Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Glad To See The Book Being Stuck To So ... Effectively

Totally true story: stood at Austin Bergstrom airport, putting my boots back on, my laptop in my bag, and my dignity back together after going through security screening. To my right, a small girl – if she was older than 10, I would be shocked. She was wearing a leg brace and cast on her left foot. The metal components of the brace had obviously set the metal detector off, and the security personnel went into ‘frisk’ mode. In order, they:

1: took this tiny girl to one side, in a special area, by herself, with no parent or guardian.

2: made her stand while they ran the hand-wand over her (yes, on her injured leg.)

3: made her turn around, rather than walking around her themselves.

4: swabbed her hands and ran the swab through one of their nice, new, shiny gaschromatographahickey.

5: let her go, while she looked like (not surprisingly) she was going to burst into tears.

This was all done with all the charm, tact, and friendliness usually reserved for dealing with an auto-teller.

I feel SO much safer now.

Pricing Up at Christmas (Pt II)

In a highly embarrassing leak for the administration and the military, the Washington Post has got hold of a federal report into botched contract negotiations between the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior. An alleged $1.7 billion was lost through incompetence, a figure that may seem like small potatoes, but that sheds yet more bad light on an administration that has become synonymous with profligacy.

The Washington Post is actually playing a surprisingly cunning game here. The conventional wisdom is that a news release on Christmas Day is intended to be lost in the buzz and hubbub of the silly season news (mislaid phone calls to Santa, cake recipes, you know the drill.) However, that universal truth applies only to press releases. What they actually did was leak an early draft of the GAO report, on a day when news junkies and professionals like myself are getting the holiday news itch. It means we’ll all be watching for the real paper to be released. Call this a counter-press release. It steals a march on the administration, and ramps up the pressure on their whole-hearted indulgence of the military-industrial complex.

Of course, massive overspending in the military is nothing new. In fact, if it turned out that only $1.7 billion of the $350 billion already spent in Iraq was overspend, then the US Airborne could use swine for launch vehicles.

Overspend is endemic in the US military: for example, in the late ‘80s, I visited the USAF base at Upper Heyford in the UK. This was a nominally an RAF base, but really was a forward station for F-111 light bombers. I was told by one of the pilots that the manufacturers had made every bolt and screw a fraction of a micron off of any commercially available standard. This meant that, for replacements, the repair teams would have to buy these non-standard fittings from the only manufacturers – a subsidiary of the plane builder. Because they were non-standard, they cost multiple times the cost of a normal screw. It was actually cheaper to hire students from the nearby colleges to sit, staring under the plane, in case a screw was dropped during repairs. They would scurry under the undercarriage, pick up the wayward fixing, and then hand them back to the mechanics. This was just accepted as ‘part of how you do business,’ even though the entire situation would have been solved, and fortunes saved, if the manufacturers had only used a regular, pennies-a-dozen, production screw.

So, if that’s acceptable behavior, what exactly is so unspeakably inept that the GAO even notices it?

Pricing Up at Christmas (Pt I)

In a ‘better late than never’ story, the federal government is FINALLY looking beyond individual frauds allegedly perpetrated (but still not prosecuted) by Katrina and Rita refugees. Now they are starting to investigate high-level incompetence amongst state and federal officers – the bad plans, the mis-spend, the inept purchasing habits , and the cushy contracts to favored customers – that lead to what could be a billion dollars in overspend in disaster aid.

This may be too little, too late, since anti-refugee feeling in many states is reaching fever pitch. For example, the constant and often inflated recounting of elevated crime figures in Houston, blamed on the presence of Katrina refugees from NoLa (note how no-one asks whether these are crimes by or against those refugees.) There has been 15 months of calling them scroungers and scofflaws, damaging slurs that may be hard to fix. Shifting attention onto FEMA and Army Corps of Engineers failures by the government is well over-due.

However, there’s another Katrina cash story here to be told. During the months after the re-build, I had the opportunity to talk to a Texas construction contractor, who has working along the Gulf Coast. He claimed that there was a two-tier pricing system: that at least one major chain store was charging elevated prices for standard building materials like sheet rock at sites near the disaster zone. He said that the prices were now so high that, even with the suddenly skyrocketing cost of gas due to the storms, he found it cheaper to hire a big truck, load up in central Texas, and drive the goods all the way to the Gulf himself. Now this is an unverified allegation by some guy in a bar, but it does raise the question: was there corporate hurricane profiteering, and should someone be looking in to that?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Privatized War

There are almost as many mercenaries in Iraq as there are US service personnel.

According to the latest issue of Rolling Stone, there are currently 100,000 PSCs – private security consultants, and only 152,000 US service personnel. This is a massive expansion from the 25,000 that the Pentagon last estimated. There are big firms like Aegis and the ever-controversial Blackwater that hire ex-soldiers to train local forces – although their websites make them look like community workers. There are grunt check-point gunsels, jumped-up bouncers who are working a few seasons for extraordinary profits. Whatever the background, these private warriors are increasing in numbers, just as there are proposals to cut back on US troops on the ground.

It seems that, without them, the occupation could not continue, and the streets may actually be even more dangerous. Nick Bicanic’s remarkable documentary on mercenaries, Shadow Company, debuted at the SXSW film festival this year. Response was mixed, not because of any technical failings of the movie, but because of its attitude to PSCs. They were, in Bicanic’s view, a regrettable and essential inevitability, and that there were some people who actually good at their job. They were the genuine security consultants – generally ex-special forces who helped pacify nations and train security forces.

However, the consensus opinion of these professionals was that the finite resource of trained and experienced ex-soldiers who wanted to become warriors-for-hire was running short. What was filling the ranks were armed idiots – hired thugs that had seen one Steven Segal movie too many. They were making this statement in 2004, back when there was one PSC for every ten American troops on the ground. For context, there was only one PSC for every 100 coalition troops in the whole theatre for Operation Desert Storm, back in 1991.

So who are these people; who are paying their bills; and as long as American firms are keeping these private armies on the ground, will it really make any difference if the US withdraws its armies or not?

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Friday, December 22, 2006

The (Lady)Bird Still Flies

The inheritance of LBJ has always been complicated. On one hand, civil rights, and the electrification of rural Texas. On the other, his surly relationship with Bobby Kennedy, and his shambolic handling of Viet Nam. But no such cloud hangs over the other LBJ – LadyBird, his wife, who celebrates her 94th birthday today.

Without Lady Bird, nee Christened Claudia Alta Taylor, America would be an uglier, less ecologically-aware nation. Firstly, she was the driving force (pardon the pun) behind the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which kept billboards to a minimum on the highways. Secondly, she started the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital, which turned central DC from a swampy pit to the photogenic centre of the civilised world. Thirdly, she helped defend and restore Town Lake here in Austin, giving the capital of Texas a real public space against rapacious urbanism. Finally, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center, donating $125,000 and 60 acres of her own cash and land.

She believed that a beautiful America would be a worthwhile America, talked about biodiversity when it was a marginal scientific theory, and is still going strong. Happy birthday, Mrs Johnson.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Perry in a Pickle

Perry watchers rejoice – the flurry of worthless press releases has returned!

Over the last few months, sightings of Texas governor Rick Perry have been like those of UFO’s – unverifiable. He disappeared without trace, press releases from his office drying up from the normal flood into a relative trickle. It's surprising considering that, as a man up against an election, he didn't use the incumbent's bully pulpit of press releases.

Perry defended his seat in November by the ingenious strategy of not showing up. He faced a crowd of two ridiculous self-aggrandizers (Kinky Friedman and Carole Strayhorn), a no-hoper independent (James “who?” Werner) and … erm … some other guy (Chris Bell, the Democrat lamb to the slaughter.) Realising that he had the election sewn up, he just ignored the race. Now it’s safe to come out again, he’s throwing press releases out again – this time, three in one day. Two of these were about him rubber-stamping previously-agreed payments from his $113 million Criminal Justice Division budget.

Perry likes being a law-and-order governor. It means he gets to put out a press release every time he drops a ten-spot to some local sheriff, but also means he gets to sound like a tough guy. In the last three months, his people have put out 41 press releases, 13 of these about law enforcement, and most of those just blowing his trumpet about signing CJD checks.

But here’s the balance for him. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, Perry became the south’s answer to Rudy Guilliani. He opened the state and took in over a quarter million refugees from the coast. He got a lot of support for that.

How does this create a problem? A lot of Texans are sick of the Katrina victims still in their state. They have been blamed for spiralling crime rates, and the mood towards them has become brutal and violent. In fact, the only electorally sensible act of Kinky Friedman’s entire campaign was saying that Katrina refugees in Houston should be sent home. It was mean-spirited, but it struck a chord with a lot of people.

So how does Rick Perry make it seem like he’s a law and order kind of guy, without throwing money at Houston and institutionalising the anti-Katrina mood?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Where Are They Now - Hurricane Katrina, Federal Edition

Katrina wasn't the real problem, 15 months ago. The real problem was the lousy infrastructure set in place beforehand, and the appalling response afterwards, that left the streets of New Orleans in chaos. A large part of that response was federal. So where have the key players from that time ended up?

Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, did not know that there were people in the Convention centre. He now runs a legal firm, Michael D. Brown, LLC, that gives emergency and disaster management advice to a number of clients, including Jarvis Construction and OnScreen Technologies, who build emergency signs.

Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, claimed that no-one had anticipated the possibility that a hurricane could breach the levees, even though he was briefed on exactly this possibility the day before Katrina hit. He is still secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Carl A. Strock, Lieutenant General in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers, was responsible for the Army Corps-built levees and barriers that collapsed and caused the flooding in New Orleans that lead to so many deaths. The levees were supposed to be able to withstand a category 3 hurricane, but many fell even though Katrina was, in parts, only category 1. On August 11, 2006, Strock announced he would be standing down from the post, but would serve until a replacement was found.

Max Mayfield, head of National Hurricane Center, told President George Bush and Chertoff that there was serious concern about the levees in a video conference on August 28, the day before the hurricane hit. Mayfield announced his retirement on August 25, 2006, and will leave office on January 3, 2007.

Gen. Russell Honore became famous as the commander who walked into New Orleans and restored order to a chaotic and confrontational mess of competing, poorly-communicating and trigger-happy law enforcement and military personnel by ordering them to put their guns down. Honore is now commanding general of the 1st US Army, which gives theatre-specific training to troops.

George Bush, president of the United States of America, took two weeks to actually visit New Orleans, and claimed that National Guard forces could not be used because they were too busy fighting terror in Iraq. He is still president, and troops are still fighting a war in Iraq.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Where Are They Now - Hurricane Katrina , State and Local Edition

Whatever happened to all those faces that became so famous a year ago, when New Orleans was basically wiped off the face of the earth?

Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, received criticism for not enacting an evacuation plan, but instead depending on shelters to protect the population of New Orleans. Nagin is still mayor, after having beaten a challenge from Louisiana lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu.

Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana, did not send transportation to assist in evacuation in the important early days, as is her responsibility as governor: she also inflamed tensions about violence by giving the National Guard a carte blanche shoot-to-kill policy , based on erroneous reports of anarchy in the Superdome. She is still governor, and will not face a challenge until 2007.

Eddie Compass, New Orleans police superintendent, repeated false allegations of babies being raped in the Superdome. He now serves as security and community relations consultant for the New Orleans Fine Hotels group.

Between 150,000 and 250,000 evacuees from Katrina were forced to head to Houston, Texas, alone. 120,000 of them are still there.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

1,083,000 Tons of Cucumbers

Stats mavens rejoice! The US Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2007 is finally out. It will provide the kind of numerical guff that will keep journalists happy and searching for story ideas for months to come.

What is most interesting (apart from important facts, like infant morbidity rates haven’t dropped a jot in a decade, or that women are now twice as likely to depend on withdrawal as a method contraception than in 1982, or that major petrochemical firm receipts rose by $50,100,000,000 between 2004 and 2005, or that Asian holidaymakers are now 2/3rds as likely to visit the US as they were in 2000) is the press release.

Firstly, it schills that the abstract can be bought from the U.S. Government Printing Office or the National Technical Information Service for $35 ($39 if you’d rather go hardback) without explicitly stating that the whole thing is available for free as pdfs on the website. Secondly, it leads with feel-good stats like the number of straight-A college students and the number of taxis that leave Cincinnati airport on-time. This makes it officially the first state-issued publication of the Christmas "silly season."

So be warned: if your news is filled over the next few days with fascinating but useless factoids like people earning $51,853 a year are more likely to join a choir than someone earning $76,328, you know which organ of the American government to blame.