Tuesday, August 29, 2006

FISA or Footwork? Surveillance In The Internet Age

Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) is pushing a bill to expand the ability of the Bush White House to spy on Americans. The bill, due to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, allows telephone wiretaps without a court-issued warrant. Mr. Bush declares he needs this to be able to listen to Al Qaeda phone conversations. Donald Rumsfeld compares opponents of this effort to those who tried to appease 1930s Nazis.

Of course the wiretaps will also be used to listen to political opponents discussing election strategies, anti-war protesters planning new demonstrations, and anyone discussing anything Dick Cheney does not approve of. Rumsfeld also knows the NSDAP used the same tactics in Weimar Germany in the 1920s.

Specter's bill is sure to be rushed through the House and Senate ahead of the upcoming elections. The Republicans fear losing control of the House and perhaps even the Senate in these elections, with the help of racist Senator George Allen. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was written in response to wiretaps on Vietnam anti-war protesters and Daniel Ellsberg's (Pentagon Papers whistle blower) psychiatrist.

Now what self-respecting Al Qaeda operative is unaware that the U.S. government is listening to phonecalls? Furthermore, has the U.S. government really hired enough Arabic and Urdu language translators to keep up with all that chatter? Finally, do these translators really understand every little codeword that a terrorist might have invented to discuss some potential plot?

Encrypted e-mail, plain old postal mail, web pages with secret code hidden in the HTML script, and messages hidden in JPG photo code are just a few of the alternatives to phone communication used by organized crime these days. The stream of data moving through high bandwidth connections today is so vast that the NSA super computers cannot possibly scan every byte for potential clues. Furthermore, reliance on electronic signal interception alone leaves open the potential for debacles like the recent London liquid bomb scare. Any field agent could have learned the suspects held no visas, no passports, and no plane tickets. In that case it would have been far wiser to wait and watch, out in the field.

Real intelligence, even in the Internet Age, still comes from boots on the ground, humans in the field, like always. Most operations are still conducted with an envelope of cash here and a quick conversation there, in person. The government's reliance on electronic surveillance has become a weakness, especially when the bad guys surely know that cell phones are monitored and e-mails are read. The people charged with protecting the world from the next violent outburst need to get out on the streets of Quetta, Karachi, Kandahar, Tel Aviv, Baghdad, or Jakarta and start listening. Those NSA Urdu and Arabic translators would be far more effective in a Yemen tea room than listening to headphones in Fort Meade. Until this happens they will be no more effective at fighting violence than the old lady peering out from behind her living room curtain. Even she knows that to be true.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Citizens of the United States are quick to point out how their judicial system considers a suspect innocent until proven guilty. Nevertheless, Americans often act no different than a military dictator when they nab a suspect. The recent arrest of a suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey Case is just one example. Most major news outlets and many Americans seemed to race to the conclusion that Mr. Karr was guilty of murder, before even a preliminary hearing was held. Now all charges have been dropped. ABC's Peter Gibson and NBC's Brian Williams acted almost guilty of a crime themselves as they sheepishly admitted they were wrong on recent broadcasts.

George Bush and Dick Cheney raced to judgment after they rushed British authorities toward the arrest of those suspected of plotting to bomb U.S. airlines. MSNBC story British authorities were quick to fan the flames of the fire the White House appeared to start for purely political purposes. "Mass murder on an unimaginable scale" and "attacks were highly likely" were the phrases used. British authorities now admit that the attacks were not imminent. The whole costly security crack-down was simply a case of the Home Office crying "wolf."

The suspects now in custody had not applied for U.S. visas, held no plane tickets, and appear to be technically incapable of assembling and detonating such liquid explosives.

In the biggest case of conviction without a trial, U.S. conservatives are bound and determined to start bombing thousands of sites in Iran, without hard evidence. The U.S. Intelligence community and the U.S. Congress openly admit they have little information about Iran's nuclear program. That is not stopping the White House from threatening to circumvent the United Nations to take immediate action against Iran. Maybe it is the heavy hand of the Israeli government's AIPAC lobby pushing the White House or maybe it is oil lobby seeking free access to Iran's crude oil. Obviously, something other than hard evidence and trial by jury is driving those who swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution. The Sixth Amendment to that Constitution guarantees a defendant the right to a trial by jury. The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."

Perhaps it was a natural progression from the CIA's kidnapping and secretly torturing suspects all over the world, to Guantanamo detentions without trial, and telephone wiretaps without even an easily obtained court order that emboldened the Executive Branch of the U.S. government. Then again, maybe it was just that same old rush to judgment that led to thousands of black men being lynched in the South not that many years ago.

Stoking the flames of fear in our citizens is a dangerous way to rally people to a cause or garner more votes in an upcoming election. Elected leaders need to stop bashing the courts or judges and instead deliver solid cases based on hard evidence. Real justice takes long hours of investigation, real evidence, careful preparation of cases, and a suspect's day in court. If we insist on skipping this process we cannot call ourselves a civilization at all but simply an angry mob bent on revenge at any cost.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Spent Nuclear Fuel Still Missing in Georgia

What a headline! The Southern Nuclear Corporation still cannot locate a little highly radioactive nuclear fuel. Do not worry about it, they also insist that theft or diversion of the fuel is "not plausible" due to extensive security measures. But they simply cannot find the stuff anywhere.

In the same article Southern Nuclear admits the fuel may be in a part of their facility that is unobservable by camera or otherwise inaccessible. It could also be possible that the fuel was inadvertently shipped to a licensed waste disposal facility. You can never be really certain about these things can you?

All these problems started with "unanticipated corrosion" that ONLY affected boiling water reactor fuel.

They have been searching for this missing fuel since the early-1980s. At least we are learning about the ongoing fuel loss on a timely basis! Perhaps Southern Nuclear will issue another report soon, say 2030 or so.

The following link will takes you to an article that may give you an idea of the absurd state of the nuclear power industry. Lost fuel, inadvertent shipments, unanticipated corrosion are a few of the issues mentioned.

Bizjournals article

Saturday, August 19, 2006

FDA Approves Virus Tainted Meat

Bowing down to agribusiness, the US Food & Drug Administration has decided to approve the sale of meat sprayed with a cocktail of six viruses. This is being done to combat the known problem of deadly bacteria found on luncheon meats like sliced ham, turkey, hot dogs, and other cold cuts. The FDA proudly declares that consumers will not even be aware that the meat has been sprayed with viruses.

Forbes article

As long as the viruses are applied properly, there should be no problems. The U.S. government seems to hve gone stark raving mad with this decision. What happens when a poultry worker that may have come in contact with the H5N1 or bird flu virus accidentally sticks a hand in the solution being sprayed on luncheon meats?

The last time I ate meat was in 1978 but those of you still consuming meat must really consider what you are being fed.

Monday, August 14, 2006

No Carry On Luggage; How Airport Security Impacts The Aviation Industry

Billions of dollars spent on "poor" security procedures may actually cause more airlines to go bankrupt.

If aviation authorities are going to stick to a "no carry-on luggage" rule for security reasons they had better consider all the consequences. Business travelers will weigh this change into every proposal for a quick sales trip to Chicago, New York, or other popular destination. Many airport concession stands, an important source of revenue, will cease to be profitable. There may be a small benefit to the airline, in faster aircraft turnaround times, but at what cost? Finally, the increased volume of stowed luggage will translate into greater volumes of stolen, damaged, and lost luggage. In the end, all of this may still not thwart a determined terrorist.

Many business travelers detest the idea of having to check baggage. Checking baggage means having to leave much earlier for flights. You have to wait in long lines just to get the few humans still employed at the counters to check a bag. No more convenient self-service kiosks or even printing your boarding pass at home. Once you arrive at your destination you can no longer go directly to the car rental buses or taxi stands. Now business travelers will have to stand idle by the conveyor belts hoping that their luggage made it on the flight.

If only 10% of business trips are cancelled due to the consequences of having to check all baggage, airline profits will seriously be impacted. So will the profits of any corporations that still depend on face-to-face visits for effective planning, operations, and sales. Add to that uncertainty the knowledge that the company laptop, full of customer information, may have been in the hands of a thief during the three-hour flight, instead of tumbling roughly through the baggage handling system. Does a busy executive really want to risk putting a laptop in checked luggage and having it damaged, corporate data lost, or even stolen by identity thieves?

Without carry-on luggage who will bother to make a big ticket purchase at the shops located near the gates? If no laptops are allowed who will use the wireless computer services? Does it make sense to buy a music CD or DVD if you cannot listen to it and must throw it in the trash before you board your flight? Why buy a simple bottle of water if you have to guzzle it down at the gate and cross your legs until the pilot says it is OK to get up and walk around in-flight?

Nevertheless, carry on baggage has been one of the biggest obstacles to the airlines goal of faster turnaround times at airports. The faster an airline can get the arriving passengers disembarked, and the departing passengers in their seats, the more money they can make with each jet. Southwest Airlines, using a policy of no assigned seats, has the fastest turnaround time and therefore greatest aircraft utilization rate of any airline. Remove carryon luggage from the equation and Southwest's aircraft utilization rate will only increase.

If aviation authorities do decide that eliminating carry on baggage is the best way to thwart would be aircraft bomb plots, they will need to raise the bar in another area of airport operations. Given the recent wage concessions well-paid airline executives have foisted ground crews, it may only be a matter of time before the people crawling in the belly of the plane decide to supplement their pay by selling items on eBay or at the local pawn shop. It will only be a matter of time before baggage handlers exploit the new treasure trove of laptop computers, cameras, and other easy-to-pawn valuables.

What about the increased airline personnel required to handle all the claims for delayed, damaged, or permanently lost or stolen baggage?

Airline and airport management must carefully weigh all these factors in the face of zealous government agencies that refuse to invest in research to improve security. After all, a determined suicide bomber will no doubt still be able to ship a remote controlled bomb or altitude-triggered explosive in the airline cargo hold. It is no secret that only a very small percentage of all airline cargo container shipments are subject to rigorous inspection. Surface to air missiles are also still available on the black market in places like Pakistan and eastern Europe. While these major loopholes remain all other efforts seem like a child placing a finger in the dike to stop an impending flood.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Burmese Days (Myanmar Knights)

Good Morning General Than Shwe, Gentlemen, Respected Leaders,

I realise your time is valuable so I shall be quite brief. I am here today to request the release of Aung San Suu Kyi

General: (responding with a curious tone of voice) Why should I even consider your request? What sort of official are you? What government do you represent?

(nervous laughter from several people but not the General)

Old Man: (calmly) I represent no government. I work for absolutely no organisation. I am here to request the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on behalf of the Tao.

General: The Tao? What Tao are your talking about?

Old Man: The Tao of this Universe. Respected General, in the natural order of things three in ten die young. Three in ten live to be old. Three in ten have a choice. Suu Kyi has grown old under this tedious order of affairs. You should release her simply in following the natural order of the universe. Your citizens will respect you for this wise decision, just as they respect you for your efforts to protect the tiger.

General: The tiger does not threaten the peace of this country as does Aung San Suu Kyi. The tiger is part of the natural forest life of Myanmar. Many people will come to try to see the tiger.

Old Man: Many more people will come to see a beautiful country that respects the freedom of their most intelligent citizens. The publicity from her release alone will be so great your airports will barely be able to handle the flow of visitors. This is in keeping with the Tao, the natural order of things in the Universe.

General: Consideration will be given to your request. Guards, see that this old man is placed on the next flight out of this country.

Head Guard: General, what old man are you talking about?

General: This man standing right here in front of me!

Head Guard: But, General, with all respect, there is no old man standing before you and the other respected leaders.