Friday, December 30, 2011

Egypt: NGO Raids, Police, and Office Equipment

I'm still cautiously optimistic about "Arab spring."

What we've seen so far is more about upsetting the apple cart, than building new and better governments. Durable autocracies in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, are gone. Syria's boss got dropped from the Arab League. Bahrain's king may be learning that killing his subjects isn't a good idea.

That's cautiously optimistic.

Years, Decades, Generations

There's a chance that at least some of the countries where folks ousted an autocrat will have trouble for years. Maybe decades. Some may even elect a home-grown equivalent of Iran's ayatollahs.

But I think that enough folks in places like Egypt and Libya have gotten a taste of freedom: and liked it. They've also learned how to use the Internet and other Information Age technologies and social structures: and are catching up on what's happened in the last few thousand years. Particularly since the 18th century.

In the long run, generations from now, I think there's a good chance that folks in the Middle East will develop governments that serve the citizens: not just the local gentry.

Meanwhile, it's rough going.

'Because We Can?'

Egypt's old-school autocrat, Mubarak, is out. Right now, Egypt has a military government. That, by itself, isn't bad news: not in my opinion, anyway.

Raids on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): that's bad news.1

At least two of the NGOs have been observing Egypt's elections. They "...may have received illegal foreign funding and have been operating without licenses from the Foreign Ministry and local ministries...." (CNN) 'Obviously' they're foreign spies?!

Actually, it's anyone's guess why Egyptian police took stuff from these outfits.

Maybe it's just because they have the power to do so: and like to flex their muscles. Or maybe not.

'Commies,' 'Hate Speech,' and Stolen Office Equipment

An op-ed in the United Kingdom2 said that it's probably because Egypt's current bosses don't like it when folks act on their own volition. He may be right about that.

I remember the 'good old days,' when 'regular Americans' had conniptions when commies and pinkos disagreed with them. More recently, defenders of 'tolerance' have labeled opposing views as "hate speech." Tomayto, tomahto.

A partial list of what got stolen confiscated may suggest another motive:
"...Police took laptops, desktops, video conferencing equipment, cell phones and other electronics, Hughes said. They also took between 15 and 20 boxes of documents...."
Here in America, that's several thousand dollars' worth of merchandise. I don't have too much trouble imaging that an enterprising, and ethically-challenged, enforcer might decide to supplement his income with a little informal taxation.

However, I think the UK op-ed author has a very plausible explanation. I think I can understand why Egypt's current bosses want to control what others say, and how they say it. But that doesn't mean I think it's a good idea.

Related posts:

1 News and views:
"NGOs puzzled by Egyptian raids"
CNN (December 30, 2011)

"A day after Egyptian police raided the offices of 10 nongovernmental organizations across the country, the groups remained in the dark about what the authorities were looking for.

" 'We asked them if there was something specific we could help them find,' Julie Hughes, Egypt country director for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), told CNN Friday. 'They refused to answer.'

"Two other U.S.-based agencies, Freedom House and the International Republican Institute (IRI), were also raided.

"Police took laptops, desktops, video conferencing equipment, cell phones and other electronics, Hughes said. They also took between 15 and 20 boxes of documents.

"The actions were part of an investigation into allegations that groups may have received illegal foreign funding and have been operating without licenses from the Foreign Ministry and local ministries, according to Adel Saeed, spokesman for the general prosecutor's office...."

"Egypt rights groups blast raids on NGO offices"
AP, via CBS News (December 30, 2011)

"Several Egyptian rights groups on Friday accused the country's ruling military council of using 'repressive tools' of the deposed regime in waging an 'unprecedented campaign' against pro-democracy organizations.

"The groups' joint statement came just hours after security forces stormed offices of 10 rights organizations, including several based in the United States. The Interior Ministry said the raids were part of the investigation into foreign funding of rights groups.

"The military, which took over control after a popular uprising toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February, has often accused the groups of promoting protests with the help of funds from abroad...."
2 Op-ed about Egypt's police raids:
"Egypt's raids on NGOs are about control"
Brian Whitaker, (December 30, 2011)
"Restricting NGO funding is typical of authoritarian regimes happy to take foreign aid but less happy about human rights

"Imagine you live in Saudi Arabia and want to start a discussion group with some friends. The only way to do it legally is to ask the king's permission.

"Musa al-Qarni dutifully wrote a letter to the king but never got a reply – so he went ahead anyway. A few months later, Qarni was arrested and carted off to jail after secret police commandos stormed the villa in Jeddah where he and several men 'widely known for their advocacy on issues of social and political reform' were meeting.

"In most Arab states any sort of civil society organisation, even something as innocent as a youth group or stamp-collecting club, has to be registered with the authorities, and if the authorities don't like the sound of it they may refuse or simply ignore the request, leaving the applicants in a legal limbo.

"In Bahrain and Oman they can refuse permission on the grounds that the organisation is unnecessary or, in Oman's case, 'for any other reasons' decided upon by the ministry of social affairs. In Qatar, if a society wants to admit non-Qatari members it must ask the prime minister first...."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Grave Trouble: 64,000 Arlington Dead 'Dishonored' - 64,000!

Arlington National Cemetery is in the news again. It's basically the same record-keeping SNAFU that surfaced before, with more detail. Executives got fired in June of last year, when more than 200 graves were lost. I gather that they weren't literally gone from the cemetery: just that records for them were scrambled.

That's not acceptable.

On the other hand, I'm not all that surprised that something went wrong. I'd better explain that statement.

One and a Half Centuries, More Than a Quarter of a Million Burials

Arlington National Cemetery has been around for about 147 years. Or 148, counting from 1863: when the Union confiscated land owned by General Robert E. Lee. There's a brief history of the cemetery online. Quite a few, actually, including:
A few things have changed since the War Between the States and Reconstruction. Take data storage and information technology, for example. Folks maintained Arlington's records, using pens (quill, fountain, and ballpoint), Typewriters, and Database software.

Laws, customs, and practices involving record keeping changed, too. And most of the folks who ran Arlington in previous decades aren't around to answer questions. I'm not making excuses here: just noting that any sort of inventory control is subject to human error.

Then there's the size of the place:1
  • 147 years in operation
  • 259,978 gravesites
    • More than 300,000 burials
      • Some grave markers have two or more names
I've run into the "30 burials a day" fairly often in the news. That may be accurate, but at 300,000 burials over 147 years, I get an average of about five and a half burials a day over the cemetery's history.

Honoring the Dead, Getting a Grip

Like I said, botching the records of 64,000 folks buried in a cemetery is "not acceptable." I wouldn't like it if it were just 64 cases of sloppy record-keeping.

But that's what this seems to be about, sloppy record-keeping: not having burials that involved tossing the body in a potting shed. Compared to some private-sector cemetery horror stories that hit the news, the Arlington affair is comparatively mild.2

Even the 'unmarked graves' are more a matter of folks in the early 20th century not knowing what late 20th century customs would be:
"...One of the biggest surprises uncovered by the review was that in most of the early 20th century, the cemetery did not include the name of a wife on a headstone when she was buried next to her husband. Under current practices, the name of the spouse is etched onto the back of the headstone.

" [Arlington executive director Kathryn] Condon said the cemetery will correct that by adding the spouse's name to the gravesite. She said it is not only the right thing to do but is also required by law.

"Accounting for the forgotten spouses alone will require thousands of corrections, officials said. In some cases, replacement headstones will be made. In cases where the headstones are considered historic, footstones will be added...."
(Associated Press, via
But still - 64,000 is a big number. And I could, by cherry-picking factoids from the news, post something like 'oh, the horror! the horror! SIXTY FOUR THOUSAND BLANK HEADSTONES!!!'

If I shoveled in enough unsupported opinions about the vile wickedness of the American military, I might even be considered 'intelligent' in the 'right' circles.

That's not gonna happen.

It's not that I think U. S. Army brass are supernal beings who routinely take a morning stroll on the Tidal Basin. Stuff happens. Sometimes it's losing track of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. In this case, it's a botched job of record keeping at a cemetery.

Mistakes happen - and sometimes the 'mistakes' were intentional. Either way, I think it's important to clean up the mess; deal sensibly with whoever was responsible; and take steps to keep the problem from happening again. As far as I can tell, the American military has a pretty good track record for learning from mistakes.

Goodbye Quill Pens, Hello Information Age

I think that, sooner or later, the American Congress will get around to putting the legislative process in an online, searchable, accessible, form. And that's another topic. Meanwhile, it looks like the folks running Arlington have acknowledged the Information Age:"...The most significant part of the review, Condon said, is that the cemetery for the first time has a single, reliable database that will allow officials to fix past mistakes and plan for the future.

"The cemetery is currently testing an interactive, web-based version of its database that will allow visitors to click on a digital map to see gravesites and learn who is buried there, ensuring the cemetery's records are open and accessible going forward.

" 'We'll have 300 million American fact-checkers,' [Gravesite Accountability Task Force co-chair John] Schrader said."

More-or-less-related posts:
In the news:

1 From a description of how the Arlington Cemetery burial records issue is being handled:
"...The process began with a hand count, using simple mechanical clickers, of every gravesite -- 259,978 to be exact. (More than 300,000 people are buried at Arlington, but some grave markers have two or more names.) Then, during the summer, members of the Army's ceremonial Old Guard unit used iPhones to photograph the front and back of every headstone, so the information could be compared against internal records....

"...John Schrader, co-chair of the Gravesite Accountability Task Force, said recordkeeping methods varied widely over the cemetery's 147-year history, from handwritten logs to index cards, to typewritten forms and two different computer databases. That sometimes compounded problems, as transcription errors were common. To avoid those problems, all of the old records have been scanned and digitized, rather than transcribed, to avoid introducing further errors, he said...."
(Associated Press, via
2 Deeds, dastardly and dumb, involving cemeteries:3 Crazy people don't always write like crazy people. I posted a micro-review of some tongue-in-cheek advice in another blog:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Not-So-Good News from Iraq: Arrest Warrant; Debatable Confessions, and Politics

American troops are moving out of Iraq. Which may or may not be something that the current administration will want folks to remember next November.

I'd be a whole lot more happy to see Iraq's new lot of leaders pass another milestone, if it weren't for something I read in today's news.

By the way, I've noticed a change in news coverage over the last several years. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but reporters and editors seem to have finally realized that The Masses aren't quite the gullible ignoramuses - - - and I'll get back to that.

On a more immediate and serious note, Iraq's politics are in the news again:
"Arrest warrant issued for Iraqi vice president"
Joamana Karadsheh, CNN (December 19, 2011)

"An Iraqi investigative committee issued an arrest warrant Monday for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is accused of orchestrating bombing attacks.

"The committee of five judges issued the warrant under Article 4 of the country's anti-terrorism law.

"The Interior Ministry, at a news conference, showed what it called confession videos from people identified as security guards for al-Hashimi, the country's Sunni vice president. In the videos, the men described various occasions in which they purportedly carried out attacks under direct orders from al-Hashimi...."

Bombs, Videos, and News

Iraq's Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi may be guilty of ordering terrorist attacks on people in his own country. Or not.

I really don't know.

What I'm fairly certain about is:
  • Bombs went off in Iraq
    • And people died
  • Someone made videos, purportedly
    • Featuring men who
      • Worked for the Vice President
      • Confessed to serious crimes
      • Said the Vice President was the mastermind
The videos are real enough. CNN says they've been shown at a news conference, and I'm inclined to believe that assertion.

Bombings in Iraq have been in the news. People have reportedly died. Again, I'm inclined to believe the assertions.

Confessions, Coercion, and Removing the Opposition

As for whether the new videos are an example of convincing acting, coerced confessions, or something else? Back to that CNN article:
"...One man said he carried out assassination attempts using roadside bombs and guns with silencers. He said some orders came from the vice president and some came through the director of his office. The man also alleged that he and others were told that if they didn't carry out the attacks, their families would be killed.

"CNN could not immediately confirm that the men in the videos were bodyguards for al-Hashimi...."
Hats off to CNN: like quite a few other mainstream news outlets, they're apparently learning that
  • Being told something is true doesn't mean that it really happened
  • It's a good idea to let readers know what is
    • An unsubstantiated claim
    • An assertion that someone verified
Like I said before, I don't know whether the Iraqi Vice President is guilty or not. I do think these confessions popped up at a very convenient time for folks who plausibly might want Tariq al-Hashimi out of the way. If al-Hashimi is captured by his political enemies, I hope that he doesn't 'commit suicide.' Or simply disappear.

Iraq, Politics, and All That

I'll say this for the last few American elections: nobody's tried to finger a major candidate for personally ordering a hit. In a way, that's a tribute to the moral fiber of America's political community.

There's another election coming up, and I hope that American politicos continue to limit themselves to weirdly emotional appeals; mudslinging, ballot box stuffing, and crackpot legal shenanigans when they lose, anyway.

On the whole, I'd rather live in America than anywhere else in the world: but perfect this country isn't.

Getting back to Iraq, CNN, and what could be a really messy situation:
"...Three of the vice president's security guards were detained earlier this month.

"Over the past few days, [Iraqi Vice President] al-Hashimi's office told CNN it feared that his three guards would be forced to make false confessions.

"Confession videos in Iraq have been controversial. Human rights groups have reported previously on allegedly forced confessions...."
If al-Hashimi has been arranging premature deaths for personal gain, what his office said might be an effort to reduce damage from anticipated confessions.

Or, al-Hashimi's staff may have been genuinely - and legitimately - concerned for the welfare of the guards.

Confession? Yeah: Me an' the Boys'll Get a Confession For Ya

"...Ali al-Mussawi, media adviser to Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said over the weekend that confessions would link the Sunni vice president to bombings...."
Maybe the Iraqi Prime Minister's media chap simply had confidence that Iraq's judicial officials would guide those guards down the path of wisdom. And that, filled with enlightenment, they would willingly acknowledge their past deeds.

Or maybe the Prime Minister's media office figured that, one way or another, there would be video of a confession to show at the news conference.

Again: I really don't know what's behind that arrest warrant. But I think it's a too convenient for his political enemies than I find comfortable. Back to CNN:
"...The arrest warrant Monday came amid a political crisis and growing sectarian tensions in Baghdad that erupted just as the last U.S. soldiers exited Iraq over the weekend.

"Iraqiya, a powerful political bloc that draws support largely from Sunni and more secular Iraqis, said it was boycotting Parliament, a move that threatens to shatter Iraq's fragile power-sharing government.

"The move pits the largely Sunni and secular coalition against the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"Iraqiya contends al-Maliki is trying to amass dictatorial power, and many believe al-Maliki was simply waiting for the Americans to leave before making his move...."
I don't envy folks who are honestly working to sort out the mess left by Saddam Hussein's decades in power. They've got hotheads to deal with coming in from several directions: Sunnis, Shiites. And, up north, Kurds:
"...Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said Monday, 'I hope there wasn't a political influence in this arrest warrant, but in Iraq there has been always a political influence.'

" 'This is very upsetting and confusing,' Othman said, adding that if the accusations are true, then al-Hashimi 'should be brought to justice.'..."
I've been over this sort of thing before:

'The Masses,' Assumptions, and Getting a Grip

Here's where I get back to reporters, editors, and assumptions about 'gullible ignoramuses.' Briefly, I think that North America's coastal cultures have cherished beliefs that just aren't true:
"Six Ignorant Stereotypes About Middle America"
Paul Jankowski, Entrepreneurs, Forbes (October 5, 2011)

"What do you think of when you hear 'Heartland', 'the South' or 'Middle America'? If you're like a lot of people I know on the coasts, the first things that come to mind are usually not positive.

"This is a real quote from a marketing exec in New York City: 'I think the Heartland is a nice place to raise children. People are nice, but they're dumb, overweight, and gullible. They wear tacky clothing and jewelry. They're racist, unworldly, and dumb.'

"If you agree with the quote above, you need to get out a little more. Stereotypes exist for a reason, but if you’re trying to build a brand and engage consumers at a deep level, oversimplifications will hurt your cause. Stereotypes, taken to cynical extremes, are big-time brand killers...."
(Originally quoted in footnote 1, "My Take on the News: Jingle Bells, Jangled Nerves, and Good Advice," A Catholic Citizen in America (December 16, 2011))
I live in a state that's north of the 'flyover states,' have a counter-cultural view of folks living outside major metropolitan areas, and I've been over that before, too:
Other related posts:

Kim Jong Il is Dead: North Korea's Ruling Dynasty's Third Generation

Sooner or later, this was bound to happen:
"N Korean leader Kim Jong-il dies"
BBC News Asia (December 19, 2011)

"North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has died at the age of 69, state-run television has announced.

"Mr Kim, who has led the communist nation since the death of his father in 1994, died on a train while visiting an area outside the capital, the announcement said.

"He suffered a stroke in 2008 and was absent from public view for months.

"His designated successor is his third son, Kim Jong-un, who is thought to be in his late 20s...."
I wrote about North Korea's ruling dynasty about a year ago. (November 25, 2010) On paper, North Korea is an up-to-date nation, with a Chairman: not a king or emperor. Considering the way that territory is run, and how ownership is passed along in the Kim family: I think it's a bit more accurate to think of the place as an old-fashioned domain, ruled by a family of fairly colorful warlords.

I also think that most folks in North Korea will probably be much better off, after the Kim family and their enforcers get replaced. Provided that whoever gets the job of cleaning up the mess is modestly competent: and more interested in public service, than imported lobster and ideology.

That's about as close to a rant about the Kim dynasty as I'll allow myself today. I explained why I don't 'dance on the grave' of dead autocrats, in another blog:

North Korea: So Far, So Good

"North Korea's state-run news agency, KCNA, urged people to unite behind the younger Kim.

" 'All party members, military men and the public should faithfully follow the leadership of comrade Kim Jong-un and protect and further strengthen the unified front of the party, military and the public,' the news agency said...."
In a way, KCNA's official take on Kim Jong Il's death is quite good news. Whoever's calling the shots at the moment doesn't seem to want the 'unified front' to blame the late Kim's death on Yankee imperialism. It's early days, of course. For all I know, someone will get the idea of blaming Kim Jong Il's death on that plot to set up a Christmas tree near the North Korean border.

Christmas tree? I am not making that up.

2,000,000 Dead in Famine; Human Rights Abuses; and Nukes

"...Mr Kim inherited the leadership of North Korea - which remains technically at war with South Korea - from his father Kim Il-sung.

"Shortly after he came to power, a severe famine caused by ill-judged economic reforms and poor harvests left an estimated two million people dead.

"His regime has been harshly criticised for human rights abuses and is internationally isolated because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons...."
Like I said, I think folks in North Korea - those who aren't close enough to the ruling family - could do a whole lot better, with someone else running the country.

They could do worse, too. Quite a few North Koreans didn't die in that famine, and it looks like the Kim family knows how to put on large-scale public entertainment.

And, not to be too pessimistic, someone who believes North Korea's official line on reality might take over - and decide to launch some of their nuclear warheads. That could be a very unpleasant situation.

Somewhat-related posts:

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.