Monday, September 29, 2008

Debate Ephemera

I haven't posted my reactions to the debate yet, mostly because it was soooo boring. The most interesting issue of course was the fiscal crisis (which I don't really understand) but it was guaranteed that neither candidate would say much about it because of the ongoing negotiations in Congress.

However, I chided Obama for promising to go over the budget line by line in his speech in Denver. In the debate Obama was quite sober on this topic as McCain launched into his obsession with earmarks. A Senator who wants to invest his energy into fighting with the Air Force to save a few billion dollars on a deal for aerial tankers is really doing the American people a service. For a President to do the same is a huge waste of time. McCain wanted to freeze non-defense discretionary funding. The problem is that this represents something less than a third of the budget. Even a 10% cut would not resolve the fundamental issues and the earmarks themselves are less than $20 billion - a lot of money, but less than 2% of the entire federal budget.

The real fiscal action is in the non-discretionary spending (those enormous entitlement programs.) A Senator taking those on alone is Quixotic. These are the kinds of big issues that, while not easy, are on a scale that only the President can lead.

The McCain campaign would probably argue that the earmarks are an ethical issue, showing the growing corruption in Congress and their power to perpetuate themselves in office. Maybe, but not really. This Congress is probably not the most corrupt in history and generally the American people have assumed throughout American history that Congress is a corrupt, venal institution.

If McCain hopes to lead a massive struggle to reduce the federal government's role in the economy, more power to him. There is massive frustration among the Republican rank and file that the reformers they sent into office over a decade ago have presided over a massive increase in federal spending. But if McCain believe he make Congress a less self-serving institution then he is hoping for a change in human nature and that is more of a liberal project.


For a good overview of how the candidates stand on Pakistan, a particular interest of mine visit this fine, balanced entry at The Pakistan Policy Blog.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Real Dirt on Dirty Bombs

Physicist Richard Muller, in a good article takes on the myth of the dirty bomb. I have also addressed the limited utility of radiological weapons in a post discussing the FARC's dealings in depleted uranium.Prof. Muller writes:
The answer is surprising. Spread out the radioactivity enough and the deaths from radiation illness disappear completely.

People exposed would have a slight increase in the risk of eventually contracting cancer, but there would be no dead bodies at the scene - except those killed by the dynamite. Diluted radiation loses its potency.

We measure radiation dose in units called rem. Above 1,000 rem, incapacitation occurs within minutes, followed by extreme fatigue and nausea, then death. For smaller doses, 300 to 500 rem, about half of the victims die within a month.

But reduce the dose a little more, down to 100 rem, and the effects are very mild. At 50 rem, nobody even gets sick.

This 'threshold effect' creates problems for the terrorist. He can put radioactive material into a bomb - but concentrated radioactivity kills fast, so he'll have to protect himself with a ton of lead.

Then he must deliver the bomb, take it out of the lead shield and explode it with dynamite so the radioactive material spreads into the air. Muller continues:
On the whole, this is good news. One terror tactic, that is of great concern, can be downgraded as a threat. However, Muller continues, pointing out that the terrorist groups do careful cost benefit analysis of their tactics and strategies. When one mode of operation is denied them, they adapt.
Consider Jose Padilla, the Chicago thug who was trained by Al Qaeda and came to America planning to make a dirty bomb.

According to the US Justice Department, Al Qaeda had doubts about the practicability of such an attack, so it directed him to abandon the dirty bomb and blow up two apartment buildings using natural gas.

He wants the wind to carry it around the city, but has to hope it doesn't spread too much or it won't kill anyone.

What worries me about this story is that it suggests Al Qaeda understands the limitations of dirty bombs better than government leaders and many scientists.
Terrorists are not all powerful, there are enormous limitations - social, physical, and logistical - on what they can do. It is important not to overestimate their technological capabilities. But at the same time, we cannot underestimate their adaptability and their continuing capacity for low-level, practical innovation.

Friday, September 26, 2008

And on Veep Critique...

Over at Veep Critique I have posted some pre-debate thoughts and a short analysis of good and bad VP picks using the insider/outsider paradigm.

Clash of Styles: Pre-Debate Thoughts


Black-jowled, swaggering, snarling, fighting against age and an overwhelming weariness, Old Burleigh Grimes took fame by the throat today and claimed her for his own.
This overwrought passage by sports-writing legend Red Smith describes the1931 St. Louis Cardinals World Series victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. But somehow I keep inserting the name John McCain. His career was made when, under duress, he was stripped down – past rank, background, and personality – to raw character. This is his stock-in-trade. He presents himself without nuance as unpackaged and raw. The Presidency is hell, but someone has got to do it and – as a man who has already been there and back – he is the man we can trust to take this on this awesome responsibility. He will make the tough calls, no matter

McCain is formidable in small groups and will be a skilled debater. But he is a lousy speaker. Despite a career in politics, he still struggles with the teleprompter. His speeches are free of artifice and come off as unvarnished truth and this, perhaps, is the greatest artifice of all.


Biden was pilloried for calling Obama “clean” because it carried the implication that for an African-American to be hygienic was somehow remarkable. But I think I know what Biden was trying to say. Obama is clean the way DiMaggio at the plate or Willie Mays patrolling centerfield was clean. Their motions were stripped of the herky-jerky of regular life, and focused and suited to the purpose at hand. DiMaggio’s swing was elegant, a word which can mean both simple and refined. Another word might be neat or graceful or clean.

Obama walked, with no apparent effort, into the national scene and to the nomination. Where Bill Clinton could read a grocery list and have such a good time that the listener enjoyed it too. From Obama’s lips the grocery list would be somehow uplifting.

The speed of Obama’s rise and the ease of his eloquence are deceptive. Willie Mays worked hard to control centerfield, his natural talent and grace only making it appear easy. Obama too has a hard core of real stuff to him.

What We Want

Do we truly expect to learn anything about their policies from this debate? Most people who follow politics even casually have a pretty good idea what each party seeks to do and what it believes in.

We also don’t really know what makes for an effective President. In some ways, the most we can do is try to eliminate the people who are not up to the job. The multi-year obstacle course we force our Presidential aspirants to traverse is an attempt to do this. I once heard boxing described as “running a marathon, doing trigonometry, and playing chess all at the same time.” Cubing that description perhaps gives a sense of what it takes to run for President.

The debate is just another obstacle. Part of it is stamina. Can the candidate stand their, head to head with their opponent, with the world watching, and not get flustered. Because if they can’t they aren’t up to the job. And then, with all that pressure, what do we see. Do the candidates show a flare of temper or condescension, a telling stumble, or a flash of wit or graciousness?

It is, in so many ways, an awful system. But I remember Churchill’s aphorism, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.”

Chemistry of Counter-Terror: Bombmakers Lose a Tool

Every once in a while, there is good news in the world of counter-terrorism. Here is an example, The New York Times reports:
A major chemical company will announce Tuesday that it has found a way to render nitrogen fertilizer useless as an explosive, and improve its value to some crops.

The company, Honeywell, of Morris Township, N.J., has patented a method for combining ammonium nitrate fertilizer with a second type of fertilizer, ammonium sulfate. Ammonium nitrate can be soaked in diesel fuel to produce a powerful bomb and is a favorite of terrorists, but when chemically tied to the ammonium sulfate, its chemical structure is changed so that it is no longer explosive.
Ammonium nitrate has long been a favored tool for bomb-builders. It was the primary ingredient in the terrible 1995 OK City bombing in which 160 were murdered. And of course it is an incredibly common substance used by farmers around the world. Regulatory schemes may have been possible - but as long as it is legitimate for substantial numbers of people to possess it - there are limits to what regulation could possibly achieve.

Counter-terrorism is (as I've written before) the practical application of Murphy's Law - if it can go wrong it will. For a terror attack to be successful lots and lots of things need to go right. Identifying critical chokepoints and making it harder to carry them out is crucial to effective counter-terror strategies.

Bombs are the highest payoff strategy for terrorists (fire and firearms have a range of limitations). But effective, deadly bombs are not that easy to build. One area of tremendous success has been monitoring the travel of suspect people to suspect regions. Complicating the transit of experienced operatives has been essential to preventing deadly attacks in the West. Taking a leading ingredient off the table is also very helpful.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Insider Picks

At a recent debate between surrogates for the two Presidential candidates the biggest applause line was when Obama's surrogate said that McCain's selection of Palin says it all about McCain's judgment.

What strikes me as interesting, in light of the Insider/Outsider paradigm that shapes the selection and roles of Vice Presidents, is how Palin she fits into the pattern of picks by insider Presidential candidates.

Overall, the VP picks by outsider candidates, starting with Carter, have been awfully Presidential. It includes Mondale, Bush 41, and Gore. Cheney was well-regarded when he was selected, and Biden (although some have their reservations) is also generally considered a good choice who leavens some of Obama's weaknesses. The one outsider candidate who lost, Dukakis, chose Lloyd Bentson - who most polls showed was the single most appealing figure on either party's ticket. On the basic issue of whether or not the VP was considered "Presidential" by the general public - all of these selections were successful. Six for six.

Now consider the VP picks by the insider candidates. Muskie, Kemp, and Lieberman were all generally considered sound, if - in the cases of Muskie and Kemp - unremarkable. Then there was the McGovern fiasco. McGovern had two choices, first Eagleton who then withdrew after it was revealed that he had undergone electro-shock therapy. Then McGovern picked R. Sargent Shriver, who had never held elected office before. Strictly, speaking, Eagleton was actually a solid pick based on resume - but he did end up becoming a problem for the campaign. Ford also had two picks, first his choice when he succeeded Nixon the Presidency and then his choice when he ran in 1976. Rockefeller was chosen in great part because he was considered eminently qualified to be President. However, he ended up not working out, and when Ford was nominated he chose Bob Dole. Based on his resume Dole was a sound pick, but he blew it in his debate with Mondale.

Then there are a series of picks which were made for extremely political purposes. In this, Nixon (unsurprisingly) takes the cake. He chose Agnew because he was an "ethnic" and held onto him as impeachment insurance. When Agnew resigned, Nixon chose Ford a sounder choice on the whole, who actually did serve, reasonably well, as President.

Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term congresswoman from New York. It was a historic pick. But for some it looked like a transparent attempt to appeal to women voters and, because the National Organization of Women had lobbied hard for a female running mate, it made Mondale look like he had caved under pressure.

Four years later, Bush chose Quayle. In fairness, based on resume Quayle was not a bad choice, he was into his second Senate term and had served two terms in the House beforehand. However, Bush reportedly choose Quayle figuring that a young and good-looking running mate would lend a certain appeal to his ticket. Whatever his virtues, Quayle appeared callow on TV and was generally considered a liability. In 2004 Kerry chose John Edwards, who had served a single undistinguished term in the Senate. Edwards did not make any missteps that would register on the Quayle scale. But he spent a fair amount of effort trying to convince voters that he was not too inexperienced in his 2008 run (and that was against Barak Obama...)

And then there is Sarah Palin.

Out of 13 VP picks by insider Presidential nominees, seven had serious credibility problems with substantial components of the general public.

Certainly one can quibble with some of my calls. Maybe John Edwards or Ferraro were regarded as solid picks. Sill, even with the most generous judgments of the insider's choices and more critical judgments of the outsider candidates' selections the the discrepancy is outstanding. There have been no outsider candidate choices equivalent to Agnew, or even Quayle and Ferraro.

The overall trend appears that outsider candidates think very carefully about who they want to work with and who could become President. The insider candidates want to get women to vote for them.

Aaron Mannes on Covert Radio discussing Pakistan and Iran

The other day I did a hit on Covert Radio with my friend Brett Winterble. I discussed, unsurprisingly, the recent bombing in Pakistan and Ahmadinejad's visit to the U.S. At one point, under Brett's tough questioning I throw my hands up and admit - I don't know what to do about Pakistan.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Islamabad Bombing I: Brute Force Tactics

In the span of week, there were two attacks against hard targets, the September 17 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, and Saturday’s strike on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates still face difficulties launching attacks in Western countries, due to the difficulty of transporting the necessary experienced operatives to the West in the face of diligent and capable Western security services.

But these attacks highlight growing capabilities within the greater Middle East, where security forces are not as skilled and the operatives move with greater ease. Both of these attacks were against targets with formidable security, and the success of the Marriott attack indicates the limits inherent in hardening targets and the potential for enormous quantities of explosive to overcome security measures. This tactic will become more widespread where terrorists possess the necessary logistical and technical capabilities.

Brute Force

The attack on the Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen was a sophisticated, multi-pronged strike that included two carbombs and gunmen (a State Department briefing describing the attack is here. Although the attack took ten lives, it did not penetrate the Embassy itself. There may be lessons learned from this semi-successful attack that can be incorporated into future strikes – but Embassy security will also adapt. However, the fortress-like status of American Embassies around the world exacts a high price on U.S. efforts to conduct effective public diplomacy. The Marriott is a hotel. While Embassies can adopt extensive security procedures at some cost to their effectiveness, hotels cannot pay that same price.

What the Yemen attack attempted to achieve by guile, the Islamabad attack managed by sheer brute force. Marriott security appeared to have worked. The truck was kept away from the building, detonating at a blast wall some 60 feet away. (This image from BBC makes it look like the blast was closer to the building – but the crater created by the explosion itself was 60 feet wide.) There were reportedly 600 kg of military grade explosives (about 1400 lbs) on the truck. By comparison, the primary explosive in the Bali bombing (in which 202 people were killed) included about 150 kg of explosives (and some reports indicate that only a portion of them detonated.) Had the truck been able to reach the Marriott itself, the immediate damage might have been far worse.

Terrorist activity requires logistics, and the more extensive the attack, the greater the logistical support needed. The ability to assemble and transport such an enormous bomb without being detected gives a sense of the perpetrator’s capabilities and is a very deep cause for concern.

It is worth noting that the Islamabad Marriott had been targeted before in January 2007 when a suicide bomber attempting to enter the hotel killed a security guard. The failure of the human missile approach may have helped lead the attackers to adopt the brute force approach.

Fire Multiplier

The bomb was laced with aluminum powder, an accelerant that, after the explosion ignited a gas leak, intensified the blaze. This led to more casualties and complicated the rescue effort. In the right circumstances, these cascading effects – such as fires started by explosions – can be a devastating force multiplier and may also become a component of terror attack planning.

Initial reports indicate that Pakistani firefighters acted bravely (their actions probably prevented the building from collapsing), but lacked the appropriate equipment and training and that the Marriott’s fire system did not respond properly. The city government is apparently engaging international consultants to assist in building firefighting capacity. (My recent post - Fire as a Tool of Terror - discussed some of these issues in detail, particularly the importance of firefighting diplomacy.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fire as a Tool of Terror

Co-blogger Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Kyle Dabruzzi recently co-authored an interesting report on how firefighters can play an enhanced counter-terror role. His report reminded me of some preliminary research I had done on terrorist use of fire in the wake of the 2007 forest fires in Greece that killed 63 people and did hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage. Putting these two items together suggests another possible counter-terror role for fire-fighters.

Fire Next Time?

Fire is certainly capable of causing substantial damage either to specific targets and, if the conditions are right, as a virtual WMD. Several of the worst disasters in U.S. history were fires, including the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the fires triggered by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 destroyed entire cities. As recently as 1991 a firestorm in Oakland killed 25, did $1.5 billion in damage, and decimated 1520 acres within a major American city. Additionally, fire has the potential to trigger a cascading disaster. A fire might also lead to utility outages or reach new dimensions of scale if it reaches a sensitive site.

Fire has some advantages as a tool for terrorists. First, it is a basic mantra among TV newspeople, “The camera loves fire.” As a means of garnering media attention, fire has tremendous potential. (Consider the endless footage of the fire at the Glasgow airport from the summer 2007 terror plot.)

Fire is also technically easy. Although it is conventional wisdom that bomb-making techniques can be gleaned off of the Internet – the actual record of self-starting cells as bomb-makers is not very good. The successful plots have had links to real world training.

Interestingly, in light of its apparent ease of use, based on these graphs from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland’s Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (with which I have no affiliation), fire does not appear to be the terror weapon of choice. In fact, the groups that use it the most frequently are those that have stated they do not wish to kill people, such as the Earth Liberation Front.

This may reflect some of the limitations of using fire as a terror weapon. Counter-terror is the application of Murphy’s Law. The more barriers placed in a terrorist’s path the more likely the terrorists will be caught and the plan will fail. While setting fires is relatively easy, setting fires that do major damage is harder. Industrialized nations have substantial firefighting capabilities. If the conditions are not right and the locations are not scouted, the fire may be only a minor incident. (When the UK doctors rammed their burning SUV into Glasgow airport the images were dramatic, the actual damage was minor.)

An effective terror attack using fire will require substantial surveillance. This is when terrorists are most likely to be caught. Photographing emergency exits, lurking around sprinkler system controls, and the other activities necessary to adequately plan a major arson attack are activities that should trigger the attentions of security personnel.

There have been some devastating terror attacks using fire. In 1978 Shia radicals in Abadan, Iran set a movie theater on fire – 377 people died horribly. However, the exit doors were locked, the firefighters were late, and the hydrants didn’t work. Many of the deadliest fire attacks occurred in less developed countries, where safety codes (if they exist) are loosely enforced and government services are less able to respond effectively.

Fire Diplomacy

The potential vulnerability in the less developed countries to arson should be addressed, first because it is a humanitarian issue, but also because it is an important opportunity for public diplomacy. Firemen worldwide quickly find common ground based on the essentials of their profession. Consequently, fire safety, prevention, and mitigation are potentially fruitful realms for positive, non-political, international engagement. While there are programs delivering this kind of aid, they may be worth expanding.

Assistance would be good counter-terror, but the places vulnerable to mass arson are also vulnerable to natural fires and a host of other natural disasters. Helping to reduce these dangers and improve local and national services is a real and tangible benefit. It is an opportunity to deliver aid, engage in public diplomacy, and build new networks of relationships worldwide.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Debate Coach for Palin?

Reviews of Sarah Palin's performance in her interview by Charlie Gibson have been split, pretty much as would be expected. Those who did not care for Palin thought she appeared uncertain or ignorant of international affairs. Those who liked Palin praised her and called Gibson condescending. In that vein, the formidable Ruth Wedgewood (a leading scholar of international law and professor at SAIS) writes in National Review Online:
Most women, even now, are quite familiar with being talked over and not so subtly demeaned when they venture an opinion. It happens at dinner parties, in Washington and New York, where Gibson reigns as a network anchor, and even in educational classrooms.

It can happen to students who venture to Ivy League colleges without the benefit of a private preparatory school. They may never have heard about a “Nash equilibrium” or “Pareto optimality.” It doesn’t mean they are stupid or without cunning.

There was no evident need to demand of Palin three times in a row how she could consider herself to have the necessary qualifications for the vice presidency.
But Prof. Wedgewood goes beyond issues of style and takes Gibson to task on his badgering Palin to define the Bush doctrine:
But Gibson is wrong to suppose that the right of anticipatory self-defense began with George Bush. Indeed, it was put forward early in the history of the American republic, by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, in the so-called “Caroline affair” in 1837.

And strangely enough, this doctrine was carved out in the frozen North. In the middle of winter, American sympathizers crossed the Niagara River to help Canadians in their rebellion against the British Crown. The British burned their boat and sent one man to his death over the falls. Daniel Webster conceded that the British were permitted to use force because the "necessity of that self-defence” was “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

It would have been delicious if Governor Palin had responded with the name Daniel Webster. But she had the idea, and one may excuse even a national television anchor for not knowing the doctrine’s real origin.
Delicious indeed - is Wedgewood applying to be Palin's debate coach? The McCain campaign could do far worse.