Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Homeland Security: Drug-Running Recruiters

"The Tucson recruiters, trained to sell people on the military, often used those skills to recruit for the drug ring, helping the sting to mushroom, court records show."
-- Carol Ann Alaimo in The Arizona Daily Star.

Shortly after 9/11, the FBI investigated complaints that an Arizona Army National Guard recruiter at a strip mall in Tucson was taking bribes for fixing test results. The undercover officer who went to question the suspect recruiter was offered not only the chance to pay for the grades needed to join the service -- but to buy cocaine from the back of the recruiter's car.

So began the sting operation named "Operation Lively Green" -- as in uniforms, as in dollars, as in "the color of their authority," according to a Justice Department press release last year which named "16 current and former U.S. soldiers and law enforcement officers" who copped pleas for "participating in a widespread bribery and extortion conspiracy."

This is the way the DOJ laid out the case:

In documents filed today in federal court in Tucson, Arizona, each defendant agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to enrich themselves by obtaining cash bribes from persons they believed to be narcotics traffickers. Those individuals were actually Special Agents from the FBI, and the defendants used their official positions to assist, protect and participate in the activities of what they believed was an illegal narcotics trafficking organization engaged in the business of transporting and distributing cocaine from Arizona to other locations in the southwestern United States.

In order to protect the shipments of cocaine, the defendants wore their official uniforms and carried their official forms of identification, used official vehicles, and used their color of authority, where necessary, to prevent police stops, searches, and seizures of the narcotics as they drove the cocaine shipments on highways that passed through checkpoints manned by the U.S. Border Patrol, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and Nevada law enforcement officers. Many of the defendants also accepted additional cash bribes in return for recruiting other public officials they believed to be corrupt to further facilitate the activities of the fictitious narcotics trafficking organization.

According to court documents, all of the defendants escorted at least two shipments of cocaine from locations such as Nogales, Arizona and Tucson, Arizona to destinations which included Phoenix and Las Vegas, Nevada. The defendants pleading guilty today transported a total of over 560 kilograms of cocaine and accepted over $222,000 in cash bribes as payment for their illegal activities.

In one instance, on Aug. 22, 2002, several of the defendants drove three official government vehicles, including two military Humvees assigned to the Arizona Army National Guard (AANG), to a clandestine desert airstrip near Benson, Arizona, where they met with a twin-engine King Air aircraft flown by undercover agents of the FBI. Those defendants, while in full uniform, supervised the unloading of approximately 60 kilograms of cocaine from the King Air into their vehicles. They then drove the cocaine to a resort hotel in Phoenix where they were met by another undercover agent of the FBI, posing as a high-echelon narcotics trafficker, who immediately paid them off in cash.

In another instance, on April 12, 2002, defendant John M. Castillo, 30, while on duty as an inspector for the INS at the Mariposa Port of Entry located on the U.S. border at Nogales, Arizona, twice waved a truck he believed to be carrying at least 40 kilograms of cocaine through the border without being inspected. On or about Aug. 1, 2002, Castillo also sold an undercover FBI agent INS documents which fraudulently provided for the entry of undocumented aliens into the United States.

The article in the Arizona Daily Star looks at the fact that the recruiters involved made frequent visits to local high schools to persuade the kids they had a future in the military. So far as the paper was able to determine, they did not recruit any students into the ranks of abusers, dealers or traffickers. - C.D.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Taliban Rule Book in Pashto

Sami Yousufzai and Ron Moreau brought to light the Taliban Rule Book earlier this month, and a full translation is now available on the Newsweek site. For those who read Pashto, these photographs show the original pages. Click to enlarge.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Policing: "Guns Gone Wild"

The most informative article I've read on the Sean Bell killing outside the Kalua Nightclub in New York City is Sean Gardiner's piece in The Village Voice. The bottom line: cops appear to have more firepower than they know how to manage these days. Commissioner Ray Kelly, during his first tour, had tried to limit them to six-shooters. Then he brought in semi-automatics but limited them to ten shots. His successors upped the fatal ante to 15. In the Sean Bell killing, one cop, who'd never fired his gun in the streets before, went through two clips and one round in the chamber -- 31 bullets -- in less than 20 seconds. Obviously this wouldn't have been possible with a Smith & Wesson. But, that said, a lot of policing has to do with the psychological environment. One part of that is creating a sense of security for the public -- the approach laid out by Wilson and Kelling years ago in "Broken Windows." But another part is creating a sense of security for the cops. Now that they're used to their Glocks, it's all but impossible, and could be deeply demoralizing, if they had to give them up. - C.D.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Paths to War - and Out of It

These last two paragraphs from the cover story of Newsweek's U.S. edition this week are worth reading closely:

It is not out of the question that Bush 43 will be brought around by the so-called Realists. Fantasies of a liberal democracy in Iraq are long gone. The most Bush can reasonably hope for in Iraq is some measure of stability, which is what the Realists want, too. Bush's situation—and petulant tone—are not unlike Lyndon Johnson's in 1968, when the Vietnam War was getting no better, despite troop levels' reaching a half-million men and a heavy bombing campaign. Johnson's new secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, was a clever fixer/statesman, just like Baker. Johnson ranted to his advisers, "Let's get one thing clear! I'm telling you now that I'm not going to stop the bombing!" (Bush last week: "There's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.") But Clifford and the other Wise Men he brought into the White House did persuade LBJ to halt the bombing and open peace talks with the North Vietnamese. Baker & Co. might still nudge Bush onto a track that involves more diplomacy and less force.

There is, however, a cautionary coda to the Vietnam comparison. The revolt of the Wise Men in 1968 did change administration policy—but it did not end the war. The peace talks dragged on until Richard Nixon became president in 1969; he then re-escalated the war, which didn't end until another five years had passed and 25,000 more American soldiers had been lost. Iraq has not cost nearly as many American lives. But Vietnam fundamentally shaped America in ways that reverberate even today, and no matter what happens between George Bush and Jim Baker in the coming days and weeks, it is likely that Iraq will be with us for as long as Vietnam has been—or longer.

Evan Thomas, who wrote the story, was also the c0-author of a fascinating book called "The Wise Men," in which Clifford played a major role. I'm happy to see it's still in print.

The lessons of Vietnam are complicated, but they're certainly worth studying today. If you want a quick short course, I'd suggest watching the HBO movie "Path to War," which came out in 2002 and is now available on DVD. It was John "The Manchurian Candidate" Frankenheimer's last film. Donald Sutherland plays Clifford. Alec Baldwin is McNamara, and Michael Gambon is a convincing LBJ. It presents a vivid picture of Johnson Agonistes, and gives a disturbingly accurate sense of how good intentions and bad advice can suck the United States into a quagmire.
One final note: all "ground combat troops" had been pulled out of Vietnam by 1972, on the eve of that year's presidential elections. The war went on for three more years, and ended in disaster after the U.S. Congress finally decided to pull the plug. But the outcome was inevitable in any case. - C.D.

Friday, December 01, 2006

More on the KGB, UFOs, Po-210 Coffee Mugs

Articles suggesting that the isotope used to kill former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London last month can be had on the Internet for $69 are, to say the least, misleading. A piece by Jessica Bennett on Newsweek's Web site goes some way toward clearing up the confusion about Polonium 210 and its availability. The stuff -- or what purports to be the stuff -- is being marketed by Bob Lazar, who formerly claimed he worked at Area 51 where UFOs are stored. Nobody we've found has actually tested the product he's selling to see if it amounts to more than the trace elements that can be discovered, for instance, in cigarette smoke. Or if the isotope is present in his samples at all. According to the Newsweek article, you pay $69 for one microcurie, which is one millionth of a curie, which is already a very, very, very small amount.

According to the nuclear experts I talked to for my column earlier this week, the assumption based on animal experiments is that 525 microcuries of Polonium-210 would be enough to kill you if ingested, and a gram would represent, roughly, 10,000 times the lethal dose.

But the fact is that there's not much known research on the ingestion of this rare isotope -- who would you feed it to? who would have been eating it or breathing it by accident? -- so some scientists suggest it would take hundreds of micrograms to kill someone.

Presumably an assassin would come to the same conclusion. That's yet another reason to suppose the stuff that killed Litvinenko came from an operation capable of bombarding highly pure bismuth, and which did so in the last few months -- ie., the kind of facility that exists in a nuclear weapons state and, as far as I know, nowhere else.

I also got e-mails asking about the "signature" or the "fingerprint" of this isotope. As I understand it the problem here is that no investigators, not those at the IAEA, much less those from Scotland Yard, have access to the facilities of the nuclear weapons states, and therfore cannot compare the Po-210 that killed Litvinenko with everything that might be available. Nor is it likely that the Russians, Israelis, or for that matter the Americans and the British, are going to open their labs and production facilities for police examination.

That traces of radiation were found on BA planes which flew from Moscow to London and back in the week before Litvinenko showed symptoms of poisoning would seem to point the finger even more clearly at Russians, although not necessarily at Putin. The current illness of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar would seem to be another plot twist.

But I confess it's Lazar that interests -- and darkly amuses -- me. On his Web site he notes that the polonium-210 he sells, such as it is, would be almost impossible to use as a poison. But another isotope found in smoke detectors ... would work just great. I haven't tested that claim, and don't intend to.

This article about Lazar which appeared in the Albuquerque Journal earlier this year gives a pretty good picture of the "UFO guy":

And this one in Wired probably tells you more than you ever wanted to know:

For a statement from the man himself, see: http://www.unitednuclear.com/isotopes.htm

If you like, you can also order a Polonium coffee mug:

NYPD: Perspective

Clyde Haberman's essay in today's New York Times is the best single piece I've seen on the Sean Bell killing in New York. There are certainly a lot of questions to be asked about those 50 shots the police pumped into Bell, his friends and his car the day he was due to get married. But very little coverage looks at the crimes that precipitated the intensified undercover work at many bars and dives around NYC, even though the savage killings of 24-year-old Imette St. Guillen after clubbing in SoHo in February and 18-year-old Jennifer Moore in July dominated the tabloid headlines at the time. Even less attention has been paid to the dangers faced by the undercover officers on the ground. That's where Haberman focused his attention:

"... meanwhile, in Brooklyn, some attention turned to cops who lost life, not cops who took life.

This is happening in a federal courtroom where a Staten Island man with an expressionless face is on trial for his life, charged with shooting two undercover police detectives in the back of the head. He in effect executed them, it is charged, for the effrontery of trying to rid the streets of illegal guns.

These two events would seem unrelated. But they are two faces of the same New York story. Both involve police undercover work that went disastrously wrong, although in different ways.

The very nature of this work can lead to nightmarish situations because, by definition, undercover officers are supposed to melt into their surroundings. Snap decisions — when to back off, when to make arrests, certainly when to shoot — are rarely uncomplicated or without peril.

In the case before the Brooklyn jury, the murdered detectives pretended one night in March 2003 that they were interested in buying a gun. As part of this pretense, according to the charges, they sat up front in a car, acting as if they had a bond with two men in the back seat.

This was a mistake. It allowed one of the men in the back to fire at them, point-blank.

They paid with their lives, Detectives James V. Nemorin, 36, and Rodney J. Andrews, 34 — they with five children between them..."