Archive for April, 2008

Bill Higgins is boasting about buying a very cool secondhand book indeed; Manned Spaceflight Operations, stamped “Edwards Air Force Base”.

I’ll see that, and raise him the best comment ever. We didn’t track down the Texas Instruments thing, but Colin in comments brought us this:

Well, I watched this one: In the bad old 60’s when tubes (valves to fellow Yorkshiremen) were top technology and our missiles needed lots of them, me and my fellow tech men had to sort out the best from the worst in large vibrating testers. The 97% not-so-good one’s were either used for the parking lot improvements or were spirited away for the booming home stereo market.
The parking lots eventually became too high to use so they found some other way. This occurred in my sight at DeHavilland Lostock and DeHavilland Hatfield. This all sounds very similar to your TI story. Colin.

I have a reader who worked for De Havilland Dynamics? That’s ridiculously cool. Where were you on the 17th? Eh? Eh?


Bourgeois COIN

The Independent has been doing a great job tracking a crucial new trend of our times; the way modern counterinsurgent practitioners are making common features of suburban life into quiet weapons against the common enemy. 12th April:

Under the protection programme, sometimes called School Councils or School Shuras, villagers agree to provide a small quota of night watchmen to take turns on guard. “Parent power is exactly what it is,” an education official said. “We bring parents, teachers and some key people in the community together to agree to protect the schools.”

In Logar province last month, a primary school was saved by a gang of furious fathers who chased would-be arsonists into the night. The head of the local PTA, Basir, said armed men approached a co-ed primary school for more than 600 students after midnight. “They had guns and petrol to burn the school. But the guards saw them and started shouting,” he said. “Everyone came out of their houses and when the terrorists realised, they ran away.”

What are you doing for the PTA, Mick and Ruth? Well, I’m organising the jumble sale, and Mick is leading the school council to cut the Taliban area leader’s head off and stick it on a spike.

Elsewhere, in High Wycombe, only yards from RAF Strike Command’s nuclear bunker, dinner parties and interior decoration snobbery are deployed to win hearts and minds.

“It might seem a bit aspirational to be thinking a few dinner parties can change the world, but it’s got to start somewhere,” says Richard Hoyle, 50, another guest of the Hickmans. “Anything that’s breaking down barriers has got to make a bit of a difference.”

Aspirational; now there’s New Labour for you.

Time for some rugby league blogging, right? I saw London knock Castleford out of the cup on Saturday, and I can report that I’m beginning to think London (sorry, sorry, Harlequins RL) are getting to be dangerous. Cas dominated the first half and went in 12-0 up, but ended up with a 42-14 thrashing. They were, as it happens, missing their star loose forward Jon Westerman, who I was looking forward to seeing, but I doubt he’d have changed anything. When a team just gets run over like that, individuals don’t matter much.

What does matter is that London are ferociously fit this year; Brian McDermott has really prepared a side almost as tough as he is (hey, he’s been a Royal Marine Commando, a prizefighter, a British Lion, and a Yorkshire Dales hill farmer; enough macho to kill a normal man). And they are making a strategy of it; every time I’ve seen them recently, they’ve soaked up the pressure in the first half and then unexpectedly cranked up the speed after the break, which is a killer if you haven’t either got the stamina to match it or a 20 point lead. It’s an old Wigan trick from the 90s; it’s probably as old as the game.

However, I would like to say that whoever introduced those inflatable sticks you whack together to generate noise deserves everything they get. It’s not just the volume, it’s the odd piercing quality of the sound; I can happily put up with RL terrace fixtures like the old dear driven by a truly disturbing blood lust, but this is new. Perhaps that’s what pushed the youth-team guy who picked a vicious brawl in the club bar after the match, incidentally hurling his target at my girlfriend, over the edge. (He also saw his way to trampling on a Cas shirt and assaulting someone who looked to be his father, so who knows.)

This looks like a must-read; Kevin Myers’ personal history of 1970s Belfast, complete with fundamentalist landladies, Provos concerned about the morality of using a condom in the initiator for a carbomb, the only civil war in history where both sides were receiving welfare benefits from the same government, the UDA as the only terrorists in history to have a regimental blazer, and the unpleasant but undeniable fact that so many people Myers knew were enjoying the war.

This bit specifically got my attention:

While Catholics were discriminated against by the Stormont civil service they were admitted into the then imperial civil service, run from London. This included the Post Office telephone system, which recruited and trained many Catholics, who became the most sophisticated electricians in Northern Ireland; some of them were in the IRA, whose bomb-makers became the finest of any terrorists in the world, while the loyalists, supposed inheritors of Ulster’s great engineering traditions, continued to make what were in essence big fireworks.

You want historical irony? You want the sociology of technology? Right there. In a sense, nothing could be more appropriate for a bunch of reactionaries like the UDA than that precisely their aims – making damn sure no taigs got above semi-skilled in the shipyard – were actually sabotaging their military effectiveness. As for so many places up north, the second industrial revolution – electricity, chemicals and all that German stuff – was never particularly welcome.

Which is why, perhaps, this guy may have been more of a threat than I’d otherwise have thought. I mean, who hasn’t called John Reid a tyrant? But it’s this bit that’s more interesting; he’s a BT electrician. ISTR the Operation Crevice team were trying to recruit BT linesmen at one point; not just to chop the wires, perhaps.

This NYT story is nonsense. Various rightwing barkies have taken the opportunity of the French armed forces’ deliciously 007-esque mission to rescue the sailing yacht Le Ponant to tout the following story around the media: the Royal Navy has been ordered not to detain pirates under any circumstances, for fear that they might something or other, because of the Human Rights Act. The details are opportunely left open; the usual formation of the story makes only two testable claims, one of which is that landing a captured pirate in Somalia would likely be illegal because the local authorities might cut their head off, and the other being that the pirate might claim political asylum aboard ship.

What the story does not actually say is why this would stop anyone from detaining pirates, or for that matter why the same doesn’t go for the French. After all, as a State party to the European Convention on Human Rights, France has the same legal obligations. Now, the first claim is obviously true in the sense that yes, Virginia, Somalia is a nasty failed state run by a mix of more-or-less Islamist warlords and Ethiopian army officers. Handing someone over to this lot for trial might well be illegal. But has nobody else noticed that it would also be intensely, profoundly stupid?

Who on earth would want to return captured pirates to the state, or rather un-state, that permitted them to operate openly from their territory? Even if the Somali authority they were returned to actually wanted to try them, you’ve got to assume there’s a significant chance of them getting away. In fact, the French mission gives us all the information we need; the pirates collected the ransom, went ashore, and seem to have planned just to drive off with it, which doesn’t inspire confidence in local law enforcement.

Further, there is no legal reason whatsoever to give pirates captured off Somalia to the Somali police. Pirates have a special status in international law they share with slavers, torturers and those responsible for genocide; they are hostes humanae generis, enemies of all humanity, which in practice means that any state that can catch them has effective jurisdiction in the case. Once the pirates are caught, there is absolutely no reason not to take them to a proper court back in London, or wherever. That given, why should we need to even think about handing them over to a jurisdiction where they might escape, be tortured, or be put to death?

The second testable claim is that a captured pirate might claim political asylum. This is true. A longstanding principle of the law of the sea is that of exclusive flag state jurisdiction, which means that a warship of state A is for all intents and purposes part of A’s national territory. The principle holds in a weaker form for merchant vessels. Americans really ought to be conscious of this, because they fought a war against Britain in part over the principle.

Now, a story. When I took my MSc in 2003-2004, my International Law course was taught by Commander Steven Haines, who had just resigned from his post as a senior legal adviser to the Royal Navy, round about the same time Elizabeth Wilmshurst walked out of her similar post at the Foreign Office. In fact, I heard Wilmshurst’s name for the first time from him. He didn’t give his reasons, but do I need to draw you a fucking diagram? (He’s also the only person I know who ever had control of a nuclear weapon. Cool, eh? Pity he took so bloody long to mark essays.)

Haines took part in the 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone, where he was involved in the decision as to what to do with limb-choppin’ war criminal Foday Sankoh after his capture. The military were keen to fly him straight out to Illustrious, as he’s not known for being a great swimmer and would be very unlikely to escape; Haines opposed the idea on the grounds that he might claim political asylum, which would have been politically more than problematic. Instead he was confined at the airport and then in the Freetown police station with a guard reinforced with British troops, but later cheated the courts by dying before he could be brought to trial.

So the problem is not new, but it’s not like it helped Sankoh any. And there is no reason why some one can’t spend their political asylum in prison; it doesn’t confer immunity for one’s crimes, and piracy is a crime. (That is both bathetically and pathetically obvious, but there is an important point here which we’ll come back to.)

To recap: yes, it would be illegal to hand over a pirate to Somali warlords for trial. No, this does not constrain anyone in catching pirates, because anyone who can catch them can try them. And frankly, not handing prisoners to the Somali “government” is a feature, not a bug. Yes, you can claim asylum aboard a foreign warship; no, this is no deal-breaker.

So what did those thrillingly tough and macho Frenchmen do with their six captured buccaneers? They, after all, aren’t letting themselves have their national essence sapped by do-gooding lawyers and bickering parliamentarians’ quibbles, right? Up to the yard-arm? Walk the plank? Hand them to the fun-loving fellas from Ethiopian Military Intelligence? Er, no.

Six pirates sont transférés à bord de la frégate Jean Bart et ils seront remis à la justice pour être jugés en France.

So yes, the six pirates were brought aboard the Jean Bart and will be tried in France.

Far too many people who should know better have swallowed this transparent bollocks at face value, or indeed, at a considerable premium. For example: here’s Information Dissemination getting it wrong. Here’s Abu Muqawama getting it wrong. Here’s Abu Muq getting it wrong again after initial treatment. I don’t have the stomach to look into the fever swamp.

So why, do you think, is this story being pushed so hard? The ur-text is this Times article, which consists of pure assertion – there is no information in there implying the central claim, that the RN has been ordered not to detain pirates – and a quote from swivel-eyed Tory Julian Brazer MP apparently reacting to the Times reporter. Repeat it a few times, and voila; new facts.

But who, pray, is keen on demonising the very idea of law as a constraint on state action? Try this comment at AM:

Ultimately the very notion of law itself may be bought into disrepute. As it is already in the ranks of the American forces.

See? It’s those bastard lawyers who MADE us torture them. Indeed it was; just not the same ones. This kind of embrace of raison d’etat has something of the power of all the ideas of a liberation from freedom about it.

By the way: as well as the Reuters report, Liberation has photos and commentary from the guy who runs Secret Defense.

Update: I’d forgotten that the original Captain Kidd was commissioned by the Navy to hunt down other pirates. He was a countergang that went wrong. Now there’s a far better lesson for you.

Here is the news; we’re meeting up on Thursday, the 17th April, after 1900 at the Globe pub in Southwark. Here’s a map; your nearest Tube station is Borough. There is no dress code, but I’ve been asked to put the whole thing under Chatham House rules (you can say what was said, but you can’t say anything that would identify who said it).


So, after the Phorm evilhood, and the weird brokenness detailed here, and the 30-odd hour no-notice outage they dropped on me just after I started working from home, literally driving me to drink (the nearest operational open WLAN I found was in a pub), now Virgin Media comes up with this. It’s not just the delight with which they want to deliberately spoil everyone else’s day to extract cash from non-customers, it’s the contempt, to say nothing of the ideological horror within revealed by someone who thinks bus lanes exist to make buses go slower.

Well, I’ve got all the contempt anyone can handle, so I’ve just churned to I’ll be cancelling on Virgin just as soon as they hook up my new ADSL link.

Well, I never imagined Robert Mugabe’s new survival gambit would be just to pretend it wasn’t happening. But it does permit us to answer the question of just how small a state can get and still function; to be clear, I don’t mean a state in the juridical/diplomatic sense, but rather in the political, realist sense. The Grand Master of the Knights of Malta’s house in Rome has some diplomatic privileges, probably because nobody cares enough to change this. But Mugabe’s continuing occupation of the office of president of a political entity called “Zimbabwe” certainly does have consequences; specifically that while he’s in there no-one else can get in. This has fairly serious negative consequences for Zimbabweans in general, and also for anyone who believes in the principle that tyrants should be held responsible, as his residual occupation of the presidency gives him non-trivial bargaining power.

As far as we know, he’s closeted in Government House with a small group of officials, notably including military leaders, political thugs, and the governor of the Central Bank, who has the keys to the remaining foreign exchange and knows how to start the printing press. Noises are being made that the military will not “fight the people of Zimbabwe over election results”; that might mean they would fight over something else, or else define the targets as something other than the people of Zimbabwe, or it might mean the army is unwilling to take any action.

Other than, presumably, protecting Comrade Bob himself. A few weeks ago, it emerged that the political entity known as “Chad” actually extended precisely to the radius of action of an Mi-24 helicopter based in N’Djamena. But now, it appears that “Zimbabwe” in the political sense consists of Government House, the central bank, and a small field of fire around them, and the numbers to Robert Mugabe’s bank accounts. Not even the top level domain or the corporate or aircraft registry.

The obvious answer to this is secession; make local arrangements, set up a shadow administration, and simply ignore them right back.

I have been away, cutting down to only very restricted Internet/computing usage, and living in a district that would make Abu Muq piss his baggy pants. (Walthamstow, he says. You’ve never been to Bradford, have you?) Which is amusing, because (as in every poor/immigrant ‘hood in Europe) every second business is a mobile phone/computer shop. You can pick up a wrap, an Algerian hooker, and an 8GB Nokia N95 in the same queue. But I succeeded in not opening my laptop for a whole seven days, which is a record for me at any time since 2004 at least. This gives rise to a challenge; how quickly can I resynchronise myself with my auxiliary brain? So far I’ve spent all of today slurping up a week’s worth of blogs, to say nothing of the e-mail; the comments, the spam, the news services, and a number of high-activity mailing lists.

And isn’t it fucking horrible? I just decided to skip Sadly, No! and a few others; one forgets just how much ideological trench warfare blogging we get through in a week. Anyway, to business. (Speaking of which, there’s the work re-sync coming up tomorrow. Thank God I zeroed my inbox before going on holiday. And, yes, I have been reading them; you want to know whether you’re going to have to run off the plane and form a defensive perimeter around your job…) I am delighted to see that a hitherto unknown revolutionary political-theatre collective, something similar to the Space Hijackers, successfully staged a demonstration that satirised literally every feature of the Blair/Brown years in one chaotic afternoon of low-level violence, massive traffic disruption, heavy-handed policing, and blanket media coverage.

I refer, of course, to the people who staged the mock Olympic torch relay through London. It was a great idea in itself, but the genius was in the details; who would have thought of including nameless foreign security police beating up thought-criminals while pretending to be Olympic Committee bigwigs? And then, they set about Sebastian Coe, a real Olympic bigwig and one of the most annoying men in the kingdom? And then, who would have imagined a sort of Jim’ll Fix It slot in which the ambassador of a vicious dictatorship got to pretend to be a world champion runner with the aid of thousands of cops?

Working Tessa Jowell in there was inspired (“Your Excellency, Auntie Tessa fixed it for you!”), but having the speeches drowned out by a monster sound truck advertising the products of some other country that didn’t toast its industrial base by playing dire pseudo-stripper cheesepop at maximum volume right there in Downing Street? Genius. It just says it all – the authoritarianism, the obsession with “events”, the utterly whorish foreign policy, the corporate arse-licking, the total absence of anything like taste or class, and the fucking people. Seb Coe. Tessa Jowell. Yes!

Hand that man an Arts Council fellowship. Seriously, it’s like a committee of Chris Morris, Mark Thomas, Linda Smith (yes, I know) and Tim Ireland designed the whole thing. They’ll never try the real one now, will they?

If you can read you should read this if you read nothing else this decade. It’s all about how the Americans started torturing people, whose idea it was, how men like John Yoo came to provide the legal justifications, who was keen (the ideological core of the administration), who didn’t want to know (the FBI and, curiously, the US Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service). It is intensely depressing, and the only hope in it is the precedent from Nuremberg that a lawyer who is involved in a war crime in their legal capacity can be just as guilty as the torturer.

Here’s the most significant bit, if that means anything at this level of degradation:

On September 25, as the process of elaborating new interrogation techniques reached a critical point, a delegation of the administration’s most senior lawyers arrived at Guantánamo. The group included the president’s lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, who had by then received the Yoo-Bybee Memo; Vice President Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington, who had contributed to the writing of that memo; the C.I.A.’s John Rizzo, who had asked for a Justice Department sign-off on individual techniques, including waterboarding, and received the second (and still secret) Yoo-Bybee Memo; and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld’s counsel. They were all well aware of al-Qahtani. “They wanted to know what we were doing to get to this guy,” Dunlavey told me, “and Addington was interested in how we were managing it.” I asked what they had to say. “They brought ideas with them which had been given from sources in D.C.,” Dunlavey said. “They came down to observe and talk.” Throughout this whole period, Dunlavey went on, Rumsfeld was “directly and regularly involved.”

Beaver confirmed the account of the visit. Addington talked a great deal, and it was obvious to her that he was a “very powerful man” and “definitely the guy in charge,” with a booming voice and confident style. Gonzales was quiet. Haynes, a friend and protégé of Addington’s, seemed especially interested in the military commissions, which were to decide the fate of individual detainees. They met with the intelligence people and talked about new interrogation methods. They also witnessed some interrogations.

Addington. Addington. At every ugly hinge of the Bush years, he’s there. I’d never heard of him until at least 2006, when the Stiftung turned me on to the story. I wonder if he was a member of the White House Iraq Group? Another one we never cleared up.

This depresses me for other reasons; at the end of 2001, I was just about still prepared to defend them. I never imagined they would want to keep the prisoners indefinitely; better in their hands than those of the Northern Alliance, right? The penny finally dropped for me with the decision to refuse them POW status in early 2002. But looking back, should I have been angrier earlier? Not that it would have helped; but I do think I consistently underestimated them. I was always opposed to Iraq – but right up to the end I didn’t really believe they meant it.

It seemed so crazed, the only explanation I could think of was that it was an exercise in madman theory (and you all know what I think of that); once the inspectors went back in, and they started cutting up rockets and flying Mirage F1-CR recce planes, wouldn’t this be the end? Or at least, wouldn’t it be enough for us? What I didn’t realise, of course, was that they wanted war for reasons that had very little to do with the war; for Blair it was presumably to cling to the US. And for Addington?

His significance, I think, is that it’s all been about law; they wanted and dreamed of escaping the constraints of the legal state, and no wonder they started at the top.

Update: Pathos to bathos in a flash. Yes, that should have been John Yoo, not Woo. Perhaps they should have hired John Woo; he’d have danced round his own arse on the tip of a Tomahawk missile while chop-socking Addington into diced wanker and collapsing Osama’s occiput with a diamond-edged writ. They’d have told all they knew, willingly.