Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Worst. Analogy. Ever. (WSJ Edition)

From today's OpinionJournal.com (courtesy of Joe Queenan):

"NBC Will Regret Appeasing Leno; Conan was the Czechoslovakia of late-night"

Of course, Mr. Queenan is a satirist by trade, so we'll assume that his comparison of NBC's recent programming debacle to the appeasement of Adolf Hitler is an attempt at humor. We emphasize the word "attempt." Judge for yourself:

Jay Leno, much like Adolf Hitler, is a master of making secret demands for foreign territory and then acting like the wronged party. First he pretended that he wanted to annex only the first half-hour of Mr. O'Brien's "Tonight Show." Here he was mimicking Hitler, who insisted that he merely wanted to annex the German-speaking Sudetenland, not all of Czechoslovakia.

Then, adopting the craven British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a role model, NBC stabbed Mr. O'Brien in the back by agreeing to let Mr. Leno reoccupy the first segment of his old "Tonight Show" slot. NBC's defense was that Mr. O'Brien had dismal ratings, and the show was a bit of a mess. But the same can be said about Czechoslovakia, a hodgepodge cobbled together after the First World War that never really got its act together.


Here's where the parallels become even more eerie. In acquiescing to Mr. Leno's sotto voce demands to annex one-half of "The Tonight Show," NBC thought it could put the whole ugly controversy to rest. Wrong. Interpreting generosity as weakness, Mr. Leno began to maneuver for complete control of "The Tonight Show." Here he was again taking his cue from der Fuhrer, manipulating his outgunned adversary into a position so humiliating he literally had no choice but to surrender. Just as Edward BeneŇ°, president of Czechoslovakia, was forced to abandon ship once he had been betrayed by his erstwhile allies, Mr. O'Brien was forced to abdicate and cede his entire one-hour program to the man he had replaced. He did get a significantly bigger going-away present than BeneŇ°, however.

According to Mr. Queenan, Leno (like der Fuhrer) will never be satisfied with just the Tonight Show. Pretty soon, he'll be goose-stepping his way into Jimmy Fallon's slot and (if you take that comparison a step further) Carson Daly should be on watch as well.

Satire works best when it contains an element of truth, or it offers a comparison that the audience can easily grasp. On both accounts, Queenan's effort comes up short, although we do give him credit for slipping such an unfunny op-ed past the editors at the WSJ--and getting paid for it. Memo to Paul Gigot and Daniel Henninger: if you'd like a companion piece comparing NBC's late night catastrophe to such knee-slappers as Mao's Cultural Revolution or Stalin's liquidation of the Kulaks, let us know.

But we digress. Truth is, even the satirists are getting the narrative wrong. Jay Leno's return to the Tonight Show has nothing to do with annexing time slots, or making NBC's Jeff Zucker look like Neville Chamberlain. As we've explained in previous posts, the network's programming chiefs, led by Mr. Zucker, set the stage for this debacle back in 2004.

Worried that Conan O'Brien would jump ship, they arranged for Mr. Leno to retire from the Tonight Show in 2009, promising his job to Mr. O'Brien. When Leno began making noises about his future plans, NBC gave him the 10-11 pm times lot, five nights a week. To no one's real surprise, Leno bombed at 10 pm, an hour populated by crime dramas. But more distressingly (at least from the network's perspective), O'Brien tanked at 11:30. Seven months into his reign, the Tonight Show is in second place behind David Letterman, having lost more than 2 million viewers a night.

That was simply unacceptable to NBC. For more than 50 years, Tonight has been the most profitable franchise in broadcasting, generating billions of dollars in profit over that period. And, with the network's prime time line-up in serious trouble, the Tonight Show is more important than ever to NBC's bottom line.

The network's choice was painfully obvious. They could cancel Leno's 10 p.m. show and hope that O'Brien eventually found his footing at 11:35 (realizing that Leno would migrate to another network, with a new show competing against Tonight). Or they could offer up a compromise, moving Leno back to 11:35 for a half-hour show, followed by Conan and Tonight at 12:05. Despite their collective stupidity, the suits obviously realized that the compromise would be unacceptable to one of the hosts, and sure enough, Conan decided to walk, collecting an estimated $32 million in severance pay.

That, in turn, clears the way for Jay Leno to return as host of the Tonight Show. No Nazi subterfuge; no appeasers wearing frock coats in the executive suite. Instead, NBC's late night hash was the product of incompetent schlubs (masquerading as network programmers) who made terrible decisions, then compounded the problem when they tried to fix it.

If you have a child who is not particularly gifted or even a bit slow, consider steering them towards a broadcast management program at your local college or university. For screwing up NBC, Harvard graduate Jeff Zucker was recently given a new, multi-year contract. These days, failure pays extremely well. Just ask Mr. Zucker. Or Mr. O'Brien. Or Bob Nardelli (who ran both Home Depot and Chrysler into the ground).

Or Barack Obama in 2013.

Today's Reading Assignment

"To Obama's Pile of Woes, Add a Failing Iran Policy."

From Time magazine, no less.

Some sample paragraphs:

As if President Barack Obama didn't have his hands full at home with his party's loss of Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, the collapse of health care reform and a disorganized war against the banks, he now faces a major foreign policy setback. Since the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama has promised to curtail Iran's nuclear program by simultaneously offering talks and threatening sanctions. After a year of trying, both approaches appear on the verge of failure.


The President has given Iran two deadlines to demonstrate good faith. Last spring, his Administration told reporters that if Iran didn't show willingness to engage in talks by September, sanctions would follow. Then, in September, when Iran hinted that it might possibly talk, Obama delivered another deadline, this time the end of 2009.


Now Obama faces the unpleasant reality that neither the engagement track nor the sanctions track appear to be going anywhere. His defenders at home and abroad say it was the right way to proceed, but skeptics of Obama's policy are emerging, even in his own party. "What exactly did your year of engagement get you?" asks a Hill Democrat.

According to Time, Obama is now contemplating a "go it alone" strategy on Iran, with the participation of key U.S. allies. Consideration of that approach is an indication of how much trouble his Iran policy is in.

For what it's worth, we've expressed similar misgivings about the President's dealings with Tehran. But what do we know? We're just a couple of right-wing reactionaries.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Waiting for the Next Shoe to Drop

It doesn't take an intelligence analyst to understand that the terror threat to the U.S. (and its allies) has increased significantly over the past six weeks.

True, there has been only a slight increase in the official "threat" levels in both the United States and the U.K. But a look at events since late December affirms that terrorists are launching a new attacks against the west--and security officials are scrambling to defeat them.

The latest campaign began on Christmas Day, with the attempted bombing of that Northwest Airlines flight between Amsterdam and Detroit. During a brief interrogation, the Nigerian suspect, 23-year-old Farouk Abdulmutallab, freely admitted his terror connections and suggested that other operatives had trained with him in Yemen, in a camp run by the local Al Qaida affiliate.

U.S. officials (and their counterparts in the United Kingdom) claim there is no hard evidence of pending attacks. But their actions also suggest that neither government is willing to gamble on the absence of definitive information. Not long after Abdulmutallab's failed bombing, the U.S. reportedly shifted 3,000 air marshals from domestic service, to international flights bound for this country. The move has put such a strain on the air marshal service that personnel from other law enforcement agencies--including the Secret Service and the Border Patrol--are being used to provide security on domestic flights.

The Obama Administration is also trying to plug holes in our intel collection and analysis efforts--gaps that allowed Abdulmutallab to board that flight, despite warnings from his father; terrorist chatter about a Nigerian's involvement in a possible airliner plot, and the suspect's presence on a "no entry" list in Great Britian. There were also missed clues at the Amsterdam Airport, including Abdulmutallab's purchase of a one-way ticket--with cash--and his lack of luggage.

Since then, there have been other, disturbing indications of other attacks in the offing. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (which sent the young Nigerian on his mission) has promised more strikes, in retaliation for U.S. drone attacks on terror leaders.

After the failed bombing attempt, FBI agents began tracing a Ghana-to-Yemen pipeline that took Abdulmutallab to the Al Qaida training camp. They also initiated efforts to find other terrorists who may have trained with the Nigerian. Earlier this month, British intelligence sources told CBS News that at least 20 other terror operatives might have finished their training at the same time, and departed for locations--and assignments--unknown. Other estimates put the number of terrorists trained with Abdulmutallab at more than two dozen.

Reacting to these events, the British government raised its terror threat to the second highest level (severe) last Friday, saying that an attack was "highly likely," despite the lack of firm evidence. But the threat picture became more clear over the weekend, with the U.K. Mirror reporting that an "unusually high" number of people on no-fly lists had tried to board U.S.-bound jets over the past week. Given that revelation, Britain's elevated security policy seemed entirely justified.

We should also note that the U.K.'s heightened posture was implemented after a conversation between President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suggesting that the increased security measures may have been influenced by U.S. concerns.

And, if that weren't enough, Osama bin Laden himself weighed in over the weekend, releasing an audio tape that praised for Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attack, and promising that more will follow, as long as the U.S. continues to support Israel.

While it's highly unlikely that the Al Qaida leader had advance knowledge of the bombing attempt, his message was considered noteworthy for an important reason. In the tape, bin Laden repeats some of the same language heard in tapes that preceded the 2005 terror attacks in Britain, and the 2008 strike on the Danish Embassy in Pakistan. Use of identical phrases in the latest tape suggests it could be a prelude to a new attack, although bin Laden's warnings are sometimes issued up to a year in advance.

Is the U.S. prepared for a new Al Qaida attack--or perhaps, a wave of terrorist strikes? The Obama Administration has issued the usual statements of reassurance, but recent events have exposed holes in our defenses. The decision to "Mirandize" Abdulmutallab after limited interrogation deprived our intelligence agencies of valuable information. Unless the suspect decides to resume his cooperation (don't hold your breath), our spooks and security personnel will be at a disadvantage in trying to determine the limits of Al Qaida's new campaign, and the status of specific attack plans within that framework.

The coming months are shaping up as some of the most decisive--and dangerous--since 9-11.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

She Gets Around

President Obama's poll numbers are in free-fall, but he still has at least one "citizen" who ardently defends him, in the letters section of your local paper.

We refer to one Ellie Light, who has published the same letting supporting Obama in at least 42 newspapers in 18 states--and claimed residence in most of those locations.

In fact, tracking Ms. Light's letter-writing campaign has become something of a crusade for a few bloggers and independent-minded journalists. Among the MSM, Sabrina Eaton of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was one of the first to identify Light's one-woman astroturf campaign. By her count, Ms. Light has published similar letters supporting Obama in more than a dozen publications. In most cases, she listed her residence as a city in the paper's circulation area.

“It’s time for Americans to realize that governing is hard work, and that a president can’t just wave a magic wand and fix everything,” said a letter from alleged Philadelphian Ellie Light, that was published in the Jan. 19 edition of The Philadelphia Daily News.

A letter from Light in the Jan. 20 edition of the
San Francisco Examiner concluded with an identical sentence, but with an address for Light all the way across the country in Daly City, California.

Variations of Light’s letter ran in Ohio’s Mansfield News Journal on Jan. 13, with Light claiming an address in Mansfield; in New Mexico’s Ruidoso News on Jan. 12, claiming an address in Three Rivers; in South Carolina’s The Sun News on Jan. 18, claiming an address in Myrtle Beach; and in the Daily News Leader of Staunton, Virginia on Jan. 15, claiming an address in Waynesboro. Her publications list includes other papers in Ohio, West Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania and California, all claiming separate addresses.

Ms. Eaton also reports that Light sent her a similar missive in mid-January, about the time the letter writing campaign began. Light has also refused to answer questions from the Plain Dealer reporter about her publishing efforts and all those different residences.

In the blogosphere, Patterico is also on the trail of Ellie Light. His search found even more letters from the Obama supporter, in forums ranging from the Washington Times to Ben Smith's column at Politico, and even a blog in USA Today. Interestingly, the blog comment and the Times letter list Long Beach, California as Light's city of residence. But in other papers, Light claims to live in various California communities (Santa Cruz, San Felipe, Grass Valley and Salinas, to name a few), and other towns across the nation, including Algoma, Wisconsin; Greenwich, Connecticut, and Gainesville, Georgia. Ms. Light also went global, publishing her letter in the Bangkok, Thailand Post, but (oddly enough), didn't claim to be a resident of that country.

The obvious question is why anyone would go to so much time and effort. Newspaper readership has been in a downward spiral for years, and relatively few people pay attention to "Letters to the Editor," whether they appear in print, or on-line. If Ms. Light is trying to shape public opinion, she certainly chose a poor vehicle.

Additionally, it's hard to believe that her letter-writing campaign could be part of a professional astro-turfing effort. If the White House or the Democratic Party is trying to rally the troops, they have more effective tools than a letter-writing campaign, given their ties to the MSM.

On the other hand, Ms. Light's letter barrage might be connected to some sort of informal campaign, among Mr. Obama's most die-hard core supporters. The idea is hardly new; over the years, I've seen appeals for letters to the editor on several conservative websites, although none of those campaigns have gained any real traction. Most of us understand that (a) newspapers often print fewer letters from conservative readers than from liberals, and (b) the time devoted to writing might be better spent on other forms of activism.

Still, these are desperate times for liberals and (some) are willing to try anything to keep the base energized. And, it is rather interesting that Ms. Light won't divulge any details about her actual residence or vocation. If she was a one-woman, letter-writing machine, you'd think Ellie Light would be proud of her effort, and willing to respond to media queries.

But Ms. Light quickly deflects any questions about her identity and all those residences. At the end of her article on the controversy, Sabrina Eaton printed her e-mail exchanges with the mysterious letter writer. Judging by the tone, it's clear that Ellie Light has no desire to provide any additional information. That is certainly her right, but it also raises more questions about who she is, and who might be supporting the effort.
ADDENDUM: University of Missouri Journalism Professor Tom Rosenstiel tells Ms. Eaton that there's an easy way to prevent this sort of fraud--or at least discourage it. Newspapers should request street addresses and phone numbers from individuals who write letters to the editor, allowing a check of their location and identity prior to publication. A few publications already require that information, but most don't. That created the loophole that Ellie Light so cleverly exploited.

And for what it's worth, some web sleuths believe that "Ellie" is none other than Samantha Power, the former campaign aide to Barack Obama who was forced to resign for calling Hillary Clinton a "monster." Ms. Power has recovered from that snafu rather nicely; she now serves on the National Security Council. Power is also married to Cass Sunstein, one of the President's many czars. He's the guy who believes that animals should have legal standing to sue in the nation's courts. Sunstein has also advocated "secret" payments to experts outside the government, to shape opinion and prod them into action. Hmmm....

One more thing: has anyone bothered to trace the IP address(es) for Ellie Light's various submissions? That might prove rather interesting.

Friday, January 22, 2010

From the "Different Spanks" Department

Former Air Force officer James Fondren will be spending some of his "golden years" in a federal penitentiary.

The 62-year-old retired Lieutenant Colonel was convicted this week of passing sensitive information to a Chinese agent. Sentencing guidelines call for a jail term of at least 6 1/2 years.

Fondren's conviction stemmed from his relationship with Tai Shen Kuo, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was arrested on charges of spying for the PRC. Kuo reportedly served as the conduit for material he obtained from Fondren, who believed his long-time friend was working for the government of Taiwan. While Kuo was born on the island, federal authorities say he was an agent for Beijing.

Kuo was arrested last February along with Gregg Bergersen, a former policy analyst for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Bergersen was indicted on espionage charges for passing information on defense sales to Taiwan and military communications security to Kuo, who funneled it to his PRC handlers. Bergersen is currently serving a 57-month prison sentence, while Kuo received a 15-year sentence.

Before his arrest and conviction, Fondren was a mid-level Pentagon official, working as Deputy Director of U.S. Pacific Command's liaison office in Washington. But his relationship with Kuo goes back to the mid-1990s when Fondren, recently retired from the Air Force, formed a consulting company with Kuo as its only client.

In his former position, Fondren had access to a wide range of classified data. Prosecutors have not detailed the type of information that Kuo received from Fondren, or how long the former officer had been passing information to the Chinese agent. Fondren was convicted on three of the eight counts in his indictment. His attorney plans to appeal the conviction.

While Fondren deserves jail time for his action, some might question his punishment in comparison to that of Ronald Montaperto. Readers will recall that Mr. Montaperto, a long-time China analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (and a former director of a Pacific Command "think tank") was convicted in 2006 of willingly passing Secret and Top Secret information to a known PRC intelligence officer. His sentence? Four months in jail.

Why did Montaperto get off so easy? He was hard-wired into the Washington security establishment. Scores of current and former defense and military officials wrote letters to the judge, urging leniency for Mr. Montaperto. Regrettably, the trial judge went along with their recommendation, and Montaperto regained his freedom after only a short stay behind bars.

As we observed at the time, Montaperto deserved a far longer prison sentence, because there were serious questions about his activities--and loyalty--long before his arrest. The Washington Times reported that Montaperto flunked a polygraph in the early 1990s, when he sought employment with the CIA. The same polygraph also indicated that Montaperto was a possible espionage threat. CIA officials passed along their concerns to his superiors at DIA, but Montaperto was never questioned about it. He remained on the agency's payroll before taking the PACOM job, where his criminal activities were finally exposed.

There's much to be said for consistency in sentencing, particular in espionage-related cases. Fondren, Kuo and Bergersen got what they deserved, but the same standard didn't apply to Ronald Montaperto. Until federal judges--and juries--start getting it right, there will still be high-profile spy cases, and incidents involving the mishandling of classified materials.

After all, four months in jail wasn't much of a penalty for Montaperto's espionage career--one that may stretched across three decades. And, former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger never spent a day in jail for stealing highly classified documents from the National Archives. One report that found its way into Mr. Berger's shorts was a "special access program" memo disseminated to only 15 people in the United States government. For his crimes, Mr. Berger paid a fine and lost his security clearance for three years.

As for Mr. Fondren, he probably wishes he had the same judge who imposed that "sentence" on Ron Montaperto.

ADDENDUM: Air Force Times reports that Fondren received his sentence today--three years in prison. U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton said lighter punishment was warranted because the information provided by Fondren caused "little or no damage" to national security. In case you're wondering, Judge Hilton is a Reagan appointee who previously served a seven-year term on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That makes you wonder: if Judge Hilton reading of the evidence is correct (based on the sentence imposed), why did the U.S. attorney bring a case against Mr. Fondren, and why didn't the judge simply dismiss the charges against him?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out of the Loop (and in the Doghouse)

In one respect, Scott Brown's Senate election in Massachusetts (and his subsequent arrival in Washington) came at a very opportune moment for the Obama Administration.

Sure, Mr. Brown's victory derailed ObamaCare and will possibly force a re-working of the President's entire agenda for 2010. But look on the bright side: Scott Brown's stunning win diverted attention away from the White House's latest national security snafu.

We refer to some rather embarrassing testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, while much of the nation was preoccupied with the Massachusetts election results. Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair admitted that intel officials bungled the handling of Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who tried to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.

Specifically, Mr. Blair told the committee that Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated by a special team that handles high value targets. But the spooks never got a crack at the Nigerian suspect. As Blair told Congress, he was never consulted about how the suspect should be handled.

Indeed, the nation's intel apparatus was apparently out of the loop as the FBI decided to treat the would-be bomber as they would a criminal. Mr. Blair's lieutenants were out of the loop as well. Then, after less than an hour of questioning, Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights and provided with legal counsel. At that point, he stopped cooperating with authorities, leaving key questions unanswered.

And, it gets worse. Remember that team that's supposed to interrogate high-value suspects? It was hailed as a key element of Mr. Obama's plan (unveiled last year) to end the "torture" of terror detainees and shut down the facility at Guantanamo Bay. But as Blair informed the Homeland Security panel, that highly-touted team has never been formed.

For his candor, Blair is in trouble with Congressional Republicans--and the White House. According to Newsweek's "Declassified" blog, administration officials have described the DNI (a retired Navy admiral) as "misinformed," and have ordered him to correct his remarks. Sure enough, Blair released a statement only an hour later, claiming that his comments were "misconstrued."

In other words, Admiral Blair is feeling the heat for telling the truth. The nation's intelligence chief was never consulted in the aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack that could have destroyed an airliner and killed hundreds of passengers. He also claims that the (limited) FBI interrogation provided important information, although you've got to wonder just how much Abdulmutallab divulged in hour before FBI agents advised him of his "rights."

There's also the troubling matter of why the High-Value Interrogation Group (or HIG as it's known) still isn't in operation. Months after the President ordered its creation, attorneys are still devising a charter for the group, suggesting that it is months away from achieving operational status. Until then, who's in charge of interrogating suspected terrorists? After being pilloried by politicians and the press, both the CIA and the military have grown skittish; we're guessing that most of the questioning will be conducted by the FBI, until the HIG--staffed by experts from intelligence and law enforcement--becomes operational.

Blair's disturbing admissions also raise another question, namely, who made the call to treat Farouk Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect, rather than an accused terrorist? The administration claims the decision was made by agents from the FBI's Detroit field office, who met the plane when it landed. But that sounds a bit suspect. Would you, as a Special Agent in Charge be willing to stake your career on the handling of a suspected terrorist--a decision you made without consulting your superiors in Washington?

There's little doubt that senior FBI officials (and probably, Attorney General Eric Holder) were alerted when Abdulmutallab was removed from that Northwest flight. And the decision to "Mirandize" was likely made by high-ranking officials at the bureau, if not Mr. Holder himself. As Senate Republicans have suggested, the handling of Mr. Abdulmutallab--and the decision-making process behind it--requires a detailed explanation from the administration.

Don't hold your breath waiting for answers. Judging by their reaction to Admiral Blair's testimony, it's clear that the White House wants this controversy to go away. We're guessing that the DNI won't be as forthcoming during his next visit to Capitol Hill.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Low Point

Over the past seventy years, the U.S. intelligence community has had its share of dark moments, often culminating in unforeseen attacks, and thousands of dead Americans.

In fact, there have been so many blunders, it's hard to single out the worst. In the early days of the Korean War, the CIA predicted that Red China wouldn't enter the conflict. That analysis lasted until Chairman Mao's hordes marched south to rescue Kim Il-Sung's failing army, a development that extended the war by another three years, and cost the lives of more than 30,000 U.S. troops.

During Vietnam, the spooks believed that North Vietnam couldn't mount a major offensive until Tet rolled around. They were also caught napping during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973; Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and more recently, by Al Qaida's decade-long campaign against the U.S. that culminated in the events of 9-11.

Yet, for all those debacles, some would argue that the intel community didn't reach its nadir until 2007, with the release of that infamous National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. That's the assessment that declared--with moderate confidence--that Tehran halted work on its nuclear weapons development effort in 2003.

Of course, that headline-grabbing (and policy-altering) assessment was carefully calibrated. In a footnote, the NIE's authors defined "weapons development" as a pause in Iran's effort to develop a viable nuclear warhead. Never mind that warhead design is one of the latter steps in a nuclear program and that other elements--including uranium enrichment--continued apace, putting Tehran on track to develop a weapon well before the NIE's estimated 2015 timeline.

Making matters worse, production of the estimate was entrusted to senior intelligence officials who clearly had their own agendas. One, CIA Analyst Vann Van Diepen, had been arguing for years that Iran had a right to enrich uranium and pursue nuclear energy. Another, National Intelligence Council (NIC) Chairman Thomas Fingar, worked actively with Senate Democrats to derail John Bolton's nomination as U.N. Ambassador, silencing a particularly tough critic of Iran and its nuclear program.

And, if that weren't bad enough, a third official who led the NIE effort was none other than
Kenneth Brill, the former U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. During his posting, Brill steadfastly refused to acknowledge the dangers posed by the Iranian nuclear program, delivering only a single reluctant speech on the subject. As Kenneth Timmerman wrote in Shadow Warriors, Brill's performance at the IAEA was so poor that he was literally "fired" by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Unfortunately, Brill was subsequently rehabilitated by John Negroponte, the career diplomat who served as the nation's first Director of National Intelligence. Thanks to Negroponte's intervention, Brill not only gained another high-profile job, he was in the perfect spot to inject his views into the 2007 NIE.

Sadly, Messrs. Van Diepen, Fingar and Brill achieved their objectives with the assessment. The press and Congressional Democrats eagerly endorsed claims about Iran's "suspension" of its nuclear weapons program, leaving the Bush Administration with few options for going after Tehran. The matter was deferred to the next President, Barack Obama, who favored a continuation of diplomatic overtures.

Results on that front have been unimpressive, to say the least. At last report, Iran had rejected Mr. Obama's demands that it meet a December 31, 2009 "deadline" for complying with various U.N. resolutions, but the President has not offered any new plans for dealing more forcefully with Tehran. Meanwhile, the centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility keep spinning, and Iran creeps closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

And what of the intelligence analysis that helped put us in this spot? As we've detailed in previous posts, many intel officials began been backing away from the 2007 assessment almost as soon as it was published.

Now, it looks like the intel community is preparing to bury the NIE, once and for all. Eli Lake of the Washington Times reports that analysts are at work on a new estimate, which may be published as early as next month. Both the Times and Newsweek say that analysts now believe that Tehran never halted work on its weapons program. In fact, the current debate among analysts is not whether Iran has an active weapons program, but whether the country's supreme leader has ordered full-scale development of nuclear weaponry. While some intel officials believe that directive has already been issued, others believe it has not.

A senior U.S. military officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity last week revealed that the new argument among analysts is over Iran's decision to move forward with weaponization.

"There is a debate being held about whether the final decision has been made. It is fair to argue that the supreme leader has not said, 'Build a nuclear weapon.' That actually does not matter, because they are not at the point where they could do that anyway."

The officer, who is knowledgeable about operational matters and intelligence on Iran, said Iran's nuclear program is well-advanced and moving toward the point at which a weapon could be built.

"Are they acting as if they would like to be in a position to do what the supreme leader orders if he gives the thumbs up at some point down the road? The answer to that is indisputably yes," the officer said.

How did Iran arrive at that position? The answer is obvious; Tehran never suspended its weapons development program, just the warhead research element. Looking for any information to deter a possible U.S. attack against Iran, authors of the 2007 NIE latched on the halted warhead effort as "proof" that the entire weapons program had been suspended. They full understood the consequences of their actions, but still published an NIE based on inconclusive evidence (the suspension claim was reportedly based on a single source) and specious logic.

Nearly three years later, the most liberal administration in recent U.S. history is being forced to back-track from the 2007 report and its "findings," just in case Tehran quickly produces a nuke, as it almost certainly will. The Obama Team's willingness to abandon the NIE speaks volumes about the product and provides even more proof that the assessment was nothing but a fraud.

In a recent speech about the underwear bomber investigation, President Obama indicated that members of the intelligence community will be held "accountable" for mistakes that prevented the detection of Farouk Abdulmutallab and his plot. Accountability is a fine thing, but only if it's actually enforced, and administered without regard to partisan politics. As we see it, there is plenty of blame to go around in the Abdulmutallab case, and plenty of heads ought to roll, Democrat and Republican alike.

The same holds true for the 2007 NIE on Iran. Left to their own devices (and motivated by partisan politics), three senior intelligence officers produced a key estimate that was demonstrably false, and aimed more at influencing American policy that providing a true accounting of Iran's nuclear program. The same standard should be applied to that snafu as well.

Van Diepen, who is still on the federal payroll (as an Assistant Secretary of State) should be fired immediately. Brill and Fingar retired last year, but there are provisions for a retroactive censure, and repayment of bonuses paid to them during their work on the fraudulent NIE. Their punishment would send a needed shockwave through the intelligence community, where political partisans have evaded punishment for decades. It's about time for some real accountability in our spy agencies, and disciplining the "authors" of the 2007 NIE would be a good starting point.

if we don't insist on accountability, our intel community will face even greater debacles in the future. It's hard to imagine another calamity like the Iranian NIE, but left unpunished, the hacks who produced that report can generate more politically-charged assessments, rending even more damage to our national security.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Direct Route

Not long after the Pentagon announced its first air drop of the Haiti relief mission, we got an e-mail from a reader. "Why haven't they done this before?" he asked.

A fair question, and the answer underscores both the difficulty of airdrops--and the complexities of the Haiti operation.

Anyone's who has watched The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far or Band of Brothers understands the logistics of airborne missions. It takes extensive planning and coordination to place large numbers of paratroopers in a drop zone, on time and with their equipment. During World War II, the limitations imposed by weather, enemy fire and poor navigation technology often resulted in airborne units missing their intended mark by miles, or landing without their support gear.

These days, there are relatively few combat jumps by airborne units; the last of any consequence was by the 173rd Airborne Brigade into Iraq during the 2003 invasion. More than 1,000 paratroopers jumped under the cover of darkness to secure an airfield in northern Iraq.

However, air drops are still an efficient method for delivering supplies to troops on the ground, or two civilians during natural disasters. The tactic was used (to varying degrees) after the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina the following year. But most of those drops were relatively small-scale, conducted by helicopters assisting small numbers of survivors.

Today's air drop in Haiti was conducted by U.S. Air Force transports, delivering large pallets of food and water to a designated drop zone, secured by Army paratroopers. Thousands of Haitians reportedly surrounded the area, waiting for the aid to be distributed.

But the planning entails more than simply picking a spot, securing the perimeter, and pushing a few pallets out the back end of a C-130 or C-17. First, there's the matter of selecting the drop zone; obviously, it needs to be near the people requiring assistance, but the area must also be large enough to accomodate the amount of cargo being dropped, and it must be open and relatively flat. Finding spots in Haiti that meet those criteria is more difficult than you might imagine.

Then, there's the matter of preparing the loads. The process is far more complex than simply attaching a parachute to a box or bundle. Ground crews work closely with aircraft loadmasters to rig the pallets carefully and sequence them in the correct order; air-dropped supplies are actually pulled from the transport plane's cargo bay by the parachute as it opens.

There is absolutely no margin for error. A faulty pallet can fall apart in mid-air, creating extreme hazards for personnel on the ground; a parachute that doesn't deploy properly can interrupt the aircraft's drop, or cause the supplies to plummet to earth and be destroyed on impact.

Timing is also essential. The pilots and navigator work closely with troops on the ground in planning the aircraft's route and precise moment of the drop, ensuring that the pallets wind up in the planned drop zone. Air drops are literally timed to the second; when a C-130 crew from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska dropped supplies at a forward operating base in Afghanistan in 2006, they arrived within eight seconds of their scheduled time, and the cargo landed within a few hundred feet of the drop zone's center. Incidentally, that crew planned their mission in under an hour, a process that normally takes two or three hours to complete.

Finally, there's the element of ground coordination. Not only do you need the right location--and enough troops to secure the drop zone--but humanitarian air drops require additional planning for breaking down the pallets and distributing the aid as quickly as possible. By all accounts, the Haitians who waited at the drop zone were patient and cooperative, a sharp contrast to some of the early, chaotic distribution efforts in Port-au-Prince.

There will likely be additional air drops in Haiti in the coming days. But that technique is not one that can be easily applied across the country, given the obvious planning and security requirements. Most of the aid will be delivered the "old-fashioned way," by truck and by helicopter.
ADDENDUM: Updated information from the Pentagon indicates that Air Force cargo planes dropped 14,000 pre-packaged meals and 14,000 quarts of water during yesterday's airdrop. Supplies were dropped from C-17s operating from Charleston AFB, South Carolina. The meals and water were bundled in 2,000-pound pallets, dropped from an altitude of about 600 feet. Military officials originally rejected the idea of air drops, believing they might cause riots. However, that policy was changed, due to the backlog at the Port au Prince airport, and problems with the country's road system.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The View From Above

The ruins of Haiti's National Cathedral, captured by a US Air Force Global Hawk flying over the island (USAF photo)

It's one of the enduring lessons from Hurricane Katrina: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets--normally used to keep tabs on our adversaires--are equally valuable in determining the extent of damage during national disasters. That information, in turn, allows military teams and other relief workers to prioritize their efforts, getting aid to the hardest-hit areas first.

In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, much of that information has been collected by RQ-4 Global Hawk, the Air Force's long-endurance, high-altitude UAV. Over the past two days, the UAV (which can remain on station for more than 24 hours) has collected almost 2,000 images of the earthquake destruction. A few the images have been posted on the Air Force Flickr page.

Still, the images are of little value unless they reach the right people on the ground, in a timely manner. According to the Air Force, initial exploitation of the images is being handled by intelligence units at Langley AFB, Virginia; Beale AFB, California, and Hurlburt Field, Florida. They receive the information via a satellite downline from the Global Hawk, provide a preliminary assessment of the imagery, then pass their assessments to military personnel in Haiti; leaders at U.S. Southern Command, and senior government officials in Washington.

As we mentioned in a previous post, Global Hawk is the ideal platform for this type of mission. With its extended on-station time, the RQ-4 can capture images that can spot trends, such as the movement of survivors, and damaged areas that were previously undetected. That, in turn, allows military commanders (and NGO officials) in Haiti to deploy their resources more efficiently. And with an orbit altitude well above 50,000 feet, the Global Hawk doesn't create added congestion in the skies above Port-au-Prince.

For the Haiti mission, the RQ-4 is operating from the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland. That choice was based on more than Pax River's (relative) proximity to the Carribean. The Navy is in the process of acquiring its own Global Hawks, and they've been operating demonstration aircraft from the base since 2006. With a stockpile of RQ-4 parts and other components already on hand, Pax River was the ideal staging base for surveillance flights over Haiti.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Kiss of Death

If this report is correct, Martha Coakley is toast.

Appearing on WBZ Radio's "Nightside" program, the Democratic Senate candidate described former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani as a New York Yankees fan. Nothing newsworthy about that; Mr. Guliani has been a rabid Yankees supporter since his boyhood in New York.

Then, in the same breath, Coakley also called former major league pitcher Curt Schilling a Yankees fan as well.

For those who haven't watched a major league baseball game in the last 20 years, Curt Schilling is a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. And not just any pitcher; in 2004, he led the Red Sox to their first World Series championship since 1918, winning the second game of the fall classic despite an ankle injury that left his sock soaked in blood. It remains one of the gutsiest performances in baseball history.

And for the record, he never played for the Yankees.

If Ms. Coakley was trying to make a joke, it fell flat. New Englanders take baseball very seriously, and they live and die with the Red Sox. For his role in bringing a World Series championship to Boston, Schilling became an icon, ranking with Ted Williams, Yaz, Pudge Fisk, Jim Rice and other greats who have worn a Red Sox uniform.

With tonight's little crack, Coakley again proved that she's an arrogant pol who has nothing in common with her constituents. Insulting a living sports legend in a town like Boston is stupid politics, pure and simple. For a follow-up, perhaps she'd like to take shots at Tom Brady, Larry Bird and Bill Russell.

Making matters worse, Coakley didn't offer her insult on some NPR outlet. WBZ is the most popular news-and-talk outlet in New England, with a 50,000 watt, clear channel signal that blankets the eastern U.S. at night. We're sure that thousands of listeners--and Sox fans--heard Martha Coakley put the final stamp on her failed campaign.
ADDENDUM: Mr. Schilling responds; "I've been called a lot of things...."

Unsung Heroes

In the early hours of U.S. military response to the Haiti earthquake, two Air Force MC-130s touched down at Port-au-Prince Airport. Along with relief supplies, the Combat Talons brought badly needed expertise in the form of medical teams, security personnel and combat controllers.

While the mission of the medics and the security specialists was both urgent and demanding, the combat controllers faced (perhaps) the greatest challenge of all. With power at the airport out--and air traffic control non-existent--the controllers were charged with re-establishing ATC services in Port-au-Prince, allowing relief flights to continue. They were also charged with scouting landing zones where aid could be disseminated by airdrop or helicopter.

Such missions are nothing new for combat controllers, who have participated in virtually every major combat operation and humanitarian mission since World War II. They are among the most highly-trained airmen; earning the coveted scarlet beret takes a minimum of 35 weeks, and the program includes everything from air traffic control and combat controller school, to airborne and dive training. As you might expect, the training is rigorous, equal to that of other special operations personnel; the wash-out rate approaches 70%.

But the controllers who make it through the pipeline are simply indispensable, both in combat and relief missions. Combat controllers routinely deploy with special operations teams; the first Air Force Cross winner in Afghanistan was a controller, TSgt John Chapman, who was killed during Operation Anaconda. Chapman was credited with saving his team after their helicopter was shot down by Al Qaida insurgents.

Combat controllers continue to serve with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have also been recognized for missions closer to home. Controllers were among the first military personnel to reach the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and they led the charge into Haiti this week.

But the list of unsung Air Force heroes doesn't end with the combat controllers. Another group of early arrivals were aerial port specialists from Joint Base McGuire and other installations. With air traffic control restored at Port-au-Prince, the aerial port teams were charged with organizing the flow of cargo, equipment and aircraft. They also brought the equipment needed to off-load pallets of supplies; many of the transports delivering cargo for non-governmental organizations are converted airliners, and can't be unloaded without special equipment. Without the aerial port teams, much of that cargo could not be unloaded.

At this point, aid to the Haitian population is little more than a trickle. But that trickle will become a flood in the coming days, thanks to the U.S. military and in particular, the combat controllers who re-opened the airport, and the aerial porters who made it functional again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Let's See How the Media Plays This One ..

Today's headline from World Net Daily:

Report: Scott Ritter arrested in another sex sting: Former chief U.N. weapons inspector accused of exposing himself to 'teen'

Report Chelsea Schilling has the disturbing details:

Scott Ritter of Delmar, N.Y., who served as chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991-98 and stated that President Bush should be impeached for his Iraq policy, is accused of having sexual conversations and performing sexual acts on a Web camera in front of a police officer posing as a 15-year-old girl.

As WND reported, Ritter was also arrested in 2001 and charged with attempting to meet an under-aged girl for a sexual encounter. New York media coverage indicated Ritter sought to have underage girls watch him have sex with himself in public places. The arrest record was sealed and the case reportedly dismissed.

This time around, Barrett Township police officer Ryan Venneman posed as 15-year-old "Emily" in an online chat room. A person with the screen name "Delmarm4fun" contacted "Emily," explaining that he was a 44-year-old man from Albany, the Pocono Record reported.

According to the police affidavit, "Delmarm4fun" was later identified as Ritter.

Ritter asked "Emily" for a photograph and sent the police officer a link to his Web camera so he could film himself during a sexual act. He provided "Emily" with his cell phone number and asked again how old she was. When "Emily" responded, Ritter turned off the camera. He claimed he didn't realize she was 15 and said he didn't want to get in trouble.

Initially, media coverage of Ritter's latest run-in with the law has been limited to local outlets around Albany, New York, not far from where he lives. And, interestingly enough, it took months for the latest charges to surface. Ritter's conversation with under-cover officers took place almost a year ago; police later obtained court orders to obtain his cell phone and computer records.

The matter entered the courts system last month, when the former U.N. weapons inspector waived his right to a preliminary hearing last month. According to WND, Ritter is currrently free on $25,000 unsecured bail. His next court appearance will be on 23 February.

When Ritter was previously arrested in 2001, he claimed the charges were part of a smear campaign against him because of his criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East. But for someone supposedly being smeared, Ritter received extremely favorable treatment. Not only were the charges dismissed (and his record sealed), but the case was apparently so "secret" that the lead local prosecutor was unaware of the matter.

Something tells us that local authorities may be less forgiving this time around. As for the MSM, The New York Daily News has picked up the story, along with The New York Post, The BBC and even the Huffington Post. However, the "paper of record," The New York Times, shows no interest in the case. Ditto for the broadcast networks and the Washington Post. Incidentally, local prosecutors in Monroe County held a press conference on Ritter's latest arrest this afternoon. Maybe that will spur the NYT into action. Then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Double Standard (Golden Parachute Edition)

The next time you hear a liberal complain about the severance package for some Wall Street fat cat, considering the following example of "golden parachutes" outside the corporate suite.

In this case, the firm about to pay through the nose isn't an investment bank, or a brokerage house--it's a television network. We refer to NBC, which is trying to resolve its late-night programming disaster. Earlier this afternoon, Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien announced that he would not accept his show's move to 12:05 a.m. (as NBC suggested), clearing Jay Leno's return to his old 11:35 timeslot.

With that decision, Mr. O'Brien is all-but-certain to leave the network, triggering his "escape clause." According to entertainment sources, Conan will receive up to $28 million, the remaining value of his contract with NBC. The final figure is subject to negotiation, but Mr. O'Brien is represented by a team of heavyweight Hollywood lawyers; for pushing Conan out of the host's chair, NBC will pay a staggering price.

Maybe that's why O'Brien told fans not to worry about him. That eight-figure payday should be enough to tide him over until he signs a new deal with Fox or ABC.

So where's the outrage? When a failed exec gets a big payout, the libs are normally enraged. And, Mr. O'Brien is an executive; his production company (Conaco) produces Tonight for NBC. During his tenure, the program lost an estimated 2 million viewers and ad revenues declined, impacting the network's bottom line. Apparently, Conan has something in common with other failures in the business world.

But, because he's a media favorite--and labors in the entertainment industry--Mr. O'Brien will (apparently) be spared the criticism leveled at fired business execs. Another double-standard? You decide.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Making the Tough Calls, Redux

In the days after Major Nidal Hassan's murderous rampage at Fort Hood last November, disturbing revelations began to emerge. Not only were there obvious signs that Hassan was embracing radical Islam; it was also clear that his Army superiors recognized the same warning signals, but failed to act.

That reality is painfully evident in the Defense Department's official review of the Fort Hood massacre. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report, which confirms that Hasan's commanders and supervisors expressed repeated concerns about his strident Islamist views and inappropriate behavior. Yet they still gave Hasan performance evaluations that allowed him to rise through the ranks.

In telling episodes from the latter stages of lengthy Hasan's medical education in the Washington, D.C., area, he gave a class presentation questioning whether the U.S.-led war on terror was actually a war on Islam. And students said he suggested that Shariah, or Islamic law, trumped the Constitution and he attempted to justify suicide bombings, according to the information reviewed by The Associated Press.

Yet no one in Hasan's chain of command appears to have challenged his eligibility to hold a secret security clearance even though they could have because the statements raised doubt about his loyalty to the United States. Had they, Hasan's fitness to serve as an Army officer may have been called into question long before he reported to Fort Hood.


As the AP observes, the Army had a full picture of Hasan's character and deficiencies, developed over his 12-year career as a medical student, psychiatric resident and post-graduate student. To say the least, his record was less-than-sterling:

While in medical school at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences from 1997 to 2003, Hasan received a string of below average and failing grades, was put on academic probation and showed little motivation to learn.

He took six years to graduate from the university in Bethesda, Maryland, instead of the customary four, according to the school. The delays were due in part to the deaths of his father in 1998 and his mother in 2001. Yet the information about his academic probation and bad grades wasn't included in his military personnel file, leaving the impression he was ready for more intense instruction.

In June 2003, Hasan started a four-year psychiatry internship and residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and he was counseled frequently for deficiencies in his performance. Teachers and colleagues described him as a below average student.

Between 2003 and 2007, Hasan's supervisors expressed their concerns with him in memos, meeting notes and counseling sessions. He needed steady monitoring, especially in the emergency room, had difficulty communicating and working with colleagues, his attendance was spotty and he saw few patients.

In one incident already made public, a patient of Hasan's with suicidal and homicidal tendencies walked out of the hospital without permission.

Yet, none of the negative information made its way into Major Hasan's personnel file, which is reviewed by promotion boards. In his evaluations, Hasan's performance was usually listed as "satisfactory," and "outstanding" on at least two occasions.

That should come as no surprise to anyone familar with Officer Evaluation Reports, or OERs. While the Army doesn't have the same reputation for OER inflation as the Air Force, most officers still receive laudatory reports. With OERs representing a critical element in the promotion folder, it's no surprise that Hasan was promoted, to Captain in 2003, and to Major six years later.

Why the obvious disconnect? As we suggested a few months back, Hasan's continued advancement was the product of three factors:

First, the Army was anxious to recoup its significant investment in Hasan's education and training. After nearly a decade in school, the service expected Dr. Hasan to fulfill his military obligations--and his debt to the taxpayer.

Secondly, the Army was in need of his services, despite Hasan's spotty record as a mental health provider. With thousands of soldiers suffering from PTSD and other psychological disorders, the service needs all the psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors it can muster. We're guessing there was pressure to keep Hasan on the job, so the busy Fort Hood clinic wouldn't wind up being a "doctor short."

Finally, there's the ugly specter of political correctness as a factor in this equation. We've seen military commanders who are reluctant to punish minority military members, for fear of receiving discrimination complaints. Others buy into the "diversity celebration" business and are hesitant to remove a minority officer, lest they upset the "desired" demographic balance.

Still, that doesn't excuse the abject failure of Hasan's superiors, who recognized his problems--and even imposed corrective actions--but refused to get rid of him. One of the most difficult tasks for any commander or supervisor is removing personnel who fail to measure up. There's that human desire to avoid confrontation, or impose sanctions that could end someone's military career.

At a practical level, there's also the requirement to document substandard performance (or inappropriate behavior). It takes more than a single memo; building a file for an administrative discharge requires reams of documentation, over a period of time. It also demands a commander or supervisor who's willing to take on the system. JAGs won't support a poorly-documented case; the same holds true for senior officers.

Clearly, Hasan's superiors had the time--and the evidence--to build a case for his dismissal from service. But no one was willing to take on that challenge, and make the tough call. And because of that failure, 13 people died.

Done Deal

To no one's surprise, NBC has pulled the plug on Jay Leno's failed 10 p.m. comedy show, clearing the way for him to return to his former time slot at 11:35 p.m.

While rumors of Leno's prime time cancellation had been circulating for days, the official announcement was made yesterday, as NBC executives met with entertainment writers in Pasadena, California.

By the low standards of entertainment executives, it was a particularly feckless performance. As Deadline.com reports, the news was delivered by Jeff Gaspin, the head of NBC-Universal's entertainment division. While Gaspin didn't mince words in announcing the cancellation, his explanation was downright odious and stretched the limits of credulity.

First, Mr. Gaspin claims he made the decision to axe Leno's 10 p.m. program, with only minor input from his boss, NBC-U President Jeff Zucker. TV writers aren't a particularly bright bunch, but I don't think anyone in Pasadena was buying that line. Fact is, the decision to move Leno to prime time and give his Tonight Show chair to Conan O'Brien was Jeff Zucker's baby. But when NBC was forced to admit that the experiment had failed, Zucker was no where in sight.

Better yet, Gaspin claimed that his network remained committed to Leno's failed show, but had to cancel it due to "pressure from the affiliates." To be fair, there is an element of truth in that claim. With Leno as a lead-in, local NBC stations were watching the audience evaporate for their critical, late local news. That means millions of dollars for affiliates in larger markets alone.

But it's ridiculous to think the Gaspin, Zucker and the other suits at NBC had to cave to the demands of local stations. There are plenty of examples of networks sticking with lowly-rated programs that show long-term promise. Leno's prime time show may not fall in that category, but if the network wanted to give it a year-long trial (as Gaspin claimed), they should have stayed the course, even if some stations pulled the program from their schedule.

Instead, "affiliate pressure" became a convenient excuse for cancelling a disastrous experiment in the 10 p.m. timeslot--an experiment conceived and executed by the bright boys and girls at NBC. It's one thing to admit a blunder, but you'd think that Zucker and his team would own up to their own, central role in this calamity. But again, we're talking about TV executives. Expecting them to admit their own mistakes is hoping for too much.

Zucker's days at NBC are clearly numbered. But when he gets fired, Mr. Zucker certainly has a promising future in the Democratic party. Blaming someone else for your problems has become a preferred tactic in certain political circles.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Conspiracy Theories

It's one of the preferred options in the Obama Political Playbook; when in doubt--or something goes wrong--blame the Bush Administration. Dating back to the 2008 campaign, President Bush and his team have been held responsible for everything from the lousy economy our supposedly "poor image" around the world. In other words, Mr. Obama inherited a real mess from his predecessor, so it's going to take longer for his "fixes" to work.

Of course, there are a few problems with that approach. President Obama has been in office for almost a year, and he now "owns" the economic situation and our challenges overseas. Moreover, many of the President's "cures" have been remarkable unsuccessful, by any definition. In early 2009, he promised that unemployment wouldn't go beyond 8.5% if we promised that stimulus package. Twelve months and $800 billion later, the unemployment rate is hovering at 10%.

Overseas, Mr. Obama's apologies for past American mistakes aren't having much of an impact, either. The Iranians thumbed their noses at the president's demands to enter serious negotiations, aimed at ending Tehran's nuclear program. The situation in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate while the commander-in-chief dithered about a troop surge. And, making matters worse, Islamic terrorists seem to be ramping up their campaign against the United States, launching three high-profile attacks since November.

Still, the Obama Team believes it's a winning strategy to "Blame Bush," and there's some evidence they're expanding that tactic. In recent days, White House aides have suggested that elements within the intelligence community "deliberately" dropped the ball on the underwear bomber, Farouk Abdulmutallab, in an effort to make the administration "look bad."

That theory got lots of play on MSNBC last week. Newsweek writer Richard Wolffe, who has written a flattering book about Mr. Obama's successful bid for the White House, told Keith Olbermann that some in the White House believe that intelligence officials deliberately withheld information, in an effort to make the administration look bad. The same officials also suggested that the failure to stop Abdulmutallab's plot may have been intentional, and not accidental.

Let that sink in for a moment. Such charges are absurd, belonging in the same league as claims that 9-11 was an "inside job." But this time, the accusations aren't coming from the lunatic fringe, but rather, from senior members of the Obama Administration. Never mind that the president's agenda enjoys wide support from key elements of the intelligence community--and that people now running the apparatus are his own appointees.

So if the failure to detect the Nigerian bomber was a conspiracy, it really was an inside job. Perpetuating such a plot would require the participation of key administration officials; that would suggest that elements of the Obama team are at war with each other, a very disturbing possibility, indeed. To be sure, all administrations are beset by turf battles, but it's rare (and disconcerting) for one group to accuse another of openly plotting against the president. You can only imagine how this increasingly poisonous atmosphere will affect our national security deliberations.

But the spy agencies aren't the only organizations accused of making Mr. Obama look bad. In Friday's edition of The New York Times, unnamed White House aides expressed "frustration" over the slow pace of troop deployments to Afghanistan.

One administration official said that the White House believed that top Pentagon and military officials misled them by promising to deploy the 30,000 additional troops by the summer. General McChrystal and some of his top aides have privately expressed anger at that accusation, saying that they are being held responsible for a pace of deployments they never thought was realistic, the official said.

The officials declined to be identified because they were discussing internal administration disagreements.

That last paragraph is priceless; the bureaucrats requested anonymity because of what they were discussing, but they had no qualms about airing their dirty laundry in public--particularly when it makes the military look bad. Reading between the lines, it's clear that the Obama Team is blaming the armed forces for its latest Afghanistan problems. Can whispers of another conspiracy theory be far behind? Don't bet against it.

But those charges (should they be made) won't carry much water. While the Times dutifully reports that Mr. Obama announced his troop surge on 1 December, that decision came months after General McChrystal made his initial request. In other words, by the time the President gave to "go" order, the clock was ticking, and the deployment plan was behind schedule.

There's also the matter of getting those additional troops--and their equipment--to Afghanistan. Most of it must be flown into the region and (as we've noted in previous posts), our strategic airlift assets are limited. The reinforcement effort is also impacted by winter weather which limits road mobility in much of the country, and access to forward airfields. But apparently, those factors mean little to the strategists at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Collectively, the finger-pointing at the intelligence community and the Pentagon should be reason for concern. To be sure, there were intel breakdowns in connection with the failed airliner bomb plot, and we will experience problems in getting all those troops to Afghanistan. And when things go wrong, they deserve their fair share of blame.

But, as we were recently reminded, the buck ultimately stops with senior-level officials and the President himself. With all the heavy lifting ahead in the War on Terrorism, the nation would be better-served by declaring a moratorium the conspiracy theories, focuing instead on the real problems facing our intelligence community and the armed forces.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Meaning of Al Qaida's Double Agent

In today's reading assignment, former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht offers thoughts similar to our recent post on Al Qaida's recent double-agent operation. As he notes in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, the terrorist group demonstrated an impressive counter-intelligence capability with a suicide attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan. It is a capability we failed to consider--with deadly consequences.

The Train Wreck at 10:00 p.m. (and 11:35)

It's one of those chestnuts that periodically pops up in your e-mail in-box: a list of "The World's Shortest Books," including such titles as "Virginity in France;" a "History of Scottish Charities," etc.

We'd like to add one more book to the list, and it might be the shortest one of all. Call it "TV Executives Who Were Considered Geniuses." You wouldn't need a book to list them; in fact, the front side of a 5" x 7" index card should suffice, with plenty of room left over for a favorite recipe.

You can count the number of truly gifted TV execs on one hand. Here's our list:

-- Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the former ad man who created the Today and Tonight shows for NBC in the 1950s.
-- Fred Silverman, who programmed CBS (and later, ABC) to ratings dominance in the 1960s and 70s.
-- Roone Arledge, who transformed television sports coverage and built ABC's news and sports divisions into powerhouses.
-- Ted Turner (yes, that Ted Turner), who saw the early potential in satellite programming channels and invented cable news.
-- Roger Ailes, who defied conventional wisdom and made Fox News the undisputed leader among cable news outlets.

Readers will note the absence of Jeff Zucker from that list. Mr. Zucker, is the one-time wunderkind who led Today to ratings glory, and now runs NBC-Universal. Currently, Zucker is presiding over one of the great debacles in television history. We refer to the on-going, clumsy effort to cancel Jay Leno's 10 p.m. comedy show and (possibly) replace Conan O'Brien as host of the Tonight Show.

Here's the grim situation now facing Mr. Zucker and NBC. Leno, who hosted Tonight for 17 years (and was #1 for most of that time) has been a flop in prime time. His new program, airing in prime time, has failed to deliver even the modest audience promised by NBC. That, in turn, has created a ratings disaster for NBC's local affiliates and their all-important 11 p.m. newscasts.

In New York, for example, the network's flagship station, WNBC, has fallen into third place in the late, local news race for the first time in a generation. That means a loss of millions of dollars for the network's bottom line. Similar declines have been experienced at stations owned by other broadcasters. Putting it bluntly, Zucker and NBC are facing an ugly revolt by local affiliates, who want Leno out of the 10 p.m. slot and sooner, rather than later.

Making matters worse, the Tonight Show has also fallen on hard times. With Mr. O'Brien as host, the program now trails CBS's David Letterman by an average of 2 million viewers a night. You don't need to be an accountant to understand the impact on NBC's balance sheet, and those of its local stations. Tonight was a cash cow during Leno's tenure; not only did he beat Letterman by a significant ratings margin, he also earned a lower salary than his CBS rival, making NBC's profit margin even bigger.

So how is Zucker going to fix this mess? According to Bill Carter of The New York Times, the NBC programming chief has devised an improbable solution. Move Jay Leno back to his old slot at 11:35 for a 30-minute program, with O'Brien's hour-long Tonight Show airing at 12:05. Under that arrangement, Conan's Late Night successor, Jimmy Fallon, would follow at 1:05, and Last Call with Carson Daly starting at 2:05 a.m.

Of course, none of this is cast in stone. Other reports suggest that either Jay or Conan O'Brien will leave the network in the coming weeks. As you might expect, NBC will pay a huge penalty if either man walks. By some estimates, the potential payout for Leno or O'Brien would be in the tens of millions of dollars. Making matters worse, the departing performer would almost certainly land a new gig at another network, creating even more competition for NBC and its crumbling, late-night line-up.

To use Janet Napolitano's preferred term, this is a man-caused disaster of the first magnitude. NBC had a dominant Tonight Show (with Jay Leno in the chair), but they feared losing Conan O'Brien to another network. So, Zucker and company forced Leno out of the slot, giving him the 10 p.m. show as a combination placeholder/consolation prize.

The suits at NBC believed that O'Brien could hold the audience at 11:35; if Leno bombed in prime time, they could buy him out and still preserve the Tonight Show money machine. They thought O'Brien was the second coming of Johnny Carson, not realizing that Conan's ratings spike (in the middle of the last decade) was against inferior competition on CBS. Once Craig Ferguson arrived on the scene, O'Brien's audience began to slide. But by that time, Conan had already been guaranteed the Tonight Show, and the die was cast for Zucker's catastrophe.

One more thing. Did we mention that NBC also has new ownership? Comcast, the cable giant, is in the process of buying the network from General Electric. Understandably, Comcast wants a quick fix for the Leno/O'Brien problem. Firing Jeff Zucker would probably be a good start, although the company would pay for that as well. For creating this mess--and leaving NBC in fourth place in prime time-- Mr. Zucker was recently given a new contract (and a raise).

Maybe Zucker is a genius after all.
ADDENDUM: If NBC has any ray of hope, it comes in the form of the Winter Olympics, which begin next month. That will give the network a temporary ratings spike, get Leno off the prime time airwaves, and provide a platform to promote the "new" late night line-up.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Navy's BMD Scramble

Last September, when President Obama announced plans for a revised missile defense shield for Western Europe, we predicted potential problems. Among them: converting enough Naval vessels for the BMD role to meet global commitments.

With Mr. Obama's decision to scrap missile interceptors in Poland--and limit deployment of land-based defensive missiles in Alaska and California--much of the defensive burden fell on the U.S. Navy, and ships equipped with the Aegis battle management system and SM-3 interceptor missiles.

While the Aegis/SM-3 combination is (arguably) the world's best missile defense system, those assets are limited. Fielding the required number of ships for the BMD mission will be a challenge, particularly in the near-term. As we noted last fall:

The current Navy program to convert 18 cruisers and destroyers to the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability, which will be completed by the end of this year, will have to be expanded to cover roughly 90 ships, a senior Navy officer said.

“Eighteen ships is not enough to provide a robust missile defense capability,” said Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, deputy chief of naval operations, speaking before a National Defense University breakfast forum at the Capitol Hill Club.

“The real number is somewhere around 90,” he said, because there are increasing requests for BMD coverage coming from combatant commanders in the European theater, the Central Command theater and the Pacific theater.

It's also worth noting that Admiral McCullough made his remarks before Aegis vessels became the preferred option for regional missile defense. The Navy currently has plans to upgrade 26 additional vessels for the BMD role over the next seven years, giving it a total of 38. But that's far below the 90 ships that Navy officials say are needed to fully cover the missile defense mission. Reaching that number would require the conversion of additional Aegis cruisers and all 62 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the Navy's inventory. The Burke vessels are also equipped with the Aegis system and would become a key component of regional missile defense, under current operational plans.

But the demand for BMD ships has some naval leaders worried. According to Navy Times, participants at a recent National Defense University seminar expressed concerns that Aegis vessels will become "locked into" the missile defense role. "We can't constrain assets to a single mission," said one senior officer.

Still, combatant commanders want missile defense ships on station, to deal with potential threats from countries like North Korea and Iran. And, with only a handful of BMD vessels now available, the Navy is scrambling to keep up with operational requests, with some vessels traveling long distances--even by naval standards--to fill deployment slots.

In early 2009, for example, the Florida-based destroyer The Sullivans moved to Japan for a few weeks, filling a gap created by the deployment of a BMD vessel to the Persian Gulf. Last fall, another Burke-class destroyer, the USS Higgins, deployed from San Diego to the eastern Mediterranean, providing missile defense for U.S. European Command, and participating in regional exercises. Such "cross-fleet deployments" are expected to continue, as the Navy tries to balance its BMD assets against operational requirements.

Meanwhile, no one is talking about a plan (or the money needed) to field those 90 BMD ships. Having 38 missile defense vessels by 2016 will be nice, but it's a far cry from the 90-vessel requirement outlined by the Navy brass. If Mr. Obama and his national security team want to build our missile defenses around the naval option, they need to pony up, and provide the necessary resources.

That Other Security Breach

According to National Security Advisor James Jones, Americans will feel a "certain sense of shock" when they read a report on the missed clues that allowed underwear bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab to board that Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.

As he told USA Today:

President Obama "is legitimately and correctly alarmed that things that were available, bits of information that were available, patterns of behavior that were available, were not acted on," Jones said in an interview Wednesday.

"That's two strikes," Obama's top White House aide on defense and foreign policy issues said, referring to the foiled bombing of the Detroit-bound airliner and the shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November. In that case, too, officials failed to act when red flags were raised about an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan. He has been charged with killing 13 people.

Jones said Obama "certainly doesn't want that third strike, and neither does anybody else."

President Obama will speak on the report later today, outlining some of the corrective measures being devised to deter future attacks.

But Mr. Obama has been almost silent on that second, shocking security breach that occurred just days after the attempted airliner bombing. We refer to the suicide attack that took the lives of seven CIA operatives at their base in Afghanistan. A Kuwaiti-born doctor, being cultivated as a source on the Taliban and Al Qaida, blew himself up after being escorted into the compound, killing the CIA employees and his handler, a Jordanian intelligence officer.

It was the single deadliest day for the agency since a truck bomber targeted the U.S. Embassy in Beirut 26 years ago. Six CIA employees, assigned to the Beirut station, died in that attack.

According to various media accounts, the bomber responsible for the 30 December attack, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was recruited by Jordanian intelligence for the purpose of penetrating Al Qaida and Taliban cells in Afghanistan. One CIA official told ABC's Brian Ross that al-Balawi was the "golden goose...the best hope in years" for obtaining actionable intelligence on senior Al Qaida terrorists, including the group's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Instead, al-Balawi was a double agent, part of a sophisticated terror plot to damage U.S. intelligence operations in Afghanistan. The degree to which he succeeded cannot be overstated.

Consider, for example, the number (and responsibilities) of the CIA operatives who attended the meeting. Seven of the agency's thirteen employees who were present died in the blast, including a female officer in charge of Operating Base Chapman, located near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Others killed by the bomber were described as some of the CIA's most experienced counter-terrorism operators. Their skills and expertise will not be easily replaced.

There's also the matter of other agents al-Balawi might have contacted. Sources claim the terrorist had visited Chapman before, suggesting he might have been in touch with other CIA employees, both at that facility and in the field. It's a safe bet that al-Balawi passed along names and descriptions of all Americans he met; we can only guess how many intelligence agents--working undercover "outside the wire" have been pulled from Afghanistan, for fears they will be killed by the terrorists. The same holds true for Afghans working with the Americans who handled the double agent.

Al-Balawi's exposure as a double agent will also force a revision of recent agency reporting from the region. As a "golden goose," there is little doubt that information he provided found its way into various CIA spot reports and longer analytic pieces. Now, those assessments will have to be scrubbed (or even pulled), since much of Al-Balawi's data is now suspect, to say the least.

As the reader of any spy novel knows, there are certain protocols for dealing with informants who might be double agents. Sadly, few of those were apparently followed by CIA operatives at Operating Base Chapman. According to some accounts, he was never searched when he entered the compound. Retired operatives also expressed surprise at the number of individuals who attended the meeting. Former CIA agent Robert Baer told ABC that in the past, only one or two officers who have participated in the session, along with the Jordanian escort.

But everyone believed that al-Balawi was the genuine article, a jihadist who had been successfully "turned" by the Jordanians and was about to deliver the goods on Al Qaida leaders. But the Turkish-educated physician--a known and prolific contributor on terrorist forums--delivered the unexpected, a devastating attack with far-reaching consequences for front-line HUMINT operations in what we used to call "The War on Terror."

It would be easy to blame leadership at Chapman for the debacle--and certainly, they bear some of the blame. But we also wonder how much pressure Langley placed on operatives in the field, hoping to find the "holy grail" that would lead us to Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Not long ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it "had been years" since the intelligence community had good information on the whereabouts of senior Al Qaida leaders. With the al-Balawi operation, the CIA was trying desperately to close that gap, and willing to circumvent normal security procedures to gain the information.

It's another reminder of how our HUMINT capabilities have suffered--and continue to suffer--under successive U.S. administrations. When President Obama talks about fixing intelligence problems, he needs to look beyond the failures that failed to detect the Nigerian bombing suspect before he boarded that Northwest flight. In many respects, the attack at Operating Base Chapman is even more serious than Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed plot. We need to address the issues that led to that disaster--and quickly.
ADDENDUM: In the aftermath of the deadly bombing, many have lamented the CIA's "out-sourcing" of intel operations in the Middle East. As the theory goes, it's hard for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American to join Al Qaida (although Adam Gadahn and John Walker Lindh might disagree).

Still, there are certain steps the U.S. can take to ensure the reliability (and affiliation) of source cultivated by other intelligence services. After al-Balawi was identified as the bomber, western reporters managed to track down his wife in Turkey, where he attended medical school. In at least one interview, Al-Balawi's wife affirmed his devotion to jihad and his hatred for America. If Agence France Presse can obtain that type of information, why can't the CIA?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Uncle Walter Signs Off

Almost six months after his death, Walter Cronkite has finally "signed off" from his last broadcasting gig.

The legendary news anchor has been replaced as the off-camera voice that introduces Katie Couric at the start of the "CBS Evening News." His replacement? Actor Morgan Freeman, who began handling those duties with tonight's broadcast.

According to Sean McManus, President of CBS News and Sports, the time seemed right for a change. As he told the Associated Press:

"As comforting as it is to look back on the great career that Walter had, we're looking forward now and we just felt it was the right time to make the move that at some point had to be made," said CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus. "This seemed like the appropriate time since Walter's passing to make the move."

McManus also said that using Freeman gives the network flexibility to record different introductions when Couric is on assignment or has special reports. Before signing Mr. Freeman, the job was handled by a CBS announcer.

So, why not keep using the announcer? Sadly, staff announcers are a dying breed at the networks. During the early 1960s, for example, ABC-TV had 27 announcers based in New York City. CBS and NBC had announcing staffs of similar size; in those days of live television, they handled network breaks, commercials, entertainment programs and even breaking news. Television buffs will recall that the first bulletin on the Kennedy assassination wasn't delivered by Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley or David Brinkley. It was read by Don Pardo (of Saturday Night Live fame) who was on duty at NBC on that fateful afternoon.

Almost fifty years later, ABC has a total of two staff announcers--if you include Bill Rice, the long-time voice of the network's evening news program. But technically, Mr. Rice is no longer a full-time network employee; he became a free-lancer in 2007 after 45 years at the network. In an era of voice "imaging," home recording studios and ISDN lines, it's easier--and often, cheaper--for broadcasters to out-source announcing jobs.

Unless, of course, you decide to hire a celebrity to introduce your evening news anchor. CBS actually started the trend when it tapped Mr. Cronkite to voice the intro for the Couric version of the Evening News. NBC tried another variation on that theme, hiring actor Michael Douglas to perform the same duties for Brian Williams on Nightly News. Only ABC continued the tradition of using an announcer for the job, with Bill Rice still providing the introduction for World News with Charles Gibson. But when Charlie recently retired, ABC hired its own celebrity voice, Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel.

With Rowe's selection, Rice became the last of the breed--the last staff announcer who introduced a network evening news show. Despite years of stellar service, he just didn't have enough star power to hang onto the job. And sadly, that's now an important factor in the nightly news equation. As the networks battle for a shrinking evening news audience, they're looking for anything that might generate a little buzz, or bring in a few more eyeballs. And sure enough, there were several stories in the MSM about CBS's selection of Mr. Freeman to replace Walter Cronkite.

There's only one problem. Morgan Freeman is a fine actor and a competent narrator (March of the Penguins), and so is Michael Douglas. But as announcers for a network newscast...they are very good actors. Their introductions for the evening news are flat and listless, at best. We can only imagine how much CBS and NBC paid for their services.

Why are Freeman and Douglas such busts in these assignments? Because announcing requires a different set of skills than acting. Go to YouTube and listen to the intros for Cronkite's Evening News (handled primarily by Bob Hite, Sr.); various NBC news programs (voiced by Bill Hanrahan, Fred Facey and Howard Reig), and Bill Rice's work on for countless ABC newscasts. All are vastly superior to the "celebrity announcers" who now introduce Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer.

Once upon a time, the job of an announcer was to set the right tone for the newscast, without calling attention to himself (or herself). Tom Brokaw once remarked that when he heard Howard Reig's introduction over the studio monitor, "I knew it was time to get serious and go to work." My, how times have changed.