Notes from the Underground (Mailbag)

A couple interesting opportunities/notifications have landed in my inbox lately, so I thought I’d share those here while I procrastinate think about my finals.

Call for Papers: War in the Digital Age

The Stanford Law & Policy Review is soliciting articles for its upcoming symposium on “War in the Digital Age.”  The Stanford Law & Policy Review is a widely-cited academic journal at Stanford Law School that explores current issues at the nexus of law and public policy. In our upcoming volume, which will be published in the spring of 2014, we will address the challenges and opportunities that emerging technologies present for 21st century conflict. Our framework is purposefully broad, and we are looking for submissions that address novel issues or approach the topic from a new perspective.  We are particularly interested in including the following topics in the “War in the Digital Age” symposium, but this list is not exhaustive:

  • What norms and laws surround the acquisition and use of information in modern conflict, and what norms and laws do we think should apply?
  • How does 21st century conflict implicate issues of government discretion and accountability?
  • Decisions about modern warfare take place at the intersection of state, federal, and international law. How do we balance these regimes?
  • How are technological changes bringing warfare to civilians, and how will this accelerate in the future?
  • When can we hold governments accountable for the actions of their citizens, who may use technology to engage in conflict in new ways?
  • Most analysts focus on the problems that technological innovation causes for the laws and norms surrounding traditional warfare. But do emerging technologies present any new solutions to problems of traditional warfare?

If you are interested in submitting to the symposium, please submit a one-to-four page proposal to us on or before July 1, 2013. Depending on space constraints and other considerations, we may be able to extend you a pre-approval offer of publication.  The earlier we receive a proposal, the greater the chance we can extend a pre-approval offer.  We will accept full article submissions until September 1, 2013.  Note that you are not required to submit a proposal or obtain pre-approval in order to submit an article for publication, although doing so is recommended.  Articles should be between ten and thirty double-spaced pages, not including footnotes and citations.  Articles, proposals, or questions can be directed to Christina Black, Lead Articles Editor, at

CTBT Diplomacy and Public Policy Course

The CTBT Diplomacy and Public Policy Course, entitled, “Proven Treaty, Political Challenge: The CTBT and Multistakeholder Security”, will be held from 15 to 19 July 2013 in Vienna and live streamed online.

Special guest lecturers will include:

  • Professor Siegfried Hecker, Senior Fellow and Professor, Stanford University, Director Emeritus, Los Alamos National Laboratory;
  • Dr Daniel Pinkston, Deputy Project Director, North East Asia, International Crisis Group;
  • Dr James Acton, Senior Associate, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment.

The course will cover political and diplomatic aspects of the CTBT, its history and current challenges and prospects for its entry-into-force and universalization. Participants will cover the basics of the Treaty and its verification regime through a series of e-learning modules to be completed prior to 15 July, which will then be followed by a live lecture component from 15 to 19 July in Vienna. The live lecture component will feature CTBTO expert staff, guest lectures and panel discussions, as well as an interactive simulation at the end of the week. In addition, a Legislation Workshop directed specifically to national implementation measures will take place within the framework of the course. To register or receive more information on this workshop, please contact .

Participants can take part in the course in Vienna or follow online, by watching the live stream or archived videos. Participants who complete all of the course requirements will receive a certificate of successful completion. The course is free-of-charge and open to all interested parties. Registration and further information are available here.

The course is part of the CTBTO’s education and outreach activities, aimed at inspiring the next generation of experts in all aspects of the Treaty. Further information on this effort is available here.

Invisible Armies Insurgency Tracker

My policy and stylistic writing differences with Max Boot aside, this database of insurgencies that goes along with Boot’s latest book is kinda neat, and you might enjoy poking around it. Or maybe not. I’m not gonna try to tell you what to like. If you don’t like this, go play GeoGuessr.

Posted in Announcements | Comments Off

Misleading Numbers

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that ten Washington think tanks are preparing a joint letter calling on Congress and the President to cut DoD overhead spending so that training and readiness can be preserved along with the Department’s burgeoning cyber and special operations capabilities.

Military analysts at think tanks from the liberal Center for American Progress to the conservative American Enterprise Institute to the libertarian Cato Institute will sign the letter to be released Monday. (When analysts at these think tanks reach an accord, it might be time to start thinking about a zombie shelter because

Specifically, the analysts will recommend another round of base closures, reforming the military health care system (Tricare), and cutting the Pentagon’s sizeable civilian workforce. Of the three, cutting the Department’s civilian workforce will be the easiest to achieve. Congress has rejected the administration’s proposals to increase some Tricare fees and is showing zero interest in another base closure round. Military compensation would seem to be another area ripe for reform, but the personnel subcommittee markup rejected DoD’s proposed cap for the 2014 military pay raise. For now, everyone seems content to let the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission put forward some proposals that have little hope of becoming law.

That leaves civilians and contractors holding the short straw.

Time magazine’s Mark Thompson linked to a new Government Accountability Office report showing that DoD’s civilian workforce (civilian employees plus contractors) outnumbers active duty military personnel. In FY11, DoD reported 807,000 civilian full-time equivalents (FTEs) and an estimated 710,000 contractor FTEs. At 1.5 million, civilians outnumber the 1.4 million active duty military personnel.

You know who else outnumbers active duty military on the U.S. Government payroll? Military retirees and their survivors / dependents. 2.4 million retirees and their survivors receive $100 billion a year and 5.5 million receive Tricare benefits compared to 3.3 million active duty personnel and dependents.

Putting aside for the moment whether or not the civilian workforce is too large, focusing strictly on the numbers of civilians, contractors, and uniformed personnel is misleading because it overlooks a key fact.

There’s a very good explanation for the current civilian to military workforce ratio: Civilians and contractors cost less. A lot less. (See above.) We’ve grown the size of our civilian and contractor workforce precisely because we can’t afford to grow our active duty military at the same rate. In the last ten years, our military personnel costs have almost doubled without a corresponding increase in size.

Cutting the civilian workforce will achieve less savings than cuts to uniformed personnel. In perhaps typical Washington fashion, we’ve decided to go for the easy fix that won’t actually fix much.

I don’t have the right answer for the appropriate mix of uniformed and civilian workforce so this isn’t an argument prioritizing one or the other. It’s simply about acknowledging the costs of each, so that we can build the force we need at a price that’s right. The problem is that the Pentagon doesn’t have an answer either. According to a recent Reserve Forces Policy Board report (full disclosure: I work for the chairman), “the Department does not know, use, or track the fully burdened and life cycle costs” for active duty service members,” and according to the aforementioned GAO report, “DoD has yet to assess the appropriate mix of its military, civilian, and contractor personnel capabilities in its strategic workforce plan as required by law.”

Based on anecdotal observations from my professional network, many DoD civilians and contractors are military retirees,* which means they’re drawing a pension, receiving subsidized health care, and shopping at DoD commissaries. So it’s ironic that that by cutting the civilian workforce, we’re inevitably harming some of the very retirees we’re trying to protect by avoiding the tough reforms to the military compensation and retirement system.

* I’ve searched far and wide for survey data that confirms or denies this anecdotal hypothesis but have yet to find it.

Posted in Analysis, Civil-Military Relations, Military | Tagged | 5 Comments

Fun with additional SNAFU context

Earlier today, Rue illustrated the horror of the Army’s $900,000,000 ‘accounting error’ by calculating what that much money could have bought in terms of various weapons systems, and by comparing it to the total defense expenditures of other whole countries.

I posted a link to Rue’s piece on Facebook, and my friend Kristin commented, “Kind of puts that whole “cut PBS funding because every little bit counts” red herring into perspective.” Which got me thinking: just for funsies, what if we take that number outside the completely-overblown-and-disproportionate-to-all-other-facets-of-reality context of the Defense budget? How much would $900,000,000 get us in other parts of our own federal budget? I took a peek through various other Departments’ budgets to see, sampling from a wide range of programs. (Estimates are based on the White House’s FY13 budget).

I’m totally not an accountant, so some of my calculations might be off, but from what I could figure here is a sampling of what other departments/agencies could fund with the amount of money Defense essentially loses in its couch cushions:

Agency/Program How Far $900,000,000 Would Go There
Head Start 6 weeks
NASA Exploration 3 months
Secret Service 6 months
USAID Operations 7 months
Fish & Wildlife Service 8 months
ATF 9 months
Federal Marshal Service 9 months
Dept. of Education Race to the Top Program 11 months
Federal Work Study Program 11 months
Small Business Administration 1 year
Millennium Challenge Corporation 1 year
Dept. of State Non-proliferation, Anti-terrorist, Demining Programs 17 months
Smithsonian Institution 17 months
VA Prosthetic Research 18 months
Bureau of Labor Statistics 18 months
OSHA 19 months
NASA Aeronautics 20 months
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Housing for the Elderly 2 years
Peace Corps 29 months
Dept. of Justice Juvenile Justice & Child Safety Programs 3 years
Dept. of Labor Veterans Employment & Training Program 3.5 years
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) 4 years
Dept. of Commerce Economic Development Administration 4 years
National Endowment for the Arts 6 years
National Endowment for the Humanities 6 years
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Housing for People with Disabilities 6 years
Dept. of Labor Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs 7 years
National Galleries of Art 7.5 years
Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights 23 years

Nah, but unusable Stryker parts are cool, too.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments


The U.S. Army recently discovered $900 million worth of spare Stryker parts, many of which are obsolete or unnecessary, collecting dust in a warehouse. None of the parts appear on the Army’s property books, a $900 million accounting error.

From Stars & Stripes:

Take, for instance, the $57 million worth of obsolete infrared equipment the Army has not installed in Strykers since 2007. It lingered at the Stryker warehouse until the Inspector General called attention to it last year.

Or, the 9,179 small replacement gears called pinions the Army bought as a temporary fix for a Stryker suspension problem that surfaced between 2007 and 2009. The Army took care of the root malfunction in 2010, but kept buying pinions.

It needed only 15 of the gears. The 9,164 extra pinions are worth $572,000, the Inspector General reported.

Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, thinks it “much ado about nothing” because it’s “essentially miscommunication.” Miscommunication? Apparently, fighting a war and keeping good records are mutually exclusive tasks, never mind the fact that the Stryker Program Management Office wasn’t actually fighting a war, but rather working in an air-conditioned office in Michigan not balancing their books.

I understand that, given the size of DoD’s budget, this is essentially a rounding error. Maybe that’s because it’s too abstract. Using the DoD Comptroller’s FY2013 Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System report, I calculated the per unit cost for weapon systems. Here’s a list of nicer things we could have had for $900,000,000:

2 Littoral Combat Ships
5 RQ-4 Global Hawks
11 F/A-18E Super Hornets
31 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters
45 MQ-9 Reapers
150 Strykers
562 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles
600 Tomahawk missiles

Or we can put this accounting error in the context of total military expenditures by country.

1. United States $689 billion
2. China $129 billion
3. Russia $64 billion

72. Serbia $920 million
73. Stryker PMO accounting error $900 million
74. Slovenia $788 million
75. Bahrain $731 million

Goure’s comments are actually insightful in that they show at least some segment of the defense community believes this incident to be completely normal. The lack of accountability will reinforce the business as usual response. The Department receives and spends so much money, and it’s so complex that it’s hard to keep track. And it’s never been audited so it’s nearly impossible to identify how it (mis)spends money except in cases like this where the Inspector General stumbles upon it. Panetta ordered DoD to be audit ready by 2014, which should force some degree of accountability.

So before we follow the recommendations of those who think DoD needs even more money, or that we can’t afford to cut a single dime, perhaps we should ensure the Department knows how to spend the money we already give it.

Posted in Analysis, Defense Acquisition, Military, Slightly Larger Arms | 10 Comments

Staff size and DoD overhead

Buried in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s long and depressing article on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is an interesting statistic. The F-35 program office employs 2,000 people.

Two. Thousand.

For some perspective, here’s a list of offices, staffs, agencies, and commands and their estimated staff size (not including contractors):

  • Pacom                                              3,200
  • Joint Staff                                       2,800
  • OSD                                                  2,700
  • Centcom                                           2,000
  • Defense Logistics Agency              27,000

I know that the Joint Strike Fighter is an inordinately complex acquisition program that, after years of neglect and mismanagement, requires diligent oversight, but it’s still just a single acquisition program. And yet it employs the same number of people as Centcom, which hasn’t exactly been starved of work in the last decade.

As the Department’s budget grew after 9/11, so too did the overhead. Overhead consumes about 40% of the budget. As of FY10, that was $240 billion, equivalent to the entire Israeli economy. We’ve been trying to reduce it for years.

In 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen created a task force called the Defense Reform Initiative and tasked it “to find ways to improve the organization and procedures in the Department” by recommending “organizational reforms, reductions in management overhead and streamlined business practices.” The task force recommended: 1) OSD and associated activities personnel will be reduced 33% from FY 1996 levels; 2) the Joint Staff and associated activities personnel will be reduced 29% from FY 1996; and 3) Defense Agencies personnel will be reduced 21% over the next five years.

In 2010, Secretary Gates tasked the Defense Business Board with repeating the exercise. Again, a task force recommended reducing overhead by streamlining processes and eliminating positions. Some, like dissolving Joint Forces Command, were implemented (though most of these positions simply transferred to the Joint Staff). Gates also identified 102 general officer / flag officer (GOFO) billets to be eliminated, 65 of which were supposed to be eliminated no later than this month. To date, only 31 have been eliminated, mostly 1-stars.

And these are just the two most recent iterations of the game. Studies recommending efficiencies and reducing staff size go back to 1956. They all say the same thing.

The sequester is stupid. There’s no defense for reducing a department’s budget by slicing every line item by an equal amount. Not when there’s so much fat available. But it’s laughable when people act like the budget can’t be cut by another penny. To make that claim is to either betray an ignorance of how the Department actually spends money or put political ideology before analysis.

Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program officer, recently announced his intention to streamline his office by trimming staff. Putting aside for a moment the almost comical goal of keeping JSF costs under control by trimming some staff, I’ve got one thing to say.

Good luck, sir!

Posted in Analysis, Military | 6 Comments

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Qaeda’s Senior Leadership

With recent events in Mali and Algeria, there is a notable uptick in interest in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One question commentators are asking is what the relationship is between AQIM and al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) in Pakistan, under Ayman al Zawahiri. The word I’ve seen employed most frequently to describe the links between the two is “murky.”

I agree with the characterization that the relationship between AQIM and AQSL is murky; but when it is translated into popular discourse, murkiness is often inaccurately understood as “we don’t know if there are ties between the two.” For example, Max Fisher writes at the Washington Post, “It’s tough to know the exact connection between leaders in the Algeria-based AQIM and those in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan…. It’s entirely possible that AQIM’s links to al-Qaeda already are, are becoming, or will become closer to al-Qaeda than we think.” The clear implication is that there may be some connections between AQIM and AQSL, but that it is impossible to know whether they exist, and if so, to what extent. Likewise, Jason Burke writes in The Guardian, “The ties binding AQIM to the leadership of al-Qaida far away in south-west Asia have always been tenuous. The difficulties in communication, let alone travel, precluded any tight co-operation.”

But the documents captured from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad do reveal communications between AQIM and AQSL that extend over the span of four years, and include discussion of strategic and operational issues. While it is possible that after bin Laden’s death, when Ayman al Zawahiri became AQSL’s emir, these communications were crippled or otherwise ceased, there’s no reason that this should be our a priori assumption. This entry is designed to add granularity to the discussion of AQIM and AQSL through a look at the Abbottabad documents. It concludes by agreeing that the AQIM/AQSL relationship is murky, but explaining that commentators can do a better job of representing the ambiguities.

The Abbottabad Documents on AQSL and AQIM

Four of the released Abbottabad documents make referfence to the AQSL/AQIM relationship. I examine these documents in the chronological order in which they were written:

Document 11, circa early 2007. The author states that he is in in contact with members of AQIM, who are doing fine. He includes an upbeat message from AQIM (“the brothers in Algeria”) saying that “things are steadily improving: morale is rising, support is growing, and military activity has been improving recently. Every week there is a bombing, an encounter or ambushes.” The message from AQIM says that “the enemy,” presumably the Algerian military, was “thrown off by the recent strikes and have responded with continuous random shelling of the mountains. This has been very good for the brothers, as much of the ammunition has not detonated and the brothers are using it.” AQIM records five casualties within the week preceding their message.

There are tactical notes from AQIM regarding the fight against the Algerians. They state their concern “about the Russian Cobra helicopters (MI-34) with laser-guided missiles; they are impacting on the four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are indispensible in the Sahara Desert. Underlying that is the problem of badly needed money for good-quality weapons to counter these menacing helicopters; the mujahedin don’t have single one of them, nor a single missile.” The Algerians’ infrared sensors are singled out as being of particular concern.

The correspondence records that the “commander of the east” informed AQIM that they received four Libyan recruits in the past week, following a group of thirty the week before that. (Note that this precedes al Qaeda’s formal merger with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group by around a year, indicating that Libyans were already joining AQIM before the merger occurred.) The Libyan recruits were being trained at Tabsa, which is about 600 kilometers east of Algiers, and featured in late 2006 AQIM/GSPC propaganda.

Document 19, circa May/June 2010. This letter, from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, requests (p. 26) that messages be sent to the leadership of AQIM and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) asking them to coordinate with Yunis al Mauritani (“Shaykh Yunis”) in “whatever he asks of him.” In particular, bin Laden asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should provide al Mauritani with “financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros.” Bin Laden specifies that al Mauritani should be given a name that doesn’t divulge his nationality, and asks ‘Atiyya to set up “a secure method of communications and coordination” between al Mauritani and both AQIM and AQAP. Bin Laden stresses the need for “the utmost secrecy” regarding al Mauritani’s doings, and says that knowledge of his operations should be restricted to AQIM and AQAP’s leadership.

Document 15, October 21, 2010. In this letter from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, Abu Yahya al Libi is appointed as ‘Atiyya’s first deputy, and a big part of his mission is providing religious guidance (“sharia research”) to both AQIM and Somalia’s al Shabaab. With respect to AQIM, bin Laden writes (p. 5): “The brothers in the Islamic Maghreb might experience divisions. To avoid this, the research that you said that you are going to prepare on dealing with the apostates should be sent to them. It should be complete and comprehensive and it should include the opinions of the scholars.”

Bin Laden also sends a messages to Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud (the head of AQIM) through ‘Atiyya, stating that ‘Atiyya should add an attached file “to the files of brother ‘Abd-al-Wadud or you can send it to them [i.e. AQIM] as part of your correspondence to them.”

Further, bin Laden advises AQIM (p. 11) that “planting trees helps al mujahedin and gives them cover” from satellites and spy planes. He notes that trees “would give al mujahedin the freedom to move around especially if the enemy sends spying aircraft to the area.” He suggests that they get trees from plantations, “or they can even create their own plantation.”

Document 10, April 26, 2011. In this letter to ‘Atiyya, Bin Laden writes about French hostages being kept by AQIM. At the time, France was involved in military operations against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Bin Laden warns that because the French are involved in this way, French hostages should not be killed because “the atmosphere after the French standing towards the Libyan people does not condone killing the French, due to what will follow of negative reflections, after it became evident that most of the common people are supporting Sarkozy.”

Bin Laden advises AQIM to keep the hostages until after the 2012 French elections; and if this isn’t possible, he wants to exchange half of them, and keep the other half (“the higher ranking and the more important ones”). He does not want the negotiations between AQIM and the French government to be public, but he does want the hostage issue to remain a political liability for Sarkozy. AQIM appears to have largely handled the hostages in a manner consistent with bin Laden’s directives, though obviously it is difficult to ascribe causality to bin Laden’s letter.


Only a fraction of the Abbottabad documents that U.S. forces captured have been released publicly. However, the limited released material indicates ongoing communication between AQSL and AQIM that goes beyond current implications in the public discourse that we do not know if they were in touch. This communication extended over several years — 2007 through 2011 — and survived changes in AQIM’s leadership and also attrition within AQSL’s ranks.

There are most definitely ambiguities within this evidence due to the fact that we’re only seeing a shadow of the overall relationship. For example, we are only seeing one side of the correspondence: in every instance, we do not know the response prompted by the letters that were sent. It is worth noting, though, that nowhere in these documents do we see indications that bin Laden thought AQIM had been unresponsive to him, nor that the length of time it took to communicate precluded effective contact or some form of cooperation between AQIM and AQSL.

Al Qaeda and its various branches and affiliates did not operate as a perfectly hierarchical organization even before bin Laden’s death. An article that I continue to recommend detailing the relationship the senior leadership had with other entities is Leah Farrall’s “How Al Qaeda Works,” which was published in Foreign Affairs in early 2011. Farrall wrote, “Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises. For their part, al Qaeda’s core members focus on exercising strategic command and control to ensure the centralization of the organization’s actions and message, rather than directly managing its branch and franchises.”

The Abbottabad correspondence fits well with Farrall’s framework. One may adopt a minimalist or maximalist interpretation of what the Abbottabad documents mean. On the maximalist side:

  • AQIM was sending situation reports back to AQSL, which may indicate that they sought its strategic guidance or even approval.
  • Bin Laden was providing significant guidance into how AQIM should fit into al Qaeda’s plans in other theaters. Al Mauritani, for whom bin Laden was trying to ensure both AQIM and AQAP’s cooperation, was at the time preparing a terrorist plot for Europe, news of which would break later that year.
  • The religious guidance that bin Laden wanted provided to AQIM in Document 15 suggests that he sees AQSL as influential enough to heal potential rifts within the group.
  • One can argue that the fact the French hostages whom bin Laden wrote about in April 2011 were handled consistent with his advice may indicate his influence over AQIM.
  • One can argue that Document 11 indicates that communication between AQIM and AQSL may have been relatively fast. The correspondence refers to events that were happening during the past week, which may indicate that AQIM thought AQSL would receive the missive while it was still timely.

On the minimalist side:

  • One can point to the language bin Laden used to suggest that he did not consider himself to have a great deal of control over AQIM. For example, in Document 19, rather than just ordering AQIM to provide Mauritani with financial support, he asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should do so.
  • One can argue that the path of the correspondence indicates that it was likely slow. Bin Laden was communicating with ‘Atiyya rather than communicating directly with AQIM, and ‘Atiyya may have in turn needed to pass the message through another intermediary.
  • Further, the indirect nature of the communication may have diminished the sway bin Laden could have over AQIM through the force of his personality.

Of course, when you are seeing only a fraction of a relationship, there will be a great deal of questions about the whole. But the Abbottabad documents are indicative of long-running communication between AQIM and AQSL preceding bin Laden’s death that goes beyond the public commentary suggesting that we don’t even know if there are “ties” between them. This does not mean the AQIM/AQSL relationship isn’t murky — it is — but our discussion of that murkiness should certainly take note of the data points that are available to us.

Posted in Al Qaeda, Mali | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Send Lone Wolves to Strike Inside of France”

In an article I wrote yesterday for the Globe & Mail, I noted that online jihadists have been inciting attacks against France. One post in this regard, from the Ansar al-Mujahedin Network, was particularly interesting in light of a monograph I co-authored last year with my G&L colleague Dan Trombly about the tactical and strategic use of firearms by terrorists. One of our conclusions was that “small arms are quite useful for terrorist organizations. They are among the most tactically flexible weapons for complex operations, and for lone wolf or small group attackers, they are one of the most simple to use and readily available options. For this reason, small arms will continue to be an obvious choice not only for al Qaeda, but also for other terrorist groups that wish to carry out attacks.”

The post that caught my interest went up on January 13, written by a forum participant calling himself Abu Ubaydah al Masri al Salafi. Entitled “Advice to Our Brothers in the Islamic Maghreb,” the post provides a number of pieces of tactical and strategic advice. Some of the advice includes encouraging other jihadis to “join the army with the goal of killing the largest possible number of French soldiers, and thus weakening the trust between the two sides,” and capturing the French rather than killing them in order to create an anti-war climate in that country. But given my monograph on firearms, his fifth piece of advice stood out:

Send lone wolves to France to strike inside of France. It is preferable for the operations to be like Mohammad Merah’s operation [i.e., the Toulouse shooter]; that is, carried out by gunfire rather than explosives because it takes a long time to prepare explosives and the operation might be uncovered before implementation due to surveillance.

This passage concisely summarizes precisely why firearms will continue to appeal to terrorists, both individuals and groups, even despite the existence of proliferating options.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Welcome to Book Group

Gunpowder & Lead is sponsoring a book group! Here’s the idea: every 3-4 months, one person in the group (of 6-7 people) will choose the book that everyone will be reading. It can be any book, on any subject, fiction or non-fiction. The idea is that if the books are generally chosen by individuals rather than by consensus, we are more likely to read something we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves. It’s a way of expanding our viewpoints. Additionally, it will mean that the responses to each book will be from people with a wide range of expertise on the topic of the selected book, which will give us a variety of perspectives.

Once the book is chosen, we’ll announce it here so that anyone who wants to read along and participate in the discussion can do so, and we’ll leave the comment thread of the announcement post open for anyone who wants to discuss anything about the book before the deadline. At the end of the allotted time, everyone in the main book group will write a short response/review which will be posted here on G&L. Following that post, we will host a discussion on Twitter for everyone who has read along.

For our first book group selection, we have chosen Steve Inskeep‘s Instant City, one of the most frequently mentioned books in our #bestbooks 2012 discussion.

The confirmed readers for this round are me, Diana, and Daveed from G&L, along with Sina Kashefipour – who first suggested a book group – Rebecca Johnson, and Nathan Finney. We plan to post our reviews and host the discussion on Instant City during the week of February 18-22. I’m looking forward to a great conversation, and I hope many will take part!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Gunfight and Glock: Book Reviews

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much about Sandy Hook. I know roughly what happened, but that’s as far as I can get, because this is such an abominable failure of a society to keep its most vulnerable members safe. That’s not just Sandy Hook, of course – it’s every massacre. And nothing ever happens in the aftermath – no real efforts to curb gun violence, nothing that expands mental health care – and I’m with the Onion here.

But maybe I’m being too cynical and defeatist. Maybe this, this finally, is what will mobilize America to demand change from ourselves and our leadership; to undercut the grip the gun lobby has on politics; to recognize that there is a middle ground between arming everybody and total disarmament. So for those who are getting going on this issue and need some good background reading, and also because G&L is collecting Best Books We Read in 2012 (contribute on Twitter with #bestbooks!), I wanted to post two book reviews/opinions I’ve been sitting on for way too long.

NB: these are snarky reviews, as serious book reviews can be found in other places, and nobody reads serious book reviews, and I actually think Gunfight is worth reading, and if I can convince you to read it by being flip, then it was worth it. But I do not take the issue of gun violence lightly, and I hope this will not be read as making light of the tragedies of the past week/month/year/decades (gun violence is epidemic, and it is vital not to decontextualize any one incident).

Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms In America, by Adam Winkler (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.).

Should I ever be asked to explain the history of America’s relationship with guns, I intend to hand over a copy of Adam Winkler’s outstanding Gunfight. On the surface, Gunfight is the story of the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled DC’s ban on handguns unconstitutional and settled the question of whether the Second Amendment is an individual right or not. And while I find the term ‘legal thriller’ to be an oxymoron, Winkler gives life to the characters involved in the DC v. Heller case as it worked its way to the Supreme Court. So that’d be reason enough to read Gunfight; the strategic maneuvering around the case is pretty interesting.

But more usefully, Winkler traces the history of the tension between gun control and gun ownership in America, using the 2008 case as a backdrop. He gives a very readable, founding fathers-onward march through America’s weird love affair with guns. He covers the extensive regulations around guns in the colonial and post-colonial periods, providing an alternate (and well-researched) history that undercuts many of the “but the founding fathers said we could have guns!” arguments that seem to still hold water these days. Because it’s not just that the guns of yesteryear were slow to load and broadly inaccurate; they were also locked up most of the time. Likewise out in the Wild West; you gave your guns to the sheriff when you got to town, and you got them back on your way out.

Given the heat the NRA’s taken in the last week, it’s particularly instructive to look at the organization’s history, and Winkler does an excellent job here (and for those with short attention spans, so does Toobin). Once upon a time, the NRA wasn’t the trade association it’s essentially become (okay so technically the National Shooting Sports Foundation is the trade association. But the NRA’s funding comes mainly from gun manufacturers, and the NRA’s lobbying wing is the most active in the industry, and if there’s one thing gun manufacturers want, it’s to sell more guns, which means loosening laws and creating fear that those laws will be tightened ANY MINUTE BUY NOW OBAMA WANTS TO TAKE YOUR GUNS AWAY! It’s… weird. And really effective.)

Anyway! Once upon a time! Back in the 1930s! The NRA wasn’t like that. They actually lobbied for gun control. Karl T. Frederick, a past president of the NRA, was a conservationist and a crack shot who once said, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” (210-211) Madness! And none of the NRA’s advocacy was about the Second Amendment, because it wasn’t seen as a particularly strong argument against gun laws. Ah, the glorious 30s. Except for the Great Depression and the start of World War II, that was a real good decade, I tell you.

And then the 1950s came along (whatever, 1940s, nobody loves you), and the soldiers came home and there were just lots of cheap guns left over after WWII, and while there were purchasing restrictions, they weren’t that onerous, and that’s when proliferation in America really kicked off. And then we had the 1960s, with the social upheavals thereof, and crime started to rise, and people started to arm themselves more for self-defense than for hunting. The NRA’s membership started to shift from hunters and recreational shooters to self-defense-oriented folks.

And then, in 1976, the executive vice president and de facto head of the organization decided to relocate the NRA headquarters out of Washington, DC, and get out of the lobbying business in favor of outdoorsman activities and environmental awareness programs. This did not sit well with the self-defense crowd. Harlon Carter, the head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, and Neal Knox, who thought the assassination of MLK, Jr. was a government plot to advance gun control, engineered a coup that turned the NRA into the organization that it is today. Oops. Moral of the story: know your bylaws.

Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, by Paul M. Barrett

For my birthday, some very dear friends bought me Paul Barrett’s new book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun after we wandered into his talk at Politics & Prose. And I wanted to like it, because hey, birthday present! Books about guns! This has been a winning combination in the past. But unless you care a lot about marketing strategies or are really into reporters’ notebooks, just borrow this one from the library.

Unfortunately for Mr. Barrett, the history of Glock, Inc. doesn’t span centuries, as American Rifle does, or involve global domination, as The Gun does, so there’s just not that much to write about that hasn’t been well-covered elsewhere. Here, I’ll sum up Glock:

  • In the early 1980s, a hard-working Austrian named Gaston Glock comes up with cheap semi-automatic pistol that holds 17 rounds at the same time American law enforcement begins to realize that revolvers are a pain to reload, especially when you’re getting shot at. Smith & Wesson fails to notice that revolvers are on their way out of law enforcement.
  • Glock hires a really, really good sales guy, Karl Walter. Really Really Good Sales guy is really really good. Boy, is he good. Strippers! Free training! Discounts for law enforcement and Hollywood!
  • Hard-working Austrian and Really Really Good Sales Guy manage to get their guns in the hands of law enforcement. The rest of the firearms industry, by contrast, twiddles their thumbs and looks sad.
  • Gun control advocates kick up a big fuss over the magazine size, light trigger pull, alleged undetectableness, whatever else they can find. Gun nuts buy them by the boatload. Some more pouting happens on the part of other manufacturers.
  • Really Really Good Sales Guy gets fired for being too good. Another sales guy is hired who eventually hires somebody to kill Gaston Glock. Assassination attempt fails. Exeunt.

There. That’s the book (okay, maybe there’s more, but I gave up around p200). It’s an interesting story, but it’s not 267 pages worth of interesting, and the writing isn’t particularly compelling. In short, Glock is synonymous with gun in America for the same reason Xerox is both a brand and a verb: good marketing and slow-footed competition. Glock holds this special place in the American psyche simply because it hit the ground running with a novel product and some smart business practices in the 80s; it captured the law enforcement market early in its existence, giving it a way to quickly scale up production and a stamp of approval for other marketing efforts.

Glock seems to be the work of a reporter who thought it’d be cool to write about guns and needed an excuse to do some research. And there’s a lot of research. To his credit, Barrett did his homework, and he’s got a lot of facts and figures and dates to report. Oh, and anecdotes. So very many “and then I talked to this other random person” anecdotes. There’s also the irrelevant story of Barrett learning to shoot by… entering a competition? Okay, whatever. There’s just so much fluff, but I suppose that at 267 pages with wide margins and large font, any editing for fluff would’ve made this too short to be worth publishing as a book.

Glock tries to situate itself in the pantheon of Definitive Books About Guns, but it’s better suited to the business section. Pass.


I know Americans aren’t a particularly history-oriented bunch, by and large, but the history of gun laws in America is one that needs to read and internalized. Many of the proposals and op-eds I’ve read in the last week are, frankly, rehashes of history. This is not to dismiss them; rather, I simply encourage anybody writing or reading or lobbying or agitating or whatever you’re doing around the effort to curbing gun violence and/or proliferation to do your homework. Start with Gunfight. Skip Glock.

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Why Tom Ricks’s Fox Appearance Was Less Impressive Than You Think

You’ve probably already seen Tom Ricks’s Fox News appearance from yesterday that has created so much buzz on social media. His buzz-inspiring line came at the end of a short debate about Benghazi, when Ricks said, “I think the emphasis on Benghazi has been extremely political, partly because Fox is operating as the wing of the Republican Party.” The interview promptly ended after that remark. Since then, Ricks’s interview has been hailed in many quarters as a minor act of heroism, particularly by liberal commentators and others who simply don’t like Fox. And Ricks seems to agree, judging from his comments on the incident to the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple:

I also have been thinking a lot about George Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II, and one of the heroes of my new book. He got his job by speaking truth to power, and I have been thinking that we all could benefit by following his example as much as we can.

After I went off the air I saw some surprised faces in the hallway. One staff person said she thought I had been rude. My feeling was that they asked my opinion and I gave it.

Put bluntly, Ricks’s Fox appearance is far less impressive than his supporters believe, and in fact I think it’s clear that he was out of line if people assess the appearance objectively. To provide some context before I bear out this point, I am speaking as someone who thought Benghazi was overblown as a campaign issue on the Republican side, and did find the coverage overly politicized. Don’t just take my word for this: this appearance on a conservative talk radio show, The Jon Justice Show, does a fairly good job of illustrating where I stood on the issue. So this critique isn’t the product of sour grapes by someone who disagrees about Benghazi. But describing Fox as a “wing of the Republican Party” during the course of the interview is weak stuff.

The first reason: it’s nothing more than an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem attacks are recognized as logical fallacies because they distract from the argument, instead turning attention to the person making the argument. But someone’s bad character, lack of intelligence, etc. does not speak to the truth or falsehood of their argument. As Bill James, the idol of baseball nerds everywhere, has said, “If an undergraduate with a C average can show by clear and convincing evidence that leading scientists are wrong about something, the scientists will not say, or should not say, ‘Who are you to argue with Jonas Salk?’ What counts is evidence, not the authority of the person making the claim.”

So let’s turn this particular case around. What if Jon Scott, the anchor, had said to Ricks: “Of course you’d take that position, since you’re a Democrat”? Is there any way in which that would be a proper question or line of argument? Virtually nobody, other than the most partisan observers, would think that was proper, precisely because it is attacking his character and motivation. But that is essentially what Ricks was doing to Fox. Rather than contributing to a conservations, ad hominem attacks are conversation-enders.

Incidentally, this makes the early termination of Ricks’s interview utterly unsurprising. Wemple writes, in his blog, “What happens when you agree to come on Fox News and then proceed to hammer the network for serving as a ‘wing of the Republican Party?’ Answer: You don’t stay on the air too long.” Wemple thus implies that this is either surprising or sinister. But come on: it’s really not. Try going on MSNBC and slamming them as a wing of the Democratic party, or going on Al Jazeera and hammering them for serving Qatari state interests. You’re probably not going to stay on the air too long there, either.

The second reason: Ricks’s attack on Fox is hypocritical. There are two layers to this hypocrisy. The first is that, though Ricks is no shill, he hasn’t made a habit of insulting every media outlet whose bias shows through in a segment. For example, Ricks utterly confounded Keith Olbermann during Olbermann’s MSNBC days, when the anchor had brought Ricks on with the expectation that he would slam John Boehner. But Ricks got through the entire segment without insulting either the network or Olbermann: instead, he respectfully but firmly refuted Olbermann’s extremely biased presentation of facts. Ricks defended his practice of insulting Fox by saying that “they asked my opinion and I gave it.” Then why not similarly insult MSNBC? He certainly had time to do so. If Ricks is going to make a practice of “speaking truth to power” by insulting networks who bring him on, he should be sure to insult his hosts whenever he senses bias.

I might even respect, in some perverse way, a public commentator who habitually insulted networks and hosts of all political stripes during appearances. I still wouldn’t find it particularly useful: not only would doing so still constitute needless ad hominem attacks, but also it’s not like we need a Tom Ricks on the air to know that Fox skews conservative in its coverage and MSNBC liberal. But, anyway, the available evidence suggests that while Ricks is not a shill for one political party, he also isn’t the guy who will insult all comers.

The second layer to Ricks’s hypocrisy: why did he appear on Fox in the first place, if he has so little respect for the network? I mean, you can’t avoid insulting the network when confronted with a line of questioning with which you disagree, but they’re good enough to appear on to pimp your new book?

Third, does Fox News represent “power”? You might have noticed that in the last election the Democrats won the presidency and retained the Senate. I think Ricks’s statement that Fox is a wing of the Republican party is hyperbolic, just as it would be hyperbolic to call MSNBC a wing of the Democratic party. But even if the relationship were what Ricks claims, isn’t there more of a need for a network that will consistently try to hold the party in power accountable rather than a network that will tend to defend the party in power? In other words, isn’t Ricks’s calculus backward? Wouldn’t Fox have represented “power” during the eight years of the Bush administration, and wouldn’t MSNBC now be the network representative of “power”?

Further, it isn’t at all clear that the administration is blameless in the Benghazi fiasco. I tended to avoid this issue during the election precisely because the reporting was far too politicized for me to get a good sense of what had actually gone down. But to consign Benghazi to being an issue that only a wing of the Republican party might care about seems awfully incurious for a former journalist.

Fourth, rather than “speaking truth to power,” Ricks seems to be “kicking the fat kid.” I have always liked the idea of speaking truth to power, but in practice often (though not always) find that those claiming to do this are in fact exercising power by extending discursive norms in a direction that delegitimizes their opponent’s opinion without actually refuting it. Let’s face it: among liberal intelligentsia, Fox is the proverbial fat kid, and no news organ is more consistently mocked and disrespected. Ricks’s comments were sure to find a ready audience within the preexisting and rather widespread sentiments that hold Fox, and the viewpoints it represents, to be illegitimate in some fundamental way. For a guy like Ricks, Fox is a very easy target. Sure, his segment gets cut short, but he then gets to boast about how he spoke truth to power and spend the next few days basking as a minor hero.

You may enjoy what Ricks did. But we shouldn’t pretend it’s particularly courageous, nor should we pretend that it has in some way enhanced the public sphere.

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