“Khorasan Group” flap-du-jour Explained

Fox News, The National Review, and Rush Limbaugh all say The Khorasan group doesn’t exist. Most right wing commentators tell us this is further proof the Obama Administration lied, just to justify, Bush-style, the anti-ISIS air war over Iraq and Syria.

I saw a Facebook newspaper scan purporting to be from a Canadian journalist, but I couldn’t find it again when I went back to look for it. It said and suggested the same thing.

They’re pimping opinion from more respected sources.

Glen Greenwald says the media vastly over-hyped this. “Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).”

Al Jazeera, which employs reporters who are actually very smart, says “Something about the name Khorasan, which the US says is a group of al-Qaeda veterans, doesn’t feel right.” They had contacts, whom they couldn’t name either of course, who said “Khorasan? I don’t know that name. I don’t know who they are.”

Writing for Yahoo, Kaye Foley said “It is a small network of an estimated 50 or so al-Qaida veterans who set up shop in Syria, benefiting from the cover of civil war and the protection of the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front. Although the group was brought to public attention in the past week, Attorney General Eric Holder said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric the U.S. has been watching Khorasan for two years.”

Even the Administration seems to be downplaying early claims US fighter planes severely crippled a “Khorasan Group” cell operating in the region. It seems a group, actually calling itself “Khorasan,” may not even exist.

What further proof do we need, you say? Ask yourself first: what do we really know?

None of the partisan news sources above have cited their sources, if they have any, or disclosed any documentation to substantiate their claims, on either side. So the attacks from the right and the antiwar left are speculative.

No one doubts that Al Qaeda has attacked the United States before and would like to try it again. We also know there are hundreds of Al Qaeda splinter groups, including ISIS. ISIS was disowned because it refused to follow orders of the Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahir, currently trying to muster the parent group.

“The Khorasan Region” may refer to an ancient historical area including Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, or to a military terrorist area of current interest in Syria.

If Al Qaeda is operating a secret group in the Khorasan region – “DUH” – and if national or international security agencies have identified a specific threat, and that splinter group does not have a name, “Khorasan Group” would be a logical working name for US intelligence services to specifically identify that group of interest.

Why would that secret group, if it exists, keep its identity and existence secret? – “DUH!”

But neither our security forces nor the US Administration can afford to reveal their sources without compromising intelligence “assets.” There will be no hard intelligence sources outside the intelligence community, and they cannot reveal that. I think everyone, left and right, understands that.

I conclude no civilian sources have any bona-fide hard intelligence and aren’t likely to get any. The US intelligence services and top level Administration may have it, but they’re not likely to say so.

Media hype, yes. Fox News and right-wing partisanship, yes. Any hit against Al Qaeda is a good hit. As for the rest of the hype, for the rest of us, we may never know.

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Occupy Wall Street: Gone Rogue?

I picked up a free San Mateo Daily Journal yesterday when I joined a friend for lunch. There was a nice story on page 1 about some civic-minded Redwood City high school girls who decided to join a regional Occupy demonstration. They thought, by participating, they could make a difference.

“Students deserve the opportunity to discuss what they care about,” an organizer said. “Once you leave high school, life hits you like a ton of bricks and these students need to know about the troubles with the banking system and why cuts are made to education.”

There was some isolated violence. The real violence was in Oakland, Seattle and elsewhere in the nation. Banks were vandalized, windows were smashed, police cars were burned, police were assaulted, and police and the crowd were at one point bombarded by a roof-top crazy hurling down long sections of heavy steel piping. There was no follow-up story on the high school girls, but I bet most were disappointed.

Occupy Wall Street, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Continue reading

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Predator: The Slippery Slope

We are still fighting wars with tactics better suited to World War II than Afghanistan. We use tanks even though we are not in the desert fighting Rommel. We use gunships even though this may take out a whole village to take down one insurgent, and we call that “collateral damage.” We send our boys overseas for three, four, even five tours, asking them to go into those villages and figure out which handful of Afghans are combatant Taliban. In Afghanistan, our enemy are in the villages because they live there.

In Bill Cosby’s 1963 “Toss of the Coin” take on the Minutemen vs. the Redcoats, the British lose the coin toss. They’re told “you guys have to wear red coats and march in a straight line” while “we get to hide behind trees and shoot at you.” We lost the coin toss in the Mideast.

In Bill Moyers’ recent in-depth interview “Moving Beyond War”, he has a series of interesting conversations with Andrew Bacevich, “a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran-turned-scholar who’s become one of the most perceptive observers of America’s changing role in the world.”

The following excerpt tracks that portion of their discussion in which they covered our increasing and controversial use of the Predator unmanned drone. Many Americans are asking if this tactic is moral. Does it divorce accountability from the military-political process? Perhaps, but does it save American lives? Here is the excerpt from the transcript:

ANDREW BACEVICH: I don’t think anybody today thinks that counterinsurgency is going to pacify Afghanistan.

BILL MOYERS: Why didn’t it work?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Again, one would refer to Afghan history here, that this is simply not a place that accommodates foreign invaders who think they know how to run the place better than the local population. But what I would want to emphasize, I think, is that by last year, I think Obama himself had given up on the notion that counterinsurgency provided a basis for U.S. strategy and had, indeed, begun to implement Plan C. And Plan C is targeted assassination.

Plan C is relying on drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with missiles, and also commandos, special operation forces, in order to conduct military operations, in essence on a global basis, identifying those who could pose a threat to us. And without regard to congressional authority, without regard to considerations of national sovereignty, to go kill the people we think need to be killed. Plan C is already being implemented.

BILL MOYERS: Most people seem to accept it as an alternative to failure in Afghanistan, and as a way of keeping American soldiers out of harm’s way.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and also they accept it because of course, it doesn’t cost us anything. We are not, the people are not engaged in any serious way. The people are not asked to sacrifice. The people are asked only to applaud when we are told after the fact that an attack has succeeded.

I don’t have any easy answers to the Predator problem. I favor keeping our boys out of harm’s way. That’s why I’m also for an accelerated withdrawal from a hopeless quagmire. I do not see Afghanistan as a unified country in need of defense or capable of benefiting from it, even if they asked us to stay, which doubtless they now will not.

But we all recognize that targeted robot assassinations are a slippery slope. Yet we never resolved our differences on CIA assassinations several decades ago. At what point do assassinations become immoral?

My take on Predator’s slippery slope is that “assassination” launches should be accountable to, and only authorized by, our country’s highest elected civilian leaders, never by military field commanders – however reputable and trustworthy. This kind of target must be a high-ranking military or paramilitary individual or unit, actively engaged in military hostilities against the United States or its armed forces, or poised to do so when it is too late to stop them by conventional means. The high-profile target must be non-containable by means of timely kill-or-capture. And the target may not be a civilian head of state unless the President determines an extraordinary and imminent threat to national or global security, such as a Hitler.

I draw a sharp line between targeted assassinations and calling in a drone strike in a combat situation. If no noncombatants are killed, and American lives are saved, I’m for tactical strikes. But I still resist the idea of uncontrolled field-level deployment. I believe Congress and the Defense Department should get involved in creating light-speed control and monitoring mechanisms, and high-level field commanders should have the responsibility for approving tactical strikes and reviewing results.

Remember, the United States will not long be the only nation deploying smart unmanned aircraft systems. It would be in our own self-interest for the United States to take the lead in defining clear-cut boundaries.

Bin Laden obviously would have been an eligible Predator target (though we took him out with our miraculous Navy Seal team). But Assad most probably would not be. For that, we need the United Nations. It is perhaps too soon to tell if Russia and China have committed to cooperative global efforts to reduce global atrocities, but their new-found willingness to go along with the UN’s Mr. Annan in pressuring Syria is encouraging. And, China has greatly facilitated efforts to pressure North Korea on its nuclear weapons program.

Concerted world cooperation and containment is the anti-terrorist weapon of the future.

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Contraception: Controversial Health Care Mandate

The U.S. Health and Human Services department (HHS) recently announced a controversial ruling that would compel most religious organizations to offer contraceptive services as part of their basic health care package. Churches themselves would be granted the “religious exemption.”

Sometimes it may seem hard to defend organizations which in many cases push intrusive meddling upon the rights and private lives of American citizens. Here we have a case where the exact same wrong is being perpetrated upon some of those religious groups. The danger in each case is that the wrongs are perpetrated through the offices of the United States government.

What was HHS thinking? Who would be beneficiaries of this new ruling? PBS reports that while churches themselves are exempt from the new rules, Catholic hospitals and universities must comply. Continue reading

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Taking a Second Look at Social Security

Recently Cousin Ron Lamont re-posted a Facebook “Like” quote by someone alleging that as early as 1967, liberal economists were calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” This irritated me enough that I removed it with the “hide this post” tool. I’m still considering whether Facebook, a family-friendly safe space, is even the proper forum for hard-core political commentary and opinion.

So to be honest, It’s fair to say I started it all when I re-posted my personal website article “Social Security Not a Ponzi Scheme” on Facebook. Even though PolitiFact [1] rates Perry’s 2011 “Ponzi” statement as “False,” I’d have to rate the 1967 “Ponzi” allegation, far from being a “Pants On Fire” item, as “Half True.”

My cousin’s post was a fair turnaround. Now then, what’s the story about Social Security?

In 1967 Newsweek reportedly ran a column by noted liberal economist Paul Samuelson (of college Economics textbook fame). Samuelson in fact did compare Social Security to a Ponzi scheme [2]. This source cites numerous other early references to the same opinion, including the Wall Street Journal. The source notes that Samuelson was “actually drawing on the Ponzi analogy to defend Social Security”, a back-handed way for an academic to illustrate a point if ever I heard one. There’s a long history of groups that tried to pin Social Security to the mat before. You should read the PolitiFact assessment [1] of the whole issue.

In my first article I showed that Social Security is NOT a Ponzi scheme by definition, but an account that is actually but not physically held in each contributor’s name. Despite all the rhetoric about what Congress is doing or has done with those funds, the account is still due and payable according to the terms of the social contract. The obvious cause for concern is: how long will the Social Security trust fund remain solvent and be able to pay out on its obligations?

Over the years a major defense of Social Security has been that it is deemed “actuarially sound,” meaning that a statistical analysis of FICA and Employer Contributions, charting pay-in and pay-out amounts against actuarial table life expectancies shows that Social Security is paying its own way, or is at least solvent. Well, it probably would be solvent if its funds were securely invested at going interest rates like any other form of pension fund.

I recently read a cynical charge somewhere that when FDR and the New Deal Congress inaugurated Social Security in 1935, the actuarial life expectancy of the current generation of retirees was about three years. I couldn’t verify that. Social Security Online [3] presents a quite different accounting: “men attaining 65 in 1990 can expect to live for 15.3 years compared to 12.7 years for men attaining 65 back in 1940.” 1940 was the first year Americans could collect Social Security.

One study I can and did do is an analysis of my own SSI account. I started drawing on it at age 65 in 2009. Raw data includes all of my contributions from 1960 to 2009 (49 years), matching Employer contributions in like amounts, and even a withholding rate adjustment recalculation for a five-year period where I was mostly self-employed. Given the taxable income data posted to everyone’s annual SSA statements, and the withholding rate for each year [4], it is a simple matter to calculate annual withholding amounts without trying to locate 49 years of W2’s or Form 1040’s. My 49-year figures came within $186 of the government-reported withholdings. And I know exactly what my SSI income is.

I assumed those funds must be adjusted or amortized for the value of interest they should earn in any interest-bearing account, making no assumption about what the Congress and Treasury may actually be doing with our money. I chose a 5% APR. Some may object that the government doesn’t credit interest accruals to our account. I am calculating the value of the account, not just the portion allocated to us.

But what is the difference between the principal and principle plus accruals? My own contribution’s cash flow plus assumed accrual worked out to 148.47% of principal. (That’s so low because the early years contributed the least). I calculated what the future value [6] of each year’s total adjusted contribution would be by year 2009. Adding the sum of those payments plus interest equaled just under 12% of my lifetime earnings.

Obviously I won’t be publishing personal financial data out of privacy concerns, but you could run the same calculations on your own account using the source links I’ve provided in “References” below. If you do not yet have a retirement year and estimated SSI monthly income, use your SSA annual statements to make some assumptions. You need to know the effect of different retirement ages on SSI income anyway.

My own work experience may not be entirely representative. I probably worked somewhat longer than the average of all wage-earners. On the one hand, my wages include three years in the military, part-time income in college, and five years of exquisitely marginal self-employment income. On the other, I finally “capped out” on SSI contributions in my last years in the workforce. The difference is what those early years might have contributed to personal savings growth had my income curve been more even. That makes a big difference to my old age, but doesn’t materially affect the amount of my monthly social security payment.

We noted how low my wages were in those early years (even if adjusted for inflation, which we should not do here). My experience would be different from someone who went straight from college into a lifelong professional career. Those earners would “cap out” early, and the Social Security Administration fund would probably never “go into the red” for individuals least likely to depend on it. Conversely, my contributions would be proportionally greater than those of someone who, for example, left the workplace to raise a family, or on account of illness or disability. All I can conclude is that it sounds reasonable that a substantial proportion of the workforce probably survives to receive social security payments well in excess of that ever put into the fund. Perhaps people who complain that is not fair forget that’s the security benefit of a social security insurance plan. Private insurance plans of all types depend on the very same mathematical certainty of pooling of risk.

The reason we can’t add an inflation factor to our calculations is off-topic but worth examining. Savings and other interest-bearing accounts don’t take inflation into account either. There, a dollar is only a dollar whether deposited in 1960 or 2009. I ran the “Inflation Calculator” [5] on my yearly payments anyway, even though I could not fairly use them for my bottom-line calculations. It’s instructive to note that the same $36.13 worth of groceries in 1962 (my FICA contribution for that year) would cost $256.66 in 2009 dollars. Younger readers would not remember the late 1970’s, when so many of us consumed with plastic credit cards bearing an 18.99% APR, since we could more cheaply repay later with devalued dollars. It isn’t just the stodgy classic University of Chicago economic conservatives who call inflation the “hidden tax.” It is. Today we call it “Quantitative Easement.”

In my early years I argued that I would probably live to regret paying into the Social Security fund (as if I had a choice). My spreadsheet proves me wrong. Actuarially speaking, in my case, I should expect to get out of it almost exactly the value of what I put into it. The spreadsheet calculations revealed that my own account will hit “break-even” when I turn age 80.25, and my statistical life expectancy right now in 2011 is age 82.77 years.

Unfortunately, even considering my low-earning early years, the purchasing power of my Social Security “nest egg” would have been worth 91% more (almost double the real purchasing power) if we did not live in an inflation-addicted economy. Our “hidden tax” benefits the government in the short run, because it repays debt with cheaper dollars just like we did with the plastic 1970 credit cards. As you can see, in the long run inflation hurts all of us, including our government.

Unsurprisingly, conservatives and upper-income wage earners will argue that Social Security is inefficient and of limited value. Liberals, seniors and lower-income workers will argue that the vast majority of Americans need a safety net. Despite all the rhetoric on both sides, I’d like to know what is going to be done to save a program that has worked for generations of American retirees so far.

If Congress can’t or won’t fix the program we have now, it would be foolhardy to put our faith and trust in a poor substitute that takes the “insurance” out of Social Security insurance, or, even worse, in some scheme that’ll be shunted off to the same private sector that brought us toxic assets, job offshoring and an imperiled middle class. That’s just my opinion, but whether the polls prove that to be in the 51% majority or 49% minority, it can’t and won’t be ignored.

©Alex Forbes 2011

References

[1] PolitiFact, “Shacking up: Social Security & Ponzi schemes
[2] Liberally Conservative, “Perry Wasn’t the First
[3] Life Expectancy for Social Security, SSA
[4] Social Security Administration Trust Fund Data
[5] Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator
[6] Future Value: I couldn’t get the built-in Excel function to work properly in my spreadsheet. Just use the formula FV = PV ( 1 + i )^ t (see NetMBA Future Value) which, in the Excel cell, would look like this: =D5*1.05^G5 if cell D5 contains the principal and G5 contains the number of periods. 1.05 is the assumed interest factor compounded annually.

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What Republicans and Democrats Still Need to Do

On August 2 the world watched the conclusion of Congress’s recent and embarrassing failure to address time-critical debt ceiling and budget decisions until the very last possible moment. It was very possibly the first time in recorded history that Communist China lambasted the United States in a rant almost everybody here in the United States could actually agree with.

We averted a credit default, but the solution was a draconian compromise that’s sure to please nobody. The compromise left untouched revenue strategies, our dire unemployment picture, and the need to balance the budget. If any modern American corporation conducted its management planning the way our senators and house representatives do, its Board would have long ago fired the lot of them. That situation is hardly new.

Our underperforming Congress largely falls back on a blizzard of blamestorming to excuse its failure to execute. If you’re a Republican, it’s the fault of those intransigent liberal socialists who are trying to kill off the goose that laid the golden egg. If you’re a Democrat, it’s those fascistic neoconservative plutocrats who are again trying to push the U.S. working class into virtual serfdom.
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Bin Laden

I’ve refrained from comment on the May 1 killing of Osama Bin Laden because it’s already one of the most talked-about topics in the world. In his RSS blog feed, New Yorker columnist Hendrik Hertzberg even titled a recent post “Not About Osama! Not About Obama!” His post was about spiral galaxy M51 and the speed of light.

Also, it seems self-evident that Bin Laden has been the world’s most hunted man for almost ten years. Literally “wanted dead or alive”, it was absolutely inevitable that Bin Laden would be killed or captured. Virtually the only question was when the United States would find him.

Bin Laden has had a decade to ponder how he would respond if presented with a choice of death or surrender. He might have died in a rain of bombs upon a Tora Bora type shelter, inflicted by invisible Stealth bombers in the night. He might have died by Predator missile strike, at the risk of “collateral” civilian deaths. But he died in the now-famous surgical strike by U.S. Special Forces, making him a martyr in the eyes of his jihadists. The outcome should surprise few.

BBC reports on a New York Times statement from sons of Osama Bin Laden, saying “the family wanted to know why the al-Qaeda leader had not been captured alive.”

The statement goes on to say “the US decision to bury Bin Laden’s corpse at sea had deprived the family of performing religious rites.”

This sudden family concern for sensitivity rings hollow, when Bin Laden deprived the families of nearly 3,000 innocent civilians of the opportunity to bury their dead, after Bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The family also said “We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as justice must be seen to be done.”

I do personally believe that unilateral strikes on foreign soil, in all but the most dire national emergencies, are an extremely slippery slope. I will leave it to others to debate whether this was a dire national emergency, but I think the evidence shows it was.

While I would like to see our United States reassess this offshore strike strategy, which wins us no friends abroad, I most particularly believe that the Bin Laden family is the very last family on earth with the right to raise questions of equitable solutions to political problems and international war criminals.

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Wikileaks

Wikileaks seems to have become the paparazzi of the diplomatic corps, doing for Hillary Clinton’s world what National Enquirer magazine did for Paris Hilton. I tried at first to ignore the Wikileaks media sensation. Wouldn’t you know, it won’t go away. Some gossipy tidbits are fascinating. Many are potentially embarrassing. Some threaten delicate negotiations, or diplomatic relationships that took years to build. Almost all undermine international confidence in “the system.” Most confirm what we already knew, heard or suspected. How secure were they? The money was not actually kept in bank vaults, but the front door to the bank was thought to be really, really strong. What do these Wikileaks mean, who is responsible for them, and who, ultimately, is accountable for their embarrassing disclosure?

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2COR4:6

What’s to say about a gunsight model number? Not much, unless it happens to be the code to the Christian Bible passage in chapter 4 verse 6 of Corinthians.

This hit the news yesterday. A small and very devout Michigan firm makes the gunsights, which include some of the finest military rifle scopes in the world.

And that’s the problem. These scopes are doing heavy service in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. They are being furnished to the Iraqi police force. To a culture still resentful of the Christian European Crusades back in the middle ages, the image of returning Crusaders is inescapable.
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There Goes The Knowledge Base

What’s happening to the legendary American know-how in the USA today? It’s not exactly “brain drain”, but it’s not the parallel phenomenon of “brain gain”, either. We’re losing our know-how, but the language to describe what’s happening is still alien to our vocabulary.

Wikipedia  defines “brain drain” thusly: “Brain drain or human capital flight is a large emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge, normally due to conflict, lack of opportunity, political instability, or health risks. Brain drain is usually regarded as an economic cost, since emigrants usually take with them the fraction of value of their training sponsored by the government.”

In American we saw “brain drain” [as a talent inflow] from several skillset migrations over the past 60 years. Over that same time frame, we saw that the quality of education in America has never been lower than it is today. Continue reading

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