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Antrax Investigation Again Doubted

The government’s statements deepen the questions about the case against Ivins, who killed himself before he was charged with a crime. Searches of his car and home in 2007 found no anthrax spores, and the FBI’s eight-year, $100 million investigation never proved he mailed the letters or identified another location where he might have secretly dried the anthrax into an easily inhaled powder. . . . – Glen Greenwald, Salon

As incredible as it sounds, major doubts are surfacing about the FBI’ s case against Bruce Irvin, who committed suicide four years ago rather than be accused of the crime.

This entire case has been bizarre.  First, the Feds were sure that Dr. Stephen Hatfill was responsible for the deaths of five people in 2001.  He was hounded mercilessly for years by FBI agents as well as the media.  The NYT virtually tried and convicted him on its front page.

Then, suddenly, the FBI said it was wrong: the real culprit was Ivins.  Although admitting their case against Ivins was circumstantial, the FBI insisted it was slam-dunk.  Now, however, the Justice Department admits that Dr. Ivins’ laboratory, when seized by the FBI, did not have the equipment necessary to weaponize the anthrax strain he studied professionally.  Scientists who worked with him insist he could not have ‘grown’ the amount of anthrax spores associate with the attack without his colleagues knowing about it.  Other microbiologists are demanding that the FBI investigators release more information on the scientific method that led them to their conclusions.

In excerpts from one of more than a dozen depositions made public in the case last week, the current chief of of the Bacteriology Division at the Army laboratory, Patricia Worsham, said it lacked the facilities in 2001 to make the kind of spores in the letters.

At issue is 1) the FBI’s competency to protect against domestic terrorism; and 2) whether the FBI gave sufficient attention to the possibility of a foreign agent sending the lethal spores through the US Post Office to select Congressional office and media.

Greenwald’s piece provides extensive links to scientific journals, mainstream media and individual scientists who are skeptical of the FBI investigations.




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Mr. Panetta, Will the US End the ‘War on Terror’?

Leon Panetta hit the road running as the new Secretary of Defense.  In his Saturday comments about Al Queda defeat being ‘within reach’, he struck a much more precise tone about how weak, after two years of targeted heavy bombing, the organization is today.  New information came from tapes and notes found in the Bin Laden compound during the raid that killed him.  The military has basically put a bull’s-eye on the back of 10 – 20 in the group.

Will Obama end the “War on Terrorism” before the 2012 elections?  The politics of such an announcement would be treacherous.  Democrats would expect an appeal of the Patriot Act.  Republican leaders would see blood.  However, no less an authority than General David Petraeus would need to sign off on such a declaration as CIA Director and part of the National Security Council.  There’s not a politician in Washington who would challenge Petraeus.  Obama has  maneuvered the General into being exactly where the President needs him at exactly the right time.  First, he took the reigns in Afghanistan, now the CIA.

With Bill Daley as chief of staff, a Democratic partisan at Defense and god at the CIA, he has in place a team whose members focus on results, and who wouldn’t be adverse to mixing it up with Republicans in Congress.

What would declaring an end to the “War on Terrorism” mean?  A return to a more normal perspective on state affairs and global security.  Terrorism existed before Al Queda and it will exist afterwards.  Vigilance and working with allies to route out cells will continue.  Had we stayed in Afghanistan and not diverted troops to Iraq, Al Queda would have been snuffed out years ago.  But let us at least take some satisfaction that it is in disarray and directionless now.  I’ll leave the legal ramifications to someone else.

Juan Cole has a few tips for reducing terrorism in the future.

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Now, Everybody’s Gotta Have a Drone

Welcome to Arms Race 21st Century.  There seems to be a crippling contradiction between the US arms industry’s insatiable appetite for profit and America as the ‘indispensable nation’ for war technology.  Why else would the US sell drones to 50 other countries (though only weaponized ones to a few close allies).  A must read article in the Washington Post reports:

Military planners worldwide see drones as relatively cheap weapons and highly effective reconnaissance tools. Hand-launched ones used by ground troops can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Near the top of the line, the Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5 million. By comparison, a single F-22 fighter jet costs about $150 million.

The problem?

“They could reduce the threshold for going to war,” said Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England. “One of the great inhibitors of war is the body bag count, but that is undermined by the idea of riskless war.”

You know the world has changed when the most sophisticated arms makers (excluding US) and exporters are Israel, China, India and Russia – no European countries listed.  You know it’s changed when Iran tests its own drone-like predator the ‘ambassador of death’.  And when Pakistan already announces that it bought surveillance drones from China, so that’s where it will purchase the weaponized version as well.  Drones are the haute courtier of the arms race – everyone’s trying to scoop the next guy and impress the market.

At this point the US isn’t even worried about the competition.  It is far ahead of any other nation in applied robot technology and systems to support its lead in warfare of the future.  And in an era where Congress wants to cut meat inspection, education, health and nutrition for poor babies and environmental safeguards, let it be known that the US government is spending millions to help US drone manufacturers, one in particular called  General Atomics,  market their product far and wide.

Vice Adm. William E. Landay III, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency overseeing foreign military sales, said at a Pentagon briefing recently that his agency is working on preapproved lists of countries that would qualify to purchase drones with certain capabilities. “If industry understands where they might have an opportunity to sell, and where they won’t, that’s useful for them,” Landay said.

The government has already approved General Atomics for sales to the Middle East and Latin America and is in talks with the usual suspects:  Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt.

No US arms story would be complete without appropriate China-bashing and fear-mongering.

In recent conflicts, the United States has primarily used land-based drones, but it is developing an aircraft carrier-based version to deploy in the Pacific. Defense analysts say the new drone is partly intended to counter the long-range “carrier killer” missile that China is developing.With the ascendance of China’s military, American allies in the Pacific increasingly see the United States as the main bulwark against rising Chinese power. And China has increasingly framed its military developments in response to U.S. capabilities.

Here’s the kicker.  US arms sales continue to expand in a never-ending spire.  Because of its technological prowess, when other  nations catch-up, the US has a new weapon ready to spring on the world.

A sea-based drone would give the United States the ability to fly three times the distance of a normal Navy fighter jet, potentially keeping a carrier group farther from China’s coast.This possible use of U.S. drones in the Pacific has been noted with alarm in news reports in China as well as in North Korea’s state-run media.

Some people think things will go on this way forever.   That America is immune from competition or revenge from other countries. Or that all these arms flowing from country to country won’t inevitably lead to war.  The US has armed the middle east with conventional weapons and is arming it now with predator drones, as if politics and allies will be the same in twenty years as they are today.  What’s to prevent Saudi Arabia using their drones against Egypt if it gets too democratic?

And it’s not hyperbole to say that the US needs war and other types of armed conflict to perfect its weapons systems. The Iraq War lead to armed drones and the prototypes of air and sea-based versions.  In fact, every military in the world benefits from our wars.  Technologies gained through US operations are quickly adopted globally.  The size of militaries throughout the world expand and civilian control is impossible.


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Gates: Isolation or Engagement

It seems Defense Secretary Gates has been retiring almost as long as he served Presidents Bush and Obama. The media, ardent fans of the Secretary, have followed him on five or six victory laps in his months-long ceremonial departure.  As the New York Times puts it, “…the last trip to Afghanistan, the last hearing before Congress, the last news conference, a series of last interviews with reporters” not to mention a couple of  commencement speeches

Gates’ most lasting achievement may be accepting the Secretary of Defense job in the first place.  He claims credit for deterring the Bush Administration from taking military action against Iran and engaging other foreign military adventures.

“The only thing I guess I would say to that is: I hope I’ve prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past four and a half years — or maybe dumb is not the right word, but things that were not actually in our interest,” Mr. Gates said.

It’s ironic that Gates came into the Bush Administration to clean up after Donald Rumsfeld and leaves as questioning and debate about the future of American power accelerates after Iraq and Afghanistan:

I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position,” he tells NEWSWEEK, seated in a windowless conference room aboard the Boeing E-4B. “It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”

A pause.

“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”

Indeed, it’s time for Gates to retire, because scaling back the military, in particular, is what the times as much as the economy, demand.  For over 20 years,  the single ‘Superpower’ model has been an illusion.  The more the US exercises power unilaterally in any sphere – military, climate, human rights – the more the world pushes back.   After WW2, the US and USSR became two co-dependent superpowers that manipulated war, politics and the subtleties of diplomacy to their own advantage in a race for domination. One without the other, standing alone, can’t depend on Cold War myth or a hyped fear of terror to rally allies.

It’s been left to Gates to call a spade a spade in a disheveled and contrary world.  He recognized the dangerously adventurous policies of the Bush Administration and canceled the F-22 program as symbol of Pentagon waste.   More cuts have been forced on the Pentagon in direct response to the bleeding budget deficit, itself accumulated in large part by the ‘wars of choice’ Gates candidly warned future administrations to avoid.

Cold Warriors like Gates have a knee-jerk reaction against terms like ‘isolationist’ for good reason. Standing on the sidelines in WW2, or not rebuilding Europe afterwards would have been morally and economically disastrous for the US.

But to many of the Vietnam generation and beyond, pulling back from world crises would benefit the US.  ‘Engagement’ has too often meant American intervention into conflicts within other nations through the ‘soft’ approach of aid or the aggression of war, coup d’etats and assassination.  More recently, the ‘war on terror’ has been used to legitimize similar efforts.

The US will never abandon all its international commitments or even all its off-shore operating bases.  But it can’t police the world.   Power has shifted.  What business does the US have in selling advanced weapons systems to Taiwan?  If Taiwan decided to use them against the People’s Republic of China, we won’t risk war with China on behalf of a small, island nation that China claims in the first place.  NATO, born of the Cold War as a US-European military alliance that could face off with the USSR and Warsaw Pact,  is now in the absurd position of flying air sorties to loosen Col. Quaddafi’s grip on Libya – a far cry from its original mandate. The War in Afghanistan is the only case in NATO’s history where the alliance was called upon to fight in defense of one of its members.  NATO, a bloated relic of the past, is a huge waste of time, money and leadership that should have been dismantled two decades ago.

The US currently  maintains 865 military bases outside the US, Iraq and Afghanistan at a cost of $102 billion a year -  more if the latter are included.  Is this the global infrastructure we need sixty years after WW2?  Shouldn’t other countries and regions be more responsible for their own protection and security? During the Cold War, the US rebuffed Europe whenever European leaders moved to strengthen their independent defense capability.  Fear of European independence is absurd today.

Too many assumptions about US security not challenged in decades still direct the deployment of US troops and material around the world.  Even without the economic meltdown of 2008-9, China and India were growing in relation to the U.S.  The ‘decline of America’ has become a political catch phrase.  Some use it to strike fear in our minds and build anti-foreign sentiment.  Others give it an anti-capitalist slant.

In reality, we are experiencing a relative decline in American economic and political power as other countries develop their own economies and assume greater roles in world politics.  China may be the world’s second largest economy but its per capita economic output in 2010 is the same as America’s was in 1878,  that’s 132 years ago.

Right now, the staggering US economy is pressuring cut-backs in America’s far-flung global infrastructure.  It’s a time to recalibrate and adjust, not panic.



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Gates Made Status Quo More Efficient

Lots of discussion about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates farewell addresses to cadets at the military academies.  Fred Kaplan writes in Slate:

In short, as he (Gates) put it in these most recent speeches, the “defense bureaucracy,” with its “parochial tendencies” and “institutional constipation,” must abandon its “nostalgia” for Cold War ways and adapt to the modern, messy world. The Pentagon has to learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and incorporate those lessons into its culture.  

Gates and Petraeus have made preparation for ‘smaller wars’ a priority. But what do they have in mind? Gates ruled out another Afghanistan or Iraq, saying anyone who sent troops into an Arab country would have to be ‘crazy’. He’s ruled out military action to aid the Libyan uprisings. (I agree with both decisions.) So where are these small wars going to originate?

Are they ‘special operations’? If so, will those operations be like the CIA adventures during the Cold War (overthrow of the elected leader of Iran, assassination of Patrice Lumumba, multi-attempts on Castro’s life and funding guerrilla movements whose leaders later aimed their fury at us (Al Queda) ?

And who might that opponent in a conventional war two or three decades from now be? Could that be China? As China grows and US global reach declines, surely US troops in South Korea and Taiwan will become front line issues between the two countries.  How the US deals with those questions in particular could determine global stability for decades to come.

Secretary Gates’ reforms make the status quo more efficient when what’s needed is a reconfiguration of US global security policy. Would we go to war over China annexing Taiwan? Or keeping those 50,000 American troops in S. Korea? Should the US be involved in territorial disputes between China and Japan? What interests does the US have in East Asia besides economic?  Will we persist in going to war over markets and commercial interest?

These are serious issues. Unless the US accepts its diminishing power to police the world, that future conventional war will become a self-fulfilled prophecy. And the road leading to it will be ugly. A power that does not recognize its relative decline sees enemies everywhere.

Europe gained ‘second world status’ after WW2.  Those nations that fought each other in a spasm of depravity now live in peace.  But they are still armed and able to resist aggression.  They can protect their joint interests. Rather that prepare for offensive actions against the next big power player, China, the US should assume the same kind of defensive posture that sustains peace in Europe now.

Like the British Empire after WW1, the US cannot support its own over-reach after WW2.  Like any nation, it must sustain its ability to repel attack.  But  Asia  and Latin America solve their own problems.

For the last 60 years, the world has moved towards greater participation by citizens in governance, self-rule and democracy.   There is no ideology or religion left to disguise raw power.  Communism as practiced in China is hardly a threat to the US and Europe.  There are no regimes ancients, only a few  unrelenting autocrats who will die off over the next few decades.   Global domination has fallen on its own sword and long been exposed as temporary phenomena.

Gates’ reforms are skin-deep, his warnings about adventurist wars in the Middle East ten years too late.

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Britain Slashes Defense Budget – Could we be next?

Prime Minister Cameron announced an 8% cut in Britain’s defense budget as part of a new economy-wide austerity program.  Troops will be reduced by 12,000, civilian defense workers by 25,000, artillery weapons by 40% and a number of plane purchases dumped.

The planned cuts have raised concerns across the Atlantic, leading Cameron on Monday to phone U.S. President Barack Obama to reassure him that Britain intends to remain a major military power, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Any cuts in the US military budget to help reduce the US deficit would be fought tooth and nail by war hawks and the defense industry, no matter how logical those cuts are.  Unlike the early to mid 1980s in this country, there is currently no constituency pressing for arms reduction and military spending cuts.

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