Friday, February 26, 2010

An Eye for an Eye

It's no secret that our blog has been highly critical of President Obama and his security policies. Barely one year into his term, Mr. Obama and his team have committed a number of critical blunders, including cancellation of missile defense deployments in eastern Europe; delayed approval for the surge in Afghanistan, and giving Iran a year to "come around" on giving up its nuclear program. Repercussions from those decisions alone will haunt the U.S. for years to come.

But if President Obama has made his share of mistakes, he also deserves credit for getting a few things right. At the top of that list is the "drone campaign" against Taliban and Al Qaida leaders in Afghanistan, Yemen and the tribal lands of western Pakistan. By one tally, drone strikes have eliminated 14 of Al Qaida's Top 20 leaders over the last year.

Indeed, the emergence of UAV technology, backed by all-source intelligence, has become our most effective tool for targeting terrorist leaders. Carrying sensor packages and Hellfire missiles, Predator and Reaper drones can orbit over terrorist havens for hours, transmitting real-time video to intelligence cells. Analysts can "fuse" the imagery with information from other sources and if they confirm the presence of a wanted terrorist, the drone's mission changes from "hunter" to "killer" with the push of a button.

Still, not everyone is a fan of the drone campaign. Writing in Thursday's edition of The New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen decries the lack of "accountability" in UAV strikes. He argues that the U.S. government has never disclosed key details of the program, ranging from the number of terror leaders eliminated by drone attacks, to the rules of engagement used in deciding where (and when) such strikes will occur.

Cohen also describes the drone campaigns as unjustified "revenge killings:"

Revenge killings don’t pass the test for me. They’re unacceptable under international law. I want to know that any target is selected because there is verifiable intelligence that he’s actively planning a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies; that the danger is pressing; that arrest is impossible; and that civilian lives are not wantonly risked.

The bar of pre-emptive self-defense is then passed. A pinpoint strike is better than the Afghan or Iraqi scenarios. But that bar must be high. America departs at its peril from its principles.

I know, terrorists have no rule book, no borders and no compunction. The global war on terror (GWOT) is untidy. Still, the current accountability void for U.S. targeted killing is unacceptable.

The rest of Mr. Cohen's column is a (predictable) attack on Israeli drone strikes and the recent assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai, presumably by a Mossad hit team. He believes that following the Israeli example diminishes our standing in the global community. Cohen also states that "fear" of potential terror attacks cannot become a global license for the U.S. to kill.

But such arguments miss essential points. First, our drone attacks in the Middle East have been carried out (largely) with the tacit support of local regimes. To be fair, officials in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen have complained about the collateral damage that is sometimes a product of these strikes. But the same leaders also realize that the UAV strikes are eliminating potential threats to their own government.

Without the drone campaign, the U.S. would be leaning heavily on local security forces to go after terrorists inside their countries. In some instances (Yemen and Afghanistan) the national Army and paramilitary forces are ineffective, or incapable of carrying out complex counter-insurgency operations targeting key terrorist leaders. That means greater U.S. participation (and all the risks entailed), and more claims that we are extending "our war" into countries like Yemen and Pakistan, causing unnecessary headaches for those regimes.

In the case of Pakistan, one can argue that the Islamabad government should be doing more to eliminate the terrorist threat. After all, Pakistan's intelligence service had a role in creating the Taliban, and the regime's reluctance to go after insurgents in the tribal areas helped spark a terrorist resurgence over the past couple of years.

However, the are limits (both politically and militarily) on what the Pakistan Army can accomplish. Past campaigns in the tribal regions were only marginally successful, but more recent efforts have been more effective, thanks (in part) to the drone campaign. With senior terrorists dead--or in hiding--after UAV attacks, Taliban and Al Qaida elements have been put on the defensive, though both groups continue to lash out with deadly bomb attacks.

A similar trend is evident in Pakistani cities, where a joint CIA-ISI campaign has rounded up a number of terror suspects over the past year. That effort also builds on the success of the drone campaign; with Predators and Reapers targeting insurgents in the tribal lands and Afghanistan, more terror leaders are migrating to Pakistan's sprawling urban areas, and onto the radar of CIA and ISI operatives. The death--or capture--of terror leaders clearly benefits both countries, eliminating both regional and global threats.

Finally, there's the matter of fleeting targets. In Waziristan or Afghanistan, the "window" for eliminating a terror suspect is often narrow; choices must be made quickly, on the best available intelligence. If the decision is delayed, the terror cell leader often gets away, to live and kill again. More often than not, there simply isn't enough time to go through the checks and balances Cohen alludes to in his column.

Similarly, the "full accounting" demanded by Cohen (and other critics) is an equally bad idea. Disclosing the mechanics of the program would give terrorists valuable insights into how the strikes are conducted, allowing them to develop effective counter-measures. Currently, the terrorists seem to have only limited awareness of the UAVs and their operational tactics. One insurgent was killed by a drone-launched missile while sunning himself on the roof of his compound, enjoying a back rub from his wife.

Such attacks send shock waves through terrorist ranks, and they're one reason that the most senior targets have gone underground, where their effectiveness as leaders is further diminished. The ability of our UAVs to range across broad areas--and locate specific figures--keeps individuals like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar on the run.

Mr. Obama would be well-advised to continue his drone wars; they're an effective complement to other military and intelligence operations in the Middle East. And contrary to the wishes of the NYT, the administration doesn't owe us a full accounting of what the UAVs (and their support crews) are up to. As we've written before, a democracy has certain secrets that must be preserved to ensure our national security. The scope of our drone war against terrorists is one of those secrets.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Return of the Murphy Defense?

Military law analysts will be keeping a close eye on the case of Air Force Chief Master Sergeant William Gurney. Last November, In From the Cold was one of the first media outlets to report that Gurney had been fired as Command Chief Master Sergeant for Air Force Material Command (AFMC), headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. As one of only 12 command-level chiefs in the service, Gurney became one of the most senior enlisted members to lose his job in recent years.

At the time of his dismissal, there were reports that Gurney had (allegedly) been involved in inappropriate relationships with female subordinates. Now, those allegations have become the basis for legal action. In a press release issued yesterday, the command announced that Chief Gurney is facing various charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, stemming from the purported relationships. Specific counts include:

- Seven specifications of violation of Article 92, Failure to Obey an Order or Regulation and Dereliction of Duty.

- Two specifications of violation of Article 93, Maltreatment.

- Two specifications of violation of Article 120, Indecent Conduct and Wrongful Sexual Contact.

- Seven specifications of violation of Article 134, Adultery and Misuse of Official Position.

According to the statement, agents from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations began a probe into Gurney's conduct last November, after a junior female airman came forward with allegations of harassment. General Donald Hoffman, the AFMC Commander, relieved Chief Gurney from his position in late November, after the investigation began.

Hoffman also asked another organization, Air Mobility Command, for the administration of military justice in the case. General Hoffman made the request because he was Gurney's immediate supervisor at AFMC.

At this point, it's impossible to accurately predict the outcome of Chief Gurney's case. In the past, senior officers and NCOs accused of sexual misconduct have been given administrative punishment and allowed to retire. But with the USAF's renewed emphasis on accountability, Chief Master Sergeant Gurney is facing the very real prospect of a court-martial, conviction, and even jail time.

But Gurney may have a legal ace up his sleeve, based another, recent Air Force case. Earlier this week, the service announced that Colonel Michael Murphy, a former senior JAG officer, will be retired on 1 April, in the grade of First Lieutenant. Murphy faced multiple charges at court-martial last year, after it was revealed that he had been disbarred as a civilian attorney and practiced military law--without a license--for more than two decades.

While Colonel Murphy was still convicted, he still escaped punishment. Before Murphy's day in court, a military judge ruled that he could not be punished (even if convicted), because the defense team could not present the "good airman defense," demonstrating the Colonel's past, honorable service. The ruling stemmed from the White House's refusal to divulge details of Murphy's classified service in the White House Military Office. Without that information, the judge ruled, Colonel Murphy could receive an adequate defense.

How does that help Chief Gurney? Before assuming his post at AFMC, Gurney spent most of his career in the intelligence career field, including stints as the Command Chief Master Sergeant for the 67th Information Warfare Wing and its successor, the 67th Network Warfare Wing. Over the past decade or so, that unit has been involved in some of the most sensitive computer warfare and information operations campaigns conducted by DoD. In his role as a senior leader, Gurney almost certainly had some knowledge of those efforts, and assisted wing commanders in managing the personnel who conducted those campaigns.

During his long tenure in the spook world, Gurney was aware of (and probably "read into") various SAR/SAP programs relating to some of our most sensitive assets and capabilities. Given that reality, it's easy to envision the Chief's legal team asking for details of those efforts, so they can be used in presenting the "good airman" defense. That would put the Air Force in a bind; releasing the information would--potentially--jeopardize key intelligence programs in the IO realm. But without the data, Gurney's defense team could make the same argument as Colonel Murphy's attorneys.

And we know how that turned out. Call it the "Murphy Defense," the disgraced JAG's most lasting contribution to military law.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One (Big) Reason Johnny Can't Read. Or Write, Or...

In the herculean effort to improve its failing schools, New York City isn't shying away from one of the most difficult tasks--getting rid of incompetent teachers.

And, the city school system is devoting significant resources to that process. Chancellor Joel Klein, with the full support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has assigned eight full-time attorneys to build cases against educators who can't get the job done. Known as the Teacher Performance Unit (TPU), the group also includes retired principals and administrators who assist in case preparation. The unit has an annual budget of at least $1 million.

So, two years into the assignment, how is the effort faring? According to The New York Times, the unit has only fired three teachers for incompetence, among the 55,000 with tenure in the city school system. Ten others charged with incompetence resolved their cases by resigning or retiring, and nine more took classes, paid small fines (or both) to retain their jobs. More than 50 other incompetence cases are awaiting arbitration.

Mr. Klein says the unit has been successful, but "at a far too modest level." Both the Chancellor and Mayor Bloomberg say attempts to weed out bad teachers have been hampered by a "broken system" that protects incompetent and makes it almost impossible to fire them.

Here's an example; a Times reporter was allowed to sit in on a hearing between a middle school principal and one of her math teachers, who has been judged unfit:

Inside a barren room near City Hall, the teacher, Michael Ebewo, sat at a table as the principal of the Manhattan middle school where he had taught for years, Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science, began to go through each of the many deficiencies she said she had found in his classroom.

There was a chart with misspellings and unclear instructions. There were students staring into space and doodling rather than completing their worksheet, which contained questions that the students, who were in special education, had difficulty understanding. Rather than pressing the students for answers, Mr. Ebewo simply answered himself, making the students only more confused.

At the time of that visit, the principal, Lisa Nelson, criticized Mr. Ebewo, who had been teaching for 15 years, for not having proper behavior incentives and consequences for the students. The next time she came to the classroom, Ms. Nelson said, he distributed candy to students early in the morning, something she said “even a layperson” would object to.

Mr. Ebewo’s lawyer interrupted with objections more than two dozen times, but the arbitrator overruled him in nearly every instance. The hearing, which covered lessons dating to 2005, lasted four hours. The principal was only the first of several witnesses the Education Department would call to try to prove that Mr. Ebewo was unfit to be in any classroom.

Mr. Ebewo, through his lawyer, declined to comment for this article. His case took years to reach a hearing because of a state law that requires the city to show evidence that it has given the teacher a chance to improve and instruction on how to do so. Any missing file could jeopardize a case, lawyers for the department say.

And the hearing will probably go on for months, because of a rule the city agreed to four years ago. In an effort to impose more order on the process, the city and the union agreed to set up a panel of arbitrators to hear such cases regularly. There are only so many arbitrators, however, and lawyers can handle only so many cases at once, so the arbitrators hear a case only five days a month.

At that pace, some of these cases will drag on indefinitely. During the hearing and arbitration process, teachers are removed from the classroom and pass their days in one of the city's "rubber rooms," with full pay and benefits. To be fair, not all of the educators in the holding centers are accused of classroom incompetence; some were placed there after run-ins with administrators, while others are facing charges of misconduct. By one estimate, New York City spends $30 million a year on salaries for teachers in the rubber rooms.

And one more thing: the number of teachers in New York facing potential removal for incompetence? Less than 2% of the system's 55,000 tenured educators. It doesn't take a statistician to understand that many of the unfit teachers will keep flying beneath the radar, and remain on the job, to the everlasting detriment of their schools and students.

Still, New York City is light-years ahead of other large systems in trying to get rid of incompetent teachers. LA Weekly recently published a lengthy article on attempts by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to get failing teachers out of the classroom. The piece is entitled "Dance of the Lemons," and for good reason.

Over the past decade, LAUSD has spent $3.5 million on trying to fire just seven incompetent teachers. Only four were actually dismissed, following legal battles that lasted an average of five years and cost the district thousands of dollars in legal fees. Two others received substantial settlements in their cases and one was reinstated. The average cost per teacher: $500,000.

To make it easier to fire incompetent teachers in the future, both New York and Los Angeles are attempting to limit tenure for new educators. Under the current system, a teacher with only three years of experience can receive life-time tenure, provided they receive satisfactory evaluations. School officials are also encouraging principals to take a harder look at classroom performance, and hand out more unsatisfactory evaluations. But the number of teachers who receive failing grades is also low; in New York City and LA, less than two percent of educators have been rated as "unsatisfactory."

That may not seem rather low, and (truth be told) many teachers are doing a good job, against long odds. But the impact of those classroom "lemons" cannot be underestimated. Sources told LA Weekly writer Beth Barrett that as many as 1,000 teachers in the LAUSD could be classified as incompetent and targeted for dismissal. Collectively, those individuals are responsible for as many as 30,000 students who struggle with basic skills because their teachers aren't up to the job.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Trading Eagles for Silver Bars (The Murphy File, Retirement Edition)

A former senior Air Force legal officer will be retired in April as a First Lieutenant, an administrative review board has determined.

The Air Force announced today that Colonel Michael Murphy will enter retirement in the second-lowest officer grade, almost a year after a courts-martial board convicted him of crimes related to his service as a JAG without a law license. Murphy served as an Air Force legal officer for 23 years until it was discovered that he had been disbarred by two states, about the time he entered the JAG Corps.

Murphy, a former civilian lawyer in Texas, was disbarred by that state in 1983 for failing to file a client's appeal in a timely manner. Facing sanctions in Texas, Murphy applied for admittance to the Louisiana bar, which also disbarred him after learning of his problems in Texas. By that time, Murphy had already entered the Air Force and was serving as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps.

For more than two decades, Murphy never told his superiors about his disbarment in Texas and Louisiana. And, oddly enough, the Air Force never found out, despite the fact that the disciplinary actions were posted in on-line databases maintained by the bar associations in both states.

A retired senior Air Force JAG, with detailed knowledge of the Murphy case, tells In From the Cold that news of the Colonel's past problems literally "came in over the transom." An unknown tipster apparently found Murphy's disbarment listing in the Texas Bar Association database, and sent a copy to the Air Force.

That revelation touched off an investigation's of the Colonel's past and ended his meteoric career. At the time the service learned of Murphy's past ethical troubles, he was Commander of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency in Washington, D.C. and (reportedly) being screen for flag rank.

Instead, Colonel Murphy was reassigned to a desk job while awaiting court-martial on multiple charges and counts that, with conviction, could have resulted in a 41-year prison sentence for the former JAG. At the time, Murphy's conviction was a foregone conclusion. Various legal analysts suggested the real issue was how much prison time the Colonel might receive.

Unfortunately for him, Murphy's scandal came on the heels of another controversy involving another senior Air Force legal officer, Major General Thomas Fiscus. General Fiscus was forced to retire in December 2007, after engaging in a number of inappropriate relationships with female subordinates. The reduction in grade cost Fiscus an estimated $900,000 in retirement pay though he still collections an annual pension of $8264 a month.

But Murphy's conviction was anything but a slam dunk. His attorneys argued they could not present the "good airman defense" because the White House (where Murphy worked as chief counsel in the Military Office from 2001-2005) would not release classified details of his service. Without those details, the lawyers said, Colonel Murphy could not receive an adequate legal defense.

And the Army trial judge assigned to hear the case, Colonel Stephen Henley agreed. Without Murphy's service record from the White House, the judge ruled, defense lawyers could not demonstrate the defendant's good conduct and performance during the sentencing phase, depriving the former JAG of a "substantial right." Henley also determined that Murphy could not be punished--even if he was found guilty at court-martial. The Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Judge Henley's ruling in December 2008, four months before Murphy's case went to trial.

With Colonel Henley's decision, Murphy's subsequent conviction became almost meaningless. The former JAG walked out of the courtroom a free man, and returned to a staff job at Andrews AFB, where he was assigned after losing his command billet.

However, the Air Force wasn't quite finished with Colonel Murphy. In such cases, an administrative board must determine if the individual will be allowed to retire and at what rank. While the deliberations of administrative panels remain confidential, the service said almost nothing about the Murphy case until today's decision was announced. Media queries for an update on Murphy and the administrative process were routinely ignored, or buried in the service's public affairs bureaucracy.

The Colonel's exact whereabouts also remained a mystery, until this blog tracked him to Andrews AFB, Maryland, where he works in the A3/A5 (Operations and Plans) Directorate for the Air Force National Capital Region command. To date, Colonel Murphy has not responded to various e-mail inquiries about his activities, and other members of the directorate refer reporters to public affairs officials.

Still, Murphy's most recent assignment raise more questions about his treatment, in comparison to those of other military defendants. A billet in an A3/A5 organization typically requires a security clearance; however, as a convicted federal felon, Murphy should not be eligible for access to classified information. Not surprisingly, the USAF has been extremely tight-lipped about Colonel Murphy's job duties, and whether they involve sensitive material.

With his retirement rank, Murphy will receive an estimated monthly pension of $2730, plus medical coverage for life and other benefits, including BX and commissary privileges. That's about $5500 a month less that his retirement check as a Colonel, but it's still something of a victory for Murphy.

You see, the legal fraud managed to beat the system, both as a disbarred JAG officer and a high-profile military defendant. When he goes on the retired list, Michael Murphy will trade his Colonel's eagles for the silver bars of a First Lieutenant, but he still received far better than he deserved. Now, the taxpayers of America will be supporting this con man and felon for the rest of his life.

Air Force leaders had one final chance to give Murphy his just desserts with an administrative discharge (and no pension or benefits), but they blinked. Never mind that the former JAG served legally--and honorably--for only about 12 months of his 27-year career. Murphy was well-regarded in senior circles before his fall from grace, and still has friends in high places. Additionally, no one wanted to broach the subject of what Murphy did during his White House years, including a shadowy assignment to Baghdad during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Between his secrets and his White House connections, Michael Murphy had enough horsepower to beat the rap. And with the final disposition of his case (and career) the Air Force has suffered another needless black eye.

Keeping an Eye on Iran

Israel has raised the ante in its stand-off with Iran, unveiling a new long-range drone that can monitor Tehran's nuclear facilities, and (potentially) carry weapons that could be used against those sites.

The Heron TP--nick-named "Eitan" by the Israeli Air Force--is one of the largest UAVs in the world. The drone made its public debut on Sunday, with a press event at Tel Nof Airbase near Rehovot. The propeller-drive UAV has a wingspan almost as long as a Boeing 737 jetliner; overall, the Eitan is about three-quarters as large as the U.S. Global Hawk, which flies at much higher altitudes and can remain over a target for a much longer period.

Still, the new UAV represents a quantum leap for the IAF's already-impressive drone fleet. For the first time, Israeli intelligence analysts (and military planners) have a surveillance drone that can reach Iranian targets and remain on station for more than 12 hours. Eitan can carry a variety of sensor packages and its on-board satellite communications suite allows ground operators to instantly access what the UAV is collecting.

Introduction of the Eitan (which has already entered limited service) will give the Israelis far greater flexibility in gathering information against Iran. While Israel already has a small constellation of spy satellites, their coverage is somewhat limited, and their collection "windows" are predictable, allowing the Iranians to conceal sensitive activities when the platforms are overhead.

Israel also has access to much of the satellite imagery collected by the United States. But those assets are subject to the same limitations, and the Israelis are concerned about the future of information-sharing agreements under the Obama Administration. With the IAF standing up a squadron of Heron TPs later this year, Tel Aviv will become slightly less dependent on foreign intelligence collection in keeping tabs on Iran.

The new UAV also has the ability to respond more quickly to pop-up or ad hoc tasking. Anyone who's been in the spy business knows how difficult it is to "roll" a satellite and cover fleeting events along the edge of its track. Assuming the request is actually approved, the result (in many cases) is limited-quality imagery and the expenditure of precious fuel on the "bird," decreasing its operational career.

By comparison, it's much easier to dispatch a UAV, based on an established "collection deck," or in response to cueing from other sensors. And, while a satellite's surveillance window (against a particular target) is often measured in minutes, the drone can orbit for hours, providing an expanded view of enemy activities and making it easier to spot developing trends.

Those same features are also useful against high-value mobile targets, like Tehran's medium-range missiles, or advanced air defense systems (namely the Russian-built S-300) that is expected in Iran soon. Scanning thousands of square miles on a single missions, the on-board sensors can look or "listen" for sites than may support dispersed missile launchers, or a field-deployed S-300 battalion. Such intelligence would be vital for an IAF strike package heading for Iran.

During Sunday's public debut of the Eitan, Israeli Air Force leaders noted that the UAV is "quiet enough" to support covert missions. It's also a safe bet that Israeli engineers (who largely pioneered modern drone technology) made it stealthy as well, through the use of composite materials, IR suppression and other techniques. That would enhance the aircraft's survival prospects during "overland" missions against Iran, flying through the heart of the regime's air defenses.

But, as we've noted in previous posts, detecting and downing a UAV is anything but easy. For almost a decade before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Saddam's fighter pilots chased U.S. Predators over Baghdad, with only marginal success. Since 2007, an American drone known as "The Beast of Kandahar" has been flying from its base in Afghanistan, reportedly against targets in Iran.

Publicly, the Iranians have never claimed to have engaged (or shot down) one of those platforms, which was recently acknowledged by the Air Force as the RQ-170 Sentinel.
Given the confusion that typically reigns in Tehran's air defense system, the lack of success is no surprise, and it's doubtful that Iranian air defense crews would do any better against the Eitan.

Finally, the new Israeli UAV may have one more capability worth mentioning. The Israelis are believed to have a capability similar to the U.S. Rover system, which allows ground units to access real-time information from an overhead drone. That would be particularly helpful for Israeli SOF teams, inserted into Iran as part of a air/land strike against that country's nuclear facilities.

While the IDF has closely guarded its plans for a potential attack on Iran, Israeli officials have sometimes hinted that SOF units would attack Iranian targets campaign; allowing them to "look over the hill" (thanks to the Eitan's sensor suite) would prove invaluable, and improve their chances for success.

Friday, February 19, 2010

It's Amazing..

..what a change at the top can do for an organization.

Consider the case of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog. Under the leadership of its former director, Mohammed El-Baradei, the agency was often described as a lap dog in its dealings with rogue states and their nuclear programs, particularly Iran's.

Mr. El-Baradei's willingness to "go easy" on Tehran was on display throughout his tenure at the IAEA. As Kenneth Timmerman reported in his book "Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown With Iran," El-Baradei ignored warnings (from German intelligence) that Tehran's nuclear program was surging ahead in early 2000. Then, to cover his tracks, El-Baradei told his spokesman to deny that he had received the information.

About the same time, El-Baradei held a highly-publicized meeting with then-President Mohammen Khatami, declaring that Iran's nuclear efforts were completely "peaceful," despite evidence the regime was building a large uranium conversion plant, useful in supporting a weapons program.

The RegimeChangeIran blog also reminds us that Mr. El-Baradei was a late convert to Iran's real intentions. In 2003, the IAEA belatedly released a report on Iran attempts to evade
international inspections--but only after the Iranian opposition released detailed (and dramatic) evidence of Tehran's efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. Still, El-Baradei and his agency won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, another example of the low standards used by the Norwegian voters who determine the annual recipient.

Now, with Mr. El-Baradei in retirement, the IAEA is (apparently) taking a harder look at Tehran's nuclear program. In first report on Iran, new IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano broke with his predecessor, suggesting Tehran may have looked into into the construction of a nuclear weapon, and that weaponization efforts may be underway.

According to the U.K. Guardian, Mr. Amano's report also confirmed that Iran has already produced small quantities of uranium enriched to 20% purity. That is a significant increase from the low-quality (2-3%) enriched uranium previous produced by the Iranians. Attaining the 20% level is considered an intermediate step in reaching the 90% purity required for a nuclear weapon. Nuclear experts say that Iran could reach the 90% threshhold in as little as six months, now that the intermediate level has been attained.

The appointment of Mr. Amano--and his clear-eyed reporting on Iran--represent a welcome change for the IAEA. If anything, those wishing to coddle or appease Tehran may have to look elsewhere for cover. The days of Mr. El-Baradei white-washing the Iran file are (thankfully) over.

But that raises another question: as the IAEA builds its "charge sheet" against Tehran, what will the International Community do about it? By some accounts, the Iranians are well along in their efforts to build a bomb, and could have one in a matter of months. But the Bush Administration invested years in failed diplomatic efforts (led by the EU-3), and the Obama Administration compounded that mistake by giving Iran another year to "come around."

At last report, the U.S. and its allies were developing "new and tougher" sanctions against Tehran. But if the new IAEA report is correct (and it mirrors recent intelligence reporting on the Iranian nuclear program), then the window for sanctions has largely closed, and it may be time to consider the unthinkable--military action against Iran.

Unfortunately, that option won't fly at the White House, or the U.N. Security Council. That's why the Iranians are laughing all the way to the nuclear finish line.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What Happened at Fort Jackson?

Did members of an Arabic translation team attempt to poison the food supply at Fort Jackson, South Carolina?

That's the allegation currently under investigation by agents from the Army's Criminal Investigation Division.

Both Fox News and CBN News report that the inquiry began two months ago, and has remained active since that time. Sources say the investigation has focused on five members of a Lima 09 translation team, which was apparently training with U.S. troops at Fort Jackson. The translators were reportedly detained in December, when the complaint first surfaced. It is unclear if the individuals are still in custody.

Lima 09 is the name for an Army program that hires native Arabic speakers (and those fluent in other Middle Eastern languages) to serve as translators for American units in the war zone. Fort Jackson provides both basic and advanced training for thousands of soldiers every year.

However, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon cautioned that "no credible information" has been found to support the allegations. Lt Col Christopher Garver told The State newspaper in South Carolina that he could not release specifics of the investigation, to protect the integrity of the on-going probe.

Meanwhile, a local law enforcement source tells the paper there was "never" any threat to troops at Fort Jackson. The official blamed the poisoning scare on a few soldiers "who shot their mouths off."

Still, it's hard to believe that the CID would spend two months looking into completely baseless allegations. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that a translation team could pull off the alleged poisoning plot, because (we assume) they had little access mess hall food supplies.

That's because the days of recruits pulling extended KP duty is long since past; when I went through Air Force basic three decades ago, each recruit spent just one day in the mess hall, usually scrubbing pots or doing other menial chores. Food preparation and serving--even in those days--was entrusted to contractors, closely supervised by food service NCOs.

If the translators did try something in the mess hall, it would have been as customers, and not as cooks or servers. And, their opportunities for contaminating the food would have been limited. Dining facilities at training bases at not places for leisurely meals; Drill Sergeants patrol the mess halls, "actively" encouraging soldiers to finish their food, in minimum time.

In time, we may learn if there's anything to the allegations at Fort Jackson. Until then, the CID is clearly taking no chances. After the recent massacre at Fort Hood, preceded by countless missed warning signs and clues, CID investigators (and the Army brass) have no margin for error.
ADDENDUM: An official with "intimate" knowledge of the investigation tells CBN's Erick Stakelbeck that the "Fort Jackson 5" may have been in contact with a group of five Muslims from the Washington, D.C. area who traveled to Pakistan to wage jihad against U.S. troops. Those men were arrested by Pakistani authorities in December, about the time the translators were detained at Fort Jackson.

The reported link between the two groups may be one reason the CID investigation is continuing. And, we're guessing that other agencies (like the FBI and CIA) are also involved. If the connection pans out, there will be new questions about the Lima 09 program, and its penetration by suspected terrorists.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Boy, Did I Miss the Boat

As most of you know, I am a retired, field-grade military officer. I left active duty just over seven years ago and since then, Uncle Sam has been kind enough to send a retirement check once a month.

My retired pay is a matter of public record; as a retired O-4, I receive $2900 a month, or just under $35,000 a year. Do the math, and you can see how much I'll earn over the next 30 years --assuming I live that long. By most standards, my pension plan is generous, particularly when you factor in cost-of-living increases and other benefits, including medical coverage and BX and commissary privileges. It reaffirms my belief that joining the military was the smartest thing I ever did (aside from marrying Mrs. Smiley, just in case she reads this post).

Of course, I would submit that I did earn my pension. The United States Air Force owned my a--- for more than 20 years, allowing them to deploy me as they saw fit, and restrict my individual liberties to conform with the demands of military service. I spent long stretches away from my family, and pulled a few hazardous duty tours. Still, I never faced the hardships endured by today's heroes in uniform, and I would never compare my sacrifices to theirs--or those of today's military families.

However, when it comes to retirement benefits, I apparently missed the boat. While the combined pay and benefits package of many retired service members is worth more than $1 million, it pales in comparison to those of other workers. And we're not referring to Wall Street investment bankers, or folks who get rich in the entertainment business. If you want a really great retirement package, you need to work for the state of New Jersey.

In fact, the Garden State's retiree plan is so generous, it has helped push the state to the edge of bankruptcy. Newly-elected Republican Governor Chris Christie laid out the facts in a recent speech on his state's fiscal crisis:

Let's tell our citizens the truth -- today, right now -- about what failing to do strong reforms costs them. One state retiree, 49 years old, paid, over the course of his entire career, a total of $124,000 towards his retirement pension and health benefits. What will we pay him?" and I had this yesterday "$3.3 million in pension payments over his life and nearly $500,000 for health care benefits -- a total of $3.8m on a $120,000 investment. Is that fair? A retired teacher paid $62,000 towards her pension and nothing -- yes, nothing -- for full family medical, dental and vision coverage over her entire career.

"What will we pay her? $1.4 million in pension benefits and another $215,000 in health care benefit premiums over her lifetime. Is it 'fair' for all of us and our children to have to pay for this excess? The total unfunded pension and medical benefit costs [in New Jersey] are $90 billion. We would have to pay..." Hello, public employee unions! The day of reckoning has arrived for you in New Jersey. This is not going to be pretty, folks. This is not going to be pretty. "We would have to pay $7 billion per year to make them current. We don't have that money -- you know it and I know it. What has been done to our citizens by offering a pension system we cannot afford and health benefits that are 41% more expensive than the average fortune 500 company's costs is the truly unfair part of this equation. ... Suburban districts will sacrifice. Urban districts will sacrifice. Rural districts will sacrifice. Some, both inside and outside this chamber, will urge you to retreat to the corner and protect your own piece of turf. Our state is in crisis. Our people are hurting.

"Now is the time when we all must resist the traditional, selfish call to protect your own turf at the cost of our state. It is time to leave the corner, join the sacrifice, come to the center of the room and be part of the solution. I urge all of us to come to the center of the room voluntarily, to stand up to the special interests, to fix our broken state -- together. ... In total, I am cutting spending in 375 different state programs, from every corner of state government. I doubt that many will be popular. I will use my executive authority to implement them now, because I must. ... I am not happy, but I am not afraid to make these decisions, either. It is what the people sent me here to do."

Rush Limbaugh has the entire transcript of Governor Christie's speech; read the whole thing, it's well worth your time.

To be sure, Mr. Christie faces an uphill battle in taking on his state's entrenched public employees union. But at least he's willing to fight. Unlike his predecessors, Governor Christie understands that New Jersey is on an unsustainable path; the state's unfunded pension and health care liabilities are now approaching $90 billion. As Christie told state legislators the other day, the state would have to spend $7 billion a year for a decade to close that gap--money the state simply doesn't have.

And New Jersey isn't the only state facing a pension crisis. Across the country, feckless politicians bought off the state employee unions by promising gold-plated retirement packages, knowing the bill would eventually come due.

Here's another example of benefits gone wild. Listening to Bob Brinker's Money Talk program a few months ago, we were stunned by a caller from Michigan, another state teetering on the edge of insolvency. The man that spoke with Mr. Brinker was a retired state worker who was enjoying a comfortable retirement, and looking for advice on passing on wealth to his heirs. But the real kicker came in an casual remark from the caller, who volunteered that Michigan allows state retirees to pass on their health benefits to one of their surviving family members, no questions asked (emphasis ours).

Sadly, that's typical of the lunacy that exists in state and municipal pension plans around the country. It's the mindset that has left California with more than $100 billion in unfunded liabilities, and no way to pay for them. According to various analysts, runaway pension costs are the biggest factor in the state's deepening fiscal crisis. And no wonder; one reform group learned that 3,000 retired teachers in California collect pensions of more than $100,000 a year.

No one is saying that educators don't deserve a decent benefits package, but when teachers collect a bigger retirement check than most cops, firefighters (or former members of the armed forces), something is definitely wrong.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Obama's First Challenger in 2012

With his presidency already in ruins (Don Imus called it "Jimmy Carter II this morning; welcome to the party, I-Man), Barack Obama won't be lacking for Republican opposition in 2012. If you believe that Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney--and others--will sit out the next presidential election, we've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to purchase.

Yet, Mr. Obama could take some solace in the willingness of his party to stand behind him. Virtually all went along with his socialist schemes, despite the political risks. And when the polls went south (and Democrats began announcing their retirements from office), most bowed out gracefully, offering limited criticism of the President and his policies. Mr. Obama could also find comfort in the fact that none of the Democratic retirees posed a threat to his re-nomination in two years.

But all of that changed today, when Indiana's Evan Bayh announced he would not seek a third term in the Senate.

The news was stunning, to say the least. Among the Democratic incumbents up for re-election this fall, Mr. Bayh was considered one of the least vulnerable, though he certainly faced a bruising re-election battle.

In fact, while Republicans in other states were lining up to run against vulnerable Democratic incumbents, there was some question as to whom the GOP might pit against Bayh. Popular Republican Congressman Mike Pence took a pass on the race a couple of weeks ago. And, former Senator Dan Coats jumped into the fray only after it rumors of Bayh's retirement began to make the rounds. Readers may recall that Coats bowed out of a re-election bid in 1998, rather than face Mr. Bayh in the general election.

Interestingly, Mr. Coats isn't currently registered to vote in his home state, although that "problem" can be easily remedied. Since leaving the Senate more than a decade ago, Coats has worked as a lobbyist in Washington. He also served as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush, from 2001-2005.

As for Mr. Bayh, we agree (for once) with Charles Lane of the Washington Post, who believes that the "retiring" Senator is trying to avoid the looming Democratic train wreck, and re-position himself for 2012:

Quitting the Senate was a no-lose move for the presidentially ambitious Bayh, since he can now crawl away from the political wreckage for a couple of years, plausibly alleging that he tried to steer the party in a different direction -- and then be perfectly positioned to mount a centrist primary challenge to Obama in 2012, depending on circumstances.

There will be those Democrats who bid good riddance to Bayh and his coal-burning-state apostasy about cap and trade, etc. If so, they won’t need a very big tent to contain the celebration. On a more pragmatic view, Bayh’s dramatic vote of no-confidence in his own party’s leadership looks like another Massachusetts-sized political earthquake for the Democrats. Not only does it imperil the president’s short-term hopes of passing health care and other major legislation this year. It also makes it much more likely that the Republicans can pick up Bayh’s Senate seat in normally red Indiana and, with it, control of the Senate itself. If present trends continue, November could turn into a Republican rout.

Of course, there is one problem with this "theory." The Democratic base--including all those voters who show up for the early primaries and caucuses--has veered so far to the left, you can only wonder how much support Mr. Bayh would attract. On the other hand, if the economy remains in the tank (and the Obama Presidency remains a disaster area), then Evan Bayh could run well in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and the Super Tuesday primaries in the south. At that point, Mr. Obama would be in serious trouble, and the race could tilt in the challenger's favor.

Senator may also view 2012 as a "make or break" year for his presidential ambitions, despite long odds. If he waits for 2016, he would likely face a Republican incumbent, an improving economy, and a still-fractured Democratic base. Putting off a bid until 2020 would leave him out of the national spotlight for a decade, relegating him to "has been" status, and greatly impacting his fund-raising abilities.

Defeating an incumbent president from your own party is no easy task; Ted Kennedy couldn't prevent Jimmy Carter from winning re-nomination in 1980, and Ronald Reagan fell short trying to unseat Gerald Ford four years earlier. Evan Bayh would face similar obstacles in challenging Barack Obama in 2012.

But Mr. Bayh has rarely expressed doubts about his own abilities. The Senator has long viewed himself as presidential material, and his departure from Congress won't change that. He will also get plenty of encouragement from his fellow Democrats, anxious to find anyone who can rescue them from the S.S. Obama.

Put another way, we be greatly surprised if Evan Bayh didn't form some sort of exploratory committee and start visiting places like Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida on a recurring basis. He's still a long-shot to win in 2012 (and that's being charitable), but his decision to leave the Senate sends a clear signal to the anti-Obama elements in the Democratic Party. Anyone who doesn't want to go down with Captain Obama needs to find--and get behind--a candidate willing to take on a failing president. With today's announcement, Evan Bayh becomes the first Democrat to move in that direction.

He won't be the last.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"A Task that is Bigger Than Us"

A former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff is expressing concerns about his nation's ability to conduct successful, preemptive strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

In an interview with Israel's Channel 2 television, retired General Dan Halutz said the Jewish State "should not take it upon itself to be the flag-bearer of the entire Western world in the face of the Iranian threat." Halutz made the comments in response to comments from Israeli political leaders, who have vowed to "take care" of the threat from Tehran.

"I'm not some passer-by ... I've filled a few positions that give me a different level of information to the average person," he said without elaborating.

General Halutz is more than familiar with difficult military missions. He was Israel's senior military officer during the 2006 war with Hizballah. Halutz was widely criticized for his "air-centric" approach to the conflict, which quickly neutralized the terror group's fixed targets, but did little to slow the hail of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon.

He was also criticized for his inconsistent statements on the war; on at least two occasions, General Halutz indicated the Israeli was prepared to stay the military course, while in other statements, he suggested that the IDF would complete a speedy withdrawal from southern Lebanon, in accordance with international demands.

Critics also faulted Halutz (and Israeli Army officials) for their handling of the ground campaign. As IDF forces moved into Lebanon, they encountered a network of prepared Hizballah defenses, designed to slow the advance of ground troops and inflict maximum casualties. Halutz resigned from his post on 17 August 2006, after it was revealed the IDF chief had sold off most of his investment portfolio one month earlier, after Hizballah captured two Israeli soldiers, triggering the conflict that followed.

While General Halutz clearly has an axe to grind with certain Israeli politicians--the same ones who left him "twisting in the wind" during the stock scandal and the Lebanon War post-mortem--his knowledge of air tactics and planning is beyond question. He clearly recognizes the enormous obstacles that would accompany any Israeli Air Force strike against Iran. We've outlined these difficulties in previous posts, including this one from February 2006: As we noted at the time:

"...the distance of Iran's nuclear facilities from Israel--almost 1,000 miles--creates unique challenges for the IAF. While the IAF's primary strike aircraft (the F-15I) could make the trip with external fuel tanks, other fighters (other F-15s, F-16s) would need air-to-air refueling. That's why the most important asset in any virtually any long-range strike scenario is the IAF's small fleet of KC-707 tankers.

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.

Four years later, the geography and support requirements for an Iran strike still haven't changed. The IAF still faces the enormous challenge of getting its strike aircraft into Iranian airspace undetected, after flying across more than 1,000 miles of hostile or neutral airspace. Forward basing in a third country--say Turkey, or the Kurdish region of Iraq--would mitigate these concerns slightly, but the Israelis remain limited in the number of aircraft they can marshal for such a mission, and the number of nuclear targets that could be attacked.

Some military analysts have also suggested that Israel might insert special forces personnel into Iran and deploy cruise missile-equipped submarines to the Persian Gulf. That would give IDF planners more assets to work with, but those options create another set of logistical and operational headaches. That's why many observers believe that any Israeli strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities would be an "air only" campaign, an option that would maximize chances for achieving tactical surprise, while minimizing operational risks.

These types of challenges clearly influenced General Halutz's comments--and it's not the first time we've heard a current or former Israeli official voice those concerns. But such observations are based (in part) on a faulty assumption; namely, that other western nations have the resolve to take on the Iranian threat.

Reviewing past "attempts" to stop the Iranian nuclear program, it's clear that the west--led by the United States--has little stomach for the military option. The Bush Administration spent roughly three years supporting talks between Tehran and the EU-3 (Great Britain, France and Germany), talks that achieved nothing.

More recently, the Obama White House is promising tougher sanctions against Iran, after giving the mullahs a year to give up their nuclear ambitions. Tehran responded with accelerated work on uranium enrichment and other elements of its weapons program; just last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran is now a "nuclear state."

Israel may not want to be the "flag-bearer" for military action against Iran's nuclear effort but (at this point) they may be our only option.


ADDENDUM: And the window for miltary action by the Israelis may be closing for good. According to an AFP dispatch from Moscow, the Russians plan to honor a long-standing contract to deliver the advanced S-3o0 air defense system to Iran. A deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council said there is "no reason" not to send the S-300 to Tehran. The presence of that system in Iran would greatly complicate Israeli planning. Defeating to S-300 requires extensive suppression efforts and stealth aircraft, elements that the IAF would find difficult to muster across long distances.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Meaningless Milestone?

The Boeing YAL-1 in flight; the airborne laser has destroyed two missile targets during flight tests conducted this month. While the ABL platform shows enormous promise, it faces an uncertain future (USAF photo via Wikipedia).

A team representing Boeing, Northrop-Grumman, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force turned science fiction into fact last night. At 8:44 p.m. Pacific Time, years of effort (and billions of tax dollars) finally paid off, as the Air Force's Airborne Laser, built by the three defense firms, successfully shot down a target missile over California's Point Magu Naval Weapons Sea Range.

It marked the first time that a directed energy weapon, fired from an airborne platform, has been used to destroy a missile in flight.

Mounted on a Boeing 747-400 airframe, the ABL launched from Edwards AFB, California late Thursday afternoon and flew to the Point Magu range, located off the coast of Ventura County. The profile was similar to a test last August when the ABL used its on-board sensors to locate (and track) a target missile launched from San Nicolas Island, California.

But this time, the aircraft and its crew not only located the liquid-fueled missile, they destroyed it, using the megawatt-class, chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL). As described in this Wikipedia article, the detection-to-intercept sequence is both automated and brief:

The ABL system uses infrared sensors for initial missile detection. After initial detection, three low power tracking lasers calculate missile course, speed, aimpoint, and air turbulence. Air turbulence deflects and distorts the laser beam. The ABL adaptive optics use the turbulence measurement to compensate for atmospheric errors. The main laser, located in a turret on the aircraft nose, is fired for 3 to 5 seconds, causing the missile to break up in flight near the launch area. The ABL is not designed to intercept TBMs in the terminal, or descending, flight phase. Thus, the ABL must be within a few hundred kilometers of the missile launch point. All of this occurs in approximately 8 to 12 seconds.

However, the test didn't end there. The initial Reuters report failed to mention that the aircraft engaged a second, solid-fuel missile about an hour later. The liquid-fueled rocket (designed to simulate older, SCUD-type missiles) was launched from a sea-based platform; the second missile was fired from a launch site on San Nicolas Island.

According to the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, which is overseeing ABL development, the system met all test criteria during the second engagement, and switched off the laser before the missile was destroyed. That suggests the shut down was deliberate, probably aimed at preserving the target missile, conserving the laser's fuel supply, or both. In its operational configuration, the ABL will carry enough fuel for only 20-40 laser "shots," each lasting just 3-5 seconds.

It should be noted that last night wasn't the first time the ABL intercepted a solid-fuel missile. The MDA reports the platform destroyed a similar target on 3 February. By our count, that makes the platform three-for-three in aerial, operational testing, confirming ABL's enormous potential to intercept missiles in their boost phase, when they are the most vulnerable.

But getting the aircraft into position may be easier said than done. While the ABL is (reportedly) capable of engaging liquid-fueled targets up to 600 km away (and solid-fueled missiles at a range of 300 km), reaching that engagement point will require aerial escort by friendly fighters, electronic warfare support, dedicated tanker orbits and--in some scenarios--flights over hostile territory.

Even a countries with modest air defense capabilities (like Iran) would make a concerted effort to deny orbit areas to the ABL. And at some point, the presence of enemy fighters (or advanced SAMs like the Russian-made SA-20) become too dense for the ABL. Countries like China or Russia could simply conduct missile launches from deep inside their territory, behind layers of air defenses that couldn't be penetrated by the ABL and its support package.

But of course, ABL was never designed to be the limit of our missile defenses. Using the aircraft to knock down TBMs in the boost phase enhances the effectiveness of our overall plan, leaving fewer targets for sea and land-based interceptors to deal with. Fewer targets means a lower probability that "leakers" will penetrate the various layers of our defensive shield, and strike key military targets or civilian population centers.

That's why the multi-layered approach makes so much sense. But President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have been whittling away at missile defense, cancelling the scheduled deployed of a land-based radar and interceptor missiles in eastern Europe. They've also scaled back plans to add more ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California, opting (instead) for defenses built around the Aegis/SM-3 system, mounted on U.S. naval vessels and those of key allied nations.

While the SM-3 is very capable, the Obama plan has raised concerns about its impact on naval operations and fleet readiness. The Navy is well below the required number of ballistic missile defense ships, and there are questions about the service's ability to reach mandated levels--even if all Arleigh Burke class destroyers are upgraded to the SM-3 standard. Naval leaders are also worried about that the focus on BMD will limit the vessel's employment for other, equally-critical maritime missions.

That's one reason that a fully-funded ABL program would be a useful adjunct, particularly in regional missile defense missions. But it appears that ABL will never be fully funded or operationally deployed. Last year, the Obama Administration re-designated the program as a research project, scrapping plans to eventually build six more ABLs and employ them operationally.

As a result, those recent, successful intercepts lose some of their luster. As far as Mr. Obama and Mr. Gates are concerned, ABL is little more than an expensive science project. The aerial intercept (and destruction) of a ballistic missile--by an aircraft-mounted, high-power laser--is an astounding technological feat. But unless we're willing to translate that R&D achievement into an operational capability, last night's milestone may prove meaningless.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Next Wave, Redux

Vice-President Joe Biden says the U.S. will likely be hit by terrorist "backpack bombers" in the coming months. Biden made the observation in an interview with CNN's Larry King, which was taped earlier today.

A transcript of Biden's comments is already posted at "The Swamp," a group blog from the Chicago Tribune's Washington Bureau. Scroll down for the VP's terror prediction, which occurred towards the end of the interview:

KING: Terror -- last week on terrorism, the heads of the major U.S. intelligence agencies told Dianne Feinstein that another attempted terrorist attack on the United States is coming certain in the next few months.

BIDEN: Well...

KING: What do you make of that?

BIDEN: Well, look, let me put it this way. The idea of there being a massive attack in the United States like 9/11 is unlikely, in my view. But if you see what's happening, particularly with al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula, they have decided to move in the direction of much more small bore but devastatingly frightening attacks.

KING: Detroit?

BIDEN: Detroit. But I think what you're seeing morphing here -- and it's a concern to us -- is you'll see the -- the concern relates to somebody like a shoe bomber or the underpants bomber, the Christmas attack or someone just strapping a backpack on them with weapons that are indigenous and blowing up, you know, walking into (INAUDIBLE)...

KING: So that's going to happen?

BIDEN: Well, I -- I think there are going to be an attempts. I hope we've been -- I've been really impressed. As I said, I've been here for eight presidents. I used to be in the Intelligence Committee. I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. It's something I spent my professional life doing. I've been really impressed with the success we've had, building on the last administration, in dealing with these.

Reading the transcript, it seems clear that Mr. Biden was trying to avoid one of his patented "slips of the lip" that might divulge more detailed information. Put another way, it's highly unlikely the Vice-President randomly selected "backpack bombers" as an example of a potential threat.

And when he refers to "someone like a shoe bomber or the underpants bomber," it's a tacit admission that Farouk Abdulmutallab was part of Al Qaida's "next wave." His fellow operatives--trained at the same camps in Yemen--are still out there, probably on American soil and waiting to strike.

The underlying intent of Mr. Biden's comments (along with those of intelligence officials last week) seems clear enough: America is being prepared for a series of near-term attacks against the homeland, strikes that may be impossible to defeat.

Once again, the question: what actionable intelligence was missed--or delayed--because we Mirandized Abdulmutallab after less than an hour of interrogation on Christmas Day?

Too Fat to Serve

If you've been following the news, you know that childhood obesity has become the cause du jour for First Lady Michelle Obama.

To be fair, Mrs. Obama has a point. We are raising a nation of fat kids, for a variety of reasons. The lifestyle police are quick to blame fast food outlets and producers of junk food, but the problem begins at home. Instead of engaging in physical activity, the little lard asses spend too much time in front of a TV, the computer or their Wii.

Making matters worse, many schools have eliminated physical education, or P.E. classes involving rigorous activity. Wouldn't want our kids to feel bad about themselves because they can't sink a basket, or toss a football.

But is the "epidemic" of fat children a danger to our national security? The First Lady believes that it is. According to (via Michelle Malkin), Mrs. Obama invoked that risk today, during an event at the White House.

“A recent study put the health care cost of obesity-related diseases at $147 billion a year,” Mrs. Obama said. “This epidemic also impacts the nation’s security, as obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service.”

The ceremony, attended by many officials of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, followed the signing earlier in the day of a presidential memorandum establishing a task force to study the problem and make recommendations after 90 days.

Obama announced a long list of goals she said she hopes the “Let’s Move” campaign will accomplish, including many that can be done “in a generation.”

Yes, it is true that military recruiters turn away their share of fat young men (and women). But listening to Michelle Obama's comments, you'd think that being overweight is enough to permanently disqualify someone from the armed forces. That simply isn't true.

Fact is, many recruiters are willing to work with overweight prospects--if they meet other enlistment criteria and lose the pounds. Ulysses Miliana, a former culinary student, weighed 330 pounds when he walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office back in December, 2007. Over the next year, Miliana lost 140 pounds, thanks (in part) to a workout regimen provided by his recruiters. He shipped out to boot camp eleven months later.

Miliana isn't the only recruit who shed weight to fulfill his military ambitions. Matt Mobley dropped more than 80 pounds to join the Air Force:

"I knew that I wanted to become an Airman more than anything else, so I set a goal for myself," he said.

Tech. Sgt Christopher Conaway, a Charleston area recruiter, gave Mr. Mobley information about the Air Force in September 2007 and told the potential recruit that he was there for him if he wanted some motivation along his journey to lose weight.

"I thought that was the last I would see of Mr. Mobley, because I would say that about nine out of 10 people never come back," Sergeant Conaway said. "Much to my surprise, Matt came into my office in October and then again in November and December. This young man was losing weight. I found myself becoming a huge Matt Mobley fan."

When Mr. Mobley found out that he had to lose nearly 80 pounds to qualify for the Air Force, he started eating healthy and exercising several times a day.

You can find similar stories from other branches of the military. Recruits willing to shape up (physically) can still enlist, once they meet required weight standards. In fact, obesity is one of the few disqualifiers that can be overcome, with nothing more than proper diet and exercise.

On the other hand, many prospective recruits are rejected for reasons that simply can't be "fixed." We refer to the thousands of young people put on Ritalin and scores of other psychotropic drugs. Or those with extensive criminal records. Or young men and women who can't score high enough on the ASVAB because they were "educated" in failing public schools.

In case you're wondering, the Army requires an overall score of 31 for enlistment; the Marine Corps minimum is 32. Sadly, many of those in the 18-24 age group (the military's primary recruiting demographic) can't achieve those modest scores.

Make no mistake; childhood obesity is a serious problem. But we should be equally concerned (some would say more concerned) about potential recruits who are permanently disqualified from military service because they've been medicated out of their minds; they have a criminal record that would make Al Capone proud, or they're simply too dumb.

Someone should ask Mrs. Obama if those factors represent a risk to our national security. And strangely enough, we haven't seen her crusading against the gross over-diagnosis of childhood ADD/HD and depression (and the "medication solution" so often prescribed); the wave of youth crime engulfing urban areas, and government schools that fail to teach even basic skills.

Some would even describe those problems as "epidemics." But not at the White House.

Waiting for that "Telling Blow"

Within hours, Iran is expected to deliver that promised, "telling blow" against "western arrogance." But no one can say (with any certainty) what Tehran has in mind.

This much we know: some sort of major event will occur in Iran tomorrow, in conjunction with the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. However, it's still largely a guess as to what will transpire; various scholars and analysts have suggested a variety of scenarios, ranging from a harsh crackdown against domestic dissidents; a missile demonstration (or multiple launches), a nuclear test or even a strike against Israel.

At the low end of the spectrum (in terms of probability) is a preemptive attack against the Jewish state. Despite their supposed willingness to become "martyrs for the cause" and strong belief in Islamic mysticism (President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reportedly funded a highway project to prepare for the return of the 12th Imam), Iranian leaders have not demonstrated a desire for national suicide.

In other words, any strike by Iran against Israel would be met with a swift and overwhelming response that would deter--or completely end--Tehran's larger ambitions. To be sure, the mullahs and Ahmadeinjad probably view a showdown with Israel as inevitable, but there is no indication they want an immediate confrontation, particularly if Iran has not developed nuclear weapons.

Once Tehran gets the bomb, the equation will change, but only slightly; Israel will maintain an overwhelming nuclear advantage for years to come, with the ability to destroy all of Iran's major population centers--and key military targets--with enough weapons left over for additional strikes, if necessary. It's enough to make any Israeli adversary stop and think--even the crazies in Tehran.

Likewise, the possibility of a near-term Iranian nuclear test is also considered remote. While the existence of an advanced, covert weapons program cannot be ruled out, there is nothing to indicate that Iran has actually developed--and is ready to test--a viable nuclear device. Indeed, Ahmadinejad's recent directive (issued earlier this week) suggests that Iran is only now beginning to enrich uranium at 20% purity. But that's a far step from the 90% level required for weapons-grade material. Tehran could reach that level only months after attaining that intermediary step, but there is no conclusive proof that Iranian scientists have completed the other steps needed to build a nuke, from development of a working trigger mechanism, to actually fabrication of a deliverable device.

It's worth remembering that Tehran could by-pass the final steps in the development process by simply purchasing a nuclear weapon from North Korea. However, Pyongyang's devices have reliability issues, and Iran wants the ability to build its own nukes. Buying--and detonating--a bomb produced in the DPRK would be a tacit admission that Tehran's nuclear program has come up short, and eliminate one of the regime's most effective bargaining chips, the threat to develop nukes. North Korea would also pay a heavy price for aiding the Iranians, at a time when Kim Jong-il can (potentially) cut a favorable deal with the Obama Administration.

But some sources state that Iran does, in fact, have at least one nuclear weapon. According to a recent article in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a Russian nuclear expert has told the International Atomic Energy Agency that Tehran has developed a nuclear warhead, and is attempting to make it small enough to fit on a Shahab-3 missile--which has the range to hit Israel. Michael Ledeen of Pajamas Media was one of the few western columnists to report that claim, which is supposedly contained in a new IAEA summary, and verified by at least one western intelligence agency. Officially, the U.N. agency has confirmed the presence of foreign scientists in the Iranian nuclear program, but the Russian scientist's claims have not been fully coroborated, at least publicly.

Mr. Ledeen believes a more likely Thursday scenario is a massive government crackdown against the Iranian opposition movement. The leadership in Tehran has grown tired of anti-regime protests, which began after last summer's presidential election. Opposition leaders have publicly stated that a Chinese-style crackdown is expected, and since the mullahs believe that protesters are controlled by the U.S., Israel (and other enemies) a move against them would constitute a blow against the west.

A missile test may also be in the offing. Tehran has never tested the BM-25, an intermediate range system purchased from North Korea more than two years ago. The BM-25 has the ability to strike targets as far away as southern Europe, and a successful test would be a true milestone for Iran and its ballistic missile program. More importantly, the missile can be easily adapted to carry a nuclear warhead (in fact, the original Soviet model was designed for specifically for that purpose). So, Iran reaching an IOC with the BM-25 would represent a blow against the west.

As a final possibility, Tehran might use the revolution's anniversary to duplicate one of its recent space launches. Still, that sort of event wouldn't carry the weight of a major missile test, a "final" campaign against protesters, or (God forbid) a nuclear detonation.
ADDENDUM: U.S. intelligence agencies have been remarkably quiet about what might happen in Iran tomorrow. With that in mind, it would be interesting to know the current whereabouts of Cobra Ball, the Air Force aircraft used to track foreign missile tests, and Constant Phoenix, the platform that collects air samples following underground nuclear detonations. The presence of either aircraft at bases in (or near) the Persian Gulf would offer potential clues regarding our assessment of Iranian plans.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Frank Magid, R.I.P.

If you've ever notice the "sameness" of local television news--the fact that a newscast in Atlanta looks a lot like its counterparts in Seattle, Denver or Baltimore, right down to the anchors, set and editorial content--you can thank (or curse) Frank Magid.

Mr. Magid, the former Iowa college professor who founded one of the world's most influential media research companies, died in California last Friday after a bout with lymphoma. He was 78.

Magid was teaching psychology, anthropology and statistics at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the late 1950s when he formed a consulting business, selling research to a local bank. He left the college a year later, as the firm added additional clients, including broadcasters.

While firms such as A.C. Nielsen and Arbitron offered audience measurement data to local stations and TV networks, they provided little analysis as to why viewers chose certain programs or personalities. Sensing a void, Magid's firm began offering "attitudinal research" to its clients, devising questions that determined audience preferences and opinions.

Armed with that information, Magid and his team of consultants offered "suggestions" to their clients, shaping how they presented the news and other programming. While Magid offered news consulting from the earliest days of the company, that service didn't really take off until the the 1970s, when local stations--and their network counterparts--discovered that broadcast news could be extremely profitable.

During that decade, Magid helped a struggling Philadelphia TV station, WPVI, refine something called Action News. It was a response to the popular Eyewitness News format that also began in Philadelphia (on KYW-TV), then quickly spread to other outlets, most notably the local stations owned by ABC.

Actions News was designed to be even faster-paced (and more visually appealing) than the Eyewitness format, with no story longer than 90 seconds. By 1977, WPVI was the #1 station in Philly and has remained dominant for the past 30 years. The stunning success of WPVI generated even more clients for Magid and many adopted variations of the Action News approach.

At about the same time, Magid was also consulting for the ABC network, recently purchased by Capital Cities Communications, which also owned WPVI. ABC's initial entry in the TV morning news wars (A.M. America) had been a major flop, despite a talent roster that included Bill Beutel, Stephanie Edwards and a newsreader named Peter Jennings. Anxious to avoid another debacle, ABC asked Magid to help create a new morning show.

The result was Good Morning America, and at the time, it represented a radical departure for news programming. To anchor the program, ABC hired actors David Hartman and Nancy Dassault who presided over low-key segments on everything from health to entertainment. Among the show's many on-air contributors were meteorologist John Coleman; humorist Erma Bombeck and radio personality Paul Harvey. GMA originated from a studio that looked like a suburban living room, a sharp contrast to the "news set" utilized by NBC's Today show.

Ratings grew steadily and by the early 1980s, GMA had achieved the impossible--it was regularly beating Today in the ratings. It was another feather in Magid's cap, though critics noted that the network's successful format was largely borrowed from Morning Exchange, a local show that aired on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, an ABC affiliate--and a Magid client.

The firm's attempts to transplant these successes to other markets led to inevitable claims that Magid was producing "cookie cutter" or "homogenized" news. And, there was an element of truth in that; advice offered to a station in Dallas wasn't much different from guidance provided to a client in Louisville or Cleveland. Coverage philosophy, graphics packages, set design and story length varied little from market to market.

Magid also promoted certain newscasters and executives, offering a placement service for on-air talent and news directors. Anchors and reporters touted by the firm could advance quickly; in the mid-70s, a Magid consultant recommended that WHO-TV in Des Moines hire a Kansas City anchor named Jack Cafferty. In less than a year, Cafferty led the station into a tie with long-time market leader KCCI. After that, he departed for New York City, where he anchored the news for decades on WNBC and WPIX before joining CNN as a commentator. By comparison, talent deemed "inferior" by the consulting firm often found it difficult to remain on the air.

"Serious" journalists decried the influence of Magid and its competitors. CBS anchor Walter Cronkite once warned (famously) about the "consultantization" of televison news. But there was a touch of hypocrisy in Cronkite's critique because, interestingly enough, a Magid survey played an instrumental role in his career. During the early days of his tenure on the CBS Evening News, the network commissioned Magid to see if viewers preferred Cronkite as a solo anchor, or as part of a team, similar to NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Magid's research affirmed that Cronkite could carry the show by himself, setting the stage for his long, successful run on the Evening News.

While Magid is often criticized for recycling TV news formats (and talent), he certainly deserves credit for helping bring the medium into the 20th Century. Magid's arrival in a market meant that at least one station would modernize, and its competitors would usually follow. That meant more stories per newscast, coverage of topics previously ignored (such as consumer and health news) and more prominent roles for women. Before the advent of Action News and similar formats, TV news was a ponderous affair, especially at the local level. Newscasts usually consisted of an announcer reading wire service copy, staring directly into the camera. Magid's approach generated more coverage of local events, even if the editorial quality was sometimes lacking.

While the firm's approach was widely emulated, it wasn't always successful. Plenty of stations hired Magid and then fired the firm when ratings failed to improve. Magid and other consultants were often depicted as a sinister force in a newsroom, wielding great power over content (and careers), with less concern about the journalistic aspects of the craft.

But even that critique was a bit unfair. A former Iowa anchor who worked at a Magid-consulted station remembered the firm offered "suggestions" rather than directives. Outlets were free to ignore Magid's advice, and sometimes they did, for better or worse. Unfortunately, with thousands of dollars in consulting fees on the line--and millions more in ratings points and advertising sales for the local news--broadcast executives were often afraid to buck their advisers, even when they knew the market better than their hired guns.

And that may be the most lasting legacy of Frank Magid and the business he built. With his firm's impressive track record--and the hyper-competitive nature of broadcasting--Magid spawned two generations of TV executives who were consultant-driven, reluctant to make any major decision without assistance from outside advisers.

TV was once a business run by visionaries. Mr. Magid was a visionary, too, but in realizing his goals the medium lost some of its innovation and originality. For better or worse, that is the nature of broadcasting in the 21st Century, an approach defined (in large measure) by Frank Magid.

Testing the Stolen Valor Act

Over the past couple of years, we've written extensively about various phonies and frauds prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, which prohibits individuals from wearing--or making false claims--about military medals or decorations they never received. Sponsored by a pair of Congressional Democrats, the measure received broad, bipartisan support, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in December 2006.

Over the past four years, the law has snagged several high-profile offenders--elected officials or other public figures who lied about their military service and the awards they earned. One of the more infamous cases involved Xavier Alvarez, a member of the Walnut Valley Water Board in Claremont, California. After winning election to the panel, Mr. Alavarez was asked to introduce himself to fellow board members. He responded with a brief resume of military valor and extraordinary heroism:

"I'm a retired Marine of 25 years," Alvarez said. "I just retired in 2001. Back in 1987 I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times, at the same time. I'm still around."

As readers will recall, Mr. Alaverez's claim had a couple of problems. First, he never received the Congressional Medal of Honor. And secondly, he never spent a single day in the Marine Corps, or any other branch of service.

Making matters worse, Alvarez repeated the boast several times, and his claims about being a MOH recipient were caught on tape. Someone alerted federal prosecutors, who charged Mr. Alvarez under the Stolen Valor Act. Facing no-nonsense Federal Judge Edward Rafeedie, the water board official decided to enter a guilty plea. He received probation and a fine for his crime, a federal misdemeanor. Had he been convicted at trial, Alvarez could have received a one-year jail sentence.

Attempting to help their client beat the rap, Mr. Alvarez's attorneys offered a novel defense. His false statements about winning the Medal of Honor (and being a Marine Corps veteran) were actually protected political speech, guaranteed under the First Amendment. In other words, the Democratic official had a constitutional right to lie.

That claim was rejected outright by Federal Judge Gary Klausner, who rejected a pre-trial motion to dismiss the charges against Alvarez. Judge Klausner ruled that the elected official's lies were not political speech, and his "false statement of facts" did not merit First Amendment protection.

Undeterred, Alvarez's defense team has continued their appeal of Klausner's decision. A similar case has been brought in Colorado by lawyers representing Rick Glen Strandlof, who founded an organization that helps homeless veterans. Mr. Strandlof also claimed to be a former Marine who had been wounded in Iraq. The Pentagon says there is no record of Strandlof ever serving in the military. Indicted under the Stolen Valor Act, Strandlof has entered a not guilty plea. His trial is pending.

Some legal experts say the current law is too vague, claiming it essentially bans "bragging." George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says the concept behind the stolen valor law could criminalize "half the pickup lines in bars across America."

But we share the view of military historian Doug Sterner. He notes that concerns about fraudulent claims of military honors date back to our first Commander-in-Chief, George Washington. After creating the nation's first military decoration, the Purple Heart, Washington warned that "should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume the badges of them, they shall be severely punished."

Sterner believes the current Stolen Valor law follows the intent of the framers. We concur and hope that both Alvarez and Strandlof fail in their appeals. The value of any military medal or decoration lies not in the device, but in the sacrifice, dedication and heroism of the recipient. Without that assurance, the medal becomes nothing more than metal and cloth. Our war heroes deserve better. Let's hope the judiciary agrees.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Oh Geez, Not that S*** Again (Iranian Aircraft Edition)

Anything but stealthy. Iran's says its "advanced" Saeqeh jet fighter is similar in performance to the U.S. F/A-18. But the aircraft is actually a re-engineered F-5, which Tehran bought from the United States in the 1970s. Iran's claims about the successful development of "stealth" aircraft and drones are equally dubious (Press TV photo).

When it comes to outrageous claims, it's hard to beat Iran's defense establishment.

Less than a year after announcing plans to manufacture "stealth" aircraft, Tehran claims to have successfully tested a radar-evading drone. From the propagandists at state-run Press TV:

Iran has successfully tested the prototype of its first domestically-built stealth drone, a senior Air Force commander said Sunday.

"The drone, due to its physical attributes and the material used in its body, cannot be detected by any radar," Air Force Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh, the force's coordination deputy, told reporters.

He said data from the test-flight had been favorable and the Air Force will move forward with its plans for the drone, called Sofreh Mahi, meaning Manta Ray in English, Fars News Agency reported.

To be fair, Press TV did identify the platform as a drone, not a manned aircraft. Iran has been producing various types of UAVs for more than a decade, and since drones have an inherent "degree" of stealth, the claim may have some minor basis in fact. However, other media outlets--including Reuters--claimed the flight was the test of a stealth jet, and even the Press TV account included an image of Iran's domestically "produced" Saeqeh fighter.

That particular aircraft offers an excellent example of the disconnet between Tehran's defense claims and reality. When it was introduced, the Saeqeh (which takes its name from the Farsi word for "Thunderbolt") was described as similar in capabilities and performance to the U.S.-built F/A-18 Hornet.

In reality, the Iranian jet is nothing more than a rebuilt F-5 Freedom fighter, which the Shah's regimen bought from the United States more than 40 years ago. The Saeqeh has twin vertical stabilizers and slightly improved avionics; any other resemblance to the Hornet (or the advanced Super Hornet) exists only in the minds of Iran's Defense Ministry and their mouthpieces at Press TV.

Moreover, it would be virtually impossible for Iran to produce a true stealth fighter--or drone--only one year after announcing the launch of that program. Development of low-observable platforms generally takes a decade (or longer), and that's for companies like Lockheed or Northrop-Grumman, who already have extensive experience in stealth design and manufacturing.

And, the timelines are even longer for respected firms attempting to break into the stealth market. Russia's Sukhoi design bureau staged the first test flight of its PAK FA (Future Frontline Aircraft System) on 29 January of this year, capping 20 years of research and development. But commercial production of the jet is not expected to begin until later this decade and by some estimates, Russian squadrons won't receive their first aircraft until the year 2020, fifteen years after the first F-22s were delivered to the USAF, and almost a decade behind initial deliveries of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the U.S. and various allied partners.

We should also mention that PAK FA's future depends largely on continued infusions of cash from India, which plans to purchase the stealth jet from Sukhoi. Should New Delhi choose another option (say, joining the JSF consortium), PAK FA would die a quick death.

Those are cold, cruel realities of stealth aircraft design and production. Against that backdrop, it's impossible that Iran has compressed the development and testing schedule into a single year, even for a low observable UAV. We supposed there are a few individuals in the Iranian regime (and the mainstream press) that believe these claims, but they won't do much to improve security, particularly if--or should we say "when"--the Israeli Air Force comes calling.
ADDENDUM: While it's easy to laugh at Iranian claims of developing "super weapons," other announcements from Tehran should be viewed with more concern. Case in point: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent directive to Iran's nuclear energy organization, mandating that uranium stockpiles be enriched to 20% purity, versus the current 3.5%.

As former U.N. arms inspector David Albright told the U.K. Guardian, the new standard is an intermediate step towards reaching weapons-grade material, which requires 90% purity. According to Mr. Albright, it's technically easier to make the increase from 20 to 90%, than the jump from 3.5 to 20%. Once the intermediate level is reached, Albright estimates that Iran could enrich uranium at 90% within six months, using only a fraction of their available centrifuges.
Just one more reason that events in the Persian Gulf will reach a flash point. And very, very soon.