Random thoughts on almost anything and everything, with an emphasis on defense, intelligence, politics and national security matters..providing insight for the non-cleared world since 2005.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
The Operation Continues
A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, Jon Allen, told WSB-TV that the operation was aimed at prevent any type of activity that anybody may have to disrupt transportation systems.”
Mr. Allen described the search effort as a form of "highway homeland security." But at that point, his comments took a turn for the odd. Interviewed by WSB's Mark Winne--one of the first journalists to learn that Tuesday's search was an operation and not an exercise--Mr. Allen said the federal air marshal service was the lead agency for the roadway inspections in Atlanta.
That may strike you as a bit unusual, but it is not without precedent. Since their integration into TSA, air marshals have deployed as part of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, which provide a random, highly visible security presence, typically in a mass transit or passenger rail system. In recent years, TSA has averaged at least one VIPR deployment a month, with as many as 1-2 per week during some periods.
Still, it's worth noting that air marshals typically deploy to augment the VIPR teams, rather than taking the lead. Their role in running today's operation suggests potential targets are aviation-related, or TSA is simply trying to expand the operational portfolio of the air marshal's service.
We've also been told that the air marshals have been reluctant participants in these operations, believing it takes them away from their primary mission, and jeopardizes their undercover status. Indeed, TSA administrators originally required participating marshals to wear shirts or raid jackets identifying them as federal air marshals. That requirement was eventually rescinded. More recently, air marshals serving with VIPR teams have performed their duties in civilian attire, and were simply identified as DHS officials.
Which brings us back to Mr. Allen's comments. If TSA is trying to preserve the anonymity of its air marshals, why did their media spokesmen identify the service as the lead agency in today's operation? And, we can only wonder how many marshals were captured on tape by WSB and other local TV stations covering the search operation.
Admittedly, this has not been a very good week for TSA's regional public affairs department. As Tuesday's search got underway west of Atlanta (and traffic slowed to a crawl on I-20), a TSA spokesman insisted the activity was a training exercise. That explanation lasted until Mr. Winne contacted other law enforcement officials, who revealed it was a counter-terrorism operation.
A retired military security official tells In From the Cold the Atlanta operation isn't entirely consistent with a major counter-terrorism effort or deterrent activity. The official says that type of operation would also include extensive aerial surveillance; an increased police presence at other places where tractor-trailers congregate (including truck stops), and the establishment of additional check-points in the Atlanta area.
So far, there's no evidence those other measures were implemented, although officials aren't discussing what they found during two days of searching, or if the operation will continue.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Connect the Dots
...The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, is refusing comment. That's often a sign that the information is credible, and the spy masters are upset that someone blabbed before all the suspects could be rounded up, or the plot was completely foiled.
...Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal says a recent surge in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan is part of an effort to disrupt possible attacks in Europe.
...And the U.S. is also a potential target, according to ABC News and Britain Sky News.
But before you say this is nothing out of the ordinary, consider this unusual twist that might related. On Tuesday, federal, state and local law enforcement agents were stopping--and inspecting--all west-bound tractor-trailers traveling on I-20 out of Atlanta. At the height of the evening rush hour, no less.
A spokesman for the TSA told WSB-TV that the search was part of a "training exercise." But the station's investigative reporter, Mark Winne, learned from other sources that the inspections are part of a counter-terrorism operation.
Obviously, there's a big difference between an "operation" and an "exercise." Additionally, we've never heard of this type of drill being conducted on a major interstate highway, during rush hour, with participation by all levels of law enforcement. So, it sounds like something beyond training prompted that traffic jam on I-20 Tuesday afternoon.
But, before we connect that final dot, it is worth noting that the European plot apparently didn't involve large trucks or radioactive devices. The trucks being searched on I-20 west of Atlanta were screened with a radiation detector (and other devices), according to WSB.
Ultimately, we will defer to the experts on this one. If you're a security or law enforcement official who can shed a little more light on this operation, please drop us a line at email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Your confidentiality is assured.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
The Worm that Ate Bushehr
The opening salvo came in the form of a cyber attack against Iranian industrial and nuclear sites, using the Stuxnet worm, described as "the most sophisticated malware ever." As Gregg Keizer of Computerworld reports:
Iranian officials that Stuxnet had infected at least 30,000 of the country's Windows PCs, including some of the machines at the Bushehr nuclear reactor in southwestern Iran.
The worm, which has been dubbed the world's most sophisticated malware ever , targets Windows PCs that oversee industrial-control systems, called "SCADA" systems, that in turn manage and monitor machinery in power plants, factories, pipelines and military installations.
Previously, researchers had spotted several propagation methods in Stuxnet that ranged from spreading via infected USB flash drives to migrating between machines using multiple unpatched Windows bugs.
Liam O Murchu, manager of operations on Symantec's security response team and one of a handful of researchers who have been analyzing Stuxnet since its public appearance in July, said today he'd found another way that the worm spreads. According to O Murchu, Stuxnet also injects a malicious DLL into every Step 7 project on a compromised PC, ensuring that the worm spreads to other, unaffected PCs whenever an infected Step 7 file is opened.
Step 7 is the Siemens software used to program and configure the German company's industrial control system hardware. When Stuxnet detects Step 7 software, it tries to hijack the program and pass control to outsiders.
While the origin of the worm has not been confirmed, Israel has been pegged as a likely suspect. Israeli defense forces and intelligence services have robust cyber-warfare capabilities, and Stuxnet could prove an excellent tool for crippling key Iranian facilities, including the nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which was recently fueled with Russian assistance.
And, it wouldn't be the first time Israel has used a computer network attack against one of its foes. Just after midnight local time on 6 September 2007, IAF jets destroyed a suspected nuclear facility deep inside Syria. Air defense assets never responded to the Israeli raid, raising suspicions that Syrian radar and missile sites were disabled prior to the air strike with a cyber attack.
While that scenario seems likely, details of the attack still remain sketchy. European sources reported last year that Israeli operatives inserted "kill software" into the Syrian system, and activated it prior to the air raid. Other experts believe the IAF used something similar the Suter network attack program, originally developed for the U.S. Air Force. Latest versions of Suter allows hackers to "see" the same picture as enemy radar operators, take control of those networks and even invade links serving time-critical targets such as SAM batterys and ballistic missile sites.
On a personal note, I had a chance to see early versions of Suter before my retirement. The technology was impressive (even back then), and it has advanced steadily over the past decade. Open-source information indicates that Suter is now used with various electronic combat platforms, including the RC-135, EC-130H (Compass Call) and the F-16CJ. In a 2007 article on the Israeli air strike against Syria, Aviation Week's David Fulgham described how the program works:
The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can’t be seen, they say. The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading messages algorithms that allow a number of activities including control.
Stuxnet represents another element of the cyber-battle, leveraging existing industrial computer networks to wreak havoc at key facilities. Ironically enough, the Iranians didn't exactly their cause, if some media outlets are correct. Some accounts suggest that Tehran was using unlicensed copies of Windows 7 to run computers at Bushehr and other complexes, allowing the hackers to take advantage of security flaws in the software.
The worm that invaded Bushehr (and other sites with SCADA software) is but one of thousands of cyber attacks that occur every day. But Stuxnet takes the game to another level, judging by the sophistication of the malware. Symatec, the computer security giant, says the worm may have been created by a private group, rather than a government entity. But the firm stopped short of saying which group may be responsible for Stuxnet.
It's also worth remembering that defense contractors are responsible for development of cyber attack and defensive systems used by the west. Suter, for example, is a creation of BAE Systems, under the aegis of Big Safari, the Air Force's "rapid procurement" organization that handles upgrades to the RC-135 and EC-130 programs, and a variety of cyber initiatives. Given the resources of Big Safari (and similar programs in other countries), it isn't hard to create state-of-the-art malware, and unleash it on unprepared foes.
But it's not quite time for the architects of Stuxnet to take a victory lap. In the cyber world, what goes around comes around. Versions of this program will be making the rounds for years. It's a guarantee that Iran is probably working on its own version of the bug, and will attempt to use it to target western systems. The west should (seemingly) have an advantage in this particular battle, but a major infection is always as close as an unauthorized flash drive, or a network lacking the latest security patches.
ADDENDUM: We should also note that 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of one of the first military cyber-attacks. The target was Iraq, and the strike came from the U.S. Prior to the start of Operation Desert Storm, American computer specialists, working with special operations forces, inserted a virus into Saddam's air defense network, by tapping into a fiber optic line.
The virus was the creation of a combined team representing the National Security Agency and the Air Intelligence Agency. A former colleague of mine supervised one of bug's primary creators, an airman who joined the service after his computer firm went belly up. My colleague recalled that the airman had a uniform "that looked like he slept in it," and he had as much military bearing as a ball of twine.
But the two-striper was a self-taught computer genius, particularly adept at invading networks. In fact, his "hobby" was penetrating NSA, then calling his counterparts at the agency to tell them how he did it. When his superiors outlined the Iraqi project, his first response was "How bad do you want me to f--- it up? I can take it down forever, if you want."
In case you're wondering, the airman finished his enlistment and went to work at Fort Meade. At the agency, no one was really worried about what he wore to work, or the shine on his shoes.
Monday, September 27, 2010
The Transition Begins
At the ripe old age of 27, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il has no military experience, but then again, the old man never served, either--unless you count his expulsion from an East German military academy in the early 1960s, and the later, ceremonial appointments that accompanied his climb to the top.
Whatever it takes to preserve the world's only hereditary communist dictatorship. Millions of North Korean peasants, surviving on a diet of rice and grass, will be very pleased.
For what it's worth, Kim Jong-il also promoted his daughter, Kyong-hui, to the rank of general. Her military resume is equally thin, but her support of Kim Jong un is considered important, so she gets flag rank as well. The promotions came on the eve of a rare Party Congress, the first since 1980, when Kim Jong-il was officially anointed the successor to his father, Kim Il-sung.
The real questions, of course, go something like this: how long will Kim Jong-il survive, and can his son gather enough support to make the transition work? Then, there's the matter of the DPRK's bankrupt economy and whether it will expire before the elder Kim. If that happens, all bets are off and the world will face a staggering military, political and humanitarian crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
Still, as we've cautioned before, don't bet against the regime in Pyongyang. Back in 1994, we put Kim Jong-il's long-term survival prospects at well below 50%, and he managed to hang on. But the current leader of North Korea was well-prepared to assume the mantle of power--especially in comparison to his son.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Today's Reading Assignment
China has the world's second-largest naval service, after only the United States. Rather than purchase warships across the board, it is developing niche capacities in sub-surface warfare and missile technology designed to hit moving targets at sea. At some point, the U.S. Navy is likely to be denied unimpeded access to the waters off East Asia. China's 66 submarines constitute roughly twice as many warships as the entire British Royal Navy. If China expands its submarine fleet to 78 by 2020 as planned, it would be on par with the U.S. Navy's undersea fleet in quantity, if not in quality. If our economy remains wobbly while China's continues to rise -- China's defense budget is growing nearly 10 percent annually -- this will have repercussions for each nation's sea power. And with 90 percent of commercial goods worldwide still transported by ship, sea control is critical.
The geographical heart of America's hard-power competition with China will be the South China Sea, through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean Peninsula and northeastern China. That sea grants Beijing access to the Indian Ocean via the Strait of Malacca, and thus to the entire arc of Islam, from East Africa to Southeast Asia. The United States and others consider the South China Sea an international waterway; China considers it a "core interest." Much like when the Panama Canal was being dug, and the United States sought domination of the Caribbean to be the preeminent power in the Western Hemisphere, China seeks domination of the South China Sea to be the dominant power in much of the Eastern Hemisphere.
While Kaplan's central thesis is clearly correct, there are a few faults in his analysis. First, the "niche" capabilities he describes are useful for (potentially) limiting American naval forces in China's desired spheres of influence, but they do not add up to a true, global maritime power. To achieve that status, Beijing needs a blue water navy, built around carrier battle groups and other force-projection assets. True, China will have carriers by the end of this decade, but it will take even longer to develop the trained pilot cadre and ISR support needed to support their naval power thousands of miles from home.
However, Beijing's initial focus is the South China Sea and adjacent waters, stretching from Australia to Japan. In that region, China's growing naval power is already a menace, and the U.S. seems to have no credible response, beyond attempts at engagement. More disturbingly, the size of our Navy continues to shrink while more ships and subs join the Chinese fleet. That development alone gives Beijing a powerful incentive to pursue an aggressive maritime strategy, fueled by 10% annual increases in defense spending.
Not long ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that the U.S. could afford to retire some of its aircraft carriers, claiming that we were "over-matched" against potential adversaries. Obviously, that analysis is a bit short-sighted when it comes to China. Before he retires in a few months, someone might ask Dr. Gates about his over-matched theory regarding the PLAN and its expansion program.
Send in the Clown
On the other hand, if Colbert's testimony was a distraction, it clearly served its purpose. A distraction from what, you ask? As Glenn Reynolds reminds us, Friday was also the day that career Justice Department lawyer Christopher Coates appeared before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, delivering bombshell testimony on racism scandals within the Obama Justice Department, including the New Black Panthers case. Among his observations:
"[There is a] deep-seated opposition to the race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of whites who have been discriminated against."
The opposition within the Voting Section to taking actions on behalf of white voters in Noxubee County, Mississippi, … was widespread...The Deputy Chief who was leading that election coverage asked me: “can you believe that we are going to Mississippi to protect white voters?”
Mr. Coates also stated that he was verbally upbraided by Assistant Attorney General Loretta King for asking prospective DOJ attorneys, in job interviews, if they could equally enforce voting rights laws. His testimony confirmed similar observations from other Justice Department whistle-blowers, who allege that Obama appointees have cast a blind eye to discrimination committed by racial minorities.
But, as Professor Reynolds observes, it was hard to find any meaningful coverage of Coates' testimony. Most of the mainstream media, talk radio--and even the blogosphere--focused on Colbert's clownish antics before Congress, while a few outlets concentrated on the firings of media executives Jeff Zucker and Jon Klein.
Was this some sort of set-up, aimed at pushing real scandals off the cable channels and into the back pages of daily newspapers? That's hard to say, since no one has been able to determine when Colbert was first invited to testify, and compare that date to Mr. Coates scheduled appearance before the Civil Rights Commission.
At this point, it's a rather amazing coincidence--one that is clearly working in the favor of the White House and its political allies. It's hard to find someone who isn't aware of Mr. Colbert's appearance on the Hill. By comparison, you'd be lucky to find anyone (beyond a few legal bloggers) who are remotely aware of what Christopher Coates told the civil rights panel, and his damning indictment of the Justice Department.
Friday, September 24, 2010
Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Media Executive Suite Edition)
Zucker, the one-time wunderkind who was named executive producer of the Today show at 26, and went on to become the chief executive of NBC Universal, announced his departure today, in an e-mail to company employees. From The New York Times account:
The fate of Mr. Zucker, the longest-serving senior manager at NBC, had been the subject of widespread speculation since Comcast agreed in December to purchase 51 percent of NBCU from its long-time corporate owner, General Electric. The deal is expected to close at the end of the year, following regulatory approval.
In an interview at NBC’s executive offices, Mr. Zucker, who is 45, said the decision to leave the only employer he has ever worked for — a decision that he acknowledged was not his own choice — became inevitable after a meeting two weeks ago with Steve Burke, Comcast’s chief operating officer.
Mr. Klein's departure was revealed in an e-mail to network staffers from Jim Walton, the President of CNN Worldwide. Klein told the Times he was fired earlier this week in a meeting with Mr. Walton.
Klein is a former CBS manager best known for his description of bloggers as "guys sitting in their living rooms in their pajamas, writing what they think." Mickey Kaus, hardly a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy, describes Mr. Klein's tenure as leading CNN from from "failure to failure, all the while keeping up a patter of confident, self-righteous spin."
Klein's efforts to reshape CNN--and his complete lack of success--certainly support that assessment. Shortly after joining the network, Klein publicly sided with comedian Jon Stewart, who said that CNN's long-running debate show, Crossfire, was "hurting" America. Klein tried to reinvent the network with with such programs as Campbell Brown's much-hyped interview show, which was cancelled after less than two years on the air. Other Klein creations, including Anderson Cooper 360, The Situation Room, John King USA and Fareed Zakaria GPS remain, but almost no one is watching them.
And that's the bottom line for any TV executive. When the number of eyeballs watching your show is low, your days are numbered. After almost six years under Klein's leadership, CNN is mired at the bottom in prime time, lagging well behind Fox News and even MSNBC, which has benefitted from the implosion at the original cable news network.
In fact, CNN sometimes trails sister network Headline News (HLN) which has adapted a more tabloid format in recent years. HLN's most popular program is headlined by former prosecutor (and Court TV anchor) Nancy Grace, who spends an hour of prime time dissecting particularly lurid crimes. HLN also has "debate" shows featuring one-time news anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell and comedianne Joy Behar. None could be described as candidates for a Peabody Award, but they regularly attract more viewers than CNN's flagship network.
So, it comes as no surprise that CNN has named the former chief of HLN, Ken Jautz, to replace Klein. For now, Mr. Jautz has promised to stick with Jon Klein's parting gifts to cable viewers, a new prime-time show anchored by former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer (a.k.a. Client #9), conservative columnist Kathleen Parker. He also hired former British newspaper editor Piers Morgan (best known for his judging duties on America's Got Talent) as the replacement for Larry King.
No one really expects these programs to work, so Mr. Jautz's first order of business will be developing replacements. It's a sad, but familiar pattern at CNN, which invented cable news and dominated the landscape for almost 20 years.
Still, it's not hard to see why CNN keeps losing viewers. The network insists its coverage is "straight down the middle," despite the liberal bias that is obvious in virtually all of its shows. And, following Mr. Klein's less confrontational philosophy, CNN's product was often bland and dull, driving away much of its audience. Of course, that didn't keep Jon Klein from patting himself on the back. In his first "post-termination" interview, the fired CNN President claimed he left the network "much stronger" than he found it. That's tantamount to saying the Titanic was more seaworthy after it struck the iceberg.
As for Mr. Zucker, his contributions to NBC were also celebrated, even as his departure was announced. On the balance, Zucker was a much more successful broadcast exec than Jon Klein. He built Today into the dominant morning news show, transforming it into a cash cow that delivers more than $300 million in yearly profits to the network.
That accomplishment won Zucker the top post in NBC's Entertainment Division, and later, the job of network president. In those capacities, his record is decidedly mixed. NBC's prime-time line-up, which dominated the ratings for much of the 80s and 90s, fell into a tailspin during Zucker's watch. The network's evening programs now often finish fourth in their time slots, trailing CBS, Fox and ABC.
Making matters worse, Mr. Zucker also presided over one of the biggest programming blunders in TV history. Anxious to keep Conan O'Brien in the fold--without chasing off Tonight Show host Jay Leno--Zucker hit upon a compromise. O'Brien would get Tonight, while Leno moved to prime time, with a show airing at 10 pm eastern time, five nights a week.
You know the rest. Leno bombed in his new slot, and with O'Brien fronting Tonight, that show fell behind David Letterman on CBS and even ABC's revamped Nightline. Meanwhile, NBC's local stations saw ratings sag for their late, local news programs, with little lead-in from the Leno program. The experiment lasted less than a year, but it cost NBC millions in lost revenue. Many were surprised that Zucker kept his job after the debacle.
Instead, it took a buy-out of NBC (by cable giant Comcast) to end the Zucker era. Comcast has a reputation for running a tight operation, focusedly squarely on the bottom line. When Comcast takes control of NBC in a few months, they will implement their own vision, under the likely leadership of company Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke. After cutting his teeth at ABC and Disney, Burke has been a senior executive at Comcast for the past 12 years.
As NBC's President-in-waiting, Burke will have a chance to transform the network. Given Comcast's roots in cable and the internet, it is believed that Burke may move NBC away from its decades-old model of broadcasting programs through local affiliates (including those owned by the network) and eventually move all of NBC's programming onto cable channels. At a minimum, the future of the network will be more closely tied to cable and the web, rather than over-the-air broadcasting.
Of course, there is an irony in today's reshuffle. In his coverage of Klein and Zucker's departure, Matt Drudge ran a picture of Fox News President Roger Ailes, dubbing him the "last man standing." While CNN and MSBNC scratch for ratings left-overs (and network news programs keep losing viewers), Fox has become the dominant outlet in cable news, expected to deliver $700 million in profits to parent News Corp this year, and $1 billion in profits next year.
Not too many years ago, Roger Ailes was an NBC executive, in charge of CNBC. But his bosses found him too low-brow for bigger assignments, like running MSNBC, or the network's news division. So, when NBC pulled the plug on his America's Talking cable channel, Ailes left NBC. The suits at Time-Warner had no interest in hiring him for CNN, so Ailes took his talents to News Corp, where he launched Fox News.
The rest, as they say, is history. Ailes innovated and thrived, while other media execs keep trying to make their 1980s model work in the 21st Century. The sacking of Zucker and Klein was inevitable, and so is the eventual firing of their successors. Changes in the executive suite at places like NBC and CNN are the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Andrea Doria. The result will be the same, but the media ship may look a bit more graceful as its slips beneath the waves of change.
Best Line Department: Bernard Goldberg, who knew Klein at CBS, said the deposed executive viewed those who told the truth as "lacking imagination." Go figure.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
To be fair, there are always sharp disagreements in policy formulation at the highest levels of American government. Put a collection of massive egos in the White House Situation Room, and sparks are bound to fly. And that can be a good thing, giving the Commander-in-Chief access to alternate points of view and policy options that may not immediately come to mind. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was Attorney General Robert Kennedy who first suggested a naval quarantine, while members of the Joint Chiefs urged military action. Ultimately, the quarantine convinced Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev to back down, and the showdown ended without a nuclear conflict.
But the environment described by Mr. Woodward goes well beyond a healthy debate. President Obama dismissed the military's request for 40,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, telling Defense Secretary Bob Gates (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) "I'm not doing 10 years"..."I'm not doing long-term nation-building"..."I am not spending a trillion dollars."
Worse yet, Mr. Obama appears to view the conflict only in political terms. In a meeting that included Republican lawmakers, Obama told South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham "I can't let this be a war without end and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."
Let that sink in for a moment, and consider it's impact on the War on Terror, or whatever the administration is calling it these days. No wonder that so many officials were glad to talk to Bob Woodward; while the White House claims that Mr. Obama appears decisive and analytical in the book, it's equally clear that members of his team can't stand one another, and are attempting to distance themselves from a likely policy failure, with enormous implications for our long-term national security.
But the bad news doesn't end there. Mr. Woodward's latest volume also raises serious questions about the administration's ability to deal with terrorism here at home. From the Washington Post preview of the book:
A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here "a potential game changer." He said: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes."
Yet, in his same conversation with the journalist, President Obama bragged about our ability to "absorb" terrorist attacks here at home, claiming they make us stronger. We haven't read the Woodward book, but the comment does beg an interesting, two-part question: What does Mr. Obama view as the most important element of his strategy, and doesn't his rush to get out of Afghanistan increase our threat here at home?
With the departure of our troops from that region, Al Qaida will have greater opportunities to plot and train, dispatching more terrorists to carry out attacks on U.S. soil. President Bush understood the nexus between Afghanistan and potential strikes on our homeland, but Mr. Obama's position is stunning short-sighted. In the name of party unity, he's willing to make a short-term exit from Afghanistan, even if means a greater risk here at home.
There's also the matter of formulating (and executing) a coherent, domestic counter-terrorism strategy. It's hardly reassuring that many of the same officials battling over Afghanistan are also in charge of keeping the homeland safe.
And, their dysfunctionality couldn't come at a worse time; testifying before Congress today, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Counter-terrorism Chief Michael Leiter said the recent spike in "home-grown" terrorist attacks is indicative of an evolving threat. In fact, Mr. Leiter described them as the "most significant developments in the terror threat to our homeland since 9-11." From the ABC News report on today's testimony:
"Groups affiliated with al Qaeda are now actively targeting the United States and looking to use Americans or Westerners who are able to remain undetected by heightened security measures," Mueller said. "It appears domestic extremism and radicalization appears to have become more pronounced based on the number of disruptions and incidents."
Leiter told the committee. "The attack threats are now more complex, and the diverse array of threats tests our ability to respond, and makes it difficult to predict where the next attack may come.
For those brave enough to connect the dots, the narrative goes something like this: our national security "team" is badly dysfunctional, and pursuing a strategy in Afghanistan (at the direction of the Commander-in-Chief) that is likely to fail. Our rapid exit from that conflict will give Al Qaida more opportunities to plan new attacks, recruiting Americans--and other westerners--who are more difficult to identify and apprehend before they strike. Meanwhile, the menace from these terrorists is growing, and senior officials charged with keeping us safe are the same ones leading our policy in Afghanistan.
Sleep well, America.
Monday, September 20, 2010
The Last of the Glorious Few
The last of "The Few." Some of the surviving RAF pilots and aircrew members from the Battle of Britain recently gathered for a photograph in the U.K. Daily Mail. The number corresponds to each man's profile in an article that accompanied the photo (Daily Mail).
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda
Instead of wasting $30.00 on the book, we can simply read between the lines of the AP piece and discover that the former president's new book is little more than an exercise in excuse-making and score-settling.
At the ripe old age of 85, Mr. Carter apparently feels an urgent need to take shots at fellow Democrats like Tip O'Neill or Ted Kennedy, who are no longer around to defend themselves. There is also a predictable effort at image repair; 30 years after he left the White House, Carter is still trying to paper over his tattered reputation as the worst president of the 20th Century--or any other century. In any event, "White House Diary" seems to be an exercise in vitriol and little else.
Still, there are some rather revealing thoughts in President Carter's book, and they depict him as a petty, bitter man. A few examples:
He described his difficult relationship with O'Neill, saying the most unpleasant experience of his presidency was a breakfast at which O'Neill was "extremely abusive" toward him and others in the room. Carter had a rocky relationship with the House speaker throughout his term.
Carter also reveals his thoughts at the time about Kennedy, D-Mass., his 1980 rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. He writes that he first learned Kennedy would challenge him when briefed in early 1978 by then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, now vice president. He also praises Biden as his "most effective supporter" in the 1976 presidential campaign.
After a 1979 meeting with Kennedy that included a discussion of health care, Carter wrote that it was almost impossible to understand what the senator was talking about but it was obvious their approaches differed
Sure, we're stating the obvious, but it's worth remembering that Tip O'Neill, Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy were members of the same political party. And, it's also worth remembering that the same Speaker O'Neill got along much better with Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan. Both were proud partisans who never asked for (nor gave) quarter in the political arena, but at 5 o'clock they could bury the hatchet, sit down for drinks in the White House residential quarters and swap stories--just a couple of Irish pols.
While Reagan and O'Neill had their battles, there is no record of the Speaker being "abusive" towards the Republican President during any of their meetings. Wonder why? Could it be that Tip O'Neill actually respected for Mr. Reagan, who he recognized as a leader of strength and character --a man who kept his word?
Besides, what President worth his salt lets a Speaker of the House, a member of his own party, "abuse" him in front of others, without so much as a peep. Maybe the same kind of chief executive whose term in office was defined by weakness and incompetence, at home and abroad.
Remember, it was those same "qualities" that helped convince Ted Kennedy that he could beat Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. Readers will note that Mr. Carter claims he "couldn't understand" what the Senator was talking about during a 1979 meeting with the Senator; that appears to be a veiled reference to Mr. Kennedy's drinking problem. Nothing revelatory about that, just another gratuitous shot from Jimmy Carter.
Incidentally, President Carter also claims America could have implemented national health care during his administration, if only we had listened. Predictably, he doesn't bother to assess the impact of that scheme on a staggering economy. Remember, the misery index was created to measure the impact of the Carter economy, with double-digit inflation, unemployment and interest rates. At that juncture, national health care would have represented the final nail in our economic coffin.
And, if your mind isn't already reeling from Mr. Carter's revisionist tome, consider this anecdote: reflecting on the Iran Hostage Crisis, the former president observes that his rescue attempt "should have worked," except for a "strange series of mishaps, almost completely unpredictable."
Again, the words are Jimmy Carter's, not ours, and they are also illustrative. To be fair, mishaps in military operations cannot be fully anticipated, or accurately forecast. But the problems that led to the cancellation at Desert One can be traced (in part) to the man in the White House. The military budget was slashed under Mr. Carter, leaving the armed services with less capable equipment and fewer trained personnel.
The impact of the Carter cutbacks was readily evident in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter units. Not only did experience levels decline (as trained pilots and aircrew members left the armed forces); maintenance crews had to frequently cannibalize parts to keep a small number of aircraft in the sky. Squadrons tapped for the rescue attempt had to overcome significant maintenance challenges just to get ready for the mission.
Against that backdrop, it's little wonder that three of the helicopters suffered maintenance problems that forced Carter to scrub the mission. The withdrawal became a debacle when a chopper collided with a C-130 in the Iranian Desert. Obviously, that failure cannot be directly blamed on Mr. Carter, but his defense and diplomatic policies clearly helped set the hostage crisis, and the aborted rescue mission.
Judging from the AP dispatch, President Carter has little to say about his own failures. That is unsurprising; Mr. Carter has been attempting to salvage his reputation for more than 30 years. So, it's little wonder his White House "diary" is anything but an honest examination of history--just another attempt to re-write it.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Today's Reading Assignment
"Build a New Bomber"
A few particularly note-worthy paragraphs:
"...of the Air Force's 5,500 aircraft, only 162 are bombers, of which only 20 are stealthy, of which only a dozen are combat ready. That is a truly puny force against any serious adversary. Worse, their average age is 33 years.
Aging planes, and the knowledge that future enemies are working feverishly to heavily defend their airspace might lead you to believe that new bombers would be a U.S. priority.
But that's unclear. Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the Air Force's program to field a new bomber by 2018, suggesting it wasn't ready for prime time. Gates wanted more study before buying a plane that, by virtue of its mission, would be extremely expensive."
Bomber opponents say such planes are outmoded, that penetrating formidable future air defenses will require new standoff missiles, not planes. But conventional bombers have repeatedly proven their flexibility, utility and ability to adapt to new missions. Consider the use of the B-52s flying over Iraq and Afghanistan as circling close-air-support magazines.
A bomber, on the other hand, can operate over vast distances and against sophisticated defenses to deliver large payloads with precision. It also can be recalled. It would be the centerpiece of a multi-faceted, long-range strike portfolio that would provide a visible deterrent against countries, such as China and others, that are developing systems their leaders believe will insulate them from possible attack.
Of course, the real questin is whether Robert Gates will listen to such arguments. Having killed the new bomber program last year--and with his own exit from the Pentagon already planned--it's unlikely the SecDef will reverse course. And, if you're looking for support from his boss at the White House, forget about it.
The continued decline of America's bomber fleet reminds us of another era, when our long-range strike capabilities were allowed to deteriorate, with devastating consequences for national security. Not long after the start of the hostage crisis in Iran, President Carter asked the JCS about an immediate, conventional strike against the mullahs, using Air Force bombers. Someone quickly calculated that we could instantly dispatch a couple of B-52s, supported by a significant chunk of our alert tanker force on the eastern seaboard. The idea was quickly scrapped.
Those were the bad old days, before the B-1 and B-2, when Air Force maintenance crews had to cannabalize other jets to keep mission capability rates above 50%. That's why we couldn't mount much of a short-term military response to the sacking of our embassy, and the capture of American diplomats and military personnel. Could we return to the days of a "puny" bomber force. Defense News--hardly a right-wing publication--certainly thinks so.
We'll go a step further. We're already on the fast-track to an ineffective bomber force, and Dr. Gates has certainly done his part to achieve that goal.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Dance With Who Brung Ya
Down 20 points in the polls just a month ago, Ms. O'Donnell stunned long-time Congressman (and former governor) Mike Castle, winning the GOP nomination for Senate in the Diamond State. A Republican liberal, Mr. Castle was considered a shoo-in against his Democratic opponent in November. While no one accused him of measuring the drapes for his new Senate office, no one--at least no one outside the Tea Party and the O'Donnell campaign--expected Castle's career would end in the Republican primary.
As you probably heard, the GOP establishment wasn't particularly pleased with Ms. O'Donnell's upset. Congressman Castle refused to endorse her, and so did the chairman of the state Republican party, who previously suggested that O'Donnell "couldn't be elected dog catcher: in Delaware.
More distressingly, Texas Senator John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, initially said that his organization would not provide financial support to her campaign for the general election. Mr. Cornyn quickly retracted that vow, but it was enough to get the Democrats (and their media allies) buzzing about a "civil war" in the Republican Party, and suddenly-diminished prospects for taking back the Senate. Republican strategist Karl Rove added fuel to the fire by suggesting Ms. O'Donnell cannot beat her Democratic opponent, a county executive who is a self-proclaimed Marxist.
But if Republican leaders were behaving badly last night, then Ms. O'Donnell hasn't exactly helped her cause in recent weeks, despite that impressive primary win. In an interview with John McCormack of The Weekly Standard(hardly a hostile, left-wing reporter), the candidate sounded downright paranoid, claiming that partisan operatives were hiding in the bushes outside her town home, and even broke into her campaign headquarters in 2008, when she ran against Joe Biden. For good measure, she also accused Mike Castle and other GOP officials of trying to "sabotage" that earlier bid for the Senate. Yet, despite accusations of criminal activity against her, O'Donnell never filed a police report.
Ms. O'Donnell was less forthcoming on other issues that have dogged her operation, including reports that she used campaign funds to pay living expenses, and claims to have studied at Princeton (the university has no record of her enrollment as a graduate student).
There is a lesson in all of this, and it goes something like this: in such a high-stakes election year, Tea Partiers (and Republican leaders) should remember the words of Ben Franklin who famously advised: "we should all hang together, or we shall all hang separately."
Fact is, the movement needs the GOP and the party certainly needs those legions of activists. Let's start with the Republican Party. Less than two years ago, the GOP was at its nadir; Barack Obama and the Democrats cruised to a commanding victory in the 2008 presidential campaign, and Republicans seemed destined for years in the political wilderness. It was the Tea Party, those ordinary Americans who stood up in town hall meetings around the country and galvanized public opposition to President Obama, his health care scheme, and Democrats in general. In the process, they re-energized the Republicans.
So, the Tea Party activists earned the right to endorse their candidates (and oppose RINOs) during the current primary cycle. And, in the process, they've uncovered some real gems, including such impressive prospects as Joe Miller in Alaska, to Mike Lee in Utah. Without backing from the Tea Party, it's unlikely that either man would have won their party's nomination. Now, as prospective senators, they can affect real change in Washington.
Clearly, the Tea Party benefits from its association with the GOP. The party establishment's shabby treatment of Christine O'Donnell has renewed talk of the movement breaking away to form a third party, but that idea is ludicrous. Consider the long (and unsuccessful) history of third parties in this country. And, contemplate the prospect of the Tea Party and Republicans splitting the conservative vote for countless election cycles to come, virtually ensuring long-term Democratic control of Congress--and the White House.
And a final word of advice for the Tea Party: it's always a good idea to look beyond a candidate's embrace of movement principles, and search for any problems that might doom their campaign. An example can be found in Colorado, where the gubernatorial candidacy of Dan Maes has imploded, after it was learned that he was hardly a successful businessman, nor a former undercover agent for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Character counts too, and in that department Mr. Maes is clearly lacking. As a result, Republicans--and the Tea Party--have missed a golden opportunity to retake the governor's mansion in Colorado.
Will Christine O'Donnell's campaign survive similar scrutiny? Time will only tell. In the interim, however, the activists and the GOP establishment need to patch up their differences and get ready for November. They've come this far together, and both sides need to keep dancing with the one that brung them. The alternative is bleak: a new Congress in the hands of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Ernest Withers in front of his Memphis studio. The late civil rights photographer has been recently revealed as a secret FBI informant who reported on the figures he covered (Ernest C. Withers trust via the Commercial Appeal).
Monday, September 13, 2010
"Always Ready to Deliver the Truth"
To be fair, we've never seen much benefit to these events. Spend a day in a medium-sized (or large) arena, listening to high-priced speakers share their secrets for success. Ironically, many of the gurus don't have a lot of business experience, or their success came after a high-profile career in the public sector.
The Get Motivated seminar offers a case in point. Two of the big "names" on the itinerary are Rudy Guliani and Colin Powell. Both have been on the speaker circuit for several years, and (presumably) deliver a decent talk for their six-figure fees. But their combined business experience is meager, although some of their lessons from the military and politics are applicable in the private sector.
But General Powell and Mayor Guliani aren't the reason to ask for a refund. Joining them for the event is another luminary, disgraced CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather. According to organizers of the Washington event, Mr. Rather is "always ready to deliver the truth the way it is."
Riiggghhttttt....we're guessing that promoters are forgetting about Rather's most famous excursion in "truth telling," that infamous 2004 60 Minutes II segment on President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. You know, the report based on badly faked documents that were exposed by bloggers only minutes after the story aired. The same report that ended Mr. Rather's career at CBS.
Yeah, ol' Dan is a real truth-teller. Given his track record, it's amazing that anyone would hire Rather as a motivational speaker, particularly for a business audience. Even more amazing that people would pay good money to hear his little speech on "maintaining excellence while avoiding burnout."
Thursday, September 09, 2010
Low and Slow
But, if Admiral James Winnefeld gets his way, they might get a shot.
Admiral Winnefeld, the Commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, is concerned about an existing "gap" in our air defenses. Specifically, he's worried about the potential threat from slow, low-flying aircraft that are difficult for fast-moving fighters to escort and interdict.
According to Aviation Week, the problem was underscored during a recent incident involving a Navy Fire Scout drone. Launched from Patuxent River NAS in Maryland on 2 August, the UAV suffered a software glitch that caused it to go off course. Making matters worse, the drone failed to return to Patuxent (as it was programmed to do). Instead, it headed toward restricted airspace about 40 NM from Washington, D.C.
As NORAD Commander, Winnefeld was in the battle cab [at Peterson AFB, Colorado] as the incident unfolded. He was on the verge of scrambling fighters against the UAV when the Navy regained control of the aircraft.
In this case, the aircraft type--and its mission--were known, so the event was hardly a crisis. Still, there were legitimate concerns about the aircraft passing through restricted airspace, or the heavily-congested corridors leading to Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport near Washington.
Winnefeld is also worried about our ability to intercept (or interdict) slow-moving aircraft at low altitude when their intention is not known. To handle that mission, he's developing a formal requirement for a "fast" attack helicopter or a low-speed, fixed-wing design. And he hopes to have it in the DoD budget in the near future.
So far, Admiral Winnefeld hasn't specified the number of helicopters or aircraft needed for the "low-and-slow" intercept mission. But given their limited speed and range, the NORAD would (presumably) need dozens of of airframes, enough to protect key metropolitan centers (including Washington) and sensitive facilities across the country. By the time you factor in such costs as crew training, aircraft modification and sensor installation, the price tag for Winnefeld's plan will run into the billions of dollars. So far, he hasn't said where the money will come from, given current Pentagon efforts to slash costs.
Besides, the U.S. already has an interceptor force, consisting of Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, stationed at various locations around the country. The Air Force would argue that the current force is adequate, although its sometimes difficult for fast-moving fighters to fly alongside slow-moving aircraft and attempt to communicate with their pilots. Blue-suiters would argue that aging interceptors need better air intercept radars and integration with other sensors, including FAA radars. But judging from the Admiral's proposal, he seems to have little confidence that high-performance jets can handle the low-and-slow intercept mission.
Oddly enough, there might be a potential compromise for this problem. Newer generations of UAVs have the speed to match many slow-moving aircraft, and they're controlled through command-and-control nodes with access to a wide array of sensors--so it might be easier for an interceptor drone (and its operators) to determine the intent of an aircraft more quickly and respond, based on NORAD guidance. UAVs have excellent endurance, so they could escort unknown aircraft for hours, over a wide geographic area. And, with available armament options, they could also be used to shoot down a plane or helicopter (in a worst-case scenario). With cooperation from the FAA, the military could install a signal system on the drone, to attempt communications with the wayward aircraft.
Unfortunately, there's only one problem with this "solution." The FAA has been extremely reluctant to allow UAV operations in congested airspace, for the reasons illustrated in the Pax River incident. Federal officials don't want an unpiloted aircraft drifting through restricted (or heavily-used) airspace, regardless of its mission.
Creating a force of interceptor drones (which would be scrambled periodically for training) would raise more prospects for wayward drones, operating in places there are not supposed to be. Admiral Winnefeld, a career fighter pilot, has admitted that the off-course Fire Scout "did not help" the military's case to bring drone operations into civilian airspace. That's one reason the NORAD commander is talking about attack helicopters and slow-moving fixed wing platforms to fill the interceptor "gap." He'll face an uphill battle from the Air Force, which doesn't want to share the mission with other aircraft that (might) be operated by the other services.
Still, the USAF interceptor force is aging rapidly, and airpower analysts openly wonder if NORAD will have enough airframes for the air defense mission by the end of this decade. That reality is not exactly a confidence-builder, giving an opening to someone like Admiral Winnefeld and his "alternative" solution.
Deadbeats Among Us
Capitol Hill employees owed $9.3 million in overdue taxes at the end of last year, a sliver of the $1 billion owed by federal workers nationwide but one with potential political ramifications for members of Congress.
The debt among Hill employees has risen at a faster rate than the overall tax debt on the government's books, according to Internal Revenue Service data. It comes at a time when some Republican members are pushing for the firings of government workers who owe the IRS and President Obama has urged a crackdown on delinquent government contractors.
The IRS data does not identify delinquent taxpayers by name, party affiliation or job title and does not indicate whether any members of Congress are among the scofflaws. It shows 638 employees, or about 4 percent, of the 18,000 Hill workers owe money, a slightly higher percentage than the 3 percent delinquency rate among all returns filed nationwide.
The average unpaid tax bill is $12,787 among the Senate's delinquent taxpayers and $15,498 among those working in the House.
In an effort to get the staffers to pay up, Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah has introduced legislation that would fire federal employees with delinquent tax bills--unless they enter into a payment plan. Eight other GOP lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors; not a single Democrat has endorsed the bill (what a surprise).
Still, those Congressional staffers are veritable pikers when compared to another group of deadbeats--Air Force Academy dropouts. A report obtained by Air Force Times shows that 130 former cadets owe the government an average of $107,000 for tuition (and other benefits) paid before they quit the "zoo." All resigned during their junior or senior years, before they graduated and could be commissioned as Air Force officers.
The total bill for the academy dropouts? Ten million dollars. And, the government has made little headway in collecting the debt. The same report, requested by a former Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, shows the Defense Finance and Accounting Service has recovered only $1.8 million, and written off another $2.5 million as "uncollectable." Of the more than $9 million still outstanding, more than one-third ($3.9 million) has been owed for more than five years. Some of the debt has been on the books since 1988.
Put another way: About the time Ronald Reagan was wrapping up his second term in office, Cadet Snuffy decides a life in the Air Force isn't for him (or her). So, they quit before graduation. Virtually all of the drop-outs transfer to other schools, earn their degrees, and go on to successful civilian careers. But they never get around to repaying that debt to the Air Force, for failing to fulfill their contract at the Academy.
Admittedly, DFAS isn't the most efficient organization around (just ask Chief Buddy). And that makes us believe its time for a new tactic--public humiliation. If we can put the names and photos of deadbeat parents on websites, billboards and flyers, why not do the same thing for AFA drop-outs who took the taxpayers for a ride? We're guessing that collections will skyrocket, and most of the debt will be wiped out in a few months.
Instead, DFAS keeps sputtering along, and the deadbeat ex-zoomies keep dodging those collection letters. At its current pace, DFAS will be trying to garnish the social security checks of former cadets to settle their decades-old debt. Don't laugh; by our calculations, the oldest of the drop-outs are now in their mid-40s, and less than 20 years away from retirement.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Westin Calls It Quits
In an e-mail sent to colleagues on Labor Day, Mr. Westin announced his resignation as leader of the network's news division, effective today. Drudge had a copy of the e-mail almost as soon as it was dispatched; in the brief note, Westin described leading ABC News as a "great privilege and solemn responsibility."
Mr. Westin also said it was time for him to "move on," and explore "other things I want to do professionally." Pursuing those opportunities, he said, would impossible "while fulfilling my responsibilities here." In other words, it was the same sort of boilerplate we've seen in the resignations of hundreds of senior executives. So, what's the real story?
At least one ABC News employee tells Bill Carter of The New York Times that Westin's departure is rooted in a long-standing feud with Robert Iger, Chairman of the Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC. Mr. Iger had been pressuring Westin to make the news division more profitable, and to close the ratings gap with NBC, which leads in both the morning and evening news wars.
In response, Westin announced a 25% reduction in the news division's workforce, laying off 400 reporters, producers and technicians. While that move certainly helped the bottom line, Westin's recent anchor moves have done nothing to make ABC more competitive with NBC. And that's the main reason for his departure.
Consider these choices: when Diane Sawyer left Good Morning America to anchor ABC's World News, Mr. Westin decided to replace her with George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton advisor who previously hosted the network's Sunday talk show, This Week. Never mind that Stephanopoulos is a less-than-compelling TV personality whose ratings rarely challenged Meet the Press in the ratings, even after the death of Tim Russert.
In the morning, Stephanopoulos and co-anchor Robin Roberts have consistently trailed the juggernaut that is NBC's Today show. Put another way: their second-place finish is more the result of CBS's perpetual failures in the morning news race, and not anything Mr. Stephanopoulos and Ms. Roberts have done for ABC.
During the evening news slot, the story is largely the same. Ms. Sawyer is a solid #2, but she still trails NBC's Brian Williams by a million viewers on some nights. And, as in the morning race, ABC owes its dinnertime performance (in part) to problems at CBS. Katie Couric has been a ratings disaster as anchor of the CBS Evening News; earlier this summer, her program reached an all-time low in viewership, renewing speculation that her days at the network are numbered.
And (perhaps) the final straw was Westin's selection of long-time CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour as the new host of This Week. She debuted in July to scathing reviews, and the program remains mired in third place. But Ms. Amanpour's contract pays her $2 million a year, leading some staffers to muse about how that money might have been better spent.
To be fair, Mr. Westin had a few successes during his tenure. He stabilized GMA by bringing back Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer after the disastrous tenure of Kevin Newman and Lisa McRee in the anchor chairs. Similarly, he made World News more competitive by making Gibson the anchor after Bob Woodruff was critically injured, covering the war in Iraq. Nightline also survived the retirement of Ted Koppel, utilizing a rotation of three, lesser-known anchors as his replacement.
But with network news programs hemorrhaging viewers (and no cable news division to offset those losses), ABC News finds itself in a difficult position. Some media accounts indicate that Mr. Westin was directed to begin merger talks with Bloomberg TV, and even Mr. Iger has hinted (broadly) that under-performing divisions at ABC may be put up for sale. A lawyer by training, Westin had no trouble reading between the lines and decided to leave now, before he was publicly forced out by his bosses at Disney.
So, who inherits the sinking ship? As of this writing, no replacement has been named, and there may be few volunteers. Yeah, the pay is great and the benefit package is second-to-none, but does any TV exec (in their right minds) want a job with no real future? Besides, Disney likes to promote within, even if it means picking someone with no prior news experience.
And that might not be a bad idea. In the late 1970s, the situation at ABC News was equally grim. The network's evening news show as a perpetual laggard, and few believed that ABC would ever rise out of third place. Almost out of desperation, someone had the bright idea of giving Roone Arledge a shot at running the division. After all, Mr. Arledge built ABC Sports into a global powerhouse in those days before ESPN.
As you may recall, the move was widely ridiculed, given Arledge's "lack of experience" in news. Not that he cared; determined to re-invent ABC News, Mr. Arledge installed a multiple-anchor format for the evening news program. He launched the network's first successful news magazine, 20/20; and during the Iran hostage crisis, he gave the green light for a daily, late-night summary of events that evolved into Nightline. He also spent freely on high-profile talent in an effort to attract more viewers. Within seven years, ABC had become the dominant organization in network news.
This time around, Mr. Westin's successor won't have that luxury. In the words of one analyst, the job of a news division president is about "managing decline." But that ignores a rather salient fact. Over the past 14 years, Fox News has become the king of cable news, largely by going against the grain of conventional wisdom and offering programming that is engaging and largely devoid of the liberal bias that populates most broadcast news operations.
Could a similar approach save ABC? The obvious answer is "no," but then again, no one gave Roone Arledge much of a chance 30 years ago, and FNC was widely ridiculed at its launch in 1996. One thing readily apparent in the history of TV news is there's always room for creative individuals who are willing to try something different and stick with it.
Unfortunately for ABC, the number of news executives with those credentials can be counted on one hand, and the best of that bunch (Roger Ailes) has a permanent home at Fox. However, Mr. Ailes has a number of talented lieutenants at FNC and News Corp, including John Moody, currently the content chief for FNC's parent company. The fact that individuals like Mr. Moody aren't being mentioned as candidates for the ABC job speaks volumes about why the network news divisions are in trouble, and (most likely) doomed to extinction.
ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from Emily Miller, a senior editor at Human Events who previously worked as an associate producer at ABC News. She notes that Westin was out of his element from Day One:
I worked at the ABC News in the Washington, D.C., bureau when Westin was hand-picked by parent company Disney President Robert Iger (who’s now Disney CEO.)
Even now, I remember the shock and disappointment among the journalists that a lawyer—Westin—would be running their beloved news division.
He moved from D.C. to Manhattan when he got the ABC News job and quickly fell into an elitist, out-of-touch, mainstream media mindset. He fired the conservative Bill Kristol (who moved to Fox News) and promoted liberal journalists—Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, Fareed Zakaria and, most recently, Christiane Amanpour.
Westin was not a news man. But, as time went on, Westin’s bigger problem was that he wasn’t a businessman. His management style was to only act out of fear for his own position. He also seemingly did Iger’s bidding without pushing back. He was risk averse.
But someone without a journalism background isn't always a bad choice to run a network news division. Roone Arledge comes instantly to mind; he built ABC News into a ratings and revenue powerhouse--something a string of "journalistic managers" proved unable to do.
And, in the days before Arledge, CBS News reached its zenith under Richard Salant, a former corporate counsel who led the news division during two stints in 1960s and 70s. Salant knew who buttered his bread, so he lavished resources on the CBS Evening News and its anchor, Walter Cronkite. Mr. Salant was also flexible enough to let Don Hewitt try something called 60 Minutes and fought to keep it on the schedule, despite poor ratings during its early years.
Incidentally, Richard Salant was moved out of the news division job in 1964, in part because of ratings problems during CBS's coverage of that year's political conventions, and a desire (in some network circles) to put a "newsman" back in charge. Salant was replaced, for two years, by Fred Friendly, the former executive producer of CBS Reports under Ed Murrow.
During his brief tenure, Friendly managed to antagonize everyone from Cronkite to members of the CBS board of directors. In 1966, he resigned in a huff, allegedly because the network aired an episode of The Lucy Show instead of Congressional hearings on U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
The real problem, as insiders later reported, was that Friendly couldn't make his appeal directly to the CBS Chairman (William S. Paley) or its President (Frank Stanton) as previous news chiefs had done; instead, he had to go through another executive (broadcast group chairman Jack Schneider), a step he considered unnecessary and undignified. In fact, Friendly made Schenider's professional life so miserable that when Friendly left the network--and became Chairman of the Ford Foundation--the broadcast group chairman sent Friendly a batch of business cards, identifying him as Former President, CBS News.
After the Friendly debacle, Mr. Salant was welcomed back with open arms. Unfortunately for ABC, their "lawyer-as-leader" experiment turned out much, much differently. As Ms. Miller writes, the David Westin's successor will likely preside over the fire sale of ABC News to "anyone willing to take on the mess [he] left."
Monday, September 06, 2010
Setting the Stage for a Successor
In case you haven't guessed, the event we refer to is Kim Jong-il's recent visit to China. The reclusive North Korean leader rarely leaves his homeland, fearing a possible coup in his absence. When he travels abroad, it's typically a short trip to the PRC, always by train. The Dear Leader apparently figures its harder to blow up a train than shoot down a plane, although there was a major blast at a rail crossing near the DPRK-China border in 2004, just hours after Mr. Kim passed through the area.
So, it was big news when Kim Jong-il traveled to Beijing earlier this year, and arguably, an even bigger story when he returned to China late last month. The reason? To discuss plans for transferring power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. From the Australian paper The Age:
The senior Kim's visit to northeast China late last month was seen partly as a preparation for change.
During a meeting with President Hu Jintao, Kim stressed the need to prepare for the "rising generation". He visited a series of sites linked to his late father, a guerrilla fighter against Japan's 20th-century colonisation of Korea and northeast China.
Analysts saw this as a bid to confer legitimacy on another father-to-son power transfer.
But public scepticism is growing about the prospect, according to a South Korean welfare group with cross-border contacts.
"Ordinary people in the country are not interested in the father-to-son transfer of power," Lee Seung-Yong, director of the Good Friends group, told AFP last week.
"They think their living standards will not improve even if the son inherits power."
Many senior party officials are also sceptical about Jong-Un given his youth and inexperience, Lee said.
There are also rumors that the younger Kim accompanied his father on the latest China trip, but those claims have not been confirmed. Kim Jong-il's attempt to transfer legitimacy (and power) to his son may also provide clues regarding the health of the North Korean leader. He suffered a serious stroke in August 2008, and remained out of public view for months. Putting Kim Jong-un on the "fast track" for leadership may indicate that his father's health is worsening and Kim Jong-il wants to prepare his son for leadership before he dies or becomes incapacitated.
But it will take more than public proclamations and a nod from Beijing to complete the transfer of power. By the time Kim Jong-il assumed power in 1994, he had been groomed for the job for more than two decades by his father, Kim Il-sung. Sixteen years later, Kim Jong-un has yet to hold a key post in the DPRK power structure, although that may be changing as well.
State-run media in Pyongyang have reported that the elder Kim will convene a meeting of communist party delegates in the near future. While no dates have been given, U.S. and South Korean experts believe the delegates convention may begin as early as this week. Such meetings are rare in the DPRK (the last was held in 1966), and they have been used in the past to rework the ruling hierarchy.
As with all matters relating to North Korea, the upcoming conference is shrouded in secrecy. Analysts are split as to whether Kim Jong-un will be given a key position at the meeting, and if the appointment will be announced publicly.
This much is certain: the younger Kim's path to power is more complex than the one faced by his father. Kim Jong-il's powerful brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, is expected to gain more power at the delegates meeting, a sign that he may act as a regent in the leadership transfer process. Senior generals are expected to assume greater roles as well, raising questions about Kim Jong-un's ability to gain the trust and support of that important clique in assuming the mantle of power.
Believed to be in his late 20s, Kim Jong-un is roughly 25 years younger than his father was when he took control of the DPRK. And, while North Korea's economy was hardly robust in the 1990s, conditions today are far worse. Thousands of refugees have fled across the border to China, risking death if they are caught and sent back to the North Korea. Anti-regime graffiti also appeared in Pyongyang last year, a remarkable development in a police state where all media is state-controlled and individual citizens have virtually no access to the outside world.
The early betting line suggests the younger Kim may preside over the collapse of the Stalinist government--one reason (perhaps) that he was educated in Switzerland and still has lots of cash squirreled away in that country. But it would also be a mistake to under-estimate the DPRK's ability to muddle through.
During a tour as a U.S. military intelligence officer in the Far East almost 20 years ago, I remember reading an analysis of a ROK "White Paper" on expected threats facing Seoul in the year 2010. At the top of that list were Japan and China. North Korea wasn't even mentioned. It was the consensus of South Korean experts that the DPRK would cease to exist within two decades--a view widely shared in the U.S. intelligence community.
Clearly we were wrong about Pyongyang's gift for survival. Still, it will be much more difficult for Kim Jong-un to defy the odds this time around.
Sunday, September 05, 2010
A Hero Emerges
Unfortunately, Chief Etchberger won't be present for the White House Ceremony. He died 42 years ago in Laos, during the evacuation of suriving Air Force and CIA personnel from a secret radar bombing site. In the fact, the site (and its mission) were so classified that Etchberger's young sons were told he died in a helicopter crash. Chief Etchberger's wife was told the truth, but sworn to secrecy.
And the cover-up was sustained at the highest levels of government. President Lyndon Johnson quickly rejected Etchberger's nomination for the Medal of Honor, to help disguise the fact that U.S. military personnel were operating in Laos, then (technically) a neutral country.
Instead, CMSgt Etchberger received the Air Force Cross, the service's second-highest decoration for valor, and his exploits were soon forgotten. Indeed, few outside the world of covert ops and CIA paramilitary units were even aware of Lima Site 85, the secret site where Etchberger and his colleagues worked.
Perched atop a steep, 5,000-foot peak, the site directed all-weather bombing missions against North Vietnam, allowing Air Force and Navy aircraft to continue operations through the clouds and monsoon rains that covered enemy targets during much of the year. By early 1968, the facility was directing more than half of all "Rolling Thunder" missions against North Vietnam.
CMSgt Etchberger was part of the original contingent of Lima Site 85. A former commander described him as "one of the finest men I ever knew," an individual tabbed as a future leader from the earliest days of Etchberger's military career. Before deploying to the site, Etchberger, his colleagues (and their wives) were flown to Washington, D.C., where they were briefed on the mission and given new paperwork, identifying them as employees of Lockheed Aircraft Services, helping provide cover for their covert mission.
The site began operating in November 1967. Over the next four months, it directed more than a quarter of all U.S. bombing raids in North Vietnam. As American jets delivered accurate attacks through heavy cloud cover, Hanoi realized that a radar post must be nearby. It didn't take them long to pin-point Lima Site 85, located only 20 miles from the North Vietnamese border.
Hanoi mounted its first attempt to neutralize the radar site on 13 January 1968, dispatching four, ancient AN-2 "Colt" biplanes to bomb and strafe the base. They inflicted minor damage and managed to kill a few local tribesmen, employed by the CIA to help protect the facility.
But the Colts didn't get away unscathed. An Air America helicopter, scrambled to avoid destruction on the ground, gave chase. A CIA paramilitary officer on the chopper fired at the AN-2s with an AK-47 rifle. Two of the Colts went down as the Air America chopper pursued them. Members of an agency covert operations team later found bullet holes in the wreckage, and the helicopter crew received "credit" for two air-to-air kills.
Less than two months later, North Vietnamese forces attacked Lima Site 85, this time on the ground. On the night of March 10, 1968, dozens of enemy troops scaled the cliffs around the radar facility, while other units staged a diversionary attack on the slopes leading to the site and sealed off potential escape routes.
Despite repeated air strikes by F-4 Phantoms and A-26 bombers, North Vietnamese sappers managed to reach the radar post in the pre-dawn hours. Air Force personnel, led by CMSgt Etchberger, fought a desperate rear-guard action as CIA aircrews conducted evacuation operations. Of the 19 Americans at the site, only seven (five USAF, two CIA) survived. Survivors said Chief Etchberger personally saved three wounded men, loading them onto rescue helicopters before climbing aboard himself. Seconds later, he was hit by an armor-piercing round and died en route to a U.S. base in Thailand.
For his actions, CMSgt Etchberger received the Air Force Cross at a secret Pentagon ceremony. The U.S. never acknowledged the fall of Lima Site 85 until the early 1980s, and many details of the operation weren't divulged until Air Force historian Timothy Castle published One Day Too Long, his definitive study of the battle, just 10 years ago.
As Dr. Castle discovered during his research, American military commanders were also responsible for the debacle on that mountain top in Laos. They had decided to shut down the radar post before the final North Vietnamese attack, but waited too long to carry out their plans. As a result, Chief Etchberger and ten other airmen died. It was the heaviest loss of Air Force personnel in ground combat during the Vietnam War.
And the death toll would have been even higher, save the gallantry of Richard Etchberger. With this month's presentation ceremony, an American hero will finally emerge from the shadows of a long-secret battle, fought decades ago in the jungles of Laos.