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Archive for December, 2006

I flew commercially a few days ago, so I was entertained (so to speak) by what security expert Bruce Schneier calls “Security Theater:” the TSA’s fumbling and worthless screening of air travelers. All this fuss and not an ounce of it adds anything to our actual safety from terrorists. (For more on this see a recent article in the Times by Randall Stross who called it “theater of the absurd.”)

I’ve blogged on the subject of how the people over at the Department of Homeland Security have basically failed to take any steps to protect one of our key infrastructure components, the Internet, from being attacked and shut down by terrorists. Then today I see an article in the New York Times on how the insurgency (whoever they are) has in effect electrically isolated Baghdad from the rest of Iraq by taking down the towers that support Iraq’s 400-kilovolt transmission lines. The result is that Baghdadis now enjoy only 6 1/2 hours of electricity per day, which is down from 20 – 24 hours per day under Saddam. No wonder they are wheezed at us. How would we feel?

Now this may seem like just another wretched indicator that events in Iraq are rapidly going out of our control; I mean, 30 towers down here, 45 down there, oh bother. It’s far away, almost another planet to most of us. But as I was padding around the airport in my socks while they x-rayed my shoes for explosives, was struck by the thought that if I were a terrorist I would not be trying to bring down an airliner — I’ve already got the US government spending billions tilting at airborne windmills — I’d attack the US power grid.

And I’d do that because our long-distance high voltage transmission network is running essentially at 100% capacity and there are few plans afoot to change that. Therefore, blow a few towers and you could black out 20% of the country with no trouble, since we have absolutely no reserve capacity to route power around a major tie-line outage. The source of this is the North American Electric Reliability Council, which has issued some perfectly dismal reports lately on just being able to meet our basic electric needs over the next couple of years. And this doesn’t count loss of highlines to terrorist actions.

So, could the Federal government take a few minutes away from it’s efforts to strip away our constitutional liberties and do something concrete like use eminent domain to ram through some new highlines, before some manaic blows them down on us? Like enacting some really meaningful energy standards on businesses and homes, so that our demand drops in absolute numbers? And of course, start focusing on localized energy resources such as wind and biofuels so that we don’t have to run electrons from one end of the country to the other across lines we may not be able to defend?

In other words, guys, could we start addressing our real terrorist-exposures and cut out the theater?

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The lame-duck session of the 109th Congress has finally and mercifully ended, with lots of important stuff left undone but fortunately nothing too idiotic enacted at the last minute. But one thing we can be thankful for is that the telco-industry-giveaway rewrite of the Telecommunications Act (HR 2525) died with the last rap of the gavel and thus net neutrality has for the time being been preserved.

If you’re not aware of the issue of net neutrality, I’ve blogged about it here.

Not that the big guys didn’t try to ram this through, thanks mainly to Senator Ted “bridge to nowhere” Stevens of Alaska, and to an estimated $100 million that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time-Warner, and their captive industry groups spent on ads and contributions to All The Right People. The Save the Internet Coalition estimates that over a million citizens and organizations inundated Congress complaining about this effort by these companies to turn the Internet into a new version of cable TV, where they got to control what you have access to and charge content providers a toll in the process.

The common belief among Internet pros is that the incoming Congress will be less automatically in the pocket of Corporate America, partly because several of their key lobbyists are now in jail. So the outlook is less bleak but the threat is still there — the pot of money these outfits think they should be entitled to for letting you access the Internet is just too large for them to pass up without a fight.

The upcoming battle over net neutrality when Congress is back in session promises to be the Battle of the Titans. On one side, all the Telcos / cable operators. On the other, well, basically all of us that use the Internet. All of us, you say? Well, the membership of Save the Internet includes such — shall we say — diverse organizations as the Harvard Berkman Center, MoveOn Social Action, Gun Owners of America, Common Cause, the Christian Coalition, the American Library Association, as well as hundreds of non-telco businesses of all sizes and shapes. If these people can manage to come together on any issue, believe me it’s important.

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Here’s some dismal news from Afghanistan — you remember Afghanistan, the home of al Qaeda, the place we have basically ignored while we focused our national attention on brewing disaster in Iraq:

Five years after the fall of the Taliban, a joint report by the Pentagon and the State Department has found that the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work, and that managers of the $1.1 billion training program cannot say how many officers are actually on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units have gone.

In fact, most police units had less than 50 percent of their authorized equipment on hand as of June, says the report, which was issued two weeks ago but is only now circulating among members of relevant Congressional committees. In its most significant finding, the report said that no effective field training program had been established in Afghanistan, at least in part because of a slow, ineffectual start and understaffing.

So, you may be tempted to say, the Afghans are just incompetent tribesmen, what do we expect? But as the Times’ article also goes on to say:

Police training experts who have studied or had first-hand experience with the American effort in Afghanistan said they agreed with the report’s findings, and some said they had warned for years that field training was the backbone of a strong program. But they said additional problems needed to be investigated, including the quality of private contractors and the cost and effectiveness of relying on them to train the police officers. In particular, the experts questioned why the report focused on United States government managers and only glancingly analyzed the performance of the principal contractor in Afghanistan, DynCorp International of Virginia.

(Full New York Times article here)

So what we’re seeing here is yet another sweetheart deal to Friends of The Administration where they repay our largesse with gross incompetence and under-performance. DynCorp International is a contractor headquartered in Virginia (but whose police contracting division is in Texas, no surprise) that received a $750 million contract to train police in Iraq and utterly failed in that effort in 2004. It’s not clear what in fact they did there, as the government assigned two government auditors and one civilian audit contractor to oversee the 500 or so DynCorp contractors in Iraq.

Over the mountains, the Administration has pumped $1.1 billion (yes, billion) into police training in Afghanistan, and the Times reports that the overwhelming majority of that money has gone to DynCorp. What we as taxpayers have received from this is a completely disfunctional police, riddled with al Qaeda operatives, that allowed looting of equipment with absolutely no accounting control, the largest opium poppy crop in decades, and regional tribal chieftans who are starting to contract their own security services from known al Qaeda soldiers. Wow, there’s an effective investment for you.

Hopefully, the incoming Congress will feel more empowered than the last one to start investigating this whole business and will hopefully issue some criminal indictments for fraud against these companies.

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I call to your attention to the puzzling cases of Alexander Litvinendo and Yegor Gaidar: seemingly healthy one day, then devestatingly ill the next. Mr. Litvinenko did not survive his poisoning with polonium, while Mr Gaidar appears to have done so, at least for now. Both have been persistent critics of the Russian government, which seems ill-disposed to be criticized by anyone. Anywhere.

And it’s the “anywhere” that should give us pause. We might accept that the Russians may be willing to butcher their critics on Russian soil with impunity (witness the contract-style killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya recently). But what should be rather more bothersome is the thought that the long arms of somebody’s squad of poisoner-assassins should reach into the West where we — and others — are supposed to be safe. Litvenenko was in London where he lives, and Gaidar was in Ireland at a conference. So this implies, unfortunately, that certain entities are now willing and have the technology to carry out these attacks against individuals on foreign soil.

The Russian government has of course has denied any responsibility for this business, but unfortunately the Brits, who are very good at detailed police work, have found traces of the polonium elsewhere on Litvinenko’s agenda the day he was stricken, and also on several airplanes that flew between London and Moscow. Note if you will, polonium is not your everyday stuff: it’s not a stable element, is extremely rare in nature (about 100 micrograms per metric ton of uranium ore), and has a half-life of 137 days. Its also highly alpha-radioactive: a gram of it generates 140 watts of power, so its intrinsically dangerous to handle. So unless you have the ability to extract polonium from tons and tons of uranium ore, you got your polonium by using a reactor or a cyclotron to bombard bismuth. I suspect the average terrorist-assassin just doesn’t have the resources to do this.

I fear that this is just another example of how our government, which is focused on traditional big-ticket military machines, and on preventing Mexican stoop-laborers from sneaking into the country, and on “combating terrorism in Iraq,” is failing to figure out how to deal with what are likely to be the real attack vectors against us and out allies. The Prez may have said, “bring ’em on” but he wasn’t — and isn’t — ready.

And of course, as our foreign policy continues to be dominated by Iraq’s continuing slide into utter chaos, we are diverted from noticing Russia’s seemingly inexorable slide back toward political collapse and imperial totalitarianism.

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