Monday, July 31, 2006


Today we immediately go to the GlobalSecurity.Org senior fellow bookshelf for a copy of Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb, by Sam Cohen, self-published on Xlibris in 2000.

On page 445, in a chapter bluntly called "We Should be Terrified!" -- Cohen begins talking about red mercury, a substance he claimed could be used in a class of miniaturized fusion bombs the size of baseballs!
Picking through the wreckage left by the dread red mercury bomb!
"Specifically, at issue here is an extremely small pure-fusion mini-neutron bomb, roughly the size of a baseball, which in all probability the Soviets designed years ago with the knowledge of Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Mafia and what used to be called the KGB have been smuggling the technology and even the bombs themselves to known terrorist states and others who feel the need for them -- at a price, a big one," writes Cohen breathlessly.

"The triggering material, known as red mercury, is a remarkable non-exploding high explosive which technically is one of a very special class of so-called 'ballotechnic' explosives which apparently Los Alamos has been investigating (at the classified level) in nuclear weapons research," he continues. "Red mercury produces vastly more energy per pound than conventional explosives but does not explode in the conventional sense . . . Instead, upon being detonated, it becomes very hot, extremely hot, which allows pressures and temperatures to be built up that are capable of igniting the heavy hydrogen [also in the mechanism] and a pure-fusion mini-neutron bomb."

Fascinating, frightening, and none of it real.

Cohen motors on, writing that "[Edward Teller, one of the father's of the hydrogen bomb] openly denounced me at a conference where I warned the audience about red mercury and its horrendous implications . . . [Teller said] 'Red mercury is nonsense. I could not find any physical evidence anywhere, classified or unclassified, that is other than pure imagination. I believe, however, that there is not a particle of evidence that there is here a basic new discovery. That this could be at present something important for the terrorist, I think, is nonsense.'"

Cohen was undeterred, coming the conclusion in his book that Teller did know of red mercury, but said the opposite because he was afraid of what the US government would do to him if he told the truth.

And such is the material out of which the whole cloth of conspiracies and extravagavant miracle weapons is spun.

Although red mercury is a sham, we're not going to go into 'why' here anymore than someone would care to explain why a housecat can't make a campfire. Suffice to say, enough rhapsodizing on it exists in newspapers, magazines and the Internet to ensure that some people will always think it's real.

Fast forward to a jihadist terror trial in Britain, just ended, in which the men in the dock -- dubbed the Red Mercury Gang -- were cleared in a curious plot to obtain the nonexistent substance.

From Reuters:

Three men accused of plotting to buy a dangerous radioactive material known as "Red Mercury" to sell on to a terrorist group for profit were cleared of all the charges at the Old Bailey on Tuesday.

The three men, Abdurahman Kanyare, 53, Roque Fernandes, 44, and Dominic Martins, 45, had been on trial for almost three months accused of trying to buy hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of the substance.

But the man they were trying to buy the material from was reporter Mazher Mahmood, a well-known journalist with the News of the World, famed for duping criminals and celebrities using his undercover "fake sheikh" persona.

The court heard that Mahmood had taped conversations with the suspects during August and September 2004 and informed the police of their intentions.

But the three men, who had pleaded not guilty, were cleared after the defence questioned the newspaper's tactics. The three men said their intentions were just to make money and argued that they did not know what the substance would be used for.

One of the men, Fernandes, also said he intended to tip the police off about Mahmood's actions once he started talking about toxic substances.

More briefly, the jury didn't cotton to the idea of a dodgy newspaper, the News of the World, and its reporter, entrapping some alleged terrorists/dunderheads in a scam designed to sell some copy.

According to various British sources, trial testimony seemed to have degenerated into unintentional comedy.

From the BBC:

The prosecutor, Mark Ellison, admitted the police had no idea if there even was such a thing as red mercury - supposedly the main ingredient for a "dirty bomb" which could have devastated London.

But he told the jury at the outset: "The Crown's position is that whether red mercury does or does not exist is irrelevant."

He warned the jury not to get "hung up" on whether red mercury actually existed at all.

Testimony was received that alternately described red mercury as a compound with which to wash soiled money or a "faith medicine."

Detectives described searches conducted off one defendant's computer looking for red mercury and focusing on an article on it, published on by a bead-work artist and free-lance writer, which described some of the maniacal elements put forward by Sam Cohen in Shame.

The BBC then finished one of its articles with a waffle and a needless tease. Although red mercury does not exist, journalists -- it would seem -- often just can't say so if authority figures like the police and justice are involved.

Of course, this leaves plenty of Internet-published reference material for future stupid people looking for red mercury. Indeed, even this blog entry will, in the fullness of time, become flypaper for nincompoops interested in red mercury. That's why the sensational title! Ha-ha!

Wrote the Beeb:

In the early 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, several articles were published claiming that a pure fusion device had been invented.

It reportedly weighed around 10 pounds and was no bigger than a baseball.

If such a device existed, and was capable of triggering a nuclear explosion, the threat to the world - especially the western world - would be catastrophic.

But no such bomb has been discovered and nobody - not even Osama bin Laden from his mountain base in Afghanistan or Pakistan - has even threatened to use one.

So is red mercury just a hoax?

Let us hope so.
Using the logic of the trial of the red mercury gang, you can have your own fun with what constitutes terrorism in the crazy world of 2006.

For example, if you were to talk of hatching a plot to ignite the phlogiston -- an ancient imaginary element thought to cause combustion and present in everything -- in the Golden Gate Bridge or the Statue of Liberty or even the walls of the Lincoln Tunnel, would you be a terrorist if the police were informed. Or just a crazy and stupid person?

Remember, don't get hung up on the fact that phlogiston doesn't exist.

An analysis of the red mercury gang farce in the Old Bailey, by the Register, is here.

"[Sam Cohen's] 'Shame' is not a good book in any conventional sense. It is long, whiny, profane, and self-indulgent. It seems to have escaped editing altogether. Part reminiscence, part crank manifesto, it is a mess. But it is an honest and compelling mess that students of nuclear history will not want to miss," wrote Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News a few years ago.
More on Shame here and where to get it in .pdf on-line here. The alert reader will notice that the link takes you to the the third edition of Shame, which has been raffishly retitled, F--- You, Mr. President! We are informed the "first edition" is obsolete. Alas, the third edition does not include the keen story of red mercury.

James Woolsey testimony, archived at GlobalSecurity.Org, on Organized Crime and Nuclear Security in which red mercury is briefly mentioned as scam material.

Run of the mill farcical discussion of red mercury by assorted net ninnies.

Review of "Imaginary Weapons" by Sharon Weinberger, a book on the hafnium bomb, another weapon that doesn't exist but which the Pentagon was interested in. Hafnium isomer, which does exist, or more accurately -- can be made to exist in miniscule quantity -- is of the 'class' of materials into which the mythic "red mercury" was said to fall.

Weinberger writes: "Journalists love a good story about exotic new weapons. Perhaps they love it even more if it turns out to be true, but does it really make any difference in the end?"

She calls red mercury the "equivalent of Elvis sightings." Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

AS USUAL, BIO-DOOM INEVITABLE: The cliche of custom-made viruses and bio-hackers

The Post continued its series on the fun business of fighting bioterror with Custom-Built Pathogens Raise Bioterror Fears Monday morning. It was not as good as Sunday's The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror.


Briefly, the story about custom-made diseases being cranked out by biological hackers as future terrorists is already a cliche. It was done earlier in the year by the MIT Technology Review and as senior fellow looking at the issue at GlobalSecurity.Org, Dick Destiny blog has seen it repeated in various forms countless times.

Plus, the sourcing is lazy. (See to the end of the entry for the Post's endless use of Tara O'Toole, who through the years sings the same tune over and over about biological catastrophe.)

The script this is always the same: Start with scientist Eckard Wimmer and his cheap and custom-made variant of the polio virus in 2002.

The newsmedia bioterror, as well as technology, beat simply can't get enough of Wimmer because he affords them a kernel around which they can wrap more scarey stuff without actually having to be anywhere near the reality of what terrorists seem to actually know or be doing in the area.

So right off, cue the opening reel teaser/nightmare: "Eckard Wimmer knows of a shortcut terrorists could someday use to get their hands on the lethal viruses that cause Ebola and smallpox. He knows it exceptionally well, because he discovered it himself."

Next, deliver the declarative bromides on the subject.

"The future," [Wimmer] said, "has already come."


" . . . synthetic viruses are well within reach and getting easier . . . "This . . . is a wake-up call."

"The biological weapons threat is multiplying and will do so regardless of the countermeasures we try to take . . ." said another scientist for the Post.

People who read about national security have seen "wake-up call" thousands of times.

Everything bad that happens or that could happen is a wake-up call of some kind. Hurricane Katrina was a "wake-up call." The poor response by the health system for the postal workers during the anthrax attacks was a "wake-up call." Bioterror wargames that had horrible outcomes, mentioned in yesterday's entry, were wake-up calls. Dig this nifty Google search string on "bioterror" and "wake-up call." Yikes! Over 10,000 hits. Now, 'atsa "wake-up call!"

(Late addition: A couple weeks later, the search string returns about 1,000, indicating potential Google funny business. But if we use this new and improved search string, yow, back in business again with the truth laid bare!)

Anyway, when you see wake-up call in print, you know the person uttering it is posturing and the reporter is acting as a stenographer than actually thinking about what's going on.

There is no significant attempt made to balance the article or talk to any scientists with a less hysterical version of the future to deliver. It would wreck the menace of the story, the creation of the feeling that bioscience has swept us away and we won't survive it. Doom is inevitable.

Of course, al Qaeda doesn't have the ability to custom-made viruses. Having gone over and over and over the subject on this blog, like most recently here, readers know that the jihadists have the desire. But their capability is woeful or fairly limited as far as can be determined.

It doesn't matter to the scientists who push bioterror as an inevitable catastrophe. The future custom-made virus on a modest budget just provides a new slate of unverified, theoretical enemies called lone-wolf biological hackers. This is much better than having to actually find out about things like, what terrorists are actually doing.

If you're smart you can see where this is going.

Recalling yesterday's story about the NBACC at Ft. Detrick, the secret national lab that will be used to probe bioterror capabilities so that allegedly countermeasures can be developed, it doesn't take a great intuitive leap to imagine the lab getting into seeing how easy it is to make a handful of viruses, just so someone can have a classified paper on what the lone-wolf biological hacker can do.

Surprisingly, the Washington Post doesn't mention it.

But it does have time to furnish more quote of the wowee-zowee future-is-now variety.

". . . living machines from off-the-shelf chemicals" to suit the needs of science, said Jonathan Tucker, a bioweapons expert with the Washington-based Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.

"It is possible to engineer living organisms the way people now engineer electronic circuits . . . In the future, he said, these microbes could produce cheap drugs, detect toxic chemicals, break down pollutants, repair defective genes, destroy cancer cells and generate hydrogen for fuel.

Yes, the lame will be made to see, the blind to walk, the plantar wart on your foot will be history, AIDS eliminated, global warming stopped . . .

Not only is the quote insipid, the juxtaposition of it with others that are delivered to paint the picture of a dark technological future in which no one will be saved is intelligence-insulting.

Well, which is it? Pollutants eliminated, dependence on fossil fuels ended? Or everybody is plagued with homelab-made viruses? F--- if I know!

Even drugs and vaccines won't be enough. Our current medicines are compared to the Maginot Line, presumably making the new bio-hackers the equivalent of the panzer divisions slicing through Luxembourg in World War II into our unprotected rear. (For the record, the Maginot Line reference was first delivered numerous times by another bioterror-is-coming scientist, Roger Brent, before Congress a year ago, and you can read it here. The Post apparently fancied it so much they either dug him up again to repeat it exactly for their story, or reprinted the quote without the original attribution to make themselves look smart and current.)

None of this is informative in any useful way. For example, if antibiotics and modern medicine and vaccines and national health care are Maginot Lines that won't protect us against the virus bio-hacker of the future, what do we do? There's no answer. Pray? Or die!

For the Post's big finish, out comes Tara O'Toole again, like a jack-in-the-box, the official designated harbinger of bio-doom.

"We haven't yet absorbed the magnitude of this threat to national security . . . It is true that pandemic flu is important, and we're not doing nearly enough, but I don't think pandemic flu could take down the United States of America. A campaign of moderate biological attacks could."

Just to put the shallow nature of the Post's article in perspective, we'll repeat some quotes from yesterday's blog entry, quotes also delivered by O'Toole, the chain-rattling ghost of bioterrors past, present and future.

On pandemic flu in a newspaper in 2005: "You're looking at a nation-busting event."

And also in 2005 for the Washington Post, on the message delivered by the jumped-up Atlantic Storm bioterror wargame: "The age of biological weapons is not science fiction; it's here."

Here at Dick Destiny blog we figure the Post and O'Toole are on track to repeat the same message once or twice more between now and this time next year, don't you?
THE FUN BUSINESS OF FIGHTING BIOTERROR: To fight disease, we will make disease

Today's Washington Post went with a frontpage story, "The Secretive Fight Against Bioterror." You can read it here.

The nut of it, although the Post hems and haws slightly in stating it for the sake of balance, is that the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Ft. Detrick is going to violate American compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, a 1972 arms control treaty to which the country is signatory.

Specifically, the BWC prohibits research into stabilizing, disseminating, increasing virulence and working out delivery systems for biological weapons, and it is just this kind of work which part of the NBACC appears to have been designed for.

The Post article doesn't really get into it but the anthrax attacks and the commencement of the war on terror after 9/11 radically set back biological weapons arms control efforts in the United States.

This sounds like an audacious statement but if you discuss the issues with bioweapons arms control experts behind the scenes, you hear it. The unravelling of adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention in the United States comes under the rationalization that this country reserves the right to conduct any defensive research it sees fit into biowarfare as a result of the war on terror.

However, defensive research into biowarfare is a squishy area. It can easily be simply interpreted as offensive biowarfare research or move across the line in more subtle ways.

The NBACC, according to the Post, is "classified as a highly restricted place."Everything that goes on at it is top-secret, difficult to oversee, which in and of itself presents obstacles to arms control. In any case, their currently appears to be no real planned oversight of the NBACC although the Post article mentions advisory groups attached to it as fig-leaves.

The Biological Weapons Convention line-crossing research stems from a sub-center of the new agency called the BioThreat Characterization Center (BTCC). A Department of Homeland Security briefing on the NBACC/BTCC in 2004 indicated that research aims included things that many scientists believed would violate the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, a treaty that outlawed production of BW.

That NBACC briefing immediately led to a memorandum called "Biodefense Crosses the Line," published in Politics and the Life Sciences, and written by arms control experts Milton Leitenberg, Richard Sperzel, an UNSCOM weapons inspector, and James Leonard, the US ambassador who negotiated for the Biological Weapons Convention treaty in 1972.

In the memo it was argued that "many activities [described] -- most particularly the 'Store, Stabilize, Package and Disperse' and 'Computational modeling of [bioweapons] feasibility, methods and scale of production' -- may constitute development in the guise of threat assessment" and that "they would very likely be interpreted that way by at least other states."

"Researchers have to make real biological weapons," at the NBACC, writes the Post. This is, argue NBACC scientists and supporters, the only way to figure out how the country can defend itself against them. In other words, it's the war on terror justification that to prepare for the worst from terrorists we must first make the worst.

One big criticism of this line of weird reasoning is that it leads to theoretical and actual work on threats that haven't been verified. So the Post trotted out the science director for the NBACC to say that it wouldn't be done, that research wouldn't be conducted on threats someone had just "dreamed up." There would have to be some indications, was the implication. But since the work at the NBACC will be highly classified, whether or not this is true will be impossible to determine.

"De facto, we are going to make biowarfare pathogens at NBACC in order to study them," said Penrose Albright, to the Post.

Albright was billed as "former Homeland Security assistant secretary for science and technology" by the Post but is now more accurately described as a director of Civitas Group, a K Street security industry investment and lobbying firm which serves to show how businesses can get taxpayer dollars being doled out by the Department of Homeland Security or other government agencies.

While Albright was at the Department of Homeland Security he basically served as a person who saw to it that taxpayer dollars were doled out adequately to big business for the purposes of national security.

And if the Civitas Group rings a bell it's because another Bush administration Homeland Security apparatchik, Richard Falkenrath, was also a director. Although Falkenrath is no longer advertised on the Civitas Group website, up until March of this year he was still billing himself as part of it. (See Richard Falkenrath: A telegenic anti-terror man. )

And like Falkenrath, Penrose Albright is another of the Bush administration's supply of national security adminstrators who are experts on everything, "everything," in his case, being stuff that's not very good, from purported anti-missile systems for commercial airplanes that can't be used but are really, really expensive, radiation sensors that don't work right but which are very expensive and -- well, you get the idea. Anything that the private sector national security industry can make that is costly but not cost effective, that's Albright's bag. (Not only was Albright in the Post on Sunday, he also made it to the New York Times, in an article on an aerospace company-made pricey but dogcrap laser-shooting anti-missile system, subsequently cancelled, which he oversaw while working in the Pentagon.)

Civitas Group can be seen as an intermediary by which the war on terror is made good for business, by transferring government money to the private sector in support of efforts, weapons and gadgets to make the country more secure.

Anyway, while back at the Department of Homeland Security, Albright emitted the following transmission, in which the private sector is also invited into the classified bioterror research family:

"The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasure Center (NBACC), based at Fort Detrick in Maryland, is the hub within homeland security for research and operational capabilities to anticipate, prevent, respond to, and recover from current and next-generation biological threats to the American people and our agricultural system . . . NBACC aims to achieve efficient interagency and private sector cooperation with a structure that integrates facilities and technical expertise in biodefense . . . "

Dick Destiny blog has chosen to put in bold-face "next-generation biological threats" because it's national security codespeak for the rule-breaking activities described above. Or in another manner of speaking, "At the very least, we're going to think up new bioweapons even though terrorists or other nations haven't been demonstrated to have them because someday they might."

But back to the Post's news story.

"If we saw others doing this kind of research, we would view it as an infringement of the bioweapons treaty," said Milton Leitenberg, one of the authors of the original "Biodefense Crosses the Line" memorandum, to the Post. "You can't go around the world yelling about Iranian and North Korean programs -- about which we know very little -- when we've got all this going on."

In this we found the Post disingenuous to its readers and sources. Nowhere in the story does the newspaper mention the contribution of the Leitenberg/Sperzel/Leonard memorandum in 2004 and what it revealed about the NBACC then as the basis for what constitutes a significant chunk of its story now.

One unusual source for the Post was Tara O'Toole, founder of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and a long-time prosyletizer on the imminence of catastrophic bioterrorist attack.

"The philosophy and practice behind NBACC looks like much of the rest of the administration's philosophy and practice: 'Our intent is good, so we can do whatever we want,' " said O'Toole, to the Post. "This approach will only lead to trouble."

The choice in sources is an unusual one because of O'Toole's work as an advisor to the government, her participation in notorious bioterror wargames and her regular appearance in the media as a harbinger of bio-doom. Her public words and actions often seemed designed to serve the creation of just the kind of administration belief in catastrophic bioterror that led to the creation of an NBACC.

O'Toole directed an exercise called Atlantic Storm in 2005 which purported to demonstrate effectiveness and consequences of an al Qaeda bio-attack using smallpox. It has been criticized
effectively by other experts who listed a number of sins attributed to it -- most notably ones of exaggeration, juiced disease transmission and amplification of threat, a terrorist facility for making smallpox into a weapon that even state run biological warfare operations did not possess.

"The [Atlantic Storm] scenario we posited is very conservative," said O'Toole, for the Washington Post that year. "The age of biological weapons is not science fiction; it's here."

For the Los Angeles Times, O'Toole was attributed: "This could have been much worse. The age of engineered biological weapons is here. It is now."

Later in the year, again for the Post, in a story on how or why the failed national smallpox immunization ought to be revived: "People are now back in dumb-and-happy mode . . . when we were going into Iraq, and the possibility of a smallpox attack was seen as much more plausible."

While at John Hopkins University in June 2001, O'Toole contributed to another al Qaeda-delivered smallpox wargame called Dark Winter.

". . . spookily prescient," the Post wrote of it, in a story entitled "A War Game to Send Chills Down the Spine."

However, the Dark Winter exercised used a smallpox transmission rate that was three times its historical average. The alteration juiced the contagion, one that guaranteed the simulation would end in total catastrophe.

"We intentionally picked the absolutely worst-case scenario," said Randy Larsen, a collaborator of O'Toole's and one of the game's architects, to the Post. "We designed a war game they could not win," he added later in the story.

And " . . . suddenly, 'smallpox' is the threat du jour," wrote the Post.

Other O'Toole appearances in the press, and there have been many, have always been achingly predictable emphases on the ease of bioterrorism, doom (as in "we're cooked") and the inevitability of it all.

In the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001: "These [bio]weapons are cheap, they are easily accessible, and they are going to get worse as the science becomes more sophisticated."

Attributed in Investor's Business Daily, in an article about the need for new labs to fight bioterror: "The worst-case scenario is a concerted campaign . . . a little anthrax attack here, a little plague here, and . . . a little smallpox there, then the anthrax again."

In the Los Angeles Times in 2003: "Bioterrorism is a whole new terrain of national security that's going to have the same magnitude of impact as the creation of nuclear weapons . . . We should increase spending [on bioterrorism] to $10 billion next year."

And on avian flu to human flu, in 2005, from various newspapers: "Once you're there, you're cooked"; "You're looking at a nation-busting event"; "[an avian flu plague would be]more difficult and worse than a large terrorist attack, bomb, dirty bomb or airplane slamming into a building" and "If we don't drive down the costs of drugs, we're cooked -- both in healthcare and biodefense."

Friday, July 28, 2006

FOR THE WAR ON TERROR, which is better? True stories that aren't interesting or interesting stories that aren't true?

It's official, the war on terror is a source of entertainment. Not for everyone -- but for those who've become the symbolic interpreters of it, like talk-show newsmen, network news frontmen, or the famous journalist with a revolving book contract -- it is. The terror war works as a provider of material which can be cherry-picked, or embellished, even told straight, but packaged to be delivered as a diversion.

Information and revelations on national security now often don't come through careful reporting, or the public delivery of intelligence into the open by verifiable sources, but in media vehicles which are said to be excellent work, but with the excellence more in the way they are marketed for maximum publicity, impact or some variable political agenda. The stories of terror are for the telling, not for informing.

Of course, good reporting is still done on the war on terror. When that happens, less people pay attention. When they do it's because they've been told to by others for reasons of outrage. As when somewhat less than half of the country appeared to get up in arms over the idea that the delivery boys of news of things thing the Bush administration is doing in secret might be traitors, or that certain name agencies within the newsmedia -- the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, for example -- are helping al Qaeda with their exposes.

But today, Dick Destiny blog -- with its GlobalSecurity.Org senior fellow hat firmly on, comes back to Pulitzer-winner Ron Suskind and his book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11.

In a review in the New York Times book review last Sunday, Suskind was described as "a top notch newspaperman, one of the best natural writers the Wall Street Journal ever produced, and he commands an authorial voice many journalists can only dream of. Give him an hour with a cooperative source, and he'll give you six pages of beautiful scene-setting, scissor sharp dialogue and a nugget or two of insight . . . "

It could be true. Dick Destiny blog isn't sure. Most people it knows aren't scissor sharp speakers and it gets suspicious when it reads non-fiction dialogue that's so alert.

So when it reads Suskind's reporting about things it knows a bit about, it doesn't hear an "authorial voice." It finds what could be errors or extraordinary claims, world-changing ones, that are either not attributed or simply a page or half-page of blurbs.

In Suskind's book you never know who is delivering information to the reporter, just that it could be someone famous from inner circles, a Mr. Z or a Mr. Y or a Mr. X. You can take wild guesses at who they might be but there's no way to know motivations for imparting the information, the credibility of those interviewed or even the level of basic common sense present in the room.

But because Suskind is a name in bright lights within the newsmedia, no one actually addressed this in a major way when retelling items which for them were sensational and pleasing stories of menace and terror barely averted.

The story of al Qaeda's cyanide-producing Mubtakkar bomb was one such cracking fine story. It furnished everything the newsmedia would want in terror news or infotainment. It could be quickly described and it meant black choking death in the New York City subway in big numbers.

While few impeded it even slightly on television or old media print, it did raise questions.

Suskind described an improvised weapon that was assembed by government experts and shown in White House briefings to throw scares into people, convincing them of the gravity of its menace. By the end of The One Percent Doctrine, it's a the equivalent of a knick-knack tossed on a table by George W. Bush.

But there's no picture of the vaunted hardware. It's missing. Too sensitive? Classified? The reader isn't told.

On the other hand, the Department of Homeland Security did distribute a photograph and memorandum containing another jihadist-inspired cyanide bomb in 2003. It was in color, well described and not classified. It was, in other words, in the open.

Suskind's Mubtakkar, however, was not, apparently, until the publication of his book. And his cyanide-bomb does not correspond with the DHS-described cyanide-bomb, one which could be compared with a jihadist drawing of the same also found in open source.

And herein lies a problem. It's not a small issue and it gets at the heart of telling the story of the war on terror as infotainment vs. providing information and careful wisdom on the same thing.

The US government did not describe its cyanide-bomb, made up from a jihadist diagram, as the terror equivalent of "splitting the atom," as Suskind did. The memorandum on it was cautiously delivered nationwide with caveats as to where it might work and where it might not. It came with reasoned analysis that described elements of uncertainty associated with it. It was not made into a sensation. It wasn't a throw-up-your-hands-in- panic piece of technology, like Suskind's Mubtakkar.

Suskind, however, delivered no such uncertainty with his Mubtakkar. It was "a portable disaster, easy to assemble," he wrote. It was "a device that bent the laws of physics" and was "a holy grail for terrorists."

Of course, it did not bend nature, it depended on a simple chemical reaction. But the prose is a sensation, building the icy cold menace into the story of secret terror plots.

For the book, Suskind goes briefly into the history of cyanide-producing devices. He mentions the Aum Shinrikyo terror group's efforts in this area. Aum, flubbed lethal cyanide-production a couple of times in Japan, possibly more, and definitely possessed materials and intent. And as part of a wide-ranging criminal case, the information on Aum's methods, successes and failures made its way into the open. But the DHS-made Mubtakkar, which was also available in open source and which would seem to pertain to the war on terror in exactly the same slot as Suskind's Mubtakkar is absent from his book's account.

Did it not stretch the laws of physics enough?

With the DHS-distributed photo and jihadist diagram of one cyanide-producing bomb in the open, Dick Destiny blog was able to ask enough questions to trace the history of both here. An anonymous government source attested to the truth of it and added that while information had not been publicized, such a device has been used once in Afghanistan, where it failed. This sounded true but because it was not accompanied by anything more substantive than say-so from authority, it's impossible to know if it's absolutely so. Caution is recommended.

In any case, Suskind did not stop with the Mubtakkar. He writes that al Qaeda produced anthrax in Afghanistan and that a sample of it was seized in Kandahar. Apparently this, too, was a secret, because nowhere in the scholarly record, or in any attachments to official reports on 9/11 and its aftermath, has this startling fact been revealed.

Like Suskind's writing on the Mubtakkar, the details are scant but sensational. "The CIA . . . descended on a house in Kandahar and discovered a small, extremely potent example of the biological agent."

Anthrax, like efficient mass cyanide-production, was thought to be "beyond al Qaeda's abilities . . . it could be easily reproduced [by al Qaeda] to create a quantity that could be readily weaponized."

These are astonishing statements. With all the information and investigation into anthrax and terrorism since 9/11, the US government has not seen fit to tell the people that it was found in Afghanistan, leaving it to a popular book?

The scholarly take on al Qaeda and anthrax was pieced together by arms control experts, most prominently Milton Leitenberg, a research scholar at the University of Maryland. One description of their desires and work, "Al Qaeda BW efforts in Afghanistan: 1997-98 to 2001" can be found in his monograph, "Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat." (It's here.)

It has a few obvious differences with Suskind's story. It's more detailed, as befits a scholarly discourse, and it is footnoted.

Leitenberg writes of an individual, revealed in letters seized in Kandahar in 2001, a man "with Ph.D.-level training who understood the professional microbiology literature, and who understood professional procedures for purchasing pathogen cultures. He was willing to trade on the access provided by his status, while concealing the true purpose of his activities, which was to provide al Qaeda with the means to attempt its first [Biological Warfare] capability. However, he was not prepared to do any of the laboratory work himself. There is no evidence in any of the declassified pages to indicate that any bacterial cultures had yet been obtained, or that any had been shipped to Afghanistan or Pakistan or that any work had yet begun."

Leitenberg also picks up the story prior to and after the invasion by analyzing the statements of government officials, including CIA-director George Tenet, and information revealed in interrogations with al Qaeda men tasked in the project for developing a biological weapon, Yazid Sufaat and Hambali (aka Raduan Isamuddin).

The discussion is careful and replete with caveats but comes to the conclusion that while al Qaeda had plans in Afghanistan and had allocated resources and men to carry them forward, that "nothing so far translated indicated access to the most dangerous microbial strains or to any advanced processing methods . . . "

"After his capture, Hambali told his interrogators that he had earlier been collaborating with Sufaat, that he had been trying 'trying to open an al Qaeda bioweapons branch plant,' and that Sufaat 'had been working on an al Qaeda anthrax program in Kandahar' . . . but that after the U.S. attack on the Taliban, they had planned to move the 'program' to Indonesia. However, Sufaat had been unable to obtain a pathogenic strain of anthrax," wrote Leitenberg. (Leitenberg gleans these statements from open source newspaper accounts.)

Leitenberg adds, "The key question regarding the information . . . is whether there is additional documentary or material evidence to support it beyond that already obtained in the papers found in November 2001 and the locations occupied at the time. Those did not indicate success 'in isolating cultures of [anthrax]. And only the Sterne vaccine strain had been available to the group in Afghanistan . . . "

It is a complicated analysis. Dick Destiny blog encourages you to read it completely, and Leitenberg qualifies his examination with uncertainty where appropriate. History, of course, is changeable when new facts arrive.

However, Suskind's support for al Qaeda's production of anthrax is far slimmer. He also mentions Hambali and Yazid Sufaat, but in his book's telling, "One disclosure was particularly alarming: al Qaeda had, in fact, produced high grade anthrax. Hambali, under interrogation, revealed its whereabouts in Afghanistan."

And that is it.

But that was enough to be mentioned in a Sunday New York Times magazine article and to be hit upon in a brief bit of drive-by terror war infotainment on the McLaughlin Group, an interview in which the Suskind book is called "a staggering achievement."

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Now, you know that anthrax is not easy to deliver.

MR. SUSKIND: It is not.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's highly milled, extremely highly milled.


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It has to be inhaled in true inhaling. It has to be -- sometimes it can be put in an air conditioner, but even that's hard to do. And then if you -- the talk about the Super Bowl and wiping out hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people at the Super Bowl from an airplane above, the airplane would have to be flying at a certain speed; it would have to deliver it in a certain atmosphere, et cetera -- not easy to do.

MR. SUSKIND: Not easy to do.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And is that all that al Qaeda is thinking about now, or is that gone too?

MR. SUSKIND: Another thing we now know from this investigation is that al Qaeda, to our surprise, had produced a very virulent sample of weaponizable anthrax. I won't get into all the specifics as to how we know it's weaponizable, but it is. That shocked us. We knew they were working on labs and trying their best, but it is hard to do, as you say. We found in the fall of 2003, through intelligence, we found that they had produced and we went to Kandahar and found the sample.

All nicely wrapped and finished. Although the U.S. government has never officially revealed it, "we" can't get into the specifics of how "we" know al Qaeda had "weaponizable" anthrax but "we" do and "we" found it.

Likely, unlikely, yes, no, truth, fiction, factual fiction, or half-truths, there's no way to tell. What can be said is that the biggest claims find their way into the best newsbytes delivered in selling the book.

Now, let us jump to page 185 of Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. The writing is rat-a-tat-tat and "we" again comes into play:

There was an up-and-coming player named Zarqawi -- we'd been tracking him through 2002 . . . He was, it seemed, behind several biochemical attacks in Europe, including a scare involving ricin, the toxic paste made from castor beans, in Britain the previous summer.

Except there were no "several biochemical attacks in Europe."

And the panic over an alleged ricin ring in Britain did not occur in the summer of 2001.
Infamous ricin scare newspaper coverage
The frontpage headline of Britain's Mirror newspaper on January 8, 2003, was "IT'S HERE" and the accompanying story suggested that a ricin plot had been found in England, just before the war in Iraq.

British anti-terrorist branch men swooped down on suspected terrorists in the north and east of London in September of 2002 and January of 2003. In one of the sweeps on January 5, called Operation Springbourne, the plant poison ricin was claimed to have been found in an apartment above a pharmacy in a place called Wood Green. The news flashed around the world.

In the subsequent trial of the alleged London ricin ring in 2005, a jury found everyone but one loner, Kamel Bourgass, not guilty. During the proceedings it came out that no ricin had actually been made at Wood Green and that the initial finding publicized in British and American newspapers had been a false positive.

The story of it was long and complicated, littered with inconvenient facts that contradicted the original received wisdom delivered in the newsmedia. Despite that, much of it still made its way into British newspapers and onto the Internet.

But somehow the Pulitzer-winning reporter and his editors at Simon & Schuster missed it. The date was wrong and the association with Zarqawi was wrong. The poison recipes attributed to Kamel Bourgass, the principal defendant in the poison terror ring case, were found on Yahoo servers in Palo Alto, California, and no biochemical attacks had been carried out in Europe.

Eh -- to err is human.

But when the selling point of your book and the credence given to its extraordinary stories are aligned with the reputation as a Pulitzer-winning reporter . . .

The lay reader of Suskind's book might not be expected to know such details. But some people do and botching that which is easy to get right doesn't inspire confidence in the reporting of bigger claims that have much less substantiation for them in open sources.

So here is the dilemma for publishers, editors, reporters and readers: Are the stories of the war on terrorism not so good if they don't come with the extraordinary claim from the inside, if the truth is judged uninteresting? Are they perhaps not entertaining enough, too incapable of selling books, of captivating viewers, of getting attention?

What's true? What's not? Is it better for the polity to have interesting stories provided to it by its symbolic interpreters, ones that aren't necessarily true, to understand the war on terror?

Near the end of The One Percent Doctrine, some scissor-sharp dialogue emerges:

No one says, "There's no proof!" the CIA manager exhorted, his voice rising . . . "There is no judgment in the system. No one is saying, 'Based on my experience, this person is a lying dog' . . . "

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

WHO DESIGNED THE CYANIDE BOMB? An answer, shrouded in secrecy

Readers of Dick Destiny blog know it has spent some time asking about the true origin of the cyanide-producing bomb discussed in Improvised Cyanide Munition: Prototype by government agency. The US-made prototype, described by photograph and memorandum distributed by the Department of Homeland Security in September of 2003, purported to show what intelligence had revealed of an Islamic terrorist design. (See photo at foot of page)

In picture and words, it did not fit the model in the much publicized story of Pulitzer-winner Ron Suskind's Mubtakkar. Suskind, whose grasp of the science of hydrogen cyanide production could best be described as feeble, described the Mubtakkar as a two-compound weapon, one in which hydrochloric acid was mixed with a cyanide salt. But the memorandum distributed by the Department of Homeland Security described a different bomb, one composed of three compounds -- hydrochloric acid, a salt of cyanide and potassium permanganate. The permanganate and cyanide salt in this weapon would react with hydrochloric acid violently.
Whether the weapon would work as advertised in another matter entirely.

As publicity around Suskind's story increased, some terror hunters became excited by a jihadist-drawn diagram of a cyanide bomb, which they also called a Mubtakkar. Described in this article, sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the diagram was said to have been on al Qaeda-affiliated websites as early as late 2005 and its errors and limitations are discussed in Jihadist cyanide bomb -- complete with error. (Drawing at foot of page, below DHS-distributed photograph.)

But the jihadist diagram was also an exact duplicate of the photo of the US-made weapon distributed in 2003. This led to the very legitimate question: Did the American prototype, distributed in cyberspace, result in the jihadist diagram? Or was the US device, made for illustrative purpose, actually based on a jihadi design, the original of which the Department of Homeland Security chose not to publicize?

Since al Qaeda terrorists have copied from US literature in the past for their plans on chemical and biological weapons, without knowing the dates of generation of the designs and photos of the two cyanide bombs, it was difficult to determine which came first.

But donning our Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.Org digging helmet, answers -- of a kind, were unearthed.

But they don't come free of strings or in the clear. Since the US intelligence apparatus does not share its information easily, the information comes by way of the insider, the anonymous source with a history of knowing.

And the story is, although no diagrams or paper can be provided to verify it, that the US-made prototype was -- indeed -- made from the jihadi diagram and that it had been found on an al Qaeda-affiliated website prior to the distribution of the Department of Homeland Security memorandum in September of 2003.

Readers will recall that the various designs for a jihadi cyanide-bomb were critically regarded by this writer and a number of trained colleagues in the wake of journalist Ron Suskind's claims that the Mubtakkar weapon was a revolutionary step, equivalent to the terrorist splitting of the atom.

It would, perhaps, create a bang and a splash: " . . . other scientists [which included Dick Destiny blog] that UPI spoke to about the reaction, which uses acid and cyanide crystals to produce hydrogen cyanide gas, stressed that it was a highly volatile process, which generates a huge amount of heat as well as gas -- and would likely destroy the device itself.

Inside information seems also to have indicated this theoretical assessment was correct. Again encumbered with secrecy, and not publicized, a jihadi-made cyanide bomb based on the discussed design was used in Afghanistan. It did not work. And no other information was provided. Take it as you will.
Photo of cyanide bomb from DHS memorandum
Jihadi diagram of three-stage cyanide bomb
I COULDN'T HACK IT: Says jihadist of plan to kill two rabbits with ricin

Readers of this blog know that Islamic terrorists, or wannabe terrorists, while drawn to ricin recipes aren't arrested with the toxin in their possession nearly as much as white American men. Late last week, US Dimwit Found with WMD in Shed, summarized the issue nicely.

Part of the received wisdom passed around by the media and our government-paid national security gurus depends on Americans not understanding what the reality is. They are to understand that ricin is easy to make and that Islamic terrorists make it and that someday, it will kill people. They are to understand that because of these things, it is necessary to fund dozens of scientists and companies with taxpayer dollars to teach how to defend against ricin, how to clean up ricin and how to detect ricin as well as develop a vaccine for it.

They are not to understand that no terror attacks with ricin have been conducted in the last ten years, that no one has been assassinated by a terrorist using ricin in the same time and that the people caught with so-called ricin recipes are absurdly inept and incompetent. If they were to understand such things, it would be bad, because they might begin to resent the good fortune, the terror-war welfare, so to speak, being doled out from their purses.

So a terrorist trial in London's Old Bailey central criminal court is of of interest for the unintentionally comic relief it provides by way of an accused man's testimony. While the jihad men in the dock were not found with ricin in their possession, one of them apparently sang like a bird for British police. Somewhat over half a ton of ammonium nitrate, however, was seized by the UK government and the case is revolving around pinning it on them as part of a plan to make explosives.

"British al Qa'eda suspects planned to use ricin and fertilisers bombs to attack UK armed forces in Afghanistan, the Old Bailey heard today," went the news piece from a British publication.

"But Salahuddin Amin, 30, told police that when the deadly poison was [to be] tested on rabbits he became squeamish and begged terror trainers not to kill the them."

The accused terrorist told police he was "trained" in ricin-making at a camp in Pakistani Kashmir.

British police questioned Amin about what he knew of ricin.

"As far as I was told it is a poison that can be mixed with food to give it to people. . . . I think to slowly kill a person."

For the police, he continued: "Anybody could use it you know, even if you have an enemy like you know, say if you have an enemy you want to kill, obviously you can just put ricin in his food and kill him."

Later he told police, "So I thought, to be honest with you, I just did the whole [ricin-training]course because I had nothing better to do so this was part of it and I just went along with it."

During the alleged ricin-training terror class, Amin told police that the test, the final exam, of sorts, was to try and kill rabbits with the poison.

"They did buy two rabbits and there was a whole like you know nice little thing (going to be) killed and I just told them please don't use it on these things because I can't hack it to be honest," said Amin.

The ricin recipe, used in terror training, of couse, is this: Take one handful of castor seeds, grind into a mash, and rinse with four times their weight in acetone. Keep the dry powder, which will contain about 90 percent less active ricin that what originally was present in the seeds. (Sources: Kurt Saxon's "The Poor Man's James Bond, Vol. 3", Maxwell Hutchkinson's "The Poisoner's Handbook" and The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook.)

The efficacy of this method was quantified by England's bio and chemical defense national laboratory, Porton Down, in the trial of Kamel Bourgass last year:

In connection with the Bourgass terror trial, Porton Down performed a facsimile of the [common] ricin recipe. Porton Down ground castor beans and rinsed them with acetone. It took ten grams of castor beans, five more than called for in the . . . recipe, and determined that they contained 290 milligrams of soluble protein, of which ricin was a minority component, 63 milligrams. By gross weight, a castor bean contains approximately 0.6 percent ricin, a very small amount, a quantity confirmed by Porton Down. Naturally castor beans do contain ricin and one expects to find ricin in a powder or mash of them.

In addition, to get an idea on the toxicity of ricin, Porton Down undertook another test of the dried ground castor bean mixture it had produced in a cell culture assay. The scientist performing the test found the ricin in the mixture to be an order of magnitude less toxic than Porton Down's laboratory ricin standard. That is, of the 63 milligrams of ricin, a small quantity, thought to be present, only ten percent was still intact and biologically active.

The original article and Porton Down citation in conext is here, at GlobalSecurity.Org And the British news article on the terrorist who balked upon being asked to "ricin-ize" rabbits is here.

Monday, July 24, 2006

LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES: Two good books dealing with security and the war on terror, reviewed at the Voice, investigate the Department of Defense's pursuit of dubious technology

The first question that comes to mind on reading Ed Halter's From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games is: How did a military that's so handily made a mess of its real war make one of the best computer war games for kids ever? The title of the 2002 game was America's Army, downloaded from a whopping 2.5 million times in its first two months of availability. Intended as a recruiting aid, it's been a failure. While it seemed to be a fun digital war experience, the army's limp tally sheet indicates the game didn't persuade a legion of young people desperate to get out of town after graduation to sign up . . .

Sharon Weinberger's Imaginary Weapons is another tale of military technology—one more disturbing than Halter's. It's a fascinating investigation into the investment in the hafnium bomb, a device that entranced the military because salesmen promised a weapon with the bang of an atomic bomb in the size of a golf ball. As with Halter's book, one defining feature of the story is the military's enthusiastic pursuit of the dubious.

Read all of it, by me for the Village Voice, here.
STUMBLING THROUGH THE WAR ON TERROR: News departs from results (as well as reality)

Astute and critical readers of news on national security in the war on terror know the absurdist's sham into which it has degenerated. They know that the national psyche has been unreasonably distorted by one searing day. Perhaps they are even suspicious they are not really more secure, just inundated with news and cant about security. And that when the details on security are revealed and thoroughly discussed, frequently the war on terror and the measures taken in our name, aren't even close to being of the benefit they're cracked up to be.

If you read this blog during the past seven days you know that while government terror experts and the newsmedia are convinced ricin is easy for Islamists to make and that it is seemingly only a matter of time before they poison Americans with it, it's not the entire picture or a particularly accurate one. You know that more Americans than jihadists, a lot more, have been arrested with castor beans and ricin in their sheds, homes and warrens.

You know that the US government made a prototype of an improvised cyanide-producing bomb in 2003, attributed to a jihadist threat that was and is generously described as ill-defined. While the government made the weapon in 2003 and distributed a photograph and explanation of it through the Department of Homeland Security via a .pdf file into cyberspace, no one has yet produced an actual working example of a jihadist-made cyanide-producing bomb that fit this advance billing.

Readers also have learned that in 2006, a jihadist diagram of the exact same weapon was published on the Internet. However, nobody from the U.S. government has seen it logical, reasonable or proper to explain in any public way which came first, our prototype or their diagram.

It is a legitimate question to answer, one that a rational person would think would be good for security. Would it not be good to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, for example, that American national security boffins did not produce a prototype of a weapon that does not yet physically exist in the hands of jihadists and spray its details into cyberspace, where it was subsequently copied by jihadists? It's a rhetorical question.

But, for the most part, such issues are unexamined. Americans and much of the newsmedia seem largely content to let the war on terror run itself, without much scrutiny.

So it comes as something of a happy surprise when someone, anyone, writes a piece that gets at the nasty fine results of our alleged national security procedures.

On July 21, James Bovard wrote in an op-ed on "The 'terrorist' batting average" [carried over from the Politech mailing list:

The federal government has inflated the ``No Fly List" to 200,000 names. But the list has nabbed more members of Congress than it has terrorists. US Senator Edward M. Kennedy and US Representative John Lewis have been inconvenienced by it, and anyone named David Nelson is likely to face a major interrogation each time he flies. Federal officials make it very difficult to correct the list, thus tormenting citizens who are guilty of nothing more than having a name resembling a name suspected sometime by some government official . . .

Federal officials have charged 10 times as many people in terrorist investigations as they convicted on terrorist-related charges. Bush declared a year ago that ``federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted." But only 39 people were convicted on crimes tied to terrorism or national security, a Washington Post analysis found.
Read the entirety of it here.

Ha-ha. Claiming something to be rocking is easy. CBS's Supernova, Tommy Lee and Jason Newsted -- heh-heh - rock! As readers of this blog surely know. But not as much as Pat Travers, who doesn't need television and a network production budget to prove that he's not dead yet.

Pat Travers' "PT Power Trio 2" CD is something to have if you're still listening to hard rock in your old age. Pat Travers was a mainstay in the Dick Destiny jukebox during the 70's and 80's. The power blooz guitarist was a virtuoso of the electric six-string, a writer of note within the idiom, and a live performer of power, concussion and grace.

We have just about every one of his records that matters.

Records of classic rock covers have gained in popularity with artists over the past couple years. They've decided there's no stigma to performing the songs of their older rock heroes and the loyal core of fans they retain has no problem with it. Take for example, Def Leppard's "Yeah!" -- written of here. It's glammy version of the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" is superb, the entirety the record making you remember why you fell in love with 70's British hard rock the first time around.

However, the hard rock record in my changer the most this past two months, the one that is purest of soul and undiluted in delivery, is Pat Travers' new one. It is part of producer Mike Varney's Shrapnel series in which known and semi-known guitarists in the idiom are given a plateful of classic rock hits and fan favorites to perform. Sometimes they work spectacularly -- the Pat Travers selection is one such -- and none have been less than fair.

Travers' CD is the second he's done for Varney. "PT Power Trio" was published a a couple years ago and was exceptional for its concentration on Texan hard rock, covering ZZ Top, Point Blank, and Stray Dog. Varney's taste in hard rock apparently is about identical with Dick Destiny's.

In any case, DD blog recommended Travers' "PT Power Trio" to Byron Goozemann, the Highway Kings' old second guitarist. Goozemann has catholic tastes in music and not much gets a rise out of him.

But for his Blog of Lose, he waxes enthusiastic on the new Pat Travers disc.

On a tip from Dick Destiny, I picked up the new Pat Travers Power Trio 2, CD. Most people might remember Pat Travers from his lone early 80's hit "Snortin Whiskey, Drinking Cocaine" tune where he hit his peak and did the arena circuit. So what does an aging ex-guitar hero offer today, you might ask? Absolutely killer versions of classic rock tunes, that's what.

Read the entirety of it in Snortin' cover tunes, drinking Oranges.

Service announcement: Blogger fought posts bitterly this morning. Users know to expect this about once a week. Fiendishly, it displayed cryptic and meaningless error messages while bafflingly publishing the early morning news in triplicate. It was a very bad dog.
BOMBS SOMEWHAT MORE POPULAR THAN RICIN: But jihadist in UK trial says he made the poison, anyway

In an usual story on an English terror trial now underway, evidence in the form of a videotaped confession in which an accused jihadist admitted to making and exploding a fertilizer bomb and "manufacturing" ricin was played to a jury in London's Old Bailey criminal court. The accused terrorist, along with compatriots, is in the dock for possession of about over half a ton of ammonium nitrate, a crime under England's Terrorism act. Salahudin Amin's confession was entered, according to the Daily Mail:

". . . [telling] police how [his colleagues] had received instruction on how to make an ammonium nitrate fertiliser bomb [while in Pakistan] and went on to claim that they had detonated "fertiliser explosive" in a nearby river.

In the first hour of the interview, Amin also said he had learned how to make the poison ricin and that he manufactured, but never used it, the court heard.

The confession to anti-terror police took place eight hours after he had been arrested on a British flight from Islamabad, Pakistan, as it arrived at Heathrow airport in 2003. No reaction from defense lawyers, if there was one, was included with the story.

Read the rest of it here.
BOMBS SOMEWHAT MORE POPULAR THAN RICIN: But jihadist in UK trial says he made the poison, anyway

In an usual story on an English terror trial now underway, evidence in the form of a videotaped confession in which an accused jihadist admitted to making and exploding a fertilizer bomb and "manufacturing" ricin was played to a jury in London's Old Bailey criminal court. The accused terrorist, along with compatriots, is in the dock for possession of about over half a ton of ammonium nitrate, a crime under England's Terrorism act. Salahudin Amin's confession was entered, according to the Daily Mail:

". . . [telling] police how [his colleagues] had received instruction on how to make an ammonium nitrate fertiliser bomb [while in Pakistan] and went on to claim that they had detonated "fertiliser explosive" in a nearby river.

In the first hour of the interview, Amin also said he had learned how to make the poison ricin and that he manufactured, but never used it, the court heard.

The confession to anti-terror police took place eight hours after he had been arrested on a British flight from Islamabad, Pakistan, as it arrived at Heathrow airport in 2003. No reaction from defense lawyers, if there was one, was included with the story.

Read the rest of it here.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Readers of this blog know that the newsmedia and government terror experts jones on the idea of jihadists with chemical or biological weapons, especially ricin, the poison found in castor seeds.

"It doesn't take a congressional hearing to figure that al Qaeda or associates are about 70 feet of the Rio Grande away from entering the United States and potentially turning Sea World or Disneyland into downtown Nasarif if they get clever with nerve agent or biofavorites like ricin, anthrax or serin [sic]," wrote a columnist for the Washington Times recently.

"Natural toxins such as ricin from castor beans or bacterial toxins would make very good bioweapons, particularly for clandestine or terrorist use: they are highly effective at very low doses, they are easy to produce . . . " added a press release last week from a couple American terrorism experts flogging their brilliance on the subject in an article from an obscure European journal.

And the simple Google search string of "al Zarqawi" and "ricin" returns this mind-numbing number of hits even though the dead terrorist was never discovered with actual castor seeds or purified ricin.

In the war on terror, we are crazy for jihadists and ricin.

But who is caught most often with castor seeds or the ground mash of them? Dimwit white Americans, that's who!

Every year the FBI or ATF arrest American men as reported here in The Jailbird's Bookshelf or here in Assorted Fiends, Nuts and Kooks.

There's not a jihadist among the crew of perpetrators. Just your plain stupid whitebread countrymen, almost always male, all infatuated with guns, explosives and survivalist literature, and angry at the Internal Revenue Service, or some government agency, or Jews, or the Pope, or the UN, or local officials, a spouse or former friend. Indeed, almost any setback from domestic modern life is enough to convince them of the need to turn their abodes into bunkers equipped with machine guns, pipe bombs and poisons. All of them dumber than bags of rocks.

Consider the case of William Michael Matthews of Davidson country, Tennessee, indicted last week on charges of possession of ricin, pipe bombs and firearms silencers.

" . . . ricin was found in a sealed baby food jar in a shed at Matthews' Nashville home, according to local and federal officials who searched the house [on May 31]," reported the Associated Press.
This plan to use ricin to kill someone will land you in jail.
"Those who manufacture and possess weapons of mass destruction occupy a high priority with both the Department of Justice and this U.S. Attorney's office," said a prosecutor for the federal case.

Matthews' wife, Carole, "was the one who raised concerns about what was in the shed, and authorities said they found five gun silencers, three blasting caps and bomb-making materials."

The lesson: If you're going to manufacture WMDs, don't put them in your shed or your cabin in the woods, where the government will surely find them. Think of someplace else, like Iraq.

Why do Americans believe ricin is the go-to poison in pursuit of their personal revenge manias? It is because they have been told ricin is easy to make, again and again -- thousands of times -- in the media, in books, on television and in their favorite literature. It's the recommended poison of survivalists, gun nuts and terrorists, given certification by received American wisdom, a lore almost at the level of "An apple a day will keep the doctor away."

"Possessing biological agents for use as a weapon is punishable by up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine," reported the Associated Press, a statement American men found with castor mash have found to be essentially true. And careless talk always plays a part of their cases. "Associates of Matthews told authorities that he talked about ricin more than a year ago, but that he was not known to be associated with any terrorist organizations or other violent groups."

But how many people have been killed by terrorists armed with ricin since 9/11? (Hint: It's not a trick question.)


Friday, July 21, 2006

FOR REASONS OF NATIONAL SECURITY, YOU MUST READ THIS AGAIN: Is the 2006 jihadist diagram of a cyanide bomb inspired by the photograph of the same bomb distributed worldwide in 2006?

Using our official GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow thinking-cap, we were astonished that no one saw fit to answer the question posed in the blog entry from the 12th, Improvised Cyanide Bomb, Part II.

And the question is this: Did the photograph and memo (pictured in the article on 12th and discussed in depth of the 27th of June here) describing the US-made prototype of an improvised cyanide munition spawn, directly or indirectly, the diagram of a jihadist improvised cyanide bomb distributed in 2006?

This is important gentle readers because we now know that in a surprising number of cases, terrorists have been inspired and motivated to obtain chemical and biological weapons by materials published in the American press and literature.

So we now ask the security-minded among you to return to the original article and review the photograph and diagram of the same weapon, separated by three years. And then ponder the question: Are we, if even only in part, making our own nightmares?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

CHOOSING BETWEEN BARREL-SCRAPINGS: Rockstar: Supernova's consolation night

Wednesday nights on Rockstar: Supernova are reserved for the consolation race. The "consies," as we used to call them at the Schoentown and Fredericksburg, PA, dirt race tracks in the late 60's, were for the worst of the worst. If your car finished in the bottom three of all the qualifying races, you were swept into the "consy," where you had a chance to stay alive and qualify for the final.

The "consies" were for going to the concession stand for drinks and popcorn. No one gave a shit about the barrel-scrapers.

Logically, all three barrel-scrapers from Tuesday's Supernova should have been sent home. Their performances tonight were not good and the band, as usual, was right in there with them.

A thin blonde woman was sent home for the sin of wretchedness. She was obviously out of her element and her performance was energetic but pitilessly annoying. The crowd cheered, as usual.

You know the reason why.

This live audience is hand-picked and coached so it would cheer Winnie the Pooh singing "Back in Black" by AC/DC. Even the Beatles occasionally took crap in America.

When she was ejected she took the mike, gave an ineloquent speech about Supernova being a good experience for her, and cried. There's no crying allowed for being told you suck at rock and roll.

On Tuesday night, a kid who performed a James Taylor-ized version of a Nirvana tune should have been banished to the showers on the spot. His hair is wrong. He looks like a small boy scout adorned with modest jewelry, thin and without thud or weight, lacking in anything that could be said to resemble a rock and roll backbone, a style of hard pop music no reasonable person would believe he likes.

And there is no way he could possibly front a band of any hard rock neanderthals, let alone one with old members of Motley Crue and Metallica. Pathetic isn't really a strong enough word to describe him. But "pathetic" must also be shared with the producers and judges who've allowed him into the competition for the purpose of perpetrating a sham that works as dramatic spice.

So he did another Nirvana tune and clung to the branch extended him by the judges.

The centerpiece of the night was Dana, a big girl whose face wrinkles up in a pout when she's slightly dissed by her peers. They and the judges tell her they know she's beautiful and that she has a great voice. It's standard American meaningless flattery in place of a suitably humorous and supercilious putdown. Dana's voice is fair to good and she's a bit plump with baby fat, too husky and pink to be in with the members of Supernova, who -- by definition -- must be obsessed with image.

But Dana did have the horse sense to choose a funky 70's-style blooz rock hump to sing to and it's the first time Dick Destiny blog has heard choice in material that matched the professed theme of the TV show. Dana was acceptable in the way Bette Midler was a "rock singer" in the movie, "The Rose." Dick Destiny blog knows that smartest member of Supernova, and least well known, Gilby Clarke, also knows this. (Clarke actually has recently worked with people who do rock, producing Crash Kelly's new Electric Satisfaction, which you can read about here. )

Tommy Lee is dubbed the "hatchet man" because he delivers the bad news to the disqualified. He says how much he hates this and says "Hi guys" to the losers, over and over. He's naturally oily and packs all the imagination and elan of a good-looking mushroom in a pink fuzzy dinner jacket, which is what he was wearing.

Over and over the judges tell the audience, the cameras and the contestants that they want people to "bring it." As in "bring" the rock. As if you can manufacture "rock" which is something, many will tell you, being akin to trying to pick spilled mercury off the floor.

The ex-rockstar judges utter the "bring it" exhortation so much it sounds like half-time in a high school lockerroom where the team being hectored will find a way to snatch defeat from victory, no matter what. So do some warm-ups, boys and girls. Out on the track with you for extra laps and calisthenics. Get down and give us twenty push-ups, slimey scumbags, or shoot rock and roll steroids.

Dick Destiny blog nailed it on Monday here, so have a read if you're late to the demolition.

No one had badder guitar tone than ZZ Top on Tres Hombres and Fandango. Oiled, fuzz burned, thick and twangy, with all these elements often in the same song, Billy Gibbon's geetar trademarked getting tight tales of varmints and worn hookers. Subsequently, Gibbons took on the sobriquet of the Reverend Billy G. in guitar mags, a man of lowdown culture and vice singing early on Rio Grande Mud, the band's second LP, about getting head from Brownie, or being hungover after dealing with the whiskey'n Mama.

The thought of damnation could have weighed on him slightly because by Tres Hombres bets were hedged, gospel religion rinsing away some of the sin. One was to follow Jesus cross-country before cans of dinner, Texas beer. Then the Reverend got down on bended knee after escaping death in a rolling steel cage tossed out of the back of a pickup truck. The master was God, so upon wasting out to La Grange and going down slow with Precious and Grace, the band sang about heaven, come seven eleven.

Naturally, as a kid, I didn't care about any of ZZ Top's relationship with the Lord. The sung messages from those parts were for enduring, the music fine almost everytime on the way to the next installment of Cap'n Billy's dirty Whizz-Bang. Thirty three years later it makes more sense to me, like my dad getting interested in attending church after a diagnosis of cancer at age fifty.

The Tops had asked if you'd heard about heaven at the end of Tres Hombres. A year later, at the beginning of Fandango, they were inquiring whether you'd heard the word about the homeless man's fortified wine, Thunderbird. Dusty Hill's "Jailhouse Rock" was maniacal, but after about a minute of Gibbons coveting his neighbor's wife in "Back Door Love Affair," the wheels fell off for the rest of the side. The "Long Distance Boogie" medley wasn't about rock 'n' roll revival as much as it was repeating the technique Top learned at auctions.

The second side, on the other hand, was as close to perfect as boogie rock got. Getting sightless at the Balinese room in Galveston, the virtues of a "puta," another Mexican whore, who spreads her wings for you and "Tush," since happily slaughtered by everybody who plays or has played rock and roll in bars.

After one more great album, Tejas, ZZ Top would sacrifice their faces to sunglasses and twirling their old man beards (except for drummer Frank).

On the back of the of the new deluxe remastered edition of Hombres you can see teeth and genuine smiles. On the CMT channel about a year or so ago, all that was on display were good clothes and the smirks of royalty. The iron grip on image hasn't relaxed for decades. Billy Gibbons now sounds like a Texas politician, claiming in the biography for "Chrome, Smoke & Barbecue," the ZZ Top box set, that the band's apex predator get-blasted-and-act-irresponsible song, "Arrested for Driving While Blind" is "certainly one of earliest expressions of encouraging the selection of a designated driver." What a dry sense of humor.

The bonus cuts on the new deluxe editions of these two albums are live and will come as a surprise to witnesses of MTV Top or the Milli Vanilli'd performance the band phoned in at the Super Bowl a few years back.

In the mid-70's, ZZ Top live was lashed together with bailing wire, alternately astoundingly in the pocket or on the verge of blowing apart because the trio had trouble hearing each other over the combined trio din. "Tush" sounds like a slog over a sand dune; "La Grange" erupts when Gibbons crushes the sound system with a barrage of stage hog licks.

ZZ Top hauled turkey vultures, rattlesnakes and a steer as props into the Philly Spectrum on The Worldwide Texas Tour of 1976 and while the rockin' blues were just edged out by opener Blue Oyster Cult's built to military specification collimated laser, it was leagues better than anything cash money will buy now.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

WET NOODLE HACK-ROCK AND A GOOD GRIMACE: Rockstar Supernova staggers on

The first thing that comes to mind after watching the wrap-up of mostly wet-noodle hack-rock on tonight's Rock Star: Supernova is: If people can vote as many times as they like for any contestant, why isn't there a slot for voting to send everyone home?

It's rhetorical. There'd be no show. A crew of wiseacres would find a way to use it to derail this limp game.

The band was not rocking, as usual. Early in the show everyone stood around while some lame nob turned in a James Taylor-ized version of a Nirvana tune, a band none of the Supernova ex-rock star Tuesday-night-TV-stars would be expected to like much, anyway. The crowd cheered because it would cheer a plateful of singing maggots.

At one point there was a promise from one of the contestants, distinguishable from the rest by an Australian accent, that -- next week -- "the crap" would be rocked out of it." Next week?

During the broadcast the camera lit on judge Dave Navarro for a second, showing him slumped over, head down on arm, before darting away.

Jason Newsted was much less the ersatz USMC D.I. But he had to get onstage, grimace and ram into the designated singer, who got extra points for not losing it, during a random metal treatment of the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Newsted's still the most hard man in the place, superb with the grimace, much like Bill Shatner was early in his career. You know you want to head butt someone, Jayson, so just do it and leave them bloody.

The so-called super-house band tried out Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" and delivered none of the descending slash of the original's Fogerty-propelled riff. So the singer was shelled for being stiff. And at one point, during the bar-band anthem of the early 70's, Free's "All Right Now," it sounded like the drummer was trying to stuff double-bass drum rolls into the turnarounds.

One girl took on a Helen Reddy-look and sound and was rewarded for the sheer stupefaction factor. And the telecast was closed by 90-seconds of sturm-and-drang from a lady with the look of the wicked witch of the west.

One of the fundamental problems of the show is the poor selection of material for what amounts to a hard rock jukebox. As with last season's show, at some point they will record a CD of select performances.

Now, hard rock jukebox hits performed by ringers can be fun. But the song selection for Supernova is either poor, poorly matched to performer, somewhat poorly performed by both contestants and hack support band, or a weak tea of all of it.

The members of Supernova come from hard rock and metal -- late-70's to early 90's style -- and all that broad style entails. That means power metal, some heavy blooz rock by bands which charted but few remember now, AC/DC, Black Sabbath/Ozzy, arena boogie and southern rock.

And the show brings little of it, with the small part that is thematically right performed with none of the original vigor, that not entirely being the the fault of contestants who don't identify with the music.

Monday, July 17, 2006


If you haven't seen it on television yet, keep avoiding Rock Star 2: Supernova. Upper middle class doofs portray it as authentic. It is authentic, if your idea of authentic is going onstage with a perfect backing band of hacks, and a perfect sound system, in a crowded southern California theatre with people who would scream and cheer if you threw dogfood at them.

For example, this idiotic cheerleading from Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune:

It’ll take weeks before the winner of CBS’ “Rock Star: Supernova” is revealed, but one thing is for sure right now: The house band rocks.

As part of the Television Critics Association press tour here, writers were taken to a “Rock Star” taping on Sunday at CBS’ studio complex in Los Angeles . . . [Wow!]

More impressive than the antics of [so-and-so and so-and-so] was the precision and power of the house band’s playing. Their taut, mesmerizing version of Stone Temple Pilot’s 'Plush' was, to these ears, better than the original.

Finding musicians who could play with both passion and professionalism was the goal of the show’s producers . . . 'They had to be able to play anything any time under any circumstances,' [a director] said after the taping. “We had to be able to wake them up at three in the morning and say, `Play ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ in the key of F’ and they had to be able to do it.”

Still, “the last thing we wanted” was studio musicians or professionals who lacked conviction, Lieberman said.

“I went to music school myself. You meet a lot of people in music school who can play anything but they have no conviction in how they play,” Lieberman said.
Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, Bub.

Of course, "rocking" -- try to say it without gagging -- is subjective. It's a descriptor that comes easy, costing nothing and requiring no credibility to dispense.

Dick Destiny blog, ha-ha, rocks -- on many levels. We know this because we've done journalism on rock 'n' roll bands from garages to dives to the arenas for over twenty years. Dick Destiny knows it when he sees and hears it. And he knows the fakes, the phonies and the pretenders.

Nothing in Maureen Ryan's writing, here, rocks. Does she look like she rocks? C'mon, now, Ryan looks like a Mom. My Mom knew dogcrap about rock.

But it's the script features and entertainment writers like in the big media. "This band really stinks and all the stars and contestants are fundamentally nauseating" isn't something editors like to see in print. Too clipped, too cynical, too upsetting to gentle readers who hate criticism.

It's the truth, though. Tommy Lee, the drummer of Motley Crue, is the biggest star. He's overexposed on reality TV. Everyone knows his face even if they don't know his music. Old news about his problems with rage and drink, kicking the stuffing out of photographers, slapping his ex-wife around, going to jail and phoning into 911 that a kid drowned in his swimming pool -- all worldwide celebrity news and Schadenfreude over his rocker persona as uncontrollable idiot wore Lee out in public. Nincompoops, of which there are no shortage, find him entertaining.

Also on tap is Jason Newsted, ex-bass player for Metallica. On Rock Star 2, Newsted reminds you of a high school phys-ed teacher doing a really poor man's R. Lee Ermey in "Full Metal Jacket."

Newsted scowls and frowns. He shoves Tommy Lee toughly away when the Motley Crue drummer gets too friendly. He's a hard man, stiff in bearing and mien, muscles bulging as he browbeats contestants with criticism and meaningless exhortations, contestants so desperate to preserve their time on primetime, they lack the spine to lunge across the intervening space and connect a fist to his nose.

Newsted used to be a power drunk in the biggest heavy metal band in the world. Now he's a gruff petty scold, incapable of Sgt. Hartman's ugly and sadistic wit. Nope, you'd never catch Newsted saying what he really feels, like "You slimy scumbag!" or, more apropos to the youth of the contestants, "Your days of finger-banging old Mary Jane Rotten-Crotch through her purty pink panties are over!" Since sexuality is flexible in rock 'n' roll, the 50/50 mix of girls and boys among the contestants do not render the observation obsolete.

Rock Star 2 asked me -- and its audience -- to sustain the conceit that the talent being auditioned is uncommon. That might work on a lay audience but it's a no-sale to anyone with experience, eyes, ears and a shred of common sense. Hundreds of classic rock 'n' roll bands make their own CDs. This results in an endless weekly flood spewing into the Internet record store, CD Baby. Guess what? The best of them are better than anything on this TV show. In fact, reading the CD Baby website is more entertaining and less intelligence-insulting than watching CBS's Rock Star 2.

What Rock Star 2 is more in-line with is the phenomenon of Rock Camp. Rock Camp is a child or an adult's chance to start pretending to be a rockstar, the first step in becoming one. Like Rock Star 2, today's Rock Camps usually have down-on-their-luck or former rockstars as counselors. Rock Camp is a middle-class thing for parents to send their kids to. Instead of shipping them off to something quasi-military, like I was for a couple weeks every summer, it's to show a kinder, gentler humor toward your children. Every child has the right to rock and have their parents look on with pride!

Take this recent press release:

Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls in NYC!

With last year's band names ranging from "hellish relish" & "coco chanel & the zeppelinettes", we are beyond excited to find out what emerges out of this years starry eyed little campers.

Rock Camp '06 is located @ Brooklyn Friends School.

Session 1 will take place Monday, July 17 - Friday, July 21, 9 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.The

Session 1 final concert will be on Saturday, July 22, at NY Society For Ethical Culture
Special Session for adult women, Ladies Rock Camp will take place July 28 - 30

Even the Mom's aren't left out! If you are an adult, lame with two left feet, a fat ass and a wart or two on your face, you too can be taught to rock.

Here's Dick Destiny's proposal for a Rock Camp that really rocks -- as in real-life. (Good for kids, even better for adults who need a mental cold shower rather than a middle-aged indulgence.)

When you arrive, you're given an instrument like the one old-timey parents used to get their kids, the cheap kind aimed at putting a damper on your enthusiasm for rocking. That means a slave-labor no-name brand guitar made in China, sold in a cardboard box, with bad electronic internals and fretwork so lousy it hurts your hands. It will also refuse to stay in tune.

When you arrive, you'll be able to pick bandmates from a group with equally bad instruments. You'll also be given a choice of singers who can't sing. Maybe you'll get a drummer, maybe not.

When you play in the garage, because that's where garagebands play, you won't have a nice sound system. Your singer who can't sing will have to put his microphone into your guitar amp. This is a good thing, as no one will be able to hear him or her. However, the singer who can't sing has a fifty percent chance of becoming enraged and quitting before he actually learns to sing. Then you'll have to sing.

You'll get one music lesson a day. During the lesson, you'll learn to play music that has nothing to do with rock, like old television or movie themes. But you won't be required to practice this music between lessons, so that's a plus. You can go to the swimming pool.

After you've practiced in the "garage" twice, in the summer heat, always with the door closed, a counselor will flip a coin. If it's heads, he'll check on you, playing the part of a parent. You'll be told you're too loud, or you curse too much, or you're disturbing the neighbors, and you will be forbidden from playing in the "garage." If that happens, you'll be sent home without learning a song.

If the result of the coin flip is tails, you won't be sent home but you'll be told your music is the work of "Satan." If you brought CDs to learn songs off of to Rock Camp, they'll be thrown out. If it's an iPod, the counselor will confiscate it, tell you it's going to be given to a more deserving child, someone without clean clothes or nice things, and then thrown out.

If you cry at this rotten treatment, you're sent home. There's no crying in Rock Camp.

When Rock Camp is over, there is no final concert. You're sent home. You'll have to book your own show, kid. No one wants to hear it. Put your MP3's on MySpace and stop bothering me.

You also won't want to miss: Wet Noodle Hack-Rock & a Grimace.
GUILTY OF BEING NOT GUILTY (continued): 'Guantanamo-like' treatment dogs the exonerated from London ricin trial

Last week, Dick Destiny blog discussed the plight of one man, exonerated in the London ricin ring terror trial in 2005, as revealed in the UK publication, the New Statesman. And you can read it here.

Although now few in the US remember, when news of the London ricin ring broke in early 2003, the newsmedia could not get enough of it.

Discovering an alleged al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons plot in the heart of London dovetailed nicely with the building terror paranoia that resulted in the disastrous war on Iraq.

The alleged existence of ricin and "the UK poison cell" in January 2003 subsequently played a part of Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council as rationale for war with that country. In his now infamous speech, Powell purported to show how a web of terrorists including the UK cell, was interconnected with Muhamad al Zarqawi, who was said to be directing terrorist plots from the safe refuge of Iraq.

The actual trial of the alleged al Qaeda poison ring blew a hole in all of it. There was no linkage to al Qaeda or al Zarqawi. There was no ricin made. A positive finding the day of the original raid to round up conspirators had been a false positive but this news had not been publicized. Only a handful of castor seeds in a jewelry tin had been found.

But the US newsmedia, so eager to publicize news of ricin found in al Qaeda hands in London prior to the Iraq war, decided not to cover the actual findings in the trial in any significant way. Those few who did cover it simply quoted the old allegations, all the ones rejected by the English jury. It was an utterly mystifying lapse but one consistant with the generally dreadful quality of big newsmedia reporting on the elements of the war on terror.

On June 20th, Paul Donovan blogging at the Guardian on the fate of those swept up during the arrests which led to the fiasco of the ricin ring trial:
"Two Algerian men have been so driven to distraction as a result of being detained without trial for an indeterminate amount of time that they have agreed to return to a country where they could face torture and possible death. They have been brought to this position by the Guantanamo style conditions imposed on them by the British government since 9/11 . . .

For months, the government has been attempting to get a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Algeria in order to deport the men back to that country. The MOU is intended to guarantee their safety on return, though their lawyers and human rights bodies like Amnesty International do not believe this to be worth the paper it is written on. Given they fled as refugees for fear of their lives in the first place, if Algeria is safe to return why the need for a piece of paper to guarantee it? On a recent trip to Algeria it was reported that the Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, secured such an understanding but it will not be made public until the Algerian president visits the UK on July 9.

The problems started for many of the men following 9/11. They were initially detained without trial under the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001. Then after the law lords ruled in December 2004 that this was unlawful they were put on control orders. After the London bombings they were re-arrested prior to being served notice of deportation by the Home Office. A number of the men cleared in the so-called ricin trial where no ricin was found were also processed in the same way. Since then some have remained in prison and a number have been bailed under control order style conditions.

One man has told how "a control order is like being in a space capsule isolated from the world ... It is not physical torture but mental - driving you to madness ... It is torture for the family, paying the price for what they didn't do ... A control order is a punishment for someone who hasn't been convicted of anything . . .

. . . The return of the first two Algerians was heralded on the BBC as the triumph for Home Office anti-terror policy. What a triumph? Most of the implementation of government policy has been carried out quietly behind the scenes, supervised by a growing secret state operating within the state.

Many who have been subjected to this treatment believe it is an experiment that will be pushed further forward once they have gone. People in this country were quick to condemn the Soviet Union and other countries for such behaviour over the years, why the silence now when it is going on in our own back yard, run by our government in our names?
Read the original, A Sad Day for Human Rights.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

HAZLETON, A TOWN IN PENNSYLTUCKY: Coal county racists, I knew 'em well

Living outside Los Angeles, I never expect t0 see my old haunts mentioned in the newsmedia for anything good. It's a matter of pride.

My place of maturation, Pine Grove, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, has one distinguishing characteristic. It's the site of a gigantic waste dump, accepting garbage trucked in from neighboring states. When farm runoff briefly contaminated its water supply many years ago with an intestinal parasite, it blamed excrement from beavers. Its garment industry pumped so much dye and contaminant into the Swatara River that ran through the center of town, the rocks on the bank were always stained yellow, brown, black or mauve.

But it was the birthplace of author Conrad Richter, locals were fond of saying. I had my doubts about this story but even if it was true, Richter's books, which we occasionally were compelled to read in school, were shit. He was right in there with James Fenimore Cooper in his skill at working like a literary Mickey Finn. (Try to get through "A Light In the Forest," just try.)

Palmerton, north of Allentown, is known as an eco-nightmare suitable for a science-fiction film. A New Jersey Zinc plant sterilized a facing mountain and plated all the exposed geology in the area an unusual and unnatural shade of gleaming purple. The locals never complained until it was too late. They didn't want to risk losing their jobs poisoning their community for the joy of smelting zinc.

And now Hazleton, a long exhausted coal town in Luzerne County, has made illegal immigrants definitely illegal. And this merited national news.

Often the coverage was curious, particularly on the evening major networks where everyone danced around the obvious. The people in Hazleton are bigots. From Schuylkill to Luzerne to Carbon county, I grew up with them, and knew 'em well.

They hate all outsiders, particularly anyone who wasn't lily white. Outsiders are/were city trash, people to be suspicious of. Catholics were "round heads." Teachers had too much time off in the summer and were too big for their britches. Suspicious of education in any form, the general attitude was that public schools cost too much in taxes.

They also hate rich people and support unions. But the former coal crackers are so poorly informed, ill-educated and driven by illogic, they regularly vote for the wealthy caste on the right in national power who work actively to destroy the things they hold dear and their way of life. This goes back a long way as coal region denizens were enthusiastic for hanging members of the Molly Maguires in their own social class on the say-so of people who ran the coal mines and railroads in the mid-1800's. The Maguires were a violent secret Irish immigrant group that fought to establish better terms and conditions for mine work.

The area has no such thing as a college town to give it even a small bit of culture and class. Football is big, though. Yay, football!

Everyone who can leave does, either by going off to college if their parents are of the few to be able to afford it, or by joining the military. Then they get to go to Iraq to learn "strength for now, strength for later," as it says in the Army's television recruitment spots. Iraq is worse, though.

In "American Theocracy," historian Kevin Phillips repeatedly paints Pennsylvania as a state more in tune with the way of things in the south, or Texas, than its northeastern neighbors: Reliably Republican in the interior, religious, homophobic and suspicious of science and schooling. It's another state with people who think creationism deserves equal time with evolution in class. Pennsylvania is regressive in every way.

It's also the birthplace of cable.

But good ideas are rare, often suffering beatdowns. Pottsville, the seat of Schuylkill County and the heart of the anthracite region had an early form of movie channel, like HBO, in the early Seventies. It was called StarChannel and offered movies around the clock to cable box owners. The kids I knew loved it but parents and elders were unimpressed. Watch recent movies in the afternoon or evening? Who would want to do that?

What else is a success from the heart of the coal country?

Yuengling beer.

Yuengling was the blue collar beer of the region. It was vile, below Pabst Blue Ribbon or Lucky Lager, but very cheap. Let's say it was about equal to Schaefer, another Pennsy beer.

In any case, all during the Seventies, Yuengling regularly bought local TV advertising on Sundays. If you watched pro football in the coal counties, you knew Yuengling as "America's oldest brewery."

Sometime during the late Nineties someone clever at Yuengling recognized the snob boutique microbrew boom as a marketing opportunity. "America's oldest brewery" would resonate with people who viewed themselves as hipsters.

The result, bars in New York City and Philadelphia who sell Yuengling as a premium beer to rubes with no taste but a desire to be seen as cool. If you're one of these and reading this, listen up! Yuengling was never hip. It is made in a region inhabited by people who hate you and everything you stand for.

But back to Hazleton, northeast of Pottsville and Schuylkill County.

"Standing outside city hall in the gathering dark, Norman Tarantino felt, for once, that he was lucky to live in Hazleton," wrote the Los Angeles Times late last week.

"Most of his friends had moved away over the years, convinced that the old coal city's best days were behind it. But as of Thursday night, Tarentino said, Hazelton once again has something to be proud of. It is the most hostile environment in America for illegal immigrants."

"When John Quigley, a Democrat mayor, lost his reelection bid in 1995, it was amid rumors that he had rented billboards in New York to recruit Latinos to town in exchange for government payments of $1,000 a head," read the newspaper. "Quigley called that rumor 'an urban legend . . . ' but many in Hazelton believe it."

Big ups, Hazleton! Stand tall! Illegal renters and workers out! Speak English, damnit, English, it's now city law! Go Keystone State! Support the Bund. Life sucks here and it's the fault of the wetbacks.

Pennsy was recognized for a big animal-cruelty fest, of sorts, too. (No, not rattlesnake-bagging meets. That's mostly Texas.) It was known nationwide as the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, and you can read Dick Destiny blog's rumination on it inPolishing the Bird and Crimson Country.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

ULTIMATUM! How I learned to stop worrying and love the war on terror through gaming

In today's Los Angeles Times, A7, first paragraph, dateline PARIS: "The United States and five other world powers gave Iran a stern ultimatum Wednesday, announcing that they would seek a UN Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions unless the regime suspended its nuclear program."

Ultimatum! A great word, one that immediately reminded Dick Destiny blog of the board game of the same name, published in 1975 by Yaquinto as "The game of nuclear confrontation."
Ultimatum came with a map of the US and Soviet Union, various table and instructions, pieces representing bomb wings, ICBM (Minuteman and Titan) batteries, and Polaris missile subs. Of course, the Soviet Union's nuclear force was represented more than adequately. In addition, there were a couple thousand game pieces symbolizing mushroom clouds.

You know you want to push it.
Ultimatum was not very exciting after you played it once or twice. Soon after diddling about with diplomacy for a few turns, trying to eke out points in geopolitical satellite areas to the Soviet Union, like Europe, Southeast Asia or the Middle-East, someone would always yell triumphantly and punch "The Button" icon on the board, symbolically signalling the launch of a "first strike." (Attractively pictured at left.)

Then the game when into the meat of play, involving either "phased launch" or "simultaneous launch" of nuclear assets. For the sake of game play, it was assumed there would be no launch on warning -- one side would always have to wait for the bombs to begin landing. Therefore, a "simultaneous launch" in Ultimatum was aimed at putting the enemy's bomber force at major risk. It would ensure that of all assets -- the minor arm (relatively speaking) of the nuclear assault, the offshore nuclear-armed submarines, being closest -- would strike first, decimating the bomber force on the ground. It also gambled poorly against substantial numbers of the enemy's ICBM force surviving.

It was a rash bolt-out-of-the-blue (then called a BOOB attack) cut-the-head-off-the-chicken strategy. And in the game, it never worked. (A DickDestiny NoPrize for you if you can name the bestselling book and straight-to-video movie based on a selective BOOB attack on the US.)

Whatever the attack strategy, the board soon filled up on both sides with attractive mushroom cloud symbols as both armories were expended. This could happen in an initial all out exchange, a thermonuclear spasm, or a series of escalating strikes and counterstrikes against remaining weapons and population centers. (The latter was called a mixed "counterforce" and "countervalue" strategy.)

After the rubble had stopped bouncing, scores were compared. The differences were never worth noting, which was the entire point of the game. Of course, it never caught on like Monopoly or Life or even Risk. But it did have educational value.
al Qaeda attempts small scale decapitating attack on USA. It fails -- Tehran, Qom, Shiraz, Dezful, Damascus, Aden, Mecca, Riyadh, the borderlands of Pakistan, etc, were pulverized in the second player's turn
Dick Destiny blog thinks Ultimatum is ideal for revival. Above, the reader can see the results of something like a generously equipped al Qaeda simultaneous attack with three improvised nuclear devices. (One 12-kiloton blast over Manhattan, one fizzle yield of half a kiloton on the west side of the river, and one 20-kiloton blast over DC).

By the old standards of Ultimatum, that's pretty damn lame! Mouse over the graphic of the map to see the second player's ripost in the floating yellow box, one which destroys all of the Middle East and the northern part of Pakistan. Iraq, already being destroyed, is not included.

Ultimatum again is a bit didactic as well as being more fun to play. There's an actual winner and loser. The Arab world always loses, so the scale for victory has to be slanted a bit. (Since I live outside Los Angeles, I never lose. Islamic extremists never waste a scarce commodity, their atomic bombs, on LA County. No matter what the Bland Corporation thinks.)

Now, taking as a starting point, General Buck Turgidson's advice to President Merkin Muffley in Dr. Strangelove: "Well now, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, Mr. President, but I do say not more than ten to twenty million dead, depending on the breaks."

Ten million dead in such a strike, then, might be considered a major tactical victory for al Qaeda, whereas 200 million dead in the Middle East, only a middling strategic victory for the United States and utter and total strategic defeat for the rest of the Arab world.

Ultimatum contains all the rules and technological underpinnings needed to duplicate the conditions of today. For example, there are additional rules for what were called US "silo busters," aimed at destroying deeply buried targets. Bringing it up to date requires only a slight alteration in nomenclature, to "bunker busters."

Rules also cover "Public Statements, Threats and Negotiations." Under "Public statements," reads the Ultimatum rulebook, ". . . as the leader of his country it is the responsibility of each player to occasionally set forth the foreign policy of his nation. For example, he may declare the Middle East as an area vital to the survival of his people. These statements do not have to be true."

Under "Threats" -- "The serious threat of nuclear war or limited nuclear strikes can be used to forestall . . . particularly threatening kinds [of actions]. . . "

Under "Uncontrollable Crisis Area Events," Ultimatum provides a deck of shuffle cards with various unpleasant and strongly negative outcomes. "At the beginning of each game turn, the American player should role the die. If a six results, the top card on the deck should be turned over and its instructions [applied]." Example: Israel invades Lebanon, bombs Beirut and . . . "

If Ultimatum were adopted to encompass a game chapter called Operation Iranian Beatdown, the rules would have to be slightly augmented to allow for the non-American player to have some options. Since the Iranian side has virtually no capability to withstand an American global strategic combined forces assault and no nuclear retaliatory capability, another nation that's crazy, like North Korea, should be made an ally in something similar to Hitler's Axis. But the open-ended nature of Ultimatum, as designed in 1975, does allow for it.
Johnny Comes Marching Home played in the cockpit during Operation Iranian Beatdown
GUILTY OF BEING NOT GUILTY: Exonerated in 'ricin plot' trial, imprisoned at home -- awaiting deportation to a country that tortures

When news of the London ricin ring broke in early 2003, the US newsmedia could not get enough of it.

TIME International wrote in a story entitled "Poisonous Plot:" "Watching the police officers come and go, some of them in protective white suits and masks, and seeing the long hours they spent in the top-floor apartment above a local pharmacy, neighbors in North London's multiracial Wood Green section knew that something big was up."

"A presumed al-Qaeda terror lab had been shut down."

Ricin was said to have been found but the bulk of it was said to be gone. (This would later turn out to be untrue. No ricin had been found, only a jewelry tin containing a handful of castor seeds. But it would remain unpublicized until April of last year because, among other things, the truth was inconvenient to authorities and apparently uninteresting to the general newsmedia.)

"Had terrorists got away with enough of the toxin to launch a strike?" TIME International mused.

The alleged existence of ricin and "the UK poison cell" in January 2003 would subsequently play a part of Colin Powell's presentation as rationale for war against Iraq. In his speech to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003, Powell purported to show how a web of terrorists including the UK cell, was interconnected with Muhamad al Zarqawi, who was said to be directing terrorist plots from the safe refuge of Iraq.

The US government had a theory -- a very airy one, as it eventually turned out -- on the Wood Green ricin ring.

On February 12, for example, CNN reported that Colin Powell had contended the British ricin had actually come from Iraq in a story entitled "Europe skeptical of Iraq-ricin link."

"The ricin that is bouncing around Europe now originated in Iraq -- not in the part of Iraq that is under Saddam Hussein's control, but his security forces know all about it," Colin Powell was alleged to have said.

All of it -- bullshit.

The alleged al Qaeda ricin poisoners swept up in what was called Operation Springbourne were put on trial. Of them, only one -- Kamel Bourgass, a loner who had fiendishly stabbed a British policeman to death during one of the anti-terror raids -- was convicted and sent away for good.

A jury found the rest not guilty. It was a jury that did not believe any of the British government's arguments that the others in the dock with Bourgass had been connected to al Qaeda or that they had been part of any plot to poison London with ricin put into skin cream containers (whence, presumably it could be smeared on door handles.)

Part of the ricin plot was said to also include nicotine poisoning, and to this end, a Porton Down scientist recovered one Nivea pot contaminated with what appeared to Dick Destiny blog to be the fluid from tobacco chaw. Icky, perhaps, but only dangerous if you consider what's in a high school baseball player's cup in the dugout to be a WMD.

But the US newsmedia covered almost none of it. If you wanted to read what went down on an American site serving the media, the only place you could find it was here.

Of course, the trial was covered in the British media. But the coverage split into two camps. One that followed the government line, ignoring the jury verdicts, and repeating the allegations presented before the Iraq war. And one camp which presented the results of the trial, but which was presumed to be leftist or on the side of terrorists.

Since then the British government has tried various practical means to nullify the result of the verdicts.

One of these has been called a "control order" which when levied upon the former defendants exonerated made them prisoners in their own homes, awaiting deportation to their home country, which in the case of the "ricin ring" defendants, was Algeria. In other cases, since the London bombings of last year, it has been more convenient for the British government to arrest them in preparation for deportation, as threats to national security, with evidence of such nature -- it is claimed -- that it cannot be publicized in a trial. In this, it is functionally similar to arguments made concerning the detainees at Guantanamo.

During the original trial of the alleged London "ricin ring," claims and testimony -- material that made it into newsmedia reports prior to the trial -- against the defendants had been the product of a government informant, Mohamed Meguerba.

But Meguerba had provided the information in a confession he later recanted from an Algerian jail. And British prosecutors could not bring evidence from a country that was known to squeeze its prisoners. Subsequently, Meguerba was assumed to have been tortured into a confession. This point was later raised in the British media post-trial by defense lawyers. The British government had little, if any, response to it.

A recent article in the New Statesman addresses the plight of the exonerated in the London terror trial, through the experience of one of the innocent:

I'm sitting in a café in a grimy part of north London, whose exact location I can't tell you, drinking coffee with a man whose name I can't reveal. This man - I'll call him Ahmed - is apparently so dangerous that our government is not only eager to deport him to Algeria, but is keeping him under a kind of house arrest in the interim.

Ahmed's movements have been confined, for almost six months, to a small area around his flat, which takes him just 20 minutes to walk through. He is not allowed to use the internet or a mobile telephone, between 4pm and 10am he must stay in his flat and, while there, he isn't allowed to receive visitors unless they've been vetted by the Home Office. "I am a dog on a lead," he says. "I am not really a human being."

. . . He was acquitted, and says of the jury: "My gratitude and thanks went to the British people." He got a job in an internet shop and started to build his life up again.

Then, in September 2005, the door of his flat was smashed down by police and he was arrested again, not on a criminal charge but because the government wanted to deport him for being a threat to national security. For five months, he was detained, but now, while his case is being considered by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, he is living under these strict bail conditions.

Ahmed is not allowed to work and has no social life. "People now are so scared of me," he says. "I am just watching television, reading the papers, sleeping, going mad bit by bit . . ."

. . . The government says Ahmed must be deported because there is evidence against him that could not be brought out in open trial. Without being able to see the evidence, Ahmed can only counter it with denial . . .

He says he was not politically active after leaving Algeria and is not very religious, and he talks positively about living in an open society. Of course, this may be a front designed to disguise terrorist sympathies, but until the British government produces some evidence against him, it is very hard to judge.

Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, met Tony Blair at No 10 on Tuesday to set his stamp on a deportation agreement between his country and the UK so that Ahmed and others in his position can be sent back. Yet this spring Amnesty International published a report showing that Bouteflika has failed to stamp out torture and secret detention by military police.

"The government here agrees that if I am sent back I will be arrested," says Ahmed. "And then I know I will be tortured, if not straight away, then after a while. They might let me go, but then take me back to prison, or kill me."
The entire piece by Natasha Walter can be read here.

Journalists and news organizations poorly served in the reporting on the trial of the alleged "London ricin ring." And they largely continue to ignore the tragic human consquences of it.

As a result, you can still read assertions with no relationship to the trial and no apparent basis in truth, in the American newsmedia. For example, this excerpt, from the Los Angeles Times on June 10th, filed after the killing of al Zarqawi, in which reporters repeat pre-Iraq war hearsay on the London defendants, connecting them to the notorious terrorist:

"Zarqawi's lieutenants allegedly trained and dispatched Algerians who were arrested in 2002 and 2003 on suspicion of plotting chemical and biological attacks in France and Britain, where one of the suspects stabbed a police detective to death."

A slightly fractious entry on the London ricin case can be found on Wikipedia here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

IMPROVISED CYANIDE MUNITION (continued): Jihadist drawing - complete with error

Continuing the interest, perhaps misplaced, in Ron Suskind's story of the Mubtakkar -- the improvised cyanide-making munition that was the terror equivalent of "splitting the atom" -- another terror-hunter has furnished a diagram.

Can you spot the mistake? A certified NoPrize if you do.
The diagram to the left, was spotted here in a discussion that likens it to Suskind's book and story for TIME magazine. As published there, and in another article on the site from February of this year, it contains an error. While the error isn't apparent to people not familiar with basic chemistry, it's glaring to those who are.

But before Dick Destiny blog gets to it, we'll discuss the basic thrust, and give you some time to spot the mistake before giving the game away.

This diagram is not like Suskind's much-publicized Mubtakkar. The Pulitzer-winner did not know the basic science involved and so described its design very poorly. But he did define it as a two-compound munition, even blutzing that bit on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, saying one of its reagents was "sodium chloride" -- simple table salt. However, the diagram at left is virtually identical to the photograph of the Department of Homeland Security prototype -- a three compound design -- distributed nationwide in cyberspace and discussed in "Improvised Cyanide Munition." (We've included the photo again at the foot of this entry.)

This raises the legitimate question: Which came first? And this is a very important question.

In other words, is the "jihadist" diagram from 2006 inspired, and this calls for repeating -- is it inspired -- from the photograph and description of a Department of Homeland Security-made prototype in 2003, or is it an original? It's a good question because this blog has shown repeatedly how jihadists are imitative and inspired to take their cues in biological and chemical warfare recipes, whether accurate or nonsensical, from US literature and news.

In manner of comparison, the US-government made cyanide-bomb prototype, as a photo and accompanying explanation, is superior to the simpler jihadist diagram of what is exactly the same weapon. The DHS-prototype used four Coke bottles bound together with tape. So does the jihadist diagram. The US-made prototype uses the hydrochloric acid in the bottles, packed into a canister filled with a mixture of the cyanide salt and potassium permanganate. So does the jihadist diagram.

In any case, on to the ERROR in the jihadist diagram. Look at the translation: "A metal cylinder containing 4 Coca Cola bottles (each filled with 250 mg of hydrochloric acid . . . " the 'mg' is scientific shorthand for milligrams and it's the mistake. Why precisely this is a laugher is left to the reader, but suffice it to say, it has to do with amounts needed to sustain a noticeable strong acid/cyanide salt reaction.

Of course, it would be interesting to know where the error originated -- from the translator of the diagram, or its jihadist creator? If the former, the translator/proofreader/explainer/analyst is operating from a knowledge deficit. If the latter, it shows some of the same ineptitude displayed by jihadist authors of chemical and biological weapons recipes discussed previously.

One could also reason that if it's the latter, the mistake of the jihadist, it argues for the improvised cyanide munition's origin again as a western, or more precisely -- an American design, since someone who actually knew something about chemistry -- like the someone who put together the prototype of the cyanide-bomb (pictured below) for the US government -- would have been less likely to have made the blooper.

In any case, the munition as pictured has all the same drawbacks as the Department of Homeland Security's munition. It's a bomb in which the canister would likely burst and scatter its chemicals, or consume amounts of the desired product -- hydrogen cyanide, if much was produced at all.

"What you would get, in all probability, is a big bang, a big splash, but very little gas," said arms control expert Milton Leitenberg of Suskind's original Mubtakkar, in this debunking story, published by United Press International, here.

The design, as prototyped by the Department of Homeland Security, would be somewhat more explosive and less efficient, because of competition between chemicals, than whatever was described by reporter Ron Suskind. As pictured, it contains potassium permanganate, hydrochloric acid and a cyanide salt. And the permanganate would react violently with hydrochloric acid, producing some chlorine gas. Since the hydrochloric acid is also necessary for the generation of hydrogen cyanide during reaction with the cyanide salt, one can deduce that a competition between reagents must occur within the weapon, reducing its efficiency in producing hydrogen cyanide, which is presumably the desired payload.

The DHS-authored bulletin does not mention potassium permanganate specifically, but does contain a reference to dark crystals. It shows one jar filled with them, and mentions the device would possibly produce chlorine. And therefore it can be inferred that the author of the US government bulletin, while not wishing to name all the reagents in its prototyped cyanide bomb, had made it apparent to observers, anyway.

In any case, none of these designs are the terror equivalent of the "splitting of the atom" as claimed by Suskind. In any case, no such devices have as yet been recovered.

The astute reader may ask the question: Why all this folderol? If the jihadists are suicide attackers, why do they simply not manually and more efficiently try mixing hydrochloric acid from a couple Coke bottles and a jar of potassium or sodium cyanide? The answer may or may not be plain. If you're going that far, it's simpler to use a regular improvised bomb, like the kind blowing up each day in Iraq.

Update: Who designed the cyanide bomb, an answer
TIP OF THE SPEAR: But we let them eat submarine sandwiches!

"Much of the international community views the Guantanamo Detention Center as a place of shame and routine violation of human rights. This view is not correct. However, there will be no possibility of correcting that view."

"There is now no possible political support for Guantanamo going forward" -- US Army Gen. (Ret.)Barry McAffrey, republished from the FAS Secrecy blog.

But maybe if we just gave them fresh lunchmeat that idea could perhaps be turned around, someone indicated on CNN yesterday. Who couldn't like Subway?

Senator Dick Durbin (D - Ill), attesting to the professionalism of the US army men in handling a detainee. Big smile: "They handed him a Subway sandwich. He lit up and started talking."

Monday, July 10, 2006

RICHARD FALKENRATH: A telegenic anti-terror man

"Richard A. Falkenrath lectured on terrorism at Harvard. He was co-author of a book about the potential horrors of a covert attack . . . [he] helped create the Department of Homeland Security . . . found and eliminated a weak spot in the nation's visa system that Al Qaeda could have exploited . . . And he did it all before his 35th birthday."

So spake an article on the man of considerable note, Richard Falkenrath, the New York City police department's new deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, in the B section of the New York Times on July 5th.

Next -- for the media, cue the heartwarming salt-of-the-downtrodden background. Richard Falkenrath's family "cooked over a wood stove" and he lived in a "converted bread truck" as a boy. To repeat the meme, one Falkenrath apparently likes to convey to newsmen, "he grew up on food stamps and slept in a rusting, abandoned bread truck buried in the woods until his mother graduated law school." (New York Daily News, June 28th.)

But with the fluff and puff out of the way, The New York Times, in a front page Sunday story in June, on potential and actual conflicts-of- interest between former government national security officials and their consultancies and connections with the private security industry: "Richard A. Falkenrath, the former White House deputy homeland security adviser . . . has a second job as a managing director at Civitas Group, which advises corporations and investors on the domestic security market. "

It was not an article anyone would want to appear in. So naturally, everyone named by the Times denied they were in any conflicts of interest for it.

But that is not Falkenrath's only corporate linkage. For a public offical, Richard Falkenrath is also an advisory board member of PacketHop, a company that is pushing its wireless communications software solutions to the government, states and cities as a tool in response to terrorist attack.

Falkenrath, while shilling in a PacketHop press release from December 2005, said:

"Situations requiring incident communications -- terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other emergencies -- can occur anywhere, regardless of the presence of communications infrastructure . . . PacketHop's highly secure, rapidly deployable and interoperable solutions provide public safety agencies with true mobility and on-demand multimedia communications to effectively and immediately respond wherever incidents arise."
Falkenrath was joined on the PacketHop board by Stewart Verdery in May. Verdery, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security, was named in the New York Times' investigation into conflict of interest between the private security industry and U.S. natsec government officials, just like Richard Falkenrath.

But Richard Falkenrath's most visible recent contributions to national security has been in his role as a blurbmeister on anything having to do with terrorism. No matter how ridiculous, Richard Falkenrath has been CNN's man. Dubbed telegenic by the media, last month he was contributing sage commentary to the breaking news story of torrential rainfall in the east.

CNN Correspondent Richard Todd questioned Richard Falkenrath on that ephemeral connection, one that perhaps escaped you, between flooding caused by weather -- and terrorism: "Nearly a foot of rain in some places -- flash floods, motorists stranded, traffic lights out. At least five U.S. government facilities closed. What if this weather barrage had been a terrorist attack?"

Responding to the idiotic weather-barrage-as-terrorist-attack idea, Richard Falkenrath declined to remain silent. He said: "If this had been a life-threatening incident for lots of people, I think we would have pandemonium on the streets."

"Officials at the D.C. Emergency Management Agency say they can't help it if roads flood and lights malfunction in bad weather," added Todd, obviously. But CNN continued to worry the story, like a dog with its favorite chewtoy, steering it back into terrorism through the wisdom of Richard Falkenrath:

"If the people stuck in those traffic jams felt that they were at risk themselves or their families were at risk somewhere else, I think you'd have a lot of very problematic behavior by individual commuters."

But if Richard Falkenrath is an expert on flooding, rain and terrorism, you would pretty much expect him to be an expert on everything, wouldn't you?

Richard Falkenrath's wisdom, his scintillating observations as CNN Security Analyst, was on display again when the network needed a talking head to furnish color when the network discussed "Homegrown Terrorism On the Rise?" on June 6. The subject: alleged terrorists in Toronto, arrested before they'd done anything.

"Is there a new generation of terrorists growing up very close to us?" asked the CNN announcer.

"Yes, there is," revealed Falkenrath.

"Does Canada have a serious problem here?"

"Yes, there is," Falkenrath said again.

The Richard Falkenrath machine added bits of color piffle throughout the piece -- contributions anyone who diligently reads a daily newspaper could provide. Be it known, according to the Falkenrath: We look north to Canada for its export of terrorism; we look south to Mexico for its export of illegals.

For the broadcast, "nightmares" was Richard Falkenrath's word of the day. He used it twice. First, in describing theoretical homegrown terror: "This is one of our biggest nightmares."

And again, further in, " . . . building a large truck bomb, absolutely. That's one of our biggest nightmares."

When asked if those arrested in Canada -- who expressed the desire to attack within Canada -- "posed any threat in the United States," Richard Falkenrath again flashed his talent: "That's right. It is a very porous border."

But perhaps no one expects much from 24/7 news shows, where the objective of the talking expert is to be the candy-coated jimmy on top of the cupcake of terrorism infotainment reporting. As a candy-coated jimmy, Richard Falkenrath was fine at CNN.

For example, Richard Falkenrath, interpreting the meaning of the horrible al Zarqawi and his jammed gun video on May 4: "I mean, Arabs traditionally like strong men, men who really are strong leaders, fighters. That's how he's tried to portray himself in the past. This video shows him as a bit of a bumbler."

Most people -- not just "Arabs traditionally" -- like images of strong men. So as we used to say in high school: No shit, Sherlock.

But Richard Falkenrath was the designated explainer. He had a good track record in this, his presence peppered through the newsmedia, always addressing the most dangerous of terrorist threats.

"A flu pandemic is the most dangerous threat the United States faces today," said Falkenrath to Newsweek International's Farid Zakaria in October of 2005. "It's a bigger threat than terrorism."

But is Falkenrath trained in virology or infectious disease -- or does he even have a Ph.D. in a related discipline? Of course not.

But not only is Richard Falkenrath an expert on flu, he is also one on terror attack by germ. In August of 2005, for USA Today, in "Nation unready for germ attacks," again with a Falkenrath bon mot: "Not a single city in America is prepared."

Insurance is also key in the world of Falkenrath.

"In general, insurance has a 'very important role to play in homeland security,' said Richard Falkenrath, special assistant to President Bush and senior director for policy in the White House Office of Homeland Security." (Business Insurance, 2003, covering Falkenrath and the American Insurance Association's discussion of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002.) While the federal government will do all it can to reduce the possibility of terrorist attacks, property owners should also do everything within their powers to reduce their vulnerability to attacks," wrote the publication. And Falkenrath said to the insurance association, "You can help us get this right" because terrorists have taken advantage of the progress made in various scientific fields to enhance their capabilities.
As for the state of Ohio, in case you were wondering, it's doing a good security job, said Falkenrath in 2002.

"Richard Falkenrath, a senior director for the federal Office of Homeland Security, said he was impressed with the way Ohio has responded since Sept. 11," reported the Zanesville (Ohio) Time Recorder. "He specifically noted state efforts to list potentially vulnerable targets and secure driver's licenses."

At one point, Richard Falkenrath even appeared in the insignificant press, an Omaha newspaper, where no one was likely to read his comment.

And what was his message?

It was that labor unions fighting to improve collective bargaining within the federal government were a special interest. "A time of war is the wrong time to roll back presidential powers," he said.

Practically speaking, such articles are inane. And it is difficult to tell who is the contributor of the greatest amount of inanity -- the news agency generating them or Richard Falkenrath, who furnished quotes or information to fit any demand.

But if we look at something Richard Falkenrath has written that was intended to be substantial, he still comes up short. In this regard, we can reference the statement he furnished to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on April 27 of last year.

The hearing, entitled "Chemical Attack on America: How Vulnerable Are We?" was chaired by Senators Susan M. Collins and Joseph Lieberman. Of the six witnesses called, of which Richard Falkenrath was one, only two had Ph.Ds, and none had any training in hard chemistry.

Think of that for a moment. Savor the stupidity and ballsy brass of it. A hearing on chemical attack on America, made through terrorist assault on chemical shipping and manufacturing, and not one of the witnesses is a chemist.

Joining Richard Falkenrath in the hearing was Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard man -- with no training in science, who -- coincidentally was also named in the New York Times' Sunday front page story on conflicts of interest between government natsec officials and private industry. Like Richard Falkenrath.

But back to Richard Falkenrath's testimony. For the committee, his statement runs through his affiliations: Brookings Institution fellow, senior director of Civitas group (as noted by the New York Times), security analyst for CNN, and one connection not previously mentioned, member of the business advisory board of Arxan Technologies. Falkenrath did not describe Arxan but it is a security company making software to protect other software from tampering, a product which it likes or would like to sell to government or the military. It has nothing to do with chemistry.

For the committee, Richard Falkenrath wrote "Knowledgeable private citizens should discuss this information [on chemical vulnerabilities] in public only when the government manifestly fails to address a pressing danger -- and even then should do so with great care. I regret that I have come to the conclusion that, in my current capacity as a private citizen, a blunt public discussion of my analysis of this issue is a better course of action than silence."

We'll interpret: "Knowledgeable private citizen" means Richard Falkenrath, someone without a Ph.D. in one of the hard sciences, like chemistry, but someone with a doctorate in "war studies."

"My only interest [in this subject] is the security of the US homeland," wrote Falkenrath. "I have no present or prior association with the environmental movement that has for years sought tighter regulation of the chemical industry, or with the industry that would be affected by such tighter regulation."

Now, if you're expecting something eye-opening, something packed with wisdom and observations only an expert could provide, you'll be dismayed by the dull reality. So you can either read the rest of this hostile blog entry for the nut of the matter, or skip right to Falkenrath's official wind.

You've already read how Richard Falkenrath has many nightmares. No city is prepared for a terrorist's germ attacks. A flu pandemic is the most dangerous threat. Yadda-yadda.

But for the Senate hearing, "Of all the various remaining civilian vulnerabilities in America today, one stands alone as uniquely deadly, pervasive and susceptible to terrorist attack: toxic-inhalation-hazard (TIH) industrial chemicals . . . The IDLs (immediately dangerous to life standard) for the two most common industrial chemicals, ammonia and chlorine, is 500 and 10 parts per million, effectively."

Then Richard Falkenrath makes the first of a couple grand claims: "A cleverly designed terrorist attack against a [jargon deleted] chemical target would be no more difficult to pepetrate than the simultaneous suicide hijacking aircraft by 19 terrorists . . ."

"Without going into details . . . " continues Falkenrath, at which point the bogus meter is pegged.

Readers of this blog and National Security Notes from GlobalSecurity.Org, or most any reasonable security assessment on theoretical biological or chemical attack, know implicitly that when the details are hidden, because something is said to be too dangerous to know (or with the suggestion that one must just take an expert's word for an assertion), then a sham is in the offing.

Stated Richard Falkenrath: " . . . the loss of life could easily equal that which occured on September 11, 2001 -- and might even exceed it by an order of magnitude or more . . . even the most conservative estimates of the Department of Homeland Security concede that there is at least one [jargon deleted] chemical facility which, if successfully attacked, could result in more than one million deaths."

And what is this chemical facility or the chemical involved? Of course, Richard Falkenrath does not say. Presumably, the man who professes a desire to bring his discussion on chemical vulnerability to the Senate because there is no other way to get the word out -- the man with no training in chemistry or the chemical industry -- won't say. Too dangerous to do so.

"In short," writes Falkenrath, "the casualty potential of a terrorist attack against a large [jargon deleted] container [holding a toxic chemical which dissipates as gas or a liquid/gas mixture] near a population center is comparable to that of a fully successful terrorist employment of an improvised nuclear device . . . "

We have no idea how Richard Falkenrath knows this. But while Dick Destiny blog is trained in chemistry, and probably can speak about hazards and vulnerabilities in chemical storage, it would hesitate before making the unbacked-up claims Richard Falkenrath delivered. So we're 99 percent sure he didn't and doesn't know. In other words -- he made it up, he winged it.

This should come as no surprise.

One looks for discussions of actual casualties resulting in chemical releases and there is not one -- let's repeat, not one -- in Richard Falkenrath's written statement to the Senate in April 2005.
It would be logical to discuss, perhaps, the apocalyptic incident at Bhopal. It would be logical to discuss how determined employment of poison gasses as weapons in World War I did result in significant casualties, but never the Biblical figure suggested by Richard Falkenrath -- one million. Rchard Falkenrath's written statement contains none of this. He does mention World War I poison gases, but only in a trivial way.

One might look for a discussion of what casualties have resulted from the accidental release of industrial-size masses of chlorine and ammonia, Richard Falkenrath's terrorist poisons of choice, in the United States in recent history.

Nine dead, 500+ injured, over 5,000 evacuated, after 60 tons of chlorine were released from a punctured 90-ton railroad car in Graniteville, SC, on January 6, 2005 [Richard Falkenrath's testimony was on April 27 of the same year.] Three dead in a chlorine release after a rail collision in Macdona, Texas, in 2004. And another accident-caused railcar mass release -- about 150,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, forming a plume five miles long, resulting in one death, eleven serious injuries and over three hundred less serious injuries.

No such discussion is found in Richard Falkenrath's testimony.

Only claims and a stated desire to obfuscate discussion that's too sensitive for reasons of national security. One might simply look here, for example, for a much more enlightening discussion, by someone who came prepared with hard information, on chemical releases from tank cars towed by trains.

As for Falkenrath's security recommendations, some are dillies: fingerprint-based access control for all chemical-shipping, empty decoy containers, rigorous background checks on all employees, and, our favorite, "inapparent placarding." The latter, of course, is the exact opposite of the good practice for public safety which thinks it's an excellent idea to auspiciously code hazardous material containers with symbol-emblazoned signage so that people near to them have a vague idea of what's in them in case of deterioration in physical integrity, a spill or a leak. The Falkenrath way makes sense only if you believe a terrorist attack is more likely than an accident caused by fate or human error.

Good luck with Richard Falkenrath, New York City.

Pass it forward: If you hated this article, you surely won't like Ultimatum: in which New York's destruction by improvised nuclear device is gamed on this blog.

More appropriately supercilious treatment of Richard Falkenrath: Earlier this year, the Falkenrath government machine contributed an opinion piece to the Washington Post on the goodness of the NSA phone surveillance and the new director of central intelligence. Of it, one blogger -- Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying -- wrote:

Mr. Falkenrath’s deeply flawed opinion piece should cause all citizens alarm. This opinion piece is a window into the thinking of some our top officials in Government entrusted with protecting us. The level of ignorance and incompetence demonstrated by Mr. Falkenrath may unfortunately be commonplace amongst the political appointees within this Administration. For exposing this level of incompetence, we all owe Mr. Falkenrath an enormous debt of gratitude.
We recommend you read the entirety of it here.

Friday, July 07, 2006

JESUSLAND FOR SMALLPOX VACCINATIONS: Homeland security-studying doc hopes everyone gets their shots next time, not just red-staters

In the war on bioterror, political extremism is no vice. Because that's true, much unusual material comes across Dick Destiny blog's desk as Senior Fellow for GlobalSecurity.

Today's story is about smallpox immunization and greater levels of awareness of it as a catastrophic bioterror threat in Jesusland.

F. Matthew Mihelic, MD, Assistant Professor at the Center for Homeland Security Studies, Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Tennessee, writes in a new paper, Smallpox Biodefense: A Multifactoral Analysis: "There is an interesting correlation between acceptance of smallpox immunization by medical workers in 2003 and the state-by-state outcome of the 2004 Presidential election."
Jesusland land for bioterror vaccination?
And his correlation, although not bluntly stated is: In Jesusland, or "red" states, healthcare workers recognized the gravity of the smallpox threat more greatly than in blue states.

The smallpox vaccination program, instituted by government out of fear (or concern) over bioterror was generally regarded as a failure in 2003. It flopped -- trepidation over side-effects and skepticism being two reasons -- with the only people assuredly taking it being those made to, as in military men and women.

Naughty blue state non-compliers in vaccination
"While the reason that medical workers declined vaccination . . . are many, political factors may have contributed," Mihelic writes. To illustrate this, his paper includes color-shaded maps showing levels of vaccination along with a red state/blue-state map of the 2004 election.

The figure here, A BioDefense Failure, from the House Select Committee on Homeland Security should be read thusly: The darker states had the lowest rates of smallpox volunteerism, the lighter-shaded states, the highest. [The astute reader will notice the shading scale chosen by this congressional committee is somewhat confusing, needlessly complicating interpretation of the map.] And Mihelic's read on this is interesting -- that medical workers in Jesusland were more diligent in attending to their government's bioterror concern.

There were some exceptions to the trend. Nevada and Arizona were apparently very naughty "red" states, with levels of non-compliance higher than those in the United States of Canada's California and New York. And red Colorado and Georgia were every bit as naughty as California, Maine and Washington. But the US of Canada counties New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut tried to do their smallpox duty, at least as much as Texas of Jesusland.

Immunization is important, argues Mihelic, because fewer casualties in a smallpox attack will result with "preemptive vaccination" prior to an attack, rather than immunization during an outbreak. The current US strategy, called "ring vaccination," is "bound to fail," he writes.

To preclude smallpox immunization from degenerating again into a Jesusland vs. United States of Canada polarization, "If the decision were made to vaccinate the population in advance of a smallpox outbreak, it would be best announced jointly, with all state governors, in conjunction with bipartisan legislative leadership support, and it should be timed to avoid election-cycle concerns," recommends Mihelic. A good time for this would be before the 2007 election, since the current administration can't run for re-election, he summarizes.

Read the original article in its entirety, published in the recent Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, here.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

THE JAILBIRD BOOKSHELF: Survivalist poison books good for convictions

"It is bad to poison your fellow man . . . " writes Kurt Saxon, on the back of his "The Poor Man's James Bond, Vol. 3." He closes with "It is completely legal to sell or buy [the information in this book]. If it were not so, I would have told you."

Technically, Saxon is correct. The ricin recipe in his book can be shared with everyone. And it has been courtesy of the Internet. But it's also true that if federal lawmen catch you with Saxon's books, or similar literature from the survivalist far right, the books become convincing exhibits in the case against you, particularly when accompanied by actual possession of the materials recommended in them.

"A federal jury [in Phoenix] on Friday convicted a man of attempting to produce a biological weapon, a year after he was arrested for possessing explosives and illegal silencers, reported Associated Press.

"Police found a large number of castor bean plants, which can be used to make ricin, in Denys Ray Hughes' apartment . . . Hughes, 59, also was found guilty on charges of possessing a pipe bomb and illegal gun silencers. He faces 10 years in prison for each of those convictions and life in prison on the biological weapons conviction."

"Authorities said they searched Hughes' cabin in Wisconsin and found formulas for producing ricin, six bottles of castor beans and dimethyl sulfide [sic], a solvent that can penetrate the skin and has been combined with ricin in other incidents."

The evidence list from US vs. Hughes is illuminating in that it shows the standard books discussed previously in "From the Poisoners Handbook to the Botox Shoe of Death" here.

From Hughes' "library:" "The Weaponeer," a Saxon pamphlet with a ricin recipe, "The Poor Man's James Bond, Vol. 3", also containing a ricin recipe, "The Poor Man's James Bond, Vol.2," Festering Publication's "Silent Death," containing yet another ricin recipe, "Deadly Brew," "Deadly Substances," and an assortment of what Dick Destiny blog calls really bad science books -- cf., "Grandad's Wonderful Book of Chemistry" -- for idiots or young boys.

Accompanying the books in evidence were a mortar and pestle, bottles of castor seeds, castor beans in a package, castor beans in a bin, and Red Devil lye -- which is another reagent dumbly recommended by survivalist literature as useful in purifying ricin. Lye, or sodium hydroxide, is a strong base. Strong bases destroy proteins, like ricin, but for decades the literature of the domestic terrorist has cited it in their ricin recipes and it has become a marker of intent in federal cases where the US is going for a conviction on making or attempting to make a biological or chemical weapon.

Another incriminating marker is dimethyl sulfoxide, also attributed in the Hughes case. Ricin is not a contact poison but because the domestic terrorist-in-training takes seriously material like Hutchkinson's "The Poisoner's Handbook," which insists it would be handy to combine dimethyl sulfoxide with ricin in plans to poison the Pope or a government employee through the skin, it has been adopted as key part of their chemical armory.

The federal case against Hughes appeared to be an easy one, based simply on showing the jury the man's books, chemicals, equipment for bomb-making -- and one pipe bomb.

The stupidly equipped survivalist's ricin squirter
For example, it cannot help a defendant to have the jury shown any of Saxon's books. They tend to include drawings, like Dick Destiny blog's similar rendition (to the left), on how to attack someone with poison or explosives.

To review: The survivalist jailbird's bookshelf is best interpreted as romance literature for the neo-Nazi right. These books, when they address poisons, don't contain much of anything that an expert could take seriously about the chemistry of toxins. But for the uneducated, or the layman, they have a convincing sinister and mean-spirited vibe. It is for this reason that they appeal to the survivalist nut, too.

" . . . if our Capitol should fall to the enemy within, I expect you to do your duty," asserts Saxon on the bookcover of "James Bond, 3." And that duty was to destroy foes with speed and great vigor.

Freedom of the press is a great thing. But in cases such as this, the US government also has the freedom to use the vanity press of survivalist literature on your bookshelf against you. American juries don't seem to care much about the possession of such books for entertainment and educational purposes.

A copy of the original complaint against Hughes from last year describes ATF/FBI flypaper --gunpowder, fuses, road flares, instructions on how to build a bunker, an assortment of guns, silencers and pipe-bomb-building materials.

An unspecified “clandestine manufacturing process was discovered” in Hughes' Wisconsin cabin although authorities maintained all along there was no evidence for any specific attack.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Misattribution is the insincerest form of flattery.

Paging through the Internet for Wolfmother press, Dick Destiny blog ran across an item in the Charlotte, NC, Independent Weekly citing one of its coinages: Hard rock for people who don't like hard rock.

In an article on new heavy metal bands, "Hammer of the minor deities" from June 7, it is said:

"The rock critics and music fanatics over at online discussion forum and cyber circle jerk I Love Music--frequented by folks like former Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy and All Music Guide's Ned Raggett-- have a term for groups like Wolfmother, unthreatening metal acts that receive a bunch of bandwagon attention: "Hard Rock For People Who Don't Like Hard Rock."
Robbie Mackey, the writer of the piece, is an I Love Music (ILM) user whose Google Fu is in need of exercise.

The ILM chatboard is known for many things -- many good and some bad. But it's not the owner of "Hard Rock for People Who Don't Like Hard Rock." The phrase is an insult. I know because I coined it in the Village Voice when Chuck Eddy, a music journo hero of mine, was editor in March of 2005. It came in a review of the Chris Stamey Experience's "A Question of Temperature":

"Set the Chris Stamey Experience down as sluts taking the spoils of opportunity for "Shapes of Things" and "Politician." On A Question of Temperature, Stamey commits the sin of hard rock for people who don't like hard rock: not heavy when and where it must be, so even power drunks will not mistake it for Nazareth or West, Bruce & Laing, thems that own the books on the copies."
In November of that year, I used it again for cash money, in still another review in the Voice, one covering Brooklyn metal acts Heather and Early Man:

"In another philosophically odd place are Brooklyn's Early Man. Being advertised as a classic heavy metal band—on Matador — arouses suspicions of the hard-rock-for-people-who-don't-like-hard-rock trick: metal for snobs, sophisticates, and lovers of new age sound tapestries. Not the same as a humiliating and coarse love of Def Leppard. But, lo, Early Man aren't jokers unless they're great shammers. In sound if not category, they're a second- or third-tier New Wave of British Heavy Metal group, imitating bigger-selling betters. In 1984, the duo would have been Cloven Hoof or Witchfinder General. "Death Is the Answer" mimics Sabbath, with grinding brio and excellence, an eerie reverse effect on the vocal lending more vintage
Under a variety of counterspam aliases, I'd used hard-rock-for-etc and variations on it, off and on in the discussion forums for heavy metal at ILM through 2005 up until recently. And in the review, Early Man was not hard rock for people who don't like hard rock. For the Independent Week, it was the opposite. Early Man was to be avoided, a pretender.

And that's OK! It's neat to have something you've developed be the basis for someone else's less inspired reasoning.

What the Independent Week article didn't get about the hard rock for people who don't like hard rock catch-all insult is that it applies more to the class differences between the current crop of mainstream music writers and the audience for classic rock in the United States.

The nature of it has been discussed numerous times: In P. T. Barnum Metal in relationship to the risible heavy metal for smart people meme, in a dissection of big newspaper hype on Wolfmother and most particularly in matters of bad taste.

From the latter, "[it] has a bit to do with social class, too. For example, at newspapers -- editors and reporters frequently identify with those who share the cut of their jib, the upper middle class and those aspiring to it. So those knocking [classic hard rock] out in the roadhouses are out of luck. Ditto for those drawing good crowds at the county fair or ag festival.

"The music writers didn't like covering them at the newspaper in the late Eighties and they like it much less now. There's no going back."

What this means is that music journalists, by class and by taste, are largely oblivious to the large number of successful, semi-successful and barely making it hard rock acts which release CDs every year. While universal outlets like CD Baby are stuffed with their often very good homemade records, unless a reporter is forced to cover the stuff because of local interests, they are invisible.

The hard rock for people who don't like hard rock band, on the other hand, is the one that almost always comes attached to a good p.r. campaign, usually successfully driven by lashing it to independent/alternative taste. As another way of description, it is pitched to journalists as something better and smarter than classic rock, although always linked to it in a tenuous way.

As a writer I've always been mystified and bemused by the practice. At the Morning Call newspaper in the Eighties, only two journalists other than myself liked hard rock or heavy metal. They were sports writers and only reviewed records for the features section when they had time.

But, practically speaking, the newspaper did not like the subject and would not have allowed space for it had the editors not been entirely driven in their craze for local arts coverage. Since hard rock and heavy metal bands were the only reliable draws in the Lehigh Valley -- from the dives to the arenas -- the subject had to be addressed in furtherance of its journalistic mission. And even though it was covered, it was always a source of aggravation to them, inspiring numerous snarling asides in editorial meetings on the nature of the bands and the fans.

"I'm sick of seeing pictures of angry faces and tattoos!" was one memorable outburst from an assistant managing editor.

So hard rock for people who don't like hard rock didn't exist at the newspaper. The powers in command didn't like any hard rock. And they had no inkling of what a readership wanted. They just knew they wanted coverage of whatever was local, even if they hated it. There was no picking through the genre for oddball or musically marginal acts with value added, as it could be determined, through a sophisticated promotional campaign or delivery of art as musical chicken soupvitamins for the upper middle class reader's soul.

Going to Flagstaff Resort in burned out Jim Thorpe to see a large almost exclusively male audience of topers indulging in mass urination over the balcony as Robin Trower played "Bridge of Sighs" was normal reporting. But a stagey phonus-balonus art noise band like Sunn0))), while it would have been covered, would never have been painted as something for the intellectual gourmand reading the New York Times magazine on a Sunday afternoon.

Google Fu: Hard rock for people who don't like hard rock.

Monday, July 03, 2006


Today's entertainment news amusement concerns the idolatry for Aron "The Claw" Ralston. Dick Destiny blog didn't know his name, and it wagers others do not either, but it does remember him as the hiker who went into a canyon, had his hand trapped under a boulder, and a few days later cut off his forarm with a Swiss Army knife or Gerber multi-tool or something.

Of this it can be certain, he was stupid but gutsy. He didn't tell anyone where we was going and when he would be back, a simple enough way to have avoid cutting his arm off when he got into trouble.

Anyway, the Los Angeles Times Calendar section informs Ralston is a semi-celebrity, a pitchman for beer as well as a corporate motivational speaker. One can imagine the hilarity of a Ralston-led inspirational seminar for corporate crooks.

Ralston: "Remember, if you're really in trouble because of shitty decisions, you have the steel within you to cut off your arm and completely distract everyone from your lack of management skill or ethical lapses! I did it! You can too!"

[Crowd of dumb white men in suits, who look all alike, erupts!]

However, maybe it's not that motivating. Ralston could say something like this: "I'm convinced that being able to cut off my arm with a pen knife was a miracle and that it was given to me to share with other people!"

From the crowd: "What, your amputated forarm? You brought it along?"

Come to think of it, Ralston did almost say that. It was in the newspaper but I juiced it a little.

Ralston is also known to friends as Captain Fun Hog for his risk-taking and after making the rounds of the newsmedia with his nub healed over, he wrote a book proposal. The title was not "Buy This Book Or I'll Cut Off My Other Arm" but the less insouciant, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." The Times informed The Claw received a six-figure advance and it is now a bestseller.

The Claw also is a pitchman for Miller beer. "The guy cut off his own arm to save his life," said a fugelman from Miller. "He knows how men need to act." Now, Dick Destiny has always enjoyed Miller but no matter how much consumed has never been inspired to cut off a forarm with a pen knife. On the other hand, "Enough Miller and you won't mind amputation" has an unusual zip to it. (Or, "Miller -- your select choice before lifesaving self-surgery.")

The Los Angeles Times reported that Ralston would never again repeat his hiking mistake. One reckons this is a sincere claim, as it would be tough to cut off the other forarm with only the old stump available to hold a cutting tool. It can be conceded that there is always the wild animal caught in a steel trap procedure: Gnaw it off. That would be good for another book.

It is said, Ralston has spoken to disabled veterans: "If your arm is trapped under the twisted wreckage of the Hummer. . . Oh wait, that's not quite the same. Forget I said it."

Sunday, July 02, 2006

NO SALE: The music of war, as told by the Los Angeles Times

Today's Sunday surprise in the Los Angeles Times was a big -- as in really BIG -- feature on the pop music of war. Since it's the big Sunday newspaper, one realizes off the bat there won't be a discernible sense of humor to it. Instead, you get the point-of-view as written by someone who should be a college professor (Francis Fukuyama or Greil Marcus, whoever comes first) but with a bigger platform, one they're willing to use to club you over the head with sagacity and sincerity.

The writer is Ann Powers and one can see her brow furrowed over the lines ". . . sociologists to bloggers [are] weighing in on what constitutes effective agitprop. The argument's been brewing since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 . . . The disappointment felt by rockers who'd registered Democrat at President Bush's reelection; and their growing diquietude ... led some into retreat and others ... into politically confrontational projects ... "

Jesus wept.

Other wonderful bon mots: "folk music has always been topical," ". . . artists are weighing in everywhere," ". . . it's closer to what happened in response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980's, a similarly long and confusing struggle," the declarative "It's arguable that hip-hop owns protest now" "but really, identifying protest music with one genre would be a mistake" and the lacerating "For many artists today the war on terror and its ripple effects are becoming the new status quo."

Actually, Dick Destiny blog has a rule of thumb to apply to "the music of war." If it's by celebrities or semi-celebrities, it's immediately noteworthy. If it's by everyone else, it's not.

So this means a script-sensing machine can be turned on the Times article, detecting the artists, by default: Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West ("George Bush hates black people"), Kanye West by way of The Legendary K.O. ("George Bush Hates Black People") the Rolling Stones ("Sweet Neo Con") , Pearl Jam ("World Wide Suicide"), Green Day ("American Idiot"), zzzzz.

And that's the essence of it. Not bad for four paragaphs.

But there's no humor to "the music of war." It's just so serious business.

Not so serious business, however, was the Angry Samoans' "Fuck the War" EP. The Samoans are a California punk rock act led by Metal Mike Saunders. And it enjoys a serious and dedicated following of young people in the state.

So just before the last election, the idea was spawned to release a record with the "single," "Election Day," on it -- an evergreen punk rock song which could be broadly applied to the American dilemma. Dick Destiny was asked to master it in time for shipping to radio and a concert at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. Two versions of "Election Day" would be provided, one with the original lyrics intact and one with the word "f-----g" bleeped out of it so as to get past air censorship. And it had to be done fast-fast-fast.

Fair enough. Just do it. Hand it over. A couple hundred copies were made up and put in boxes for sale at the merch table of the Hollywood show. The night of the show, members of the Angry Samoans got in an unforseen fight over the credits on it. Alles kaput, there would be no sale of "Election Day."

Fast forward to the present. Now, it's OK to sell "Fuck the War" with "Election Day." But the kids who pack Samoans gigs, who make up a 10,000+ strong fan list on MySpace, many of them girls, the ones who love to hear the songs "They Saved Hitler's Cock" (rhyming couplet, "They hid it under a rock. If Hitler's cock could choose a mate, it would ask for Sharon Tate!") and "You Stupid Asshole," well -- let's just say "Fuck the War" doesn't connect for them. We are informed it can't be given away at the merchandise table. But "FTW" buttons have a future. Easy come, easy go.

Also for laughs -- of nasty tone -- was Uncle Sam & the JDAMs "Iraq 'n Roll," which was put on the web a couple years ago. It came with a libretto and caustic art, reprinted here. I was able to sell every copy I made of a very short run in local mom-and-pop stores. It continues to generate web hits because of the fortuitous nature of this Google search string.

Faced with decisions at BestBuy -- whether to purchase Cheap Trick's Rockford, Jethro Tull's Aqualung played live for the first time in front of homeless people, or the made-by-slave-labor in China Gibson-knockoff guitar with three broken strings for $75.00 -- I went with the first.

Rick Nielsen, the guitarist who made the Huntz Hall "look" into a trademark, had been pumping the new record on-line and in the trades. "Just wait . . . you'll fall in love again!" he posted to I Love Music on April 8th.

For Guitar World magazine, he'd lined up for the hack interview. Some of it was unintentionally hysterical. " . . . might be their finest disc in two decades" it was said of Rockford.

Not a good omen, the phrase is a music journalism bromide for when deadline looms and you can think of little to say about a legacy act's new CD.

" . . . the record industry can be brutal; haven't the ups and downs ever made you want to throw in the towel?" the writer asked. Such probing stuff. One can imagine Nielsen reaching for the bottle of aspirin on the other end of the telephone.

But Special One, from 2003 had been a halfway decent record, so Rockford deserved a chance.

As a group that's been at it for thirty years, Cheap Trick long ago achieved an elevated comfort level in the making of albums. One can't expect the first and second records, or get George Martin on All Shook Up, but you're probably not going to get The Doctor, a record one bets even Nielsen makes jokes about.

Iny case, the first six tunes from Special One were all good, and though the record takes a dive immediately after, it's over twenty minutes until you must hit the eject button. And their DVD "mockumentary" from 2004, From Tokyo to You was a hoot. At the time, Dick Destiny wrote of it in the Voice:

Upon middle age, it's one's civic duty to look frightening and tell as many untruths as possible to the young and easily misled. Cheap Trick's From Tokyo to You is a rockumentary DVD to enjoy because they live it to the hilt, telling bizarre and amusing lies in hypnosis of the stupid. In a reversal of cosmetic fortune, entropy and gravity have made [drummer] Bun E. Carlos one of the "handsome" members of the band.

Everyone else exploits the meaning of creepy: Rick Nielsen resembles someone's dead grandma while sitting on a stool strumming a Telecaster; Tom Petersson's more like a character from The Man With the Golden Arm. And to say nothing of Robin Zander is to say everything.

The concert is fine, but inseparable from avuncular interjections in which the foursome spin out their fictions. The best comes when Petersson talks about his job as a laborer at a chicken factory, sanding the beaks off birds at a grinding wheel so they wouldn't peck each other to death on the egg production line. One suspects this might be one time there's no dissembling, and then it's back to the concert in front of very clean-looking Japanese. Campfire arrangements of "Fan Club" and "Lookout" and the unhinged shriek of "Best Friend" set the show apart sonically from the rest of recent Tricks. As a dry send-up of TV specials on semi-famously famous rock stars, From Tokyo is smashing.

Anyway -- so Rockford, like Special One, is half good. The latter had all the great tunes in a row, the new one peppers them across the CD. To offset the iffy programming, it rocks harder.

"Perfect Stranger" is the best song on the CD. Cheap Trick make you wait two minutes for it, with a song about birthdays. "If It Takes a Lifetime," next up, is some treacle on love and seems to last a brief one. "Come On Come On Come On" -- c'mon, fellahs. [Cheap Trick has often done treacle exceptionally. This isn't one of those times. However, the quartet of performances -- "It All Comes Back to You/Tonight It's You/Time Will Let You Know/The World's Greatest Lover" -- at the end of the first CD included with Silver from 2000-2001, is one of the finest performances of heartbreaking rock ballad treacle you could hear.]

But "O Claire" does the patented Cheap Trick trick of playing the Beatles as a hard rock band, leading the beginning of the tune with a pooting organ. The pooting Beatles-riff is one of Cheap Trick's best tricks, and you're disappointed if they don't pull it out once, or sometimes even twice, a record. For Special One, it was played by violins on the title tune and that was just as good a song. The bonus here is that if you liked Special One, you'll play it again after Rockford.

Two pumped hard rockers follow -- "This Time You Got It" is boastfully jacked up -- and that makes three in a row before hitting skip for "One More" that shouldn't have been -- one more.

Rockford wraps with a trio of fair to really good pop songs. "Every Night and Every Day" does really seem to have Robin Zander singing about the usual spinning of "lies" every night and every day in the "key of life" -- yikes -- but listen to the hooks, the vocal zing, and it doesn't much matter. Wait a minute, those lyrics aren't even bad!

Even the filler is fair to good. The band recycles its tones and lyrics -- hey, that's Nielsen playing a variation on the "Helter Skelter" riff at the end of the first tune -- and so the result is like the Rutles' parody of the Beatles. You recognize all the old licks, vocal tricks and the mannerisms; they're just not in songs they were used best in the first time around. It's not something that looks spontaneous on the chalkboard but in execution it's pleasant enough and Rockford easily rewards repeat plays.

Good enough to "fall in love again?" My falling in love days are over, so not quite, but close enough for rock 'n' roll.