Monday, April 30, 2007
However, he added, you also had to count the "tens of thousands" of private security personnel in the city. This caught my attention - I knew, of course, private contractors were providing security in Iraq (as we have heard about them from time to time), but I had no idea the numbers were so large.
According to a 2005 General Accounting Office report, there were at the time about 48,000 individuals providing private security in Iraq (this was a total of both Iraqi and non-Iraqi personnel, and more recent numbers are likely larger). By comparison there were about 152000 US troops in Iraq at the time.
Private security forces working with the US military has expanded greatly in the last two decades. According to this site, the ratios have gone from 50 troops to 1 private security person in the 1st Gulf War to 10-1 in 2003 to 3-1 by 2005. Those are a lot of troops wandering around Iraq with a lot of weapons and not easily accountable to anyone, least of all the US military command structure.
The heavy use of mercenary forces isn't new. Perhaps the most famous were the Condottieri, mercenary armies which were formed by private individuals, usually nobility, and hired out to Italian city-states during the Renaissance. They were famous for betraying employers, charging exorbitant fees and then demanding more regardless of any prior contract and similar shenanigans. Nicollo Machiavelli, who lived in the late period of the Condottieri, is most famous for his political works, but also was an active military thinker of his time. In his "The Art of War" (the entire book can be read here), he admonishes rulers against using mercenaries.
Apparently, the US government doesn't ascribe to Machiavelli.
Jane's had a note earlier this year about "Private security companies are lining up to bid on what may be the last major private security contract in Iraq." (emphasis added)
One can only hope.
Friday, April 27, 2007
"There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat."
Reportedly (meaning "I haven't read the book 'cause it's not on sale until next week, so this is all second-hand"), Tenet clarifies further, saying at no time "was there ever a significant discussion" about other means that might be used to contain Iraq other than going to war.
Think about that for a moment. Just ponder the implications.
In the run-up to the war, months before the start, the administration repeatedly told us it was exploring all options, that it wanted to avoid war if possible, etc. These claims were always viewed skeptically in some quarters, but now we have someone who actually participated in the pre-war discussions and decision-making affirming those claims were lies.
Also reportedly, Tenet asserts the following:
* The CIA and Tenet were convinced Saddam had WMDs (although he also says his infamous "slam dunk" comment made in a briefing was about the need to use their presumed existence for PR purposes, not about the actual existence of WMDs).
* The CIA was extremely skeptical about alleged Iraq - Al Qaeda links.
* The CIA repeatedly pointed out how difficult it would be to hold Iraq together post-Sadaam.
As history shows, the CIA was horribly wrong on the first point, and completely correct about the latter two -- which just serves to illustrate the "cherry-picking" approach the administration took in assessing intel for it's pre-determined war. Since the CIA supported the case for war on the WMD issue it was, of course, considered reliable on that matter.
However, the same CIA which was "reliable" on WMD intel was "unreliable" vis-a-vis Al Qaeda links or post-war matters. Other sources claiming we would be "greeted as liberators" were, of course, far more reliable than the CIA about such things. An intel source was "reliable" on a matter if it supported the administration's case for war, and if it didn't they'd find another, "more reliable" source that did.
All-in-all, it seems Tenet asserts the administration got it's mind set on war, and was going to have it's war come hell or high water.
In case anyone hasn't noticed, it got hell.
Update: Apparently everyone finished reading their preview copies at the same time. The NY Times has an article about it here.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
1) Tedski at Rum, Romanism and Rebellion (R-Cubed) reports that the most recent gossip making the rounds has Rick Renzi resigning from the US House of Representatives by Friday. That would be tomorrow.
There was a great deal of discussion about potential issues Renzi had in the run-up to the election last November. Predictably, left-leaning blogs were all over it (admittedly, mostly with hopeful speculation in place of any actual hard information), while right-leaning one's tended to downplay it. For example, right-leaning Greg Patterson at Espresso Pundit had the following about the affair on Oct. 24, 2006:
There is a weird conspiracy theory going around the lefty blogs. The theory is that Congressman Rick Renzi has been indicted but the US Attorney for Arizona is sitting on it so that Republicans don't lose the seat.
The Arizona Republic ran a story on Oct. 26 (unfortunately, now only available by paying for access to their archive) essentially dismissing the entire issue.
Well, time passes and we zoom ahead to last week's Wall Street Journal article about the matter, and the problems being hinted at last fall are given greater substantiation, to the extent that, within a week, the buzz is whether Renzi can survive the month, much less his full-term. It's embarrassing (or, at least, should be), particularly given how long the original hints have been out there, that it takes a news outlet from New York to break the story rather than one of our in-state papers or stations.
2) As an extra-special bonus related to item 1, the entire affair opens the door further to accusations that Paul Charlton, the US District Attorney who was overseeing the Renzi investigation before being asked to tender his resignation as part of the Gonzales affair, was asked to step down as a means of halting, or at least delaying until after the election, any possible indictment in the case.
Given the amount of time which has passed since the election, I find it doubtful the DA's office was on the verge of announcing an indictment last Oct. or Nov. However, given the timing Charlton's placement on the now-infamous "firing list" in Sept. 2006, it certainly seems increasingly likely the two events -- the Renzi investigation and Charlton's firing -- are closely related.
3) Leading Republican Presidential candidate said the following a couple days ago (via Poltitic0):
MANCHESTER, N.H. —- Rudy Giuliani said if a Democrat is elected president in 2008, America will be at risk for another terrorist attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001.
But if a Republican is elected, he said, especially if it is him, terrorist attacks can be anticipated and stopped.
“If any Republican is elected president —- and I think obviously I would be the best at this —- we will remain on offense and will anticipate what [the terrorists] will do and try to stop them before they do it,” Giuliani said.
Whether or not Giuliani is the best candidate remains open to question (particularly after making the above statement), but it's nice to know that _all_ that is needed to keep America safe from terrorism is a President with an "R" representing their party affiliation.
According to Rudy if, say, Hillary Clinton were to win election next year, she need simply change her party affiliation to Republican shortly before the inauguration and we will all be safe for the next four years.
One might, if one were feeling peckish, note our current placeholder on the high seat has an "R" for party affiliation, yet somehow failed to "anticipate or stop" the greatest terror attack ever on US soil. If one were feeling peckish. Which I'm not.
4) The Washington Post has an article this morning detailing the extent of private political briefings held in various government agencies after the mid-term elections. Although the author mentions "20 private briefings" in "at least 15 government agencies", a pair of paragraphs further down in the story make clear this has been common practice for the length of the Bush administration:
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that he was not familiar with the details of the briefings for other agencies, but that the projected fate of specific candidates was "certainly" discussed. He also said that in addition to the 20 briefings given in 2006-2007, "there were others throughout the last six years," making clear that this was a common Bush administration practice during each election cycle.Such briefings are potentially illegal in at least two different ways under the Hatch Act of 1939:
Stanzel said that Rove "occasionally spoke to political appointees at departments and agencies" but that his presentations were more "off the cuff" and were meant to convey "their importance to advancing the president's agenda."
a. It's illegal to use the resources of these agencies (such as meeting space, office resources) to promote a specific political party.
b. It's illegal to "coerce" government employees to into acts which would favor some political party.
Given the details uncovered about one such briefing at the General Services Administration last January, it's at least arguable some, if not all, of these briefings violate the Act on both counts.
As a piece of unrelated trivia, there was an earlier Hatch Act of 1887 which set of land grants to states for the purpose of setting up experimental agriculture stations. As far as I know, the Bush-Cheney-Rove triumvirate hasn't managed to violate that one yet.
5) Some blog I clicked through today (and I'd like to credit it, but now I can't find it again) led me to this item, about a new design for solar panels.
As the story notes, the design isn't perfected yet -- apparently there are issues with overcoming the resistance within the cell. That part, I suspect, is just a case of engineering -- not easy, necessarily, but not likely to be innovative as well.
The hard part, the breath-taking part, is already done - the new panel design, using nano-towers in place of flat panels to trap the incoming solar energy. It's the exact same principle grass uses, or pine needles. Like many extremely clever ideas, it's really simple once you think about it. The hard part is thinking about it in the first place.
6) In the run-up to the Iraq invasion I was regularly frustrated with the apparent inability of the press to ask questions I was interested in getting answers to. For example, why were certain pieces of intelligence (such as those originate from Douglas Feith's group) given greater weight than other pieces, which on the surface seemed like they would be more reliable?
When I was in journalism school, it was hammered into my head repeatedly that you _never_ simply accepted what you were told by any government official, you _always_ assumed there was more to the story, and your job was to find out what that was. Otherwise, you might as well be working for TASS in the cold-war era.
Well, PBS aired "Buying the War" last night, a documentary by Bill Moyers which reviews the media oversight, or, more correctly, the lack thereof, in the run up to the Iraq invasion. I have not managed to watch it yet, although it's safely taped for viewing tonight or this weekend. If you missed it, it is also available online. By all accounts, it is a scathing, damning indictment of the failure of the press to live up to it's role as an adversary and inquisitor of our government.
That role is the sole reason the press has been granted special privileges under our Constitution. As a famous comic-book character often says, "with great power comes great responsibility". In the run up to the war, our press accepted the rights, and failed the responsibilities.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
As the article makes clear, it's far, far too early to know if it actually _is_ earth-like. For one thing, it's five times more massive than earth. However, it has some of the primary preconditions -- it orbits within the "habitable zone" where surface water can exist, it belongs to a planetary system where larger planets orbit further out, to help sweep up debris such as comets and asteroids to help avoid regular impacts.
I know there is a lot of discussion about "wasting" money on our space program, and it's entirely possible our allocation of resources for space exploration isn't ideal (for example, maybe we should be putting a little more right now toward discovery and tracking of objects like this). However, it's unquestionably true, if our civilization somehow manages to survive, that we will eventually be forced to leave this planet in search of other resources. There is only so much here to be used, and no matter how efficiently we manage to recycle more will someday be needed.
The obvious first steps would include a moon base (where frozen water may be available near the poles) and Mars. A step beyond that would be the asteroids, which could be mined for their mineral content.
Sooner or later though, possibly millennia from now, there will be a need to expand even further. It's almost instinctual.
The significance of this discovery is not the planet itself. In all likelihood it will turn out to be barren -- it's too large, the atmosphere too dense, the atmosphere not dense enough ... something will be wrong and water will not exist.
However, this is just one planet. The first extra-solar planet discovery only happened in 1991. For planets around a sun-like star it was 1995, just over a decade ago. These planets were massive, Jupiter-sized or larger. It's only within the last couple years we've been able to detect planets approaching the size of earth. The fact we found one so quickly, and so close, suggests the first three terms of the Drake equation possess quite high values, and other potential bundles of desirable landscape may be quite common.
I would love a place with an ocean view.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Now, when you and I consistently fail to include major expenses in our budget, like, say, a war, and we find ourselves needing to go ask someone for more money, there is a typically a need to demonstrate some minimal level of responsibility and history of good decision-making before any funds are offered to us.
What, exactly, has the President done to merit such consideration?
His history of decision making is nearly universally disastrous. Here are just a few of the high points.
* Opted to prefer the intelligence provided by questionable Iraqi expatriates such as Ahmed Chalabi and cherry-picked intel from the group Douglas Feith set up at the Pentagon rather than than the analysis provided by groups such as the CIA.
* Ok'd disbanding the Iraqi army, leading to large numbers of unemployed young men and a lack of a core around which to build an Iraqi security force.
* Ok'd a plan to remove all Ba'athists from any role in the Iraqi government. Since membership in the party was a near requirement for an Iraqi civil servant prior to the invasion, this meant nearly the entire civilian infrastructure needed to be replaced. Most Iraqi civil servants were members "of convenience" rather than true Ba'athists.
* OK'd an invasion using the Rumsfeld doctrine rather than the Powell doctrine, leading to having fewer forces in Iraq for the occupation than were necessary. This led to the start of looting and riots, which helped kick off the insurgency, which continues today . The best time to have nipped this was in the bud, with an overwhelming number of troops in the country.
* Oversaw the granting of numerous "no-bid" reconstruction projects to companies which had political ties to his administration. Billions of dollars lost and unaccounted for. Iraq today isn't exactly known for it's improved infrastructure.
* No apparent planning for what might be necessary in the aftermath of the invasion.
I could go on, but is more really needed? The point is, on nearly every vital "decision" to be made, the President has made the wrong choice. Yes, hindsight is easy, but many people predicted the eventual results at the time decisions were being made. Even if that weren't the case, however, the President is weighed on the results of his policies, not his good intentions. If good intentions were all that mattered, Jimmy Carter would be considered one of the great presidents of our history.
Still, despite this record of poor decisions, despite the fact a decisive majority of Americans favor beginning to pull out of Iraq _now_, not even waiting until October (27% decrease now, 33% pull all out now, 21% increase now, 13% stay the same now, 6% undecided), somehow President Bush feels he has earned the right to yet another "blank check"?
Wish my creditors worked on that plan.
P.S. Anonymous Liberal has a nice related post here (scroll to the top after clicking through).
Monday, April 23, 2007
The column, a daily collection of notes and entries, will be sponsored by Citizen's Bank beginning Apr. 30. It will run with a sponsor label, and be boxed in green, a color associated with the bank in it's marketing.
The article quotes Inquirer editor William K. Marimow as saying the sponsor will have no control over the column content, and I would bet in a legal sense he is correct -- that the contract specifies no "veto" power or "mandatory inclusions" from Citizen's Bank will be permitted. However, there are other ramifications.
In my checkered career I have spent time (several years) working as a newspaper reporter. This was admittedly a while ago (late 80's, early 90's), but I can't recall _ever_ knowing or caring who was advertising with the paper. I don't recall _ever_ having a discussion about it with other reporters, copy editors, anyone. It simply wasn't relevant to us. Maybe the managing editor and his department heads knew and worried about such things (although I suspect what mattered to them was the amount of ad revenue rather than the specific sources), but we peons who gathered and sifted the information actually printed in the paper simply didn't care about these matters.
Now, I realize newspaper circulation and readership has been dropping, and the industry has been struggling for some time now, with widespread layoffs, declining newsholes and stifling budget cuts. Any source of revenue has to be at least considered, and I am sure Citizen's Bank is paying a pretty nice sum to have it's name splashed every day on the front page of a major Philadelphia newspaper.
Still, as a reader it would concern me. If I were a business reporter helping cover this beat, submitting items for this column, wouldn't I at least _consider_ second guessing myself if an item up for consideration was potentially a negative for Citizen's Bank? Remember, unlike most advertising (which is allocated to the paper in general), the money generated by this sponsorship will be (at least partially) directly applied to the business department budget. Given how tight the job market is four journalists these days, how can that thought _not_ be in the back of a writer's mind?
It may simply be a matter of doing what is necessary to survive. If it's a question of column sponsorship or no newspaper at all, then perhaps we have to bit our tongues and accept the matter, and just be (even more) aware of the inherent biases in what we read. As this NY Times article makes clear, other larger, papers around the country will be watching this experiment with interest. If it works, expect to see similar sponsorships sprout next year.
We already have Chase Field, Reliant Park, Qwest Field. Will we have Kroger's sponsoring
Paul Krugman, or Greg Hanson brought to you by the Phoenix Suns?
Friday, April 20, 2007
I have no idea if the matter will ever be brought to a vote by the Vermont House. However, if it is it wouldn't be surprising if the vote passed there. If so, then what?
I have no real understanding of Parliamentary procedure. However, the relevant part of Jefferson's Manual can be found here. If you look in the section labeled [ [ page 303 ] ] it notes impeachment proceedings can be set in motion "... by charges transmitted from the legislature of a state; ... ".
If this occurs, it looks to me (on a cursory reading ... and I am most assuredly NOT an expert) that the House of Representatives is then forced to at least consider the charges. This might mean considering them immediately, it might mean referring them to committee for investigation, but it doesn't look like the impeachment call can be ignored.
Things could become interesting. I don't really expect to see a call for impeachment occur, but there is certain to be pressure brought (in forms of emails, phone calls, etc.) to members of the Vermont House to bring this to a vote ... and President Bush now stands just one vote away, by a body which possesses a significant Democratic majority, from facing an impeachment investigation.
Note: Were this scenario to play out, it looks like it would be nearly unprecedented. This site looks has a listing of "Impeachment Efforts against Executive Branch Officials". If you look at item 58 it mentions proceedings initiated against Federal Judge Charles H. Swayne in 1903 as a result of a request originating with the Florida legislature. It's the only precedent I see in the list.
Swayne was eventually acquitted on all charges.
There are a variety of reasons this ruling is problematic, but I want to address the practicalities of the situation.
The ruling does nothing to limit abortions per se. If a woman still desires an abortion she can get one. What the ruling does do is prohibit a certain abortion procedure.
Now, I stipulate the procedure in question (Dilation and Extraction) is an ugly, gruesome procedure. If we can disregard the image of it, however, various studies (here and here are a couple examples) have found this approach to be at least as safe, and usually safer, than other forms of abortion used for second (and third) trimester fetuses.
Assuming the abortions will be performed anyway, the implication is the law will increase the risk of death or complications for the mother based purely on the "ugliness" factor of the procedure being banned. It's particularly striking this squeamishness is most commonly found amongst the set that supports gun rights for all. One wouldn't usually consider them to have such delicate sensibilities.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Yesterday's violence was the worst in the Iraqi capital since the administration, disdaining the will of the people who elected him, launched his escalation there. Not surprisingly, despite the news being overshadowed by the Virginia Tech nightmare, the Supreme Court abortion ruling and the Gonzales testimony, some commentators are taking the opportunity to use it as a sign the escalation is already a failure. Thoughtful blogger x4mr makes a small allusion to this in a post he made last night.
I responded to x4mr's post, but wanted to expand on my thoughts here. I am opposed to the escalation and want us out of Iraq. However, just as I am frustrated when global warming sceptics try to use a single data point to dispute the seriousness (or even existence) of the problem (as in "hey, we just had a record storm in the Northeast - when does global warming kick in again??
So ... let's look for more data points.
McClatchy provides some good information regarding US casualties in Iraq here, including an Excel spreadsheet with month-by-month tallies of US deaths, with a breakout for those in Baghdad. While the article accurately notes the last six months have been the deadliest six-month period for US troops since the war began, those figures are skewed by high figures in Oct. and Dec. of 2006, two of the five deadliest months of the war for US forces, and both occurring prior to the start of the "surge". Casualties in Feb. and Mar. of 2007 are much closer to the established baseline (which has, admittedly, trended up since the start of the war).
However, the first half of April (McClatchy's figures were posted Apr. 16) has been quite bad, and if the rate continues April will rank among the worst of the war for US casualties. Of course, the key words are "if the rate continues". It's also possible the recent convulsions will be followed by a lull, and the US casualty total for the month will be at or near the baseline.
(As an aside, US casualties within Baghdad have certainly trended up since the escalation, but that's to be expected with the extra combat missions occurring there.)
Looking at civilian casualty figures, the AP reported on April 13 that in the two months since the surge began civilian casualties in Baghdad has dropped to 1,586, down from 2,871 in the two months prior to the escalation. This was somewhat offset by an increase in civilian deaths outside the capital, rising from 1,009 in the two months prior to the surge to 1,504 in the two months since.
(I considered making some tallies of my own using the data available here, but that much time and energy I simply don't have. I wish the provided the DB or Spreadsheet containing the data so I could run some queries against it.)
Sooo ... what are my conclusions? Heck if I know. US casualties may jump some, but that's not yet clear. Iraqi civilian casualties do seem to be down. In general, though, despite some recent high-profile events (Wednesday's bombings, the bombing within the Green Zone), the overall figures don't yet show enough to make decisive statements for or against the efficacy of the surge.
Gonzales unquestionably would have preferred to testify on Tuesday rather than have proceedings delayed for the reason they were. Still, he may have needed the extra time, as accounts from last week indicated the pre-testimony practice sessions were not going well.
Gonzales has a difficult task. Virtually everything he has said previously about the affair has been shown to be false, or at least been challenged, by the testimony of others (most notably, his former Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson), or by emails and other documents which have since been submitted to the investigating committee.
Two of his top aides, Sampson and Monica Goodling, who served as the department's chief liaison with the White House, have resigned over the affair. Goodling has refused to testify before Congress, pleading her 5th Amendment rights.
Somehow, Gonzales will have to navigate between admitting to lying to Congress about his role in the matter without relying on a defense that would indicate he was so far out of the loop as to be incompetent, while at the same time presenting reasons for firing the prosecutors which are reasonable and sufficient to quiet the speculation they were let go purely for political reasons.
I'm very surprised things have come this far. I honestly thought Gonzales would have resigned before this, particularly with an increasing number of Republicans calling for him to step down. Unless Gonzales miraculously manages the difficult task before him (and, really, how has his handling of the affair done anything to inspire confidence that he is up to the challenge) I don't see how this can possibly end well for either himself or the White House. As a long time personal friend of our President, I expected Gonzales to fall on his sword before this.
It's a very fine line he has to walk ... should he navigate it safely, he might consider changing his name to Wallenda.
Update: The morning testimony, from what I have seen (not watching live, just picking up running commentary and a few clips of CSPAN coverage) has not been good for Gonzales. Fairly early in the proceedings Sen. Feinstein forced him to admit he made the decision to fire the prosecutors (a decision he originally denied making in his testimony last month), purportedly for "performance reasons", without first looking at their performance evaluations. Things haven't notably improved.
TPM Muckracker has running commentary with related video clips.
Update 2: Things haven't gone any better for Gonzales in the afternoon. Apparently CNN had a TV spot in which they mentioned some of the comments from White House staffers viewing the testimony. These included (via Atrios):
* "Going down in flames."
* "Not doing himself any favors."
* "Watching clubbing a baby seal." (watching testimony)
* "Very troubling."
* "Don't understand that tactic Gonzales used."
At least one other Republican Senator, Tom Coburn, openly called for Gonzales to resign during his allotted questioning time.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Something that got my brain running was the following:
Barack Obama (Senator, Illinois) - Obama is out in front on the number of contributors. He has a great deal of smaller contributions, but many of these people gave several times. If these are aggregated, no contributor gave less than $225. A couple of contributors gave odd amounts, but did so several times.
When the national fund-raising amounts came out earlier this month, a great deal was made about the large number of individual contributors Obama's campaign had, and also the number of "small" contributions which were received. In particular, I recall the following from Daily Kos:
A world in which $4,600 contributions dominate the political scene is terrible, but one in which $20-50-100 contributions can fuel a top-tier campaign is fantastic. Not only are such contributions a sign of energy and deep political engagement, but each one of those donors is now vested in their chosen campaigns and will work hard to make sure that investment pays off. We now see that even Clinton's Big Money donors can be countered with an army (100K strong and growing) of small dollar funders. Heck, even Edwards is creeping up on the Clinton machine in terms of number of donors. That has real significance.
Now, $225 is by no means a huge figure, but it's not really a "small" figure either (in general, I typically see "small" defined as $100 or less, as in the above quote). I saw a screen shot (midway down page) of the Obama campaign website after the quarter ended, which gave a total of 108,095 actual donations from 83,531 contributors. That's 24,564 duplicate donations (donations from individuals who had previously contributed), or 22.7% of all donations received.
The dirty, cynical part of me is wondering how many of those "small" contributions, if aggregated, actually turn out to be fairly significant sums and if, perhaps, there is some "gaming" of the system occurring.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
I have no idea how frequently I will update this. I don't think coming up with creative entries is a strength of mine (I feel far more comfortable responding to other people's ideas), but lately I have found myself having ideas I wanted to express, and no handy forum to express them in. I suspect, like many things, this will start off like a flood, shortly slow down to a stream, then a slow trickle and finally evaporate entirely.
But who knows.