03 February 2010

Spy vs. Spy Inc.

I have to admit, I always enjoy reading about, or watching, Jesse "The Body" Ventura- former Navy SEAL/UDT, Minnesota Governor, Pro Wrestler and Movie Star. I was recently watching his new show "Conspiracy Theory," an amusing hour of paranoia and, well, conspiracy theories which tackles issues like 9/11, the HAARP project and most recently the outsourcing of intelligence work to private contractors. Compared to many of his wilder accusations and theories, this show was pretty well grounded in reality especially regarding a joint private-FBI surveillance program known as InfraGard. I have to admit, as a former Army intelligence analyst I consider myself to be pretty well informed about government programs but this one had eluded me while all the while hiding in plain sight. Much of Jesse's program was built off of an article written about InfraGard by Matthew Rottschild of the Progressive in March 2008 which is a good place to start for background information.

A quick glance at InfraGard's website doesn't reveal anything too frightening and I suppose the entire makes some sense at first glance. The FBI has built a network of over 30,000 private sector individuals in order to provide information regarding threats to critical infrastructure within the U.S. If, for example, an InfraGard member working for a power company became aware of a specific threat which could knock out a power grid, he would have a much easier time passing along the information to the FBI because he was in the InfraGard network and thus had access to communication channels not available to the general public. InfraGard members are vetted through a clearance program (which the FBI stresses does not result in an actual government security clearance) and assigned to local chapters throughout the country.

The worrisome thing about this program is that InfraGard members are provided with information, not available to the general public, in exchange for their assistance. When the relationship changes from one merely scooping up disparate bits of intelligence which require further analysis to a two-way system of sharing and reward the organization has moved closer to an informant based system such as the Stasi in East Germany. The informant is rewarded for his or her cooperation in identifying subversives in their midst which may simply be a co-worker who has different political, cultural or religious views than themselves. Maybe the motive is as simple as jealousy or anger, or a romantic advance that was rebuffed. Think of what could happen to a U.S. citizen who has been identified as a potential threat and had been added to a database. Think no fly list on steroids.

The use of informants to secure totalitarian regimes is as old as history itself. The informant and his or her control officer, enter into a relationship where the informant wants to please his master by providing the information the control officer needs to advance his own needs within the organization in which he works. Information becomes currency in this transaction and favors are granted by the regime in return. Civil liberties are crushed as the informant tries to give the control officer something, anything, to keep the relationship intact.

Another frightening aspect of the InfraGard program is the lack of oversight by Congress. Information which flows through this system is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act, the names of members and their organizations is not publicly available and they meet in secret with their FBI counterparts. Although these people are supposedly cleared by the FBI, where do their true loyalties lie ? This system seems ripe for abuse of civil liberties and it is constantly growing in size and power- a shadow intelligence network without public oversight or control operating within the borders of the United States. Felix Dzherzhinsky would be so proud.

02 February 2010

New Car Review- 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Last weekend, we finally traded in my Nissan Pathfinder for a new vehicle. The old girl had 147,000 odd miles on it, the exhaust system was falling off and it was doing annoying things like shutting off when I applied the brakes too hard. As if to make the point that it really didn't want to go to the big recycling plant in the sky, it died at the largest intersection between my house and the dealer where we had been looking at cars the week before. After a bit of swearing, pleading and pounding on the steering wheel, it wheezed into the dealer's lot and gracefully expired as it coasted into a parking spot.

After weeks of test drives, visiting dealers and doing some research, we settled on the 2010 VW Jetta TDI (diesel.) I've always had a sneaking love of German cars, born of racing AFX cars in the basement, reading racing magazines and dreaming about flying down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in a Porsche 917. My first German car, a used 1998 Audi A6, sealed this love affair and also confirmed everything that my engineer father thought of them- "over-engineered and over-priced" he would fume at the dinner table. Being an engineer he just couldn't see any point of designing anything beyond the functionality of an engine, four wheels and a steering wheel. The Audi was like dating a beautiful, tempermental woman. When it worked, it was an absolute blast to drive, luxurious and absolutely bulletproof when driving way beyond the safety limits on a snowy highway. When it bitched and was in a snit, it was horribly expensive to fix, cranky and tempermental. At one point I actually owned two Audis as I re-built a 1991 Quattro V8 which I bought for $ 3,500 cash but that's a story for another day.

Anyways, in the rush to build green vehicles with great gas mileage, Volkswagen has gone back to the future in the TDI. Years of building diesel vehicles (and testing them on the racetrack in Audi's TDI program) has yielded a vehicle that seems to do the impossible- get great gas mileage and yet be fun to drive. Many of the problems that hounded diesels in the past such as engine noise, wet and cold start issues ("don't call me when it's four degrees out" huffed my dad) have been eliminated. The interior is very well appointed, functional and the fit and finish is nice and tight. Turn the switch to the first position, wait a second for the glow plug light to go out and the 4 cylinder diesel rumbles to life.

4 cylinder you say ? No power you think ? Wrong again. Although the engine only generates 140 horsepower, it also pushes nearly 230 pounds of torque to the front wheels. Mash the pedal, wait amount for the turbo to spool up and the beast punches you back into your seat (rumor has it that Audi's new electric sportscar will generate over 1,000 pounds of torque.) This is no breadbox with batteries stuffed into every nook and cranny, it is 3,600 odd pounds of solid German iron that makes me shake my head everytime I see a Prius. Although diesels have never really caught on in the US the way they have in Europe, Volkswagen may have finally come up with the right package of fuel efficiency, power and luxury to make more car owners take a serious look at vehicles like the TDI.