Springtime for Novichok

Like “yellow rain” and aerosolized anthrax, we now have another wide-open accusation of Soviet–well, okay, Russian–CBW capers that will be denied and disparaged by Moscow while Western governments sit tight on whatever evidence they claim to possess. Thank goodness that Matthew Meselson at least put an end to the bee poop scare long ago. A dog-eared script awaits new personalities to reprise classic Cold War roles for dissident scientists, defectors, spooks, and mysterious casualties. It is safe to assume that only the public will be left in the dark, which is where these dramas play best.

Missile Defense: No News is Bad News

The Pentagon has decided to pull its blackout curtain over news about Ballistic Missile Defense flight tests, claiming a need to “safeguard critical defense information.”  That this need has never existed before for such trials raises the timeworn question of whether what’s so terribly critical is the information or the risk of embarrassment. The latest GAO report on missile defense sums up the situation perfectly: “The lack of traceability of MDA’s [Missile Defense Agency] integrated test schedule makes it difficult not only to determine what is happening with a test, but also with its testing progress as a whole, including what and when requirements were originally planned to be met and which ones have been met, when they were met, and with what test.” Might as well classify the entire mess, indeed.






Project Pluto/Putin (Project Plutin?)

News that Russia is developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile will send aerospace buffs to the history stacks to peruse Project Pluto, a wacky 1950’s U.S. Air Force project that epitomized Cold War technology mania.  About $2 billion in today’s dollars swirled down the drain before it was cancelled in 1964. No doubt such contraptions would be a bit smaller now than the locomotive-sized behemoth of golden olden days, but the drawbacks then–such as the prospect of a radiation mother lode loitering in the skies–will still raise eyebrows, if not hackles. Will this be enough to bring back JLENS? Stay tuned.

Home Sweet Debris Basin

Daytime temperatures returned to the normal mid-60’s this weekend in Los Angeles, but for the past couple of weeks they rose to the paradisiacal 80’s in clear skies and sweet morning air that answered the old question of why anyone would want to live here in a semidesert on the grinding edges of two tectonic plates. It’s a megalopolitan Garden of Eden at times like this, but like Adam and Eve you need to maintain a state of happy obliviousness to enjoy it. That’s the business of chambers of commerce and real estate agencies, which thrive on short memories and buyers who don’t read. When a visitor from the frozen East Coast gazes up along the golden San Gabriel front at all those showplace homes, envious awe slowly gives way to amorphous anxiety, especially after a month of headlines about wildfires and landslides.  They’ve got to be kidding themselves up there.

And yes, they are. Several hundred yards above a friend’s house in gentrified Tujunga is a modest dam called the Haines Debris Basin.  Its job is not to conserve water, but to absorb the avalanche of mud and boulders that debouches out of the canyon whenever it rains hard, which is not often, but inevitable. (Forty years ago today, Haines Canyon recorded a deluge of 1.4 inches in 30 minutes during a monstrous storm that, among other gruesome catastrophes, washed at least 30 corpses out of Verduga Hills cemetery near Tujunga.) Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent during the 20th century on more than 150 such catchments across Los Angeles County. They may sit empty for decades, but every once in a while they fill up with liquified mountain, which maybe overflows across your neighborhood, fortified by cars and carcasses. In 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers paid a local contractor $3,263,814 just for clearing the muck out of Haines to make room for the next onslaught–a tiny portion of the perpetual taxpayer subsidy behind the LA lifestyle. These basins caught John McPhee’s imagination in a 1988 New Yorker article , which you may safely assume is not widely perused around here today. Where people construct multi-million-dollar homes on the uphill side of an avenue locally admired for its wideness and easy parking, the fact that it was designed as a fire break is not dwelt upon. Likewise for that little lake at the bottom of a scenic canyon. Near Haines is another debris basin that appears on Apple Maps as “Blanchard Canyon Pond,” which must please the real estate agents who list houses inside the precipitous ravine above it as “artistic space” in a “tranquil setting.” Blanchard Canyon was ravaged by a debris inundation on New Year’s Eve, 1933.

In another world, there might be a trusted government that prevents people from hurting themselves in such a hazardous locale, like a lifeguard at the beach. But this is an American paradise, this is freedom, and neither hell nor high water will change it.

Robert Parry, 1949-2018: American Journalist

Required reading on State-of-the-Union day.

“History is kind of, you know, it’s quirky sometimes.”


Strategic Thoughts, pre-owned

In days of yore, when The Bomb was new and the Russkies were everywhere everyday, the halls of academe and government teemed with suits who made prosperous livings by theorizing about how Washington’s nukes and Moscow’s nukes matched up against each other. From the paskudnyak Herman Kahn’s homebuilt Hudson Institute to the endowed chairs of Ivy League colleges of arts and sciences, from the Pentagon’s E-ring to the Russell Senate Office Building, prodigious brainpower churned day and night for decades on the minutiae of throw-weights, yields, circular error probabilities, survivabilities, and so much more. And then it stopped. The Soviet Union dismantled itself. All those careers glided to a halt. For those few brains that endured past retirement age (like William J. Perry, say), how to get rid of the doomsday weapons became more fascinating than how to build new ones, especially if they needed a good heart to get to heaven.  But that was long ago–the defense budget never stopped growing, the military academies and armed services committees and aerospace companies never stopped needing each other, and now they have a President who quips about his big button. So the theorizing has started again, only this time it’s not as sharp as it used to be.  It’s a little thick, actually, like so much else since January 2017: eg., let’s put mini-nukes (sic) on $5 billion strategic submarines, never mind that the boats would be torpedoed to Davey Jones as soon as one junior SLBM was launched. The new generation of suits took up a profession, after all, that had become threadbare 20 years ago. The hawkish Republican committees of Congress hired second-rate Ph.D’s, the only kind who still thought this work was glorious.  But now they have their little hands on the big levers, especially the Treasury sluice, and we’ll all have to start dreaming about Armageddon again.

War Stories

Bill Broad and David Sanger seem to have nothing else to do in the twilight of their New York Times careers than beat the North Korea anxiety drum. In the tradition of Drew Middleton, who never met a general whose bugle he wouldn’t blow on page one, they continue to pen the creative nonfiction prologue of war with Kim Jong-un. Today’s installment, citing military and intelligence sources who do not rise to prominence in their profession by thinking thrice, fleshes out a narrative of high-level American nonchalance that let canny Kim join the nuclear club. If only all those national security careerists had been as motivated as Broad and Sanger, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Even dear old Dick Garwin, 89, the last of the H-bomb fathers, gets hauled out for a pipesmoke comment about “enormous advances” in computer modeling. And cars run better than they used to, too, readers. The one sure thing that will come from this ongoing Clancy-esque oeuvre is more money from Congress for the spooks and brass, who would be cashiered tomorrow morning if they dared feed any other message besides urgency to the Daily Planet.

Fourth Estate or Fourth Branch?

What better way to begin another embattled year for American journalism than reading James Risen’s Intercept account of how top editors at the New York Times dragged the polish off their shoes to delay publishing revelations about NSA domestic spying? It takes a long, long time to rise to that paper’s masthead–years of demonstrating what you can do as a reporter and, more importantly, what you will not do.  Bill Keller and Phil Taubman were children of the Sixties, yet they seem to have missed or lost the most important political lesson of their generation, that Washington will lie its head off to protect the illusions of high office. Their Times thus became a branch of the government–replete with editors suckered into the corrupt universe of federal secrets that they could not share with their own reporters–rather than a critical observer. But herein rests the one and perhaps only big hope for the internet as news medium, that despite its extreme vulnerability to charlatanism, it can still work beyond the reach of the kind of power that successfully manipulated the New York Times.

“The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.”–NYT, 12/16/05

Too Stupid for Words

With the end of another year in sight, this is traditionally a time to take stock. Fitting, then, that two news stories of the past week were about matters that defy commentary not because they are complex, but because they are too stupid for words. One, about the Pentagon having spent $22 million on “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification,” or finding UFO’s, would be funny if not for all the deserving-but-neglected things in life that could be transformed by $22 million or even $2 million or maybe just $2 hundred. The other, about a list of words banned by CDC budget analysts, including “science-based,” would also be gag material if not for the ongoing bowdlerization of government websites and publications by Trump censors. All of this, and so much more during the past year, is just stupid. And that covers it completely.

Team B-

The proliferation of commercial satellites that take photos-for-sale of the Earth’s surface long ago spawned a small industry of shops that will study these pictures and tell you what they think is going on down there. Applications for agriculture, city planning, et cetera are obvious, but there is a lucrative subset of the business that employs former spies who learned how to look for trouble and find it for eager customers. Surely they must miss the extremely high resolution of bonafide military/intelligence satellites, but never mind. They talk the talk of GEOINT and know how to put together an expensive, hair-raising analytical product. Today there is news apparently derived from such a source that posits the imminence of North Korean missile-launching submarines. American, Japanese, and South Korean navy ships happen to be practicing how to hunt for enemy subs and running computer simulations of missile tracking, part of joint exercises that have been going on for months amid rising tensions in the region. A New York Times reporter in Hong Kong links this activity willy-nilly to a November 16 article in a publication from SAIS, the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington (a “division” of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, rather in the same free-standing mode as the Peabody School of Music) that scrutinized some DigitalGlobe commercial pix of a North Korean shipyard.  The author concluded that there was evidence of “an aggressive schedule to build and deploy” that strange country’s first operational ballistic missile submarine. Now SAIS is formally named after Paul Nitze, an investment banker who started its storefront precursor with his Brahmin friend Rep. Christian Herter (R, Mass.) during World War II, seven years before it became part of the Hopkins brand in 1950.  Nitze eventually found a higher calling as the Truman Administration hardliner who created NSC-68, the secret 1950 policy document that established a permanent post-war wartime economy to oppose the Soviet Union. He also helped spawn the CIA’s alarmist “Team B” assessments of Soviet behavior in the 1970s that supported the vast Pentagon buildup of the Reagan era. So here we have a deeply satisfying resonance of continuity in the intellectual apparatus that has inflated American defense budgets for more than six decades and shows no sign of running out of wind.