Focal Points Blog

Did the U.S. Revive Operation Paperclip for a Terrorist?



In the New York Times, Mark Landler reports about a new biography a legendary CIA operative titled The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird.

Mr. Bird explores Mr. Ames’s shadowy path in the Middle East, where he formed an unlikely friendship with the intelligence chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization and used it to try to draw the Israelis and Palestinians together in peace negotiations.

The book comes complete with what looks like a bona fide scoop about the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people, 17 of them Americans. Among them were eight CIA officers, including Ames himself. Landler writes that

… in sifting through the long-dead embers from the embassy bombing, Mr. Bird makes a startling assertion: that an Iranian intelligence officer who defected to the United States in 2007 and is still living here under C.I.A. protection, oversaw the 1983 bombing, as well as other terrorist attacks against Americans in Lebanon.

… “This is a classic intelligence dilemma,” he continued. “When do you deal with bad guys? When do you agree to give them asylum? In my opinion, this goes over the line.”

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5 Not-So-Fun Facts About Nuclear Weapons


In a piece titled Nuclear Weapons Modernization: A Threat to the NPT? in the May issue of Arms Control Today, Hans Kristensen reports that “all of the world’s nuclear-weapon states are busy modernizing their arsenals and continue to reaffirm the importance of such weapons.” Bear in mind that it’s been 46 years since the five nuclear-weapons states that signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), along with states without nuclear weapons, agreed (albeit in vague language) to work toward nuclear disarmament. Writes Kristensen:

None of them appears willing to eliminate its nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

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Romania’s Fragile New Left

Rogozanu, Costi

Costi Rogozanu of CriticAtac

Cross-posted from

Romania is perhaps the last place to expect an independent Left to take root. Unlike in Poland or Hungary or Yugoslavia, a critical socialist movement didn’t emerge in response to the orthodox Communists in power. And the Social Democrats that crawled from the wreckage of the 1989 revolution – first as part of the National Salvation Front and then in their own Social Democratic Party – embraced a politically and economically conservative platform. They signal left, as the Romanian joke goes, but turn right.

But Romania’s New Left has begun to coalesce. A group of young intellectuals – academics, journalists, writers – launched CriticAtac a few years ago to discuss “banks, the health system, trade unions, state institutions and services, elections, public policies, the Church, urbanism and any other topics of major public interest” and to do so “without academicism, snobbery or preciousness.” The group’s irreverence is evident in its own self-description: “Our ideology is leftist, but we are not a sect and we don’t go around patting each other on our backs for the brilliant and concerted line of our ideas.”
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Nuclear Weapons Are an Aging Society, Too

Nuclear Test for FPIF

In 2004 anthropologist Joseph Masco wrote a seminal article for the August issue of American Ethnologist titled Nuclear technoaesthetics. He followed that up with a book titled The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006). In his article, which addresses, among other things, the effects on the mentality of nuclear scientists after nuclear testing was banned, he reproduces the thoughts of a former deputy director of nuclear weapons technologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

For 50 years the Nuclear Weapons Program relied on nuclear testing, complemented by large-scale production, to guarantee a safe and reliable stockpile. New weapons were designed, tested, and manufactured on a regular basis. If [they] discovered a defect, its significance could be established by nuclear testing. If the defect was serious, it could be repaired by the production complex. Even if the defect was not significant, the weapon was likely to be replaced by a more modern system in only a few years. As the stockpile ages far beyond its anticipated life, we can expect a variety of defects which will break the symmetries which were used in the design process. This means that weapons gerontology is far more challenging than designing new weapons. We are sometimes accused by anti-nuclear activists of wanting [new] facilities … in order to design new weapons. My answer is that we know how to design new weapons. But we do not know how to certify the safety, reliability and performance of weapons as they age.

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Intrepid Swiss Public Rejects Purchase of State-of-the-Art Fighter Jets

The Swedish-made Gripen that Swiss voters turned down.

The Swedish-made Gripen that Swiss voters turned down.

Cross-posted from Politically Inclined.

In a rare showing, the mountainous Swiss are making headlines. No, not for the controversial anti-immigration vote in February that European Union members lamented over, but rather the rejected referendum that concerned the purchase of 22 Gripen fighter jets. This would have been a landmark shift for the staunchly neutral confederation on the heels of an embarrassing aerial incident, but voters narrowly nixed the proposal with 53.4 percent against it and 46.6 percent who supported the purchase.

So did they get it right?
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Nuclear Weapons Are Like the Wedding at Cana


Remember the story in the Gospel of John from the Bible’s New Testament about the first miracle of Jesus Christ? To refresh your memory, Jesus attended a wedding with his mother and disciples (what, he couldn’t get a date?), in a village called Cana, which may have been in Galilee in northern Israel. When the wine ran out, he converted containers of water into wine. John also told us about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which entailed Jesus feeding thousands with five barley loaves and two small fish.

The U.S. government can be pretty miraculous, too. It’s demonstrated a capability to perform a similar act to Jesus, but with nuclear weapons. The more they disappear, it seems, the more magically others reappear to replace them.
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Was Reagan’s Nuclear About-face at Reykjavik Genuine?

Ronald Reagan

On May 13 Variety reported on a movie that’s been long in development, in part because it’s been in want of a director.

Baltasar Kormakur, an Icelandic helmer-producer who’s become one of Hollywood’s hottest film directors, is in discussions to direct “Reykjavik,” a historical drama chronicling the 1986 Reykjavik Summit which took place during the Cold War. Michael Douglas is attached to star as President Ronald Reagan.

Meanwhile, in a May 13 op-ed at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson would take away from Reagan one of the few acts of his that even vaguely resembled an accomplishment: his attempt to abolish nuclear weapons (which he then proceeded to sabotage by clinging to his beloved missile defense, even though Gorbachev made it clear that would never fly with Russia’s generals). Gusterson, whose insights seldom fail to impress, writes of a function he recently attended at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington at which Kenneth Adelman, director of the Agency for Arms Control and Disarmament during the Reagan administration, speaking about his new book Reagan at Reykjavik.
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The First Roma Feminist

Ilona Zambo

Ilona Zambo

Cross-posted from

In the United States, women of color frequently experience the double burden of discrimination. They are discriminated against by race and also by gender. The same applies to Roma women in East-Central Europe. And sexism imposes its own double burden, for Roma women must confront not only the prejudices of society as a whole but also discrimination within traditional Roma families.

I met Ilona Zambo in 1993, after she’d already set up her Gypsy Mothers’ Association. She was focusing at the time on family and social welfare laws that discriminated against Roma women, and she was also hoping to adapt affirmative action to the Hungarian context. She was a powerful advocate of women and children when many organizations focused on Roma men. When re-interviewing her last May, I was surprised to learn that her advocacy did not come so much from her own experience as those of other Roma women she had met.
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Boko Haram Makes Al Qaeda Look Benign in Comparison

Boko Haram

Not many in the West are aware of just how frequently Nigeria’s Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram commits mass acts of violence. In the last two months, they not only kidnapped 234 schoolgirls, but, three weeks later, attacked a town on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon and massacred 336 people. Apparently it was short on security because the military was concentrating on the rescue the kidnapped girls.

But it’s not just the West which is either ill-informed or ignores Boko Haram’s crimes (see sidebar of its Wikipedia page for a timeline since 2010), it’s Nigeria, too. In February, at GQ, Alex Preston wrote that, because they attack the government, attacks are un- or under-reported.
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Don’t Blame Shariah for Honor Killing

Afghanistan Court

In the New York Times, Rob Nordlund has been covering the story of young Afghan couple Zakia and Mohammad Ali, who, after eloping in March, have been on the run from her family. Since Zakia refused her father’s first choice for a husband, they fear her family will make her the victim of an “honor” killing. On May 3, in a piece about them and a young woman who was the apparent victim of an honor killing, he wrote:

Neither Amina nor Zakia and Mohammad Ali did anything against the law — or, more specifically, against two of the legal systems in effect in Afghanistan: the body of civil law enacted over the past decade with Western assistance, or the classic Islamic code of Shariah that is also enshrined in law. Both protect the rights of women not to be forced into marriage against their will.
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