Archive for July, 2010

DEBKAfile Special Report July 29, 2010, 8:07 AM (GMT+02:00)

Photo: In this photo released by the Emirates News Agency (WAM), damage is seen on the side of the M. Star oil supertanker as it arrives at Fujairah port in the United Arab Emirates Wednesday.

The Japanese supertanker M. STAR carrying 270,000 tons of oil was damaged by an explosion Wednesday, July 28, caused by a suspected attack in Omani territorial waters near the Strait of Hormuz, which passes Iran and Oman. One lifeboat was blown off the ship and a large dent made in its hull. A crew member was slightly injured, but there was no oil leak.

The spokesperson for the tanker’s owners Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd said: “We believe it’s highly likely an attack from the outside, maybe a terrorist incident. There is nothing that could cause a spontaneous explosion in that part of the vessel.”

But the most striking feature of the incident, noted by debkafile’s military and intelligence sources, is the unusual degree of assent between US Navy and Iranian officials that the damage to the supertanker was caused by an explosion by an unknown hand.

“The fire which was triggered by an explosion on the deck of the vessel was contained with the help of the crew and regional forces,” Fars News Agency quoted head of marine department of southern Hormozgan Province, Ali Akbar Saffai, as saying, after two Iranian officials before him had attributed the blast to a low-magnitude earthquake.

Clearly both Washington and Tehran were taken unawares by the first attack ever mounted on a commercial vessel in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow transit channel for some 40 percent of the oil shipped worldwide and one of the most carefully secured waterways in the world.

Both the US and Iran need time to find its cause and decide what to do. Meanwhile, this exceptional circumstance finds them of one mind on at least one issue, the incident must not be allowed to spiral out of control into a larger event.

According to our sources in Washington and Tehran, while waiting for evidence, both speculate that the perpetrators may be either pirates in the pay of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or even a rogue element in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is bent on settling scores for the latest UN, US and European sanctions against their country.

Tehran has repeatedly warned it will fight back if sanctions hurt its economy and energy supplies.

The attack on the Japanese supertanker intensified Saudi and the Gulf emirates’ concerns over a possible threat to their oil exporting routes. Wednesday night, fearing an unidentified assailant may also go for their oil ports and shore installations, Persian Gulf navies, the Fifth Fleet Bahrain-based headquarters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards naval installations at Bandar Abbas went on a high alert.

Our military sources report some 100 warships of different navies are currently present in the Persian Gulf.

After the attack, the Japanese supertanker, which took on crude oil Tuesday at the United Arab Emirates port of Das Island, headed for Fujairah in the UAE to assess the damage. Straight after the first inspection, both American and Iranian naval experts no doubt received an interim diagnosis of what caused the explosion from their local agents.

The forensic analysis of the means used to damage the M STAR would offer the first lead to the perpetrators, indicate whether it was caused by a missile, torpedo or some other means, and from what direction it was fired.

http://www.debka.com/article/8934/

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Reuters 29 July 2010

Photo: People walk along Red Square, with St. Basil’s Cathedral seen through heavy smog caused by peat fires in out-of-city forests, in Moscow, July 26, 2010.

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia (Reuters) – A leading politician said hundreds of people could die as smog from peat fires blanketed a sweltering Moscow for a second day on Tuesday.

Moscow region chief Boris Gromov asked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to allocate 25 billion rubles ($827 million) to fight the fires smoldering in the forests around Moscow.

Alexei Yablokov, a leading biologist who heads Russia’s Green Party, said air pollution caused by the smog’s high amount of carbon dioxide could kill hundreds more people than usual in the Moscow region.

“There will be at least 100 additional deaths per day this time round,” Yablokov told Reuters, referring to the last such smog cloud in 2002 in which he calculated 600 people had died each week.

The Moscow government agency overseeing air pollution, Mosekonomonitoring, said the levels of carbon monoxide in the air on Tuesday shot up by 20-30 percent more than normal levels.

Russia’s senior public health official suggested on Tuesday employers free their staff while the thick smog and record-breaking heat in the Russian capital surged.

“Employers, if there is a possibility, could allow people to not come to work,” Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s health protection agency, told Interfax news agency.

Peat, used in the past to produce heat and electricity, smoulders deep underground in winters and summers. Gromov said the only solution to the fires was to pour water over deposits.

“According to preliminary estimates, only in one district where fires are now most severe, over 4.5 billion roubles is needed. We have five such districts,” Gromov told Putin during an emergency video conference.

Putin said he would ask the emergency and economy ministries to examine the request. The emergencies ministry said that in the last 24 hours there had appeared 58 new fires in the Moscow region, 30 of them at peat deposits.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=moscow-smog-deaths

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service
Commodity Intelligence Report June 10, 2010

Agricultural scientists at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) and the International Center for Agricultural Research for the Dry Areas (ICARDA) have reported that a major outbreak of a virulent new strain of yellow (stripe) rust has been identified in prime Middle Eastern wheat growing regions. The outbreak has reached epidemic proportions in Syria’s major grain producing provinces bordering Turkey and Iraq, with significant national crop losses expected.

Outbreaks have also been reported in central and southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north, west and southern Iran, and in Lebanon. Outside the Middle East, yellow rust outbreaks have also been identified in Morocco, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan this year.

The current outbreak is primarily affecting soft bread wheat varieties, which form the backbone of the regions wheat crop. Hard wheat’s such as Durum are also grown in the region, but these varieties are a minority of total acreage. Scientists report that the new strain of yellow rust has plagued soft wheat crops that were previously resistant to the fungus owing to the incorporation of the gene Yr27. This implies that the majority of soft wheat grown in the region is under threat until newer resistant varieties are developed. The last major outbreak of yellow rust in the region was reported in the late 1980’s, resulting in a 21 percent reduction in regional wheat production.

Prior to the announcement of the current rust epidemic, wheat production in the Middle East was expected to rebound from several years of drought to a level of 41.1 million tons (an increase of 12 percent). The generally favorable environmental conditions which prevailed during the current winter growing season which would normally create bumper crop production potential, including above normal rainfall, mild winter temperatures, and lush crop growth, also apparently contributed to enhancing the spread of yellow rust and the severity of infection this season. Ideal meteorological conditions encouraged rapid development of yellow rust infections, massive spore production, and a lengthy period of time to infect regional crops.

http://www.pecad.fas.usda.gov/highlights/2010/06/Middle%20East/

Image acquired June 26, 2010 – July 11, 2010. “The drought affects more than Russian farmers. Russia is the world’s fourth largest wheat exporter. If Russia isn’t able to supply as much wheat, the world’s overall wheat supply will drop. With less wheat on the market, wheat prices will go up. As of July 23, wheat futures (the current price for wheat that will be harvested and delivered in September) had risen for four consecutive weeks because of the expected drop in supply of Russian wheat, reported Bloomberg.”

Severe and persistent drought held southern Russia in its grip in June and July 2010. Low rainfall and hot temperatures damaged 32 percent of the country’s grain crops, said Russian Agriculture Minister, Yelena Skrynnik on July 23.

This satellite vegetation index image, made from data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, shows the damage done to plants throughout southern Russia.

Largely as a result of the drought, the USDA expected Russia’s overall wheat crop to be 14 percent smaller than in 2009.

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=44743&src=eorss-nh

Global warming? I don’t blame human beings for all the “heat” and “oceans rising” but I read about our planet’s environment from multiple sources and pray. After all, we have only one planet accessible right now.

Forest fires are burning thousands of acres across the globe this week and due to hot, dry conditions, many more are predicted this summer. Here are a few instances:

Siberia / Russia: Voice of Russia online

Siberia struck by forest fires
Jul 18, 2010 16:31 Moscow Time

Drought and heat of 30-35C caused taiga forest fires in Yakutia (Siberia). 28 fires have been recently registered, 21 of them in Yakutia, the local Forest Service reports. In the Chukotka Autonomous region fires hit at least 8,000 ha of forest, destroying rain deer pasture. Some 60,000 ha of Taiga have been destroyed by fire since early summer.

http://english.ruvr.ru/2010/07/18/12681344.html

Russia: Earth Observatory

Numerous large forest fires were burning in Russia’s Far East on July 19, 2010, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite passed overhead and captured this photo-like image. Actively burning areas that MODIS detected are outlined in red, while thick smoke shrouds the forested landscape below. The body of water at lower left is a bay at the northeastern end of the Sea of Okhotsk.

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=44683

Canada: Winnipeg Sun online

Hot weather fuels spate of forest fires up north
Last Updated: July 24, 2010 10:49pm

Lightning storms, combined with dry conditions, are causing a rash of forest fires in northern Manitoba. As of Friday, firefighters were dealing with 26 new forest fires in the northeast part of the province, and all were started by lightning, said Duane Feely of Manitoba Conservation.

http://www.winnipegsun.com/news/winnipeg/2010/07/24/14817916.html

Alaska: http://newsdesk.org

Alaska on fire while Lower 48 girds for summer wildfires

Fairbanks is smoky. Anchorage is smoky. To be in Alaska this early June is to see skies of haze, mixed with the scent of burning forests. Because of an unusually dry winter and spring, 293 wildfires already have burned some 463,000 acres  according to the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center in Fairbanks. Alaska experienced unprecedented fire activity during May that was more characteristic of extreme July conditions, the center noted. Most of the wildfires are lightning-caused, and are located southeast and west of Fairbanks. Persistent heat and a lack of rain have been rampant in interior Alaska over the past two weeks.

http://newsdesk.org/2010/06/alaska-on-fire-while-lower-48-girds-for-summer-wildfires/

China: People Forum online

Thousands battling forest fires in N China

Greater Hinggan Mountains of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, July 2, 2010. More than 21,000 firemen, 10 helicopters and hundreds of bulldozers and fire engines have been putting out the lighting-triggered forest fires in northeast China.

http://www.peopleforum.cn/viewthread.php?tid=25924

Europe: The Telegraph online
By Henry Samuel in Paris and Edward Owen in Madrid
Published: 7:32PM BST 24 Jul 2009

Fires engulf southern Europe as temperatures expected to rise

Fierce wildfires swept across Europe on Friday trapping hundreds of holidaymakers as firemen struggled to contain the flames that have killed at least seven people so far. The fires were spreading rapidly on Friday night across Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey in tinderbox conditions as Celsius temperatures hit the mid-forties in some Mediterranean areas and were expected to rise over the coming days, threatening further devastation.

www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/…/Fires-engulf-southern-Europe-as-temperatures-expected-to-rise.html

United States: National Interagency Fire Center
July 23, 2010

Light wildland fire activity continues throughout the country. Three new large fires were reported: one each in Alaska, Arizona and Idaho. Firefighters contained three large fires yesterday. Fifty-five large fires are being managed to achieve multiple objectives throughout the states. Uncontained large fires include only fires being managed under a full suppression strategy.

http://www.nifc.gov/fire_info/nfn.htm

This is a long article containing videos, maps, photos, links to related articles, and much more. After reading the following paragraph, I thought of the Family Circus comic strip and the characters “Not Me” and “Ida Know.”

“I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities,” he (Lt. Gen. John R. Vines) said in an interview. “The complexity of this system defies description.” The result, he added, is that it’s impossible to tell whether the country is safer because of all this spending and all these activities. “Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste,” Vines said. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.”

A hidden world, growing beyond control

The Washington Post
July 19, 2010

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The investigation’s other findings include:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

* Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.

* Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.

They are also issues that greatly concern some of the people in charge of the nation’s security.

“There has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that – not just for the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], but for any individual, for the director of the CIA, for the secretary of defense – is a challenge,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview with The Post last week.

In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials – called Super Users – have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. But as two of the Super Users indicated in interviews, there is simply no way they can keep up with the nation’s most sensitive work.

“I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled ”Stop!” in frustration.

“I wasn’t remembering any of it,” he said.

Underscoring the seriousness of these issues are the conclusions of retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who was asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department’s most sensitive programs. Vines, who once commanded 145,000 troops in Iraq and is familiar with complex problems, was stunned by what he discovered.

“I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities,” he said in an interview. “The complexity of this system defies description.”

The result, he added, is that it’s impossible to tell whether the country is safer because of all this spending and all these activities. “Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste,” Vines said. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.”

The Post’s investigation is based on government documents and contracts, job descriptions, property records, corporate and social networking Web sites, additional records, and hundreds of interviews with intelligence, military and corporate officials and former officials. Most requested anonymity either because they are prohibited from speaking publicly or because, they said, they feared retaliation at work for describing their concerns.

The Post’s online database of government organizations and private companies was built entirely on public records. The investigation focused on top-secret work because the amount classified at the secret level is too large to accurately track.

Today’s article describes the government’s role in this expanding enterprise. Tuesday’s article describes the government’s dependence on private contractors. Wednesday’s is a portrait of one Top Secret America community. On the Web, an extensive, searchable database built by The Post about Top Secret America is available at washingtonpost.com/topsecretamerica.

http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/

By the CNN Wire Staff, 4 July 2010

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) — A ship billed as the world’s largest skimming vessel will continue testing its abilities in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday. If A Whale’s tests in a 5-by-5-mile area north of the underwater gusher are successful, the massive ship could play a key role in oil cleanup efforts.

The boat, which swallows water with oil then separates it, can skim about 21 million gallons of oil a day. That’s at least 250 times the amount that modified fishing vessels currently conducting skimming operations have been able to contain, according to Taiwanese company TMT shipping, which owns the vessel.

Initial results from tests are expected Monday, TMT spokesman Bob Grantham said.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/07/04/gulf.oil.disaster/?hpt=T2