Yellowcake for Dummies

Much of the blog world has gone medieval on Joseph Wilson (not in the pipe-wielding sense of Ving Rhames, but in the sense of medieval scholars carefully parsing sacred texts and crafting lengthy analyses of subtle wordings).

Recently, Kevin Drum posted something that suggested that his – misrepresentations?? – had been unclear and insignificant:

Wilson’s central claim was that there was virtually no evidence to back up the idea that Saddam had sought uranium from Niger. The CIA agreed with that assessment before the war, it agreed with it after the war, and it still agrees with it — and the Senate Intelligence report backs them up.

Wilson may be guilty of overembellishing his case on several minor points, but on the central question he brought up — should the president have made those claims about African uranium in his State of the Union address? — he was right. The CIA admits it, the White House admits it, and the Senate Intelligence committee admits it. Republicans ought to keep this in mind.

That’s pretty confusing to me, and I say this with respect to Kevin and Dan all the others who have made close textual analyses of the Senate report. Because here’s what it says:

The intelligence report indicated that former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki was unaware of any contracts that had been signed between Niger and any rogue states for the sale of yellowcake while he was Prime Minister (1997-1999) or Foreign Minister (1996- 1997). Mayaki said that if there had been any such contract during his tenure, he would have been aware of it. Mayaki said, however, that in June 1999, [redacted] businessman, approached him and insisted that Mayaki meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Niger and Iraq. The intelligence report said that Mayaki interpreted “expanding commercial relations” to mean that the delegation wanted to discuss uranium yellowcake sales. The intelligence report also said that “although the meeting took place, Mayaki let the matter drop due to the UN sanctions on Iraq.” (page 43)

The reports officer said that a “good” grade [for Wilson’s report – ed.] was merited because the information responded to at least some of the outstanding questions in the Intelligence Community, but did not provide substantial new information. He said he judged that the most important fact in the report was that the Nigerian officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999, and that the Nigerian Prime Minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium, because this provided some confirmation of foreign government service reporting. (page 46)

So Wilson directly confirmed to the CIA that Iraqi officials had met with Nigerian officials, and that they had – in the view of the Nigerian officials – attempted to broach the subject of uranium sales.

Now the claim the President made wasn’t that Iraq had gotten uranium, or that it was even likely to get uranium. It was that:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

Now skipping over the ‘gimme’ that Bush is saying that the British are saying etc. etc., the question is whether Wilson – who accused Bush of lying in that statement – was himself telling the truth in making that accusation.

And the problem I have, as a kind of simpleminded person, is that Wilson’s own words, as expressed in the consensus, bipartisan Senate report, also support the charge that Iraq was seeking uranium.

So what is it that I am missing, exactly?

FLT 327: The Reverend and Eye (for all you Residents fans)

I shared Donald Sensing’s original skepticism about Anne Jacobsen’s Flight 327 nightmare in my post below. Today, Donald has a post up that amplifies his skepticism in the face of people who would take his position (and mine) as being ‘objectively pro-terrorism’.

They’re wrong.

They’re wrong both because we obviously aren’t (look at our oeuvre, folks, puh-leese), but because the kind of kneejerk, fact-free reactions they are encouraging in fact will make us objectively less safe from terrorist attacks.

They’re demonstrating exactly the kind of hysteria that gets used to justify bad policies – like the limit on the number of Arab flyers that can be put through secondary screening.Sensing says, quite reasonably:

…what does Annie herself actually relate? Only this:

# My husband and I noticed Arab men boarding the airliner and that made us scared.

# Before and during the flight, the Arabs did some things that made us even more scared, especially their trips to the loo. At least some of the other passengers and crew expressed or displayed concern or fear also. These fears compounded until the plane landed.

# There were federal air marshals aboard, but they didn’t do anything.

# The plane landed safely and normally. We all egressed as rapidly as possible.

# Agents from multiple LE organizations met the plane and detained the 14 men. They were investigated and released. FAMS identified them as a band playing a gig in a casino near LA.

# We were interviewed by the FBI and gave sworn statements, then went on our way.

That’s pretty much it, folks. That is what is in the text about what actually occurred. Annie does a lot of dot connecting from one TSA alert or warning to another, then connects them all to the 14 men, who were in fact guilty of nothing except stupidity or inexcusable unconcern/arrogance at how their fellow passengers were reacting to them.

As I’ve noted, a lot of narratives can be strung over that skein of fact. As someone who has a close, personal relationship with Mr. Occam, I do tend to look at the simplest possible explanation unless there’re grounds not to – and while this event is a data point that should be noted with interest, I have a hard time buying into the complex when the simple hangs together just as well.

But beyond that, here’s the rub.

Keith Code, an author and (great) instructor who teaches about motorcycle racing, talks about the notion of limited attention: “Each person has a fixed amount of attention while riding a motorcycle. This is represented as a $10 bill worth of attention. If you spend five dollars of it on one aspect of riding, you have only five dollars left for all the other aspects. Spend nine and you have only one dollar left, and so on.”

If we’ve made up our minds that the terrorist threat is going to be from groups of Arab men, we’ve spent all of our attention in one place. What’s going on elsewhere?

We will have created a single-purpose, brittle defense mechanism that is both going to wear out quickly, as the overwhelming number of false positives drains the resources and credibility of the system, and is going to keep us watching Penn’s right hand while Teller picks our pocket.

So let’s not do that, OK?

Just In Time For Summer

The Telegraph has a story that the Max Planck Institute has released a report on global warming, suggesting that solar cycles are responsible for global warming (with some interaction between increased solar energy and increased greenhouse effect).

Global warming has finally been explained: the Earth is getting hotter because the Sun is burning more brightly than at any time during the past 1,000 years, according to new research.

A study by Swiss and German scientists suggests that increasing radiation from the sun is responsible for recent global climate changes.

Dr Solanki said that the brighter Sun and higher levels of “greenhouse gases”, such as carbon dioxide, both contributed to the change in the Earth’s temperature but it was impossible to say which had the greater impact.

Yglesias on Gun Control – Sensible!!

I give Matt Yglesias grief a lot, which should be construed to mean at least two things: first, that I read him a lot, because I think he’s good and important enough read him all the time (I’m still short on time, and my news and blog reading is suffering); and second, that I think that he represents a solid center of one of the most important groups in the Democratic Party. I happen to have some core disagreements with that group, and my arguments with Matt are often arguments by proxy with them.

So now that I’m firmly in sucking-up mode, let me send you over to a stunningly sensible post by Matt on gun control and the assault weapons ban. It’s sensible not only because he takes the position that I think makes the most sense on the ban – “Why bother?” – but because he enumerates what I think are the exactly correct reasons for taking that position, and further looks with a fairly clear eye on the policy and political consequences of the core gun control positions.

No quotes, the whole thing’s good, go check it out.

I’m Getting Cable in November…

Remember the discussion on the level of contremps we can expect on Election 2004? I’ll modestly look down and burnish my nails on my chest, now – here’s Monday’s New York Times:

Mindful of the election problems in Florida four years ago, aides to Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, say his campaign is putting together a far more intricate set of legal safeguards than any presidential candidate before him to monitor the election.

Aides to Mr. Kerry say the campaign is taking the unusual step of setting up a nationwide legal network under its own umbrella, rather than relying, as in the past, on lawyers associated with state Democratic parties. The aides said they were recruiting people based on their skills as litigators and election lawyers, rather than rewarding political connections or big donors.

Lawyers for the campaign are gathering intelligence and preparing litigation over the ballot machines being used and the rules concerning how voters will be registered or their votes disqualified. In some cases, the lawyers are compiling dossiers on the people involved and their track records on enforcing voting rights.

As noted, unless it’s not close (possible, but unlikely), we’re going to be in court for quite a while; imagine if you would, what the court cases will be like if there are major terrorist attacks that have any impact on voting…

Arab Musicians on Your Flight? Be of Good Cheer. No, Seriously.

Like a lot of other people, I read Anne Jacobsen’s article ‘Terror in the Skies, Again?‘ with interest and not a little anxiety.

Tenacious G read it, and asked me what I thought. My reply was – “I’m not sure, and I think it would be good if all of us were a bit uncertain as well.” I see that Donald Sensing shares some of my skepticism. Here’s the deal; having flown a fair amount lately, I’m eminently convinced that much of the security in place is what Bruce Schnier (I’d strongly suggest subscribing to his e-newsletter, and I owe a review of his book) calls ‘theatrical security.’ So the general concerns raised in the article are more than valid. But as to the story itself, let me counter by telling one of my own.A long time ago, I took a one-day writing class from a semi-famous writer through UCLA. We met in Westwood village, in a building that had once house a club I used to go to, and the class was fun and somewhat useful. Most useful – and fun – was the incident that happened right after we regrouped for lunch.

The building entrance was on an alley, and as I walked back with a few others from my burger, I noticed three homeless men, sitting on the steps, eating their lunches. One was daintily eating a yogurt with a plastic spoon, and I remember remarking “What a healthy guy!!” as we went up the elevator.

A few minutes later, one of the women students dashed into the classroom, exclaiming that she’d been confronted by a homeless man with a knife. I moved to the front of the room, and asked her ‘did you see the knife? what did he look like? where did this happen?’ and was told he’d been in the corridor, she was sure she’d seen the knife, and he was a homeless guy. The teacher locked the door and used the room phone to call the University police.

Then, as I walked to the door and opened it to look and see what was going on, one of the homeless guys – my yogurt-eating guy – was walking by. I stepped in front of him and told him “Hey, man, you can’t be in here. You need to leave right now – come on with me and I’ll walk you out.” Another man from the class stepped out to join me, shouting instructions at the homeless guy – “Show me your hands! Do it!” and generally acting like he had Monster Kody standing in front of him holding a boo-yah. I told him to shut up or leave, so he was silent as we walked the homeless guy out to the elevator, rode down with him, and walked him to the street. I asked him: “So, do you have a knife? Did you show it to a woman wearing a yellow shirt?” “No, man, I don’t have a knife. I was eating my lunch and I asked her for some change, and she freaked out.”

Then I saw the white plastic handle of a spoon sticking from his back pocket.

Hmmmm. I thought, He probably did have something shiny in his hand…

Homeless people generally don’t commit armed robbery on civilians (non-homeless people); they have no where to run to, no means of escape, and they are usually smart enough to know that they’ll be busted right away for it (note that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be attentive when walking down a dark alley with one, just that you’re more at risk from a bunch of teenage kids). But they are scary, and it’s a more logical narrative to me that when one person – already scared by the presence of a homeless man where he wasn’t supposed to be – saw a homeless man with a plastic spoon in his hand, she read it as ‘knife!!’ and reacted appropriately (note that trained police officers have been known to make similar mistakes).

Similarly, there are two competing narratives we can construct out of Jacobsen’s story.

On one hand, a dry run or failed mission by a group of terrorists, as she suggests.

On the other, a group of foreign musicians, already somewhat out of place, being bad-vibed beyond belief by the rest of the passengers, and so acting with a less-then affable demeanor, and doing what I’ve done in the past when flying with large groups of people, which is to walk around and congregate so we can chat.

Which do I think is the case? I have no idea. Would I have prevented them from flying? Probably not. I think that the idea of limiting the number of Arabic men flying together is kinda absurd; no one’s taking a plane over and flying it anywhere these days, and if I want to blow a plane up in midair, I don’t need 14 men to do it.

So what would I have done? TG wanted to know, and the answer is pretty simple. I’d have walked up to them and chatted. Annoyingly cheerfully. “Hey! How you doing? You waiting for the bathroom, too? Where are you guys from? Where you going? Isn’t that cool?” Their responses – both verbal and nonverbal – would have determined what happened next.

I’ve done things like this in the past – in a parking structure with four thugged-out kids. There are a couple of reasons why it’s a good idea. First, because it lets you set the tempo for whatever is going to happen. My parking lot kids may have been would-be muggers (I was once unsuccessfully mugged in a parking structure in Santa Monica), or four honor-roll kids out for a night in the town. By walking up to them and asking a question – “Hey, do you know how to get to the Edwards movie theaters from here?” – I created a situation in which they would react, one way or another, on my timeline, rather than theirs, and in a setting chosen by me, rather than by them. By being cheerful beyond belief, instead of saying something confrontational like “You’re creeping me out,” I don’t unnecessarily start a confrontation, or leave four good kids muttering about racist assholes as I walk away. I’m more sympathetic to women, who use the ‘Model Mugging’-approved technique of telling someone “You’re making me uncomfortable, please back away,” but I still think a more cheerful wording and tone could be used to convey a similar message.

So, in Jacobsen’s case, simply walking up to the suspicious characters and introducing yourself would have gone a long way to sort out what was going on – and at no meaningful cost.

Allez Lance!!

Well, as always, I’m following the Tour de France pretty closely. Today was a huge day for Lance Armstrong as he sets out to win his unprecedented sixth Tour – he now leads his closest opponents by over two minutes and he has made a clear statement that can’t help but challenge Ullrich and Hamilton’s confidence.

And for all those you join me in yelling “Go, Lance!”, here’s an article about how Lance…goes…

On any given stage, however, watch for the helicopter shots; the wide-angle full-peloton views that can’t help but show it all. At the edge of your TV screen and at the back of the pack, you might spot a rider — sometimes solo, sometimes braced by a hand-on-the-back from a teammate — coasting close to the roadside, his torso turned slightly askew.

Is he doing what you think he’s doing? “Yes,” says Danny Nelissen, Eurosport’s Dutch cycling commentator and a former eight-year veteran of the pro peloton.

So maybe I should follow less closely…

For good Tour coverage, I’d go to the TDF Blog, and to Velonews.

More later, including comments on the spat between LeMond and Armstrong, and the story of my honest-to-God lunch with Eddy Mercx and Jacques Anquetil.

Grand Central and Kitty Dukakis

Well, I tip my toe back into blogging (and reading blogs), and I find that Matt Yglesias has once again written the thing that makes me go “Huh?” today.

I imagine that after another attack people will still feel, on a gut level, like we ought to retaliate, but there really won’t be anything to be done. Just as Australia and Indonesia didn’t respond after Bali, and Spain didn’t respond after the Madrid attacks, if someone blows up Grand Central Station there’s not really going to be much of anything we can do in response. A lot of people, myself included, would find that pretty unsatisfying on an emotional level, but it’s hard to see any reasonable policy options.

There are so many things wrong with this…Let’s start. Factually, things certainly were done after Bali and the Spanish railroad bombings – as I assume Matt knows. Some good police work went into arresting Abderrameb Hammadi Afandi, and pursuing Sarhane Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet until he committed suicide. In Bali, Imam Samudra is awaiting execution for his leadership of the attack.

So he’s obviously talking about a military – as opposed to legal – ‘something’. And the problem is, on what planet do we imagine that we can arrest these guys and try them faster than they are recruited? Recruited – in large part, I’ll bet, by watching videos of the successful operations carried out by their predecessors. Note that more successful attacks in Israel seem to lead to more attackers; the successful attacks themselves are the advertisement.

When my kitchen sink is full of ants, killing the ants I see is primally satisfying, but doesn’t do much to stop the colony from sending more.

At some point, you have to disrupt the system that makes people like this, and the systems that recruit, train, and organize them. That’s difficult to do in general, and effectively impossible to do when they have states that are willing to shelter and succor them.

That’s the core difference, I think, between Matt’s philosophy on these things, and mine.

There’s another difference, and simply put, it’s that I see Matt’s success as driven in large part because he articulates – very well – the beliefs and thoughts of a certain group within the Democratic Party and the left. And when I read the quote above, as a Democrat, I cringe. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of Michael Dukakis’ response to Bernard Shaw. And I don’t think that’s going to play any better this time than it did then.