Charlie's Diary

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Tue, 15 Nov 2005

Looking under the lamp post

There is an apocryphal story told as a metaphor for the process of scientific discovery, of a man who comes out of his house one night to find his neighbour crawling around on his hands and knees, searching the ground around a street lamp. "What's the matter?" Asks our protagonist. "I've lost my house keys!" Replies the neighbour. Our protagonist promptly joins in the search, but after a few minutes he realizes that he can't see any sign of the keys. "Are you sure this is where you dropped them?" He asks. "Of course not! I dropped them way over there, in the woods!" "Then why are you searching under the lamp post instead of in the woods?" "Because there's more light here!"

Meanwhile, it's probably no exaggeration to say that one item that is seldom out of the news is the possibility that terrorists of one kind or another -- insert your pet nightmare here -- might seek to get hold of chemical weapons, or other so-called weapons of mass destruction. We are, in fact, constantly exhorted to be on the lookout for suspicious signs, and the alleged stockpiling of chemical weapons was cited extensively in the propaganda build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Well, we didn't find any chemical weapons plants in Iraq; and meanwhile, terrorists are doing it the old way, blowing themselves up with explosive belts. But the science fiction writer in me keeps prompting me to ask, what if ...?

To date, we have one actual terrorist use of chemical weapons: March 20th, 1995, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a sarin attack on the Tokyo underground. There are two surprising aspects to the Aum group's use of sarin; firstly, that they bothered with the stuff at all, and secondly, that they had any measure of success with it. Sarin is notorious for having a poor shelf-life, and certain impurities that can be introduced in the manufacturing process can increase the decomposition rate, rendering it useless in a matter of days to weeks. Moreover, because Sarin is horrendously toxic, it is difficult to handle: while it's possible to make quantities of a few hundred grams in a reasonably well-equipped organic chemistry lab with suitable protective equipment, making large quantities requires large, purpose-built (and very well sealed!) reaction vessels.

A tenth of a miligram may be enough to kill a human being, but before it can do so, it must be delivered to the target -- and this is a difficult task that has brought many chemical weapons programs to grief over the years. A few hundred grams might notionally be enough to kill everyone in a city ... but if you vapourize it in a city street it is likely to disperse long before anyone even notices it. For their Sarin attacks to succeed, the Aum group had to build a large chemical factory and use large quantities (in their June 27th, 1994 attack on an apartment building) or enclosed space (the March 20th, 1995 attack on the Tokyo underground trains) to amplify their attacks -- a single suicide vest would have achieved a greater death toll at far lower cost.

If the Aum Shinrikyo attacks (they also tried to use botulinum toxin and anthrax spores) failed, I suspect the real cause is that Aum were obsessed with following a movie-plot model of what a terrorist CBW attack should look like. As security expert Bruce Schneier explains:

Sometimes it seems like the people in charge of homeland security spend too much time watching action movies. They defend against specific movie plots instead of against the broad threats of terrorism.

We all do it. Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats. We imagine anthrax spread from crop dusters. Or a contaminated milk supply. Or terrorist scuba divers armed with almanacs. Before long, we're envisioning an entire movie plot, without Bruce Willis saving the day. And we're scared.

Psychologically, this all makes sense. Humans have good imaginations. Box cutters and shoe bombs conjure vivid mental images. "We must protect the Super Bowl" packs more emotional punch than the vague "we should defend ourselves against terrorism."

The 9/11 terrorists used small pointy things to take over airplanes, so we ban small pointy things from airplanes. Richard Reid tried to hide a bomb in his shoes, so now we all have to take off our shoes.

Schneier's explanation attempts to make sense of the peculiar measures that are so widespread and inconvenience us in our day to day lives -- security measures that protect against a single specific threat type, the "Bruce Willis movie" model of a terrorist attack.

Terrorists are themselves generally following a movie script in their heads. 9/11 was conceived by Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta as a vast cinema verité spectacular, an imagination-catching extravaganza to motivate their base. Aum Shinrikyo's leader Shoko Ashahara frequently preached about a coming Armageddon, a global conflict that would destroy Japan with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (except for his followers). In light of this, it's hardly surprising that they, too, are hypnotised by the conventional wisdom about the terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons -- that it must be with conventional militarily-weaponizable substances, or diseases such as Q-fever, smallpox, and ebola.

The action-movie model for security threats cuts both ways, it seems.

Which brings me to my immediate concern: that in addressing the threat of CBW terrorism, our erstwhile guardians are looking under the street light. Because the actual requirements for a terrorist CBW weapon are different from those for a military CBW weapon. And the first group to not only recognize this but to act on it is capable of causing horrific damage.

The military uses of chemical weapons broadly encompass three goals:

  • Area denial
  • Incapacitating or killing enemy troops
  • Terrorising civilians

Dousing an area with nerve gas makes it difficult for infantry (and to a lesser extent, vehicles) to move through the area safely, while the substance persists -- as with Sarin, they all break down eventually. Incapacitating or directly killing enemy soldiers is a secondary goal these days, as well-equipped armies have excellent protective equipment. Finally, terrorising civilians should require no explanation, other than to add that civilian populations are at their most vulnerable to chemical weapons when they live in high density towns or cities. Gas attacks are area weapons, and to saturate a built-up area with poison gas requires quantities best measured in tons.

To achieve these goals, military chemical weapons require certain characteristics: typically they are liquids at ambient temperature but have very high vapour pressure, break down within days (you don't want them lingering in territory you've occupied), and extremely rapid toxicity (to be of use on the battlefield they must incapacitate enemy troops immediately, within seconds to at most a few minutes of contact).

In contrast, the requirements for a terrorist CB weapon are almost the opposite of those for a military one. It does not need to be immediately effective; there's nothing to be gained by killing a victim in seconds as opposed to weeks. Persistence long after the attack is a positive virtue. A high vapour pressure makes handling the substance hazardous -- far better if it's a stable liquid, or even a solid. The only common factor a properly designed terrorist chemical weapon would have with a military one is toxicity.

If this sounds like a fairly abstract set of requirements, rest assured: there are plenty of compounds out there that fit the bill of goods. An example would be dimethyl mercury. Note that I'm only discussing this because (CH3)2Hg is so incredibly toxic that any soi-disant terrorists reading my blog who decide to experiment with the stuff are going to succumb to a lingering, painful death -- this stuff is nasty. It's one of the most potent neurotoxins known; it's also easier to synthesize than sarin or most other comparable agents, from relatively innocent precursors. (Note that when I say "easier to synthesize" I mean "easier for someone with a background in organic chemistry to kill themselves with". This isn't something you can knock up by accident in your kitchen using a jar of table salt and an old thermometer.)

Dimethylmercury is completely useless as a military chemical weapon for several reasons -- it is highly persistent, there is no way to reverse the damage it causes (which is cumulative), it is insoluble in water, it has a significantly lower vapour pressure than, e.g., Sarin, it can penetrate rubber and plastics used in protective clothing, and so on. But these same drawbacks may be assets to a terrorist weapon, especially if it were to be deployed by an organization with a supply of willing martyrs, including educated willing martyrs with chemistry degrees to synthesize the stuff and maybe apply it to the washroom door handles in a dozen shopping malls.

And there is worse stuff out there, I'm sure of it. Stuff that fits the terrorist bill of requirements for a CBW agent much better than sarin and similar, and that nobody is keeping track of.

To circle back to my original point: in looking for known military CBW threats, police and intelligence agencies are looking under the lamp post. Luckily for us, the bad guys are also in the habit of looking under lamp posts -- in no small part because that's where we're searching. But our luck won't hold indefinitely. And if we don't figure out a better way of dealing with terrorist threats than panicking over the latest Hollywood movie plot, we're going to be in trouble.

[Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 21:12 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 01 Sep 2005

The real end of the 20th century?

From The Guardian:

"It is now appropriate to talk of a major energy crisis after Hurricane Katrina pushed US energy markets beyond the edge," Barclays Capital said in a report.
The Mississippi River basin is home to a tenth of the country's oil refineries, churning out 1.8m barrels a day, as well as to ports that handle large imports of grain and fruits and warehouses that stock a quarter of US coffee supply.
Barclays Capital estimates that 20m-40m barrels of refined oil could have been lost, but no one has been able to penetrate the flood waters to assess the pipelines. If the damage is worse than expected, it could push crude oil prices to beyond the 1980s oil spikes from the Iranian revolution.

Oil is a fungible commodity. The price spike triggered by Hurricane Katrina is going to propagate through the oil markets world-wide over the next few days. Hopefully the trailed release of the US strategic oil reserves will dampen it down: but the question that needs to be asked is, can we increase capacity anywhere else? If the supply of oil can be increased we might be able to dodge the bullet, but if, as some sources suggest the big Saudi fields have passed their peak, we might end up looking back and seeing Katrina as the incident that finally toppled the global economy into a peak oil crisis -- the true end of the 20th century that began when, in Lord Curzon's words, the western allies of the first world war "sailed to victory on a wave of oil".

[Discuss Katrina]

posted at: 17:21 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Logistics watch

Reading between the lines of the Washington Post, the effects of Hurricane Katrina seem to be propagating down the supply chain. 10% of the United States' oil refinery capacity is offline. 5% of the world's oil supply is pumped from the Gulf of Mexico; there are reports that as many as 1 in 13 oil rigs there might have come through the storm without sustaining critical damage.

It takes time for a shortage to make itself felt, but filling station owners are already calling the situation a crisis and airport managers are worrying about resupply; one of the side-effects of the just-in-time logistics chain that has become the model of choice for efficient businesses over the past two decades is that there's no surplus capacity, no reserves that can be tapped to deal with a shortage.

Average petrol prices in the USA are now just under US $3/US gallon, or in real terms almost 50% of the UK retail price. however, Localized price spikes in the South have driven prices as high as $6/gallon in Georgia. Whether this is opportunistic gouging or a reflection of a real supply shortage remains to be seen, but if it's the latter the US economy is in for a very bumpy ride over the next month or two.

[Discuss Katrina]

posted at: 16:40 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 31 Aug 2005

Katrina aftermath

I've avoided posting about the inundation of New Orleans, or Hurricane Katrina, until now -- I'm on the wrong side of the Atlantic and it wasn't obviously any business of mine (other than the odd anxious "are you alright?" email to friends and acquaintances who live a whole lot closer).

However: the devastation is now clearly so extensive that I expect it to have very personal consequences indeed.

Leaving aside any political partisan finger-pointing, it's worth noting that it's not just New Orleans that's underwater. As Stratfor pointed out in a recent bulletin, New Orleans is just one of the residential hubs of the Port of Southern Louisiana, the huge terminal complex that covers the bottom-most fifty miles of the Mississippi. "The Port of Southern Louisiana is the fifth-largest port in the world in terms of tonnage, and the largest port in the United States. The only global ports larger are Singapore, Rotterdam, Shanghai and Hong Kong. ... The Port of Southern Louisiana stretches up and down the Mississippi River for about 50 miles, running north and south of New Orleans from St. James to St. Charles Parish. It is the key port for the export of grains to the rest of the world -- corn, soybeans, wheat and animal feed. Midwestern farmers and global consumers depend on those exports. The United States imports crude oil, petrochemicals, steel, fertilizers and ores through the port. Fifteen percent of all U.S. exports by value go through the port. Nearly half of the exports go to Europe."

The actual estimates for insured structural damage caused by Hurricane Katrina are currently around US $25-30Bn. The current loss of life estimates are in the hundreds (although I'd be unsurprised if the eventual death toll does not eventually top 9/11 by quite a margin). But the economic damage from closing the Port of Southern Louisiana for up to three months is huge -- plausibly equal to 5% of the US balance of trade with the rest of the world. I can't put a figure on that total, but I'd be surprised if it isn't an order of magnitude more than the $25-30Bn insurance costs, and possibly even higher than the cost to date of the Iraq war and occupation ($200Bn). A couple of hundred billion here, a couple of hundred billion there -- pretty soon we're talking real money.

What are the likely consequences (locally and globally) of blowing a 5% of GDP sized hole under the waterline of the US economy?

(PS: for anyone who suspects this question is prompted by nascent anti-Americanism, rest assured: the real reason is that I earn about 70% of my income in dollars. If the US economy sneezes, I catch a cold ...)

[Discuss Katrina]

posted at: 20:03 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 27 Nov 2004

Cost of war

In late October, The Lancet published an epidemiological study suggesting that the civilian death toll since the US invasion of Iraq was likely to exceed 100,000 (relative to the projected death rate from pre-invasion demographic figures).

(Note to those who don't believe The Lancet study methodology was accurate: the cluster survey explicitly excluded known hot-spots for violence, such as Fallujah. Neither does it assert that the increased death rate consists of civilian casualties inflicted directly by the occupiers. For a not-too-unreasonable critique of the study, see The Economist's commentary.)

The flip side of the coin has now been revealed: CBS managed to get the Pentagon to admit the true scale of US casualties in Iraq -- and as with the civilian death toll, it's way higher than the news headlines suggest. See, it's impossible to conceal the death toll (1230 troops killed in action), but the injuries are another matter. So far, 9300 troops have been injured in combat -- seriously enough that 5000 were unable to return to duty. Translation: limbs blown off, brain injuries, crippled for life, medical discharge territory. But wait, there's more: over 15,000 troops have been evacuated from Iraq with "non-battle injuries". "Non-battle injuries" covers just about anything not directly inflicted by the enemy -- if you're hit by a bullet it's a battle injury, but if your Hummer swerves off the road to avoid an IED and you break your neck in the resulting crash it's a "non-battle injury". Of course, this covers lesser conditions too -- psychiatric problems, dysentery and other diseases, and so on -- but that's 15,000 medical evacuees who warrant a flight to a hospital in Germany, and 20% of them never rejoin their units.

So the total US casualty count so far is over 25,000, with over 9,000 permanently out of combat (dead or crippled). As 300,000 troops have been rotated through Iraq, that makes for a total casualty rate of around 9%. To draw an analogy to another insurgency in which a western nation got pinned down in street fighting over a period of years, the average rate of attrition is roughly ten times the peak sustained by the British Army during the Northern Ireland Troubles at their worst (circa 1972-74) -- but as the rate of attacks on US personnel is increasing rapidly, I suspect it's much worse than these figures suggest.

[Link(Lancet paper)] [Link(Casualty report)] [Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 14:24 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 21 Sep 2004

October Surprise?

I know I've been trying to keep off the topic of the Iraq fiasco, but this is something that's too good to miss.

According to this month's Guardian/ICM poll the British electorate is overwhelmingly in favour of pulling all UK forces out of Iraq immediately -- a 71% majority, split along gender lines 77/63. Approval for the invasion runs at 40%, with 45% saying it was unjustified. It's a running sore in Tony Blair's re-election chances, with an election due in the next 15-18 months. Unlike Bush's republican base, support for withdrawing troops is almost as strong among Labour voters (73%) as Liberal Democrats (75%), and even among conservative voters a clear majority want to see a definite withdrawal date set.

All of this wouldn't signify much, except that The Observer (a Sunday newspaper) reported, on the 19th, that the British Army is to start pulling troops out of Iraq next month, reducing strength in Iraq by a third over the course of October. "The forthcoming 'drawdown' of British troops in Basra has not been made public and is likely to provoke consternation in both Washington and Baghdad. Many in Iraq argue that more, not fewer, troops are needed. Last week British troops in Basra fought fierce battles with Shia militia groups," as the paper felt it necessary to explain.

Now. Let us postulate that Blair committed to the Iraq exercise for a variety of reasons other than the stated excuse about weapons of mass destruction -- a combination of belief in the necessity for regime change to oust an odious dictatorship with a measure of cold-blooded diplomatic necessity: the need to rebuild the trans-Atlantic relationship with a unilateralist US administration that bears grudges. (Blair's Labour Party central office had offered advice and support to the Gore campaign to during the past election -- a long tradition, but not one guaranteed to build a good working relationship with the Bushies.)

Next, let us also contemplate a forthcoming US presidential election which is still, post-convention fluctuations aside, too close to call.

Despite his apparent support for Bush over Iraq and terrorism, Blair clearly isn't enamoured of the current president -- both for historic reasons and on matters of policy (as witness Blair's recent designation of global climate change as the number one threat to humanity today). They're not reading from the same hymn book, and I suspect Blair would be deeply relieved if Bush was to be replaced as president by a Democrat with a reputation for thoughtfullness. But Blair can't risk the sort of partisan campaigning support for Kerry that used to go on between Labour and the Democratic Party (and between the Conservatives and their Republican allies). If Bush were to be re-elected the consequences could be very grave for a British government that supported his rivals. The Bush administration not only bears grudges -- it acts on them.

But employing some sort of tactic that would throw the election at the last minute is another matter. And I suspect one of the few signals that could get through to the US media right now would be a unilateral British withdrawal -- or draw-down -- in Iraq. The British contribution was, at its peak, bigger than all the other non-American contributions to the coalition combined; remove it, and all you've got is a fig leaf plastered across a public embarrassment that no less a luminary than the UN secretary general just declared to be illegal. Would this be enough to get through to the American public the fact that they are in this mess on their own? A British withdrawal certainly wouldn't encourage the other small-scale players to leave their forces in jeopardy, and it would highlight the US's military isolation to any undecided voters who haven't yet realized that the coalition is, in fact, just camouflage. The war isn't all that popular in the US, and heaping more echoes of Vietnam on top of the existing warehouse-load of deja vu isn't likely to do Bush's re-election chances any good.

I wonder if Blair is planning to deliver an October Surprise that will swing the US presidential election against Bush?

[Discuss Iraq invasion

posted at: 10:13 | path:
/wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 10 Jun 2004

Why did the [Iraqi] chicken cross the road?

Shamelessly cribbed from Juan Cole's blog:

Coalition Provisional Authority:

The fact that the Iraqi chicken crossed the road affirmatively demonstrates that decision-making authority has been transferred to the chicken well in advance of the scheduled June 30th transition of power. From now on the chicken is responsible for its own decisions.


We were asked to help the chicken cross the road. Given the inherent risk of road crossing and the rarity of chickens, this operation will only cost the US government $326,004.

Muqtada al-Sadr:

The chicken was a tool of the evil Coalition and will be killed.

US Army Military Police:

We were directed to prepare the chicken to cross the road. As part of these preparations, individual soldiers ran over the chicken repeatedly and then plucked the chicken. We deeply regret the occurrence of any chicken rights violations.


The chicken crossed the road, and will continue to cross the road, to show its independence and to transport the weapons it needs to defend itself. However, in future, to avoid problems, the chicken will be called a duck, and will wear a plastic bill.

1st Cav:

The chicken was not authorized to cross the road without displaying two forms of picture identification. Thus, the chicken was appropriately detained and searched in accordance with current SOP's. We apologize for any embarrassment to the chicken. As a result of this unfortunate incident, the command has instituted a gender sensitivity training program and all future chicken searches will be conducted by female soldiers.

Al Jazeera:

The chicken was forced to cross the road multiple times at gunpoint by a large group of occupation soldiers, according to eye-witnesses. The chicken was then fired upon intentionally, in yet another example of the abuse of innocent Iraqi chickens.


We cannot confirm any involvement in the chicken-road-crossing incident.


Chicken he cross street because bad she tangle regulation. Future chicken table against my request.

U.S. Marine Corps:

The chicken is dead

[Link] [Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 13:52 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 19 May 2004

The screaming never stops

I am trying hard not to post anything about this, because it's just too obscene.

Instead I am going to pretend I come from another time-line where the world is still safe for such innocent capitalist antiquarian pursuits as buying your very own Tandy WP3 word processor, Cambridge Z88, Binary LED watch, or nixie tube wristwatch.

But, you know, it isn't really safe out there -- and however hard you jam your fingers in your ears, the screaming never stops.

[Discuss Iraq invasion] or [Discuss toys]

posted at: 21:21 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 08 May 2004

Happy talk

Y'know, I currently have this overwhelming urge to jam my fingers in my ears, jump up and down, and yell: "no! This is not happening! Everything is just fine!" The impulse towards denial is enormous. Unfortunately, corroborating information that draws an ugly picture is virtually impossible to avoid. And that's before we look at the allegations that US forces participated in prisoner massacres in Afghanistan.

It seems to me that the state is the only body that rots from the top down ...

I have an itchy feeling that it's no coincidence that Bush is the first US President to be an MBA, and that this stuff is happening on his watch.

In another discussion of this subject, Brian Bruxvoort remarked, "the focus on the release of the pictures instead of the actions seems in-line with a administration that thinks of itself like a business. The damage they see is PR fallout, the tarnished image of the company, not the acutal human suffering they've caused."

I think he's quite right. Corporate managers can afford to ignore the broader consequences of their actions for society at large because that's not part of their job description. Their job is to maximize shareholder value, and leave the State (or charities) to pick up the pieces after the next round of downsizing. If you're running the government, then picking up the pieces and looking after the big picture is what you're supposed to be doing. But this is an administration of executives trained in business management rather than government. Bush's MBA, Cheney's position at Halliburton ... they're all business leaders. Their entire experience leads them to focus on their business goals while telling them that they can leave dealing with the fallout for somebody else.

Moreover, their attitude to dissent can be explained by the hypothesis that they're trying to run the USA like a corporation rather than a country. Compare and contrast their denunciations of any dissenting opinion with Tony Blair's nuanced willingness to accept that dissenting viewpoints are legitimate, even if he isn't going to act on them. What's going on here -- why are these politicians -- supposedly politics is the art of reconcilling distinct viewpoints -- so unreceptive to argument?

In general, most corporations are internally constituted as perfect Stalinist dictatorships, directed from the center by managers who are free to do anything as long as it furthers their mission. There is an almost total lack of accountability from the employees, except where it may be imposed by external regulatory authorities. The corporate model is as profoundly anti-democratic a system as can be imagined, but we put up with it because it has the saving grace that it exists as a little island within a larger society. Corporations have a strictly limited scope for oppression.

The problem I'm noticing is people with the mind-set of corporate upper management trying to run a country as if it is a corporation. Dissent is suppressed, all actions must be goal-oriented, policy is dictated unilaterally from the centre and collateral damage is ignored. The emphasis on appearances that typifies the current administration is simply an old ingrained habit from operating within the constraints of a broader context (of a corporation in a market regulated by a bigger entity); the contempt displayed for dissenting viewpoints is characteristic of the worst excesses of a corporate monopoly.

Rumsfeld is a corporate manager. Bush is, too. So is Cheney. It all seems to be of a piece with the willingness to use any means to get results, however evil, the obsession with meeting goals regardless of colateral damage, the determination to spin criticism as subversion or treason, and so on. They think they're running America, Inc., may the devil take the hind-most, and society can look after itself. In this kind of climate, is it any surprise that low-level employees try to shape up to the perceived expectations of their masters and deliver results by any means necessary, however dehumanizing or monstrous? And is it any surprise that they refuse to be held to account by anyone except their shareholders? (And I'm not talking about Congress here.)

(I'm going to go away now and think happy thoughts about fluffy pretty things and try not to get any more depressed than I am already, before my head explodes.)

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 13:22 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 06 May 2004

Nothing new here ...

I'm back home again, exhausted from my travels but otherwise unharmed. I am, however, catching up on the news from the past week. It's funny how, deprived of regular net bandwidth and stuck in the pressure-cooker environment of a science fiction convention the real world tends to recede. So it's only really over the past day or so that the significance of the news from Iraq and Abu Ghraib prison began to sink in.

With twenty-five deaths in US military custody (including incidents described as murder to a BBC correspondent) being investigated, and photographic evidence of war crimes (euphemistically described as "Iraqi Prisoners Controvery" by the Washington Post) surfacing, I am reminded that we've been here before.

By way of example, in 1971, during the early stages of the Northern Ireland insurgency, when internment was introduced a special system of interrogation (sometimes known as the "Ulster Hybrid") was introduced:

Twelve of 342 arrested men were subjected to several techniques which appeared to serve as pre-interrogation procedures. This included placing a black bag over their heads ('hooding'); being made to stand against a wall with their hands held high above their heads and legs apart for up to 16 hours at a stretch and being deprived of sleep for the first two or three days. In addition, the rooms where the men were left had recorded "white noise" played in them and the men were made to wear boiler suits (perhaps to reduce tactile stimulation). It was also alleged that the men's diets were severely restricted to occasional administrations of dry bread and cups of water (British Medical Association, 1986, pp.15-16; Shallice, 1972, p.388). The British Army termed this "interrogation in depth" and the methods used (hooding, noise bombardment, food deprivation, sleep deprivation and forced standing positions) were known collectively as the "five techniques" (Hogg, 2003). At the time, the UK government stated that these procedures were necessary in order to "provide security for detainees and guards", an "atmosphere of discipline" and to prevent inter-prisoner communication (BMA, 1986, pp.15-16).

(From Psychology and the war on terror by Dave Harper.)

This mistreatment has extremely serious side-effects:

Three men later seen by professor Daly, an Irish psychiatrist at University College, Cork, were reported to have become "psychotic" within 24 hours of the beginning of the interrogation. The symptoms were loss of the sense of time, perceptual disturbance leading to hallucinations, profound apprehension and depression, and delusional beliefs. One man is said to have heard and seen a choid conducted by the protesant leader, Ian Paisley; another could not stop himself from urinating in his trousers and on his mattress; a number had suicidal fantasies. Shallice reports that most other cases of hooding suffered severe mental injuries after it was all over and that almost all of Daly's other patient (20 in all) had overt psychiatric illness. Anxiety, fear, dread, as well as insomnia, nightmares and startle respose were common; depression was almost universal. Psychosomatic symptoms such as peptic ulcers had developed rapidly.

(Quoted from "War on the Mind: The military uses and abuses of psychology", Peter Watson, ISBN 0 14 02 2300 2, pub. Pelican, 1980.)

It should be noted that the British government discontinued the use of these techniques after the Irish government took the case to the European Commission of Human Rights in the early 1970's, where it was deemed that these techniques certainly fitted the relevant definition of torture under the Geneva Conventions (read down a little way to see it). But it would appear that the old and bloody tools were not forgotten; they were just set aside, discussed and remembered still, to await the arrival of a more conveniently dehumanized victim. And if there's just one species of dehumanized hate-figure in the west today, it's got to be the Islamicist terrorist.

Other bloggers (notable picks: Kathryn Cramer and Rivka) are all over the subject of what's going on at present. But I've got a nasty feeling that what we're seeing isn't merely the tip of an iceberg confined to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the tip of an iceberg of institutionalized torture at the heart of all western attempts to deal with the question of Islamicist terrorists.

Ignorance and impatience are a fatal combination, and I find it frighteningly easy to believe that intelligence agencies, short of trained interpreters and cultural experts, are resorting to more and more brutal techniques to try to break the will to resistance of suspected terrorists. The slippery slope argument applies in spades: if you're holding someone who may know where the ticking bomb is planted today, and can justify torturing them to make them confess, why not torture the friend of a friend of an acquaintance of the guy who might plant a bomb next week? And so the pervasive sense of urgency surrounding the War On Terrorism (as exemplified by the rhetoric and the term itself), combined with a level of ingrained contempt and hostility towards the culture of the suspects, leads to corner-cutting of the most brutal kind imaginable.

Which is to say: I think the torture is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise at the heart of the neoconservative program to restructure the Middle East. It's the same disease that enabled another cultured, well-educated western society two thirds of a century ago to efficiently and systematically brutalize half a continent: the conviction that the Other is backward, ill-educated, unworthy of tolerance, brutish, must needs be governed for their own good and punished for rebellion against the self-evidently correct policies of the superpower ... you can't justify the invasion and occupation of other nations these days without espousing a belief that their citizens are morally, intellectually, or ideologically inferior. To view someone as inferior in one of these ways is to dehumanize them. And, once dehumanized, they become fair game for the most odious of practices: collective punishment, suspension of civil rights, torture, and finally mass murder of civilians -- whether by gas chamber or cluster bomb makes no difference.

This is a wake-up call. We aren't just on the slippery slope, we're two-thirds of the way down it and trying on the jackboots for fit.

(Meanwhile, I see that US army forces have entered Najaf. Where do I go to hand back my "member of the human species" badge?)

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 19:53 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 14 Apr 2004

Iraq, a year on

Back on March 18th, last year, I blogged some prognostications about how the invasion of Iraq would go. You can find my hostages to fortune in the blog archives; as with all predictions I got some things wrong, but I'm relieved to note that I got some bits roughly on-target (my updated comments are italicized):

The Iraqi army will surrender. Some units of the Republican Guard will; others won't. ... It could get incredibly ugly if they go for street-fighting through suburbs from which civilians have not been evacuated. (Well, I'm pretty sure that many of the Sunni guerillas who've been shooting at the US forces for the past year include some left-overs from the Ba'ath and the SRG. And the army did surrender.)

The US plans to supply Iraq with food, medicine, and reconstruction aid after the war will prove to be hopelessly inadequate, and hasty improvisation will be required to avert a huge humanitarian catastrophe. This will be represented after the event as a triumph of careful advance planning. (Upwards of 10,000 civilian dead, and water and electricity still out 12 months later, and unemployment peaking at 60%, and a nascent civil war, probably qualifies as a humanitarian disaster whichever way you cut it. The only good news is that the food situation seems not to have gone completely pear-shaped.)

Right now, the "reinforced brigade" of US army troops occupying Kabul is actually close to divisional strength. This actually ties down three divisions -- one on the sharp end, one on R&R having come off duty, and one preparing to go in -- out of a total strength of 11 divisions. If we postulate that the US army can nail down and occupy Iraq post- war with a similar sized force, that ties up 6 of the US army's 11 divisions indefinitely. Oops. This is going to have knock-on effects on Bush's ability to do with crises arising in the next year. Maybe he'll try to work around it by reverting to a Churchillian strategy (doomed to failure, as Group Captain Gray, author of this paper, explains). Or maybe he just trusts Kim Jong-Il to sit still and wait his turn? (Spot on the money, apart from Kim Jong-Il, who seems to be playing his cards cautiously this year.)

By the same token, the White House "forgot" to allocate any money to reconstructing Afghanistan this year, until Congress reminded them to the tune of $300M. Obviously Iraq can pay for itself. So, with the price of oil dropping, they'll open the stop-cocks and drop it still further. Good news for Bush's friends, who've been buying up mothballed oil refineries -- bad news for the House of Saud, who will get to face a pre-revolutionary situation with an empty treasury. Oops, what was that about the US army already being over-committed? (Okay, I called this one wrong. The Iraqi oil industry is sufficiently battered that the stop-cocks haven't opened fully yet and the brunt of the cost is coming out of the US treasury. Still, they're expected to pay for their own reconstruction, with Bremer's rolling program of agressive privatization. The House of Saud, meanwhile, gets a stay of execution as oil prices rise towards an all-time high.)

If Bush had gone about this sensibly, he could borrow Canadian or German or French or Russian troops to handle the post-war occupation. But as it is, the bill for unilateralism is going to come due only when Iraq surrenders -- when he discovers that, having made his bed, he's going to have to sleep in it alone. (And the urge to scream "I TOLD YOU SO" becomes well nigh irresistible ...)

This, incidentally, is why I stopped blogging about the Iraq situation. The potential for a clusterfuck on an international scale was obvious even before the invasion began. The current n-way civil war was predicted with some accuracy by those with more insight into domestic Iraqi factionalism than I (notably Juan Cole, who has made a profession of studying that part of the world). Meanwhile, the US military geared up under Donald Rumsfeld to fight and win the last war all over again, namely to do a re-run of 1991 (in which they fought a brisk land war to liberate a mostly grateful Kuwaiti citizenry), regardless of the fact that no army ever gets to fight the same war twice in a row. What a profound mess.

The mess wasn't made any better by the ideological blinkers and petty malice of the agressors. Insisting on applying a program of Thatcherite free-market free-for-all to a conquered nation has never been done before: on what grounds did they expect success? And refusing to count the windrows of shattered bodies of civilians while declining to recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court is as good as an admission that the bastards wanted their hands free from the outset to commit war crimes without retribution.

If I contemplated the mess for long I'd spring a stomach ulcer. So instead, I'm going to revisit it at roughly one year intervals to say either "I told you so" or "okay, so I was wrong" about my previous prediction, and the rest of the time I'm going to blog about happy fun stuff instead.

And that brings me to my April 2004 to May 2005 projection for Iraq, which can be summed up in one word: Lebanon.

Sweet dreams.

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 16:41 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 21 Mar 2004

Odd sights in the sky

Yesterday afternoon I was working in my study when I heard loud aircraft noise, at low altitude -- growing very fast, dopplering, then fading away, like a military overflight rather than an airliner.

I live very close to a densely populated city centre, so military overflights at low altitude are unusual; and most airliners detour round the city, so that if anything goes wrong on final approach or takeoff they fall in the Firth of Forth (rather than taking out a tenement block or two).

Anyway, today Feorag and I went out for lunch. On our way home, at precisely 3pm, I heard loud engines, and looked up just in time to see a pair of Tornado F3s in close formation coming towards us. They were flying along the line of Leith Walk, north to south, at an altitude of about five hundred feet. No ferry tanks, not sure if there were any missiles (as F3s carry them in semi-recessed bays under the fuselage, rather than on the wing), but I'm pretty certain they were the air defense version rather than bombers. They were doing something like 150-250 miles per hour, flying straight towards the city centre.

A point to note: there are no air shows today. Another point: this is controlled airspace. The RAF does not routinely fly fighter patrols over British cities at such low altitudes: an engine flame-out would almost certainly leave a smoking hole in a densely crowded residental area. In fact, the flight line they were following would have been flat-out illegal at an air show.

What's going on?

[Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 15:26 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 26 Feb 2004

"The defence believes that the advice given by the Foreign Office Legal Adviser expressed serious doubts about the legality (in international law) of committing British troops in the absence of a second [UN] resolution."

I suspect this may be the beginning of the end for Tony Blair.

Former cabinet minister Clare Short has gone on the record as saying MI5 bugged UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the run-up to the Iraq war. There's some serious jeopardy here; in doing so, Short technically violated the Official Secrets Act, which means she could do serious prison time -- if anyone in the Home Office has the guts to bring charges against her. In the wake of Katherine Gun being let off the hook, this looks highly unlikely -- Gun's defense strategy appears to have the government terrified.

The Guardian is reporting that a key plank in that defense strategy was evidence that the Foreign Office believed the war was illegal (in the absence of a second UN resolution, which never happened, if you remember).

Key fact to bear in mind: the UK hasn't opted out of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

UPDATE: This story happened to break the same day as the Prime Minister's scheduled weekly press conference. It makes for bitterly amusing reading. Blair seems to be a little bit off-balance; can't think why ...

[Discuss politics]

posted at: 17:46 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 14 Dec 2003

Saddam captured ...

... in Tikrit. And they're going to put him on trial.

While shedding no tears for the beast of Baghdad -- who climbed to the top of the Ba'ath party of Iraq over a pile of corpses, by way of the secret police -- I can't help wondering whether this is a good thing for the west. I suspect his being at liberty may have been a restraining factor on the various Iraqi factions jockeying for power -- and taking pot-shots at the occupiers. Now he's out of the way, the spectre of a revived Ba'athist dictatorship has lifted from the followers of al-Sadr and the various other Shi'ite factions and the communists and the nationalists and the just plain pissed-off that their country has been invaded. The factions who suffered under Saddam no longer have to worry about that stuff: we may just have released the brakes on the armed resistance. Moreover, if Saddam is smart enough (and I hope he isn't) and the military authorities stupid enough (and after Gantanemo Bay I fear that they are), he may use a trial as an opportunity to wrap himself in the flag of Iraqi nationalism and turn himself into a martyr to the anti-American cause.

Saying "ding dong, the wicked witch is in custody" is a dangerously naive reaction to this kind of news. By way of a thought experiment, I suspect a good metaphor is this: imagine it's November 1945, and Adolf Hitler has been dug out of a cellar, alive, in the US occupied sector of Germany, where he has been coordinating sporadic resistance attacks. He goes on trial at Nuremburg and is in due course sentenced to hang. What, sixty years later, would his historical record have been like? And more importantly, what, twenty years later, might the German people have made of a leader who put up a spirited defense in a kangaroo court, rather than taking the coward's way out of the consequences of his actions by shooting himself?

[ Link] [Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 11:59 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 06 Sep 2003

Michael Meacher's Statement

Michael Meacher, former environment minister in the Blair government, has created a localized shit-storm by speaking out on Iraq, the War on Terror, and 9/11.

Two things make this interesting. The first is that he's picked up on the PNAC allegations, intelligence failures in the run-up to 9/11, and the Reichstag Fire theory, and put them together with the west's increasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil supplies to connect the dots in a very ugly (but internally consistent) way. I've suspected something like this was the real explanation ever since the war on Iraq began to loom, but it's interesting to have a former senior politician say it in public -- especially given the vehemence of the denials and denunciations issuing from Downing Street and the US Embassy.

The second thing is the explosive implication of him raising it at this point in the Hutton Enquiry. I think it's looking inevitable that Blair is going to come out of this process with his credibility badly dented. He may survive politically, but it almost certainly marks the beginning of the end for his period in office and the big upcoming question in British politics is going to be: who will replace him when the time comes?

Meacher has dumped a steaming turd in the foreign policy punch bowl, associating his anti-neoconservative explanation for the 9/11/Iraq mess with Blair's unreliability and spin. He implicitly highlights a failure in British foreign policy at the highest level. In doing so, he provides a stick for any alternative leadership contender to use to beat on Tony Blair -- but if they use it they're going to have to follow it up by distancing themselves from the Bush administration's politics, possibly to the extent of ending the trans-Atlantic relationship that's been a foundation stone of British foreign policy since 1940.

[ Link ] [ Discuss Iraq invasion ]

posted at: 14:16 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 14 Aug 2003

Paging Dr Strangelove

New Scientist this week is reporting that:

An exotic kind of nuclear explosive being developed by the US Department of Defense could blur the critical distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. The work has also raised fears that weapons based on this technology could trigger the next arms race.

The explosive works by stimulating the release of energy from the nuclei of certain elements but does not involve nuclear fission or fusion. The energy, emitted as gamma radiation, is thousands of times greater than that from conventional chemical explosives.

The technology has already been included in the Department of Defense's Militarily Critical Technologies List, which says: "Such extraordinary energy density has the potential to revolutionise all aspects of warfare."

Scientists have known for many years that the nuclei of some elements, such as hafnium, can exist in a high-energy state, or nuclear isomer, that slowly decays to a low-energy state by emitting gamma rays. For example, hafnium-178m2, the excited, isomeric form of hafnium-178, has a half-life of 31 years.

The possibility that this process could be explosive was discovered when Carl Collins and colleagues at the University of Texas at Dallas demonstrated that they could artificially trigger the decay of the hafnium isomer by bombarding it with low-energy X-rays (New Scientist print edition, 3 July 1999). The experiment released 60 times as much energy as was put in, and in theory a much greater energy release could be achieved.

Well, yeah.

Only, a couple of months ago this very same idea was being touted around as a power source for reconnaisance drones that could stay airborn for months at a time. However, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories don't seem to think it'll work:

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Physicists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in collaboration with scientists at Los Alamos and Argonne national laboratories, have new results that strongly contradict recent reports claiming an accelerated emission of gamma rays from the nuclear isomer 31-yr. hafnium-178, and the opportunity for a controlled release of energy. The triggering source in the original experiment was a dental X-ray machine.

Using the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, which has more than 100,000 times higher X-ray intensity than the dental X-ray machine used in the original experiment, and a sample of isomeric Hf-178 fabricated at Los Alamos, the team of physicists expected to see an enormous signal indicating a controlled release of energy stored in the long lived nuclear excited state. However, the scientists observed no such signal and established an upper limit consistent with nuclear science and orders of magnitude below previous reports.

So what's going on here?

The idea of using Hafnium isomers as an energy storage device has been knocking around for a few years now. There seem to be two possibilities: the physics works, or it doesn't. If it works, then the LLNL results (from tests carried out in 2001) take some explaining -- how did a major research lab get it wrong? But if it doesn't work, why on earth is this wonder-weapon being touted around by the US Department of Defense, years after the LLNL research poured cold water over it? What bureaucratic agenda could be furthered by pursuing research (with extensive funding) into a technology that isn't compatible with physics as we currently understand it and that appears to be unworkable?

I wonder where the money trail leads, and if it is only money that's at issue. After all, if you promise a politician a magic wand to solve military problems emerging tomorrow, they may be tempted to pay less attention to avoiding such problems today ...

[Link] [Link to LLNL release] [Discuss ww3]

posted at: 18:43 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 24 Jul 2003

Thought for today

I won't be shedding any tears for Uday or Qusay -- a more unpleasant pair of mass-murdering scum would be hard to find. But I think it's time to ask one question: after the US occupation forces in Iraq find or kill Saddam, what will they do when the resistance continues?

(Clue: reading the press transcripts of interviews with ordinary Iraqis, a lot of people there have been afraid that if the US withdrew, the old regime would reappear. Without that fear, I predict that resistance will continue -- less ba'athist, more nationalist. And there won't be a head to lop off this particular hydra.)

I'm now going to make an effort to try to talk about happy fun things instead of things that make me want to chew the door frame and bay at the moon. Like, being on Scottish TV last week, or measuring how much weight the cats have lost lately (they're on a diet). I'm going to be spending a long weekend in London, starting tomorrow. And I think I'm going to take most of August off work, because I'm still feeling a bit burned out and after the past two years I figure I deserve it. (That's the problem with being self-employed and working from home -- you end up working seven days a week and never taking any vacations, because there's no boss around to keep reminding you that you ought to work harder.)

[ Discuss working too hard ]

posted at: 10:37 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 22 Jul 2003

Update: the T-word

I thought I was risking hyperbole in the blog entry below in alleging that the evidence against the Camp X-Ray detainees was either hearsay or extracted under duress. Turns out that an MI5 agent has confirmed my worst fears in front of a panel of judges sitting on a special immigration hearing: MI5 considers statements extracted under torture to be useful as evidence.

This isn't directly speaking about the Camp X-Ray cases, but it says something about how far the standards of evidence have slipped within the security services. (Hint: if you're wondering why I'm so worked up, try to imagine how long you would hold out under torture before saying anything at all to make your captors stop.) Can we trust anything these people say any more?

[ Link ][ Discuss Camp X-Ray trials ]

posted at: 12:32 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 21 Jul 2003

A national disgrace

Moazzem Begg and Feroz Abbasi are two British citizens. They're being held in Camp X-Ray at Guantanemo Bay. They were listed as being among the inmates to be tried before a military tribunal (without benefit of an independent defense lawyer, under extreme pressure to enter a 'guilty' plea or face an unfairly-imposed death penalty with no appeal possible).

Within the UK this treatment is seen as grossly unfair; it prompted newspaper editorials, and more than 200 MPs -- of all parties -- signed a motion calling on the government to do something about what was widely seen as an appalling miscarriage of justice waiting to happen.

Now we're getting to see exactly what "do something" means, when Tony Blair is nudged unwillingly into asking his pal George for a favour. And for once it reflects much worse on Blair than on Bush, who after all is only doing what he's always done:

Speaking to Sky television during his trip to the far east, Mr Blair hinted that President Bush had handed him intelligence warning of the dangers of returning the men to Britain, where they would almost certainly be set free.

"We have got to look at a whole range of considerations, not least our own national security," he said.

His remarks show he has been persuaded by US concern that Mr Begg and Mr Abbasi would be free to return to Pakistan if they were repatriated because legal experts do not believe they could be charged with any offence in Britain.

In his first public comment about the men since a White House dinner with Mr Bush on Thursday, Mr Blair indicated that he now supported a military trial as he called on people to give the US credit for the tribunal. "Any military commission that [the Americans] have is subject to rules that I think would be regarded as reasonably strict by anyone."

But he said the Americans would have to go some way to observing legal norms. "Obviously if we have our own nationals tried in that way we would want to make sure that every single aspect of this was consistent with the proper rules."

Britain has expressed "strong reservations" about the trial, which would be conducted by a military judge and prosecution. The men would be entitled to appoint their own defence team but the lawyers would have to pass a strict vetting procedure, for which the lawyers themselves would have to pay.

The prosecution would be able to present as evidence testimony gained under duress and unsworn statements, and the tribunal has the power to impose the death penalty.

Mr Blair's remarks indicate that President Bush has agreed to loosen the rules, but a normal criminal trial on the mainland, along the lines of the trial of the Californian supporter of the Taliban, John Walker Lindh, has been ruled out.

Okay, let's get this straight.

  • There is not enough evidence to convict these men of anything in a British court.
  • Evidence against them is of the level of hearsay, confessions given under duress (read: torture), unsworn statements, and assertions made by intelligence agencies (see also "Uranium, Nigeria").
  • In the case of one of the accused, he's a thirty-something teacher with four children who claims he was in rural Afghanistan helping set up a school; there's evidence that his arrest was a case of mistaken identity.

Yet despite all these non-trivial objections, Blair's main response after raising the matter with the Bush administration is to run up the white flag, roll over, and say "okay, military tribunals good, lock 'em up and throw away the keys." He seems to be making the calculation that the main energizing force behind UK objections to the tribunal hearings is the application of the death penalty, and that if he can get the US military to apply an alternative the objections will go away -- even if it means sentencing men to life in a hell-hole prison without benefit of a fair trial, appeals process, and without sufficient evidence to secure a conviction in court.

Something stinks.

And the source of the smell is the fact that Blair's cited reasons for not demanding a civil trial for them don't hold water.

According to the Guardian (and supported by this report in the Daily Telegraph), Blair cited two reasons. Firstly, that if they were returned to the UK for trial there would be a risk to national security, and secondly that there wouldn't be enough evidence to convict them and, if found not guilty, they might return to Afghanistan.

This beggars the imagination. To deal with the objections in reverse order: their return to Afghanistan is not a threat. There's a new government there. Assuming they are members of Al-Qaida, they're basically low-level grunts. Al-Qaida have low-level grunts coming out of their ears already, all over the Pakistani western provinces: two more aren't going to win the war on terrorism for the bad guys. If they return to Afghanistan they probably aren't going to do anything except get themselves shot by the US military or the Afghan army being bolted together by the Karzai government. Unless they're officers, or specialists in areas such as bomb-making or assassination, their release won't make any significant difference.

But there's another, far more important issue at stake here. Why does Blair insist that British national security is at stake? That's a fascinatingly ambiguous statement to make ...

The UK has just survived a thirty-year long terrorist insurgency. We have far more experience of running a court system under seige, with guerillas blowing things up and threatening to shoot witnesses and members of the jury, than the US authorities can probably imagine. There can't be any reason to believe that these terrible, terrible men (including a hardened schoolteacher) are going to acquire guns and bombs as if by magic and fight their way out of the courtroom. So what's the story? Is Blair afraid of attracting reprisals from Al Qaida? If so, he seems to have forgotten that, as he was telling us repeatedly last summer, the UK is already near the top of the target list. That doesn't hold water.

About the only way I can read this bizarre statement from the prime minister is that in a trial, evidence submitted by the security services would be exposed to public scrutiny and found to be deficient. In other words: the evidence against them was gathered from the same sort of intelligence sources that gave us uraniumgate and the death of Doctor Kelly by way of fallout, the government is afraid that this would come out in court, and consequently the accused will not be allowed their day in court because the proceedings might embarrass Tony Blair.

The scandal over Iraqi weapons intelligence is already threatening to destabilize the British government. A single tragic death emerging from the mess was enough to monopolize the press over the weekend and visibly rattle the Prime Minister. I suspect that the Guantanemo prisoners may be the key to an even bigger scandal with the potential to bring down the current leadership.

[ Link (Guardian) ] [ Another Link (Telegraph) ] [ Discuss Camp X-ray trials ]

posted at: 10:35 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 13 Jul 2003

Some Words from our Sponsors

"But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship ... That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

-- Nazi Reichsmarshall Herman Goering

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself"

-- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Seems to me that it's way past time we tried to identify who is trying to make us afraid -- and how they stand to benefit.

[ Discuss Fear ]

posted at: 13:14 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 20 Jun 2003


Labour MP George Galloway was a ferocious opponent of the invasion of Iraq. Then the Christian Science Monitor's journalist in Baghdad turned up papers that appeared to show he'd been receiving big cheques from the Ba'ath party. (Original report here.) "Inconceivable," I said, mostly because of the figures involved, and the way the documents were uncovered -- and it turns out that I'm right. According to today's Guardian:

The Monitor said an initial investigation of the documents it received from a man who identified himself as General Salah Abdel Rasool seemed to confirm their authenticity.

But subsequent ink tests showed that the two documents carrying the oldest dates - 1992 and 1993 - "were actually written within the past few months".

The Monitor said the "newest document - dated 2003 - appears to have been written at approximately the same time."

(Note: the Telegraph had a different bunch of documents linking Galloway to the Ba'ath party -- but I am inclined to question the veracity of any documents alleging an illegal financial arrangement between Galloway and the Ba'ath regime at this point. We've got clear evidence that one of the two sets of documents was forged -- and the other seems to relate to funding of the Mariam Appeal (according to The Telegraph, although they go out of their way to obfuscate the issue) rather than Galloway himself.)

Now. One wonders who might have planted forged documents incriminating a western critic of the invasion? (Who, it should be noted, has been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party and is facing an investigation because of these allegations.) My money is on the CIA or another US intelligence agency -- staffed by people who wouldn't be close enough to UK politics to realise that MPs are on a salary of around US $70,000 a year, that members external interests are subject to public scrutiny, and that accepting even an envelope stuffed with twenty pound notes, much less cheques for $3 million, is ever so slightly difficult.

The rather shady General Salah Abdel Rasool seems to have made some money by passing over the documents, but not very much (an $800 payment for "translation services" to a neighbour). Especially when the overheads of preparing at least three boxes of forged files are taken into account. If I was of a paranoid disposition I'd say someone in military intelligence cut a deal with the General -- to inject these documents into circulation in the west via the press, in return for payment.

It will be interesting to see which of the warbloggers who gloated over these allegations eat their words. Or even mention the CSM's retraction.

[ Link (Guardian) ][ Link (Christian Science Monitor) ]

posted at: 13:09 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 18 Jun 2003

Dust settling, museums

Today's Guardian contains a summary of what happened to Baghdad's museums by Eleanor Robson, council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. It makes for grim reading. Far from a mere 33 pieces being destroyed, very serious damage has been inflicted that will take years to even begin to repair.

The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs lost 600-700 manuscripts in a malicious fire and more than 1,000 were stolen. The House of Wisdom and the Iraqi Academy of Sciences were also looted. The National Library was burned to the ground and most of its 12 million books are assumed to have been incinerated. In the galleries of Mosul Museum, cuneiform tablets were stolen and smashed. The ancient cities of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra lost major sculpture to looting. The situation is far worse in the south. Some 15-20 large archaeological sites, mostly ancient Sumerian cities, were comprehensively pillaged by armed gangs.

The destruction isn't as complete as originally reported, but it's worth considering what a disaster of this magnitude in, say, the UK would entail. Imagine London bombed. The V&A trashed, the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels looted, the British Library complex on Euston Road burned (along with all those annoying old bits of paper like the original draft of Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and so on), the Natural History Museum used as a defensive fortification and shelled. (Goodbye, Apollo 10.) Discovering afterwards that, say, only 33 of the primary exhibits on one floor of one of the museums were lost because the rest had been moved to secure storage wouldn't exactly be anything to crow about ... and triumphalist assertions that this indicated there was nothing to worry about would be treated with the contempt they'd deserve, because the Brits are honourable westerners and not Persons of Heads of Rag.

(Yes, I'm angry about the endemic anti-Arab racism that this whole sorry business has dragged front-and-centre in the west's media. This region was the cradle of human civilization and dismissing it simply because of the behaviour of the most recent government on the scene deserves the odium due to the wilfully ignorant, for whom we usually reserve the appellation "barbarians".)

[ Link ]

posted at: 12:06 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 15 Jun 2003

A brief explanation of tomorrow's news

The Whiskey Bar brings you this week a fun analysis of next year's makes-1929-look-like-a-storm-in-a-teacup economic collapse. Indispensible reading, and a lot less tinfoil-hat oriented than some of the other accounts of what the United States' collapsing current account balance means.

And no, there's no schadenfreude here. As I earn more than half my income in US dollars I would really, really hate to see the dollar devalued, or runaway stagflation, or any of the other likely consequences when the shit hits the fan.

Incidentally, Billmon didn't mention the other fiscal stimulus that great powers have traditionally used to dig their way out of this kind of hole: starting a world war.

[ Link ]

posted at: 18:17 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 12 Jun 2003

Good news for the Empire

... But not so good for the rest of us. For starters, David Teather, writing in The Guardian, provides more details of the plans for an execution chamber at Guantanamo Bay. (This is an original report, not a reprint, and tends to undermine some protestations from elsewhere in the blogosphere that it's alarmist rumour.) Meanwhile, in Zagreb the US government is threatening to withhold aid from countries that don't exempt US troops from the International Criminal Court. (Why? Are they planning to commit war crimes?) There's been an almost complete media black-out of the police human rights abuses in Lausanne at the recent G8 summit, sugggesting the censorship machine is getting more sophisticated:

we were teargassed about 20 times in 2 hours. They started directing the canisters straight at people, firstly at their legs, then their stomachs, and then at people's heads. I saw several people directly hit in the stomach. As medics, we had only quite basic kit, but I saw a woman with a serious burn on her leg from a canister, so I went to sort out her injury. Four police came and baton charged me, and started beating me. She and a friend escaped in one direction, I, in another, with the police giving chase. I was clearly marked as a medic. We saw several medics, and two of the legal support lawyers being specifically targeted. A little later, I came across a man lying unconscious on the street. It was unclear whether he was even breathing. I tried to go to at least assess his condition, but the police wouldn't let me near him, or find out his name.

Meanwhile, a friend from New Zealand informs me:

The New Statesman (9 June 2003, p. 12) has a piece by Joel Bennathan talking about the new extradition treaty between the US and Britain. There is no longer a requirement for the government seeking extradition to produce evidence for scrutiny in the host country's courts.
As far as I can tell, this means UK residents can be arrested and shipped off based on *US* standards of evidence - which have been laughable in some cases recently.

(I need to find some substantiation for this last one.)

Sounds like the Empire is coming together nicely. And lest you think I'm ranting and raving a bit, you might want to bear in mind that it has only been 21 months since September 11th, 2001. In that time we've seen two goddamn wars, a global wave of authoritarian repression, blatant attempts to gerrymander the electoral system in the USA by means of electronic voting machines, and the installation of what is beginning to look to me like the infrastructure for a planetary-level police state.

Yes, it bloody could happen here. And while I sincerely hope I'm jumping at shadows, there seem to be an awful lot of them closing in these days.

posted at: 14:37 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 04 Jun 2003

No comment

From The Guardian:

The US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz - who has already undermined Tony Blair's position over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by describing them as a "bureaucratic" excuse for war - has now gone further by claiming the real motive was that Iraq is "swimming" in oil.

The latest comments were made by Mr Wolfowitz in an address to delegates at an Asian security summit in Singapore at the weekend, and reported today by German newspapers Der Tagesspiegel and Die Welt.

Asked why a nuclear power such as North Korea was being treated differently from Iraq, where hardly any weapons of mass destruction had been found, the deputy defence minister said: "Let's look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil."

I wonder if Wolfowitz realises that he's quite possibly screwed Tony Blair -- the Bush junta's only real overseas ally -- by saying this. (Not to mention finally delivering confirmation of what most of us who supported the anti-war movement believed all along, and proof that the US administration was lying through its' teeth right from the start.) It continues:

Amid growing calls from all parties for a public inquiry, the foreign affairs select committee announced last night it would investigate claims that the UK government misled the country over its evidence of Iraq's WMD.

The move is a major setback for Tony Blair, who had hoped to contain any inquiry within the intelligence and security committee, which meets in secret and reports to the prime minister.

Let's not forget: Blair -- unlike Bush -- doesn't have tenure. If he loses the support of his own party, he could be forced out of office. And as he's staked his personal credibility on the WMD story ...

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posted at: 19:49 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry


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