Monthly Archives: May 2011

Book: “Area 51,” by Annie Jacobsen

Last Wednesday I heard Annie Jacobsen talk about her book, “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base,” with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Then, the next morning, I heard her on Morning Jo’. I was intrigued. I downloaded a 30-page sample onto my Nook, was hooked, and then bought and downloaded the entire book. Four days later, and just six days after the book was released, I’m finished.

Yes, it was a good book.

Jacobsen is an investigative reporter who outdid herself on this book, learning all kinds of stuff she probably wasn’t supposed to learn. She tracked down persons involved with secret Area 51 projects from decades ago, and plowed through masses of formerly classified documents, assembling the pieces of a fascinating story.

Area 51, of course, is a part of Nevada which the government still denies exists. It’s part of a larger section of Nevada which includes other “areas” which have been home to nuclear testing, space research, and many other super-secret government projects since the 1940s.

Annie Jacobsen

Annie Jacobsen

Jacobsen starts the book in 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico. Two flying discs crashed there in 1947. She unravels the story. They weren’t from outer space, but came from Russia, using technology developed by German scientists during the war. The book ends with the same story, but now including details of the comatose humans aboard those craft–grossly deformed teenagers with large heads and eyes, surgically modified by German doctors at Stalin’s request. It’s a gruesome tale, and gets even more gruesome. I won’t go further into that.

In between, Jacobsen tells about the U-2 and SR-71 (called the Oxcart originally) spyplane projects; about numerous nuclear tests–hundreds of them–conducted both in Nevada and the Pacific; about the development of drones going back to the 1950s; about deception after deception regarding numerous projects, including the CIA’s secret investigations into UFOs; and about the continual infighting between the CIA and the Air Force for control of Area 51 projects. Area 51 was initiated by the CIA, but the Air Force has taken it over.

There are some great stories about test flights, and about the early missions of the U-2. The very first mission resulted in a treasure trove of information about Russian military preparedness. Also, throughout that mission, the Russians sent up fighters to intercept the high-flying U-2, but none could get close enough to take a shot. The Gary Powers shoot-down is told at length; but many other U-2s were also shot down (two Taiwanese U-2 pilots, shot-down over China, were imprisoned for up to 19 years before being released in 1982).

Jacobsen was tenacious in questioning people with secret information. In the end, she leaves us with a lot of questions. There is missing information which eluded her intrepid reporting. But the story she tells, mostly told in the context of the Cold War, illuminates decades of secret US history. Truly a fascinating read.

This, by the way, is a good companion to SkunkWorks, the 1996 book by Ben Rich which told about the development of the U2 and SR-71 planes. I read that book when it came out, too. But it was more of a memoir, not an investigative book intent on uncovering secrets.

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Made in China for The Donald

“You try doing business in China, it’s impossible….The problem is that we don’t make things anymore….We make it in China and other countries.” (Donald Trump speaking to Fox News in October 2010)

“These are not our friends. These are our enemies. These are not people that understand niceness. And the only thing you can do, Wolf, to get their attention is to say either we’re not going to trade with you any further or, in the alternative, we’re going to tax your products as they come into the United States.” (Trump speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer)

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Book: “The Longest War,” by Peter Bergen

I loved this book. I’ve read a number of books about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and most have been very good. “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda,” published in January 2011, represents extensive reporting of the whole history of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Bergen, a TV and print journalist, was the CNN producer who arranged bin Laden’s first interview with the Western press back 1997. He’s been working the story ever since.

The book covers plenty of ground which was already familiar to me from book (Thomas Ricks, Bob Woodward, Jane Mayer, and others) and other magazine and online reporting. But Bergen illuminated other aspects of the bin Laden/Al Qaeda story which I’ve not seen addressed elsewhere.

  • Bergan reports on numerous Al Qaeda plots and attacks that were new to me—probably because they didn’t involve the US, and therefore received scant coverage here. Many of these plots targeted other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, or Europe. Al Qaeda has been far more active than I thought.
  • He describes Al Qaeda as “one of the most bureaucratic terrorist organizations in history.” This was quite fascinating. Al Qaeda was sophisticated organizationally. Their bylaws covered annual budgets, salary levels, medical benefits, furniture allowances, provisions for persons with disabilities, and even vacation policies (with requests submitted at least 2.5 months in advance). Really fascinating stuff which was totally new to me.
  • Bergen showed (much to my delight) how Al Qaeda was scammed several times by persons who, knowing Al Qaeda’s interest in nuclear weapons, sold them worthless information and materials (all of which we captured in Afghanistan).
  • He debunks the notion that bin Laden was on dialysis. That was never the case.
  • He addresses the claim, frequently heard on Fox News, that Al Qaeda is against the American way of life. Bergen documents how from the 1990s, bin Laden has consistently maintained that his beef was with American foreign policy as it related to Islamic countries (especially positioning US troops on Saudi soil, which ended in 2003). Bin Laden himself sarcastically stated, in a tape, that if he was against the Western lifestyle, why hadn’t he attacked Sweden?
  • He describes bin Laden as an effective leader tactically (pulling off a single attack), but a failure strategically. He never expected us to invade Afghanistan. At the most, he expected cruise missile attacks or air strikes. While 9/11 was a spectacular success, it backfired spectacularly in that it destroyed nearly everything he had built to that point–turning millions of Muslims worldwide against him because of the killing of civilians, bringing a greater US presence in Arab countries, enhancing the relationship between the US and many Muslim countries, losing his whole infrastructure and safe haven in Afghanistan, and causing a backlash against militant extremists in some Arab countries.
  • Bergen examined every piece of “evidence” linking Al Qaeda with Iraq. None of it held water. A CIA report described the relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iraq as two rival intelligence agencies, each trying to use the other to it own advantage. There was much animosity between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.
  • Another aspect we don’t hear about: the denunciations of bin Laden by Muslim leaders around the world, particularly in recent years. Bergen spent a lot of time on this, combing through Arab publications and media. Some former close associates and mentors of bin Laden, people with solid jihadist credentials, have publicly denounced bin Laden for targeting civilians. They have called him immoral. Very strong stuff.
  • He described some agreements put into place under Bush which have helped extricate us from Iraq.
  • Bergen writes that “the graveyard of empires metaphor belonged in the graveyard of clichés.” He pointed out various foreign powers that had had success in Afghanistan. He also debunked the common assumption that Afghanistan is a disjointed collection of tribes. Actually, Afghanistan has been a nation since 1747—older than the United States—and Afghanis have a strong sense of nationhood. What they DON’T have is a strong central government.
  • Bin Laden, from his early days in the Sudan, was obsessed with being prepared for a life on the run. Bergen, through information gleaned from bin Laden family members and others, explains how he continually prepared his family. For instance, he wouldn’t let his kids drink cold water, or use refrigeration of any kind, because if they were forced into hiding, they would be denied such creature comforts.
  • In a prophetic vein, he explains evidence from videotapes from bin Laden and Zawahiri that made it clear that they weren’t living in caves.

This is a great book which will enormously enhance your understanding of the conflicts which have engulfed the US since 9/11.

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Sometimes We Can Be Too Relevant

I occasionally feel bothered by our efforts, as the Christian church, to adopt the world’s ways in order to appeal to the world. There are lots of advantages to doing that, and yet, I don’t know, it sometimes just doesn’t feel right. Maybe I’m just getting old and allergic to edgy.

Then along comes Chuck Swindoll, interviewed in a recent issue of Leadership Journal. Last fall Pam and I attended his church, Stonebriar Community Church, located in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. It was a very traditional service, with an orchestra and choir and hymns. In many ways, the service didn’t really appeal to me, probably because it’s been so long since I’ve regularly attended a non-contemporary church. But Swindoll’s sermon was superb. And really, isn’t that where the emphasis should be–on delivering a really great meal for hungry parishioners? As opposed to spending numerous man-hours putting together videos and dramas and light-shows and kick-butt music?

We were told, by someone who got a back-stage tour of Stonebriar, that they have all the best audio-visual equipment, including big screens on side walls on which they could project a larger-than-life Swindoll while he’s preaching. But he doesn’t let them do that. He wants people looking at him, rather than to the side walls. That’s not an ego thing–it’s not like he wants the attention. It’s a communication thing, of him directly engaging with his listeners eye-to-eye.

But back to the “being relevant” issue. We’ve all heard cautions that, when the church adopts the world’s methods, we lose our distinctiveness. On the other hand, being distinctively different from the world may make us seem out-of-touch, dated…irrelevant. So I’m a bit torn. No sense glorying in our distinctiveness when the pews are empty and the people in the homes surrounding our church are going to hell. And yet….

In the Leadership Journal interview, Swindoll had the following to say, and it’s good, thought-provoking stuff:

We’re tempted to think of the church as a business with a cross stuck on top (if it has a cross at all). “We really shouldn’t look like a church.” I’ve heard that so much I want to vomit. “Why?” I ask. “Do you want your bank to look like a bank? Do you want your doctor’s office to look like a doctor’s office, or would you prefer your doctor to dress like a clown? Would you be comfortable if your attorney dressed like a surfer and showed movies in his office? Then why do you want your church’s worship center to look like a talk show set?”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people.

But if we’re here to offer something the world can’t provide, why would I want to copy the world? There is plenty of television. There are plenty of talk shows. There are plenty of comedians. But there is not plenty of worship of the true and living God.

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John Ensign’s Parting Words

Senator John Ensign of Nevada left the Senate in disgrace today, victim of a sordid affair. It’s a long, hard fall for a man once viewed as a potential candidate for president. Yesterday, May 2, Ensign gave his farewell speech in the Senate. It included a lot of raw honesty which is worth reading. Here’s the last part:

When I first arrived in the Senate, I observed several people who were so caught up in their own self-importance and business that arrogance literally dripped from them. Unfortunately, they were blind to it, and everyone could see it but them. When one takes a position of leadership, this is a very real danger of getting caught up in the hype surrounding that status. Oftentimes, the more power and prestige a person achieves, the more arrogant a person can become. As easy as it was for me to view this in other people, unfortunately, I was blind to how arrogant and self-centered that I had become. I did not recognize that — that I thought mostly of myself. The worst part about this is I even tried not to become caught up in my own self-importance. Unfortunately, the urge to believe in it was stronger than the power to fight it. This is how dangerous the feeling of power and adulation can be.

My caution to all of my colleagues is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you about how you really are and what you are becoming, and then make them promise to not hold back, no matter how much you may try to prevent them, from telling you the truth. I wish that I had done this sooner, but this is one of the hardest lessons that I’ve had to learn.

I believe that if I had learned this lesson earlier, I would have prevented myself from judging two of my colleagues when I had no place to do so. When I was chairman of the National Republican Senate Committee, I was confronted with the personal issues facing Senator Larry Craig and Senator Ted Stevens. Following Larry’s admission and Ted’s guilty verdict, I, too, believed in the power of my leadership position and I called on both of them to resign. I sincerely struggled with these decisions afterward, so much so that I went to each of them a few weeks afterward and admitted what I did was wrong and I asked both of them for forgiveness. Each of these men were gracious enough to forgive me, even though publicly I did not show them the same grace. I’m very grateful to both of these men.

When I announced my personal failure two years ago, Larry Craig was one of the first to call and to express his support. I truly cannot tell you what that meant then and what it means to me today. The purpose of me speaking about this is to humbly show that in life, a person understands mercy a lot more when they need it and when it is shown to them. Again, this is a hard lesson that I have had to learn, but I hope that I can now show mercy to people who come into my life who truly need it.

As I conclude, I have a few others that I want to thank. My colleague from the State of Nevada, Senator Reid. I ran against Senator Reid in 1998. He beat me by just a little over 400 votes. Afterward, when I — two years later, when I was fortunate enough to win the election, Senator Reid and I sat down and we kind of made a pact between us that we were going to get along even though we are of different parties, we were going to put the past behind us and we were going to work together for the people of the State of Nevada. A funny thing happened along the way over these last 10-plus years. Senator Reid and I developed a friendship. Two people with opposite voting records, opposite views on major national issues, but we work together on a lot of issues that affected our states. Friendships formed between our staffs and a true friendship formed between Senator Reid and myself, and for that, I want to thank him.

To my Senate colleagues, I would like to take a moment to apologize for what you have had to go through as a result of my actions. I know that many of you were put in difficult situations because of me, and for that I sincerely apologize.

To my wife Darlene who has been through so much with me and who has fought through so many struggles, is owed more than I could ever repay. I do not deserve a woman like her, but I love her and I’m so grateful that the lord has put her in my life. Our children Trevor, Siena, Michael, have never known anything other than their dad leaving each week to come back to Washington, D.C., for my work. All three of them an incredible, and it’s been a blessing and a privilege just to be their dad. I have also been very blessed with a great set of parents who have stood by me through thick and thin, and also the rest of my extended family. I also have wonderful friends who have been there with me and my family through the highs and the lows.

And lastly, most importantly, I want to thank God for allowing me to be here. I have been encouraged by some not to mention God because it looks hypocritical because of my own personal failings, but I would argue that I have not mentioned him enough. I’m glad that the Lord not only forgives, but he actually likes it when we give him thanks. So, Lord, thank you for all that you’ve done in my life. I hope that I can do better in the future. I hope that I can learn to love you with all of my heart, soul and strength and to love others as myself. My colleagues, I bid you farewell. Know that you will all be in my prayers. I yield the floor.

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Why NBC News Rocks

Geraldo Rivera

Last night, as we waited for President Obama to speak, NBC really showed its stuff.

For many years now, my preferred network for watching news events–like election night returns–has been NBC. They have the deepest pool of high-calibre professional journalists. And they emphasize being a NEWS organization. Other channels fill the air with too many pundits.

With NBC, you’ll more often see an actual working reporter–someone who goes places, talks to people, digs through documents, and learns things we didn’t know before. Not a talking head with partisan opinions (and who relies on reporters for new information).

I turned on the TV at 10:30, and for the next hour, flipped between three channels–CNN, MSNBC, and FoxNews. It was late on a Sunday night. The only first-stringer, initially, was Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Geraldo Rivera was hosting for FoxNews, and I can’t even remember the guy on MSNBC.

So, what would the President be speaking about? It was something VERY important, and concerned national security. But initially, nobody could be sure. I thought pretty quickly that it might involve Osama bin Laden, but nobody was mentioning his name at first.

CNN knew, or thought they knew, but didn’t want to divulge anything without confirmation. Good for them. But that didn’t stop Geraldo. He was speculating wildly, throwing all kinds of ideas around. When the name Osama bin Laden came up, he got all excited–“Wouldn’t it be great if that’s what this was about?”

David Gregory

Soon after that, reports came in that bin Laden had been killed. CNN and MSNBC reported the news professionally, with disclaimers when needed. Meanwhile, Geraldo was leading a pep rally, hooting and cheering. It was embarrassing to watch. Guests would come on, either by phone or on camera, and he asked them stupid “How do you feel” questions, rather than trying to actually gain more information. “If it’s true that bin Laden has been killed, what is your reaction?” Who cares? was my thought. Give me facts.

Meanwhile, NBC had put out an “all hands on deck” call. Normally, MSNBC night-time is a left-wing pundit ghetto with Matthews, O’Donnell, Maddow. But they never appeared. Instead, the professionals at NBC News took over.

David Gregory arrived to assume the hosting role, lending much-needed gravitas. Everything stepped up a notch. Their ace reporters–Andrea Mitchell (one of the best-connected reporters anywhere), Chuck Todd, Richard Engle (today’s premier war reporter), and Jim Miklaszewski (the premier defense correspondent)–were all there, calling their sources and providing new information. Brian Williams eventually showed up to take the helm.

Brian Williams

It was obvious that top-notch NBC producers were also working behind the scenes, orchestrating the coverage. Over at Fox, Geraldo was giving instructions to his crew on-camera. Information was being passed to him via a computer monitor and printouts, which he would stop to read. Pure amateur hour, in my book. Geraldo can be a very good reporter, but in this anchor role, he was out of his elements. Brett Baier eventually showed up, but didn’t have much to contribute.

CNN kept a steady quality the whole time, and also focused on trying to learn more details, which they did. Like NBC. FoxNews simply lacked the reporting chops. Instead, Geraldo had to cite information gleaned from the other networks and from the Associated Press. But then, they aren’t really a news organization, and simply don’t have the stable of reporters that CNN and NBC have. They do a good job with election coverage, but last night was, as I said, embarrassing..

ABC and CBS didn’t even try, from what I saw. CBS’s news division has been decimated, and now barely exists (except for 60 Minutes). ABC isn’t much better. But NBC has all kinds of bench strength. In terms of anchors, they still had Lester Holt and the retired Tom Brokaw in reserve.

In a choice between hearing opinions and learning new information, I’ll always take the latter. Opinions are cheap. But it takes a financial commitment to run a news-reporting organization. CNN and NBC News showed that commitment last night.

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