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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Now This Is Late, Even for the Department of Veterans Affairs!

An apologetic official from Veterans Affairs has been reaching out to citizens who sought records from the agency under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which requires the government to share many types of information with the public.

The story: A VA FOIA staffer was out on medical leave and the Department has now discovered "a number of old (FOIA) requests that were never gotten around to..."

It's not clear how many requests "fell through the cracks," as the official describes it. But the violation of the regulations is clear. The FOIA law says the Department has 20 business days to respond to an initial request. Our initial request -- for sister site DMZ War -- involves asbestos exposure by US Korean Service veterans and was submitted in December 2012.

Missing a clear legal deadline by more than a year-and-a-half and counting, by an agency that claims it's focused on transparency, is pretty embarrassing. We'd cut them a bit of slack given the current life-or-death demands on VA to reduce its lines for medical care, but this is an entirely different VA department that appears to share the same lax management as the health-delivery side.

Come to think of it, is it possible the FOIA bureaucrat who dropped the ball during medical leave was himself stuck in the VA medical system? If so, we have at least a little sympathy.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Google to Ban Ads for Legal Gun Accessories & "Dangerous" Knives: Threatens to Shut Down Sites

This morning we received an email from Google with the following title: "Google AdWords Policy Update - Weapons policy restriction."

The email, from the "Google AdWords Team," announces a new policy starting in September for those who advertise on Google Adwords, a service used to attract traffic to Web sites. It bans Adwords advertising for products such as knives "that can be used to injure an opponent in sport, self-defense, or combat" plus "Any part or component that's necessary to the function of a gun or intended for attachment to a gun
  • Examples: Gun scopes, ammunition, ammunition clips or belts" [and even bb guns!]
We certainly have no problem with Google prohibiting ads involving weapons such as nail bombs and grenades, as it does. But we see a big difference in banning ads for legal products used by many millions of Americans. The ban specifically includes sport and recreational guns and their components.

And it's not just ads that are being threatened. The email (see excepts below) includes the following: "When we make this change, any ads or sites that are identified as violating our revised policy won't be able to run."

In other words, is Google not just threatening to shut down advertising campaigns, but also to address Web sites with content about legal products (or topics?) that it finds politically incorrect? The email does not provide additional detail on the issue of the Web sites. Presumably, Google could stop running ads on sites with the disapproved content, a significant revenue hit in many cases for the site owner, or even shut down sites running on Google's Blogger. Should publishers worry the company might use its dominant search engine to make offending sites sink in search results?

This is no idle threat. As users of Blogger and Adwords know, Google rejects ads and shuts down accounts with regularity, referring to often vague policy guidelines. Appeals -- including, for example, to have a Blogger site reflecting many hours of work restored after it ran afoul (wrongly,we think) of a rule about reusing content -- are routed to customer service personnel outside the country whose written responses and knowledge of the content issues at hand are, to be charitable, uneven.

This ban will no doubt impact Web sites (and advertising campaigns) built by small businesses at great time and expense, potentially including some online stores that invested to build sites selling legal products that may now be banned. [note: We have not yet gone back to Google's existing rules to determine exactly what is being changed by the new announcement.]

To be sure, we very much appreciate Google and its services, both free and paid. But the announcement gives us pause for several reasons.

For example, in the email Google warned us that certain of our ad campaigns/sites are in danger. But it did not specify which ones or why. We can only guess. Have we offended with ads for our military history site on the long American effort to secure the Korean DMZ; our page on how to prepare for a possible war with Syria and Iran; a shuttered site we had on zombies with links to "Zombie kits" from a major knife company; the page on fly fishing in war zones and dangerous places; or something else entirely?

Presumably ads with forbidden messages and/or linking to forbidden sites will be refused. But what if Google goes after our sites directly? What topics and products are next to be banned?

Of course, Google can do what it wants with its services. What Google can give, Google can take away. This is a business, not a 1st Amendment, issue.

Let us know what you think about this Google policy -- Political correctness run amok or a sensible response to potentially dangerous products and the liability threat that goes with them?


Check out excerpts from the email and the page to which it links:

Email: "We're writing to let you know about a change to Google's advertising policies that might affect your AdWords account.

Around September, we'll be clarifying and simplifying our policy on knives, guns, gun parts, and other weapons designed to injure others in combat, self-defense, or sport. Some products that we currently allow won't be allowed under the new policies. Examples of products that will no longer be allowed include paintball guns, airsoft guns, BB guns, gun scopes, ammunition belts, stun guns, and tactical knives...When we make this change, any ads or sites that are identified as violating our revised policy won't be able to run.
Our system identified the following accounts associated with your email address as potentially affected by this policy change:"

The email directed us to a Web page entitled "Dangerous Products and Services," which says the new standards will become effective in September. Here are excerpts from the page:

 "Functional devices that appear to discharge a projectile at high velocity, whether for sport, self-defense, or combat 
(Note that we err on the side of caution and apply this policy to sporting or recreational guns that can cause serious harm if misused, or that appear to be real guns.)

  • Examples: Handguns, rifles, shotguns, hunting guns, functioning antique guns, airsoft guns, paintball guns, bb guns

  •  Any part or component that's necessary to the function of a gun or intended for attachment to a gun

  • Examples: Gun scopes, ammunition, ammunition clips or belts

  •  "Dangerous knives"
  •  Knives that are designed or promoted as products that can be used to injure an opponent in sport, self-defense, or combat" 
  • Thursday, June 12, 2014

    Why is the Air Force Still Classifying Information on the Hunt for Hitler & 60-Year-Old Research Projects?

    We like a spy story about a glamorous Nazi test pilot as much as the next guy, so we were excited when we saw what was inside a recent delivery of documents we'd asked the Air Force to declassify.

    But what jumped out was the fact the Air Force is still keeping part of the story secret after almost 70 years.

    President Obama promised in 2009 " Administration is committed to operating with an unprecedented level of openness. While the Government must be able to prevent the public disclosure of information where such disclosure would compromise the privacy of American citizens, national security, or other legitimate interests, a democratic government accountable to the people must be as transparent as possible and must not withhold information for self-serving reasons or simply to avoid embarrassment."

    Yet historical information decades older than the President is still being kept classified. That's frustrating for historians but heartbreaking for others, especially the families of Korean War POW/MIAs who are still not allowed to see 60-year-old record files -- from various military and civilian agencies -- believed to have answers on the fates of their loved ones.

    Here's an example of a 1955 military document -- from a collection that has revealed important POW/MIA information -- that is still being kept secret at the National Archives. There are many more.

    Anyway, back to the story of the Nazi test pilot, Hanna Reich (or Reitsch). You can see her below giving a Nazi salute (German Federal Archive via Wikimedia). She's said to be the only woman to get a WWII Iron Cross, as well as a volunteer for a German "kamikaze" unit that never got off the ground (bureaucratically and literally).

    Her story is told in a 1977 interview of a former Air Force human intelligence officer named Col. Robert Work, who provided an oral history of his Cold War adventures. That report was turned into a 1999 Air Force history report, classified Secret. We asked for it to be declassified in August 2012 and it arrived last week -- it took almost two years for the military to process a 15-year-old document based on a 37-year-old interview concerning events dating back 69 years.

    Soon after the end of WWII, Work got a message from his superiors concerning Reich."She's known to have flown out of Berlin in the last days of the war, and carried a male passenger who might have been Hitler," said the message. "It occurred to me that we could be sitting on one of the greatest stories of the war. Had Hitler flown out of Berlin, had Hanna Reich piloted him, and was he somewhere in Austria? The message had indicated though that 'we doubt Hitler is still alive.'" But...

    So what comes immediately after that build up? The Air Force has decided to keep it secret.

    The released part of the document goes on to reveal that a US agent found Reich on a departing train and convinced her to toss down her bags and jump off.

    During her interrogation Reich sounded disappointed the man she had flown out of Berlin was not the Fuehrer, "Oh! If only it had been." She reported he was actually the new Chief of the Luftwaffe. However, her information provided crucial details on the final hours in Hitler's bunker and helped persuade US intelligence that Hitler, whose body had not been found, was really dead (decades later it was revealed the Soviets had disposed of his remains).

    During his 1977 interview, Col. Work went on to describe another of his most important projects, a program called WRINGER to get information from people escaping the Soviet Union during the late-1940s into the 1950s.

    These reports -- there were about a million of them by the end -- were an important part of Air Force intelligence, including nuclear targeting, in the days before satellites could collect information from the Soviet Union.

    "In fact, WRINGER reports were piling up on the floors of the fifth floor corridors in the Pentagon, almost endangering traffic in those corridors."

    But what comes next is also censored as still being classified.

    "(F)ortunately we in the Air Force learned some lessons and began working more effectively," the Colonel later notes. So what were those lessons? They may be in the next part of the document, which as you probably guessed is censored due to classification.

    Finally, Col. Work gets around to discussing one "clandestine operation which ran for years" and provided special contributions. What was it? You're right, it's still classified.

    To be sure, the Air Force gave us 60 days to appeal the withholding of this information. Experience tells us we might even hear back in a couple years. As for the relatives of the Korean War POW/MIAs, many of those in the know assume they will be dead before all the records they seek are declassified.

    Monday, May 26, 2014

    How to Cook a Bear Cub for the Holiday Barbecue

    Last week we ran across a prostrate 'possum, just a baby, in the back year (see a bigger version below). We did some online research and learned that if it failed to wake up and run off overnight, we should drop it off at the wildlife rehab center, which we did. Happy ending there.

    But during that Internet research, we noted that opossums were reportedly introduced to the American West as a food source during the depression of the 1930s, which brought back childhood memories of  the term "possum pie" and some mixed emotions about our upcoming barbecue.

    In a flash we were consulting our dog-eared copy of the "Joy of Cooking," one of the most popular cookbooks in history, with an estimated 18 million sold since 1936.

    There, in our 1964 edition of the book, we found cooking instructions for opossums, which included this surprising step: "If possible, trap 'possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing."

    This edition also included recipes for other types of small game, noting they "may be substituted in most recipes calling for chicken." (It really does taste like chicken! Which is actually what we said the first time we ate rattle snake -- chicken with a hint of fish.) Instructions covered small game such as raccoon, woodchuck and beaver (blister the tail over open flame and then roast until  tender.)

    Big game is included. What caught our eye here was the section on cooking bear cubs: "Bear cub will need almost 2 1/2 hours cooking; for an older animal, allow 3 1/2 to 4 hours."

    We wondered if these recipes made it past the 1964 version of the book. They apparently did, because the searchable copy of the "Joy of Cooking" on Amazon includes all this, plus delicious-sounding receipts for other critters such as armadillo and porcupine. [For some reasons, Amazon will not let us link directly to the searchable version; you can get there through the one below, choose the "Joy of Cooking" hardcover.]

    We weren't able to determine immediately if these recipes remain in the most current version. Please feel free to let us know if they do.

    Now, we at Need to Know News are meat-eaters and outdoors lovers who appreciate hunting and fishing. And we don't want to be critical of anyone forced to eat more 'possum than usual because of the Obama Administration's economy.

    But even we were a little surprised at some of this, especially the idea of gorging your 'possum for 10 days before eating (we're afraid we'd grow too attached by the second day to ever eat it) and the part about consuming bear cubs (which we assume is illegal except perhaps in rare circumstances, say road kill. Please add to comments if you know the regulations and customs around eating bear cubs.)

    Are we just being squeamish and/or hypocritical? What do you think?

    [If you're looking for more serious fare on this sacred day, check out the fate of American heroes kept after the Korean War at We honor them and their families, and all those who sacrificed so much for our country.]

    Friday, February 28, 2014

    Deposed Ukraine Prez Hints at Civil War with Reference to "Bandera Thugs," NY Times Bungles Explanation

    "Mr. Yanukovych, in a news conference Friday in Rostov-on-Don,...added, 'People of Crimea don’t want to submit and they will not submit to Bandera thugs,' referring to the World War II era nationalist leader who was vilified by the Soviet Union:"

    [This may be the New York Times' understatement of the day.] Ukrainian Resistance Leader Stefan (sometimes spelled "Stepan" or "Stephen") Bandera was not just "vilified" by the Soviets - he was killed by them, murdered with a cyanide gun by a KGB assassin in 1959. 

    Bandera (and his "thugs") fought for Ukrainian independence against both the WWII Germans (with whom certain of his forces were said to agree on "ethnic cleansing," according to Soviet history and some Western observers) and the Soviets. After the world war Bandera was the ideological leader of a major anti-Soviet guerrilla war that Ukrainians waged against Moscow for independence (with limited help from the CIA and British intel) during the 1940s and '50s. Yanukovych's comments put his views on this important part of Ukraine's history in alignment with the Soviet/Russian historical perspective of a Ukraine under Moscow's control. The parallel is also obviously seen by the protestors, who used a "Bandera thugs" chant a few days ago.

    See declassified CIA documents on the KGB plot to kill Bandera below (the weapon was designed to kill in under two minutes and leave limited evidence) and more on the Ukrainian resistance war with the Soviets here:

    Friday, February 21, 2014

    Battle Cry in Ukraine Evokes Past Guerrilla War, Cyanide Killings and CIA/KGB Ops

    As protesters in Ukraine battle for the future of their country, they invoke the battle cry of a previous fight to free their country from Moscow's influence.

    "From the stage on the square, a speaker yelled 'Glory to Ukraine!' and the crowd yelled back 'Glory to its heroes!' That echoed the slogans of the World War II-era Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [note: UPA], guerrilla armies that battled the Nazis, Poles and Soviets in an ultimately futile quest for an independent Ukraine:" New York Times, 2/20/14.

    Throughout modern history, Ukrainians have been fighting for their independence against outsiders such as the Poles, Germans and Soviets. After battling German occupiers during World War II, the Ukrainian resistance refocused once again on Moscow, which had incorporated Ukraine into the Soviet Union (and starved the nation during the 1930s.)

    The battle reached its peak in the late 1940s; the Ukrainian guerrillas even developed a system of elaborate bunkers across parts of the nation. See an excellent 2012 thesis on this conflict by a Ukrainian officer at the US Army Command and General Staff College here:

    Then, as now, anti-Russian sentiment was strongest in Ukraine's west. By 1950 Soviet counterinsurgency tactics had turned the tide (reports claim Soviet tactics included special units that impersonated resistance fighters and then brutalized the local population.) Significant resistance attacks ended by about 1957. By some estimates, the guerrillas killed 15-30,000 Soviets and Ukrainian sympathizers. The toll to resistance fighters and their networks was much higher. The Soviet KGB also worked to snuff out external support for Ukrainian independence with tactics that included assassinating exiled leaders with a cyanide gun (see below).

    CIA Work with Ukrainian Resistance: Operation "Aerodynamic"

    The CIA and British intelligence followed the resistance closely and ended up supporting two different factions. Under an operation code-named "Aerodynamic," the CIA provided financial and operational support -- including airdropping agents and supporting clandestine radio broadcasts -- for Ukrainian anti-Soviet guerrillas. Although the US did not actively support Ukrainian independence, it was eager to exploit areas of Soviet weakness.

     The 1953 report below summarizes the movement and assesses the potential usefulness of the Ukrainians during a "hot war" between the US and Soviet Union. The program switched its focus to propaganda and other support outside Ukraine as the Soviets consolidated their control later in the decade. Critics have questioned the value of this operation and criticized the US government for supporting Ukrainians involved in "ethnic cleansing" and anti-semitism during World War II. 

    Excerpt from CIA Report on Cyanide Gun Used to Kill Exiled Ukrainian Resistance Leader Stefan Bandera in 1959:

    Friday, February 7, 2014

    Claims Moscow May Ban Reports of Terrorism at Sochi Olympics: Congressional Research Service

    "There are some reports that Russian authorities have ordered a media ban on reports of terrorist incidents during the Games:" claims a report from the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) made public today. [Even if true, how could they do it? N2S asks.]

    The source of the reports of a ban is not clear in the document -- entitled "The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics: Security and Human Rights Issues." There is also no discussion of how Moscow might enforce a media ban, especially against non-Russian media. US media outlets have publicly noted the assumption that their electronic communications are being intercepted by Russian security organizations. But there has not been widespread discussion of potential Russian control over Western media infrastructure, such as satellite and digital feeds, at the event.

    Talk of a "media ban" of news on a violent incident raises the specter of the ham-handed Chinese effort to shut down Western media outlets during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident -- in part by yanking out broadcast cables as journalists described the events.

    Modern technology would make a media ban far more difficult and total suppression of the news impossible. That said, certain current tech, such as mobile phone suppression systems, could be brought to bear. Share your thoughts below on how Moscow might try to enforce a ban.

    The CRS, according to its web site, "works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate...CRS is well-known for analysis that is authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan. Its highest priority is to ensure that Congress has 24/7 access to the nation’s best thinking."

    CRS reports on generally based on "open-source" material from public hearings, officials statements and news reports. However, they sometimes reveal facts or issues not yet widely reported by the media.

    Obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, the report can be read here:

    The CRS report also notes a recent White House statement appeared to some observers to contain a "subtle suggestion that cooperation with Russian authorities was not as harmonious and comprehensive as it could be."

    See a new map of the Sochi complex and excerpts from the report, which also contains a useful summary of terrorism threats involving the Games, below.

    Excerpts from the CRS Report: "Since the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon in April 2013, the Obama Administration has maintained that U.S.-Russia counter-terrorism cooperation has increased. Some observers, however, suggest that Russian authorities resisted offers from U.S. agencies of substantial
    counter-terrorism assistance to bolster security at the Games. On January 5, 2014, the state-owned
    RT (Russia Times) network stated that the United States had offered such boosted aid both before
    and after the terrorist incidents in Volgograd and mentioned statements by FBI Director Comey,
    Defense Secretary Hagel, and the White House.

    However, the article reported that 'Moscow insisted that the terrorism threat does not require any additional measures,' and referred to the statement by the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Aleksandr Zhukov, that all possible security measures already were in place in Sochi. On January 24, 2014, the Washington Post reported accounts by former FBI agents that Russia had approved only a fraction of the
    personnel that the FBI had proposed to send to Russia for the Games.

    On January 22, 2014, Prime Minister Medvedev stated that U.S.-Russia security cooperation for the Games was 'at a good level,' although perhaps it could have been better, he suggested. Some observers have argued that Russian security services appear unlikely to change their traditional suspicions of U.S. assistance
    in the days remaining before the Games begin."