Saturday, May 3, 2008

Surreal Saturday: Parkour (YouTube)

If you are not familiar with the outrageous sport of parkour (or its close cousin, free running) take a look at the video below:

Friday, May 2, 2008

Annual Wiretap Report Released (

The Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts released its 2007 Wiretap Report to Congress recently. The statute requires that specific information be reported each year "including the offense(s) under investigation, the location of the intercept, the cost of the surveillance, and the number of arrests, trials, and convictions that directly result from the surveillance."

According to the report: "A total of 2,208 intercepts authorized by federal and state courts were completed in 2007, an increase of 20 percent compared to the number terminated in 2006. The number of applications for orders by federal authorities fell less than 1 percent to 457. The number of applications reported by state prosecuting officials grew 27 percent to 1,751, with 24 states providing reports, 1 more than in 2006."

However, there is a catch. The Feds did not include data "involving sensitive and/or sealed matters". That means the report had to include this little gem: "Statistics indicate that if all intercepts undertaken for federal investigations in 2007 were reported, the 2007 Wiretap Report would not reflect any decrease in the use of court-approved electronic surveillance by the agencies." Given that Federal wiretaps reported are below the ten year average, it is virtually certain that the actual number of wiretaps is higher, though probably not hugely so.

The report goes on to say: "Installed wiretaps were in operation an average of 44 days per wiretap in 2007, compared to 40 days in 2006." This came at an average cost of over $48,000 per wiretap! The most common specific location for the wiretap was a “portable device, carried by/on individual” by a very large margin -- 94% of wiretaps were on cell phones, etc.

81% of all applications for wiretaps stated that drug offenses were the most serious crime under consideration. There is not even a category for terrorism on the chart provided. It is unclear if this is because terrorism is included in the "other" category (which, at the federal and state level combined, accounted for only 30 wiretaps) or because these are "sensitive and/or sealed matters".

Arrests vs. conviction rate told the most interesting story to me, however. The graph below (built by me using the data from Table 9 of the report) shows the percent of convictions in cases where wiretaps were used versus the total number of wiretaps authorized per year (I have normalized the number of wiretaps by dividing the total by 100 so that both lines could easily fit on the same graph. To get the actual number of taps, you need to multiply the raw number by 100). I have also added a trendline to both sets of data. It appears that the number of arrests is staying more or less the same but that the number of convictions is dropping. This might just be a statistical artifact (arrests are often made months or years after the intercept is made) but it is still a trend worth noticing.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The "Real" Price Of Gasoline And The Value Of History (EIA via LII)

The always helpful Librarian's Internet Index pointed me today towards some interesting charts at the Energy Information Administration showing "real" (i.e. inflation adjusted) gasoline and other petroleum product prices over time. Most of the charts date back to 1980 but the one below, dating back to 1919, seemed the most interesting. Of course, the importance of gasoline in the US economy is far more significant than it was in 1919 (and maybe than even in 1983), but it is still useful to get the historical perspective.

Country Reports On Terrorism (US State Department)

The US State Department has just released its annual Country Reports On Terrorism. The document is quite extensive and contains not only a Strategic Assessment and individual country reports but also a full description of "strategies, activities, tools for disrupting or eliminating safe havens" and a list of designated terrorist organizations (with brief descriptions of each). The full, 50 minute briefing announcing the report is at the end of this post but I have extracted some of the highlights from the Strategic Assessment (Hyperlinks, italics and bold are mine):

  • "Al-Qa’ida (AQ) and associated networks remained the greatest terrorist threat to the United States and its partners in 2007. It has reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), replacement of captured or killed operational lieutenants, and the restoration of some central control by its top leadership, in particular Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although Usama bin Ladin remained the group’s ideological figurehead, Zawahiri has emerged as AQ’s strategic and operational planner."
  • "2007 was marked by the affiliation of regional insurgent groups with AQ, notably the growing threat in North Africa posed by the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat’s (GSPC) September 2006 merger with AQ, which resulted in GSPC renaming itself al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM is still primarily focused on the Algerian government, but its target set is broader than it was prior to the merger."
  • "At the same time, the alliance of convenience and mutual exploitation between al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and many Sunni populations there has deteriorated. The Baghdad Security Plan, initiated in February, along with assistance from primarily Sunni tribal and local groups has succeeded in reducing violence to late 2005 levels, has disrupted and diminished AQI infrastructure, and has driven some surviving AQI fighters from Baghdad and Al Anbar into the northern Iraqi provinces of Ninawa, Diyala, and Salah ad Din."
  • "Throughout 2007, AQ increased propaganda efforts seeking to inspire support in Muslim populations, undermine Western confidence, and enhance the perception of a powerful worldwide movement. Terrorists consider information operations a principal part of their effort. Use of the Internet for propaganda, recruiting, fundraising and, increasingly, training, has made the Internet a “virtual safe haven.” (Note: For an interesting perspective on this see The Mercyhurst Virtual Jihad Project) International intervention in Iraq continued to be exploited by AQ as a rallying cry for radicalization and terrorist activity, as were other conflicts such as Afghanistan and Sudan. The international community has yet to muster a coordinated and effectively resourced program to counter extremist propaganda."
  • "Iran remained the most significant state sponsor of terrorism. A critically important element of Iranian national security strategy is its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad."
    • "Hizballah, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, is key to Iran’s terrorism strategy. Iran also continued to threaten its neighbors and destabilize Iraq by providing weapons, training, and funding to select Iraqi Shia militants."
  • "In Colombia, the FARC exemplified another trend: growing links between terrorist and other criminal activity. The FARC, which continued to hold hundreds of hostages, including three American citizens captive for more than four years, raised more than an estimated $60 million per year from narcotics trafficking."
  • "Responding to terrorist groups that have many of the characteristics of a global insurgency – propaganda campaigns, grass roots support, and political and territorial ambitions, though ill-defined, requires a comprehensive response. Successful methods include a focus on protecting and securing the population; and politically and physically marginalizing the insurgents, winning the support and cooperation of at-risk populations by targeted political and development measures, and conducting precise intelligence-led special operations to eliminate critical enemy elements with minimal collateral damage."
  • "There were significant achievements in this area this year against terrorist leadership targets, notably the capture or killing of key terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, and the Philippines. These efforts buy us time to carry out the most important elements of a comprehensive counterterrorist strategy: disrupting terrorist operations, including their communications, propaganda and subversion efforts; planning and fundraising; and eliminating the conditions that terrorists exploit."
  • "Radicalization of immigrant populations, youth and alienated minorities in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa continued. But it became increasingly clear that radicalization to violent extremism does not occur by accident, or because such populations are innately prone to extremism. Rather, we saw increasing evidence of terrorists and extremists manipulating the grievances of alienated youth or immigrant populations, and then cynically exploiting those grievances to subvert legitimate authority and create unrest. We also note a “self-radicalization” process of youths reaching out to extremists in order to become involved in the broader AQ fight."
  • "Counter-radicalization (Note: Is this a new term? I do not recall having seen it before...) is a key policy priority for the United States, particularly in Europe, given the potential of Europe-based violent extremism to threaten the United States and its key interests directly. The leaders of AQ and its affiliates are extremely interested in recruiting terrorists from and deploying terrorists to Europe, people familiar with Western cultures who can travel freely. Countering such efforts demands that we treat immigrant and youth populations not as a source of threat to be defended against, but as a target of enemy subversion to be protected and supported."
  • "The key success factor in confronting violent extremism is the commitment by governments to work with each other, with the international community, with private sector organizations, and with their citizens and immigrant populations. Local communities are also a vital part of countering radicalization strategies."

Related Posts:
Country Reports On Human Rights Practices (State Department)

Terrorism Threat Map (AON)

Annual Threat Assessment Of The Director Of National Intelligence (Senate Testimony)
Rank Ordering The 26 Risks From The 2008 Global Risk Report (WEF)
One Stop Shopping; Current US National Strategies

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Iraqi Reconstruction Five Years On (SIGIR)

The Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction has just published its most recent quarterly report on the status of Iraqi reconstruction. The graphic can be seen below and the full (10 MB) report can be downloaded here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Country Reports On Human Rights Practices (State Department)

The US State Department has just released its massive, 2 volume, 3000+ page report to Congress on human rights practices "of all nations that are members of the United Nations and a few that are not." You can get Volume 1 (covering Africa, East Asia, the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia) here and Volume 2 (which covers the rest of the world) here. Expect them to take some time to download...

The reports are exhaustive and based on 2006 data (apparently it took over a year to collate and confirm the reports based initially, at least, on US embassy reporting). The introduction to this comprehensive report is 11 pages long and pretty much defies summarization. That said, here are some of the highlights I have picked out (Boldface, italics and hyperlinks are mine):

  • "These reports describe the performance of governments in putting into practice their international commitments on human rights. These fundamental rights, reflected in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, constitute what President Bush calls the 'non-negotiable demands of human dignity.'"
  • "The United States takes its human rights commitments seriously. We recognize that we are writing this report at a time when our own record, and actions we have taken to respond to the terrorist attacks against us, have been questioned."
  • "The reports review each country’s performance in 2006. Each report speaks for itself. Yet, broad patterns are discernible and are described below, supported by country-specific examples."
  • "First, the advances made in human rights and democracy were hard won and challenging to sustain."
    • "Despite President Musharraf’s stated commitment to democratic transition and ‘‘enlightened moderation,’’ Pakistan’s human rights record continued to be poor. Restrictions remained on freedom of movement, expression, association, and religion. Disappearances of provincial activists and political opponents continued, especially in provinces experiencing internal turmoil and insurgencies. The security forces continued to commit extrajudicial killings. Arbitrary arrest and torture remained common. Corruption was pervasive throughout the Government and police forces."
    • "Though Egypt held a first-ever, multi-party presidential election in 2005, in 2006 public calls for greater democratization and accountability sometimes met with strong government reaction. The continued imprisonment of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour raised serious concerns about the path of political reform and democracy in the country. Continuing a trend begun in 2005, the Government arrested and detained hundreds of activists affiliated with the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, generally for periods lasting several weeks. Two senior judges were brought in for questioning in February for publicly calling for an independent judiciary. Egyptian police arrested and detained over 500 activists for participating in demonstrations in support of judicial independence. In addition, severe cases of torture by authorities were documented. The Government also arrested, detained, and abused several Internet bloggers."
    • Note: Liberia, Indonesia, Morocco, the Democratic Republic Of Congo, Haiti, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Venezuela, Fiji and Thailand are also highlighted in this section.
  • "A second sobering reality is that insecurity due to internal and/or cross-border conflict can threaten or thwart advancements in human rights and democratic government."
    • "Despite the Iraqi Government’s continuing commitment to foster national reconciliation and reconstruction, keep to an electoral course, and establish the rule of law, both deepening sectarian violence and acts of terrorism seriously undercut human rights and democratic progress during 2006. Although the Iraqi constitution and law provide a strong framework for the protection of human rights, armed groups attacked human rights from two different directions: those proclaiming their hostility to the Government—Al- Qa’ida terrorists, irreconcilable remnants of the Ba’athist regime, and insurgents waging guerrilla warfare; and members of Shi’a militias and individual ministries’ security forces—nominally allied with the Government—who committed torture and other abuses."
    • "Although Afghanistan made important human rights progress since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, its human rights record remained poor. This was mainly due to weak central institutions and a deadly insurgency: the Taliban, Al-Qa’ida, and other extremist groups stepped up attacks against government officials, security forces, NGOs and other aid personnel, and unarmed civilians; and the number of suicide bombings rose dramatically during the year, as did attacks on schools and teachers. There were continued reports of cases of arbitrary arrests and detention, extrajudicial killings, torture, and poor prison conditions. In December President Karzai launched a Transitional Justice Action Plan designed to address past violations of human rights and improve the institutional capacity of the justice system."
    • Note: Lebanon and East Timor are also singled out in this section.
  • "Third, despite gains for human rights and democratic principles in every region of the world, much of humanity still lives in fear yet dreams of freedom."
    • "In 2006 North Korea remained one of the world’s most isolated and repressive regimes. The regime controls almost all aspects of citizens’ lives, denying freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and restricts freedom of movement and worker rights. The constitution provides for ‘‘freedom of religious belief,’’ but genuine religious freedom does not exist. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people, including political prisoners, were held in detention camps, and many prisoners died from torture, starvation, disease, and exposure."
    • "The Iranian Government flagrantly violated freedom of speech and assembly, intensifying its crackdown against dissidents, journalists, and reformers—a crackdown characterized by arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, disappearances, the use of excessive force, and the widespread denial of fair public trials. The Government continued to detain and abuse Baha’is and other religious minorities and hosted a widely condemned conference denying the existence of the Holocaust. In the lead-up to the December 15 Assembly of Experts elections in Iran, more than two-thirds of those who had applied to run—including all female candidates—were disqualified, leaving many seats uncontested. Hundreds of candidates in nationwide municipal elections also were disqualified. The Government continued to flout domestic and international calls for responsible government in 2006 by supporting terrorist movements in Syria and Lebanon as well as calling for the destruction of a UN member state."
    • Note: Burma, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, Belarus and Eritrea are mentioned in this section as well.
  • "The fourth sobering reality is that as the worldwide push for greater personal and political freedom grows stronger, it is being met with increasing resistance from those who feel threatened by political and societal change."
    • "In Russia in 2006, a new NGO law entered into force in April imposing more stringent registration requirements for NGOs, strict monitoring of organizations, extensive and onerous reporting requirements on programming and activities, and empowering the Federal Registration Service to deny registration or to shut down an organization based on vague and subjective criteria. Freedom of expression and media independence declined due to government pressure and restrictions. In October unknown persons murdered human rights defender Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist known for her critical writing on human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Government used its controlling ownership of all national television and radio stations, as well as of the majority of influential regional ones, to restrict access to information deemed sensitive."
    • "The Syrian Government strictly controlled the dissemination of information and prohibited criticism of the Government and discussion of sectarian issues, including religious and minority rights. There were detentions and beatings for individual expressions of opinion that violated these restrictions, for example the February arrest of journalist Adel Mahfouz after he called for interfaith dialogue following the controversy surrounding the depiction of the Prophet Muhammed in cartoons. The Government relied on its press and publication laws, the penal code, and the Emergency Law to censor access to the Internet, and it restricted electronic media. Harassment of domestic human rights activists also occurred, including regular close surveillance and the imposition of travel bans when they sought to attend workshops and conferences outside the country."
    • Note; Other countries mentioned in this section include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Burundi, Rwanda, Venezuela, China and Vietnam.
  • "Genocide was the most sobering reality of all. "
    • "Almost 60 years after the adoption of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—an expression of the outraged conscience of mankind to the enormity of the Holocaust and the cataclysm of the Second World War—genocide continued to ravage the Darfur region of Sudan."
  • "Secretary Rice also issued ten guiding NGO principles regarding the treatment by governments of nongovernmental organizations. These core principles will guide U.S. treatment of NGOs, and we also will use them to assess the actions of other governments."
  • "When democracies support the work of human rights advocates and civil society organizations, we are helping men and women in countries across the globe shape their own destinies in freedom. And by so doing, we are helping to build a safer, better world for all."
  • "We must defend the defenders, for they are the agents of peaceful, democratic change.'

Monday, April 28, 2008

Three Great Databases, Three Cool Resources (Link List)

I have run across a number of interesting databases and resources over the last several weeks. Here is a quick roundup:

World Economic Outlook Database. You have to love the IMF! They have put together a great database of economic forecasts that goes out to 2013 on a wide variety of indicators in just about every country in the world. Authoritative, comprehensive, detailed and free! Not much more you could ask for...

History Research Online. This site is simply an extensive, organized list of history sites on the web and therein lies its utility. It is not entirely clear who runs this site but I found it to be useful in pointing to a number of sites I had not heard about previously.

The Global Terrorism Database. All of the terrorism analysts will no doubt be familiar with this excellent National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (at the University Of Maryland) product but, for the rest of us, it is a great one stop shop for historical information about terrorist attacks. I found the database to be particularly useful in helping me search for patterns and trends I wanted to identify for a recent classroom exercise in crisis briefing and reporting.

Printable Paper. How many times have you needed a sheet of graph paper or some such and not had any on hand? With the Printable Paper site you can download a wide variety of templates for printing out on ordinary bond paper for free.

Picture-based Computer Tutorials. We often have our students push the outside of the capability envelope of MS Office and other software tools we use in our classes. This site has a number of useful picture-based tutorials on how to do all sorts of routine and advanced operations in Word, Excel and Powerpoint as well as in a variety of other types of software.

36 Beautiful Resume Ideas That Work. While I can't comment on how well they might work, I found many of these resume ideas to be useful in thinking about resumes in a new way. If you are looking for ideas on how you might make your resume "pop", there is likely something here for you.