Saturday, August 31, 2013

Hide and Seek

The first wave of U.S. cruise missile strikes against Syria are just a matter of time--even if it takes a week (or more) for Congress to grant some form of approval. 

According to various sources, American military preparations for an attack are complete; a sixth U.S. warship joined a naval strike group in the eastern Mediterranean during the past 48 hours, increasing the number of missiles that could be launched against Syrian military facilities. President Obama insists he hasn't made a final decision on a strike against Libya, but if that choice is made, the attack could begin in a matter of minutes.

But, since the administration has largely telegraphed its attack plans, some analysts are wondering exactly what might be accomplished by the expected strike. Reuters reports that Syria has been busily repositioning SCUD missiles and launchers in recent days, making them more difficult to target:

President Bashar al-Assad's forces have removed several Scud missiles and dozens of launchers from a base north of Damascus, to protect them from a Western attack, opposition sources said on Thursday.


The move from the position in the foothills of the Qalamoun mountains, one of Syria's most heavily militarised districts, appears part of a precautionary but limited redeployment of armaments in areas of central Syria still held by Assad's forces, diplomats based in the Middle East told Reuters [snip] At the headquarters of the army's 155th Brigade, a missile unit whose base sprawls along the western edge of Syria's main highway running north from the capital to Homs, rebel scouts saw dozens mobile Scud launchers pulling out early on Thursday.


Rebel military sources said spotters saw missiles draped in tarpaulins on the launchers, as well as trailer trucks carrying other rockets and equipment. More than two dozen Scuds – 11-metre (35-foot) long ballistic missiles with ranges of 300km (200 miles) and more – were fired from the base in the Qalamoun area this year, some of which hit even Aleppo in the far north.

The 155th is one of the most important units in the Syrian military, responsible for operations involving SCUDs and other types of ballistic missiles. The brigade commander is the brother of Syrian President Bashir Assad, ensuring that orders from the dictator are carried out promptly, and to the letter.

Some intelligence organizations in the Middle East believe the 155th was responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb. Given its value to the Syrian regime, it's logical that the 155th and its missile assets would be near (or at) the top of any U.S. target list in Syria, and it's equally certain that Assad will do everythng he can to protect his chemical arsenal and delivery platforms.

And he might just succeed. In the Middle East, Syria is the most accomplished practitioner of denial and deception, skills acquired from Russian experts over the last 50 years. Damascus invests heavily in its deception program, utilizing everything from advanced camouflage netting and decoy equipment, to vast underground complexes and "drive-through" missile shelters.

Over the past decade, Syria has built additional, subterranean missile bases in the central part of that country, complementing the long-established Al Safir complex near the Turkish border. These facilities provide the capability for below-ground storage, maintenance and warhead mating for SCUDs and other ballistic missiles in the Syrian inventory.

Tunnel entrances at the Al Safir SCUD base in northern Syria. The entrances, which lead to a large underground complex, are flush with the side of a mountain, making it more difficult to target with precision weapons (Public Eye/Digital Globe imagery, posted at

At other locations, the Syrians have built dozens of drive-through missile shelters, for both its SCUD force and shorter-range SS-21s. There are far more shelters than launchers and missiles, creating an elaborate "shell game" for potential adversaries. The shelters provide concealment during dispersal operations, after missile launches and during periods when enemy satellites and/or drones might be overhead. Damascus has maintained an effective satellite warning program for more than a decade; Syrian intelligence is very familiar with coverage windows for U.S. satellites, and it's a safe bet that recent movements occurred during gaps in our surveillance.

Similar measures will also be employed for other assets that might be targeted, such as attack helicopters that might have been involved in other chemical attacks. Choppers are easily dispersed and can be moved quickly. Simply shifting helicopters from a base to a nearby soccer field or empty farmland is enough to protect them from attack. Putting them in the sky works even better, since cruise missiles have no capability against airborne targets.  Chemical warheads can also be easily moved, and it's a safe bet that weapons not mated to delivery systems are on the move as well.

To be fair, there are limits to Syria's denial and deception program. Some targets, such as command-and-control facilities, can't be moved; if they are within 30-40 feet of the surface, these bunkers could be destroyed by cruise missiles, though conventionally-armed Tomahawks have a limited capability against hardened, buried targets. A better option would be B-2 stealth bombers, employing penetrating weaponry, but there are no indications (at this point) that President Obama will mount air strikes against Syria. 

It's also worth noting that Israel has always had great success against the Syrians, despite their extensive D&D efforts.  One reason for that is the extraordinarily productive human intelligence (HUMINT) campaign that Israel has waged against Damascus for more than 60 years.  Before the 1967 war (which saw Israeli forces take the Golan Heights), the number three official in the Syrian government was a Mossad agent and since that time, Israel's intelligence services have been able to recruit well-placed assets that have provided invaluable information.  

Conversely, there are few indications that the CIA has those types of sources in place.  Given that limitation--and the constraints being placed on our planned military action--it might be time to pose a rather obvious question: what happens if we mount a cruise missile strike and don't hit anything?

Monday, August 26, 2013


As of this writing, four U.S. Navy destroyers are on station in the eastern Mediterranean, postioned (ostensibly) for a strike against Syria and its chemical weapons facilities. 

The move came four days after an horrific nerve gas attack in a Damascus suburb that killed at least 300 people, most of them civilians.  An Obama administration official said there is "little doubt" that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad were responsible for the slaughter.  It was merely the latest example of Asad using weapons of mass destruction against his own people, violating the "red line" that Mr. Obama imposed more than a year ago. 

Which brings us to that Navy strike group, now awaiting orders off the Syrian coast.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the U.S. is "prepared for all contingencies," but based on those recent military movements, it's fairly easy to envision what our response would be: a fusilade of cruise missiles, targeting chemical weapons storage complexes; command and control facilities and weapons systems capable of delivering chem and biological weapons. 

It sounds like a forceful response, but as retired Major General Bob Scales has observed, a few salvoes of cruise missiles doesn't represent a "strategy" in Syria, and it may have little effect on Assad's chemical weapons inventory, for a variety of reasons. 

First, there's the matter of timing.  The White House (understandably) wants hard evidence that Assad was behind the attack, evidence that can be presented to the U.N., our allies and anyone else who might be asked to support U.S. military action.  Of course, gathering and analyzing that type of information takes time, assuming you can actually gain access to it.  Strangely enough, the Assad regime announced today that it will allow a United Nations team to examine the site of last week's chemical attack, suggesting the government may have already tampered with the evidence that remains.  So much for conclusive proof. 

Additionally, the search for evidence will give the Syrian government more time to scatter its remaining CW assets.  It's a safe bet that the U.S. will not attack while the UN team is on the ground, so Assad and his generals may have a week--or longer--to move chemical weapons to secondary storage sites, and move light aircraft and helicopters to dispersal locations.  The expected delay could also give the Syrians time to mate chemical weapons with other delivery platforms, giving them more options for future attacks.  No wonder President Assad was so happy to honor the UN's inspection request. 

Various "experts" inside The Beltway claim that Mr. Obama is closer to military action than at any time since the Syrian conflict began more than two years ago.  Admittedly, there are no good options in Syria, and you can easily make the case that the U.S. missed its military window-of-opportunity long ago.  But when a dictator is gassing his own people--and the President insists such actions will not be allowed to stand--military action becomes almost inevitable, at some point. 

Other sources say the White House has been studying the 1999 air campaign against Serbia as a possible model for Syria.  But those assertions seem far-fetched; the air war over Kosovo came after a huge build-up of American airpower in southern Europe, and the campaign was an all-out assault against Belgrade's military forces.  Air strikes went on around the clock for almost three months, with Allied aircraft hitting everything from airfields and SAM missile sites, to the Serbian power grid. 

This time around, there is no surge of airpower in the eastern Mediterranean; in fact, there's been no mention of a carrier group in the region, usually one of the first power-projection assets to arrive on the scene.  Perhaps a better model for Syria is the air "campaign" that hastened Mummar Qadhafi's exit from power in Libya.  The number of sorties over Libya was a fraction of those flown against Serbia, and some of our partners complained openly that the U.S. wasn't "doing enough," particularly in the early stages of the effort. 

There may be similar mummurings this time around.  Without a build-up of air assets in places like Turkey, Italy, Sicily, and Jordan, any strike against Syria would be build largely around cruise missiles and sorties by B-2 stealth bombers, flying round-robin from their home base in Missouri.  While the B-2 has played a prominent role in all air operations since Kosovo, there has been some debate over potential strikes against Syria.  Assad's air defenses include relatively sophisticated SA-17 surface-to-air missiles, which pose more of a challenge than than the 1950s and 60s-era SA-2s and SA-3s found in places like Kosovo and Iraq.  But veterans of the B-2 program claim the jet has never been tracked for more than a few seconds--let along engaged by air defense systems--and they believe the stealth bomber would figure prominently in attacks on Syria. 

But without additional air assets--and the personnel and logistics for a sustained effort--any campaign against Syria would be fleeting, and its effects uncertain.  And that's probably the preferred option for this administration, which views drone strikes as the ideal platform for prosecuting the war on terror.  Hit selected targets; virtually eliminate the chance of collateral damage, and claim victory when the raid is judged successful.  Any combination of B-2 and cruise missile strikes on Syria would almost certainly follow that pattern. 

Would it have any impact on the conflict's eventual outcome?  Probably not, but that's not the objective.  Having painted himself into a corner with those red line comments--and embarassed by the Syrian regime--Mr. Obama now finds himself compelled to act.  So, he will likely borrow a page from the Clinton playbook and we don't mean Kosovo.  Instead, we refer to our response to the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  In his reply to Osama bin Laden, Mr. Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on terror training camps in Afghanistan (which were largely empty) and a suspected chemical weapons plant in Sudan, later identified as an aspirin factory.  We rather doubt that Assad's aspirin complex is at the top of potential target lists, but it does seem likely that the target roster is rather limited, and there won't be very many follow-on attacks. 

That's what happens when posturing becomes a substitute for strategy.                                        

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Justice for Traitors

After years of fits and starts, military courts have finally imposed justice on Private Bradley Manning and Major Nidal Hassan. 

Manning, the former intelligence analyst, was found guilty earlier this week of passing reams of classified documents to Wikileaks, exposing various diplomatic and military secrets.  For his crimes, Manning received a 35-year prison sentence which will (most likely) be served in the U.S. Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Hasan, a former Army psychiatrist, was convicted earlier today on multiple counts of murder and attempted murder.  He was accused of gunning down thirteen former soldiers and civilians during a shooting spree at Fort Hood in November 2009.  Hasan, an American-born Muslim--whose medical education had been funded completely by the U.S. taxpayer--had become radicalized while completing a residency in psychiatry at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC. 

While his comments and behavior alarmed colleagues, Army commanders chose to look the other way, fearing a possible backlash for persecuting a Muslim officer.  Instead, they allowed Hasan to complete his residency, move on to a new assignment at Fort Hood, where he unleashed his deadly rampage after receiving orders to deploy to Afghanistan.

Hasan hasn't been sentenced yet, but it's clear he's angling for the death penalty.  After successfully petitioning the military judge to serve as his own lawyer, Hasan put up virtually no legal defense, calling no witnesses and passing on his opportunity to provide a closing argument.

Readers will note that neither Hasan or Manning were tried on treason charges.  It's difficult to prove that an American legally betrayed his country, and with ample evidence of other crimes, prosecutors elected not to charge them with treason.  Still, you can make a strong case that both Private Manning and Major Hasan betrayed their fellow Americans, engaging in acts that resulted in the deaths of military personnel (as in the case of the Fort Hood massacre), or contributed to casualties on the battlefield, thanks to the secrets betrayed by Bradley Manning.

While there is broad agreement that Hasan and Manning got what they deserve, neither is likely to fade away into the bowels of the military corrections system.  Just hours after his conviction, Bradley's defense attorney turned up on the "Today" show and issued a statement, announcing his desire to "live as a woman."

"As I transition into this next phase in my life, I want everyone to know the real me.  I am Chelsea Manning.  I am a female.  Given the way that I feel and have felt since childhood, I want to start hormone therapy as soon as possible," the statement read.

The statement also asked people to use the feminine pronoun when referring to Manning.  It was signed "Chelsea E. Manning" and contained a hand-written signature.

Almost as quickly, the Army released its own statement, noting that the military does not provide sex reassignment treatments or surgery, implying that Manning will serving his sentence as a man.

But don't expect Manning to give up without a fight.  By declaring himself a woman, the former intelligence analyst will create headaches for the military, in terms of where Manning will be incarcerated and how we will be housed in the prison population.  The military prison at Leavenworth accepts only male prisoners; female military inmates are housed at the Naval Consolidated Brig at Miramar, California. 

While the Leavenworth complex has been modernized in recent years, conditions at the Naval brig are considered "better," and Manning probably believes he would be safer in that environment.  However, such claims are specious, at best.  Security at Leavenworth is extremely tight, and attacks on prisoners are extremely rare.  Put another way, Bradley Manning will be far safer in Leavenworth than he would be in the general population at an equivalent civilian facility.

But it doesn't take a defense lawyer (or corrections expert) to see the real motive behind Manning's actions.  Faced with a long prison sentence, Manning and his supporters hope to make him the biggest "problem" in the military corrections system, based on unreasonable demands and perpetual legal appeals.  Various LGBT groups and the American Civil Liberties Union are lining up behind Manning, claiming the military cannot deny medical treatment to help him become a woman.  And somewhere, there is probably a federal judge who might agree, assuming that Manning's lawyers can get his case out of the military system.  If that happens--and it is very much a long shot--Manning could wind up at
a civilian facility, undergoing gender-reassignment treatments, on your dime.

Manning's defense teams hope the combination of legal maneuvering and pressure from the LGBT community will force President Obama to commute the turncoat's sentence before he leaves office.  
Again, the odds of that happening are rather small, but Obama knows that Democrats need the gay and transgender vote for 2014 and 2016, so if those groups maintain their pressure, Bradley Manning might be a free man well before 2048.

And sadly, we haven't heard the last of Nidal Hasan, either.  The former psychiatrist has his own medical issues (he was paralyzed by a police bullet during his shooting spree at Fort Hood), and it's a certainity that Hasan and his appellate team will emphasize his "special needs" during confinement.  Don't be surprised if they push for incarceration in a federal prison hospital (rather than Leavenworth), even if Hasan receives the death penalty.  It's also a safe bet that Hasan's surrogates will try to keep  
his case "alive" long after he becomes a military inmate.  At a minimum, the one-time Army Major will demand accomodations consistent with his "faith," then file complaints and appeals when those requests aren't met.  Put another way: Nidal Hasan, like Bradley Manning, will be a thorn in the side of the military justice system until the moment he expires from natural causes, or he is executed.  So, the saga of Major Hasan will continue to play out for years to come, in the nation's courts corrections system.

Quite a change from World War II, when military tribunals convicted Nazi saboteurs within weeks of their capture, and six of the eight were excecuted less than two months after they splashed ashore on Long Island.  Obviously, the cases of Bradley Manning and Nidal Hasan are different in one key regard: both are American citizens, with constitutional rights that had to be secured.  But it's positively absurd that it took years to convict both soldiers in open-and-shut cases.  And, it's even more nauseating that both will try to advance their agendas, from behind prison bars, while we pay for their incarceration and legal expenses.

Not much consolation to the victims at Fort Hood, or the individuals who were exposed by Bradley Manning's treachery.          

Friday, August 16, 2013

Military Epidemics that Aren't

Today's essential reading from Thomas Donnelly, writing at The Wall Street Journal.  A few excerpts:

"...Begin with suicides by servicemen and women, which have increased in recent years—but by dozens of deaths, not in the epidemic fashion that news coverage sometimes seems to suggest. That said, the 349 military suicides in 2012 did exceed the 295 deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The question is: why?

A major study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that factors such as substance abuse, depression, financial and relationship problems accounted for the rise in soldier suicides—in other words, the same factors that influence civilians to take their own lives. "The findings from this study," the authors concluded, "are not consistent with the assumption that specific deployment-related characteristics, such as length of deployment, number of deployments, or combat experiences, are directly associated with increased suicide risk."

Nor does the rate of military suicides differ significantly from suicides in the general population. Using data from 2009, another study by the U.S. Army and the National Institute of Mental Health calculated the military suicide rate at 18.5 per 100,000, just below the civilian rate of 18.8 per 100,000.   [snip]   The recent debate about sexual assault in the military also reflects the notion that there is something fundamentally diseased about the institution itself. The New York Times has editorialized on "the military's entrenched culture of sexual violence." Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) demands that the country replace the military chain of command with civilian legal processes in cases of sexual harassment and assault because the military is inadequate to deal with crimes of "dominance and violence and power." Ms. Gillibrand has been joined in her legislative effort by two leading libertarian Senate Republicans, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Yet the numbers bandied about to show an epidemic of sexual violence in the U.S. military are questionable. In May, Capt. Lindsay Rodman, a judge advocate stationed at U.S. Marine Headquarters in Arlington, Va., reported on this page, for example, that the number of military sexual assaults frequently cited in Congress and elsewhere are based on a badly distorted interpretation of a Defense Department survey. In recent months the American public has often heard that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year. But that statistic comes from an unscientific poll and refers to "unwanted sexual contact," including touching the buttocks or even attempted touching. *** Sadly, there are agendas at work here.  Ms. Gillibrand, like many liberals, harbors a deep suspicion of the military and those who run it.  She is quick to accept a flawed survey as "proof" that the armed forces are filled with sexual predators who victimize thousands of young women each year.  Unfortunately, scandals like those involving Air Force training instructors at Lackland AFB, Texas only reinforce those perceptions, and mask the distorted data.  It's worth noting that Gillibrand, Mr. Cruz and Dr. Paul are among the majority of senators who have never served in the U.S. military; they have little understanding of the chain-of-command concept and the critical role played by commanders in the military justice system.    On the issue of PTSD, it's worth noting that the system has become clogged with thousands of claims that are dubious at best.  For every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine who has experienced the horrors of combat first-hand--and bear the mental scars of that ordeal--there are dozens of claims by rear-echelon types who claim they're suffering PTSD as a result of their military service.    In some cases, their trauma is valid; consider an Air Force intelligence specialist, serving at a DCGS site at home or abroad.  Monitoring the feed from their UAV mission, they watch the convoy or patrol they're supporting come under attack and take casualties.  Or the military trauma teams who work at places like the large USAF hospital at Bagram, Afghanistan.  Many of the most badly-wounded wind up there; the struggle to save the lives of those soliders takes an enormous toll on combat surgeons, nurses and medics, miles from the front lines.    But in other instances, a PTSD claim becomes a way to earn a disability pension, pad existing benefits or get a break from future rotations.  Concerns about military mental health and suicide rates demand that each case be carefully evaluated, and relatively few claims are rejected outright.  Unfortunately, the bogus cases not only place a burden on taxpayers, they often delay processing of claims from servicemembers who are suffering from PTSD and other disabilities.  Perhaps the most blatant example of a "questionable" PTSD claim was the infamous case of Air Force Major Jill Metzger, who claimed she was "kidnapped" during a deployment to Kyrgyzstan in 2006.      Major Metzger's wild story had more holes that a block of Swiss cheese, but she was quickly awarded a 100% disability pension (based on PTSD) and placed on the temporarily retired list.  Despite her "disability," Metzger was able to compete in several marathons and she later returned to active duty.  At last report, she was stationed at a base in northern California and up for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.     Going after the cheaters and gold-bricks would speed the processing of benefits for service members who suffered mental injuries and are in need of assistance.  Sadly, we don't know how many phony PTSD claims are in the military medical retirement and VA systems right now, but the number is conservatively estimated at "several thousand."     Now there's an "epidemic" worth  investigating.                        

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Taking Flight

It was powerful symbol of a sudden shift in the balance-of-power in the Middle East. 

The "symbol" (in this case) was an Air Force C-17 transport, lifting off from an airfield in Yemen.  On board the Globemaster III were members of the U.S. diplomatic staff from our embassy in Sanaa, evacuated over concerns about a pending terrorist strike by Al Qaida.  While a small contingent will remain at the embassy, operations will be greatly curtailed and the State Department has urged all Americans to leave the country, noting that its ability to assist U.S. citizens will be greatly reduced, in an "extremely high" security threat level.        

Americans aren't the only ones fleeing Yemen.  Britain has announced plans to reduce its official presence in that country, assessing (correctly) that its diplomats and facilities may be targeted as well.  More western countries are expected to follow suit, amid reports that terror teams have been dispatched are now positioned near their assigned targets.  Al Qaida's most dangerous affiliate has long been active in Yemen, and many analysts believe it is a likely locale for a major attack. 

The decision to remove most of our official delegation from Yemen came after U.S. intelligence intercepted a communication from Al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leader of his affiliate in Yemen, discussing plans for an upcoming major attack.  The conversation was part of a "major increase in chatter" recently detected by intel organizations (read: NSA).  Congressional leaders briefed on these developments claim that terrorist communications are at their highest levels since 9-11, adding more credence to reports that a major attack is in the offing. 

In view of the current security situation, the evacuation of U.S. diplomats from Yemen was probably a prudent move.  With the spectre of Benghazi (and four dead Americans) still hanging over the White House, no one wants to risk another debacle at a weakly-defended diplomatic outpost.  In fact, we're told the key White House meeting that led to the Yemen evacuation (and the temporary closing of embassies in 20 other Muslim countries) was chaired by none other than Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor who was roundly criticized last September, when (as UN Ambassador) she was disptached on the Sunday shows and claimed the Benghazi incident was in response to an anti-Muslim video. 

Readers will note that President Obama was not present for that meeting.  It was his birthday weekend, afterall, and not even a major terrorist threat was going to keep him off the golf course.  That prompted some speculation about the exact nature of the threat; afterall, it was serious enough to shutter our embassies across the Middle East (and prompt an evacuation from Yemen), why was the President playing golf, and not meeting with his national security team. 

It's also worth remembering that the plot has been evolving over a period of time.  Media reports suggest that the spike in chatter began several weeks ago, but the public wasn't informed until late last week.  Obviously, thee spooks wanted to monitor terrorist communications for as long as possible, hoping to learn more details about the plot.  But why was the warning delayed so long?  Judging by the far-flung nature of the warning, it would appear that Al Qaida may be preparing to strike in multiple countries at once, or we still don't have the particulars on terror plot.  If that latter scenario is true, it raises new questions about the effectiveness NSA's recently-disclosed, on-line surveillance efforts that have (supposedly) thwarted a number of terrorist attacks. 

Indeed, one report suggests that Al Qaida isn't particularly concerned that the folks at Fort Meade might be listening in.  According to Eli Lake at the Daily Beast, U.S. officials decided to issue the terror warning after intercepting an Al Qaida "conference call" that included more than 20 operatives, including Zawahiri, Nasser al-Wuhayshi (head of the Yemeni branch) and leaders of affiliates in locations ranging from Nigeria to Uzebekistan. 

Intelligence officials familiar with the call believe the Al Qaida leaders thought the call was secure, and suggested that we have been monitoring these "board meetings" for several months.  That will obviously change, but such large-scale meetings are hardly indicative of a terror group that is on the run.  For once, we actually agree with Lindsey Graham, who recently observed that Al Qaida has been "on steriods" since last year's successsful strike in Benghazi. 

Oddly enough, the current circumstances seem to be a "win-win" for all sides.  Al Qaida has demonstrated that it is far from "decimated," and with just a spike in chatter, they have forced the U.S. to close diplomatic facilities from North Africa to Pakistan.  Given the level of the American response, there is a very real perception in the Muslim world that Al Qaida has the United States on the defensive, if not on the run. 

For the Obama Administration, the terror threat came at an opportune moment.  Benghazi was bubbling up again, amid CNN's report that almost two dozen CIA operatives were on the ground when the consulate came under attack.  That renewed speculation that the diplomatic facility--and Ambassador Chris Stevens--were heavily involved in the transfer of weapons to Syrian rebels.  In fairness, credible sources have dimissed those claims, but CNN is standing by its story.  When the terror warning surfaced late last week, Benghazi was displaced by the new "story of the day," albeit temporarily. 

Reports about intercepted chatter also gave a reprieve to the NSA, which has been under fire for months, after Edward Snowden's disclosures about its domestic surveillance program.  Supporters of the agency were quick to highlight NSA's role in detecting the latest threat, obscuring larger questions about the scope of its efforts and the need to collect phone and internet data from ordinary Americans. 

Finally, the latest terror warning gave the White House an opportunity to make the most of a sudden crisis.  That weekend meeting (minus the President) created the appearance of being on top of the situation, while tamping down criticism of the NSA and domestic spying.  Predictably, the administration's friends in the press were more than happy to go along with the changing narrative. 

At this point, it appears Al Qaida has achieved a major, tactical victory without attacking a single target or detonating a single bomb.  Closing our diplomatic facilities in 22 Muslim countries was a major setback, debunking administration claims that the terror group is in retreat.  Now, the White House faces the challenge of re-opening our embassies and consulates across the Middle East--and preventing possible terrorist strikes.  But it's hard to erase the image that appeared in the skies over Yemen yesterday, the image of a superpower taking flight, from an enemy it had supposedly decimated.                                

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Dispatches from the Tar Pits

If you need proof that the dinosaur media establishment is in its death throes, look no further than the recent sales of the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.  

The New York Times Company unloaded the Globe last week, selling it to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry for $70 million dollars.  As Matt Drudge quickly calculated, that's a 93% loss, considering the Times paid more than $1 billion for the paper just 20 years ago.  Even when you factor in the profits  generated over the years by the Globe, the Sulzbergers still took a bath on the deal.     

But the real shocker was yesterday's news that the Washington Post Company is selling its flagship publication  to founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million, ending 80 years of control by the Graham family, which built it into a journalistic powerhouse.  Bezos is expected to take the  Washington Post private (along with other publications acquired in the sale).  The Washington Post company is expected to change its name and continue with its other enterprises, including a TV station group and Kaplan University.

According to Bloomberg, Bezos paid a "friendship" premium to acquire the Post, meaning the agreed-to price is well above the paper's actual value.  Major metropolitan dailies typically fetch three or four times profit; by plunking down $250 million, Bezos will pay roughly 17 times the adjusted annual profit of the Washington Post newspaper group.

It is important to note that Mr. Bezos is paying for the purchase out of his own personal funds and (apparently) plans to run the papers as a separate enterprise.  With an estimated net worth of $25 billion, stroking a check for Katie Graham's old paper should be a relatively simple process. is not connected to the newspaper purchase, so conservative hopes that the Post would morph into a weekly shopper touting Amazon's best deals are (regrettably) unfounded.

And, since the paper's new owner is decidedly liberal in his politics, don't expect any changes on the editorial page.  But that reality still ignores the $250 million question: why would Bezos (or any other billionaire) sink a large sum of money into a business that is careening towards oblivion.

In his first letter to Post employees, Mr. Bezos emphasized the need to "invent" and "experiment" in exploring the future of journalism.  Some media analysts have hailed the purchase, noting the founder has demonstrated extreme patience in building his businesses.  His pioneering e-commerce site didn't turn a profit until 2001, seven years after its launch.  Getting Amazon to that point required billions in venture capital--and a willingness to wait for consumers to embrace the model.

And there's the rub: in the internet age, readers have rejected the daily newspaper model--in droves.  Circulation, advertising and revenue totals have plummeted in recent years, prompting a number of media companies to expand diversification efforts, or get out of the print business altogether.  The Tribune Company's newspaper portfolio (which includes the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and a number of other bellwether publications) is up for sale, but a serious buyer has yet to emerge.  By one estimate, the value of the entire newspaper group has plunged to only $920 million, a fraction of its value just a few years ago. 

Against that landscape, Jeff Bezos faces a daunting challenge: can create a newspaper--online or in print--that people actually want to read?  The jury on that one will be out for a few years, until consumers and advertisers return, or Mr. Bezos gets tired of eroding profits, and decides to end his journalism "experiment," once and for all.

If you need another indication of the current state of the newspaper industry, consider this: a little over two years ago, Minnesota-based Hubbard Broadcasting paid $505 million for 17 radio stations owned by Bonneville International, a subsidiary of the Mormon Church.  The crown jewel of that acquisition was Washington's WTOP-FM, the dominant all-news outlet in the nation's capital.  By some estimates, WTOP's value represented one quarter to one-half of the selling price.  That's because the station is one of the most successful in the nation, billing upwards of $50 million in on-air and on-line advertising each year.  Never mind that all-news is a very expensive format, or that radio is another media form that is supposedly headed for extinction. You wouldn't know that from the profits generated by outlets like WTOP.

Put another way: a single radio station was (arguably) worth more--in 2011--than the entire newspaper division of the Washington Post Company.  And here's another salient fact: Hubbard is already making a significant return on its investment.  It will be a long time before Jeff Bezos can say the same thing about his acquisition of the Post. 
ADDENDUM: As the media world tries to make sense of the Post's sudden sale, Chris Kirkham of the Huffington Post is offering a rather interesting analysis of the economics behind the Graham family's decision.  Turns out the fate of the iconic newspaper was directly linked to another WaPo property, a chain of for-profit schools known as Kaplan Higher Education.

Kaplan was a small, test-preparation service when it was acquired by the Post during the 1980s.  Eventually, it grew into a full-fledged, for-profit university--and critical source of revenue for its parent company.  As readership and advertising revenue plummeted at the Washington Post, Kaplan became an important cash cow, allowing the company to paper over losses at the paper, which were approaching $150 million a year.  Using aggressive recruiting tactics (that some likened to a boiler room operation), and fueled by millions of dollars in federal student loan money, Kaplan was generating operating income of more than $400 million a year by 2010, enough to cover losses at the  Post, and offer a slight return to share-holders. 

But Kaplan's decline was even more precipitious than the newspaper division.  John Nolte of Big Journalism notes the ironic twist of policy--and politics--that resulted in the sale of the WaPo:

" for-profit student loan default rates climbed, in 2010, the government closed in to tighten regulations. And it was Washington Post Co. chairman Donald Graham, who became the most high-profile lobbyist pushing back. The Huffington Post reports that Graham's company spent $1.3 million to keep their cash cow alive.

But in a delicious twist, the very same Obama administration that the Washington Post newspaper sold its soul to put in the White House is the very same Obama administration that would eventually help to bring about the end of the Post's sugar daddy.

Apparently, President Obama's administration did agree to water down regulations that would have hurt a newspaper company that just two years later would do so much to re-elect him. But the negative publicity the uproar generated probably did as much damage as any tightened regulations."   Yet in the end, it was the Post that went up for sale, not Kaplan.  Go figure.              

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Tidal Wave

B-24s over Ploesti on 1 August 1943.  The raid on Axis oil facilities in Romania resulted in heavy lossess of planes and crews, but paved the way for later, successful missions that largely destroyed enemy fuel supplies (Wikimedia photo) 

Seventy years ago this week--on August 1, 1943--more than 170 B-24 bombers lifted off from American airbases near Benghazi, Libya.  Heading east, they struggled against the desert heat and the weight of their bombs and fuel load.  Operation Tidal Wave had begun.

It was an audacious plan; barely one year into the combined bomber offensive against Nazi-occupied Europe, Allied planners hoped to deal a devastating blow, by crippling the enemy oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania.  While German scientists had already developing a process for producing synthetic oil, the Ploesti refineries represented a vital cog in the enemy war machine, delivering more than one-third of the gasoline, diesel fuel and aviation gas used by Axis forces.

Ploesti's importance was not lost on Allied commanders; in fact, the first bomber mission flown by American crews in Europe during World War II was against the refinery center, in June 1942.  The raid inflicted minor damage, and air planners longed for another crack at the oil center and its various  facilities.  Interrupting the flow of fuel and lubricants from Ploesti would slow Hitler's armies and (possibly) shorten the war.

By the spring of 1943, the Army Air Corps had five B-24 groups available for a massive attack on Ploesti.  The planned operation was under the command of Major General Lewis Brereton, one of the more controversial air corps leaders of the Second World War.  Appointed chief of U.S Air Forces in the Far East in November 1941, Brereton pushed General Douglas MacArthur to launch air strikes against Japanese bases on Taiwan, after learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor.   As MacArthur and his staff considered the proposal, Brereton launched all of his aircraft to prevent them from being destroyed on the ground.  As their fuel grew low--and General MacArthur gave permission to prepare for a raid on Taiwan--Brereton ordered his planes to return to base.  Unfortunately, their landing came just moments before the Japanese sturck, and Brereton's air force was largely destroyed on the first day of the war.

Though Omar Bradley considered him only "marginally competent," Brereton was re-assigned to lead American air units in the Middle East, as the Germans threatened the Suez Canal.  After the subsequent British victories at El Alamein (and U.S. landings in North Africa), Brereton got the green light to go after Ploesti, which would become one of the early blows in the Allied "oil campaign," aimed at crippling the German war effort.

Brereton delegated raid planning to a highly capable officer, Colonel Jacob Smart (who would eventually retire from the Air Force as a four-star general).  Leading the raid would be Brigadier General Uzal Ent, the experienced commander of 9th Bomber Command.  Ninth Air Force would supply three of the B-24 groups assigned to bomb Ploesti, while Eighth Air Force provided three more.  Four of the five groups were considered "experienced," so planners had a reasonable expectation of success, though they warned casualties could be high.  Brereton himself prediced loss rates approaching 50%, but said the raid would be worth the risk, given its potential to disrupt Nazi oil supplies.

Smart's plan called for a long-distance, low-level over the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic; through Albania's Prindus Mountains, across southern Yugoslavia and into Romania.  The 2,400-mile round-trip required the installation of extra fuel tanks in the B-24's bomb bay.  Much of the mission would be flown at low altitude, in an effort to evade German radar coverage.  Crews assigned to the raid spent weeks practicing low-level flying across the North African desert, honing their skills before the strike on Ploesti.

But the concept--and tactics--were fatally flawed.  Colonel Smart's operational plan was heavily influenced by the 1942 raid, the so-called Halverson Project (after the officer who led that mission).  The small bomber force that raided the refinery complex a year earlier had encountered little enemy opposition and with virtually no updated intelligence to go on, Smart and his team assumed that enemy air defenses around Ploesti remained light, which would facilitatte a daylight attack, at low level.

It was a fatal calculation.  In fact, the earlier raid set off alarm bells throughout the German High Command, who figured (correctly) that American bombers would eventually return, and in far greater numbers.  The job of beefing up Ploesti's defenses fell to one of the Luftwaffe's most able commanders, General Alfred Gerstenberg.  He was dispatched to the area in the weeks following the 1942 raid, and spent the months that followed building some of the heaviest air defenses in Europe. 

By the time Tidal Wave's B-24 crews began their mission, Ploesti's various refineries were ringed with hundreds of large-caliber anti-aircraft guns, included the dreaded 88mm and larger 105mm weapons.  Gerstenberg also installed even larger numbers of smaller AAA guns, and more than 100 enemy fighters (German and Romanian) were based in the Ploesti region.  Additionally, the Luftwaffe commander had regular reports from German signals intelligence (SIGINT) stations in Greece, which had been monitoring the build-up of Allied airpower in North Africa, and an extensive visual spotter network.  While there is no evidence Gerstenberg had advance knowledge of impending raid, he knew a large bomber formation was heading in the general direction of Ploesti, and his defenses were on full alert.

As the five B-24 groups headed across the Mediterranean, they suffered an unexpected--and critical--loss.  The bomber carrying the raid's lead navigator suddenly began flying erratically and plunged into the sea before any of the crew could bail out.  A B-24 carrying the deputy navigator descended to look for survivors and found none; by the time it finished circling the crash site, it was too late to rejoin the formation; the job of keeping the formation on time and on track fell on a much less experienced navigator, but there was no thought of turning back.

Approaching Ploesti, problems continued to mount.  General Ent and one of his group commanders, Colonel Keith Compton, aligned their formation on the wrong railroad track at the initial point, about 65 miles south of the target.  As they flew in the direction of Bucharest (instead of Ploesti), confusion reigned among the bomber crews.  Some broke radio silence to discuss the navigation error and query other pilots about the correct heading.  If there was any doubt in Gerstenberg's mind about the target, it was probably erased with the burst of American chatter over flight frequencies, in close proximity to Ploesti.

What followed was a slaughter.  The 93rd Bomb Group lost 11 aircraft over the target; the other groups suffered similar, heavy losses.  Some of the bombers flew less than 50 feet above the ground, dodging smokestacks, barrage balloons and other obstacles.  Gunners on the B-24s reported firing up at enemy anti-aircraft guns on nearby hillsides.  But the crews never wavered; despite withering AAA fire, steady attacks from enemy fighters and heavy smoke that made flying even more difficult, the American crews pressed home their attacks, at great sacrifice.  Five Medals of Honor were awarded to aircew members on the Ploesti raid, three of them posthumously.

Results were disappointing; most of the refineries were back in service within a week, although one didn't resume production until after the war.  The cost was staggering; only 88 of 177 B-24s returned to Benghazi later that day, after more than 12 hours in the air.  Forty-four aircraft had been downed by enemy air defenses; the rest ditched in the Adriatic or Mediterranean, or were interned in neutral Turkey when badly damaged Liberators landed there.  All told, 440 American airmen had been killed, and 200 more were missing or prisoners of war.

But, as Robert Zubrin notes in the current issue of National Review, the allies didn't lose their nerve--or their focus on Nazi oil production.  One year later, with the addition of more bomber groups, access to bases on the Italian peninsula, and the availability of long-range P-51 escort fighters, American bombers returned to Ploesti and Germany's Leuna synthetic oil complex in May 1944; two months later, 98% of Hitler aviation fuel production plants were out of operation.  While the Nazis continued to produce armaments at a remarkable pace, they were virtually useless due to a lack of fuel.

As Zubrin observes, the lessons of Ploesti are two-fold; first, the selflessness and courage of the B-24 crews is astounding, even 70 years after the raid.  Against terrible odds, they took the fight to a distant enemy target and many of them paid the ultimate price.  But they did not die in vain; the men who followed them to Ploesti in 1944 learned the lessons of that first, large-scale raid; subsequent missions were flown at medium altitude, and with Mustangs protecting their formations, the Germans could inflict only minor losses.

The second lesson of Ploesti is a central tennet of modern warfare: powers who depend on distant oil supplies--often controlled by unreliable allies--are at a terrible disadvantage.  With the eventual loss of Romanian fuel supplies and synthetic oil plants, Hitler's war machine ground to a halt.  Japan suffered a similar fate when U.S. submarines sank most of the tankers carrying crude oil from the East Indies to refineries in the home islands.  B-29 raids on those same facilities administered the final coup de grace.

Eight decades after Ploesti, the U.S. remains dependent, to some degree, on unreliable foreign sources of oil to fuel its military.  Making matters worse, we spend billions defending those complexes while some of the oil producers (read: Saudi Arabia) use part of the profit to finance global jihad that threatens our security and has led to the deaths of thousands of Americans.

That is why we must control our energy destiny, expanding proven resources to fuel our economy and our military.  That's why the lessona of Ploesti are as relevant today as it was on that summer day in 1943.                    


Thursday, August 01, 2013


Dave Micelli is a veteran teacher in the Baltimore city school system.  Recently, he submitted a letter to the Baltimore Sun, ridiculing the paper's editorial on the need for "better schools" to serve troubled minority youth.  The problem isn't the schools, Micelli wrote, it's the students (H/T to Gregory Kane of the Washington Examiner, who reprinted much of the teacher's letter in a recent column):

"Regarding your recent editorial, 'How to end the killing,' your last paragraph made me want to vomit. 'No doubt, Baltimore needs effective police and prosecutors, ample drug treatment, better schools, and more economic opportunities.'

"How dare you accuse, through implication or otherwise, that the need for 'better schools' is a reason there is so much killing. Had you defined the loosely used term, 'better schools,' perhaps I and probably others may not have been so nauseated.

"I have taught in the Baltimore public school system for the past two decades.  What we need is better students.  We have many excellent teachers.  I cannot count the number of students who have physically destroyed property in the schools.

"They have trashed brand-new computers, destroyed exit signs, set multiple fires, destroyed many, many lockers, stolen teachers' school supplies, written their filth on the tops of classroom desks, defecated in the bathrooms and stairwells, assaulted teachers (beyond telling them to perform certain impossibles acts upon themselves) and refused to do any homework or class work. 

"Need I go any further?  I won't even bother addresing the other 'causes' you listed.  Too inance.  In summary, the problem seems to be a total disregard for life that exists not only in our crime-ridden city, but also in all of the major cities throughout the United States.

"So go blame other root causes, but please leave our city police, prosecutors and teachers out of the finger wagging." 

Bravo, Mr. Micelli, for having the temerity to address the 800-pound elephant in the public education classroom--school discipline, or more accurately, the lack thereof.  It's no secret that many of the nation's schools are out of control, with marauding students terrorizing their peers and teachers, while administrators are unable (or unwilling) to act.

Indeed, a school principal or superintendent who tries a "get tough" approach may run afoul of the Obama Administration.   Writing in the current issue of City Journal, the brillant Heather MacDonald documents administration efforts that have further eroded classroom order, in pursuit of "phantom racism."  The entire article is required reading for anyone remotely concerned about American education; below are a few excerpted paragraphs:

"...the Departments of Education and Justice have launched a campaign against disproportionate minority discipline rates, which show up in virtually every school district with significant numbers of black and Hispanic students. The possibility that students’ behavior, not educators’ racism, drives those rates lies outside the Obama administration’s conceptual universe. But the country will pay a high price for the feds’ blindness, as the cascade of red tape and lawsuits emanating from Washington will depress student achievement and enrich advocates and attorneys for years to come.

This past March, Duncan released some newly gathered national discipline data. The “undeniable truth,” he said, was that the “everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity.” The massive media coverage of Duncan’s report trumpeted the discipline disparity—blacks were three and a half times more likely to get suspended or expelled than their white peers—as convincing evidence of widespread discrimination. (The fact that white boys were over two times as likely to be suspended as Asian and Pacific Islander boys was discreetly ignored, though it would seem to imply antiwhite bias as well.)        [snip]   The feds have reached their conclusions, however, without answering the obvious question: Are black students suspended more often because they misbehave more? Arne Duncan, of all people, should be aware of inner-city students’ self-discipline problems, having headed the Chicago school system before becoming secretary of education. Chicago’s minority youth murder one another with abandon. Since 2008, more than 530 people under the age of 21 have been killed in the city, mostly by their peers, according to the Chicago Reporter; virtually all the perpetrators were black or Hispanic. In 2009, the widely publicized beating death of 16-year-old Derrion Albert by his fellow students sent Duncan hurrying back to the Windy City, accompanied by Attorney General Eric Holder, to try to contain the fallout in advance of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics (see “Chicago’s Real Crime Story,” Winter 2010). Between September 2011 and February 2012, 25 times more black Chicago students than white ones were arrested at school, mostly for battery; black students outnumbered whites by four to one. (In response to the inevitable outcry over the arrest data, a Chicago teacher commented: “I feel bad for kids being arrested, . . . but I feel worse seeing a kid get his head smashed on the floor and almost die. Or a teacher being threatened with his life.”) So when Duncan lamented, upon the release of the 2012 discipline report, that “some of the worst [discipline] discrepancies are in my hometown of Chicago,” one could only ask: What does he expect?

Nationally, the picture is no better. The homicide rate among males between the ages of 14 and 17 is nearly ten times higher for blacks than for whites and Hispanics combined. Such data make no impact on the Obama administration and its orbiting advocates, who apparently believe that the lack of self-control and socialization that results in this disproportionate criminal violence does not manifest itself in classroom comportment as well."

As Ms. MacDonald notes, the White House hasn't come close to proving the supposed link between lengthy school suspensions, higher drop out rates, and gravitation towards a life of crime.  But then again, facts really don't matter to the Obama Administration.  Besides, depicting disruptive minority students as "victims" instead of the problem allows the President and his minions to maintain their continuous campaign mode, and avoid any responsibility for serious social and economic problems that have festered on their watch. 

The reality is rather clear: America's schools are (increasingly) held hostage by students who are responsible for the majority of discipline problems.  By some estimates, only six percent of pupils generate two-thirds of a school's major discipline problems, disrupting the education process for all involved.  Almost a decade ago, Public Agenda (a center-left think tank), published a study that summarized the school discipline problem rather succinctly; by over-whelming margins, teachers and parents agreed that discipline is essential for the education process.  And by similar numbers, they concurred that unruly students are disrupting that process, preventing other students from learning, and forcing some teachers to leave the profession out of sheer frustration. 

Judging from Dave Micelli's letter, the situation has only grown worse over the past decade.  While politicians from both parties talk about the need for "better schools," they continue to ignore the discipline issue.  Without "better students" (and firmly-enforced discipline policies), efforts at "school reform" will inevitably fail, and all of us will pay the price.