The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

About that Russian ship playing chicken

On Friday (Thursday evening in the US) the Russian destroyer Vinogradov maneuvered to within 30 meters of the USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea:

According to Cmdr. Clay Doss of the U.S. 7th Fleet, the Chancellorsville was recovering its helicopter while maintaining a steady course when the Russian ship came from behind and “accelerated and closed to an unsafe distance” of about 50 to 100 feet.

“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” Doss said in a statement. “We consider Russia’s actions during this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional.”

The Russian statement, however, said the U.S. cruiser “suddenly changed directions and came within 50 meters [164 feet] of the Russian destroyer.” Russia, which stated that the incident took place in the East China Sea, said its ship was forced to perform an emergency maneuver and warned the American ship of inadmissible actions.

According to a senior US Navy Surface Warfare Officer with whom I spoke, the Chancellorsville was "flying limited maneuvering and Hotel," meaning they had flags on their mast signaling to other ships in the area that they were unable to maneuver freely because they were recovering a helicopter. The Russian crew had no doubt that the American ship would continue in a straight line at low speed no matter what the Russians did. (The officer declined to be identified because the Navy did not authorize our conversation.)

When I asked about the forbearance of the Chancellor's skipper, the officer replied, "I know what I would have done," adding that the rules of engagement allow any military asset to take defensive action, including using lethal force, without waiting for orders if there is an immediate threat.

"Back in the Cold War, the Soviet navy behaved very professionally, since no one wanted to destroy the world because a 19-year-old kid turned the boat the wrong direction by mistake," the officer continued. "We all kept in our lanes. But in the last few years, they've gotten reckless."

The conclusion: the Russian captain, obviously acting under orders from much higher up, deliberately provoked the US warship in a "saber-rattling" maneuver.

Fun times. I think I liked the Soviet navy better than this new Russian one.

This might be what someone used to attack us in Cuba

In late 2016, someone apparently attacked American diplomats in Cuba and China with a device that caused people to hear loud sounds and experience concussion-like brain damage. Now, doctors working with the attack victims may have figured out what it was:

The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury.

“Everybody was relatively skeptical at first,” he said, “and everyone now agrees there’s something there.” Dr. Smith remarked that the diplomats and doctors jokingly refer to the trauma as the immaculate concussion.

Strikes with microwaves, some experts now argue, more plausibly explain reports of painful sounds, ills and traumas than do other possible culprits — sonic attacks, viral infections and contagious anxiety.

In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.

Military strategists have talked about various nonlethal weapons for a long time. I don't remember reading about microwave weapons until now, since sound on its own seemed to be a pretty good way of disabling troops. But this is interesting, and disturbing.

The next war

Via Bruce Schneier, retired USMC Colonel Mark Canclan has authored a report outlining what threats we're likely to face in the next few years, and how to cope with them. He includes some chilling strategic possibilities:

The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet' s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls' cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency's initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine's account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron's Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other's throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The report is fascinating, and the vignettes that Canclan describes should be keeping US military and defense personnel up at night.

Let the duping begin!

Now that Kim Jong Un has gotten everything he always wanted from the United States for free, thanks to the truly amazing negotiating skills of President Trump, it turns out—wait for it—he lied the whole time:

U.S. intelligence agencies believe that North Korea has increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months — and that Kim Jong Un may try to hide those facilities as he seeks more concessions in nuclear talks with the Trump administration, U.S. officials told NBC News.

The intelligence assessment, which has not previously been reported, seems to counter the sentiments expressed by President Donald Trump, who tweeted after his historic June 12 summit with Kim that "there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."

Analysts at the CIA and other intelligence agencies don't see it that way, according to more than a dozen American officials who are familiar with their assessments and spoke on the condition of anonymity. They see a regime positioning itself to extract every concession it can from the Trump administration — while clinging to nuclear weapons it believes are essential to survival.

I wonder if Trump believes, as a lot of the people he duped, screwed over, or stole from over the years must have believed, that he was too smart a guy to get taken in by a con. Well, as it turns out...

Who is Reality Winner?

Kerry Howley, writing for New York Magazine, profiles the "terrorist [with] a Pikachu bedspread:"

In those first months on the job, the country was still adjusting to Trump, and it seemed possible to some people that he would be quickly impeached. Reality listened to a podcast called Intercepted, hosted by the left-wing anti-security-state website the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and featuring its public face, Glenn Greenwald, and listened intensely enough to email the Intercept and ask for a transcript of an episode. Scahill and Greenwald had been, and continue to be, cautious about accusations of Russian election meddling, which they foresee being used as a pretext for justifying U.S. militarism. “There is a tremendous amount of hysterics, a lot of theories, a lot of premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff,” Scahill said on the podcast in March. “And there’s not a lot of hard evidence to back it up. There may be evidence, but it’s not here yet.”

There was evidence available to Reality.

The document was marked top secret, which is supposed to mean that its disclosure could “reasonably be expected” to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the U.S. Sometimes, this is true. Reality would have known that, in releasing the document, she ran the risk of alerting the Russians to what the intelligence community knew, but it seemed to her that this specific account ought to be a matter of public discourse. Why isn’t this getting out there? she thought. Why can’t this be public? It was surprising to her that someone hadn’t already done it.

The classified report on the Russian cyberattack was not a document for which Reality had a “need to know,” which is to say she wasn’t supposed to be reading it in her spare time, let alone printing it, and were she to print it for some reason, she was required to place it in a white slatted box called a “burn bag.”

Why do I have this job, Reality thought, if I’m just going to sit back and be helpless?

Reality folded up the document, stuffed it in her pantyhose, and walked out of the building, its sharp corners pressing into her skin. Later that day, President Trump fired James Comey, who had been leading an investigation into Russian election-meddling. Reality placed the document in an envelope without a return address and dropped it in a standing mailbox in a strip-mall parking lot. Court documents suggest she also sent a copy to another outlet, though which one we don’t know.

For a bad decision she made at 25, she may spend most of her productive years in prison. And in the current climate of secrecy and surveillance, it's hard to see how she can even defend herself against the charges.

Her trial is set for March.

My project in the news

The Washington Post is reporting tonight something that I've known for several weeks. My current project's customer, USMEPCOM, recently promulgated a directive to begin accepting transgender applicants into the U.S. armed forces:

The military distributed its guidance throughout the force Dec. 8. Lawyers challenging President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender military service, which he announced on Twitter in July, have since included the document in their lawsuits. The memorandum states the Pentagon will comply with federal court orders, now under appeal, that direct the military to begin accepting transgender recruits Jan. 1.

The policy paper was issued by the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command in Chicago, “and shall remain in effect until expressly revoked,” the memorandum said. It states that allowing transgender military service is “mandatory” and repeats a previous directive from Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said all people will be “treated with dignity and respect.”

Military recruiting personnel are responsible for inputting into databases recruits’ personal information. They should do so while using a copy of a recruit’s birth certificate, court order or U.S. passport “reflecting preferred gender,” according to the Pentagon’s new guidance.

“For the purposes of military entrance processing, the applicant’s preferred gender will be used on all forms asking for the ‘sex’ of an applicant,” the guidance said.

So, it turns out, we're writing the database mentioned in the article. In fact, our Scrum board has this story: "As a user, I can enter the preferred gender of a applicant, so that I can enroll them into the military." And the USMEPCOM directive from December 8th is attached to the card.

Months of policy disputes between the President and the Federal courts, news articles, marches, protests, lawsuits, and committee meetings has produced...one database field.

This is our crazy country right now.

If you're curious, here's the policy memo. Don't worry, you can read it: it's unclassified.

The inconvenience of being a female veteran

You might not like the military or its mission, but I can tell you it's one of the more meritocratic organizations I've ever worked with. That's great if you're a woman—until you leave, as Sarah Maples explains:

The military doesn’t just urge women, it requires them—especially if they want to succeed—to view themselves on the same playing field as their male counterparts. They are also expected to behave and perform in traditionally masculine ways—demonstrating strength, displaying confidence in their abilities, expecting to be judged on their merits and performance, and taking on levels of authority and responsibility that few women get to experience. The uniform and grooming standards work to downplay their physical female characteristics. Additionally, the expectation—explicit or implicit—is that they also downplay other attributes that are traditionally considered feminine, such as open displays of emotion. That’s not to say that gender isn’t going to be noticed or that others aren’t going to make it an issue—they will. But highlighting female characteristics is undesirable. As General Lori J. Robinson, the U.S. military’s first female combatant commander, put it: “I’m a general, a commander, an airman. And I happen to be a woman.”

When many women leave the service, they expect that being a woman in the civilian community will be easier, but that isn’t always the case. They have to prove their abilities all over again, earn their place at the table again. As veterans, they’re not afraid to prove themselves. They proved themselves in boot camp. They proved themselves at tech training. They proved themselves every time they arrived at a new duty station. They have plenty of practice proving themselves. They can prove themselves one more time. The difference, this time, is that the individuals on the other end are not prepared for them to do so.

On active duty, women were my support network, a situation encouraged both by our small numbers—approximately 15 percent of the active duty force is women—and by the military’s emphasis on teamwork. My experiences with civilian women, however, have not always been as friendly. Other women veterans have also reported negative experiences with civilian women, ranging from lack of understanding and inability to relate to cold shoulders.

Complicating matters is that, while I and other women veterans make efforts to assimilate, we are often reluctant to completely lose the identity we developed in the military, particularly if it means assuming traditional gender roles. The idea that the male standard is the normal one has become so ingrained during service that women veterans don’t realize they’ve absorbed the spoken or unspoken message that adding “female” to something diminishes it.

It's an interesting read. I wonder how it applies to other societies? I'd be especially interested to learn about how Israeli and British female veterans are treated. (Very differently, I'd wager.)

The MAVNI program

My current project involves military enrollment, so I am following the story of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, recently suspended by the Pentagon:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that he supports reactivating a program designed to attract foreign military recruits who agree to serve in exchange for fast-tracked U.S. citizenship.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, was suspended a year ago and additional security measures were put in place to guard against “espionage potential” among U.S. military recruits born in other countries. Those new regulations left the program paralyzed, ending a reliable stream of high-quality troops.

“We are taking the steps obviously to save the program, if it can be saved,” Mattis said. “And I believe it can.”

The MAVNI program has produced more than 10,400 troops since 2009 — personnel who possess language and medical skills deemed vital to military operations and in short supply among U.S.-born troops. The military continues to process those who enlisted before the program was suspended.

It may seem odd that people who enlisted over a year ago still require processing, but this is pretty normal. The Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) affects nearly all applicants as military needs and space in Basic Military Training (BMT) and advanced schools are both limited. People who enlist can take up to 545 days to ship.

Also, an interesting bit I just learned, if an alien enlists in the DEP and then drops out before shipping to BMT, that person is forever ineligible for US citizenship (8 USC 1426). Also see 8 USC 1429 for how to become a naturalized citizen through military service.

Saving you the trouble of a FOIA request

I have some clarity now on what I can and can't say about the project I'm working on. In short, it's not classified (though the data we deal with is personally-identifiable information–PII—and private health information–PHI). My security clearance is "public trust," the lowest level, and in fact the only level that someone with a clearance can disclose. Also, the contracts for this project are publicly available through FOIA.

So, I'm free to discuss this project in a way that I've rarely been permitted before. Now, I'm not allowed to post photos of, or taken on, military bases, and it's a bad idea but not necessarily prohibited for me to discuss individual people. (Which is a shame, because a week ago I got a tour of the Pentagon that included the 9/11 memorial, which really moved me. I will try to obtain permission to post photos, but it doesn't look likely I can.)

Here's the story.

Technically (and I never thought I would be one of these), I'm now a defense contractor. My client is the Defense Digital Service, a franchise of the United States Digital Service. President Obama formed the latter to prevent debacles like the HealthCare.gov rollout, which funneled $50m to Accenture and produced something a well-run start-up could have produced for a tiny fraction of that amount. The former (my client) reports directly to the Secretary of Defense's office, and, as a civil service agency, is not subject to White House interference.

My client's customer is the Military Enrollment Processing Command (MEPCOM), headquartered in North Chicago, Ill. This joint command runs the country's 67 Military Enrollment Processing Stations (MEPS) and enrolls everyone who joins the U.S. armed forces in the enlisted ranks. (They also provide services for some officer candidates, but my project doesn't apply to those folks.)

Our company will be upgrading the software that MEPS use to track applicants from the time recruiters drop them off to the time they enter basic training. The current software launched in 1996 and functions only because a dedicated group of people up at MEPCOM keep it running with spit and duck tape.

We've got five months to produce a pilot program that shows how we can overhaul the entire process. We're working closely with MEPCOM, the Baltimore MEPS, and the Air Force, because if you're going to do a pilot project you really want that service to be involved. (Rimshot!)

In the end, we're going to produce software that helps kids who want to serve the United States do so without losing bonuses, or getting shut out of health care, or getting told they can't serve because of a technicality someone should have caught early. Software that helps the dedicated civil servants who work in MEPS across the country do their jobs better. Software that helps every American taxpayer by solving these real problems at a fraction of what the government would have spent 10 years ago. (In fact, they did. In the early 2000s another firm spent 5 years and tens of millions developing a replacement that completely failed.)

In the coming months, I'll post what I can about this project, and about the people we're helping. By "what I can," understand that I'm going to clear some of the information I post with DDS, MEPCOM, and in some cases, the Air Force. Since my client is the U.S. Government, I literally have a First Amendment right to post anything I learn on my blog; but I recognize that just because something is available through a FOIA request doesn't mean I should publish it. To wit: This project touches real people, many of them smart teenagers in bad situations who have lost their best shot at getting a better life because of bad software. And that pisses me off. But each situation raises a complicated interaction of privacy concerns, which the law as written may allow me to disclose, but basic human decency obligates me to protect.

Also, the kids who we'll be helping by and large don't care about who's running the government. They love their country. They want to give something back. Or maybe they just want a good job. It doesn't matter. In the past week, I've seen four swearing-in ceremonies, in each of which a group of teenagers pledged to serve the United States and our Constitution, knowing that when they come back in a few weeks, they'll be shipped off somewhere and asked to do things both boring and horrific for four to eight years. It's really moving to see that. Even the officers who do 20 or 30 of these ceremonies each week feel it.

This is going to be one of the most impactful projects I've worked on. And it's really, really cool.

Firehose

I've learned more in the last week about the U.S. armed forces and how they enroll new members than I can recount. (I mean that in several senses.) Our team were at the San Antonio MEPS before 6am and stayed until almost 11; later this afternoon, we're heading to Lackland AFB to watch Air Force recruits getting off the bus for basic training.

First, though, I need to nap. We left our hotel 15 minutes before the nearest Starbucks opened and couldn't locate an open fast-food joint on the way to Fort Sam Houston. Also, the USO volunteer—the person with control over the Keurig machine—didn't arrive until 8. Oh, the madness.

More about this later. We're still sorting out what we can and can't post on social media (no photos, no personally-identifiable information, but some details about the project). For now, I just have to assimilate all of this information and come up with a minimally-viable product outline by next week. Fun!