Saturday, March 31, 2007

New Iran crisis, harsh words from Saudi Arabia -- a new immediate threat to oil supplies?

Suddenly, the echos of earlier periods of history come back. Iran captures 15 British sailors in territory that Britain claims belongs to Iraq, and may have actually been in dispute since the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. The latest news is a war of words an messages between Britain and Iran, summarized here: The exchanges sound a bit like the ultimatums made during July 1914 before World War I erupted. This certainly reminds one of a grave crisis between the US and Iran 27 years ago

After the Iran hostage crisis (involving the US Embassy) erupted in November 1979, there were constant concerns that Iran could try to close the Straits of Hormuz, disrupting major oil supplies. In fact, there had been spike shortages of gasoline in early 1979 after the Shah Mohammad Reza Phlavi fell and was replaced by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979. This was during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and Carter made a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980, of great embarrassment to the U.S. Electronic Data Systems (EDS) of Dallas actually rescued two of its own employees with a mercenary commando raid during that time.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah makes a harsh criticism of continued American presence in Iraq. There story is here.
The remarks appear to be timed to take advantage of the crisis, dispute the historical dispute between Sunnis and Shiites that fuels sectarian violence in Iraq, an ironic situation when viewed from a bird’s eye view by a westerner. This all must be viewed in the backdrop where many Americans now have grave doubts about the apparent lack of integrity, or at least competence in intelligence, with which the current Bush administration has pursued the activity in Iraq.

In the mean time, oil and gasoline prices go up quickly, as the threat, however remote, exists of a Hormuz blockade or even another embargo. During the 1980s, the US Navy patrolled the Strait regularly to reduce the risk of blockage during the Iran-Iraq war, even resulting in occasional minor skirmishes, a little-known fact reported by some veteran or retired sailors who have since fought the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy.

Update: 4/5/2007

The 15 Sailors have been returned to Britain. Here is the ABC News story.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Foreign Affairs: Osterholm renews warnings about possible future H5N1 pandemic

Foreign Affairs is a pricey, upscale gray-covered book-like periodical that appears in larger chain book stores.

Michael T. Osterholm of the University of Minnesota has an article "Unprepared for a Pandemic: Sounding the Alarm, Again," in the March/April 2007 of Foreign Affairs., pp 47-57. He is concerned that medical evidence is mounting that H5N1 (avian influenza or bird flu) could be more volatile than previously thought. He writes in the last section called "Now or Later" : "It is a particularly complicated problem because preparing for a pandemic challenges the very basis of the global just-in-time economy...In the short term, people around the world must understand that when a pandemic unfolds, their communities will largely be on their own to get through the crisis. .. They should plan now and learn to depend on themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their co-workers."

This raises a major point about socialization. The global economy and Internet have helped fuel the idea that an individual may become a “citizen of the world” without any particular loyalty to or attention to the needs of his own biological family or immediate community. H5N1 can certainly threaten that. The Internet cuts both ways. It can provide the opportunity to telecommute and work from home during periods of high contagion, but companies that supply electric power and telecommunications must be able to function in every area; one cannot be completely sure that they could.

Osterholm points out that pandemic flu is potentially very crippling as an exogenous threat to modern technological interdependence, because one cannot count on another section of the country to provide supplies and services, as is the case with almost any other conceivable disaster (except maybe a large asteroid or nuclear war).

Remember, Stephen King had explored this concept with his massive 1978 novel The Stand (revised in 1990).

This issue also has a Response by Paul Farmer, “From ‘Marvelous Momentum’ to Health Care for All: Success Is Possible With the Right Programs: Intelligent Design,” p. 155, where Mr. Farmer responds to a January/February issue by Laurie Garrett “The Challenge of Global Health” where AIDS is seen as drawing money away from other health problems of the poor.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

China moves in the direction of more formal property rights for peasants

China has moved in the direction of a formal market economy as it passed a complicated law regarding property rights, a concept that we take for granted in the U.S. Although officially communist, the government has had to engage in double-talk regarding property in recent years as people “buy” apartments and businesses. Now there is additional protection for peasants with long-term leases.

There was an ideological debate before passing the law, as some intellectuals claimed that state control of land is actually essential to economic growth. The government managed the debate on the Internet, allowing postings but having them removed before passing the law.

The news story is by Edward Cory of the Washington Post Foreign Service, “Chinese Lawmakers Approve Measure to Protect Private Property Rights,” March 17, 2007, here.

In the 1960s, remember, Mao Tse Tung had engineered the Cultural Revolution, where intellectuals were required to “pay their dues” and share the burdens of others by moving into the countryside to do manual labor under primitive conditions. The ideological concern over burden-sharing is surfacing again in this country with a renewed debate about conscription and national service.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More concerns about loose nuclear material

ABC "World News Tonight," on Monday March 12, 2007, reported that radioactive materials may be missing (that is, have been diverted by unauthorized parties) from as many as 85 sites in Russia and especially in former Soviet republics.

The report specifically mentioned Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the American state), where a couple years ago there had been reports about loose strontium 90 canisters, and these are extremely toxic. Other reports, as in The New York Times magazine, have discussed potential security problems in Russian plants in an era east of the Ural mountains, and have proposed that there could exist a smuggling road through Kurdistan. It is likely that there could be sites all over the former Soviet Union, including arctic areas.

Former Senator Sam Nunn (whatever his unfortunate role in the debate on gays in the military in 1993), has helped make an independent film warning about the problem, "The Last Best Chance", review here.

There have also been concerns about possible major leaks within the United States, such as from the Tooele Depot in Utah, discussion here.

The ABC World News Tonight story also explained that it could be much easier for terrorists to make a small "dirty bomb" than an actual nuclear weapon. Such a device could contaminate an urban area of a few square miles, even if causing no immediatel casualties; and obviously could cause long term economic chaos.

See also my review of Graham Allison's book.

Update: 3/14/2007

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, arrested in 2003, confessed to masterminding the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Here is the link for the transcript of his confession (PDF).
Here is the link for the CNN news story itself.

Update: 3/19/2007

Waleed bin Attash, also at Guantanmo, confessed to planning the attack on the U.S. S. Cole in Yemen in October 2000 and the bombings of embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998.

The transcript of the confession is on defenselink, here.

A BBC story about loose radioactive material from Pakistan was posted on and here is the link.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

FBI panned for abuse of national security letters under USA Patriot Act

The F.B.I. drew sharp rebuke from multiple media reports March 9 about a Department of Justice report and audit detailing carelessness in the way the FBI, using the authority of the U.S. A. Patriot Act, has sought national serurity letters to obtain private correspondence (phone and email, mainly) about various persons who might be remotely connected to terrorism or associated activities like money laundering. Sometimes the requests called for exigent letters in circumstances that were not emergenices.

The report relects the ambiguity of many situations, the complexity of the rules for agents to follow, and the difficulty for law enforcement to determine whether a communication, email, blog posting, profile, chat, or discussion forum item represents some kind of implied threat or simply is being posed as an abstract discussion or role playing (nearly always the case). The proliferation of scams and phishing, often by email spam and worms, also makes it difficult to determine what is an item of substance.

I have, on a few occasions, turned over emails that I have received to law enforcement because I thought the information was significant, and in one case I did have an extended conversation by phone with an FBI agent in Philadelphia about an item I had received. Controversial blogs and websites will attract troubling chatter once in a while, and it is difficult to determine what is significant. The challenge for law enforcement is to connect the dots and recognize real patterns (or repeated material) in chatter sent to different and unrelated parties.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

United States Climate Action Report

A story by Andrew C. Revkin "U.S. Predicting Steady Increase For Emissions: Report to U.N. Overdue -- Experts Critical," in The New York Times, March 3, 2007, anticipates the new United States Climate Action Report, as confirming a discouraging prospect to controlling greenhouse gasses with our current policies. The 2002 report (pdf) is here. (This browsed only in IE for me.) It mentions the "United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change." Another interesting document comes from Friends of the Earth, "Global Warming: How It Might Affect You", here.


There was a brief rally on the west side of the Capitol in Washington DC on March 20, for Climatecrisis (associated with Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth") and for saving the arctic.