Sunday, January 30, 2005

Iraqi Elections Aftermath

I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate Iraq and its people on what appears to be a very solid transition to democratic rule.

News reports today have been offering widely varied estimates of how many people in Iraq voted today (I've heard figures between 8 million to 14 million). While there may be some confusion on the exact number, there is no confusion on the fact that the turnout was better than expected. When you consider that the population of Iraq is only 25 million, about 10 million of which are too young to vote, these turnout numbers are very high. When you consider all the threats and violence from terrorists leading up to this election, these turnout numbers are huge.

It is worth noting that, according to government statistics, federal elections here in the United States typically get about 50% voter turnout. If the 8 million number holds true, this represents 60% of registered voters, and thus a greater percentage of people voting in the Iraqi election than what one would expect in a US federal election.

It is also worth noting that (to my knowledge) there have not been any allegations of election fraud (vote buying, ballot box stuffing, voter intimidation, etc.) in this election.

When you combine these two factors, what is left is a credible result that will hopefully be accepted by the bulk of the Iraqi people and the world community as legitimate.

I congratulate the millions of Iraqi people who braved terrorist threats to exercise their democratic right at the polling stations, and to those soldiers and police who helped ensure their safety. And, to the people of Iraq, welcome to the "democracy club": hopefully this election will herald positive progress for your country and will be the first of many elections you will experience.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Chinese "terrorists" in Boston

Last week, news media reported that the FBI was seeking 12 illegal Chinese immigrants, who were supposedly going to set off a "dirty bomb" in Boston based on an "uncorroborated tip" they had received. Today, they announced that the whole thing was a false alarm, and that they (in cooperation with Mexican authorities) had arrested the source of the tip. There was some speculation that the tip came from a smuggler who was angry that he had not been paid for smuggling the Chinese nationals across the border.

That the FBI ever took this farfetched idea seriously boggles my imagination.

A terrorist needs three factors to be present for him to carry out an attack: means, motivation, and opportunity. In the case of a "dirty bomb", the "means" could translate into having access to nuclear material, explosive material, and the knowledge to execute the attack; and "opportunity" could be being physically present in the United States. But, what is missing is motivation. Why would a Chinese illegal immigrant want to randomly kill people here? Typically, these folks come to the United States so they can earn money to send home to their families, have no quarrel with the United States or its people, and generally prefer to keep a low profile and avoid conflict with law enforcement to avoid being sent back. Why, then, would a dozen of these people be involved with such a sinister plot? There is no reason.

Unfortunately, the FBI seems to have bought into this "political correctness" concept a bit too far. According to the politically correct mentality, all ethnic groups have equal propensity to become terrorists, and thus the concept of Chinese terrorists attacking Boston should be taken seriously. To think otherwise would be "racial profiling" and, according to the politically correct philosophy, should be unthinkable.

In reality, of course, this whole "politically correct" concept is just a fallacy. Chinese illegal immigrants (like Mexican illegal immigrants) are almost always here for financial reasons, and other than their illegal status here, are generally law-abiding people who would have no interest in launching terrorist attacks.

If the FBI is serious about catching real terrorists, they need to abandon this "politically correct" philosophy and start looking at whether a purported terrorist would have any real motivation to launch an attack. And, when they hear "uncorroborated tips" about Chinese terrorists, Mexican terrorists, Japanese terrorists, Brazilian terrorists, or "terrorists" from any other place that has no real quarrel with the United States, they should ask themselves whether a normal person from one of these places would have any motivation to randomly attack the United States. To do otherwise wastes the FBI's resources, distracts law enforcement from more credible threats, and unnecessarily panics the public.

The FBI should also go read the story about the "Boy who cried Wolf": if they keep crying "Wolf" over every farfetched concept they hear about (Chinese terrorists, lasers bringing down airplanes, etc.) the public will stop taking them seriously.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Abu Ghraib: who is really to blame?

Back in October, I wrote a post titled "Abu Ghraib: waiting for the other shoe to drop" where I spoke about the upcoming trials of some soldiers who had pleaded not-guilty to the charges of abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In that post, I had suggested that some of the techniques that were being used in Abu Ghraib seemed just a bit too sophisticated to be dreamed up by a simple and uneducated corporal.

Let's not make any mistake, Charles Graner is far from innocent, and he deserves every day of jail-time he got sentenced to. He has a sordid history of sadistic abuse, and insensitivity towards other ethnic groups (as I detailed in a previous post), and his conduct at Abu Ghraib was an absolute disgrace. But, Charles Graner is just one person, and the buck did not stop with just him.

In any normal prison environment, a bad apple like Graner would have been quickly isolated and removed from the environment. However, at Abu Ghraib, not only did this not happen, but Graner was able to convince other presumably sane individuals to go along with these sick actions.

How was this possible?

In my opinion, there are three significant factors, each stemming from the same root cause, that I believe played a contributing role in the development of this fiasco.

Factor #1: Understaffing

The ratio of guards to prisoners in Abu Ghraib at the time of the abuse was approximately 1 to 75. To put this in perspective, the ratio of guards to prisoners in most normal prisons in the United States is about 1 to 5, and in Guantanamo Bay is about 1 to 1.

The ratio of guards to prisoners is an important factor, since it has a direct impact on the guards' ability to maintain order in the prison. As the ratio of guards to prisoners drops, the psychological power balance shifts towards the prisoners: prisoners become more cocky, and guards become more edgy. Prisoners may feel more like they can get away with things, and may be more inclined to employ civil disobedience or rioting to get their way. To push the power balance back, guards may be more inclined to make inmates afraid of them; punishing even minor infractions harshly, and showing greater use of brute force.

Even here in the United States, low guard-to-prisoner ratios in prisons have led to problems such as riots and inmate abuse. It should have come as no surprise to the commanders of Abu Ghraib that such a low guard to prisoner ratio was a recipe for trouble.

Factor #2: Egging on by interrogators

One would be justified to wonder how a man of simple means like Charles Graner got the ideas for the torture techniques that were used. One definite possibility that has not been adequately discussed by the mainstream news media are the military and civilian interrogators.

Major General Antonio Taguba in his report on the Abu Ghraib abuse paid particular attention to the role of interrogators:

I find that contrary to the provision of AR 190-8, and the findings found in MG Ryder’s Report, Military Intelligence (MI) interrogators and Other US Government Agency’s (OGA) interrogators actively requested that MP guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses.

It does not take much imagination to suggest that interrogators may have egged on Graner et al and perhaps even given some helpful hints on torture techniques.

Factor #3: Lack of Training

General Taguba's report states:

I find that prior to its deployment to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 320th MP Battalion and the 372nd MP Company had received no training in detention/internee operations. I also find that very little instruction or training was provided to MP personnel on the applicable rules of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, FM 27-10, AR 190-8, or FM 3-19.40. Moreover, I find that few, if any, copies of the Geneva Conventions were ever made available to MP personnel or detainees.

In the summer of 1971, a now famous experiment was conducted by the Stanford University psychology department. This experiment, which later came to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment sought to simulate how a prison environment can warp the minds of even normal people. In the experiment, the researchers built a mock prison out of the basement of the psychology building, and took a group of normal college students and randomly assigned them to be "guards" or "prisoners". In the experiment, the guards quickly started to become sadistic and cruel, and the prisoners started to show emotional distress, causing the experiment to be aborted after just six days.

The one major parallel with Abu Ghriab was the lack of guard training: guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment were not given any specific training on how to be guards - they were free to make up their own rules, which resulted in gross cruelty towards the prisoners.

What the Stanford experiment showed was that many humans have a cruel streak in their basic nature, and that this cruel streak may come to the surface in the unique combination of power and nervousness that a prison environment creates. Prison guards need thorough training to learn to suppress this cruel streak within themselves and to treat the prisoners under their care in a humane, respectful, and professional manner.

The Root Cause: Leadership Failure

All of these three factors point to a systemic failure in the leadership of the Abu Ghraib prison. Commanders should have been aware of the inadeaquate guard/prisoner ratio and failed to do anything about it. Commanders were responsible to set guidelines for interrogators and failed to do so. And, commanders were responsible to correctly identify the training requirements for guard duty and ensure that their staff were appropriately trained - they failed miserably at that also.

A commander may delegate tasks to subordinates, but a basic rule of delegation is this: it is possible to delegate the execution of a task, but it is never possible to delegate responsibility for it, and along with that responsibility comes accountability for failure. If one's subordinate fails in executing a task effectively, the failure is still the commander's responsibility. A commander may say that he was unaware of the abuses taking place under his watch, but this still points to his failure as a leader: failure to ensure that subordinates were qualified (trained) for the tasks they were performing, and failure to adequately supervise them and monitor their progress.

In the private sector, a manager who failed as miserably as the ones in Abu Ghraib did would be summarily fired. Why, then, have we not heard of any real disciplinary action being taken against the commanders of Abu Ghraib? Is it that the US military is more tolerant of poor leadership, more accepting of dereliction of duty, and more forgiving of shoddy performance? It seems so.

Soldiers have one of the toughest jobs out there - they risk their lives every day, and are tasked with making life and death decisions for themselves, their subordinates, and those around them. Military commanders have an even greater responsibility - being entrusted with the lives of the people working for them - and thus should be held to a higher standard than managers in the private sector. Why, then, is this not the case?

The US military is arguably the best in the world, and did not get this way through the actions of incompetent fools. American soldiers are, in general, a very professional, well-trained, and well-disciplined group, and there should be no tolerance for gross incompetence at the magnitude of the Abu Ghraib fiasco. It is time to take the trash out, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to hold military leaders up to the same standards of accountability as leaders in the private sector. The commanders responsible for Abu Ghraib need to be held accountable and punished for this gross failure of leadership on their part.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

GUILTY: 10 years in jail for Charles Graner

Off to jail Posted by Hello

Charles Graner was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in jail. What more can I add to that? Nothing - justice was served.
I just hope the same people in Iraq who felt so outraged and victimized by the disgusting pictures of Graner and his minions torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib can take some comfort seeing pictures of Graner being hauled off to jail in handcuffs.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Abu Ghraib Trials: the Charles Graner horror show

Charles Graner is quite the piece of work, it seems. Yesterday saw the video testimony of some of the prisoners he allegedly abused at Abu Ghraib, and some interesting new details came out:

  • Graner allegedly liked to whistle, sing, and laugh while brutalizing prisoners.
  • He allegedly forced one Muslim prisoner to eat pork and drink alcohol.
  • He allegedly forced a Yemeni prisoner to eat from a toilet.
  • He allegedly threatened to kill a Syrian prisoner repeatedly and told him he should thank Jesus for keeping him alive.

During the testimony of one victim, Graner rolled his eyes and chuckled to himself when his accuser described him as a "naturally aggressive person."

Wikipedia has a lengthy and troubling article on Charles Graner's past, where he worked as a prison guard in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Some of the accusations against him from Pennsylvania include:

  • Playing a "practical joke" on another guard by putting mace in his coffee, causing the other guard to go home ill.
  • Putting a razor blade in a black inmate's mashed potatoes, then (with the help of other guards) beating the inmate and telling him, "shut up nigger before we kill you!"
  • Making a prisoner stand on one foot while handcuffed, then tripping him.
  • Using racial epithets to taunt anti-death-penalty protesters outside the prison.
  • Telling a Muslim inmate he had rubbed pork all over his tray of food.
  • Beating prisoners and spitting in their food.
  • Insulting prisoners with racial epithets.
  • One prisoner described Graner as "violent, abusive, arrogant, and mean-spirited."
  • Graner was disciplined six times and fired once (but subsequently reinstated by an arbitrator) at the prison in Pennsylvania.

What is bothersome about all of these details is they show a general pattern of sadistic behavior going on for many years. It seems evident that Charles Graner is a person who gets true enjoyment out of inflicting pain on other people. Much like a certain namesake of his.....

Charles Graner's Namesake Posted by Hello

Perhaps this sadistic nature is why Graner became a prison guard. It is also possible this was a motivating factor for him wanting to be in the military - to be able to carry a gun around and use it with impunity. It is troubling that a person with Graner's personality, who has been variously described as "naturally aggressive, violent, abusive, arrogant, and mean-spirited," and who has a history of demonstrating insensitivity toward other ethnic groups (blacks, Muslims, etc.) could be admitted to the US Marine Corps or the Army Reserve. A person who has shown such a propensity for abuse and a sick enjoyment of violence is the last person to whom I would want to hand a gun and then send forth to represent my country.

Serving in the armed forces of one's country is a noble act that thousands of brave men and women here in America have taken upon themselves to do. It is also a job that carries a lot of responsibility - life and death decisions are made by soldiers every day. Soldiers are like armed ambassadors, going forth and implementing their country's foreign policy, and most soldiers take their responsibilities very seriously.

Thus, it is truly sad that the army has besmirched the reputations of these good men and women by admitting a piece of human garbage like Charles Graner to their ranks. A man like Graner is a disgrace to the uniform he is wearing, and it seems evident to me that if the people screening prospective recruits were doing their jobs properly, he should have never been accorded the privilege of wearing it.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Abu Ghraib Trials

A few months ago, I wrote a post called "Abu Ghraib: waiting for the other shoe to drop" where I spoke about the upcoming trials of some of the soldiers who had pleaded "not guilty" to the charges of abusing prisoners. In my post, I had commented on how these trials may be interesting, since in the prior cases, the defense lawyers had not mounted a defense or introduced theories about how the techniques used by their clients may have originated higher up the military chain of command.

In that light, today's opening statement by Guy Womack, the defense attorney for Charles Graner was a real disappointment. In his opening statement, Womack defended his client's forcing prisoners to form naked human pyramids by saying, "Don't cheerleaders all over America form pyramids six to eight times a year. Is that torture?"

What an unbelievably ridiculous statement! I wonder just how stupid and gullible Guy Womack thinks the jury in this case really is. Yes, cheerleaders do form human pyramids, but they don't do it naked, and nobody forces them to do it. How someone can draw a parallel between cheerleaders and what these miscreants did in Abu Ghraib is beyond me.

I suppose Guy Womack's defense of this other picture will be that Graner was engaged in a friendly bout of boxing, or maybe even a game of "pat-a-cake" with the prisoners under his watch:

"Pat-a-Cake", Abu-Ghraib style Posted by Hello

I had hoped Graner's defense would have provoked some interesting questions and public discussion around the Abu Ghraib fiasco. Unfortunately, if today is any indication, it seems his defense may just provide some unneeded comic entertainment.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Lasers and Airplanes: Man arrested in New Jersey

Over the past couple of weeks, I have written two posts on the FBI's ridiculous obsession with terrorists trying to cause airplanes to crash by shining a laser beam into the eyes of the pilots, blinding them, and rendering them incapable of flying their aircraft.

Earlier this week, a 38 year-old man named David Banach was arrested in New Jersey for shining a laser at a small Cessna Citation jet flying into Teaneck airport, and later for shining the same laser at a police helicopter. Here is a an excerpt from a CBS article about the incident:

Prosecutors are taking this case very seriously. They say even though 38-year-old David Banach, a married father of three works in fiber optics is not a terrorist and has no criminal record, he is charged with violating the Patriot Act and prosecutors say he tried to blame his seven-year-old daughter for pointing a laser beam at a passing plane. "No comment, " said David Banach, suspect. That’s all David Banach would say when asked why he allegedly pointed a laser at an airplane, nearly blinding the pilot. His lawyer says its all a misunderstanding.

“I can’t comment on his state of mind but he didn’t mean to hurt anybody or anything like that,” said Gina Longarzo his lawyer.

But that’s not how the U.S. Attorneys office sees it. And on Tuesday charged Banach with two felonies: interfering with a mass transportation vehicle and lying to federal investigators.

"We just cannot permit in today's society the idea that there is any type of harmless fooling around that you can do with air travel," said Christopher Christie, the U.S. Attorney.

Prosecutors say on Dec. 29th, Banach was in his back yard in Parsippany when he allegedly pointed a laser beam at the cockpit of a charter plane on its way to Teterboro airport, temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot.

"That beam is able to enter your eye and it causes burn damage essentially," says pilot John Scott Huff.

The criminal complaint against David Banach is a bit more specific in how he was caught: after the pilot of the Cessna Citation reported the incident to the FBI, they took him out in a police helicopter on January 4 to try to pinpoint the approximate location the beam had come from, only to find the police helicopter illuminated by a green laser (which the Cessna pilot identified as being similar to what he was illuminated with). The helicopter responded by illuminating the house the beam originated from with a searchlight, and agents on the ground moved in.

The news media in this case seem to be grossly exaggerating the effects the laser had on the airplane. Lasers are not magic - they are simply a beam of light where all the light rays move exactly in parallel with each other so that the beam moves in a straight line and is roughly the same width and brightness at its destination as at its source.

The laser used by David Banach was a type used for testing fiber-optic cable, which can do some mild damage to a person's eye if (and only if) it is shone directly into the pupil of the victim's eye at the same time as the victim is looking directly at the laser source. Considering that the laser beam is less than a millimeter wide, the airplane was flying at 3,000 feet, and the airplane was traveling at 250 knots at the time of the incident, the likelihood of Banach's laser hitting even one pilot's eye was extremely remote. However, a laser beam does shine a bright light into the cockpit, which would have distracted the pilots, and if the pilots did look at the projection of the beam in the cockpit it could have adversely affect their night-vision (similar to looking at any light source).

What I suspect happened here is Banach pointed his laser at the Cessna jet as a sort of inappropriate practical joke. The pilots, who have probably been reading the sensationalist news articles about lasers and terrorists, saw the beam in their cockpit and panicked a bit, losing their concentration. They looked at the projection of the beam, and when they looked back at the runway, they couldn't see it as well (since their night-vision was affected by looking at a light source), and knowing that a laser can blind a person (but only under special circumstances) put two and two together and told investigators that they were temporarily blinded by the laser. Like a psychosomatic illness, one only needs to think one is sick to feel some symptoms and have one's mind fill in the rest of the details.

What Banach did was stupid, irresponsible, and reckless. But, it is not terrorism, and was extremely unlikely to cause the aircraft to crash.

Lasers are not magic, and are all around us: CD and DVD players read discs with laser beams, supermarket checkout counters use lasers to read the UPC barcodes, teachers use laser pointers, fiber-optic cables use laser light, construction crews use lasers for leveling, etc. Lasers are around us everyday, and yet you do not hear about too many cases of injuries from laser beams. The reason is simple: to injure your eye with a laser requires you to shine it directly into your pupil while looking straight at it, and the likelihood of someone doing this is minimal, even at close range.

Many people tend to be nervous and suspicious of technologies they do not understand, and since few people really understand how lasers work, they can easily become a source of unwarranted concern. The media and FBI are not helping matters here, and are panicking pilots and the general public with exaggerations about the capabilities of laser technology. This serves only to distract people from other, more realistic vulnerabilities in the civil aviation system.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Canadian Military Spending: the Tsunami lesson

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the earthquake and tsunami in Asia, and about how military aid was on the short-term a much bigger priority than donations of money.

Over the past few days, I have been very happy to learn that the United States (in addition to $350 million in aid) has dispatched the USS Abraham Lincoln and its various support ships and aircraft to aid the situation in southeast Asia. Pictures in the newspapers over the past few days have shown people from Banda Aceh, Indonesia (the worst-affected area) crowding around an American military helipcopter from the USS Abraham Lincoln for emergency food supplies being distributed.

Over the past few days since I have been in Canada, I have heard about how Canadian civilians have donated $35 million towards the aid effort, and how the Canadian government has donated $80 million. When you consider that Canada is about a tenth the population of the United States, these are very big numbers, about double the per-capita contribution of the United States. But, in terms of the short-term impact, you do not hear much about the Canadian contribution, because the United States has a much better military infrastructure that can ensure its contribution is effectively delivered.

One major problem with Canada is that the government has short-changed their military for many years, and Canada's lack of effectiveness in the Asian tsunami bears the fruit of this neglect. Military forces can do many things other than shooting guns and killing people - in the current Asian situation, the American forces are proving a very effective mechanism for delivering aid. Canadian forces have been active for many years in peacekeeping activities in places like the Golan Heights, Cyprus, Rwanda, etc. But, the Canadian government has put off necessary military spending for many years and has denied the Canadian forces the equipment and manpower they need to be truly effective.

The Canadian government really needs to start carrying its end of the load in terms of military spending. Canadians did great things in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. In the first Gulf War and Yugoslavia, brave Canadian military personnel were effective despite the neglect by their government. At present, however, the Canadian forces are in such a state of neglect that I doubt how effective they could be.

The chronic underfunding of the Canadian forces is a national disgrace that has undermined the effectiveness of Canadian foreign aid (such as for the Asian earthquake and tsunami), put brave Canadian soldiers' lives at risk, and made Canada the laughing stock of NATO. The Canadian government needs to wake up, smell the coffee, and do something about the serious situation this underfunding has put Canada in.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Lasers and Airplanes: the FBI finally comes to its senses

A few days ago, I put up a post talking about the fact that it is nearly impossible for someone to use a laser to blind pilots and bring down an airplane. Today, the FBI came out with a statement that they do not believe that the recent activity since Christmas is the result of terrorism. To quote CNN:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI investigation into recent incidents involving laser beams aimed at aircraft has found no link to terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security's transportation security chief said Monday.
"There's not any evidence that these lasers are being used by terrorists," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of border and transportation security. "The FBI certainly continues to investigate and look at these fact scenarios. It's also a safety issue that the Department of Transportation would certainly want to look at."
The FBI is investigating eight incidents since Christmas involving lasers -- or lights believed to be lasers -- directed at various aircraft across the nation, including incidents in the District of Columbia, Ohio, Colorado and New Jersey. All of the pilots were able to land without incident.

Obviously they reached the same conclusion that I did a few days ago: that some kids living near the airport were trying out laser toys they got for Christmas.

I still have no idea why these government agencies are taking this laser-terrorist idea seriously at all.

Let's talk a bit more about how impossible this whole idea is. Until a few years ago, I was involved the sport of competitive rifle shooting. At a range of 50 meters, someone who is very skilled (the sort of person who would qualify for the US Olympic team) can consistently hit a bullseye about the size of the head of a pencil (the size of the iris of a person's eye) - when the shooter is lying in the prone position, using a precision target rifle and sight, and using other specialized equipment (sling, shooting jacket, etc.).

Now, let's pretend you are trying to blind the pilot of an oncoming plane with a laser. We are talking about a target the same size (the iris of the pilot's eye), except a lot further away than 50 meters and moving towards us at 200 miles per hour. You cannot see the target clearly (since it is behind the cockpit glass), and the target is also moving as the pilot's head is moving. You are probably not using the same type of precision equipment an Olympic shooter would use, you are probably not in the prone position (the most stable position) and are probably having to shoot from a kneeling or standing position (which are much less stable than prone). The people who won the gold medals for rifle shooting in the 2004 Olympics could not pull off this feat even once. But you, the terrorist are Superman, and will pull this amazing feat off not once, but four times in a row (one for each of the pilot's eyes, and once for each of the copilot's eyes) in just a few seconds to make the plane crash on its approach.

Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI should start stocking kryptonite so they can deal with these "superman" terrorists who will be bringing airplanes down with lasers. Or, better yet, they should stop believing every hair-brained theory that someone cooks up as a possibility for bringing down an airplane.