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Archive for June, 2004

“PETTY” CHARGES FOR “BIOTERROR” SUSPECT

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

It was clear from the start that the government’s “bioterror” case against Buffalo artist Steve Kurtz was BS. Now, even federal prosecutors are admitting that the charges are bogus.
Last month, FBI agents quarantined the biotech-inspired artist’s home – and confiscated his recently-dead wife’s corpse — on terror suspicions. But on Tuesday, a federal grand jury in Buffalo charged Kurtz instead with a minor infraction, petty larceny, according to his supporters. No bioterror allegations were made.

Also indicted was Robert Ferrell, head of the Department of Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health. The charges concern technicalities of how Ferrell helped Kurtz to obtain $256 worth of harmless bacteria for one of Kurtz’s art projects.
The laws under which the indictments were obtained–Title 18, United States Code, sections 1341 and 1343, covering mail and wire fraud–are normally used against those defrauding others of money or property, as in telemarketing schemes.

“Regardless of the plans these two men had for these materials, we can’t allow people to buy and distribute bacterial agents like this under false pretenses,” U.S. Attorney Michael Battle told the Buffalo News. It’s not a case of terrorism, but it’s a case of mail fraud.”

YOU’RE IN THE ARMY — HOW?

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

How can soldiers who’ve left the Army be yanked back into service? Slate explains.

DEATHS DOG STUN GUN MAKER

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

taser_side_mirror.JPGFor executives as Taser International, this should be the best day, ever. The company just signed a $1.8 million deal with the Pentagon the largest in Taser’s history.
But the stun-gun maker can’t shake allegations that their supposedly “non-lethal” weapons have killed more than a few of their targets.
“In the past nine months, five people in Georgia, including three in metro Atlanta, have died after being shocked with Tasers by law enforcement officers. Nationally, 26 people who were shocked with Tasers while in custody died during that period as many as had died in the previous 4 1/2 years the guns had been in use,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes.
“Las Vegas police will re-evaluate Taser gun training after a coroner’s jury blamed the death of a handcuffed man on repeated shocks with the stun gun,” KRNV-TV adds.
No death has ever been successfully pinned on the Taser in court, the company asserts. According to the AJC, “Tom Smith, president and co-founder of Taser International, says the guns have been used safely by law enforcement officers in the field more than 45,000 times since 1999 and used safely more than 100,000 times including demonstration firings. The increase in the number of deaths of people shocked by Tasers simply reflects the increased use of the weapons, the company says.“
American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been turning more and more to the electric shock weapons, to control crowds and keep prisoners in line. An Army report, released last year, said the Tasers worked particularly well in Iraq, because Saddam had tortured so many with electricity.

MAYDAY FOR PENTAGON SPACE PROGRAM

Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

sbirs_high_art_lo.jpgWhile private companies are touching the edge of space, and NASA is figuring out how to get to the Moon and Mars, key parts of the Pentagon’s already-troubled space program are crashing, fast.
The U.S. military relies on satellites to guide its bombs, relay its orders, and spy on its enemies. But the next wave of orbiting eyes and ears is costing tens of billions of dollars more than expected. It’s an open question whether they’ll ever make it into space.
The troubles start with Space-Based Infrared System-High (“SBIRS-High”), a series of satellites designed to spot missile attacks, both on distant battlefields and against the continental U.S. The Air Force just had to add another $1.5 billion to the project. That means the cost for SBIRS-High has tripled since it was first introduced, Aviation Week reports.
But those hiked prices seem downright petite, compared to the boondoogle that is the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (“EELV”) program. The Pentagon rocket modernization project was supposed to “reduce the governments total [space] launch costs by up to 50 percent,” notes Defense News.
Not any more. Originally billed at $18.8 billion, the EELV’s is now projected to rise to $31.8 billion, according to a new Congressional report.
The government blamed the weak commercial space launch market and “incorrect assumptions about inflation” for most of the added costs. But, given the Pentagon’s dismal recent history in space, that’s a little bit like saying, “the dog ate my satellite.“
THERE’S MORE: “People don’t realize that in many ways the DoD space program is even more of a disaster than NASA’s (partly because they sweep so much dirt under the black program carpet),” notes space blogger Rand Simberg.

ARMY WANTS SOLAR-POWERED TENTS, UNIFORMS

Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

solar_cell.JPG“If We Run Out of Batteries, This War is Screwed.“
That was the headline to one of my favorite embedded accounts of the Iraq invasion. And it captured a fundamental truth about today’s military: with so much warfighting gear going electronic, battles are increasingly won or lost by the side with the best power supply.
To break the battery addiction, the Army has been pouring more and more resources into alternative and renewable ways to generate power. The latest example, reports John Gartner in today’s Wired News: “flexible solar panels that can be layered on top of a tent, or rolled up into a backpack to provide a portable power source.“
Long-term, the idea is to have solar panels that can be camouflaged into tents or even uniforms. So the Army is working with contractors “to develop nanotechnology-based solar panels that can be woven directly into fabric. [The] technology replaces silicon with dye polymer plastics that transform any kind of light into electrical energy,” Gartner writes.
“We want to cut back on the things that soldiers have to bring with them,” including generators and personal battery packs, Jean Hampel, with the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center, tells Gartner. “In modern warfare, portable power for communications technology is every bit as important as firepower and manpower.”

CONGRESS: NO ISRAELI BULLETS

Monday, June 28th, 2004

Here’s the situation: the U.S. Army is short on bullets. And only two companies can supply ‘em. One’s in East Alton, Illinois. The other’s in Israel.
That’s a problem, American lawmakers say. The Army, back in December, inked a $70 million deal with Israel Military Industries Ltd. for small-caliber ammunition. But some congressmen don’t like the symbolism of G.I.s firing Israeli bullets at Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan. So they’re telling the Pentagon: “by no means, under any circumstances should a round (from Israel) be utilized,” according to Reuters. If the bullets have to be used, do it only in training, not on the battlefield.
The Army has enough small-caliber ammo for now, notes Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the Army’s assistant deputy chief of staff. But ongoing conflicts in Iraq and in Afghanistan have stretched ammunition-making facilities thin.
“To fight a major combat operation in another theater will require the Army to impose restrictions on training expenditures and to focus current inventory and new production on combat operations,” Blount reports.
In English, that means, “If shooting starts somewhere else in the world — or if Iraq gets much hotter — you’re gonna see Israeli bullets fly.”

FBI IT = FUBAR

Saturday, June 26th, 2004

The FBI’s “Trilogy” computer-upgrade project has come to be known as one of the great information technology disasters of all time — the “Gigli” of computing. Now, the New York Times reports, a key part of Trilogy — the Virtual Case File — won’t be able to deploy by the end of the year, as promised. And FBI officials “could not predict when the entire system would be in place. As a result, an important technological component of the administration’s domestic security effort remains in limbo.”

The Virtual Case File system, which would allow agents to share information easily a critical shortcoming of the present system is already two years behind schedule and one bureau official who spoke on condition of anonymity went so far as to suggest that the program might ultimately have to be abandoned…
In the aftermath of the hijackings, Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, told a Senate panel that the bureau’s computer system was so limited that it could not search its files for combinations of terms like “flight” and “schools,” precisely the kind of combination that might have helped to discern the patterns of activity leading up to the attacks. Instead, Mr. Mueller said, the system could search for words like “flight” and “school” only one at a time…
According to a staff report from the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, the F.B.I.‘s primary information system, which was designed using 1980’s technology, was “already obsolete when installed in 1995.” The commission report said that “field agents usually did not know what investigations agents in their own office, let alone in other field offices, were working on.”

For now — and for the forseeable future — that’s how things will stay.

DRONES START BORDER DUTY

Friday, June 25th, 2004

UN_hermes450.jpgLa policia is now the least of their worries. People trying to hop the U.S. border in Arizona are going to have to watch out for robot spy planes, too.
All summer, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is going to use a couple of single-engine, Israeli-built Hermes 450 drones to keep tabs on the U.S/Mexico line. Flesh-and-blood border patrol agents are spread thin across the rugged, desolate area. By acting as eyes in the sky, “these aerial vehicles permit greater border coverage and quicker response times,” DHS claims.
DHS has been talking about the move for more than a year. And for a few weeks last fall, the Depatment even tested out unmanned border watching. Vigilante groups have gone robotic, too, with their own, wildcat patrols.
But these Hermes drones — which cruise at about 9500 feet, and stay in the air for 20 hours at a clip — are the first sustained effort that Homeland Security has undertaken.

INSURGENTS GETTING SMARTER, TOUGHER, POST SAYS

Friday, June 25th, 2004

Yesterday’s attacks in Iraq weren’t the stumbling, almost-suicidal strikes of some earlier guerillas. “Well-equipped and highly coordinated, the insurgents demonstrated a new level of strength and tactical skill that alarmed the {U.S] soldiers facing them,” the Washington Post reports.

The insurgents fought in large, coordinated squads, set complex ambushes and occupied downtown buildings from which they apparently planned a long fight, U.S. military commanders said. Striking first along two key avenues bracketing the city, the insurgents intended to isolate and overrun the local Coalition Provisional Authority compound and other downtown government buildings, the commanders said.
Several U.S. commanders suggested the insurgents had learned the tactics in recent weeks from skilled guerrilla commanders from outside the city, perhaps led by foreign fighters who came to Iraq to fight the occupation.

USAF BRASS: WE LOST, NOW PAY UP

Friday, June 25th, 2004

It’s happening. Already, the U.S. Air Force brass is trying to spin their pilots’ defeats against Indian fighters into cash for two new controversial, budget-busting jets.
As discussed yesterday, Indian flyboys in creaky Russian and French planes trumped their American adversaries 90 percent of the time during a recent exercise.
“We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we thought we were,” Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, the chief of Air Combat Command, told reporters.
He then made a pitch (scroll down) for the troubled F/A-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Pentagon-watchers have called both planes money-hogs that the military can’t afford during wartime.
“The jets are designed as stealth ‘air-superiority’ fighters planes whose main mission is to shoot down enemy planes… [But no] air force in the world, except perhaps those of Israel and France, could shoot down more than a few American non-stealth fighter planes in even a large, protracted dogfight (and most of those shoot-downs would be by dumb luck),” Slate’s Fred Kaplan said last fall.
Now, the Air Force has new ammunition to fire back at its fighter critics.
“We’ve taken air superiority for granted,” Gen. Hornburg said.
THERE’S MORE: How could refurbished Russian MiG-21 jets even be a threat to American fighters? “When you stuff them full of Israeli electronics, multi-function [air-to-air] radar, and a helmet-mounted sight for cueing its Python-3 missiles,” said a Defense Tech pal in the USAF, pointing us to these two sites.
He adds, “Now does that justify an F-22? Not on its own, but old Russian clunkers can be made over pretty nicely.“
AND MORE: Air power’s dirty little secret is that the airframe pretty much doesn’t matter these days,” says Defense Tech reader JA. What it does is “provide mounting points for weapons, sensors and engine(s). The MiG-21’s airframe is quite sufficient for acting as a placeholder for state of the art toys. To my way of thinking the USAF’s Fighter Mafia has never made the case for the need for either the (A)/F-22 or A/(F)-35. Rumsfeld’s failing has been in not bringing these overeducated idiots to heel.”