Archive for July, 2003
The cost overrun may begin. But at least there’s a few that won’t be sold to mutant dictators…
BACK, back, many years ago, in 1996, the Conservative government sold the Ministry of Defence’s married quarters – housing estates for servicemen and their families – to a Japanese bank, Nomura Securities. The deal worked like this. The houses were originally run by a thing called the Defence Housing Executive or DHE. This body sold a 999-year lease (why is it always 999 years and never 1,000?) of all its houses to another thing, called Annington Homes, a company majority-owned by the Japanese bankers. This firm would collect rent from the families of the soldiers and would maintain the houses. But – unlike most landlords – it would also have the right to grab back the cost of maintaining them from the Ministry of Defence. That is, us. Although it’s the responsibility of the landlord to maintain the property, and this is usually the running cost of being a landlord, Annington were clearly special. Effectively, that meant every penny of rent above the interest on the cost of buying the houses was clear profit. But that wasn’t the clever bit. No. The clever bit was that Annington has the right under the contract to sell several hundred houses every year and pocket the price. In an environment of land frenzy, one can imagine how lucrative this was. That it meant that the stock of houses available to the soldiers’ families could only ever go down is just as clear.
Annington’s corporate motto is “A completely new way of selling second hand homes”.
The division of Nomura involved in the deal was their well-known Principal Finance unit, which specialised in buying up cash-generating but unfashionable assets (famously, several thousand pubs) using either their access to in-house funds or financial engineering (issuing reams of bonds secured on the cash flow to buy the stuff, meaning that the bond holders paid and got the income but Nomura got the capital). This organisation was until recently run by Mr. Guy Hands, a renowned City figure and one of Mr. William Hague’s best friends.
The sum brought in by the DHE sale in November, 1996 – £1,662 million – was roughly equal to a 1p overall income tax cut, the cut that was indeed made in the 1996/7 Budget as an election bribe. Mr. William Hague was a member of the cabinet that took these decisions. Mr. Hands was a very close friend of Hague’s, at Oxford and McKinsey’s – close enough to advise him to “forget about the leadership for 5 years and spend them fucking your brains out”.
Some of the houses in Devizes are on sale at the moment. Prices start at £122,950. The original price worked out to around £10,000 each. But Annington and the MoD really, really Care about the people in them. You can clearly tell from the sweet, carin’sharin’ corporate social responsbility cool pastel colours on the website! After all, they’ve given a whole, fat, hyper-generous 2% discount off that 122K to service families.
A private soldier in the Infantry is paid £241.22 a week.
Beirut Calling, the Lebanese blogger whose efforts can be found under Blogs of Distinction, has done it again. Apparently the Italian woman who claims to have been the source for the claim that Iraq had been buying uranium from a mine in Niger – although Niger had nothing to do with Iraq and the mine is controlled by France, and the documents shown to the press were phony, and the minister who was supposed to have signed them hasn’t been in post since 1988 – works for a mag called Panorama – owned by one Silvio Berlusconi. A small world, no?
Much media attention has been focused on Mr. Tony Martin’s release from jail. Mr. Martin, we may remember, was the Norfolk farmer who killed a 16 year old boy, Fred Barras, who he suspected of burgling him. Mr. Martin had before the crime given every sign of being obsessed with burglars, weapons and security measures, not to mention displaying an aggressive hostility to Gypsies (he had spoken of putting them in “one of his fields surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gunning them”). On the night, Barras and Fearon had indeed entered Martin’s property, committing a crime, when Martin noticed their presence. He armed himself with a loaded 12-bore pump-action shotgun – a powerful and illegal weapon – and concealed himself in a position to watch the exits from the house. Barras and Fearon appear to have been disturbed, as they ran off empty-handed. Martin was at no time attacked or threatened, nor did he ever face either of the burglars. As the two men ran away, though, he opened fire at their backs from his concealment, killing Barras and severely wounding Fearon. He claimed self-defence, saying that they had shone a torch in his eyes as he lay in bed upstairs – but forensic evidence showed that the shots had been fired downstairs. How one can be attacked arse-first was not explained. Nor was why he left Barras’ body lying where he fell for 15 hours.
It further emerged that Mr. Martin had a history of dangerous behaviour involving guns. He had at various times menaced a woman with a Luger before shooting a pigeon in front of her, threatened to kill various people, and smashed the windows out of his brother’s house with a shotgun. Even more interestingly, he spent much time at the Swaffham estate of Andrew Fountaine, founder of the National Front and his uncle by marriage, where Mr. Fountaine held “Aryan summer camps” for members of fascist groupings from across Europe. All in all, a very fitting man for the tabloid press to fall in love with.
But why, when they found the lawsuit brought by Mr. Fearon against Mr. Martin so iniquitous, could the Daily Mirror bring itself to give Martin £100,000 for his crime – sorry, for his story? I recall David Mellor, disgraced Tory, radio presenter and self publicist, declaring with regard to Jamie Bulger’s killers “It’s a policy of kill a kid and get a house!”. (I’m sure the parody of Private Eye’s “Kill an Argie and win a Metro!” Falklands spoof was unconscious) Whatever you may think of Mellor’s apparent belief that disturbed 11-year-olds were motivated by real estate, the fact remains that Tony Martin did just that. And the Mirror’s given him, if not a house, then enough cash to do a really nice Changing Rooms job on his old place. Maybe they’ll run a special edition with Charlie Dimmock saying where he should hang his rifle rack.
Conrad Black, Daily Telegraph owner and Canadian immigrant, has been at it again, printing a lengthy tirade against “the greatest menace facing the country” in his rag. What might that be, Connie? Innurnashnal trrism? Global climate change? Economic decline? AIDS? Don’t tell me – the danger of a ban on fox hunting? The lack of compulsory school prayers curdling our precious bodily fluids? Mobile phones?
Apparently it’s the BBC. And their crime is to “destroy and supplant the government as the source of authority in this country”. Since when has it been desirable for us – independent and intelligent citizens – to treat everything the government tells us as gospel, as this implies? And why, if governmental authority is both so sacred and so vulnerable to criticism, does the Telegraph spend so many column inches daily ranting and railing against the government and all its works – indeed, against government on principle? If you or I were to write this shite in a letter to the Torygraph, they’d throw it right in the green ink bin. If we were to call a public meeting to declare it, they’d ship us off to a psychiatric hospital. But Lord Black is sufficiently rich for safety, and has a pet newspaper to ventilate his prejudices. I have to make do with a blog. Of course, it was such a courageous and independent decision for the Torygraph’s letters editor to publish the Canadian hammer of asylum seekers’ animadversions….
Well, the Americans have something to cheer however briefly. The corpse photos are out. I see the point, after all there are plenty of people here who don’t really believe in scientific proofs – but it’s a tad barbaric. Why not stick their heads on a pole and parade them through the streets of Baghdad..that’s not a suggestion, by the way. Although Ann Coulter or someone like that (her of “we should conquer their countries, introduce them to democracy and convert them to Christianity” fame) probably would. The US are clearly hoping that out of the two main elements of Ba’athism as practiced in Iraq (modern bureaucratic dictatorship, and feudalism), feudalism will win out. Get the king and the followers will melt away. There is a certain logic in that – tribal and dynastic rule was very important, and old traditions have re-asserted themselves immensely (Patrick Cockburn’s article in today’s Independent makes the point that Ramadi, a centre of resistance, has been famous for highwaymen and banditry for at least a hundred years) – but the surge of killings following Monday’s raid argues against it. There are for one thing a hell of a lot of people who have loyalties not to the “king” but to the Ba’ath, the army or one of the various security outfits. Was creating a couple of martyrs sensible? After all, the idea of a hiding or sleeping hero is an ancient motif of folktales throughout the world, that has always been a potent rallying force for rebels. And you only have to recall the Shi’a belief in the 12th or Hidden Imam who will return one day to realise the potency of it in Iraq.
Beirut Calling blogged a very interesting story concerning that US/Syrian frontier incident…here it is..
EXCLUSIVE: U.S. Syria raid killed 80
By RICHARD SALE, UPI Intelligence Correspondent
Depicted by the Pentagon as a mere border skirmish, the June 18 strike into Syria by U.S. military forces was, in fact, based on mistaken intelligence and penetrated more than 25 miles into that country, causing numerous Syrian casualties, several serving and former administration officials said. Although diplomatic relations between the two sides have been frosty after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the two nations have close intelligence ties, which have become strained as a result, these sources said.
“I think this was a deliberate effort to disrupt cooperation between U.S. and Syrian intelligence agencies,” an administration official said.
According to a report in The New York Times, administration officials said that attack, carried out by Task Force 20, a Special Operations force, was based on intelligence that a convoy of SUVs, heading for Syria, was linked to senior fugitive Iraqi leaders. “The (intel) was that senior Iraqis, perhaps even (former Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein were getting out of the country,” a State Department official told United Press International. The ensuing raid “was conducted under the rules of hot pursuit,” an administration official told UPI on condition his name not be used.
In the same Times report, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the attacks, saying it was based on “solid intelligence.”
“We had good intelligence, and it indicated that there were people moving around during their curfew close to the border in a convoy of SUV’s and our forces went in and stopped them,” the Times quoted Rumsfeld as saying.
But one administration official described the intelligence as “totally false,” and a former CIA official labeled it “flimsy” and another former U.S. intelligence official called it “almost non-existent.” One former senior CIA official with access to current intelligence information said he believed the source of the intelligence was Israel, which for months has said either Saddam or weapons of mass destruction were being smuggled into Syria. “The Izzies (Israelis) have been pitching this to anyone who would listen,” the former CIA official said. Chief Israeli Embassy spokesman, Mark Regev, said only: “I simply don’t ever discuss such matters.”
But Anthony Cordesman, national security expert that the Center For Strategic And International Studies, defended the intelligence and the attack it triggered: “You have to act quickly on rumors in that situation. You have zero time.”
He also pointed out that U.S. means of intelligence-collection in the area suffers from “extremely serious limitations.”
For one thing, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones “can produce only a limited coverage of patterns” while even signals intelligence “can be fragmentary and unreliable,” he said.
And the question of Israeli intelligence? “Do we tend to over-rely on the Israelis? Probably, but you have to remember too that the CIA is permanently pissed by Israel and likes to discredit it,” he said. A former very senior CIA official told UPI: “Too often the Israeli intelligence product is hard to distinguish from Israel political messages.” The Times report said Task Force 20, supported by helicopters and AC-130 gunships, struck the convoy and a housing compound “in a village not far from the Syria border.” Task Force 20 captured 20 Iraqis, all of whom were later released, the Times and other news reports said. But one senior administration official told UPI the attack crossed “25 miles or more” into Syria, and the Pentagon had initial reports of 80 Syrians “who were KIA (killed in action).”
Cordesman said he believed this to be possible because “the fighting between our forces and the Syrians was extremely intense.”
But instead of capturing any high-value Iraqi targets, the Task Force destroyed “a gas smuggling ring,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. This official labeled the attack “a colossal blunder.” His view was supported by a half a dozen administration officials interviewed by UPI. The former senior U.S. intelligence official said the Task Force had destroyed SUVs “on both sides of the border” that had been fitted out as mini-gas tankers. The Task Force blew up “a great number of these vehicles,” causing huge explosions and fireballs when they were hit, he said. “The explosions could account for the casualties,” he said. A spokesman from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said: “We are unable to comment on any cross-border raids, especially if they involved Special Forces.”
Serving and former U.S. intelligence officials attributed a political motive to the attacks, alleging they were designed to disrupt cooperation between the CIA and Syrian intelligence. “Syria has given us invaluable help on hunting down members of al-Qaida, and they were instrumental in ex-filtrating some major Iraqi fugitives back to Baghdad,” one former senior CIA official said. “That is not to everyone’s liking.” In early May, two top Iraqi biological scientists who had been hiding in safe havens in Syria were ex-filtrated back to Iraq where they were captured by U.S. military forces, former CIA officials said. A U.S. intelligence official told UPI: “It was a gift to Secretary of State Colin Powell” and also an effort by Damascus to compensate for its apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian militant groups, which are on Washington’s list of terrorist organizations.
But CIA-Syria cooperation was far more extensive, former and serving U.S. intelligence officials said.
According to these sources, Syria and the CIA have a joint exploitation center based in Aleppo, plus Syria turned over to the agency all its intelligence networks in Germany as well as all of Syria’s cover companies there. As a result, the agency learned that Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta once worked in Germany for a Syrian cover company, these sources said. “Syria was not the only source, but they were very helpful in this matter,” a former senior CIA official said.
The CIA was also grateful to Damascus for giving early warning of a planned al-Qaida attack on U.S. installations in Bahrain, using an explosives-laden glider, which would be invisible to radar, according to these sources. “The Syrians have been an incredible help in sharing intelligence,” one serving U.S. intelligence officer said.
Senior Pentagon leaders, who administration officials describe as being very close to Israel, have been unhappy with the increasingly close CIA-Syria ties and used the June 18 attack to disrupt the CIA-Syrian intelligence relationship.
“I think that certain Pentagon officials want to see (Syrian president) Bashar Assad deposed and Syria sign a peace treaty with Israel,” said former senior DIA official Pat Lang. But other U.S. officials disagreed.
“Syria is playing a double-game,” said one administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Hamas terrorists are returning to Damascus, a lot of towns in East Syria are nothing but transit points for Iraqi officials who are free to go in and out. I wouldn’t put much trust in Syria.” But a serving U.S. intelligence official disagreed. “Syria is obviously making an effort. It has gotten the message of our military victory and our aim of democratizing the region.” He added: “Syria clearly realizes that it has a great deal to gain by being a friend of America and everything to lose if it turns away from friendship.”
As of now, the Pentagon had ignored State Department requests for additional details on the June 18 strike, administration officials said. Four days of phone calls to the Office of the Secretary of Defense brought no comment from any Pentagon official.
It didn’t take long for the government’s line of attack to become obvious after the death of Dr Kelly, and it could hardly have been more depressing, more unworthy or more dishonest. The strategy is obviously to whip up a BBC-bashing campaign in the Murdoch press, always willing to have a pop at their oh-so-inconvenient competitors, in order to demonise the BBC and divert attention from the government. A succession of voices were put up for this task – the first being Lord Barnett on Radio 5 this Saturday. Barnett is a Labour peer and former minister in the Wilson-Callaghan administration, and was once one of the BBC governors. He couldn’t get going quickly enough. It was the BBC’s fault. They had clearly sexed up their story. No mention of the clear and evident fact that the dossiers are a crock of shit – practically nothing in them appears to be supported by reality, and there are absolutely no points on which they err towards caution. All the falsehoods support the government’s view – an interesting coincidence. Whether or not Alistair Campbell personally altered them after the intelligence services had finished is irrevelant – the government lied. Gilligan’s report is in fact broadly true – the dossier bears as much relation to reality as a porno film. Lord Barnett is largely remembered for the Barnett formula, the arcane mechanism by which UK government payments to Scotland are calculated and which means that the government must needs spend considerably more for every Scot than for anyone else. If that was my political legacy, I’d shut up, but his lordship clearly finds it necessary to do Ali C’s dirty work from beyond the political grave.
No amount of BBC bashing can explain or excuse the fact that MOD, having apparently initiated a witch hunt for Kelly, then decided to ask journalists to put forward their names for the source, promising to tell them if they were right. (That the ministry knew demonstrates that the witch had already been located.) This unpleasant, gangster proceeding effectively made the hacks accomplices in the Whitehall effort to silence criticism within the civil service – for what else was it? – and guaranteed a maximum of publicity. Why were MoD policemen sent with him to the select committee? Why, in the account of the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour, was one of the Modplod taking notes of Kelly’s evidence? After all, they could always have read the transcripts. Yesterday, I saw on the cover of the Independent the face of Geoff Hoon – the chubby arrogance, the tiny piggy eyes, the vast braying mouth, the nauseating hauteur – and it struck me that it was the face of a Tory, a disgraced and disgraceful reactionary. Born to rule. And – I felt absolutely nothing. It’s the end. For the first time, I really don’t care whether they stay in government.
What can we expect? It depends, I suppose, if the No.10/Murdoch campaign against the BBC sticks or not. If the spin offensive succeeds in getting a high-profile scalp at the BBC, the media machine will move on and the government will have got away with it yet again. And they will ask us to forget all about their lies, and all about Dr Kelly. Will we? Somehow I doubt it. Blood will out, and this is the first British scandal with a body for years. I doubt, though, if that will be enough to shift Blair if he succeeds in bullying the Beeb. In this case, we will go on much as before with a government increasingly the butt of general distrust and alarmingly intense loathing, a furiously excited press and a prime minister more and more deluded by power. The government will continue to rule by virtue of incumbency, without the real consent of the public. It is to be expected that the government will attempt to take revenge on the BBC, roared on by Tories and the Sun. This could take a few forms – intensive bullying of senior staff and interference with appointments, with the invaluable aid of the coming renewal of the Royal Charter as a big stick. Call it Berlusconisation. Or perhaps Railtracking – a forced reorganisation with the effect of making the corporation ineffective and of raising a certain amount of money by partial privatisation? Either way, in this case Blair will either finally fail in trying to control the BBC, or he will Texanise the media (even if he doesn’t want to) and leave us without a real news network, but with really cheap cable repeats.
If the scandal cannot be shifted, though – what then? It is hard to imagine Clare Short’s “elegant succession” being realised, as Blair will doubtless convince himself everyone still loves him. But in this case, he can hardly survive. There will be an undignified scrabble followed by abject scuttle as those MPs whose morals are sufficiently weak to back him finally feel the waters rising and flee the ship. (Think of Eric Illsley, of the Foreign Affairs committee, who today declared that the BBC reports were “made up”. So where are the weapons then Eric? And how long will he stay so loyal before betraying? I’d give him about five minutes.) Unfortunately, he’s too young to disappear into decent obscurity, and will hang around annoyingly for years. Let’s drain the swamp. We could…have a general election. Now there’s an idea – perhaps we could even call it democracy.