Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What He Saw at the Rally

Jerome Hudson, a 24-year-old African-American college student from Tallahassee, Florida was among the 300,000 (or so) who attended Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally last weekend.

He's published some thoughts on the experience at Human Events. While the entire piece is definitely worth a read, one of the most telling anecdotes comes from an encounter with other African-Americans, heading for Al Sharpton's "counter-rally." As Mr. Hudson writes, they were stunned to learn that he had no use for Mr. Sharpton, or his event:

At one point, some of the people attending the Rev. Al Sharpton's "counter rally," coined "Reclaiming King," stopped me. I guess they must have been judging me by the color of my skin not the content of my character, because they asked if I was going to come join them.

"No, I won't be there," I told them. "Why?" one of them asked with a grimace on his face. I looked at him and said, "I want to be where the Lord is and the Lord is in this place."

One of the older black women in the group asked me if I felt like I was "selling out" for being one of the "tokens" in the Beck rally crowd?

I laughed and said "Ma'am, Al Sharpton is a pretender. He is going to tell you to pretend that the color of your skin matters. He is going to ask you to ignore the now overwhelming proof that 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, blacks are now destroying each other faster than the KKK could have dreamed."

As I walked away, the group stood frozen, not knowing how to reply.

Later, as Sharpton preached a divisive message void of actual solutions on how to "close the education and economic gap" in the "black community," Dr. Alveda King, Martin Luther King's niece, invoked the spirit of her slain uncle proclaiming, "I too have a dream, that white privilege will become human privilege and that people of every ethnic blend will receive everyone as brothers and sisters in the love of God.”

Her comments on restoring the "foundation of the family" in America were met, not with boos, but with a thunderous applause.

(What bigots those white folks! Having the audacity to cheer Dr. King's niece like that. Racists the whole lot of them!)


Standing in a crowd that stretched from the Washington Monument to Lincoln Memorial what happened on 8/28 was the most inspirational thing I had ever experienced.

Standing there, unhyphenated and united, this black man has never felt more free in his life.

It's a sentiment that was shared by almost everyone in that crowd.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Cash Cow

Donald Graham, the Chairman of the Washington Post Company, has been spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill recently.

But Mr. Graham wasn't pressing for an expanded shield law for his reporters, or even a government bailout of media companies. Instead, Mr. Graham's efforts were aimed at protecting his company's cash cow--it's for-profit education division.

As The Wall Street Journal reports:

[Washington Post Co. Chairman] Donald Graham recently abandoned his hands-off approach to the company's cash cow, making several trips to Capitol Hill to lobby against proposed regulations that threaten earnings at Post Co.'s Kaplan Inc. for-profit-college business.

The U.S. Education Department this summer proposed regulations that would tie access to federal aid programs to graduates' success in paying off loans.

"They aimed at the bad actors and they wound up scoring a direct hit on schools that service low-income students," Mr. Graham said in an interview. "That cannot be what the Obama administration wants."

Best known for its test - preparation programs, Kaplan early this decade branched out to running online and campus-based schools offering bachelor's, graduate and technical degrees. It now owns and operates 75 colleges and graduate schools, including a dozen Kaplan University campuses in four states and Concord Law School online.

Kaplan is one of several for-profit-college operators that have come under fire from government agencies who say the schools are pushing prospective students to take on heavy debt while failing to prepare them for careers that allow the students to pay off the loans.

But government may have different ideas on which schools truly are "bad actors" and those who are simply trying to assist poor students. The Government Accountability Office recently concluded that some for-profit schools engage in fraudulent practices, and most utilize misleading or deceptive marketing practices in recruiting new students.

The GAO investigation covered 15 for-profit institutions located in six states and Washington, D.C. While the schools aren't listed in the report, the descriptions provided ("Arizona; four-year, owned by a publicly-traded company") certainly narrows down the field. A Nightline segment on the same issue suggested the GAO investigation targeted most of of major non-profits, a group that would certainly include Kaplan. The WSJ reports that two Kaplan campuses were among those providing misleading financial aid information to prospective students.

According to the Journal, Kaplan is the nation's fifth-largest for-profit education company, with annual revenues of $1.5 billion. That's less than half the revenue of the Apollo Group (which operates the University of Phoenix), but Kaplan's various schools have a larger enrollment than some of the larger education companies, including DeVry and Career Education, Inc., which runs American InterContinental University.

Why is Kaplan so critical to the Post's bottom line? Consider these numbers: in the two most recent fiscal years, the company's newspaper division lost $365 million, while the Kaplan higher education unit (excluding the test prep unit) registered a profit of $450 million. It's not a stretch to say that Kaplan is keeping the Post company afloat. Not bad for a division that was acquired almost as an after-thought in 1984. And little wonder that the Washington Post Company has now re-branded itself as a "media and education" firm.

Along with others in his industry, Mr. Graham is lobbying against regulations that will limit student loan repayment, impacting the for-profit balance sheet. Under the new rules, which would go into effect later this year, an institution's access to the federal student loan program would be tied to graduates' success in paying off those loans. The revised regulations would also limit annual payments to no more than 8% of a student's income, creating another potential problem for the for-profits.

Federal student aid account for 80% of revenues in Kaplan's higher ed division last year. Current loan repayment rates mean that some Kaplan schools would be ineligible for federal money under the revised guidelines. Little wonder that Mr. Graham has been making the rounds on the Hill.

There is one other curious twist in this saga. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the new rule are aimed at a "few bad actors" in the industry. According to the GAO report, some Kaplan operations fit that definition. But is the Obama Administration willing to cross swords with its "base"-- a powerful media conglomerate that has been a valuable ally in the President's political career. We're guessing that Mr. Duncan will tread carefully in trying to regulate Mr. Graham's cash cow.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Ultimate Municipal Gig

Taxpayers in California were outraged when they discovered that the city manager of Bell was collecting a salary of $750,000. Members of the city council--supposedly a part-time job--were pulling down almost $100,000 a year. Since then, it has been revealed that officials in other California towns are earning similar salaries. Overall, the state pension fund is underfunded by roughly $500 billion. That's "billion" with a "b." And people wonder why the Golden Satate is teetering on the edge of insolvency.

But if it's any consolation to the citizens of California, at least their over-paid public employees showed up for work. Officials in Norfolk, VA have learned that a municipal worker collected a paycheck (with benefits) for 12 years, without spending a single day on the job. From the Virginian-Pilot:

City officials Friday identified the Community Services Board employee who collected a salary with benefits for 12 years without spending a day at work. City Attorney Bernard Pishko said the employee’s name is Jill McGlone. He wouldn’t divulge her salary.

”Jill is the person who wrongfully received the payments,” Pishko said.

Pishko said the executive director of the Community Services Board is “just about finished” with an investigation on the matter. When her investigation wraps up, the police will receive the case, he said.

The disclosure came after officials initially refused to name the employee. How Ms. McGlone managed to draw a check without showing up for work--for more than a decade--has not been revealed.

Tomorrow's article in the Pilot ought to be a doozy.
ADDENDUM: WVEC-TV in Norfolk caught up with the former city official who ran the community services board for 22 years, before retiring last year. The official, Dr. George Pratt, expressed shoch at news of the "phantom" employee, who fell under the director's office. However, a Norfolk city attorney says that Pratt was aware of an "incomplete" termination some twelve years ago. The employee who was never completely dismissed--and kept drawing a check for 12 years? Jill McGlone.

Another Norfolk station, WAVY, aired pictures of Ms. McGlone on its 11 p.m. newscast Friday, so she does exist. So far, the former city worker has not spokenly publicly, and her husband declined comment when reporters visited their home.

Disenfranchised, Over There (Waiver and Contractor Edition)

If you've a military member serving abroad--and you plan to vote in the November elections--well, don't get your hopes up.

Military absentee voters in a number of states have suffered a pair of setbacks in the past couple of days. In the most disturbing development, the Defense Department announced earlier today that it is granting waivers to five states (Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and Washington). That means they won't have to comply with provisions of the MOVE (Military and Overseas Voting) Act, which mandates that absentee ballots be sent to military personnel--and other Americans living abroad--at least 45 days before an election.

Election officials from the five states claim it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prepare, certify and ship the ballots early enough to meet the MOVE deadline. DoD turned down similar requests from Wisconsin, Hawaii, Alaska and Colorado, as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. A DOJ spokesman told the AP it is working with those states to "bring them into compliance."

Call us unconvinced. As we noted less than two weeks ago, the Obama Justice Department seems less-than-interested in enforcing the law. According to a pair of department whistle-blowers, DOJ has met with a number of state election officials about the MOVE Act (and its waiver process), describing it as "ambiguous," and suggesting that the feds really don't want to litigate cases involving the law. By their words--and deeds--Justice was inviting the states to apply for waivers.

And with today's decision, literally thousands of military voters stationed abroad have no assurance the will receive their ballots in time for the November election. The timeline of the MOVE Act is critical; based on past elections (when thousands of military members were disenfranchised), Congress and DoD decided that ballots should be mailed out six weeks before the election. That gives armed forces personnel enough time to mark their ballots and return them in time to meet state submission laws.

Most of the states asking for a waiver have primaries next month, making it more difficult to certify those results and mail out absentee ballots in compliance with the MOVE Act. But the deadline is not insurmountable. Two states--Minnesota and Vermont--moved their primaries back to August, giving officials more time to prepare and ship absentee ballots for the November election.

Other states with relatively late primaries, including Louisiana (August 28th), and New Hampshire (14 September) have found a way to comply with the law. Even Maryland --which holds its primary in mid-September--withdrew its earlier request for a waiver, deciding it could still mail out absentee ballots ahead of the 45-day deadline, which falls on the 18th of next month.

It's difficult to say how many military voters might be affected by the waivers. But the state of Washington (one of those which received a waiver) is preparing to send out more than 50,000 absentee ballots, with many of those going to members of the armed forces and military dependents. And what difference could those votes make?

Ask Dino Rossi, the Republican challenging incumbent Patty Murray in the Washington Senate race. In 2004, he lost the governor race to Democrat Christine Gregoire by only 133 votes--after two recounts. Before the election, the Bush threatened to sue the state for failing to send out military absentee ballots. Some GOP officials still maintain there were enough disputed ballots to give Rossi the victory, but a lawsuit contesting the outcome was dismissed by a state judge.

In some cases, the waiver requests seemed specious, at best. Washington held its state primary in mid-August, but claimed it didn't have enough time to mail out absentee ballots a month later. Other states applied for a waiver "just in case" unforeseen contingencies arise. Hawaii actually filed its waiver request back in March, almost six months before the primary.

As we've noted before, it's no accident that most of the waiver requests came from blue states, with tight races for the House, the Senate, and (in some cases) governor as well. And, since military members tend to vote Republican, Democratic officials have an incentive to suppress absentee ballots from members of the armed forces serving abroad. The easiest way to do that is to delay mailing of the ballot, realizing that military personnel in remote areas will not be able to return it in time to comply with state laws--and be counted.

One analyst believes at least 17,000 military votes were rejected for that very reason in 2008, while others think the total was much higher. The MOVE Act was supposed to fix the problem, but with lax enforcement by the feds, thousands of military absentee ballots will go uncounted this time around as well. Even states and territories that didn't receive a waiver have little to fear in terms of a federal lawsuit over non-compliance with the military voting law.

But the bad news doesn't end there. Fox News reported yesterday that military voters will be unable to participate in a pilot, on-line program sponsored by DoD because a contractor is dragging its feet and charging the states outrageous fees to supply the states with their own voting data.

So far, at least one state (Nebraska) has dropped out of the project, and five others will be unable to participate fully in the pilot program. The system is supposed to allow on-screen marking of ballots down to the precinct level. But ESS, the Nebraska-based firm that manages over half of the country's elections, has been slow in providing data needed to develop the on-line ballots, and is charging steep prices for data needed to develop the military voting system.

Sadly, these latest snafus are no surprise to anyone who has followed the armed forces voting issue. The very men and women who defend our freedom around the world are the most disenfranchised segment of the American electorate, and few officials--at the Pentagon or DOJ --are doing much to make their votes count.

Which brings us back to an on-line voting system that appears to work. In 2008, Arizona implemented an Internet-based system for state residents living abroad. More than 7,000 Arizonans cast their vote on-line that year, and there were few complaints about access, verification or security. Arizona will use the same system again this year. As other states thrash about, they would be well advised to send someone to Phoenix and study the Arizona system, which uses the same level of security encryption as on-line banking and credit card purchases.

As in other areas, Arizona is definitely ahead of the curve. And if more localities would follow Jan Brewer's example (she implemented the system as Secretary of State), more of our military members could cast their votes this fall--and have them count, for a change.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Today's Reading Assignment

Victor Davis Hanson, at National Review, on "The Dangerous Dog Days of August." As he reminds us, a number of major conflicts have begun in the waning days of summer, including both World Wars, the first Gulf War, and the attacks of 9-11.

The best antidote for preventing such calamities in the future? Hanson sums it up in two words: military readiness, with this final warning for those who refuse to heed that lesson:

Even more worrisome, in times of 1939-like recession and staggering deficits, the United States is understandably talking of massive cutbacks in its military. Nations never reduce defense expenditures because they want smaller militaries, but because in tough times the public shortsightedly thinks that money is better spent on social programs at home.

The combination of provocative rivals abroad, our president’s constant assurances that the United States has been at fault in the past and wants to reach out to enemies in the future, and probable defense reductions should remind us to tread carefully this late summer.

Unfortunately, the past guns of August teach us that war may be looking for those who are not looking for war.

The "Forgotten" Bomber

A B-24 in flight over Maxwell Field, Alabama during World War II (Wikipedia photo).

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is expanding--with an emphasis on some of the aircraft that helped secure victory. As the AP reports:

Bombers and torpedo planes will be the stars of the latest expansion of the National World War II Museum, and visitors will be able to get close-up views of the war planes on elevated catwalks.

Construction of the new $35 million exhibit will be formally announced Friday. One of Boeing Co.'s most famous World War II aircraft, the B-17G Flying Fortress heavy bomber, will be a centerpiece of the new exhibit.

The B-17G is recognizable by the nose turret designed to defend against oncoming attacks by fighter aircraft.

"When you watch some of the old movies of bombing runs, its the plane you see," said Boeing historian Mike Lombardi said.

The B-17 that has gained enduring fame, in part because it was a primary weapon in U.S. strategic bombing against Germany and because it was featured in the 1949 movie and 1960s television series "12 O'Clock High."

The new museum wing will be called the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: Land, Sea and Air.

Other aircraft set for inclusion in the new display include a B-25 Mitchell bomber (built by North American Aviation); a General Motors TBM Avenger torpedo bomber, and a Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber.

The exhibit is being financed largely through a $20 million grant from the Defense Department, and $15 million from Boeing.

Both the Pentagon and the aircraft giant deserve praise for helping to finance the expansion. Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, vintage warbirds like the Mitchell and the B-17 are becoming increasingly rare; collections like the one at the World War II Museum help preserve important pieces of military history.

Still, we can't help but chuckle when we hear the Flying Fortress referred to as the "primary" weapon in the U.S. strategic bombing campaign against Germany. That suggests that the B-17 was virtually alone in the flak-filled skies over Europe. Yet, even a casual student of the Second World War knows that the Army Air Corps employed two different types of heavy bombers in operations against the Third Reich, the B-17 and the more widely produced B-24 Liberator.

Today, only a handful of B-24s still remain, but at the height of the war effort, Liberators were rolling off the assembly line at a rate of one per hour. While the bomber was the creation of Consolidated Aircraft, various corporations produced the B-24 during World War II, including the Ford Motor Company. Ford's sprawling Willow Run complex in Michigan accounted for almost 70% of all Liberator production after it opened in late 1942. Pilots and aircrew members slept on 1,300 cots at Willow Run, waiting for their aircraft to be completed. All told, more than 18,000 B-24s were built, making the Liberator the most-produced American military aircraft in history.

The B-24 was actually a more advanced design than the better-known B-17, with a greater range, higher top speed and heavier bomb load than the Flying Fortress. Incorporating such features as the high-mounted "Davis" wing, more powerful engines and "roller" bomb bay doors that retracted into fuselage, the B-24 was well-suited for a number of tasks, ranging from strategic bombing to submarine hunting. During the Battle of the Atlantic, Liberators accounted for at least 70 German subs, and their maritime patrols helped negate the U-Boat menace.

Indeed, the B-24's versatility and innovation probably worked against the aircraft and its legacy. After 1942, most B-17s were dispatched to England or the Mediterranean, for bombing raids against Nazi-occupied Europe. Meanwhile, large numbers of B-24s were still being assigned to the Pacific (replacing the shorter-ranged Flying Fortress), sub patrols over the Atlantic and of course, the heavy bomber squadrons of the 8th and 15th Air Forces.

According to historical records, Liberators represented about one-third of the combat strength in the "Mighty Eighth," while B-17s were assigned to most of the command's groups and squadrons. That's one reason that famous footage from daylight bombing raids invariably features the B-17. There were fewer B-24 squadrons in England, and combat photographers rarely made it to some of the far-flung outposts where Liberator units (and their crews) were often assigned.

The B-24 was also more difficult to fly and posed unique hazards for the men who flew it. For example, most of the fuel tanks were placed in the upper fuselage. That feature, coupled with the Liberator's light-weight construction made it more vulnerable to battle damage and catching fire. Additionally, it was difficult for crew members forward of the bomb bay to bail out of a damaged aircraft, and the B-24 often broke apart during ditchings or crash landings, another by-product of its high-wing design. No wonder the bomber was sometimes dubbed the "Flying Coffin."

Still, the Liberator was an exceptionally successful bomber, amassing an impressive combat record--even under the most difficult conditions. Five B-24 pilots and crew members received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their exploits during the raid on enemy oil facilities around Ploiesti, Romania on 1 August 1943. Attaching some of the most heavily-defended targets of the war, 53 Liberators were shot down; more than 600 airmen were killed, wounded or captured. But the crews never wavered, despite key navigation errors that disrupted the attack sequence--and withering enemy fire against the low-level formations.

We haven't heard if the new collection in New Orleans will include a B-24. Boeing would probably prefer for the B-17 to take center stage and besides, there are few available Liberator airframes. By one estimate, only three B-24s are still airworthy (all in the United States) and only 10 on static display around the world.

Barring the acquisition of one of these aircraft, the museum's best hope for getting a Liberator is literally at the bottom of the ocean (or a lake, or a river). Scores of B-24s lost during World War II are resting on the bottom of various bodies of water. Recovering one of those aircraft--and restoring it to display quality--would be a time-consuming and expensive process. But it is the only viable option for expanding the number flyable B-24s, or those on display at various museums.

Perhaps if Consolidated had survived as a company--or if Ford had remained a major aircraft manufacturer after World War II--there might be more interest in (and money for) the preservation of B-24s. Instead, as the number of surviving Liberators has dwindled, the bomber become something of an afterthought--except for aviation enthusiasts, history buffs, and that dwindling cadre of airmen who took the B-24 to war.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Taking Your Eye Off the Ball

Last Friday's drive from Washington, D.C. was especially torturous. Pulling onto I-95 South for the trip to Fredericksburg, your humble correspondent was greeted with nothing but mile after mile of brake lights. Residents of New York, LA (or any other major city) might disagree, but it's hard to beat the nation's capital for perpetual gridlock. Over the next three hours, I covered less than 40 miles, before finally reaching my exit. I'm eternally thankful that my current job takes me to D.C. only four or five days out of the month.

And, the radio was no companion, either. I was listening to WTOP, the all-news outlet, because their afternoon traffic reporter (Bob Marbourg) is one of the best. Unfortunately, his colleagues at the anchor desk were all atwitter about the latest, supposed "breakthrough" in the Middle East process. In case you haven't heard, the Israelis and Palestinians will resume negotiations in Washington next month, and President Obama hopes to have a final deal ironed out by the fall of 2011. Judging from the commentary by WTOP reporters (and during hourly newscasts from CBS), this was the biggest diplomatic news of the year--maybe the decade.

Pardon our lack of enthusiasm, but haven't we been down this road before? At the Wye River summit in 1998, the Israelis offered the Palestinians everything they wanted--and then some--but (predictably) Yasser Arafat refused to live up to the bargain. The agreement died two years later, when the PLO gave the green light Al-Aqsa Intifada. Since then, talks between the two sides have continued periodically, but they've been officially suspended for the past two years.

Which brings us to an essential question: why will things be any different this time? The Obama Administration believes that both PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need a deal, but there are too many factors working against them. For starters, Mr. Abbas controls only the West Bank, territory that was supposed to be part of the Palestinian State. The other major parcel, the Gaza Strip, is in the hands of Hamas. The terrorist organization won't be a part of the talks in Washington, since it remains committed to the destruction of Israel.

As for Mr. Netanyahu, he's got plenty on his plate beyond the peace talks. There's the matter of Iran and its nuclear program, and whether Israel will launch a military strike before Tehran can build a bomb. Closer to home, the Syrian military (and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon) are arming themselves to the teeth, raising the specter of a possible multi-front war in the very near future. Whatever the upcoming talks yield, Mr. Netanyahu has no assurances that the PA wouldn't join a conflict against Israel and even if he reaches an uneasy truce with Abbas, there are greater threats to worry about. At this juncture, "peace" with a shaky PA government does little to enhance Israel's overall security.

And the talks will do little to help Mr. Abbas. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, writing in today's New York Daily News, notes that Obama's insistence on talks will actually weaken the PA leader:

"...Ironically, the Obama administration, by forcing the talks into being, has undercut Abbas, weakening its own designated Palestinian leader. Many believe that the Palestinian Authority has neither the legitimacy nor the capability to make hard concessions to Israel, or to carry through with its commitments and obligations even if a peace agreement could be achieved. Abbas' failure in the coming talks will only reinforce this perception, and may well be a death blow to the remaining shreds of his leadership. Moreover, while the talks' collapse may not immediately or directly strengthen the Hamas terrorists, that is almost inevitably one of the most serious long-term consequences.

More importantly, as Mr. Bolton observes, renewed focus on the peace process diverts U.S. attention (and resources) away from more pressing issues, including Iran's nuclear program:

The human and political resources already invested in Obama's ceaseless effort to resume direct negotiations also represent an enormous "opportunity cost," as the economists say. By diverting U.S. time and attention from more pressing Middle East problems, particularly Iran's nuclear weapons program and its worldwide support for terrorism, peace process diplomacy allows graver threats to grow.

That brings us to essential question #2: with Iran in a final sprint towards attaining a nuclear weapons capability, why aren't we focused on that issue? The answer, sadly, can be found in the administration's approach to the nuclear crisis. For almost two years, Mr. Obama and his team have offered Tehran a series of carrots, hoping to bring the Iranians to the bargaining table. In response, the Mullahs have repeatedly thumbed their noses, judging (correctly) that the current President has all-but-ruled out military action against Iran. With nothing to fear--and a nuclear weapons program to gain--Tehran is focused on getting the bomb.

Indeed, if we're reading the administration correctly, they seem to have given up on deterring Iran's nuclear ambitions. Realizing that Ahmadinejad will soon announce his nation's entry into the nuclear club, the White House is casting about for a public relations "counterweight"--a policy "success" in the Middle East that Mr. Obama can tout in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

We realize the notion seems rather bizarre; against the backdrop of a nuclear Iran, no one really cares if Israel and the PA reach an agreement that will quickly collapse. But the president's friends in the media are still willing to carry his water. If he can broker an even temporary agreement between the two sides, the mainstream press will hail it as a foreign policy "triumph," with Mr. Obama getting credit for solving the fundamental disagreement between Arabs and Israelis. Why, give that man another Nobel Peace Prize!

With extreme pressure on Tel Aviv, Mr. Obama figures he can work something out by next summer, slightly ahead of Iran's big announcement. That will give him a flood of favorable publicity and (presumably) something he can show to Tehran as the key to a wider peace agreement. Not that Ahmadinejad will pay any attention--his plans are focused squarely on enriched uranium, weapons design and delivery platforms.

President Obama, it seems, is a poor student of history. He apparently believes that with a little work on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, he can solve the entire issue of Middle East peace. It's vaguely reminiscent of the euphoria that accompanied Neville Chamberlain's infamous meeting with Hitler in September 1938, which was supposedly give us "Peace for our time."

The euphoria evaporated a year later when German Panzers rolled into Poland and Europe plunged into World War II. Back then, a few journalists who understood the Nazi menace recognized Chamberlain's mission for what it was--a fool's errand that merely set the stage for the conflict that followed.

Seventy years later, we can only wonder how the reporters and pundits at WTOP (and their buddies at CBS) will react when the latest round of peace talks fail, and we emerge from that process confronting a nuclear-armed Iran. At that point, will someone ask Mr. Obama if we "took our eyes off the ball" during the rush to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

Monday, August 23, 2010


It's all-but-official: the military career of disgraced former astronaut Lisa Nowak is coming to an equally-ignominious end.

Late last week, a panel of three Navy admirals recommended that Nowak be demoted from Captain to Commander, and given a less-than-honorable discharge. The recommendation will now be reviewed by the Chief of Naval Personnel and Ray Mabus, the Navy Secretary. Under service regulations, Mr. Mabus can reduce Nowak's punishment, but not increase it.

Most Navy observers believe Secretary Mabus will show Nowak a measure of mercy, going along with the reduction in rank, but allowing her to retire in the grade of Commander, with the commensurate, decreased military pension. But it's not guaranteed. Mabus could decide to strip Nowak of her pension, a move that would cost her more than $1.8 million over the next 30 years.

Neither Nowak or her attorney had any comment after learning of the panel's decision. At this point, they've apparently decided that silence is golden, believing that any remarks might influence Mabus's final decision against the one-time astronaut and Navy golden girl.

Captain Nowak endangered her retirement benefits--made herself the butt of perpetual jokes-- because of one, incredibly stupid decision. In March 2007, she decided to confront Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, the girlfriend of her former lover, fellow astronaut (and Navy Commander) Bill Oefelein.

Driving non-stop from Houston to Florida, Nowak assaulted Shipman at the Orlando Airport. Captain Shipman managed to escape, but Nowak didn't. When the cops arrived, they found a variety of items that could have been used as weapons against Shipman. Prosecutors wanted to file attempted murder charges against her, but Captain Nowak eventually pleaded guilty to one count of a felony involving a motor vehicle and misdemeanor battery. She was sentenced to probation last year.

Once the civilian justice system was finished with Nowak, the Navy got its turn. Fired by NASA shortly after the airport incident, Captain Nowak was reassigned to the Naval Air Training Command in Corpus Christi, Texas. She remains in a staff billet at that command pending a final determination by Secretary Mabus. The administrative board that met last week represented the first step in the Navy's disposition of the Nowak affair.

We've been as tough as anyone on Lisa Nowak, but the time has come for a bit of clemency. Prior to her adulterous affair with Oefelein--and that later run-in with his new girlfriend--Nowak had a stellar record, becoming both a test pilot and astronaut. She served honorably for a number of years before Oefelein dumped her and she decided to seek revenge against his new lover, Captain Shipman. We hope that Secretary Mabus will consider Nowak's service before the incident in rending his final decision.

Besides, Lisa Nowak is something of a piker compared to the other military criminals who have slithered out the door in recent years, pension and other retirement benefits intact. We refer specifically to Air Force Colonel Michael Murphy, who served as a JAG for more than 20 years despite the fact that he had been disbarred in two states.

The Murphy case has been well-chronicled in this blog (and other forums). We won't rehash his sordid saga here; suffice it to say that we're still amazed at the legal gyrations that prevented him from being punished despite his conviction. Murphy was later reduced to First Lieutenant and retired in that grade, the result of a separate administrative action. An Air Force panel (similar to the one that heard Nowak's case) determined that First Lieutenant was the last grade in which Murphy served honorably. It was the rank at which Murphy entered the Air Force back in 1983; he spent only months as a lieutenant before his first disbarment, the point at which his honorable service ended. Yet, it was still enough for a pension.

Then, there's the queen of military miscreants, now-retired USAF Major Jill Metzger. She's the former personnel officer who apparently faked her own abduction while deployed to Kyrgyzstan in September, 2006. Metzger's story had more holes than a back road in Arkansas, but her connections with senior officers and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations prevented the case from moving forward. Despite clear contradictions in her account--and at least one failed polygraph--Metzger was medically retired from the service, supposedly suffering from PTSD. In retirement, the two-time winner of the Air Force marathon has competed in several long-distance races; with a 100% disability pension, she has plenty of time to train.

Obviously, Air Force case law (and the service's administrative decisions) aren't supposed to influence the other services. But, if the low bar of the Murphy and Metzger cases are any indicator, then Lisa Nowak has little to worry about, beyond a decreased pension and permanent damage to her reputation.

In a just world, Nowak, Murphy and Metzger would all be sent packing, with no life-long compensation from the taxpayer. Clearly, times have changed. We can't read the mind of Ray Mabus, but it would be a bitter irony if Nowak is the only one who achieves that dubious distinction.

Your Tax Dollars at Work (LA Unified School District Edition)

By now, you've probably heard about the new Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in Los Angeles. At $578 million, it's the most expensive public school ever built, and it speaks volumes about why the city--and state of California--are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Apparently, there's no budget crisis in the L.A. school district, just plenty of money for the best of everything.

From an AP dispatch, published in the Washington Post:

At RFK, the features include fine art murals and a marble memorial depicting the complex's namesake, a manicured public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and preservation of pieces of the original hotel (the complex sits on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, where Senator Kennedy was assassinated in 1968).


Partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Los Angeles Unified School District has emerged as the mogul of Taj Mahals.

The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other LA schools among the nation's costliest - the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.

The pricey schools have come during a sensitive period for the nation's second-largest school system: Nearly 3,000 teachers have been laid off over the past two years, the academic year and programs have been slashed. The district also faces a $640 million shortfall and some schools persistently rank among the nation's lowest performing.

Still a month away from its official opening, the RFK school has ignited a firestorm of outrage. Critics wonder why so much money was wasted on top-of-the-line amenities, which helped push the final price tag past half-a-billion dollars. The complex includes such items as a restaurant-quality pizza oven; teacher planning areas between each classroom and a 10-acre park.

Meanwhile, the L.A. school district remains one of the nation's worst, in terms of student performance and graduation rates. Less than 40% of high school students earn their diploma and the system has laid off 3,000 teachers in recent years to save money.

District officials insist they've learned their lesson and the RFK school will be their last Taj Mahal. If you believe that, you're probably a graduate of the L.A. Unified District--or one of their senior administrators.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Aerial Pipeline

An Iran Air Boeing 747SP at Narita Airport in Japan. The airline operates the same type of aircraft on bi-monthly flights between Tehran and Caracas, Venezuela--flights believed to serve as a conduit for intelligence agents and Hizballah operatives entering the western hemisphere (Wikipedia photo).

Suppose you're that rare international traveler who needs to fly between Tehran and Caracas. Instead of connecting between two or three cities on multiple airlines--with interminable layovers--why not fly nonstop?

You won't find it on Travelocity--or any of the other internet travel sites--but Iran Air, the Islamic state's official carrier, could seemingly meet your needs. Iran Air offers monthly bi-monthly service between Tehran and the Venezuelan capital, but don't try booking a seat. While travel agents can "see" the flight in their system, the Iranian carrier isn't accepting reservations. You see, Flight 744 is apparently reserved for members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), intelligence agents and Hizballah operatives.

According to reporter J.J. Green of WTOP Radio in Washington, the Iran Air flight has been on the radar scope of western intelligence agencies since it began three years ago. But so far, they've learned little about who's onboard the flight and what cargo might be carried on the Boeing 747. But one thing is clear: the jet receives very "special treatment" when it arrives in Caracas:

"My understanding is that this flight not only goes from Caracas to Damascus to Tehran perhaps twice a month, but it also occasionally makes stops in Lebanon as well, and the passengers on that flight are not processed through normal Venezuelan immigrations or customs. They are processed separately when they come into the country," says Peter Brookes, senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

The 16-hour flight typically leaves Tehran and stops at Damascus International Airport (DAM), which is Syria's busiest. In 2009, almost 4.5 million passengers used the airport.

After a 90-minute layover, the flight continues the remaining 14 hours to Venezuela's Caracas Maiquetía International Airport (CCS). Upon arrival, the plane is met by special Venezuelan forces and sequestered from other arrivals.

"It says that something secretive or clandestine is going on that they don't want the international community to know about," says Brookes, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs and CIA employee.

Given its routing and handling, there are legitimate concerns that Flight 744 is being used to funnel intelligence operatives, terrorists and other clandestine personnel into the Western Hemisphere. On its return flight, the Iran Air jet could be transporting uranium for Tehran's nuclear program, or equipment associated with that effort. By routing those materials through Caracas, Iran could evade U.S.-imposed sanctions.

But those passengers arriving in Venezuela represent an equal concern. Security officials have long feared that the Tehran-to-Caracas flight could be the first step on a journey that (eventually) brings Iranian and Hizballah agents into the U.S., via our porous southern border.

Former investigative reporter Todd Bensman was one of the first to highlight this potential connection three years ago. In a ground-breaking series for the San Antonio Express-News, Mr. Bensman exposed the flow of illegals from nations that sponsor terrorism. While the Iran Air flights weren't mentioned in the articles (they had begun only three months before the series was published), the implication was clear. If "ordinary" refugees could bribe or sneak their way into the United States, terrorist groups--or hostile governments--could easily do the same.

Mr. Bensman also discovered a growing Iranian presence in Nicaragua, where Tehran enjoys cordial relations with Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista government. Iran has built an over-sized embassy in Managua, a facility that could be used to support intelligence and terrorist operations in Latin America and the United States. Bensman's report of Tehran's expanding interests in Nicaragua ran in December 2007, about six months after the series on illegal immigrants from terrorist-supporting countries.

As we noted in a recent post, Todd Bensman quit his job with the Express-News to become a government intelligence analyst. In that capacity, we assume, he knows even more about those flights between Tehran and Caracas, and their connection to other Iranian activities in this hemisphere. Unfortunately, he's no longer in a position to share his knowledge with the general public.

But the reporting of Mr. Bensman and J.J. Green provides an important reminder: Tehran's efforts to establish a base of operations in the Americas has been on-going for sometime. And, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden told Mr. Green, the U.S. government "isn't doing enough" to keep tabs on Iranian operations south of the border.

With personnel and resources in place, Tehran would be in a position to launch terror attacks against the United States (or American targets in Latin America), in response to a strike against its nuclear facilities. And, judging by those frequent flights to Caracas, Iranian capabilities in Central and South America are improving steadily. Unfortunately, the State Department seems officially indifferent to Iran and its operations in our hemisphere. Contacted by J.J. Green of WTOP, a department spokesman said that "nations have the right to enter cooperative agreements with other nations."

In case you're wondering, the next Iran Air flight between Tehran and Caracas is scheduled to depart on Friday.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Defector

The North Korean Air Force (NKAF) lost one of its MiG-21 "Fishbeds" on Tuesday. Nothing particularly unusual about that; while the North Koreans can't match India's record for flying MiG-21s into the ground, they still lose a jet--and pilot--on occasion.

Of course, the NKAF's safety record is aided immeasurably by low flight hours and relatively simplistic training. To save fuel (and preserve its fleet of aging fighters), North Korean pilots average only 15-20 hours of flying time a year. At many bases, the bombing range is located just off the end of the runway, and some squadrons practice "formation flying" by having their pilots march around a drill pad.

Despite those precautions, accidents still happen. Still, today's Fishbed crash wasn't unique because it occurred, but rather where it occurred. According to press accounts, the MiG-21 was more than 100 miles inside Chinese territory when it went down, sparking speculation that the Fishbed pilot was attempting to defect.

There is little doubt the aircraft came from the DPRK. As the U.K. Telegraph reports:

"...Mike Gething, aviation analyst with IHS Janes, the specialist defence publisher, confirmed to The Telegraph that the picture showed a North Korea jet. “It is a MiG-21 'Fishbed’ and from the markings, it is North Korean,” he said.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing intelligence sources, also said the aircraft appeared to be a North Korean fighter jet, adding that the pilot had been killed.

“The pilot died on the spot,” Yonhap quoted the intelligence source as saying, adding that the pilot was the only person aboard the craft.

The report quoted a second source as saying the plane may have lost its direction while attempting to fly to Russia to escape from North Korea.

Predictably, Pyongyang has said nothing about the incident. Chinese media confirmed the incident, but offered few details, saying only that an aircraft of "unidentified nationality" went down in Liaoning Province, which lies between North Korea and Russia's Far East region. The crash site is about 150 miles inside Chinese territory, raising questions about why the MiG-21 was allowed to fly so far into PRC airspace.

While Beijing is red-faced over a potential failure of its air defense network, North Korea must face the humiliating fact that one of its fighter pilots--among the nation's military elite--tried to defect in his Fishbed. While defections by NKAF pilots are not unprecedented, they are rare; there have been only two in the last 27 years. In both cases, the pilots flew their jets to South Korea, which offers huge cash awards to military defectors from the North.

At this point, no one is sure why the pilot pointed his Fishbed towards Russia, and not the ROK. However, the plan was probably a product of geography, operating patterns and available fuel.

First, it's important to note that most North Korean MiG-21 regiments, indeed, the entire NKAF, is largely grounded this time of year. Military personnel, including fighter pilots, are mobilized to work in the fields during the summer, in hopes of warding off food shortages and starvation during the winter.

One of the few Fishbed units that maintains any semblance of a summertime flying schedule is based at Kyongsong, along the DPRK's northeastern coast. The squadron based there is a training unit, which produces new MiG-21 pilots and instructors for the rest of the NKAF. That base represents the most likely starting point for the reported defection attempt.

From Kyongsong, it's a relatively short hop (less than 200 NM) along the coast to the Russian port of Vladivostok--just a few minutes' flying time in a Fishbed. But the jet went down in China, suggesting the pilot took a more northerly route. Why not fly directly to Russia?

Two reasons immediately come to mind: first, North Korea's limited air defenses in the area (primarily SA-2 Guideline SAMs0 are concentrated along the coast--the very corridor that would be used in a direct defection dash to Russian territory. Additionally, the air defense threat increases geometrically when you enter Russia's air space, which is guarded by SA-20 SAMs. An aircraft entering Russian territory from the south--at high speed, and (most likely) without an IFF signal) would almost certainly be engaged by Russian SAMs and/or fighter aircraft.

On the other hand, a less direct route would allow the pilot to fly to training airspace inside North Korea and loiter there for a few minutes before starting his dash to Russia. Following that path, the MiG-21 would first enter Chinese airspace, then turn towards Vladivostok from the west. Descending to low altitude, the pilot could use terrain masking to defeat radar coverage and reduce the threat from SAMs and fighters.

One thing is certain: the NKAF jet almost certainly had a reduced fuel load. For years, the North Koreans, Chinese (and others) have limited on-board fuel supplies, as an anti-defection technique. Indeed, wreckage of the MiG-21 suggests an aircraft that made an attempted crash landing, since much of the fuselage and tail remains intact. By comparison, a jet shot down by SAMs, AAA or another fighter would be in smaller pieces, over a much larger area. If crash-scene photos are any indication, the pilot may have been attempting to guide his aircraft to an "unpowered" landing; in other words, he ran out of fuel and was trying to glide in when the Fished struck the ground.

Under normal procedures, North Korea would have used air or ground-based air defenses to knock down the fleeing jet and its pilot. But there are no reports of SAM launches from the area, so that apparently didn't happen. That suggests a certain degree of laxity among NKAF air defense units--and heads will certainly roll in the aftermath (remember: this is the same regime that reportedly tortured its World Cup soccer squad after their "poor" showing in South Africa).

But the attempted defection also shows a fair degree of planning on the pilot's part. Familiar with NKAF ground control procedures, he appeared to be on a normal training sortie, allowing ground controllers and air defense commanders to grow complacent. Unfortunately for him, a limited fuel supply (and probably, limited cross-country navigation skills) left the pilot unable to find his way to a Russian airfield.

If the North Koreans follow their normal custom, a standdown is already in effect among MiG-21 units (and probably) the entire Air Force. There will be lots of political reliability training and interviews in the coming days, as Kim Jong-il tries to ferret out any other (potential) defectors in the ranks.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Three Days (and Counting)

According to former UN Ambassador John Bolton (and other experts), Israel has just three days to strike Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr. That timeline is based on Tehran's plans to begin fueling the plant this weekend--with Russian assistance. Once the fuel rods are in the reactor, any strike against Bushehr would result in radioactive fallout across civilian areas--a risk that Israeli political and military officials might be unwilling to take.

Earlier this week, Mr. Bolton suggested that Tel Aviv had an eight-day window for striking Bushehr. But he revised his schedule in an interview with Israeli radio, noting that Iran and Russia would begin fueling of the plant would begin on Friday--earlier than originally planned.

"It has always been optimal that military force is used before the fuel rods are inserted," Bolton explained. "That's what Israel did in Osirak in 1991, and when they attacked the North Korean reactor built in Syria." Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, and a Syrian reactor in 2007.

However Bolton didn't see any indication that an Israeli strike was going to happen. "Obviously if Israel were going to do something it wouldn't exactly be advertising it. But time is short."

Bolton said that it would be "a much more dangerous world" if Iran were to gain nuclear capability. "That's why I think it's so critical. It won't stop with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, perhaps other states as well."

Start-up of the Bushehr plant represents another risk as well. Plutonium can be extracted from the spent fuel rods, giving Tehran another option for developing nuclear weapons. Until now, Iran's research efforts have concentrated on the highly enriched uranium (HEU) option which (typically) yields less powerful bombs.

Still, the onset of fueling operations at Bushehr does not guarantee Tehran a plutonium weapon, at least over the short term. It took North Korea decades to master the recovery process and extract enough plutonium for its small arsenal of weapons. While Iran almost certainly has access to that expertise, it would still take several years for Teharn's scientists and engineers to build their first plutonium-based bomb.

Meanwhile, the Iranians are continuing to enrich uranium, a process that represents the shortest track to a nuclear weapons capability. That's the main reason that potential Israeli (and U.S.) attack plans still focus on facilities at Esfahan and Natanz, which are closely tied to the HEU effort. There is also concern about the heavy water plant at Arak, which will support the plutonium track when it opens in 3-4 years. Many analysts believe the complexes at Esfahan, Natanz and Arak would be the primary targets in any strike scenario, with Bushehr assuming a lower priority. Still, fueling of the reactor would complicate any long-term attack plans, given the radioactivity that would be released if the complex is bombed.

Meanwhile, Tehran is trying to bolster defenses around its nuclear sites. Senior officials have promised a "display" of Iranian military might next week, but their armed forces still rely heavily on aging U.S. equipment, purchased by the Shah. On Tuesday, one of their F-4 Phantoms crashed less than five miles from Bushehr, and the Iranians are demanding the transfer of a small number of F-14s that were never delivered decades ago.

Tehran received 60 Tomcats from the U.S. before the Islamic Revolution, but four decades later, only a handful of those jets are still operational. Obviously, Washington has no plans to deliver the rest of those F-14s and even if we did, the aircraft would be coming from the "boneyard," since the Navy retired its last Tomcats a couple of years ago. Iranian demands for the "rest" of the F-14s suggests that it has had little luck in getting advanced Russian jets at requested prices, so they're looking for anything to fill the gap.

The crash of that F-4 also raises questions about the operation of Iran's air defenses. There is a "no-fly" zone around all of Tehran's nuclear complexes, defended by medium and short-range missile and AAA systems. The proximity of the F-4 to the Bushehr reactor suggests it was inside the no-fly zone (or on the edge) at the time it went down. Was the Phantom knocked down by an Iranian SAM or AAA crew? That possibility has not been confirmed, but the Iranian air defense system has a long history of confusion and poor coordination, problems that could be exploited by potential attackers.

Of course, mouting a strike takes political willpower, something that appears to be in short supply in Washington (what a surprise) and even Tel Aviv. Tehran is counting on that trend to continue, as it sprints towards the nuclear finish line.
ADDENDUM: DEBKA (consider the source) is reporting that the Iranian F-4 was shot down by an SA-15 SAM battery defending the Bushehr complex. If that proves accurate, it reaffirms that confusion still permeates Iran's air defense system, and such problems would only intensify during a U.S. or Israeli air strike. The same DEBKA article also claims tha three drones have crashed into the dome of the Bushehr reactor in recent days. One Iranian source said they were launched to test air defenses around the reactor site. Apparently, Iran's SAM crews are much more proficient at shooting down their own, manned fighters than they are at targeting UAVs playing the role of enemy aircraft and cruise missiles.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Today's Reading Assignment

...from a pair of brave Muslims, Raheel Raza and Tarek Fatah. They penned a recent op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen that deserves wider play here in the States.

Why? Because they recognize the planned "Ground Zero" mosque for what it is: a deliberate provocation aimed at squarely at the west. A few salient paragraphs:

New York currently boasts at least 30 mosques so it's not as if there is pressing need to find space for worshippers. The fact we Muslims know the idea behind the Ground Zero mosque is meant to be a deliberate provocation to thumb our noses at the infidel. The proposal has been made in bad faith and in Islamic parlance, such an act is referred to as "Fitna," meaning "mischief-making" that is clearly forbidden in the Koran.

The Koran commands Muslims to, "Be considerate when you debate with the People of the Book" -- i.e., Jews and Christians. Building an exclusive place of worship for Muslims at the place where Muslims killed thousands of New Yorkers is not being considerate or sensitive, it is undoubtedly an act of "fitna"

So what gives Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the "Cordoba Initiative" and his cohorts the misplaced idea that they will increase tolerance for Muslims by brazenly displaying their own intolerance in this case?


Let's not forget that a mosque is an exclusive place of worship for Muslims and not an inviting community centre. Most Americans are wary of mosques due to the hard core rhetoric that is used in pulpits. And rightly so. As Muslims we are dismayed that our co-religionists have such little consideration for their fellow citizens and wish to rub salt in their wounds and pretend they are applying a balm to sooth the pain.

The Koran implores Muslims to speak the truth, even if it hurts the one who utters the truth. Today we speak the truth, knowing very well Muslims have forgotten this crucial injunction from Allah.

Incidentally, Mr. Fatah has a new book coming out this fall. It's entitled The Jew is Not My Enemy. We can only imagine the reception that volume will receive. But obviously, he's not afraid to stand up for the truth. If only the mayor of New York had similar courage.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Another Reminder...

The headline at Fox News says it all:

"Military Voting Rights at Risk"

Less than 80 days before the mid-term elections, many members of the armed forces, serving overseas, are at risk of being disenfranchised--again.

It's a problem we've written about extensively in recent years; our most recent post on the subject appeared less than three weeks ago.

The problem is rather simple. Military personnel stationed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan often don't receive their absentee ballots in time to fill them out and return them before the submission deadline. As a result, many of them are tossed out. By one estimate, at least 17,000 absentee ballots from armed forces personnel (and their dependents) were rejected in 2008. That would make military members and their dependents the most disenfranchised segment of the American electorate. The terrible irony of that statement cannot be over-stated.

In an effort to remedy the problem, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act last year. It mandates that local officials send out absentee ballots to expatriate voters no later than 45 days before the general election. In theory, that will give military personnel (and other Americans living abroad) more time to complete their ballots and return them within state submission guidelines.

But, as we noted earlier this month, the Obama Justice Department has made little effort to enforce the new law. Indeed, there's some evidence that DOJ officials have encouraged states to file waivers, exempting them from the requirements of the MOVE act:

"...former DOJ attorney J. Christian Anderson--the same man who testified against the the government when it dropped the Black Panthers case--the Justice Department has little interest in enforcing the new military voting law:“

I do know that they have adopted positions or attempted to adopt positions to waivers that prove they aren’t interested in aggressively enforcing the law,” Adams told FoxNews.com. “They shouldn’t be going to meeting with state election officials and telling them they don’t like to litigate cases and telling them that the waiver requirements are ambiguous.”

One of Anderson's former DOJ colleagues, Eric Eversole--who now runs the Military Voter Protection Project--also believes that enforcing the law is a low priority:

“It is an absolute shame that the section appears to be spending more time finding ways to avoid the MOVE Act, rather than finding ways to ensure that military voters will have their votes counted,” said Eversole.

"The Voting Section seems to have forgotten that it has an obligation to enforce federal law, not to find and raise arguments for states to avoid these laws."

While the Justice Department insists it is committed to upholding the MOVE Act, its actions suggest otherwise. So far, at least a dozen states and territories have filed waivers with the department, claiming they cannot meet the specified deadline. The reaction from DOJ--a bureaucratic yawn, and those telling comment about the "ambiguity" of waiver requirements.

Additionally, the Military Voter Protection Project claims that 16 states have failed to implement at least one of the law's key provisions; 11 have not adopted the 45-day rule for mailing out absentee ballots and five states have not implemented the act's electronic delivery mandate. And not a peep from Eric Holder and the folks at DOJ.

During a Fox News segment Sunday afternoon, Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher (a Democrat) defended election officials' efforts to comply with the law:

"The problem is that because we have a late primary and we have a very careful certification process to make sure the integrity of our elections is good, some of our counties, mostly the smaller counties, have a difficult time complying with the 45-day period," Buescher clarified. "So they may be mailing out the ballots 40 days -- but if you look at the 40 days, and add the 8 days that our state adds on to count ballots after the general election date of November 2, we're actually giving more days for our military than is required by the Move Act."

Eversole remains unimpressed:

"We've got to find a better excuse or reason not to comply with the Move Act than the fact that it takes 15 days to print ballots," Eversole said. "Walk down to Kinkos, put it in the copier, print them, and get them to troops so they have time to vote."

From what we can tell, the Fox segment didn't address the issue of on-line voting, which could solve the problem, once and for all. Arizona implemented an internet-based system for residents living overseas in 2008, using 128-bit encryption, the same level of security used for on-line banking and credit card transactions. The state also allows expatriates to fax in their ballots.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon has been dragging its feet on some sort of universal standard that would allow on-line voting by all military members (and their dependents) living overseas. DoD says it is worried about security, but the Arizona experiment proves that obstacle can be overcome; at least 7,000 state residents voted on-line in 2008, and there were no reported problems with security.

At the state and local level, delays in fully implementing the MOVE Act are more about politics. Most of the states requesting waivers are either Democrat strongholds, or have been leaning that way in recent elections. So, there's a powerful incentive to suppress votes among a segment of the electorate that is solidly Republican.

GOP members of the House and Senate have requested information on DOJ's "enforcement" of the MOVE Act, but the department is in no hurry to provide it. What a surprise. Meantime, there's a good chance that Justice will approve waivers for those states that can't comply with the voting law, meaning that more military voters will find themselves disenfranchised this fall.

And don't think those votes don't matter. Al Franken's margin of victory in his Minnesota Senate race two years ago was 312 votes--just six more than the number of military absentee ballots that were rejected by election officials. Eight years earlier, military absentee votes contributed to George W. Bush's razor-thin 572-vote win the Florida, which gave him the presidential election. You may recall that attorneys for the Democratic Party tried to have those ballots rejected.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Problem With Petty Officer Gurney

Petty Officer First Class Ethan Gurney will retire from the Navy this fall, after 20 years of service. Critics of the military retirement system say that's too soon, creating long-term fiscal problems for the Defense Department (Stars and Stripes photo).

According to a Pentagon advisory board, Navy Petty Officer First Class Ethan Gurney represents what's wrong with the military retirement system.

Petty Officer Gurney joined the Navy out of high school, and has served honorably as an electronics technician for almost two decades. This fall, after reaching 20 years of active duty service, Gurney will retire from the Navy and begin drawing a retirement check--at the ripe old age of 38.

From the board's perspective, that's too soon. With advances in medicine and increasing longevity, Gurney and his fellow military retirees will live for decades after leaving active duty, collecting billions of dollars in pensions, health care and other benefits.

The Defense Business Board, tasked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to find ways to cut Pentagon spending, says the current retirement system is "unsustainable" and must be fixed. Without reforms, payments for military retirees will grow from $47.7 billion this year, to just under $60 billion by 2020.

As Stars and Stripes recently reported:

The 25-member group of civilian business leaders suggests that the Defense Department look at changing the current system, even hinting at raising the number of years troops must serve before being eligible for retirement pay.

The current system “encourages our military to leave at 20 years when they are most productive and experienced, and then pays them and their families and their survivors for another 40 years," committee chairman Arnold Punaro told board members at their quarterly meeting late last month.

Among the "reforms" being suggested by the advisory panel: delaying payments to retirees, in exchange for earlier "vesting" in the program. One proposal being studied by the board would provide a limited retirement benefit for military members who serve as little as 10 years. Those personnel would receive their pension at age 60 under the reform plan, while those with 20 years of service would begin receiving checks at age 57--almost 20 years after some of them leave active duty.

The hypocrisy of the "reformers" is almost laughable. Board chairman Arnold Punaro worries about a system that "encourages [military members] to leave when they're most productive and experienced, then pays them, their family and their dependents for the next 40 years."

But Punaro hasn't declined his military retirement check. Turns out that Mr. Punaro is also a retired Major General in the Marine Corps. According to Forbes, he currently works as an executive Vice President at defense contractor SAIC, where his total compensation in 2009 topped $2.7 million. That's almost three times what Petty Officer Gurney will collect in military retirement pay, even if he lives to age 80. And we didn't include Punaro's USMC pension in that total, either.

Fact is, the typical military retiree is a lot closer to Gurney than General Punaro. When he leaves active duty later this year, Petty Officer Gurney will receive a gross monthly pension of just over $1,800. By the time you deduct federal and state taxes and allotments for such items
as the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), dental insurance and other expenses, Gurney's "rich" pension will be closer to $1,400 a month.

Indeed, the average person retiring from the military at the 20-year point is an E-6, the same rank as Petty Officer Gurney. Most are married, with kids in school, and (if they're lucky) that $1,400 pension will cover their mortgage payment. Compare that to say, the average annuity for a state employee in New York, New Jersey or California, and tell us
who's getting rich in retirement.

Punaro's critique also misses a pair of critical points. There are two primary reasons the military has always embraced an early retirement system. First, it's a powerful recruiting and retention tool, particularly for mid-level officers and NCOs, who form the backbone of our armed forces. Allowing retirement at the 20-year point keeps a lot of mid-level officers and non-commissioned officers in uniform, ensuring an adequate supply of experienced personnel.

By comparison, if the military allows individuals to earn delayed benefits after only 10 years of service, it would only accelerate the exodus of skilled troops. Individuals with highly marketable skills (including intelligence, nuclear power, special forces and contracting, to name a few) would leave at the first opportunity, further eroding experience levels at the most critical ranks.

Additionally, there's the matter of who's best suited for certain military jobs. No offense to General Punaro, but jobs like Marine rifleman, Army ranger, Air Force combat controller and Navy fighter pilot (to name a few) are best handled by the young. True, experience does improve with age, but reflexes, vision, hearing and physical conditioning tend to deteriorate as we get older. And sometimes, experience is no substitute for the strength, speed and stamina found in younger troops.

Another critic of the current system, Nathaniel Fick of the left-leaning Center for a New American Security, has wondered "Why we're paying 38-year-olds" as they embark on their second full career. Fick, a former Marine Corps officer, made the comment in a recent article published at the Foreign Policy website.

We think the best rejoinder to that argument comes from Petty Officer Gurney, a man who is (supposedly) the poster boy for problems in our military pension system. For 20 years of dedicated and faithful service, Gurney simply expects the Navy to meet the promise it made to him. And he observes that (relatively) few people are willing to meet the demands for that 20-year pension:

"No rational person would put up with 20 years of the hardships that you’re forced to endure if it wasn’t for the brass ring at the end of it all called instant retirement,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Gurney.


“The continuous deployments, living conditions, remote and hazardous duty stations are unique to the military,” he said. “This isn’t a civilian company, so any civilian model that you use to compare to the military is impertinent. To do so is irresponsible at best.”

Bravo Zulu, Petty Officer Gurney. Couldn't have said it better ourselves. Unfortunately, Secretary Gates now views the military retirement system as Fiscal Problem #1, so some sort of reforms appear inevitable. Never mind that the current system has served the military well, and payments will eventually decline, as retirees from Korea, Vietnam and the Reagan eras pass on.

One more thing: we find the current fixation on military retirement rather curious, for other reasons. The Pentagon has suddenly discovered that its payments for retiree medical coverage are out-of-control, just months after the Obama Administration pushed through national health care coverage. Gee...doesn't DoD have the option of potentially pushing military retirees into the national plan, saving billions of dollars each year--and creating more "urgency" for preserving the new system? Coincidence? You decide.

Likewise, Secretary Gates (and his bosses in the White House) would like to find other ways to save money at the Pentagon. If they can put off pension payments for years after military retirees leave active duty, so much the better. I'm sure that DoD's actuaries have already calculated the number of personnel who will die during that "gap" between their retirement ceremony and the age of 57 or 60, when the first retirement check rolls in. How much would DoD save using that approach, and where will that money goes? So far, Dr. Gates hasn't answered that one.

Equally galling is the growing demand for the reform of military retirement benefits, while the "big" entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) just keep on growing. Even at the inflated totals cited in the Stars and Stripes article, military pensions represent only a fraction of our annual Social Security payments--and that system will go broke long before the armed forces retirement system. But it's (apparently) more important to fix military pensions, with little regard for the long-term impact on retention and experience levels in the ranks.

Go figure.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Carrier Killer?

Returning from a business trip to Texas last week, I found several queries in my in-box (icspook86@hotmail.com) regarding China's new Dong Feng 21D missile. Unveiled at a military parade last year, the DF-21 is widely-touted as a "carrier killer," able to accurately target a U.S. aircraft carrier at long distances (up to 900 miles) and send it to the bottom, using a conventional warhead.

Defense writers for the Associated Press, citing various "experts" have already described the DF-21D as a "game changer," potentially shifting the naval balance of power in the Pacific. Judging from their coverage, the U.S. would be well advised to move our carriers back to the West Coast, and keep them in port:

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON – Nothing projects U.S. global air and sea power more vividly than supercarriers. Bristling with fighter jets that can reach deep into even landlocked trouble zones, America's virtually invincible carrier fleet has long enforced its dominance of the high seas.

China may soon put an end to that.

U.S. naval planners are scrambling to deal with what analysts say is a game-changing weapon being developed by China — an unprecedented carrier-killing missile called the Dong Feng 21D that could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles).


The weapon, a version of which was displayed last year in a Chinese military parade, could revolutionize China's role in the Pacific balance of power, seriously weakening Washington's ability to intervene in any potential conflict over Taiwan or North Korea. It could also deny U.S. ships safe access to international waters near China's 11,200-mile (18,000-kilometer) -long coastline.

While a nuclear bomb could theoretically sink a carrier, assuming its user was willing to raise the stakes to atomic levels, the conventionally-armed Dong Feng 21D's uniqueness is in its ability to hit a powerfully defended moving target with pin-point precision.

To be sure, Beijing's long-range strike capabilities have improved dramatically over the past 20 years, thanks to double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defense budget and related research and development activities. And, any weapon with the potential to hit a moving carrier at long range will get the attention of Navy planners, for obvious reasons.

But a little context is in order.

First, as the AP mentions (briefly) in the article, there is the nagging issue of demonstrated accuracy. The DF-21D is still in testing, and so far, it has not proved its ability to strike a carrier-sized target over the horizon. True, the problem could be solved by placing a nuclear warhead on the missile, but that "solution" would invite a massive U.S. response, one reason that China emphasizes the conventional capabilities of the DF-21D.

It's also worth remembering the first rule of precision strike: devastatingly accurate weapons require intelligence of comparable precision. Beijing is working hard to improve its intel, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, but (once again) there is inconclusive evidence regarding the PRC's ability to develop--and deliver--such information for a time-sensitive target like an aircraft carrier at sea.

Carrier battle groups are often depicted as a fat, vulnerable target. But in reality, the Navy does a good job in suppressing the signature and locations of its carriers in the open ocean. And, some of the platforms China would use to track U.S. carriers, including jet bombers and attack submarines, are vulnerable to our counter-measures, ranging from our own subs (which are superior to Beijing's current boats) and F/A-18 Super Hornets, which can intercept intruders up to 400 NM from the carrier.

Additionally, our ship-borne missile defenses have improved dramatically in recent years, with development of the SM-3 missile as part of the Aegis weapons system. The SM-3 has become our most reliable missile interceptor, successfully engaging 16 of 19 test targets since 2002. In early 2008, a modified SM-3 successfully downed a decaying U.S. satellite, re-entering the earth's atmosphere at a speed of 22,000 mph.

While care must be taken in drawing parallels between the satellite intercept and missile defense, the velocity factor is stunning. By most estimates, DF-21D re-entry vehicles would plunge towards the carrier at slower speeds, so it is well within the technical capabilities of the Aegis/SM-3 to handle those targets.

Still, the Chinese missile will pose problems. Coupled with other anti-carrier weapons (including submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles), the DF-21D will force changes in our tactics, including operating locations that are more distant from hostile shores. That, in turn, will impact the carrier's flight operations, reducing the ability of the F/A-18s to hit long-range targets, and placing more demands on in-flight refueling assets.

As one naval officer observed, the Dong Feng 21D would be an excellent harassment weapon, particularly at the end of an operations cycle when the carrier is recovering aircraft. Imagine having 12-18 aircraft, low on fuel, trying to land on the carrier when a barrage of Chinese missiles is detected. Suddenly, the carrier is forced to maneuver, shut down much of its electronics, and assume a more defensive posture. In that scenario, "getting back on the boat" becomes much more difficult.

But the DF-21D does not spell the end of the carrier era. Our favorite Navy blogger, Commander Salamander, framed the debate well with a brief history of other "game-changing" naval weapons over the last 150 years:

--130 years ago it was the torpedo boat. It did not mean the end of large surface ships.

--105 years ago it was the Dreadnought. It did not mean the end of anything but large surface ships with and all gun battery.

--90 years ago it was the aircraft. It did not mean the end of large surface ships.

--70-80 years ago it was the dive bomber. It did not mean the end of surface ships or aircraft carriers.

--60 years ago it was the nuclear weapon. If did not mean the end of surface ships or aircraft carriers.

--40 years ago it was the anti-ship cruise missile. It did not mean the end of surface ships or aircraft carriers....

--And so today we are talking about Anti-ship cruise missiles.There is an evolution and survival of the fittest in warfare. It is only a problem if ignored. It is only a reason to panic if you lack a historical perspective and a lack of confidence in your military to effectively meet a new threat ... at threat that is yet to be fully formed.

One more thought: if the DF-21D represents the end of the carrier as an effective weapons system, why is Beijing working so hard on its own aircraft carriers? By some estimates, China will have as many as two carriers operational by the middle of the decade, equipped with SU-33 Flanker jets. The Chinese are making a pretty sizable investment in a weapons system that is supposedly past its prime.

Idiot of the Week

The name's Martin...Derek Martin...err...CIA U.S. Special Agent #767. Air Force Senior Airman Derek Martin grins for his mug shot after being arrested on charges of impersonating a CIA officer and openly carrying a firearm (Air Force Times photo).

It's been quite a while since we bestowed one of these prizes, but not due a lack of qualified candidates. Indeed, we could give it to Joe (Gaffe-o-Matic) Biden and retire the award once and for all, but that would deny future generations of worthy recipients.

With that in mind, we are proud to announce our latest choice for Idiot of the Week: Senior Airman Derek Martin of the 6th Security Forces Squadron at MacDill AFB, Florida. Or maybe we should say "Soon-to-be-former Senior Airman," since Martin's days in the Air Force are likely numbered. As Air Force Times explains:

Authorities say a MacDill airman approached a woman, told her he was a CIA officer and said he was looking for a terrorism suspect. But Senior Airman Derek Martin is no James Bond.

Martin, 23, is an installation entry controller with 6th Security Forces Squadron. And he now faces charges of impersonating an officer and openly carrying a firearm.

Police say Martin approached a 55-year-old woman on Sunday night at Clearwater Beach, Fla., and identified himself as a CIA agent. He carried a 9mm handgun in a holster and flashed a badge identifying him as “CIA U.S. Special Agent #767.”

He told the woman he was looking for another woman involved in terrorist activities, police say. (Editor's note: what are the odds that the "other woman" is Martin's former girlfriend, or someone he's currently pursuing?)

As you might have guessed, Martin has no affiliation with the CIA, or any other counter-terrorism or intelligence agency. As an entry controller, Martin's duties usually consisted of checking cars and drivers as they entered MacDill.

Maybe all those hours in the hot Florida sun baked his brain. But, judging by that goofy smile in his mug shot, we're guessing that Martin may be a taco shy of the proverbial combination plate.

Which raises another question. If "CIA U.S. Special Agent #767," a.k.a. Airman Martin is a little imbalanced, why in the world did the Air Force give him a badge? And a gun.

Monday, August 09, 2010


The Pentagon's budget axe fell hard today, and Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) found its head squarely on the chopping block.

As part of his $100-billion austerity campaign, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced this afternoon that JFCOM will be shuttered in the coming years, eliminating some 5,000 military, civil service and contractor positions. Gates announced that two smaller DoD organizations will also be targeted for closure, but the names of those units were not disclosed.

From the AP account:

Gates said Monday that tough economic times require that he shutter a major command that employs some 5,000 people around Norfolk, Va., and begin to eliminate other jobs throughout the military.

The announcement was the first major step by Gates to find $100 billion in savings in the next five years. Gates says that money is needed elsewhere within the Defense Department to repair a force ravaged by years of war and to prepare troops for the next fight.

Gates and other Pentagon officials would not put a dollar figure on cuts outlined Monday, but the savings is expected to be less than what the individual military services are trying to trim on their own.

Political reaction in the Old Dominion was swift--and predictable. Officials from both sides of the aisle immediately condemned the move, saying it made little military or economic sense.

Republican Representative. J. Randy Forbes called the decision "further evidence of this administration allowing its budget for social change" and the "piecemeal auctioning off of the greatest military the world has ever known."

Democrats, including Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Virginia, also condemned the move. Warner said he could see "no rational basis" for eliminating a command created to improve the services' ability to work together and find efficiencies.

"In the business world, you sometimes have to spend money in order to save money," said Warner.

Still, the Virginia Congressional delegation will face an uphill battle in trying to save JFCOM. Listed as one of ten unified combatant commands in the U.S. military , JFCOM doesn't really have a war-fighting mission. Instead, Joint Forces Command has concentrated on the transformation of the U.S. military, and (to a lesser extent) that of its NATO partners. And, through such components as Air Combat Command (USAF) and the Forces Commands of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, JFCOM provides combatant forces to commanders in the field. In reality, that "provider" role was little more than another layer of bureaucracy; ACC and the forces commands had been providing war-fighting assets long before JFCOM arrived on the scene.

In an era of looming defense cuts, DoD simply doesn't need a muti-billion dollar organization to handle transformation and add another layer of command in force provision. Indeed, given the current budget climate, JFCOM's demise was only a matter of time. Now the real question becomes: what happens to the billions saved by eliminating the Norfolk-based command? Dr. Gates has suggested that some of the money might be re-invested in the Navy's ship-building program, a move that would (potentially) return billions to Virginia.

But don't hold your breath. Our fleet is already under-sized (in comparison to the Navy's global responsibilities), and shows no signs of growing larger. In fact, Secretary Gates recently observed that the U.S. military is "over-matched" against potential competitors, suggesting that the number of Navy carrier groups would be downsized as well. Fewer carriers means fewer escort vessels, and less support infrastructure ashore. Put another way: if the Navy of the future will operate with fewer carriers, it will almost certainly have a smaller ship-building budget, and there will be less work for the three major yards (Bath Iron Works; Ingalls, and Newport News) that build most of our military vessels.

In reality, the money "saved" by closing JFCOM will go towards entitlement programs, including that fiscal black hole called national health care. Hmmm...maybe they can convert the command's headquarters building into the nation's largest free clinic.