Wednesday, January 29, 2014




This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe”—a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet—opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.”
 The first casualty of every war is the truth—and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATOofficers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?
With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative—allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun—seemed a lot worse. Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret. At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he confessed to being “very fearful of having written papers on this matter.”
President John F. Kennedy was surprised to learn, just a few weeks after taking office, about this secret delegation of power. “A subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action,” Kennedy was told in a top-secret memo, “could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.” Kennedy and his national-security advisers were shocked not only by the wide latitude given to American officers but also by the loose custody of the roughly three thousand American nuclear weapons stored in Europe. Few of the weapons had locks on them. Anyone who got hold of them could detonate them. And there was little to prevent NATO officers from Turkey, Holland, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany from using them without the approval of the United States.
In December, 1960, fifteen members of Congress serving on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had toured NATO bases to investigate how American nuclear weapons were being deployed. They found that the weapons—some of them about a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—were routinely guarded, transported, and handled by foreign military personnel. American control of the weapons was practically nonexistent. Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist who accompanied the group, was especially concerned to see German pilots sitting in German planes that were decorated with Iron Crosses—and carrying American atomic bombs. Agnew, in his own words, “nearly wet his pants” when he realized that a lone American sentry with a rifle was all that prevented someone from taking off in one of those planes and bombing the Soviet Union.
* * *
The Kennedy Administration soon decided to put locking devices inside NATO’s nuclear weapons. The coded electromechanical switches, known as “permissive action links” (PALs), would be placed on the arming lines. The weapons would be inoperable without the proper code—and that code would be shared with NATO allies only when the White House was prepared to fight the Soviets. The American military didn’t like the idea of these coded switches, fearing that mechanical devices installed to improve weapon safety would diminish weapon reliability. A top-secret State Department memo summarized the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961: “all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes.”
After a crash program to develop the new control technology, during the mid-nineteen-sixties, permissive action links were finally placed inside most of the nuclear weapons deployed byNATO forces. But Kennedy’s directive applied only to the NATO arsenal. For years, the Air Force and the Navy blocked attempts to add coded switches to the weapons solely in their custody. During a national emergency, they argued, the consequences of not receiving the proper code from the White House might be disastrous. And locked weapons might play into the hands of Communist saboteurs. “The very existence of the lock capability,” a top Air Force general claimed, “would create a fail-disable potential for knowledgeable agents to ‘dud’ the entire Minuteman [missile] force.” The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike. A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission. And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.
Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, “Red Alert,” was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of “Red Alert” to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.
Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies. The Air Force was not pleased, and considered the new security measures to be an insult, a lack of confidence in its personnel. Although the Air Force now denies this claim, according to more than one source I contacted, the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.
* * *
The early permissive action links were rudimentary. Placed in NATO weapons during the nineteen-sixties and known as Category A PALs, the switches relied on a split four-digit code, with ten thousand possible combinations. If the United States went to war, two people would be necessary to unlock a nuclear weapon, each of them provided with half the code. Category APALs were useful mainly to delay unauthorized use, to buy time after a weapon had been taken or to thwart an individual psychotic hoping to cause a large explosion. A skilled technician could open a stolen weapon and unlock it within a few hours. Today’s Category D PALs, installed in the Air Force’s hydrogen bombs, are more sophisticated. They require a six-digit code, with a million possible combinations, and have a limited-try feature that disables a weapon when the wrong code is repeatedly entered.
The Air Force’s land-based Minuteman III missiles and the Navy’s submarine-based Trident II missiles now require an eight-digit code—which is no longer 00000000—in order to be launched. The Minuteman crews receive the code via underground cables or an aboveground radio antenna. Sending the launch code to submarines deep underwater presents a greater challenge. Trident submarines contain two safes. One holds the keys necessary to launch a missile; the other holds the combination to the safe with the keys; and the combination to the safe holding the combination must be transmitted to the sub by very-low-frequency or extremely-low-frequency radio. In a pinch, if Washington, D.C., has been destroyed and the launch code doesn’t arrive, the sub’s crew can open the safes with a blowtorch.
The security measures now used to control America’s nuclear weapons are a vast improvement over those of 1964. But, like all human endeavors, they are inherently flawed. The Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program is supposed to keep people with serious emotional or psychological issues away from nuclear weapons—and yet two of the nation’s top nuclear commanders were recently removed from their posts. Neither appears to be the sort of calm, stable person you want with a finger on the button. In fact, their misbehavior seems straight out of “Strangelove.”
Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the second-highest-ranking officer at the U.S. Strategic Command—the organization responsible for all of America’s nuclear forces—-was investigated last summer for allegedly using counterfeit gambling chips at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, “a significant monetary amount” of counterfeit chips was involved. Giardina was relieved of his command on October 3, 2013. A few days later, Major General Michael Carey, the Air Force commander in charge of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, was fired for conduct “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”According to a report by the Inspector General of the Air Force, Carey had consumed too much alcohol during an official trip to Russia, behaved rudely toward Russian officers, spent time with “suspect” young foreign women in Moscow, loudly discussed sensitive information in a public hotel lounge there, and drunkenly pleaded to get onstage and sing with a Beatles cover band at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant near Red Square. Despite his requests, the band wouldn’t let Carey onstage to sing or to play the guitar.
While drinking beer in the executive lounge at Moscow’s Marriott Aurora during that visit, General Carey made an admission with serious public-policy implications. He off-handedly told a delegation of U.S. national-security officials that his missile-launch officers have the “worst morale in the Air Force.” Recent events suggest that may be true. In the spring of 2013, nineteen launch officers at Minot Air Force base in North Dakota were decertified for violating safety rules and poor discipline. In August, 2013, the entire missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana failed its safety inspection. Last week, the Air Force revealed that thirty-four launch officers at Malmstrom had been decertified for cheating on proficiency exams—and that at least three launch officers are being investigated for illegal drug use. The findings of a report by the RAND Corporation, leaked to the A.P., were equally disturbing. The study found that the rates of spousal abuse and court martials among Air Force personnel with nuclear responsibilities are much higher than those among people with other jobs in the Air Force. “We don’t care if things go properly,” a launch officer told RAND. “We just don’t want to get in trouble.”
The most unlikely and absurd plot element in “Strangelove” is the existence of a Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” The device would trigger itself, automatically, if the Soviet Union were attacked with nuclear weapons. It was meant to be the ultimate deterrent, a threat to destroy the world in order to prevent an American nuclear strike. But the failure of the Soviets to tell the United States about the contraption defeats its purpose and, at the end of the film, inadvertently causes a nuclear Armageddon. “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost,” Dr. Strangelove, the President’s science adviser, explains to the Soviet Ambassador, “if you keep it a secret!”
A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.
In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.
“This is absolute madness, Ambassador,” President Merkin Muffley says in the film, after being told about the Soviets’ automated retaliatory system. “Why should you build such a thing?” Fifty years later, that question remains unanswered, and “Strangelove” seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Giant Military Surveillance Blimp To Constantly Monitor East Coast

Photo: Raytheon

By the end of the year, there will likely be two giant Army blimps hovering 10,000 feet above Baltimore with the ability to see 340 miles in any direction.
Most forms of surveillance have weaknesses: If they’re ground-based, they have range limitations. Predator drones have to refuel and don’t have the ability to hover in one spot. Helicopters are really loud and generally have to fly pretty low. That’s where JLENS comes in. It’s a giant, 243-foot long blimp that’s tethered to the ground. It has ridiculously powerful radar and cameras. It pretty much doesn’t have to move, and it only has to land once a month or so for quick maintenance.
Yes, that means the entire mid-Atlantic region will, at least, have the potential to be under “persistent surveillance,” a dream term for those in the intelligence biz and a worst-case scenario for those who care a lick about privacy. One aerostat that was tested in Utah last year was able to follow individual vehicles “dozens of miles away” and watch a test subject plant a fake bomb on the side of the road. According to the Washington Post, the Army has “no current plans” to use that high-powered video sensor in Maryland, but wouldn’t rule out using it in the future. 
Rumors of the Army buying a JLENS from Raytheon to put in Aberdeen, Maryland, have been swirling for a couple years now—earlier this year, Timothy Carey, then-Vice President for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance with Raytheon told me that “it depends on the day of the week” as to whether the Army wanted to go ahead and purchase one. Well, it seems they’ve made up their mind. They’re reportedly buying two blimps at a cost of roughly $2.7 billion—one will use a long-range radar and the other will use a higher-frequency radar to help target threats.
Even at $2.7 billion, the system is much cheaper than running constant Predator drones or having other manned surveillance aircraft fly in circles all day. There's still no exact date for when the blimps will start operating, and a collision in which a separate airship crashed into a JLENS last fallhas delayed the program. 
JLENS, at least in theory, isn’t meant to spy on everyday citizens. It’s a military aircraft that’s supposed to spot things like incoming enemy fighter jets and missiles long before ground-based radar can. It’s meant to be paired with Patriot Missiles to do things like shoot nukes out of the air. It can spot incoming missiles or aircrafts up to 340 miles out and can track vehicles on the ground up to 140 miles away, meaning its effective ground vision area is 62,000 miles. Raytheon envisioned it as something that could sit on an army base in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan to allow the military to spot threats many miles away.
“You can keep it up for virtually a month or so at a time with very little maintenance,” Carey said. “You wouldn’t have them positioned anywhere close to the front lines because they have the capability to see deep and aren’t great at moving.” 
But with its capabilities, it certainly can also be used at home for persistent surveillance on not-so-nearby people. 
“I don’t care how good of a radar you have, if you put it on the ground and you’re trying to detect targets flying close to the earth, you’re not going to see them in time,” Carey said. “When you elevate the sensor, clearly you can see further out, you can detect things further out.”
JLENS also doesn’t have to focus on just one target at a time. According to Raytheon, it can “track hundreds of airborne and surface moving threats, in 360 degrees.” And it’ll be flying full time by the end of the year. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

SunSet Flight

Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.
Art by: Peter From
Quote by: Socrates
Created in: Photoshop CS6.

Cops War On People Deadlier Than Iraq

Over 5,000 people have been killed in the US by police than US soldiers have fallen during the Iraq war over the last 10 years. 

The figure seems to reflect the increased militarization of police and, shockingly, means that you are 29 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. 
This Buzzsaw news clip is with: Tyrel Ventura and Tabetha Wallace.

Watch the full episode here:

Sunday, January 26, 2014

We'll Pay A Price For Crushing Egypt's Democracy

'President Morsi (I prefer to call him by that name, since the military coup that displaced him was not just illegal but immoral) is in prison. He was meant to face trumped-up charges in court, but did not appear. The authorities mysteriously blamed 'bad weather''
'President Morsi (I prefer to call him by that name, since the military coup that displaced him was not just illegal but immoral) was meant to face trumped-up charges in court, but did not appear. The authorities mysteriously blamed 'bad weather'' Photo: AFP/GETTY

By Peter Oborne

The earliest political decision made by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who has presided over such a dramatic resurgence of al-Qaeda since Osama Bin Laden’s death, was to join the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even then, back in the mid-Sixties, the Brotherhood was proscribed. This meant that it was impossible for a young man like Zawahiri to get involved in mainstream politics. Instead, Egypt’s brutally repressive system of government forced him down the path that led to al-Qaeda and the Twin Towers.
Is history about to repeat itself? I ask this urgent question because I have just returned from a very troubling trip to Cairo, a city that I last visited in the summer of 2011. Everything seemed possible back then, when the crowds gathered in Tahrir Square during the hopeful, happy, good-natured months that followed the fall of President Mubarak.
Today, protest is punishable by jail. Abductions are commonplace, torture routine. Demonstrators get shot dead. 
Following the coup that removed President Morsi on July 3 last year, a military junta is in control. Acting president Adly Mansour is a puppet. The defence minister, General Sisi, runs the country.

Meanwhile, what of the Brotherhood, which won the presidency in free and fair elections only 18 months ago? On Christmas Day, the military junta used Article 86 of the national penal code to ban it as a terrorist organisation. The excuse was a bomb attack carried out by the Sinai-based terrorist group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (“Supporters of Jerusalem”) on a police station in the northern town of Mansoura, which claimed 16 lives.
Ansar Beit are long-standing opponents of the Brotherhood, having once attacked Morsi as an “unbeliever”. Never mind: anyone who attends one of the Brotherhood’s protest marches now faces five years in prison. Its supporters can no longer appear on TV, indeed, only those who concur with the official view that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organisation are allowed on air.
The entire leadership is now either in jail, or hiding, or fled the country. The organisation has retreated to the secret cell structure used to protect itself during previous periods of repression. Meetings now take place in private homes: the only objective is survival, and there are suggestions that even the cell structure has been compromised.
I did not try to meet anyone from the Brotherhood during my visit, and not just because of fears for my own safety – though I could easily have ended up in jail alongside three journalists from Al-Jazeera who were picked up late last month. I was rather more worried about the consequences for anyone I approached.

President Morsi (I prefer to call him by that name, since the military coup that displaced him was not just illegal but immoral) is in prison. He was meant to face trumped-up charges in court in Cairo yesterday, but did not appear. The authorities mysteriously blamed “bad weather”: it was fine both in Alexandria, where Morsi is in jail, and in Cairo.
Britain, Europe and the United States, while not directly involved, have been complicit in much of this. Presumably afraid, as so often, to annoy the Americans, William Hague has yet even to utter the phrase “coup d’état”. Indeed, he immediately recognised the new regime. John Kerry went even further. In an interview on Pakistani TV in August, he hailed General Sisi for “restoring democracy” and praised him for averting violence.
These remarks from the Secretary of State went beyond satire. Well over 1,000 protesters have been shot dead in the streets, the bloodiest encounter coming at the Rabaa el Adawiya Mosque in Cairo last August, when more than 600 people were killed.
Egyptian police are well practised in crowd control and the use of rubber bullets. It can therefore be assumed that the mass killing was deliberate. According to survivors, more than 20 people were run over by a police bulldozer. 
So far, General Sisi’s regime has made no attempt to investigate these crimes. During my brief stay I met a few of the journalists who have attempted to go out and tell the truth: they are very brave.
Since my return, I have been trying to make sense of British and American policy. I guess that Western leaders are making the cynical but – as they see it – realistic judgment that a military regime led by Sisi is the best hope of stability. In the short term, that might be right. But in the longer term, I wonder.
Let’s revisit the story of Ayman al-Zawahiri, driven underground by the Nasserite reign of terror 50 years ago. 

For several years, one of the biggest selling points for al-Qaeda, the organisation he now runs, was the claim that the Western powers would never allow democracy in the Muslim world – meaning that there was no alternative to armed struggle. The men... pointed to the democratic victory of Islamist parties in Algeria in 1992, who were brought down at once by a military coup, followed by a decade of civil war.
The Muslim Brotherhood rejected this analysis, and spent eight decades plodding towards power. Eventually, it secured it peacefully, having come out top in three separate tests of popular opinion – the parliamentary elections of January 2012, the presidential elections of May and June 2012, and the constitutional referendum that December. It has now been declared a terrorist organisation.
The Brotherhood’s leaders continue to preach non-violence. But will all their followers agree to wait another 80 years before winning power through democratic means? A number are bound to turn to violence. Already, parts of the Sinai are starting to resemble northern Syria, Benghazi in Libya or Anbar province in Iraq – ungovernable havens for militant groups.
Britain cannot take sides in the great civil conflict that engulfs Egypt. But we can surely sustain the values that we claim to cherish. Thus far, our response has been poor, and will remain a blot on William Hague’s record as Foreign Secretary.
This week, a group of lawyers claiming to represent President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood asked the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes against humanity committed by all sides during the course of the revolution. Since the Sisi regime shows no appetite to investigate the killings, Britain should support this request. 

Since the Brotherhood continues to demonstrate its faith in Western concepts of justice and democracy, it would be more than polite to return the compliment. It would also be sensible and wise. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Embroidery Girl

Embroidery Girl by MingYouXu

By MingYouXu
Note: Part of the Mongolian Series
Oil on Canvas

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Colony

With Arabic SubTitles.

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Bill Paxton, Kevin Zegers

By 2045, humans have built weather machines to control the warming climate due to climate change and global warming. The machines break down when one day it begins to snow and doesn't stop. Whatever humans remain live in underground bunkers to escape the extreme cold. Their challenges are controlling disease and producing sufficient food. Two soldiers, Briggs (Laurence Fishburne) and Mason (Bill Paxton) are the leaders of one such bunker, Colony 7. Briggs, Sam (Kevin Zegers) and Graydon (Atticus Dean Mitchell) travel to nearby Colony 5 after receiving a distress signal.

Upon arrival, they find the place covered in blood. They eventually reach a locked door which Sam picks open. Inside they find Leyland, who shows them a message from a group of people who fixed a weather machine and have caused the snow to thaw. The group offers aid to anyone and asks that they bring seeds so they can be planted in the newly thawed soil. Leyland shows them where the signal came from but informs them that a Colony 5 expedition failed to return. Moreover, the expedition's tracks led a marauding group of cannibals back to Colony 5 and the killing ensued. Briggs, Sam, and Graydon force Leyland to return with them but he pushes them out and locks himself back into his room.

The three then begin to explore Colony 5 and approach a room with a fire burning. Here they see a human chopping up members of Colony 5, while others feast on human remains. As the three try to escape, Graydon is killed by the cannibals. Briggs and Sam are able to make it up the ladder out of the colony and destroy the shaft with a stick of dynamite. Taking shelter in an abandoned helicopter, they wake up in the morning to find that the cannibals have tracked their footprints in the snow. Briggs suggests that they lose the group over a bridge using dynamite. Due to the cold weather though, the dynamite fuse goes out. Briggs is able to make it back but not before he is confronted by the cannibals. He lights the fuse and sacrifices himself to enable Sam to return to Colony 7.

Upon Sam's return, Mason assumes control of the Colony and plans to enforce harsh changes. Sam explains that the cannibals are en route and shares the message from Colony 5 that there is a thawed-out area they should migrate to. Mason disregards Sam's comments as shock from his voyage and handcuffs him to a bed. Sam is able to get free and checks images from a functioning satellite to locate the thawed-out zone. He is confronted by Mason just as the cannibals have reached the Colony. After a fight, Sam and a few others survive but the Colony is destroyed. The survivors gather seeds and begin their journey to the thawed-out location. (Wikipedia)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Purple Mountain Majesty

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.
By Zack Schnepf
Taken: January 11, 2013
Location: Mt Bachelor Sunrise, Oregon, USA
Quote by: John Muir
(1838 – 1914)

Quote provided by: CZ

Was A Muslim Scholar The First To Discover America?

Sebastian Munster's map, published in 1540, the first to show America as a continent. AKG Images
Sebastian Munster's map, published in 1540, the first to show America as a continent. AKG Images

Abu Raihan Al-Biruni, An Islamic Scholar From Central Asia, May Have Discovered The New World Centuries Before Columbus

For more than a century an army of scholars, enthusiasts and outright eccentrics has delved into the question of who discovered America. Some of the claims are truly exotic, with fanciful reportage on ancient Phoenicians in Rhode Island or Chinese from the Middle Kingdom in the Bay Area. Back in the 1950s the colourful Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl contended that Peruvians in sailboats made of balsa wood were commuting back and forth between the Americas and Polynesia centuries before Columbus set sail.

Leaving aside patently absurd theories, there are a number of serious­ claimants for the title. First comes Zuan Chabotto (c.1450-99), the Venetian navigator and explorer. His claim turns on the fact that Columbus did not reach the American mainland until 1498, while he touched the North American shore a full year earlier. That he had set sail from England caused him to be remembered in the Anglophone world as John Cabot and shifted bragging rights from Venice to the ‘Sceptred Isle’. Then it turned out that, while Cabot found investors in Bristol and received a patent from Henry VII, his principal financial backer was an Italian banking house in London. The laurels shifted back to Italy.

Discoveries and Doubts

In 1966 an English scholar, Alwyn Ruddock, discovered a letter of 1498 written to Columbus by an English merchant named John Day. In it, Day asserted that it was ‘considered certain’ that the North American mainland, which Cabot had visited the previous year, had been ‘found and discovered in the past’ by seamen from the port of Bristol (which happened to be Ruddock’s home town). Ruddock unearthed more papers suggesting that these pioneering Englishmen had reached America as early as 1470. Unfortunately Ruddock ordered all of these papers to be destroyed at her death in 2005. Just as it seemed that the prize was about to head north again, fresh doubts set in.
Amid this ping-pong match, Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli, the Italian historian who had discovered information on Cabot’s Italian backers, came across a yellowed parchment map with an intriguing notation suggesting that Cabot may have been dispatched to confirm a discovery made many years earlier. Written in Italian, it states that ‘Giovanni Chabotte’ (Cabot) from Venice had been commissioned to sail to the ‘new land’. That the reference to new land was preceded in Italian by the definite article, il, rather than the indefinite un suggested to Guidi-Bruscoli that Cabot’s sponsors already knew of the Americas, thanks to reports by an earlier explorer. Cabot was simply verifying what was already known.
Meanwhile scholars from Scandinavia have examined the Norse sagas for evidence that their forebears had sailed to North American shores before the English and Italians. The story of Vikings plowing the waves in their narrow-hulled boats to explore and settle Greenland is by now well known and confirmed by archaeological finds along Greenland’s south-western coast. At the beginning of the 20th century Professor Gustav Storm of the University of Christiania in Oslo produced evidence that Norsemen had made several trips to within sight of the Canadian coast, identifying and naming Markland (southern Labrador), Helluland (Baffin Island) and Vinland, which is thought to be Nova Scotia.

Norse Sagas

Among these adventurers Leif Ericson (970-1020), the son of Eric the Red (c.950-1003), who had discovered Greenland, entered the history books for his sighting of Vinland in about 1000. True, one saga from 1387 states that a certain Bjarni, Son of Herjulf, had beaten Leif to Vinland, having been blown off course and sighted land there as early as 985-6. But no further support for the Bjarni claim has turned up.
Just what is meant, then, by this Norse ‘discovery’ of North America? Leif Ericson was a Christian missionary who had been sent to Greenland by King Olaf I of Norway (r.995-1000) with orders to bring the faith to settlements there. On the return voyage his boat was blown so far south that he was brought within view of Nova Scotia. The authors of the Norse sagas, amazed that he survived this adventure, dubbed him ‘Leif the Lucky’.
Except for Ericson, most of the other Norsemen who made contact with North America were traders by profession. Had their commercial interests fared better, they might have given the continent a second look, but they didn’t. Their one serious venture onto North American territory resulted in a fight with native Americans, after which they quickly fled to their boats. The southernmost confirmed evidence of Vikings in the New World was discovered in 1960 at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland.
From the sod houses and primitive artefacts that archaeologists excavated at L’Anse aux Meadows and in Greenland these Norse traders emerge as hardy adventurers. As to their ‘explorations’, they were carried out in a thoroughly ad hoc way, usually the result of accident or unfavourable winds. At their most deliberate the Vikings strove each time to sail a little further down a coastline than their immediate predecessor. Either way, when they returned to Greenland, Iceland or Norway they told their tales to wide-eyed listeners huddled around log fires. There is no evidence that any of the Viking leaders who headed towards North America were literate.
It took another three generations before Adam of Bremen (c.1050-1081/5) in northern Germany, wrote the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, a chronicle which included the stories he had heard concerning the adventures of Leif the Lucky. Adam and other chroniclers and authors of the sagas offered their reports in a stolid and matter-of-fact way, with no indication that they had any idea of the implications of these remarkable travels.
At around the same time that the Vikings were venturing south and westward from their bases in Greenland, a very different process of discovery was taking place in landlocked territories many months’ journey from the nearest open salt water. Beginning more than 3,000 years ago, traders from the great urban centres of what is now Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan had sent goods across Eurasia, from Europe to India and China. They moved their cargo in long camel caravans, which carried the equivalent of a dozen or more modern freight containers. Gold and silver coins minted in their cities were honoured as currency as far afield as Sri Lanka and England. Vikings, among others, collected hordes of these beautifully crafted coins because they knew they would be accepted widely. Once back home the Central Asian traders not only told their tales around neatly built hearths in solid multi-storey houses but wrote down detailed information on the geography and climates of the lands they had visited. Local scholars collected and analysed these reports.

A Curious Mind

The greatest of these scholars was Abu Raihan al-Biruni. Born in 973 near the Aral Sea in what is now Uzbekistan, while still a youth Biruni mastered mathematics, astronomy, mineralogy, geography, cartography, geometry and trigonometry. He spoke Persian, Arabic and Khwarazmian, the language of the Sunni dynasty that ruled Greater Iran between the 12th and 13th centuries. Later on he also studied Sanskrit.
While still a young man Biruni had calculated the latitude and longitude of his home town and had begun to collect similar co-ordinates for other places. Using ancient Greek sources he compiled data on hundreds of locales in the Mediterranean world and then began adding calculations on other locations from all points of the compass. From ancient writers like Claudius Ptolemy (c.150 BC), from more recent sources and from his own field observations he knew that the earth is round. By the time he was 30 Biruni was employing the most advanced systems of the day to calculate its precise circumference. In a pioneering effort not matched until the Renaissance he constructed a globe 16ft high showing the Earth’s terrestrial features.
Biruni followed in the footsteps of several other scientists from Central Asia. Among them was Ahmad al-Farghani, from what is now Uzbekistan, who in the ninth century had calculated the width of one degree of longitude at the equator, from which he deduced the earth’s circumference. His calculation, though less precise than Biruni’s, marked a significant improvement on those made by the ancient Greeks and assured a wide readership for his book on the subject, A Compendium of the Science of the Stars (c.833). Five centuries later Columbus came across a Latin translation of Farghani’s treatise. Besides welcoming confirmation that the Earth is round, Columbus used Farghani’s data to argue before sceptical potential sponsors that it was small enough for him potentially to circumnavigate. However, Columbus wrongly assumed that Farghani had presented his measurements in Roman miles rather than Arab miles. This caused him to understate the actual circumference of the earth by 25 per cent. His misreading caused (or, if it was deliberate, enabled) Columbus to place Cipango, or Japan, near the Virgin Islands. This convenient error proved crucial in Columbus obtaining funding for what he estimated would be a relatively short voyage to China.
Biruni had also delved into mineralogy, specifically the relative density and weight of minerals of all types and how the separate minerals interact in nature. In the process of this research he discovered the concept of specific gravity.
Just how Biruni acquired his passion for precise measurement is a mystery. It certainly owed something to his education, which included study of the classical Greek scientist Pythagoras, who had proclaimed that ‘things are numbers’. Biruni’s constant urge to quantify whatever he observed, combined with his enquiring mind, was to plunge him down a path that led to epochal insights, which in most respects put Columbus, Cabot and the Vikings in the shade.
By 1017 Biruni had become an honoured scientist at Gurganch, the intellectual capital of his home region of Khwarazm. But in that year a fierce and religiously fanatical Muslim ruler from Ghazni in Afghanistan, crushed Khwarazm and destroyed its capital. Mahmud of Ghazni, as he was known, was a brutal man but, like many rulers in the region, tried to surround himself with poets and learned scholars. He ordered Biruni to come to Ghazni and bring the results of his research with him.
Biruni, with no way out, not only complied but seized upon the move as an opportunity to learn more about India, which Mahmud had conquered over the previous decade. But Mahmud was as difficult as he was ruthless and Biruni quickly realised that he had to distance himself from his court. He removed to Lahore, now in Pakistan, where he penned the world’s first book on comparative religion, focusing on Hinduism and Islam. Gathering his notes and no equipment other than a simple astrolabe, he then withdrew to a heavily fortified hilltop castle at Nandana, not far from what is now Islamabad.
There Biruni returned to the old problem of measuring the earth’s circumference. To this end he devised a new technique, which involved careful observation, spherical trigonometry and the application of the law of sines. Besides being far simpler than using two distant points on flat land, this method produced a measure of the earth’s circumference that was a mere 10.44 miles less than the definitive modern measurement.
After Mahmud’s death in 1030, Biruni hauled his field notes and papers back to Ghazni in Afghanistan, where Mahmud’s son, Masud I (r.1031-40), welcomed him and helped him to settle into a quiet life of research and writing. Biruni wrote up his lifetime’s research on specific gravity and then turned to writing a vast tome, known as the Codex Masudicus, in which he summarised everything known at the time about astronomy and allied disciplines.
It was in the Codex Masudicus that Biruni considered the possibility that the sun is stationary and that the earth revolves around it. He stopped short of fully embracing a heliocentric view, noting instead that the notion of a heliocentric universe is no less logical than its alternative and called on mathematicians and astronomers either to refute it or accept it. It is no wonder that historians of science judge the Codex Masudicus to be the greatest work on astronomy from the period between late antiquity and the modern era. In his codex Biruni also hypothesised about the existence of North and South America.
Biruni began by presenting the research on the earth’s circumference that he had carried out at Nandana. He then set about fixing all known geographical locations onto his new, more accurate map of the globe. His list of longitudes and latitudes had grown substantially since his earliest collection and now included more than 70 sites in India alone, as well as hundreds of other locations stretching across the Eurasian land mass.
When Biruni transposed these data onto his map of the earth he noticed at once that the entire breadth of Eurasia, from the westernmost tip of Africa to the easternmost shore of China, spanned only about two fifths of the globe. This left three fifths of the Earth’s surface unaccounted for.

A World Ocean

The most obvious way to explain this gap of 15,000 miles was to invoke the explanation that all geographers from antiquity down to Biruni’s day had accepted: that the Eurasian land mass was surrounded by a ‘World Ocean’. But was three fifths of the Earth’s circumference really nothing but water? Biruni considered this possibility but rejected it on the grounds of both observation and logic. From his study of specific gravity he knew that most solid minerals were heavier than water. Would so watery a world not give rise to serious imbalances to which the planet would have had to adjust over time? And why, he asked, would the forces that had given rise to land on two fifths of the earth’s belt not also have had an effect on the other three fifths as well? Biruni concluded that somewhere in the vast expanses of ocean between Europe and Asia there must be one or more unknown land masses or continents.
Were these unknown continents empty wildernesses or ones inhabited by human beings? To address this question Biruni turned to his data on longitudes. He noted that human beings inhabit a broad north-south band stretching from Russia to southern India and the heart of Africa. If the unknown continent or continents were uninhabited, he reasoned, they would have to lie either north or south of this band.
To pursue this hypothesis Biruni went beyond his field observations and employed Aristotelian logic, a reasoning process built from propositions. Noting that the Eurasian land mass stretched roughly around the Earth’s belt, he hypothesised that it must have been the result of powerful processes that would surely have obtained elsewhere. Known evidence of the Earth gave him no grounds for believing that the unknown continents would be squashed into the northernmost and southernmost latitudes. He concluded that the unknown land masses between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would have to be inhabitable as, in fact, they were.
Biruni reached these momentous conclusions about the existence of the New World by 1037, basing them on research he had conducted over the preceding three decades.
Did Biruni discover America in the first third of the 11th century? In one sense, definitely not. He never laid eyes on the New World or the continents about which he wrote. By contrast the Norsemen had actually touched land in North America shortly before ad 1000; briefly, to be sure, and without really understanding what they had found. Leif Ericson was so uninterested in the forested shore of North America that he did not bother to return later, nor did any of those who heard oral reports of Ericson’s travels or read about them in later Norse documents. Still, if ‘discovery’ includes the unreflective processes of Norse seafaring, then the prize must go to the Vikings.
Yet Biruni is at least as deserving of the title of North America’s discoverer as any Norseman. Moreover, the intellectual process by which he reached his conclusions is no less stunning than the conclusions themselves. His tools were not the hit-or-miss methods of Venetian seamen or Norse sailors but an adroit combination of carefully controlled observation, meticulously assembled quantitative data and rigorous logic. Only after a further half-millennium did anyone else apply such rigorous analysis to global exploration.
Having assembled all known knowledge of the subject, studying the wisdom of ancient Greeks and Indians as well as medieval Arabs and fellow Central Asians, Biruni devised completely new methods and technologies to generate his voluminous and precise data and processed it with the latest tools of mathematics, trigonometry and spherical geometry as well as the austere methods of Aristotelian logic. He was careful to present his conclusions in the form of hypotheses, on the understanding that other researchers would want to test and refine his findings. This did not happen for another five centuries. In the end European explorers confirmed his hypotheses and vindicated his bold proposals.

Breaking Free

This son of Central Asia was arguably the greatest explorer between the ancient world and the great age of European exploration. Two features of Biruni’s work warrant this conclusion. First, he achieved what he did through the systematic and rigorous application of reason and logic, unconstrained by religious or secular dogmas, folklore or anecdotes. He was a Muslim, but broke free of the culture-bound assumptions of Islam in a way that scientists in the Christian West struggled for several more centuries to achieve. He carried out his breathtaking intellectual explorations while living far from the sea in a landlocked region and without leaving his study except to carry out scientific measurements. While he was absolutely confident in his conclusions, his written presentation of them indicated the precise paths by which someone seeking to disprove him might proceed.
Who today can better the credo that this Central Asian polymath penned a thousand years ago?
… in an absolute sense, science is good in itself, apart from its [content of] knowledge; its lure is everlasting and unbroken … [The servant of science] should praise the assiduous [ones] whenever their efforts [arises from] delight [in science itself] rather than from [the hope of achieving] victory in argument.
Even today, Biruni’s modus operandi strikes one as astonishingly modern, a voice of calm and dispassionate scientific enquiry sounding forth from the depths of the irrational and superstitious medieval world. 
Biruni accomplished all this while living and working in a region which many still regard as backward, a region immersed in superstition, fanaticism and violence. His birthplace in western Uzbekistan is close to the Aral Sea, where from the 1950s the Soviet Union created one of the most fearful ecological disasters of modern times. His achievements took place in a bleak zone on the northern border of Turkmenistan, far from the enormous gas fields that are today transforming that country into a Central Asian Kuwait. His research at Nandana, in what is now the West Punjab territory of Pakistan, put him within an hour of Jammu and Kashmir, the future scenes of a half century of armed struggle between Pakistan and India. As to Ghazni in Afghanistan, where he penned his renowned Codex Masudicus, simply to reach this town today is a dangerous task, requiring armoured vehicles and armed guards to traverse the heavily mined road from Kabul or Kandahar.
But one can do so nonetheless and can, amid the desolate remains of ancient Ghazni, ferret out the actual tomb of Biruni. Here in the very heart of Afghanistan lie the remains of the most modern explorer of the Middle Ages, a man who was open to the entire world and to all the knowledge it contains.
If and when Afghanistan gains a stable government and begins to develop, travellers and tourists will visit Ghazni, the scene of Biruni’s great work as a global explorer, and pay their respects at the tomb of one whose achievements match those of Columbus.
S. Frederick Starr is research professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


eclipse on the ocean

On the day of the new moon, in the month of Hiyar, the Sun was put to shame, and went down in the daytime, with Mars in attendance.
Photo by: Chris Busey Photography
Taken on: December 10, 2011
Quote: One of the earliest written records of an eclipse of the Sun, on 3 May 1375 BC, found in the city of Ugarit in Mesopotamia.
Quote reprinted from: Chasing the Shadow, copyright 1994 by Joel K Harris and Richard L Talcott, by permission of Kalmbach Publishing Co. Also appears in Total Eclipses of the Sun by Zirker. In Guide to the Sun, Phillips says that this might refer to the eclipse of 1223 BC.
Quote provided by: CZ

America’s Black-Ops Goes Global

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So consider the actions of the U.S. Special Operations Command flattering indeed to the larger U.S. military. After all, over recent decades the Pentagon has done something that once would have been inconceivable. It has divided the whole globe, just about every inch of it, like a giant pie, into six command slices: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and part of North Africa), U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM (Latin America), and in this century, U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM (the United States, Canada, and Mexico), and starting in 2007, U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM (most of Africa).
The ambitiousness of the creeping decision to bring every inch of the planet under the watchful eyes of U.S. military commanders should take anyone’s breath away. It’s the sort of thing that once might only have been imaginable in movies where some truly malign and evil force planned to “conquer the world” and dominate Planet Earth for an eternity. (And don’t forget that the Pentagon’s ambitions hardly stop at Earth’s boundaries. There are also commands for the heavens, U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, into which the U.S. Space Command was merged, and, most recent of all, the Internet, where U.S. Cyber Command, or CYBERCOM rules.)
Now, unnoticed and unreported, the process is being repeated. Since 9/11, a secret military has been gestating inside the U.S. military. It’s called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). At TomDispatch, both Nick Turse and Andrew Bacevich have covered its startling growth in these years. Now, in a new post, Turse explores the way that command’s dreams of expansion on a global scale have led it to follow in the footsteps of the larger institution that houses it.
The special ops guys are, it seems, taking their own pie-cutter to the planet and slicing and dicing it into a similar set of commands, including most recently a NORTHCOM-style command for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Once could be an anomaly or a mistake. Twice and you have a pattern, which catches a Washington urge to control planet Earth, an urge that, as the twenty-first century has already shown many times over, can only be frustrated. That this urge is playing out again in what, back in the Cold War days, used to be called “the shadows,” without publicity or attention of any sort, is notable in itself and makes Turse’s latest post all the more important. ~ Tom
America’s Black-Ops Blackout: Unraveling the Secrets of the Military’s Secret Military
By Nick Turse
“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.” With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.
More than a month before, I had called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014? Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year? How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013? Basic stuff.
And for more than a month, I waited for answers. I called. I left messages. I emailed. I waited some more. I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos – the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world – were doing.
Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.
U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2014 TomDispatch ©Google
U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2014 TomDispatch ©Google
Key to the Map of U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013
Red markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2013.
Blue markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2013.
Purple markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2012.
Yellow markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2012.
I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion. It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013. With that, the true size and scope of the U.S. military’s secret military began to come into focus. It was, to say the least, vast.
A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to – or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of – more than 100 foreign countries. And that’s probably an undercount. In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatchthat Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet. “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense.
Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.” In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.
The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military
Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987. Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most specialized and secret missions, including assassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.
In the post-9/11 era, the command has grown steadily. With about 33,000 personnel in 2001, it is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 in 2014. (About half this number are called, in the jargon of the trade, “badged operators” – SEALs, Rangers, Special Operations Aviators, Green Berets – while the rest are support personnel.) Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as SOCOM’s baseline budget tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.9 billion between 2001 and 2013. If you add in supplemental funding, it had actually more than quadrupled to $10.4 billion.
Not surprisingly, personnel deployments abroad skyrocketed from 4,900 “man-years” – as the command puts it – in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013. About 11,000 special operators are now working abroad at any one time and on any given day they are in 70 to 80 countries, though the New York Times reported that, according to statistics provided to them by SOCOM, during one week in March 2013 that number reached 92.
The Global SOF Network
Last year, Admiral McRaven, who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC – a clandestine sub-command that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists – touted his vision for special ops globalization. In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:
“USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate…”
In translation this means that SOCOM is weaving a complex web of alliances with government agencies at home and militaries abroad to ensure that it’s at the center of every conceivable global hotspot and power center. In fact, Special Operations Command has turned the planet into a giant battlefield, divided into many discrete fronts: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East SOCCENT; the European contingent SOCEUR; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; and SOCSOUTH, which conducts special ops missions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as the globe-trotting JSOC.
Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. These include Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, 500-600 personnel dedicated to supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.
A similar mouthful of an entity is the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, which conducts operations, according to SOCOM, “to enable the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to provide the Afghan people a secure and stable environment and to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of GIRoA.” Last year, U.S.-allied Afghan President Ha­mid Karzai had a different assessment of the “U.S. special force stationed in Wardak province,” which he accused of “harassing, annoying, torturing, and even murdering innocent people.”
According to the latest statistics made available by ISAF, from October 2012 through March 2013, U.S. and allied forces were involved in 1,464 special operations in Afghanistan, including 167 with U.S. or coalition forces in the lead and 85 that were unilateral ISAF operations. U.S. Special Operations forces are also involved in everything from mentoring lightly armed local security forces under the Village Stability Operations initiative to the training of heavily armed and well-equipped elite Afghan forces – one of whose U.S.-trained officers defected to the insurgency in the fall.
In addition to task forces, there are also Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.” These light footprint teams – including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon – offer training and support to local elite troops in foreign hotspots. In Lebanon, for instance, this has meant counterterrorism training for Lebanese Special Ops forces, as well as assistance to the Lebanese Special Forces School to develop indigenous trainers to mentor other Lebanese military personnel.
Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) briefing slide by Col. Joe Osborne, showing SOC FWD elements
Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) briefing slide by Col. Joe Osborne, showing SOC FWD elements
SOCOM’s reach and global ambitions go further still. TomDispatch’s analysis of McRaven’s first two full years in command reveals a tremendous number of overseas operations. In places like Somalia and Libya, elite troops have carried out clandestinecommando raids. In others, they have used airpower to hunt, target, and killsuspected militants. Elsewhere, they have waged an information war using online propaganda. And almost everywhere they have been at work building up and forging ever-tighter ties with foreign militaries through training missions and exercises.
“A lot of what we will do as we go forward in this force is build partner capacity,” McRaven said at the Ronald Reagan Library in November, noting that NATO partners as well as allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America “are absolutely essential to how we’re doing business.”
In March 2013, for example, Navy SEALs conducted joint training exercises with Indonesian frogmen. In April and May, U.S. Special Operations personnel joined members of the Malawi Defense Forces for Exercise Epic Guardian. Over three weeks, 1,000 troops engaged in marksmanship, small unit tactics, close quarters combat training, and other activities across three countries – Djibouti, Malawi, and the Seychelles.
In May, American special operators took part in Spring Storm, the Estonian military’s largest annual training exercise. That same month, members of the Peruvian and U.S. special operations forces engaged in joint training missions aimed at trading tactics and improving their ability to conduct joint operations. In July, Green Berets from the Army’s 20th Special Forces Group spent several weeks in Trinidad and Tobago working with members of that tiny nation’s Special Naval Unit and Special Forces Operation Detachment. That Joint Combined Exchange Training exercise, conducted as part of SOCSOUTH’s Theater Security Cooperation program, saw the Americans and their local counterparts take part in pistol and rifle instruction and small unit tactical exercises.
In September, according to media reports, U.S. Special Operations forces joined elite troops from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia – as well as their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia for a US-Indonesian joint-funded coun­terterrorism exercise held at a training center in Sentul, West Java.
Tactical training was, however, just part of the story. In March 2013, for example, experts from the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School hosted a week-long working group with top planners from the Centro de Adiestramiento de las Fuerzas Especiales – Mexico’s Special Warfare Center – to aid them in developing their own special forces doctrine.
In October, members of the Norwegian Special Operations Forces traveled to SOCOM’s state-of-the-art Wargame Center at its headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to refine crisis response procedures for hostage rescue operations. “NORSOF and Norwegian civilian leadership regularly participate in national field training exercises focused on a scenario like this,” said Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Petter Hellesen. “What was unique about this exercise was that we were able to gather so many of the Norwegian senior leadership and action officers, civilian and military, in one room with their U.S counterparts.”
MacDill is, in fact, fast becoming a worldwide special ops hub, according to a report by the Tampa Tribune. This past fall, SOCOM quietly started up an International Special Operations Forces Coordination Center that provides long-term residencies for senior-level black ops liaisons from around the world. Already, representatives from 10 nations had joined the command with around 24 more slated to come on board in the next 12-18 months, per McRaven’s global vision.
In the coming years, more and more interactions between U.S. elite forces and their foreign counterparts will undoubtedly take place in Florida, but most will likely still occur – as they do today – overseas. TomDispatch’s analysis of official government documents and news releases as well as press reports indicates that U.S. Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world during 2012-2013.
For years, the command has claimed that divulging the names of these countries would upset foreign allies and endanger U.S. personnel. SOCOM’s Bockholt insisted to me that merely offering the total number would do the same. “You understand that there is information about our military… that is contradictory to reporting,” he told me. “There’s certain things we can’t release to the public for the safety of our service members both at home and abroad. I’m not sure why you’d be interested in reporting that.”
In response, I asked how a mere number could jeopardize the lives of Special Ops personnel, and he responded, “When you work with the partners we work with in the different countries, each country is very particular.” He refused to elaborate further on what this meant or how it pertained to a simple count of countries. Why SOCOM eventually offered me a number, given these supposed dangers, was never explained.
Bringing the War Home
This year, Special Operations Command has plans to make major inroads into yet another country – the United States. The establishment of SOCNORTH in 2014, according to the command, is intended to help “defend North America by outpacing all threats, maintaining faith with our people, and supporting them in their times of greatest need.” Under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and portions of the Caribbean.
While Congressional pushback has thus far thwarted Admiral McRaven’s efforts to create a SOCOM satellite headquarters for the more than 300 special operators working in Washington, D.C. (at the cost of $10 million annually), the command has nonetheless stationed support teams and liaisons all over the capital in a bid to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway. “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. – from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” McRaven saidduring a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center in 2013. Referring to the acronyms of the many agencies with which SOCOM has forged ties, McRaven continued: “If there are three letters, and in some cases four, I have a person there. And they have had a reciprocal agreement with us. I have somebody in my headquarters at Tampa.” Speaking at Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of agencies where SOCOM is currently embedded at 38.
“Given the importance of interagency collaboration, USSOCOM is placing greater emphasis on its presence in the National Capital Region to better support coordination and decision making with interagency partners. Thus, USSOCOM began to consolidate its presence in the NCR [National Capitol Region] in early 2012,” McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee last year.
One unsung SOCOM partner is U.S. AID, the government agency devoted to providing civilian foreign aid to countries around the world whose mandate includes the protection of human rights, the prevention of armed conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the fostering of “good will abroad.” At a July 2013 conference, Beth Cole, the director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at U.S. AID, explained just how her agency was now quietly aiding the military’s secret military.
“In Yemen, for example, our mission director has SVTCs [secure video teleconferences] with SOCOM personnel on a regular basis now. That didn’t occur two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago,” Cole said, according to a transcript of the event. But that was only the start. “My office at U.S. AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe… I’m proud that my office and U.S. AID have been providing training support to several hundred Army, Navy, and Marine Special Operations personnel who have been regularly deploying to Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that.”
Cole noted that, in Afghanistan, U.S. AID personnel were sometimes working hand-in-hand on the Village Stability Operation initiative with Special Ops forces. In certain areas, she said, “we can dual-hat some of our field program officers as LNOs [liaison officers] in those Joint Special Operations task forces and be able to execute the development work that we need to do alongside of the Special Operations Forces.” She even suggested taking a close look at whether this melding of her civilian agency and special ops might prove to be a model for operations elsewhere in the world.
Cole also mentioned that her office would be training “a senior person” working for McRaven, the man about to “head the SOF element Lebanon” – possibly a reference to the shadowy SOC FWD Lebanon. U.S. AID would, she said, serve as a facilitator in that country, making “sure that he has those relationships that he needs to be able to deal with what is a very, very, very serious problem for our government and for the people of that region.”
U.S. AID is also serving as a facilitator closer to home. Cole noted that her agency was sending advisors to SOCOM headquarters in Florida and had “arranged meetings for [special operators] with experts, done roundtables for them, immersed them in the environment that we understand before they go out to the mission area and connect them with people on the ground.” All of this points to another emerging trend: SOCOM’s invasion of the civilian sphere.
In remarks before the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral McRaven noted that his Washington operation, the SOCOM NCR, “conducts outreach to academia, non-governmental organizations, industry, and other private sector organizations to get their perspective on complex issues affecting SOF.” Speaking at the Wilson Center, he was even more blunt: “[W]e also have liaison officers with industry and with academia… We put some of our best and brightest in some of the academic institutions so we can understand what academia is thinking about.”
SOCOM’s Information Warfare
Not content with a global presence in the physical world, SOCOM has also taken to cyberspace where it operates the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a network of 10 propaganda websites that are run by various combatant commands and made to look like legitimate news outlets. These shadowy sites – including,Magharebia which targets North Africa, an effort aimed at the Middle East known, and another targeting Latin America called – state only in fine print that they are “sponsored by” the U.S. military.
Last June, the Senate Armed Services Committee called out the Trans Regional Web Initiative for “excessive” costs while stating that the “effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense.” In November, SOCOM announced that it was nonetheless seeking to identify industry partners who, under the Initiative, could potentially “develop new websites tailored to foreign audiences.”
Just as SOCOM is working to influence audiences abroad, it is also engaged in stringent information control at home – at least when it comes to me. Major Bockholt made it clear that SOCOM objected to a 2011 article of mine about U.S. Special Operations forces. “Some of that stuff was inconsistent with actual facts,” he told me. I asked what exactly was inconsistent. “Some of the stuff you wrote about JSOC… I think I read some information about indiscriminate killing or things like that.”
I knew right away just the quote he was undoubtedly referring to – a mention of the Joint Special Operations Command’s overseas kill/capture campaign as “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.” Bockholt said that it was indeed “one quote of concern.” The only trouble: I didn’t say it. It was, as I stated very plainly in the piece, the assessment given by John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former counterinsurgency adviser to now-retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.
Bockholt offered no further examples of inconsistencies. I asked if he challenged my characterization of any information from an interview I conducted with then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye. He did not. Instead, he explained that SOCOM had issues with my work in general. “As we look at the characterization of your writing, overall, and I know you’ve had some stuff on Vietnam [an apparent reference to my bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam] and things like that – because of your style, we have to be very particular on how we answer your questions because of how you tend to use that information.” Bockholt then asked if I was anti-military. I responded that I hold all subjects that I cover to a high standard.
Bockholt next took a verbal swipe at the website where I’m managing editor, Given Special Operations Command’s penchant for dabbling in dubious new sites, I was struck when he said that TomDispatch – which has published original news, analysis, and commentary for more than a decade and wonthe 2013 Utne Media Award for “best political coverage” – was not a “real outlet.” It was, to me, a daring position to take when SOCOM’s shadowy Middle Eastern newssite actually carries a disclaimer that it “cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.”
With my deadline looming, I was putting the finishing touches on this article when an email arrived from Mike Janssen of SOCOM Public Affairs. It was – finally – a seemingly simple answer to what seemed like an astonishingly straightforward question asked a more than a month before: What was the total number of countries in which Special Operations forces were deployed in 2013? Janssen was concise. His answer: 80.
How, I wondered, could that be? In the midst of McRaven’s Global SOF network initiative, could SOCOM have scaled back their deployments from 120 in 2011 to just 80 last year? And if Special Operations forces were deployed in 92 nations during just one week in 2013, according to official statistics provided to the New York Times, how could they have been present in 12 fewer countries for the entire year? And why, in his March 2013 posture statement to the House Armed Services Committee, would Admiral McRaven mention “annual deployments to over 100 countries?” With minutes to spare, I called Mike Janssen for a clarification. “I don’t have any information on that,” he told me and asked me to submit my question in writing – precisely what I had done more than a month before in an effort to get a timely response to this straightforward and essential question.
Today, Special Operations Command finds itself at a crossroads. It is attempting to influence populations overseas, while at home trying to keep Americans in the dark about its activities; expanding its reach, impact, and influence, while working to remain deep in the shadows; conducting operations all over the globe, while professing only to be operating in “a number of locations”; claiming worldwide deployments have markedly dropped in the last year, when evidence suggests otherwise.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” Bockholt said cryptically before he hung up on me – as if the continuing questions of a reporter trying to get answers to basic information after a month of waiting were beyond the pale. In the meantime, whatever Special Operations Command is trying to do globally and at home, Bockholt and others at SOCOM are working to keep it as secret as possible.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the New York TimesLos Angeles Timesthe Nationon the BBCand regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here.
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Copyright 2013 Nick Turse