3 April 2004

The Terrorist Within

The agents in Minneapolis were having the same thoughts. Ghimenti was called and asked again for help on the search warrant. Later that day, the FBI seized Moussaoui's laptop.

On Sept. 12, Ghimenti and Humphries flew to Paris. Ghimenti told Humphries about the FBI's stalled inquiry into Moussaoui - the man who in December would be charged as an accomplice in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Humphries was eager to question Ressam about what he might know about the attacks on New York and Washington. But it took the agent five days to make it home to Seattle.

When Humphries was able to show Ressam a photograph of Moussaoui, Ressam said he recognized the French national as having been with him at the Khalden camp in 1998.

Given the opportunity, might Ressam have identified Moussaoui earlier, spurring the FBI in Washington to pursue the Moussaoui search warrant?

Might that warrant have yielded information that could have helped the bureau disrupt the Sept. 11 plot?

Humphries was haunted by the possibilities.

Perhaps if the Minneapolis FBI had told FBI headquarters that Moussaoui was involved with missile defence?

Surveys show Indonesian president in danger of losing elections

The International Foundation for Electoral Studies says it is the first time, since its surveys began last December, that she is not the first choice.

The survey, conducted between March 21 and 28, shows 19 per cent support for Golkar compared to 8.6 per cent for PDI-P and 7.3 percent for the National Mandate Party, led by national assembly speaker Amien Rais.

However, more than half the respondents declined to say who they will vote for or had yet to make up their minds.

For the presidential election on July 5, Mr Yudhoyono has 18.4 per cent support compared to 11.6 percent for Mrs Megawati.

Mr Yudhoyono quit his ministerial post last month after complaining that the president was freezing him out of cabinet meetings because of his presidential bid.

A separate poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute, conducted on March 18, a week after the campaign began, shows 23.2 per cent for Golkar and 17.5 percent for PDI-P.

When asked about presidential preferences, almost 21 per cent picked Mr Yudhoyono, 17.4 per cent chose Mrs Megawati.

More than 147 million people in the world's third largest democracy are eligible to vote.

Just some background figures...

Indonesian election: Clues to the future

Barring any last-minute snafus in the delivery of ballots across this archipelago of more than 1.9 million square kilometers, Indonesians will go to the polls on Monday for the first of up to three elections over the next five months. This initial election for legislators may be the least important, particularly since the House of Representatives has failed to act on 90 percent of the bills brought before it.

The 22-day official campaign period has not evolved into an orgy of debate over the crises facing the globe's fourth-most-populous nation, which includes more Muslims than any other country (see Indonesia: 24 parties and nothing to celebrate, March 16). Monday's voting, however, will give important clues about how the presidential race will play out. Investors and others should pay close attention.

For starters, only parties that receive 3 percent of the votes in this phase will be eligible to place a presidential candidate on the ballot for voting in July. Leading figures from parties that miss the cutoff may be attractive to rivals, despite their limited popular support, as vice-presidential candidates, to bring regional or political balance to a ticket, or for other reasons.

Things to watch for:

  • the combined Muslim vote - PKB (Gus Dur) + PAN (Amien Rais)
  • the SARS (sindrom aku rindu Suharto = I miss Suharto) vote - Wiranto + Tutut + Prabowo + Golkar
  • the PDIP vote

This is a legislative election. Megawati's ruling PDI-P is likely to see its vote crash precipitously. The real question is if it falls to less than Golkar or if the combined PDI-P/Golkar falls below 50%. If either or both happen it will become almost impossible for Megawati to be re-elected. A party with less than 3% of the popular vote to run a presidential candidate in June. If no-one gets more than 50% in June there will be a runoff in August.

The other issue is the contest for the Golkar nomination where the leading 'lights' are Tanjung Akbar and Wiranto. Wiranto is wanted on international warrants for crimes against humanity in East Timor. I'll try and run another election burst on 5 April, but my Bahasa is not nearly as competent as my Spanish.

Intelligence chiefs caught in crossfire

'These briefings are always done by request of the minister. They are told broadly what subject matters are broached but there are no hard and fast rules,' said one former public servant who has given briefings on national security to opposition leaders. 'There's usually a question and answer session. This can be free-wheeling. It's never reported back to the minister.'

It would be highly inappropriate if it were because it would give the minister access to information that could easily be used politically. For example, to get a sense of an opponent's future policy direction. Note-takers will have to be present at future intelligence briefings and the utility of those briefings will be severely diminished.

More damaged still is the reputation of the intelligence services. After the children overboard claims, the Mick Keelty affair and the Iraq WMD controversy, it's just another example of politicisation undermining public confidence in the institutions at the forefront of the war on terrorism.

I think this is a terrific idea. Note-takers should also be present whenever the Man of Steel or a member of the palace staff are briefed by the intelligence agencies. Or when children are thrown overboard. Or intelligence caveats are withheld from the public. Or when WMDs are reported by the intelligence agencies. Or when the intelligence agencies advise the government that the Iraq war is likely to exacerbate terrorism. Or when the palace staff draft statements for police commissioners and heads of intelligence agencies.

No-one could imagine our open and honest prime minister could possibly have the slightest objection.

Condi Rice's other wake-up call

FMR US SENATOR GARY HART: No. But as one of those fearing a near-term attack, I went out on my own throughout the spring and summer of 2001 saying, 'The terrorists are coming, the terrorists are coming.' One of the speeches I gave was, ironically enough, to the International Air Transportation Association in Montreal. And the Montreal newspapers headlined the story, 'Hart predicts terrorist attacks on America.'

By pre-arrangement I had gotten an appointment with Condi Rice the following day and had gone straight from Montreal to Washington to meet with her. And my brief message to her was, 'Get going on homeland security, you don't have all the time in the world.' This was on Sept. 6, 2001.

SALON: What was her response?

HART: Her response was 'I'll talk to the vice president about it.' And this tracks with Clarke's testimony and writing that even at this late date, nothing was being done inside the White House.

Now Hart is certainly disgruntled. He co-chaired a commission on US national security. They reported in January 2001. Among others things they recommended a homeland security department. The Bush administration rejected that advice until June 2002.

Okay, it's an obscure little piece of bureaucratic history. It's also independent confirmation of the Clarke claims. It's also emblematic of the Bush administration's refusal to give terror any priority until it became electorally advantageous Go read the whole interview. And weep.

2 April 2004

A Response to Fallujah

The reality is that during the past month there has been a major increase in casualties, both U.S. and Iraqi, military and civilian, even as a troop rotation has reduced the number of U.S. forces by 20 percent and replaced many regular Army units with reservists. The turning point against Iraqi insurgents that U.S. commanders have been talking about for months simply hasn't happened in Fallujah or elsewhere in the Sunni heartland, and other parts of the country are growing more dangerous. The lack of security is not only blocking economic recovery: As June 30 rapidly approaches, the risk is growing that the end of the occupation period will be followed not by a transition to democratic government but by chaos or civil war.

Acknowledging the problem will help Mr. Bush summon the political will to reexamine the strategy of the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority and make necessary adjustments. It is critical that U.S. commanders respond forcefully to Fallujah and step up the counteroffensive against the Sunni insurgency. Militias operating elsewhere in the country -- particularly the Shiite Mahdi Army of Moqtada Sadr -- must be disbanded and disarmed before they, too, begin targeting U.S. troops and allied Iraqis. Are there now sufficient forces in Iraq to undertake these missions? Many outside experts believe there are not. They also point to the failure of the occupation authorities to adequately train or equip the Iraqi police who are supposed to maintain order in cities such as Fallujah. Mr. Bush must not hesitate to order more troops, more trainers and more equipment for Iraq, even it means disrupting the Pentagon's rotation plans. He also should renew the effort to recruit allies to share the burden.

The security response needs to be coupled with a more vigorous effort to forge a political consensus on Iraq's future. Administration officials are betting heavily that a single man, U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, will somehow produce a plan for a transitional government in the coming weeks that all sides will accept. But Mr. Brahimi is not a miracle worker, and his effort won't succeed unless more of Iraq's real power brokers, especially in the Shiite clergy, are persuaded to support the process. Sticking to the June 30 transition date will invite disaster if the government that takes power is, like the current Governing Council, seen by most Iraqis as illegitimate or as a U.S. puppet. Then the appalling violence of Fallujah will worsen and spread.

In ways this post follows from my thoughts about the interim constitution. The interim constitution just does not give the transitional government enough power to command any legitimacy, especially when you consider that the US will retain control of the security forces, the purse strings, and those parts of the government controlled by the continuing CPA appointees. The enormous patronage controlled by Ahmed Chalabi though the debaathification and property commissions will make him almost unstoppable except in the face of strong democratic institutions. An appointed executive operating without a parliament, and in control of elections to any future parliament, is a recipe for disaster. As is the cutback in US troop numbers.

Spain is withdrawing 1300 troops from Iraq. They are also sending additional troops to Afghanistan. The US is withdrawing around around 30 000 troops. I am unsure why the Spanish withdrawal is to be condemned but the US withdrawal is not. Time to scratch the 30 June obsession and see about building a new interim constitution that addresses Iraqi, not US, needs.

The latest US effort at retainig effective sovereignty while granting ceremonial concerns the defence ministry

A bigger concern for many Iraqis is how "real" the post June 30 sovereignty will be, particularly with the US making it clear that it will retain control over all security forces, and a current draft law on the table for the Ministry of Defense that seeks to give the US the power to appoint the minister, and hopefully keep him in for a five-year term.

I am unaware of any nation on earth that gives its defence minister a fixed term, or for that matter of any sovereign nation whose defence minister is appointed by another. Constitutional trickiness of this kind is not going to add to the transitional government's legitimacy.

The Dogs That Didn't Bark - Why Colin Powell and George Tenet aren't bashing Richard Clarke

If Clarke is spewing nonsense - if the president and his national security adviser really did consider al-Qaida an urgent matter - Tenet is the man to say so. It's hard to imagine that the White House hasn't tried to recruit him to do so. Yet so far he hasn't.

Tenet is not the only quiet dog. One of the hounds that the White House did unleash - Secretary of State Powel - not only declined to growl, but practically purred like a kitten. Interviewed on Jim Lehrer's NewsHour, Powell said: 'I know Mr. Clarke. I have known him for many, many years. He's a very smart guy. He served his nation very, very well. He's an expert in these matters.' His book 'is not the complete story,' but, Powell added, 'I'm not attributing any bad motives to it.'

Asked if he had been recruited to join the campaign against Clarke, Powell replied, 'I'm not aware of any campaign against Mr. Clarke, and I am not a member.'

His choice of words here is fascinating. Note: He did not say 'There is no campaign,' but rather 'I'm not aware of any campaign.' As has been widely observed, Powell truly is out of the loop in this administration; it's conceivable he is unaware. He then went on to say, '[A]nd I am not a member' - suggesting there might be a campaign, but he's not part of it.

Clarke is not the first Bush administration official to be suddenly flung down from favour. Consider:

  • General Eric Shinseki
  • Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill
  • Ambassador Joseph Wilson

In each case the former official's allegations of fact have not been disputed, Instead we've seen a sustained and puerile assault on their character or motivation. As we speak a similar exercise is developing against the Medicare actuary threatened with the sack if he told the Congress the truth. Today's NYT editorialises that:

When the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, dared to say publicly that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, he was ridiculed by the administration and his career was brought to a close. When Mr. Bush's former Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, disclosed that planning for an invasion of Iraq was already under way in early 2001, he was denounced as someone who didn't know what he was talking about. And there's hardly a serious person in the country who is unaware of the administration's sliming of Richard Clarke, who said, among other things, that the war in Iraq had undermined the war against terror.

If only the Bush administration was as good at fighting terrorists as it is at shooting the messenger.

1 April 2004

Google is disgruntled and probably gay, just like Dick Clarke

Try googling weapons of mass destruction.

It's back: Tassie tiger cloned

Scientists have caused a worldwide sensation after successfully cloning a Tasmanian tiger.

The extinct animal has been resurrected by the geneticists who created Dolly the sheep.

Already the female animal, which has been named Tassie, is being hailed as one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the past 100 years.

Using the cutting-edge technology, DNA was extracted from Tasmanian tiger bones to bring the animal back to life.

Tassie has come back from exctinction decades after the last known Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, died in captivity in Hobart in 1936.

Its existence has been kept a closely guarded secret until now.

Okay, you look at the 1 April dateline and move on. The Sydney Morning Herald does a better job with its report that:

Yum cha restaurants in Chinatown will now have to train workers who push food carts to pass a "driving licence" under new regulations from Sydney City Council.

The move comes after a spate of accidents in which novice or careless trolley-pushers have crashed carts, injuring or making a mess of patrons and co-workers.

In one case last year, an elderly customer at a large yum cha restaurant was covered in plates of sticky black bean sauce after a trolley waitress lost her load while she was text messaging on her mobile phone.

The weirdness about the Telegraph's thylacine story is that the Australian Museum (actually the NSW state museum, but I digress) is making a serious attempt to clone the thylacine:

After more than two years of ongoing cloning research, the Australian Museum has overcome a crucial obstacle in its continuing efforts to bring back to life the extinct Tasmanian Tiger.

In May 2002 the Evolutionary Biology Unit at the Australian Museum in Sydney successfully replicated individual Tasmanian Tiger genes using a process known as PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). These new discoveries and the story of the Museum's ongoing efforts have been exclusively documented by the Discovery Channel in The End of Extinction: Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger, premiering in 155 countries world-wide, including Australia, on July 7 at 7.30pm.

This remarkable journey which hopes to turn science fiction into science fact began in 1999 when the Australian Museum embarked on a never-before-attempted project to bring back an extinct species.

The last known Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, died in captivity in 1936, but a team of biologists believe the animal's extinction may simply be a 70-year hiccup.

Southerly Buster would like a cuddly diprotodon for the back yard, but fears that particular cloning still is a little way off. Southerly Buster also vigorously supports John Quiggin's fair and balanced call for the eating of chocolate bilbies at Easter.

Frankly, we'd support eating Bushies if chocolate ones were available.

31 March 2004

Disputes over ownership fuel Iraq tensions

The occupying authorities had intended to resolve property claims through arbitration. Last January Paul Bremer, Iraq's American administrator, ordered the Governing Council to establish the Iraq Property Claims Commission, and three months later coalition officials say the commission is two weeks away from starting to process claims. But Hisham Shibli, Iraq's justice minister, says that though commissions will be independent, they will not tackle expropriation by senior officials.

Many exile groups that make up Iraq's US-backed former opposition are descendants of the pre-1958 revolution gentry that was overthrown that year along with King Faisal II. The property question is seen by many as an attempt at the restoration of these old aristocratic families to their former places of prominence.

Mr Chalabi, the scion of a pre-1958 revolution aristocratic family, has used his militia to reclaim a defunct flour mill in a Baghdad district that used to belong to the Chalabis, along with what he says is his sister's home used by the Ba'ath party intelligence service.

In late February, the Council's de-Ba'athification Committee, which Mr Chalabi heads, ordered the confiscation of all property belonging to the senior 1,500 cadres of the former Ba'athist regimes and their relatives. The inventory is still under preparation.

Meanwhile, property prices in the Shia Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are said to have risen twice as fast as in Baghdad, as tens of thousands of refugees from Iran tentatively replant their roots.

Disputes over property ownership have fed an already tense political situation throughout Iraq. In an attempt to defuse the property dispute, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's highest-ranking Shia cleric, ruled that property confiscated by Ba'athists and still in public hands should be returned to its original owners.

The dispossession policy is really just a replay of the extraordinarily foolish decision to disband the old Iraqi army. The difference is that this one effectively questions every land title in the country and transfers its disposition to the least popular member of the IGC. That does not read to me as a policy that is likely to contribute to reconciliation or tranquillity in Iraq, especially when it is realised that the handover of sovereignty will leave this process beyond the control of the transitional government.

Stuffing the briefs

After listening to today's set piece in parliament I have to wonder why no-one wants to ask the basic question. It is now common ground that Iron Mark was briefed. The dispute is about the content of the briefing by the deputy secretary of the department of foreign affairs and others.

Howard contends the briefings did not cover Iraq and Afghanistan. latham contends they did.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume Howard is being truthful. In that case it is a major scandal that the government is providing inadequate and misleading information to the alternative prime minister.

No doubt someone will ask it at some stage and no doubt the prime minister's staff will draft the customary denials for the customary signatures by various officials with high-sounding designations. This is a shadow play and a disgrace that exposes Howard as the constitutional radical he is.

The form of government the Man of Steel is creating is a Stalinate© in which the prime minister (in addition to his legitimate functions) serves as the effective head of state by appearing as the central figure at all national occasions and also replaces the bureaucracy by having various independent officials sign statements actually drafted by the prime ministerial staff.

Stuffing the briefings to the alternative prime minister for political advantage is really only par for the course.

Ethnic cleansing by the book

The Iraqi Interim Constitution's Article 58 provides:

(A) The Iraqi Transitional Government, and especially the Iraqi Property Claims Commission and other relevant bodies, shall act expeditiously to take measures to remedy the injustice caused by the previous regime's practices in altering the demographic character of certain regions, including Kirkuk, by deporting and expelling individuals from their places of residence, forcing migration in and out of the region, settling individuals alien to the region, depriving the inhabitants of work, and correcting nationality. To remedy this injustice, the Iraqi Transitional Government shall take the following steps:

(1) With regard to residents who were deported, expelled, or who emigrated; it shall, in accordance with the statute of the Iraqi Property Claims Commission and other measures within the law, within a reasonable period of time, restore the residents to their homes and property, or, where this is unfeasible, shall provide just compensation.

(2) With regard to the individuals newly introduced to specific regions and territories, it shall act in accordance with Article 10 of the Iraqi Property Claims Commission statute to ensure that such individuals may be resettled, may receive compensation from the state, may receive new land from the state near their residence in the governorate from which they came, or may receive compensation for the cost of moving to such areas.

(3) With regard to persons deprived of employment or other means of support in order to force migration out of their regions and territories, it shall promote new employment opportunities in the regions and territories.

(4) With regard to nationality correction, it shall repeal all relevant decrees and shall permit affected persons the right to determine their own national identity and ethnic affiliation free from coercion and duress.

(B) The previous regime also manipulated and changed administrative boundaries for political ends. The Presidency Council of the Iraqi Transitional Government shall make recommendations to the National Assembly on remedying these unjust changes in the permanent constitution. In the event the Presidency Council is unable to agree unanimously on a set of recommendations, it shall unanimously appoint a neutral arbitrator to examine the issue and make recommendations. In the event the Presidency Council is unable to agree on an arbitrator, it shall request the Secretary General of the United Nations to appoint a distinguished international person to be the arbitrator.

(C) The permanent resolution of disputed territories, including Kirkuk, shall be deferred until after these measures are completed, a fair and transparent census has been conducted and the permanent constitution has been ratified This resolution shall be consistent with the principle of justice, taking into account the will of the people of those territories.

This is, essentially, a charter for ethnic cleansing. The exchange of populations is to be effected by the Iraqi Property Claims Commission, one of those CPA organs continued by the TAL's Article 49. It is presently controlled by Ahmed Chalabi.

Trying to undo Saddam's Arabisation policies in Kirkuk governorate by population exchanges and returning Iraqis to other governorates after a generation of living in Kirkuk is, quite simply, insane. It is what happens when you invade a country with insufficient troops to effect proper levels of security. You end up negotiating with anyone who will talk to you just so that you can announce successes.

The interim constitution may be a PR success, but in terms of what it provides and what it omits, it is a bungled mishmash of bad laws and worse intentions.

A number of people have emailed asking for all these constitutional posts to be assembled in one document. I'm thinking about it.

The height gap

Holland's growth spurt began only in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, Drukker found, when its first liberal democracy was established. Before 1850, the country grew rich off its colonies, but the wealth stayed in the hands of the wealthy, and the average citizen shrank. After 1850, height and income suddenly fell into lockstep: when incomes went up, heights went up (after a predictable lag time), and always to the same degree. "I thought I must have made an error," Drukker said. "I must have correlated one of the variables with itself." He hadn;t. Holland, like the rest of Northern Europe, had simply managed to spread its prosperity around. These days, Dutch heights no longer keep pace with the economy. ("We can't grow to four metres just because our income quadruples," Drukker says.) But the essential equation is the same: when the G.N.P. grows, everyone grows.

As America's rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction, Komlos and others say. The eight million Americans without a job, the forty million without health insurance, the thirty-five million who live below the poverty line are surely having trouble measuring up. And they're not alone. As more and more Americans turn to a fast-food diet, its effects may be creeping up the social ladder, so that even the wealthy are growing wider rather than taller. "I've seen a similar thing in Guatemala," Bogin says. "The rich kids are taken care of by poor maids, so they catch the same diseases. When they go out on the street, they eat the same street food. They may get antibiotics, but they're still going to get exposed.

For the record, the average male Netherlander is 187 cm. The average male Australian passed that in 2000 and should reach 193 by 2060. Apparently the US uses average height as a measure of public health so their average height of 176.5 is an alarming stat. The stats are adjusted for immigration. We must be doing something right.

While I am on the subject of anthropometrics, I advise you not to look at this vulgar and offensive link under any circumstances.

African waterwheel

It's thought that nearly a billion and a half people around the world don't have access to safe drinking water. People often walk for miles every day to find it, which can take hours. That's why the task of getting water has been considered a difficult, tiresome job.

But that's changing in South Africa. The World's Amy Costello visited a place where getting water has actually become fun.

Kids run in a circle and push a merry-go-round faster and faster. Those who are seated on the ride, get dizzy from the speed...laughing and giddy from the force of gravity.

These kids are having so much fun, they don't seem to realize they're working. Then again, that's the idea behind the Play-Pump - a merry-go-round with a mission.

The children push the merry-go-round again and again. As they run, a device in the ground beneath them begins to turn. With every rotation of the merry-go-round, water is pumped out of a well, up through a pipe, and into a tank high above the playground.

A few feet away from all the fun, students in uniform turn on a tap. Clean, cold drinking water pours out. This is Motshegofadiwa Primary School, 15 miles north of Pretoria. It%u2019s in a town called Stinkwater; locals say there%u2019s a good reason for that name. The water around here used to smell. School Principal Peter Banyana says the water supply was also erratic before the Play-Pump arrived.

Almost too wonderful to be true...

Tip from Respectful of Otters by way of The Three-Toed Sloth.

30 March 2004

Vermont probes man with 70 goats in house

State officials are investigating a man whose goats and his religious convictions against killing them have collided in a possibly inhumane and definitely stinky way.

I am entirely unsure why, if Vermont was determined to use 70 goats as a probe, they chose to do it inside a house. Surely outside would have been more convenient? Do Vermont goats make especially good probes?

29 March 2004

PM plans new anti-terror laws

Tough new anti-terrorism laws approved by cabinet would allow police to question suspects for up to 24 hours.

The government also plans to enlarge the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), with the spy agency recruiting an extra 150 staff.

Prime Minister John Howard said the new anti-terror laws would double the length of time police could question anyone suspected of committing a terrorist offence.

The laws would ban anyone from training with listed terrorist groups and organisations such as the Taliban, or from joining groups which were not banned but could be proved to be terrorist organisations.

It would also become unlawful for people to make money out of selling books or memoirs about any time they spent training with terrorist organisations.

Parliament has given the government pretty much whatever it wants on laws against terror. This will be the third or fourth basket of terror laws since 911. At some point the government needs to think this thing through instead of coming up with new legislation every couple of months. It is beginning to look suspiciously like the manipulation of threat levels in the US.

These proposals, subject to how they're actually drafted, do not sound unreasonable. The discovery of alleged new loopholes every few months does.

Secret plans to evacuate London

London Resilience, senior sources say, recommended to ministers that they should put up signs marking the evacuation routes but they have refused to do so, risking chaos in an emergency.

The sources say ministers feared 'raising public alarm'. But Patrick Cunningham, the chairman of the Emergency Planning Society believes ministers' repeated warnings of an attack are much more alarming. 'It is much more scary to be told an attack is inevitable than to be told what to do if there is one,' he said.

The Emergency Planning Society is preparing to hit back against an attack from Mr Blunkett when the Home Secretary said: 'If an emergency planner believes that something is inadequate ... why not do something about it? Has any of these officers written to me? Has any of them written to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is responsible for civil contingencies? How many officers have raised their concerns?

'We know of those concerns because we read them in the papers yesterday... we will happily take them seriously when they propose their own plan and suggestions for improvement.'

Ian Hoult, the society's chairman for southern England, described Mr Blunkett's reaction as 'incredible'. He added: 'I don't know what planet he is on.' He said the society had been constantly warning ministers and MPs of Britain's lack of preparedness 'with increasing desperation over the years'. It is now drawing up a detailed dossier of its representations to give to Mr Blunkett.

Evidently the 45-minute claim was not designed to raise public alarm. Either that or there are legitimate and illegitimate public alarms. The class of legitimate public alarms apparently comprises those which enhance the public standing of the Blair government.

Methane find on Mars may be sign of life

A strong signal of life on Mars has been detected by scientists at the US National Aeronautics and Space Admin- istration (Nasa) and the European Space Agency.

Each group has independently discovered tantalising evidence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane, a waste product of living organisms on Earth, could also be a by-product of alien microbes living under the surface of the Red Planet.

The detection of methane has been the holy grail of scientists studying the Martian atmosphere, as its presence could provide unequivocal proof that there is life beyond Earth.

Neither Nasa nor the European Space Agency (ESA) has publicly announced the findings, but specialists who have seen the data believe the discovery is genuine - although they are unsure what it means in terms of confirming the presence of life.

The discovery comes weeks after Nasa and ESA announced new findings relating to the presence of huge bodies of water on Mars which could have supported life.

Finding even remnant life on Mars means life is probably common throughout the universe. Whether anything more complex than single cells are hanging around out there is still to be answered, although Ockham would prolly slash great big holes in the proposition that Terra is unique enough to be the only site of complex evolution.

28 March 2004

signposts | The Myth of the Domination System

About the best (if least intended) comment I've seen yet on a certain movie.