Friday, June 07, 2002

The Taliban regime was overthrown by the pinpoint distribution of munitions from the air, for which the Taliban had no military answer, leading to panic and collapse.

And, oh yeah, we bought their army out from under them:

"The Taliban conquered the country with bribery and negotiation," said a former CIA officer familiar with the operation. "And basically, that's the way we reconquered it--with help from air power."

It's an interesting story --- for, among other reasons, the CIA use of smuggling routes for the bribes (money and technotoys, particularly satphones, and a Land Rover full of cash for the warlord currently serving as governor of Kandahar). The CIA had earlier used the same routes to deliver arms to Islamic radicals fighting the Soviet-imposed government, which (among other things) gave a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden his first taste of fighting against heathen westerners who let their women take jobs and show their hair in public.

So, it's worthwhile in considering the operation to remember once again that thugs are like cheap beer --- they can't be bought, only rented.

(via Peter Maass, who tosses in a few anecdotes of his own about reporting from Kandahar).

So, here's what I gather about the Bush administration proposal for a "Homeland security department."

The problem in the runup to September 11th, it is increasingly plain, was that the FBI and CIA had plenty of information concerning the people and the plan, but failed to make good use of it. The agencies failed to distribute critical information to each other, and headquarters failed to distribute critical information to agents that could have used it in the field.

The proposed solution is a government reorganization which doesn't touch the FBI and CIA, but combines other agencies including the Secret Service (which handles counterfeiting), the Coast Guard (which handles rescue and shore safety), Customs (which does revenue and tariff enforcement), the INS (which issues tourist visas) and so forth into a single agency which will focus on counterterrorism.

The intelligence problems are addressed by creating a center within the new agency which will review intelligence gathered by other agencies (FBI, CIA, apparently, NSA).

So --- the problem of turf wars between the FBI and CIA is dealt with by giving them both a new agency to fight with, the problem of information hoarding at headquarters is dealt with by establishing a new hoard of information at headquarters, and we also improve matters by imposing a new layer of centralized bureaucracy on agencies which (with the possible exception of INS) didn't have much to do with the problem.

But it does have strong bipartisan support in Congress.

What could possibly go wrong?

More news from Boston:

Mitt Romney, the sole remaining Republican candidate for governor, is facing an unexpected challenge --- to his residency. Candidates for governor here must have seven years of continuous prior residency in Massachusetts, by state law. Which leads to a certain amount of awkwardness when it comes out that one of the tax returns he filed while running the Utah Olympics was filed as a non-resident.

He filed an amended return two days after declaring his candidacy, which now claimed that he was a Massachusetts resident that year, on the strength of his empty house in Belmont. Still, some of the five Democratic candidates are expected to file a challenge with Ballot Law Commission (which has historically taken a... well, relaxed attitude towards the residency requirement, but may make Romney sweat a bit).

In completely unrelated news, if you're holding a convention in the next few years, and want to do it cheap, consider the new South Boston convention center. Yes, it's a massive white elephant which is taking shape a mile from anything, and has lousy road access to most hotels in town, which are farther off than that; yes, the hotels which were supposed to go up right near it are tied up in the mysterious layers of red tape and confusion which surround just about any major real estate project here --- but hey, they're offering free rent!

The convention center is Boston government at its worst --- a project pushed by the mayor, ostensibly as an economic driver for a new neighborhood that may one day exist on acres of near-vacant land, but more likely because all the other cities had a bright shiny new convention center, and he wanted one too. It's not working out...

Thursday, June 06, 2002

So, here's the Bush administration trade policy. They put tariffs on textiles, hurting overseas manufacturers (incidentally, reneging on a promise to eliminate trade barriers to Pakistani textiles). They raise agricultural subsidies, with devastating effects on farmers in Africa. And so forth. Which might give you the impression that they're willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of people overseas for the sake of political advantage at home.

Well, not quite. There's also damage at home:

The cost of hot-rolled steel, an industry benchmark, is up from $210 per ton late last year to $300. Makers of car parts and other steel users, which account for many more jobs than steel producers do, report that suppliers are reneging on promises to deliver steel and holding out for extra money. The result is likely to be job losses in manufacturing and higher prices for American consumers.
Via BoingBoing, a pointer to a 1997 story about the layers of tunnels below Moscow, and the stuff which is rumored to be lying there --- mole people...

The underground shelters gypsies, spongers, political refugees, and professional hermits. These people usually enter the underground through the grates of heating and rubbish collecting systems.

...old bomb shelters, subway lines, dead bodies of tramps, oceanographic storage rooms...

"Imagine walking along endless corridors," recalls Mikhailov, "something dripping from the ceiling, the uneven light of torches. And all of sudden you find yourself in a room full of tanks of formalin, containing various sea monsters."

...secret subway lines built by Stalin and never opened to the public, a sealed labyrinth under Solyanka street which may hold mass graves, a hastily abandoned lab with chemical gear on the walls and crystals of some kind, a criminal lair from the time of the czars...

Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a pre-revolutionary explorer of Moscow ... wrote that long ago an owner of a criminal den built a tunnel leading to the underground waters. Inside the den was a pipe through which criminals threw out the corpses of those they had robbed and murdered. The Diggers made their way into one such tunnel and found among broken skulls a silver ring and a kisten, an ancient weapon similar to a large metal mace.

...mysterious weapon-toting figures in fatigues who talk to no one, a three-thousand-seat bunker under a ruined cathedral sealed by the government from amateur explorers (who were nevertheless asked to remove an object encrusted with Communist slogans which the priests seemed to regard as a demonic artifact), people in monastic robes enacting rituals around a strangely shaped stone altar...

At some point, you've got be a little skeptical about the more exotic reports. But not about the lost library of Czar Ivan III. No one knows where to find the underground chamber built by an Italian architect to hold the czar's wife's dowry of precious ancient scrolls from Byzantium, but it's real...

The Poor Man seems to have attracted a little attention with his point-counterpoint comparison of the position of bloggers Steve den Beste and Glenn Reynolds on global warming (it's not real) with that of the Bush administration and noted enviro-skeptic Bjorn Lomborg (it is).

Let's try it.

Point (den Beste): "One thing that many in the US and over seas have found maddening about this administration is its frankness."

Counterpoint: New Republic cover story: "Much of the time [press secretary Ari] Fleischer does not engage with the logic of a question at all. He simply denies its premises--or refuses to answer it on the grounds that it conflicts with a Byzantine set of rules governing what questions he deems appropriate. Fleischer has broken new ground in the dark art of flackdom: Rather than respond tendentiously to questions, he negates them altogether."

Further counterpoint: The administration's endless flipflopping on the value of negotiations with the Palestinians. You could argue (as den Beste has) that this is part of some elaborate "rope-a-dope" scheme to discredit Arafat --- though I personally find that argument ludicrous. But call it Metternich or call it Larry, Moe and Curly, you can't call it frank.

Point (Robert Musil): For people who are already wealthy, a mere $500,000 a year extra (the compensation of the Enron board) would not tempt them to malfeasance; why would anyone that rich risk jail time for a little more cash?

Counterpoint: The arrest of L. Dennis Kozlowski, a former executive of Tyco (a firm itself under investigation for shady accounting practices) for an elaborate scheme to evade the sales tax on paintings by Monet, Renoir, and others which he bought for more than $15 million; the scheme involved shipping empty boxes to Tyco headquarters. Kozlowski's other assets include the $18 million apartment that housed the paintings, and shares in two professional sports teams.

Further counterpoint: Nora Ephron's experience on a corporate board: one on the board, not one person --- not even the "qualified" ones who could read balance sheets --- had a clue the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. And when they heard, when the president of the company told them?about an hour into an otherwise excruciatingly boring board meeting?that the company was about to go bankrupt, and he'd known about it for several weeks and hadn't bothered to pick up the telephone and call any of them, they went nuts. And then they all went back to their offices and let the investment bankers and lawyers clean up the mess.

Easy and fun...

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Life continues to be hectic; blogging this week may be more sporadic than usual. Sorry, folks...