30 June 2010

Confused? Or is it Rico?

The Gay & Lesbian Pride Day parade in New York City had a contingent proclaiming themselves Gay Catholics.
Now, is it just Rico, or is that not a contradiction in terms (let alone in church law)?

Snuck by, as usual

Making Obama look bad

Courtesy of Rico's friend John Robinson of New Orleans, this (warning: conservative viewpoint, from Morning Bell at The Heritage Foundation's The Foundry) about the spill:
The oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico gets worse by the day. Oil spews from the broken well, further polluting our water and shores. The clean-up efforts drag on with bureaucratic interference, making matters worse. And what is the Obama administration doing? It continues to push for unrelated responses that will have a disastrous effect on our economy, especially the economy of the Gulf states most affected.
In fact, President Obama summoned a bipartisan group of senators to the White House to discuss his climate change legislation. When Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander suggested that any such energy meeting should include a focus on the oil spill and BP, Obama responded: “That’s just your talking point” and refused to discuss the crisis.
Unfortunately, the American people are not hearing any of this. Day after day, blind allegiance to the President causes his supporters on the left to simply say the government is doing all that it can. The national media, prone to attention deficit disorder when a president they support is in the White House, have already moved on to a myriad of other subjects, offering only sporadic updates on the continuing crisis.
When the president answered questions following the G20 conference, not one reporter asked him about the situation in the Gulf. Not one question. When attention is paid, it is focused on BP, which is only half the story— the other half being government incompetence or an ideological rigidity that prevents commonsense solutions.
The Heritage Foundation has offered a great deal of research and analysis related to the current crisis. Starting today, we will also highlight the top actions the federal government must take immediately to assist the citizens of the Gulf as they cope with this tragedy. As the government responds or acts on these actions, we will directly update this post online to reflect the news and add new actions as we deem appropriate.
Please let us know in the online comments section any other deficiencies we should be monitoring. Until this crisis is resolved, you will be able to find this post, as well as future updates, under our Foundry Features labeled: Oil Spill To-Do List. Without further delay, here are the first ten actions President Obama can take immediately to help solve the crisis in the Gulf:
1. Waive the Jones Act: According to one Dutch newspaper, European firms could complete the oil spill cleanup by themselves in just four months, and three months if they work with the United States, which is much faster than the estimated nine months it would take the Obama administration to go at it alone. The major stumbling block is a protectionist piece of legislation called the Jones Act, which requires that all goods transported by water between American ports be carried in US-flagged ships, constructed in the United States, owned by US citizens, and crewed by US citizens. But, in an emergency, this law can be temporarily waived, as DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff did after Katrina. Each day that our European and Asian allies are prevented from helping us speed up the cleanup is another day that Gulf fishing and tourism jobs die.
2. Accept international assistance: At least thirty countries and international organizations have offered equipment and experts so far. According to reports this week, the White House has finally decided to accept help from twelve of these nations. The Obama administration should make clear why they are refusing the other eighteen-plus offers. In a statement, the State Department said it is still working out the particulars of the assistance it has accepted. This should be done swiftly as months have already been wasted.
Take Sweden, for example. According to Heritage expert James Carafano: “After offering assistance shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Sweden received a request for information about their specialized assets from the State Department on 7 May. Swedish officials answered the inquiry the same day, saying that some assets, such as booms, could be sent within days, and that it would take a couple of weeks to send ships. There are three brand new Swedish Coast Guard vessels built for dealing with a major oil spill cleanup. Each has a capacity to collect nearly fifty tons of oil per hour from the surface of the sea and can hold a thousand tons of spilled oil in tanks. But, according to the State Department’s recently released chart on international offers of assistance, the Swedish equipment and ships are still ‘under consideration’. So, months later, the booms sit unused and brand-new Swedish ships sit idle in port, thousands of miles from the Gulf. The delay in accepting offers of assistance is unacceptable.
3. Lift the Moratorium: The Obama administration’s over-expansive ban on offshore energy development is killing jobs when they are needed most. A panel of engineering experts told The New Orleans Times-Picayune that they only supported a six-month ban on new drilling in waters deeper than a thousan feet. Those same experts were consulted by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar before he issued his 27 May report recommending a six-month moratorium on all ongoing drilling in waters deeper than five hundred feet. A letter from these experts reads: “A blanket moratorium is not the answer. It will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation’s economy which may be greater than that of the oil spill. We do not believe punishing the innocent is the right thing to do.”
And just how many innocent jobs is Obama’s oil ban killing? An earlier Times-Picayune report estimated the moratorium could cost Louisiana 7,590 jobs and $2.97 billion in revenue directly related to the oil industry.
4. Release the A-Whale: The SS A-Whale skimmer is a converted oil tanker capable of cleaning 500,000 barrels of oil a day from Gulf waters. Currently, the largest skimmer being used in the clean-up efforts can handle 4,000 barrels a day, and the entire fleet our government has authorized for BP has only gathered 600,000 barrels total in the seventy days since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The ship embarked from Norfolk, Virginia this week toward the Gulf, hoping to get federal approval to begin assisting the clean-up, but is facing bureaucratic resistance.
As a foreign-flagged ship, the SS A-Whale needs a waiver from the Jones Act, but even outside its three-mile limitation, the Coast Guard and the EPA have to approve its operation due to the nature of its operation, which separates the oil from the water and then releases water back into the Gulf, with a minor amount of oil residue. The government should not place perfection over the need for speed, especially facing the threat of an active hurricane season.
5. Remove State and Local Roadblocks: Local governments are not getting the assistance they need to help in the cleanup. For example, nearly two months ago, officials from Escambia County, Florida requested permission from the Mobile Unified Command Center to use a sand skimmer, a device pulled behind a tractor that removes oil and tar from the top three feet of sand, to help clean up Pensacola’s beaches. County officials still haven’t heard anything back. Santa Rosa Island Authority Buck Lee explains why: “Escambia County sends a request to the Unified Command Center in
Mobile, Alabama. Then it’s reviewed by BP, the federal government, the Corps of Engineers, and the Coast Guard. If they don’t like it, they don’t tell us anything.”State and local governments know their geography, people, economic impacts, and needs far better than the federal government. Contrary to popular belief, the federal government has actually been playing a bigger and bigger role in running natural disaster responses. And as Heritage fellow Matt Mayer has documented, the results have gotten worse, not better. Local governments should be given the tools they need to aid in the disaster relief.
6. Allow Sand Berm Dredging: The Fish and Wildlife Service has recently prevented the state of Louisiana from dredging to build protective sand berms. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser immediately sent a letter to President Obama requesting that the work continue. He said: “Once again, our government resource agencies, which are intended to protect us, are now leaving us vulnerable to the destruction of our coastline and marshes by the impending oil. Furthermore, with the threat of hurricanes or tropical storms, we are being put at an increased risk for devastation to our area from the intrusion of oil.”
7. Waive or suspend EPA regulations: Because more water than oil is collected in skimming operations (85% to 90% is water, according to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen), operators need to discharge the filtered water back into the Gulf so they can continue to collect oil. The discharged water is vastly cleaner than when it was skimmed, but not sufficiently pure according to normal EPA regulations. If the water has to be kept in the vessel and taken back to shore for purification, it vastly multiples the resources and time needed, requiring cleanup ships to make extra round trips, transporting seven times as much water as the oil they collect. We already have insufficient cleanup ships (as the Coast Guard officially determined); they need to be cleaning up oil, not transporting water.
8. Temporarily loosen Coast Guard inspections: In early June, sixteen barges that were vacuuming oil out of the Gulf were ordered to halt work. The Coast Guard had the clean-up vessels sit idle as they were inspected for fire extinguishers and life vests. Maritime safety is clearly a priority, but speed is of the essence in the Gulf waters. The Coast Guard should either temporarily loosen its inspection procedures, or implement a process that allows inspections to occur as the ships operate.
9. Stop Coast Guard budget cuts: Now is not the time to be cutting Coast Guard capabilities, but that is exactly what President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress are doing. Rather than rebuilding and modernizing the Coast Guard as necessary, they are cutting back assets needed to respond to catastrophic disasters. In particular, the National Strike Force, specifically organized to respond to oil spills and other hazardous materials disasters, is being cut. Overall, President Obama has told the Coast Guard to shed nearly a thousand personnel, five cutters, and several helicopters and aircraft. Congress and the Administration should double the Coast Guard’s active and reserve strength over the next decade and significantly accelerate Coast Guard modernization, but for the time being, they should halt all budgetary cuts.
10. Halt climate change legislation: President Obama has placed his focus to the oil spill on oil demand rather than oil in our water. Regardless of political views, now is not the time to be taking advantage of this crisis to further an unrelated piece of legislation that will kill jobs and, in the President’s own words, cause energy prices to “skyrocket”. Less than five percent of our nation’s electricity needs are met by petroleum. Pushing solar and wind alternatives is in no way related to the disaster in the Gulf. It’s time for President Obama to focus on the direct actions he can take in the Gulf, rather than the indirect harm he can cause in Congress. As Heritage expert David Kreutzer opines: “Fix the leak first, and then we’ll talk.” A crisis should not be a terrible thing to waste, as Rahm Emanuel said, but a problem to be solved.

Another quote for the day

Rico says, courtesy of his friend (and World War One aviation buff) Kelley, this:
This morning I shot down an Albatros in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I'll never know.
Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding, RACC, 1917

Movie review for the day

Rico says it's too bad; he had hopes for this one:
If any movie ever warranted a class-action lawsuit against the filmmakers, it’s The Last Airbender. Not because it’s a terrible movie— though it is— but because its release as a 3-D film becomes false advertising a few seconds after a comin’-atcha gush of water appears behind the Paramount logo. From there, it becomes painfully obvious— even more painfully obvious than in Alice In Wonderland— that a few 3-D elements have been added to satisfy the current 3-D craze, and the higher ticket prices they allow. Worse still, the process makes the already-dark imagery darker, and turns the action blurry. Viewers who see it in this form will pay more for an even shittier experience than the one they would have had in 2-D.
And that would have been plenty shitty already. Adapting a well-regarded, epic-in-scope Nickelodeon animated series, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has failed to do right both by his source material and his own strengths as a filmmaker. Set in a world in which the population is divided amid the four elements, and some skilled practitioners can control those elements to their own ends, the film vomits out complicated mythology in mouthfuls of exposition, when not putting a supporting character’s voiceover narration in charge of relaying major developments. Shyamalan manages a few striking images, most of them involving otherworldly landscapes created in Greenland and Vietnam. But none of the care and craftsmanship evident in projects he originated, even lousy ones like The Happening, find their way into this movie.
So what does that leave? A lot of headache-inducing CGI-effects sequences, many scenes of children doing tai chi, and some imperiled magical fish. Another filmmaker might have crafted the material’s themes— which reference Buddhism and Christianity while exploring the relationship between good and evil— into a striking film. Shyamalan lets his unimpressive special effects do the work for him, while coaxing performances from his young cast that make Jake Lloyd’s performance in The Phantom Menace look studied. (Star Noah Ringer, who plays a messianic figure who might unite the warring forces, delivers his lines as if reading a book report, and his older co-stars don’t fare much better.) The Last Airbender isn’t that much different from the rest of this summer’s generally dire multiplex fare— from The A-Team to Jonah Hex— which started with established properties and half-decent ideas, then cranked up the volume, velocity, and effects to the point where neither sense nor tender moments could escape. But it is remarkable in one respect: it’s the worst of them.

Quote for the day

"What in the world did they think they were going to get out of this, in this day and age?
Richard Stolz, a former head of spy operations for the CIA, on the accusation that Russia deployed eleven spies to live and work in the United States.

Thumpers, growth, and styrofoam, oh, my

Rico says that sometimes you get an email on a subject that you know you don't give a shit about (and long-haul trucking is surely one of them), but the title alone makes you open it; the one from Trucker.com would be in that category... (And it's all because of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, of course.)

29 June 2010

They can all go to Dell...

Ashlee Vance has an article in The New York Times about corporate arrogance that makes Steve Jobs look like Barney Fife:
After the math department at the University of Texas at Austin noticed some of its Dell computers failing, Dell examined the machines. The company came up with an unusual reason for the computers’ demise: the school had overtaxed the machines by making them perform difficult math calculations.
Dell, however, had actually sent the university desktop PCs riddled with faulty electrical components that were leaking chemicals and causing the malfunctions. Dell sold millions of these computers from 2003 to 2005 to major companies like Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo, institutions like the Mayo Clinic, and small businesses.
“The funny thing was that every one of them went bad at the same time,” said Greg Barry, the president of PointSolve, a technology services company near Philadelphia that had bought dozens. “It’s unheard-of, but Dell didn’t seem to recognize this as a problem at the time.”
Documents recently unsealed in a three-year-old lawsuit against Dell show that the company’s employees were actually aware that the computers were likely to break. Still, the employees tried to play down the problem to customers, and allowed customers to rely on trouble-prone machines, putting their businesses at risk. Even the firm defending Dell in the lawsuit was affected, when Dell balked at fixing 1,000 suspect computers, according to email messages revealed in the dispute.
The documents chronicling the failure of the PCs also help explain the decline of one of America’s most celebrated and admired companies. Perhaps more than any other company, Dell fought to lower the price of computers. Its “Dell model” became synonymous with efficiency, outsourcing, and tight inventories, and was taught at the Harvard Business School and other top-notch management schools as a paragon of business smarts and outthinking the competition.
“Dell, as a company, was the model everyone focused on ten years ago,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor of international business administration at Harvard. “But, when you combine missing a variety of shifts in the industry with management turmoil, it’s hard not to have the shine come off your reputation.”
For the last seven years, the company has been plagued by serious problems, including misreading the desires of its customers, poor customer service, suspect product quality, and improper accounting. Dell has tried to put those problems behind it. In 2005, it announced it was taking a $300 million charge related, in part, to fixing and replacing the troubled computers. Dell set aside $100 million this month to handle a potential settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over a five-year-old investigation into its books, which will most likely result in federal accusations of fraud and misconduct against the company’s founder, Michael S. Dell.
The problems affecting the Dell computers stemmed from an industrywide encounter with bad capacitors produced by Asian PC component suppliers. Capacitors are found on computer motherboards, playing a crucial role in the flow of current across the hardware. They are not meant to pop and leak fluid, but that is exactly what was happening earlier this decade, causing computers made by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and others to break.
According to company memorandums and other documents recently unsealed in a civil case against Dell in Federal District Court in North Carolina, Dell appears to have suffered from the bad capacitors, made by a company called Nichicon, far more than its rivals. Internal documents show that Dell shipped at least 11.8 million computers from May 2003 to July 2005 that were at risk of failing because of the faulty components. These were Dell’s OptiPlex desktop computers— the company’s mainstream products sold to business and government customers. A study by Dell found that OptiPlex computers affected by the bad capacitors were expected to cause problems up to 97 percent of the time over a three-year period, according to the lawsuit.
As complaints mounted, Dell hired a contractor to investigate the situation. According to a Dell filing in the lawsuit, which has not yet gone to trial, the contractor found that ten times more computers were at risk of failing than Dell had estimated. Making the problem worse, Dell replaced faulty motherboards with other faulty motherboards, according to the contractor’s findings. But Dell employees went out of their way to conceal these problems. In one email exchange between Dell customer support employees concerning computers at the Simpson, Thacher, & Bartlett law firm, a Dell worker stated: “We need to avoid all language indicating the boards were bad or had ‘issues’ per our discussion this morning.”
In other documents about how to handle questions around the faulty OptiPlex systems, Dell salespeople were told: “Don’t bring this to customer’s attention proactively” and “emphasize uncertainty.”
“They were fixing bad computers with bad computers, and were misleading customers at the same time,” said Ira Winkler, a former computer analyst for the National Security Agency and a technology consultant. “They knew millions of computers would be out there causing inevitable damage and were not giving people an opportunity to fix that damage.”
Mr. Winkler served as the expert witness for Advanced Internet Technologies, which filed the lawsuit in 2007, saying that Dell had refused to take responsibility for 2,000 computers it sold AIT, an Internet services company. AIT said that it had lost millions of dollars in business as a result. Clarence E. Briggs, the chief executive of AIT, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Some of the documents in the case, that were sealed under a protective order, became public this month. Those documents show that, after AIT complained, Dell representatives looked at the failed computers and contended that AIT had driven many of the computers too hard in a hot, confined space. Dell’s sales representatives discussed trying to sell AIT more expensive computers as a resolution.
Jess Blackburn, a Dell spokesman, said the company would not comment on pending litigation. Lawyers for Dell deny AIT’s claims, and contend that AIT has cherrypicked and misinterpreted documents in the case. Dell’s lawyers wrote, in a response to AIT: “There was a Nichicon problem, and it affected different customers in different ways.”
In addition to the charge, Dell extended its warranty on the systems, and often replaced computers when customers complained. (In 2007, Dell restated its earnings for 2003 to 2006, as well as the first quarter of 2007, and lowered its sales and net income totals for that period. An audit revealed that Dell employees had manipulated financial results to meet growth targets. But, as Dell did not recall the computers, many of Dell’s OptiPlex customers may be unaware that they had problematic computers or realize why their computers broke. AIT says in court documents that the faulty capacitors touched off a variety of other problems that were often misdiagnosed. Dell could potentially face a raft of new complaints from some of its biggest customers.
Crucially, in their complaints to Dell in the lawsuit, customers describe losing valuable information when their computers malfunctioned. Dell, by contrast, denied that that the capacitor issue had caused data loss.
Dell’s supply chain had always stood out as one of its important assets. The company kept costs low by limiting its inventory and squeezing suppliers. If prices for components changed, Dell could react more quickly than its competitors, offering customers the latest parts at the lowest cost. But the hundreds of Dell internal documents produced in the lawsuit show a company whose supply chain had collapsed as it failed to find working motherboards for its customers, including the firm representing Dell in the lawsuit, Alston & Bird.
According to a person who saw Dell’s 2005 internal communications, company executives carefully devised a public relations policy around the OptiPlex situation. Mr. Dell and Kevin B. Rollins, then Dell’s chief executive, were told that the news media would be informed of Dell’s commitment to fix any systems that failed, that Dell was working with customers to resolve problems in the most effective manner possible and that the problems posed no safety or data loss risk.
Carey Holzman, a computer expert who investigated the capacitor problems and collected photos from people with broken motherboards, had a different take on the safety situation. “Of course it’s dangerous,” Mr. Holzman said. “Having leaking capacitors is a huge problem.” He found that the capacitor problems could cause computers to catch fire.
As late as 2008, after Mr. Dell had replaced Mr. Rollins and returned as chief executive, Dell continued to circulate internal memorandums trying to deal with the fallout from the capacitor situation. Dell salespeople, according to the lawsuit, fretted that technology directors at companies who used to buy from Dell could “justify their job” by advising their companies of Dell’s PC failures and recommending the purchase of HP and Lenovo computers. To counter such lingering bad impressions, Dell salespeople were told to emphasize that the company’s direct model allowed it to identify and fix problems faster than competitors.
Rico says he's never owned a Dell, doesn't want to, and all this surely won't incline him to do so in the future...

Now that's good science

John Markoff has an article in The New York Times about using genetically engineered viruses to make ethylene:
A team of molecular biologists and materials scientists said they had genetically engineered a virus to convert methane to ethylene more efficiently and at a significantly lower temperature than previously possible. If they are successful in commercializing the new material, it will herald the arrival of a set of new technologies that represents a synthesis of molecular biology and industrial chemistry.
Ethylene, a gas with a characteristic sweet smell that may have once given insights to the Oracle of Delphi, is widely used in the manufacturing of plastics, solvents, and fibers, and is essential for an array of consumer and industrial products. But it is still produced by steam cracking, a high-temperature, energy-intensive and expensive industrial process first developed in the Nineteenth Century. In this process, hydrocarbons found in crude oil are broken down into a range of simpler chemical compounds.
The search for more efficient, less expensive approaches to the production of ethylene has gone on for more than three decades and, although some progress has been made, no new techniques have yet proved commercially viable. Now a small group of researchers at Siluria Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup based in San Francisco, are reporting progress in commercializing a nanoscience-based approach to ethylene production.
Their technique for producing ethylene depends on the ability of a genetically engineered virus to coat itself with a metal that serves as a catalyst for an ethylene-producing chemical reaction. The key is that the virus can create a “tangle of catalyst coated nanowires— the researchers call it a hairball— that provide so much surface area for chemical reactions to occur that the energy needed to produce the reactions is much reduced.
The basic process, or chemical reaction, known as oxidative coupling of methane, was an area of intense research for the petrochemical industry beginning in the late 1980s. Researchers had some success but never achieved enough of an improvement in energy efficiency to justify displacing the traditional steam-cracking process.
With its hairballs of virus-created nanowires coated with unspecified metals, Siluria has been able to create ethylene-producing reactions at temperatures 200 to 300 degrees lower than previously achieved, said Erik Scher, a chemist who is one of the company’s researchers. The company won’t say specifically what the coating is, but say that magnesium oxide is an example of the kind of metals involved.
The work is based on a technique for genetically engineering viruses pioneered by Angela Belcher, who leads the Biomolecular Materials Group at MIT. The technique involves manipulating the genes of a virus, in this case one that usually attacks bacteria, so that it will collect and coat itself with inorganic materials, like metals and even carbon nanotubes.
The viruses can be used to create a dense tangle of metal nanowires, and the potential applications for these engineered materials are remarkably diverse. Dr. Belcher’s lab is busy with research on more efficient batteries and solar cells, biofuels, hydrogen separation, and other fuel cell technologies, CO2 sequestration, cancer diagnostic and therapeutic approaches, as well as an effort to create a catalyst that can convert ethanol to hydrogen at room temperature.
Last year the laboratory published a paper in the journal Science that described using a virus to synthesize nanowires of cobalt oxide at room temperature to improve the capacity of thin, flexible lithium ion batteries. In April the MIT researchers engineered a virus to mimic photosynthesis and produce hydrogen at room temperature by separating water molecules.
Dr. Belcher said her goal had not been commercialization of the potential new technologies she had designed. “We think, ‘What is the problem that needs to be solved?’ and that is where we head,“ she said. In contrast, the Siluria researchers said their advance in developing catalysts is the most significant step yet toward commercialization of the bacteriophage technique.
“We are learning from nature, but going to new places in the periodic table and working with the same tools and techniques to use materials that nature has not worked with,” said Alex Tkachenko, a molecular biologist who is a co-founder of Siluria. “What is different now,“ said Dr. Tkachenko, “is that Angie’s biosynthetic technology allows us to grow these catalysts in a bottom-up synthetic way into novel shapes— nanowires— which in turn, allow us to create unique surface morphologies.”
The researchers acknowledged that they do not yet have a complete scientific understanding of the surface behavior of their new catalyst. “These are the next generations that will evolve into materials and systems that we can’t even imagine right now,“ said Mehmet Sarikaya, director of the Genetically Engineered Materials Science and Engineering Center at the University of Washington. Dr. Sarikaya’s lab is performing similar research in designing materials like smaller proteins and peptides, that can mimic biological processes.
Rico says producing hairballs isn't hard; his cats do it all the time. Producing hairballs that can make ethylene, however, that's a different story...

Are they kidding?

Scott Shane and Charlie Savage have the story in The New York Times about, of all things, Russian spies:
They had lived for more than a decade in American cities and suburbs from Seattle to New York, where they seemed to be ordinary couples working ordinary jobs, chatting to the neighbors about schools and apologizing for noisy teenagers. But, on Monday, federal prosecutors accused eleven people of being part of a Russian espionage ring, living under false names and deep cover in a patient scheme to penetrate what one coded message called American “policy-making circles”.
An FBI investigation that began at least seven years ago culminated with the arrest on Sunday of ten people in Yonkers, Boston, and northern Virginia. The documents detailed what the authorities called the Illegals Program, an ambitious, long-term effort by the SVR, the successor to the Soviet KGB, to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit more agents.
The alleged agents were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, CIA leadership, Congressional politics, and many other topics, prosecutors say. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others. But the charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring— which included five couples— actually managed to collect.
After years of FBI surveillance, investigators decided to make the arrests last weekend, just after an upbeat visit to President Obama by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said one administration official. Mr. Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said.
Criminal complaints filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan read like an old-fashioned Cold War thriller: spies swapping identical orange bags as they brushed past one another in a train station stairway, an identity borrowed from a dead Canadian, forged passports, messages sent by shortwave burst transmission or in invisible ink, a money cache buried for years in a field in upstate New York.
But the network of so-called illegals— spies operating under false names outside of diplomatic cover— also used cyber-age technology, according to the charges. They embedded coded texts in ordinary-looking images posted on the Internet, and they communicated by having two agents with laptops containing special software pass casually as messages flashed between them.
Neighbors in Montclair, New Jersey, of the couple who called themselves Richard and Cynthia Murphy were flabbergasted when a team of FBI agents turned up and led the couple away in handcuffs. One person who lives nearby called them “suburbia personified”, saying that they had asked people for advice about the local schools. Others worried about the Murphys’ elementary-age daughters.
Jessie Gugig, fifteen, said she could not believe the charges, especially against Mrs. Murphy. “They couldn’t have been spies,” she said jokingly. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
Experts on Russian intelligence expressed astonishment at the scale, longevity, and dedication of the program. They noted that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister and former president and spy chief, had worked to restore the prestige and funding of Russian espionage after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dark image of the KGB.
“The magnitude, and the fact that so many illegals were involved, was a shock to me,” said Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB general who was a Soviet spy in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s under “legal” cover as a diplomat and Radio Moscow correspondent. “It’s a return to the old days, but even in the worst years of the Cold War, I think there were no more than ten illegals in the US, probably fewer.”
Mr. Kalugin, now an American citizen living outside Washington, said he was impressed with the FBI’s penetration of the spy ring. The criminal complaints are packed with vivid details gathered in years of covert surveillance— including monitoring phones and email, placing secret microphones in the alleged Russian agents’ homes, and numerous surreptitious searches.
The authorities also tracked one set of agents based in Yonkers on trips to an unidentified South American country, where they were videotaped receiving bags of cash and passing messages written in invisible ink to Russian handlers in a public park, according to the charges.
They had lived for more than a decade in American cities and suburbs from Seattle to New York, where they seemed to be ordinary couples working ordinary jobs, chatting to the neighbors about schools and apologizing for noisy teenagers. Prosecutors said the Illegals Program extended to other countries around the world. Using fraudulent documents, the charges said, the spies would “assume identities as citizens or legal residents of the countries to which they are deployed, including the United States. Illegals will sometimes pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations” to deepen false identities.
One message from their bosses in Moscow, in awkward English, gave the most revealing account of the agents’ assignment: “You were sent to USA for long-term service trip,” it said. “Your education, bank accounts, car, house, etc., all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles and send intels [intelligence reports] to C[enter].”
It was not clear what the intelligence reports were about, though one agent was described as meeting an American government employee working in a nuclear program. The defendants were charged with conspiracy not to commit espionage, but failing to register as agents of a foreign government, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; nine were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of twenty years. They are not accused of obtaining classified materials.
There were also hints that Russian spy bosses feared their agents, ordered to go native in prosperous America, might be losing track of their official purpose. Agents in Boston submitted an expense report with such vague items as “trip to meeting” for $1,125 and “education” for $3,600.
In Montclair, when the Murphys wanted to buy a house under their names, “Moscow Center” or “C”, the SVR headquarters, objected. “We are under an impression that C. views our ownership of the house as a deviation from the original purpose of our mission here,” the New Jersey couple wrote in a coded message. “From our perspective, purchase of the house was solely a natural progression of our prolonged stay here. It was a convenient way to solving the housing issue, plus ‘to do as the Romans do’ in a society that values home ownership.”
Much of the ring’s activity— and the FBI investigators’ surveillance— took place in and around New York. The alleged agents were spotted in a bookstore in Lower Manhattan, a bench near the entrance to Central Park and a restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens. Secret exchanges were made at busy locations like the Long Island Rail Road’s station in Forest Hills, where FBI watchers in 2004 spotted one defendant who is not in custody, Christopher R. Metsos, the charging papers say. The arrests made a splash in neighborhoods around the country, as FBI teams spent all Sunday night hunting through houses and cars, shining flashlights and carting away evidence.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the couple known as Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, who appeared to be in their forties and had two teenage sons, lived in an apartment building on a residential street where some Harvard professors and students live. “She was very courteous; she was very nice,” Montse Monne-Corbero, who lives next door, said of Ms. Foley. The sons shoveled snow for her in the winter, Ms. Monne-Corbero said, but they also had “very loud” parties. Lila Hexner, who lives in the building next door, said Ms. Foley told her she was in the real estate business. “She said they were from Canada,” Ms. Hexner said.
Another of those charged, Mikhail Semenko, was a stylish man, in his late twenties, who drove a Mercedes S-500, said Tatyana Day, who lives across the street from him in Arlington, Virginia. He had a brunette girlfriend and the young couple spoke to one another in Russian and “kept to themselves,” Ms. Day said.
Rico says that someone on NPR noted that they could have done everything from Moscow, way cheaper, over the internet. But he suspects that these people really liked being in America... (They were idiots; if they'd flipped themselves to the FBI a long time ago, they'd still be buying houses and driving Mercedes...)

Separated at birth


That would be Stalin (on the left) and the comedian Borat (on the right).

That sound is Rico, chortling

Rico says there are many (as in over 2500) items on the internet about it, but he'll just extract a few good ones for your legal delectation:
From Adam Liptak's article in The New York Times:
The Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual right to bear arms applies to state and local gun control laws, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision. The ruling came almost exactly two years after the court first ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns in District of Columbia v. Heller, another 5-to-4 decision. But the Heller case addressed only federal laws; it left open the question of whether Second Amendment rights protect gun owners from overreaching by state and local governments.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the right to self-defense protected by the Second Amendment was fundamental to the American conception of ordered liberty. Like other provisions of the Bill of Rights setting out such fundamental protections, he said, it must be applied to limit not only federal power but also that of state and local governments.
The ruling is an enormous symbolic victory for supporters of gun rights, but its short-term practical effect is unclear. As in the Heller decision, the justices left for another day just what kinds of gun control laws can be reconciled with Second Amendment protection. The majority said little more than that there is a right to keep handguns in the home for self-defense.
Indeed, over the course of two hundred pages of opinions, the court did not even decide the constitutionality of the two gun control laws at issue in the case, from Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois. The justices returned the case to the lower courts to decide whether those exceptionally strict laws, which effectively banned the possession of handguns, can be reconciled with the Second Amendment.
In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley said he was disappointed by the ruling because it made the city’s handgun ban “unenforceable”. “Across the country, cities are struggling with how to address this issue,” Mr. Daley said. “Common sense tells you we need fewer guns on the street, not more guns.”
Justice Alito, who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and, in large part, Clarence Thomas, acknowledged that the decision might “lead to extensive and costly litigation”, but said that was the price of protecting constitutional freedoms. The majority offered the lower courts little guidance about how much protection the Second Amendment affords. In a part of his opinion that Justice Thomas declined to join, Justice Alito reiterated the caveats in the Heller decision, saying the court did not mean to cast doubt on laws prohibiting possession of guns by felons and people who suffer from mental illness, laws forbidding carrying guns in sensitive places like schools and government buildings, or laws regulating the commercial sale of firearms. The important point was a broad one, Justice Alito wrote: that the Second Amendment, like other provisions of the Bill of Rights, must be applied to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. They said the Heller decision remained incorrect, and added that they would not have extended its protections to state and local laws even had it been correctly decided.
“Although the court’s decision in this case might be seen as a mere adjunct to Heller,” Justice Stevens wrote, “the consequences could prove far more destructive— quite literally— to our nation’s communities and to our constitutional structure.”
Though the majority agreed on the outcome, its members differed about how to get there.
The Second Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, originally restricted the power of only the federal government. The Supreme Court later ruled that most of the protections of the Bill of Rights applied to the states under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the post-Civil War amendments.
Many constitutional scholars had hoped that the court would use Monday’s decision, McDonald v. Chicago, No. 08-1521, to revise its approach to how constitutional protections are applied to, or “incorporated against”, the states. They argued that the court should rely not on the due process clause, but on the Fourteenth Amendment’s “privileges or immunities” clause, which says that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”. There is evidence that the authors of the clause specifically wanted it to apply to allow freed slaves to have guns to defend themselves. But only Justice Thomas signed on for that project. Justice Scalia, in a concurrence, acknowledged misgivings about using the due process clause to apply Bill of Rights protections to the states, but said he would go along with the method here “since straightforward application of settled doctrine suffices to decide it”.
Five justices wrote opinions in the case, with many pages examining the history of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments. The justices in the majority said that history supported both finding a fundamental individual right and applying it to state and local laws.
The dissenters drew different conclusions from the historical evidence: “The reasons that motivated the framers to protect the ability of militiamen to keep muskets available for military use when our nation was in its infancy, or that motivated the Reconstruction Congress to extend full citizenship to freedmen in the wake of the Civil War, have only a limited bearing on the question that confronts the homeowner in a crime-infested metropolis today,” Justice Stevens wrote in his final dissent before retiring. He said the court should have proceeded more cautiously in light of “the malleability and elusiveness of history” and because “firearms have a fundamentally ambivalent relationship to liberty.”
In a dissent joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, Justice Breyer said that history did not provide clear answers and that the empirical evidence about the consequences of gun control laws are mixed. But there was evidence, he said, that firearms caused 60,000 deaths and injuries in the United States each year, and that Chicago’s handgun ban had saved many hundreds of lives since it was enacted in 1983. All of that, Justice Breyer wrote, counseled in favor of deference to local elected officials in deciding how to regulate guns.
Justice Alito responded that many constitutional rights entail public safety costs, including ones limiting the use of reliable evidence obtained through police misconduct. He also acknowledged that the majority decision limited the ability of states to address local issues with tailored gun regulations. “But this is always true,” he said, “when a Bill of Rights provision is incorporated.”
From Kasie Hunt's column at Politico.com:
When the Supreme Court extended the individual right to own a gun Monday, it handed Second Amendment advocates— many of whom are at home in the GOP— one of their most significant legal victories ever. But who won the day in politics? The Democrats. For them, the court’s groundbreaking decision couldn’t have been more beneficial to the cause in November. Democratic candidates across the map can now figure they have one less issue to worry about on the campaign trail, and they won’t have to defend against Republican attacks over gun rights with an angry, energized base of gun owners.
“It removes guns as a political issue, because everyone now agrees that the Second Amendment is an individual right, and everybody agrees that it’s subject to regulation,” said Lanae Erickson, deputy director of the culture program at centrist think tank Third Way.
A House Democratic aide agreed that the court’s decision removed a potentially combustible element from the mix: “The Supreme Court ruled here that you have a fundamental right to own and bear arms, and that means at the national level it’s harder— whether it’s Republicans or whether it’s the National Rifle Association— to throw that claim out: If Democrats are in charge. they’re going to come get your guns,” said the aide. “It pretty much took that off the table.”
The likely removal— or at least neutralization— of the gun issue this fall is of no small matter in the battles for the House and Senate. The Democratic majorities in both chambers were built, in part, on victories in pro-gun states and districts that had until recently been difficult terrain for Democratic candidates as a result of the national party’s position on gun control.
The chorus of responses to Monday’s ruling was a group of normally dissonant voices: It proved the rare occasion when both former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could find common ground. In a Facebook post titled Another Victory for the Second Amendment, Palin wrote that the case “should leave little doubt that our individual right to keep and bear arms applies everywhere, and is a right for everyone”. Reid essentially agreed, calling the right to bear arms “one of the essential freedoms on which our country was founded. I am pleased that the high court has taken steps in both the Heller and McDonald cases to guarantee this fundamental right,” he said in a prepared statement, referring to both the 2008 Heller decision, which struck down the District of Columbia’s restrictive gun law, and Monday’s McDonald v. Chicago decision against Chicago’s handgun ban.
For congressional Democrats— especially those in seats outside major metropolitan areas where support for gun rights runs high— the ruling offered a chance to assert their pro-gun bona fides. Representative Zack Space (a Democrat from Ohio), a second-term Democrat representing a rural and small-town district in eastern Ohio, quickly sent a blast to his “Constitution-loving” constituents: “Today’s ruling has put the Supreme Court on the side of every Constitution-loving American,” he said in the email. “Our right to keep and bear arms is a cornerstone of our Constitution, given to us by our Founding Fathers, and it can never be taken away.”
Also quick with praise were Democratic Representatives Tom Perriello of Virginia, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, and Travis Childers of Mississippi, all facing tough races in November, and all representing districts with large rural components where gun ownership rights are sacrosanct.
“Of course, we were watching for the decision, but if you work for someone whose response to Heller was ‘it’s about time,’ then you were probably prepared for this decision, whichever way it went,” said John Foster, campaign manager for freshman Representative Walt Minnick (a Democrat from Idaho), who noted that Minnick has made it a point to visit the gun ranges and ammunition and boutique gun manufacturers in his strongly conservative district.
John Anzalone, a prominent Alabama-based pollster with a roster of Southern Democratic clients, called it a “win, win, win, win” situation for everyone and, above all, “for conservative Democrats who will be able to use it as a credential that they’re conservative. This is a tough political environment; you’re going to see Southern and Western Democrats use it and stand up for gun rights.”
And it wasn’t just Southern and Western Democrats who embraced the ruling. “The decision by the United States Supreme Court to uphold the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution is a major victory for Americans,” said Deborah Halvorson (a Democrat from Illinois), who represents a district that extends well beyond the Chicago metropolitan area, and who is in a competitive race with Republican challenger Adam Kinzinger.
The Democratic sigh of relief after the McDonald decision wasn’t exactly a surprise— 80 House Democrats and 19 Senate Democrats signed onto an amicus brief opposing the Chicago gun ban, a tacit recognition that, for many Democratic legislators, gun control advocacy is akin to political suicide. That “highlights a pretty significant shift that’s gone on in gun politics”, the Democratic aide said. “Last week, just the debate over the campaign finance bill highlighted how deep the NRA’s inroads into the Congress have gone with both parties, but especially with Democrats, over the last four years,” the aide said, referring to a last-minute change that exempts the NRA and other grass-roots groups from major new campaign finance rules. “There aren’t any other organizations out there that have four million dues-paying members, period. That’s why they’re effective, whether you agree or disagree with their agenda.”
The NRA’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, was careful to call this “the end of the beginning” and promised a slew of lawsuits challenging local laws. But in the end, he said, the law is “a vindication, and it’s really what the American people have always felt and always known, that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to own a gun regardless of where you live.”
From Mark Konkol's article in the Chicago Sun-Times:
Otis McDonald will get his gun. And the Morgan Park grandpa— the face of the Second Amendment lawsuit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to overturn Chicago's handgun ban— couldn't be giddier. "This is great. I am so happy," McDonald said from Washington, D.C. "It's a milestone." McDonald, the son of Louisiana sharecroppers, said he got emotional as the ruling came down. "I was feeling the poor blacks who years ago had their guns taken away from them and were killed as someone wished. That was a long time ago, but I feel their spirit. That's what I was feeling in the courtroom," he said. The 76-year-old said the Supreme Court ruling will make Chicago blocks like his, that are overrun with thugs, safer places to live. "If you have the right to have a handgun in your house, even if you don't have a gun, that will give criminals a second thought, a third thought, about breaking into your house," McDonald said. McDonald's co-plaintiff in the landmark case, Colleen Lawson, had this message for criminals: "The Chicago crime buffet is over", warning gun-toting thugs that city residents aren't their prey. McDonald says he's not a hero of the pro-gun lobby. "I'm just plain, little Otis. I'm doing the best I can to make right a wrong. And I've done that," he said.
From an editorial by The New York Times (and Rico says one guess which side they came down on)
About 10,000 Americans died by handgun violence, according to federal statistics, in the four months that the Supreme Court debated which clause of the Constitution it would use to subvert Chicago’s entirely sensible ban on handgun ownership. The arguments that led to Monday’s decision undermining Chicago’s law were infuriatingly abstract, but the results will be all too real and bloody.
This began two years ago, when the Supreme Court disregarded the plain words of the Second Amendment and overturned the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, deciding that the amendment gave individuals in the district, not just militias, the right to bear arms. Proceeding from that flawed logic, the court has now said the amendment applies to all states and cities, rendering Chicago’s ban on handgun ownership unenforceable.
Once again, the court’s conservative majority imposed its selective reading of American history, citing the country’s violent separation from Britain and the battles over slavery as proof that the authors of the Constitution and its later amendments considered gun ownership a fundamental right. The court’s members ignored the present-day reality of Chicago, where 258 public school students were shot last school year, 32 fatally.
Rather than acknowledging Chicago’s, and the nation’s, need to end an epidemic of gun violence, the justices spent scores of pages in the decision analyzing which legal theory should bind the Second Amendment to the states. Should it be the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, or the amendment’s immunities clause? The argument was not completely settled because there was not a five-vote majority for either path. The issue is not trivial; had the court backed the immunity-clause path championed by Justice Clarence Thomas, it might have had the beneficial effect of applying more aspects of the Bill of Rights to the states. That could make it easier to require that states, like the federal government, have unanimous jury verdicts in criminal trials, for example, or ban excessive fines.
While the court has now twice attacked complete bans on handgun ownership, the decision left plenty of room for restrictions on who can buy and sell arms. The court acknowledged, as it did in the District of Columbia case, that the amendment did not confer “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose”. It cited a few examples of what it considered acceptable: limits on gun ownership by felons or the mentally ill, bans on carrying firearms in sensitive places like schools or government buildings, and conditions on gun sales.
Mayors and state lawmakers will have to use all of that room and keep adopting the most restrictive possible gun laws to protect the lives of Americans and aid the work of law enforcement officials. They should continue to impose background checks, limit bulk gun purchases, regulate dealers, and close gun-show loopholes.
They should not be intimidated by the theoretical debate that has now concluded at the court, or the relentless stream of lawsuits sure to follow from the gun lobby, that will undoubtedly keep pressing to overturn any and all restrictions. Officials will have to press back even harder. Too many lives are at stake.
Rico says it's the old quote: "What's the definition of The Absolute Truth? A five-to-four decision by the Supreme Court." But "the plain words of the Second Amendment"? What could be fucking plainer: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." So what part of "keep and bear" didn't they understand?

Now that's amazing

Rico says that, for all you golfers out there and courtesy of his friend Dave Kitterman, this amazing little piece of slow-motion photography:

Oh, no, not us

Reuters has a story by Philip Pullella about problems at the Vatican:
The Vatican, struggling to control the damage to its image from a sexual abuse scandal, said it would prove it cannot be held legally responsible for a predatory priest in a pivotal US lawsuit.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider a case on whether the Vatican has immunity over the sexual abuse of minors by priests, allowing a lawsuit filed in 2002 to go forward. In a statement, the Vatican's lawyer, Jeffrey Lena, said that, when the case returns to a US district court, it would show it cannot be held responsible for the actions of the priest, as he was not a Vatican employee. "The decision not to hear the case is not a comment on the merits of our case," Lena said, adding that the case would now go back to the district court in Oregon.
The lawsuit, filed against the Vatican by a plaintiff identified only as John Doe, claimed he was sexually abused on several occasions in the mid-1960s, when he was fifteen or sixteen, by a Roman Catholic priest named Father Andrew Ronan. According to court documents, Ronan molested boys in the mid-1950s as a priest in Ireland, and then in Chicago, before his transfer to a church in Portland, Oregon, where he allegedly abused the victim who filed the lawsuit. Ronan died in 1992.
The Vatican claimed immunity under a US law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, that allows foreign states to avoid being sued in court. But the law contains exceptions. The appeals court cited one of those, ruling the lawsuit has sufficiently alleged that Ronan was an employee of the Vatican acting within the scope of his employment under Oregon law.
The Vatican has said it cannot be seen as a multinational business whose executives can be held ultimately responsible for the action of their subordinates, because dioceses around the world have their own legal status as employers. It has also said the pope, as head of a sovereign state recognized by more than 170 countries, has diplomatic immunity from prosecution in other countries.
Pope Benedict is struggling to control the damage a sexual abuse scandal has done to the Catholic Church's image. The crisis has hit the United States and several European countries, including his native Germany.
In his statement, Lena said the Vatican defense would show that Ronan could not be considered an employee of the Vatican. "In our view, the indicia of employment are simply not present," Lena said. "The Holy See does not pay the salary of the priest, or the benefits of the priest, or exercise day-to-day control over the priest, and any of the other factors indicating the presence of an employment relationship," he said. Lena said the Vatican was not even aware of Ronan's "very existence" until after the suit was file. Ronan was a member of the Friar Servants of Mary religious order.
Five bishops in Europe have already resigned over the scandal. One has admitted sexual abuse, another is under investigation, and three have stepped down over their handling of abuse cases.
Earlier this month, Pope Benedict begged forgiveness from God and the victims of child sexual abuse by priests, and vowed that the Catholic Church would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again.
Rico says that 'everything in its power' does not, it seems, include paying for the mistakes of its staff. (And isn't it amazing that, when the Pope wants your money, the Vatican runs the show, but when you want it's money, the Vatican isn't involved...)

No sense of history, obviously

The internet is shocked, shocked, over a hundred dead in Iraq this month, "the deadliest month for NATO troops in nine years of conflict". (Not to say that, even by Rico's standards, that's a good number, especially for the families of those hundred guys.)
But a little perspective, please:
On the first day of the invasion of Europe, 6 June 1944, the United States had five thousand casualties...

Where you'd least expect it

Shatner, finally, via YouTube

History for the day

On 29 June 1995, the shuttle Atlantis and the Russian space station Mir docked, forming the largest man-made satellite ever to orbit the Earth.

Civil War for the day

Confederate dead near the Dunker Church at Sharpsburg, known to the North as Antietam, Maryland.

28 June 2010

They don't like Arizona

Courtesy of Rico's friend Esha, this:

History for the day

On 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in France, ending World War One.

24 June 2010

Lesson One: don't talk to Rolling Stone

Rico says that a good (if clueless) officer, General Stanley McCrystal, paid the price for failing to obey that lesson, as evidenced in the Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings:
'How'd I get screwed into going to this dinner?" demands General Stanley McChrystal. It's a Thursday night in mid-April, and the commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is sitting in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. He's in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies; to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president, and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than forty soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.
"The dinner comes with the position, sir," says his chief of staff, Colonel Charlie Flynn.
McChrystal turns sharply in his chair. "Hey, Charlie," he asks, "does this come with the position?" McChrystal gives him the middle finger. The general stands and looks around the suite that his traveling staff of ten has converted into a full-scale operations center. The tables are crowded with silver Panasonic Toughbooks, and blue cables crisscross the hotel's thick carpet, hooked up to satellite dishes to provide encrypted phone and email communications. Dressed in off-the-rack civilian casual– blue tie, button-down shirt, dress slacks– McChrystal is way out of his comfort zone. Paris, as one of his advisers says, is the "most anti-McChrystal city you can imagine". The general hates fancy restaurants, rejecting any place with candles on the tables as too "Gucci". He prefers Bud Light Lime (his favorite beer) to Bordeaux and Talladega Nights (his favorite movie) to Jean-Luc Godard. Besides, the public eye has never been a place where McChrystal felt comfortable: before President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan, he spent five years running the Pentagon's most secretive black ops.
"What's the update on the Kandahar bombing?" McChrystal asks Flynn. The city has been rocked by two massive car bombs in the past day alone, calling into question the general's assurances that he can wrest it from the Taliban.
"We have two KIAs, but that hasn't been confirmed," Flynn says.
McChrystal takes a final look around the suite. At 55, he is gaunt and lean, not unlike an older version of Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you've fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice. "I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner," McChrystal says. He pauses a beat. "Unfortunately," he adds, "no one in this room could do it." With that, he's out the door.
"Who's he going to dinner with?" I ask one of his aides.
"Some French minister," the aide tells me. "It's fucking gay."
The next morning, McChrystal and his team gather to prepare for a speech he is giving at the École Militaire, the French military academy. The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict. Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as "shortsighted", saying it would lead to a state of "Chaos-istan". The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: shut the fuck up and keep a lower profile.
Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. "I never know what's going to pop out until I'm up there, that's the problem," he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner: "Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?"
"Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "Did you say: Bite Me?"
When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he immediately set out to deliver on his most important campaign promise on foreign policy: to refocus the war in Afghanistan on what led us to invade in the first place. "I want the American people to understand," he announced in March of 2009. "We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan." He ordered another 21,000 troops to Kabul, the largest increase since the war began in 2001. Taking the advice of both the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also fired General David McKiernan– then the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan– and replaced him with a man he didn't know and had met only briefly: General Stanley McChrystal. It was the first time a top general had been relieved from duty during wartime in more than fifty years, since Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.
Even though he voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn't go much better. "It was a ten-minute photo op," says an adviser to McChrystal. "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."
There's a lot more here.

Mark Landler & Lucian Truscott IV & Thomas Ricks & Gail Collins have articles in The New York Times:
Mark Landler on Short, Tense Deliveration, Then a General Is Gone:
By the time he woke up Wednesday morning, President Obama had made up his mind. During the 36 frenetic hours since he had been handed an article from the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone ominously headlined The Runaway General, the president weighed the consequences of cashiering General Stanley A. McChrystal, whose contemptuous comments about senior officials had ignited a firestorm.
Mr. Obama, aides say, consulted with advisers; some, like Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who warned of the dangers of replacing General McChrystal, and others, like his political advisers, who thought he had to go. He reached out for advice to a soldier-statesman, Colin L. Powell. He identified a possible successor to lead the war in Afghanistan. And then, finally, the president ended General McChrystal’s command in a meeting that lasted only twenty minutes. According to one aide, the general apologized, offered his resignation and did not lobby for his job.
After a seesaw debate among White House officials, “there was a basic meeting of the minds,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a major player in the deliberations. “This was not good for the mission, the military, or morale,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Mr. Obama has forced out officials before, including the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair; the White House counsel, Gregory Craig; and even General McChrystal’s predecessor, General David D. McKiernan.
But this is the highest profile sacking of his presidency. The time between Mr. Obama’s first reading of the Rolling Stone article and his decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation offers an insight into the president’s decision-making process under intense stress: he appears deliberative and open to debate, but in the end, is coldly decisive.
In a subsequent meeting with his Afghan war council, Mr. Obama delivered a tongue-lashing, instructing his advisers to stop bickering among themselves. “The president said he didn’t want to see pettiness; that this was not about personalities or reputations, it’s about our men and women in uniform,” said a senior administration official, who like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity in offering an account of the last two days.
The drama began on Monday afternoon, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was flying home from Illinois to Andrews Air Force Base, took an unsettling call from General McChrystal. The phone connection was scratchy, and the conversation lasted barely two minutes. General McChrystal told the vice president there was an article coming out that he would not like. Baffled, Mr. Biden asked his staff to investigate, and when he landed, aides handed him the article. After digesting it back at his residence in Washington, Mr. Biden put in a call to President Obama at 7:30 that evening. Hours earlier, the White House had itself gotten wind of the article, and a young press aide named Tommy Vietor distributed copies to all the top officials in Mr. Obama’s national security circle.
The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, walked a copy of it to the president in the private quarters. After scanning the first few paragraphs— a sarcastic, profanity-laced description of General McChrystal’s disgust at having to dine with a French minister to brief him about the war— Mr. Obama had read enough, a senior administration official said. He ordered his political and national security aides to convene immediately in the Oval Office. It was already clear then, this official said, that General McChrystal might not survive. Mr. Obama was leaning toward dismissing him, another administration official said, though he said the president was willing to wait until the general explained his actions, and those of his aides.
At the Oval Office meeting on Monday, Mr. Obama asked that General McChrystal be summoned home from Kabul. Before leaving Afghanistan, the general held an already scheduled meeting with Susan E. Rice, the United Nations ambassador, who was visiting with other United Nations diplomats.
In a one-on-one meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Gates, who had pushed to make General McChrystal the commander in Afghanistan, pleaded with Mr. Obama to hear him out, an official said. Mr. Gates warned that removing the commander would be hugely disruptive. He worried in particular about “continuity, momentum, and relations with allies,” said a senior official who was involved in the meetings. Still, even as Mr. Gates advocated for General McChrystal, the Pentagon began drawing up a list of potential replacements. Mr. Obama, this official said, was immediately drawn to the idea of turning to General David H. Petraeus: an architect of the counterinsurgency strategy, a politically skilled commander, and a replacement who would address Mr. Gates’s concerns.
As it happened, General Petraeus was close at hand. That very day he had traveled to a secret site in Northern Virginia to convene a meeting of the Counterterrorism Executive Council, a group of military and intelligence officials who gather regularly to discuss operations. But General Petraeus was not offered the job until he walked into the White House on Wednesday, soon after the president’s meeting with General McChrystal, a senior aide said.
On Tuesday, while General McChrystal was making the fourteen-hour flight to Washington, the White House was involved in a whirl of meetings about his fate. Along with Mr. Gates, aides say, four other senior officials were influential: Vice President Biden; the national security adviser, General James L. Jones; Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff; and Mr. Emanuel. Mr. Emanuel’s opinion and that of other advisers swung back and forth, a senior official said. Mr. Obama seemed inclined toward dismissing the general, but heard out the debate. By Tuesday night, officials said, they ended up hoping that the general would simply resign.
Meanwhile, General McChrystal was busy placing calls to apologize to people who were belittled in the article. One of those he called was Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “He was very respectful and apologetic, and I think, obviously understood he’d made a mistake and he wasn’t making any excuses,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview, noting that General McChrystal made no case for keeping his job. “He was being pretty direct and upfront.”
The general had some high-profile defenders, including President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. But, in the end, President Obama decided that he had to go. After meeting with General McChrystal, he held a forty-minute meeting with General Petraeus and a broader session with his war council, and then stepped into the Rose Garden to explain his decision to the American public.
“He likes Stan and thinks Stan is a good man, a good general, and a good soldier,” Mr. Emanuel said. “But as he said in his statement, this is bigger than any one person.”

Lucian Truscott IV on The Unsentimental Warrior:
There's one moment in the Rolling Stone article that led to General Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal on Thursday that truly concerned me, and it’s not one of the reproachful comments about administration officials that have been clucked over by pundits and politicians. No, what stood out for me was the scene in which General McChrystal points to the members of his staff and says: “All these men, I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.”
General McChrystal got it entirely backward: generals definitely don’t die for their soldiers, and soldiers don’t die for generals. They die because generals order them into battle to accomplish a mission, and some are killed carrying out those orders. General McChrystal’s statement is that of a man who is sentimental about his job, and who has confused sentimentality with command.
For too long, the Army has been led by sentimental men, by peacocks in starched fatigues and strutting ascetics surrounded by public relations teams. But the Army doesn’t need sentimental generals; it needs generals who can give the kind of difficult and deadly orders that win wars.
I’ll tell you how I know this. In 1967, when I was a cadet at West Point, I met, entirely by chance, the journalist Will Lang, who had written a Life magazine cover story about my grandfather, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., during World War Two. Grandpa didn’t like having a gaggle of correspondents following him around, because you had to feed them and house them and otherwise take care of their needs, including giving them interviews, and that took away from the mission, which he described in his memoirs as killing German soldiers. But the Army wanted him on the cover of Life, so he allowed Will Lang to follow him around while he commanded the VI Corps in its invasion of southeastern France in 1944.
After more than a few drinks that night, Will Lang told me a story. Grandpa had once allowed him to attend his early morning meeting with his division commanders. Lang watched, a little bewildered, as Grandpa moved pins on a map and ordered his commanders to advance up this road, or take this town, or destroy that German brigade. When the commanders eventually left, Lang and Grandpa sat down to breakfast at a field table just outside his command trailer. Lang proceeded to ask Grandpa a series of questions about what, precisely, had gone on in that meeting.
Grandpa apparently grew frustrated with these questions, so he grabbed Lang by the arm and hauled him back into the trailer. He pointed to a pin on the map and asked Lang if he knew what it meant when he moved that pin an inch or two forward. Lang admitted that he didn’t. “It means by nine o’clock, two dozen of my men will be dead, and a few hours later, two dozen more of them will die, and more of them will die until that unit accomplishes the mission I gave them,” Grandpa said. “That’s what it means.” Then Grandpa led Lang back to the table and they finished their breakfast.
After more than thirty years of nearly continuous war, every Afghan— whether Taliban or friendly— knows the lesson that Grandpa taught Lang that day. Unless we put generals in command who aren’t sentimental, generals who are willing and able to give the deadly serious orders to accomplish the mission they are given, who know that men die for a cause and not for them, we will get no respect from friend or foe in Afghanistan, and we may as well pack up our stuff and go home.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a journalist, is the author of Dress Gray.
Thomas Ricks on Lose a General, Win a War:
For most of our nation’s history, the armed services have had a strong and worthy tradition of firing generals who get out of line. So, for most of our presidents, there would have been no question about whether to oust General Stanley McChrystal for making public his differences with the White House over policy in Afghanistan. If President Obama had not fired General McChrystal, it would have been like President Truman keeping Douglas MacArthur after his insubordination during the Korean War.
Some analysts fret that losing General McChrystal will mean sacrificing the relationship he had developed with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. But the general’s dysfunctional relationship with the other senior American officials in Kabul, painfully laid out this week in Rolling Stone, is more significant. If President Obama is to be faulted, it is for leaving that group in position after it became apparent last fall that the men could not work well together.
No policy can be successful if those sent to put it in place undermine one another with snide comments to reporters and leaked memorandums, like the cable disparaging Mr. Karzai written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry last year. For this reason, the president should finish cleaning house and fire Ambassador Eikenberry and the special envoy, Richard Holbrooke.
Mr. Obama should then replace them with a team that has a single person clearly in control, with the power to hire and fire the others. And he should send that new group to Kabul with clear orders that they should get along, or expect to be relieved.
In the longer term, the Army has to return to its tradition of getting rid of leaders who are failing. The Navy has shown more fortitude; in the first two months of this year alone it fired six commanders of ships and installations. On Tuesday, it fired the skipper of the frigate John L. Hall, two months after it collided with a pier at a Black Sea port in Georgia. The Navy stated simply, as it usually does in such cases, that the officer’s superior had lost confidence in him. That is all that is needed.
The Marine Corps has also largely kept the tradition of relieving officers, most notably during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when its top ground officer, Major General James Mattis, fired the commander of the First Marine Regiment. During his tenure, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has fired secretaries of the Army and the Air Force and an Air Force chief of staff.
Back in World War Two, the Army had no qualms about letting officers go; at least sixteen of the 155 generals who commanded divisions in combat during the war were relieved while in combat. George Marshall, the nation’s top general, felt that a willingness to fire subordinates was a requirement of leadership. He once described General Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, as a fine man, but one who “didn’t have the nerve to get rid of men not worth a damn”.
Marshall had plenty of nerve: in 1940 and 1941, as war loomed, he forced into retirement several hundred officers he deemed too old and slow to be effective. When the commandant at Leavenworth, Brigadier General Charles Bundel, told him that updating the complete set of Army training manuals would take eighteen months, Marshall offered him three months, and then four months, to do the job. It can’t be done, Bundel twice responded.
“You be very careful about that,” Marshall told him in a telephone conversation.
“No, it can’t be done,” Bundel repeated.
“I’m sorry, then you are relieved,” Marshall said.
We tend to remember those who were nearly relieved but ultimately weren’t, most notably General George Patton, who came closest to being fired during the war after slapping two American soldiers suffering from combat fatigue. But that sort of exception illustrates another aspect of the lost tradition of relieving commanders: the military had some flexibility in enforcing it. Patton was seen by his superiors as having unusual weaknesses but equally rare strengths, so he was kept on.
One advantage of having a more flexible attitude toward removal from combat command was that it did not necessarily mean the end of one’s career. During World War Two, three Army division commanders— Orlando Ward, Terry de la Mesa Allen, and Leroy Watson— were relieved of command of divisions in combat, but went on to lead different divisions later in the war.
The old system may seem harsh in today’s light, and certainly some men were treated unfairly. But keep in mind that job losses were dwarfed by combat losses: In the summer of 1944, fifteen of the twenty battalion and regimental commanders in the 82nd Airborne were either killed or wounded. In World War Two, a front-line officer either succeeded, became a casualty, or was relieved within a few months; or in some cases, within days.
The tradition of swift relief provided two benefits that we have lost in today’s Army: It punished failure and it gave an opportunity to younger, more energetic officers who were better equipped to adapt to the quickening pace of the war. When George Marshall heard of a major who really was doing a general’s work, he stepped in to make the man a brigadier general overnight. Under this audacious system, a generation of brilliant young commanders emerged, men like James Gavin, an innovator in airborne warfare who became the Army’s youngest three-star general.
But that tradition was somehow lost in the Korean War and buried conclusively in Vietnam. Nowadays, dynamic young leaders can’t emerge as quickly, because almost no one is fired. In a much-discussed 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling wrote that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”
In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, most of our commanders have “rotated in” for a year, led their units, and gone home. This skews incentives away from risk-taking and toward not making waves. Consequently, the only generals who are fired are those at the very top, who do not serve one-year tours of duty, and so must be removed by firing or forced resignation.
Had Army officers been managed during the Afghan War as they were during World War Two, we would be seeing a new generation of leaders emerge. Instead, a beleaguered president once again is sending David Petraeus to the rescue, making it appear as though he is the only competent general we have.

Thomas E. Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the author of The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, is writing a history of American generalship since World War Two
Gail Collins on McCrystal's putative Twitter life:
Day One
• In Paris with my Kabul posse: Bluto, Otter, Boon, Pinto, Flounder. Plus some newbie. Guys call him Scribbles.
• Suite’s getting pretty crowded. Good thing I sleep standing up.
• Three hours of shuteye and back to work. Have to read every report — check the details! Like I told Scribbles. The little fellow’s a fan. :)
Day Two
• Stuck going to dinner w/ some damned French minister. Gang riding me big. Bluto says they will make me eat snails. Hell of a funny guy, Bluto.
• Restaurant — ultra-Gucci. No Bud Light Lime. Damn. Wish I was on foot patrol in Kandahar. :(
• Minister yammering diplomatic bull. I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people. As if they could. lol.
• Still talking. Better at this diplomatic stuff than I used to be. Learned a lot in last few years. Like, don’t mention “mission failure”.
• Whoops. Mentioned “mission failure”. Don’t think the minister noticed.
• Steak comes, covered in some goop. Miss my gruel.
• Dinner’s over. Ran twelve miles.
Day Three
• Missus is here! Hell of a surprise. Turns out it’s our 33rd wedding anniversary.
• Wife wants the gang out of the hotel room. Women. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them for more than eleven months at a time.
• Time for anniversary dinner. Does this country never stop eating?
• Night starts on a bad note; McDonald’s won’t let Pinto and Otter bring in the Tequiza. Damn. Wanted to show Missus a good time. :(
• Comeback kids found a bar next to the hotel. Wiped the Gucci drink specials off the chalkboard and we are diagramming up a storm. :)
• Team America is partying! Bluto’s doing his impression of Joe Biden. Scribbles taped whole thing; get ready for laughs when we get home.
Day Four
• Spent the morning emailing back and forth with Kabul. They can’t get Karzai to come out of his room again.
• Hanging out at a cafe. We’re shooting the breeze about the dingbat diplomatic corps. Except Hillary.
• Pinto reminds me how intimidated Obama looked around the generals. Yeah, but the guy really trusts my judgment. :)
• Found Scribbles sitting in potted plant next to our table. Kid must like nature.
Day Five
• Said goodbye to the Missus. Great gal. Can’t wait to see her again once the war is over.
• Berlin’s the next stop, but that damn Iceland volcano has everything grounded. Can’t believe Europeans are afraid to fly in a little ash.
• Got another email from Holbrooke. :(
• Bluto does his riff about Holbrooke as a crippled impala & I’m the lion. Scribbles really digging it.
• Great news: we’ve got a bus to take us to Berlin. Nothing but Team America and a luggage rack crammed with Bud Light Lime.
• Scribbles wants to come, too. Told him okay, but only if he buys the next two cases.
Road trip!

Frank James has an opinion column at NPR.org:
During a discussion of the McChrystal affair on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, James Kitfield, a senior correspondent for the National Journal, made a point that no doubt has crossed the mind of many reporters who cover the military: the fallout from the infamous Rolling Stone piece has just made their jobs harder.
The takeaway for many senior military officers is likely to be that there's only a downside to talking with the media so why bother?
Kitfield: There will be no embeds in Afghanistan in higher headquarters for quite a while. This has probably set back the reporting quite a ways because the trust between the military and the media has just been shot out of the water.
Kitfield is probably right. It took decades following the Vietnam War for the mutual distrust between the military and media to be broken down. Many in the military blamed the media for losing the war.
While the wariness was never completely gone, and there were good reasons for at least some suspicion to remain, reporters embedded with units in Iraq and Afghanistan have often reported back approvingly to colleagues back home about the access they've received. The ice had melted.
But many generals and other senior officers will now likely think twice about giving reporters the kind of access Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings had.
The fear from a reporters' perspective is that officers will conclude it's already tough enough to fight a difficult war without risking a public relations disaster if they should, like McChrystal, make the mistake of saying something impolitic to a reporter while on the record.

Rico says any guy named Stanley, especially one who drinks Bud Light Lime and who likes Talladega Nights and doesn't like Paris or French food, is doomed...

History for the day

On 24 June 1997, the Air Force released a report on the so-called "Roswell Incident", suggesting that the alien bodies witnesses reported seeing in 1947 were actually life-sized dummies.

What the hell, try it

Rico says, courtesy of his friend Kelley, this probably apocryphal story:
The other day I needed to go to the emergency room. Not wanting to sit there for four hours or more, I put on my old Army fatigues and stuck a patch onto the front of my shirt that I'd downloaded off the internet. When I went into the ER, I noticed that over half of the people got up and left; guess they decided they weren't that sick after all. Cut at least three hours off my wait time. Feel free to use this patch the next time you're in need of quicker emergency service.
It also works at the DMV; saved me five hours.
At the laundromat, three minutes after entering, I had my choice of any machine, most still running.
Don't try it at McDonald's though; the whole crew left and l never did get my order.
Rico says he bears no responsibility for your arrest if you do, though...

Civil War for the day

The prison camp at Belle Isle in South Carolina.

23 June 2010

Twits

Rico says that the ladyfriend is partial to waking up to NPR, so the other morning he got an earful of commentary on the current political situation. Seems that today's politicians, in an attempt to 'reach out' to their constituents (who are much younger, now that Rico is older), are using all the 'social media' tools: Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.
Now that's all well and good but, as a good curmudgeon, Rico refuses to loiter on any of those URLs, and he's never sent a 'tweet'. Doubtless, if he were younger, he would, but don't look for him there any time soon...
 

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