Dispatches from the Edge: Annual Dispatches Awards

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday January 07, 2010 - 08:34:00 AM

The Golden Poodle Award goes to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his decision to join in the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and lying about it. Blair told Parliament in July 2002 that prior to the November 2002 United Nations resolution to disarm Iraq, his government made no preparations for invading Iraq. But according to leaked government documents, plans to attack Baghdad had begun in February 2002. 

“Tony Blair consistently denied to Parliament and the public that the U.K. government was preparing for war in Iraq, yet these documents show that planning began back as far as 2002,” said Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party. The revelation, he said, shows that Blair took Britain into “an illegal and disastrous war on false pretenses.” 

War critics have long charged that Blair had secretly reached an agreement with U.S. President George Bush to go along with the invasion, but the prime minster always denied it. The current prime minister, Gordon Brown, has formed a panel to investigate the run-up to the war, but the panel has no powers, and Brown only reluctantly allowed it to have public hearings.  

According to the documents, the planning was in the best traditions of the British Army: soldiers were issued five rounds of ammunition apiece, had the wrong armor, and radios that didn’t work in hot climates. The Army also sent along a container of snow skis. 


The On A Clear Day You Can’t See Anything Award goes to U.S. General John Craddock and Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda.  

According to the German magazine, Der Spiegel, Gen. Craddock, NATO’s senior military commander, proposed that all drug traffickers in Afghanistan be shot, regardless of whether it could be proven they were involved with the Taliban, because drugs are a major source of funding for the insurgency. Such a policy would violate international law, as well as alter NATO’s Afghan mission. 

Peters says the United States should use air power to attack drug convoys and locations where drugs are processed or refined. The attacks would strangle “the Taliban’s opium profits, which the United Nations calculates to be worth $400 million a year.” 

The “$400 million” figure, says Peters, comes from the “UN,” but according to a new report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the Taliban get about $125 million each year from the opium trade. The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency say the figure is closer to $70 million. 

The UN estimates that Afghan opium generates about $3.4 billion a year, of which 4 percent goes to the Taliban, and 21 percent to the farmers. So who gets the 75 percent that’s left over? Not Al-Qaeda, which the report states “does not appear to have a direct role in the Afghan opiates trade.” 

The bulk, according to Julien Mercille, a lecturer at University College, Dublin, “is captured by government officials, the police, local and regional power brokers and traffickers,” including President Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and General Nazri Mahmad, a northern warlord who provides protection for German troops. 

The report admits that drugs have a “minimal impact on the insurgency’s strategic threat,” and most the Taliban’s funding comes from “private donors” all over the world.  

“To blame ‘corruption’ and ‘criminals’ for the state of affairs is to ignore the direct and predictable effects of U.S. policies, which have simply followed a historical pattern of toleration and empowerment of local drugs lords in pursuit of broader foreign policy goals,” Mercille writes. 

The United States was tied to the heroin trade in Laos during the Southeast Asian war and to cocaine smuggling during the war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. 

But it is not just our guys who benefit from the trade, so does international banking. According to the UN report, 90 to 95 percent of opium sales over the past seven years—$400 to $500 billion—were laundered through western banks. In fact it appears that some of that money was essential in keeping those banks from going bankrupt during the recent credit melt down. 

The report also identifies France, China, the Russian Federation, South Korea, Germany and France as the main suppliers of the precursor chemicals that turn opium into heroin. The UN says most of the heroin is shipped through Turkey to the rest of Europe, where the trade is valued at $20 billion a year.  

So, were it to follow the logic of Gen. Craddock and Gretchen Peters, Dispatches would suggest a campaign of air strikes on Turkey, the seizure and execution of leading international banking officials, and a blockade of China, Russia, South Korea, France and Germany.  


The Lion King Award goes to the consulting company CH2M Hill and the Department of Energy for zeroing in on one of the most dangerous threats to the environment: radioactive rabbit turds. 

It appears the bunnies have been digging up the Hanford nuclear reservation in south-central Washington state and absorbing radioactive strontium and cesium left over from the production of plutonium. Using helicopters, CH2M Hill has been skimming the desert terrain to locate the droppings. Later, workers will scoop them up and seal them in barrels.  

The nearby Colombia River has radioactive fish, and similar leaks are occurring at the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Laboratory in California and the Savannah River nuclear site in South Carolina. The cleanup of nuclear production sites will cost over $260 billion and take decades to complete. 

At the Savannah site, hunters are allowed to shoot deer, but then have to bring them to the site to be monitored. “If they find something that was above the limit they take out that part of the carcass and allow the guy to go on his merry way with the rest of it,” Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, told the New York Times. 

A number of other animals besides rabbits are radioactive at Hanford. According to CH2M Hill spokeswoman Dee Millikin, mice and badgers are also involved, as are the coyotes that eat the smaller animals. “It’s basically a circle of life situation,” she says. 


The Golden Swine Award goes to the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the U.S. Air Force, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). 

Lockheed Martin, the largest arms company in the world, makes the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  

According to a lawsuit by engineer Darrol Olsen, the company secretly added extra coating—600 pounds of it—to the F-22 in order to pass the Air Force’s “stealth” test. Lockheed Martin found that the original stealth coating rubbed off when it was exposed to fuel, oil or water. Adding the extra coats allowed it to pass the “stealth” test, but the because the coating was brittle, it broke off, making the fighter a “bulls eye target.” The extra weight also compromised the aircraft’s speed and maneuverability.  

The F-22 costs $140 million apiece, and, while the Obama administration has cancelled the program, some 183 aircraft will still be produced. 

Lockheed Martin’s $300 billion F-35 contract will be the most expensive weapons system ever built. But there is a little problem with the fighter’s Pratt & Whitney engine: it shoots out lots of sparks and no one seems to know why. Most aeronautical engineers will tell you that it is not a good idea for a jet engine to shoot out lots of sparks. 

So Congress decided that General Electric and Rolls Royce should build a back up engine just in case the Pratt & Whitney one didn’t work and the country ended up with 2,500 really expensive lawn ornaments.  

The Obama administration is trying to cancel the Pratt & Whitney engine because it will cost at least $3 billion just to finish developing the thing. But Congress wants the backup and added $560 million to next year’s budget to finish developing it. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the U.S. Air Force in charge of awarding a $35 billion contract for a new generation of in-air refueling tankers. Given that the Air Force totally botched two previous air tanker contracts, it was a touching act of faith. 

Previous efforts were derailed when the Boeing Corporation filed corruption charges against the Air Force, Northrop Douglass and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) for giving the latter two companies the inside track and rigging the bidding. 

Boeing is rallying its congressional supporters from Washington State, while Alabama is lobbying for Northrop Grumman and EADS.  

The air tanker contract will eventually rise to $100 billion or more. 

So hit the add key on your calculator; between all three weapons systems, the costs are likely to reach $500 billion or more. That would buy a lot of health care. 

And, finally, DARPA, which is testing the relationship between roadside bombs and brain damage by blowing up pigs. Several hundred pigs have been dressed in body armor, strapped into armored personal carriers and Humvees, and subjected to explosions. 

According to DARPA, the experiments show that the body armor protects the pigs’ lungs and doesn’t increase brain damage by diverting the explosive force toward the head. Pigs without body armor died within 24 to 48 hours, while those wearing it “survived significantly higher blasts” said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. More than 200 pigs have been used. 

While Walker said the pigs were treated “humanely at all times,” Martin Stephens of the Humane Society of America said the tests raised “red flags,” and said the “relevance of this is highly questionable. People are not pigs.”