Friday, July 12, 2002

I'M GLAD Julia's writing, and this sort of debate is exactly why I wanted her on the blog.

Anyway, forgive her. I forget whether her travels have been taking her to Cameroon or to Kinshasa, but it's a place where it's reasonable that she would not be aware that the problems with the "Homeland Security" nomenclature have been well-discussed by Mickey Kaus and, of all people, Peggy Noonan.

"Visa Express" may or may not be broke, but Julia's argument for the latter position is not what the State Department is telling the American public. The issue is that three Al Qaeda terrorists took advantage of "Visa Express" and entered the country, whereupon they participated in the murder of thousands. It's one thing to say "This (along with recent scandals involving visas-for-bribes) is a problem, let's evaluate how to most effectively solve the problem without imposing unreasonable and counterproductive security burdens." (The answer might well be that the State Department is already doing the most reasonably efficient job it can, and the problem lies with INS failings.) It's another to say that the only problem is the name of the "Visa Express" program.

I think we can agree that we don't want to target "grannies and CEOs." On the other hand, perhaps we should be stingier with the visas granted to Saudi males between the ages of 18 and 45? And, perhaps, we can count on the higher-ranking State Department officials to understand the security concerns, and not conflate the issues?
POSTSCRIPT. "We're both right," Max coos soothingly, in an e-mail to me.

No, Max, we aren't -- and is that an ulterior motive in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

When the Heim-- sorry, Homeland, plan was unveiled, it was such a ludicrously unlikely thing of such Death Star-esque monstrosity that most diplomats paused only long enough to look at the dark spot on the horizon and experience a brief, chilly shudder before turning away to pour another glass of Chardonnay. But now, not to mix cinematic metaphors, they have heard the crunch of the iceberg against the supposedly unsinkable hull.

Corollary: If you want a scapegoat, don't sacrifice the prime of your stock; it suggests you intend to send the entire rest of the herd to the knacker's shop.

Career Ambassador Mary Ryan almost singlehandedly dragged, pushed, and otherwise goaded a luddite State Department kicking and screaming into the 19th century. Under her careful nine-year stewardship, Consular Affairs was transformed from a neglected bureau running on post-it notes into a modern, well-funded central showpiece of how much State could do, given that other agencies refused to share any of their files with them.

Max would give equivalence to Burton's letter and State's PR blunders. Sometimes, Max, a PR gaffe is just a PR gaffe -- though, you may take some comfort in the fact that the Washington Times apparently agrees with you. Snicker.

"Visa Express" wasn't fixed, because it wasn't broke. The system, more accurately known as a "drop-box," is in place in virtually every Foreign Service post in the world. Though you might not pick it up from the media coverage, the travel agencies do not adjudicate the visas. They merely take the applications and convey them to the officers, who then subject the names and documents to the same inspection as given to those of applicants who come in the front door. The only part of the experience the applicants miss is the two-minute interview, and this is done to ensure that the truly shady characters -- like Jose Padilla, first identified by a Foreign Service Officer -- get ample time to be questioned. I won't quibble that two minutes is not enough, but Ambassador Jordan's decision to scrap this program in Saudi Arabia now means that, in order to more thoroughly interrogate the grannies and CEOs, the Padillas of the world will get about 45 seconds of face-time.

I'm trying to be fair. I do realize that some small portion of what gives me the willies about "Homeland Security" may, in fact, be nothing more than the name. So, I challenge you to do better. Help give the department a warmer, fuzzier start. E-mail me your suggestions at jazlotnick at yahoo dot com. The winner will have his or her idea brought to the attention of a surprisingly high-level government official, and who knows the eventual effects on posterity?

Thursday, July 11, 2002

WHY DO THEY hate us? Hendrik Hertzberg, in an unusually weak July 1 New Yorker essay, succinctly identifies the Aryan echoes of our new Department of Homeland Security, but then goes on to concur with former President Clinton "...It may do some good, and it probably won't do much harm."

Won't it, though?

What Congress giveth...I mean, it was just this fiscal year that State finally got an approved Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, which, for the first time ever, meant that all vacant Foreign Service positions -- theoretically, at least -- could be filled.

This seems to me a much more logical answer to the problem of two-minute visa interviews than does forcing consular officers to interview the 45 percent of applicants who have previously obeyed all visa laws when they traveled to the U.S. to spend their tourist dollars, instead of leaving in place the current requirement that their documents merely be scrutinized by a highly-trained anti-fraud unit fluent in the local language and culture.

Nor does the Burton Solution of replacing each Foreign Service Officer with a minio --er, employee, from Homeland Security seem like a terribly inspired answer. Each FSO beat out three times as many competitors for his or her spot as did a Harvard freshman for theirs. From where will the Homeland folks come? And will they speak Urdu?

Apparently, to the honorable Congressman from Indiana and his ilk, a visa officer is a visa officer. Which is true, except when a visa officer is an American citizen services officer, helping track down lost passports or child abductors; or a political officer, supplying Washington with some apparently sorely-needed intelligence. Replace visa officers, fine; just don't expect any sympathy from your embassy when you need to get a social security form notarized. Or, come to think of it, when you need to get a social security form.

Or perhaps, when the industrious research of the committee reveals that visa officers routinely rotate into other positions, and that embassies provide a range of mundane but highly necessary services in locations in which they are otherwise unavailable, those duties will simply be folded into the job descriptions of the political appointees known as Homeland Security Officers. The shadow State Department -- you read it here first, folks.

BASEBALL STEROID TESTING. Barry Bonds shows why this is such a non-issue; he doesn't need steroids, because he's taking legal stuff that's even "better" than steroids.
NO OFFENSE TO my USFS friends, but sometimes you got to wonder whose side the State Department is on.
One program under Ryan's watch that generated congressional ire was something called "Visa Express," which permitted travel agents in Saudi Arabia to forward visa applications for residents in Saudi Arabia. Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers used the program and were not interviewed by a U.S. official when they received their visas.

[...]

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the only change made in the program in response to the criticism is that it will no longer be called "Visa Express."
Wait, it gets better in the next paragraph.
However, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert W. Jordan, cabled the State Department this week that he had decided to begin interviewing all adult applicants and eliminate the role of travel agencies in forwarding visa applications. "I am deeply troubled about the prevailing perception in the media and within Congress and possibly the American public at large that our current practices represent a shameful and inadequate effort on our part," Jordan wrote.
Well, I'm sure you'll do a much better job now that you're so concerned about the perception, as opposed to, say, the murder of 3000 of our citizens. Poor guy might have to take some time off from doing pr work (annoying registration required) for the Saudis.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

THE LA EXAMINER is all over the El Al airport shootings, making anything I blog about the subject redundant. Among the best links: the pseudonymous Jack Dunphy, who has an eminently logical take informed by geography that I haven't seen this detailed elsewhere:
Hadayet was an immigrant from Egypt. He was a devout Muslim, and had a bumper sticker reading ‘Read the Koran’ on the front door of his Irvine condominium. He objected when his upstairs neighbor had the effrontery to fly the American and Marine Corps flags from his balcony following the September 11 attacks. On the morning of July 4, Hadayet left his home armed with 9-millimeter and .45-caliber handguns as well as a six-inch knife. In his coat pockets he carried extra magazines filled with ammunition for each of the handguns. If he had been motivated solely by the desire to shoot up an airport he might have chosen Orange County's John Wayne Airport, located just a few miles from his home and which he no doubt passed as he drove on the San Diego Freeway toward LAX, another 35 miles to the north. (El Al does not operate from John Wayne Airport.) On arriving at LAX, with nine passenger terminals to choose from, he parked near the Tom Bradley International Terminal and walked inside. There are ticket counters for more than 30 airlines in the Bradley Terminal, but Hadayet found his way to El Al's, at the far northwest corner of the building, and began shooting. He killed two people and wounded five others before being shot and killed by an El Al security guard. Is there a sentient being on earth who, when presented with these facts, would not conclude that Hadayet left home that morning with no other intent but to kill as many Jews as possible?
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON on the Saudis and the need to rethink our relations with them.

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

EXCELLENT PIECE ON the Muslim underclass in France. (via Kaus)

Monday, July 08, 2002

KUDOS IF YOU CAN read this article about the Didusch Museum of Urology without involuntarily wincing.
Washington Post on baseball:
For every prize team like the Red Sox [which sold last year for $700 million], there are teams like Montreal, currently operated by Major League Baseball [which bought the team for $120 million from the owner who ran it into the ground], which draws around 8,000 a game, has no television contract and loses millions annually.
Uh, no, there's one team like Montreal that draws 8,000 a game with no television contract, and that's Montreal. Make the Montreal Expos the Washington Federals or the New Jersey Knights, and the problem disappears.

Sunday, July 07, 2002

THE NEW YORK TIMES finally deigns to interrupt its sympathetic portrayal of suicide bombers with an article about the wounded victims of the attacks.
THE BLOGSPOT ARCHIVING doesn't seem to be working, but the July 7 Robert Musil piece on the effect of executive certification of financial statements is on the money.
I SAW YET another columnist claim that half the teams in baseball have no hope of winning the World Series. So, let's see. Who's in contention for the playoffs today? Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, Mariners, Angels, A's, Braves, Expos, Cardinals, Reds, Astros, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Giants. That's 15 out of 30 teams. Add to that list the Indians, Mets and the Cubs, who many people picked to contend, but aren't; if you're ambitious, you can add the Rockies and the Padres, who were also on a handful of pre-season lists, the latter being hurt by injuries. That's twenty out of thirty teams who thought they were in contention between Opening Day and the All-Star Game, and I'm not even counting the Pirates, who had an early season winning streak that briefly put them in first place. Out of the remaining teams, half--Tampa Bay, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit, and Baltimore--simply have dysfunctional management, and aren't going to win anything no matter how much money they have access to. I'll note that before the 2001 season, many people would have had the Twins on the list of "can-never-hope-to-compete" clubs, and as of today, they have the largest lead in the American League for a playoff spot. The A's have a smaller market than the vast majority of teams, but excellent management; the only reason they're not on the "can-never-hope-to-compete" list is because they keep competing, often with the help of Kansas City Royal castoffs.