Archive for March, 2004

Just to put this on record – the Daily Express is running with “THE TEEN BOMBERS” as its (huge) headline today. The story is apparently the arrest of a suspected al-Qa’ida cell as detailed below, but the headline sounds so much like a band that I had an odd feeling that I might have been to one of their gigs. Strange. The Sun, of course, produced its usual contribution to race relations by running “MOSQUE FULL OF BOMBERS!” At least they couldn’t find an asylum seeker.

BBC NEWS link

Police have seized half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, in a self-storage warehouse near Heathrow Airport. Further action resulted in eight arrests. Those arrested are apparently all British. (What was that about fighting a war on terrorism in Iraq?) The stuff in question is a old favourite in the terrorist kitchen. Mixed with diesel or something similar and provided with a small quantity of something stronger as a detonator, it is an effective low explosive. The legality and cheapness of the ingredients mean that, although the power by weight is low, quantity can easily make up for it. Practically every terrorist group has used it at some time in the past, especially the IRA.

Now, I seem to remember suggesting on this blog that self-storage is a weird and alien phenomenon. I wait for David Blunkett to announce new restrictions on them… Curiously enough, I noticed a business-page share tip the other day for a self-storage firm. (Full disclosure, and Ranter investment advice: it was Lok’n’Store plc.) Apparently, “there is roughly 14 times as much self-storage space per capita in the United States, so the only obstacle to growth appears to be finding suitable sites”. Quelle horreur!

Juan Cole’s Informed Comment link

“A subcommittee of the Israeli Parliament has issued a report sharply critical of Israeli intelligence failures concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It notes that Mossad thought Iraq’s programs and stockpiles were a threat, which they were not, and yet seemed unaware of how much progress Libya had made on nukes.

The fact is that Israeli intelligence failures in Iraq contributed to drawing the United States into the war (pace the Knesset report). Undersecretary of Defense for Planning Douglas Feith, a representative of the American branch of the Likud Party, met repeatedly with Israeli generals at the Pentagon (who were not properly signed in, contrary to post-9/11 regulations), and they gave him fodder for his pre-determined insistence on ginning up a war against Iraq, reinforcing what was being said by liars like Ahmad Chalabi. They were conveying Israeli intelligence to a key American policy maker, and it was wrong…”

Cole theorises that something similar to the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans and the White House Iraq Group must have existed in the Israeli security establishment – hence the dodgy information passed to the Americans. It is a feature of psychology that we are more likely to accept information that appears to come from multiple sources. This is rational enough, but it is also true that we seem to rate information from sources close to us (or better still, first-hand information) far above even the most massive evidence from less familiar sources. People tend to generalise from these first-priority sources in forming their images of the world – given just a little external support, especially from a familiar source, we can become extremely resistant to even overwhelming refutation. It’s all part of our evolutionary heritage, I suppose – a useful way of organising the flood of data pouring in – but it can easily be toxic. It seems plausible that the neo-conservatives’ image of policy was reinforced by the fact that their information came from their closest allies – Israel, Chalabi, and Britain. From a British perspective, the fact that the Americans and Australians were so convinced must have had a similarly powerful effect. The exchange of information across the Atlantic was then doomed to be a self-confirming dialogue.

As a further contribution to our occasional series on aviation security, I’d like to call this to your attention.

“A psychic’s warning that a bomb might be on a Dallas-bound passenger jet at Southwest Florida International Airport prompted federal and local officials to search it with bomb-sniffing dogs.”

Well, I have suggested in the past that the US Transportation Security Administration could improve its methods of analysing the terrorist threat by using the golden legacy of Roman civilisation – dispensing with intrusive, expensive data mining and surveillance and instead killing a chicken and reading the auguries of its entrails before despatching each flight. It could hardly be worse. It would appear from this report, though, that the TSA is showing the rest of American government a good example by listening to world opinion and, hence, doing as I say. Perhaps the workers who put themselves through an X-ray screening machine to “see what their brains looked like”, far from being pig-ignorant victims of a clearly hopeless selection procedure, were attempting to divine the future the modern way?

Story

David Miliband, the quintessential Blairite (he was the head of the No.10 Policy Unit before feeling – y’know – a need to get back to the, ah, communities – and getting himself elected for South Shields, a Labour fortress so safe that it is usually the first seat in the country to announce its election results) and School Standards Minister, has issued a rant in which he heaped praise on Swanlea School in East London for keeping its pupils in the school at lunchtime. Not an astonishing leap of policy, you might think, but Mr. Miliband attributes all kinds of good things to this simple measure.

“…an end to the tipping out on to the streets at lunchtime. Pupils here are in school all day, no exceptions, end of story…..A culture of high achievement helps to reinforce good behaviour. Of course, children need a break at lunch. And they need something healthy to eat to set them up for the afternoon. But they don’t have to be out of school, roaming the streets, to do it.”

Mr Miliband said that at Swanlea, in Bethnal Green, “students stay on the school premises, and the school provides an enriching lunchtime programme of mentoring by local business people, reading groups for support with literacy, sporting activities supervised by youth workers, as well as a wide range of language classes.

“That is the kind of innovation I support. Good for pupils. Good for the school. Good for the reputation of education in the local community.”

So – it makes them cleverer! Wow! We shall note a couple of points regarding this speech. First, notice the fingerprints of our most tiresome and usually wrong politicians. “All day, no exceptions, end of story” – feel the hacked language, the unconvincing tough-guyisms, and the hectoring tone. Smell the cliches – roaming the streets! There’s one I haven’t heard in years. In fact, I haven’t heard it since I was a teenager myself, in the defunded paint-peeling years of Major when it rained every day (at least that’s how I remember it) and the government was trying to make “music characterised by repetitive beats” illegal. It seems positively antediluvian now, on the other side of a cosmic cultural chasm. Were we really that lame? But suddenly, it seems that the mid-90s are with us once more – the decade of revival fashion is itself about to be revived. Michael Howard, the icon of the time, is back on the front bench and pages. Malcolm Rifkind is back in the Commons. The government is quite evidently a bunch of bunglers with the credibility of a fortune cookie in a weather station and the morals of a crack-riddled goat. This time, it could even be worse – after all, the first bunch of goatish incompetents are the alternative! And the music is so much worse this time! Listen to the headteachers’ association president has to say:

“Sometimes people, particularly old people, feel intimidated even when the young people are not actually doing anything wrong.”

By ‘eck! This is so familiar as well! Let us recap – Mr. Miliband feels that children ought to be kept in school grounds – locked up, I suppose – in case they do not actually do anything wrong. Great. I remember Howard being very proud of legislating to give the police powers to stop “youths” and take their names and addresses, and inform their parents. Why was never made clear, but it at least gave the police another reason to alienate the citizenry in case they ran out. Instead, Mr. Miliband wants the little buggers to be subjected to “an enriching lunchtime programme of mentoring by local business people, reading groups for support with literacy, sporting activities supervised by youth workers, as well as a wide range of language classes.” I’m sure the reading groups are all very laudable, even if you may wonder what they do in class if they have to have classes at lunchtime. But I strongly suspect that an enriching lunchtime programme of mentoring by local business people translates as “being forced to give up your lunch break to absorb the platitudes of unwilling small-town car dealers”. And what kind of sense does it make to have compulsory voluntary sport at lunchtimes if you can’t have it in games lessons because Mr. Miliband’s previous advice to the prime minister on finance means that the school doesn’t have a playing field? What is the point of preventing kids who might otherwise play football in their lunch break from doing so, in order to force them to (after, of course, an improving talk from your friendly local dealer)?

Which answers, I suppose, the question of why Mr. Miliband found it necessary to tell us that he supports innovations that are “good”, presumably as opposed to bad ones. You might have been forgiven the mistake. One day, could we possibly have a policy initiative that doesn’t involve somebody being locked up?

Like asking the Kennedys for security advice….like asking Jeffrey Archer to look over your CV….like taking a nap at Dr. Shipman’s surgery…you wouldn’t think anyone would seriously seek PR advice from the chap who ran John Major’s 1997 campaign. But that’s just what the prime minister has done! The man chosen for the new job of Permanent Secretary for Government Communications is one Howell James, who ran the Tory ’97 campaign and was also briefly the Hinduja brothers’ PR. This job was created post-Hutton on the odd, semi-theological grounds that if the Government’s PR was run by someone who was officially a Civil Servant rather than a Special Adviser, then there was no chance that any spin might creep in. How the government communications service can possibly not be accused of serving the government’s interests bewilders me, I have to say. Isn’t that what it’s for? And what sort of mysterious breath of heaven cleanses these characters of any possible political taint? Couldn’t a life spent in the service of the State render you more, not less, likely to bow to the will of power?

But exactly what makes Mr. James an impartial civil servant and not a political appointee is hard to say. He has leapt directly into a permanent secretaryship from his business without passing through any time spent in the public sector. Whoosh! I know that, of course, his appointment is under the Nolan rules and was carried out by a selection panel blah, blah, blah – but it does sound vaguely like patronage still. He will be pulling down a salary somewhere between £121,000 and a thick £203,000 annually. Now, whatever they may say, it is utterly certain that Mr. James’s efforts will be irrelevant to the front line delivery of public services or to the formation of sound policy. He is a propagandist. Which is odd, when the Civil Service is meant to be disposing of 40,000 employees. As a comparison, the job of deputy head of emergency planning for London was advertised yesterday. The salary? A princely £31,000. Now that’s what I call efficiency, and far more important than the Tory beef that James is a friend of Peter Mandelson, as if that was a vetting criterion.

We welcome My Way of Thinking, who has started linking to the Ranter.

As a brief guide, here are some reasons why the bashers who are still spewing vitriol about the Spanish elections are lying. Now, their main line is that this is “appeasement”. Further to this, they claim that the PSOE was “opportunistic” and “took orders from terrorists”. The point is apparently that “you cannot run away from terrorism”. We shall take this point by point.

1. Appeasement.

The point of this is to recall the language of the 1930s, trying to position the global Right as the opponents of Nazism – and everyone else as either weak Chamberlains or complicit Lavals. (The special viciousness of applying this to Spanish socialists does not need or deserve further highlighting.) Obviously, the idea of appeasement implies that there is a morally and pragmatically better course of fighting. And this relies on the central belief that invading Iraq is in fact the “war on terrorism”. Otherwise, how could not taking part be “appeasement”? We will hear more of this. In passing, note that the use of the language of 1938 has a two-fold effect: not only does it portray your opponents as the next best thing to real Nazis, but it validates your own Churchill fantasies.

2. Opportunism.

Simply disposed with. If the PSOE were “opportunistic”, they must have changed their policy to take advantage of opportunity. They opposed the deployment of Spanish troops in Iraq before the deployment. They still opposed it the day before the blasts. They opposed it the day afterwards. I suppose they stuck to their principles – opportunistically?

3. Taking orders from terrorists.

See 3. Policy determined months beforehand. Logically insane.

4. Running away.

This implies that invading Iraq was a blow against al-Qa’ida, and that the continuing war there is a struggle against it, and that our anti-terrorist interests are best served by war in Iraq. Otherwise, what would be shameful about liquidating a wasteful and unnecessary commitment? Let us recall a few facts. No-one has produced one scintilla of evidence to show any al-Qa’ida presence in Ba’athist Iraq or Iraqi involvement in al-Qa’ida activity. What good did the Spanish brigade’s presence in Iraq do for the fight against al-Qa’ida? The bombs exploded in Madrid. They did not explode in Hillah. The attack was prepared by Moroccans (it seems) in Spain. Would the soldiery not have been better employed elsewhere? Let us consider the effects of the British invasion fo southern Iraq on our own anti-terrorist efforts. The emergency planning budget – which funds the local authority emergency departments who would have to cope with the logistics of recovery after a major attack – has been pegged at £19 million since April, 2001. April! That means that its value has FALLEN. The deployment in southern Iraq is estimated to cost £125 million MONTHLY! Muslim opinion has been provoked as never before. The real pursuit of al-Qa’ida was effectively shut down for months. Our army is (to use a Churchillism) sprawled in costly and rewardless occupation, its budget drained, its reserves raided, its stocks exhausted, rather than crouched and ready to spring at opportunity. What a brilliant success! Heroically, with undiminished resolve, the neocons and their pals march doggedly forward – in the wrong direction!

On Wednesday, I reported that Ha’aretz was covering a British programme of semi-military aid to the Palestinian security organisations in Gaza. By Saturday, The Guardian was running this.

“The British involvement is initially modest, limited to providing financial, logistical and other support on security matters to the PA. But if the pilot schemes are successful Britain intends to offer much more in the way of finance and personnel.

This would include sending security staff experienced in Northern Ireland and helping to rebuild the Palestinian security infrastructure, such as police headquarters and prisons, destroyed by the Israelis.”

Who says blogs aren’t the wave of the future? But enough basking. This morning, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was killed by an Israeli air raid. (

details) This has brought the expected storm: of outrage in Gaza, self-congratulation in Tel Aviv, of diplomatic platitudes everywhere else. Certainly, Hamas are the big problem in terms of terrorist potential in Gaza. I’m sure Yassin bore some responsibility for Hamas’s actions, even though not even Ariel Sharon believes he had any operational role. But I doubt blowing up an elderly priest in a wheelchair will do anything at all to prevent further terrorist attacks. Not when they are willing to attack with axes. It wasn’t as if crazy-eyed kamikazes filed past his zimmer frame to personally draw explosives from his very hands. The argument for his assassination is that he “inspired” them. The problem with people who inspire others, as ideas, idols, icons, is that they don’t have to be alive. In fact, their symbolic power is often greater dead. The leader myth can only be exploded in the metaphorical sense, not the physical.

And if there is anywhere on earth that the power of martyrdom and the myth of the dead hero should be blindingly obvious, it is the Holy Land. You don’t need to go back as far as Christ – the dead Lebanese warlords whose recorded voices were broadcast daily by their factions’ radio stations through the 1980s to incite their followers are an equally harsh and much closer example.

Those British advisors’ job just got even worse.

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