Friday, August 1, 2014

What is happening with U.S. government's passport and visa database?

A week ago, news outlets reported:

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the problem is worldwide, and not specific to any country, documents or visa category. She says it will stall the issuance of U.S. passports, visas and reports of Americans born abroad.

The State Department is working to correct the problem but has given no time for when a fix will be in place.

(emphasis mine)

It turns out, they are still working on the problem.

Here is an excerpt from yesterday's briefing by the U.S. State Department:

QUESTION: The Washington Post reported today about a computer glitch in the U.S. State Department’s visa and passport record keeping --

QUESTION: Some of us reported about it last week.

MS. HARF: Uh-oh.

QUESTION: Well, they reported today. That’s what I remember. (Laughter.) And so the question is: What is being done? How serious is this?

MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: Because some of the – apparently it’s affecting people who are seeking to adopt children?

MS. HARF: Well – so it’s affecting people all over the world, but let – we have talked about it a little bit. Let me give a little bit of an update. We are continuing to work to restore our visa system to full functionality. We anticipate it will take weeks to restore full visa processing capacity. We have been prioritizing immigrant visas, including adoption cases. So there is a backlog, but we are prioritizing adoption cases. So far we have been able to issue most cases with – of those cases with few delays. Nearly all passports are currently being issued within our customer service standards even despite the system problems, and we are able to issue passports for emergency travel.

Matt, you had asked yesterday – I think Matt asked about numbers --

QUESTION: Backlog.

MS. HARF: Or – right, numbers of backlog, though. To give you an idea of the progress and sort of the challenges, from the start of the operational issues on July 20th through July 28th, we issued more than 180,000 non-immigrant visas globally. Based on our average production figures, we would have anticipated issuing closer to 370,000 in that same time period.

QUESTION: All right, so –

MS. HARF: So we’re –

QUESTION: Virtually cut it in half?

QUESTION: In fact, there’s been significant improvement since the last time you updated about this – updated us about this, which was – what’s today, Thursday – which was like Monday or Tuesday.

MS. HARF: Yeah, we continue to make improvements, but there is quite a significant backlog, and we are not yet working at full functionality.

QUESTION: So – but – okay. So can you – maybe not quantify it, but if you had like some kind of a meter between when this first came an issue on the --

MS. HARF: On the 20th.

QUESTION: -- 20th, and the basically kind of catastrophic failure where everything was down, right?

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And now --

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- where are you on that? 50 percent? 60? 70 percent? Is there a way to --

MS. HARF: In terms of the number we’ve issued or our functionality?

QUESTION: No, in terms of functionality, right. In terms of --

MS. HARF: I don’t know the answer. Let me see if I can check on that.

QUESTION: Is this an issue with Oracle?

MS. HARF: It is in part, because they are the ones that run the hardware and software, I believe.

QUESTION: And they’re dealing with it, or is this something the State Department --

MS. HARF: We are working together to deal with it. It is limited in part by our outdated software and hardware, which we are attempting to work to fix.

QUESTION: Can we move onto – I’ll let someone else --

MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: -- go --

MS. HARF: No, let’s – Matt, let’s --

QUESTION: I want to talk about these talking points that the White House --

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: -- inadvertently put out on the torture report.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

I find it amazing how willing Ms. Harf is to move away from the "glitch" to the CIA torture memo …

I can think of a millions things that might have happened with their systems before someone realized what was going on, and shut down the system. In times of non-transparency, minds wander.

Incompetence is omnipresent in government at all levels, because governments and their workers do not bear the full costs of their errors.

In this case, there is also the possibility that someone had figured out either how to manipulate the database itself, or, more likely, how to sit in between consular offices and the database, and cause U.S. passports and visas to be issued to people who should not be issued such precious travel documents.

Oracle means there was Java involved. I have seen some "enterprise" setups where clients were using some custom forms interface quickly cobbled together by "IT personnel" to interface with the database. Some such setups were so whacky that they required the clients to be running almost 10 year old versions.

I have absolutely no knowledge of what the State Department uses. I am just going on the information contained in these press releases.

Pure speculation on my part.

It is useful to watch the briefing itself. The topic comes up the 45 minute mark.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Inflation adjusted Dow Jones Industrial Average, 2004 - 2014

Here is a quick look at DJIA, between August 2004 and June 2014, both nominal, and inflation-adjusted using CPI (CUUR0000SA0, 1982-84=100):

Nominally, the Dow-Jones index is about 142% higher than its lowest point, right around the time of President Obama's inauguration. On that day, the DJIA closed at 7,949, and by February 27, 2009, it was down to 7,063. Today, it's hovering around 17,100. That reflects an average annual growth rate in the nominal value of the index of about 19%.

Once the index is adjusted using the Consumer Price Index, the February 2009 value falls to 3329, and the current value falls to about 7060, reflecting an annual rate of growth in the inflation adjusted DJIA of about 16%.

According to the BEA, the real GDP of the U.S. was about 10% higher in the first quarter of 2014 than in the first quarter of 2009, reflecting an average annual growth rate of about 2% in the amount of goods and services produced by the U.S. economy.

An adjustment, and that may be an understatement, especially given the world situation, is probably on the way.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Did President Obama sign a peace treaty with the Taliban?

Just a tip for Democrats: The Taliban were worse than Boko Haram because they actually used to control the entire country of Afghanistan.

Now, Mr. President invokes tradition to justify the release of the Taliban Dream Team:

But this is what happens at the end of wars. That was true for George Washington; that was true for Abraham Lincoln; that was true for FDR; that’s been true of every combat situation -- that at some point, you make sure that you try to get your folks back. And that’s the right thing to do.

Let's deconstruct this, shall we?

According to Mr. President, this is the end of the war with Taliban. Have the Taliban agreed not to attack the government and people of the United States and Afghanistan? If so, why haven't we been told?

Is the President claiming that the Taliban are the equivalent of King George and the British Empire? They do not represent a state. They have not accepted any international standards for respect for human rights.

During each conflict to which Mr. President refers above, the president mentioned by Mr. President was the Commander-in-Chief of the victorious side. George Washington led and won the fight for independence, Abraham Lincoln prevailed over the Confederacy, and while FDR did not live to actually see the end of World War II, at the end of that conflict, there was no doubt that the U.S. and her allies had won against the Nazis and their allies.

There were treaties signed at the ends of those conflicts. The treaties were signed with representatives of states. Those on the losing side agreed to terms that the U.S. demanded. And, yes, after that, the warring sides returned prisoners of war they had been holding.

Consider the Treaty of Paris signed with the British at the end of the American Revolution. The relevant article is:

Article 7th:
There shall be a firm and perpetual Peace between his Britanic Majesty and the said States, and between the Subjects of the one and the Citizens of the other, wherefore all Hostilities both by Sea and Land shall from henceforth cease: All prisoners on both Sides shall be set at Liberty, and his Britanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any Destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other Property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his Armies, Garrisons & Fleets from the said United States, and from every Post, Place and Harbour within the same; leaving in all Fortifications, the American Artillery that may be therein: And shall also Order & cause all Archives, Records, Deeds & Papers belonging to any of the said States, or their Citizens, which in the Course of the War may have fallen into the hands of his Officers, to be forthwith restored and delivered to the proper States and Persons to whom they belong. (emphasis mine)

Note the conditions accompanying the freeing of prisoners of war: Peace, and orderly withdrawal of British forces.

Have the Taliban agreed not to attack the peoples and governments of the United States of America and Afghanistan? Have they laid down arms? Are they withdrawing from areas they are occupying?

Contrary to Mr. President's assertion, Lincoln did not live long enough to oversee the end of the Civil War. But, again, there was no doubt who had won that war.

Articles of Agreement Relating to the Surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia give us an idea of the context in which prisoners of war are freed:

1st The troops shall march by Brigades and Detachments to a designated point, stock their Arms, deposit their flags, Sabres, Pistols, etc. and from thence march to their homes under charge of their Officers, superintended by their respective Division and Corps Commanders, Officers, retaining their side Arms, and the authorized number of private horses.

The Confederate soldiers could return, sorry, march back to their homes, under supervision, if they surrendered all their weapons. Have the Taliban surrendered their weapons?

Let's see, how did the Second World War end? Here are some of the terms of German surrender:

The German High Command will at once issue orders to all German military, naval and air authorties and to all forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May and to remain in the positions occupied at that time.

Have the Taliban agreed to do nothing against the peoples and governments of the United States of America and Afghanistan?

And here is how Japan surrendered:

We hereby command all Japanese forces wherever situated and the Japanese people to cease hostilities forthwith, … to comply with all requirements which my be imposed by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers or by agencies of the Japanese Government at his direction.

We hereby command the Japanese Imperial Government and the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters at once to liberate all allied prisoners of war and civilian internees now under Japanese control and to provide for their protection, care, maintenance and immediate transportation to places as directed.

Once again, I ask, have the Taliban agreed to end all hostilities, have they agreed to act in accordance of the orders of President Obama, have they surrendered?

The answer is no.

President Obama has accepted Taliban demands, and returned five high ranking Taliban, in exchange for a hostage they were holding. Either he has not learned anything, or he does not care about the consequences of his actions.

Oh, by the way, the Taliban released a video of Bergdahl's transfer to U.S. forces. Here is a frame from that:

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

President Obama's play against Saudi Arabia

U.S. press never pays attention to anything other than extremely serious matters of His Greatness, but a lot has been happening in the Gulf recently. For example, you might have missed this "minor" spat among Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar that took place earlier this year.

Saudi Arabia went so far as to threaten to blockade Qatar:

Saudi Arabia has threatened to blockade neighbouring Qatar by air, land and sea unless Doha cuts ties with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, closes global channel al-Jazeera, and expels local branches of the US Brookings Institution and Rand Corporation think tanks.

The threat was issued by Riyadh before it withdrew its ambassador to Doha and branded as "terrorist organisations" the brotherhood, Lebanon's Hizbullah and al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Although the kingdom has long been the font of Sunni ultra-orthodox Salafism and jihadism, it now seeks to contain radical movements and media and other organisations giving them publicity.

I do love how they mention the Brookings folks in the same breath as the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, that aside, let me first emphasize that I have no love lost for any of those states. Still, I do recognize that the status quo in the Gulf region is "better" than the alternative of each and everyone of them going through what Libya or Syria is going through right now.

So, what does Mr. President do?

On the eve of the anniversary of D-Day, he decides to trade the Taliban Dream Team for a Bowe Bergdahl. While this Rolling Stone piece does not paint a particularly flattering picture of the man as a soldier and a patriot, I am not in a position to judge that.

I am mostly bothered by the fact that The President's People are portraying this as a perfectly ordinary prisoner exchange. It is not. It is as if, after World War II, U.S. military caught the commanders of various Nazi concentration camps, and then sent them to South America.

You know, there is a government in Afghanistan which the United States supposedly considers to be legitimate. The U.S. and Afghanistan are fighting against the Taliban. And, Mr. President returns their top brass. Nice.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe this Bergdahl is an über-secret secret agent that did amazing work behind the lines while pretending to be a hostage. Maybe, members of the Taliban Dream Team have tracking devices embedding in their body cavities that will either lead their compatriots to disarray amid paranoia, or even lead U.S. services to even bigger fish.

For now, it looks to me like the U.S. sent to Qatar a leadership team to organize an insurgency against Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Bahrain.

In the mean time, keep in mind that the Left hated the Taliban before they loved them:

The barbarism of the Taleban Islamic militia in Afghanistan seems to know no bounds. After placing most of Afghanistan under the harshest rule, the Pakistan-backed Taleban is now setting out to destroy Afghanistan's historical treasures and identity.

This comes at a time of mounting failure to crush all opposition to the Taleban's barbaric rule in the name of Islam.

Those words are from a New York Times editorial in 2001, before September 11.

Such emotions are why the Democrats used to refer to the Operation Enduring Freedom as the good war.

The war they agreed with.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Can a former KGB informant stand up to the former KGB colonel?

There are many interesting things going on in the world, but this one stands out in particular.

Today, NATO allies agreed on Stoltenberg as next secretary-general.

Stoltenberg's sister was a member of "Red Youth". He was a leader in the "Workers' Youth League."

But, most importantly, he was a KGB informant. His code name was Steklov.

Unge Stol­ten­berg var altså en av dem KGB “groo­met” med tanke på frem­ti­den. Sik­ker­hets­tje­nes­ter job­ber lang­sik­tig og tål­mo­dig. Man kan trygt gå ut fra at med Stol­ten­bergs bak­grunn og frem­tids­ut­sik­ter, var dette en kon­takt man la stor vekt på.

That is, he was one of those people whom KGB used to groom for the future:

Stek­lovs mappe var opp­ret­tet tid­lig i 1989 og var av typen DOR - Delo Ope­ra­tiv­noj Raz­ra­botki. Slike map­per var nor­malt for­be­holdt per­soner som befant seg på "et fram­skre­det sta­dium av kul­ti­ve­ring" eller alle­rede ble reg­net som en av KGBs "kon­fi­den­si­elle kontakter".

He was categorized as among people either in an advanced stage of "cultivation" or already acting as "confidential contacts" for the KGB.

Is it too much to ask that an organization that was designed to stop Soviet expansion and invasion not be headed by a Soviet mole when that alliance is facing a resurgent threat from a re-energized Russian empire under the leadership of a former KGB officer?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Is it time for the United States of America to return Alaska to Russia?

There are a few things more irritating than listening to Americans declare they don't care if Crimea is annexed by Russia. The usual argument, which I remember very well from trying to explain why Bosnia mattered, goes something like this: "This is a far away place, I know nothing about it, these people have been fighting for centuries, lah lah lah lah, I can't hear you!"

Here are the facts. In 2008, as President Bush was on his way out, and President Obama was on his way in, Russian forces attacked another country, Georgia. President Bush reacted, but I would say his hands were tied based on the fact that President Obama was sweeping into office on the basis of his and other Democrats' traitorous undermining of the war effort and military morale in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I said in 2008:

In the coming days and months, it will be more important than ever for the U.S. and NATO to project an image consistent with the strength and determination they actually possess in defense of liberty.

That, of course, did not happen. The country was caught in economic crisis fervor. The Obama administration assumed Putin's attack on Russia had only happened because Bush was a crazy cowboy, and sent Hillary over with a "malfunction button".

Faced with no real obstacle to his ambitions, having erased President Obama's red line on Syria, Putin has now taken a piece of Ukraine, and is poised to take more. On the face of it, such action was not necessary. The move to secure Crimea only makes sense in the context of a wider, more expansive move into other places.

Your average American today does not know much if anything about the Cold War. In a nutshell, what kept the Cold War from producing some real heat was the fact that Russians believed that the American president was capable of using nuclear weapons to either preempt or retaliate against a nuclear strike by the Russians.

If you had to bet, could you say with any certainty that President Obama would be willing to push that button?

Once you realize that between Putin and Obama, Putin is the only one whom others believe is capable of using nuclear weapons, all of a sudden you realize that there is no demand by Putin which will not be placated by the USA.

OK, what's this about giving back Alaska?

Alaska was purchased from Russia for only $7.2 million in 1867. In today's dollars, that's maybe about $250 million. Alaska's state GDP is about $50 billion a year. Clearly, the Americans took advantage of Russia's troubles elsewhere! It was so unfair!!!

Just a minute … Russia's troubles elsewhere? Say what?

Well, Russia made the offer to sell Alaska soon after the Crimean War in which they fought the French, the British, and the Ottoman Empire. Despite significant Russian victories on the battlefield, the conflict concluded with the Treaty of Paris which severely curtailed Russia's influence in the region and set in motion a chain of events that ultimately culminated in the Russian revolution.

So, clearly, Russians sold Alaska to the United States under duress. The Americans took advantage of the Russians' weak position, and bought Alaska for a really low price, and they are now ruining the natural beauty by extracting oil and participating in snow mobile races and housing the Palins.

Therefore, Alaska ought to be returned to the Russians.

Of course, I am being facetious. However, what horrifies me is that in today's United States, at least 30% of the population probably would agree with this argument. But what is even more horrific is the fact that if the Russians came knocking, backed with a threat to use nuclear weapons, I am not certain the current president, or any of the current crop of politicians would be able to summon the courage to say no.

Please prove me wrong.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Liberal reporters cannot recognize an actual act of war

LA Times has this frightening report:

Ukraine Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Alexei Mazepa said Russian sailors pulled the anti-submarine vessel Ochakov out of a naval junkyard and sank it in the straits that connect the Black Sea with a body of water known as Donuzlav Lake. He said the act was intended to prevent Ukrainian navy ships from leaving a nearby base and going to sea.

Now, if a bunch of armed people come and burn some rusty old cars in your driveway to prevent you from being able to leave your house by car, is that not an act of violence?

This reporter doesn't think so, apparently, because the story opens with:

An anti-submarine boat may have been the first casualty of the Russian incursion into Crimea, but it was hardly an act of violence, much less war: …

Seriously, Sergei, in what universe is blocking a sovereign nation's navy not an act of war?