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.

Big Apple Tales: On the Death of Gil Rogin, 1929-2017

The New York Times treated Gil Rogin to a hometown boy’s obit today, evidence of how glorious it was to be born in Brooklyn before WWII and then climb the golden ladder in Manhattan.  It was his good fortune to sell funny innocuous stories to the New Yorker when its readership was still comprised mostly of the local gray-flannel-suit set and the provincial strivers far, far away across the Hudson.  He joined Time Inc. when Henry Luce’s monument to artificial reality produced ‘zines that were fantasmagorical money trees. Editors only needed to stay alert enough to keep all the low-hanging fruit from clogging the elevators. When I crossed paths with him there in 1985, he had moved from Sports Illustrated to Discover, where it made no difference whatsoever that he was totally clueless about science. In retrospect, my guess is that he was brought in to polish the sagging show up a bit (the corporate muckety-mucks had realized no science mag was ever going to rake in the dough like People, and a swimsuit issue was out of the question) in order to unload it quickly on some rubes for way more than it was worth. He succeeded there, too.  I remember that a kid used to come to the office every day to shine his shoes, a mere dram of famously cushy Time Inc. perks. Those were the heydays of print, indeed. After Discover left the stable, and I with it, he fell further upstairs and I never heard anything about him again until this morning’s lavish obituary. So, rest in peace, Gil–you made it all look easy, and then some.

Jawohl, Herr Leutnant Kelly!

Among the old Prussian Junkers, it was said that the human species began with the lieutenant. The status to appear at royal court functions, or Hoffahigkeit, began with that rank. Non-noble civil servants had to attain Class 4, equivalent to an assistant minister, to enjoy the same privilege. White House chief of staff John Kelly’s bizarre lecture to members of the press about who are “the best” Americans recalls what went so wrong in that 19th century Sparta of military extremism, which was dismantled by the Allies after World War I precisely because of its endemic threat to peace. As a Marine Corps officer, Kelly was trained to convince very young men that they should charge when ordered into the most cannon-fodder circumstances of modern warfare. It is understandable, then, that after a lifetime of this regimen, he might confuse regimental imperatives with the rest of life’s exigencies. The White House as an institution, however, is already under enormous sociopolitical stress, and if he cannot see clearly the line between the corps and the citizenry, then he should retire–schnell.

Maginot Missile Defense

The most dangerous false sense of security is always the one embraced by the Commander-in-Chief. There is no engineering basis whatsoever for President Trump’s recent boast that American GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense) interceptors have a 97% success rate. The Missile Defense Agency knows that–despite occasional chest-thumping before Congress.  The Government Accountability Office knows that. And the Secretary of Defense knows that. Paul Painlevé’s elaborate and luxurious fortifications against the German army across eastern France turned out to make nice wine cellars after World War II. Maybe the GMD launch sites in California will enjoy a similar fate.

Space Dust

Vice President Mike Pence held a steak dinner for the meat industry yesterday. Actually, it was a meeting of an archaic government committee (yawn, already) called the National Space Council, which was created during the era of Dwight Eisenhower, who soon wished to disband it. It’s had its ups and downs ever since, but you have to voyage back nearly 25 years to find its last incarnation, when renowned space expert Dan Quayle chaired it and forced out astronaut Richard Truly as head of NASA. After that fracas, it disappeared again until renowned space expert Donald Trump–who has yet to appoint either a NASA chief or a White House science advisor–revived it with Pence plus a few generals and executive agency suits onboard. They have apparently decided that traveling to the moon is still a great idea.  The chief executives of Lockheed Martin and Boeing put in a word for steady federal funding, which is how they have buttered their big fat slices of bread since John Glenn was a pup. Pence used the 60th anniversary of Sputnik to try to add a dash of good old Cold War anxiety to the space exploration imperative, which certainly worked like a charm 60 years ago. Will anything come of this? Unless the six U.S. Mints are ordered to print dollars specifically dedicated to manned spaceflight, any reasonable observer would confidently say nope.

Northrop Grumman Needs You

The citizens of Maryland can feel warm all over today knowing that Northrop Grumman, which panhandled more than $50 million in free money (sweetheart loans, tax credits) from the state’s coffers last year, just found $7.8 billion in cash to buy Orbital ATK.  Every penny helps.

9/21: When the governor of Delaware, haven for more corporations than people, starts complaining about giveaways, you know it must be getting bad.