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Driving around Vermont, Thinking

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photo by Tony Hisgett

Friday and Saturday, I spent a lot of time driving around Vermont. I also spent a lot of time thinking while driving. I was thinking about whether to expand on my most recent blog post and what it is safe to say. These were the most beautiful drives I have ever taken in Vermont.

The leaves were at peak and the air was still, so there were many reflections. (Unfortunatly, I didn't stop to take pictures.)

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Metafilter moves in mysterious ways

So my name has been taken in vain in a post on Metafilter. I am left wondering exactly how my objections to people using pseudonyms leads anyone to the idea that I think that "The future is all straight, white men?"

Certainly, most of the assholes on the Internet are straight white men, though that does seem to be changing. But whoever wrote that post clearly doesn't read either my blog nor my books, nor know me personally.

Cowards, cowards, cowards.


Gender, Identity, SF, & the Singularity ( a draft essay written 7/14/07)

The following is an unfinished essay drafted in July of 2007 in response to a panel I was on at Readercon in 2007. I could not lay hands on some crucial resources, such as the essay "Performance" by Don West (byline "D. West"). It appeared in Malcolm Edwards' fanzine TAPPEN, issue 5, 1982. Reprinted in DELIVERANCE, a 1992 collection of West's fanzine writing, in order finish it, and so I never did, though God knows, as we excavate the Hartwell basement archives, it may in time turn up.

I've decided to publish this unfinished draft, since my opinions on pseudonymity have recently attracted so much interest. 

—Kathryn Cramer



Glass21

I am pretty good at communicating my thoughts to the science fiction field most of the time, both in essays and on panels. But once is a while, I find that I've said something I thought was clear, and that it really didn't communicate. In a number of cases in the past, this has lead to book projects or essays, for example my anthologies The Architecture of Fear and The Ascent of Wonder, or essays such as "Science Fiction and the Adventures of the Spherical Cow."

I seem to have just had such an experience, given comments I've heard or read about the panel at Readercon entitled "The Singularity Needs More Women." Such comments are for the most part not hostile, and it was not a hostile panel. Rather, I gather that some substantial portion of the audience did not get the connections I was trying to make between the science fictional notion of the Singularity and the here and now, specifically in relation to people's online construction of their identity.

I'm not going to try to rehash what was said on the panel, but rather explore what I was getting at from a different angle. —K

In a way, this was an impossible panel: We were invited into the hazardous quicksand of feminist identity politics to indulge in fantasies about what things would be like if this were only cleared away, if only all gender-related constraints on our identities were removed. We mostly didn't go there. And inasmuch as we did go there, it has not made people happy.

One continuing theme I find myself wanting to talk about at Readercon is that we already live in an unrecognizably transformed world; social changes have been worked upon us that we are unable to recognize or articulate. On this panel, I used the example of online identity and pseudonymity; in previous years my example has been how suburbia as it actually exists has become unrecognizable and that its social codes have been transformed in unrecognized ways, transformations that often are not a liberation.

Both the the Singularity and Transhumanity are social concepts. The core issue of the topic of Singularity and its relationship to gender is the extent to which one believes gender can and will be transcended through technology. And a key element in these concepts is our inability to recognize a transformed society and our transformed species: The Singularity is supposed to be an unrecognizable transformation. One thing usually said on panels about the Singularity and science fiction is that if such thing is truly unrecognizable, then one can't really write fiction about it. This panel was no exception.

A couple of works I should have talked about and didn't: Frederick Pohl's story "Day Million,"  a story about social identity in the far future that David Hartwell and I described in an introduction as "a story set in a future so distant and different that we can only glimpse it in mysterious reflections and intriguing images," and Bruce Sterling's Schizmatrix. A "Day Million" moment in Schizmatrix is when a man proposes to his ex-wife and so much has changed in their post-human existence that she accepts his proposal without knowing she's married this man before.

"Day Million" is of course deeply entangled in the subculture of science fiction's Futurians, which had its geographical center in New York City, and later in Milford, Pennsylvania. The post-Futurian sf sub-culture centered around the influential Milford writing workshop, held in Milford.

For a while in the 1980s, I lived in Milford, Pennsylvania and worked for Virginia Kidd, a literary agent and the ex-wife of SF writer James Blish. Before taking the job, I read Damon Knight's The Futurians to catch up on the back gossip. (I discovered later, after many conversations, that there is no one canonical account of the Futurian era: each person has their own -- most are fascinating -- and they mostly don't match.)

One key element of Futurian society was choosing a name. Many of the Futurians changed their names in order to change their lives. Virginia Kidd's first name on her birth certificate was not "Virginia." James Allen, another agent with the Virginia Kidd Agency once told me how Virginia counseled him to change his name when he became a literary agent. Virginia's good friend and client, Judith Merril (who was also Fred Pohl's ex-wife), told me over dinner how she came to change her last name to Merril. (She subsequently wrote this up for her autobiography.)

No one knew who the heck Lester del Rey was until several years after his death. He left behind a substantial estate and after several years of attempts to sort out the inheritance, it was apparently revealed that his name was Leonard Knapp.

Such name changes were partly pragmatic, since many were Jewish and could expect a more successful career under a non-Jewish name. And at least one member of that generation was looking to avoid back child-support. But there was also a substantial element of social fantasy. One thing I tried to understand over many such conversations was exactly why the Futurians perceived changing one's name as such a powerful act. I interpret "Day Million" as a partial expression the fantasy of only apparently real identity, or perhaps of the Modernist idea of a mask identity.

I see the current popularity of the concepts of the Singularity and trans-humanity as closely tied to online experimentation with the fantasy of apparent identity. Examples I used on the panel included Wikipedia admins who insist on the use of a pseudonym and claim that all attempts to decipher it amount to stalking; and Second Life, which requires you to adopt a pseudonym when you register -- you must select your last name from a pull-down menu and may only specify a first name; and the vast social wasteland of online dating, an unfolding disaster in human relations on a huge scale. My strong anti-pseudonymity message is not something people are all that receptive to at the moment.

The science fiction community strongly influenced the early evolution of the Internet because so many techies read sf and are involved in the sf community, and sf's ideas about pseudonymity and the adoption of a fannish name and persona seem to me to have influenced Internet fashion.  Cyberpunk sf was especially influential upon the shape of Internet social space: from William Gibson we have the very name of cyberspace, which as I recall he described in the 80s as that place you are when you're on the telephone — except that now 100 million people might overhear your call,which is recorded and archived.

There is one important difference between Futurian beliefs about only apparently real identities and the current online version of disposable personae or identity: The Futurians chose a name and tended to stick with it for the rest of their lives, whereas online identities are much usually more ephemeral. Also the Futurians used such names in person, whereas online aliases are mostly intended for use in electronic communication in cyberspace.

A significant transitional figure is James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon aka Racoona Sheldon), a mother of the cyberpunk movement. She was a client of Virginia Kidd's. After her death, I accepted a couple of her posthumous awards on behalf of the Kidd agency. My husband, David Hartwell, was her editor and one of the few people in science fiction who ever met her in person. (Philip K. Dick, another writer who prefigured cyberpunk, is in some ways an opposite figure to Tiptree. He was concerned with distinguishing the authentic from the "only apparently real." )

Alice Sheldon used her real name in her everyday life, but used an alias for her writing and correspondence in the science fiction field. Her true identity and gender were only revealed after the death of her mother, a well-known writer. Her fascination with the power of pseudonymity seems to have its origins not in the Futurian subculture, but in that of the CIA. She was briefly employed by the CIA and was the wife of a high ranking CIA official, Huntington Sheldon. The Sheldons were part of the intelligence subculture that founded the CIA.

(Perhaps the origin of the false identity as it is used in the "intelligence" community is the Romantic spy and criminal fiction of the 19th and early 20th century: in the Robin Hood stories, Richard the Lion-Hearted supposedly sneaked back into England to depose the bad king.)

Tiptree had a tremendously seductive literary voice and persona. But while the science fiction field may have benefited from her adoption of an alias, since it arguably enabled her to write a highly regarded body of fiction, it is not clear that she herself benefited. Her adoption of the Tiptree pseudonym apparently started as a joke, and took on the role in her life of an addictive drug. Her life did not end well: She had chronic problems with depression and ended her life by shooting her husband and then herself. Tiptree is an icon in feminist sf as someone who liberated her writing voice by adopting a male pseudonym. In the context of a discussion of trans-humanity and gender, she perhaps represents feminist hopes for liberation from the constraints of older constructions of female social identity.

Though Tiptree and Phil Dick are in some ways opposites as literary figures -- Tiptree as icon of the power of pseudonymity, and Dick as an icon of the technological relevance of Kierkegaardian authenticity -- both writers are intensely concerned with alienation, which seems to me one of the core issues of Internet constructions of personal identity.

The argument can be made that the adoption of the alias James Tiptree, Jr. allowed Alice Sheldon a truer expression of her inner voice than society would have allowed for someone named Alice Sheldon, and that the adoption of an alias was a form of authenticity. This argument is rarely used with regard to adoption of aliases today, with one notable exception: The strange case of Laura Albert aka J. T. Leroy. Albert, an author who lost a civil suit claiming fraud brought by a movie company, gave some very interesting testimony:

Ms. Albert herself, in testimony from the stand, suggested that JT LeRoy was far more than a pseudonym in the classic Mark Twain-Samuel Clemens mold. She offered the idea that JT LeRoy was a sort of “respirator” for her inner life: an imaginary, though necessary, survival apparatus that permitted her to breathe.

The portrait of Alice Sheldon in her biography suggests some similarities to Albert. Interestingly, the end of the New York Times article about the ruling against Albert suggests that she is now "liberated" from her pseudonym.

Despite the many arguments that are made about the necessity of Internet pseudonymity for reasons of privacy, alienation is much more important to the core ethical issues of online communities and their strivings toward a trans-humanity, a transcendence of all constraining circumstance. While we are no more intelligent and perhaps no less powerful online than we are in person, we can certainly make ourselves seem  unrecognizable and estrange ourselves from our genders of birth, our ages and educational levels (see the Essjay controversy), our marital status (as is widely practiced on dating sites), etc. While this is not true trans-or post-humanity, it represents at least a kind of fantasy of trans-human existence, easier than a make-over or reinventing yourself under your own name. Much as we would like science fiction to be about the future, it is so often about the present. 

For the most part, writers such as Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow who are concerned with the Singularity subject matter, do not try to conceal the connection of their writing to the here and now.

We did, I think, get at that issue toward the end of the panel: How gendered popular types of Internet communications truly are; how much more flamboyant gender expression sometimes is online than in real life, and on the darker side, how much more overt and nasty online enforcement of gender codes can be.

Backlash is at least as characteristic as liberation of rapid social change generated by technological change. Is the Internet fad for pseudonymity a form of backlash or of liberation? The popular claim that a protected pseudonymity is necessary to protect people from stalking suggests that pseudonymity is a backlash against unwanted transparency. David Brin claims that transparency is "freedom's best defense." I think I agree with him.

Before the panel, I was asked by the convention program chair whether I was pro- or anti- the notion of the Singularity, ostensibly because this was anticipated to be an anti-Singularity panel. I'm not sure whether the above discussion makes me pro- or anti-Singularity. I believe we are already in the midst of rapid transformation that is rendering the world unrecognizable, already in the midst of a rising inadequation of the mind to the world.

There is another word for this: alienation. And perhaps that is what we should be talking about.

Or maybe not. From Charles Stross's Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds, a definition of the Singularity:

The SIingularity is what happens when reality throws a divide-by-zero error or you extrapolate a curve to a straight line. Or something. Maybe it's what an Italian rock star says when you give him a wedgie. Who knows? All I know is that Vernor Vinge invented it -- damn him! (If it wasn't for those meddling computer science professors I could still be writing about PixieDust ...)

Anyway. You don't need to understand all that stuff to write about the SIngularity. What you need to understand is that after the SIngularity things will be cool. We'll all be PostHumans or UpLoading ourselves into our pocket calculators, there'll be lots of ArtificialIntelligence to help fight outbreaks of GreyGoo, and if there are annoying folks you don't want to have around you can just tell them to go TRanscend.

It's the hot new topic for wish-fulfillment adventure and escapism. And there'll be jam for tea every day.

As the Mad Hatter said, "Have more tea."

(to be continued at some point  . . .)


First Worldwide Official Public Hanging?

Hanging Am I mistaken, or is the execution of Saddam Hussein the world's first worldwide official public hanging?

While I am certain that the world is a better place without Hussein, I am not certain that it is a better place for us having reached this particular macabre milestone. A return to public hangings, using the whole Internet as the village square, does not seem to me a step forward for humanity.

There was a time when, even in places like London, public executions were "perhaps the most anticipated and popular form of mass entertainment." From PBS:

. . . the punishment of criminals that was perhaps the most anticipated and popular form of mass entertainment. Whippings, floggings, being paraded through the streets in chains and enduring the "pillory" -- an open forum for mockery and verbal abuse -- were common punishments for petty crimes. Executions were an even more elaborate affair and quite often were set aside as public holidays. Occasionally, engraved invitations would be sent out. . . . Large crowds of rowdy, jeering onlookers - sometimes in numbers of 30,000 or more (80,000 was the record) -- would arrive in the morning to follow the prisoner to the hanging platform.

Chelwitch Are we there yet?

Of course, nothing like this can happen these days without being a carefully staged media event. If the public opinion in the US were to be that public exectutions are beneficial to the public, the State of Texas, all by itself, could have its own Execution Channel. So I wonder, out loud, what were the intentions of those who staged this media event. Clearly, this is intended as a world-changing event.

But what kind?

UPDATE: Tony Blair's response to the execution seems to me to display an acute awareness of England's own history of execution as a form of entertainment. This is from this morning's New York Times:

Perhaps the most delicately choreographed response came from Britain, whose prime minister, Tony Blair, took a lead as America’s closest ally in toppling Mr. Hussein while his Labor Party prides itself on opposing the death penalty.

In a statement issued an hour after the execution, Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, said: “I welcome the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. He has now been held to account.”

However, she said, "the British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation."

Mr. Blair himself — who faced wide public opposition to the Iraq war, which has shaped his political legacy — refrained from commenting as he vacationed at the Miami waterfront home of Robin Gibb, a singer in the BeeGees. A spokesman for him said Ms. Beckett’s statement had been issued on behalf of the entire government, including Mr. Blair.

Technorati One does wonder if he watched the execution video with a BeeGee. Oh, the post-modernity of it!

Nonetheless, I'd say Blair's response shows an awareness of the larger cultural implications of reviving the tradition of public hanging as spectacle on a global basis.

Do we really want this sort of thing in our Internet Utopia? I don't.


Robert Young Pelton's Licensed to Kill: A Review

Ryp At long last, Robert Young Pelton's book, Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, is out. (Back in December of 2005 when I pre-ordered it, I think it's scheduled pub date was something like April.) Despite its subject matter, the world of mercenaries and private military contractors, the book reads like a fascinating letter from a friend. It is thoughtful, funny, and humane in its exploration of a politically loaded topic.

Licensedtokill_1 In general, I expect that opinions on this book are going to gravitate around this issue of whether or not it's "biased," and in which direction. I'm not going to venture an opinion on that, since surely I am at least as "biased" as Pelton. What I will say is that Pelton treats his subjectmatter as ethically complex, which indeed it is. And he neither succumbs to over-identifying with the dudes he's hanging with, nor to simple repulsion at the whole enterprise.

The book opens with a Prologue detailing his meeting with Eric Prince, owner and founder of Blackwater, who articulates Blackwater’s ambitions, a corporately oriented optimism about the future of privatized military services. In the prologue, Pelton distinguishes between what in generally understood to be the distinction between mercenaries and security contractors:

Mercenaries fight, while security contractors protect,  . . . at least, that’s the dividing line that’s supposed to exist. (5)

Destabilizing this apparent distinction is a theme that continues throughout the book.

The book’s Introduction is just the sort of action scene editor’s like to have at the beginning of books: a round trip down the legendarily dangerous “Route Irish” to the Baghdad Airport with Blackwater’s Mamba Team:

. . . it’s 2:43 and we’ve just completed the most perilous eight-minute drive in the world. (13)

The main text of the book is in three sections:

1. Hired Guns, which discusses

  • the longest running CIA contractor, Billy Waugh,
  • contractors inside Pakistan involved in operations that aren't supposed to exist,
  • and the problematic use of American security contractors to guard foreign heads of state;

2. The New Breed, which focuses mostly on Blackwater; and

3. Of Rogues and Tycoons, which covers such characters as Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema, Tim Spicer, executives of Blackwater, Richard Bethell (Lord Westbury), Simon Mann, and Niek Du Toit.

A fair amount of what is in this book has been touched on at one point or another in my blog.

Billywaugh_1 The Prologue and Introduction introduce companies, characters and topics, while also promising more thrilling action. But it is with Chapter 1, Kill them All, that we really get going. It is the chapter about Billy Waugh and what, through a certain lens, might be seen as the Good Old Days when the CIA and it’s contractors could just go out and kill people; how the backlash against the Vietnam War reined in the CIA; how this played itself out later; how Waugh could have killed Osama bin Laden and didn’t because he wasn’t allowed to; and how this legacy played itself out in post-9/11 Afghanistan with both the CIA and the emergence of companies like Blackwater. Fascinating stuff. In principle, I knew a fair amount of what was in the chapter from reading a pile of CIA memoirs a while back, but Pelton’s chapter has a deeply unsettling historical momentum about it that the memoirs lack.

Chapter 2, Edge of Empire, is a wry discussion of the geopolitical realities (or unrealities?) of the area surrounding the Afghanistan/Pakistan border where bin Laden is sometimes said to be hiding. He finds an American base inside Pakistan that is not supposed to exist, that the actual border seems to be almost unmarked, and much else involving security contractors and surreal layers of deniability cleaving the official story from reality. Last year, when I was helping with disaster relief mapping following the Pakistan earthquake, I heard many peculiar things about the Pakistani government’s attitude towards maps—for example, that the exact location of some of the towns affected by the earthquake was initially considered by the government to be classified information—and this chapter puts some of that insanity into context for me.

Karzaisecurity Chapter 3, The Praetorian Guard, is an interesting exploration of the role of American security contractors as protectors for foreign heads of state. The examples in this chapter are Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, but Pelton revisits this topic toward the end of the book in his discussion of the Equatorial Guinea coup plot, and what would have been Severo Moto’s situation had the coup succeeded: not good at all.

In Chapter 4, Confirmed Kills, we get a sense of the new security contractor utopia. The chapter opens at the Dallas Convention Center during the American Society for Industrial Security convention.

Before 9/11, the industry had only a limited market for the services of the men who now flock to these conferences looking for IC opportunities. The war in Afghanistan opened the door to more widespread employment of independent security contractors, and then Iraq kicked that door off it's hinges, stomped on it,  burned it, and scattered the ashes. Iraq has been to the private security industry what the development of the first user-friendly Web browser was to the dot-com boom. (97)

Bremer The chapter concludes with an important discussion of the role of Paul Bremer in the creation of this utopia, a section entitled "On Rules and Resentment."

Bush had opened up the War on Terror by issuing a license to kill with his post-9/11 presidential finding authorizing targeted assassination, but it would be Bremer's Order 17 that would really unleash the security contractors in Iraq. (114)

And this is what the Billy Waugh chapter has set us up for—to understand the nature of this utopia: these guys who might only find marginal employment in the US, can make $600 a day to go to Iraq and do what Waugh, for many years, was not allowed to do. The leash is off and the dogs are out.

Chapter 5, Blackwater Bridge, discusses the Fallujah incident, in which four Blackwater contractors died in gruesome ways and their remains paraded through the streets and hung from a bridge, as a turning point for the public perception of "security contractors" in Iraq, and its complex aftermath.

Chapters 6, Under Siege, is perhaps my favorite in the book. It explores the complexities of two notable combat situations, An Najaf and Al Kut. In the former situation, it seems that security contractors (whom the US military observed but did not assist) were expected to abandon their position on the roof of the Najaf CPA compound. Instead they stayed to fight and videotaped themselves doing it. The videos subsequently circulated on the Internet.

While the rules of engagement allowed contractors to fire in defense of their lives, the formulations of those rules had not anticipated contractors being dropped into a situation where they would engage in hours of combat without outside support. The other outcome that became very clear was that ex-soldiers given a license to kill may choose not to cut and run as they are trained and paid to do, but eagerly and repeatedly fire into the crowds that surround them. (153-154)

Najaf_1 This section gives a much clearer picture of why the security contractors circulated videos of themselves shooting at Iraqis: they were allowed to shoot when the US military and coalition forces were held back. In the "turkey shoot" video, the shooter, whom Pelton identifies as "Mookie Spicoli" clearly enjoys what he is doing.

The Al Kut incident shows the flip-side of this. A group of security contractors alert Bremer to impending problems, who asks them not to exaggerate. The men are unsupported and under attack for days. Some are killed. When they finally come up with a plan to escape with their lives, an official of the CPA tries to prevent their escape. The CPA seemed determined to use them up and throw them away like so much Kleenex: truly appalling. Apparently, although the dogs are out, they are sometimes treated like dogs.

Chapter 7, The Dog Track and the Swamp, chronicles Pelton's visits to Blackwater training facilities, one of which is a dog track. This chapter contains one of the most entertaining sections of the book in which Pelton himself gets to teach in a training program called Mirror Image which simulates, "terrorist recruiting, training techniques, and operational tactics." His students are "Special Forces, Secret Service, marines, FBI agents, independent contractors, and other hand-picked attendees." (183)  Pelton, who has been to Chechnya, has his team play "Chechens." The section is hilarious. I wish they had video of this.

The targets will be expecting the attackers to approach via one of the roads that lead into the village, so the Chechens sneak in from behind the berm of a live firing range and attack from behind, something that freaks out the lead instructor, but gives the team the perfect element of surprise. (192)

Clearly, Pelton was having a good time.

In Chapter 8, we revisit the Blackwater's Team Mamba in Baghdad, first introduced in the book's Introduction. Pelton gives a detailed sense of their day-to-day existence and of the circumstances of their employment. The chapter contains another of the book's funniest sections: when outgoing Blackwater security contractors and the plane crew go through security at Baghdad International Air Port on their way out of Iraq to Jordan:

At the gate, an older American with a bad comb-over pats us all down in a needlessly touchy body search—particularly needless when a flight member admits to Mr. Comb-Over that he is wearing a loaded 9-mm Glock. He gets searched anyway, and then hilariously they put his gun through the X-ray machine before returning it. . . .

Once we're on the plane, the Blackwater crew breaks open a large aluminum box and hands out a loaded M4 weapon to each passenger. (223)

Part 3, Of Rogues and Tycoons, begins with another of the book's funniest sections: Pelton's chapter on Jack Idema, a man emblematic of just how far a wannabee can go in a failed state, in this case Afghanistan in the post-9/11 culture of fear and confusion. The voice of Billy Waugh returns:

We only had 80 guys involved in our [Afghanistan] operations and Idema wasn't one of them. (239)

The best part of the chapter concerns Idema's rewriting of Robin Moore's The Hunt for bin Laden prior to its publication. Pelton writes:

I am actually featured in The Hunt for bin Laden and can speak from my own experience . . . Though they never met or talked to Idema, and despite the fact that almost ten members had carefully detailed their actions to Moore at K2, the first chapter puts forth an account of the team's infill into Afghanistan that the men tell me has been entirely fabricated. (243)

The chapter concludes with a paragraph that begins:

That such a transparent criminal could so easily label himself a contractor to act out his own covert paramilitary fantasy is a warning about the growing ubiquity of independent contractors. (250)

Bookcover Chapter 10, The Very Model of a Modern Major Mercenary, concerns the rise of Tim Spicer, former President of Sandline, widely regarded as an example of upward-mobile failure (though Pelton does not say this), and Spicer's new company Aegis. The description of Pelton's interview with Spicer is a comedy of manners. What Pelton does not mention is that he was previously sued and settled out of court for his depiction of Spicer in a previous book. Our narrator, however, is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places and so does not fear to tread into the office of someone who sued him.  (I myself once had my own run-in with Spicer's attorney, Richard Slowe.) What I found most interesting in the chapter was former Sandline accountant Michael Grunberg's account of what the take was for those running Executive Outcomes:

Even though they had difficulty extracting payments from the second operation, the men had generated extraordinary persona income. After the successes in Angola and Sierra Leone, EO had come to a natural end. According to Grunberg, "Eben [Barlow] took ten million and walked away. They all did very well. Simon [Mann] pocketed $60 million and Tony [Buckingham] banked $90 million." (263)

Simon Mann, one of the Executive Outcomes founders, is to have a starring role in Chapter 12, in which the Equatorial Guinea coup attempt is discussed. Apparently, he wanted more from life.

Chapter 11, The Lord and the Prince, is an examination of how the legacy of Executive Outcomes ans Sandline informs and shapes the ambitions of the principals of Blackwater and of HART Security. Of particular interest to me was the account of HART's contract with the government of Somalia in light of my adventure late last year writing about Top Cat Marine Security's signing of a contract with the Transitional Government of Somalia. Pelton remarks of the HART contract:

Other similar ventures by former soldiers have always fallen apart due to inherent corruption in local governments. (290)

coup5.jpgChapter 12, The Bight of Benin Company, is the chapter I ordered the book for in the first place, back in December. It concerns the Equatorial Guinea coup plot, which is what first interested me in the subject of military privatization. If not for my reading about and researching what was up with N4610, a former US military plane which ended up in Zimbabwe with a load of mercenaries in it, back in March of 2004, I would not be writing this now, nor would I have read this book.

In addition to providing a smooth, gripping narrative of events I learned about by obsessively reading news stories coming out of Africa two years ago, he covers some documents I had previous access to, most notably a document entitled "Assisted Regime Change." All by themselves, these documents, with their paranoia and layers of duplicity even among plotters, give us a blueprint for a future dystopia if "regime change" is privatized on a large scale. Here's a sample:

The "Bight of Benin Company" (BBC), written in the archaic British schoolboy style typical of Simon Mann, is a Machiavellian plan laced with paranoia and greed. The document lays out a plan to turn EG into something resembling the British East India Company. It details the coup backers' intent to claim the sole right to make agreements ad contracts wit the newly installed government . . . The BBC makes it abundantly clear that Moto is disposable and that his main backer, Eli Khalil, was not to be trusted. (318)

N4610 One document he doesn't talk much about, but I have been told the contents of, is the contract for the purchase of N4610 from Dodson. One idiocy of the coup plot was that N4610 was a tail number registered to the US Air National Guard. So to me one big question was always why didn't the plotters take the trouble to paint on a different tail number. The answer is, I think, in the contract. The contract specified a buy-back price for the plane; viewed that way, it was essentially a rental agreement with a damage deposit. In my opinion, they didn't paint over the tail number because the plotters had to give the plane back; Sandline declared itself defunct about a month after the plane was impounded.

coup3.jpgWhile previous chapters showed how security contractors could be treated like dogs by those who employed them, one of the features of the Equatorial Guinea coup plot narrative is "the divide between the backers and those in prison." Though I have little sympathy for Simon Mann, for whom a $60 million take from Executive Outcomes was not enough, the coup backers did far too little to help him  -- and those arrested with him -- once he got busted. Simon Man is currently fighting extradition from his jail cell in Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea, where he could expect a much longer jail sentence.

Pelton as it happens had once retained Nick du Toit, leader of the EQ-based portion of the plot, for security in a 2002 trip to Africa. He returns to Africa and interviews du Toit in jail.

What I learned from Niek is that in the debate between contractor and mercenary, it will always come down to the individual. When Niek du Toit was my security man, I knew him as an upstanding, loyal, dependable provider of security in what was at the time the world's most dangerous place. Now, four years later, he is a criminal behind bars for what appears to be the rest of his life. (333)

The book concludes with an Epilogue in which Pelton visits one of the Blackwater contractors he spent time with in Baghdad after the man's return the the US. The man was badly injured after Pelton's departure. The epilogue is a mediation on both the lack of accounting on the actual number of security contractor deaths, and on the contractors' own lack of accountability:

As of spring 2006, there has not been one single contractor charged for any crime that occurred in Iraq, though hundreds of soldiers have been court-martialed for offenses ranging from minor violations of military code to murder. (341)

He remarks also:

Working in violent areas and being given a license to kill can be frightening to some and an addictive adrenaline rush to others. It is impossible to predict how successfully the thousands of security contractors now working in Iraq will integrate back into normal civilian life after their wellspring of employment dries up.  (342)

Rypinshadowcompany Elsewhere, interviewed in  Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque's documentary Shadow Company, Pelton is a bit more blunt. He says: "Some of these guys couldn't work in Walmart."

Corporatizing war is presented by the purveyors of private military services as a way of streamlining, of cutting out the red tape, of increasing efficiency, under controlled circumstances. But throughout the book, Pelton has shown just how fluid the line is between security contractor and mercenary, between defending a fixed asset and just plain combat, between security guard and criminal.

Combine this with the current nostalgia for the olden days when political assassination was an essential part of the toolbox of American foreign policy, and a move to reinstate that practice happening simultaneously with a massive swing toward privatization, and we find that our world is a strange place indeed.

An important theme of the book is the contrast between American and British attitudes toward privatized security:

It becomes clear to me during the meeting that there remains a very high wall between the HART's very English view of security, and of Blackwater's view of a brave new neocon world.  . . . While [Blackwater's Erik] Prince paints a flashy, high-tech, road-warrior-style military company that could solve any client's problem by an application of sheer brute force and advanced weaponry, [HART's] Richard [Bethell] and George [Simm] calmly promote the idea of low-key and culturally integrated solutions. (301)

This contrast corresponds roughly to the contrast between American and British imperialism, but an imperialism at least partly uncoupled from the traditional imperialist powers, namely governments; an imperialism increasingly removed from oversight by the British and American publics.

What we have here, in the end, is an important book on where the 21st century is taking us, exploring the dystopian potiential of military privatization, even for the very people engaged in it. If there is any possibility to avert the dystopia, it lies in transparency. And so this book is very much a step in the right direction.


A Week's Worth of Blogging in One Post

A few entertaining items:

  1. Alex Harrowell on a large quantity of disappeared guns:

    99 Tonnes of Guns

    Were purchased from leftover Bosnian war stocks for the Iraqi security forces by U.S. agents in BiH, and flown out of the country by Aerocom in four runs with the Ilyushin 76 ER-IBV, serial no. 3423699. But where they were delivered remains a mystery, and it is feared that the weapons actually went to the insurgents.
  2. An American named Michael Chemidlin, was arrested in Sierra Leone for photographing the place where Charles Taylor's war crimes trial is scheduled to be. Hard to tell what's going on from the news coverage, but the implication is that he is suspected of some plot to free Taylor. See Sierra Leone: Suspected Special Court Spy, Three Others Charged and US man held for war crimes pics.
  3. Further to the subject of fascist sexuality, Alex Harrowell emailed me a couple of hilarious links: BNP's council leader made film labelled as 'Marxist gay cinema'

    A BNP leader has produced and directed a "gay pornographic film", despite his party's criticism of indecency and hatred of gays.

    . . . and Video harms chances of BNP candidate

    Forty eight hours ago, few people had heard of the film HMS Discovery, a production in the "gay Marxist genre" for which Mr Barnbrook was producer, director and co-writer.

    But news spread quickly after activists from the anti-fascist organisation Searchlight leaked details to the area's two local newspapers, both of which put the story on the front page.

    Ah, the sexualizing gaze of the fetistish! Ban what you yourself find exciting!
  4. Nick Bicanic sends in a link to a show available on Google Video about Shadow Company, his forthcoming documentary on private military companies and security contractors.
  5. A really nice AP story (with an unreasonably menacing headline), which discusses how the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency helped with disaster relief following last fall's hurricanes: Spy Agency Watching Americans From Space:

    In an era when other intelligence agencies try to hide those operations, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, is proud of that domestic mission.

    He said the work the agency did after hurricanes Rita and Katrina was the best he'd seen an intelligence agency do in his 42 years in the spy business.

    "This was kind of a direct payback to the taxpayers for the investment made in this agency over the years, even though in its original design it was intended for foreign intelligence purposes," Clapper said in a Thursday interview with The Associated Press.

  6. And finally, Robert F. Kane's trial for illegal possession of rocket launchers, in connection with Security Aviation's mysterious private military build-up, starts the 15th. I will be blogging it. As preparation for this entertainment, I suggest you read up on The Story So Far. For your convenience, I have posted a complete list of links to related news stories in my left-hand side-bar. For your convenience and for ease of reading, I'll also toss them in below the cut. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! (Especially the stories from adn.com, The Anchorage Daily News, which are quite excellent.)

Continue reading "A Week's Worth of Blogging in One Post" »


The Guam Customs Channel Was Apparently for Jerry Yingling (former Airport Executive Manager) and Lieutenant Pete Daga (former acting Airport Police Chief)

This is part of an ongoing series on unauthorized cameras and listening devices found in the Customs area of the Guam Airport.

Safariscreensnapz116Regular readers will recall the unclaimed spy equipment that was found a while back in the Customs area of the Guam Airport. (See my March 3rd, Unauthorized Surveillance Cameras in Guam Airport: Who Was Watching The Customs Channel?.) There was an inquiry into just who was watching Guam Customs, and the report is now out, though it raises at least as many questions as it gives answers: KUAM: Report on Airport's listening equipment released

A collaborative investigation conducted by Pacific Security Alarm and private investigator Greg Hall answered three questions posed by the Guam International Airport Authority: Who installed the audio and video system in the Guam Customs area? When was the system installed? And who was playing Big Brother on Customs?

According to the report submitted to GIAA and Customs officials today, the investigations found answers to those questions and the answers pointed to former Airport executive manager Jerry Yingling and former acting Airport Police chief Lieutenant Pete Daga.

Seven cameras and seven microphones were found inside the Customs screening area at the Airport, purchased and installed by Sunny Electronics and general manager John Wilson. According to the investigator's interview with Daga, the equipment was purchased for two reasons - for security purposes following September 11, 2001 and because of numerous complaints about Customs officers stealing from arriving passengers.

Customs director Rick Blas doesn't buy the justification. He told KUAM News, "When you look at some of these documents submitted as review, these documents indicate they were purchased as far back as April 30, 2001. So where do they get off saying it was all done in the interest of security at the Airport?"

Also stated Blas, "They used the people's money to purchase [this] equipment. Things that weren't quite necessary as they claim to be."

The investigator points out that the camera and audio systems weren't the only things purchased. In fact, there are invoices showing monitoring equipment had also been purchased. Hall indicates in his report that through the investigation he learned the surveillance was being monitored by Yingling and Daga in their personal offices. While Yingling declined to comment on the findings, Blas maintains the cameras and microphones were all part of an ongoing turf war at the time between Customs and the Airport.

"Something done like this is an attack on law enforcement," he said. "This is why people like Pete Daga have no business in law enforcement. These people have jeopardized the lives of my officers who do go out in the general public, do surveillance work and they also do controlled buys. They must be held accountable one way or another."

The investigator also indicates that he interviewed Yingling about the equipment. Hall was told the systems were purchased around the time of the 9/11 attacks and during a time when he, as Airport manager at the time, had received death threats and threats to his staff. Yingling told the investigator the systems were to be placed throughout the Airport to prevent a repeat of the Seventh-Day Adventist Clinic shootings or any terrorist threats. Despite invoices stating otherwise, Hall concluded the audio/video system was installed in July 2002.

So who was watching and listening all Customs movement? Hall explained to GIAA officials, "It was intended for chief Daga and general manager Yingling...it is possible they did watch and listen, however there is no direct evidence that indicates they actually did."

I'm not up on the legal fine points, but it seems to me that surreptitiously monitoring inspections held by U.S. Customs in the a secured area of an airport is probably illegal. So what did they want to know bad enough that they'd want to break the law to find out? Was this information for their own consumption? Or were they monitoring for third parties?

KUAM reports that "Customs director Rick Blas plans to file criminal charges against former Guam International Airport Authority executive manager Jerry Yingling and former GIAA police chief Lieutenant Pete Daga" for "unlawfully intercepting communication of his staff and passengers."

MEANWHILE, Airport Manager Jess Torres weighs in:

Current GIAA Executive Manager Jess Torres said he has not finished reviewing the inch-thick report yesterday but expected to do so today.

"I realize the sensitivity of the report, and yes, Mr. Daga is still my employee here," he said.

"But as far as (possible disciplinary action) I don't want to jump the gun on that one. I'll review it and talk to the people that I need to talk to and then whatever action needs to be taken, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Recall that Torres is the guy who LOVES Manila,  loves it so much that he was apparently accepting very frequent subsidized trips because he could get such deals there on personal grooming services. (While he's there, he probably gets to commiserate with the Philippine airport managers who have a few problems involving customs of their own.)


AND IN OTHER GUAM NEWS:

  • The Associated Press reports that Japan wants to explain their estimate that Tokyo should pay $26 billion to move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam:

    Surprised by the cost, Japan will ask the United States to explain its estimate that Tokyo will pay some $26 billion for the realignment of the U.S. military here, a top government official said Thursday.

    U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless made the estimate on Tuesday, shocking some Japanese officials.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said Japan would seek a clarification from Washington. The Lawless comment came days after the two countries agreed that Japan would pay some $6 billion to help move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

    "We need to ask the U.S. side which items are included," Abe said. "This amount is not the result of any agreement, and we have not received any request from the U.S. to shoulder this amount."

    Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Thursday that he did not know how the Americans arrived at that estimate, and that the government would not impose a tax increase to pay for the realignment.

    The number has drawn considerable attention in Japan, since it would amount to more than 60 percent of the country's entire annual defense budget of $42 billion.

  • The Washington Times reported in March: Pentagon 'hedge' strategy targets China

    The Pentagon is moving strategic bombers to Guam and aircraft carriers and submarines to the Pacific as part of a new "hedge" strategy aimed at preparing for conflict with China, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
        Peter Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, told a congressional commission that the response to the emerging military threat from China is part of the White House national security strategy made public yesterday.

    (I dunno. This week, it looked like the biggest conflict Bush was heading for with China was whether he or Chinese President Hu Jintao were going to get to drink that last of the champagne.)

The Iran Stand-Off: What the Internet Community Can Do

This is the second in a series on Iran. The first was Iran Maneuvers: Of Missile Tests & "Salami Tactics", which discusses Iran's recent military maneuvers and the hardware tested. The third is Iran Stand-off: The devil is in the details.

Yesterday Seymour Hersh's article The Iran Plans: Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb? came out in the The New Yorker; a more accurate subtite for the article would have been Will president Bush resort to nuclear war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb?, since that it really what is at issue in the piece. I do wonder why The New Yorker used such a low-key title given the article's actual argument.

Today, Reuter's published an article, Iran accuses US of "psychological war," labelling the Hersh article as psychological warfare.

There is really a lot to be said about the Hersh piece and the situation with Iran. But for the moment, I'll address just a few points. First of all, I believe that Hersh is probably giving an accurate description of the various opinions about what ought to be done about the Iran nuclear problem. What I found especially striking about reading all the material on the Iran military maneuvers was the extent to which the Iranian military and the US necocons were off on their own little planet fixinging for a fight, and the extent to which the rest of us are really not part of the conversation. So for me the most significant paragraph in the Hersh piece was this one:

[Robert] Joseph’s heavy-handedness was unnecessary, the diplomat said, since the I.A.E.A. already had been inclined to take a hard stand against Iran. “All of the inspectors are angry at being misled by the Iranians, and some think the Iranian leadership are nutcases—one hundred per cent totally certified nuts,” the diplomat said. He added that ElBaradei’s overriding concern is that the Iranian leaders “want confrontation, just like the neocons on the other side”—in Washington. “At the end of the day, it will work only if the United States agrees to talk to the Iranians.”

It seems to me that the moment the US uses a nuclear weapon in the 21st century, it loses all moral authority for preventing other countries from having nuclear weapos, and that the discourse for this century is very likely to become how to disarm that problem country the United States.

Another key passage thaht indicates to me just how far off the rails the thinking has gone:

The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. “Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap,” the former senior intelligence official said. “ ‘Decisive’ is the key word of the Air Force’s planning. It’s a tough decision. But we made it in Japan.”

Made it in Japan? Made it in Japan when we didn't know any better and didn't know what else to do. I don't think either of those excuses are available on the pulldown menu just now.

It seems to me that there are a few things the Internet community can do to promote peace and stability in the face of what looks to be a dangerously insane stand-off. (And wasn't that piece of deterrence theory only acting crazy? Not being crazy? Have we made the transition from acting to being?)

First of all, get current 1 meter satellite images of the entire country of Iran up on Google Earth. They're out there. It's really just a matter of money. As is obvious from the relentless theme of invisibility in the recent Iranian weapons tests, the feisty Iranian government has its head under the couch and thinks all kinds of things can't be seen. So let the world take a close look at every square inch of Iran, so a housewife in Pleasantville or Tokyo can look at and speculate about the purpose of suspicious looking ventilation shafts. Having such imagery publicly available will also slow down our own warmongers when they realize that that same housewife can do damage assessments on areas they might choose to nuke. And it would be helpful for disaster relief and therefore reduce civilian casualties in the event of an actual attack on Iran. (Good for everyone all around.)

Secondly, the Internet community should be taking on and dismantling the Iranaian censorship apparatus, because the information on the Internet needs to get to those innocent people most likely to get killed in this, and also cultural crosspollenization will reduce the chance of war.

Third, open source, free translation tools too and from Farsi and all the languages of countries on the UN Security Council needs to be easily available as quickly as possible.

While it may not be possible for the rest of us to intrude on the toxic relationship between the Iranian government and the neocons, it seems to me that these three things should be tried.

(See also Greenpeace's site Don't nuke Iran which links to a Google Earth KMZ file with casualty estimates for nuclear strikes at various locations.)

UPDATE: See my new post Iran Stand-off: The devil is in the details.


Update on the Wild & Crazy Armenian Brothers in Kenya: Send in the Crocodiles!

From the Kenya Times, this entertaining passage:

After a long silence, Artur Margaryan, now says he has brought to his residence more dogs and crocodiles to beef up his security. This is in addition to the ten dogs he had imported earlier. Westlands legislator Fred Gumo and his Makadara counterpart Reuben Ndolo should probably be warned not to take their threats to storm his residence, lest they be devoured by the crocodiles.

There's something reminiscent of The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly here. I've been wondering where this story is going. Perhaps it will end with the the Arturs being eaten by their, er, security forces.

(Who is cleaning up after all the animals, anyway? They have how many killer dogs? Wonder how it smells in there.)

I remain really interested in finding out who these guys are and where they came from.

On a more somber note, while these clowns hole up with large but untraceable amounts of cash, famine spreads across East Africa. And meanwhile Kenya is also having an outbreak of measles because of lack of vaccinations.

See also my previous posts:

Below the cut is an abundance of related links along with what I thought was the best line from each.

Continue reading "Update on the Wild & Crazy Armenian Brothers in Kenya: Send in the Crocodiles!" »


The Global ONLINE Freedom Act of 2006 (HR 4780)

There are two very different bills with very similar names that are sometimes being discussed interchangeably. Short version: Global ONLINE Freedom Act of 2006 (HR 4780) mostly good; Global INTERNET Freedom Act (HR 4741) lame.

HR 4741 attempts to address the problem of Internet censorship, but its authors seem innocent of the fact that the US is exporting the tools to do the thing the bill's authors want combated.

On  the other hand, HR 4780, on a quick read through, looks pretty good and would sort out a lot of the Google-China type issues, and also seem to me to lay the groundwork for restricting exports of SmartFilter-type stuff, and also some of the most worrisome DRM enforcement tools that may be developed. (Wouldn't it be great to kill DRM by keeping the enforcement tools from being exported from the US into the global market?)

Before leaping into the fray, I want to have HR 4780 explained to me by someone who really knows how to read this sort of thing, but it looks awfully good to me.

Both Rebecca MacKinnon and the EFF have weighed in and have misgivings with the part of the bill specifying that would require US Internet companies to hand over all lists of forbidden words provided to them by "any foreign official of an Internet-restricting country." But I find one passage of Danny O'Brien of the EFF's discussion of what he'd like to see instead at least as problematic as what he intends to replace.

Don't Do Direct Business with Forces of State Oppression

Companies should be prohibited from providing intentional ongoing support and assistance to those who abuse human rights in foreign countries. While many products such as filtering software, Internet monitoring programs and programs to unlock protected data can have multiple uses, American companies should not be actively and knowingly providing services that facilitate censorship or repression.

This is sufficiently vague as to allow for implementation along the lines of a trade embargo in which individuals needing access to US technology to overcome their oppression might be denied it in the name of not doing business with oppressive states.

And MacKinnon remarks,

But we must act in a way that respects the rights of people in other countries as much as we respect our own rights.

These are nice ideals, but I don't see how any kind of Internet filtering technology could be meaningfully restricted without ways of monitoring what was being filtered. My preferred tactic is adding censorware and related technologies to the Munitions List such that their export would require State Department approval, which would be given or not on a case-by-case basis. This would also require a recognition on the part of the US firms creating censorware that it is in a sense a military-type technology and needs to be handled accordingly.

Even if it is not perfect, HR 4780 has a lot to recommend it. Reporters Without Borders apparently supports the bill, and I am tentatively inclined to do likewise. Also, while HR 4780 does not specifically add censorware to the Munitions List, it lays the groundwork for that possibility.

Certainly, we don't need yet another situation in which the US plays global cop, but the bill is aimed mostly at policing our own technology exports in a situation in which we are exporting the tools for dystopia.


Insitutionalizing the Kenya Media Raid: A proposed bill to turn the current self-regulated Media Council of Kenya into a statutory media council, "essentially becoming a censorship body."

Over the past few days, I've spent a lot of time combing through the media overage of the aftermath of the Kenya media raids, which were an appalling spectacle of a corrupt government attempting to choke off the Kenyan public's access to information about the functioning of their own government. The crux of the issue is whether it is proper for the press to question the actions of the government: this is one of the most basic issues involving freedom of the press and the need for transparancy. The current Kenyan government does not wish to be criticized.

What emerges from the aftermath of the media raids is that one piece of what has gone very wrong with the current government there is the arrival of two very strange Armenian investors, Artur Margaryan and Artur Sargysan, who strut around Nairobi with an I already bought this country; what's your problem? attitude, when asked questions about their business and their involvement by the media. The details are floridly jaw-dropping; really over the top. And the media raids seem to have come about not because the Kenyan media is irresponsible, but rather because the sitting government has so much to hide.

So now the Kenyan Parliament has reopened. And on that opening day, Kenya's President Kibaki remarked:

Although the freedom of the Press cannot be over-emphasised, it is clear that it must be exercised within the bounds of responsibility.

SO. What are those bounds to be? Hmm? Well. There is this "Media Bill" which will turn the Media Council of Kenya into a censorship body. From Embassy: Canada's Foreign Policy Newsweekly:

So far, a total of six Kenyan journalists have been arrested and charged in court of publishing rumours likely to cause alarm. They are two from the Standard group and four from a weekly newspaper, The Citizen.

The media fraternity is gripped with fears that it's facing a chilling period. The government has published a Media Bill due to be tabled in parliament for enactment. According to the Bill, press accreditation of those considered rebel journalists is to be withdrawn. The current self-regulated Media Council of Kenya would be transformed into a statutory media council, essentially becoming a censorship body. The Bill will also allow for the creation of a media content commission that, with a fine tooth comb, will check on content in both electronic and print media to ensure the media toe the government line. Toeing the line will also be expected of public publications published by the civil society and the faith community.

Faced with this uncertain future, the Media Council of Kenya has called for a media stakeholders meeting to be held Friday, March 24 to launch a campaign against the Bill. . . .

The Chairman of Media Council of Kenya Board of Trustees Dr. Absalom Mutere described the raid on the Standard group as "exhibition of raw power," adding "my take is we ain't seen nothing yet."

Scary stuff. In the past few weeks of combing through this stuff, I've become rather fond of the Kenyan media. If the media raids were to become institutionalized through this legislation, it would be a loss to all of us. So let's do something about it.

How about the rest of us try to find out what is going on there. Who are these Armenian "investors"? I think we can find out. What is their real business, and how is the money flowing through the Kenyan political establishment? I think we should help out by taking a worldwide interest in this.  I think we would all be better for it.

(I would be very interested in hearing from anyone with expertise on Armenian organized crime.)


CensorWare for Australia?
Plus Who decides what stays & goes? Is this all yet another move to make the Internet more like TV?

Just when you thought that censoreware was only for oppressive goverments, and for use with children, and institutions by that treat their employees like children -- the US Military, General Electric (GE), Procter and Gamble, Exxon Mobil, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Bayer, Conagra Foods, Lockheed Martin, British Telecom, Fujitsu, Volvo, Kohler, and Tiffany & Co.)* -- politicians in Australia propose to turn censorware on their population: Labor to force porn block

(We already know that where such systems are in place, for example Secure Computing's SmartFilter, they block a whole lot more than what any reasonable person would consider porn.)

Internet service providers (ISPs) will be forced to block violent and pornographic material before it reaches home computers if Labor wins the next federal election. Under the policy, announced by Opposition Leader Kim Beazley today, international websites would be banned by the Australian Communications and Media Authority if they contained graphic sexual or violent material, rated R or higher. The bans would be maintained by ISPs.

The policy aims to protect the two-thirds of Australian households where no internet filters are in place because of a lack of technical knowledge or cost. Mr Beazley said all households would be included in the policy unless there was a specific request for access to such material.

It was "too hard" for many parents to install internet blockers on their computers to prevent offensive material being downloaded, he said.  . . . Any user can also report material to Australian Communications and Media Authority and if it is found to be hosted in Australia and banned, an ISP is ordered to take it down within 48 hours or face penalties. If the content is illegal, but hosted overseas, it is referred to federal police and filter providers add it to the blocked list.

"No child in Australia need be exposed to harmful and offensive content," Mr Coroneos said.

Gotta love that bit about giving members of the public the opportunity to block "offensive material" for the whole country. The possibilities for that are endless: evolution, birth control, liberal politics, breastfeeding. Even if the Internet were merely held to the standards of television and not as harshly censored as it is by such systems as SmartFilter, a whole lot would disappear.

Think I'm kidding about them maybe pushing breastfeeding off the Internet? I'm not.Note also that Kirstie Marshall, a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly in Australia, was ejected from parliament for exposing her breast breastfeeding her newborn child.

Think of all the stuff you see on the internet that you almost never see on TV; think of it gone.

(Via Anthony Baxter.)

Flashman at Electron Soup has a few suggestions:

The flip-side of 'opt-out of the clean feed' is 'opt-in to the dirty dwarf-porn bukkake feed'. Put your name on our list, dear citizens, if you want to declare that you don't like our censorship, and that you want access to all the nasties on the net. Yeah, sure, I'm totally fine with that intrusion on my privacy. . . .

If Kim Beazley wants to offer peace of mind to parents, he should at most mandate that ISPs maintain an opt-in clean feed. Additionally, he should ascertain whether the nation's children are being taught healthy internet habits, in the same way that 'stranger danger' and other safety issues are addressed.

Here's a simple solution that's much more workable and costs virtually nothing: use your parenting skills.

UPDATE: Cory Doctorow has a really interesting post on the subject of the application of "local" community standards to the Internet in the context of the obscenity section of the Communications Decency Act in the US:

Online sexual material is obscene if any community in US objects
The Supreme Court of the United States has declined to hear an important case about obscenity and the Internet, leaving anyone who publishes sexual material on the Internet in uncertainty about whether they're open to federal penalties.
At stake is the obscenity section of the Communications Decency Act, which bans publishing "obscene" material on the net. The problem is that US courts use "local standards" to determine whether something is obscene -- so if in the eyes of some local community, the material is obscene, then you can't distribute it there.

But the Internet can distribute material into all communities in the country, and because the Communications Decency Act is federal, prosecutors can bring their charges in the most sex-o-phobic corner of the country (say, the conservative Catholic private town that the guy who founded Domino's Pizza is building in Florida).

And to echo the point I keep hammering on, zero-tolerance for something like the abstract concept of nudity is not necessarily even of benefit to children, as "local community standards" can prevent women from the most basic of mamalian acts: breastfeeding their infants.

MEANWHILE, an Australian firm out of Perth, Scotland has made a deal to "provide its 'broadband condom' service in Guatemala." Tracking this stuff is becoming like a game of whack-a-mole!

UPDATE: See Mark Pesce's Op-Ed: Net filters lose battle in the end.


The BSA, MPAA and RIAA have officially objected to a proposal to let the public break DRM that "threatens critical infrastructure and endangers lives."

I've got a lot on my plate today, so I don't have time to do more than just mirror this post from BoingBoing, except to say that what is at issue here is extremely serious.

MPAA/RIAA/BSA: No breaking DRM, even if it's killing you (literally!)        

        The BSA, MPAA and RIAA have officially objected to a proposal to let the public break DRM that "threatens critical infrastructure and endangers lives." They argue that if it becomes legal to break DRM that could kill you that it might harm their business:

In order to protect their ability to deploy this dangerous DRM, they want the Copyright Office to withhold from users permission to uninstall DRM software that actually does threaten critical infrastructure and endanger lives.

Link (via EFF Minilinks)

Even without this wrinkle, I think DRM has some serious human rights implications for human rights if force-exported throughout the world. This current bit seems to me clear evidence that the music and entertainment industries are being willfully ignorant and negligent about the human rights issues.


Kuwait Dabbling in Allowing Foreign Investment: I Wonder What This Machine Does

Kuwait, which has strict controls on foreign investment, especially in its oil industry, has in the past few years begun to open the door a little to foreign investors in the form of something called Project Kuwait:

In March 2001, Kuwait's national assembly passed the "Foreign Direct Investment Act," which aimed at promoting foreign investment. Among other things, the Act eased restrictions on foreign banks, provided long-term protection to foreign investors against nationalization or confiscation, and eliminated the requirement for foreign companies to have a Kuwaiti sponsor or partner. In the oil sector, the Kuwaiti constitution forbids foreign ownership of Kuwait's mineral resources, but the Kuwaiti government is exploring allowing foreign investment in upstream oil development under terms . . . which provide for per-barrel fees to the foreign firms rather than traditional production sharing agreements (PSA's). The Kuwaiti government is currently making an attempt to enact legislation to facilitate foreign investment in the upstream oil sector, as part of its "Project Kuwait" initiative to boost production capacity. The Kuwaiti parliament is expected to act on the proposed legislation sometime in 2005.  . . .

"Project Kuwait" is a $7 billion, 25-year plan, first formulated in 1997 by the SPC, to increase the country's oil production (and to help compensate for declines at the mature Burgan field), with the help of international oil companies (IOCs). In particular, Kuwait aims to increase output at five northern oil fields -- Abdali, Bahra, Ratqa, Raudhatain, and Sabriya (Kuwait's third largest field) -- from their current rate of around 650,000 bbl/d to 900,000 bbl/d within three years. Project Kuwait has been repeatedly delayed, however, due to political opposition and resistance from nationalists and Islamists in parliament to the idea of allowing foreign companies into the country's oil sector. Legislation which would facilitate Project Kuwait has been introduced again in the Kuwaiti parliament in early 2005. The bill was approved by the Finance and Economic Committee in June 2005, but with amendments limiting its scope to four of the five fields, excluding Bahra. Final action on the bill by the full parliament is still pending, but is expected by the end of 2005.

In February 2003, KPC completed a draft contract and proposed financial terms for Project Kuwait. There are three major consortia competing for the project, led by: 1) ChevronTexaco (along with Total, PetroCanada, Sibneft and Sinopec); 2) ExxonMobil (along with Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Maersk); and 3) BP (along with Occidental, ONGC/Indian Oil Corp.). Reportedly, KPC prefers to have three groups working under three separate IBBCs: one for Raudhatain and Sabriya (the largest IBBC); one for Ratqa, Bahra and Abdali; and one for Minagish and Umm Gudair. Currently, foreign companies like BP, Shell, and ChevronTexaco operate in Kuwait strictly under service contracts (SCs).

Alexander's Gas & Oil Connection (2003) has more detail:

One consortium is led by US major ChevronTexaco, which is the operator and has a 50 % stake. France's Total is the second operator and has a 20 % stake. The consortium's non-operating partners are PetroCanada, Sibneft and Sinopec, each having a 10 % stake.

A second consortium is led by the UK's BP as operator with a 65 % stake, and includes the US' Occidental Petroleum and India's Indian Oil Corporation as non-operators. A third consortium is led by US major ExxonMobil as first operator with a 37.5 % stake. Shell is the consortium's second operator with a 32.5 % stake. US firm ConocoPhillips and Denmark's Maersk are non-operating participants.

I think it's really sweet how they're spreading the love around the member countries of the UN Security Council! For example, group number one includes: Chevron (US), Total (France), Petro-Canada (Canada), Sibneft (Russia), & Sinopec (China). As Henry Kissinger said, power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

This distribution sounds, well, a little familiar: From the Timesonline, 2004: Saddam ‘bought UN allies’ with oil

The UN oil-for-food scheme was set up in 1995 to allow Iraq to sell controlled amounts of oil to raise money for humanitarian supplies. However, the leaked report reveals Saddam systematically abused the scheme, using it to buy “political influence” throughout the world.

The former Iraqi regime was in effect free to “allocate” oil to whom it wished. Dozens of private individuals were given oil at knockdown prices. They were able to nominate recognised traders to buy the cheap oil from the Iraqi state oil firm and sell it for a personal profit.

The report says oil was given to key countries: “The regime gave priority to Russia, China and France. This was because they were permanent members of, and hence had the ability to influence decisions made by, the UN Security Council. The regime . . . allocated ‘private oil’ to individuals or political parties that sympathised in some way with the regime.”

The report also details how the regime benefited by arranging illegal “kickbacks” from oil sales.

From September 2000, it is said Saddam made $228m (£127m) from kickbacks deposited in accounts across the Middle East. The analysis details only the export of oil — not the import of humanitarian supplies, also alleged to have been riddled with corruption.

So here we see that same UN Security Council buy-off pattern. Interesting. So what's up?

This 2003 article, Kuwait will not Benefit form Foreign Investment in the Northern Fields Even if an Agreement with Iraq is Reached, argues that the purpose of Project Kuwait is not the additional capacity that will be generated, but rather that it is driven by "political consideration."

Kuwait may not benefit from allowing foreign investment in its upstream oil industry because it does not need the additional capacity, especially at a time when Kuwait is trimming its production along with other OPEC members to increase oil prices. Recently, Kuwait called on OPEC members to extend production cuts beyond September 2002 and lobbied successfully to prevent OPEC from increasing its quota. In a recent speech, Nader Sultan, the CEO of KPC, declared that Kuwait will invest in extra capacity only if there is a demand for it. He insisted that investment in extra capacity must be justified by the return on investment; otherwise funds will be directed toward more profitable investments. When OPEC is cutting output, there is no justification for more investment to increase capacity. This conclusion gives even more weight to the previous conclusion that "Project Kuwait" is based mostly on political considerations.

So, just what are the politics of this? Whatever the answer turns out to be, it is likely to be complex, as this 2004 article explains: Scheme to expand Kuwait's oil production likely to cause stir

One of the most heated debates is likely to be on the fate of a scheme proposed by the government to expand production from oilfields in the far north of the country, close to the Iraqi border. On the face of it, this does not seem to be high on the list of controversial subjects that have tend to raise the blood pressure of certain Kuwaiti MPs (like demands that women should be given the vote, for example). But when one points out that the scheme has been on the drawing board since 1998, it becomes clear right away that the proposals are far from straightforward.

The question now is whether the government will succeed this time, having failed thus far in separating the project - known as Project Kuwait - from the complex web of the nation's internal politics. In other words, will it be able to win the National Assembly's support for a venture which it insists is essential for the country's future and which most MPs say is either unnecessary or politically unacceptable.

The authorities are determined to push ahead regardless. An indication of their determination was the recent creation of a post on the board of the state-owned Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC) dedicated to the northern oilfields scheme.

ITPBusiness.net (2005) suggests that Project Kuwait may be a way off, in effect, allowing Kuwait the use of the military capacity of the participating countries:

Some analysts, however, think it is the government astutely playing geopolitics: let foreign oil prospectors go digging along the border, and should Iraqi tanks rumble over their wells, the majors’ governments will hear their cries and run to Kuwait’s defense.

Despite the controversial nature of Project Kuwait, it seems to have survived the death of one of its key supporters, Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah.

Kuwait's government is trying to push through parliament the $8.5 billion Project Kuwait, involving multinationals to upgrade four major northern oilfields to help boost its output capacity.

"The country has set a long-term oil strategy which will not change. It is committed to increasing production capacity to meet the needs of the oil markets," Baghli said.

"Project Kuwait will eventually pass after parliament adds the legal touches and some regulatory restrictions on the government," he said.

Several MPs have objected to the plan in its current form, and the parliament is due to hold a special session on January 23 to discuss the long-awaited project, which has been under discussion since the early 1990s.

As of last week Kuwait's Energy Minister Shaikh Ahmad Fahd Al Sabah said top ministry executives will meet with audit bureau officials to 'reach an understanding on the issue':

Kuwaiti MPs and the government have discussed legal and financial objections to a controversial $8.5 billion oil investment in which foreign oil majors would participate.

Objections to the legal framework and financial details had been raised by the audit bureau, the state accounting watchdog, prompting MPs in December to withdraw a report on the long-stalled project preventing its debate in parliament.

The head of parliament's financial and economic affairs committee MP Ahmad Baqer, a former justice minister, said the panel asked the bureau to prepare a fresh report based on new information sent by the energy ministry.

The report will be assessed by the committee after three weeks when it would probably take a final decision on the investment which has been opposed by more than 20 MPs of the 50-member parliament.

Energy Minister Shaikh Ahmad Fahd Al Sabah, who attended the meeting, said top ministry executives will meet with audit bureau officials to 'reach an understanding on the issue.'

'We will study the bureau's comments on the project ... and could accept some of them to make the necessary changes,' Shaikh Ahmad said.

Eight and a half billion dollars, hmm? I think they'll reach an understanding.

UPDATE: Via Mountain Runner, I happened across this Knight Ridder news story: Administration backs off Bush's vow to reduce Mideast oil imports. Why would the Administration want to reduce Mideast oil imports when Kuwait is ready to cut our oil companies such a deal?!?


Secure Computing: Fulfilling a Wish for the Censor

189015919001_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_I bought a book this morning for Secure Computing's  SmartFilter censor Tomo Foote-Lennox and videotaped the experience. I was Googling his name to see if my posts mentioning him had been indexed by Google, and I made an interesting discovery.

I noticed that there was a link to a review he'd posted on Amazon and I decided to learn a little more about his tastes, which are apparently very interesting. As it turned out, he'd only ever reviewed that one item.

But he did have a Wish List, which I did have a look at. While it contained only two items, I decided to grant one of his two wishes and buy him a copy of The Mistress Manual: The Good Girl's Guide to Female Dominance, which he had listed. I decided I would buy it for him, and I would videotape myself fulfilling his wish, and then I would blog it.

Imovie_hdscreensnapz001_1My sexual quirk is that I am turned on by intellectual excitement; specifically, I find ferreting out weird facts and then acting upon them sexully exciting. One of Tomo Foote-Lennox's many quirks seems to be masochism. And so the act of publicly fulfilling this wish for him is an odd species of Internet sexual act: a moment is which he and I -- who otherwise would be quite incompatible -- have a strange moment of resonance. I very much enjoyed blowing nineteen bucks to publicly buy him the book he said he wanted; I hope he enjoys receiving it just as much. I made sure Amazon wrapped his present.

I tried uploading the video to YouTube, but it isn't uploading. So probably I need to go back and re-edit to make it shorter. I'll let you know when it's up.

Shifting back into my usual social persona, I want to say that the problem with a fetishist playing censor for millions of people is that the fetsishist's gaze is a sexualizing one, and so much material which is not inherently smut will look dirty to someone viewing the world through that lens. I had an unsatisfactory correspondence with Tomo on the subject of what material about breastfeeding would make it through their censorship. Many things I could do in the lunchroom of my son's elementary school or in broad daylight on the streets of NYC would not have made it. I find this unacceptable, and I attribute part of the problem to the point of view (and arrogance) Tomo brings to the issue.

UPDATE: This Domini person thinks I've been bad, very bad. He thinks that I should have called Tomo to ask — "hey Tomo, do you want me to buy you the Mistress Manual?" — rather than turning a loaded credit card on him. (When Tomo responds to my most recent email message to him, maybe I'll ask. But I don't think he's speaking to me right now.) I gotta say that the credit card purchase, Amazon order # 102-9375069-1924901, is leaving an awfully nice paper trail to Maple Grove, Minnestota.  (Hmm, has Domini go a problem with my lifestyle as a dominant female blogger?)


Guam Airport Spying Update

From an ongoing series on unauthorized cameras and listening devices found in the Customs area of the Guam Airport.

From KAUM.com: Public funds will determine who's monitoring GIAA's monitors

Thousands of dollars in taxpayers money will now be used to determine exactly who was monitoring the monitors at the Guam International Airport Authority. Through its preliminary investigation, the agency's executive manager, Jess Torres, confirms it was the Airport that paid for the installation of the security cameras by way of an aviation security grant after 9/11.

It was done so for added security measures by Pacific Security Alarm. Although he hasn't totaled up exactly how much was spent on installing the security devices, Torres estimates tens of thousands were spent. The preliminary investigation also revealed that one particular camera led straight to Torres' office. When asked how he felt knowing the monitors were monitoring one of the biggest monitors - himself - Torres stated he has nothing to hide.

"I feel deeply concerned because for all I know, even my office was bugged," he shared. "But then again on a personal basis, if they were trying to zero in on me to listen to my conversation, they are welcome to do that. If they want to photograph me on how I do my business, they are welcome to that because I have nothing to hide."

What "bugs" Torres is the idea of bugging him without his knowledge. But then again, we're back to the question of what's wrong with having monitors monitor the monitors. (After all, even the monitors need monitoring.)

Consequently, GIAA hired the team of Pacific Security Alarm and private investigator Greg Hall at a price tag that Torres says should not exceed $25,000 and should not take more than about two weeks to settle. Torres says the $25,000 that taxpayers will have to shell out will determine "where these wires are going to, who's listening to them, if they are indeed listening to them. If some of these cameras are still active or the listening devices because I'm not in the position to make that determination."


Secure Computing: My Letter to Paxworld

This is part of a series on Secure Computing and SmartFilter.

I just sent the following letter to Anita Green, V.P. for Social Research at Paxworld, a socially responsible mutual fund with significant investments in Secure Computing (SCUR):

Dear Anita Green:

I am writing to express concern about one of the companies in the Paxworld Balanced Fund's portfolio, Secure Computing (SCUR). While I am not one of Paxworld's investors, I support the general philosophy of companies like yours. I am an investor in the New Alternatives Fund which emphasizes alternative energy.

I have several concerns about the SCUR. Chief among these is that it is my understanding that they are licensing their censorship software, SmartFilter, to the oppressive governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Tunisia.  It really ought to be illegal for them to export content restriction software to governments that restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It isn't yet, but this practice should be strongly discouraged on human rights grounds.

Secondly, this same software has been licensed to the US Military and is in use controlling what military personnel and security contractors can read overseas. If all they were filtering out was hardcore porn, that would be one thing. But their filtering is much more expansive and includes, for example, the popular weblog BoingBoing which no reasonable person would consider smut. Also there seems to be a political bias to which sites are available for viewing and which are not. And the company seems to have a very aggressive idea of what constitutes pornography and nudity. I had a very unsatisfactory correspondence with Tomo Foote-Lennox of Secure Computing yesterday about what kinds of depictions of breastfeeding might make it through their filters, for example. Mr. Foote-Lennox seems to have a very sexualized concept of the mother infant relationship which bears some examination in light of the censorship power he exercises and his claims that he is protecting the interests of children.

I would like to encourage you to consider divesting Paxworld of their SCUR holdings.

Sincerely,

Kathryn Cramer

I suppose I should also have mentioned SCUR's unsubstantiated claims in their 2004 report about various domains hosting vast troves of porn but I didn't want to go on too long.

 


Secure Computing, Smart Filter, & the Female Breast

MbThis is part of a series on Secure Computing and SmartFilter. The image to the right is via the Got BreastMilk? Project.

Following the New York Times story Popular Web Site Falls Victim to a Content Filter, concerning Secure Computing's product SmartFilter blocking BoingBoing,  I wrote the following letter to Tomo Foote-Lennox, of Secure Computing, who is apparently the guy in charge of deciding what is smut and what isn't. He claims to be a defender of the interests of children:

In an e-mail message to Xeni Jardin, another of Boing Boing's chiefs, Tomo Foote-Lennox, a director of filtering data for Secure Computing, asked why the bloggers were starting a war. "We discussed several ways that you could organize your site so that I could protect the kids and you could distribute all the information you wanted," Mr. Foote-Lennox wrote.

One of the BoingBoing posts that Secure Computing used to justify classifying involved a shot showing a cat attempting to nurse on a woman's breast: Japanese TV show about cat that loves human milk. The image was very blurry and involved less actual nudity than your average shot of an Oscar-night dress. As a very experienced nursing mother, my hunch was that nursing, not an interspecies relationship, nor the expanse of cleavage, was at issue. So I wrote to Secure Computing's Censor-in-Chief to ask about this issue.

Nursing_1Regular readers of this blog are aware that I write with some frequency about breastfeeding issues, and may even be aware that when BBC Radio needed a Representative of American Womanhood to talk about nursing in public, they picked me. I have spent hundreds of hours nursing in public and have nursed on most major airlines and even nursed from the podium while doing public speaking. This is not a political stance, but rather a matter of pure practicality. The BBC pitted me against a man who said over and over that Public nudity is not socially acceptable, in the context of arguing that a nursing mother (Margaret Boyle-White) who refused to stop when confronted by UK police should have been arrested. I was followed on the program by Scottish MP Elaine Smith, who had introduced the bill recently passed at the time of the program making it an offense to stop mothers breastfeeding in public. (Preventing a woman from breastfeeding is already illegal in the State of New York.)

So I wrote the following letter to Foote-Lennox, to try to tease out whether what I suspected was true:

Dear Thom Foote-Lennox:

I am writing to express concern about your remarks concerning BoingBoing in the New York Times. As a long time BoingBoing reader, I am quite certain that it is by no stretch of the imagination a porn site. But I am also a nursing mother, so I am also concerned about what exactly causes you and your company to draw the conclusion the the nursing cat post was porn.

Nursing is not a sexual act. While there exist adults who sexualize children and the activities of children such as nursing, that is not what is going on in that image. The nursing cat seems to me simply a stand-in for a breast pump. Breast engorgement is a real phenomenon and dealing with it is a practical, not a sexual problem.

So what exactly about the nursing cat is sexual?

Sincerely,

Kathryn Cramer
Pleasantville, New York

He replied:

We never called it porn.  We have categories for pornography, but we rated this as nudity.  Some of our customers want to limit the viewing of nude pictures in their schools or offices.  We give them the ability to make that choice.

- Tomo

I wrote back:

So a site that, say, depicted public breast feeding would make your list as nudity?

Kathryn

He replied:

Look at our categories on our web site.  Medical diagrams (women nursing cats on television don't count) are rated as nudity if they are explicit, but also as health, educational or consumer information.  Many elementary schools choose to block all nudity, but high schools usually exempt health and education, meaning if it is health or education, you ignore any other category it may have.

- Tomo

I wrote back:

You are aware that in some countries where women are not even allowed to expose their faces in public, it is socially acceptable for women to bare their breasts to feed their infants, yes?

K

It strikes me when I read his replies that, first of all, my basic intuition is correct. It was exposing the human breast in the context of nursing that was perceived as sexual and inappropriate, not the surreal twist given it by Japanese TV.

Nursey_1When breastfeeding in public for those hundreds of hours (sometimes even in elementary schools [gasp!]; always with at least one child present), I utterly failed to to provide health, educational, and consumer information. Here's voice-over I forgot to give: You know, dear, using breastmillk as eye-drops works as well for clearing up pink-eye as commercial pharmaceuticals! And it works pretty well in clearing up ear infections when used as ear drops as well! I assumed you knew. You did know that, didn't you? Mothers: always remember to educate the public while nursing in public, lest your public nursing be taken as some kind if sexual act!

Secondly: here I am talking to the Internet Censor-in-Chief for the US Military and their overseas contractors and for three countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar), and he has this oddly sexualized idea of breastfeeding. He's just this guy, and he's entitled to his personal quirks, but exactly how did this situation evolve to put him in charge of deciding what is sexual and what is not? What is porn and what is not? What he was giving me was distanced by being a description of how software works, but was really very close to the rantings of that strange little man the BBC pitted me against who just kept repeating "nudity is not socially acceptable."

Combining this with questions about the legitimacy of Secure Computing's claims to have found vast quantities of porn on some sites, I conclude that the awarding of these sweeping contracts to them was really quite premature, even if you accept the idea that the military and three whole countries need their Internet censored (which I don't). What exactly qualifies this guy to evaluate what is and is not nudity, porn, inappropriate, etc.? Did he have some special training? Even Justice Potter Stewart was reduced to trying to define porn by saying "I knowing when I see it." Secure Computing offers much more than a definition: multiple categories of inappropriate material, each with their own definition. So just where does this guy Tomo get off telling the world exactly the manner in which the female breast may and may not be displayed on the Internet?

What I think we have here is censorship practiced as a kind of fetishism: Secure Computing employees read the Internet with a dirty mind and then have their way with it based on what they read into what they see.


Anti-Intelligence: Secure Computing (SCUR)

Before I begin, I want to say that there needs to exist something like the US Munitions List for the various types content restriction software and that it should be illegal to export content restriction software and various DRM enforcement tools to countries that do not respect freedom of speech and freedom of the press. There really ought to be a law --

This blog post started out as a remark on a headline from American Chronicle: New Anti-Intelligence Leak Initiatives Adopted by Gov't. The headline pertains to leaks involving the CIA. But before the ink was even dry on the post, I found a really fine example of what one might mean by "Anti-Intelligence."

If there is such a thing as anti-intelligence, it must certainly figure into the business model of the company Secure Computing, which is making money selling censorware to oppressive governments. (That'll teach the world to sing!)

Mark Frauenfelder writes:

It helps corrupt dictators oppress their people. In defiance of the US government's stated goal of promoting democracy around the world, Secure Computing has the gall to license its filtering products to totalitarian governments, such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. These countries, which have government-run ISPs, pass all their citizens' web requests through centralized filters. Can you imagine having a business model that includes selling tools of oppression to tyrants?

Their product description for SmartFilter, currently blocking BoingBoing and possibly also Google's translation tools, begins:

Protect your organization from the risks associated with employee Internet use with SmartFilter® Web filtering. By controlling inappropriate Internet use with SmartFilter, organizations can reduce legal liability, enhance Web security, increase productivity, and preserve bandwidth for business-related activities. SmartFilter puts you in control.

But given whom they are selling to and the purpose it's being put to, it might as well read:

Protect your country from the risks associated with citizen Internet use with SmartFilter® Web filtering. SmartFilter puts you in control.

Why wait for the Dystopian Future when you can have it right now?

Secure Computing’s executives are John McNulty, President, Chairman and CEO; Tim Steinkopf; Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer; Vincent M. Schiavo, Senior Vice President, Worldwide Sales; Mike Gallagher, Senior Vice President, Product Development; Mary K. Budge, Senior Vice President, Secretary and General Counsel, Paul Henry, Vice President, Strategic Accounts, and Scott Montgomery, Vice President, Product Management. T. Paul Thomas has resigned after a "brief stint" as senior vice president, marketing and corporate strategy in early March.

Looks to me like the one possibly responsible for the worrisome international deals is probably Vincent M. Schiavo, Senior Vice President, Worldwide Sales.

Speaker_schiavoPrior to joining Secure Computing, Vince Schiavo was president at PolyServe, Inc., an enterprise software development firm, where he guided the company from concept to international presence with multimillion-dollar annual software revenues. With 21 years in the computer industry, Mr. Schiavo has a proven track record in OEM sales, distribution channels, direct sales, business development, marketing and team leadership. He served as Vice President, Worldwide Sales at Sonic Solutions, Inc. and has also held sales and marketing positions with Radius, Inc., Apple Computer, Inc. and Data General Corporation. Mr. Schiavo has a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Maryland.

Secure Computing is a publicly held company with ticker symbol SCUR. This is a chart of how their stock as done over the past year:

Mailscreensnapz001

This Press Release came out from the company over Business Wire this morning:

Secure Computing's SmartFilter and Webwasher Products Help Customers Manage Internet Usage Policies While Preserving Bandwidth

SAN JOSE, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--March 6, 2006--Secure Computing Corporation (NASDAQ:SCUR - News), the experts in securing connections between people, applications and networks(TM) today announced that its SmartFilter® and Webwasher® Secure Content Management suite can help companies manage important bandwidth and maintain employee productivity during high profile events such as college basketball's signature event, the 2006 NCAA Basketball Tournament, which is also known as March Madness(TM).

I imagine it also helps whole countries preserve bandwidth during public beheadings or while  filling mass graves, yes? I think I need a new category: Corporate Navel-Gazing.

Here are their major shareholders. Perhaps some could be pursuaded to divest themselves of SCUR on moral grounds.

Safariscreensnapz001

To date, Secure Computing's press coverage seems to have been dominated almost entirely by their press releases. There seems to be almost no discussion of the company or the nature of its products on the financial discussion boards. Perhaps that needs to change.

Also, their execs do make public appearances from time to time. Someone might want to go see Paul Henry, VP of Strategic Accounts, and ask what is strategic about selling censorware to tyrants. Here are a few of his speaking engangements:

Finally, if any of the Secure Computing execs are reading this, I suggest they read about the recent media shutdown in Kenya, for example, before they license their products to any more oppressive governments. This isn't about whether the US rock'n'roll lifestyle can be exported, or whether  corporate employees or people in the milotary get to see nipples at work. This is about very basic freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. Thou shalt not export censorware to tyrants.

UPDATE: It appears that one of SCUR's major stockholders, Paxworld Balanced Fund, is a socially responsible mutual fund. We should all politely request that they request themselves of SCUR.

(See also Websites blocked by political stripes for Marines in Iraq? on BoingBoing.)


Watermarking as a Strategy for Insisting on Corporate "Creators": Is DRM the Killer App for Corporate Authorship?

Ed Felton at Freedom to Tinker has a good post on the problem of digital watermarking, How Watermarks Fail (via BoingBoing), in which he concludes that watermarking schemes (such as Koplar's VEIL technology, discussed in my post VEIL Technology: Four Patents & an Application the other day) are not well suited for Digital Rights Management (preventing unauthorized copying of copyrighted material).

The discussion in the comment section is particularly interesting. Consider this comment, for example:

Let’s imagine a case where Microsoft’s post-Vista OS, codenamed Blacksheep, will only work with video cards that require a watermark in order to play Super-HD video (2048-4096 lines of resolution). Then such videos could be distributed in encrypted form with the watermark embedded. The decryption and watermark detection algorithm could be public; however the encoding/embedding algorithm would be secret.

Users could use the public decryption algorithm to create raw MPEG files with the watermark stripped, but would not be able to play them on commercially available video cards (similar to how video cards are now requiring monitors with HDCP support in order to play HD video). Users would not be able to create new videos with altered watermarks because the algorithm to do that is secret.

If digital watermarking schemes for DRM are put into practice, they may have little effect on the problem of bootleg versions of mega-corporate products. However, as discussed in the comment section, they may be quite effective about keeping digital artistic productions by individuals out of the distribution system: in the end, what DRM may accomplish is forcing individuals to give big corporations a cut for distribution just to get the authorized watermarking.

My experience in the early-mid 90s teaches me that part of the purpose of setting the production standards of early CD-ROMs absurdly high was to promote corporate authorship over individual authorship with the idea that digital products could be authored like film and TV, not like books, thus empowering the executive level and disempowering the actual creators, or rather reconfiguring relations such that executives become part of the creative "team."

Now computers are being sold that allow individuals, and small groups of individuals, to produce works to very high production standards on very low budgets. This also threatens the rise of corporate authorship. So watermark-style DRM may do very little to prevent the "piracy" about which the big media corporations are up in arms, it may be the killer app of corporate authorship.

It needs to be said over and over that in the early '90s, corporations did not own or control most of these digital rights they now claim the right to defend. In large part, these rights were taken, without additional compensation, from the artistic creators. (I know who the real pirates are!)

Transitioning from a world where art is created by individuals to a world where it is "created" by corporate "creative teams" is the second part of an overall stratgey to consolidate corporate control over the revenue that can be extracted from the popular arts; for creating a future in which consumers remain consumers and don't try to horn in on the revenue due to producers of artistic commodities.

(See also Dr. K.)


Chile's Sensible Proposal on Intellectual Property made at the World Intellectual Property Organization meeting in Geneva

WipologoThe Electronic Frontier Foundation has an interesting write-up of the proceedings at the meeting of WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization, in Geneva. Apparently, Chile has a particularly sensible proposal on the table that consists of three specific suggestions:

  1. Appraisal of the public domain
  2. Emphasize importance of complementary systems to and in intellectual property
  3. A study for assessing what are the appropriate levels of intellectual property, considering the particular situation in each country, specifically its degree of development and institutional capacity

The full text of the proposal is below the cut. The EFF remarks:

In the afternoon of Day 2 of the WIPO Provisional Committee on Proposals Related to a Development Agenda we finally got down to business: discussing Chile's thoughtful proposal on the Public Domain. Chile had actually put forward three suggestions, but it was the proposal for WIPO to undertake a study of the value of "a rich and accessible public domain" that drew comments from a slew of Member States, the Committee Chair and public interest non-governmental organizations. And rightly so. As Chile's proposal notes, the public domain is essential for ensuring access to knowledge,  and provides the foundation for technological innovation.

Intellectual property rights are supposed to promote the same goals, but you'd never know it from the comments of some participants who seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the essential relationship between IPA and the public domain.  Apparently under the mistaken impression that the public domain is the opposite of intellectual property, these participants claimed that the proposal was outside Wop's mandate.

The copyright and patent regimes have historically recognized that the creation of intellectual property requires a robust public domain. Material from the public domain forms the building blocks on which new creations are built. As the Chilean delegate eloquently put it:  "Our starting premise is that nothing is created out of nothing. The greater the works in the public domain, the greater the creation." The public policy underlying the grant of time-limited exclusive copyright and patent rights is that the public domain will be continually enriched, to the benefit of all society.

Precisely because of the public domain's importance,  recent encroachments upon it - such as Technological Protection Measures, new sui generis database rights for non-copyrightable data,  exclusive rights for test data in the patent arena, and extensions of copyright and patent terms - deserve careful scrutiny.

Chile also proposed that WIPO analyze complementary systems to intellectual property that incentives creative activity, innovation and technology transfer, including free and open source software and creative commons licenses, and a study or set of case studies assessing the appropriate level of intellectual property protection based on different countries development status.

The NO coalition's notes of day two's proceedings are after the jump. There are also great summaries of the debate at the blogs of IPA-Watch, Georg Greve, and Kirsten Karloff of Free Software Foundation Europe, GAV Brazil, and Thieu Balasubramaniam of Consumer Project on Technology.

Cory Doctorow remarks, in his post How the US is boning the developing world at WIPO:

EFF and other public interest groups are back at the United Nations this week, at the World Intellectual Property Organization's meeting of the "Provisional Committee on Proposals Related to a Development Agenda." This is the meeting where the nuts-and-bolts of how WIPO will turn itself into an actual humanitarian agency, instead of what it has done traditionally: help rich countries and their multinationals screw the developing world.

The public interest groups continue to subversively write down what's going on and publish it, something that  WIPO's Secretariat once described as "abusing WIPO's hospitality" -- normally, the Secretariat would release a report six months after the fact, once everyone quoted in it had the chance to revise the report of what they'd said. EFF and others publish their account of the WIPO deliberations daily -- twice a day, when it's going hot and heavy -- and it gets slash dotted, read by delegate's bosses in their capitols, and distributed. It has a genuinely disruptive effect on the orderly dividing-and-conquering of the world that's underway there.

Technologically, it's dead simple: the public interest groups make an ad-hock WiFi network, open up the group-editing program SubEthaEdit, and collectively write down as much of what's being said as they can keep up with, along with explanatory text.

Keep on transcribing! Good work, people.

FromGeneva has a colorful bit from yesterdays's proceedings that I find quite delightful, because indeed the whole debate centers on desire, that term so popular in literary criticism when I was in grad school:

Nearly one hour was devoted to whether to structure this list "horizontally" or "vertically". The Ambassador of Argentina proposed that this list be structured in horizontal clusters in a table or matrix format. This he suggested would be a better way to visually see the common threads binding the proposals. Different delegations could then identify which cluster or column they felt their proposals belonged to. This initiative was supported by Brazil, Pakistan, and Venezuela. Many other members including the United States noted that this process was time consuming and was not the most efficient way to proceed.

The delegate from Pakistan had an inimitable quote on these discussions,

We can't resist the temptation to recite this line while we are looking at your proposal; a dance is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. It is somehow relevant to the discussion we are having here. The desire is horizontal because we want to have a common ground. We have received from you a vertical expression.

Continue reading "Chile's Sensible Proposal on Intellectual Property made at the World Intellectual Property Organization meeting in Geneva" »


VEIL Technology: Four Patents & an Application

Cory Doctorow GoH speechAfter hearing Cory Doctorow's terrific guest of honor speech at Boskone, an updated version of his Microsoft DRM speech, I have become interested in finding out about this VEIL technology which is in proposed legislation (Digital Transition Content Security Act, HR 4569) intended to "plug the analog hole" aka the "a-hole." (This rhetoric reminds me of the joke about why the asshole is the body's most important organ. Someone in this process forgot to hire a writer.)

What made my little ears prick up at the discussion of VEIL is the unreasonable secrecy surrounding the technology. It is summarized nicely at Freedom to Tinker:

VeilagreementI emailed the company that sells VEIL and asked for a copy of the specification. I figured I would be able to get it. After all, the bill would make compliance with the VEIL spec mandatory — the spec would in effect be part of the law. Surely, I thought, they’re not proposing passing a secret law. Surely they’re not going to say that the citizenry isn’t allowed to know what’s in the law that Congress is considering. We’re talking about television here, not national security.

After some discussion, the company helpfully explained that I could get the spec, if I first signed their license agreement. The agreement requires me (a) to pay them $10,000, and (b) to promise not to talk to anybody about what is in the spec. In other words, I can know the contents of the bill Congress is debating, but only if I pay $10k to a private party, and only if I promise not to tell anybody what is in the bill or engage in public debate about it.

Worse yet, this license covers only half of the technology: the VEIL decoder, which detects VEIL signals. There is no way you or I can find out about the encoder technology that puts VEIL signals into video.

DevicesThis secrecy screams SCAM to me, and regular readers of this space know that I have been finding certain kinds of secrecy and scams entertaining of late. So I'm taking a look. Koplar Communications International, home of VEIL technology, seems to be a real company with a real address and real execs and all that (unlike certain companies I've lately looked into). But the response Freedom to Tinker got to their inquiry is just wrong wrong wrong. And in my experience, when you find something like that and start picking at the threads, things get interesting pretty quickly.

So lets pick at threads. I mean, it's not like a technology to be used this widely for consumer applications ought to be classified, is it? This sort of thing is supposed to be open for public debate, i.e. debate by the public.

Here's the opening of the VEIL Wikipedia entry:

Video Encoded Invisible Light (VEIL) is a technology for encoding low-bandwidth digital data bitstream in video signal, developed by VEIL Interactive Technologies. VEIL is compatible with multiple formats of video signals, including PAL, SECAM, and NTSC. The technology is based on a steganographically encoded data stream in the luminance of the videosignal.

The Veil Rights Assertion Mark (VRAM or V-RAM) is a DRM technology combining VEIL with a broadcast flag. It is also known as "CGMS-A plus Veil" and "broadcast flag on steroids."

This morning, I added some listings of the patents plus an application probably associated with this to the Wikipedia entry. (There was one there; I added a few more.)

(There also seem to be some Australian patents I haven't looked into yet.) What do we make of this? As Alex points out in correspondence, t certainly seems possible that the key to this isn't in the patents at all; rather it is in the proposed legislation making it mandatory. Techies, help me out here!

I think I understand the implications of this last one. If we were all chipped like dogs, then the screens could regulate their content based one whomever is standing nearby. Imagine that!

TedtvI cast around a bit looking into the company and its CEO. He strikes me as the very Ghost of Television Past, echoing the ideas about how the digital revolution experience could become ever-so-much more like your television. My favorite piece on Koplar is in Business Week and discusses the toy applications of the technology. I LOVE the last line:

Toys and TVs threaten to become intertwined as never before.

Pariseurodis5The implications of all this remind me of my one and only visit to Disney. I went on the "It's a Small World After All" ride full of dancing dolls in international costumes. When we came out of the tunnel, there was a little sign that said, You're never far from a Bank of America!

Who knew that the ride was more Futuristic than Epcot?

And meanwhile, Freedom to Tinker has another really fine post up on the subject: Analog Hole Bill Requires “Open and Public” Discussion of Secret Technology.

Pick at those threads! This is gonna be fun.

RfidA FURTHER THOUGHT ON THE PATENT APPLICATION: If you assume that the user is chipped and not just the devices, the implications of a mandatory VEIL standard combined with embedding device positional data in video signals are absolutely Phildickian. What appears on the screen of your computer is a video signal, so control of that signal should be understood as control of the reality coming in through the computer, tailored to a specific user or set of users in proximity to the device.

Why assume that the user is chipped? Because, first of all, human RFID is already on the table. The graphic to the right is swiped from the Wikipedia RFID entry. The section of the entry on Human RFID ends:

Cincinnati video surveillance company CityWatcher.com now requires employees to use VeriChip human implantable RFID microchips to enter a secure data center.

Is it a plausible scenario that this might become widespread? Extrapolate a mandatory system for controlling video signals which can tell how close you are to a device and can read your RFID chip. Great system for keeping kids out of online smut, yes?

Now, what other pieces of consumer electronics might also read this chip as, say, part of the consumer-level watermarking process? Can we extrapolate as part of an extended VEIL system the possibility of video cameras watermarking your video and photos with the IDs of everyone nearby when something was recorded ? I don't see why not.

Am I being unfair to a technology evolved to make your favorite cartoon character toys interact with the television? If this were just about toys, yes. But it's not. It's about mandating a potentially repressive standard in the US for which the entertainment industry will provide munificent R&D money. Then, using its international leverage, the US can force these  technologies down the throats of every repressive government in the world where, to paraphrase William Gibson, the street will find its own uses.

But with all the surrounding secrecy of the VEIL technology, there is also no particular reason to believe that it would really function at the most basic level advertised, securing "content" for "content providers" and defending it against "piracy." So again, we need to take a close look at what those patents actually describe.

Also, I think we need to interrogate the notion of the "piracy" of "intellectual property": it seems too me that what may potentially happen to the Internet bears a much closer resemblance to "hijacking on the high seas or in similar contexts; taking a ship or plane away from the control of those who are legally entitled to it" than a bunch of kids sharing music with their friends. If this all goes through and the Internet is transformed, who are the REAL pirates?

MEANWHILE, a reader provides a defense-related link: Koplar registered with the Defense Contracting Command as an "interested party" in bidding on the Iraq Media Network.

TOP DONORS TO THE CAMPAIGNS OF HR 4569's SPONSORS: This info comes from OpenSecrets.org, which explains how to read these charts:

This chart lists the top donors to this member of Congress during the election cycle. The organizations themselves did not donate, rather the money came from the organization's PAC, its individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals' immediate families. Organization totals include subsidiaries and affiliates.

The strong presence of entrenched media and entertainment industries is present in both charts below.

Sensenbrenner

 

Conyers

I wonder if either of the sponsors or ANY of the big donors are actually familiar with the super-secret technical specs of VEIL. (Bet they aren't! How 'bout it guys? Does anyone who does not actually work for Koplar know the specs? Let's see some hands.) There is something unpleasantly consistent about a proposal to use a secret technology to suppress the release of information. I have the suspicion that those supporting this have bought into the idea that they personally don't need to know the details.

At present, the status of HR4569 is listed as "Referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary."

Meanwhile, the EETimes reports that someone named David Birch has had a very entertaining outburst at a 3GSM World Congress panel. (I'm going to ignore the gender rhetoric because of the general validity of the point.)

In a rant that awoke all the participants in this end-of-the-day session, Birch of Consult Hyperion, a U.K.-based independent IT consultancy, reminded the panel of mobile operators, device-makers and standards developers that the telecommunications industry is at least 15 times larger than the Hollywood "content" industry. Yet, Hollywood is prevailing in its demands for embedded technologies designed to prevent illegal sharing of music and video by mobile phone users.

"Why are you such a bunch of big girls?" asked Birch. "Why don’t you tell the content owners to just get stuffed?"
. . .

The panelists, nonplussed by Birch's outburst, left it to Willms Buhse, vice chair of the Open Mobile Alliance to attempt a response. He said that the imbalance between Hollywood’s size and its power was a matter of glamour, and its effect on public policymakers.

Citing the comments of an unnamed professor, Buhse said, "With any politicians who make laws, you’re going to do much better with Christina Aguilera than you are with a handset."

IMG_0239.JPGI say for the record that, speaking as a thin blonde content provider (and a girl), I heartily support the idea that politicians and the tech industry should tell megacorporate entertainment to get stuffed.

(Via arstechnica.)

LEGISLATIVE DETAILS

I've been looking at the house.gov site trying to find statements from the bill's sponsors on what the heck they think they're doing. Here is Sensenbrenner's press release from December 16, 2005:

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-Wis.) today introduced legislation strengthening intellectual property protections by securing analog content from theft. The use of devices to convert analog content into digital versions which can easily be uploaded onto the Internet is a significant technical weakness in content protection. H.R. 4569, "The Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005," is cosponsored by Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.).

Chairman Sensenbrenner stated,"This legislation is designed to secure analog content from theft that has been made easier as a result of the transition to digital technologies. Although many of those who convert analog content into digital form are not engaging in any illegal conduct, there are a good number of criminals who take advantage of existing weaknesses in legislation and technology to obtain copyrighted content and then redistribute for profit at the copyright owner's expense. This practice is nothing short of theft."

"There is no doubt that pirating intellectual property can be a profitable criminal activity. Just this week, a software pirate pled guilty in Alexandria, Virginia to making $20 million in sales of counterfeit intellectual property. New technologies have made the widespread redistribution of copyrighted content significantly easier," added Chairman Sensenbrenner. Ranking Members Conyers said, "As one of our most successful industries, it is important that we protect the content community from unfettered piracy. One aspect of that fight is making sure that digital media do not lose their content protection simply because of lapses in technology. This bill will help ensure that technology keeps pace with content delivery."

H.R. 4569 mandates the use of two technologies to limit and frustrate redistribution of video content. This legislation builds upon existing law by mandating the detection and response to two separate technologies that work together to defeat pirates. The two technologies are the Content Generation Management System - Analog (CGMS-A) and Video Encoded Invisible Light (VEIL).

The legislation would require that devices that convert analog content pass through the CGMS-A and VEIL content protection signals contained in the original version. To ensure that the technology used does not become outdated, the Patent and Trademark Office is authorized to conduct ongoing rulemakings to update the technology.

"I urge all interested parties to continue to negotiate to see if a private sector solution can be fully developed to secure analog content from theft. This issue is simply too important for parties to avoid negotiations. Nonetheless, I look forward to working on this legislation next year," Chairman Sensenbrenner concluded.

I also found something from Conyers from April 2005:

Content owners and the high-tech industry should be commended for responding to consumer demand for digital music. For years, consumers have been clamoring for access to digital content. Because content protection technology and content owners had not caught up with the Internet, music lovers turned to illegal download sites like Napster and Kazaa for digital content.

We had heard that, if the content industry would just create a legal avenue for obtaining digital music, consumers would embrace it. The premonition was largely true. The record industry and high-tech worked together to develop digital content protection, to clear the rights needed to get music online, and to get music on the Internet. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the response to legitimate digital content has been overwhelming: in 2004, only twenty-four percent of music downloaders had tried legitimate download sites; in 2005 to date, the number jumped to forty-three percent.

It is probably safe to say that the reason for this overwhelming response is the late 2003 launch of Apple iTunes. In business for a little over a year, iTunes has sold a record-breaking 300 million songs through its online store. Other download sites, like Napster and Rhapsody, are gaining speed by offering alternatives such as monthly subscription services instead of just downloads and allowing transfers to numerous digital music players. No matter how you view it, the marketplace is working.

Digital piracy existed long before legitimate services like iTunes came onto the market and, unfortunately, it likely will continue no matter how much easier the songwriters, recording artists, and record labels make it to obtain music digitally.

Here's the thing: There is really a whole lot more at stake here than whether record labels or film studios live or die. The Internet offers utopian possibilities borne of a kind of transparency that the world has never before experienced, transparency that can save lives and make for better governments worldwide. And through DRM initiatives we are being asked to part with those possibilities for the sake of record companies and film studios. I don't think so. No. Here in the 21st century, things are going to be different and better.

Here is the membership list for the House Committee on the Judiciary, where HR 4569 sits currently. Let's kill it:

Housecommitteeonthejudiciary_1

Coverage of the hearing Thursday 11/03/2005 - 2:45 PM on Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property Oversight Hearing on "Content Protection in the Digital Age: The Broadcast Flag, High-Definition Radio, and the Analog Hole" is available HERE. Included is a link to a webcast of the hearing and pdfs of the testimony.  The witnesses at the hearing were:

  • Honorable Dan Glickman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
  • Mitch Bainwol, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
  • Gigi B. Sohn, President, Public Knowledge
  • Michael D. Petricone, Vice President, Government Affairs, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) on behalf of CEA and the Home Recording Rights Coalition.

I have been letting the sound of the hearing wash over me while I do other things. Ten years ago, publishers started demanding of authors electronic rights in contract negotiations for no additional compensation. The authors had very little leverage with which to resist. My personal reaction, listening to the entertainment executives complaining in the Anelog Hole hearing about the potential for uncompensated "creators" (by which they mean corporations) is Cry me a river! I don't know how the details of this were worked out in film and music, but in print publishing, the very digital rights that it is claimed need protection were demanded of authors by over-powerful corporations over the author's collective objections, in large part without additional compensation. Was that piracy?

But -- regardless of whether pushing authors into the position of involuntarily surrendering their digital rights a decade ago was piracy -- the whole issue of exactly how corporations will be compensated for administering the creative properties under their control pales into insignificance when considered in the context of the loss of worldwide transparency the industry proposals would entail.


René Préval Declared the Winner of Haiti's Election

NytprevalFrom the NYT around 10AM:

A high-ranking official from the Organization of American States, who insisted on anonymity because of the fragile nature of the agreement, said on Wednesday night that loopholes in Haitian electoral law allow the government to discard an estimated 85,000 blank ballots included in the original tally. By excluding them, Mr. Préval's lead would increase from 48.7 percent of the votes to slightly more than 51 percent.

Under election rules, the winner needs 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a run-off.

From the San Jose Mercury News first thing this morning: Winner declared in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Officials of Haiti's interim government and electoral council announced early today that they had reached agreement to declare front-runner René Préval the winner of Haiti's presidential elections.

"We have reached a solution to the problem,'' said Max Mathurin, president of the Provisional Electoral Council. "We feel a huge satisfaction at having liberated the country from a truly difficult situation.''

"We acknowledge the final decision of the electoral council and salute the election of Mr. René Préval as president of the republic of Haiti,'' Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told the Associated Press.

Former President Préval was just a hair short of the 50 percent-plus-one majority he needed to win the Feb. 7 vote without a runoff, and the discovery of thousands of crumpled ballots at the municipal dump diminished hope that a vote recount would offer Haitians any greater confidence in the electoral process. Only political negotiations, foreign experts said, could resolve the situation.

"The margin of uncertainty is larger than the margin of victory and defeat,'' said a fraud specialist for the International Mission of Evaluation of Elections in Haiti, who asked to remain anonymous because the group leaders have been prohibited from speaking publicly about the balloting.

"The only solution now is a political solution,'' the specialist told a Knight Ridder reporter who went to the city dump Wednesday morning.

Preval pulled more than four times the votes of any other candidate.


Burned Ballots Found in Haiti

From Reuters: Burned ballots inflame Haitian election tensions

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - Haiti's electoral council said on Tuesday it would launch an investigation after burned ballots, many cast a week ago for former president Rene Preval, were found still smoldering in a state dump.

Preval, a one-time ally of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide opposed by the same wealthy elite who helped drive Aristide from power two years ago, said on Tuesday that only "massive fraud" had prevented him from winning a first-round victory in the February 7 election.

A few hours later, reports that hundreds and maybe thousands of ballots had been found discarded in a massive garbage dump in Port-au-Prince rippled through the ranks of Preval supporters, triggering anger and demonstrations after nightfall.

"That's absolutely unacceptable," said Rosemond Pradel, secretary-general of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) charged with organizing the impoverished Caribbean country's presidential election -- the first vote since Aristide was ousted by an armed revolt and international pressure to quit.

"The CEP was not handling the ballots," Pradel said. He said securing the ballots after they had been cast was the responsibility of the 9,000-strong U.N. force trying to keep the peace in Haiti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH.

"I cannot answer to those problems but we are going to set up a commission to investigate the problem," Pradel said.

U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said ballots were supposed to have been sealed in bags and placed in a container, protected by U.N. troops. "It's not normal to have these ballots there."

Post mirrored from Jeb Sprauge at Free Haiti:

Election manipulation in Haiti is no joke. Only a few in the mainstream press, as of yet, have covered these burned/trashed ballots. Today vote monitors and members of AUMOHD discovered piles and piles of burned and trashed ballots marked for Preval. Here are some photos. AUMOHD writes, "Thanks to our volunteer accompanier, Jared Sibbitt, here are three of pics of the burned ballots.  Our information is that these were found in an area called Marcial near Cite Soleil.  I have placed more pics on our website since this listserve has some limits on size of messages."

From AP:  "We expected these MREs to do anything in their power to steal the elections and they did not disappoint us. Guy Delva of Reuters News Agency reported that hundreth and possibly and possibly thousands of burnt and still smoldering ballots, many cast a week ago for Preval, were found on a Port-au-Prince garbage dump, outraging Preval supporters and setting off demonstrations after nightfall.     "Steve Jacobson of AP also reported Local Telemax TV news Tuesday night showed smashed white ballot boxes in a garbage dump, with wads of ballots strewn about. Ballot after ballot was marked for Preval."

Corbbet Lister Patrick Tortora writes, "On Haitian Television Channel 5 this evening a cameraman was following Haitians who were taking him through a rubbish dump near Citi Soleil. The people leading the cameraman around were showing hundreds if not thousands of presidential ballots that had been marked for a presidential candidate and signed on the reverse by an official of the Electoral Council. All the ballots that were shown to the camera were marked for Preval. There were also many cardboard ballot boxes littering the dump. The inference was that legally marked ballots were dumped in the landfill. Even if these ballots were counted before being discarded, what were they doing in the dump before all ballots were counted and before election result were announced, not to say anything about a possible recount?"

Meanwhile, David Wimhurst, of MINUSTAH continues his attempts at covering up this mess. Wimhurst said it was possible someone dumped the ransacked ballots to create an appearance of fraud. Wimhurst also said there was no evidence of fraud. The U.N. provided security for the vote (much like they provided "security" for the Haitian National Police while they have massacred poor Haitians for the last two years) and helped ship election returns to the capital but is not directly involved in counting ballots. Coup President Boniface Alexandre's chief adviser Michael Brunache announced the votes will be reviewed by a commission which will include presidential candidate Rene Preval's attorneys.

Why were these ballots thrown in the trash heaps and why are so many of them burned? Haiti's interim CEP has some explaining to do.


GoogleNewsHaiti021506


The Hotel Montana as a setting for the Haitian Election Drama: "This is a wonderful day to see the children of Cite Soleil swimming in the pools of Hotel Montana."

Hmpool

"un site unique, une histoire d'atmosphèrs . . ."

—the Hotel Montana website

There is a movie to be made of the Haitian election drama, and one of the key settings in this movie will be Port-au-Prince's Hotel Montana. I first heard of the place on December 15th  in correspondence with Valerie Sendecki of the mysterious security contractor Consultants Advisory Group. She wrote:

I wish we could talk about this over a fine cup of  Haitian coffee so that you could enjoy the beautiful [view] from the Hotel Montana.  It’s breathtaking.

HotelMontana2The hotel is the scene of the alleged suicide of General Bacellar, head of MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping forces on January 7th. It's my impression that it's the hotel where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed as they passed through. And it's where that guy "David Reuther," who was trolling in my comment section a while back claimed to be staying.

Watching the Haiti feed on Flickr, I've watched guests come and go at the Montana. I've seen guest's shots of the pool, the restaurant, and that view of which Val Sedecki spoke so highly.

About a week ago, just before the election, I wrote a fictionalized account of the Haitian election drama, revolving around one "Hotel California," entitled "Duck Soup in the 21st Century." It is currently on submission (as fiction) to a major magazine. The ending of this first draft involves a crowd bursting into the hotel lobby and shots being fired (just as Mrs. Teasdale is checking out).

So, imagine my surprise to read in Forbes, of all places, the AP story, Violence Erupts Over Haiti Vote Count:

Supporters of Haitian presidential candidate Rene Preval erected smoldering roadblocks across the capital and occupied a luxury hotel Monday. At least one protester was killed, but U.N. peacekeepers denied witness accounts that they had shot him.

Now. Who speaks for the UN Peacekeepers? My God, if it isn't David Wimhurst. (For anyone who has been following this space, Wimhurst has zero credibility with me.) And was it the Hotel Montana? Oh. Yes. It was.

"MINUSTAH killed my brother. MINUSTAH, killed my brother," a woman wailed.

Meanwhile, in the Petionville neighbourhood above Port-au-Prince, protesters converged on the upscale Montana Hotel where election officials have announced results of Tuesday's elections.

UN peacekeepers kept close watch from a driveway and rooftops as protesters squeezed into the hotel's lobby and down the steep sloping driveway, waving posters and tree branches and chanting: "Now is the time! Now is the time!"

South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, who had appealed for calm at church services Sunday, was seen on a balcony surveying the crowd as helicopters landed on the roof to evacuate people.

But of course life is stranger than fiction: I never could have anticipated Desmond Tutu on the balcony calming the crowds. (I wonder if they gave him Bacellar's suite.)

Desmond Tutu on the balcony of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-PrinceTo those staying at the Montana: I know you've all got digital cameras. Please go up to your rooms and upload your pictures of the incident to the Internet. David Wimhurst needs to know that the whole world is watching; that now all of us are the Eye in the Sky; that in the 21st Century, things will be different and better.

Also from AP, via Forbes:

With about 90 percent of the vote counted, Preval was leading with 48.7 percent, Haiti's electoral council said on its Web site. His nearest opponent was Leslie Manigat, another former president, who had 11.8 percent.

But of the 2.2 million ballots cast, about 125,000 ballots have been declared invalid because of irregularities, raising suspicion among Preval supporters that polling officials were rigging the election.

Another 4 percent of the ballots were blank but were still added into the total, making it harder for Preval to obtain the 50 percent plus one vote needed.

Jacques Bernard, director-general of the nine-member electoral council, denied accusations that the council voided many votes for Preval.

Council member Patrick Fequiere said Bernard was releasing results without notifying other council members, who did not know where Bernard was obtaining his information. And another council member, Pierre Richard Duchemin, said he was being denied access to the tabulation process.

"According to me, there's a certain level of manipulation," Duchemin said, adding that "there is an effort to stop people from asking questions."

Here's a photo of the pool scene today:

Hmpool2

Anyone got GPS coordinates of the Hotel Montana? I would love to be able to mark some of this stuff one Google Earth.

FROM JEB SPRAUGUE at Free Haiti:

This is a wonderful day to see the children of Cite Soleil swimming in the pools of Hotel Montana. Today, after officials within the CEP have criticized other officials for vote tampering and one demonstrator was killed (reportedly by UN MINUSTAH forces), the Haitian masses from Bel Air, Cite Soleil, Delmas, and other neighborhoods have marched on Hotel Montana. UN troops were landed by helicopter on the Hotel's roof. Here are some photos from Yahoonews.
The people came down the road meaning buisness. They demanded that their vote be respected.

Citesoleil

Please post links to additional photos in the comment section. (See also the Yahoo photo feed.)


Somalian TFG Cabinet minister Hassan Abshir insists Top Cat Marine Security, with which his government signed a two-year $55 million deal, is not only real, but also that TC is ready for combat

This is part of an ongoing series on the private military company Top Cat Marine Security, which is intertwined with a series on Consultants Advisory Group; both companies lack a valid street address and & refuse to disclose the identities of their management or owners.

From The Daily Nation in Kenya: Doubts over US firm in deal with Somalia

Story by KEVIN J. KELLEY in New York and STEPHEN MBURU in Nairobi
Publication Date: 2/5/2006
Mystery surrounds the operations of a US-based company, two months after it struck a controversial multi-million dollar contract with the Somali Transitional Federal Government to end piracy off the Horn of Africa's coastline.

But a TFG Cabinet minister Hassan Abshir insists Top Cat Marine Security, with which his government signed a two-year $55 million deal, is not only real, but also ready to combat persistent insecurity along the country's 2,000-kilometre-long coastline.

Mr Abshir, the Fisheries minister, sealed the deal in Naiorbi, with Top Cat's head of research and development Peter Casini.

Among those who witnessed the pact was Somalia's Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi.

Telephone disconnected

But investigations by the Sunday Nation found that Top Cat's office in Manhattan is actually nothing more than a call-answering operation. There's no indication of Top Cat officials working there. The company's telephone number at its former headquarters in South Carolina has been disconnected.

A State Department official suggested that the TFG's contract with Top Cat for anti-piracy operations may well result in violation of the United Nations' arms embargo against Somalia.

While declining to comment specifically on the case of Top Cat, another State Department official said the US does not license exports of military items to countries that are under a US arms embargo. The ships that Top Cat says it will use in pirate interdiction actions would probably qualify as military items. The ships would also presumably be equipped with guns and other weapons.

A US-based company such as Top Cat would be subject to export licensing requirements regardless of where its military hardware would be imported from, the official added.

If a US company is found to be in violation of the licensing rules, it would be subjected to penalties under the US Arms Control Export Act. The official said the penalties would be financial and "of other sorts".

The Sunday Nation left four messages with Top Cat's answering centre in New York for Maryann Johnson, the company's vice president for public relations, but despite assurances that she, or another Top Cat official, would get back to us regarding the status of the Somalia contract, we never received a response.

And in Nairobi, Mr Abshir declined to discuss the deal with the Sunday Nation.

We wanted him to shed light on a number of issues including the existence of Top Cat, its capacity to carry out the contracted operations, when the work would begin, the procedure Somali government used to select the company, whether some consultants had been engaged, who would fund the deal and if it would be possible to implement the project as Somalia is under the UN and US arms embargo.

He only said: "They (Top Cat) are ready to come. When they come, I will call and give you all the details."


"You watch my back and I'll say cheese"


  You watch my back and I'll say cheese 
  Originally uploaded by Tampen.

MINUSTAH in Port-au-Prince, Haiti,  as seem on Flickr this morning. The photographer's caption reads:

Self-portrait with Brazilian peacekeeper, taken with my little Canon point-and-shoot. Though shoot is probably the wrong word....

The photographer is Tony Allen-Mills, a journalist for the Sunday Times of London.

He's also got a shot of the view from the terrace of the Hotel Montana:


A Response to MINUSTAH's February Report on Haiti to the UN Security Council: Get CAG Out of Haiti

This is part of an ongoing series on Consultants Advisory Group.

ScrMINUSTAH's just-published report to the UN Security Council begins:

Expected Council Action
The Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which expires on 15 February. After a very bad month for both MINUSTAH and Haiti in January the Council will also be looking to bolster the electoral process, reinvigorate MINUSTAH and encourage a reduction in violence.

Recent Developments
Haiti's presidential elections were postponed for the fourth time in late December on the grounds that technical difficulties were unresolved and that insecurity was hampering the electoral process. The Council, increasingly concerned at the performance of the Transitional Government, adopted a presidential statement on 6 January, urging the quick announcement of another election date no later than 7 February. Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council subsequently declared 7 February as the date of the first round of elections, with a run-off on 19 March if necessary. The official transfer of power to a newly elected leader is scheduled for 29 March.

In January:

  • The security situation deteriorated dramatically, with many kidnappings and assassinations as well as the death of two UN peacekeepers.
  • Sectors of the local business community mounted a campaign to discredit MINUSTAH. The campaign was condemned by the UN Secretary-General.
  • MINUSTAH's Force Commander, General Urano Bacellar of Brazil, committed suicide.

WimhurstSince MINUSTAH's David Wimhurst has accused me of participating in the alleged campaign to discredit MINUSTAH, I'll throw in my two cents.

MINUSTAH has involved itself in some capacity with Consultants Advisory Group, a company

If MINUSTAH wishes to pretend that rumors of CAG's activities are part of a campaign by others to discredit MINUSTAH, here are two important action items:

  1. Stop providing CAG with Internet access via IP# 200.2.128.3, which (though they use it more sparingly than in the past) they continue to make use of. And . . .
  2. Get CAG out of Haiti.

I have no idea of whether the business community there is trying to bring down any unfair criticism on MINUSTAH's head. But just days ago, MINUSTAH's David Wimhurst refused to answer my questions about CAG, choosing instead to threaten me with UN legal action.

No good purpose can be served by a United Nations organization associating itself with an outfit with the furtive habits of CAG. If MINUSTAH continues to associate with and cover for CAG, they are discrediting themselves.


Noriegaville News: "Shadowy Panama Company Illegally Runs Black-Ops in Haiti"

This is part of an ongoing series on Consultants Advisory Group.

Well. Dutch reporter Okke Ornstein, who lives in Panama and reports on business news there for the news site, Noriegaville News,  took an interest in my writings about the Consultants Advisory Group. He contacted me and asked me questions, so I answered them. He contacted CAG, and I gather from his article that they were less forthcoming than I was. The result of this research is his article, Shadowy Panama Company Illegally Runs Black-Ops in Haiti, posted to the Noriegaville News site last night.

So. One thing I learn from Ornstein's article is that CAG had a good reason for pulling its supposed Panama City address off its web site and having the site go "UNDER CONSTRUCTION." The address they listed was on the seventh floor of a three-storey building. (Guess they needed to go back and construct four more floors. That should take them a while.)

Another thing I learn from Ornstein's article is that were CAG to be an authentic Panama corporation -- which they may or may not be -- whether they are doing what I think they are or what they claim they are, it looks to be illegal under Panamanian law. (I am in touch with Rogelio Cruz Rios to sort out whether CAG, S.A. has anything to do with the Sendecki-Fullerton-Reuther ops going on in Haiti.) And also, Ornstein remarks that were any Top Cat Marine Security boats to be built in Panama, or copy-cats of TCMS boats, it would be illegal under Panama law to export such patrol boats to Haiti.

Interesting stuff.

ALSO, following the revelation that the IP address 200.2.128.3 was shared by "David Reuther" trolling in my comment section,  "CAG Haiti" denouncing me in comment sections across the blogosphere, and some bored and homesick Brazilian Peace Keepers in Port au Prince, I made some direct inquiries as to whether 200.2.128.3 could be an IP used by the UN Brazilian Peace Keeping Forces, and whether Valerie Sendecki, Jay Fullerton, and David Reuther of CAG were using the office computers of Brazilian Peace Keepers to post their blog comments. I do not yet have a definitive answer to that question. But 200.2.128.3 stopped its relentless visits to my site yesterday afternoon.

Who exactly are Sendecki, Fullerton, and Reuther? I don't really have enough info about Sendecki, though I suspect that "Sendecki" is not her last name on her passport. Inquiries concerning her supposed military record are not back yet. Googling "Jay Fullerton" along with intelligence yields the bio of a guy with  a military intelligence Special Forces background who, if you dig deeper, seems to have lived in Fayetteville, NC, around the same time as Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema (this last bit is probably pure coincidence). There is a "David Reuther" who has given speeches claiming to be a retired FSO; when I inquired of the David Reuther who was posting comments in my comment section whether he was the same guy, he replied:

Two of the things I learned in 32 years of government service:
"Do not look a gift horse in the mouth."
"Always have a plausible denial handy."

This oracular pronouncement sounds more like the answer of a retired CIA agent than a retired FSO. Who can tell? David Reuther, the retired government servant, has also complained in print that retired FSOs just don't make enough money. Back when I was the wife of a US Foreign Service Officer, we were not exactly rolling in dough, so I'm sure his complaint about his remuneration in retirement is legitimate. Nonetheless, it appears to me that our man Reuther was hurting for money not long ago.

I would be interested to receive pictures of any of these people.

Finally, I guess I should add that I have no opinions on the relative merits of Haitian presidential candidates, and that in general, in the grand scheme of things, I have a vaguely positive opinion of the United Nations and its efforts in the larger world as a whole. My focus is and has been on the role of private military and security companies. I believe that PMCs can have a legitimate role in international peacekeeping. But only legitimate companies can have a legitmate role, and legitimate companies have valid addresses and identifiable management teams and verifiable corporate registrations. A company which lacks all three has no place in Haiti right before the elections.

(Thanks Dan, Jonathan, Matt, and Cory!)

UPDATE: I was furnished the email address of David Wimhurst of MINUSTAH by a journalist and I wrote to him and asked to submit a list of questions. I specifically mentioned my concern that CAG was using Brazilian Forces office computers. He sent back a letter intended to intimidate me, specifically declining to answer my questions. He sent along two slide from a PowerPoint document that he claims are the "unaltered" versions of the screen shots posted on my site. I have asked whether "David Reuther" was acting on Wimhurst's behalf in any capacity when Reuther wrote to me.

Gee, I feel so naïve. I thought the purpose of press offices was to answer questions. Guess not in Haiti.

UPDATE: See A Response to MINUSTAH's David Wimhurst.


From Jishnu Das of RISE-PAK: A Long Interesting Report on a Trip to Pakistan for Earthquake Relief

One of my New Year's resolutions was to finally get 'round to editing down this wonderful long letter from economist Jishnu Das of RISE-PAK on his trip to Pakistan in December for earthquake disaster relief. (My previous post on RISE-PAK was Asim Khwaja: “The nice thing about computers is that they don’t go into shock.") Here is Jishnu's December 13th letter, a response to my asking how his trip went:

Part of my trip involved working with Lahore University of Management Studies faculty and students on a field trip. For me, working with volunteer students from LUMS in the field was an incredible experience. They would wake up at 5:30 every morning, brew tea, cook breakfast and hike off to the villages for a full day before daybreak. On walks, they would be crossing landslides, talking to each and every person they met and returning well after dark by torchlight. These are some of the most committed and enthusiastic people I have been fortunate enough to work with and their commitment to information and transparency is amazing (were this a holiday hike, I would definitely have viewed being pulled out of a warm sleeping bag at 5:30 as a dastardly act...)

Cheers

Jishnu

DATA ISSUES

1. Creating a universal list of settlements: One big problem in compiling and understanding the data is that villages are divided into multiple settlements, and there is no universal list of settlements available. Since text (specially with translation from Urdu to English) is not standardized, it is impossible to tell, for instance, whether the relief provided to "Berbazar" is the same as that provided to "Berbush" and which village this settlement belongs to. I worked closely with the UN-HIC towards developing their gazetteer of locations. Unfortunately, things are almost as prelim there as they were 1 month ago, with everyone still stuck with settlement names issues. Piet and I will be working on this more this week, and we should have something that will be made public by the end of this week. We are also working with the Population Census Organization in Pakistan on finalizing this. By the way, we came across www.fallingrain.com, and this contains geo-locations for millions of locations around the world. If someone can send out an html crawler and capture the database that would be great (we did Pakistan).

2. Villages versus settlements: There is problem with what is a "village" and what is a settlement, but I am not sure that it is really bad. 3 villages that I covered in a recent survey are in the database as villages--Batangi, Gajoo Khokhar and Basantlok. Indeed, so are the villages that Jawad's group followed (Sund Ban, Chamata, Doba and Harama). The one problem is a village called "Muslundi" which is on the other side of a smallish stream (so batangi is at the start of this side-valley; basantlok is further down on the same valley. On the other side are Ratanser, which is in the census list). While this is NOT in the Noura Seri Patwar Circle list of village, IT IS in the Seri Dara list of villages--Seri Dara is the neighboring PC. So, my impression is that someone who is aware of the mauza-settlement issue and has a list of mauzas can sort this out pretty easily, but this is based on a very very limited sample. (One problem with going the settlement route is that most villages will have a Dhana, which literally means "top" and a kayer, which means "ridge").

3. Google Earth: Unfortunately, (a) no-one is aware of the VBR's (I told everyone I met, and sent them the link), (b) they work too slow on the broadband in Pakistan. I took the UN-HIC compound guys through it fairly carefully, and hopefully they are using it now.

RISEPAK AND WHERE IT STANDS

1. RISEPAK was set up as a self-coordinating enabling environment, where all relief actors and those affected by the earthquake could come on a common platform by posting information about damage and relief. Constantly updated, these postings would provide regular information that could help target future relief to those who need it most.

2. By a number of accounts, RISEPAK has achieved a lot of what it set out to do. Within 2 months of its launch (its now 7 weeks), there are 1800 messages that have been posted, and updated information on 950 villages out of around 2500 that were thought to have been affected (close to 40%). In addition, the RISEPAK site has also proved useful in a number of other ways. Organizations have used our pre-prepared forms to organize their own information systems; most organizations have worked closely with our maps, which were the most detailed available at the time and bulletin board posts have allowed sellers and buyers to get in touch with each other. Some anecdotes:

a. One organization that we went to had not heard about RISEPAK. They insisted that they were very organized in collecting their data at the village level, and were using standardized forms to record this information. It turned out that the forms were the RISEPAK damage and relief forms about villages!

b. In a recent pilot (more on this below), Shandana (a faculty member at LUMS) was speaking to the army major in charge of a particular area. The major was adamant that they were doing a great job and were making their information transparent and accountable through their own website. When asked about the website, he said that they were using RISEPAK---something that he had developed a full sense of ownership over.

3. At the same time, a lot more can be done. What is very clear is that smaller organizations in the relief effort have used and posted to RISEPAK on a very regular basis. For them, RISEPAK has turned out to be a boon---it has developed the trust of most players by acting in a non-partisan manner, and organizations who are regularly posting to the site are able to point out the work that they are doing to the entire world. What they are doing is transparent, accountable and verifiable; at the same time, it allows for massive benefits in coordination among the various relief actors.

4. Key to the success of RISEPAK has been the central role of the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS) faculty and students. Early on, we realized that the RISEPAK effort was a bit rushed. If the system had been set up before hand and key organizations had been trained in its use, information would have been posted regularly without much prompting. As it is, we were working on the fly. This meant that relief actors had to be taken through the site, trained on using it, trained on the importance of data at the village-level and data had to be constantly obtained from these groups.

5. The LUMS faculty and students took this challenge heads-on. Instead of celebrating Eid with family and friends (Eid is somewhat like Christmas, only larger, since it comes after a month of fasting) faculty and students headed out to Islamabad and the affected districts to get this data collection exercise moving. In Islamabad they developed close networks with relief organizations, helped them systematize their data and start sending it into RISEPAK. They set up a team of volunteers who took in this data---from fax transmissions, e-mails and the website itself---and parsed, collated, and updated it on the website. Their field-teams also visited the affected district headquarters and started working with the district governments, the UN and relief organizations in the field. The activity led to a huge increase in postings to the website---RISEPAK had updated information on 200 villages before the LUMS team went out; within a week of their return, the numbers went up to 500, and now stands at just above 950.

6. I was fortunate to be a part of the next such team that went up; again, the students and faculty taking off from their hectic schedules in their quarter-break (7 days) to head up to quake affected districts and villages. Key to the medium term reconstruction and relief in the region was an assessment of how well government compensation programs have worked so far, and I went to Pakistan to work with the government and the UN and to visit the quake affected areas to arrive at some assessment.

7. In Islamabad, I met up with the team from LUMS (close to 35 students and 10 faculty members); we then headed out into different directions---one team went to Bagh district, another to Mansehra and a third (including myself) to Muzaffarabad. The team I was in consisted of 15 people including myself; some of these would work in the district headquarters, others would head out to villages (both those that are more and less accessible) to assess the state of compensation and data.

The Post-Earthquake Household Survey In the five days of the field-trip, much was accomplished.

1. The 12 teams that went out to the villages surveyed close to 3000 households in 18 villages---easily the largest independent survey of households in the post-quake scenario by an independent group. We branched out into Bagh, Muzaffarabad and Mansehra/Balakot and then chose villages according to a stratification based on close to road/far from road and large relief activity/low relief activity. I was in a group that went to "low relief activity and both close and far from road". In addition, I was also part of a team that visited a relief-camp in Muzaffarabad. These data are currently being collated, and will be made public for all agencies to use fairly shortly on the RISEPAK site.

DATA-COLLECTION STRATEGIES IN VILLAGES: ARE SURVEYS POSSIBLE (SURPRISINGLY, THEY TURN OUT TO BE FAIRLY EASY)

1. People are very, very used to making lists in the villages we went to---indeed, it turned out to be harder to do a focus group than to make lists. The moment we sat down to do focus group, people would start gathering with ID cards to get their names entered. NOT entering names is, basically, NOT an option--we would have people running down to ensure that their names are on the list.

2. At the same time, there is very little movement across settlements within the same village. People are able to, fairly accurately, give names and rough family composition (total members and children) for families in the settlement, but not across settlements in the same village. Batangi, for instance is 3 settlements---lower Batangi (an abbasi settlement), main Batangi (chaudhuris) and dhana (mostly abbasis). The first day we went to batangi, drew up a list of settlements and then went to dhana. We made the list of families with the school teacher on the advise of locals and then went to every sub-settlement. The school-teacher missed out some families (abbasis) right on top---nevertheless, it would have been hard to miss them out all together, since the moment we sat at a central location, this was pointed out to us.

3. Another village, we went to is similar, though spread out over a larger distance. The village contains two settlements at a 1/2 hour walk from each other, and it is impossible to get names of households in one settlement sitting in another. To get a sense of how fast a village could be covered with just basic household-level information and damage, we split up and went to each settlement. We then asked people to gather at these settlements and completed close to 120 households in 4 hours or so. We then verified that households had not been left out, though am not a 100% sure.

Relief Camps Relief Camps are also reasonably easy to survey in---again, people are used to surveys and the kind of information we are asking about. There are problems with split families---don't know what we can do about them in terms of verification. People should e-mail the women who went to the relief camp (Nadia and Erum in the team I was with--erum is copied on this note) and ask them about their experience. Stories were very different depending on who was telling them---the relief-camp organizers, men, or women. There is absolutely no sanitation or toilets in these camps, and women are having a horrendous time. This is something that I know a lot less about...

Some highlights on the situation in villages

i) In Islamabad, a lot of people felt that villages had emptied out. This is far from reality. Despite the large number of casualties and injuries, the percentages are not as large as one might believe a priori. For instance, the 80,000 deaths means that 1.5% of the areas population died. I was working in one of the hardest hit areas, where all houses had been completely destroyed, yet on average, 2% of individuals in the villages died, another 2% were injured and another 1% were in relief camps. This left 95% of the original population intact in the villages----more critically, not one person said that they were planning to leave for the winter. This requires that the means to construct emergency shelters are made available immediately to the large population with destroyed houses, who cannot spend the winter in tents (since you cannot light fires in them). Ensuring the arrival of corrugated iron sheets (something that people have been pointing out for a while) will definitely save many, many lives.

ii). At least in the area I was in, the government and army have done an incredible and very fair job of giving compensation exactly according to government guidelines. Every person whose house has been destroyed received Rs.25,000 (roughly $400) and every household with a death received Rs.100,000 ($1,600). I believe that other field-teams are finding the same thing.

iii) While people feel that livestock are a major source of income in the area, they actually are not----close to 70% of the households interviewed did not own a single animal (buffalos, cows or goats).

iv) One key advantage of working with the LUMS team is that there were female students as well, who could talk to widows and other women, usually left out of the survey process (it is culturally difficult for a man to talk to a woman alone). Women's concerns were usually different from men's---while men were very concerned of the need for shelter, women, who have to deal with the everyday process of living were also anxious about the lack of warm clothing and blankets for children, and the lack of cooking utensils---something that was causing them a lot of unneeded hardship. Here is what one student has to say:

"Women’s responses tend to be more detailed. Men leave out what they feel is unnecessary, I personally found women more willing to take the time to communicate the smallest of details. However nuances such as the issue of dependence on other family members for a widow, or feelings of marginalization and perceptions of being harassed or mistreated require some probing before they are brought out. Again, these will seldom be expressed in the presence of male members of the community. Finally, women tend to have a better idea of other vulnerable women in the community, such as single mothers, and were helpful in identifying them. As with the other sex, one-on-one interactions tend to be more honest and informative. As the group size increases and people struggle to get a voice, responses tend towards the more "rehearsed" type. It is always better, I found, to initiate spontaneous conversation with individuals rather than wait for the more vocal members of the community to gather and lead the discussion" (erum haider)

Some thoughts on winter from Sadia Qadir 1. Clearly, this is going to be the large war. Here are some impressions from a student (sadia qadir)

SHELTER
1. Normal, un-insulated tents are not useful any more and the idea of moving to lower altitude areas is almost next to impossible. When asked them what are you planning to do one snowfall begins, they offer the plan that women and children are going to stay indoor while the men will take care of the outdoor chores. For fuel, they are depending upon (wrongfully so perhaps) the logs they have stockpile from the rubble of their houses. They plan to use it all through the winter season. Even though they anticipate they might run out earlier on, than expected.
2. The next best thing is shelter made from CGI-sheets. I had the opportunity to see one. This particular one was made in the triangular shape as that of a tent. It was however much more spacious. It was made with 20, 12-14 square feet sheets. I was told this is the minimum number of sheets required to build a shed that size, and sheets any fewer than 20 are useless. Quality (thickness) of these sheets is also an issue.
3. A small fire-place that was set in a corner and was also being used as a kitchen. Similar hearths have resulted in horrifying hazards in the usual fabric-tents. This is apparently their best chance to salvage from the extreme cold once snow falls. A family of 14 was staying here and I was told all of them fit in nicely at night.
4. Another, important issue is that of Kora (or Kori), which is a thin layer of suspended frozen moisture that layers the ground in this season. According to the people, sleeping arrangements comprising of floor-beddings, causes this frostiness to seep through the layers of bed linens and blankets and does not go away. As Shandana, suggested, perhaps providing char-pais (beds) will help combat this problem.
5. One of the limitations of initiatives like distributing CJI sheets is that people are selling them. Probably it's the fuel available to them, which leads over-estimating their ability to endure the winter. What ever the reason, the trend is been observed and confirmed by locals, the NGOs as well as other authoritative and operational bodies working in the region. This is perhaps, one of the major reasons many of the organizations are selectively distributing (and therefore accused of bias) the insulating tents and / or CJI-sheets.

Sadia (who is a doctor) also writes about health-issues that are bound to arise HEALTH PROBLEMS

In days following the earthquake, the bulk of presentations were that of extensive trauma -- mainly to the head, spine, pelvis and/or limbs, requiring surgical intervention. I was also told by doctors at Ayub Medical Complex, that a large number of amputations were carried out in the remote areas because enough resources were not available for timely intervention to salvage limbs. As I observed in Abbottabad most medical NGOs/camps came into the affected areas equipped mostly to deal with trauma cases. This requires specialized arrangements - such as x-ray facility, a small surgical theatre, relevant medicines, surgeons and OR nursing staff.

From what I gathered after speaking with the health care professionals working in the affected areas and the people, there is a high risk for Respiratory tract diseases (especially pneumonia in children), Gastrointestinal diseases particularly in areas where water is contaminated (there was an outbreak in Balakot over the period around Eid Holidays), infections particularly fungal skin infections as a result of damp cold weather (a large number of children affected in Bagh) and complicated wound healing.

Even now, most of the medical camps currently operating in and around villages, for example, near Sewar Kalu and Kafl Garh, are equipped to deal with trauma only. They have declined patients with complicated wounds and fractures, Obstetric & gynecological problems (including uncomplicated pregnancy) and skin infections. The irony is that residents of these villages have medical camps and professionals around but unable to help them. They have to travel to district hospital Bagh, which is 6km away and is not fully functioning as its building is also affected by the earthquake. To make the situation worse, these conditions usually are slow to develop and pursue an indolent course making it very likely for patients to get 'used to' their ailments until they reach an irreversible stage.

A dangerous alternative is consulting the traditional medicine-men in their areas. I personally witness such a case ~75yrs old lady resident of Kafl Garh, with a forearm fracture complicated in an attempt to fix through malish (massage). The entire arm was massively swollen as the bandage was tight enough to cut off most of the blood supply. This lady was declined medical assistance at the closely located camp and was advised to go to district hospital Bagh. She was brought back home.

An important element to consider in dealing with these people is - they are constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing their survival strategies and coping mechanisms. Prevalence of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) and acute stress syndrome (ASD) in these populations is still largely unknown but can be expected to be quite high. In the places I visited (Kafl Garh, Sewar Kalu and Kot Baroli) there are no mental health interventions so far. Point being, in there given state they are very likely to miss out or even deliberately put off for later significant health and nutritional concerns that they otherwise would take more seriously.

Data Flows

1. This is a large issue, and looks very much like the game we used to play called "chinese whispers" (sometimes called the "arab telephone" for no apparent reason). A couple of examples:

2. In the UN compound at MZD, we were told that the greatest benefit in terms of information would come from visiting the lower Neelum valley, of which little was known. This team then went to the union-council of Noura Seri, about 45 minutes from the city, and where roads had opened recently. The major in charge of the union council was very systematic in his record-keeping and had detailed records of the tents and food distributed to the villages under his command. He assured us that 90% of the households under his charge had been given tents, which we verified through door-to-door surveys. Further, compensation had been allocated exactly according to the policies laid down by the government. The key question, and one that needs to be addressed urgently, is what happened to the major's data by the time it got to Muzaffarabad--a 40 minutes drive away? If the district government of Muzaffarabad takes over the relief effort at this time, either a large data-gathering effort will again have to be undertaken, or they will have to fight blind in the face of the coming winter.

3. A second team went to Balakot/Mansehra in the North-Western Frontier Province. One mandate of the team visits was to work with district officials towards systematizing their own records and setting up data-entry systems at the individual level for compensation and relief. The picture in Balakot revealed the usual problems that face nascent data systems, leading to large problems later on. Some examples: In the list of individuals who had received compensation, names had been recorded, but ID card numbers had not (as an aside, 95% of households have at least one member with an id card, which serves as a unique identifier). Worse, there was no standard for translating Urdu to English names. With close to 10 Mohammed Afzal's in every village and with non-unique spellings for the same name, trying to relate this data to future relief will be a nightmare. Records of who had received disability payments were now virtually unmatchable to people, since they had been recorded on a separate form that omitted the village-name field.

4. The problem is not that governments are apathetic or uninformed about the need for systematic data exercises. In fact, everywhere we have gone, district governments have been delighted to work with us on strengthening their information systems. The real issue is one of capacity, the ability to work in remote locations and familiarity with data and data-issues that typically come after years of learning the hard way.

5. The LUMS team has brought this expertise to the relief effort, and it is one that they plan to maintain over the longer term. Guys: they need ALL the support they can get.

Jishnu Das is one of the founders of RISE-PAK and lives in Washington, DC where he works at the World Bank. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Economics.


The Consultants Advisory Group™ (CAG) Web Site in History

This is part of an ongoing series on Consultants Advisory Group.

December 6, 2005: The caginternational.com domain name is registered.

Consutants Advisory Group page, December 13th, 2005, 9:33 PMDecember 13, 2005: The CAG web site touts the corporate security clearances and credit rating, but gives no address or phone number. I ridicule them for their lack of transparency.

CAG web page, January 20th, 2006, 10:10AMJanuary 20, 2006: The CAG web site has dropped claims of security clearances and credit ratings and has added an address in Tampa and an address in Panama plus a "message center" phone number. Under scrutiny, both street addresses seem to be some form of message center. On January 18th, I had published a post which began, "I seem to have uncovered a strange little black ops organization that's spying in Haiti and elsewhere. "

January 26, 2006: Following inquiries as to the corporation's relationship to former Panama Attorney General Rogelio Cruz Rios, the CAG web site goes "Under Construction." (For those with press credentials who would like to hear their side of things, their now-missing message center phone number, which is I think is a number in Tampa, is (813)315-6493.)

CAG web page 1/26/06, 4:09 PM

UPDATE, 1/27/06: Here is a screen shot from the Panama Public Registry of the listing for CAG, S.A.:

CAG,S.A. Panama registration, screen 1


Even if Rogelio Cruz Rios were the registrar of their corporation, it may mean nothing. I find it really curious that CAG would rather pull info off their web site than answer questions about their association with him. If CAG has a different registered corporate name in Panama than CAG, S.A. then presumably they could say so. And even if this is he right name, the nature of the relationship could mean little. So why go "UNDER CONSTRUCTION"?

[2/2/06: Note that the trademark sign disappears with this version of the page and does not reappear; I checked the US Patent and Trademark database and found no trademark listing for "Consultants Advisory Group," though it seems possible that they hold a trademark on the name in some other country.]

January 29, 2006: Here we go again. The only problem is, that corporate name does not seem to be present in the Panama Public Registry. Hmmm. (Why can't they back down? If the name isn't in th regsitry, it isn't in the registry.)

CAG's new page, January 29, 2006, 5:35 PM

February 1, 2006: Back to PÁGINA BAJO CONSTRUCCIÓN. This time without details.

CAGsite020106

Why are these guys so wedded to the corporate name? Have they been using it as a tax shelter on their US tax returns or something? I can't think of any other explanation.


Top Cat Marine Security Has an Executive Level

I just received a really interesting piece of email (posted as a comment in my comment section) from Jerry Parnin, who was briefly associated with Top Cat Marine Security. He identifies Top Cat's super-secretive executive level as follows.

Dear Kathryn,
My name is Jerry Parnin. I'm refered to as Bachelor #3 in one of last months blogs about Top Cat Marine Security. I would like to inform you and the world that I was only associated with TCMS for a short time over a year ago. We had our differences and I'm no longer associated with Peter Casini, TCMS, Cobra Boats, Topcat Design or any other Casini enterprise. As for the names of the people in the photo you are correct about Maryann Johnson being the brunette. Her son is the boy, his name and the name of her husband escape me but the blond is Susan Procopio, wife of Rocco Procopio (Bachelor #1). Maryann was introduced to me as Casini's sister. Colonel Bernie McCabe, Maryann, Rocco and Susan Procopio are all officers of one sort or another in TCMS.

Through an intermediary, McCabe has previously denied involvement with management or operations of Top Cat Marine Security.

Here is the photo to which Parnin refers, originating from the Top Cat web site:

topcatcelebrants.jpg


In drawing my readers' attention to these links I do not, of course, intend in any way that anyone should actually click on them and look at the documents, let alone link to them far and wide . . .

ItelObtainedUnderTorture.jpgFrom Ken MacLeod:

Lenin's Tomb has published some letters which the Foreign Office is trying to suppress. The letters appear to document former UK ambassador Craig Murray's persistent attempts to persuade the Foreign Office of the futility and wickedness of relying on information possibly obtained under torture; and the FO's interesting response. In drawing my readers' attention to these links I do not, of course, intend in any way that anyone should actually click on them and look at the documents, let alone link to them far and wide, and I join all right-thinking people in unreservedly condemning the dastardly actions of the aforementioned sepulchre's inhabitant, a notorious Trotskyist wrecker, splitter, and underestimator of the peasantry.

See also Kos.


Consultants Advisory Group™ (CAG): A Security Company Born Every Minute?

Following the New Orleans disaster, a lot of us were wondering where all that money for "homeland security" went, since not much securing of the homeland seems to have taken place. I think I'm beginning to understand.

Consutants Advisory Group pageHave a look at this:

Consultants Advisory Group (CAG) specializes in:

  • Anti-Terrorism & Terrorism Incident Response;
  • Special Agency Services and Representation;
  • Strategic Intelligence Management;
  • High Risk Operations Management;
  • Risk & Crisis Management;
  • Business Continuity Management (BCM);
  • Emergency & Disaster Management;
  • NFPA 1600 2004 Compliance Audits.

CAG provides services under North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) classifications:

541611    General Management Consulting Services
541618    Other Management Consulting Services
561210    Facilities Support Services

CAG consistently delivers creative and enduring total business solutions.  CAG enjoys the highest possible credit rating and is capable of servicing classified contracts.

So how long has this venerable company, boasting of the highest possible credit rating and the capability of servicing classified contracts been around?  I'll have you know, its been around an entire week!

Though they don't give their address on their web site, a whois lookup provides some interesting information:

caginternational.com Whois lookup

So are these guys with the great credit rating and the security clearances really sharing a P O Box with any number of phishing schemes and other dubious businesses in EmeryVille, California? Or do they just have really bad taste in domain registration privacy services? (For you Panix customers, the registering ISP is Melbourne IT, the company that approved the Panix domain hijacking. As a Panix customer who lost a couple of days of email over that, I have to wonder why Melbourne IT is still in business.)

EmeryvilleSo, is CAG really located in glamorous EmeryVille? Or not? (I suppose it would be wretched excess to mention that the site graphics are clip art.)

How many more of these dubious security companies are there, anyway?

UPDATE: I have had a correspondence with a representative from CAG who has the affect of someone with a background in sales. CAG Internacional, S.A. is a Panama City, Republic of Panama registered corporation and is staffed exclusively with former military and "agency" personnel. It has no public address ostensibly because it is "a virtual company, a model developed by the Harvard Business School." CAG wishes to be perceived as a "management consulting" company, not a security or private military company. They claim to be receiving no moneys from US government sources:

CAG is not a recipient of any US public funds so we are entitled to privacy as anyone else is.  How could our work be against the best interest of the United States?

Though I had made no mention of Top Cat in our exchange, my CAG correspondent volunteered that CAG is not selling Top Cat Marine Security's predator style Cobra boats to Haiti, but only recommending their purchase.

As far as I know, neither Top Cat nor CAG are registered with or licensed by the Department of State to export items covered the US Munitions list, as the boats in question are. I was not informed who the intended export broker was to be.

The subject of Top Cat having been raised, I asked two of my unanswered questions to which I thought my correspondent might know the answer: Who are the executives of Top Cat? Who owns it? My CAG correspondent replied:

That is not public information.

I find it extremely interesting that there seems to be a whole emergent little industry of companies like Top Cat and CAG for whom the very concept of transparency is an abomination.

A relevant quote from another topic:

At the least, a dummy company ought to create the appearance of activity, with an office and a valid mailing address, he said. "A cover that falls apart on first inspection isn't very good. What you want is a cover that actually holds up . . . and this one certainly doesn't."


Topcat Marine Security: A Very Crowded Office Space, a Shell Corporation, or Just a Scam?

545_8th_2Who could resist the tale, not long ago, of a cruise ship fending off Somalian pirates with its handy sonic blaster? Well, someone somewhere just had to do something about those blasted pirates!

Today the BBC announced that the American firm Topcat Marine Security, of 545 8th Ave. Suite 401, New York, NY 10018, had gotten the job! Now you might think that chasing pirates would be too scary, but these guys at Topcat (or Top Cat, depending on which bit of their web site you look at) have strong motivation: a VERY crowded Manhattan office! Wouldn't you rather go chase pirates if you had to share an office with The Center for Risk Communication, a magazine called "Animal Fair", and a bank, Liechetensteinische-Amerikanische Union Bank Corp. (which apparently conducted unauthorized banking activities in the state of NY in 1999), a "home income" business called Maychic, a web site called NY Club SceneMyHealingPrayer.com, HotDynamite.com, an online video store (not PTA safe, so I won't post a link), The Law Office of Gary Ruff “Defending Consumers Against Electronic Piracy Claims”TM, and much more! What a racket they must make! If I shared that office, I'd go to sea to fight pirates, too!

Topcat seems to share a web designer, and probably a few boats, with Cobra Boats. Compare the following screen shots from each site's "Reviews" page:
Cobra_reviews Topcat_reviews

I wonder who's providing the guys with the guns.

In all seriousness, it seems obvious that [if this isn't just a scam] a boat company has found a private military partner who wishes to remain anonymous, and that the boat company has perhaps just made half of fifty million dollars for providing a front. I don't think the Topcat execs have ever set foot in that office any more than I believe that the babe on the HotDynamite.com site would answer if I went there and knocked. Also, it appears that Peter Casini, the executive quoted in the BBC story, has been involved with a number of corporate bankruptcies.

Who is going to provide these security services in Somali waters? Employees of these other dotcoms? Very experienced boaters? Who can tell? Why are they hiding behind a fake address? Manhattan rents are expensive, but you can rent a lot of office space for that kind of money.

Would you give fifty million to someone who can't be bothered to rent a real office and misrepresents their street address? If there's no office, how can anyone be sure actual security services will be provided?

UPDATE, 11/26: It gets better, or worse, depending on your perspective. In April, 2004, Topcat moved to Berekely County, SC. Six months later, they left:

The apparent failure of Top Cat is "very disappointing. We're in an economically depressed area when you look at the job losses balanced with what's created. It's like having the rug pulled out from under you," Mayor Hoffman said.

Rozier and Berkeley County Economic Development Director John Scarborough said it appears the finances didn't work out for Top Cat. Hoffman said he didn't know what happened to the company after its promising debut.

"I went to investigate myself a couple of times, just to drop in and see what was going on, and I haven't been able to find anybody there," Hoffman said.

He's not the only person who's been interested in Top Cat.

"A lot of law enforcement people are looking for them, and I don't think it's about buying a boat," Crosby said.

Vendors and others who find the Top Cat door padlocked often stop at the Onyx office to ask if the boat company still is in business or when its employees will be there, she said.

Nobody from Top Cat showed up Monday in small claims court in Moncks Corner to contest a complaint Onyx filed against the company for nonpayment of services, including providing electricity. Judge David Brown entered a default judgment of $5,960.45 against Top Cat.

Top Cat's vice president of sales and contracts, Marianne Gillard, 36, is due in magistrate's court in St. Stephen today following her arrest last week. Gillard is accused of writing a $650 bad check drawn on a New Jersey bank. Gillard said the day after her arrest that she didn't want to comment and referred questions to company attorneys, who couldn't be reached for comment.

It does occur to me to wonder if any actual setting up of bases or training or pirate fighting will take place even if Somalia pays out all this money. I hope Somalia hasn't cut any actual checks yet.

MEANWHILE, the EU has pledged to help foot the bill.

Queries on Somali dealFURTHER 11/26 UPDATE. The Nation in Kenya has picked up on Top Cat's financial problems, and their reporters called both Casini and his publicist:

On whether the company had failed to meet its payroll, he said: "No. You may be talking about the wrong company. Our company is Top Cat Design.''

However, contacted via e-mail for comment, Maryann Johnson, Top Cat's vice president for public relations, said the story "was written years ago, by a small town reporter whose sole source of information was a convicted felon. Topcat was never contacted directly for comment on this article".

Ms Johnson said: "Topcat remains financially secure and stable, with contracts around the world with some of the largest defence contractors."

(The Nation has a tortuously difficult registration procedure. Here is a screen shot of the article.)

2TopCatsAccording to court papers I linked to earlier today, Casini actually has two corporations called Top Cat: Top Cat Design, incorporated in 2000, and Top Cat Marine Security, incorporated in 2002. (UPDATE 12/2/05: Karl E. Meyer, of Egg Harbor, the attorney that represented Casini in that case and through who Casini registered the copyrights of a number of his boats, was on on the New Jersey State list of attorneys ineligible to practice law until two weeks ago.)

CharlestonThe unfavorable news stories in South Carolina date from 13 months ago. These folks really have a way with words, don't they?

UPDATE, 11/28: It does occur to me to wonder how they plan to work around both a US and a UN arms embargo when providing these services. Even if all they brought to the table was really fast boats designed for security use, this looks to me like it runs afoul State Department regulations, since there is a subsection covering boats on the United States Munitions List.

FROM THE MAIL BAG: A number of people have written to me with questions that they would like to see answered.

One of the biggies is, who is paying for this? Several people have raised this point, as does Reuters. I had speculated earlier that the EU funds mentioned in the news earlier this week might go towards paying Top Cat, but I am told that is not the case. So if not the EU, then who?

Given the scope of the project Top Cat is taking on, is fifty million too much? Or is it too little? (This also gets into the question of exactly what the contract specifies that they will do, an issue about which there appears to be some confusion. Are they going to fight pirates or not? Most of the headlines about the deal take the form "American company to fight pirates off Somalia," but the guy in the comments who claims to be in the know claims there will be no guns and that Casini will provide no training.)

What ports does Top Cat plan on operating out of? (Note that this is a country in which the transition government declines to locate in Mogadishu because of security concerns.) So what will they use for ports? (Who is going to keep Top Cat's fine boats from being stolen, for that matter? I'd think an ultra-fast boat would be really useful to the pirates!)

Also, I'm told that usually when a contract of this nature is awarded, there is recruiting of ex-special forces from various countries, and that no recruiting is going on. (This is not something I'd know about one way or another.) Anyone flowing in from Defensetech know about this?

And finally, has Top Cat registered with the Dept. of State's Office of Defense Trade Control, as required? (Dotmil & PMF folks: Is there a public registry that one could check?)

11/29, AN INTERESTING THOUGHT ON THE DEAL FROM THE STRATEGY PAGE:

While no one is saying it, the United States is basically taking over coastal security duties for Somalia. The Transitional Government there has no money for this sort of thing, so it appears that the U.S. is picking up the tab. This could get interesting, for the Somali warlords who operate along the coast are not going to take kindly to some foreigners trying to interfere. The first priority of the new coast guard is to put the pirate gangs, and especially the two larger "mother ships", that are supporting attacks far out at sea, out of action.

See also The Bow Ramp and its discussion of using privateers to fight pirates; and also Eaglespeak, which remarks of the Top Cat-Somalia contract, Must be an interesting contract to read. I'll just bet.

AND FURTHER: Untravel also has a good post:

There are several reasons I think this little story is important:

First, a private military company (PMC) is engaging in independent military action. In the controversy over PMCs a few years ago, the claim was that they served a support role and did not wage war on their own. In this instance, this is clearly not the case. Topcat Marine Security is not helping the Somali coast guard. They were hired to be the Somali coast guard.

Second, American mercenaries (Topcat) have been hired to wage war at the behest of a foreign government (Somalia), independent of the foreign policy of the US government. As the practice of hiring PMCs for independent action becomes more commonplace, at what point has the nation-state lost it's monopoly on the legitimate use of force? What happens when an independent PMC and their government have conflicting objectives? If the interests of the PMC are taken ahead of that of the government, who is in charge?

Third, the Somali Transitional National Government is hardly a government in the strictest sense. They are set up in Kenya and are still debating over when and how to return to Mogadishu. Where did they get 50 million dollars? Or any money at all, really? I don't know enough about world politics to know how these sort of 'governments in exile' operate, but that 50 million has to come from somewhere. I'd like a journalist to ask who. A concerned alliance of rival warlords? One of Somali's neighboring countries, simply trying to protect itself? A country or countries concerned with keeping the link between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean free and safe for shipping? Or a government interested in fighting terrorism without necessarily going through all the legal steps necessary to engage in military action?

This last question is not meant as a conspiracy theory, but something, from a journalistic point of view, that might be worth investigating as a possibility.

UPDATE 11/30/05: I came across a brand new blog started yesterday, consisting only of an interview with Somalia's Prime Minister. It discusses the piracy issue but does not seem to address this deal specifically.

Mountain Runner is also interested in Top Cat's profile:

Top Cat Marine Security is registered under Laura Casini, Esq. at what seems like a residential location. I mention the location because there are some interesting circumstances surrounding this company. It had moved its operations to St Stephen, South Carolina, to the great expectations of the locals. But, then in Oct 2004, things changed . . .

(According to court documents linked to earlier, Laura Casini is Peter Casini's cousin. She is registered with the New York Bar at a different [probably residential] address in Queens.)

FURTHER UPDATE, 11/30: Mountain Runner has a long, thoughtful follow-up post that I won't attempt to summarize, and suggest instead you go read.

After considering many less elaborate alternatives, he ends on a speculative note:

Or, has TopCat become a necessary cover for regional operations of the US armed forces or intelligence services? This would mean the anti-piracy line is either a cover or a secondary mission. The public diplomatic efforts of the US are meaningless in the region without virtually zero contact or interest with outside media. With media coverage nearly nil, even the humanitarian orgs are mostly gone, sightings of "US military-style" personnel would be adequately covered by this story.

If this were to be true, it would mark the end of the Bremer-style use of PMFs, out-sourcing -- perhaps excessive outsourcing, as I have argued previously -- things that are essentially government functions to private enterprise, with the (perhaps unexpected) benefit of increased secrecy and deniability. This would be a recognition that, no, using PMFs didn't really save that much money, no, re-hired contract Special Forces people were not somehow better qualified for the job that Special Forces folks already on the government payroll, that private enterprise didn't really have the bucks to have an infrastructure ready for whenever Big Government felt it needed something. But boy oh boy, was the secrecy and deniablity nice! Can you just imagine the genius, who in a different life would have been a studio executive in Hollywood, saying something like "Can't we just have a PMF that's staffed with our own guys and uses our own equipment?" Much as I dislike Bremmer's grand vision, this would mark its end.

UPDATE, 12/1: There's an interesting news story this morning that I'm sure ties into this whole subject. Another agreement signed by the Transitional Government: Ethiopia, Somalia pledge to fight terrorism in Horn of Africa

Addis Ababa - Ethiopia signed a comprehensive agreement with the transitional government of Somalia, covering security cooperation, trade and investment, transport and port services, the official Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) reported Thursday.

It was the first agreement to be signed with a neighbouring country for the transitional government of Somalia, which operates from Johar, some 90 kilometres north of the capital Mogadishu as it was unable to operate from the capital for security reasons.

The agreement was signed Wednesday between Ethiopian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Tekeda Alemu and Somalia's Foreign Minister Abdulahi Ismael on the sidelines of a council of ministers meeting of member states of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Cooperation and Development (IGAD) in the Horn of Africa.

And then there's this bit of damage control from Top Cat's backers, posted at the Conservative Voice, austensibly authored by Jim Kouri but with material mostly from Top Cat's press releases. (Or is it merely a late entry to the field? It also appears at Voices Magazine, and in three other venues.) The prose that is new is interesting:

In response to this latest attack, the Somali government -- a government practically in exile because of warlords, Al-Qaeda and Wahhabi terrorists -- has signed a contract with an United States-based security company that specializes in marine special operations. The hope is that the security firm will put an end to the proliferating piracy in that African region.

New York-based Topcat Marine Security signed a deal worth more than $50 million with the Somali Transitional Federal Government, which is temporarily based in Nairobi, to escort ships traveling through Somali waters.

Topcat is one of the world's foremost private security agencies offering clients law enforcement, counterterrorism and marine combat specialists. Topcat's client list includes the US Department of Homeland Security. They use state-of-the-art weaponry and equipment in order to mount offensive operations against pirates or terrorists who use the high seas for their acts of terrorism and piracy.

I've highlighted the interesting bits in bold. Kouri's remarks, which probably originate with Casini or his backers, support the notion I've heard floated that our story starts with the pirate attack on the cruise ship. Also, Kouri provides a new and different account of what exactly Top Cat is going to do for this fifty million. Escort? So now they're and escort service? But if they escort, they are actually going to fight pirates, right? With, like, weapons? Right? That's what the viewing audience really wants. So, back to the subject of arms embargos, are they importing these weapons?

I believe that the third paragraph I quoted originates with Top Cat's online brochure which I can't seem to get at this morning. Interesting is how the rationale for the contract is slipping from fighting pirates to fighting terrorism. While these activities may be intertwined, the first big PR bang on this story focued exclusively on piracy.

Also, it is interesting how Kouri describes the way the pirate attack on the cruise she was repelled. The ocean liner was able to escape the attack using security countermeasures. Why doesn't he say it was an LRAD that was used? Does he have a security clearance that prevents him? And if the LRAD belonged to the cruise lines, why would its use be classified? Elsewhere, he throws a few more words at the subject, but is similarly evasive:

They assailants were repelled by the ships crew who implemented their security measures which included setting off electronic simulators which created the illusion the ship was firing back at the terrorists.

Spit it out man: Can you say sonic blaster?

And then there's this bit of entertaing reading, Somalia: National government or kids in a candy store? which begins:

Somalis all over the world celebrated wholeheartedly when the new Somali interim government was established in nearby Nairobi, Kenya last year. Likewise, it was another historic moment when it finally relocated to Somali soil. Now, the honeymoon is over and Somalia’s elected president and prime minister are at the helm without any opposition of any kind. There’s no authority above the duo to oversee and scrutinize their actions. The international community gave them a blank check with no strings attached.

Spending other people’s money is very sweet. Confined in Jowhar town limits with its members unable to visit next door towns and villages like Balcad, the interim government is signing multimillion contacts silently. No advertised tenders, biddings, and of course no independent watchdogs. There's no National Supreme Court or any other independent court for that matter.

And Mountain Runner has a meaty new post which gets into such issues as Somalia's oil resources, competition in the region with China, and much more.

Of course TopCat will be providing more than boats in this contract. Where they will base, if its in country, and remain littoral? Then won't TC be just like the pirates USED to be before they acquired their "mother ship"? Will TC acquire an expensive but highly suitable ship (probably not that expensive) for blue water operations?

If security was really a big deal, the Yemeni arms market might gain greater attention. Still, some problems continue to linger over this deal:

  1. Transparency. There is none. This provider has a checkered history. Purpose and design of this contract ($50m+ barrier for example) makes this opaque if anything.
  2. Fair play. Was TC really the best candidate for the job? Did the "local" "government" really come to the finding that this provider was superior or were there other contributing factors?
  3. Money and Morals. $50m+ is a lot of spending money for some boats. There is something else here.

One last comment. If active duty will be deployed, then again, it should and could have been done more discretely. If however, this is a completely private operation, then further "foreign policy by proxy" is not going to help when the our chief for Public Diplomacy is amazed that countries are larger than her state. The world is looking and so is our own military. Trust in the Executive branch is waning from abuse. Intelligence and military services are direct reports to the Executive branch. In effect, they serve at the whim, the intelligence services especially, of the President. The buck stops there, except in this Administration.

He also has a good Pirate Primer.

UPDATE 12/2: From The Strategy Page:

December 2, 2005: Somali pirates are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransoms for hijacked ships. This is big money for poverty stricken Somalia, and the warlords are not going to readily give it up because of some foreign mercenaries. There is likely to be some sharp fighting before the Topcat organized coast guard gains control of the coast with its naval and air patrols. Six ships are still being held for ransom.

And Matt Armstrong ar Mountain Runner has a good, long meditatio, Accountability of Non-State Force, which begins:

The issue of private military companies, private security companies, or private military firms brings up the question of accountability. This question can be asked in different dimensions: moral, legal, ethical, and command and control. This is a brief draft on the legal accountability of private military forces, divorced from any profit motives. It is my belief that private military forces fall into the same "loophole" (really a misnomer, it is an intentional gap) in regulation in which non-governmental forces "approved" by the international community, namely Blue Helmets, are also found.

And, in the context of the more speculative aspects of this story, I found this post from Josh Marshall interesting:

In recent days we've being seeing a lot of stories about various top-secret or 'black' programs being run out of the Pentagon. The reports about fake stories being planted in the Iraqi press are just a single example. I'm told that this matter of top secret Pentagon spending -- stuff free of almost all oversight -- may connect up with the Duke [Cunningham] investigation and may reach up higher than we might imagine in the Pentagon.

Also, Casini was on FOX News on the 27th talking about the contract. There's a little info in the TV interview, but not much. Casini is not very articulate.

Petercasini

FROM THE MAILBAG, someone writes in from Herndon, Virginia, IP #68.175.80.218:

If any checking of facts should come to be - it should be checking on kathryn cramer 's totally weird interest in destroying a boat company. So many questions about you kathryn- but a simple one is this- pictures of your family?  Thou dost protest too much!   Who and what are you really? A coast guard? If one sells a police car to a town's police force does the seller become the police?

Oh, no. My cover is blown. Since my picture shows a thin white blonde with kids, I must be none of the above. ;-)  (Also, blogging about this has brought about an increase in the Nigerian Spam making its way to my inbox.)

Also, I should say that there seem to be a fair number of people to whom Casini and his operation owe a lot of money and they are very interested in having his current address. Somewhere in Virginia is my best guess at present.

AND from the Voice of America:

Energy experts say by the year 2020, about one-fourth of the oil the United States consumes could come from Africa.  With this anticipation, African and U.S leaders are joining forces to help Africa reach its potential as a world energy leader.

Africa currently supplies the United States with 12 percent of all the oil it needs, but energy experts say that could jump by 25 percent over the next two decades.  The Corporate Council on Africa, headed by Steven Hayes, organized an international oil and gas conference this week on exploring Africa.

Mr. Hayes says one of the goals of the forum was to give U.S. companies an opportunity to better understand a very rapidly-changing environment in Africa.

"We don't quite realize -- the broad population -- how strategically important Africa is to us, not simply on energy, but clearly more and more of our needs are going to come from Africa," said Mr. Hayes.

Mr. Hayes says he is urging the United States to recognize the importance of the U.S.-African energy partnership, especially as competition from China grows.

Regarding Somalis oil reserves, a geologist from Marathon Oil in and interview in 1993, fills us in:

Presenting their results during a three-day conference in London in September, 1991, two of those geologists, an American and an Egyptian, reported that an analysis of nine exploratory wells drilled in Somalia indicated that the region is "situated within the oil window, and thus (is) highly prospective for gas and oil." A report by a third geologist, Z. R. Beydoun, said offshore sites possess "the geological parameters conducive to the generation, expulsion and trapping of significant amounts of oil and gas."

Beydoun, who now works for Marathon Oil in London, cautioned in a recent interview that on the basis of his findings alone, "you cannot say there definitely is oil," but he added: "The different ingredients for generation of oil are there. The question is whether the oil generated there has been trapped or whether it dispersed or evaporated."

Interestingly, Somalia is emerging at the moment as an organizing issue for Republicans, trying to distinguish themelves from those "cut and run" Democrats. Whatever could the authors of Republican talking points have in mind? To send in the Marines to show that Bush is Man enough? Surely they can't think that Bush has the public support to start a third war? On the other hand, those generous folks at Marathon did give over fifty-eight thousand dollars to the Republicans in the last contribution year, and campaign contributions do make this administration frisky! 

And, um, isn't the Manager of Global Security for Marathon Oil, the very same Bernie McCabe who was Bernie McCabe, U.S. Representative, Sandline International a while back? Maybe the folks in the comment section suggesting a connection with the remnants of Sandline aren't as far off the mark as I thought. It can't be. Can it? Somalia isn't supposed to be the New Iraq?

UPDATE 12/3: Matt at Mountain Runner has an interesting new post, which begins:

More information on the Somalia, Oil, and possibly TopCat continue. Reporting from Oil and Gas Investor indicates Marathon Oil, of Texas, and possibly other firms have taken over the Conoco claims, or at least is moving in on them, and bumping yet another company to boot.

SEE ALSO MY POST: Top Cat Has Security Personnel After All . . . or Do They?

UPDATE 12/6: New govt's move to tackle piracy hits a snag  from NationMedia.com: In gneral, the article covers some of the same information covers here about Top Cat's financial problems. But here is Maryann Johnson's fallback position when cornered on Casini's bankruptcies:

ut the company's vice president for public relations, Maryann Johnson, said the article was written years ago, by a small town reporter whose sole source of information was a convicted felon. "Top Cat was never contacted directly for comment on this article, but rather the reporter chose to undertake a smear campaign to camouflage small-town corruption."

She said Top Cat remains financially secure and stable with contracts around the world with some of the largest defence contractors and that an employee's personal information has no bearing on the stability and structure of the company. "Mr Casini is head of research and development and has been awarded the notable honour of being named one of the top three boat designers in the world. He is an employee of and not the owner of the company. There are over 50 major stockholders," she said.

In signing the deal with Somalia, Mr Casini said his company would target a mother ship off the Somali coast that is launching smaller craft to attack commercial vessels.

Several questions come to mind:

  1. If Casini is not the President or CEO of the company, who is?
  2. If he is neither president or CEO, what authorization does he have to enter into such a contract on Top Cat's behalf?
  3. If Casini doesn't own Top Cat, who does? Who are its "investors"?
  4. How are Top Cat's investors distinct from its creditors?

UPDATE 12/6: See my new post Top Cat Marine Security Ordered to Cease & Desist. Busted.


Brin ZDNN: Your book is

Brin

ZDNN: Your book is about how society becomes transparent, meaning that there are no blocks to information. Does that mean no privacy?

Brin:  That depends on how you define privacy. If it means anonymity -- walking in public with a blithe assurance no one knows who you are -- forget it.
MBR>Cameras are proliferating like locusts. In Britain they've tied in face-recognition systems to scan pedestrians in search of wanted criminals. Nothing you or I do will stop this. No law will prevent it. Banning the cameras will only drive this technology underground and ensure it's monopolized by some elite group.

But there's another kind of privacy. The security of your home. Your personal safety. The feeling that no one can persecute you, even if they know what goods you buy and where you've been. This kind of privacy has always depended on knowing more -- on being able to see and catch any Peeping Tom, on knowing the secrets of the elite so they don't dare persecute you, on being left alone because you are a free, knowledgeable and sovereign citizen, and therefore too powerful for anyone to capriciously abuse. Attempting to blind your enemies will fail, especially if they are mighty.


The Agonist Has the Taguba Report

The Taguba Report, regarding  abuse of prisoners at  Abu Ghraib Prison is up on The Agonist. (Names of some of the witnesses have been removed to protect their privacy.)

Here are the parts about CACI:

In general, US civilian contract personnel  (Titan Corporation, CACI, etc�c), third country nationals, and local contractors  do not appear to be properly supervised within the detention facility at Abu  Ghraib.� During our on-site inspection, they wandered about with too much  unsupervised free access in the detainee area.� Having civilians in various  outfits (civilian and DCUs) in and about the detainee area causes confusion and  may have contributed to the difficulties in the accountability process and with  detecting escapes.�� (ANNEX 51, Multiple Witness Statements, and the  Personal Observations of the Investigation Team) . . .

[RECOMMENDATIONS] 11. (U) That Mr. Steven Stephanowicz, Contract  US Civilian Interrogator, CACI, 205th Military Intelligence  Brigade, be given an Official Reprimand to be placed in his  employment file, termination of employment, and generation of a derogatory  report to revoke his security clearance for the following acts which have been  previously referred to in the aforementioned findings:

  • Made a false statement to the investigation team  regarding the locations of his interrogations, the activities during his  interrogations, and his knowledge of abuses.
  • Allowed and/or instructed MPs, who were not trained in  interrogation techniques, to facilitate interrogations by 'setting conditions�h  which were neither authorized and in accordance with applicable  regulations/policy.� He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical  abuse.��

12. (U) That Mr. John  Israel, Contract US Civilian Interpreter, CACI, 205th  Military Intelligence Brigade, be given an Official Reprimand to be  placed in his employment file and have his security clearance reviewed by  competent authority for the following acts or concerns which have been  previously referred to in the aforementioned findings:

  • Denied ever having seen interrogation processes in  violation of the IROE, which is contrary to several witness statements.
  • Did not have a security clearance.

13. (U) I find that there is sufficient credible  information to warrant an Inquiry UP Procedure 15, AR 381-10, US Army  Intelligence Activities, be conducted to determine the extent of culpability of  MI personnel, assigned to the 205th MI Brigade and the Joint Interrogation and  Debriefing Center (JIDC) at Abu Ghraib (BCCF).� Specifically, I suspect that  COL Thomas M. Pappas, LTC Steve L. Jordan, Mr. Steven Stephanowicz,  and Mr. John Israel were either directly or  indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib (BCCF) and strongly  recommend immediate disciplinary action as described in the preceding paragraphs  as well as the initiation of a Procedure 15 Inquiry to determine the full extent  of their culpability.

Elsewhere in the report, John Israel is identified as an employee of the Titan Corp., indicating that this is probably  the contractaor that CACI disavows.

ALSO, Whiskey Bar continues to have great coverage of the whole mess.

MEANWHILE, Forbes quotes from a CACI conference call:

Defense contractor CACI International Inc. said Wednesday that allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by its employees has caused no immediate economic impact on the company.

During a morning conference call, Chief Executive Jack London said he has not seen any formal documentation from the U.S. government confirming allegations that CACI employees were involved in the mistreatment of Iraq prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison 20 miles west of Baghdad.

Someone needs to call Chief Executive Jack London back, now that the report is available on the Agonist and on MSNBC, to see if he's read it yet and ask what he thinks.

AND HERE'S MORE ON CACI, from a completely different angle: CACI WHO? Some Thoughts on Who Prevents Transparency, Misplaces $3.3 Trillion and Profits from Prison Abuse in Iraq.

UPDATE: NPR has the unexpurgated version.


The Problem of Civilian Commandos

"This is basically a new phenomenon: corporatized private military services doing the front-line work soldiers used to do," said Peter W. Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has written a book on the industry, "Corporate Warriors" (Cornell University Press, 2003).

"And they're not out there screening passengers at the airports," Mr. Singer  said. "They're taking mortar  and sniper fire." (NYT, 4/2/04)

I think we can all agree that the civilian commandos killed the other day, and all the rest of those privately employed as soldiers, deserve the same consideration as any one else. That having been said, how can we go about getting it for them?

When killed, they are not reported as military casualties. That is one feature which makes them attractive to the coalition government. Secondly, if they go off the wires, the coalition government has deniability. (No one has yet rushed forward to claim responsibility for retaining the planeload of privately employed soldiers currently held in Zimbabwe.)

I'm getting a lot of people emoting in my direction about the deaths of the civilian commandos. But it was not I who sent them out, without backup, into a situation deemed too dangerous for US troops and used them up like so many paper plates. The problem for Bremer is not that they died, but that the desecration of their corpses happened on camera. This is a huge PR disaster for him, both because it raises the prices of this kind of outsourcing and because it engages our sympathies for the plight of expendable privately hired commandos.

Let's all get together and ask for more transparency in the process: How many privately employed soldiers are there? What companies are being retained and for what purpose? How many privately employed soldiers have been killed and wounded in Iraq? Were they employed by the US, by US companies? In what capacity? Have there been any problems with the quality of the service provided by these privately employed soldiers? What has been done about it? What safeguards exist? Have there been Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from the actions of these privately employed soldiers? Have there been any friendly fire incidents involving privately employed soldiers?  For the benefit of everyone involved, privately employed soldiers need to become less expendable and deniable.

And then there's the small matter of money. The New York Times sheds some light on the civilian commandos' level of compensation:

To meet the rising demand, the  companies  are offering yearly  salaries ranging from $100,000 to nearly $200,000 to entice senior military Special Operations forces to switch careers. Assignments are paying from a few hundred dollars to as much as $1,000 a day, military officials said.

What do US soldiers in Iraq make? Why are we paying these guys so much more when the money could be spent training and supporting our own troops?

In the same article, Representative Jan  Schakowsky had some very smart things to say:

Representative Jan  Schakowsky,  Democrat of  Illinois, has also argued that the United States'  growing use of private military companies  hides the financial, personal and political costs of military operations overseas, since the concerns  face little public scrutiny.

In particular, Ms. Schakowsky has objected to administration plans to increase the number of private military contractors in Colombia, where three American civilians working for a Northrup Grumman subsidiary have been held hostage by Marxist rebels for more than a year. The three were on a mission to search for cocaine laboratories and drug planes when they were captured.

"I continue to oppose the use of military contractors who are not subject to the same kind of scrutiny and accountability as U.S. soldiers," Ms. Schakowsky said  last week. "When things go wrong for these contractors, they and their families have been shamefully forgotten by their American employers."

BY THE WAY, it seems to me that I ought to discuss the composition process of my post Iraq: The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. Particularly among the trolls whose posts I've deleted, there seems to be the general assumption that the post is in response the deaths of the civilian commandos. It was not.

Rather, I had been working on the post for three days, accumulating links and quotes on the problem of mercenaries overrunning Iraq and was adding the last few links before publishing the post. I wanted an appropriate picture of mercenaries to link to and has having a hard time finding one, a much harder time than I would have expected. I guess they don't like having their pictures taken and they have guns, so photographers don't mess with them.  I was trying out all kinds of euphemisms for mercenary on Google Images, and finally got this picture of a burning car.

I noticed a few minutes later that the date associated with the picture was the 31st, that very day. I followed the link to the story, and that is when I found out about the deaths. My brief write-up and links were nearly the last things I did on that post. It was pure coincidence that it was timely.

I do not believe that private military firms are all bad nor that they can do only harm. Most of the world's removal of mines from former combat zones is contracted to private military companies. This is appropriate and all for the good.

But what's going on in Iraq is very large scale, anarchic, and probably largely untracked. (I don't think most of my questions above can be answered by Bremer because I think he doesn't know the answers.) And what's worse, the Bush Administration is doing this as a matter of conscious strategy because of an ideological commitment to outsourcing and because it is politically expedient even though the longterm result of this policy will be to seriously weaken American armed forces by robbing them of money and personnel while at the same time hatching new military actors with desires that will eventually run contrary to our national security.

The descriptions of how many private military companies operate strike me as awfully similar to the lengthy explanations of why al  Qaida is so insidious: the portability and discretion of their operations, etc. Also, Sandline, at least, was know to use an Enron-like maze of shell companies to hide the true nature of its dealings. Never mind that the high salaries paid by companies like Blackwater are luring the best and brightest from our military forces out of public service. It is very hard to distinguish this realm of free enterprise from organized crime.

What I think is it's most important point of that first post, one that the emoters seem not to get, is that this security blanket being spread over occupied Iraq has become the UK's largest export. That's how big this thing is. This is not really about the morals of four commandos, but about an immense economic shift, one that should make all of us uncomfortable because it is so little examined. Also, this is not really a left vs. right issue. This shift has been going on since about 1990 and administrations from both parties have participated. This is a shift that neither party has properly examined, and neither has coherent policy statements on. My fear is that the industry has grown so big so fast, that for economic reasons, we may already be too late for policy.


Dawn at the Bird Cathedral

OK: It's 5:28AM and I'm bright-eyed awake. Now I know why my kids woke up at this time yesterday. It's when the birds start chirping and it begins to get light. Because of a nearby rock wall, sound has interesting properties in our back yard, and we have some very tall trees. At dawn at this time of year -- between now and late July -- our back yard becomes a bird cathedral; there is a choir of birds and the patches of bright orange sky through the trees are like stained glass windows.

SO here I am. I've made coffee and switched on one of the ambient space stations available over the cable modem which plays music I won't even notice while concentrating on what I'm doing.

I jot down stuff that was kicking around in my head during the night:

ENQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: (1) Is anyone actually running against GWB for the Republican nomination? ANSWER: It's not allowed; gop.com forwards into www.georgewbush.com. Man and party are indistinguishable. (2) Does Santorum have a dog? What kind? Are there any pictures of man and dog on the web? ANSWER: Though Santorum wants his constituents to know that he is deeply concerned about dog breeding, I have found no information available on the web about whether he has a dog.

NEXT, I go to Breaking News at technorati.com to see what other people (mostly to the East of me, given the time) think is important in this morning's news cycle. Technorati is quite handy at this time of day. Topics haven't yet been beaten to death. Also, there are a lot of smart bloggers who have an eye for important stories, but who aren't writers (lowercase 'w'). They either make links without comment, or their comments read like this: Disgraceful and disgusting acts of atrocities are ignored. So technorati.com provides first readers for the slush pile of the morning's news. I'm a morning person.

Speaking of morning people, baby's awake. David brings her to me and goes back to bed. I nurse her and type with one hand.

The moment's top story is from the Independent: The allies' broken promises:

Oil
Tony Blair: 'We don't touch it, and the US doesn't touch it'  MTV, 7 March
The reality: Yesterday's draft UN resolution gives total control of Iraq's oil revenues to the US and UK until an Iraqi government is established

etc. Glad someone's keeping track. I've been exploring this general theme of shifting political realities, but have nothing immediate to say -- brief mental flash of the cover of Philip K. Dick's MARTIAN TIMESLIP. I'm not sure what to do with it yet. So I put this shiny infopebble in the bucket and move on down the beach.

The #2 technorati item is a fairly hard-hitting editorial in the Guardian, also on the proposed UN resolution: The new caliphs; US and Britain seek a free hand in Iraq

The new joint draft resolution is in other respects a deeply unsatisfactory document. Common sense again suggests that the UN should be afforded a leading role, as in Afghanistan, in facilitating the creation of a post-Saddam system of governance. Impartial UN mediators would be far better positioned to instil confidence, among Iraqis and in the wider region, in a process that will at best be complex and arduous. The contrary US-British intention to direct political reform via a new legal entity, the "Authority", controlled by them, and with only an advisory, non-executive role for a UN "special coordinator" is ill-conceived and potentially divisive. 

The resolution envisages a similarly tight US-British grip, also for at least one year, on exploitation of and revenue from Iraq's oil once UN controls, specifically the oil-for-food programme, are phased out. The proposed international oversight by a board of absentee luminaries drawn from the UN, IMF and World Bank is no real safeguard against the sort of abuse EU commissioner Poul Nielson warned about yesterday. Nor is it responsible to assume that the 60% of Iraqis who rely on UN-administered food aid will soon be able to do without it. While the US and Britain now - finally - accept their obligations under international law, what this resolution boils down to is legitimisation of an illegal war and of an open-ended occupation. It gives them a free hand in Iraq. What it will give Iraqis is much less clear.

Story #3 is Bush unveils Mid-East trade plan. I check it out. After reading it, I'm still not sure what Bush's plan is, but I have a few sacrcastic thoughts: What does he want to trade it for? To which US corporations does he want to trade it? I click on some of the blog links to see if anyone else understands it, but I find something better at a site called Nurse Ratched's Notebook, which she saw via atriosPresident Bush's Movements and Actions on 9/11 by Allan Wood and Paul Thompson. I skim it. This is real historical reseach, important stuff, a must read. It's full of things I didn't know.  I'll read more later.

Baby Elizabeth gets tired of playing with the toys on the floor by my feet and trying to learn how to crawl and starts to fuss. I turn on the TV and put on an infant stim video: Newton in a bottle: Physics for kids! For children 3 months and up.  I turn off the space music because it competes with the music-only soundtrack of the TV. (The bird have piped down by now, and the sky is between the trees is pale yellow. It's quarter of 7.)
         
Skimming down technorati, I see various stories I've read already from different sources . . . . Now here's a lurid one! Doctors 'stole brains for research': The brains of thousands of mentally ill people were illegally removed after their deaths. But this is really just a variant on a story I've read before about body parts illegally removed in UK hospitals, yes? Nonetheless, it's going to confirm the worst suspicions of some poor paranoid schizophrenic out there: His doctor really is trying to steal his brain! Whoopee!

Now here's someone who needs his brain removed for examination:

But John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said, "Without committing to deployment, research on low-yield nuclear weapons is a prudent step to safeguard America from emerging threats and enemies."

Newton in a Bottle ends just as I find out that army ants are a truly ancient species originating over 100 million years ago on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. Sunbeams are coming in the window now. I put on Baby Einstein and get a refill on my coffee.

Checking out CNN, I don't find much new . . . except, here's something:    fly fossils in Antarctica. I was wondering about the fossils of Anarctica just the other day, wondering what they might find if all that ice weren't in the way:

The tiny fossil of a fly discovered 300 miles from the South Pole could help scientists figure out what life was like millions of years ago in Antarctica.

Peter just woke up and brought me two books he wants me to read, one about aliens, and the other about jellyfish. So I'll stop here.    

8:43AM: Here's a few things I missed:

Washington Post: Med Students Performing Unauthorized Pelvic Exams on Unconscious Women

When Zahara Heckscher went to George Washington University Hospital last month to have an ovarian cyst removed, she asked her surgeon if medical students would be practicing pelvic exams on her while she was unconscious. She was shocked that the answer was yes.

Medical students, interns and residents at teaching hospitals across the nation routinely learn how to perform such examinations by practicing on patients under anesthesia, medical educators say, and GWU Hospital officials say their program is no exception.

Also from the WP, Seven Nuclear Sites Looted. I took this for an old story, but there are more sites than previously reported.

MEANWHILE, Arthur Hlavaty directs our attention to this marvelous graphic by Edward Tufte: Thinking With Bullets.