Iraq’s Garbage Holds Reminders of a U.S. Massacre

The colors have been cased, the command has been shut down, and the war has been officially declared over. By December 31, the final U.S. troops will come home, and Americans seem to have decided they’re sick of hearing about Iraq. But Baghdad’s trash heaps hold reminders of some of the war’s lasting scars — in particular, the infamous 2005 massacre at Haditha.

That’s what Michael S. Schmidt discovered. Schmidt, a New York Times reporter, found hundreds of pages of interviews from the Marines’ investigation into the massacre in, of all places, a junkyard near Baghdad. “An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp,” he writes.

In November 2005, members of a Marine unit in Haditha, a town in the western Sunni province of Anbar, killed 24 Iraqis after a roadside bomb attack killed one of their own. Many of the killings occurred inside Iraqi homes. Women, children and at least one man in his 70s were amongst the dead. One of the Marines charged in the massacre was acquitted in 2008; six others had charges against them dropped; another is set to face trial in 2012.

It was one of the most infamous episodes of the war, second only, perhaps, in its damaging consequences to the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal. It occurred before senior commanders embraced the idea that success in Iraq depended on partnership with Iraqis and rigorous distinction between civilians and insurgents. That era is recalled in the documents Schmidt found.

Marines throughout the chain of command describe a brutally confusing war, an unfamiliar landscape and a sense of relentless danger. Iraqis would not stop at vehicle checkpoints, leading panicked Marines with little choice but to open fire. Their commanders worried about how they would handle knowing they killed innocents.

“It is one thing to kill an insurgent in a head-on fight,” recalled Sgt. Major Edward T. Sax. “It is a whole different thing — and I hate to say it, the way we are raised in America — to injure a female or injure a child or in the worse case, kill a female or kill a child.”

Others became desensitized, and snapped photographs of themselves “taking shots at people,” recalled a colonel serving as a staff judge advocate.

But none of that actually explains the Haditha massacre. After all, only a small number of Marines took part in the assault. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel faced the same burdens of war and bore them honorably.

So to the mysteries of Haditha, add the question of how 400 pages of investigative documents wound up in the trash. Schmidt, who chanced upon the documents while working on an unrelated story, writes that the pages “were piled in military trailers and hauled to the junkyard by an Iraqi contractor who was trying to sell off the surplus from American bases.” An attendant told him, “These things are worthless to us, but we understand they are important and it is better to burn them to protect the Americans.” Many more pages of the history of the war have been lost to the fires of the junkyard.

The military has not explained why the pages were junked. “We don’t put official paperwork in the trash,” Maj. Gen. Thomas Richardson, who runs the logistics for the pullout, said in October. But that’s exactly what happened.

It’s hard not to see a metaphor here. There has been nearly no consistent news coverage of the Iraq war for three years. After President Obama couldn’t secure a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq, he portrayed the looming pullout as the fulfillment of a campaign promise. No one has seemed to mind. The airwaves will be filled with mawkish, holiday-time stories about the end to a grueling war. And afterwards few Americans will care to think about Iraq.

But after the troops and the news cameras return home, the U.S. will maintain its largest overseas diplomatic presence in Iraq. It will be protected by a hired army of over 5000 security contractors. Iran will vie with American for influence. The war will not end, it’ll just have fewer American combatants, assembled in a patchwork chain of command. And its history will be consigned to the scrapheap.

Photo: Flickr/LetTheCardsFall

Via: Danger Room

Posted in Latest Update

Darpa: Use Tobacco To Save Soldiers From Nerve Gas

Nerve agent poisoning ain’t pretty: think convulsions, diarrhea and difficulty breathing. Those dangers prompted the Pentagon’s far-out research arm to come up with a stellar new plan to combat the nasty chem threats. A plan that involves harvesting human liver enzymes. And uh, growing them inside tobacco plants.

For years, the agency’s been trying to come up with better antidotes for all kinds of chemical threats and other weapons of mass destruction. Recently, it’s thrown money into a project that’d stave off widespread outbreaks by culling an infected person’s antibodies. It’s even trying to come up with insta-vaccines that can thwart just about any bug. Detecting chem and bio-threats before they wreak havoc is a top priority, too: Nano-sensors and cyborg bugs are both in the running to sniff out hazards.

But obviously, Darpa’s portfolio of chemical threat programs wouldn’t be complete without liver enzymes inside tobacco plants. The agency this week announced plans to start studying the potential for butyrylcholinesterase — you remember that one from the SATs, right? — an enzyme found in the human liver, to act as a better antidote for nerve agents.

Current antidotes don’t actually break down nerve agents. Instead, they target the symptoms of neurotoxicity, which include convulsions, vomiting, wheezing, and (of course) death. And they’re accompanied by plenty of side effects — blurred vision, heart palpitations, incapacitation and delirium. Darpa wants an antidote that can be administered in combat without knocking a soldier out of commission.

Crazy as it sounds, the agency might actually be onto something with this one. Preliminary research suggests that butyrylcholinesterase acts as a “bioscavenger.” Bioscavengers troll the blood stream for invaders and bind with nasty chemical agents, then breaks them down to their constituent parts before they can target the nervous system. Safety studies using butyrylcholinesterase have shown that medicinal doses of the enzyme are well-tolerated in healthy human subjects.

But what does tobacco have to do with it? Darpa doesn’t offer much info, but there’s a good chance the agency is interested in the speed that tobacco-based vaccine production offers. The burgeoning approach, which Darpa’s already been funding for flu vaccines, transfers carefully cultivated genes to bacteria, which then “infect” plant cells. The plants go on to produce the exact protein necessary to create the desired vaccine. It takes around five weeks, as opposed to the several months required using traditional methods.

That’s a novel ┬árationale for tobacco subsidies. It turns out that when Darpa’s not mulling liver enzymes, they’re trying to jump-start American job creation.

Photo: U.S. Senate

Credit: Danger Room

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Warning to Gossipy Grunts: Darpa’s Eyeing Your E-Mails

If you don’t have anything nice to say, then definitely don’t say it, type it or text it over a military network.

The Pentagon’s intent on weeding out “insider threats” — troops or other military personnel who might be disgruntled enough to (Wiki)leak some documents, or mentally unhinged enough to go on a shooting rampage. Now, military-funded scientists are plotting a computer system that’d boast unprecedented abilities to scan and interpret every keystroke, log-in and file upload performed over Pentagon networks.

Darpa, the military’s far-out research arm, recently announced a $9 million award to a consortium of five institutions, led by Georgia Tech, to kick off a two-year project called “Proactive Discovery of Insider Threats Using Graph Analysis and Learning,” (PRODIGAL). The initiative is one part of a larger Darpa endeavor, ADAMS, that aims to find malevolent insiders before they cause problems. Already, a team at Columbia University is using ADAMS funding to trick WikiLeaker wannabes with decoy documents.

PRODIGAL would take that threat detection up a few notches. Under the Columbia team’s plan, decoy documents would give military officials a trail of digital breadcrumbs: If the fakes were released online, analysts might be able to backtrack and figure out when and where they were obtained and how they went public. But PRODIGAL, if it works, could lead officials to a WikiLeaker before that person ever breaks the law.

Right now, a human analyst in the military has time to find and investigate a mere five anomalous computer activities a day — unusual file transfers, log-in locations or website visits — out of thousands that occur. PRODIGAL would make sure analysts were looking into the most important ones. The program would use a complex combination of algorithms, including those designed to spot anomalies and statistically calibrate their potential threat, and then spit out a ranked list of the unexplained events most in need of examination.

The program will keep tabs on individual users, checking their activity history against current habits to detect unusual behavior. And it’s intended to be incredibly thorough: Researchers plan to create a program that scans e-mails, text messages, log-ins, file transfers and web browsing. All in, the software will be able to scan an estimated 250 million e-mails, IMs and file transfers a day, along with infinite quantities of basic computer activity.

Sounds like fodder for my next favorite dystopian novel. But Darpa officials are quick to reassure that PRODIGAL will initially only be tested on government officials and military personnel who’ve agreed to be monitored. And assuming initial tests go well? Well, maybe don’t get too worried. The Pentagon’s got bigger plots to foil than your coordinated efforts to steal your captain’s underwear.

Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr

Original: Danger Room

Posted in Latest Update

Buyer’s Remorse: How Much Has the F-22 Really Cost?

The 196th and final F-22 Raptor has rolled out of Lockheed Martin’s factory in Marietta, Georgia. That means yesterday marked an end to more than 14 years of production for what’s widely considered the most fearsome jet fighter in history. And also one of the costliest.

So what’s the cost? As little as $137 million per jet and as much as $678 million, depending on how and what you count. The thing is, the best way of calculating the F-22′s cost may be the most abstract. But any way you crunch the numbers, the world’s best dogfighter has also been one of the most expensive operational warplanes ever.

Over the years, the Raptor’s cost has been the subject of intense debate in the Pentagon, the White House, Congress and the media. But advocates and critics tend to quote different figures to serve their various agendas. Fans of the twin-engine fighter usually refer to the “flyaway cost” — that is, how much Lockheed charged the government to piece together each Raptor after all development has been paid for. In other words, just construction spending.

By that reckoning, each of the last 60 F-22s set the taxpayer back $137 million, only slightly more than the roughly $110 million apiece Americans pay for a new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — a plane specifically designed to be “affordable,” whatever that means. (All figures are in roughly constant dollars.)

Haters cite “unit cost,” which includes development and production spending divided by the number of jets built. F-22 production and development, including currently approved upgrades, totals $74 billion, resulting in a unit cost of $377 million.

And just because the last Raptor left the Marietta factory doesn’t mean the unit cost is fixed at $377 million. If the Air Force ever gets around to adding a long-planned-for datalink, the unit cost could increase slightly. Tweaks to prevent future groundings — like those that occurred this year — would also push the unit cost up.

By contrast, the F-35′s unit cost should stabilize at around $157 million, owing to a massive 2,443-plane production run. That’s assuming the Joint Strike Fighter doesn’t get canceled or curtailed following revelations of new design flaws.

There’s a third way to calculate the F-22′s burden on the taxpayer. “Lifecycle cost” adds up the price of fuel, spare parts and maintenance during the jet’s projected 40-year lifespan. The Government Accountability Office estimates it will cost $59 billion to fix and fly the F-22s until they retire. If you add unit cost and per-plane lifecycle cost, you get the total amount the United States spends to design, produce and operate a single Raptor: a whopping $678 million.

F-35 lifecycle plus unit cost, assuming nothing else goes wrong? $469 million, according to Air Force figures quoted by the GAO.

The fourth and final approach to calculating the Raptor’s price takes into account its effectiveness. It’s a trickier measurement. But it might be the best one to consider. It asks: How much value does the U.S. government get from its investment in F-22s?

While it’s undetectable in isolated flyaway, unit and lifecycle cost figures, value is inarguably important. A cheap used car that never leaves the driveway is, in a real sense, more expensive than a car you pay sticker price for and drive every day.

So consider this: since the F-22 entered service in 2005, every other operational warplane in the U.S. arsenal has seen action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or other conflict zones. But the tiny fleet of pricey F-22s, optimized for ultra-rare dogfighting missions, missing key upgrades and frequently grounded, hasn’t flown a single combat sortie.

That should be the real source of buyer’s remorse.

Photo: Lockheed Martin

Hat Tip To: Danger Room

Posted in Latest Update

New Afghanistan Plan: Less U.S. Fighting, More Training

Starting next year, commanders in Afghanistan will significantly revise their strategy, out of the recognition that they need to prepare their Afghan partners to take over the war much, much faster. Done right, it’ll mean a smooth handover to Afghan soldiers and cops in 2014. Done wrong, it’ll concede much of the country to the insurgency and won’t prep the Afghans to handle their own security.

Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, revealed his new plan on Tuesday. As the surge forces return home by late summer, Allen will split his continuing deployments between waging the war directly and embedding U.S. troops in Afghan units. The idea reflects a warning, issued last week by the influential Center for a New American Security, that the NATO coalition simply won’t prepare Afghan units to take over the war in 2014 if it spends most of its time until then fighting the war itself.

Allen’s move addresses a clear problem. Current NATO training for Afghan units focuses on the front end: getting the Afghans through boot camp and the officer academy. It doesn’t emphasize mentoring the Afghans once they get into the fight. That’s why in practice, U.S. units often get the worst of both worlds: having to fight beside subpar Afghan soldiers — not a single battalion of which can operate independently.

Last week, the Center for a New American Security attributed that problem to a structural flaw in U.S. strategy. As long as commanders at the company, battalion and brigade level are charged with waging the war directly, they’ll look to their own units to get the job done. Unless Allen started tasking his commanders to eat, sleep, breathe and fight with the Afghans, warned analysts Andrew Exum and David Barno, the Afghans would crack under the pressure of taking over the war in 2014, when a only a reduced U.S. force will remain in the country.

Allen’s strategy shift essentially blesses Exum and Barno’s paper. Most of it, anyway.

Exum and Barno advocated a sharper shift than Allen proved to be comfortable with. They want U.S. troops across Afghanistan to stop waging the war directly after the surge ends next summer. (With some caveats for forces hunting insurgent cells.) Allen’s plan calls for phasing in the increased partnering with the Afghans, while U.S. forces stay on the warpath in the east and consolidate their gains in the south.

That might not be enough to solve the structural problem. “My worry,” Exum said during a December 5 talk with reporters, “is if you give a [U.S.] commander an excuse not to partner, he’ll take it. There’s always a good tactical reason for [Afghan] forces not to be in the lead.”

But there’s an understandable reason why Exum and Barno’s timeline was too fast for Allen. Eastern Afghanistan has gotten more dangerous, not less, in the last two years as U.S. shifted the war’s center of gravity southward and the Pakistanis allowed insurgent safe havens on their side of the border fester. Shifting too rapidly to a train-first strategy risks conceding east Afghanistan to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. For that matter, it also risks leaving southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban.

It’s a serious dilemma for a decade-long war, and one that doesn’t lend itself to easy decisions. Exum says that Allen ought to have “leeway” in how he strikes the balance — but that the commander also has to pay close attention to how his subordinates strike it, too.

“I think he is going to need to take a personal interest in making sure this change happens,” Exum tells Danger Room. “His commander’s intent will need to be clear to units in the field, and he will need to supervise subordinate commanders to ensure this is actually happening.”

As 2012 dawns — and with it, the end of the Afghanistan surge — Allen lacks two major and interlocked conditions to end the war successfully. First, there’s no political strategy to negotiate a peace; second, relations with Pakistan, where insurgents have safe haven, have spiraled downward.

Moving rapidly to improve Afghan troops’ capacity to fight shows that Allen’s focused on the best endgame available. But it’s going to be hard to balance the immediate need to fight the war against the long-term need to have the Afghans fight it in 2014. And after a decade of war, even getting that balance right might still not be enough.


Hat Tip To: Danger Room

Posted in Latest Update

Black Hawk Made: A Peek Inside the Sikorsky Factory

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Mention the Black Hawk helicopter and the first thing most people think of is the 1993 incident in Somalia where the Sikorsky-manufactured helicopter became famous for all the wrong reasons. A best-selling book and Hollywood movie tends to trump the day in, day out work that’s been performed by the helicopters for more than 30 years. But if the Bell UH-1 Huey was synonymous with “military helicopter” during the 1960s and 1970s, the UH-60 Black Hawk (and its siblings) has taken its place ever since.

The UH-60 Black Hawk is actually just one member of a large family of helicopters. The military designates the variants of the H-60 with a prefix indicating their intended purpose: there’s the utility UH-60; search and rescue/medical evacuation HH-60; anti-submarine SH-60; multi-mission MH-60; or the staff transporting VH-60. (No word on the designation for the stealth version used in the Osama bin Laden raid.) The company designation for the model is S-70.

The helicopter is used by every branch of the U.S. armed forces and several other government agencies, including the Customs and Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Agency. More than 30 foreign countries operate at least one variant of the S-70 family, some as close as Canada and Mexico, others as far away as China.

On a trip earlier this year to learn about Sikorsky’s speedy X-2 helicopter program, we visited the company headquarters in Stratford, Connecticut. On our way to the flight test office, we were able to take a tour of the factory where the S-70 helicopters roll off the assembly line and are test flown before being delivered to the wide range of customers. Here’s a sampling of what we saw — and how the signature U.S. military helicopter gets put together.

Above, an unpainted UH-60M sits on the flight line just outside the factory doors, awaiting its first ground run before preliminary flight testing. Some of the helicopters are painted before flight test, while others are flown with only the primer colors on the various components.

Photos: Jason Paur/

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Origin: Danger Room

Posted in Latest Update

Hezbollah Allegedly Helps Cartels Launder Coke Money

According to federal prosecutors, Hezbollah has started to learn the lesson that took funk legend Rick James a lifetime to absorb: cocaine is a hell of a drug.

The Lebanese terrorist group isn’t selling blow itself. It’s doing something more lucrative: getting a percentage of the drug trade, through money laundering. ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella reports that U.S. federal prosecutors are putting together a case linking Hezbollah to a massive, multi-continent cocaine smuggling operation, one that worked with the bloody Zetas cartel to launder drug money.

Ayman Joumaa, an accused Hezbollah financier, “allegedly coordinated the smuggling of at least 85 tons of Colombian cocaine through Central America and Mexico in partnership with the Zetas,” Rotella reports, citing an indictment released on Tuesday. About $85 million in cash got laundered through “money exchange houses, used car businesses and other companies” on four continents. Joumaa’s operation dates back to 1997.

The cocaine ended up on American streets, by way of Mexico.

It’s hard not to think of the bizarre story, also told by federal prosecutors recently, that Iranian operatives tried to work with the cartels to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington. The Drug Enforcement Agency has long suspected that Mideastern terrorists were starting to collaborate with drug gangs, but the evidence thus far has been scant.

It’s also unclear what the indictment really means for Hezbollah. The terrorist group and Iranian proxy is now ensconced in the Lebanese government. It recently rolled up several CIA informants trying to infiltrate the organization, thanks to the spies’ faulty codewords.

Then again, if the Mexican-Hezbollah drug connection all seems a bit paranoid, well, you know, paranoia is a side effect of cocaine. Rick James could certainly tell you that.

Photo: Flickr/The Rambling Catfish

Via: Danger Room

Posted in Latest Update