Sold to Mr. Gordon, Another Bridge!

It requires no special skill to sell Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent of the New York Times, the Brooklyn Bridge. All you have to do is whisper down the phone to him that the transaction will occur at a background “briefing” by anonymous intelligence sources and a “senior official” or two.

One would think that it would require astonishing rhetorical ingenuity on the part of the salesteam (in fact operating out of the U.S. Defense Department) to keep on selling Gordon the Brooklyn Bridge, long after the deed from the first sale has been pronounced an obvious fraud. But it’s not so strange, really. Your true sucker is a vain fellow, who can never accept the evidence of his own gullibility and who therefore regards each successive purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge as a sound investment, certain to re- establish him in the public eye as a man with a keen eye for the good deal. He thus becomes psychologically and professionally a captive of the bridge salesmen.

On September 8, 2002 the New York Times editors published Gordon and Judith Miller’s fictions concerning aluminum tubes in Iraq, supposedly part of Saddam’s nuclear program. Much too late this bout of bridge-buying on the part of the Times duo prompted widespread derision and finally the embarrassed Times editor banned Miller from bridge-buying altogether.

No such restraints were placed on Gordon. After lying low while Miller took the heat, he was back late last year, promoting the famous “surge”, sold him by General Petraeus and others. Then, Saturday, February 10, the Times excitedly announced another major purchase.

The story was from the usual salesfolk, unnamed “American officials.” Their mission: get Gordon to boost Bush’s anti-Iran propaganda drive by promoting the story that Iran is supplying Iraqi Shi’a with the new “explosively formed penetrator,” the war’s “most lethal weapon” now killing American boys in their Humvees, Bradleys and even Abrams tanks.

“To make the weapon,” Gordon confided to Times readers, “a metal cylinder is filled with powerful explosives. A metal concave disk manufactured on a special press is fixed to the firing endÖ According to American intelligence, Iran has excelled in developing this type of bomb, and has provided similar technology. The manufacture of the key metal components required sophisticated machinery, raw material and expertise that American intelligence agencies do not believe can be found in Iraq.”

Now, the people attacking and killing most American troops in Iraq are not Shi’a but Sunni, and are therefore unlikely to have been supplied by Iran. Some 1,190 US troops have been killed in Iraq since the start of the insurgency by roadside bombs, aka IEDs. 170 American soldiers have been killed by EFPs since June 2004, less than 8% of the total killed in action.

Explosively-formed penetrators are a not-so-recent variant on the 1885 Munroe Effect, the original idea behind the shaped charge. (My informant here is Pierre Sprey, a former weapons designer with the A-10 and F-16 planes on his CV.) 2) Conventional shaped charges are a copper (or other metal) funnel inside a cylindrical casing with the open end facing the target and with powder packed behind the narrow end. The powder is ignited behind the funnel and an explosive shock wave collapses the funnel, creating a hot gas blowtorch jet carrying with it a slug of molten metal. Such shaped charges are optimized to go off within a foot or less from the surface of the target–and to burn through thick armor by creating the most focused jet and deepest, smallest hole possible. To get a good effect from a shaped charge, you have to a) propel it with a rocket or cannon projectile so it’ll go off right on the surface of the target; or b) bury it as a mine in a road so that it’s very close to the belly armor of a vehicle when it goes off.

The EFD variation on this principle substitutes a bowl-like dish of copper for the funnel. This sacrifices the efficiency of the highly focused jet that drills the deepest possible hole in return for a slower, more cohesive slug of molten metal that will hang together even if the charge is detonated 20 to 100 feet from the target. Thus, the EFD warhead or bomb can be placed at or beyond the shoulder of a road (or on top of a concrete barrier or in the window of a house right on the road) aimed at the center of the road. When a vehicle or convoy comes along, it can be fired manually by a remote and concealed insurgent (or triggered automatically by a garage door opener infrared beam); in other words, the EFD can be used like a hidden short range armor piercing gun with little risk to the remote firer. This makes the EFP a tactical alternative to parking a sedan full of explosives by the side of the road and blowing it up when a Bradley or Humvee comes along. Casualties caused by an EFP will be smaller, but it’s more portable.

The US Defense Departnment started developing small, highly refined EFD warhead bomblets dropped on parachutes and fired by miniature IR or radar sensors in 1977 as part of the Assault Breaker program. There are both Army and Air Force spinoffs–all enormously and impractically expensive in production– of this program. The current USAF in-production EFP cluster bomb is called the CBU-97. From 1980 to today, the documented cheating during the testing of this weapon has been egregious, even by USAF testing standards (which are lax indeed). It’s certain that the EFD idea is substantially older than 1977.

The first terrorist use of an EFD was in the 1989 assassination of German banker Alfred Herrhausen in his armored limousine, attributed to the Red Army Faction. This was almost certainly a homemade device made by unsophisticated means.

The improvised EFPs used in Iraq don’t need to have Iranian-manufactured components. The necessary equipment consists of a copper bowl (a hand beaten one like they sell to tourists all over the Middle East is fine), a 6″ to 9″ diameter iron or steel sewer pipe or oil pipe (the oil pipe is excellent quality steel), a few pounds of explosive and a fuse. The 380 tons of US RDX explosive that went missing due to lax security would be ultra-high quality stuff for the job. All the insurgents need is one or two chalk talks or a video tape to learn how to make an EFP. That’s all it takes to transfer the technology.

The use of EFPs in Iraq is old news indeed. They were first used by insurgents in late 2003 and have been used steadily–in small numbers–since then.

Though the Times itself allowed a follow-up news story and an editorial to express cautionon about Gordon’s alarums, his February 10 story gave status to the government’s scaremongering about Iran’s role in Iraq. So there it is. Another bridge in Gordon’s real estate portfolio, as the New York Times puts its editorial shoulder behind Bush’s war, as it has done from the start. Times chairman Sulzberger told the grandees assembled in Davos last January, “I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years.” Hasten the day.

From Laptop to Smith Corona A Journey Back in Tech Time

A few days ago Jeffrey St Clair forwarded me a little item, with the question, “Isn’t this how Sainath once filed a story?” Below was a picture of an Indian peddling a stationary bike to power a laptop. On the cover of the laptop were the words Tech Support Center #25 Bombay. At the top of the picture were the words Microsoft Global Supply Center. I emailed Sainath in India. Back came the following reply:

Hi, Yes, I actually did. But without the plug for Microsoft on the cover of my laptop.

That apart, this was pretty much part of what happened. It went on to get even more complicated after that. And to me, that experience was a fair reflection of India’s own complicated nature and structures.

I had pics in my digital camera, and a laptop battery sinking swiftly. A guy in one of the villages rigged up some attachment I have never quite understood to give my battery what he called “45 minutes worth of charge, roughly.” This was attachment led to a bicycle-powered electricity generator, something bigger and more awkward looking than the one in the picture.

I wrote the story. I even transferred the pics from digital cam to laptop. Then the battery began to do a sprint. I raced to the nearest city — all cyber cafes were down: no power thanks to govt. imposed powercuts (Mumbai does not have them, but the villages can have power cuts of up to 15 hours. No business centres at hotels either! Meanwhile, I put the pics from the laptop onto a CD, thinking I would courier the whole damn thing to my newspaper in Chennai. Found a) that the text file would not get onto the CD( don’t ask me why, maybe the battery was too drained) and b) no direct courier existed who could get my stuff to Chennai by the next morning.

Went to an old retired journalist’s house and used his Smith Corona typewriter made in the days when the same armament makers made both typewriters and guns (this one was at least from the 1940s, he claimed it was even older and it might have been).

I typed out the text looking at the screen of a laptop in its last throes. Now I had text on paper and pics on CD. We found an ‘angadia’ — a very specially Indian (oarticularly Mumbai-Gujarat) courier. These are highly trusted guys who carry diamonds, gens and jewellery for diamond merchants in Mumbai. They fill no forms, carry no files, just diamonds in puched around their body, invisible from public view.

They said” no problem. We’ll get your packet to Mumbai, and deliver it to a mainline courier in Mumbai who will send it to Chennai to your office.

And they did — for ten rupees (15 – 20 cents?) At thge end of my effort, the technologies used included a very sophisticated SONY VAIO, a SONY digital camera (then a smart new model), a bicycle-turned electricity generator, a bus, an ancient Smith-Corona typewriter and an angadia!


Footnote: a shorter version of the first item ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.