahmadinejad's second presidential term.

The announcement about the Saudi air route came just days after another disclosure from Tel Aviv. Late last week, the Defense Ministry disclosed that an Israeli Dolphin-class recently transited the Suez Canal in June. It was the first IDF warship to use the waterway in years, and signals improving relations between Israel and Egypt. The transit also gives Israeli subs direct access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, putting them closer to possible targets in Iran.

According to various defense and press accounts, Israel's newest subs are capable of launching cruise missiles through their torpedo tubes. Details on the weapons system remain sketchy; some analysts believe the cruise missile is a modified Harpoon or Popeye with limited range. Others suggest a long-range weapon, capable of hitting targets up to 750 miles away. Whatever its capabilities, the cruise missile gives Israel another option for striking Iran.

There are also indications that the U.S. will not stand in the way if Israel attacks Tehran's nuclear facilities. In an interview on ABC's "This Week," Vice President Joe Biden said the Israelis are free to set their own course on Iran. According to the AP, Biden's remarks suggest the administration is adopting a "tougher" stance toward Tehran, although the vice president still holds out hope for talks with the Iranians.

Given Mr. Biden's penchant for verbal slips and gaffes, it's hard to say if his comments actually reflect administration policy, or he was simply free-lancing once again. Assuming his remarks are consistent with White House views, then it looks like the Obama team may be accepting the inevitable.

In other words, Tehran has no plans to give up its nuclear program, and Israel will not allow Iran to get the bomb. That makes an Israeli strike almost inevitable, and there's only so much the U.S. can do to prevent it.

Besides, even the "diplomacy first" crowd that dominates the White House and State Department must recognize the bottom line. If the Israelis go after Iran, they will be doing the world a favor, and (possibly) prevent a regional conflagration. It's the sort of bold action that-- in another time--might be openly endorsed by the U.S. But in today's political environment, tacit approval is about as good as it gets.

Not on the Agenda

When President Obama meets with Russian leaders in Moscow this week, arms control will be at the top of the agenda. Mr. Obama is anxious to hammer out a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, resulting in further cuts in each nation's nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, there's another issue that deserves the attention of President Obama and his Russian hosts. During the 1990s, North Korea managed to acquire the SS-N-6, a submarine-launched ballistic missile developed by the former Soviet Union. U.S. experts believe the system's technology is being Incorporated into long-range missiles recently tested by Pyongyang. Making matters worse, Kim Jong-il has also sold the missile to Iran, which is expected to use the missile to improve its own designs.

Regrettably, neither President Clinton nor President George W. Bush pressed the Russians on this matter, and there's no reason to believe that Mr. Obama will, either. It's much easier to focus on "big-ticket" items like an arms control deal between Washington and Moscow. Meanwhile, serious proliferation issues--like the SS-N-6 deal--remain on the back burner. We can only guess what technologies have made their way to Pyongyang since that SLBM.

More on this topic in our current column for

Friday, July 03, 2009

Will They or Won't They?

Our new column for looks at the looming showdown between the U.S. and North Korea. By some accounts, Pyongyang is preparing to launch another Tapeodong-2 long-range missile, apparently in the direction of Hawaii. In response, the Obama Administration has positioned additional missile defenses around the islands, and suggested that we are prepared to shoot down the TD-2.

But there are limits on how far we're willing to go in dealing with that threat. As we note in the article, maybe the real issue isn't whether North Korea will launch the missile, but rather, does the U.S. have the political will to shoot it down.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Karl Malden, R.I.P.

Of all the celebrities who have passed in recent days, it's likely that Karl Malden will receive the least amount of media attention.

True, Mr. Malden had been retired from acting from several years. And his heyday as a film and theater performer was more than 50 years ago, when he appeared such landmark productions as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. Younger audiences knew him for his potrayal as General Omar Bradley in Patton; his 70s' TV series (The Streets of San Francisco) or those ubiquitous commercials for American Express traveler's cheques.

But the passage of time doesn't diminish the exceptional caliber of Malden's work. He was the original Mitch in Streetcar on Broadway, and won an Academy Award for his work in the film version (1954). Director Elia Kazan cast him again as Father Barry in On the Waterfront (1954) and he was the definitive General Bradley--and counterpart to George C. Scott--in Patton, released in 1970. He had other, equally memorable performances in such films as One Eyed Jacks, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Cincinnati Kid, among others.

Not a bad resume for the son of immigrants who grew as Mladen Sekulovich in the steel mill town of Gary, Indiana. He spoke Serbo-Croat until kindergarten. In high school, Sekulovich was a star basketball player who took his share of elbows to the face, giving him that distinctive, bulbous nose. The acting bug bit him while appearing in church plays, directed by his Serbian father. But when Mladen left the mills to become an actor, his father was stunned. He couldn't imagine giving up a steady job for the insecurity of acting.

After a name change (and training at Chicago's Goodman Theater), Malden made his first Broadway appearance in the late 1930s. In New York, he made the acquittance of Mr. Kazan, who would cast him in the plays and films that made him famous.

If Mr. Malden navigated his long career below the celebrity radar, it was by choice--and the fact that he didn't behave like a star, at least by today's standards. He was never the focus of a high-profile divorce trail; never fought with the paparazzi, or pulled a stint in rehab. Mr. Malden was married to the same woman for 70 years, served his country honorably during World War II (as an NCO in the Army Air Corps) and pursued his craft with diligence and integrity, qualities often lacking among the current crop of actors.

Malden was also willing to go against the Hollywood grain, as evidenced by an anecdote from 1999. By all accounts, he was the moving force behind an effort to award an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan. While his reputation as a director was indisputable, Kazan was reviled by many in the film community for testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, listing communists within the entertainment industry. Mr. Kazan defended his actions until his death, earning the enmity of many of his peers.

As a governor of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, it was Mr. Malden who defied decades-old grudges (and political correctness) in proposing an honorary Oscar for his long-time friend and colleague. As he later described his speec for the Los Angeles Times:

"When I got up to talk, I suspected that there would be a big fight, but no one debated it at all," Malden later told The Times. "I said that I'm nominating a dear friend, and as far as I'm concerned, there's no place for politics in any art form. An award like this is about your body of work, and when it comes to a body of work, Elia Kazan deserves to be honored.

"When Malden finished speaking, The Times reported, he was greeted by a rousing burst of applause.

Thanks to Malden's efforts, Mr. Kazan finally got his long-deserved Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999, just four years before his death.

Here's hoping that academy will bestow a similar honor on Karl Malden at next year's ceremony.