Thursday, February 24, 2011

He May Get His Wish

Earlier this week, Libyan dictator Mummar Qaddafi vowed to fight anti-regime protesters to "the last drop of blood."

Did Qaddafi get his wish? Within the last hour, rumors have been circulating on the oil market that the Libyan leader has been shot--perhaps fatally. Western news outlets have been unable to confirm that report.

Meanwhile, U.S. crude oil is trading just over $97.00 a barrel. However, Brent crude reached $119 a barrel earlier today, before retreating to around $112 in afternoon trading. Look for an even higher spike if Qaddafi's death is confirmed. Mummar is certainly deserving of a bullet between the eyes, but his demise (if accurate) raises the questions about who/what comes next? Much of Libya's oil production is already shut down, and western oil companies won't send their workers back until the political situation stabilizes.

Saudi Arabia has promised to make up for any production shortfalls resulting from the chaos in Libya, but there are no long-term guarantees for the Riyadh regime, either.

What's Wrong With This Scenario?

According to The New York Times--and based on the comments of anonymous federal officials --those four American hostages were killed by Somali pirates because we botched the negotiations (emphasis ours).

From Eric Schmitt's account in this morning's edition:

When the two pirates boarded the U.S.S. Sterett off the coast of Somalia on Monday, American officials thought they were headed for a breakthrough in the four-day standoff with a gang that had seized four Americans vacationing on their 58-foot yacht.

But an F.B.I. hostage-rescue negotiator aboard the Sterett came to believe the two Somalis were not serious. So the Americans took them into custody and told the pirates back on the yacht to send over someone they could do business with.


American officials said the pirates on the yacht, called the Quest, seemed relieved — even “exceptionally calm” — when told their senior commander was cooling his heels in a Navy brig.

But hours later, panic ensued among young pirates. Some Americans theorized that a fight had broken out among the gang members, suddenly leaderless, and fearing they were about to be overtaken by the four Navy warships that surrounded them. One person who has talked to associates of the pirates said their leader had told them that if he did not return, they should kill the hostages, though American officials say they do not know that to be the case.

The episode finally came to an end when the pirates fired an RPG at the Sterett; five minutes later, 15 Navy SEALs stormed the yacht, killing one pirate, wounding another and taking 13 more into custody. The bodies of the dead hostages were found onboard the Quest.

Let's review: American yacht is seized by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. U.S. Navy vessels surround the yacht, preventing them from sailing to Somalia. Then, instead of mounting a rescue operation, U.S. authorities begin to negotiate with the pirates. When the talks fail (and the shooting starts), SEALs quickly take control of the yacht, and fourteen of the pirates wind up with their comrade in the Sterett's brig.

To be fair, there was no guarantee a rescue mission would have resulted in the safe return of all the hostages. But years of "negotiating" with the pirates and paying ransom (as various shipping companies and European nations have done) only encourage this sort of behavior.

Indeed, piracy has become the only viable enterprise in the failed state called Somalia; almost three years ago, the U.K. Times estimated that piracy was a $35 million-a-year business in the tiny village of Eyl, home for many of the terrorists. At any given time, a number of hijacked vessels are anchored off the coast, and more than 200 western hostages are being held at various locations around the village.

In terms of cash flow, the pirates' current haul is probably two or three times what it was in 2008. Expensive villas, on the scale of those seen in the oil kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, have sprung up around Eyl, replacing the tin-roofed shacks where the pirates once lived. Others are getting rich off the "business" as well, including the tribal elders and middlemen who negotiate payoffs for the pirates, along with building contractors, car dealers and gun merchants.

On many days, residents of the village can see western warships off the coast. But they have little reason to fear the naval presence. Weapons that could flatten Eyl in a matter of moments--or support an amphibious operation to capture the pirates and free their captives--are never used. At most, a vessel like the Sterett will be used to block the escape of a captured vessel, or a negotiating platform. Somewhere, John Paul Jones must be spinning in his grave.

Clearly, piracy is a complex issue, but there's little reason to complicate the matter with Queensbury rules that do nothing to alleviate the problem. Those pirates currently on the Sterett will soon be flown to the United States, where they will be put on trial for the murder of the four American hostages, and spend the rest of their lives in a federal prison--at taxpayer expense.

No one disputes the notion that the pirates should face justice for killing our missionaries. But there may be more effective ways to hold the pirates accountable, and those options certainly include military action. Our current approach clearly isn't working; as Galrahn at InformationDissemination noted yesterday, existing U.S. policies are actually making the problem worse:

In my view, this is a complete, total, and absolute failure by the current Commander in Chief who appears to be incapable of setting objectives with Somali piracy, and anyone who lacks the gonads to say exactly that needs to have a damn good argument why the United States Navy is otherwise incapable of dealing with men carrying AK-47s and RPGs in little skiffs. The media and the think tank community is made up of chicken shit cowards who refuse to ask why the US Navy sails circles around the Gulf of Aden while piracy gets worse, and under no circumstances will anyone criticize the Obama administration for an aimless, endless perpetual violence policy in the Indian Ocean. What is the point of continuous military operations without objectives?

Can someone explain why the US Navy is sailing $2 billion destroyers around the Indian Ocean not fighting pirates while all the governments on the North African coast are imploding, and the US Navy can manage only a single destroyer in the entire Mediterranean Sea right now?

Col. David Coffman, about one year ago, sat in front of a huge audience in San Diego and discussed about 2 dozen options other than invading Somalia that the 13 MEU could do to dramatically decrease piracy events in the Indian Ocean. He and the 13 MEU deployed today to that region, why not allow Marines be Marines, and give some of those options a try?

The Obama administration's policies contribute towards the reason the United States is in an era of persistent conflict, and only his loyal but truly blind defenders can claim otherwise. The situation off Somalia is getting worse, not better, because of the actions of US Navy forces. US Navy military actions serve towards no articulated military objective while disrupting the only process that does work - the hostage for ransom exchange program that industry created when Navy's failed to take any meaningful action to curb the problem.

According to the U.S. Navy, there are currently 34 warships, from 15 different nations, assigned to the anti-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean. Collectively, they weren't enough to save those missionaries on that yacht, and they won't be much use in the future, until someone (read: our Commander-in-Chief) and his national security team decide to get serious about the piracy problem in Somalia.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lessons in Civility

In the wake of the recent Tucson shooting tragedy, the University of Arizona has decided to create a National Institute for Civil Discourse. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton will serve as honorary chairmen for the center, which aims to study and promote a more measured and reasoned political debate.

Good luck with that one. By its very nature, politics is highly charged and extremely partisan--and it's been that way throughout our history. Think the current generation of TV attack ads is tough? How about LBJ's legendary "Daisy" spot, suggesting that Barry Goldwater wanted to unleash nuclear war on the planet. BTW, one of the architects of that ad was none other than Bill Moyers, the same guy who decries the "excesses" of right-wing talk radio.

Here are few more blasts from our (supposedly) more "civil" political past. The 1894 Republican Presidential nominee James G. Blaine was referred to as the "Continental Liar from the State of Maine." His Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland, was tarred by accusations he fathered an illegitimate child. "Ma, ma, where's Pa?" Republicans countered, "Running for the White House, Ha, ha, ha." It was changed to "Gone to the White House" after Cleveland won. Ahh..civility.

Truth be told, the new institute won't do much to change public debate, but it will become a home for ex-politicians and more than a few PhDs in political science. Together, they can compile reports that no one will read and host seminars that fill up a few hours on C-SPAN.

Still, if the folks at U of A are serious about alerting the tone of our political debate, they might assemble a "mobile training team" for groups that really need help with civility and old-fashioned manners.

We refer specifically to the student body at Columbia University. During a recent debate on bringing ROTC back on campus, they heckled and booed a decorated Iraq war veteran who spoke on behalf of the military training program. He was shot eleven times in a firefight in Mosul and spent two years at Walter Reed recovering from his wounds. But to the enlightened students at Columbia, he was nothing more than a war-monger, unworthy of their respect--or attention.

In an editorial supporting the re-introduction of ROTC, the Columbia student newspaper hoped that the university's influence would help change the military. Based on the behavior we saw at that debate, we'd say Columbia is the institution in need of change--and a lesson in civility.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Drone Toll

A Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile. Such attacks killed over 500 suspected militants last year, but there is concern that such attacks are eliminating few senior terrorists. Supporters of the program argue that "eliminating them early" isn't so bad, either (General Atomics photo via Wikipedia).

One of the hallmarks of President Obama's strategy in the War on Terror (yes, he know he prefers to use another name) has been the increased use of drone attacks against Taliban and Al Qaida terrorists. Last year, for example, the U.S. unleashed scores of Predator and Reaper strikes against suspected militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of those missions were the work of the CIA (which has developed impressive drone capabilities in recent years); others were conducted by the U.S. Air Force, which remains responsible for the bulk of our UAV operations in Southwest Asia.

But who is being targeted by these attacks? According to the Washington Post, most of the terrorists being killed by drone strikes are low-level operatives. Of the 581 Taliban and Al Qaida fighters eliminated by UAV attacks last year, only two were high-ranking enough to appear on a U.S. "most-wanted" list:

Despite a major escalation in the number of unmanned Predator strikes being carried out under the Obama administration, data from government and independent sources indicate that the number of high-ranking militants being killed as a result has either slipped or barely increased.

Even more-generous counts - which indicate that the CIA killed as many as 13 "high-value targets" - suggest that the drone program is hitting senior operatives only a fraction of the time.

After a year in which the CIA carried out a record 118 drone strikes, costing more than $1 million apiece, the results have raised questions about the purpose and parameters of the drone campaign.


The National Counterterrorism Center, which tracks terrorist leaders who are captured or killed, counts two suspects on U.S. most-wanted lists who died in drone strikes last year. They include Sheik Saeed al-Masri, al-Qaeda's No. 3, and Ahmed Mohamed Hamed Ali, who was indicted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa before serving as al-Qaeda's chief of paramilitary operations in Afghanistan.

According to the NCTC, two senior operatives also were killed in drone strikes in each of the preceding years.

Frequent readers of this blog know that we could hardly be described as supporters of Mr. Obama and his agenda. But as far as the drone campaign is concerned, we believe the President and his national security team are on the right path, and the Post article is something of a hit piece, for several reasons:

-- First, as the paper freely admits, initial success in the drone wars has forced our enemies to change their tactics. High-ranking terrorists, who once roamed Afghanistan (and Pakistan's tribal regions) with near-impunity must now plan their movements more carefully. That, in turn, limits their ability to coordinate and plan. Indeed, some of the lower-ranking terrorists obliterated by Hellfire missiles from our UAVs were couriers, conveying information that, in years past, would have been carried by senior terrorist leaders.

-- Keeping Taliban and Al Qaida big-wigs hunkered down is the next-best thing to killing them (see item #1, above)

-- Better intelligence has allowed us to identify "patterns of activity" associated with lower-ranking terrorists, allowing us to target them more effectively (note: this group also includes "operational" suspects, who pose a direct threat to Allied troops in the region). We can only speculate as to the number of suicide bombings--and other attacks--that were preempted by identifying and eliminating terrorists as they left safe houses and suspected training sites.

-- Killing junior members of "the firm" causes advancement/promotion problems later on. For all the jihadis disptached on "one-way" missions, there are countless others who want to move up in the organization. Removing them means Al Qaida and the Taliban have fewer experienced operatives to train the next generation, or move to more senior posts in their organizations. True, the terrorists can still find plenty of recruits, but it takes time to teach them skills that are genuinely useful to the network, such as bomb-making. Taking them out early in their careers means the bad guys must look for more bodies, and get them in the training pipeline. Indeed, the real impact of killing 400+ low-ranking terrorists won't really be felt for several years, when some of them would be expected to fill more senior posts.

-- Removing terrorists on the battlefield eliminates the need to incarcerate them at "Club Gitmo," along with the legal wrangling over how they should be tried and punished. Let's see...the cost of life-long incarceration and bills for litigation and security that could run into the millions (if they're tried in federal court), versus $1 million for the Predator, another mil for the crew and $60,000 for the Hellfire. Option "B" is certainly more cost-effective.

One former CIA officerl, quoted in the Post article, summed it up well: "Pawns matter," the official said. Particularly when some of those pawns are expected to mature into knights and bishops on the terrorist chessboard.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

Remember the term "too big to fail?" It was used to justify bailouts of various companies, banks and government institutions during the 2008 financial collapse.

We've heard the same verbiage tossed about in conjunction with various public sector pension plans. As with those enterprises that were not allowed to fail, it is assumed that public pensions will somehow be preserved--the impact of their collapse would be too great, both politically and economically.

But if you don't think a public pension plan can't go under--think again. Two years ago, there was an event in Prichard, Alabama that set off alarm bells among pension managers and public officials. After years of under-funding, the pension fund for retired municipal workers ran out of money. And, with the city in economic extremis, officials did something once considered unthinkable: they stopped sending out monthly retirement checks.

From an article in the The New York Times, published last December:

The situation in Prichard is extremely unusual — the city has sought bankruptcy protection twice — but it proves that the unthinkable can, in fact, sometimes happen. And it stands as a warning to cities like Philadelphia and states like Illinois, whose pension funds are under great strain: if nothing changes, the money eventually does run out, and when that happens, misery and turmoil follow.

It is not just the pensioners who suffer when a pension fund runs dry. If a city tried to follow the law and pay its pensioners with money from its annual operating budget, it would probably have to adopt large tax increases, or make huge service cuts, to come up with the money.

Current city workers could find themselves paying into a pension plan that will not be there for their own retirements. In Prichard, some older workers have delayed retiring, since they cannot afford to give up their paychecks if no pension checks will follow.

So the declining, little-known city of Prichard is now attracting the attention of bankruptcy lawyers, labor leaders, municipal credit analysts and local officials from across the country. They want to see if the situation in Prichard, like the continuing bankruptcy of Vallejo, Calif., ultimately creates a legal precedent on whether distressed cities can legally cut or reduce their pensions, and if so, how.

“Prichard is the future,” said Michael Aguirre, the former San Diego city attorney, who has called for San Diego to declare bankruptcy and restructure its own outsize pension obligations. “We’re all on the same conveyor belt. Prichard is just a little further down the road.”

As the Times reports, Prichard once had a fairly standard municipal pension plan; employees paid in 5.5% of their salaries and the city contributed 10%. But, as payouts began to exceed new contributions, the plan started running out of money. And when the pension fund was exhausted, the city stopped sending out checks. Alabama law requires that public pensions be funded--and paid--but no one has bothered to enforce the law.

Little wonder; Prichard is in bankruptcy for the second time in less than 15 years. Even if the state tried to force the city to pay up, no one is sure where the money would come from.

One final note: Prichard's municipal pension plan covered only 450 employees. But, as the city's population dropped (and tax base shrank), Prichard was unable to make the required contributions to keep the fund solvent. As early as 2004, experts warned the city's retirement fund would run out of money within five years.

Their prediction was spot-on. Did we mention that the city's unfunded liabilities were relatively modest (millions versus billions of dollars), but Prichard was still unable to pay its retirees. Wisconsin unfunded pension liabilities currently top $3 billion. By the size of other state shortfalls (read: California), the Badger State is a piker.

Too big to fail (without reform)? Hardly.

Meanwhile, Back at School

While hundreds of Wisconsin educators skip work to protest Governor Scott Walker's fiscal reform plan, we're getting a better look at the teachers' "accomplishments" in the classroom.

From the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank based in the state:

When it comes to the U.S. Military, almost half of Wisconsin’s African American students aren’t even fit to serve.

That’s the story from the latest results of the United States Army’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) in Wisconsin. In 2009, 18.9 percent of all Wisconsin high school students failed to qualify for service. This included a 46.9 percent ineligibility rate amongst African American students and a 26.9 percent rate for Hispanic students. These figures come from a December study by The Education Trust in Washington, D.C


Overall, the Badger state ASVAB test takers graded as above average, but posted one of the worst rates for African American students. While Wisconsin’s near 19 percent failure rate was good for 17th nationally, the ineligibility rate for black students over the past five years was the fourth worst in the country. Amongst eligible states*, only Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas fared worse.

Regionally, Wisconsin ranked fourth out of six upper Midwestern states, including a last place finish for black students. Not surprisingly, the state led the nation in the achievement gap between African American and White students. On a more positive note, Wisconsin was only fourth in the region when it came to the gap between Hispanic and White students.

We've written at length about declining ASVAB scores and their impact on military recruiting. With fewer young Americans achieving passing scores on the test, it will be more difficult for the services to meet their quotas. And, qualification scores aren't excessive by any measure; the minimum entrance score for an Army recruit is 31; it's 32 for future Marines, 35 for the Navy, 40 for the Air Force and 45 for the U.S. Coast Guard. So, it's possible for future service members to score below 50 on the ASVAB and still meet service requirements for the aptitude test.

Unfortunately, most African-American students in Wisconsin don't have that option, given their 50% failure rate on the ASVAB. Among Hispanics, more than one in four in Wisconsin schools can't achieve a passing score on the military entrance exam.

And where do you find most of the black and Hispanic students in the Badger State? The Milwaukee public school system, the same one that was shut down for several days last week, because many of its teachers were protesting in Madison.

You can see why they're fighting so hard to retain collective bargaining. With that sort of job performance, many of those Wisconsin teachers would be out of work without their union protection.

So Much for the NASCAR Vote

It wasn't a good week to be a Democratic member of the U.S. House. They could only watch as the new Republican majority voted to de-fund a number of their pet programs, ranging from public broadcasting to Parenthood.

Never mind the proposed cuts won't survive in a Democrat-controlled Senate--and even if they did, President Obama would almost certainly veto them. That wasn't enough for some House Democrats who decided to fight back, by offering amendments to cut funding for programs favored by Republicans and their constituents.

Of course, the Democrats would never admit they were taking shots at the GOP, just as Republicans are making their cuts in the name of reducing the budget deficit. But, if you can cut the red ink by a few million bucks--while reducing the power of a group that aids your political opponent--so much the better.

Against that backdrop, Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum has proposed trimming $7 million from the Pentagon's recruiting and marketing budget--money currently used to sponsor NASCAR teams. "The military shouldn't be in the business of sponsoring race cars, they should be in the business of fighting wars," said McCollum's chief of staff, Bill Harper.

Apparently, neither Mr. Harper (nor his boss) know much about stock-car racing and its appeal. As John Fund notes in The Wall Street Journal, marketing research shows a strong correlation between the sport and military recruiting. NASCAR is very popular in regions where young people are most likely to join the armed forces. One in three members of the military is a NASCAR fan.

And, the days when stock car racing was strictly a "regional" sport are long since gone. The NASCAR circuit now includes regular stops in California, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Arizona and New York, venues far removed from the sport's origins in the rural south. Races in those areas attract hundreds of thousands of fans--and millions of TV viewers.

So, from a marketing perspective, a stock car with the Army or National Guard logo would seem to be a wise investment. And, the military's relationship with NASCAR extends beyond the track. Cars (and drivers) sponsored by the armed forces make regular appearances at the nation's schools, allowing recruiters to reach more potential recruits. Ryan Newman, who drives the Army-sponsored #39 Chevrolet, says the sponsorship program has given recruiters access to schools that would normally be off-limits.

Obviously, Mr. Newman has a vested interest in the sponsorship program. But in the era of an all-volunteer military, effective marketing is essential. NASCAR and the military would seem to be an ideal match, and the Army is reportedly satisfied with its long-standing partnership. However, the Navy and Marine Corps ended their NASCAR sponsorships in recent years, claiming they were unable to gauge the effectiveness of those efforts.

Mr. Fund sees the McCollum amendment (which was voted down by a big margin) as the Democrats' giving up on the so-called NASCAR vote. Not long ago, the party was courting that demographic, noting the success of politicians like Virginia Senator Mark Warner, who are high-profile fans of the sport. But John Kerry and Barack Obama didn't win the votes of many "NASCAR dads" in 2004 and 2008, so the Democrats are looking elsewhere. And in the interim, why not cut military sponsorship for a sport that trends Republican?

It's hardly surprising that McCollum's de-funding effort fell short. Not only did she raise the ire of NASCAR fans (her office reportedly received hundreds of angry phone calls), several of McCollum's colleagues asked her to make the controversy "go away." Most recognized it as little more than a political stunt; while McCollum's amendment would have eliminated NASCAR sponsorships, it preserved military advertising and marketing for drag racing teams. The Congresswoman didn't say why it was acceptable for the military do support drag racing, while NASCAR was unacceptable.

What a surprise.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Disenfranchised Over There (Again)

It may be the ultimate irony. The very people who ensure our right to vote--members of the United States military--may need legal help to secure the same right for themselves.

As we've chronicled in previous posts, military personnel stationed overseas (along with civilians living abroad) are the most dis-enfranchised groups in our electorate. No one can really say how many members of the armed forces were unable to vote last November, but a survey by the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF) found that one-third of Americans abroad were unable to vote last year. However, only three percent of the poll's respondents were military personnel or dependents.

Yet, no one can deny the problem exists. Even the Obama Justice Department (which has been less-than-enthusiastic in the enforcement of military voting rights) admits it took government intervention to ensure that thousands of millitary ballots were counted in 2010. The Administration claims that fewer member of the armed forces had problems with absentee voting last year than in 2008, an assertion that many in Congress agree with.

But Rick Jones, co-chairman of the Alliance for Military and Overseas Voting Rights is less sanguine. He estimates that 370,000 Americans living abroad--many of them military personnel--face "real problems" with mail delivery and other issues affecting their ability to vote.

Now, the obstacles facing military voters are finally receiving Congressional scrutiny. California Congressman Dan Lundgren, Chairman of the House Administration Committee, held hearings on the issue. According to Bart Jansen of the Gannett News Service, experts told the committee that roughly one-third of overseas troops who wanted to vote last year--couldn't.

"We've got to do better," said Mr. Lundgren, who is (obviously) has a gift for understatement. But he also deserves credit; when the House was controlled by Democrats, they consistently refused to look into the problem, or even approve simple reforms. For example, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to allow a vote on a measure introduced by California Congressman Kevin McCarthy (now the House Whip under the new Republican majority). McCarthy's bill required the Defense Department to return absentee ballots by the "fastest means available," ensuring that more of them would arrive by the submission deadline and actually count.

The root cause is pure, partisan politics. Military personnel are a large (and reliable) voting bloc for the GOP, although Democrats have made modest gains in recent years. In some states--and in some key districts--a flood of absentee ballots from armed forces members and their dependents--would favor Republican candidates and possibly tip the election for the GOP.

Further complicating the matter are various state election laws, which vary greatly in their requirements for preparing absentee ballots and getting them to troops overseas. In many cases, local election officials often claim "difficulties" in mailing out ballots, virtually ensuring the troops won't receive ballots early enough to fill them out and return them by the submission deadline. Needless to say, these "difficulties" become a tool for vote suppression, allowing Democratic officials to disallow large numbers of Republican absentee ballots.

To help remedy the problem, the Federal government passed a law that set mandatory deadlines for the mailing of absentee ballots to overseas military personnel. Additionally, some states and localities extended the deadline for receiving absentee ballots and kept counting past the usual cut-off date. But other states and municipalities refused to follow those reforms, guaranteeing that absentee ballots from many members of the armed forces would go uncounted.

In Illinois, for example, the head of state elections board said that military absentee ballots would not be counted--even if the Illinois violated federal law by sending them out late. Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock called the move "outrageous," noting that his state did manage to hand-deliver ballots to prisoners in the Cook County Jail.

Technology offers the logical solution. For several years, military voting rights advocates (along with some Republican members of Congress) have been pushing for on-line voting for the armed forces community. But DoD efforts to create such a system were cancelled seven years ago, due to "security" concerns. It is unclear if the Pentagon will revive the proposal, now that Republicans control the House of Representatives.

If the Pentagon tries to resurrect on-line voting, they won't get much support from Democrats. Many Congressmen and Senators from that party believe that an on-line voting system is still unworkable. During Tuesday's hearing, California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren said internet voting technology still isn't secure enough, citing last year's successful hacker attack on Washington, D.C.'s on-line voting system.

But Ms. Lofgren conveniently ignores successful internet voting efforts. Arizona began using such a system in 2008, allowing military personnel (and other residents living overseas) to vote on-line. The state uses 128-bit encryption in its web-based voting system, the same level of security used for on-line credit card transactions. Feedback has been positive; there are no reports of serious security breaches and more states--notably West Virginia--are launching their own internet voting systems.

While many in Congress would like to ignore the military voting issue, they may be unable to "kick the can" down the road again. Members of the armed forces are incensed over being disenfranchised--and with elected officials making critical decisions that affect their future--soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine and "Coasties" want to have their say. Another round of mass disenfranchisement may well produce a spate of lawsuits from military personnel whose ballots were rejected. When that happens, we wonder, will the Obama Justice Department side with the troops, or those election officials at the state capitals--the same ones who requested (and sometimes received) waivers from military voting laws last year.

Chairman Lundgren's hearings were an important first step. But much remains to be done in making sure that military personnel can cast their ballots from overseas locations--and those votes will actually count.

Monday, February 14, 2011

WMDs in America?

Call it the non-story of the week. It generated a fair amount of buzz in Southern California, but if you live outside the region, you probably didn't hear a word about it, unless you frequent Big Journalism and other media watchdog sites.

Here's what happened: last week, KGTV, the ABC affiliate in San Diego, aired a story on port security. It's a timely topic; not only is the city home to the nation's second-largest naval base, it's also a major hub for shipping activity. Dozens of giant container ships dock at San Diego's port facilities each month, and there are legitimate fears about terrorists using one of those vessels to smuggle WMD into the country.

KGTV's investigation, by reporter Mitch Blacher, included an interview with Al Hallor, the assistant port director and a senior official with Customs and Border Protection. When Blacher asked about efforts to detect WMD in the San Diego area, he received a rather surprising response. From the KGTV website:

"So, specifically, you're looking for the dirty bomb? You're looking for the nuclear device?" asked Blacher.

"Correct. Weapons of mass effect," Hallor said.

"You ever found one?" asked Blacher.

"Not at this location," Hallor said.

"But they have found them?" asked Blacher.

"Yes," said Hallor.

"You never found one in San Diego though?" Blacher asked.

"I would say at the port of San Diego we have not," Hallor said.

"Have you found one in San Diego?" Blacher asked.

The interview was interrupted before Hallor was able to answer the question.

Bob McCarty of has the video, and it's definitely worth a look. A p.r. official from CBP is present during the interview, though off-camera. Watch Hallor's reaction when Blacher asks about the discovery of "Weapons of Mass Effect" at U.S. ports. Mr. Hallor clearly pauses--and looks towards the public affairs officer--before finally acknowledging the discovery. Then, when KGTV's Blacher tried to learn if such weapons have been found in San Diego, the p.r. rep brings the interview to a sudden end.

Customs and Border Protection later released a statement saying that Hallor "misspoke," though it took them three weeks to offer that explanation.

CBP has not specifically had any incidents with nuclear devices or nuclear materials at our ports of entry. CBP is an all-threats agency. The purpose of many security measures is to prevent threats from ever materializing by being prepared for them. And, we must be prepared to stop threats in whatever form they do materialize at the border, whether it’s an individual or cargo arriving by land, air, or sea. Regardless of what the contraband or threat is, we’re being smart, evaluating, and focusing in on anything or anyone that is potentially high-risk.

The agency has not said why Hallor not allowed to answer the question; why it terminated the interview, or why its clarification was so long in coming. But whatever the reason, the agency didn't do itself any favors, and the entire incident has only raised new questions.

First, let's take CBP at its word and assume that Mr. Hallor was wrong when he answered Blacher's question. How could a senior homeland security official--the assistant director of the Port of San Diego--get it so wrong? Clearly, weapons of mass effects covers a lot of territory, but you've either found them coming into the country--or you haven't. Based on his answer, Hallor apparently knew of a WME/WMD discovery and tried to affirm that--until the public affairs officer effectively silenced him.

On the other hand, if Mr. Hallor mis-characterized another incident as a WME/WMD find, that doesn't exactly inspire confidence, either. Someone in his position has at least a SECRET security clearance, meaning Hallor has access to a wide variety of intelligence information pertaining to homeland security threats. Additionally, we don't suppose the CBP official has a history of making things up, either. Obviously, something in Hallor's experience or knowledge base triggered the affirmative response to Blacher's question.

Finally, if Mr. Hallor was truly mistaken, why did it take CBP so long to issue their clarification?If there have been no WMD/WME discoveries, the agency should have issued a statement immediately, and not waited three weeks to respond. You'd also think CBP would have provided more details. For example, the thwarted Times Square car bomb plot was an attempted WME attack. Was that what Mr. Hallor was referring to? If so, the feds should have been more clear in explaining the official's remarks.

To be fair, CBP's delayed explanation isn't totally beyond disbelief. Had WMD/WME been found in a U.S. port, it's likely the discovery would have been leaked almost immediately--and not disclosed casually to a local TV reporter in San Diego. But that's about the only scenario that lends credence to CBP's version of events. And with that scenario, you must accept that one of the principal homeland security officers in San Diego County is clueless on one of the most important issues facing his organization. Otherwise, why would he make a statement with no basis in fact?

On the other hand, maybe Mr. Hallor was being a little too candid. That theory raises all sorts of questions that remain unanswered, such as what was found, where and how it was being shipped into America.

This much we know: Al Qaida has a long-standing interest in WMD. Their capabilities in that area have improved modestly in those areas in recent years, despite severe damage inflicted on their leadership and fund-raising operations--essential elements in any WMD/WME attacks. We also know there was a major WMD operation in the Atlanta area late last year, with the feds stopping all trucks on I-20 during rush hour, and running them through a radiation scanner. Sources told WSB-TV the activity was "real world" and not a drill, though various spokesmen later tried to "walk back" that remark. Sounds like the same p.r. tactic recently attempted in San Diego.

One more point. It's probably unrelated (at least, that's what government officials would have you believe), but this recent item also caught our eye: early last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to test Presidential Alerts in the near future.
As an agency official told Federal News Radio in Washington:

"The primary goal is to provide the President with a mechanism to communicate with the American public during times of national emergency," said Lisa Fowlkes (Deputy Chief of the FCC's Homeland Security Bureau). The change, she said, is that prior to last week's order there was no rule in place to call for or allow a test from top to bottom.

Fowlkes said, "There's never been a test from top to bottom where it's issued by FEMA and it goes straight down to all the different levels of EAS to the American public. So this is a way for us to glean, okay, if there were an actual emergency and the federal government needed to activate the Presidential EAS, making sure that it actually works the way it's designed to."

Now that there's a rule in place, the next challenges are going to be working with all the stakeholders on timing of the test and to reach out to the public so they understand it's a test and not a real emergency, Fowlkes said.

To someone who spent years in radio (before having the good sense to join the military) this announcement was stunning. Broadcasters have worked with the FCC for years on the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and its predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System or EBS. There was always some provision for the president (or the national command authority) to provide information through the system in the event of a cataclysmic event. But for more than 50 years, no one saw a need to test the presidential capabilities, despite nuclear dangers during the Cold War, and real-world events like 9-11.

And what sort of event might warrant activation of the Presidential EAS? How about a domestic terror attack, using weapons of mass destruction or a weapon of mass effect?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Failure of Analysis

Call us underwhelmed--and more than a little concerned.

In the span of a few hours Thursday, two of the nation's highest-ranking intelligence officials got it badly wrong on what was expected to happen in Egypt--and the nature of the group that might take power when Hosni Mubarak leaves. Their comments represented major failures in both intelligence gathering and analysis, at the very time we need the highest-quality reporting from the Middle East.

CIA Director Leon Panetta committed the first flub. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee this morning, Mr. Panetta told lawmakers "there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak will step down this evening." Panetta's remarks came hours before a major speech by the Egyptian leader.

And, there was every reason to believe that Panetta's forecast would prove accurate. The United States maintains close ties with both the Egyptian military and its intelligence services. In fact, the nation's recently-appointed vice-president, Omar Sulieman, has been described as "the CIA's man in Cairo," a reference to his lengthy tenure as head of Egyptian intelligence and close ties to his American counterparts.

In other words, Egypt is not a country where the U.S. intelligence community is without sources. And based on Panetta's statements, the majority of those sources (and other forms of intelligence reporting) suggested that Mubarak was preparing to relinquish his 30-year hold on power.

Of course we know what happened. The Egyptian President gave his speech Friday night, but vowed to hang tough, striking a provocative, even defiant note. Clearly, it wasn't the resignation speech the CIA was expecting.

And if that weren't bad enough, our Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had his own howler on the same day. In his own testimony before Congress, General Clapper said the Muslim Brotherhood "is largely secular;" has "eschewed violence," and is "pursuing social ends."

By days end, Mr. Clapper was walking back those remarks. True, the Brotherhood operates hospitals and social programs in Egypt, but there is ample evidence that many of its factions are active participants in terrorism and still want to wipe Israel off the map. Needless to say, Clapper's comments raised a lot of eyebrows in Washington--and beyond.

But this goes beyond two senior spooks making laughably bad calls on a critical subject. Most individuals in the positions held by Mr. Panetta and Mr. Clapper are very guarded in their comments, knowing the potential impact of their words. And, in virtually all cases, there public remarks reflects the intelligence community's assessment of a particular situation.

So, in that sense, the observations of the CIA Director and the DNI (likely) reflected the consensus of our intelligence community. That means that a lot of senior analysts got together and decided that Mubarak would resign (based on our intelligence), and the jihadist group that wants to replace him (the Brotherhood) is really a bunch of Jeffersonian Democrats in disguise.

We should hope that Congressional intelligence committees recall both men as soon as possible, for an extended period of closed-door testimony. The committees need to find out how the CIA chief and his boss arrived at such laughably-bad assessments--and who led the efforts that produced those faulty forecasts.

Not that it really matters. As the AP reported earlier this week, accountability in the intel community remains virtually non-existent. Officers guilty of job failure or misconduct have routinely escaped punishment in the CIA, and it's very unlikely the analysts who "prepped" Panetta and Clapper will be punished, either. We should note that the CIA employees referenced in the AP article were accused of mistreating terror suspects, not providing shoddy analysis. But as this episode reminds us, the intelligence community is consistent in one regard: you can screw up, escape sanctions and still retire with a very nice pension.
ADDENDUM: In the interest of fairness and accuracy, we do affirm that Mr. Mubarak finally stepped down Friday night (Cairo time), so Panetta's forecast was off by only 24 hours--or so it would seem. But if there was some uncertainty about the timing, we'd expect Panetta to say the Egyptian leader was expected to depart in the coming days. We're also told that the CIA Director's remarks were based largely on television news reports, which does little to create confidence in Mr. Panetta or his analysts.

Obviously, media reporting can be very useful in a fast-moving crisis. Walk into any intelligence indications and warning (I&W) center and you'll see a bank of TV monitors tuned to the cable news channels. But for something as important as the departure of a key foreign leader, intelligence officials should compare their own reporting with what the media outlets are saying. In the case of Mubarak's resignation, it would be interesting to know how our intel agencies got it wrong. Perhaps Mubarak had a last-minute change-of-heart Thursday evening, and tried to hang on a little longer. But if that was the case, then the same sources that predicted his resignation on Thursday should have reported the change of plans, telling their American contacts that Mr. Mubarak was planning to tough it out.

As for Mr. Clapper and his comments on the Muslim Brotherhood, we recommend Andrew McCarthy's post at There's Willful Blindess and Then There's Stupidity." That pretty well echoes our thoughts on Clapper and his amazing comments. But remember: the former Air Force General isn't paid to study terror groups in depth; his assignment is to run the nation's intel bureaucracy. His remarks on the Muslim Brotherhood reflect the "consensus" of the intelligence community, i.e., all those well-educated analysts whose sole job is to attain expertise on the Brotherhood, Al Qaida, or other other Muslim terror groups.

If the "smart guys" in the spook world believe the Muslim Brotherhood is morphing into a mainstream political group, we are in trouble. Very serious trouble.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

One Term Jim, Redux

At the risk of patting ourselves on the back, some words of wisdom from the "Grooveyard of Forgotten Hits" (as El Rushbo might say), dated November 10, 2006:

Flag the post...let the record show that we are the first to to advocate the electoral defeat Democratic Senator-elect Jim Webb in 2012. We've already read puff-pieces in the MSM and the blogosphere suggesting that Mr. Webb "won't be so bad," noting his support for gun rights and past military experience, both as a Marine officer in Vietnam, and later, as Navy Secretary in the Reagan Administration.

But if you really want to know where Jim Webb stands on the critical issues of the day, look no further than yesterday's "victory" speech in Arlington. Speaking shortly after incumbent George Allen graciously conceded--without requesting a recount--Webb promised to restore "responsibility" to U.S. foreign policy and advocated a "new approach" in Iraq that will lead to a diplomatic solution.

And, if that weren't enough, the millionaire lawyer and novelist took another page out of the DNC talking points, pledging to "work hard on issues of economic fairness in a country that has been too divided by class." He even announced plans to have lunch with George Allen, and discuss how they can help stop the "politics of divisiveness, character assassination and distraction."


The MSM is already fawning over Jim Webb as one of the leading lights of the "new" Senate, but I'll crawl out on the limb and predict that he'll be a disappointment in that chamber, if not a disaster. Fact is, the Marine hero from Vietnam (where he earned the Navy Cross) long ago morphed into a Washington elitist, with little appreciation for the lives of ordinary Americans.... One more thought: I caught a bit of Pat Buchanan on Hardball last night, although watching anything with Chris Matthews strains my patience. While praising Webb's abilities, Buchanan described him as a "curmudgeon" (Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle) and someone who can be difficult to get along with. That ought to play well in the Senate, where deal-making and back-scratching are the name of the game.

Sadly, we won't have Senator Webb to kick around at the ballot box next year. Today, Mr. Webb announced that he won't seek a second term in 2012, avoiding a re-match with George Allen, who is already campaigning to retake the Senate seat. Unless another high-profile Democrat (say, former Governor Tim Kaine) decides to enter the race, Mr. Allen will likely coast back into office.

As for Senator Webb, there was plenty of speculation as to why he decided not to seek re-election. Many pundits blamed the "toxic" atmosphere of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, where real work usually takes a back seat to filibustering and deal-making. On Fox News, Charles Krauthamer bemoaned Webb's departure, suggesting if "men like him" can't take the grind, then there's little hope for improvement in the Senate.

But Mr. Webb was always a poor fit for the post, despite his stellar resume (Vietnam War Hero; best-selling novelist, Navy Secretary during the Reagan Administration). For starters, Webb has a prickly personality, as evidenced by post-election dust-up with then-President George Bush. When Mr. Bush asked about Webb's son--a Marine then serving in Iraq--Webb launched into a political tirade, telling the President he wanted the troops withdrawn. President Bush rightly cut him off: "I didn't ask you that," he said, I asked how your son's doing."

Webb claimed he was so incensed by Bush's behavior that he wanted to "slug" the President, a statement was promptly leaked to the press. Needless to say, that didn't win him any friends at the White House. Then, he angered staffers on the Hill by letting an aide take the rap for trying to smuggle a gun into a Senate office building. Webb's assistant was facing potentially serious criminal charges until it was revealed the gun belonged to the Senator.

Still, Mr. Webb's real miscues occurred in the policy arena. His "solution" for Iraq was some sort of negotiated deal that would have left the country in the hands of terrorists and Islamic radicals. He voted for Obamacare, despite the fact that most Virginians were dead-set against the measure.

And, despite his impressive defense credentials, Mr. Webb proved unable to halt the closing of Joint Force Command in Norfolk, or the transfer of Navy carrier from Virginia to Jacksonville. Collectively, those moves will result in the loss of at least 8,000 military and civilian jobs. He did lead a successful effort to pass the new Post 9-11 GI Bill, increasing education benefits for military personnel and veterans. That was the singular "accomplishment" of a mediocre legislative record.

To his credit, though, Jim Webb can read the political tea leaves. After "going purple" in 2006 and 2008, Virginia turned a bright red in 2010, with Republicans sweeping the top statewide offices and making big gains in the state legislature. Democratic prospects haven't exactly improved since the November election and Webb was the GOP's #1 Virginia target next year. Rather than lose to the man he defeated five years ago, Jim Webb has decided to call it a political day.

But don't feel sorry for him. Mr. Webb can resume his lucrative writing career, and top-drawer D.C. law firms and lobbying groups will jockey for his services. Meanwhile, 2012 is already shaping up as a bad year for Webb's party. With his departure, Mr. Webb (a former Republican) has become the second incumbent Democrat to announce his retirement. And the election is still 19 months away.

One Click Away

A Mark 39 hydrogen bomb rests beneath a tree in Faro, North Carolina after a 1961 B-52 crash. The other nuclear device aboard the aircraft slammed into the ground at more than 700 mph and broke apart. Some sources say the second weapon came dangerously close to detonating. Three of the bomber's eight crew members died in the crash (USAF photo via the Goldsboro, NC News-Argus. )

There was an unusual reunion Tuesday, at a firehouse in Faro, North Carolina.

The event brought together survivors of an almost-forgotten event in American military history. Fifty years and two weeks ago, a B-52 bomber was attempting an emergency landing at nearby Seymour Johnson AFB in nearby Goldsboro, after developing a serious fuel leak.

The giant bomber never made it.

Descending through 10,000 feet, the B-52 (with fuel streaming from its left wing) went out of control. The aircraft commander, Major W.S. Tullock, ordered his crew to eject. Five members of the augmented, eight-man crew survived. One of them, pilot Adam Mattocks, was unable to eject, but somehow lived, according to news reports at the time.

Local residents were terrified by the fiery crash, which lit up the night sky. One man said his mother fell to her knees in prayer after hearing the thunderous impact of the B-52 hitting the ground.

What the locals didn't know was the bomber's mission and payload. At the time it went down, the B-52 had been flying an airborne alert sortie, a key component of the nation's nuclear deterrent posture at the height of the Cold War.

On board the B-52 were two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs. Upon receipt of the necessary authorization orders from the national command authority, Major Bullock and his men--along with other SAC bomber crews--were prepared to fly to the Soviet Union and unleash nuclear war.

But as the Buff began to disintegrate over the North Carolina countryside, the two H-bombs fell from the aircraft. The parachute on one of the weapons deployed properly, and it glided to a (seemingly) soft landing beneath a tree.

However, the other bomb's chute malfunctioned. It plowed into the earth at a speed of more than 700 miles per hour. But that wasn't the worst of it, as the Goldsboro News-Argus explains:

[As] the two weapons separated from the aircraft as it began to break apart -- five of the six arming devices on one of the bombs became activated, causing them to carry out many of the steps needed to arm themselves. A military analyst determined that the pilot's safe/arm switch was the only one of the six arming devices on the bombs that prevented detonation.

Within an hour of the crash, helicopters were flying over the site and Air Force officials were urging those in the area -- and at the scene -- to evacuate.


So while those living around the site were being urged to evacuate, military officials launched an effort to recover the buried bomb.

[Local resident Rudolph] Tyndall remembers the dig.

"In the process of digging, they came in and put up big lights. CP&L put them all the way around the hole," he said. "(The Air Force) worked all night. A lot of people don't know this because they couldn't get in."

The Air Force eventually recovered what was left of the weapon. But some living in the area remain unconvinced, noting that water from a nearby swamp began filling the crater created by the impact, and the 16 heavy-duty pumps brought in by recovery teams couldn't keep up with the volume.

There were heroes on that January night. A young Air Force EOD officer named Jack ReVelle led efforts to render the weapons safe, ensuring there would not be an accidental detonation. ReVelle, now a noted management consultant, was among those scheduled to attend Tuesday's reunion.

How close did we come to a nuclear disaster? One analyst later claimed that the weapon that landed in the tree was only "one click away from detonation." However, that statement is in dispute since it came from Daniel Ellsberg, known as the source for the "Pentagon Papers." Ellsberg says his information was based on a classified DoD report.

But that observation makes sense. Gravity weapons like the Mark 39 were designed to descend slowly by parachute, while the arming system prepared the bomb for detonation. Hanging beneath that tree, the weapon was one step away from vaporizing much of the surrounding area. The bomb that plummeted to earth posed less of a risk, given its rapid fall.

The crash near Faro wasn't the only one during the history of SAC's airborne alert program, and oddly enough, another serious mishap also had a connection to Seymour Johnson AFB, home of SAC's 68th Bomb Wing. In January 1966, one of the unit's B-52s collided with a KC-135 tanker during an aerial refueling along the Spanish coast. One of the nuclear weapons on the aircraft fell into the sea; military divers later recovered it from a depth of more than 2,000 feet, 80 days after the crash.

The airborne alert program ended a little more than two years later after another B-52--this one from Plattsburgh AFB, NY--crashed at Thule, Greenland, while attempting an emergency landing. Personnel from the U.S. and Denmark worked for the next nine months to clean up contaminated snow and ice.

Five decades later, the airborne alert missions remain controversial, and not just because of the accidents. Anti-nuclear activists claim the flights were unnecessarily provocative.

But that view is misguided. It was the height of the Cold War; warning systems for detecting ballistic missile attacks were relatively crude. Had the Soviets launched a "bolt from the blue," much of our bomber force might be caught on the ground, and our ICBM force was still in its infancy. The airborne alert missions had a clear deterrent value, showing Moscow that we could still deliver a devastating counter-strike, even in the event of a surprise attack.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Olby's New Gig?

Deposed MSNBC host Keith Olbermann may be back on the air before you know it.

Bill Carter and Brian Stelter, who write The New York Times "Media Decoder" blog, reported earlier today that Olby is going to Current TV, Al Gore's struggling cable operation.

Neither Mr. Olbermann, his representatives, or executives from Current TV would comment on the move, but they did not deny that the channel, which counts former Vice President Al Gore as one of its founders, will become at least one partner in Mr. Olbermann’s future media plans.

One of the people with knowledge of the plans said Mr. Olbermann would have an equity stake in Current TV. The people insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized by their employers to comment in advance of the official announcement.

On Monday a public relations agency hired by Mr. Olbermann scheduled a Tuesday morning conference call for an announcement about his next job. “He and his new partners will make an exciting announcement regarding the next chapter in his remarkable career,” the agency wrote in an e-mail.

Despite the attempted hype, Olbermman's new job is a definite step down, even from the low-rent neighborhood of MSNBC. While Current claims to be in 70 million homes, you'd be hard-pressed to find it on your local cable system (look somewhere above channel 500).

Current's audience is equally-hard-to-find. The cable network has been under pressure to being using Nielsen ratings system and disclose the number of viewers who actually tune in. Wags suggest that if the Gore Channel followed that advice, they would be in real trouble, because advertisers generally don't buy spots on networks with an audience "in the dozens."

Current has also had its share of financial woes; while the network claims it made money in 2010, but Gore and his principal investor, Joel Hyatt, have been shopping the channel for the past two years. The former Vice President tried to sell it to Google (and any other company with a media connection), but all took a pass--they found the asking price ($400-500 million) was just a bit absurd. Current was also forced to cancel plans for an IPO; they blamed market conditions but it's also clear that Wall Street wasn't exactly lining up to buy stock in a failing cable channel.

Enter Olbermann. He will certainly give Current a "marqee" name and bring a few more eyeballs to the network. In exchange, he will be the network's highest-paid host and receive an equity position in the operation. No word on how much Mr. Olbermann will invest in the network but he'll have to work very hard to get a return on his investment.

Still, there may be hope for Olby and his new partners, particularly in light of the AOL-Huffington Post deal. AOL, whose market capitalization has dropped eighty-fold in a little over a decade, is shelling out $300 million for Ms. Huffington's money-losing, leftist blog. If Current can hang in there a little while longer, they might find an investor (read: sucker) willing to buy the channel.

Don't hold your breath.

ADDENDUM: Now the "rest of the story," as Paul Harvey used to observe. One reason Olbermann is going with Current is because he's literally run out of potential employers among the major broadcasters. By our count, Olby has been fired by most of them over the past 30 years. He was canned by CBS while working as a sportscaster for their Los Angeles TV station back in the 1980s; Olbermann was also deposed by ABC/ESPN (he's the only former SportsCenter anchor who has never been invited back to Bristol for network reunions); he was dumped by NBC from both its election coverage and political coverage, and was fired twice by MSNBC--no mean feat.

We've also heard that Olby was canned from another LA gig (at KTLA) and WCVB-TV in Boston. Using an analogy from his favorite sport (baseball), Olbermann is pretty much batting 1.000 when it comes to getting fired. We'll give him two years at Current before the network runs out of money, or Keith wears out his welcome.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Remembering Reagan at 100

The centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth has unleashed a veritable flood of new books, articles and documentaries on the 40th President and his place in history. Some of them appear to be fascinating; others are little more than hit pieces disguised as "objective" journalism.

Today's Washington Post has a review of three new films on President Reagan, all airing this week. Based on the paper's favorable comments, I'd say HBO's "Reagan" is worth skipping. Post critic Hank Stuever describes it as "artfully nuanced and intellectually curious," which means it presents Mr. Reagan in less-than-reverent fashion. At one point in the documentary, former CBS anchor Dan Rather announces that Americans still view Reagan "through the prism of their prejudices, for and against." As if we'd expect anything less from ol' "Documents Dan."

And, if that's not enough, film maker Eugene Jarecki secured an extended interview with Reagan's youngest son, Ron, with predictable results. Asked his father's complexities, Ron Reagan describes his father as someone who relate to human suffering on a personal level, but rarely in the abstract. That allows Jarecki to resurrect one of the time-tested criticisms of President Reagan, and his refusal to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, even as it claimed some of his friends from the entertainment industry.

In fact, as Reagan biographer Lou Cannon has reported, Mr. Reagan hardly ignored the AIDS epidemic. He began allocating government money to battle the disease in 1983, and doubled funding during each remaining year of his two terms in office. In his last budget (FY'89), President Reagan requested $2.2 billion for AIDS research and related programs. True, Mr. Reagan never spoke publicly on the issue until 1987, but claims he ignored AIDS are demonstrably false. We wonder how much of that "record" made the final cut in "Reagan."

A more honest film is the History Channel's "Reagan," a two-hour documentary that premiers on Wednesday evening. The production begins with the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981 and traces his life and career as he is transported to George Washington University for surgery that saved his life. The History Channel production is anything but hagiography, but unfortunately it lacks the 80s-era soundtrack that, according to Stuever, evokes the "80s that he remembers...based on mutual loathing of a president who seemed painfully detached."

If that sort of revisionist dreck is your cup of tea (or you're a card-carrying Democrat), the Jarecki film is right up your alley; as for us, we'll take a pass. Memo to the cable company: stuff like this is one reason we don't want HBO, period. Please stop calling an offering all those wonderful deals so we can "watch" character assassinations like "Reagan."

We'll take a pass on the week's third Reagan documentary (from PBS's NewsHour), but for different reasons. The PBS production concentrates on the "expanded" role of Nancy Reagan within her husband's White House. In 2011, it's hardly a surprise that any first lady (past or present) has a major say in an administration.

So, instead of wasting time on the HBO film or the PBS documentary, fire up the laptop and read (or re-read) some outstanding articles on President Reagan and his legacy at National Review on-line. In particular, we recommend Steve Hayward's "Reagan Reclaimed," an insightful piece on how liberals are blurring his record, and attempting to claim a part of Reagan's mantle, and Deroy Murdock's " "Reagan Revealed," detailing how the former president's files and letters continue to surprise--even among those who served under him.

The first example cited by Murdock is well-known. A few years ago, scholars Martin and Annelise Anderson (who served in the Reagan White House) published Reagan: In His Own Hand, a collection of radio commentaries delivered by the former California governor in the late 1970s, before his successful campaign for the presidency.

A personal note: during that period I was a high school student, bitten by the broadcasting bug. I worked at a small station in Missouri that aired the Reagan commentaries twice a day. We weren't a Paul Harvey affiliate, so Reagan was a sort of "second choice" for the station's general manager, a life-long Democrat who understood the preferences of his conservative listeners.

I was filling in on the morning show when the GM walked into the control room during a Reagan commentary. I don't remember the topic, but like all of his commentaries, it was well-reasoned and delivered as only Mr. Reagan could. "He reads a script well," the manager intoned, before launching into a little sermon about Reagan's supposed lack of intellect. "For God's sake, he starred in "Bedtime for Bonzo," my boss laughed. Being a young skull full of liberal mush (at that point) I went along with the little dig.

Boy, were we ever wrong. As the Andersons later discovered, Reagan wrote most of the commentaries himself, in longhand, on yellow legal pads. All of the radio scripts reveal a man of strong insights and positions based on years of reading and research. Yes. Mr. Reagan was reading a script, but he wrote the script and delivered it in a manner that was genuinely compelling.

But perhaps the most important aspect of those radio scripts is how Reagan handled them once the taping sessions were complete. They were tossed into a box and forgotten. Today, a politician would collect them into a book and rush it into print before the next campaign, as evidence of their intellectual heft. Mr. Reagan didn't lose his curiosity after a commentary aired, but he saw no reason to trumpet those scripts to disprove claims he was a lightweight or dimwit.

The reason speaks to his character and greatness. Despite his considerable media skills (and those of his advisers) Reagan saw no need to respond to the chattering classes. Mr. Reagan knew who he was and was quite comfortable in his own skin. His positions were based on deep convictions, reflecting years of serious study and reflection. They were bedrock principles that never wavered and guided his administration through countless challenges.

That's one reason that Reagan's presidential reputation has risen so sharply in the decades since he left office, and will continue to ascend for years to come. Too bad the documentary producers can't capture the real measure of an extraordinary man.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

She Knew What She Was Doing

It's being dismissed as a faux pas, or maybe she was just a little tipsy. We refer to White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and her insulting request to a senior military officer the other night, at an exclusive dinner hosted by the Alfalfa Club.

From the Daily Caller, citing a source who saw it happen:

According to our tipster, Jarrett was seated at the head table along with several other big-name politicians and a handful of high-ranking military officials. As an officer sporting several stars walked past Jarrett, she signaled for his attention and said, “I’d like another glass of wine.”

White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, who was seated next to Jarret, began “cracking up nervously,” our tipster said, but no one pointed out to Jarrett that the man sporting a chestful of medals was not her waiter.

“The guy dutifully went up and got her a glass of wine, and then came back and gave it to her and took a seat at the table,” our tipster said. “Everyone is in tuxedos and gowns at this thing, but the military people are in full dress uniform.”

While most of the MSM has ignored this story--or they've tried to explain it away for Ms. Jarrett--the truth is painfully clear. Fact is, Ms. Jarrett is anything but stupid. And, assuming she wasn't intoxicated, she certainly knew the uniformed officer wasn't her waiter. Indeed, I haven't seen a waiter's outfit that even remotely resembles the dress uniform of a military officer. But she still asked a flag officer to top off her drink.

No, it wasn't a social gaffe, or the product of too much wine. Rather, it was a display of utter contempt towards the U.S. military, by one of the administration's highest-ranking officials. Ms. Jarrett pulled her little stunt because she knew she could get by with it. Having the president's ear has certain advantages.

And, she probably knew the military folks in attendance wouldn't challenge her. From Jarrett's perspective a two or three-star general or admiral is little more than an office flunky, and she probably has an equally low opinion of their superiors. Readers will note their hasn't been a peeo from the SecDef or the JCS Chairman. They're too busy trying to minimize defense cuts and don't want to get on Ms. Jarrett's bad side. If it means a career officer gets humiliated at a tony dinner, that's the price they're willing to pay.

And sadly, the officer went along with Jarrett's request, so (apparently) senior officers have been told to honor her wishes. Too bad the officer didn't remind the White House adviser that their job description doesn't include fetching drinks. And too bad the military brass (hellooo, Admiral Mullen) didn't follow up with a formal complaint to the White House.

Unfortunately, we've been down this road before. White House staffers insulted General Barry McCaffrey during the early days of the Clinton Administration, and Hillary herself pressed uniformed military aides into service as waiters at a White House function. Now Ms. Jarrett (who is cut from the same ideological cloth) expects senior officers to serve as wine stewards--and her request was honored.

Military officers serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief. But nothing says they must honor unreasonable and insulting requests from one of his cronies. In another era, the White House adviser might have received a different response. Where's Barney Greenwald when you need him?