Tuesday, July 13, 2004

They can fight, but they may not be able to vote
USA Today reports today on a disturbing issue that I noted back during the California recall election last fall — a sizable number of U.S. citizens are deployed overseas in a combat zone now, and there are inadequate measures in place to ensure their votes get counted. The crux of the problem is that most absentee voting systems do not take into account the mail delays of combat deployment, thus ballots are late to soldiers and later still to the polls. This is compounded by the fact that many soldiers don't register for absentee ballots before deployment, and that it's often too late to do so once the sample ballot comes in the mail. Plus, as USA Today reports, there are some other issues as well:
*A $22 million pilot program to develop an Internet voting system for Americans deployed overseas was scrapped after the Pentagon concluded it would be vulnerable to hackers intent on tampering with elections.

*The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress formerly known as the General Accounting Office, found that the system used to collect and deliver mail in Iraq, including absentee ballots, suffers from long delays and other problems.

*The Pentagon's inspector general found that a Defense Department program to ease voting by Americans overseas, including deployed troops, continues to be given low priority by field commanders. Surprise visits to 10 foreign sites found seven programs ineffective and three only partially effective. Nearly three of every five troops surveyed said they did not know their voting assistance officer.

*A Pentagon agency charged with helping servicemembers and other Americans abroad vote is more than two months late in providing information for a report by the Election Assistance Commission on how states are doing and how they can improve. "I would like to have seen it out much earlier," says Paul DeGregorio, a member of the commission, which was created to help solve voting problems.
Analysis: First of all, it's helpful to understand a few of the ways in which military votes can go uncounted:

1. Mail forwarding. A lot of soldiers simply don't change addresses when they go on deployment; they simply file a forwarding order and have their mail forwarded by the U.S. Postal Service and the Army to their destination. When this happens, mail can be delayed by anywhere from one to two weeks. Thus, if a soldier gets a sample ballot 1-2 months before an election, and has to return it 1 month before the election in order to get a one-time absentee ballot, the mail forwarding process can frustrate that.

2. Mail delays. Whether or not the soldier changes his/her address, there will be delays in the mail pipeline. These delays range from a week (for those who work in HQ in Baghdad) to much longer for a soldier in the field at the platoon or company level. The delays exist on the receiving and sending end, depending on when/how the mail hits various gates in the pipeline. A letter or ballot that misses the First Sergeant's run to battalion might languish for 2-3 days before the next mail run, or have the same thing happen at battalion or brigade level. This adds friction to the process, and inevitably means that soldiers will miss deadlines for timely absentee voting.

3. Postage. It sounds silly, but it's not. While overseas, soldiers usually get free postage for letters back to the states. Unfortunately, this means that a postmark doesn't always get affixed to a military ballot, and thus local voting officials sometimes refuse to accept military ballots that come in right around (or after) the deadline. I think this problem has been fixed by the armed forces, who now date-stamp mail, but I'm not sure. I've gotten mail from Iraq that did not have an official time/date postmark on it, so this could still be a problem.

Cumulatively, all of these problems can add up to thousands of military ballots that go uncounted. The U.S. has not had this many soldiers deployed to a war zone during an election since Vietnam, and it does not have the infrastructure in place to support voting by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This could become a major problem unless rapid measures are taken to fix it.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the military votes Republican, and thus, you'd expect the GOP to be all over this problem. But as Ben Wallace-Wells discusses in this Washington Monthly article, I'm not so sure that's still the case. Today's military is very diverse, especially in its enlisted ranks, and minority voters tend to vote Democrat. I would say, based on my experience, that the officer corps is more conservative than society at large. But I think that the war in Iraq and the conduct of the war on terrorism generally may make a lot of military officers (not to mention enlisted personnel) question their commitment to the GOP. So, it's not clear how these military voter issues will affect the outcome of the election. I think much will depend on micro-variations, such as the ability of troops from a specific state (e.g. Ohio) to get their votes in to be counted.

Of course, we shouldn't just be concerned with electoral outcomes here. We ought to be concerned about our fighting men and women getting their votes counted — that matters more than the outcome itself. It would truly be perverse to send our military to fight overseas, ostensibly to install democracy in Iraq, but to deny them their basic democratic right to vote at home. I don't think for a moment that anyone is intentionally denying the military's right to vote here. But I do think this is disenfranchisement by dereliction — or at the very least by negligence. And that's just inexcusable. Our soldiers deserve better, and I think it's outrageous that we haven't seen more action on this front from DOJ's voting rights section or from the Pentagon.

Update - The Army takes action: I was very heartened to see the Army post this press release regarding actions it's taking to ensure military votes get counted this year. From the looks of this release, these actions have been in the works for a while. I'm glad the USA Today story spurred the Army to publicize these efforts.
USPS employees will contact 3,000 county election officials all over the country to coordinate mailing of overseas absentee ballots. Once the blank local ballots are printed, they will be sent by local post offices via overnight Express Mail to San Francisco, Miami and New York, the three military gateways.

USPS will mail successive groups of ballots to military gateways daily and will determine the number of ballots per location at the gateways. Then the ballots will be sorted by destination and placed in containers specially marked for visibility and priority.

DoD's Military Postal System will then give the ballots priority handling for delivery overseas, will ensure they receive a proper, legible postmark upon return, and will place them in easily identifiable containers. The ballots will then receive priority processing for delivery back to county election officials.

Monday, July 12, 2004

A boom in the bullet business
It's no secret that war means big business for defense contractors -- particularly the ones who provide instrumentalities of warfare like bullets, armor, bombs and missiles. According to the trade journal Manufacturing & Technology News, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly big business for American small-arms ammunition manufacturers.
... Surging use of ammo due to training requirements and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused demand for small caliber ammo to skyrocket by more than 400 percent over the past four years. As a result, the U.S. has turned to Israel and Britain to make up for the shortfall in U.S production.

In 2000, total production of small ammo rounds (5.56 mm used in the M-16, 7.62 mm and .50 caliber rounds) from government-owned, contractor-operated factories was 350 million rounds per year.

Demand is now 1.3 billion rounds per year and the Army expects demand to grow to between 1.5 billion and 1.7 billion rounds per year. The Army wants production capacity in place to surge to 2 billion rounds of small ammo per year. Stepped up military and training operations throughout the world "are consuming large quantities of small caliber ammunition and are putting a strain on the associated industrial base," Army Maj. General Buford Blount and Brig. Gen. Paul Izzo said in a joint statement to the House Armed Services Committee on June 24.

Total rounds consumed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq between the invasion in March 2003 and May 2004 were 74 million. Consumption in Iraq is now averaging around 5.5-million rounds per month. In Afghanistan, 21 million rounds of small ammo were fired from October 2001 to May 2004.
The article goes on to say that the government's major producer of small-arms ammo cannot keep up with the increased demand, even though it has increased its output from 350 million rounds/year in 1999 to 1.2 billion rounds in 2003. Consequently, the Army has looked to foreign sources -- including the Israeli and British military defense industry -- to bridge its ammunition shortfalls. The Pentagon and Congress have worked had to add capacity to the domestic plant at Lake City, but not in time to meet demand so far. It's unclear how long this boom will last for the bullet business, and how long it will retake to rebuild American stockpiles of ammunition for training and future contingencies. But this is definitely one logistical indicator to keep our eye on.
Trying Saddam
Peter Landesman has a good write-up in the Sunday NYT Magazine on the impending criminal trial of Saddam Hussein, and what its particulars will mean for the citizens of Iraq. This is something I've written on too, but I haven't seen many articles which delve into the political and social issues which will be raised by the trial. This articles does that, and does a good job of it.
Corrections count more than news II
Clearly, I spoke too soon on July 6 when I lauded the DoD for moving corrections and letters back to the bottom of its Early Bird brief. This morning, I opened the Early Bird to see that corrections and letters had returned to the top of the webpage — above top stories, above Iraq news, above everything else. Here is what the page looks like for those of you without E-Bird access [each headline has a link to an electronic, full-text version of the story]:

1. US Doesn't Practice Torture — (Letter)
(Boston Globe)...Eric Ruff
SENATOR PATRICK Leahy's June 28 op-ed article ("There is no justification for torture") falsely accuses the government of actively working to circumvent laws banning torture. To respond to just such distortions, the administration recently made the unprecedented decision to declassify and publicly disclose memoranda on interrogations to put these absurd charges to rest.

2. Corrections
(New York Times)...New York Times
An article yesterday about the destruction of some payroll records of National Guard members, including President Bush, misstated the record of White House acknowledgment of the loss. The White House indeed took note of the missing information last February when it released hundreds of pages of Mr. Bush's military files. In a briefing paper for reporters on Feb. 10, summarizing those files, it noted that payroll records for the third quarter of 1972 had been lost when they were transferred to microfiche.
3. Report Says CIA Distorted Iraq Data
(Washington Post)...Dana Priest
In the only comprehensive assessment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction released to the public before the war, the CIA exaggerated and distorted the evidence it had given Congress just days earlier, according to the Senate intelligence committee's report released last week.

4. Wars Causing Shortage Of Officers
(Washington Times)...Rowan Scarborough
The Army's commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq are draining infantry officers from combat-ready companies and battalions elsewhere in the world, according to an internal memo.

5. Army Unit Leaves Behind A Crushed Foe, Calmer City
(Philadelphia Inquirer)...Ken Dilanian
...In Karbala on Friday few residents spoke warmly of the Americans, but nearly all express contentment with the outcome of the battle. The streets are teeming with commerce, the shrines are open, and Sadr's men are nowhere to be seen. Shopkeepers credit the Iraqi police with maintaining order. To be sure, many residents have already rewritten history. Some said Sadr's forces were peaceful, while others said it was locals, not the Americans, who pushed them out. No one is happy about the street battles, killing what residents estimated were 50 civilians.

6. Nations Slow To Deliver Iraq Aid
(Los Angeles Times)...Paul Richter
Amid continuing efforts by the Bush administration to build international support for its mission in Iraq, countries have provided only a small fraction of the reconstruction aid they promised at a conference nine months ago.

7. Strikes On Iraqi Oil, Electricity Seen As Inside Job
(Washington Times)...Associated Press
Saboteurs attacking Iraq's oil and electricity infrastructure appear to be employees working in the industry or others acting on inside information, reconstruction officials said yesterday.

8. Afghan President Describes Militias As The Top Threat
(New York Times)...Carlotta Gall and David Rohde
President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that Afghanistan's private militias had become the country's greatest danger — greater than the Taliban insurgency — and that new action was required to disarm them.
9. 3 Americans Are Killed And 4 Are Injured In Attacks In Iraq
(New York Times)...Ian Fisher
Three American soldiers were killed Sunday in attacks here, two by a roadside bomb near Samarra, a hard-line Sunni Muslim city north of Baghdad where insurgents made a major attack on American forces last week.

[And so on, for 43 stories...]
Analysis: Now, you just can't tell me that these two corrections and letters are more important to a DoD decisionmaker (or ordinary reader like me) than the top stories which fall beneath it, or any of the other 43 stories in the main Early Bird. (Several dozen more stories are clipped each day for the Early Bird supplement, which also has corrections at the top of the page now.) If a news editor make this kind of editorial decision, he/she would be laughed out of the profession. It's not so much an issue of convention or custom that defines the front page — it's about what's most important, about what the reader typically wants to see on a front page, and about what message the newspaper wants to send with the content of its front page. The decision gets a little more complicated in the online format (see, e.g., Slate), but it's still basically the same decision.

It's possible that the Defense Department wants to send the message that media mistakes are the most important story, and thus they deserve placement over everything else. After all, the press typically places their mistakes on A1, such as the pre-war intelligence gaffes, failure to put enough troops in Iraq, et cetera. Why not highlight the media's mistakes too? It only seems fair.

There are at least three flaws in that reasoning:

1. This argument fails to take into account the importance of the "top stories", and why they're important to Early Bird readers. Early Bird readers do not read this to get the government's opinion on stuff; they read it to learn what's going on in the world, so they can be more informed (and hopefully make better decisions as a result). I imagine that most of these readers don't read the corrections anyway, because they're simply interested in the headline news and what is really going on in the world.

[Note: I have no idea how the Pentagon's public affairs staff puts together the Early Bird — whether it's through wire services, Google's news service, or what. And I don't know how they choose their top stories versus their supplement stories. I do think they do an excellent job though. For whatever it's worth, this online resource has become the news brief of choice for the executive branch agencies that have access to it.]

2. Placing corrections at the top of the page sends the perverse message that the Defense Department cares more about perceptions in the media — and things that need correcting — than it cares about the top stories themselves. If the Pentagon has become that obsessed with spin, instead of with real world events, something is seriously wrong with the Pentagon's senior leadership. Regardless of what Karl Rove and others may think, the world actually runs on its own without opinion polling. Real world events, like the killings in Sudan or the continuing problems in Haiti, take place despite whether the New York Times properly characterizes the president's military record. And so, I think it sends entirely the wrong message to DoD readers when the department puts these corrections above the top stories.

3. Politicians' mistakes are simply more important than the mistakes in the media. This is sort of a self-deprecating note, but I think it's very true. When a politician makes a mistake, it can kill hundreds (or thousands) and cost billions of dollars. When a journalist makes a mistake, even a major one, that newspaper is likely to call him out on it immediately and report the truth quickly too. But generally, in the giant echo chamber that is the news world, news mistakes don't make that big of a difference (unless they're huge) because there's enough other news to tell the truth, and because most news mistakes tend to be about really minor technical stuff like names and places. (Check out any corrections box on A2 and you'll see what I mean.) Now, I don't want to minimize the responsibility of the media to tell the story accurately — it's a sacred trust, and media truthtelling can have a major impact on public opinion. But when you balance politicians' mistakes against media mistakes, I think you have to conclude that media mistakes simply aren't as important.

The bottom line: The Pentagon should stop obsessing over newspaper corrections, and it should move these back to the bottom of the Early Bird where they belong. It simply doesn't make sense to have them at the top, and it sends a dreadful message about priorities within the top ranks of the Pentagon.

7/13 Update: Tuesday's Early Bird contained no letters or corrections, so I don't know if this policy changed or not. But the Early Bird supplement continued to run corrections at the top of the page. We'll see if this trend continues.

7/19 Update: Corrections no longer appear at the top of the Early Bird. Both the main briefing and the supplement have letters, opinion and editorial content at the bottom of the webpage, with Top Stories at the top.
Airlines struggle to deal with new business environment
However, NYT article misses critical points with respect to terrorism and security

Sunday's NYT business page had an excellent article on the airline industry, and specifically, how the big airlines have struggled to change their "spoke and hub" model to compete with the small airlines like Jet Blue and Southwest. It goes without saying that the small airlines (which typically fly very profitable routes like L.A. to San Francisco or L.A. to New York) are beating the pants off the big guys right now, in terms of profitability. And so the article talks a lot about how the airlines are struggling to come to grips with this fact, and struggling to change their business models to keep up.
In a year when beleaguered carriers hoped they would bounce back into prosperity after a deep slump brought on by the Sept. 11 attacks, they are instead facing a market that may have changed more fundamentally than at any time since the industry was deregulated in 1978. As a result, even the biggest companies may have to remake themselves radically, quickly and permanently, or face extinction.

The predominant business model since deregulation - based on wide availability of service, supported by customers willing to pay a premium for convenience - is being buried by low-fare airlines that pick and choose their destinations and continually pare costs and ticket prices.

"This industry is transforming itself in front of our very eyes," said Patricia A. Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 100,000 workers at several airlines. The changes being forced on the industry today are as far-reaching as those unleashed when President Jimmy Carter pushed through deregulation a generation ago, she said, adding, "This is Round 2."

Some executives say that if airlines simply trim costs, they can withstand the onslaught as they did in previous slumps. But others say that the industry cannot just shrink this time, and that it must reshape itself, abandoning assumptions about consumers and labor contracts.

For example, the hub-and-spoke system, which funnels passengers from smaller cities to major ones, was embraced by most big airlines after deregulation. It may be on the endangered-species list, though, at least as the primary means of moving people around the country. And, analysts and executives say, airlines are likely to evolve from one-size-fits-all megacompanies into more specialized players that carefully aim at specific niches - international business travelers, for example, or Florida vacation bargain hunters.

All the business models now being tested, however, share one assumption: lower fares. As a result, all employees, from the pilots to the people who clean the planes and restock the beverage carts, will be pressured to work harder and perhaps work for less. "The economic situation of the industry is a reality," Ms. Friend said. "We can't change that. We have no choice but to try to adapt ourselves to a new business model while preserving as much as we can."
This was a really interesting story -- so interesting, that I actually read it during my breaks from BarBri's MBE review on Sunday. Unfortunately, there is a gaping lacuna in this story. The words "terrorism" and "security" appear nowhere, nor does any discussion of the new passenger decision calculus which is being driven by heightened security, increased friction in air travel, and the increased costs associated with air travel. Simply changing the business model to copy Southwest or JetBlue will not completely make up for this paradigm shift in the airline environment. The airlines have to take these things into account, both on the cost side of their ledger, and on the marketing/business development side of their operations. To put it bluntly, I think that every potential passenger now includes "security" as a decision factor in choosing whether to fly, when to fly, and on what airlines to fly. When another mode of travel will suffice, such as driving or the train, I think that enough passengers now choose airline alternatives so as to impact the airlines' bottom line. (I know I do) It's not so much a result of fear -- I don't think we're at risk of another 9/11-style hijacking. It's simply because I do not want to experience the friction of post-9/11 air travel, specifically, the horrendous bureaucratic pretzel that exists at nearly every TSA security checkpoint I've been through lately. If other passengers are making similar decisions, then airlines no longer can rely on the same steadfast demand they used to, and indeed, must do more to attract passengers than they have in the past.

You don't need to be an economist (or even have taken Econ in college) to know that demand matters for a business. I don't think the airlines are ignoring this fact, but I do think the NY Times made a major mistake in not covering this fact as part of their writeup.
Spending the reserves II
George Friedman, who runs the intelligence firm StratFor, put an excellent analysis up last week on the web regarding the callup of 5,600 individual ready reservists in the Army. I've chosen not to write about this issue, partly for personal reasons and partly not to preempt some articles I've been working on. But I think that Dr. Friedman has nailed the subject right on the head with his analysis, so I wanted to pass it on.
The recall is neither routine, nor what the Army would like to be doing.

First, the reactivated reservists will have been out of the Army for several years. They might not be in appropriate mental or physical condition for a tour in a combat zone — where, according to the Army, most are going to be sent. Since the current plan is to keep them on active duty for no more than a year, there is little time for an extensive conditioning program if the troops are to spend much time in-theater. These are not the forces commanders want to lead if they have a choice.

Second, although this call-up might fix the Army's quantitative problem in the short run, it can wreak havoc in the long run. The volunteer army depends, obviously, on the willingness of people to join. That rests on a large number of variables, one of which is the idea that the volunteer can control his term of service, building it into his or her long-term plans. It has always been understood, in the fine print, that calling up the IRR was possible, and soldiers who are being recalled cannot complain that they did not know — they can complain only that they did not expect it to happen. However, people who have already served and completed their tours — and are busy with careers, children and mortgages — are now going to be sent into combat zones. Their younger siblings, cousins and friends are going to be watching the chaos in their lives and could well decide that, while they would be prepared to serve a given term and even have that term extended during war, giving the Army control over their lives — and those of their families — for years afterward is simply not worth it.

The Army, the Defense Department and the Office of the President are all acutely aware of this problem. Nevertheless, they have chosen to go this route. Given the inherent defects of the choice and its obvious potential cost, they did not make this move frivolously; this was something that was absolutely necessary. That said, the question now is this: How did the U.S. Army get into the position of having to make this choice?
Read the rest — it's got some great analysis. So far, the Army has tried to fix its manpower issues through the temporary addition of "end strength, through "stop loss" for certain specialties and units, and by reorganizing itself to be more efficient. I'm not sure that any of those measures will bridge the manpower gap caused by Iraq. Each successive rotation in Iraq is going to stress this system more, especially if they require 140,000 troops each time. To make that happen, a lot more soldiers are going to get stop-lossed; a lot more reserve units are going to get called up. And in the end, the Army will probably still need an end strength increase like the ones proposed in this year's National Defense Authorization Act versions in the House and Senate. Eventually, the Iraq mission will go away (I hope), and at that point, maybe the Army will need to contract as it did after the first Gulf War. But I'm not so sure about that point either, considering the myriad of threats in the world.

Update I: James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation had a provocative op-ed on this subject in the New York Post over the weekend. He comes to different conclusions than I do -- namely, that the system is working and we don't need an increase in end strength. But, we agree on one thing: today's military isn't structured for the wars of today (and tomorrow), and it needs to reorganize itself both to become more efficient and more effective.
The problem isn't that the military is too small. It's just structured to fight the last war in the last century. The result: Too many troops in the wrong uniform, in the wrong places, trained in the wrong skills to be of much use in the War on Terror.

Yes, our military is overstretched. Washington needs to do something about that. But, many of the ideas being floated by pundits and policymakers are simply wrongheaded. Let's kill some of the dumb ideas first.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Admin note: I'm pretty crunched right now with bar exam study and some other work, so Intel Dump may skip a few days between now and the end of the month. Please continue to stop by on a semi-regular basis until then. Thanks.