Author Archives: Jimmy Sky

Voltaire and Spiderman

This is a guest post from Brett Friedman (@brettfriedman) who says smart stuff in lots of smart places.  Since this post included references to Star Wars and Spiderman, we thought it would be a good fit for Gunpowder and Lead (he misspells ‘Voltron’ though). –Sky

As tragic events continue to take place in Syria, the world increasingly looks to the United States to do something to end the violence. Even though there are numerous reasons why such an intervention would be a bad idea, (See here, here, here, here…. You get the idea), intervention supporters persist in their calls for the US to get involved. One justification for US action remains: Because we can. We have the power to intervene, therefore we have the responsibility. Calls for the US to intervene in Syria’s civil war, or indeed any desired intervention in the name of R2P, rests on this concept, which Voltaire put best: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”* This exact phrase is even used by Bernard Finel, Professor at the National War College, in this post.

Does this idea apply when it comes to war in general and the Syrian civil war in particular? Syria does have a well-developed, large, and mostly loyal military. However, I don’t think anyone would argue that they could go toe-to-toe with our own military even on their own soil. Our military is quantitatively and qualitatively superior and we have the power projection capabilities to get it to Syria. So, we’ve got the power. Do we have the responsibility? The better question is, does the President of the United States, as the Commander-in-Chief, have the responsibility to intervene? I do not believe so. Not because he does not have responsibility, but because he does have responsibility.

First and foremost, the President is responsible to the American people, and not just those who voted for him. He has the responsibility not to expend taxpayer-funded resources in a reckless manner or to unnecessarily expose the nation to retaliation for flexing its power. Perhaps most importantly, he has been invested, by the American people, with the responsibility to oversee the nation’s military. He owes the American people the assurance that their military will not be used in a foolish or frivolous manner that does not serve the American people’s interest, safety, or prosperity. Additionally, as Commander-in-Chief, he has a responsibility to all American servicemembers not to spill their blood unnecessarily. While the US military is capable enough of stopping the civil war in Syria, it could never do so without loss of life. Americans would die to purchase peace. The President has the burden of being directly responsible for the lives of Americans. That responsibility, as many of us know, weighs the heaviest of all.

The phrase was also used by Peter Parker’s grandfather Uncle Ben in the Spiderman comics. Like Spiderman, the US military and its Commander-in-Chief have both great power and great responsibility. Unlike Spiderman, however, we exist in the real world. We can be caught in the webs of enemies or entangled in our own webs. We can be immobilized and overextended, then drained as we struggle helplessly. The President is invested with almost innumerable responsibilities, but first and foremost is his responsibility to protect the United States. Not just from external enemies, but from dangerous pursuits that do not serve her interest, the wasteful expenditure of resources, and the unnecessary death of US servicemembers. Sometimes it will be necessary or in our interests to intervene abroad. Sometimes, the President must be Uncle Owen keeping Luke from following Obi-Wan on some damn fool crusade.

This post is certainly not meant to condemn those who feel the US should intervene. Frankly, the desire on the part of many to help the people of Syria is a noble and appropriate feeling. I would hope that all Americans feel a similar desire, especially considering that our nation was born when it threw off another form of tyranny. But one can simultaneously want to help others and realize that helping would be too costly or exacerbate the problem. Indeed, recognizing our higher responsibilities or even just the limits of our ability to lend aid does not absolve us of our humanity. We should all hope that Al Assad reaps what he has sown in Syria, and that the Syrian people succeed in taking control of their own destiny.


*- He probably said it in French.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Tortured Logic

Jose Rodriguez is the former head of CIA’s Clandestine Services, the organization responsible for conducting the interrogations of several key al Qaeda figures. He has recently published a new book, Hard Measures, in which he discusses how he fought for authority and latitude to use the now infamous ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’

As part of the book promotion, Rodriguez has given a series of interviews, the most notorious of which was with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. My purpose in linking that interview here isn’t to go back and rehash every aspect of the debate around EIT, but focus on a few aspects of the interview and the logic that Jose Rodriguez uses to justify the actions that he and his team took.  Also, just to get this out-of-the-way up front, my personal belief is that, strategically, the use of EIT has been a net loss for US interests.

As a caveat, I have not yet read ‘Hard Measures.’ I also fully acknowledge that 60 Minutes has the ability to shape the ‘tone’ of interviews during the editing process, but I have no idea to what extent that may have happened in this case.

I would recommend that you watch the videos in their entirety, but no matter what you need to jump to 6:45 in Video 1 so that you can see the ‘Big Boy Pants’ reference.

Video 1

Video 2

<embedding these videos has proved…troublesome.  If we can figure it out we will add them in later.  Regardless, I promise they are worth watching>

A couple of things to note. First, Leslie Stahl does not come across as an unbiased journalist seeking to understand the motivations of Rodriguez. There are several places where she uses a specific type of language and question to frame the interview.  She often appears more like a lawyer conducting a cross-examination. Stahl asks a question using specific unflattering language and then Rodriguez responds by offering a rationalization but also adopting the unflattering language and repeating it in his response. [bold emphasis added to transcript]

Lesley Stahl: You had no qualms? We used to consider some of them war crimes.
Jose Rodriguez: We made some al Qaeda terrorists with American blood on their hands uncomfortable for a few days. But we did the right thing for the right reason. And the right reason was to protect the homeland and to protect American lives. So yes, I had no qualms. [...]

Lesley Stahl: So you were getting pressure from Congress and the White House to take the gloves off. Did you go to the dark side?
Jose Rodriguez: Well, the dark side, that’s what we do.
Lesley Stahl: You are the dark side.
Jose Rodriguez: We are the dark side. [...]

Lesley Stahl: So sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation. I mean, this is Orwellian stuff. The United States doesn’t do that.
Jose Rodriguez: Well, we do.

It was disturbing to see that the man who was in charge of eliciting intelligence from America’s worst enemies did not realize that he was being manipulated into making statements that were against his own best interest.

Secondly, there are several places where Rodriguez appears to contradict himself over the course of the same interview.

Jose Rodriguez: We were flooded with intelligence about an imminent attack. That al Qaeda had an anthrax program, and that they were planning to use it against us. And that they were seeking nuclear materials to use in some type of nuclear weapon. So we were facing a ticking, time bomb situation and we were very concerned. [...]
Jose Rodriguez: You know, he had speculated that within 30 days we would probably be able to get the information that we wanted, yes.

The imagery most people associate with a “ticking, time bomb situation” is not something that allows you to wait 30 days for intelligence.  When you have a ticking time bomb, Jack Bauer shoots the terrorist in the kneecap and you find out what you need to know.  When Rodriguez uses this kind of language he is playing to ’24′ fantasy that is still, unfortunately held by large tracts of the American population, some even within the intelligence community.

Jose Rodriguez: The reason why we taped Abu Zubaydah was because we– he was very wounded when he was captured. And we feared that he was gonna die in captivity. So we wanted to show the world that we actually had nothing to do with his death. That you know, he died on his own.
Lesley Stahl: Well, that’s ironic. You wanted to have a video record that he was being well treated, but in the end they became– a video record that he had been subjected to these harsh techniques.
Jose Rodriguez: Yeah, we weren’t hiding anything.
Lesley Stahl: But you then ordered these tapes destroyed.
Jose Rodriguez: Correct. Ninety-two tapes.
Lesley Stahl: Ninety-two tapes. Why did you order that they be destroyed?
Jose Rodriguez: To protect the people who worked for me and who were at those black sites and whose faces were shown on the tape
Lesley Stahl: Protect them from what?
Jose Rodriguez: Protect them from al Qaeda ever getting their hands on these tapes and using them to go after them and their families. 
Voice-over: He was also worried about the very survival of the CIA’s dark side, the Clandestine Service because of the so-called Abu Ghraib effect.
Jose Rodriguez: I was concerned that the distinction between a legally-authorized program as our enhanced interrogation program was, and illegal activity by a bunch of psychopaths would not be made.

Make no mistake, these tapes were primarily a CYA maneuver by Rodriguez to assure there could be no accusation that his team was crossing the line of what they were authorized to do.  There is actually nothing unusual about this.  On the contrary, if you are engaging in activities “at the border of legality” it is wise to document that you are not actually crossing that ‘border’.  Law enforcement organizations routinely video interviews and interrogations to provide video evidence that verbal statements were made and that they were not obtained unlawfully (acknowledging the different standards of legality that exist between these situations). The part that demonstrates Rodriguez’s flawed logic, or outright deception is when he says “we wanted to show the world…”  There is simply no conceivable situation where Rodriguez, or the US government would choose to show “the world” a video of a detainee being water-boarded. Rodriguez clearly taped the interrogations to protect himself from any kind of policy change.

Rodriguez also acknowledges taking several other steps in order to protect himself and his team from future reprisals.  By forcing Agency leadership to repeatedly sign off whenever EIT techniques were used, he assured that he could never be ‘hung out to dry’ as he alleges CIA personnel have been in the past.  I don’t think anyone that has ever worked within a dynamic, politically charged bureaucracy can fault Rodriguez on this one.  There were indications early in the Obama Administration that they may consider prosecution. While I do not believe that this was ever likely, I can understand why he took this step. It should also be noted that Rodriguez’s destruction of the tapes certainly raised the question of whether they contained evidence of illegal activity.  The destruction was a key aspect to the Justice Department conducting a review.  Ultimately, neither Rodriguez or anyone from his team was prosecuted for any actions taken during this time.

Rodriguez also seems to contradict himself on the overall utility of EIT.  While he claims that it directly led to the capture of several senior al Qaeda leaders, in the next breath he states that it was unreasonable to expect that it would lead to Osama bin Laden.

Lesley Stahl: Here’s something that was told to me. Abu Zubaydah’s stories sent the CIA around the globe. Not a single plot was foiled. We spent millions chasing phantoms.
Jose Rodriguez: Bullshit. He gave us a road map that allowed us to capture a bunch of Al Qaeda senior leaders. [...]

Lesley Stahl: But the truth is about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you really didn’t break him.
Jose Rodriguez: Why? Why do you say that?
Lesley Stahl: Well, he didn’t tell you about Osama bin Laden. He didn’t tell you how to get him. He didn’t tell you how to find him.
Jose Rodriguez: Some of these people were not going to tell us everything.
Lesley Stahl: So you don’t break ‘em.
Jose Rodriguez: There is a limit, there is a limit to what they will tell us.
Lesley Stahl (Voiceover): Actually KSM lied about the courier – whose identity finally led to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the terrorist leader he calls Sheikh bin Laden was hiding.
Lesley Stahl: Now, here’s what I heard: that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told you the courier had retired and threw you off the scent for a while.
Jose Rodriguez: That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh. He was not going to tell us.

The most bizarre theme in the interview that Rodriguez repeatedly tries to hit is that EIT is not that bad and that it is basically what normal people experience in a routine day.

Lesley Stahl: You also employed stress techniques?
Jose Rodriguez: Uh-huh. There was a technique where the detainee would sit on the floor and would raise his hands over his head.
Lesley Stahl: In other words, he had to hold his hands up there forever and ever, right?
Jose Rodriguez: Forever & ever? I was thinkin’ about this the other day. The objective was to induce muscle fatigue, and most people who work out do a lot more fatiguing of the muscles.
Lesley Stahl: Are you saying this was like going to the gym? Come on.
Jose Rodriguez: A little different.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah.
Central to the interrogation was sleep deprivation. Abu Zubaydah was also kept awake for three straight days.
Jose Rodriguez: Sleep deprivation works. I’m sure, Lesley, with all the traveling that you do, that you have suffered from jet lag. And you know, when you don’t get a good night’s sleep for two, three days, it’s very hard.
Lesley Stahl: Now, you don’t really mean to suggest that it’s like jet lag. I mean, you make it sound like it’s benign when you say stuff like that.
Jose Rodriguez: Well, I mean, the feeling–
Lesley Stahl: And you go into the gym and jet lag–
Jose Rodriguez: Well, the feeling that you get when you don’t sleep.
Lesley Stahl: But I mean, these were enhanced interrogation techniques. Other people call it torture.This was– this wasn’t benign in any– any sense of the word. [...]

Jose Rodriguez: No. He [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] gets a good night’s sleep. He gets his Ensure. By the way, he was very heavy when he came to us and he lost 50 pounds. So– [I really wish Stahl wouldn't have cut him off here because it sounds like he is going to explain how EIT is just like a diet program.  -JSG]
Lesley Stahl: What his Ensure? You mean like people in the hospital who drink that stuff?
Jose Rodriguez: Yes. Dietary manipulation was part of these– our techniques.

In these examples, Rodriguez seems to say, “We didn’t do anything to hurt these guys, basically we sent them to the gym, made them stay up a little bit past their bedtime and we put them on the Atkins diet.”  These are ridiculous defenses of EIT, but they are tame compared to the last one.

Jose Rodriguez: Can I say something about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? He’s the one that was responsible for the death of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street reporter. He slit his throat in front of a camera. I don’t know what type of man it takes to cut the throat of someone in front of you like that, but I can tell you that this is an individual who probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about having water poured on his face.

Regardless of your opinions on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in general or water-boarding in particular, this statement should send a chill down your spine.  Apart from the unconscionable comparison of water-boarding to something as mundane-sounding as taking a shower, Rodriguez essentially states that if a detainee has done something horrific enough, it becomes impossible to torture them. What is implicit in that statement is that because KSM brutally killed Danny Pearl he has somehow ceased to become human and therefore no action we take against him could possibly be considered torture.

The issues surrounding the authorization and utilization of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques in 2002 and beyond are complex.  There will assuredly never be a full accounting on either the positive or negative aspects.  That complexity is what I wanted to see in this interview.  I was prepared to give Jose Rodriquez the benefit of the doubt on several aspects.  I reminded myself that there was a very different political tone in the country immediately post-9/11.  I hoped to hear a rational defense of the CIA utilizing harsh tactics to elicit information for the greater good.  I wanted to identify with someone who recognized the great weight and responsibility that his position held.   Instead, I got Jose Rodriguez.  A man who comes across as being in no way troubled with the actions that he took or concern for the way those actions reflected on his country.  If he ever did have any concerns, he has rationalized them away over the last decade.  Now, he literally has “no qualms.”

This is my concern with the logic that went into the development and utilization of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.   Somebody, somewhere needed to have qualms.  When we chose to go down this path, we should have recognized the impacts that this would have on our character and our identity as a nation.  We should have been mindful and vigilant and perpetually troubled by our decision.  Instead of just asking the legal question of ‘Can we do it?’ we also should have asked, and continued asking the question of ‘Should we do it?’


Posted in Al Qaeda, Middle East, Radicalization, Terrorism | 2 Comments

All About the (Private) Benjamins

Lets get this out of the way upfront: there is no way to objectively calculate what military members “deserve.” Military life can be rough even in peacetime, and the risk and sacrifices expected of military members are even greater during war, or whatever we’re calling this thing now. But it’s misleading to say it’s all sacrifice.

Here is the bottom line on active duty military pay and benefits.  They are much, much, much better than anyone realizes, and by “anyone” I really mean anyone. Pay and benefits are probably the best-kept secret in the military and over the last 12 years they have increased at a substantial rate.  The Tenth Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation from February 2008 states that

…compensation for members of the uniformed services compares favorably to compensation in the civilian sector, and the differential is substantial when the comparison includes not only cash compensation but also elements of a generous benefits package. But this fact is not well understood by service members in general. While service members tend to understand that their cash compensation compares favorably to the cash earnings of comparable civilians, they do not appreciate the full extent to which their total compensation—including benefits—exceeds that of their civilian counterparts.  

This widespread ignorance is problematic for a couple reasons.  First, it contributes to military personnel making career decisions without fully understanding what life is like outside the military.  Second, it feeds into the myth amongst the military, the general population, and Congress that every facet of military existence is perpetual sacrifice and that the least we can do is pay them more. On several occasions this has even led to Congress tagging an additional 0.5%* across the board pay increase beyond what the Pentagon requested (FTR, this happened under both Bush and Obama).  This mentality also discourages us from facing the uncomfortable truth that money put into personnel compensation may be more advantageously spent elsewhere.

Complicating all of that is the convoluted nature of the military compensation system. Pretty much everyone who has studied this issue has stated, in varying degrees, that the compensation system is too complicated to allow for sound policy decisions: the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research ServiceRAND (in at least two reports).  Even the Department of Defense says as much in the most recent QRMC and the Defense Advisory Council on Military Compensation.   (it should be noted that most of these documents explicitly avoid answering the question ‘How much should we pay the military?’)

So let’s try to break it down a bit. Every report on this topic utilizes a slightly different formula to calculate military compensation, but I’m primarily using the graphics from the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, published in February of 2008. Yes, surprise! This is enough of an issue that there is a statute that every four years the President must establish a committee to study the topic and report back to him (incidentally, I’m also enough of a nerd to know that the 11th QRMC has been delayed – my guess is to assure that its findings align with the new fiscal realities within the department).

So, here is what military compensation currently looks like…

Why is this important? Because any time you hear someone talking about military “pay” (basically the right hand side of the pie chart) they are essentially ignoring over half of the monetary value that military members receive.

The term used to describe this 48% of the pay and benefits pie is RMC, meaning “Regular Military Compensation.”  After controlling for education, the military is consistently higher than the 70th percentile of earned income.  Relatively to this 70th percentile metric, officers have it slightly better than enlisted.

A couple of things to point out in these graphs; First off, for both officer and enlisted there is a steady, predictable increase in take home income.  This, of course, will vary somewhat from individual to individual, but based on the fairly standard promotion timelines for service members (especially officers), the military provides an income that places them in the upper levels of their social cohort for the duration of their career.  Keep in mind, all of this is before you include the Deferred and Noncash benefits.

You should also note that for the “typical” young enlisted member in the top chart (18-yo, without college) the military provides an additional $10,000 a year over what they could anticipate earning as a civilian for the first few years of their career.

All of this paints a picture of a fairly well compensated military force relative to the general population of the country.  However, once you include the monetary value of the additional benefits (the left-hand side of the pie chart above) the picture changes considerably.  The term used for the inclusion of the entire benefits and compensation package is MAC: “Military Annual Compensation.”

The income percentile for the military, both officer and enlisted (blue line), jumps up to between the 80th and 90th percentile for the majority of a 20 year career.  At the start of an enlisted career, the service member is actually exceeding the 90th percentile income bracket for his cohort.  For officers, the movement into the 90th percentile occurs both at the beginning of a career and again beyond the 18-year mark.

So, how well paid is the military? Even if you take out all the Noncash and Deferred benefits listed above and just focus on take-home pay, the military still has it pretty good.  There is a longer discussion to be had over the “deferred benefits” (aka retirement), which I discussed at length here and here).  But there is a natural tendency to focus on the “take-home” salary of military members – and by doing so, we are inadvertently contributing to a continued narrative of the military being underpaid.

So aside from demonstrating how much I hate America and setting myself up for a brutal comment section, what am I trying to accomplish here?  I’m not advocating that we reduce the take-home pay of military members, but we do need to take steps to convey to military personnel, the public and Congress exactly how well compensated the military is relative to the rest of the population.  This means taking some basic steps like simplifying the compensation system and updating servicemembers’ LESs so that the monetary costs of benefits is reflected.

In addition, we also need to assure that we are clear-eyed about the impact compensation packages have on the overall budget.  Military compensation, like all government spending, should be limited to the minimum amount necessary to achieve goals; in this case the maintenance of a certain quality of life for the All Volunteer Force.  The problem is that this has to simultaneously be balanced with the need to maintain adequate personnel numbers and sustain retirement benefits.  Unfortunately, no one seems to really want to delve into what that actually means.

For example, in 1999 there was a push to address a “13% pay gap” between the military and their civilian counterparts. The problem is that this number seems to have been largely arbitrary and not the result of a serious analysis (if someone has a study reference for this, please point me to it).  On the contrary, the 13% pay gap was actually refuted fairly convincingly at the time by the CBO.  Regardless, this lead to a new law that authorized Congress to increase that annual military pay raises by an additional 0.05% beyond the Employment Cost Index every year for the next 6 years in an effort to close this (questionable) gap. [The Employment Cost Index is set by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is the baseline for annual raises for all federal employees including military]

However, when the six years was over, Congress continued to fund this additional 0.5%* for several more years, even though there was no longer any legal requirement for it and the Pentagon was no longer even requesting it. [In the interest of full disclosure, I personally benefited from several of these pay raises and never once complained]

There are a few indications that the attitude towards pay and benefits is starting to change.  The Pentagon has made long overdue changes to the costs of Tricare for both Active Duty and working age retirees.  They have also begun prorating ‘Imminent Danger Pay,’ which may have been the single most abused benefit in the history of the DoD.  Basically, if you spent a single day out of the month in a hostile area, you were paid an additional $225/month.  This meant that the entire military rushed to make it into theater before the end of the month and drug their feet in order to stay in theater until the 1st day of the next month.  A finance officer relayed the story of one senior USAF official who made 6 trips into theater in one year, each trip approximately 60 days apart, but conveniently straddling the monthly transition. That means he made an extra $2700 ($225 x 12) that year for a spending a just few weeks in theater (also all tax free if I recall the rules correctly)

I sincerely don’t want to oversimplify this issue.  There are myriad reasons why people join the military along with a largely different set of reasons for why they stay. An aspect of that decision is certainly financial.  However, to act as if the only way to maintain the status of the all-volunteer force is by perpetually increasing the compensation and benefits for military service members is an indictment of our policy makers’ ability to make sound fiscal judgments and an insult to uniformed personnel.  The compensation policies we have pursued over the last decade imply that we think service members are solely motivated by personal financial gains.  Let me assure you, this is not true, but the question remains; how much is too much?  Where do we draw the line?  How much do you pay people when it’s impossible to objectively determine what they deserve?

Also, if you are one of those people who breathlessly criticize slowing active duty military compensation growth and reductions in retiree benefits and the drawdown of personnel, you need to come to grips with the fact that all of these items come from the same ‘pot’ of money.  Since it’s now becoming clear that the DoD is going to face a truly flat budget over the next few years that means that this ‘pot’ can no longer grow at the unchecked rates it has over the last decade.  That means that from here on out, every dollar that goes into active duty compensation or retiree benefits is a dollar that doesn’t go into maintaining the size of the active duty force.  Secretary Panetta has announced the planned drawdown of 80,000 from the Army and 20,000 from the USMC.  Ostensibly, this is because we no longer need to sustain forces at these levels, but you have to ask if it is possible that we might “need” these personnel a little more if we could afford to keep them.


* Thanks to Justin T. Johnson (@justinjdc) for pointing out that my pay raise number should have been 0.5%, not 0.05%.

Posted in Big Money, Careerism, Military, War | 42 Comments

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…

Gunpowder and Lead is privileged to occasionally host accomplished guest bloggers with expertise in realms far outside of our own.  This post was written by the very talented, ‘Andrea’ aka @AgentAbleTango.  Apart from having a Masters in International Relations and Bachelors in Russian, Andrea has a background in Intelligence, Information Assurance and Language Training.  She also one of those people that speaks more languages than the rest of us can name.  –Sky

A recent article in the Kabul Press by Matthew Nasuti highlighted an interesting, and inconvenient, fact about wartime spending in Afghanistan – the US pays “annual salaries of up to $237,000” (not including bonuses or cost of living expenses) to its contracted Pashto translators.  The salary highlights the importance of a critical skill and also gives insight into a greater challenge that has plagued the US Department of Defense for decades.  There are not enough capable linguists in the military with the necessary language abilities required to perform essential engagement in Afghanistan, so these tasks fall to contractors at great cost.  More broadly, Americans struggle with a foreign language skills deficit when compared with other nations and this has hampered our abilities to successfully navigate conflict and forge peace.  The lack of diverse and in-depth language and cultural knowledge threatens our long-term national security and places us at a disadvantage in global society.

The answer to the foreign language challenges that now face the DoD can be found at the source of their own military language program.  The US instituted their first language school in San Francisco in order to train personnel to translate intercepted Japanese communications. Because the need was so great for the intelligence these communications could provide and since Japanese was not widely spoken in the US, the military turned to Nisei, or Second-Generation, Japanese Americans to assist in the undertaking. The Nisei served the US military both as translators and instructors for other troops. Although many among them had faced internment personally or had family who were interned during wartime, they served with honor and great distinction, providing pivotal skills and information that assisted in American success during the war.  Additionally, there were other native speaking communities that proved vital to success in WWII – native Navajo speakers developed a code that was not based on traditional known encryption methods but rather on a language that was exclusively practiced and regionally known to those in the American Southwest – making it practically unbreakable to any foreign forces.

Not only is there historic precedent to the employment of native speakers in addition to traditionally trained linguists, but there are a number of present day examples of how native speakers contribute greatly to the mission.  The USAF recently selected Senior Airman Michael Abrash as their Language Professional of the Year.

Although Abrash earned this linguistic honor, he joined the Air Force in a completely different role: a jet engine mechanic. Being a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2000, Abrash was not aware that his proficiency in Russian could help his career.

Abrash self-identified his language skills to the Air Force, even though he was not using them on a daily basis at work. He continued to maintain his language capability at the required level and thus was available to fill an important Air Force personnel gap.

“There was a shortage of Russian enabled linguists seven months ago to fill a slot in Kyrgyzstan,” Abrash said. “So the Air Force sent a mechanic who happens to know Russian.”

The choice of SrA Abrash, a jet engine mechanic, not only highlights the value of language excellence in our service today but also underscores a shifting landscape in the armed forces – increasingly significant contributions in language skills come from those not formally serving as linguists. Need more evidence?  Another example came courtesy of the US Navy who engaged in a recent daring at-sea rescue of Iranian sailors from pirates.  These incredible stories highlight an essential population within the armed forces – foreign or US citizens who posses critical language skills.

Additionally, the cost and time it takes to train native speakers in missions associated with critical languages is compliant with a Department of Defense strategy aiming to achieving low-cost, rapid, adaptability to unpredictable global events.  In recent years, the US has found itself forced to turn to contract linguists to fill the gaps. While contracting local citizens in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to success on the battlefield and helped ensure US forces security, safety, and vital insight into the conflict, it also placed those who assisted in this undertaking at risk. Iraqi interpreters who assisted US forces during OIF are still facing death threats, even after the troop withdrawal.

Cognizant of these and other challenges posed by the complexities of language planning in an increasingly mutable security environment, the DoD has adapted new programs and approaches. In implementing some of these changes, they have reiterated value of the native speakers, returned to their roots in recruiting among foreign born and first generation citizens, and they have underscored the importance of rapid development of language programs in partnership across the native and nonnative speaking spectrum.

In 2003, the Army launched a pilot program specifically to recruit personnel already fluent in one of several languages or regional dialects indigenous to the Middle East and Central Asia.  The success of this program led to the creation of a unique MOS; Interpreter / Translator 09L.  These linguists now fill a role much like the one previously filled by contract linguists who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that this MOS now exists, it seems imperative that we openly engage those personnel who partnered with us in OIF and OEF and offer them priority enlistment in the program. Not only would their skills benefit the US Army interests, but they would also assist them and their families in the naturalization process. (Note: Service in the US military is not, and should not, be a requirement to provide to these personnel the protection and assistance that the US has pledged to them. This suggestion is simply a desire to expedite and streamline the processing of these personnel through a system that has become complicated and fraught with delays and red tape.) More info on this program is currently available on the US Iraqi Embassy’s website.

The development of the 09L MOS is significant, but it remains a specialty unique to the Army.  The Marines, Navy, and Air Force have a depth of language talent outside the ranks of their respective linguist cadre but those skilled personnel generally must self identify as fluent or the military will never know of their capabilities.  Looking back at the Air Force’s Language Professional of the Year we see that “Abrash was not aware that his proficiency in Russian could help his career”.  It is possible that Chief Petty Officer Jagdeep Sidhu, the gas turbine electrician whose language skills were critical in the rescue of the Iranian fisherman, also did not consider how vital his fluency in Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi are in the execution of his duties.  It is imperative that we do a better job in ensuring these personnel are aware of how critical foreign language fluency is and inform them of their possible eligibility for a Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus (FLPB).

Additionally, the military would do well to track and coordinate assignments for personnel who are proficient in one or more foreign languages. This would best serve the needs of the mission and the language community. Native speakers could cooperatively train and maintain language fluency with non-native trained linguists in their divisions, squadrons, or fleets. This broad overview of more than 70 years of defense policy with respect to language training and management does not pay homage to all of the achievements, or address many of the shortcomings in strategy but hopefully it will provide some perspective into the long and complex relationship that the military has had with regards to language and cultural development within its ranks.

Posted in Academia, Civil-Military Relations, Middle East, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Indecent Acts?

Over the last two days, I got into a rather extended discussion on the ‘Acts of Valor’ movie which is coming out on 17 Feb.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here is the trailer which aired during the Super Bowl.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last two days and though I’m still not 100% sure why, something about this still bothers me.  When I brought this up originally there were a number of people who seemed to agree that something was ‘off’ about this, but there were also a number of people who rushed to the defense of the film. Eventually, this morphed into a much longer discussion which helped me (and hopefully others) to zero in on what aspects of the movie promotion we felt were issues.  Right now I have to confine my critique to the promotional because, like almost everyone commenting, I have not seen the actual film.

As background, the Wall Street Journal has a good piece that covers some of the history and logic that went in to the decision to make this movie.  There is a lot more than I include here, so you should read this piece in its entirety.

For two years the filmmakers had inside access to the Navy’s elite and secretive force for an unusual assignment: to create a feature film that starred real-life SEALs—not actors—in lead roles. The movie, “Act of Valor,” is not a documentary. Instead, it straddles reality and fiction, military messaging and entertainment. It features strike scenes written by the SEALs themselves, jarring live-fire footage and a body count that would rival any ’80s action flick. Yet the movie, to be released in February, was designed to set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film.

In 2008, Navy Special Warfare invited a handful of production companies to submit proposals for a film project, possibly a documentary, that would flesh out the role of the SEALs. The goals: bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as “Navy Seals,” the 1990 shoot-em-up starring Charlie Sheen as a cocky lone wolf. “In the SEAL ethos, the superman myth does not apply. It’s a lifestyle of teamwork, hard work and academic discipline,” said Capt. Duncan Smith, a SEAL who initiated the project and essentially served as producer within the military.

The project offered filmmakers access to SEALs as well as military assets, but no funding. A production company called the Bandito Brothers, which had previously worked with Navy Special Warfare on a series of recruiting videos, got the assignment. Co-founded by Mr. McCoy, a former off-road racing champion and stuntman, and Scott Waugh, who had run a stunt company, the Bandito Brothers specialized in shooting action-driven viral ads for brands such as BMW and Mountain Dew. 

The Bandito Brothers commissioned a script from Kurt Johnstad, who had co-written “300,” a comic-book-style depiction of ancient Spartan warriors that has many fans among U.S. troops, but that many critics dismissed as heavy-handed and excessively violent. His “Act of Valor” screenplay revolved around a SEAL team’s mission to stop a Chechen jihadist cooperating with a smuggler to send suicide bombers across the Mexican border toward U.S. targets. (A villain from Eastern Europe was a less obvious and potentially sensitive choice than an Arab, the filmmakers say.) (emphasis mine)

These passages highlight my concerns with the film.  While propaganda seems like too strong a word, what do you call it when the military commissions a movie specifically to designed to alter perception amongst the population it is pledged to defend?  This isn’t some comically over-the-top recruiting commercial with a lava monster or a transforming C-17.  This is a feature length movie that utilizes active duty SEALS, with actual equipment and tactics, and explicitly promotes itself on its ‘realness.’

Just to be clear, I don’t have an issue with the military providing Hollywood with technical support and access to equipment, but historically the process has been initiated by the movie industry, not the military. I believe that this relationship has been a net good and can allow for accurate portrayal of the military in movies (though anyone who watched Stealth knows I’m using “accurate” in the loosest sense of the word). For example, apart from destroying every fond childhood memory I possess, Transformers was fine.  I also had no issue with Iron Man featuring F-22s (on the contrary, I’m glad someone was able to get some use out of them before they were grounded).  These are clearly ‘action flicks’ and even though the military provides a backdrop for the narrative, no serious person looks at these and thinks they really reflect what military life is like.

Because obviously, USAF Security Forces could push through an ambush better than this

Conversely, I don’t have any issue with Hollywood creating films that tell dramatizations of actual events, such as Black Hawk Down and Generation Kill.  Even knowing that there will be sacrifices to historic accuracy in the interest of a tightly spun narrative, I still believe that general population recognizes that the primary goal of these films is entertainment, not education.  While I think that the usage of professional actors in these roles largely contributes to the recognition that they are vehicles for entertainment, I didn’t have any issue with Generation Kill allowing certain Marines to portray themselves in the film.

So, why do I still have reservations about this?  I think that my primary concern is that the concept originated within the corporate NSW community, which means that it was started specifically to promote their agenda.  At this point (again, having not seen the movie), I have to extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone involved with this.  Their motivation may truly have been only to more accurately convey what it is like to be a SEAL and to demonstrate what kind of a toll this life can take on a person and his family.  Those are noble goals and I don’t take any issue with them.  However, if the purpose of engaging in this kind of activity was to ”set the record straight on a group that the military says has been routinely misrepresented in film,” then the SEALS really need to get in line.  Over the years, pretty much every group in the military has been misrepresented in media.  Granted, SEALS have one more reason than the rest of society to distance themselves from Charlie Sheen, but having your (very serious work) sensationalized in pop culture isn’t exactly being slandered.

I’m also concerned about the precedent that this sets within the military.  There are many examples where the greater military has followed on a path laid out by the various Special Forces communities with regards to equipment, procedures, tactics, etc.  My concern is that this has the potential to be another of those areas.  As the defense budget constricts (kinda) the resource wars between the components of the DoD will likely become more aggressive and the strategic messaging to the American people and Congress will become even more important.  Right now, Navy SEALS are (rightly) in the forefront of the American consciousness.  They and the rest of Special Operations are in no real risk of having their budget cut anytime soon.  However, I wonder how different the sentiment would be if the US Air Force solicited and fully supported and staffed the creation of a “fictional” feature film that showed how a rising Chinese threat could only be countered by a tailored mix of F-22s and F-35s.

Is this really a good precedent to set?

Also, Ravens aren’t nearly as cool as they look in the trailer.


The good news (and maybe the real story) in all of this is that there was an almost entirely positive set of discussions with folks over twitter, even those whom I disagreed with.  For example, you need to go read Jeff Emanuel’s post over at Red State.  He and I disagreed on aspects of this, but his post lays out some of the counter arguments that you should consider.  Plus he goes through the a large part of the discussion that occurred in much more detail than I did here.

Posted in War | 13 Comments

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

On January 4 2012, Boeing announced that it would be shuttering its Wichita plant at the end of 2013, prior to beginning construction on the KC-X tanker contract that it had finally won in February of 2011.

“The decision to close our Wichita facility was difficult but ultimately was based on a thorough study of the current and future market environment and our ability to remain competitive while meeting our customers’ needs with the best and most affordable solutions,” –Mark Bass, Vice President and General Manager for Boeing

If you are unfamiliar with the KC-X Tanker debacle that has literally lasted the last decade, you can catch up on it here, herehere and here.  I should also note that while it was designated KC-X for the majority of the last 10 years, it has now been given the formal designation of KC-46 by the USAF.

The short version is that the US Air Force has been trying to decide whether their next tanker should be the Boeing 767 or the Airbus A330 for the last decade.  The program has been started, stopped and restarted so many times that its almost impossible to keep count.  People have been sent to jail over it, millions of dollars have been wasted on it and yet, to date not a single plane has been built.

However, thats not actually the point of this post…

I want to focus on the closing of the Wichita plant and use it to highlight exactly how large-scale defense acquisition decisions are actually made.  While Kansas and Boeing have played a key role for the duration of the debacle, I really want to focus in on roughly the last 5 years or so.  So, first, in the interest of full disclosure, let me lay this part out: I am originally from Kansas and my entire family still lives there.  Several members of my extended family live and work in Wichita, one of them directly for a aircraft manufacturer (not Boeing).  Suffice to say, the politics behind the KC-X competition have been the backdrop for much spirited discussion over the years with my family.

Additionally, you need to understand a few things about Wichita.  The first is that the aircraft manufacturing industry is far and away the largest employment sector in the city.  Its a huge industry made up of several companies and everyone who lives in and around Wichita is routinely effected by it.  Wichita even bills itself as ‘The Air Capital of the World.‘  Understandably, since aircraft manufacturing is such a large part of the local economy, community and state politicians are constantly looking for ways to promote the industry and steer new customers to the city.  New work means more gainfully employed citizens and corporations generating higher profits, both of which (at least in theory) translate into higher tax revenue for the city and state.  Additionally, military work has an added benefit of allowing politicians to campaign on the basis of national security contributions made during their terms.  For their part, the corporations are happy to accept the assistance from politicians and routinely do their part to keep campaign contributions flowing.  Boeing is routinely the largest reelection campaign contributor for Kansas politicians. (Also, check out Gulliver with a corollary to this topic over here)

So, thats the simple backdrop for the last 10 years of KC-X Tanker competition.  Over the entire duration, Kansas politicians continuously tried to steer the award to Boeing on the promise that the tanker would be constructed/modified at the Wichita plant…

<<Seriously, if you don’t know this whole KC-X story, go back and read Shane Harris’s great piece on it.  I’m glossing over the earliest, juciest ‘lease the planes’ fiasco that ran from ~2002-2005 that landed Darlene Druryen in the pokey for 9 months, got the CFO of Boeing fired, sent to jail *and* cost the company $615 million in fines.   Also, the hero of that story is a young, idealistic Arizona upstart by the name of Johnny McCain.>>

…now, the fact that if Boeing won the award the tanker was going to be built in Wichita was not some kind of smoky backroom deal made between Kansas politicians and Boeing executives.  This was an explicitly stated fact.  Here are some excerpts from Boeing press material from April of 2010.

TOPEKA, Kan., April 30, 2010 — The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA] today announced that Kansas will benefit from approximately 7,500 jobs and an estimated $388 million in annual economic impact if the Boeing NewGen Tanker is selected as the U.S. Air Force’s next aerial refueling aircraft.

“The national recession has hit the aviation industry hard, with thousands of Kansans out of work,” said Gov. Mark Parkinson. “The jobs from this contract can provide meaningful economic recovery to our state and country. The delays on this project have been frustrating, and unnecessary. I urge our military leaders to act swiftly and award this contract to Boeing. It’s time we bring these jobs home to Kansas.”

“I am confident that the Air Force will select Boeing to build its new tanker because I know the strength of the Kansas work force. Our workers will provide the skills and expertise that a new generation of airmen will depend on to keep America secure,” said U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. “I am excited for Boeing to win the contract and get these tankers rolling off of the line, and excited that we are working together to create new jobs in Kansas and grow the Kansas economy.”

“This announcement today confirms what we all know to be true, that Boeing will make the best next-generation aerial refueling tanker. Boeing’s proposal is based on a proven platform founded on the expertise of a well-established pool of skilled workers,” said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. ”The tanker proposal must be based on a level playing field and not construed to accommodate the business needs of an illegally subsidized company at the sacrifice of American servicemembers.”

“While unemployment remains high and our economy is still sluggish, nothing is more welcome news than a possible 7,500 jobs coming to Kansas. An American tanker should be built by an American company with American workers — and that is the Boeing 767 — made by our highly skilled workers here in Kansas,” said U.S. Congressman Todd Tiahrt. “I will continue to press the Pentagon for a fair and level playing field for our American workers. With an equal competition, there is no doubt that U.S. workers can compete and win this tanker contract. I look forward to seeing these high-quality jobs come home to the Sunflower State very soon.”

In addition to the 2,586 Boeing employees in Kansas, the company also works with 464 suppliers/vendors around the state, resulting in an estimated $3 billion in annual economic impact and supporting an estimated 125,000 direct and indirect Kansas jobs.

(emphasis on key quotes and politicians names’ mine)

Now, go back and carefully read the politicians’ quotes.  Did you see the part where it said that the Boeing proposal represented the best value for the US Air Force and American taxpayers? Did you see the part where they emphasize the need to maintain a certain level of defense industrial manufacturing capability as a component of national security? Nope?  Did you see the part where each and every one of these (Republican) politicians emphasizes how this funding will stimulate the local economy and create jobs in an economic downturn?  Ahh….there it is.  Here my friends, here is the real story.  The KC-X competition turned 6 Republicans from the reddest of red states into unabashed disciples of John Maynard Keynes.

Here is the other way to illustrate my point.  Go back and review the quotes above you will see a couple of veiled references to unfair competition between Boeing (the “Americans”) and EADS (the “foreigners).  The recurring mantra for Boeing and their supporters was that the competition was inherently unfair because EADS/Airbus was subsidized by European countries and therefore their bid had an inherent advantage (FTR, the truth is much more complex and the World Trade Organization found that both companies benefited from a range of government subsidies).  Loren Thompson even wrote a somewhat mind-bending post where he states that closing the factory in Wichita is the fault of the US Air Force (and the Obama administration?) for having the gall to try and get their tankers at the lowest price and not allowing Boeing to build in their normal profit margins (yes, seriously).

The acquisition strategy that the Obama Administration put together to finally break the impasse over purchase of a new tanker was what people in the defense business call a “price shootout.” In other words, price was the key determinant of who won, because both bidders met all the other criteria for selection.

Subsidies were the main reason why the European company thought it could beat Boeing in its home market to win the tanker program. And they were the reason why Boeing management was convinced it had to bid very aggressively if it was to have any hope of besting its rival.

Pentagon acquisition officials were able to brag that they had secured a new generation of aerial-refueling tankers for less money than anyone thought possible. But here’s the downside: Boeing ended up having to cut costs everywhere it could to avoid losing money on the tanker program, including Wichita. Keeping an under-utilized, high-cost facility in the production mix would have eroded the program’s already razor-thin profit margin.  With Boeing’s resources over-stretched trying to match Airbus’s heavily subsidized development efforts on the commercial side, Wichita had to go. If I was one of the workers in Wichita, I’d feel betrayed too. But having watched the way the tanker competition played out in the nation’s capital, it’s obvious to me why Boeing couldn’t afford to be sentimental.

Focus hard on what Loren Thompson is actually arguing here.  He is stating that an acquisition program designed with realistic technical criteria that drives industry to compete on price is a dangerous thing.  He also implies that the primary motivation of the Pentagon program managers was to be able to brag about how much money they had saved on this program (I wish).

Additionally, consider the “anti-subsidies” argument that Loren Thompson (and many others) put forth against EADS.  He is implying that the US government should not have allowed the cost of a giant defense acquisition program to be defrayed by previous investments from the governments of our European allies.  That if we would have just allowed for a “level playing field” that this wouldn’t have been a problem and the Wichita facility could have stayed open.  Now, I certainly agree that corporations need to adhere to laws surrounding international trade, but that isn’t really what he is saying.  Loren Thompson is basically saying that we have to prioritize “American” jobs over a frugal defense acquisitions community.  I use the quotes, because in this case had EADS won the award, they were formally committed to building a new plant in Mobile, Alabama.  Thus they would have also produced American jobs.

<<Thought experiment: Imagine the outcry if EADS would have won the latest contract and then stated that instead of building a factory in Mobile, Alabama they were just going to use their existing one in Dresden, Germany.>>

So, just what lengths did the delegation from Kansas go to in order to assure that the KC-X was awarded to Boeing?  Well, after the USAF awarded the contract to Northrup/EADS in Feb of 2008, they actually introduced bills (H.R. 5298 and S.3361) that would have essentially made it illegal for anyone but Boeing to win.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) today introduced the KC-X Tanker Recompete Act. Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) introduced companion legislation in the House. The legislation would prohibit use of any funds by the Department of Defense on the KC-Tanker unless the DoD chooses to outright award the KC-X tanker to Boeing or decides to fairly recompete the KC-X contract using the KC-135 criteria.

“The fastest way for the Air Force to get a new tanker is to award the contract to Boeing,” said Senator Brownback. “If the Air Force instead chooses to rebid the contract, this legislation would ensure a new competition assesses all of the relevant factors, including subsidies and foreign corruption. Only a thorough and complete assessment of tanker proposals will prevent further delays in the tanker replacement program.”

Representative Tiahrt said, “The Air Force used a flawed and incompetent process to evaluate the original KC-X tanker proposal. There is no way to get around this fact. My bill offers two choices. The Air Force can either award the contract to Boeing, the company that meets all the requirements set forth by the Air Force. Or, the Air Force can rebid the tanker contract on a fair and level playing field—the way it should have been done the first time. I urge the Air Force to respond quickly and not delay awarding the contract to Boeing, which represents the best tanker for the Air Force and the American taxpayer.”

“The full GAO report is in and it is now clear that the Air Force made critical mistakes and chose the wrong plane for our men and women in uniform, for our nation and for our Kansas workers,” Senator Roberts said. “It is time to get this contract awarded fair and square. Our bill will keep the Department of Defense from spending one dollar on the tanker unless it goes to the group that best meets the Air Force’s criteria. The GAO report indicates that this should be an easy decision for the Air Force.”  [source]

(emphasis mine)

According to the GAO press release, the Air Force did screw the pooch on this solicitation.  However, the reasons were technical, programmatic and accounting.  They  had nothing to do with illegal subsidies.  Also, the GAO report in no way states that the Air Force choose the wrong contractor, only that their process was flawed and that they *may* have chosen the wrong contractor.

Now, Kansas politicians may not actually be worse than any other politicians; as a matter of fact, Norm Dicks (D-WA) was actually known as ‘The Congressmen from Boeing.’  I just want to use them to illustrate a larger point.  In this case, they had a very understandable motivation to bring business, especially lucrative government business to Kansas.  The problem is this motivation trumped their responsibility to the national interests that they are also pledged to represent.  Their motivation is actually for the federal government to spend as much as possible on programs that benefit their district since the taxes to fund it are collected from across all 50 states and then focused on their state.  The real issue is that KC-X was not the exception.  It is just one example of many programs across the federal government that work much the same way.  Politicians, enabled by a legion of lobbyists, think tanks, and corporate PR people participate in variations of this process all the time.

If you pay attention to defense spending at all, you are probably saying something along the lines of “duh” right now.  I know this isn’t exactly a shocking revelation, but my concern is that it should be.  It seems that we have lost our capacity to be appalled.  There have been millions (billions) of dollars spent on the KC-X competition over the last 10 years and that money has not yet trickled down to any of the working class people that these politicians were so quick to point to as the beneficiaries.  Instead, this money has gone into the pockets of people who produce nothing more than PR campaigns, PowerPoint Slides and “parting gifts.”

So, going back to the factory in Wichita, what should we take away from this?  Well, lets ask some of those Kansas politicians that fought so hard for it…

…Boeing pledged that a win would bring approximately 7,500 jobs to Kansas, including hundreds of Boeing jobs associated with the finishing work on the new tankers. It is hard to believe that conditions would have changed so rapidly over the past few months to bring about the decision to not only move the tanker finishing work elsewhere, but to also close down the entire facility. The fact that Boeing is now refusing to honor its commitment to the people of Kansas is greatly troubling to me and to thousands of Kansans who trusted that Boeing’s promise would be kept.

I have urged Boeing leadership to meet with state and local officials to discuss alternatives to the closure of its facility. To my dismay, Boeing’s senior leadership chose not to meet with local Wichita officials or even give them a serious opportunity to work together on a different plan for the future. I am astonished Boeing would make such a hasty decision without considering all of the alternatives or the significant impact this decision will have.  [Sen Jerry Moran R-KS]


Regrettably, we have now learned that Boeing will not only walk away from its commitment to the people of Kansas to finish the KC-46A tanker here, but it will also leave the state altogether—a state that helped make Boeing successful for more than 80 years and a state whose pride in its heritage with Boeing is second to none. Do not be fooled by Boeing’s announcement that it will continue to rely on sub-supplier work in Kansas. While economically important, that development is not news. That work in no way substitutes for the decade of promises made by the Boeing Company with regard to defense work on the KC-46A tanker at the Boeing-Wichita facility.

As I have said repeatedly—both publicly and to Boeing—Boeing, like every company, has the right to change its business plans and operate in the best interests of its stakeholders. What neither Boeing, nor any other company, has the right to do is make false statements, violate long-held commitments to communities or to receive federal contracts based on representations that it knows are not accurate. The fact that Boeing now appears determined to leave our state will not prevent me from seeking to hold the company accountable for its promises and commitments.  [Rep Mike Pompeo R-KS]

Its seems pretty clear that these politicians now realize that they were played by Boeing.  They understand that the decision to close the Wichita plant has been in the works since well in advance of the KC-X contract award.  They also recognize that at this point, they have no real recourse against Boeing.  Despite the implications from the Kansas delegation, I assure you that there is nothing in the KC-X contract that states that the aircraft will be assembled in Kansas.  Boeing may very well have broken, “promises and commitments” but they did not break any contractual obligations.  The fact is, Boeing and the Kansas politicians always had two very different goals.  Boeings’ goal was to be awarded $35 billion dollars worth of work and to have the largest possible percentage of that go into profits.  The politicians’ goal was to have the largest percentage of defense dollars possible come to their state.  When those two goals overlap it gives the appearance that they are on a team.  When those goals diverge you get what happened in Wichita.

For the record, I have no idea how to solve this issue.  Saying Congress should stay out of these decisions is easy, but it’s not realistic.  Saying that corporations should be less concerned with profits and more invested in communities is probably equally naive.  The reality is that unless there is more sincere public scrutiny on the machinations of large government awards this kind of activity will continue.  The real shame in this case is that neither the Kansas politicians nor Boeing writ large will actually suffer any true damage from this decision.  The only people that are going to pay the price are the Boeing workers of Wichita who are being laid off by their employer and should be embarrassed by their elected officials.

Posted in Big Money, Defense Acquisition, Military, War | Tagged | 1 Comment

Lingua Franca

In a painful public relations turn for Iran following its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz; US sailors (both Navy and Coast Guard) have rescued Iranian mariners twice in the past week.  The first incident was a dramatic rescue from Somali Pirates reported by C.J. Chivers.

In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month.

The rapidly unfolding events began Thursday morning when the pirates attacked a Bahamian-flagged ship, the motor vessel Sunshine, unaware that the Stennis was steaming less than eight miles away.

It ended Friday with the tables fully turned. The captured Somali pirates, 15 in all, were brought aboard the U.S.S. Kidd, an American destroyer traveling with the Stennis. They were then shuttled by helicopter to the aircraft carrier and locked up in its brig.

Yesterday’s rescue was a little less dramatic, unless you were one of the Iranian sailors on the sinking ship

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday that the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter rescued the mariners after getting distress signals from the Iranian cargo vessel Ya-Hussayn.

“It was hailed by flares and flashlights from the Iranian cargo dhow and the dhow’s master requested assistance from the cutter indicating that the engine room was flooding and deemed not seaworthy,” said Little.

The U.S. Navy says the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the Iranian crewmembers to safety aboard the U.S. cutter Monomoy.   A Navy statement quotes the owner of the Iranian vessel as thanking the U.S. seamen for rescuing the sailors, saying that without the Americans’ help, they would be dead.

Both of these incidents point to the professional nature of our naval forces.  The Navy and Coast Guard should be proud of the way they represented their country and the goodwill they generated in the Middle East and specifically inside Iran.  While this clearly doesn’t fundamentally change anything about the relationship between the US and Iran, it may help to ease tensions.

<<Speaking of tension, I want it to be noted that I have managed to make it this far without cracking on the Coast Guard in any way or questioning why exactly they were 5000 miles away from any US coastline>>

However, the part of the story that I specifically want to focus on is from the official blog of the US Navy.

When English and Arabic bridge to bridge hails from Kidd failed to sort out the situation aboard the pirated fishing vessel Al Mulahi, the CO of USS Kidd, Commander Jen Ellinger, and her team cleverly thought to try other languages.  Chief Petty Officer Jagdeep Sidhu, a gas turbine electrician Chief from India who speaks Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi was able to communicate to the Captain of the pirated vessel in Urdu which the [Somali] pirates did not understand, this tipped the Kidd that that the crew was being held hostage. Other languages spoken by Kidd’s crew include Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Cambodian, Thai, Spanish and Chinese to name some.

This jumped out at me for a couple of reasons.  First, and I promise not to get all Lee Greenwood on you, but there is something purely American about the fact that our Navy is literally made up of people from around the world.  This should make you proud.  Second, Chief Sidhu doesn’t have a linguist MOS (yes, I know the Navy actually calls them rates, but nobody outside the Navy understands this and it makes the rest of us crazy when you try to explain it).  Third, it doesn’t seem like the languages spoken by the crew was in any way tailored for region since the list is missing a couple of key ones like Farsi and Pashto.  Now this could simply be me reading too much into the text of the blog, but the implication is that it was pure luck that Kidd sailors spoke a language that allowed them to communicate with the Iranian captain (bonus that it was a language not spoken by the Somali pirates).  However, without this ability to communicate with the captain of the hijacked vessel, the whole situation could have played out very differently.

The issue of language seems like an important one to highlight since the President and Secretary of theDefense have just released the newly tailored ‘Strategic Guidance’.  By any reading of this document, it pivots on an increased emphasis on the Navy with a focus on the Pacific and a step away from “large land wars in Asia,” to quote a certain former Secretary of Defense.  While there is much to discuss in this document (go read Gulliver’s take here and here and Jon Rue’s take on it here), there seems to be an opportunity to take a some lessons that our COIN forces have been learning (often the hard way) over the last decade.

One of those lessons is the importance of understanding local languages and the cultures we operate in.  In this regard we were horribly unprepared for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Organizationally, we made strides in these areas by increasing access to linguists (both military and civilian), standing up Human Terrain Systems and eventually deploying so often that many military personnel learned local languages and customs by osmosis.  On balance, these all had positive effects on our cultural understanding, but they were too little, too late.  Unfortunately it does not appear that the Army and Marine Corps will be able to retain this skills since they have not been properly institutionalized.  According to a set of GAO reports released in 2011, as we were in the process of winding down operations in Iraq, the Army and Marine Corps are sill not properly tracking and sustaining language training.

The Army and Marine Corps have not developed plans to sustain language skills already acquired through predeployment training. The services have made considerable investments to provide some service members with extensive predeployment language training. For example, as of July 2011, over 800 soldiers have completed about 16 weeks of Afghan language training since 2010 at a cost of about $12 million. DOD and service guidance address the need to sustain language skills and the DOD strategic plan for language, regional, and culture skills calls for the services to build on existing language skills for future needs. However, we found that the services had not yet determined which service members require follow-on language training to sustain skills, the amount of training required, or appropriate mechanisms to deliver the training. Although informal follow-on training programs were available to sustain language skills, such as computer-based training, these programs were voluntary. In the absence of formal sustainment training programs to maintain and build upon service members’ language skills, the Army and Marine Corps may miss opportunities to capitalize on the investments they have already made to provide predeployment language training for ongoing operations.

If you’re a masochist, you can read the full reports here and here.

So, this is where we come back to the Iranian fishermen and the US Navy.  Barring something unforeseen, in the very near future we are not going to have hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines conducting large scale operations throughout the Middle East.  That means that within the traditional military (ignoring Special Forces for the purpose of this post) a much larger portion of the “Hearts and Minds” burden will fall on the US Navy.  I have no idea what the language and cultural training standards currently are for the US Navy or how well prepared they are to interact with the populations that they may encounter.  However, as we pull back from the Middle East and refocus on Asia Pacific, it seems very likely that our opportunities to interact positively with populations that are skeptical or downright hostile to the US will be reduced.  That means that when we do have those opportunities to interact, such as with the Iranian sailors over the last week, it is critically important that it is positive.

Hopefully, the next time @Attackerman tweets this, the response will come straight from @USNavy.

Posted in War | 2 Comments

Veteran =/= Retiree

[gigya src="" width="512" height="288" quality="high" wmode="transparent" allowFullScreen="true" ]

I sincerely admire Stephen Colbert’s support to the military and I think that his heart is in the right place, but he is completely wrong in this video.

I don’t have the time (or energy frankly) to write a full takedown on this, but here is the bulleted version.

  • At no point does he actually talk about veterans benefits.  All the items he discusses are *retiree* benefits.
  • He’s not really talking about the 1% who served, he is talking about the 0.17% who receive retirement benefits (medical/pension)
  • Medical: Tricare annual enrollment fee for retiree families is $520/year.  Average civilian family health care cost is $13,375.
  • Pension: A 42-yo Lt Col (0-5) who retires in 2011 after 20 yrs of service and lives another 40 years will be paid an additional $1,920,000.00

It seems like if Stephen Colbert was really interested in defending veterans, he would mention that 83% of them receive none of the benefits mentioned above.

(h/t to @jasonmbro for bringing this video to my attention)

Posted in War | 16 Comments

Vast Right Wing Conspiracy

Adam Weinstein has a new piece up at Mother Jones entitled, “Inside the Corporate Plan to Occupy the Pentagon.” In it he makes the case that the Defense Business Board is basically a secretive Rumsfeldian cabal made up of evil Wall Street hedge-fund managers who are quietly twisting the Department of Defense into an employee abusing, pension-stealing corporation that operates with merciless efficiency and an eye towards the bottom line.  Here is how Adam describes the DBB…

They are investment bank CEOs and CFOs, outsourcing experts, and layoff specialists who promote a corporate agenda of “behavior change” and “business solutions” in the military bureaucracy. The board proposes not only to slash and privatize military pensions, but also to have the Pentagon invest in oil futures, boost pay for its executives and political appointees, and make it easier for them to fire rank-and-file employees while scaling back those workers’ collective-bargaining rights.

Initial caveats: I know Adam (via twitter) and have read enough of his work to understand that this story is going to slant left.  As a routinely left-of-center guy myself, I understand the desire to approach it from that perspective.  However, in this case I think Adam’s desire to tell a good partisan story overwhelmed his responsibility to be intellectually honest.  This article completely overstates the influence of the DBB, wrongly frames them as lacking empathy for military members and misrepresents their recommendations on a number of issues such as Fuel Hedging, the National Security Personnel System, and probably most importantly Military Retirement Reform.


First off, I kind of resent being in the position of having to defend the DBB.  The reason you’ve never heard of the DBB isn’t that they are overly secretive, its just that they aren’t really that important.  Strangely, Adam even admits it in his piece:

“While the board’s ideas have enjoyed support on Capitol Hill over the years, it has made only a modest impact on policy.”

Adam doesn’t cite the “support on Capitol Hill” they have received, so I can’t address that directly, but the only large-scale DBB recommendations that were ever adopted were the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), which has since been entirely dismantled (I’ll discuss that in more detail later) and the creation of the DoD Chief Management Officer (which as Adam points out has only been staffed to the deputy-level).  Apart from the very limited succeses listed here, the DBB has also had some notable failures.  They have recommended the outsourcing of military mail (not adopted) and endorsed the creation of a Combatant Command dedicated to medical issues (also not adopted).The majority of their recommendations and formal reports are completely boring, buzzword laced Powerpoint presentations built from interviews with various senior leaders within the department and the proverbial “best practices” from industry.  Their reports have titles like, Innovation and Cultural Change [.pdf-2006] and Financial Indicators, Ratios and Indexes [.pdf-2002].  These reports center around the consistent themes of metrics and tracking, human capital (especially senior leadership) and logistics.    They mostly rehash the myriad ways that the DoD is inefficient and poorly organized and how it would benefit from adopting business practices from industry [I should note that DoD inefficiency and organizational sprawl is hardly a minority view.  The DBB just states this in MBA jargon instead of MilSpeak].

In order to further frame the scope and magnitude of influence that the Defense Business Board actually wields, here are some additional facts.  The DBB averages around 8 reports a year that are delivered to the Deputy Secretary of Defense (and in theory on to the Secretary).  These reports normally consist of about 6 pages of text with an accompanying Powerpoint slideshow of around 20 pages.  If the track record of the DBB discussed above isn’t convincing enough, you should also note that the DBB has absolutely no authority to implement any of its recommendations.  These decisions are left to the senior military and civillian leadership and therefore they are the ones that are actually responsible for any changes adopted.  According to their Jan 2010 charter, the overall budget for the DBB is $750,000  plus 6 full-time equivalents (4 active duty officers and 2 support personnel).  Not to downplay this amount, but the budget for the various department bands is $320 million and the overall DoD annual budget is $530 billion.

You could argue that the real power behind the DBB isn’t their quantity of work or their budget, but their routine access to the halls of power; the ability to consistently pull the strings of the Pentagon senior leadership.  Well, there’s a problem there too: The DBB only meets four times a year.  The last one of these meetings was held in October 2011 and was scheduled to be 30 uninterrupted minutes of greed and undue corporate influence on the DoD.  That means that over the course of the year, the DBB will produce a few hundred pages of [mostly boring] reports and have a few hours of meetings.  Did I mention that these meetings are open to the public and the meeting minutes are published on the internet? Neither did Adam.

This doesn’t exactly seem like the way you would run a secretive Wall Street takeover of the Department of Defense.


This blackhearted organization has also recommended increasing the accessibility of benefits for severely wounded military members [Addressing Benefit Disparities to Wounded Warriors .pdf 2010] and recommended ways to improve the public school systems surrounding military installations [Public School Improvement To Enhance Quality of Life Around Military Bases .pdf 2002].  Their proposal on military retirement reform would actually expand benefits to a much wider group of veterans (but more on that later).

Adam also attempts to paint the DBB as completely divorced from military understanding:

Its 21 members know little about military affairs, but they are rich in Wall Street experience, including with some of the biggest companies implicated in the 2008 financial meltdown. [emphasis mine]

However, several of the DBB members named in the article are cited by Adam as having clear military experience.

The head of the Defense Business Board’s pensions task force, Richard Spencer, served as a Marine aviator in the 1970s.
The leader of the board’s supply chain task force was Gus Pagonis, a senior VP for Sears who, as an Army general had managed supply and logistics for the Gulf War, [emphasis mine]
A 3rd DBB member named by Adam is Denis A. Bovin (who also appears to have some experience…)
Mr. Bovin has been awarded the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the highest honor that can be conferred on a civilian, for his “dedication and commitment to the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces” and for his “vital and lasting contributions to the Department of Defense.”  — From his profile page hosted at the Center for a New American Security


Adam also makes claims that are either factual oversights or outright deception on the topic of fuel hedging.
Its members have consistently advocated for the Pentagon to engage in fuel hedging—investing in oil futures to lock in a supposedly low cost for their long-term fuel needs. The board’s fuel-hedging push was led by member Denis Bovin, who was a top investment banker for Bear Stearns until the firm went bust in late 2008. After consulting with energy giants BP and Shell, among others, Bovin’s team concluded that the Department of Defense should invest based on rising oil prices, even while he conceded that “as a whole, DoD is not highly exposed to fuel price volatility.” Such deals, he noted, would incur investment transaction costs of “$10 to $250 million per year.” Even though no federal agency currently engages in fuel hedging, the board tasked Bovin with another study on oil futures last January.
But here is the text from the board’s initial fuel hedging study, conducted in 2004 actually indicates that their preferred recommendation was *not* to hedge fuel purchases.

The Board’s Task Group [led by the aforementioned Denis Bovin]concluded that DoD could feasibly hedge its fuel purchases. In particular, the Department could design an effective hedging program that does not disrupt commercial markets. Though DoD is a large consumer of fuels, its consumption does not exceed that of a major airline by a significant amount. While the commercial market for fuel and fuel contracts could handle a DoD fuel hedging program, the question remained: Should DoD hedge?After an examination of the viability of a fuel hedging program for DoD, two recommendation options were developed by the Task Group:

OPTION 1: Don’t Hedge

OPTION 2: Implement a Low-Risk Pilot Program

Under this option [Option 1], the Department of Defense would not engage in fuel hedging in the commercial markets or elsewhere and would not pursue this approach any further. The option is based on the decision that both the political risks and the legislative effort required to establish such a program are not justified by the potential benefits. [emphasis mine]
Another fact that is conveniently glossed over is that the fuel hedging concept wasn’t even the idea of the Defense Business Board

TASK: At the direction of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) (USD(C)), the Defense Business Board (formerly known as the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board) was tasked with examining potential ways to reduce the Department’s exposure to fuel price volatility by hedging in commercial markets. This request was initiated by the USD(C) after the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directed that the Department of Defense (DoD) consider fuel hedging.  [emphasis mine]


Adam also takes issue with the implementation of the National Security Personnel System, which was a system designed to replace the General Schedule (GS) pay scale for DoD civilians.  He was in no way alone on this one.  There were a litany of people that opposed this change for a wide variety of reasons.

2008 investigation by Federal Times found that the first round of bonus pay under the new policy had been riddled with iniquities. And a May 2009 investigation by the Pentagon itself found that employees previously making below $60,000 ended up making less under the policy—while workers with salaries above $80,000 ended up making more.

However, it is important to note that NSPS was a pay-for-performance system; inequality was a feature not a bug.  NSPS gave managers much more discretion with regards to how employees received bonuses and promotions.  It also simplified the hiring and firing processes for federal employees on the theory that if government employment policies more closely reflected the commercial sector government would be more efficient.  Whether or not you support those changes largely depends on your perspective towards organized labor and pay-for-performance compensation.  However, the implication that NSPS was discriminatory is unfounded.  The Federal Times analysis that Adam cites stating that NSPS is unfair was only based on one year of data, and it would only go as far as to say this:

Most experts interviewed by Federal Times say it’s too early to judge whether NSPS is discriminatory or otherwise faulty. But many agree the apparent inequalities cause concern, and they say Defense needs to closely watch these trends in coming years. If the inequalities continue, experts say, NSPS must be revised to correct them.

However, as Adam correctly points out, eventually there was enough pushback against this system that it was defunded by Congress has since been phased out.


So, with all of that out of the way we finally get down to what I think was the real motivation behind writing this story: Adam doesn’t like the DBB’s recent recommendation to shift the military retirement system over to a 401(k) style system.  Again, he isn’t alone.  There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the mere suggestion that military retirement could be adjusted in any way, other than up of course.  Robert Goldich and Andrew Bacevich both make impassioned defenses of the current system, while completely ignoring the fact that it is entirely unsustainable.  So, back to Weinstein…
The board’s proposal would set aside 16.5 percent of a troop’s base salary [misleading, since this would not be removed from troops salary] in a savings account to be invested in the markets. Assuming a modest annual return—hardly a safe assumption these days—the plan would still provide retired soldiers with far less money than what they are entitled to now. Critics say the proposal would also make it harder for the military to retain its most senior, most knowledgeable members. –[bracketed portion is mine]
Despite the fact that I disagree with his framing of the 16.5% quantity and the assertions that retention would be dramatically effected, this characterization of the DBB proposal is technically true, however, by omitting key facts about how the current military retirement system works,  the reader is left with an amazingly skewed perspective.  Since I’ve already written fairly extensively on the unfairness inherent in the current military retirement system [Silent Majority, September 2011] I’m going to quote myself:

For those less familiar with the subject, military retirement works like this: After 20 years of service, you can retire and receive 50% of your base pay for the rest of your life.  Keep in mind most military members retire around 40 years old and receive benefits for the next ~40 years, roughly twice the length of  their service.

The salient fact here is that 83% of veterans do not receive any retirement benefits and this percentage is almost entirely drawn from the junior ranks - the demographic that has done the vast majority of the fighting and dying over the last decade.

Now, ‘base pay’ varies widely across ranks and time in service, but a completely typical O-5 who retires after 20 years of service and lives another 40 years will make $1,920,000.00 in 2011 dollars over his lifespan.  If that same LtCol separates at 19 years, 364 days (for some unimaginable reason) he would receive nothing.  The DBB proposal for retirement would reduce the huge payouts to the 17% of veterans that currently receive, but it would greatly expand the number of military members that receive some form of post-service benefits by creating a 401(k) style plan for all members that they would become vested in at 3-5 years.  While a goal of the DBB proposal was clearly to rein in retirement expenses, the fact that the benefits of military service would be more equally distributed amongst a wider pool of  veterans seems to be the kind of proposal that would be embraced by liberals, not rejected.

Even if you do support the ‘pot of gold’ retirement system that currently only benefits 17% of veterans, the system is fiscally unsustainable.  It is growing at a rate well beyond that of normal inflation and assuming a flat defense budget over the next decade, that means a smaller and smaller percentage of the defense budget is going to be used to support those that are currently in the military.

So, unless you are willing to accept an ever growing DoD budget, or you want to continuously cut more and more defense programs to offset the additional costs, you have to recognize that the retirement system must be altered. Personally, I’m not convinced that the 401(k) style plan is the correct way to go, but there are a lot of advantages to the proposal and it doesn’t represent some kind of Wall Street takeover or undue corporate influence.  Its a serious, albeit drastic proposal from a set of adults on a way to confront the hard choices the DoD is currently facing.

I don’t necessarily believe that the DoD would be best served by blindly accepting every proposal put forth by the Defense Business Board, but at some point, we need to stop waving the flag long enough to balance our checkbook.  Even though we aren’t driven by a profit motive, with 3.2 million employees and 312 million shareholders, its pretty hard to make the case that we shouldn’t adopt sound business practices.  While individual Marines, Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors may be motivated by patriotism, the Department of Defense runs on cash and our bill is about to come due.

Posted in Careerism, Military | 1 Comment

Useful Idiots

Back in the olden days of law enforcement, even before my time, the rules for the use of deadly force were captured in three words, “Intent, Opportunity, Capability.”  By the time I was wearing a badge, this had been replaced by something called the escalation of force model, but all the old-timers (and by old-timers I mean people that were the age I am now) complained about how much simpler the Intent, Opportunity, Capability model was.

The short version is that in order to justifiably use deadly force (aka shoot someone) you had to be able to articulate how they were a threat of “serious bodily harm to yourself or others.”  These concepts were built into every escalation of force exercise and shoot/don’t shoot drill that was conducted.   These exercises normally consisted of one of the components being vague and the police officer (in my case, Air Force cops, but close enough) being drilled about why they took the action they did.  Eg.’There is a suspect with a knife [capability] and he is threatening to kill you [intent].  He is currently 100 feet away [no opportunity]‘  These kinds of drills were sometimes academic, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes philosophical.  For example, How do you deal with someone threatening suicide with a pistol? [PROTIP: Just like this]

The point of all this is to highlight that without all three of these components present there is no immediate threat.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the standards required to use deadly force against a subject are not the same standards that are applied to determining if someone is a terrorist threat, but I think this framework may help cut through some of the breathless reporting surrounding the “Plot to Destroy the Pentagon with UAVs”

[Yes, this is where I *finally* segue into the actual point of this post]

So, here is the abridged version of what happened with Rezwan Ferdaus,

Ferdaus is accused of planning to use three remote-controlled airplanes measuring from 60-80 inches in length, with explosives packed into each plane. The planes, guided by GPS and capable of speeds greater than 100 m.p.h., would hit the Pentagon and blow the Capitol dome to “smithereens,” according to Ferdaus’ plan, detailed in the affidavit. Ferdaus then planned a follow-up automatic weapons attack with six people, according to the affidavit.

Sounds pretty serious, huh?  The impression you got from most of the reporting today was that the FBI swooped in a the last minute to disrupt this terrorist cell.

Jihadist plot foiled, G-Men save the day and  America, F@%& Yeah–All rolled into one.

Only one problem.  Ferdaus was an idiot and there is no way he could have executed any of this.

If you read the affidavit (credit to @IntelWire for link) you will see that Ferdaus, despite having a DEGREE IN PHYSICS, seems to think that an RC airplane loaded with 5 whole pounds of C4 would accomplish “blow[ing] the dome to Smithereens”   However, since the Pentagon is slightly larger than the Capitol Dome, he calculated that it would take TWO of the RC planes (refers to them as F4 Phantoms below) loaded with 5 pounds of C4 to take that building down.  Keep in mind he believed  it was important to strike “opposite” sides of the Pentagon in order to take it down (to the FBI’s credit, they apparently got a laugh out of this, because they put it in quotes, too.)

Just for perspective, here is a photo of the one of the planes that Ferdaus planned to use. This one is an F-86 Sabre replica, but according to the affidavit it was the same scale as the F-4.  Please note that it is perched very comfortably on some patio furniture.

Photo of an F-86 model alleged to have belonged to Ferdaus

I was going to create and insert a graphic showing the size comparison between this “aircraft” and the Pentagon, but I as soon as I started I realized how ridiculous it was.  The Pentagon is massive: 3,705,793 square feet.  Now, my physics degree is still in the mail, but I think that I’m safe saying that regardless of which floor you hit, the best you can hope for, even calculating for the 5lbs of C4 is a scorch mark on the outside of the Pentagon.  Maybe, just maybe, this aircraft could have penetrated the dome of the Capitol, but in the post-event cleanup I’m pretty sure the description would not include the word “smithereens”

Here’s the thing, Ferdaus doesn’t just dream, he dreams big. Not normal human being big, but Jerry Bruckheimer-big.  Not only was he going to take down the Capitol Dome *and* destroy the Pentagon, he was simultaneously going to use the remaining 9 pounds of C4 to blow up the bridges surrounding the Pentagon.  Then he was going to use his crack team of six al-Qaeda Qaemmandos [If they don't spell it that way they should] to fire on civilians as they fled the facilities and chaos ensued.

Ferdaus had it all planned out.  The affidavit even includes a map laying out the precise locations of his targets.

Yes, I'm serious. This is actually the map.

It also highlights Ferdaus’s extensive experience with small arms…


Ferdaus even knew the perfect place to procure all the materials for his attack.

Ferdaus also utilized an alias for procuring all his materials; “Dave Winfield”.  I can only assume that this was an homage to Dave Winfield’s epic jihad against Canadian seagulls circa 1983.

Oh yeah, that 6-man team that he was going to utilize to kill politicians as they fled the fiery wreckage of the Capitol?  They didn’t actually exist.  Apparently, Ferdaus was the only person involved.   The Qaemmandos? They were all undercover FBI or FBI informants.  All of the equipment, the aircraft, the AK-47s, the C4, the grenades, all of it was paid for and delivered under the watchful eye of the Federal agents.  It was like a weird al-Qaeda version of ‘The Truman Show.’  Everyone knew Rezwan Ferdaus wasn’t a real competent jihadi except him.

My co-blogger Daveed probably captured it best here:

The impression that you are given from reading the affidavit, is that Rezwan Ferdaus was completely detached from reality and would have had a difficult time managing anything more complex than a paper route.  However, while it is certainly fun to mock the delusional aspirations of this guy, the affidavit does have a darker side.  In addition to his ridiculous plan to single handedly take down Washington DC, he was also modifying cell phones to be used as IED detonators in Iraq.  While the affidavit does not indicate whether or not these would have actually worked, it does state that he demonstrated the devices lighting a small LED when dialed, signifying at least a basic amount of electronics competence.  At a minimum, he believed that they would work and even moreso, he believed that they HAD worked.

Ferdaus also made chilling statements to the agents over the course of the investigation, such as the last line in this section.

So, what do we know?  What do we take from this?

I’m going to continue to stretch, perhaps beyond breaking, the example I started with.  What aspects did Ferdaus actually demonstrate?

Intent: Absolutely.  Ferdaus clearly intended to cause serious harm and even beyond that when it  was “confirmed” to him that his devices had killed soldiers in Iraq, he reveled in it.   Despite his poor grasp on physics, geometry, chemistry and cartography it is clear that he intended to harm the US.

Opportunity: Yes.  Part of living in a free society is that there are very few restrictions placed on individual movement.  He was in no way restricted from executing his (completely ridiculous) plan.

Capability:  Here is the hard one.  As you are reading the affidavit, it is very difficult to imagine that Ferdaus would have had the capability to accomplish anything without the assistance of the FBI.  Even if he had managed to collect all the components of his plan it seems highly doubtful any aspect of this had a prayer of being successful.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Ferdaus wasn’t dangerous.  If his desires to kill were so easily facilitated by law enforcement, than they could have also been enabled by an organization like al-Qaeda.  I’m also, very explicitly, not saying this is a case of entrapment, which is an accusation that has been levied in the past.  You have to sympathize with the FBI agents a little.  As you read you can sense the places where agents seem to point to the ‘exits’ from the path that Rezwan Ferdas is on.  He repeatedly rushes past them.  However, even with all of those caveats in place, the fact remains Rezwan Ferdaus was not an imminent threat to the US.

This wasn’t a plot that was foiled, it was a delusion that was abruptly ended.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t how the story was portrayed throughout the media today.  Almost universally, it was treated as a legitimate threat and Rezwan Ferdas as some kind of Jihadi Lex Luthor.   Here is an example, in this Daily Beast story from Eli Lake,

With a couple of small variations, Eli Lake’s piece reads like the vast majority of other articles, but look at the oversized quote.  This is my concern because this is what we boil the whole story down to.  We are Americans, we are incapable of nuance. The entire focus here is on Ferdaus’s intent, because that is what he had in spades and we completely ignore the fact that he had no money, no contacts and no idea how to put his “plan” into action.  If you read the affidavit, there is no way anyone could refer to Ferdaus as the “worst nightmare” for the US or draw the conclusion that he had any “highly specialized skills.”  Ferdaus was more Four Lions than Four Horseman.

Why does it matter, whats a little sensationalism among friends?  Its important because these things have a feedback loop and at some point, this “plot” is going to become a justification for an additional action that we need to take to combat “terrorism.”  That means more resources go into preventing something that was never an actual threat.  When we take idiots like Ferdaus, idiots with evil intentions but nothing else, and frame them as existential threats to our way of life than we set ourselves up for a vicious cycle of responding to continuously more ridiculous threats.


I’m crossing my fingers that this follow-up story from Milton Valencia (@MiltonValencia) at the Boston Globe gets wider circulation next week.  Its looking pretty clear likely that the tip that led to this guys arrest came from his old mosque.

The Ashland man who allegedly plotted to fly explosive-laden, remote-controlled airplanes into federal buildings in Washington, D.C., was asked to leave a Roxbury mosque last year because of his radical Islamic views and suspected support of Al Qaeda, a mosque official said yesterday.

Rezwan Ferdaus was said to revere the terrorist organization, and he criticized the mosque’s participation in interfaith efforts and in politics. He also disapproved of the mosque’s liberal policies that allowed men and women to eat and drink together in its cafe and was hostile toward women he thought dressed inappropriately or who had conversations with men, the official said.

“We said, ‘Look, that’s not going to work here,’ ’’ said Atif Harden, director of institutional advancement at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. I can’t think of a mosque where he was welcome. He was clearly way out of step with the rest of the Muslim community . . . very disaffected, very disturbed. Just a bitter, angry guy.’’

[emphasis mine]

So, the next time you hear someone ask, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” One of the many places you can point them towards is Ashland, Massachusetts.

**************************UPDATE #2*******************************

Read the great comment from ‘The Student’ on the usage of the phrase “moderate Muslim.”   I should have outlined my snark more clearly surrounding that phrase.

Posted in War | 6 Comments