Daily Archives: August 10, 2007

Russian bombers again flying over U.S. bases

 canadian-fighter-escort-russian-bomber

Canadian fighter escorts a Russian bomber over the Arctic (file photo)

President Vladimir Putin has sought to make Russia more assertive in the world.

Reuters | Aug 10, 2007

by DMITRY SOLOVYOV

MOSCOW — Russia’s strategic bombers have resumed their Cold War practice of flying long-haul missions to areas patrolled by NATO and the United States, top generals said yesterday.

A Russian bomber flew over a U.S. military base on the Pacific island of Guam on Wednesday and “exchanged smiles” with U.S. pilots who had scrambled to track it, said Major-General Pavel Androsov, head of long-range aviation in the Russian air force.

“It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet [U.S.] aircraft carriers and greet [U.S. pilots] visually,” Gen. Androsov told a news conference.

“Yesterday we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the base of Guam,” he said.

President Vladimir Putin has sought to make Russia more assertive in the world.

Mr. Putin has boosted defence spending and sought to raise morale in the armed forces, which were starved of funding in the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

Gen. Androsov said the sortie by the two turboprop Tu-95MS bombers, from a base near Blagoveshchensk in the Far East, had lasted for 13 hours. The Tu-95, codenamed Bear by NATO, is Russia’s Cold War icon and may stay in service until 2040.

“I think the result was good. We met our colleagues, fighter jet pilots from [U.S.] aircraft carriers. We exchanged smiles and returned home,” Gen. Androsov said.

The bombers give Russia the capability of launching a devastating nuclear strike even if the nuclear arsenals on its own territory are wiped out.

During the Cold War, they played elaborate airborne games of cat-and-mouse with Western air forces.

Lieutenant-General Igor Khvorov, air force chief of staff, said the West would have to come to terms with Russia asserting its geopolitical presence around the globe.

“But I don’t see anything unusual, this is business as usual … like it is normal for the U.S. to fly from its continent to Guam or, say, the island of Garcia,” Gen. Khvorov said, referring to a remote Indian Ocean atoll used as a military base by the United States.

On Wednesday, young pilots of strategic bombers passed a series of tests, including missile launches. “We fired eight cruise missiles, and all hit the bull’s eye,” Gen. Khvorov said.

He said one crew had taken off from Engels in southwestern Russia, hit a target in the north and then flown thousands of kilometres before finally landing in the Far East.

Engels is home to Russia’s supersonic Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers, in service since 1987 and codenamed Blackjack by NATO while called White Swan by Russian pilots.

The generals said that under Mr. Putin, long-range aviation was no longer in need of fuel, enjoyed better maintenance and much higher wages – not the least because the Kremlin leader once made a five-hour sortie as part of a White Swan crew.

“The President learned about the pilots’ work the hard way,” Gen. Khvorov said. “This one flight yielded an awful lot.”

Russia sparks Cold War scramble

 russianbomber

Tu-95 Tupolev long-range bomber aircraft (file picture)

The Tu-95 pilots exchanged smiles with their US counterparts

BBC | Aug 9, 2007

Russian bombers have flown to the US Pacific island of Guam in a manoeuvre reminiscent of the Cold War era.

Two Tu-95 turboprops flew this week to Guam, home to a big US military base, Russian Maj Gen Pavel Androsov said, a story confirmed by the US.

They “exchanged smiles” with US pilots who scrambled to track them, he added.

The sorties, believed to be the first since the Cold War ended, come as Russia stresses a more assertive foreign policy, correspondents say.

The flight is part of a pattern of more expansive Russian military operations in recent weeks, says BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

Gen Androsov said the strategic bombers had flown 13 hours from their base in the Russian Far East during the exercise.

“It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet [US] aircraft carriers and greet [US pilots] visually,” he said at a news conference.

“Yesterday [Wednesday] we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the base of Guam,” he said.

“I think the result was good. We met our colleagues – fighter jet pilots from [US] aircraft carriers. We exchanged smiles and returned home,” he added.

A spokesman for the Pentagon confirmed that the Tu-95s were spotted heading to Guam, adding that US fighter readied themselves to repel them.

“We prepared to intercept the bombers but they did not come close enough to a US Navy ship or to the island of Guam to warrant an air-to-air intercept,” the spokesman said.

During the Cold War, Soviet bombers regularly flew long-haul missions to areas patrolled by Nato and the US.

The bombers have the capability of launching a nuclear strike with the missiles they carry.

Abu Ghraib whistleblower’s ordeal

 joe-darby1
Joe Darby was a reserve soldier with US forces at Abu Ghraib prison when he stumbled across those images which would eventually shock the world in 2004.

BBC | Aug 5, 2007

Abu Ghraib whistleblower’s ordeal

By Dawn Bryan

The US soldier who exposed the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison found himself a marked man after his anonymity was blown in the most astonishing way by Donald Rumsfeld.

When Joe Darby saw the horrific photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison he was stunned.

So stunned that he walked out into the hot Baghdad night and smoked half a dozen cigarettes and agonised over what he should do.

Joe Darby was a reserve soldier with US forces at Abu Ghraib prison when he stumbled across those images which would eventually shock the world in 2004.

They were photographs of his colleagues, some of them men and women he had known since high school – torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners.

His decision to hand them over rather than keep quiet changed his life forever.

The military policeman has only been allowed to talk about that struggle very recently, and in his first UK interview, for BBC Radio 4’s The Choice, he told Michael Buerk how he made that decision and how he fears for the safety of his family.

Listen: A soldier’s dilemma

He had been in Iraq for seven months when he was first handed the photographs on a CD. It was lent to him by a colleague, Charles Graner.

Most of the disc contained general shots around Hilla and Baghdad, but also those infamous photos of abuse.

At first he did not quite believe what he was looking at.

“The first picture I saw, I laughed – because one, it’s just a pyramid of naked people – I didn’t know it was Iraqi prisoners,” he says.

“Because I have seen soldiers do some really stupid things. As I got into the photos more I realised what they were.

“There were photos of Graner beating three prisoners in a group. There was a picture of a naked male Iraqi standing with a bag over his head, holding the head, the sandbagged head of a male Iraqi kneeling between his legs.

“The most pronounced woman in the photographs was Lynndie England, and she was leading prisoners around on a leash. She was giving a thumbs-up and standing behind the pyramid, you know with the thumbs-up, standing next to Graner. Posing with one of the Iraqi prisoners who had died.”

Promised anonymity

Joe Darby knew what he saw was wrong, but it took him three weeks to decide to hand those photographs in. When he finally did, he was promised anonymity and hoped he would hear no more about it.

Lynndie England holding a leash attached to a detainee in late 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison
Mr Darby feared repercussions from the soldiers in the photos

But he was scared of the repercussions from the accused soldiers in the photos.

“I was afraid for retribution not only from them, but from other soldiers,” he says.

“At night when I would sleep, they were less than 100 yards from me, and I didn’t even have a door on the room I slept in.

“I had a raincoat hanging up for a door. Like I said to my room mate, they could reach their hand in the door – because I slept right by the door – and cut my throat without making a noise, or anybody knowing what was going on, and I was scared of that.”

When the accused soldiers were finally removed from the base, he thought his troubles were over.

And then he was sitting in a crowded Iraqi canteen with hundreds of soldiers and Donald Rumsfeld came on the television to thank Joe Darby by name for handing in the photographs.

“I don’t think it was an accident because those things are pretty much scripted,” Mr Darby says.

“But I did receive a letter from him which said he had no malicious intent, he was only doing it to praise me and he had no idea about my anonymity.

“I really find it hard to believe that the secretary of defence of the United States has no idea about the star witness for a criminal case being anonymous.”

Rather than turn on him for betraying colleagues, most of the soldiers in his unit shook his hand. It was at home where the real trouble started.

Labelled a traitor

His wife had no idea that Mr Darby had handed in those photos, but when he was named, she had to flee to her sister’s house which was then vandalised with graffiti. Many in his home town called him a traitor.

“I knew that some people wouldn’t agree with what I did,” he says.

“You have some people who don’t view it as right and wrong. They view it as: I put American soldiers in prison over Iraqis.”

That animosity in his home town has meant that he still cannot return there.

After Donald Rumsfeld blew his cover, he was bundled out of Iraq very quickly and lived under armed protection for the first six months.

He has since left the army but did testify at the trials of some of those accused of abuse and torture. It is Charles Graner he is most afraid of.

“Seeing Graner across the courtroom was the only one that was difficult during the trial,” he says.

“He had a stone-cold stare of hatred the entire time – he wouldn’t take his eyes off me the whole time he sat there. I think this is a grudge he will hold till the day he gets out of prison.”

Mr Darby and his family have moved to a new town. They have new jobs. They have done everything but change their identities.

But he does not see himself as a hero, or a traitor. Just “a soldier who did his job – no more, no less”.

“I’ve never regretted for one second what I did when I was in Iraq, to turn those pictures in,” he says.

Related

Rusmsfeld Outed U.S. soldier who Blew the Whistle on torture at Abu Ghraib
BBC had an interview with Joe Darby who is the US soldier an army reservist, who exposed the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.The story appeared on BBC Radio 4, the prodcucer was Dawn Bryan. This is a really moving account of the moral struggle he went through before he decided that he had to turn in the pictures of the abuse that he was given by fellow soldiers from his home town, who had been involved. The guy has real integrity and courage, but since Rumsfeld publically “thanked” him on TV by name, he and his family have been threatened and driven from their home town by friends of those he exposed.

Russian bombers resuming Cold War patrols

Reuters | Aug 9, 2007

MOSCOW: Russian bombers have resumed Cold War-style long-haul missions to areas patrolled by NATO and the United States, top Russian generals said Thursday.

A Russian bomber flew over a U.S. naval base on the Pacific island of Guam on Wednesday and “exchanged smiles” with U.S. pilots who had scrambled to track it, said Major General Pavel Androsov, head of long-range aviation in the Russian Air Force.

“Whenever we saw U.S. planes during our flights over the ocean, we greeted them,” Androsov said. “On Wednesday, we renewed the tradition when our young pilots flew by Guam in two planes. We exchanged smiles with our counterparts who flew up from a U.S. carrier and returned home.”

The flight to the Pacific island was part of a three-day exercise that saw Russian strategic bombers making 40 sorties and launching eight cruise missiles, said Androsov, who commands Russia’s long-range bomber force.

The incident coincided with a weeklong exercise by the U.S. military off Guam involving more than 22,000 troops, dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft. U.S. officials have said that the war games, which began Tuesday, were not connected in any way to world events or targeted at any country.

President Vladimir Putin has sought to make Russia more assertive. He has increased defense spending and sought to raise morale in the armed forces, which were starved of funding after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Androsov said the sortie by the two turboprop Tu-95MS bombers, from a base near Blagoveshchensk in the Far East, had lasted for 13 hours. The Tu-95, code-named Bear by NATO, is Russia’s Cold War icon and may stay in service until 2040.

Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow office director of the Washington-based World Security Institute, said of Moscow’s sending its bombers around the globe: “This practice as such never stopped. It was only scaled down because there was less cash available for that.”

“It doesn’t cost much to flex your muscles,” Safranchuk said. He continued, “You can burn fuel flying over your own land or you can do it flying somewhere like Guam, in which case political dividends will be higher.”

The bombers give Russia the capability of making a nuclear strike, even if the nuclear arsenals on its own territory are wiped out.

During the Cold War, Soviet pilots played elaborate airborne games of cat and mouse with Western air forces.

Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov, the Russian Air Force chief of staff, said the West would have to come to terms with Russia asserting its geopolitical presence. “But I don’t see anything unusual,” he said. “This is business as usual.”

The generals said that under Putin, long-range aviation was no longer in need of fuel and enjoyed better maintenance and much higher wages, a far cry from the 1990s, when many pilots were practically grounded because there was no money to buy fuel.

The generals said that part of the reason for the increased funding was thanks to a five-hour sortie Putin once flew as part of a crew on a supersonic Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber, known as the White Swan in Russia and code-named Blackjack by NATO.

The current state of Russia’s economy, which is booming for the eighth year in a row, has allowed Russia to finance such flights, said Safranchuk of the World Security Institute.

“Maintenance and training are not the most expensive budget items of modern armies. Purchases of new weapons really are,” he said.

UK lab may be source of Legionnaires and foot and mouth

New Zealand | Aug 10, 2007

By Colin Brown

LONDON – The public labs run by the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbrighthave become embroiled in a fresh controversy after revelations that a contractor who worked at the site has contracted Legionnaire’s Disease.

The Pirbright labs, which comprise the IAH and the privately-run Merial company, are believed to be the most likely source of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease which has paralysed two Surrey farms.

The latest revelation comes as a profound embarrassment for the management of the labs who have gone to great lengths to deny any breaches of health and safety regulations.

“They need this like a hole in the head,” said a source at the Merial lab.

It is also bound to increase public alarm about the safety of the public IAH labs where tests are carried out on a number of dangerous animal diseases, including African swine fever, Bluetongue, and Rinderpest in addition to foot and mouth disease.

The IAH which has other labs has also done research in the past on BSE ‘mad cow’ disease.

A report of the independent inquiry into the outbreak of foot and mouth disease will be delivered to Gordon Brown within days.

The report by Professor Brian Spratt of Imperial College London is already expected to be damning and far-reaching.

It will focus on the levels of security at the Pirbright labs and is almost certain to recommend tougher measures.

The report is expected to focus on the use of a live virus by Merial in the manufacture of vaccines and appropriateness of having a site in the middle of a farming area.

The main clue that a breach in security at the Pirbright labs was responsible for the outbreak was the discovery that same strain of the virus found in the cattle was also used by Merial on 16 July for the manufacture of vaccines.

It was last found in the countryside in 1967 and has not been circulating in cattle in recent years.

The possible case of Legionnaire’s disease was discovered by a bizarre coincidence.

Inspectors from the HSE, which is investigating the foot and mouth outbreak, were working on the site when a team from the separate Health Protection Agency visited the Pirbright labs to check water sources which could harbour the disease.

“They are completely unrelated,” said one HPA official.

“It has nothing to do with bio-security at the labs. We are investigating a case of Legionnaire’s in a person who has worked at Pirbright.

“In the course of our investigations, we are looking at Pirbright but the only link is that he worked there. It is one of a number of places we will be investigating.”

Professor Mike Catchpole of the HPA said: “It’s caught by breathing in a fine spray of water that might be contaminated but let’s be clear, there is no obvious link between the two.

Deliberate release of Foot and Mouth most likely scenario

Several scenarios are under investigation but all seem so unlikely that scientists now admit the mystery may remain unsolved


Deliberate release is being considered as an option by the HSE, partly because all the other possibilities are so remote. In every other case, several events that are all unlikely would have had to have happened at once: a decontamination failure, followed by a drainage failure, then movement of a contaminated person on to a farm.

Professor Wilsmore said: “If you’ve got somebody who wants to spread it, that’s a different story.

“Until we got this report, I thought that airborne spread was the likeliest cause. But when you start to think that mechanical spread – by so-called fomites such as straw, manure, a car wheel or boots – is unlikely, then you start to think. . . I’m sure they will be looking very hard at anybody who has a motive to spread the disease.”

London Times | Aug 9, 2007

We may never discover how virus escaped into farmland

by Mark Henderson

It is almost certain that the Institute of Animal Health complex at Pirbright was the source of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, but the route by which the virus was released may never be conclusively determined, scientists said yesterday.

Several possible scenarios are being considered by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other experts, but there is no “smoking gun” that identifies any as the most probable cause of the infection.

The chances of the virus escaping by each route is very low, and once it did get out, the chances that it would reach and infect susceptible livestock would be low.

Tony Wilsmore, the director of the Veterinary Epidemiology and Economics Research Unit at the University of Reading, said: “For both to happen you are multiplying two probabilities that are less than one, and when you do that, you get a lot less. If you multiply 0.1 by 0.1, you get 0.01.”

When the full genetic code of the virus is sequenced, it may pinpoint whether the source was the institute or the commerical Merial vaccine laboratory, but even that is uncertain.

The foot-and-mouth virus is composed of about 8,300 “letters” of RNA, a cousin of DNA. It is possible but not certain that the strain used in vaccine production has acquired a mutation in one of these, that would set it apart from the institute’s reference strains.

Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, who worked on the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, said: “It is important that we do establish what happened here, or it will be very difficult to rebuild confidence in these laboratories. But it is not immmediately obvious what has happened. The truth is that we may never know.”

Airborne release

Until the HSE report was issued, this was the scenario that many experts had considered most likely. The virus can spread on the wind and a leak could have been carried for several miles given the right conditions. Laboratories with category four biosecurity status, such as the Pirbright complex, however, have safety mechanisms that should prevent pathogens from escaping in the air. The HSE found no evidence that any of these had failed.

Facilities must be isolated by an air lock, and air passing out is cleaned by two high-efficiency particulate arrestance filters. Category four labs are also maintained at negative pressure, so that if there is a leak of any sort, air will move into the lab from outside and not vice-versa.

The HSE confirmed that the pressure and filtration systems at the lab were adequate, and also noted that local wind conditions allowed only very small windows at which there could have been any risk. It ruled that there was only a “negligible combined likelihood” of airborne release.

Liquid waste

Experiments at the institute and vaccine manufacture by Merial would have used solvents and other liquid reagents. These would have been contaminated with virus and would have needed treating before disposal.

Merial, in particular, would have had to dispose of large amounts of fluid waste from the production of 10,000 litres of vaccine between July 14 and July 25. The institute conducted only small experiments over that period, each using less than 10 millilitres of virus, so presented less of a risk.

Decontamination can be done with heat or chemicals. The institute’s animal isolation unit relies on thermal decontamination of effluent, and a chemical system covers the rest of the site. If either failed, fluids contaminated with foot-and-mouth could have been flushed out of the laboratory through an effluent pipe.

This ought not to have posed much risk under normal circumstances. The effluent would have flowed into the sewage system, and would have come into contact with neither animals susceptible to foot-and-mouth nor with people, vehicles or wild animals that might have spread it to farms.

There are two concerns here. One is that the HSE reported “doubts about the integrity of the drainage system, including pipework that leads to the final effluent treatment plant” at the Merial site. A leak could have allowed contaminated fluids to accumulate on the ground, from which the virus could have been picked up on workers’ shoes or a passing vehicle.

A similar problem may have arisen because of flooding. The HSE considered that there was a negligible chance that the virus reached farms directly through floodwater: the distance is too great and the Normandy farm is uphill from the Pirbright plant.

It is possible, though, that standing water containing the virus contaminated shoes or tyres, which then carried it to the farms. Professor Woolhouse said: “It would have to have been a double failure: both the decontamination and drainage systems would have to have been compromised. Even so, out of all the scenarios, this has to be one of the most plausible. The others seem even more remote.”

Human transmission

The HSE report considered this to be a “real possibility”, despite extensive safety measures. Scientists, however, thought the risk low. Workers must enter the laboratory through an air lock and change into sterile gowns that fit tightly at the wrists and cover the shoes. They must also wrap over the chest, hair is covered and masks are worn.

All this protective clothing must be removed when leaving the laboratory. It is sterilised in a machine called an autoclave, which uses pressurised steam heated well above 100C to kill any germs. After changing out of their gowns, workers must then shower before leaving the secure area.

Even if one of these steps was not conducted properly, it is still unlikely that a worker could have carried the virus to the infected farms. “The normal procedure is that anyone who has been into these facilities shouldn’t go onto a livestock farm for five days,” Professor Woolhouse said. One possibility is that a contaminated worker walked somewhere near a farm. An allotment adjacent to the first infected farm, which is said to be used by some laboratory staff, was under investigation yesterday.

Professor Woolhouse said: “We need to think about whether the spirit as well as the letter is being observed.”

If the foot-and-mouth virus did contaminate a person’s clothing or body there are two ways in which it could have reached the infected animals.

“The most likely route is that someone walked on something that the animals ate,” Professor Woolhouse said. “That is the rationale for closing footpaths.”

Keith Plumb, a biosafety expert from the Institute of Chemical Engineers, said that the second possibility was that virus spread by contaminated boots could have been picked up by a fox or rodent and carried to the farm.

Sabotage

Deliberate release is being considered as an option by the HSE, partly because all the other possibilities are so remote. In every other case, several events that are all unlikely would have had to have happened at once: a decontamination failure, followed by a drainage failure, then movement of a contaminated person on to a farm.

Professor Wilsmore said: “If you’ve got somebody who wants to spread it, that’s a different story.

“Until we got this report, I thought that airborne spread was the likeliest cause. But when you start to think that mechanical spread – by so-called fomites such as straw, manure, a car wheel or boots – is unlikely, then you start to think. . . I’m sure they will be looking very hard at anybody who has a motive to spread the disease.”

The main case against sabotage is that there is no positive evidence that it has taken place.

Solid waste

Though solid waste is not explicitly discussed in the HSE report, it remains a possibility. Used pieces of equipment such as vials and disposable gloves must be treated before they leave the lab, again by thermal or chemical methods, and there is a chance that this was not done properly.

Dr Plumb said: “Most of this is decontaminated by autoclave, but autoclaves have failed in the past. It certainly can’t be ruled out, particularly as anyone handling this waste would have assumed it had been decontaminated and wasn’t a risk.”

DARPA Vision: “Unblinking” Spy Drones, Veggie-Powered Killer Bots

Wired | Aug 8, 2007

By Noah Shachtman

The Pentagon’s far-out science division wants an unmanned, “unblinking eye from above” to watch over an area for “weeks, months, even years.”  And if that doesn’t do the surveillance trick, veggie-eating killer robots on the ground will pick up the slack.  You may now break out the tinfoil hats.

Today’s Global Hawk reconnaissance drones can stay in the air for up to 40 hours.   DARPA program manager Wade Pulliam would like to increase that by 1,000 times, or more — getting a robotic surveillance plan that can stay in the air for 5 years, or 44,000 hours, straight.  The project is called “Vulture.”   And it won’t be easy, Pulliam admits.  After all, the Global Hawk goes through a “major service cycle” every 400 to 600 hours.  How could Vulture stay in the air that long without that kind of maintenance?  And while we’re at it, what about the fuel that thing will need?

Maybe the thing will have to be built like a satellite, he mused — with lots of redundant subsystems.  Maybe there will be some sort of automatic, in-flight refueling and servicing.   Maybe the “system [will] incorporat[e] modular pieces which fly home when a fault is detected,” a Vulture briefing guesses.  But it’ll all be worth it, Pulliam promises, to have an “unblinking view circling indefinitely just 12 miles above [a] target.”  Not even a team of satellites could scope foes out so well, he insists.  And unlike satellites, the Vulture might be able to “strike” targets, too, according to the briefing, which depicts the drone has a kind of modified version of AeroVironment’s hydrogen-powered, long-loitering planes.

The Vulture won’t be the only machine that stares at enemies, if Pulliam has his way.  He’s like to see teams of autonomous, camouflaged ground vehicles, “slowly working their way into position” and then “lying in wait to strike when ordered.”

Of course, these killer ‘bots can’t exactly be refueled — it’d blow their cover.  So maybe the machine could power up by “consuming organic material from the surrounding environment.”  Or perhaps a drone overhead could beam some power down to the groundling.

Either way, the idea is to not allow potential foes “an inch of space, not allow them a moment’s rest, not allow them to have an easy breath.”

I have a feeling a few others may have respiratory troubles, if Pulliam’s plans pan out.