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.

UDMH! Secret Rocket Fuel!

The latest alarum from that Orthrus of interventionist reporting about North Korean missile capabilities, William Broad and David Sanger of the New York Times, concerns what they deem to be a “rare, potent” rocket fuel that “those who study the issue” believe should be kept out of that strange land or at least blown up (I think maybe that’s what they mean by “take advantage of its volatile properties”) before it reaches a launch pad there. It’s called UDMH, for unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, which they also warn is “highly volatile” and “deadly” and “highly poisonous.” (So is the gasoline in my lawnmower, I’m quite sure, but never mind.) This is rocket fuel, by dang, and it even has a “secret formula.”  Yet Wikipedia, that viper’s den of secret information, offers the following about how UDMH is manufactured, which in my college chemistry days would definitely have been called formulas:

UDMH is produced industrially by two routes. One, based on the Olin Raschig process, involves reaction of chloramine with dimethylamine. This method gives the hydrochloride of the hydrazine:

(CH3)2NH + NH2Cl → (CH3)2NNH2 + HCl

Alternatively, acetylhydrazine can be N-methylated using formaldehyde to give the N,N-dimethyl-N’-acetylhydrazine, which can subsequently be hydrolyzed:

CH3C(O)NHNH2 + 2 CH2O + 2 H2 → CH3C(O)NHN(CH3)2 + 2 H2O
CH3C(O)NHN(CH3)2 + H2O → CH3COOH + H2NN(CH3)2

So, assuming that there might be a few chemical engineers in North Korea who could do much better than the grades I got in chemistry, it’s not unreasonable to guess that they can brew this hooch themselves. Or maybe they could have just bought some directly or through dastardly intermediaries from Arch Chemicals Inc. in Westlake, LA, which advertises its commercial availability on their website.  Who knows? Sure, it’s dangerous (not too dangerous for the folks down in Westlake, of course), but as one of Broad-and-Sanger’s sources who have been studying the issue opines, “the North Korean tolerance for casualties is probably pretty high.”

Right, they don’t value human life the way we do, remember?

Update 9/27: Homebrew it is.


Chelsea Manning and Enola Gay

Harvard’s cowardly revocation of a Kennedy School fellowship offer to Chelsea Manning recalls another prominent lesson in where power resides when government and academic circles overlap. In 1995, when the Smithsonian Institution tried to mount a 50th anniversary exhibition at the Air and Space Museum about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, daring to broach the factual horror of Japanese civilian victims along with a display of the restored B-29 “Enola Gay” bomber, outrage from American military organizations and Congressional hawks not only succeeded in cancelling the show but in ousting the museum’s director, Cornell astronomer Martin Harwit. (Harwit’s book about the imbroglio, An Exhibit Denied, remains a profound narrative about politics and culture.)  The Enola Gay was and is a sacred icon for a triumphalist tale that many Americans–at least those emblematized by the Air Force Association–cling to regardless of how thoroughly it has been debunked by postwar scholarship. Analogous forces, this time centered in the CIA, evidently cannot abide recognizing Chelsea Manning’s principled exposure of dubiously classified information showing, shall we say, less than noble performance of American foreign policy initiatives. So now students and, perhaps more to the point, faculty at Harvard will be able to hobnob with such illuminati as Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski, unperturbed by the historical complexity that is Chelsea Manning. At moments like these, the role of the Smithsonian and Kennedy School as propaganda vehicles becomes clear as ice.