The wizard behind the spy curtain

Sometimes in these United States, the curtain seems to be pulled back to reveal the wizard and all his phony manipulations. Such a thing has occurred with the bill known as the Protect America Act.

Let me say at once that I apologize to no one for taking the view that America should be protected. Of course, how it is protected is always a matter of concern given the current crew running the government.

Fidel Castro stepping down as Cuba’s leader

Ailing revolutionary icon Fidel Castro permanently gave up the Cuban presidency on Tuesday, ending five decades of ironclad rule of the island marked by his brash defiance of the United States.

In a message published by the online version of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, the 81-year-old Castro said he would not seek the presidency again when it is decided later this week.

Off we go into the wild, outdated yonder

Air Force officials are warning that unless their budget is increased dramatically, and soon, the military’s high-flying branch won’t dominate the skies as it has for decades.

After more than six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force’s aging jet fighters, bombers, cargo aircraft and gunships are at the breaking point, they say, and expensive, ultramodern replacements are needed fast.

Amtrak beefs up security

Amtrak will start randomly screening passengers’ carry-on bags this week in a new security push that includes officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains.

The initiative, to be announced by the railroad on Tuesday, is a significant shift for Amtrak. Unlike the airlines, it has had relatively little visible increase in security since the 2001 terrorist attacks, a distinction that has enabled it to attract passengers eager to avoid airport hassles.

Amtrak officials insist their new procedures won’t hold up the flow of passengers.

The illusion of safety

The first telephone call came around 4:30 Thursday afternoon as I was about to turn on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” The second came a few minutes later. Within 30 minutes, I had received eight calls about Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where a lone gunman had killed five students.

CIA set up bogus companies after 9/11

Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the US Central Intelligence Agency set up 12 bogus companies in Europe and other parts of the world in the hope of penetrating Islamic organizations, The Los Angeles Times reported on its website late Saturday.

But citing current and former CIA officials, the newspaper said the agency had now shut down all but two of them after concluding they were ill-conceived.

In some ways, the surge is working

Though largely dismissed by the Democratic left, America’s “surge” policy is paying attractive dividends. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is in retreat, violence is down and political reconciliation is up.

In a 16-page letter that U.S. soldiers found last October near Baghdad, AQI leader Abu Tariq complained that his 600-man force had dwindled to 20 terrorists.

Feds admit waterboarding illegal

A senior Justice Department official says laws and other limits enacted since three terrorism suspects were waterboarded has eliminated the technique from what is now legally allowed, going a step beyond what CIA Director Michael Hayden has said.

“The set of interrogation methods authorized for current use is narrower than before, and it does not today include waterboarding,” Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, says in remarks prepared for his appearance Thursday before the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee.

Optimism in the face of recession

American presidents do not predict recessions. It’s just not done. Even in their annual budgets that look five years ahead there’s never a forecast of even brief hard times. It’s always slow, steady growth.

Two reasons suggest themselves. Americans want their leaders to be optimists. They don’t much care for pessimists as the dour President Jimmy Carter found out when he ran against the congenitally sunny Ronald Reagan. The other reason is that such is the power of the bully pulpit that the prediction might become self-fulfilling.

No country for old men?

I take as my text today the phrase “no country for old men,” which lurks in the public imagination thanks to the Cormac McCarthy novel that has been made into an Oscars-nominated film.

As you may know, the novelist borrowed the title from the words of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who wrote them as the opening line of his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” in order to curry favor with English majors. And why not? As numerous people weren’t shot dead in the poem, it naturally was a waste of stirring expression for jaded American readers.