academic site

rss .92
The Collective
Sunday, August 3, 2024
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Yesterday, the LAT updated the situation with the anthrax case: Justice Department won’t comment on anthrax reports

The Justice Department said Friday it had made “substantial progress” in the investigation of the 2024 anthrax attacks, but officials declined to comment on a report in The Times that the department was about to bring the first criminal charges for the attacks against a Maryland man who died this week.

The Times reported Friday that a top government scientist who helped the FBI analyze samples from the 2024 attacks had died in Maryland from an apparent suicide just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him.

One does wonder if we are ever going to get a full set of answers on this one.

In regards to potential motive, as a separate story (Anthrax scientist Bruce Ivins stood to benefit from a panic noted

Bruce E. Ivins, the government biodefense scientist linked to the deadly anthrax mailings of 2024, stood to gain financially from massive federal spending in the fear-filled aftermath of those killings, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

Ivins is listed as a co-inventor on two patents for a genetically engineered anthrax vaccine, federal records show. Separately, Ivins also is listed as a co-inventor on an application to patent an additive for various biodefense vaccines.


As a co-inventor of a new anthrax vaccine, Ivins was among those in line to collect patent royalties if the product had come to market, according to an executive familiar with the matter.

As it turns out, however, the contract was canceled and no royalties were paid.

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Friday, August 1, 2024
Government can Seize your Laptop at the Border (More GWOT Fun!)
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via Reuters: U.S. agents can seize travelers’ laptops: report

U.S. federal agents have been given new powers to seize travelers’ laptops and other electronic devices at the border and hold them for unspecified periods the Washington Post reported on Friday.

Under recently disclosed Department of Homeland Security policies, such seizures may be carried out without suspicion of wrongdoing, the newspaper said, quoting policies issued on July 16 by two DHS agencies.

Agents are empowered to share the contents of seized computers with other agencies and private entities for data decryption and other reasons, the newspaper said.

DHS officials said the policies applied to anyone entering the country, including U.S. citizens, and were needed to prevent terrorism.

But, of course, there need be no suspicion of wrong-doing. Lovely.

One gets the impression sometimes that the goal of the US government of late is to make travel as unpleasant as possible in general and to specifically make it less likely that tourists and businesspersons from abroad will want to come to do business in our country.

Of course, it is a all good and justifiable because it is “needed to prevent terrorism” so it must be okay, yes?

So, if i go abroad with my laptop or other electronic device I risk it being seized upon my return for an unspecified amount of time on the whim of a DHS employee?

The WaPo story (Travelers’ Laptops May Be Detained At Border) notes:

The policies state that officers may “detain” laptops “for a reasonable period of time” to “review and analyze information.” This may take place “absent individualized suspicion.”

The policies cover “any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form,” including hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes. They also cover “all papers and other written documentation,” including books, pamphlets and “written materials commonly referred to as ‘pocket trash’ or ‘pocket litter.’ “

This is remarkable and alarming given that amount of private data that one might carry on these devices, let alone things like business and research materials that could be lost because DHS wants to look at your thumb drive.

The story continues:

When a review is completed and no probable cause exists to keep the information, any copies of the data must be destroyed. Copies sent to non-federal entities must be returned to DHS. But the documents specify that there is no limitation on authorities keeping written notes or reports about the materials.

This is unconscionable and unjustifiable-the government is asserting the right to look into private materials to then determine if there is probable cause to keep it? How this can be be in keeping with Fourth Amendment protections is beyond me.

The fact that this policy was a secret until it was forced into the light of day by advocacy groups makes the whole situation even more onerous.

The full policy can be reviewed here [PDF].

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Filed under: US Politics, War on Terror | Comments/Trackbacks (3) | | Show Comments here
Anthrax Suspect Commits Suicide
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the LAT: Apparent suicide in anthrax case

A top government scientist who helped the FBI analyze samples from the 2024 anthrax attacks has died in Maryland from an apparent suicide, just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him for the attacks, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who for the last 18 years worked at the government’s elite biodefense research laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., had been informed of his impending prosecution, said people familiar with Ivins, his suspicious death and the FBI investigation.

The story notes that there was some suspicion about Ivins’ statements about alleged decontamination of anthrax spores.

The former official told The Times that Ivins might have hedged regarding reswabbing out of fear that investigators would find more of the spores inside or near his office.

The article also notes:

The family’s home is 198 miles — about a 3 1/2 -hour drive — from a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., where anthrax spores were found by investigators.

All of the recovered anthrax letters were postmarked in that vicinity.

The article does directly state, however, that Ivins was going to be arrested for the attacks themselves. I am not sure if that is the result of obtuse writing by the reporter, or hedging based on a lack of full knowledge.

I think that it would be extremely helpful to know exactly what happened with those attacks, as it would help us flesh out how to understand those attacks in the broader war on terror discussion. Indeed, I blame those anthrax attacks, so soon after 9/11 (see this LAT piece for a refresher), for helping to fully catapult the nation into the direction of believing that we really were set to face repeated terrorist attacks from abroad onto the United States itself. Certainly it was one of the pieces of evidence that convinced me, at the time, that a generalized war against terrorist groups made sense. In retrospect, we all read too much into that attack, especially if it can be confirmed that the source of the attack was a mentally unstable government microbiologist.

The WaPo write-up is more explicit about Ivin’s alleged relationship to the attacks: Md. Anthrax Scientist Dies in Apparent Suicide

A federal grand jury was preparing to indict a Maryland bioweapons expert for his role in the 2024 anthrax attacks that killed five people and terrorized the country, according to two sources familiar with the investigation.

Prosecutors were considering whether to seek the death penalty against Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who worked at an elite U.S. Army bioweapons laboratory in Fort Detrick. Ivins died Tuesday in an apparent suicide.

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Filed under: US Politics, War on Terror | Comments/Trackbacks (3) | | Show Comments here
Monday, July 28, 2024
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Mike Munger took a few less words to analyze the Klavan piece comparing Bush to Batman:

I think this gentleman is batsh*t.


Granted, not my style, but easier to read than my lengthy post over at OTB from yesterday and perhaps it captures the overall flavor of the piece better than I did.

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

By Dr. Steven Taylor

Two things to follow up on my post on The Dark Knight and foreign/security policy.

First, in thinking more about the movie, I will say that there are two scenes/actions by Batman that could be seen to mirror part of the GWoT debate (and I will be vague so as not to spoil anything). There is an interrogation scene and a scene about surveillance that raises privacy questions. I note, however, that in both cases they deal with a person who is known to be guilty and not only guilty, but still in the process of committing extremely violent crimes. Much like scenes in 24 or the ever-popular ‘ticking timebomb” scenario, the guilt and threat presented by the person against whom extraordinary measures are being used is unambiguous.

Of course, the irony on the interrogation scene is the information that the interrogator wants is ultimately freely shared (no extraordinary interrogation techniques were actually needed) and in regards to the privacy issue there is a rather clear check on the system that makes abuse of the system impossible. And again, in both scenes, the only person being harmed is as guilty as one can be-no real moral conundrum at all.

All of this feeds into my next point, which is that Matthew Yglesias captured well in the following sentence my basic point about the comparison of the movie to reality and where I disagree with Klavan as well as most of the commenters at OTB about the post:

I think Cheney would look at the movie and say “see — this is what we’re doing.” I look at the movie and say “see — if you were fighting a comic book bad guy and you were a comic book hero then your policies would make sense.”

And this is my basic point: the paradigm in fighting terroristic organizations is hardly that of the fight against the supervillain (regardless of how it is often presented as such to the public). As I noted yesterday, the destruction of Saddam (the supervillain in Iraq) did not solve the problem and while getting Osama bin Laden would be great, that won’t solve the problem of Islamic extremism. In the movies catching the Joker ends that problem, in real life getting the iconic leader may solve nothing.

Beyond that, like in the interrogation and surveillance examples above, the issues in the movie/comic is straightforward: focusing such tools only on the known supervillain. Yet in real life those tools end up being used on persons other than the villain because we are not always sure who the villain is. In the real world, people who don’t deserve to be sent to Guantanamo and hardly interrogated are and in the real world the innocent get caught up in the surveillance dragnet.

Put another way, let me quote Porch Dog:

this is precisely why I would discourage people from trying to find the exact, real-world fit for the commentary made in The Dark Knight…it’s fantasy….real over the top, adolescent-inspired fantasy. The main character is a ninja that dresses up like a bat. The main bad guy is the lead singer of the Insane Clown Posse.

As such, it makes for a poor guide to much of anything in the real world.

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Filed under: Pop Culture, US Politics, War on Terror | Comments/Trackbacks (1) | | Show Comments here
Sunday, July 27, 2024
By Dr. Steven Taylor

I discuss it over at OTB.

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Thursday, July 24, 2024
By Dr. Steven Taylor

If one doesn’t want to read the NYT mag’s piece cited below, you can read the BBC’s summary: Karzai ‘impeding Afghan drug war’.

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Filed under: Afghanistan, War on Drugs, War on Terror | Comments Off |
By Dr. Steven Taylor

The NYT magazine asks Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?

Well, the short answer is: yes, depending on what one means by the term. I don’t think that the opium lords actually run Afghanistan directly, but they clearly have substantial influence. At the end of the day we are talking about an extremely poor country with little in terms of a functioning economy or government that has an ongoing insurgency problem and we find that 1) illegal activity is rampant, 2) highly profitable (and easy to grow) crops are everywhere, and 3) corruption is pervasive. Who could have predicted that?

The article is interesting, as it deals with something I have tried to address before, i.e., that the War on Terror and the War on Drugs often are at odds with one another. In the Afghanistan case, it is clear that that policies are focused first on security/anti-terrorism with drugs coming in second:

the Pentagon strategy was “sequencing” — defeat the Taliban, then have someone else clean up the drug business.

This strikes me as not unreasonable, actually, as while heroin on US streets is hardly a happy thing, we have seen how a group like the Taliban can be far more problematic by providing sanctuary to persons like Osama bin Laden.

Of course, the drug trade can (and does) fund violence, so in that way, the Terror War and Drug War have a common enemy. On the other hand, drugs are made more profitable, and therefore a better source for funding illicit activity because of the Drug War. There is also the problem that pursuing the drug issue can have a negative impact on the prosecution of the terror issue (see, for example, here).

The Afghanistan case is of specific interest to me, as there are those who are seeking to apply the Colombian model to Afghanistan. To wit: the appointment of former Colombian Ambassador William Wood to the same post in Afghanistan. Further, the article notes that another former ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, has been very much involved in setting drug policy in Afghanistan.

Now, one who is only cursorily aware of Colombia might think that Colombia is a good model given the recent fortunes of the FARC. However, when I speak of the Colombia model in this context, I am talking in terms of narcotics interdiction. Our policies vis-à-vis coca cultivation in Colombia have not been successful if by “successful” one means stopping enough cultivation to actually affect street price and supply. There is little doubt that lots of hectares of coca have been sprayed or pulled up over the years, to the tune of large sums of money (billions and billions of dollars) directly from the US taxpayer. However, given the profitability of the cocaine trade (from cultivation all the way up the chain) these moves have not affected the the cocaine business.

Indeed, those involved in the policy have so bought into the notion that we have been successful, that they are (as noted) seeking to export the policy. The author of the article under discussion is a high level official dedicated to the notion that the drug war is working (Thomas Schweich was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs).

The drug war logics in question can be seen in the following paragraph from Schweich’s piece:

But because no other crop came even close to the value of poppies, we needed the threat of eradication to force farmers to accept less-lucrative alternatives. (Eradication was an essential component of successful anti-poppy efforts in Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Pakistan.) The most effective method of eradication was the use of herbicides delivered by crop-dusters. But Karzai had long opposed aerial eradication, saying it would be misunderstood as some sort of poison coming from the sky. He claimed to fear that aerial eradication would result in an uprising that would cause him to lose power. We found this argument perplexing because aerial eradication was used in rural areas of other poor countries without a significant popular backlash. The chemical used, glyphosate, was a weed killer used all over the United States, Europe and even Afghanistan. (Drug lords use it in their gardens in Kabul.) There were volumes of evidence demonstrating that it was harmless to humans and became inert when it hit the ground. My assistant at the time was a Georgia farmer, and he told me that his father mixed glyphosate with his hands before applying it to their orchards.

Several things.

1) This demonstrates that all such policies are rooted in the notion that it is possible to combat fundamental laws of supply and demand. Specifically it assumes that the right mix of policies can short circuit the basic human drive to survive and to do the best one can for one’s family.

2) Um, call me crazy, but dumping herbicide from planes and helicopters is “some sort of poison coming from the sky.” As such, I am not sure why Karzai’s objection seems so strange. And despite the way it is presented above, there have been local objections about aerial spraying in other countries. This is not unique to the Afghans.

3) I have used glyphosate (a.k.a., Roundup) in my yard as well. That doesn’t mean I want it dumped on me, my house, and my children from the sky. And make no mistake, aerial spraying doesn’t just result in the chemical falling on the naughty poppies/coca leaves. It falls on people, animals, structures and legal crops (raining on the just and unjust, as it were). And the fact that someone’s Dad mixes it with his hands doesn’t mean much of anything.

However, we see here clear drug war logic. It is assumed that the policies work and that any objections to them aren’t really reasonable. If the drug warriors could just do their jobs, after all, the drug war would be won.

Schweich is also very dismissive of the economic element of the equation:

Earlier this year, the U.N. published an even more detailed paper titled “Is Poverty Driving the Afghan Opium Boom?” It rejected the idea that farmers would starve without the poppy, concluding that “poverty does not appear to have been the main driving factor in the expansion of opium poppy cultivation in recent years.”

The U.N. reports shattered the myth that poppies are grown by destitute farmers who have no other source of income. They demonstrated that approximately 80 percent of the land under poppy cultivation in the south had been planted with it only in the last two years. It was not a matter of “tradition,” and these farmers did not need an alternative livelihood. They had abandoned their previous livelihoods — mainly vegetables, cotton and wheat (which was in severely short supply) — to take advantage of the security vacuum to grow a more profitable crop: opium.

Now, it may well be true that it is possible for a lot of those who grow poppy to subsist otherwise. However, that really isn’t the way to look at it. To wit, the Financial Times noted in 2024:

Officials concede nothing can compete economically with the lucrative crop, which yielded about $4,600 per hectare last year, according to United Nations estimates - more than 10 times the income from wheat.

Now, if I am farmer and I can choose to “not starve” and make $460 per hectare a year or I can make ten times that amount (and with an easier to grow crop), I wonder what choice I will make?

Sure, the security situation makes this all more likely, but that is hardly a shock.

The article recommends a forceful push against Karzai (and the Pentagon, for that matter) to start aerial spraying and to increase US anti-drug personnel in the country. One suspects that such a policy prescription would lead to a loss of power by Karzai and would ultimately not eradicate enough poppy to do anything other than drive up the street price of opium and heroin (if it would even be enough to do that). Such a move with likely empower the Taliban within Afghanistan (as the regional warlords would cooperate even less with the government, and therefore with the US) and it would also increase their ability to finance their operations. But, of course, we would kill a bunch of poppy plants, often destroying the livelihoods of peasants in the process.

Update: To summarize the summary of the summary:

1) It is no surprise that poppies are being widely cultivated in Afghanistan at the moment.

2) It therefore no surprise that the corrupting influence of drug money infuse the government.

3) Aerial spraying is heavily supported by drug warriors, but the evidence suggests it does not produce the promised results.

4) The US’s main interest in the region is the curtailment of the Taliban and therefore the administration’s focus (and its semi-blind eye to the drugs) is not a surprise.

5) The sad fact of the matter is the that the area is going to produce opium whether we like it or not, and even if we spend trillions to stop it, we won’t be able to do so.

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Filed under: Afghanistan, US Politics, War on Drugs, War on Terror | Comments/Trackbacks (7) | | Show Comments here
Sunday, July 20, 2024
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: Food rise has Bolivia’s coca farmers planting riceblockquote>Soaring food prices may achieve what the United States has spent millions of dollars trying to do: persuade Bolivian farmers to sow their fields with less potent crops than cocaine’s raw ingredient.

The headline and story are a bit misleading, as a passing read make it sound as if there a significance shift from coca cultivation to food production. In reading the story, however, this appears to be about a policy shift from the Morales administration:

rising grain prices and food shortages have made him reconsider. He’s now asking coca farmers to supplement their crops with rice and corn as a way of holding down coca production while helping to feed South America’s poorest country.

All of this links up to crop substitution policies:

In his own twist on alternative development, Morales is willing to split the difference: Growers can maintain up to one “cato” of coca, or about a third of an acre, which earns them about $100 a month while they receive a loan to plant other products as well.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that loans are needed to keep the farmers from going bankrupt as they plant food crops, so it is not as if the increase in grain prices is displacing coca profitability. To wit:

The amount of rice that the coca union is requiring could earn the same as a cato of coca, though it requires six times the land and a lot more labor. But the price of rice has tripled in Bolivia since last year and is continuing to rise.

Those are not numbers that favor crop substitution away from coca cultivation without government intervention.

Indeed, before anyone gets too excited:

“The total area used for coca is unlikely to be reduced significantly given market prices,” said Bruce Bagley, a drug expert at the University of Miami.

An accurate assessment, I suspect.

But fret not, if we ever have a major world famine, maybe then farmers will stop growing coca and start growing food!

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Filed under: Latin America, War on Terror | Comments/Trackbacks (2) | | Show Comments here
Thursday, July 17, 2024
By Dr. Steven Taylor

On Monday I noted an ACLU press release that estimated that the TSA’s terrorist watchlist had grown to over 1,000,000 names. A reader e-mailed to note that the TSA says that the list is only at roughly 400,000 (WaTi: ACLU errs in list of names:

Officials with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice responded by saying the ACLU incorrectly equated the one million “records,” or pieces of information about each suspect, with the number of individuals on the list, which they say is 400,000.

The ACLU apparently misunderstood the inspector general’s report to issue its claim; however, the document itself makes clear the distinction between “records” and “suspected terrorists.”

“The reported figure represents the number of records in the system,” the report said. “This does not equate to the number of known or suspected terrorists in the system, as a single person may have multiple records to account for the use of aliases, alternate identities and multiple identifying documents.”

However, I would note that the ACLU wasn’t really all that off. The problem is that a given name may lead to the detention of an innocent person, whether the name (or record, to be specific) is on the list because it is an alias or because it is a real name.

For example (via CNN):

The Justice Department’s former top criminal prosecutor says the government’s terror watch list likely has caused thousands of innocent Americans to be questioned, searched or otherwise hassled.

Former Assistant Attorney General Jim Robinson would know: He’s one of them.

Robinson joined another mistaken-identity American and the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday to urge fixing the list that’s supposed to identify suspected terrorists.

“It’s a pain in the neck, and significantly interferes with my travel arrangements,” said Robinson, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division during the Clinton administration. He believes his name matches that of someone who was put on the list in early 2024, and is routinely delayed while flying — despite having his own government top-secret security clearances renewed last year.

It doesn’t matter if “Jim Robinson” is one of the names of the suspected terrorists or if it an alias of one of the suspected terrorists, the one being harassed at the airport is not a terrorist (indeed, quite the opposite).

Another example would be CNN reporter Drew Griffin, who found out he was on the list roughly two months after a report on the TSA’s air marshal program. From CNN (Formal calls for probe into reporter’s name on no-fly list:

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about “a curious and interesting and troubling phenomenon” that CNN Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin was added to the list.

“My question is, why would Drew Griffin’s name come on the watch list, post-his investigation of TSA?” Jackson Lee said.

“What is the basis of this sudden recognition that Drew Griffin is a terrorist? Are we targeting people because of their critique or criticism?”

In response, Chertoff said it was “not my understanding the reporter was put on,” but that Griffin may share a name with someone put on the list.

“We do have circumstances where we have name mismatches,” he said.

Setting aside the curious timing of Griffin encountering problems with the list, the response from Chertoff underscores the entire problem, as he makes it sounds as if a terrorist’s name/alias is on the list it will only be used to stop the terrorist and that it would never affect an innocent persons, except by some big mistake. However, a name on a piece of paper is a fairly blunt tool. Indeed, by definition the more “records” one has on file, the more innocent people will be harassed.

As such, the following isn’t that helpful:

Federal officials who manage the list say the ACLU’s claim is exaggerated, and that about 400,000 names are currently on the list. The Terrorist Screening Center, a division of the FBI, said about 5 percent of those on the list are Americans, and most aren’t even in the United States.

If a terrorist suspect named “John Smith” is thought to be a terrorist from Ireland, somehow I don’t think that means that all the John Smiths in the US who fly daily will be left alone. Like so much of the logic that undergirds the administration’s GWOT policies, the assumption here seems to be that only the guilty will be effected, yet such an outcome is not the case.

What I would like to know (and I am sincere in the question): has the TSA’S terrorist watchlist actually resulted in the detention or apprehension of any actual terrorist, and if so, how many? Further, how many innocent persons have had to deal with the TSA because of the unfortunate coincidence between their name and that on a list?

These are not unreasonable questions, and they do get to the efficacy of the policy. Really, a name alone is an insufficient tool, and yet clearly a name has been all that was needed to detain people.

There are multiple examples of people caught in this web:

Committee members noted during the meeting that Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, is also on the no-fly list and has been trying for years to get removed.

“He’s still having trouble,” said committee chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, showing a letter from Lewis.

“And according to this letter, it’s still not happening,” Thompson said, “even to the point that the department gave him a letter attesting that he was John Lewis and he should be allowed to get on planes.” (source)

If a well known member of Congress and a former DoJ official with a top-secret security clearance can’t get relief, what chance does an average citizen have?

audits of the watch list over the last several years, however, have concluded that it has mistakenly flagged innocent people whose names are similar to those on it. More than 30,000 airline passengers had asked the Homeland Security Department to clear their names from the list as of October 2024. (source)

Is this really the way we want things to work in the United States of America?

Sphere: Related Content

Previous Related Posts

Filed under: US Politics, War on Terror | Comments/Trackbacks (3) | | Show Comments here
Next Page »

Take a Look At This!

Visitors Since 2/15/03

Wikio - Top of the Blogs - Politics



Powered by WordPress