Friday, August 31, 2012

Selective Prosecution?

Like many Americans, I'll be watching 60 Minutes next Sunday night. Not that I'm a regular viewer of the program; from my perspective, the MSM is like bad medicine, best taken in small doses, and only when necessary. So why is CBS appointment television on 9 September? Because the network's venerable news magazine will have the first broadcast interview with Mark Owen, the Navy SEAL who participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and has written about the mission.

While other media outlets have published Owen's real name, CBS refers to him by his pen name. And it's the right call, in my opinion. While Owen retired from the Navy after last year's raid, he remains in potential danger. Various jihadist web sites have called for his death, in retribution for the killing of bin Laden.

But Mr. Owen may have more pressing problems than Muslim fanatics. He's facing potential legal action from the U.S. government because his memoir, No Easy Day, was not approved and vetted by the Pentagon in advance. On Thursday, the Pentagon's top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, sent a letter to Mr. Owen, announcing that the former SEAL was in "material breach" of non-disclosure agreements he signed back in 2007. Owen reportedly retired from the Navy in May of this year, near the one-year anniversary of the bin Laden mission.

From a legal standpoint, it's hard to dispute Johnson's decision. The non-disclosure agreements are standard for anyone with a security clearance; in exchange for access to sensitive information, the holder agrees not to divulge that material--even after that individual leaves government service. If you want to write a book about your experiences, the prospective author obtains permission from the feds, then submits the manuscript for review before it is published.

Mr. Owen is a brave man and a patriot, but he clearly broke the rules. Several retired SEALs have written books about their careers, and to my knowledge, all followed the prescribed protocol. Had Mr. Owen followed the same procedures, there's a chance the Pentagon might have signed off on the book, after the required review and sanitization of sensitive material.

So, why didn't the SEAL-turned-author follow the protocol? First, I'm guessing he saw his chances for approval as slim-to-none, and with the first "insider" account of the bin Laden raid, he had an opportunity to set the record straight and make a pile of money in the process. And, if he didn't go through the normal review process, the government would be unable to stop the book.

Sure, he still faces legal action from the feds, but with the book expected to become an instant best-seller, he will be in a better position to battle the government and their legions of lawyers. Heck, I'm not even convinced the Pentagon can force Owen to forgo royalties from the book (as some have claimed). His publisher (Penguin) is part of a British conglomerate; if Mr. Owen and his literary agent are as sharp as I think they are, they're probably being paid through one of the corporation's non-U.S. subsidiaries, and the royalty money will sit in an overseas bank account, untouched by Uncle Sam.

But, judging from brief excerpts of the interview that have aired so far, it's clear that Mr. Owen i is seeking more than financial gain with the publication of his book. As the former SEAL told CBS anchor Scott Pelley, he wants to set the story straight, and that puts him at odds with the Pentagon and the Obama Administration.

Consider his account of how bin Laden actually died. When they entered bin Laden's home in Pakistan, Owen was #2 in the "stack," the line of SEALs charged with entering the building and finding bin Laden. So, Mr. Owen was--literally and figuratively--at the tip of the spear, with a front row view of what actually transpired. According to Owen, the SEALs took fire from the moment they left their helicopters--a far cry from initial reports which suggested virtually no resistance from inside the compound.

After climbing to the third floor of the residence, Owen says, they saw a man stick his head out of a door that led to one of the rooms. The point man opened fire, striking bin Laden in the head. The Al Qaida leader staggered back into the room and slumped to the floor, the SEALs in pursuit. Shoving two women aside, the special forces operators stood over bin Laden; his wounds were clearly fatal, but at that moment, he was very much alive. Without hesitation, two of the SEALs finished the job, pumping several shots into bin Laden. Owen photographed the body of the dead terrorist, images that provided preliminary verification that bin Laden was indeed, dead.

Compare that to the more "antiseptic" version that made the rounds in May of 2010. According to those accounts (based largely on leaks from senior government officials), bin Laden retreated into his room before the SEALs opened fire. Inside, they confronted the terror leader and the lead operator dispatched him with a "double tap," one shot to the heart, one to the head. There was no mention of bin Laden being shot as he lay on the floor, or the fact that he was hit multiple times, with the final rounds clearly aimed at killing him.

So why the difference? Well, Owen's account doesn't exactly square with the precision strike that was widely touted in the days after the raid. And the image of "execution" shots doesn't exactly help President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world, at least from the administration's perspective. Never mind that OBL was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans--and his "popularity" with Muslims had sunk to historic lows by the time the SEALs caught up with him. The actual events that unfolded that night clearly didn't match the White House's desired "narrative," so they offered up an altered version.

That clearly bothered Mr. Owen, who decided to buck the Pentagon by offering his own, eyewitness version of the raid. And while the military pursues legal action against the former SEAL, we're reminded of another, on-going legal action against "leakers" in the U.S. government. We refer to the probe being conducted by two U.S. attorneys who are attempting to determine who disclosed extraordinarily sensitive information about such projects as our cyber campaign against Iran's nuclear program, and a Saudi-run double agent operation that foiled an Al Qaida plot to bomb an airliner.

Those disclosures represent a serious breach of national security, yet it took bi-partisan pressure from Capitol Hill to get Attorney General Eric Holder to launch an investigation. More than a month later, there has been no word of how the probe is going and who the leakers might be.

To be fair, investigations of this type should never be conducted in public, and we may yet see someone held accountable. But I'm not optimistic; over a 10-year span from the mid-1990s until 2005, the FBI conducted over 500 inquiries into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Despite all that effort, there were no indictments and no prosecutions.

And more recently, there have been only two senior government officials who have been sanctioned for disclosing or mishandling classified material. Lewis "Scooter," Libby a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted for lying to government investigators about his role in the Valerie Plame affair, and Sandy Berger, former national security adviser for Bill Clinton, received a slap on the wrist for illegally removing secret documents from the national archives.

Against that backdrop, it's a pretty safe bet that whoever might be implicated in the recent breaches will get off scot-free, or receive some sort of administrative punishment at best. Meanwhile, Mark Owen may face the full wrath of the federal government for his disclosures. It's the same sort of bureaucratic and political hypocrisy that official Washington does so well.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Intel Bug-Out

Members of the 11th Intelligence Squadron depart Hurlburt Field, Florida, as part of the hurricane evacuation from that base (U.S. Air Force photo via Air Force Times).

Like the proverbial blind hog, even Air Force Times--and the rest of the MSM--stumble across a real nugget every now and then. In this case, it came in the form of an Air Force photo that currently appears on the paper's website (posted above). It's an illustration of the capabilities that must be preserved for today's modern battlefield, even when a hurricane threatens.

According the caption, the photograph shows members of the 11th Intelligence Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, evacuating ahead of Tropical Storm Issac. Hurlburt, home of Air Force Special Operations Command, is located in the Florida panhandle, and is expected to feel the effects of Isaac as it churns ashore in the next 36 hours.

At this point, a lot of former blue-suiters are scratching their heads. Traditionally, most hurricane evacuations are limited to aircraft, their crews and a few maintenance personnel. Everyone else hunkers down at home station and prepares for the worst.

So why are dozens of spooks being flown out of Hurlburt before the storm? The answer lies in the mission and capabilities of the 11th IS. From another AFT article, this one published in 2008:

Since the 11th stood up in 2006, it has grown from just a few to a force of 240 airmen and contracted imagery analysts. Officials see it growing to 500 in the next couple of years, [ a former commander ]said.

Stood up primarily to analyze intelligence collected by MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers associated with Special Forces missions, the 11th analyzes about half of all the full-motion video collected in Iraq and Afghanistan, [the official] said.

The 11th also operates a dedicated fusion cell which melds FMV with other intel information, giving commanders a more complete look at the battlefield. And with the unit responsible for much of the FMV support in the U.S. military, it can't afford to have its most valuable asset--those highly-trained analysts--sitting at a base that may be without power (or running on generator back-up) for days, or even weeks after the storm, with limited communications capabilities. And with today's "wired" intel networks, the analysts leaving Hurlburt can recreate their capabilities from locations ranging from St. Louis to Fort Bragg, preserving a vital analytic mission.

It's just one more reminder of the tremendous intel "reach-back" system that is essential for modern combat operations. Who would have ever thought that an intel unit would have the same evacuation priority as the F-22s at Tyndall, or other aircraft based along the northern Gulf? But there are very good reasons for pulling most of the 11th IS out of Hurlburt, and those reasons can be found with our combat units around the globe.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong, RIP

Neil Armstrong died today. The first man to walk on the moon was 82; he passed away at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, after suffering complications from recent heart surgery.

For those of a certain age, Armstrong's death conjured up images of a July night in 1969, when he descended the steps of the lunar lander, set foot on the surface of the moon, and uttered the epic words:

"That's one small step for giant leap for mankind."

In a sense, the accomplishments of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts (Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins) represented the apogee of American exceptionalism. While Collins waited in the command module, Aldrin and Armstrong descended to the lunar surface, explored its dusty terrain and returned, making good on President Kennedy's promise to reach the moon--and return--within a decade.

At the time, it seemed a near-impossible task, given the initial failures of our rockets and the early lead established by the Soviets. But we quickly regained the advantage and rode that momentum all the way to the moon, culminating in the mission of Apollo 11, led by a taciturn engineer from Ohio named Neil Armstrong.

In retrospect, Armstrong's journey to the moon was almost inevitable. He earned his pilot's license at 15, and was flying light aircraft before he could drive a car. Armstrong attended Purdue on a Navy scholarship that paid for his engineering studies, with a promise of pilot training when his number came up.

Called to active duty in 1949, Armstrong qualified as a naval aviator (two weeks after his 20th birthday) and logged scores of combat missions during the Korean War, flying F9F Panther jets. One one occasion, he was forced the eject from a damaged plane after it struck a wire during a low strafing pass. Armstrong managed the fly the jet back to friendly territory before he bailed out and was picked up by a classmate from pilot training. He became a member of the "Caterpillar Club" for a second time during his NASA career, when he had to eject from an aircraft that replicated the lunar module, just before it crashed.

After leaving the Navy, Armstrong joined NASA's forerunner (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and eventually became a civilian test pilot, working at Edwards AFB, California. Between 1955 and 1962, Armstrong flew chase planes on a number of test flights and flew a number of research missions himself, piloting rocket aircraft like the Bell X-1B and the North American X-15.

As recounted in James Hansen's 2006 biography, Armstrong flew the longest mission in the history of the X-15 program, completely by accident. After zooming to an altitude of 207,000 feet, Armstrong began his planned descent into Edwards.

Unfortunately, he kept the jet plane's nose up too long, so when he reached 140,000 feet, Armstrong and the X-15 literally bounced" off the atmosphere, sending them back towards the edge of space and miles off course. Armstrong recovered, but by that time, he was more than 40 miles south of Edwards, and running out of altitude--and time. He managed to land the X-15 safely, just clearing the Joshua trees at the end of the runway. Test pilots like Chuck Yeager (who never went to college) said that men like Armstrong--with a strong engineering background--were more "mechanical" flyers, who sometimes lacked the intuitive skills that could get them out of trouble in cockpit.

But if Armstrong wasn't a natural "stick-and-rudder" man like Yeager, he had other skills that were useful as a test pilot, and later, an astronaut. One of his NASA colleagues said Armstrong had a mind that "soaked up information like a sponge," a high compliment indeed, since all of the astronauts were exceptionally bright men. Incidentally, Armstrong's application for the astronaut corps (as the part of the second group that would be selected) arrived past the original deadline. But one of his friends who was involved in the selection process spotted Armstrong's package and slipped it into pile.

Within four years of becoming an astronaut, Armstrong was selected as command pilot for Gemini 8. But technical problems marred the mission; when their capsule began to spin out of control, Armstrong and Scott were forced to scrub a planned spacewalk; separate from an unmanned vehicle and cut their flight short. Armstrong returned to earth depressed, but the issues that affected Gemini 8 had no impact on his career; on December 23, 1968, as Apollo 8 orbited the moon, Armstrong was offered command of Apollo 11 and with it, the opportunity to become the first man on the moon. The flight went off without a hitch, and Armstrong became a global icon.

But fame and Armstrong were never an easy fit. After announcing his retirement from space flight, Armstrong was made a deputy administrator at NASA, but resigned that post after only a few months. He spent most of the 1970s as a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, but left that position after eight years, for reasons that were never publicly disclosed.

He also declined opportunities to capitalize on his fame. He gave few speeches (and even fewer interviews) and sat on a few corporate boards, foregoing the opportunity to cash in on his status as the first man on the moon. Armstrong stopped signing autographs in the early 1990s, after learning that some were reselling his signature for up to $2500 and sued his long-time barber after learning the man had sold clippings of his hair to a collector. The suit was later settled when the barber agreed to donate the money to charity.

Neil Armstrong was, by nature, a very private man, so his decision to avoid the spotlight was understandable. It was also a reflection of his Midwest upbringing and his training as a pilot and engineer. From Neil Armstrong's perspective, he was simply doing his job, and he did it brilliantly.

R.I.P., Mr. Armstrong.
ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from Arthur Herman in the New York Post.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Is Iran Building a Base for the S-300?

An SA-20 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) at a Moscow military parade in 2008. Iran's announcement that it is building a new $300 surface-to-air missile base has renewed speculation that Russia may soon deliver the SA-20 to Tehran, greatly improving its air defense capabilities (Wikipedia photo).

Amid reports that Israel is finalizing plans to strike Iran, Tehran has announced plans for a massive, new surface-to-air missile base. More from the Times of Israel:

The new base, located near the city of Abadeh, in southern Iran, will cost $300 million, be home to 6,000 personnel, and host seven battalions, Iran’s Fars news agency reported Tuesday.

The Deputy Commander of the Khatam ol-Anbia Air Defense Base, Mohammad Hosseini, said the base, the largest of its kind in Iran, will also include one of the most important military training centers in the country.

Last month, a senior Iranian air defense commander asserted that all Iranian air defense units and systems are fully prepared to repel possible enemy air raids.
The key word in that account is "training." Iran already has an established support infrastructure for its older SAM systems, including the U.S. made HAWK, purchased by the Shah in the early 1970s. As the HAWK nears the end of its service life, along with older Russian and Chinese systems such as the SA-5 and CSA-1, it would make little sense to build a huge support center for those aging systems. Iran also has the newer SA-15 mobile SAM, but (as with its older counterparts), the support network is already established.

On the other hand, it would make a great deal of sense to build a training base (and centralized support facility) for a new system like the Russian S-300. Tehran has long hoped to acquire the advanced SAM system, but Russian has never fulfilled a contract that was reportedly signed years ago, bowing to pressure from the U.S. and other western nations.

But announcement of the new SAM training center near Abadeh (in southern Iran) may be the best indicator yet that the S-300 will become operational with Tehran's air defense forces. Widely regarded as one of the world's most potent SAM systems, the S-300 (NATO designator: SA-20) is highly effective against both tactical aircraft, stand-off platforms and tactical ballistic missiles. With a maximum range of 90-120 miles (depending on variant), multiple battalions of S-300 could provide overlapping coverage of nuclear facilities and other high-value installations in Iran, while greatly complicating Israeli tactical planning.

Obviously, the new support base won't be ready for at least a couple of years, but completion of the facility is not a requirement for the S-300 to enter operational service. If Moscow is proceeding with deliveries of the system, it is likely that the initial cadre of crews and maintenance personnel was trained in Russia, and can provide an operating capability as soon as equipment arrives. There are unconfirmed reports that support components for the system were shipped to Iran last year, but neither Moscow, Tehran or western intelligence agencies have acknowledged the arrival of the S-300 in Iran.

If deliveries of the S-300 are in progress or imminent, it will add new urgency to Israel's strategic calculus. Even a rudimentary deployment of the system represents a game-changer for Iran, forcing Israel to modify its tactical planning. At a minimum, the S-300 would force the Israeli Air Force to allocate more assets for the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) mission. However, for every fighter assigned that mission (or for every anti-radiation missile loaded on an aircraft pylon), Israel will diminished capabilities to put bombs on the most important targets--Iran's nuclear facilities.

Imagery analysts in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere will be watching the work at Abadeh very carefully. If the new SAM base is being built for the S-300, it will be patterned on similar facilities in Russia, China and other countries that operate the system. Intel experts will now fairly soon if the new facility will support the S-300, further influencing military decisions on what must be done about Iran and its nuclear program.
ADDENDUM: Both the United States and Israel have extensive intelligence on the S-300 and its various models. But neutralizing the system (or avoiding it) is a definite challenge, one made more difficult by the long distance associated with an Israeli airstrike against Iran, and the limited assets that could be employed.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What Not to Wear

What's wrong with this picture?

It was taken at the recent change-of-command ceremony for the new Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh III. That's General Welsh on the right; Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy is in the center (holding the service guidon), and the Air Force Secretary, Michael Donley, is on the left.

If you said, "what's up with those uniforms," give yourself a pat on the back and move to the head of the class. But don't congratulate yourself too much. It doesn't take a career airmen to see that General Welsh and Chief Roy are wearing uniforms that most us had never viewed before.

So, what's up with the uniforms?

Turns out they are special ceremonial uniforms, reserved for the Chief of Staff and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. So, at the change-of-command ceremony on 10 August, there were three people attired in the new threads, Welsh, Roy and General Norton Schwartz, the outgoing Chief of Staff.

To say the least, the design is rather unique. It looks like a variation of the "Billy Mitchell" and "Hap Arnold"-style uniforms the service was experimenting with a few years ago, with elements of the Air Force Band uniform thrown in for good measure.

Reaction to the ceremonial uniform has been decidedly mixed. One wag suggested that the USAF had raided "John Phillip Sousa's closet" in its search for ceremonial garb. In fairness to the late composer, we should note that he built the Marine Corps Band into a world-renowned ensemble, playing his unforgettable marches. And years later, when he returned to service as a Navy band leader during World War I, he donated his year pay (minus one dollar) to a military charity. So, there was a definite plan behind Sousa's fondness for fine uniforms.

As for those dandies at the change-of-command ceremony, we find it rather odd that two four star generals (and the CMSAF) couldn't figure out the "optics" of their appearance. Lest we forget, the Air Force--along with the rest of DoD--is facing significant cutbacks in funding and personnel. Beyond that, there's a growing sex scandal at Lackland involving more than a dozen basic training instructors that threatens to tar the service. And did we mention that the USAF has other concerns, such as fixing the F-22, and getting the F-35 and the new tanker into operational service?

So, with all those issues on the table, why did the Air Force find it appropriate to outfit the current and outgoing Chiefs of Staff (along with the service's senior enlisted leader) in uniforms that were custom-made and can only be worn for a handful of events? So far, the USAF hasn't said how much was spent on the ceremonial uniforms, but we're guessing they didn't come cheap.

As for a rationale, the Air Force says the leaders of the other services have their own, special ceremonial uniforms, so apparently the boys and girls in blue need them as well, even if they're worn by only a tiny fraction of the force (0.00000607 percent, to be exact, or two out of 329,000 airmen). With that kind of thinking, the USAF might as well put in an order for an aircraft carrier, a tank and light armored vehicle. The other services have those items in their inventories, and we wouldn't want the Air Force to feel left out.

The new ceremonial garb is the latest in a long series of uniform disasters for the USAF. Many of us who served in the 1990s can remember some of the other sartorial mistakes, including the infamous "airline" uniform, which combined the "style" of U.S. Air with Navy-style rank on the sleeves. Legend has it that support for that uniform began to wane when a senior general was asked if he was piloting the 5 o'clock flight to Cleveland. It was the same era when the service also experimented with a white ceremonial uniform, complete with white shoes. As we recall, the entire rig cost more than $500, and there were cheers when it was phased out before most of us had to buy one.

More recently, the Air Force produced another clunker with its "airman combat uniform" or ACU. Most airmen hated the thing; the material felt like canvas against their skin and tended to rip in the crotch. Earlier this summer, the service unveiled a modified version of the ACU, made from material similar to that used in the Army's MultiCam uniform, which was previously issued to airmen stationed in Afghanistan. The USAF has also struggled to field the "right" boot for its ACU; a green suede model (which stained easily) has been replaced by a green leather boot (yes, we said green leather).

Airmen in combat zones deserve the best-quality gear, so it's appropriate that service devotes resources to fixing the ACU and fielding better footwear. But spending money on a ceremonial uniform for two members of the USAF is patently ridiculous, and it sends the wrong signal at the wrong time. Previous Chiefs of Staff and Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force have made do with the standard service dress uniform--the same one worn by all airmen. That "fashion statement" is much closer to the message of General Welsh's inaugural speech as CSAF, when he stressed the "well being" of the force, and the need for innovative thinking to solve problems faced by the service.

Unfortunately, Welsh's remarks were all-but-drowned-out by those "new uniforms." And nothing smacks of elitism, a military caste system, or misplaced priorities like silly-looking ceremonial garb reserved for a select few.

Mark Welsh is a good man, and the right choice to lead the Air Force at this critical juncture. But he got off on the wrong foot with his Sousa-style uniform and the image it conveyed. General Welsh should consider a NOTAM to the force, announcing that the ceremonial uniform is being shelved, once and for all, and follow it up with a public burning of the duds. At this point, as airmen shake their heads and wonder if the USAF can ever get its uniforms (or priorities) "right," a little disposal ceremony couldn't hurt.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Movin' Down the Dial?

Talk radio in New York City is apparently heading for a major shake-up.

It was announced Monday morning that Clear Channel Communications, which owns more than 800 radio stations around the world--including some of the highest-rated news/talk stations in the U.S.--is buying WOR-AM in New York from Buckley Broadcasting. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Clear Channel is no stranger to the New York City. It owns five FM stations, including soft-rock WLTW, which has been the most listened to station in the market for several years. Clear Channel's contemporary hits outlet WHTZ (Z-100) is #2 in the ratings, while its other FM stations also rank in the top 10, in terms of average ratings and cumulative audience. It's a very profitable cluster for the company, although Clear Channel reported a $300 million operating loss in 2011.

So, with five profitable FM stations in NYC, why would Clear Channel invest in a "heritage" AM station that barely ranks among the top 20 stations in the city? True, WOR once ruled the roost in the Big Apple, but that was decades ago, and there's no sign the station is about to return to its former glory days. In terms of listenership, WOR has roughly half the audience of WABC-AM, home to such hosts as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin.

But all of that may be about to change. With today's sale, there is plenty of speculation that Rush, Hannity, Glenn Beck (and others) may soon move to WOR. It's a change that Clear Channel has engineered before, and it speaks volumes about the economics of the radio business in 2012.

Let's start with WABC. The talk outlet is now owned by Cumulus Media, which purchased it from Citadel, which snapped it up when ABC got out of the radio business in 2006. Both Citadel and Cumulus incurred serious debut with their purchases, but Cumulus managed to acquire its rival last year (just after emerging from bankruptcy), a deal that cost the Atlanta-based media company $2.5 billion.

With tons of debt on the books, a portfolio of depreciated station assets and an advertising market that is still soft, Cumulus has been slashing costs, including some of its best-known personalities. Mark Davis, mid-morning host for WBAP in Dallas (and a frequent substitute for Rush) was let go earlier this summer to save money. In San Francisco, former powerhouse talker KGO made a similar move in jettisoning radio veteran Gil Gross. Elsewhere, dozens of Cumulus employees in smaller markets were also shown the door, in an effort to cut costs.

In New York, WABC remains the city's #1 talk station, but it has historically under-performed, in terms of revenue. According to one industry publication, WABC billed about $21 million last year, not bad, but there's clear room for improvement when you consider that Clear Channel's KFI in Los Angeles billed almost three times as much. Additionally, WABC's revenue potential is limited by its programming deals with Premier Radio Networks, which syndicates Rush and Sean Hannity. Not only does WABC pay hefty programming fees for carrying those programs, they must also split advertising revenue with Premier and their hosts. That doesn't do much for the Cumulus bottom line in the nation's biggest radio market.

So, Cumulus is developing its own programming, most notably a talk show featuring former Arkansas Governor (and presidential candidate) Mike Huckabee. The program debuted earlier this year, and was widely billed as an "alternative" to Rush, since it airs in the same 12 noon - 3 pm eastern time slot. There was even speculation that Cumulus talkers like WABC, WMAL (Washington), WLS in Chicago and WJR in Detroit would drop Rush for the Huckabee show, but so far, that hasn't happened.

But Clear Channel has been known to pull Rush from a long-time affiliate when one of their own stations in the market switches to talk. That happened in Pittsburgh (where Clear Channel's WPGB-FM has become a serious challenger to KDKA); Raleigh-Durham (WRDU-FM saw its ratings soar when it became a talk station and Rush moved over from WPTF-AM) and New Orleans, where Rush pulled audience away from market icon WWL when he switched to Clear Channel's WRNO.

Now, the same thing may happen in New York with the radio giant taking control of WOR. With Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck and other shows in the station's line-up, many believe that WOR would quickly surge past WABC and become the top conservative talk outlet in the nation's biggest media market. And to make the deal even sweeter, Clear Channel (and its hosts) can keep all of the advertising revenue for themselves.

In fact, some industry insiders are now predicting the demise of WABC. Jim Farley, program director of Washington's top-rated WTOP, tells media blogger Dave Hughes that WOR will "destroy" WABC, by taking away Rush and Hannity. And while Cumulus has insisted it has no plans to get rid of Rush (or any other Premier personalities), the host "migration" could begin in a matter of weeks.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Changing of the Guard

Sacked. Colonel Glenn Palmer was fired Friday as Commander of the 737th Training Group at Lackland AFB, Texas. The unit, which oversees all basic military training for the service, has been embroiled in a sex scandal involving more than a dozen military training instructors and female trainees. The Air Force has also announced the departure of Palmer's boss, Colonel Eric Axelbank, amid growing pressure to fix the problems at Lackland (USAF photo).

The Air Force witnessed two major command shuffles on Friday, one at Andrews AFB, Maryland; the other at Lackland AFB, Texas. At first glance, the two events appear unrelated, yet on closer inspection, it seems clear that the command change at Andrews drove events at Lackland, and there may be more changes coming at the Texas installation.

During Friday's ceremony at Andrews, General Mark Welsh III became the 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, replacing General Norton Schwartz, who is retiring after 39 years of service. In his first address as CSAF, Welsh said he plans to focus on three priorities: winning the fight, strengthening the team and shaping future. More from Air Force Times:

Welsh said winning the fight means preparing for current and future wars.

“Readiness and training are not optional,” Welsh said.

Strengthening the team includes strengthening both the Air Force and interagency cooperations.

“I believe that the joint operations are the only way we are going to succeed on the battlefield,” he said. “If you plan on criticizing one of our sister services, don’t let me hear you.”

And the Air Force will play a major role in the United States’ future, which will be increasingly defined by the air, space and cyber domains, he said.

“We have to shape the future, and that will require innovative thinking and different approaches to problems — and it will require modernization,” Welsh said.

One of the first Air Force teams slated for improvement will be the 37th Training Wing at Lackland AFB. The wing, which conducts all basic military training for the service, has been rocked by a sex scandal involving more than a dozen military training instructors. So far, two former MTIs have been convicted of sexual misconduct with female trainees; three others will face court-martial in the future, and ten others are under investigation.

And, if the basic training scandal wasn't high on General Welsh's priority list a month ago, it certainly is now. Earlier this month, Texas Senator John Cornyn put a temporary hold on Welsh's nomination as CSAF until the general promised to launch a second investigation into the scandal at Lackland.

Which brings us yesterday's concurrent command shuffle at Lackland. About the time General Welsh was being sworn in as the new CSAF, the commander of Lackland's 737th Training Group, Colonel Glenn Palmer, was fired from his post. In his former job, Colonel Palmer supervised basic training at Lackland, including the squadron where most of the predatory MTIs were assigned. Palmer took over the 737th about the time the scandal broke last summer and while he was involved in the investigation, senior officials were clearly dissatisfied with the pace of reforms.

Palmer was sacked by the 37th Wing Commander, Colonel Eric Axelbank, who will be leaving that job in early September. Axelbank has been on the job for barely a year, so it's obvious that he was dismissed as well.

And rightfully so. As we wrote in this blog a few days ago, command changes at Lackland were long overdue:

So, what should General Welsh do? As the next Chief of Staff, he has a plate that's already full. From getting the F-35 and the KC-30 into service, to securing funding for the next-generation bomber--and steering the service through massive budget cuts--there 's no shortage of items on his agenda. But fixing the problems at Lackland should be priority #1. Basic military training is where all enlisted airmen begin their career. Every year, thousands of American families entrust their sons and daughters to the MTIs at Lackland; the service cannot tolerate conditions that allowed sexual predators to prey upon recruits.

That's why leadership changes at Lackland--and at the MAJCOM level--are imperative. [The leader of Air Education and Training Command] General Rice, along with Colonel Axelbank and Colonel Palmer--have had months to deal with this festering scandal. So far, they've done nothing to restore confidence in the integrity and safety of Air Force basic training. Simply stated, they've had their chance; now it's time for someone else to fix the problems.

So why did Palmer and Axelbank suddenly have to go? We're guessing the change was dictated by the installation of the new CSAF, and his mandate to clean up Lackland, once and for all. We're not saying that General Welsh personally ordered the dismissal of the two Colonels (but that possibility can't be completely discounted, either). On the other hand, it's highly likely that Welsh is leaning on Rice to deliver results, and the AETC Commander doesn't want to go into the first meeting with his new boss with nothing to show on the Lackland front.

With Friday's wave of dismissals at Lackland, the focus now shifts to the next commander of the 37th Training Wing, Colonel Mark Camerer, who arrives for duty in early September. Colonel Camerer is a career tanker and transport pilot who currently serves as commander of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover AFB, Delaware. The Colonel has his work cut out for him, and a lot of folks will be charting his progress, including the newly-installed Air Force Chief of Staff.


ADDENDUM: Another USAF organization that has been conspiciously silent on the scandal is 2nd Air Force at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. Among its various missions, the command is responsible for Air Force basic training conducted by the 37th Wing at Lackland. Major General "Len" Patrick is the current commander of 2nd Air Force; to date, we can't find any public statements by the general regarding the scandal and his plans for fixing the problems at Lackland AFB. Patrick testified before Congress on 2 August, but at least one representativeclaimed he "couldn't provide any real answers." Like Axelbank and Palmer, General Patrick assumed his current post last July--about the time the sex scandal erupted.

Interestingly enough, Patrick's predecessor, Major General Mary Kay Hertog, was a former commander of the 37th Wing, and now runs DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention Office in the Pentagon. So far, General Hertog seems to have escaped scrutiny in the matter, despite the fact that most of the reported assaults occurred while she was in charge of 2nd Air Force. We'll go out on a limb and predict that before this scandal is over, some folks at 2nd Air Force--current and former--will be given their walking papers as well.

Eyes Inside

Turns out that Israel shouldn't be too worried about Iran and its nuclear intentions.

And if you don't believe us, just ask White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

In a statement that received virtually no attention domestically--but received wide play in the Middle East--Mr. Carney tried to assure Israel that the U.S. will quickly learn if Iran decides to develop nuclear weapons. From Israeli TV:

“We have ‘eyes’ inside the nuclear facilities and we will know in real time when and if Iran decides to cross the threshold and develop nuclear weapons,” Carney said, according to a report by Channel 10 News.

Carney’s remarks were made in response to recent assessments in Israel, especially those of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, according to which the Americans understand that the Iranian threat is becoming an increased concern.

“The president remains committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” he was quoted as having said.

Perhaps Mr. Carney might want to change his statement to "we had eyes" inside Tehran's nuclear facilities. By suggesting that we have human intelligence assets inside the program (and well-placed ones at that), the White House press spokesman just made it easier for Iranian counter-intelligence to ferret out potential assets. At the very least, their "search" list is now a bit shorter.

Of course, that assumes the referenced assets are providing reliable information that can be independently confirmed by other sources. Unfortunately, assets like the one described by Jay Carney tend to be singular and their reports can't always be verified. Some well-placed spies, like the Polish hero Ryszard Kuklinski, provide invaluable information that helps direct our defense and foreign policy directives. Others, like the notorious "Curveball" in Iraq, divulge material that is not only inaccurate, it can also lead to policy blunders of the first magnitude.

Equally disturbing is the Obama Administration's penchant for disclosing classified information that suits its political purposes. This wasn't an inadvertent slip-of-the-tongue, but rather, a calculated message aimed at audiences here and abroad. After Mitt Romney's recent criticism of our Iran policy, the president's chief press flack assures everyone that we have full knowledge of the most important developments--and decisions--related to Tehran's nuclear program.

For those keeping score at home, this is at least the fourth major revelation involving sensitive intelligence programs and information so far this year. Since January, U.S. officials (speaking publicly or with their friends in the press) have blown the cover of a Pakistani doctor who helped us "get" Osama bin Laden; that physician is now serving a 30-year prison term. Administration figures have also disclosed our participation in the development/insertion of computer viruses into Iranian nuclear facilities, and they also exposed a secret Saudi operation that infiltrated an agent into an Al Qaida franchise plotting to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.

Of course, the leaks are being "investigated" (by a pair of U.S. attorneys who work for Eric Holder) and that probe isn't making any discernible headway. So, with nothing to fear, members of the Obama team are free to keep talking, divulging the most sensitive secrets that make their boss look good and enhance his re-election prospects.

Assuming Mr. Carney's comments are accurate (and the Iranians crack down in a predictable fashion), the impact on our intelligence could be devastating. Assuming our "eyes" aren't part of a double-agent operation, we may well lose our best intelligence source (or sources) within the Iranian regime, as that nation's nuclear program approaches a critical juncture. But don't look for Jay Carney to face questioning from those U.S. attorneys investigating intelligence leaks in the Obama White House. Mr. Carney knew exactly what he was doing, and those comments almost certainly had the approval of his boss.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The "D" Word

Today's reading assignment is from Heather MacDonald, writing in the indispensable City Journal.

As she observes, one of the Obama Administration "reforms" that is flying beneath the public radar is its crusade for "equity" in school discipline. In other words, Team Obama believes that minority students are unfairly singled out for the most severe forms of punishment, including suspension.

In other words, the Obama White House and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are trying to destroy what little bit of order and discipline remain in America's classrooms. MacDonald recounts one example from the St. Paul (Minnesota) school system, which has spent millions of dollars on "anti-suspension" programs:

Aaron Benner, a fifth-grade teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, scoffs at the notion that minority students are being unfairly targeted for discipline. “Anyone in his right mind knows that these [disciplined] students are extremely disruptive,” he says. Like districts across the county, the St. Paul public school system has been on a mission to lower the black suspension rate, following complaints by local activists and black parents. A highly regarded principal lost his job because his school had “too many” suspensions of black second- and fourth-graders. The school system has sent its staff to $350,000 worth of “cultural-proficiency” training, where they learned to “examine the presence and role of ‘Whiteness.’ ” The district spent another $2 million or so to implement an anti-suspension behavioral-modification program embraced by the Obama administration.

Benner sees the consequences of this anti-discipline push nearly every day in the worsening behavior of students. He overheard a fifth-grade boy tell a girl: “B----, I’ll f--- you and s--- you.” (“I wanted to throw him against the locker,” Benner recalls.) The boy’s teacher told Benner that she felt powerless to punish the misbehavior. “This will be one of my black men who ends up in prison after raping a woman,” observes Benner. Racist? Many would so characterize the comment. But Benner is black himself—and fed up with the excuses for black misbehavior. He attended one of the district’s cultural-proficiency sessions, where an Asian teacher asked: “How do I help the student who blurts out answers and disrupts the class?” The black facilitator reminded her: “That’s what black culture is”—an answer that echoes the Obama administration’s admonitions to teachers. “I should have said: ‘How many of you shouted out in college?’ ” Benner remarks. “They’re trying to pull one over on us. Black folks are drinking the Kool-Aid; this ‘let-them-clown’ philosophy could have been devised by the KKK.”

Tired of writing up disciplinary referrals that had no further effect, Benner finally did the unthinkable: he spoke out to St. Paul’s board of education last December. “Disruptive students cannot remain in my room and affect those who want to learn,” he pleaded. Even more controversially, he laid the primary responsibility for student misbehavior on parents and community leaders, rather than on racism and cultural insensitivity. The “achievement gap / suspension gap is a black issue. My community must take the lead in correcting our children’s behavior,” he said.

For his honesty, Mr. Benner has been called an "Uncle Tom" (and worse) by members of the civil rights establishment. But his description of out-of-control schools has been verified by a number of other educators across the country. Yet, the Obama Administration is continuing its crusade against "unequal" school discipline. Of course, this is the same bunch that recently ended work requirements for welfare recipients, so why not go to bat for the the most disruptive (and dangerous) students in the nation's public school systems?

A few years ago, USA Today conducted a survey of the nation's teachers. Almost half said they spent most of their time trying to maintain order in the classroom. Since then, we imagine, things have only gotten worse. All of the pathologies that have wrecked the nation's families are well-established in the nation's schools, creating students who are out-of-control and make it impossible for anyone to learn.

Once upon a time, suspension and permanent removal were once effective tools for getting rid of trouble-makers in our schools, but those days are long since past. Today, principals, superintendents and school boards cower in fear of civil rights attorneys and lawsuits. And, with the Obama Administration squarely behind the miscreants, efforts to suspend (or expel) these students will effectively end.

As with much of Ms. MacDonald's work, the article is well worth the read. And, if you care about education, consider flagging it for future reference. If you think America's public schools are bad now, given them another 5-10 years, when the last vestiges of discipline and order have vanished from the classroom. At that point, we'll be racing countries like Zimbabwe for the very bottom on standardized tests.

If you have children approaching school age, think long and hard before enrolling your kids in the local public system. "Discipline equity" may well be the final nail in the coffin of American education.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Too Important to Fail

Iran is girding for a fight to the finish in Syria, according to the U.K. Telegraph.

Iran has been trying to guarantee the survival of Mr Assad, who serves as Tehran's only reliable ally in the Middle East, by supplying Syria's regime with funds, weaponry and expert personnel to aid the campaign against rebels.

Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, came to Damascus as a visible symbol of that support.

"Iran will never allow the resistance axis – of which Syria is an essential pillar – to break," he said. The "axis of resistance" refers to the Middle East's anti-Western powers: Iran, Syria and the armed groups, Hizbollah and Hamas, although in reality the latter has already broken away by ending its presence in Damascus.

Jalili also demanded release of some 48 Iranians now being held by the rebels. The Iranian representative claimed his countrymen were religious "pilgrims" visiting a shrine near Damascus, but the rebels said that most of the captives were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), sent to Syria to provide assistance to Assad's forces. By some accounts, there are hundreds of IRGC "advisers" now in Syria, part of a $5 billion aid package provided by Tehran.

Iran's willingness to back Assad to the end is hardly surprising. Syria is (arguably) Tehran's most important ally in the Middle East, providing a handy conduit for Iranian funding and arms to groups like Hizballah in Lebanon, and an ally in any conflict with Israel. Iran understands that the outcome in Syria will shape the future of the Middle East, and its own plans for regional supremacy. "Losing" Syria would be a geopolitical setback of the first magnitude for Tehran, which is betting that Assad can hang on.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is exerting very little influence in the conflict. Admittedly our options are limited, but the general attitude has been one of avoidance, as Eliot Abrams noted at NRO's "The Corner" last month:

How much credit does the United States get for this happy trend toward regime collapse? Very little or none. As Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Starnewspaper in Beirut, wrote this week, “In Syria, where the Americans have the capacity to politically cripple a principal regional rival, namely Iran, the Obama administration is still dependent on the goodwill of Russia and China, two countries that want to see American power reduced.”


What the administration wants, it has seemed for all 17 months of the Syrian revolt, is to hide behind the U.N. and Kofi Annan. The apparent success of outside aid, which has quickly made the opposition far more effective, shows that it should have been provided far sooner: regime collapse could have been induced far sooner and thousands of lives saved. Picking up the pieces in Syria will be a great deal harder because of the scope of the killings there over 17 months.

To coin a phrase, the U.S. is once again "leading from behind."

While there are signs of increased American involvement--President Obama signed an executive order last week that authorizes some assistance for Syrian rebels--the U.S. has missed an opportunity to end the Assad regime sooner rather than later, and engage Syrian opposition forces. Word of of Washington is that our intelligence community is still trying to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. That's hardly surprising in a civil war, but a more proactive stance might have placed more U.S. assets in position at earlier stages of the conflict. As it now stands, the United States will be a spectator in post-Assad Syria, for better or worse.

Which begs an obvious question: why? No one is advocating the introduction of American ground troops, or even a no-fly zone. With the right forms of assistance (secure communications gear, better anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles), the rebels can defeat regime forces in a matter of weeks or months. Had we begun providing such aid earlier, Bashir Assad might already be gone, and Iran would be suffering the loss of an irreplaceable ally.

Then again, this is the same administration that has been overly deferential to Iran, no matter the circumstances. And, we've just learned that a key member of Obama's inner circle, campaign strategist David Plouffe earned $100,000 in speaking fees in 2008 from a South African company with close ties to the IRGC.

It's hard to get tough on foreign adversaries when your own advisers are profiting (indirectly) from that regime. That's one more reason that Iran will stay the course in Syria; not just for geopolitical reasons, but because it has little to fear from the current administration. From Tehran's perspective, the Assad government is too important to fail. Too bad we don't have the same mindset in preventing Assad (and his Iranian allies) from retaining power in Damascus.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Big "Ulepetyvat"

An Ivan Rogov-class "large landing ship" of the Russian Navy. Only one of these vessels remains in service, creating potential problems for the evacuation of Russian nationals from Syria (Wikipedia photo).

At various points this summer, Russia has vowed to send an amphibious group to the eastern Mediterranean, ostensibly as a show of support for the failing regime of Bashir Assad. So far, the ships haven't arrived, though they are supposedly enroute.

And there's still confusion as to their mission and itinerary. According to the Los Angeles Times, Moscow announced on Friday that the amphibious group would not conduct a port call at Tartus, the small Russian naval facility on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Then, just a few hours later, a Russian military spokesman offered a revised operational statement, saying that the amphibious flotilla "might call on Tartus to replenish supplies," if "the period of the trip is extended."

In other words, the Defense Ministry is still mulling its options. But, as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, an amphibious squadron could prove very useful in securing the Tartus facility, and arranging a limited Russian evacuation from Syria. An under-strength battalion of naval infantry is embarked on three landing ships assigned to the squadron. Equipped with helicopters and armored vehicles, the Russian "marines" could remove personnel and equipment from Tartus, while preventing rebel attacks against the base.

That mission may assume a new urgency, given reports of Iranian "advisers" being taken prisoner by the insurgents. Members of the IRGC have been active in Syria since the uprising began, providing assistance to the Assad government and (by some accounts) assisting in heavy-handed security operations. If IRGC personnel are being plucked off the streets of Damascus (or captured in fire-fights), then no foreigner (read: Assad ally) is safe, and many of them want out. After all, the rebels have little regard for the Russians who rank just above the Iranians in terms of popularity.

Unfortunately, the Moscow's current military force is inadequate for large-scale evacuation operations. By some accounts, there are 30-60,000 Russian nationals in Syria; the amphibious ships that may dock at Tartus can handle only a fraction of that total, and there's the difficult (and dangerous) task of getting them to the embarkation port. Put another way, you'll need more than 360 Russian naval infantry and a handful of helicopters to carry out such a massive evacuation.

Another option is securing an air bridge at Damascus International or a large Syrian military airfield. A stream of Russian military transports and charter flights could evacuate far more personnel from Syria, but even that possibility is fraught with danger. First, there's the matter of shifting loyalties in the Syrian military. Officers and installations loyal to Assad today may shift allegiances tomorrow, leaving the Russians caught in the middle.

Additionally, the air bridge option still requires the assembly and movement of large numbers of civilians through war zones to the departure point. Their safe transit depends largely on the good offices of the insurgents, who may not be inclined to let the Russians past, given Moscow's historic support for the Assads and their brutal regime, which has murdered tens of thousands of Syrians over the past five decades.

As we've observed in the past, non-essential [personnel] evacuations, better known as NEOs, are among the most difficult military operations to plan and execute, even under ideal conditions. The number of individuals who show up at the assembly points is often two or three times the original estimate, and getting them to safety is a terribly difficult proposition, at best.

Consider the U.S. evacuation from Saigon in the spring of 1975. Thousands of Americans were removed from the country over a two-month period (along with 110,000 South Vietnamese), but the final stages of the operation were chaotic, symbolized by long lines of people awaiting evacuation from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Still, the United States military had a number of advantages in the Vietnam operation. Military Airlift Command (MAC) had dozens of transports shuttling between various airfields in South Vietnam and U.S. bases in the Far East, including Clark AB in the Philippines. Civilian charter flights aided in the effort, and helicopters continued ferrying evacuees to ships in the 7th Fleet, stationed off-shore.

As the situation in Syria rapidly declines, Russia has few of these assets to draw upon. Its amphibious capabilities are modest, and its military transport fleet is equally modest. And, when you factor in such considerations as airspace access (through countries like Turkey or Iraq), evacuation planning becomes even more complex.

At this point, it looks like many of the Russian nationals in Syria will be stuck for the duration and it's just a matter of time before the rebels begin boasting of their Russian hostages as well. As a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin is certainly aware of these issues, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the situation in Syria. Mr. Putin likes to brag about Russia's resurgent military might, but when it comes to evacuating Russian citizens from Syria, he will likely need outside help, or just tell his countrymen to hunker down and wait until Assad meets his fate.

There are signs that Russian would like execute a big skedaddle (ulepetyvat) from Syria, but Moscow just doesn't have the air and sea assets to make that happen. Watch for Putin to ask the U.N. to organize a "humanitarian" evacuation from Russia, utilizing (mostly) western assets to get his citizens out of the war zone.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

The Ghosts of Florida

Back in 2000, Democrat Presidential candidate Al Gore and his minions ignited a firestorm when they tried block absentee ballots from military voters in Florida.

Suggesting (perhaps) that some parties never learn, the Democrats are at it again, this time in Ohio. The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee have filed a lawsuit, challenging a new law that gives military personnel three more days for early voting. More from Fox News:

The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee have filed a lawsuit to block a new state law allowing men and women in uniform to vote up until the Monday right before an election, while the cutoff on early voting for the rest of the public is three days earlier.

Top Obama campaign officials told Fox News in interviews that the lawsuit in no way tries to restrict the voting rights of military members. All they are trying to do is even the playing field for all voters in Ohio by allowing early voting up until Monday for everyone, including members of the military, because they believe a two-tiered, early-voting process is unfair.

"Along with the DNC and Ohio Democratic Party, this campaign filed a lawsuit to reinstate equal, early-voting rights for all Ohioans -- rights the Republican-controlled legislature arbitrarily stripped away this past year," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, told supporters in an email.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine isn't buying that argument. The same holds true for 15 veterans and military organizations who backed the change. As we've note in this blog--on multiple occasions--members of the armed forces serving overseas are the most disenfranchised segment of the American electorate. By some estimates, at least one-third of military absentee ballots are never counted, often because they arrived at the submission deadline. The Ohio measure is aimed (in part) at making more military votes count.

Surely, Team Obama could get behind that idea. But then again, never underestimate the politics that invariably color such decisions. Mr. Obama's managers are acutely aware that most military absentee voters support the GOP. In a battleground state like Ohio, where every vote takes on added importance, thousands of absentee ballots from armed forces personnel (with 60% supporting Mitt Romney) could determine which candidate carries the state. All the more reason to deny military voters those extra days, in the name of "fairness."

And while we're on that subject, you can rest assured that GOP officials in Ohio know that members of the armed services are a reliable Republican constituency. So, why not allow a few extra days, particularly if it means more votes in the "R" column.

From our perspective, the Ohio accomodation is reasonable, given long-standing problems with military absentee ballots. And quite frankly, we wouldn't have a problem with extending the deadline for all absentee voters living overseas.

But quite frankly, there's a better solution. Why not create a system that allows all military members to vote on-line? Arizona instituted that type of system several years ago, with great success. The on-line option would eliminate the need for special deadlines and other measures aimed at military voters.

To date, Mr. Obama's Defense Department has done absolutely nothing to implement on-line voting for military personnel (we should also note that President George W. Bush was equally negligent in that department). The problem is evident, and the technology is available to fix it, but no one at the White House or the Pentagon is willing to tackle the problem.

In fact, Democrats have always been willing to go the extra mile in creating barriers to military voting. Members of Mr. Obama's party in Congress have refused to support simple provisions that would require military ballots be returned to the states by the fastest means available, meaning that move would arrive in time to be counted. At the local level, Democratic county clerks have been among the worst offenders in mailing out absentee ballots weeks late, ensuring they won't be returned before the submission deadline.

Ensuring the franchise for military personnel should be a bi-partisan issue, but regrettably, it's not. That's why the next administration should make it a priority to implement on-line voting for armed forces members (and other Americans) living overseas. Those brave young men and women who wear the uniform--to defend our basic liberties--deserve much better than lawsuits and election-year maneuvering.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Back on Track?

Texas Senator John Cornyn has removed the hold he placed on the nomination of General Mark A. Welsh III to be the next Air Force Chief of Staff. Cornyn's move cleared the way for the full Senate to confirm Welsh, a vote that occurred late last night.

The brief delay was clearly a warning shot for the USAF, amid growing concerns over the service's handling of a sex scandal at Lackland AFB, Texas. So far, at least fifteen current and former military training instructors (MTIs) have been accused--or are under investigation--for inappropriate sexual conduct involving trainees in their charge. Lackland, the so-called "Gateway to the Air Force," provides basic training for all new airmen.

Cornyn lifted the hold Thursday morning, after a private meeting with General Welsh. In a statement, the Senator said it was "clear that General Welsh shares my grave concern over the situation at Lackland. Gen. Welsh demonstrated a genuine resolve to improving Air Force-wide policies to prevent a recurrence of the grossly unacceptable conduct that took place at Lackland,” he continued.

According to the Senator, the incoming Chief of Staff has agreed to direct a review of three elements related to the scandal:

- Current Air Force policy and training relating to sexual assault prevention

- Fraternization and inappropriate relationships, including social networking among airmen (and)

- The organization of Basic Military Training units at Lackland, focusing on the ratio of officers to enlisted personnel.

Actually, there should be a fourth requirement on Cornyn's list, namely, why the Air Force's response to this scandal has been so slow and ineffectual.

Consider this disturbing timeline; the problems at Lackland first surfaced more than a year ago, and the number of victims has grown to almost 40. Meanwhile, more than a dozen MTIs have been implicated in the scandal, and one has been court-martialed and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

To be fair, all of those accused of wrong-doing deserve their day in court. But we'll go out on a limb and predict that when all is said and done, a number of MTIs will be serving time at Leavenworth. It is also worth noting that all but one of the MTIs caught in the sexual assault scandal were assigned to the 331st Training Squadron, yet the commander of that unit, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Paquette, was not removed until a few weeks ago (emphasis ours).

But the trail of potential culpability doesn't end there. The 737th Training Group commander, Colonel Glenn Palmer, and his boss, the 37th Training Wing Commander (Colonel Eric Axelbank) waited almost a year before "losing confidence" in Paquette's ability to lead. It's worth noting that both Colonels arrived at Lackland as the scandal was unfolding.

Why did it take them so long to decide they had a serious problem on their hands and Paquette had to go? We understand that investigations take time, but waiting a year to fire an incompetent commander is inexcusable. And did we mention that Paquette's removal was described as "administrative" in nature, and not punitive.

Meanwhile, the Commander of Air Education and Training Command, General Edgar Rice, Jr., has requested an outside investigation to look into the scandal. Major General Margaret Woodward was appointed to lead the probe, which will focus on any "systemic issues" that might be associated with sexual misconduct among Lackland MTIs. General Rice requested the outside inquiry in late June, almost a year after the scandal broke. So far, there's no word on what General Woodward has discovered, or any recommendations she has offered.

Now, at the urging of Senator Cornyn, General Welsh will launch a second inquiry into the scandal. If this sounds a little familiar, it should. When confronted with serious accusations of wrong-doing, bureaucratic organizations (including the military) tend to go into a defensive crouch. Conducting multiple investigations creates the appearance of action, even if the final reports--and any corrective actions--may be months, even years down the road.

Clearly, the scandal at Lackland is far from over, and Senator Cornyn's brief hold on the Welsh nomination was a no-confidence vote in how the service is handling the problem. And despite today's reprieve, it's very apparent that Congressional patience is wearing thin.

So, what should General Welsh do? As the next Chief of Staff, he has a plate that's already full. From getting the F-35 and the KC-30 into service, to securing funding for the next-generation bomber--and steering the service through massive budget cuts--there 's no shortage of items on his agenda. But fixing the problems at Lackland should be priority #1. Basic military training is where all enlisted airmen begin their career. Every year, thousands of American families entrust their sons and daughters to the MTIs at Lackland; the service cannot tolerate conditions that allowed sexual predators to prey upon recruits.

That's why leadership changes at Lackland--and at the MAJCOM level--are imperative. General Rice, along with Colonel Axelbank and Colonel Palmer--have had months to deal with this festering scandal. So far, they've done nothing to restore confidence in the integrity and safety of Air Force basic training. Simply stated, they've had their chance; now it's time for someone else to fix the problems.

It will be interesting to see how General Welsh addresses the scandal at Lackland. having served under Welsh when he was a Colonel, I can tell you that he is a leader who puts the welfare of his troops above everything else. It's difficult to imagine Mark Welsh allowing this deplorable situation to slither along, as it has under the current Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz. In fact, General Schwartz has been largely silent on the issue, seemingly biding his time until retirement.

Fortunately, Welsh's ascendancy won't be delayed. Senate confirmation of General Welsh as CSAF sets the stage for a change-of-command ceremony at the Pentagon next Friday. For a military service that has suffered under poor leadership for more than a decade, Welsh's arrival can't come soon enough. And the cesspool at Lackland represents his first major test--one he can't afford to fail.