Monthly Archives: December 2010

Dispatches Annual Awards

2010 Dispatches From the Edge Awards

Dec. 28, 2010

Each year the column Dispatches From The Edge awards news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are 2010’s winners.

The Harry Potter Award to the British technology company ATSC Ltd for its invention of a “wand” that, according to the company, detects explosives, drugs, and human remains for up to six miles by air and three fifths of a mile by land. The ADE 651 sells for $16,000 a unit.

The only problem is that it doesn’t work, which users might have figured out by reading the manual: the device has no batteries or internal parts. It is powered by “static electricity” generated by the holder walking in place. A wand-like antenna then points to the drugs, bodies, or explosives.

This past January ATSC Ltd was charged with fraud and banned by the British government. One ATSC source told the New York Times, “Everyone at ATSC knew that there was nothing inside the ADE 651,” and that the units cost only $250 to make.

But the wand was widely used in Iraq. Ammar Tuma, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee bitterly attacked the company for causing “grave and massive losses of the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians, by the hundreds and the thousands, from attacks we thought we were immune to because we have this device.” The Iraqi Ministry of the Interior purchased 800 ADE 651s at a cost of $85 million.

The managing director of ATSC, Jim McCormack, staunchly defended the wand, which he claims the company has sold to 20 countries. He did admit, “one of the problems is that the machine looks primitive,” and said the company was turning out an upgraded model “that has flashing lights.”

Runner-up for this award was the British firm, Global Technology Ltd, which sold $10 million worth of very similar wand—the GT 200—to Mexico. The unit retails for $20,000 apiece. In one demonstration the GT 200 detected drugs in a Volkswagen sedan. After thoroughly searching the car, authorities turned up a bottle of Tylenol (suggesting that one should switch to Advil). Human Rights Watch says it is “troubled” by the use of the wand, which is widely used in Thailand and Mexico. “If people are actually being arrested and charged solely on the basis of its readings, that would be outrageous,” the group said in a press release.

A Mexican interior official defended the GT-200, however, claiming that it “works with molecules.” Hard to argue with science.

The Golden Lemon Award goes to the Conservative government of Canada for shelling out $8.5 billion to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters. According to Defense Minister Peter MacKay, “This multi-role stealth fighter will help the Canadian forces defend the sovereignty of Canadian airspace.” Exactly whom that airspace is being defended from is not clear.

The contract also includes a $6.6 billion maintenance agreement, which is a good thing because the F-35 has a number of “problems.” For instance, its engine shoots out sparks, and no one can figure out why. It is generally thought a bad idea for an engine to do that. There are several different types of F-35, and the vertical lift version of the aircraft doesn’t work very well. It seems the fan that cools the engine, doesn’t, and the panels that open for the vertical thrust, don’t. Also switches, valves and power systems are considered “unreliable.”

The F-35 is looking more and more like the old F-105 Thunderchief, a fighter-bomber used extensively at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Pilots nicknamed it the “Thud” (the sound the plane made when it hit the ground after failing to clear a runway, a rather common occurrence).  One pilot said it had all the agility of a “flying brick,” thus its other nickname: the “lead sled.”

The U.S. is spending $382 billion to buy 2,457 F-35s, although the price tag keeps going up as more and more “problems” develop. Maintenance and spare parts for the aircraft will run several hundred billion extra.

One normally thinks of Canadians as sensible, but the country’s Conservative government is apparently as thickheaded as our own. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently had a summit meeting on the arctic and didn’t invite the Inuit (whom most Americans call Eskimos).

Well, the F-35 may not fly very well, but it works just fine for Lockheed Martin: second quarter profits saw a jump from $727 million to $731 million over last year, and revenues rose to $11.44 billion, 3 percent over last year.

The Panjandrum Award to the U.S. military in Afghanistan.  For those unfamiliar with the “Great Panjandrum,” it was an enormous rocket propelled explosive wheel developed by Great Britain for breaching the Atlantic Wall that Nazi Germany had built on the French coast to defend against amphibious invasions.  Tested on a Devon beach, it roared ashore, turned smartly to port, and thundered into a bevy of admirals and generals, scattering them hither and yon. Thus “Panjandrum” became a metaphor for really silly military ideas.

And there is not a whole lot sillier idea than the one to deploy M1-Abrams tanks in southern Afghanistan.  The M1 is a 68-ton behemoth, powered by a jet engine (miles per gallon is not its strong point).  Since Afghanistan has virtually no roads and a good deal of the terrain is vertical—at least the part where the insurgents are ensconced—how the M1 is going to get around is not obvious.

However, one U.S. Marine officer told the Washington Post, “The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower. It’s pretty significant.” Right. Show the Wogs a tank and they will be begging for mercy.

Except the Taliban are quite familiar with tanks. The initial Soviet invasion included 1,800 of them, many of them T-72s. The T-72 is admittedly smaller than the Abrams—41 1/2 tons vs. 68 tons—but the former actually packed a bigger gun. The M1 sports a 120mm gun, the T-72 a 125 mm gun. T-72 carcasses are scattered all over Afghanistan, and the Taliban even managed to capture some of them.

Tanks are effective against stationary targets and other tanks. The Taliban don’t have tanks, and they don’t stick around when one shows up. But shocked and awed by their appearance? Don’t these people read history? Try “The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan,” by Lester Grau.

The George Orwell Award to the U.S. Defense Department for dropping the name of “Psychological Operations”—“Psyops” for short—because the “term can sound ominous.” Instead Psyops will now be known as Military Information Support Operation, or MISO, which sounds like a Japanese soup.

Some military contractors, however, apparently didn’t get the memo about using names and acronyms that sound “ominous.”  Northrop Grumman just successfully tested a radar system that will be attached to Predator and Reaper armed drones to allow the killer robots to “detect individuals walking over a wide area” and track vehicles, watercraft, people, and animals, as well as “stationary targets of interest.” Given that the drones pack Hellfire missiles and 500 lb bombs, you really don’t want to be “interesting” when they are around.

The news system is called the “Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar” or “Vader” for short. Sound of heavy breathing is not included in the basic package.

The Rudyard Kipling Award to the Pentagon and its program to train officers for extended service in Afghanistan. For those unclear on this award, a few lines from Kipling’s poem, “Arithmetic on the Frontier” about Britain’s unsuccessful effort to subdue Afghanistan, and how one adds up the cost of occupation:

“A scrimmage in a Border Station–

A canter down some dark defile—

Two thousands pounds of education

Drop to a ten-rupee jezail*—

It appears some officers read Kipling. In spite of a high profile push by the Defense Department to recruit officers to serve in Afghanistan, the program  is less than half filled, according to Pentagon officials.

*A jezail is a cheap, muzzle-loading rifle that took a heavy toll on British troops during their 19th century invasions of Afghanistan.

The Barn Door Award to the Department of Defense (yes, yes they do win a lot, but then they excel at winning awards) for telling employees and contractors not to read Wiki Leak documents online, because they are “classified.”  Just close your eyes?

The Air Force went one step further and barred personnel from using computers where the documents were on line, thus underlining conventional wisdom in Washington: the Army is slow, the Marines are dumb, the Navy lies, and the Air Force is evil.

The Mary Wollingstonecraft Shelly Award (the author of Frankenstein) goes to the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, and Cornell University for using Defense Department money to turn the beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, into a cyborg. The beetle is fitted with an electronic backpack attached to the animal’s wing muscles, allowing scientists to control the beetle’s flight path.

The idea is to use the little beastie (actually, as beetles go, kind of a big beastie) to crawl or fly into areas where the “enemy” is. Once the “enemy” is identified, the military can target the area with bombs, rockets or artillery. This is a tad rough on the beetles.

According to researchers Michael Maharbiz and Hirotake Sato, the long-term goal is to “introduce synthetic interfaces and control loops” into other animals. “Working out the details in insects first will help us avoid mistakes and false starts in higher organisms, such as rats, mice, and ultimately people. And it allows us to postpone many of the deeper ethical questions about free will, among other things, that would become more pressing if this work took place on vertebrates.”

The Michele Bachmann Award to Australian legislator Bob Katter for sounding the alarm about a serious threat facing his constituents: “We have terrible problems with deadly flying foxes. They are going to kill more people than the Taipan snake in Australia.”

The flying fox is the world’s largest bat, also called the “fruit bat.” It has broad, flat molars and feeds on soft fruit, from which it extracts juice. By all accounts they are gentle and intelligent and don’t attack humans. The Taipan snake, which can grow up to 12 feet, is considered the most venomous land snake in the world. However, the animal is shy and rarely bites people.

It is comforting to know that there are other legislators in the world just as whacko as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), who recently suggested that legislators “slit their wrists in a blood pact” to block health reform and said that people had to be “armed and dangerous” to block efforts to mitigate global warming.

You can read more of Conn Hallinan’s writings at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com

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Israel, Obama and the Bomb

Israel, Obama & The Bomb

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 13, 2010

This past July, a nuclear-armed nation, in violation of an international treaty, clandestinely agreed to supply uranium to a known proliferator of nuclear weapons.  China and North Korea? No, the United States and Israel.

In a July 8 article entitled “Report: Secret Document Affirms U.S. Israeli Nuclear Partnership,” the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that the Obama Administration will begin transferring nuclear fuel to Israel in order to build up Tel Aviv’s nuclear stockpile.

There is profound irony in the fact that while the U.S. and some of its allies are threatening military action against Iran for enriching uranium, Washington is bypassing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while aiding Israel’s nuclear weapons program, the only country in the world that has actually helped another nation construct and test a nuclear device.

The saga starts with a box of tea that arrived in South Africa in 1975.

This past May, researcher Sasha Polakow-Suransky uncovered declassified South African documents indicating that in 1975 the Israeli government offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime. Israeli officials apparently tried to block the declassification of the documents, but failed.

According to the British Guardian, then Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres—currently president—negotiated with Pretoria to supply South Africa with nuclear warheads for Israel’s Jericho missile. Peres dismissed Polakow-Suransky’s book—“The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa”—as having “no basis in reality for the claims.”

But according to Allister Sparks in Business Day (South Africa), the Israeli offer “to sell nuclear warheads to SA during apartheid is almost certainly correct—despite denials by key figures in both countries.” Sparks should know, because he was told what was in that box of tea by the Rand Mail’s lead investigative reporter, Marvyn Rees.

“I can state this because the disclosures closely corroborate information I was given 32 years ago when the late Echel Rhoodie, then secretary of information, told the Rand Daily, of which I was then editor, how he and Gen. Hendrik van den Bergh, head of the South African Bureau of State Security, had brought what he called ‘the trigger’ for a nuclear bomb from Israel,” Sparks writes.

Sparks has remained silent all these years because he made a promise to Rhoodie not to reveal the conversation, and because he was afraid of the “draconian Defense Act” that would have subjected him to prosecution. But since Rhoodie and the general are dead, the Act repealed, and the story revealed, he felt it was time to come in from the cold.

According to Polakow-Suransky the warhead offer fell through because the parties were worried that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would not go along. But Sparks argues that the “more likely explanation” was that Israel offered a “trigger,” which was cheaper, and ultimately more useful to Pretoria because it would allow the South Africans to produce their own nuclear weapons.

Apparently the Israelis also supplied South Africa with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that enhances the explosive power of nuclear weapons.

According to Sparks, the South African general and Rhoodie packed the trigger into a tea box and put it on a South African Airways plane as hand luggage.

Jump ahead four years to Sept. 22, 1979, when an American Vela 6911 satellite, designed to detect atmospheric nuclear tests, is streaking over the South Atlantic. At 53 minutes after midnight Greenwich Mean Time, near South Africa’s Prince Edward Island, it picked up the telltale double flash of a nuclear weapon detonation. Compared to the 15 kiloton Hiroshima bomb the explosion was small, about 3 kilotons.  It was also “clean”—that is, it produced very little radiation, although enough for radioactive Iodine-131 to turn up in the teeth of Australian and Tasmanian sheep several months later.

The Vela and the sheep were not the only confirmations. The U.S. Navy also picked up an acoustic signal indicating a large explosion at or under the sea at the same time and place as the Vela had detected.

The Carter Administration tried to cover up the test, but, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in “The Samson Option,” the explosion was a joint Israeli-South African low-yield “neutron” bomb.

The key to the test was the trigger in the tea box. According to Sparks, South Africa knew how to make a nuclear weapon, but only of the “gun” variety, the same design as the Hiroshima bomb. The “gun” uses an explosive to fire a uranium bullet at a uranium target. When the two converge, the fuel goes critical and the weapon explodes. But while the “gun” design is simple and largely error-proof, it is too big and clumsy to be mounted on a missile.

For a small warhead or a neutron bomb, you need a “trigger,” a finely engineered explosive device that wraps around a uranium core.  However, triggers are devilishly tricky and a tiny miscalculation in timing results in a dud. In the 1998 round of testing by India and Pakistan, both countries produced some misfires, as did North Korea.

The Israelis were willing to exchange a trigger for something they needed: uranium yellowcake, the raw material for making weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

According to declassified documents uncovered by Polakow-Suransky, Israel also saw South Africa as an ally. In a Nov. 22, 1974 letter to the South African defense ministry, Peres wrote about the importance of co-operation between Tel Aviv and Pretoria. “This co-operation is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it.”

At the time, South Africa was widely reviled for racist policies that denied full citizenship to the vast bulk of its population.

While Peres denies that Israel ever negotiated with South Africa, the Nov. 22 letter concludes by saying that he looks forward to meeting Rhoodie when the latter visits Israel. It was during a meeting four months later that Peres made the warhead offer. Peres—with significant help from France—was a key figure in the establishment of the Israel’s nuclear weapons industry.

The U.S. media has focused on the warhead charge, while ignoring the far more destabilizing proliferation issue. The warheads were never sent, but the box of tea was, and the result was a nuclear explosion by a renegade regime. Since the fall of the apartheid government, South Africa has foresworn its nuclear weapons program.

Israel refuses to sign the NPT—indeed, refuses to admit it has nuclear weapons at all—thus making it ineligible to buy uranium on the world market. Article I of the Treaty explicitly forbids supplying nuclear material to a non-signatory country, which in the case of Israel makes the U.S. in violation of the NPT.

But in Washington’s efforts to line up allies against China, the U.S. has agreed to supply fuel for India’s nuclear power industry, even though India also refuses to sign the NPT. In theory, the U.S. uranium is only supposed to fuel India’s civilian sector, but in practice it will allow India to redirect all of its modest domestic uranium supplies to weapons systems. Pakistan’s request for a similar deal was rebuffed. Thus the U.S. has put aside its treaty obligations in the interests of pursuing allies in the Middle East and Asia.

Sparks argues that, “mutual collaboration” between Israel and South Africa “enabled both countries to develop nuclear weapons.”  Now the U.S. has replaced South Africa in aiding Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal—thought to be around 100 warheads—and in the process has undermined the NPT.

Not only is the U.S. in clear violation of Article 1, the Treaty’s Article VI requires member states to end the nuclear arms race, but the Obama Administration has just committed $85.4 billion to “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal. This is not what the Treaty’s designers had in mind, and, while it may not violate the letter of the NPT, it certainly runs against its spirit.

U.S. actions around Israel and India not only weaken the NPT, they make a mockery of Washington’s concern about “proliferation” and bring into question President Obama’s pledge to seek “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Diplomatic chess moves are check mating a noble sentiment.

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Ireland: The Great Hunger Returns

Ireland: The Great Hunger Returns

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2010

Two images came to mind as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union began systematically dismantling what is left of the shattered Irish economy. One was a photo in the New York Review of Books of an abandoned, up-scale house in County Leitrim, a casualty of the 2008 housing bubble. The other, a 1886 conversation about the aftermath of the 1845-47 potato famine between Sir Wilfred Blunt and the Bishop of Confert at Anghrim, the site of Ireland’s last stand in the rising of 1688.

“They call it the last battle, but this is not true, for the battle has gone on ever since,” the Bishop told Blunt. “Look at those great grass fields, empty for miles and miles away. Every one of them contained once its little house, its potato ground, its patch of oats…and where are they now? Engulfed in Liverpool, London, New York…and all for making a few English landlords rich.”

Substitute “banker” for “English” and one has to conclude that Karl Marx didn’t have it quite right: in Ireland history repeats itself the second time as tragedy, not farce.

Historical analogies are tricky, but the potato famine and the current economic crisis have parallels that are hard to ignore. In both cases the contagion was foreign born. The 1845 fungus—Phytoph thora infestans— came from Mexico via Boston and the Netherlands. The 21st century bubble came from Wall Street and Bonn (German banks are Ireland’s largest creditors). And in both cases the devestation was a result of conscious policy choices by the powerful.

A little history.

The 1845 fungus pretty much killed every potato in Europe, but only in Ireland was there mass starvation. Because only in Ireland had there been a conscious colonial policy to encourage population growth. Ireland in 1845 had about 10.8 million people, more than twice what it has today. Population density meant a desperate competition for land, which, in turn, kept rents high. Places like rural Connaught had a population of 386 persons per square mile in 1845, considerably denser than England’s. The vast bulk of that population—78 percent to be precise—was dependent solely on the potato for subsistence.

The other great advantage of a high population was taxes, which were increased 170 percent from 1800 to 1849. During the same period they fell 11 percent in England. “Over-taxation is not an accident,” remarked Marx, “It is a principle.” He had that one right.

When the blight struck, this entire edifice collapsed. No one really knows the final butcher’s bill, but between 1841 and 1851 the population plummeted from 10.8 million to 6.2 million. About a million of these emigrated, though many of those died enroute—the ship Avon lost 236 out of 552; the Virginius, 267 out of 476—or when they arrived. Of the 100,000 Irish that immigrated to Canada in 1847, 40,000 died within the first month. How many starved at home? Maybe three million? Maybe more.

The exodus today is smaller, but about 65,000 left last year, and the estimate for 2010 is 120,000. There won’t be mass starvation, but the IMF-imposed austerity package will slice deeply into social services, battering Ireland’s unemployed. Tens of thousands are being evicted from their homes while more than 300,000 houses stand empty, like the one in Leitrim. This time around there will no be cottages filled with corpses as there were 163 years ago, but in the months to come there will be plenty of homeless and hungry.

Ireland’s economy in 1845 may have been unsustainable for the many, but it was quite profitable for a few. There was even plenty of food produced during the famine, but it went to the landlords. In 1847 crops worth 45 million pounds sterling were exported, including hundreds of tons of wheat, barley, and oats, along with cattle, butter and cheese. While the Irish starved, those responsible for their condition drank, ate and made merry.

Jump ahead to 1990.

As a new and “disadvantaged ” member of the European Union, Ireland was subsidized to the tune of nearly 11 billion Euros. In a small country that’s a lot of money. With its highly educated, English-speaking population, proximity to Europe, modest wages, and the lowest corporate tax rate in Europe—12.5 percent—Ireland was the ideal place for multinationals like Pfizer and Microsoft to take up residence. The country’s debt was low—12 percent, one quarter of Germany’s—with good social services. Thus was the “Celtic Tiger” born.

Then came the blight.

Bankers and moguls, allied with Irish politicians, saw a chance to make a killing in real estate. From 1999 to 2007, bank loans for real estate and construction rose 1,730 percent, from 5 million Euros to 96.2 million Euros, more than half the GDP of the island. “It was not the public but the private sector that went haywire in Ireland,” says Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf.

House prices doubled and mortgage holders routinely paid out a third of their income to service loans. The politicians manipulated the tax structure to make it easier for developers to avoid taxes and fees, all the while subsidizing speculators with billions of Euros. “The lines between thievery and patriotism, between the private advantage and the national interest, became impossibly blurred,” says Fintan O’Toole in “Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption sank the Celtic Tiger.”

Ireland went from a small but dynamic economy to one dominated by an enormous bubble, its banks laden down with bad debts, its financial institutions vastly overextended.

When Wall Street melted down, sparking off a worldwide recession, the bubble popped, the edifice collapsed, and Ireland’s debt rocketed to 32 percent of GDP. And, like in 1845, it was the little who people took the hit.  O’Toole estimates that Irish taxpayers shelled out $30 billion Euros to rescue the Anglo-Irish Bank, essentially the entire tax revenue for 2009. While the banks got a bailout, the Irish got savage austerity.

Joblessness is at 14.5 percent, 24 percent for young people. Personal income has declined more than 20 percent. Welfare benefits are due to shrink between 4 and 10 percent, and public sector wages from 5 to 15 percent. The Irish will be looking at a decade of lower wages, fewer services, regressive taxes, and record joblessness in an economy burdened with repaying an 85 billion Euro ($113 billion) IMF/European Union “bailout” at an onerous 5.83 percent interest rate. Of course “bailout” is a misnomer: The package is little more than a slight of hand that shifts private debt onto the shoulders of the public.

But the Irish are not famous for being quiet. Workers in Waterford seized their factory last year. In early November 25,000 students wearing t-shirts proclaiming “Education not Emigration” descended on the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, to oppose increases in student fees. And tens of thousands of trade unionists, led by pipe and drum bands, marched up historic O’Connell Street late last month carrying slogans reading, “It’s not our fault, we must default,” “Eire not for sale,” and “IMF out!” In a recent by-election in Donegal, the leftist Sinn Fein Party shellacked a government candidate. The government, says Sinn Fein President Jerry Adams, “Has no mandate to negotiate such terms and impose such a burden on the ordinary taxpayer.”

It will not be the last defeat for the Fianna Fail/Green Party governing coalition. The government’s “bailout” is specifically designed to fall on the needy. While 17.5 billion Euros will come out of the National Pension Reserve Fund, bondholders and banks will go untouched. Even the Financial Times was moved to condemn the “ongoing transfusion of wealth to those who recklessly financed the country’s real estate bubble.” Fianna Fail and the Greens will pay come the next election. But that may be too late if the government rams the “bailout” through, thus setting the plan in stone.

Like the 1845 blight, the financial contagion is spreading. Spain and Portugal are on the ropes, and Italy is in deep trouble. This time around the Irish will have plenty of company in their misery.

However, there is a way out that doesn’t involve inflicting enormous pain on millions of people who had nothing to do with causing the crisis:

1)    Reject the pact or, if it is approved, repudiate it following a general election.

2)    Dump the Euro and go back to a currency under Irish control. The Euro’s days are likely numbered in any case.

3)    Suspend home evictions and put through a jobs bill.

4)    Renegotiate the debt with the “Argentina option” in the wings: Argentina was caught in a debt crisis in 2001 and subjected to a barbaric IMF-imposed austerity plan. The Argentines told the IMF to lump it, declared bankruptcy, and successfully rebuilt their economy.

Of course the bankers and the IMF will scream like the banshees, but that would be music to Irish ears.


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