Monday, September 23, 2013

A Convenient (and Profitable) Exit

Lois Lerner, the embattled director of the IRS's Tax Exempt Organizations Division, has announced her retirement from the agency.  She leaves under a cloud, but will collect a pension estimated at more than $115,000 a year (National Review photo) 

Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the efforts to harass Tea Party groups and deny them tax-exempt status, is bowing out.  Ms. Lerner, who has been on administrative leave--with pay--since late May has retired from the agency, according to The Wall Street Journal.

A Democratic congressional aide said Ms. Lerner's decision came after an IRS review board had informed her that it was set to propose her removal from the agency. The board had found "neglect of duties" during her tenure as director of the IRS exempt-organizations division, as well as mismanagement consistent with critical findings of an earlier inspector general's report, the aide said. However, the congressional aide noted the board found no evidence of political bias or willful misconduct.

"Removing" Lerner from the IRS would have been the first step in her termination as a federal employee.  But Ms. Lerner avoided that possibility by simply submitting her retirement paperwork.  And we're guessing the agency set new records in approving her request, since it can now depict the targeting of conservative groups as the actions of a "former" employee.

In exchange for falling on her sword, Lerner will be nicely compensated.  As a career federal bureaucrat, she has a fat government pension to fall back on, somewhere in the neighborhood of $115,000 annually.  This calculation is based on Lerner's coverage under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), which covers government workers who began their careers before 1987.

Retirement annunities governed by that plan are based on a percentage of the employee's highest three-year salary average.  During the latter stages of her IRS career, Lerner averaged $185,000 a year; using the Office of Personnel Management formula, that gives the disgraced federal official an estimated monthly retirement check of $10,110, before taxes and other deductions.

We use the term "estimated" because it's been virtually impossible to find a biography of Ms. Lerner that provides a complete listing of her federal service.  This much we know: after earning her bachelor's at Northeastern University, Lerner graduated from the Western New England University School of Law in 1978.  Then, she made a beeline for D.C., signing on as a staff attorney at the Carter Justice Department.  Eight years later, she moved to the Federal Election Commission, where her partisan enforcement style first became obvious.  From Eliana Johnson at National Review:

One of Lerner’s former colleagues tells National Review Online that her political ideology was evident during her tenure at the FEC, where, he says, she routinely subjected groups seeking to expand the influence of money in politics — including, in her view, conservatives and Republicans — to the sort of heightened scrutiny we now know they came under at the IRS.


“I’ve known Lois since 1985,” says Craig Engle, a Washington, D.C., attorney who from 1986 to 1995 served as the executive assistant to one of the FEC’s commissioners and later worked as general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m probably one of the few people in Washington who really knows her whole career as opposed to those who have come across her lately.”

Engle describes Lerner as pro-regulation and as somebody seeking to limit the influence of money in politics. The natural companion to those views, he says, is her belief that “Republicans take the other side” and that conservative groups should be subjected to more rigorous investigations. According to Engle, Lerner harbors a “suspicion” that conservative groups are intentionally flouting the law.          

Despite her obvious "suspicion" (read: bias), Ms. Lerner's career flourished at the FEC, where she held the position as Associate General Counsel and head of the Enforcement Office.  From there, she joined the IRS in 2001, rising to the top of its Tax Exempt Organizations division, giving her enormous influence over political groups applying for that status.  By our count, Lerner spent at least 34 years on the federal payroll, using her position to target conservative groups and candidates.  And despite obvious warning signs from her FEC days, few raised objections to her tactics and enforcement "style" until the IRS scandal erupted earlier this year.   

So why did Lerner quit?  The odds of her actually being fired from the bureaucracy are ridiculously low; a 2011 study by USA Today found that the average federal worker was more likely to die on the job than be dismissed for cause.  For personnel at the upper levels of the GS scale and members of the Senior Executive Service, the chances of being dismissed are akin to being struck by a meteorite.  During FY2011, the paper reported, the federal government fired only 11,000 personnel--out of a workforce of more than 2 million (excluding postal service workers and military personnel).   

We're guessing that Ms. Lerner was told to submit her retirement papers, probably by the new IRS Commissioner and (likely) at the direction of the White House.  Both the administration and the agency want to move beyond the targeting scandal, and having the central figure on paid vacation certainly doesn't help that cause.     There is also reason to believe that even more damning revelations about Lerner and her minions are about to unfold and there's still the possibility (albeit remote) that the former bureaucrat could face criminal prosecution some day. 

By retiring now, Lerner has effectively secured her six-figure pension; as outlined in a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, laws that can strip pensions from convicted members of Congress--and other senior government officials--are rarely enforced.  In fact, a CNN report (from 2007) estimated that 20-25 former Congressmen, all convicted of various offenses, were still collecting their federal pensions at that time, even while incarcerated.
Against that backdrop, Ms. Lerner has little to worry about, even if lightning strikes (quite literally) and she spends a little time behind bars.  It's easy to run a politically-motivated vendetta when you have little to fear in the way of punishment.       

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Passing the Buck

In the wake of Monday's mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has, predictably, ordered an inquiry into security practices at the nation's military installations. 

According to some reports, the probe will focus on physical security at bases and other facilities controlled by the armed forces, along with a review of security clearance procedures.  The gunman responsible for yesterday's massacre, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, held a "Secret" security clearance--and as a defense contractor had acess to military posts, despite a history of discipline problems during his time in the Navy Reserve and treatment for mental illness.

Perhaps Mr. Hagel and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus will expand the official inquiry to determine who "passed the buck" on an individual who should have been booted from the reserves for his conduct and denied both a security clearance and employment as a defense contractor.  As more is learned about the former Petty Officer, we seem ample opportunities for intervention--opportunities that were continually ignored, for whatever reasons.

Sadly, this isn't the first time that commanders and supervisors have taken a pass on dealing with a troubled individual, with deadly consequences.  And we're not referring to Fort Hood, either.

Flashback to 1992.  A young man from Michigan with a long history of mental illness appeared at an Air Force recruiting office.  Apparently, his problems never surfaced during the enlistment process; the individual either lied to the recruiters, or the service ignored potential warning signs.  With a solid score on his ASVAB, the individual was allowed to enlist and shipped out for basic training.

At Lackland AFB, the recruit's military training instructor (MTI) observed behavior he considered alarming.  The MTI referred the recruit to the base mental health clinic and urged his squadron commander to begin paperwork for an administrative discharge.  Mental health professionals at the clinic concurred with his assessment.  But the commander decided the new airman deserved a second chance and ignored the advice of her MTI and base psychologists.  The troubled recruit made it through basic and moved on to technical school at Lowry AFB, Colorado. 

A similar pattern was observed during the long training course.  The airmen went through several roommates; all complained about his odd behavior, and one received a death threat from him.  Once again, the airman was referred to base mental health specialists--and once again--he was recommended for discharge.  But a senior officer in the airman's chain-of-command rejected that request, because the disturbed young man "made good grades" in the equipment calibration technician course.  Never mind that he threatened to kill a roommate.  Or was often observed sitting by himself, laughing out loud.  Or simply staring at the wall for long periods of time.

After tech school, the disturbed airman was sent to his first duty station, at Fairchild AFB, Washington.  There, his behavior grew more disturbing.  Asked by his roommate where he was from, the airman said he "needed to get to know someone before answering a question like that."  The airman also masturbated in front of his roommate and his girlfriend.  There was another referral to the mental health clinic and once more, a recommendation for discharge.  Again, the recommendation was ignored.  The commander wanted the Air Force to recoup some of the money it had invested in the airman's training; besides, he was doing "okay" at work.

As the airman's behavior continued to deteriorate, he was sent to the USAF's Wilford Hall Medical Center (back at Lackland) for in-patient psychiatric treatment.  During his stay, the airman was diagnosed with several serious mental conditions--all of which were grounds for discharge.  Yet, he somehow managed to avoid discharge.  After extended treatment, the airman was reassigned to Cannon AFB, New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, the young man's bizarre behavior continued at his new assignment.  But commanders at Cannon refused to pass the buck.  Acting on the advice of his superiors (and their mental health team), they discharged the airman in early 1994, citing a severe personality disorder.  Unable to dodge the separation bullet, the airman opted for the cash value of his ticket home and withdrew his savings (about $6,000) from a local bank.  But the team at Cannon did make one mistake; they didn't consider the individual's potential for violence and failed to warn his old base (Fairchild) that the disturbed airman had been discharged.

On the afternoon of 20 June 1994, the airman took a cab back to the base hospital--an ungated, unsecure facility.  He was carrying a Chinese-made MAK-90 assault rifle.  Once inside the hospital, he went to the offices of Major Thomas Brigham, a psychiatrist, and Captain Alan London, a psychologist.  Both had recommended the airman's discharge when he was assigned to Fairchild.  After fatally shooting the two mental health providers, he strolled through the hospital, firing at anything that moved.  He killed three more individuals (and wounded 22 others) before being killed by Senior Airman Andrew Brown, a security policeman on bike patrol.  Airman Brown stopped the gunman at a range of 70 yards, firing four shots from his 9mm pistol.  One of the bullets struck the shooter between the eyes.  It was a remarkable feat of marksmanship.  

The deranged airman was Dean Mellberg.  The subsequent investigation into the massacre--and the events that led to it--revealed the long list of missed warning signs and commanders who refused to deal with the problem.  Yet, there is no evidence that any of them were ever sanctioned for allowing a disturbed individual to remain on active duty, perpetuating the danger that eventually exploded on that terrible June day almost 20 years ago.

Making matters worse, it appears that the defense department learned little from the Fairchild incident.  Fifteen years later at Fort Hood and again this week at the Washington Navy Yard, we saw the consequences of command chains that chose to ignore a festering problem.  Major Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at the Texas base became a radicalized jihadi literally before the eyes of his fellow residents at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.  They recognized the danger and reported Hasan's comments and actions to their superiors, who did....nothing.  According to various accounts, some senior officers worried about the potential "impact" of investigating and disciplining a Muslim officer, fearing it would jeopardize the Army's treasured "diversity."  There were ample red flags in the months before Hasan's rampage--and those concerns were communicated to officers with the power to neutralize the threat.  Instead, they chose to look the other way. 

And the same pattern is evident in the case of Aaron Alexis.  His long list of disciplinary problems in the Navy Reserve were indicative of someone unsuited for military service.  Collectively, his supervisors in the reserve had more than enough information to punish Alexis and begin discharge proceedings, but instead, they took a powder.  He was promoted to Petty Officer Third Class; his security clearance was never in jeopardy (as far as we can tell) and he left the reserves with an honorable discharge, apparently because his unit was happy to get rid of him--without all the paperwork and headaches of an administrative discharge and/or disciplinary action. 

To be sure, there are limits on what a military commander can do; ditto for mental health professionals in the armed forces and boards that (typically) determine if an individual will be discharged or allowed to remain in service.  But that doesn't excuse what happened with Aaron Alexis.  The Navy Reserve let their "problem" walk out the gate, with little regard for the potential, long-term consequences, following the sorry example set in the Mellberg case and the Fort Hood massacre. 

Being a commander, senior enlisted advisor, first sergeant (or anyone else involved in disciplinary and discharge proceedings) is hardly an easy job.  But it comes with the territory.  And one of the most important tasks facing anyone in that chain is making the quality cuts required to maintain a well-trained, motivated and disciplined force.  Military service is not a right--it is a privilege.  And the number of Americans who meet the minimum criteria to wear the nation's uniform is shockingly small and that's the way it should be. 

Obviously, no system is perfect, so when a few bad apples fall through the cracks of the recruiting and training systems, it's up to commanders, first shirts and Command Chiefs/Sergeants Major to determine if the new soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or coastie can be salvaged.  If they can't, it's time to make the cut.  "Flush early and often," as Chief Buddy would say. 

Unfortunately, some individals entrusted to make those tough calls aren't up to the task, and the consequences can be deadly.  Equally disturbing is the negative impact of political correctness and diversity on the military personnel and justice system.  It's an unspoken fact that some commanders are reluctant to punish (or discharge) minority members, fearing that individual will play the "race card" and ruin their careers.  Others are worried that a large number of disciplinary actions or discharges will highlight their squadron, battalion or section as a "problem area" in the eyes of their superiors, another potential problem for ambitious officers or senior NCOs trying to move up the food chain. 

But it's quite possible for units to maintain fair and firm discipline policies, without impacting the advancement of senior personnel.  Chief Buddy remains a legend in the blue-suit community; new arrivals learned on day one that he was watching them and if they couldn't maintain standards (or created problems within the unit), he would help them find another line of employment.  Strict adherance to the standards resulted in outstand units and Buddy still reached the Air Force's highest enlisted rank, Chief Master Sergeant.  He even received the ultimate compliment from a JAG officer who told him "you never made a bad call."  In other words, he thoroughly documented substandard or illegal conduct, so by the time the JAG and commander took a look, there was no question about how the matter would be handled. 

That should be the standard in the U.S. military (and it is in many units).  But, as evidenced by the shootings at Fort Hood and the Navy Yard, some senior officers apparently can't be bothered with the tough issues of unit discipline and removing those who are unfit for military service.  Such commanders are content to let those matters resolve themselves, and avoid any unpleasantness that might disrupt their next promotion.  To borrow another "Buddy-ism," that isn't leadership, it's chickenship.  And it's high time the military started holding those feckless "leaders" accountable.        





Monday, September 16, 2013

The Fortress Myth

For the second time in less than four years, there has been a mass shooting at a U.S. military installation.

According to Washington, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, at least 12 people were killed this morning at the Navy Yard in the district's southeastern area, on the banks of the Potomac River.  The shooting occurred in a building that housed the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters building.  More than 3,000 military and civilian employees worked in the facility.

As many as three gunman may have been involved in the shooting. At a press briefing shortly after 2 pm Eastern Time, Chief Lanier told reporters that one shooter was killed by security personnel responding to the incident.  Fox News (and other media outlets) later identified as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis from Fort Worth, Texas.  According to some reports, Alexis was a Navy contractor who was recently hired to work by The Experts, an IT firm working with Hewlett-Packard on a project involving the Navy and Marine Corps intranet.  A senior executive with The Experts said that Alexis previously worked for the company in Japan in 2012.

At mid-afternoon, the search for other suspects was continuing.  At least one individual, reportedly wearing a "tan-style" [Navy] uniform had been contacted by authorities and cleared as a suspect.  But police were still looking for another person, also clad in a military-style uniform.  By late evening, police had dismissed the theory of additional gunmen, deciding that Aaron Alexis acted alone.

Earlier reports on the dead gunman--which identified him as a retired Navy officer or Petty Officer--proved false.  Those initial accounts were reportedly based on a military ID card found at the scene, raisinig the possibility that a lost or stolen card was used by the shooter to gain access to the Navy Yard.  While that scenario has subsequently been dismissed, ID cards remain a security vulnerability for DoD.

To gain access to a base or facility, individuals are required to present an ID card at the gate or entry control point.  Those cards are issued by the military, at the Pass and ID facility that can be found at almost every base.  Active-duty personnel, uniformed reservists and eligible contractors receive a common access card (CAC) that contains a computer chip.  Other members of the military community, including dependents and retirees, are issued a uniformed services ID card.  That latter card utilizes older technology which can be more easily duplicated, or forged.

As I type this post, I'm looking at my own uniformed services card, issued when I retired from active duty more than a decade ago.  The picture is faded and the lamination could be easily pulled back, allowing someone to alter the photograph or information imprinted on the card.  There are also numerous on-line firms that will provide a phony military ID, for a price.

But even if the bad guys get their hands on an ID card, there are supposed to be additional lines of defense, starting with the guard at the gate, or entry control point.  Some are military police; others are civilian contractors.  DoD regulations require that security personnel check the ID of everyone attempting to enter the installation.  The operative word is "check."  In some instances, ID cards are scanned; the portable device is linked to the DEERS database, so if the card has been lost, stolen or it's a forgery, the guard will be instantly notified.  Security personnel are also required to visually inspect all cards presented for entry, ensuring that the photo matches the face of the holder, and and key elements (such as the branch of service and DoD shield) are present.  If something seems amiss, security personnel are authorized to turn away or detain suspicious individuals.

Sounds reassuring, right?  Think again.  At the height of morning rush hour, guards manning the installation's access gates or entry control points have only a few seconds to inspect each card.  Anything beyond a cursory review would create traffic jams in just a matter of minutes.  Additionally, you'd be surprised to learn just how infrequently cards are scanned against the data base, and how few bases require individuals seeking entry to obtain a visitor's pass.

Let me cite a personel example: in my current job, I visit military installations around the country and in some cases, security is surprisingly lax.  A few weeks back, I visited a major Army post in western Texas; that particular base is an open installation; anyone presenting a valid ID (including a driver's license) can access the post.  Among the bases I travel to on a recurring basis, none are open posts, but almost none bother to scan the ID cards that pass through their gates.

Given those realities, it's little surprise that the shooter (or shooters) was able to breeze onto the Navy Yard this morning.  Once inside the gate, it was simply a matter of finding a parking space, grabbing weapons and heading into the building.  More detailed vehicle checks, which might have uncovered Alexis's small arsenal, are rarely conducted, particularly during morning rush hour, when hundreds of drivers are attempting to access the base.
There are obvious solutions for these problems.  First, bring back base decals which were required for years on the front of vehicles allowed to access the base.  The decals, which were eliminated in a cost-savings measure, provided another level of verification for individuals entering the post.  Now, in the "post-decal" era, virtually any vehicle can enter the post, as long as the driver presents a valid ID card.

Additionally, the Uniformed Services ID Card should be upgraded, making it more resistant to tampering and forgery.  Few would argue that retirees and dependents need CAC cards, but incorporation of biometric and tamper-resistent features would make it more difficult for criminals, terrorists and psychopaths to obtain phony documents.

Beyond that, the inspection process at the gate must become more careful and detailed.  Every ID card should be scanned and if the holder can't be found in the database, access should be denied.  If the card isn't scanned, it becomes relatively easy for individuals to enter the post, using forged or stolen identification cards.

DoD should also spend whatever it takes to clean up the databases used to issue and track ID cards.  Unfortunately, the system doesn't always catch important changes, such as the death of a military retiree, a new marriage, or the loss of an ID card.  Consequently, a clever criminal or enterprising terrorist stands a good chance of getting on base with a stolen or forged card.

There's nothing particularly "revolutionary" about these fixes--just implementing corrective measures that should be mandatory on any military installation.  And here's another idea: why not put more armed personnel on patrol around the post?  Every armed forces organization have individuals who can be trained and pressed into service as security augmentees.  A greater armed presence could have a deterrent effect on individuals contemplating future attacks.  Another solution is allowing some service members to enjoy the same, concealed carry rights afforded to their civilian counterparts.

In an era when many Americans have no contact with the military, they (incorrectly) assume that military bases are virtually fortresses, and almost impervious to this type of attack.  Those of us who served knew better; the Fort Hood massacre exposed the vulnerability of military posts to this type of assault and today's events at the Navy Yard only reaffirmed those weaknesses.

So far, officials are dismissing the possibility of terrorism, even though multiple shooters may have been involved.  But rest assured that Al Qaida was watching and taking notes.  Today wasn't the first mass-shooting incident on a U.S. military base and it certainly won't be the last.

Subsequent reporting on Aaron Alexis reveals that he served four years on active duty in the Navy (apparently in the Dallas-Fort Worth area), but was eventually discharged for disciplinary reasons.  Still, Alexis managed to reach the rank of Petty Officer Third Class (E-4), which is common for a first-term enlistee.  And, despite the disciplinary issues that ended his Navy career, he was hired twice by the same defense contracting firm. 

Hmm....sounds vaguely reminiscent of Edward Snowden, the IT contractor accused of revealing hundreds of sensitive NSA secrets.  Despite getting bounced from Army basic training (and his lack of a high school degree), Snowden was hired by at least two defense contractors and given a TS/SCI clearance.  There were plenty of reasons to deny employment--and a clearance--to Mr. Snowden, but he was hired anyway and we know what happened after that.  Likewise, Alexis's dismissal from the Navy should have raised red flags about his suitability to work as a defense contractor, but he still got the job.  Alexis was preparing to start his new job at the Navy Yard at the time of the shooting and it's still unclear what prompted the rampage, though the former sailor had anger management issues.           


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

From Debacle to Disaster

How does a foreign policy crisis move from mere debacle to absolute disaster in the matter of a few hours?  Just ask Team Obama.

Over a 12-hour span on Monday, the administration essentially ceded control of the Syria situation to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the regime in Damascus.  And the speed at which the transition occurred was simply stunning.  To be fair, President Obama's national security advisers are the weakest and most inept in 50 years.  But even by their low standards, the surrender on Syria was nothing less than jaw-dropping.  And here is how it happened.

The day began with Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry (in case you haven't heard, he served in Vietnam), trying to rally support for a military strike against Syria from the Arab League.  By most accounts, things were going well--or reasonably well, considering the corner Mr. Obama had painted himself into.  Sources indicated that Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich kingdoms of the Persian Gulf would underwrite the cost of a U.S. campaign.  There is little love for Bashir Assad in places like Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi, so the sheiks were willing to underwrite a potential U.S. strike, and push the dictator a few steps closer to oblivion.

Then, Mr. Kerry opened his mouth.  Trying to assure his audience that an American attack wouldn't become an all-out war, he described the planned strike as "unbelieveably small."  You could almost hear the cheers from Damascus.  Then, just a few minutes later, he suggested a strike might be averted if Mr. Assad gave up his chemical weapons arsenal.

That certainly got the attention of Vladimir Putin.  In near-record time, the Russian leader agreed to lead efforts to put Syria's WMD arsenal under "international" control.  Stunned by Kerry's blunder--and Putin's clever exploitation--President Obama initially tried to "walk back" the remarks of his Secretary of State.  But a few hours later, he gave up on that futile effort and "welcomed" the diplomatic initiative in a series of TV interviews.

Now, some 24 hours later, the Obama Crew is in full spin mode, hailing the original gaffe as a genuine "breakthrough."  And many of the stenographers in the mainsteam press are more than happy to echo that narrative.

But wait just a minute.  What exactly have Mr. Obama and his advisers agreed to?

Let's start with the notion of the "international community" gaining control of Assad's chemical weapons inventory.  Remember the various organizations charged with finding Saddam's WMD in Iraq, or tracking down the Iranian nuclear program?  Describing them as less-than-successful would be charitable, at best.  There is virtually no guarantee than any of them would have more luck in Syria.

And of course, we can certainly trust Vladimir Putin.  After all, Syria has been Moscow's chief client state in the Middle East for more than 30 years and its' a fair bet that Russian WMD technology has "assisted" Damascus's development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.  Does anyone really expect Putin to come clean about his nation's role in the Syrian chem program, or pressure Assad into full disclosure?  Beyond that, what does Putin expect in return?  A free hand in making deals with Iran?  The end of U.S. missile defense?  Far greater cuts in our nuclear arsenal while Moscow modernizes?  All the above?  

There's also the matter of what the Syrian dictator gains by giving up his WMD program--except cancellation of a U.S. attack.  Chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons are one of Assad's ultimate guarantors of his regime.  Without them, the imbalance of power between Syria and its powerful neighbors (Israel and Turkey) becomes even more pronounced, and will certainly influence their strategic thinking.  The lack of WMD will also weaken Assad's hand in the on-going civil war.

In other words, Bashir Assad has plenty of reasons to play the shell game perfected over the past 20 years by North Korea and Iran, among others.  Syria will make a show of allowing inspectors into a few sites and even turn over a few weapons.  But it's a safe bet that much of Syria's WMD will remain hidden, if not at secret sites inside its borders, then at bunkers in other countries.

Lest we forget, the current Director of National Intelligence, (Ret) General James Clapper opined famously in 2003 that much of Saddam's arsenal was moved to Syria, before the U.S. invasion.  Similar claims were made in a book by the former chief of the Iraqi Air Force.  It wouldn't be hard for Moscow and Tehran to airlift Syrian chem and bio warheads in Iran, beyond the reach of international inspectors.  Has anyone been monitoring IL-76 flights between Damascus and Iran in recent days?

But President Obama isn't about to let an inconvenient scenario interfere with the current "breakthrough."  He plans to ask Congress to put off a vote on military action for at least two weeks, to give diplomacy a chance to work.

You can move a lot of WMD out of a country in 14 days.  Watching this little fiasco unfold, we were reminded of another diplomatic "triumph" from the last century.  It was 1938 and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had returned from Munich and his meeting with Adolf Hitler, proclaiming "peace in our time."  We know how that turned out.

Of course, Mr. Chamberlain later admitted his mistakes.  Good luck getting a similar admission out of the current U.S. administration, now preoccupied with touting its "triumph."

Now, go home and sleep quietly in your beds.                                        

Monday, September 09, 2013

Cal Worthington, R.I.P.

Los Angeles car dealer Cal Worthington, in one of his famous TV commercials (Worthington collection via The New York Times)

Cal Worthington died Sunday at the age of 92.  If the name doesn't ring a bell, you (a) never lived in Southern California; (b) don't watch car dealer commercials on TV, (c) never worked in sales, or (d) all the above. 

Mr. Worthington was the Los Angeles-area car dealer whose angular features, cowboy suit and ubiquitious "Dog Spot" (an animal that was never a canine) graced thousands of commercials over a career more than 50 years.  The Television Advertising Bureau described him as the "greatest car pitchman" in the history of the medium, and it's hard to disagree.  At the height of his advertising blitz (mostly late at night, on local stations in LA), Worthington spent $12 million on commercials that aired 50,000 times a year.  His dealerships--that once stretched from Alaska to Texas--sold billions of dollars worth of vehicles and made Cal Worthington a very wealthy man.

Most advertising "pros" recoil at the Worthington model; by their standards, he did almost everything wrong.  In an era that favored smooth-talking announcers, Cal looked and sounded like your uncle from Oklahoma (where he was born and grew up during the Dust Bowl).  His spots weren't particularly artistic, but they certainly caught your attention.  There was Cal, doing a headstand on the hood of a car, promising to "stand on my head, 'til my ears turn red" (to sell a vehicle).  The background music was a jingle that was lifted from "If You're Happy and You Know It," with a home-spun chorus telling viewers to "Go see Cal/Go see Cal/Go See Cal" about every three seconds.  Incidentally, the jingle had 26 stanzas, for those keeping score at home.  Worthington wrote it himself.

But the pitchman reached his zenith in the early 70s, with his "Dog Spot" ads.  As he later told the Los Angeles Times, at least two competitors were featuring dogs in their commercials, including one dealer who promised a new puppy from the pound with every vehicle sold.  Worthington decided to lampoon them with Spot, who was (in other incarnations), a 1,000-pound pig; a bear, various birds, a python, a killer whale and perhaps most famously, a Bengal Tiger who seemed more interested in eating Cal than selling cars.

And, in those days before the 500-channel cable universe, Worthington had the ability to saturate the airwaves with his ads.  Whether your were watching Johnny Carson on KNBC; the CBS Late Movie on KNXT; Dick Cavett on KABC or movies and reruns on KTLA, KTTV, KCAL or KCOP, you couldn't miss Cal.  Seeing him astride Shamu..err, Spot, and hearing that jingle thousands of times a year did the trick; at the height of the great love affair between Californians and their cars, Cal Worthington put a lot of people of the road.

It was a classic American success story.  Born into poverty, Worthington dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help support his family.  When the U.S. entered World War II, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps and despite his lack of formal education, made it through flight school and became a B-17 pilot, flying 29 combat missions over such garden spots as Berlin and Hamburg.  After leaving the service, he hoped to become an airline pilot, but was rejected due to his lack of a college degree.

Instead, Worthington opened a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas.  The station wasn't very successful, but the former bomber pilot quickly discovered his talent for selling cars.  By the early 50s, he had relocated to SoCal, opening the first car lot that eventually grew into an empire that included 29 dealerships.  At the time of his death, Worthington still owned at least four dealerships and a huge ranch in northern California.  He also remained an active pilot for much of his life, flying his Lear Jet to various appointments around the country.

In passing, Cal Worthington will be largely remembered for those thousands of TV commercials that made him a cultural icon.  But that does him something of a dissservice; Worthington belonged to that same generation of Americans that included men like Ray Kroc and Sam Walton; businessmen who were salemen at heart, that knew what their customers wanted and sold the hell out of their product line.  Selling, as practiced by a Walton, Kroc or Worthington, is an art.  But unfortunately, it's a dying art; today's generation seems less interested in closing the deal if it can't be done on-line.   

While reading Worthington's obituary in the Times, I happened to glance up and see a commercial for a local car dealer in the Richmond area.  No cowboy suit, no headstand, no Dog Spot.  In fact, the guy looked like he had stopped by the dealership after a shopping spree at the Armani store.  He was perfectly attired, blown dry and dripping sincerity.  Free oil changes for life; free engines, and a movie theater inside the dealership.  I'm sure the spot was carefully crafted by an ad agency and the message was focus-group tested.  Two minutes later, I couldn't remember the name of the dealer, or the nameplate he was selling.

Cal Worthington never had that problem.  R.I.P.
ADDENDUM: Watch Cal's greatest hits here.

The Last 24 Notes

Today's reading assignment is from Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard, and his piece on "Bugles Across America," a volunteer organization that performs "Taps" at the funerals of military retirees and honorably-discharged veterans, utilizing a real bugler, and yes, a real bugle. 

The organization is run by Tom Day, a 73-year-old former Marine who decided those who wore the nation's uniform deserved something better than a recording of Taps on a boombox, or the rendering of those mournful notes on "the device," a bugle look-alike that also works electronically.  By his own estimate, Mr. Day has played Taps at more than 5,000 funerals, dating back more than 50 years.  But his mission took on additional urgency with the passing of the Greatest Generation--and a shortage of buglers. 

"..what to some might seem like a nice gesture or a morbid hobby was transformed into high calling in 2000. It was then that federal legislation passed stipulating that every honorably discharged veteran had the right to at least two uniformed military personnel to fold and present the flag, and to sound “Taps” at their funeral. Day thought this was good. The bad news, the fine print added, was that if a bugler could not be found, a recording should be used.

Finding a live bugler proved a mathematical impossibility. With 1,800 vets dying every day (at one point, World War II veterans were dying at the rate of one every two minutes), the military had only 500 buglers to share the load. Day estimates there’s considerably fewer now, with general cutbacks and sequestration. Honor guards were thus initially directed to bring boom boxes to funerals, looking to stealthily place CD players behind tombstones, as they prayed the disc didn’t skip or scratch, that the batteries didn’t fail, or worst of all, that instead of “Taps,” they hit the wrong track and accidentally played “Reveille.” “Sounds funny, but it’s happened,” Day growls.

To add greater insult, the Defense Department then introduced what it calls “ceremonial bugles.” In the venerable Pentagon procurement tradition of the $435 hammer or the $600 toilet seat, the digital bugles cost $530 a throw, and many purists/people-with-taste consider them abominations. Day’s volunteers, when they call them anything printable, tend to refer to these as “fake bugles,” while Day himself just calls it “The Device.” As one Navy musician tells me, “This is it, it’s the last song. Your veteran is dead. And it looks like you’re playing him off with something from Toys’R’Us.”

Bugles Across America, or BAA, became Mr. Day's personal response to the boom boxes and faux horns.  He has organized a network of some 8,000 players across the country, who now cover 35% of funerals for veterans and military retirees.  All are volunteers, who pay their own travel expenses.  Donations cover the organization's modest administrative expenses.

Read the whole thing.  And while you're at it, hit the donation button at the organization's web site and make a contribution.              

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Gathering Storm (Syria Edition)

It's often been said that a military plan never survives the first contact with the enemy.  By any reasonable estimate, we're still several days away from a first strike against Syria, yet our plan appears to be constantly changing. 

To be fair, no one outside the operational chain has actually seen the plan, so much of what we know is based on rumors and leaks, some well-informed, others near-fantasy.  But one thing seems clear; what was originally described as a limited, "catharic" attack--lasting only a couple of days--is now evolving into something much longer and more complex.

From today's edition of The New York Times:

 President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employchemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

In some regards, the expanded target list might be viewed as a reality check.  The original plan outlined by administration officials seemed little more than a "feel good" strike, aimed (largely) at salvaging the Commander-in-Chief's reputation after Basha al-Assad crossed Mr. Obama's infamous "red line" on chemical weapons employment at least five times. 

Apparently, the President's national security team convinced him that a few volleys of cruise missiles would achieve little in the way of "hurting" the Syrian dictator; his military forces, or their ability to deliver chemical weapons.  Indeed, there was great concern in the White House about Assad winning the propaganda war, emerging from an underground bunker unscathed, after taking a direct blow from the U.S. military.

An expanded target list would suggest a longer campaign, forcing Assad to remain in hiding longer, while his armed forces absorb greater punishment.  That, in turn, will supposedly make it more difficult for the Syrian leader to rally his degraded forces.

But there are a couple of problems with that scenario.  A longer bombing campaign, with an expanded target list, requires more military force.  But so far, we're not seeing the required deployment of additional ships, planes and personnel that could sustain attacks for a period of weeks.  While some U.S. assets (notably B-52 and B-2 bombers) can stage from bases here in the CONUS, you need to position other units closer to the fight.

For example, let's say Mr. Obama and his planners want to mount tactical airstrikes against targets in Syria, using aircraft from the USS Nimitz, now positioned in the Red Sea.  Like any super-carrier, the Nimitz carries only about 50-55 strike aircraft (F/A-18s).  The rest are support platforms, such as the EA-6B or EA-18 (for electronic warfare support); the E-2C (for airborne early warning), or SH-60 helicopters, which perform a variety of missions, ranging from anti-submarine warfare, to search-and-rescue.  Four dozen Hornets can pack quite a punch, but they're not enough to cover an expanded target list, even with surface ships firing volleys of cruise missiles at targets ashore.

A sustained campaign against Syria would require scores of additional aircraft, ranging from KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, to AWACS platforms; SIGINT aircraft (such as the USAF RC-135); additional strike assets (notably F-16s and F-15Es), along with rescue and airlift assets, to name a few.  Some of those aircraft are already based in theater (RC-135s and F-15Es are based in England, while there is a wing of F-16s at Aviano AB, Italy), but other assets would have to be deployed from the states.  And if plans call for "round-robin" strike missions from places like Lakenheath and Aviano, our combat power will be decreased, since crews will spend much of their time flying to and from their distant targets.

So far, we haven't seen the required deployment of needed assets to airfields in Turkey, or Cyprus.  But, since this plan seems to be evolving on the fly, there is the possibility that such movements could occur in the coming days.  But that would further delay any attack on Syria, since the Pentagon would need more time to arrange the tanker and airlift assets needed to move aircraft and personnel to the Mediterranean.  At this point, with no mobilization orders in the offing, it seems the attack on Syria will be carried out by forces already on station, or those able to operate across long distances.  So, we're guessing that many of the "additional" targets will be reserved for the carrier air wing on the Nimitz, and bombers staging from Barksdale, Whiteman and Minot.

But we're not the only military power that can ad lib an operational plan.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia might support Syria, possibly providing a "missile shield" to its allies in the region.  That appears to be a slightly-veiled reference to the S-300 air defense system, which has capabilities against both aircraft and cruise missiles.  Moscow has a contract to provide the S-300 to Syria, but has never fulfilled that obligation, bowing to pressure from Israel and the United States.

However, Mr. Putin may have changed his mind.  Russia's Interfax news agency reported today that a ship heading for Syria will stop in the Black Sea port of  Novorossiysk to pick-up a "special cargo" before completing its journey to Tartus.  Novorossiysk and other Black Sea ports have been traditional shipping points for S-300s being delivered to foreign customers.

Needless to say, the introduction of the S-300 would be something of a game changer, even though U.S. crews have practiced against similar air defense systems.  The potential delivery of the S-300 means Mr. Obama has a relatively short window to strike (with or without Congressional approval).  Otherwise, he'll need to add more assets, gear up for a longer campaign and prepare for potential losses of aircraft, missile and crews. 

And, did we mention the possibility of a military confrontation with Russian and Iran as well?  Tehran has also pledged to help Damascus, and they might use an American strike as a pretext for attacking our assets in the Middle East, or dragging Israel into the fray.  Likewise, Moscow could retaliate for U.S. attacks on Syrian bases where Russian advisers and technicians are operating.  It's a much more distant possibility than Iranian action, but something that cannot be entirely dismissed.

"Another fine mess," as Laurel and Hardy might say.  Except this one has deadly serious (and far-reaching) consequences, the product of security policy built on speeches, sound-bites and vows that meant nothing--until a Syrian dictator decided to call the Commander-in-Chief's bluff.