Category: Politics

Iran stole the headlines in 2009 and early 2010 with its campaign to pursue a nuclear weapon, a campaign that projected the regime as a powerful new threat to global peace.  But the amazing display of widespread protests and rioting in the wake of the fraudulent 2009 presidential election showcased the fragility and tenuous hold the regime maintains.  While Iran’s nuclear ambitions dominated foreign policy discussions and America publically stated that the regime was probably a year away from developing a nuclear weapon, by the end of 2010 the talk had stopped.  Was Iran quietly pursuing their nuclear dream or had someone dealt a fatal blow to their nightmarish fantasy?

Iranian Nuclear Sites

Starting in the 1960s, under the Shah, Iran’s first nuclear program made little progress and was abandoned by the ’79 revolution.  With the takeover of its present hardline Islamic regime, Iran began to pursue a nuclear program in the mid-1990s.  Though Iran insisted it was maintaining the conventions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in 2002 documents revealed the existence of a clandestine weapons program.  Facing international sanctions, the relatively moderate Khatami regime agreed to suspend the program and accept higher level inspections.  With the rise of Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran began to once again pursue a nuclear program despite the penalty of sanctions.

The Bush administration’s response was to obtain sanctions against Iran and while Vice-President Cheney pushed for possible air strikes, Bush was persuaded into diplomacy by Condoleeza Rice.  Furthermore, it was increasingly apparent that America simply did not have the resources or will to enter a third war against a Muslim state.  Israel was pushing to attack the Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz with bunker busting bombs in an attempt to strike at the heart of the underground mountain complex.  However, Bush denied their requests and hinted in January 2009, that he had authorized a program to sabotage Iranian nuclear efforts.  Upon becoming President, Obama would accelerate the program that would lead to the creation of Stuxnet, perhaps the most successful computer worm ever used in a covert international action and resulting in the destruction of roughly one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.

American Uranium Centrifuges

At the heart of any attempt to pursue nuclear weapons is the creation of highly enriched uranium, a process that requires thousands of centrifuges to produce enough of the prized material.  Iranian centrifuge technology was based entirely on the Pakistani developed first generation centrifuge P-1.  Pakistan’s corrupt chief nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan had sold the P-1 to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.  However, the Israeli’s had managed to get their hands on a large number of P-1s and set them up at their famous Dimona complex in the Negev desert.  With a test bed of P-1s, Israel and by extension the United States could probe Iran’s nuclear technology for weaknesses.

By early 2008, the German company Siemens was cooperating with the Idaho National Laboratory, the United States’ premier nuclear technology R&D facility.  The CIA had identified Siemens controllers as a key piece of equipment at the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz.  In April 2009, the U.S State Department even blocked a shipment of Siemens controllers headed to Iran.  The work done at Idaho National Laboratory identified vulnerabilities that would later be exploited by the Stuxnet worm.

The Infamous Natanz Nuclear Facility

Appearing in mid-2009, the Stuxnet worm was identified by the Symantec Corporation as part of a global malware search.  Symantec reported that the worm appeared primarily inside Iran, but also appeared in India, Indonesia, and other countries.  The worm was ingeniously designed and had two main objectives.  The worm would infect a system and then lie dormant checking for specific controllers running a set of processes that typically only exist in a centrifuge plant.  If the conditions were met, the rotors of the centrifuges would be sped up to unstable levels causing them to wobble and destroy themselves.  Another part of the program, the “man in the middle” would report back false normal readings from the sensors to give the illusion that the system was running properly.  One section of code identified in the worm is designed to send a signal to 984 linked machines, the exact number of machines the Iranian’s took out of service from Natanz in late 2009.

Though the worm was not a complete success and did not manage to completely destroy all the centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the nature of war is perhaps forever changed by its achievements.  As early as the beginning of 2009, the Israelis felt their only option was an air strike on the underground facility, an action that would no doubt have resulted in a huge escalation of Middle East tensions.  The ability to covertly strike at the heart of your enemy and then have the benefit of plausible deniability is a momentous change in the way war is waged.  The retiring chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad has stated Iran’s pursuit of a bomb may now be delayed until 2015 and the Israeli minister for strategic affairs acknowledged the timetable had been postponed by the ‘recent troubles’.  Never in history has a worm done so much for world peace, but the dark side of this new battlefield is all too apparent and the threats we face are increasingly clearer.


Airport whole body scanners have been in use for over a year in both the U.S and Canada, but they are being debated once more this holiday season during the annual travel blitz. Airport scanners or ‘advanced imaging technology (AIT)’ units have been rolled out across airports in North America and Europe. In the United States, 464 AIT units now operate in 75 airports across the country. While in Canada, 44 units operate at all of the country’s major airports. These machines have been widely debated on both sides of the border for their effectiveness, infringement on privacy, and health risks. The machines are here to stay, but are the criticisms valid?

The debate over airport scanners has long focused on the possible health risks associated with the machines. It is important to remember that not all airport scanners use the same technology. In fact, there are two main competing types of technology used in full body scanners. Backscatter X-ray units use low-doses of x-rays that bounce off the skin. The images are chalky and filters can be applied to hide faces. The TSA has argued that the health risks of these units are minimal as travellers are only exposed to as much radiation as would be received during 2 minutes of normal flight at altitude or about 0.03mSv of radiation. Other experts disagree: On April 26th, 2010, four University of California professors wrote a letter expressing their concern over backscatter X-ray technology. They argue that though the overall dose of X-ray energy is low, it is absorbed by the skin at possibly damaging levels. They argue that no independent safety data exists and more research needs to be done on low radiation exposure. About half of all airport scanners in the United States currently use this technology and are provided by American Science & Engineering (AS&E). AS&E CEO Anthony Fabiano has claimed the technology provides a superior level of detection when compared to existing technology and dismisses health concerns. The machines can be expected to be a part of the U.S security apparatus for the near future as large million dollar orders are being made for both airport scanners and mobile backscatter units for use at borders and checkpoints. By the end of 2011, 1000 X-ray machines will be in use in the United States, representing about half of the nation’s 2000 lanes of security checkpoints. These machines are currently not in use in Canada.

Millimeter wave scanners represent the main alternative to backscatter X-ray technology. They represent half of all airport scanners in the U.S and are the only technology currently in use in Canada. Millimeter wave scanners use extremely high frequency radio waves to produce images. This technology does not use radiation like X-ray units. The image quality resembles a negative and the TSA has claimed they scanners produce 10,000 times less energy than a cellphone call. With orders in the hundreds of millions of dollars from both the United States and Canada, the millimeter wave scanners produced by L3 Communications continue to be big business.

The effectiveness of airport scanners has recently been called into question, with experts claiming the technology can miss key threats. The TSA claims the technology has been effective in finding contraband that until recently may have been missed: items like small amounts of marijuana wrapped in plastic or ceramic knives stitched into the linings of clothes. However, experts believe the technology is ineffective in identifying explosives. Explosives like pentaerythritol tetranitrate or PETN are odourless and easily moulded into shapes that can fool scanners. Former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security Clark Ervin said, “It’s not an explosives detector, it’s an anomaly detector.” The results of studies conducted by the U.S government at the federal Transportation Security Laboratory in New Jersey are mostly classified, but a few findings were released. The main findings of the report indicated that the effectiveness of the scanners in detecting weapons and contraband varied by those evaluating the images. The study found backscatter X-rays can be obscured by parts of the body and these scanners may not pick up thin items seen “edge on”. Furthermore, objects hidden inside body cavities could be missed by both types of technology.

Perhaps the most vociferous debate over whole body scanning technology has centered on the privacy concerns associated with the images the machines produce. In fact, before the Christmas Day bomber attempted to blow-up a jet liner at the end of 2009, roll out of the technology was continuing slowly in America and limited to test runs in Europe. In the wake of the failed attack, the technology’s adoption was accelerated around the world. However, opponents of the scanners have never wavered in their belief that the scanners represent a dangerous infringement on freedom and privacy. Millimeter wave units have been criticized for the technology’s ability to see through clothes and reveal breast implants, colostomy bags, and body piercings. Furthermore, the promise that the images would not be stored and the files dealt with responsibly is one many find hard to swallow. The fact that during TSA training sessions for the scanners, TSA worker Rolando Negrin was ridiculed by colleagues for the size of his manhood did nothing to assuage public fears. Despite such fears, acceptance of whole body scanners seems to be widespread. TSA spokesmen have claimed 99% of travellers opt for a full body scanner rather than a pat down. Surveys performed in Canada have claimed 96% of Canadians prefer the machines to a body pat down as well. In a world where increasingly nothing is private, many may simply prefer the relative modesty of standing inside a scanner than submit to a clumsy and awkward pat down.

Whole body scanners may have been controversial from their inception, but in the wake of attempted terrorist attacks like the Christmas Day bomber, their opponents have been washed away by a tide of worry over security concerning air travel. With the health risks of the machines either non-existent or requiring years of scientific study for any kind of proof, the machines have been rolled out across the world with surprising speed. However, their adoption may have been too fast for a thorough assessment of their effectiveness in detecting contraband and explosives. The scanner’s effectiveness is dependent on the training and intelligence of the officer’s responsible for viewing the images and except for some minor successes, the TSA cannot provide solid evidence of the technology’s reliability. With future orders for both backscatter x-ray and millimeter wave units already placed, it seems governments around the world believe in the technology and for better or worse they are here to stay.

April 1st in December

No it isn’t April 1st and no that wasn’t an Onion headline you thought you saw, the United States Congress or more specifically the Senate actually managed to pass some legislation… consecutively! Rejoice all ye faithful, Santa (or is it Jesus?) has delivered a Christmas miracle. On the heels of his much maligned ‘tax cut compromise’ bill, Obama managed to push through ratification of the START treaty, the passage of the 9/11 responders healthcare bill, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell just before the holidays. Many have hailed these achievements as the heralds of a new era of compromise in American politics, but this flies in the face of the facts.

While Obama’s tax cut compromise was widely viewed on both the right and left as a failure (at least initially), they don’t appreciate the delicate position President Obama found himself in. After receiving a whipping in the mid-term elections, Obama was facing a congressional session in 2011 that was shifted sharply to the right and filled with new and uncompromising faces. Republicans were threatening to filibuster all bills until the full extension of the Bush tax cuts were passed. They argued the filibuster was warranted due to the intense distress that would befall the economy if the cuts weren’t extended. Facing this kind of opposition, Obama got a far better deal than he ever got on healthcare, even if he added significant amounts to the national debt. For a President these days, that doesn’t even make the back pages. Furthermore, it opened the Senate up to new legislation before the end of the ‘lame-duck’ session.

Republican opposition to the START treaty was somewhat baffling and seemed to come from their general unwillingness to work with President Obama on anything. Republicans said they wanted ‘more time’ to consider the treaty. Those few republicans who publically cited specific problems with the treaty were concerned with provisions that would in their mind hamper American efforts at constructing a missile shield. This, despite assurances from the President that this was not the case and also with the knowledge that at worst development of a comprehensive missile shield would lead to Russia pulling out of the treaty. In the meantime, the treaty allows for inspections of Russian nuclear facilities to begin after the previous treaty expired, one year ago. However, a push from Democrats and elder Republican statesmen like General Brent Snowcroft (ret.), led to the treaty’s passage.

If Republican opposition to the START treaty was baffling, their opposition to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was something beyond mindboggling. Republicans like John McCain, who had long been an advocate for gay rights, had begun to abruptly shift their tunes beginning in 2008 and made vague statements that essentially passed on the decision to the military brass. However, statements from figures like the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that it was time for the law’s repeal were ignored in an election season dominated by the tea party. Obama’s passage of the repeal is a historical landmark and will go some way in appeasing his liberal base, alienated by previous compromises on healthcare and tax cuts.

The fact that the 9/11 responders healthcare bill had to be even debated was probably the single biggest sign that something is extremely wrong in American politics today. The bill closed a corporate tax loophole and used the money saved to fund healthcare for those afflicted by serious health problems relating to injuries/illnesses sustained while working at ground zero. Unlike the other bills, the passage of this piece of legislation can be linked to a media push in the last few days at Fox News, MSNBC, and even the Daily Show. A trifecta not likely to be seen again! Jon Stewart began talking about the bill and the ludicrous fact that Republicans were even filibustering it on December 16th. He would even devote almost an entire episode showcasing the issue with actual 9/11 responders arguing for its passage. Rachel Maddow at MSNBC also made a concerted effort to bring the issue to light. However, in a world where nothing is real unless you saw it on TV and ratings are king, it can be argued that no one did more to expose the issue than Sheppard Smith at Fox News. Smith asked Senators “how they could sleep at night” and called out specific Senators such as Tom Coburn who were stalling its passage.

Maddow even praised Smith for his effusive coverage of the issue.

Republicans and Democrats working together to pass laws? MSNBC extending an olive branch to Fox News? Are these signs of the end times or is there really a shift in the tone and hyper-partisanship of American politics? Alas, recent events to the contrary, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for a shift in anything. Republicans like Laura Ingraham and Dick Morris were quick to condemn Republicans for supporting the bills and even railed against the tax cut compromise as a capitulation. Why, they argued, should Republicans have to compromise after they just took over the House and picked up so many seats in the Senate? And their attitude is shared by many of the new Republican congressmen and the influential tea party. If the passage of these four landmark pieces of legislation is a Christmas miracle, it looks like it’s going to be a long and cold winter.

After four years of war, Mexico is exhausted.  Mexico’s struggle against its indigenous drug cartels have led to the deaths of over one thousand police officers, judges, and prosecutors, while fifty-eight reporters and over thirty-thousand civilians have also lost their lives.  Perhaps most disconcertingly, the government seems further away from victory than ever before and deaths have been increasing by nearly fifty percent year-on-year.  It may not be surprising that a war with such a heavy human cost would also have a high economic one, but the Mexican government’s $7.2 billion expenditure over the first eighteen months of its war on drugs still comes across as startling.  Those statistics may seem horrifying to Westerners with little experience of drug violence, but they barely register a response in Colombia, the country most affected by drug violence in the world.  Colombia serves as a potent warning sign of things to come if Mexico cannot shift its strategy and turn the tide against the drug cartels.

Colombia and Mexico have long been hotbeds for revolution and violence.  Like Mexico, Colombia was colonized by the Spanish in the early 1500s and in both cases indigenous populations were quickly destroyed by diseases like smallpox or through a combination of force and superior technology.  Both states achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and suffered subsequent upheaval and revolution, but there were key differences in their development that led to Colombia’s rapid descent into anarchy.  Mexico’s development was greatly aided by its proximity to the United States of America.  America provided Mexico with access to the world’s largest economy and created jobs by way of cheap Mexican labour.  Mexico was also able to achieve a relatively stable political system by the 1920s and this led to a serious commitment to primary education.  By the 1940s, investments in primary education led to the ‘Mexican Miracle’ a period of sustained economic growth of between three to four percent year-on-year from the 1940s until the 1970s.  During this same time, Colombia was experiencing a period of intense conflict known as ‘La Violencia’ that had claimed two hundred thousand lives by 1964.  It can be said that Mexico prospered under conditions of ‘mango corruption’, in which corruption is relatively high, but the economy grows at a rate that appeases the populace.  Unlike Mexico, Colombia has never been able to achieve anything close to resembling a stable political system and is hampered by the control of an elite upper class whose interests are out of touch with the majority of the populace.  Given these conditions, Colombia suffered under ‘baobab corruption’ where corruption is high and economic growth low.  These twin pressures led to the creation of left-wing paramilitary groups whose original aim was to fight the right-wing elite.

Emerging in the 1970s, drug cartels developed in Colombia from paramilitary groups looking for easy cash to finance their political goals.  Soon groups from all sides of the political spectrum entered the drug trade due to the lure of ever increasing profits.  This process was aided by the weakness of the Colombian government and its inability to control and police its own territory, factors also present in Mexico.  However, it is important to note that the success of the drug cartels was directly proportionate to the insatiable American appetite for cocaine and marijuana.  These factors were also present in Mexico during this time, but were partly assuaged by the greater economic growth seen in that country.  Furthermore, the creation of powerful drug cartels in Mexico was initially hampered by the total domination exercised by Colombian cartels.  Colombian cartels, especially the Medellin cartel, grew and manufactured the drugs and used Cuban and Mexican gangs to smuggle them into America.  This arrangement allowed the Medellin cartel to earn over sixty million dollars per day during its height in the 1980s.  The Medellin cartel and others were able to control large swaths of the Colombian countryside as their own personal fiefdoms and exercised tremendous influence over all branches of government whether through bribery, extortion, or violence.  Colombia would eventually achieve marginal success against the cartels through an extensive military and police campaign that was aided by the support of the United States Army Delta Force and the CIA ‘CENTRA SPIKE’ intelligence team.  However, cartels were able to make a sham out of the demobilization process that began in 2005 and turned in few guns and fewer members.

However, the government of Colombia’s efforts against the drug cartels were not a complete failure and indirectly led to the creation and development of ever more powerful cartels in Mexico.  Today, Colombian cartels still grow the majority of cocaine for export to the world market, but these drugs are now imported, distributed, and sold in America via Mexican cartels through a porous border.  Colombian cartels began to offer their Mexican counterparts a payment-in-product scheme, which saw Mexican cartels given thirty-five to fifty percent of cocaine shipments for their own sales.  This has allowed Mexican cartels to become significant distributors in their own right and has led to the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels taking over Colombian cocaine trafficking to the world market.  Mexico’s lack of control over its territory and its proximity to the United States (the world’s largest drug market) has allowed the cartels to amass untold amounts of money, which finance and strengthen cartels’ resolve to protect their territory.  As seen in Colombia, these immense profits allow cartels to find new and willing recruits extremely easily.  All while making it possible to equip these recruits with weapons that eclipse those of the armed forces and police.

This is why despite four years of struggle between the Mexican armed forces and drug cartels, the Mexican government finds itself battling the status quo with no solution in sight.  Some have claimed the cartels have infiltrated the government and use their influence to stop cartel leaders from being arrested.  Whether these rumours of such blatant corruption are true remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Mexican people do not and should not expect much from future government efforts to stop drug violence.  America is beginning to offer its assistance and expertise, but likely face a much tougher battle in Mexico than the one they waged in Columbia.  Colombia was mainly controlled by the dominant Medellin cartel and all their resources went into its destruction.  Mexico has over seven cartels organized into two loose coalitions: The Juarez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas, and the Beltran-Leyva Cartel constitute one faction, while the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel, and La Familia cartel comprise the other.  These cartels conduct their business while warring against rival factions, each other, and the Mexican government for control of an industry that creates an estimated $13.6 to $48.4 billion dollars in cash profits annually.

The magic bullet cure for cartel violence has yet to be discovered, but the example of Colombia shows us that a military and police effort that operates without political or economic reforms is doomed to failure.  Cartels will simply use their influence to negotiate terms to their advantage or continue indefinitely their campaign of violence, intimidation, bribery, and extortion.  Some have argued that the fractious nature of drug trafficking caused by the numerous competing cartels in Mexico has led to increased violence and that a domination of the drug trade by one cartel would lead to greater order.  There are even those who claim that the Mexican government is encouraging this outcome and providing assistance to the Sinaloa Cartel.  While this could possibly lead to a reduction in violence it does nothing to address the issue of drug trafficking or corruption and amounts to sweeping the problem under the rug.  Legalization of drugs has also been touted as another possible solution.  Under this view, the legalization of the growth and manufacture of drugs leads to legitimate business driving out illegal cartels, but without the support of the United States this kind of policy is most likely doomed to be unsuccessful as the cartels would still operate illegal smuggling routes into America.  While it can be argued that legalization would stop the cartels from waging war on the state, levels of violence could simply shift to the cartels battling each other for the now legitimate growth and manufacture of drugs, as well as the previously mentioned problem of the illegal importation of the drugs into America.

The military and policing strategy currently employed by Mexico is a logical and necessary first step response to drug cartel violence, but such a strategy cannot achieve its objectives when taken alone.  Successful change can only come from profound economic, social, and political reforms that reduce corruption, restore the ability of the state to control its territory, and renew the people’s trust in their government.  Mexico has suffered four years of misguided policy; the question is whether they can survive another four.