How We Lost The End Game.
A major motion picture now in theaters called "Charlie Wilson's
War", starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, is a 2007 Academy Award-nominated
film based on the true story of Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson,
who conspired with a "bare knuckle attitude" CIA operative named Gust
Avrakotos to launch an operation to help the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet
war in Afghanistan. The film is adapted from George Crile's 2003 book, Charlie
Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History.
In the movie, Tom Hanks, led on by his staunchly anti-communist friend and romantic interest, (Julia Roberts) dramatizes how "Good Time Charlie" boosted the effort to provide United States funds and even Stinger missiles to the Afghan Mujahideen.
Many now credit the Russian defeat in Afghanistan with contributing to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and global communism, bringing about the end of the Cold War.
Unlike many Hollywood films, the end of the movie closes on a downbeat. Despite the victory in Afghanistan, CIA agent Gus Avrakotos, as played by Philip Seymore Hoffman, warns that unless there is a serious effort to help Afghanistan rebuild back into a stable society, there could be dire and unpredictable repercussions for both that nation and the U.S. Unfortunately, Wilson, as played by Tom Hanks, finds almost no enthusiasm in the U.S. government for even the modest economic support measures he proposes. Hence, the rise of the Taliban and Al Quaida, which emerged from the power vacuum.
As early as 1980, I also saw the Russian War in Afghanistan as their own Vietnam. As a member of the local Fire District Board of Directors I also saw an opportunity to support the people of Afghanistan. My own proposal for a modest economic support measure similarly found almost no enthusiam amongst my colleagues and led to corruption charges against me, few of which stuck. This then, is my story of how we too, messed up the end game.
Chapter 1. War Coming Down the Track
I predicted 9/11. Twice in fact. I wasn't alone in predicting 9/11. Lots of Americans knew 9/11 was coming. Not names, dates, flight numbers and the details of motus operandi but knowledgeable people could see it coming as plain as day. The warning signals were all there. Osama Bin Laden had issued a declaration of war that claimed the West was decadent and corrupt. He claimed the West was exploiting the resources of Arab lands and the West was humiliating the Arab world. His operatives were flexing their muscles with attacks around the globe. An Arab immigrant was caught in the Pacific Northwest coming off a ferry boat arriving from Canada with explosives in the trunk of his car. Meanwhile, another ten or twelve terrorists and their deadly contraband must have slipped through at other ports of entry. Were the others carrying conventional explosives or one of the suitcase nukes the Russians can't account for?
The FBI knew that Arab immigrants were taking training at flight schools on jumbo jets and so forth but didn't share the information with the CIA. Meanwhile, the intifada was in full swing and the Palestinian bomb makers had learned the value of the one-two punch. Many people say that after 9/11 happened, the military response of the United States government was misguided and cynically motivated. The jury is still out on that one although I will discuss that too and offer a better strategy for America.
So in defiance of the World Court ruling, the fence in Israel goes up while the war on terror continues. Once again, knowledgeable people, professionals and amateurs alike, are predicting more attacks on American soil. Some predict dirty bombs going off in American cities, subway germ releases or mass casualty attacks on the cultural icons of America. But why did some people see 9/11 coming from a mile away when others were shocked at the news?
Chapter 2. What is the CIA?
The CIA is the eyes and ears of the United States government. It vacuums up information from every source available, human and electronic, crunches the numbers, sifts through the idle chatter and spews out its reports to the Pentagon, Congress and the President. Sometimes its warnings are heeded by the policy makers and sometimes they are not. And sometimes the authorities get blind sided by low tech amateurs with box knives, as happened on 9/11. Some critics say that the CIA lavishly funded supercomputer centers in the 1990's and neglected old fashioned shoe leather. They also say that Jeffersonian democracy has quiet admirers in intellectual circles all over the Third World who are often willing to lend a hand or cup a hand to an ear.
I took the CIA entrance exam in a classroom at UCSF back in the early 1980's after seeing an ad in the San Jose Mercury News. It was pretty much a standard SAT test with some mechanical and language aptitude tests on top of that. One of the essay questions was, "Describe World War Three". Well, I didn't predict the war with Islam and needless to say that I didn't get the job. Historians say that WWII was against the perfect people (the Germanic Aryan nation). They say the Cold War was against the perfect citizen (the Soviet worker). Now they say we're up against Islam, the perfect religion, with its suicide bombers, kidnappers, holy warriors and embedded assassins.
Indeed, the power and passion of 850 million Muslims, their fanaticism and their willingness to die for a cause is not to be dismissed. But Islamic Jihaadists are not fighting a tribe, nor a nation. Johnny Jihad is up against the fully harnessed resources of the vast North American continent. When cultures collide, one will be slowly ground down and then bent or shoved aside. The outcome is predictable if not preordained. Ironically, only the American woman can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The customer is always right. That's why stylish American women get their nails done by entrepreneurial Viet Namese women at the corner mall. Armchair quarterbacks and avid followers of current events are often right in their prognostications. It has been said that 80% of intelligence about the enemy is public information on TV and radio and as published in newspapers, news magazines and defense industry trade magazines like Jane's Defense Weekly. Ironically, thanks to the growth of information science and the internet, the additional 20% of the intelligence that the spy professionals have access to, now puts them on only slightly better footing than the collective intelligence of the news professionals and the on-line community.
Through the last two decades, the CIA invested heavily in surveillance equipment while neglecting to develop sources at the local level in the Third World. We paid for this neglect on 9/11. Now there are video clips of beheadings of kidnap victims posted on Islamic web sites. Such is progress.
The second time I made a 9/11 prediction my comments were caught on audio tape, comments which are presented below as transcripts of part of a Fire District Board meeting. What is noteworthy there is not the clarity of my vision. It is the total arrogance of power as reflected in the comments of the man who had the last word that is important. In the weeks that followed 9/11, as the impact of the attacks on the American political landscape became evident, I retrieved the audio tape, made transcripts and posted it here to this site, for lack of any better place. It was good that I did. It was the day the world changed. Nearly four years later, the events of 9/11 continue to reverberate through the American psyche.
During the Summer of 2001, I had read the SF Chronicle, read Time and Newsweek and listened to National Public Radio. People in the know were convinced that we were about to be hit and I knew they were right. Getting anyone in government to listen was another matter. It is not that I didn't try. At an August 7th meeting in Menlo Park Fire District Chief's Miles Julihn's office that was attended by myself, the Chief, MPFD Board member Bob Boeddikker and Board member Del Krause, I did my best, despite the lack of a formal agenda. As it turned out, the meeting was the most disjointed, awkward, apathetic meeting I can remember. I spoke without invitation. I told them that this country was about to be hit. I told them that this country was about to be hit hard. I told them without malice that this country was going to be held accountable for its blind support of a tactless, if not brutal, Israel. I described the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization, the social contracts, the social machinery and the nature of our society that made America so repugnant, attractive and enviable to the rest of the world. And they stared at me like I was a nut case. It was like preaching to a bunch of slack jawed trout. And then when they declined to engage me in debate or even respond, I walked out in frustration, shame, exasperation, dismay and disgust.
And that was the end of the meeting for me. I have no idea what they talked about before I arrived or after I left, but I presume it was not complimentary. (Shortly thereafter I ended up on the receiving end of some political cheap shots that cost me the election and I have since been told by a reliable source that my personal safety was at risk during that time.) The bottom line is that I got whipped. But anyway, during the late summer of 2001, I figured I might try again one more time to warn my colleagues if given the opportunity. And when the opportunity arose, this is what happened. The results were stupifying.
Chapter 3. 9/11 Prediction
On the strength of the author's involvement
in this grass roots video project (or perhaps in a cosmic fluke), he was appointed
to the Board of the Menlo Park Fire District in 1999. Although support for the
video project from within the fire department never materialized, the author
got a very close up look at the operation, administration and finances of a
mid-sized suburban fire department.
Once in a while, the author had a chance to use his college education in political science, as evidenced by this verbal exchange recorded on tape during a Fire District Board meeting, just two weeks before 9/11.
Menlo Park Fire District - August 21st 2001 - Board Meeting Transcripts
Chief's Report: "On another item, I've been approached by a local resident and businessman who is marketing a very high quality US flag sticker for police and fire department vehicles. This product is made from very durable 3M Company vinyl. This is the same material, in fact, that is used in the reflective stripes on the sides of our fire engines. The cost is two dollars and fifty cents per sticker or decal, plus five dollars for professional installation. I recommend that we place the flag on the left side of all of our fire apparatus to start with and if the product proves to be durable we could also add them to other District vehicles and I guess I'm just making sure that the Board is in concert with that direction to display the US flag on our fire apparatus."
Director Spencer: "This size?"
Chief Julihn: "I'm sorry? (Question repeated) This size, currently, yes. It is actually a tradition for both police and fire departments that has been overlooked in recent years and I enjoyed very much my discussions with this gentleman. He is a Viet Nam veteran who he is very interested in preserving respect for the flag and I told you that I would take that under consideration and discuss it with you this evening."
Board Member KENNEDY's Report and Response: "Ok. I wanted to comment on.... the plan to put the American flag on our vehicles. And I'm just thinking that, that flag might make our vehicles a target, and our personnel a target, during periods of civil unrest, if the Federal government did something that was really unpopular. You know, we'd like to pass under the radar in responding to an arson fire or looting or whatever is going on."
Chief's Reply: "Well, I can certainly appreciate your concern for the welfare of our personnel, unfortunately a large red & white fire truck makes a pretty good target for someone who is inclined to do that. We have had periods of civil unrest in the past, within the District. We have actually had bullet holes in fire apparatus (a bullet was fired through Station II's (East Palo Alto) roll up door during a drive by shooting) here so that certainly is a concern. That particular risk seems remote at least in today's standards. But I concur that is an ongoing concern. Whether or not a US flag symbol of this size placed on one side of the apparatus would significantly impact that I'm not prepared to say."
Director Carpenter: "If it does, so be it." ___________________________________________________________________________
4) Shady Con Artists or Lovable Characters?
My jaw dropped and more than a few eyebrows were raised by that last comment. But Chief Miles Julihn never missed a beat and the meeting went on like nothing had happened. I was too stunned to clarify my remarks and too polite to ask the elder statesman, the WWII veteran Bob Boeddikker, if he remembered Pearl Harbor. In a split second, the window of opportunity for public debate snapped shut. My sense of outrage since 9/11 has been mollified to some extent by the report to Congress detailing the failures of the intelligence community. I've also seen Michael Moore's film, "Fahrenheit 9/11", which packed them in at the movie houses.
But as a student of human nature, I still have to ask if that last statement of Carpenter's seemed blissfully complacent in retrospect or just coldly callous. My conclusion is this. If political thought is imagination in a straight jacket then Carpenter must be in a body cast. And if Peter's last statement was not a self incriminating moral indictment of the haves and have mores in this country, then why did President Bush make a three hour visit to the troops in Iraq on Thanksgiving Day 2003 and tell them, "You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don't have to face them in our own country." (I can appreciate a forward defence but there is no known link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, remember?)
Isn't there a peculiar similarity in the way these two rich men think? I feel compelled to ask; if and when George's brother, Jeb Bush, gets elected to the Presidency; Does this mean we are going to be treated like children again and enjoy more good laughs on the Road to Perdition? Not that I'm worried about that election. All that the Bush dynasty has to worry about is brother Jeb (the well liked Governor of Florida) facing the wrath of the voters on election day. As a fellow politician back on the campaign trail myself, I wish him the best of luck.
I filed for elective office on 7/21/05 to run for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board of Directors in the November election and I anticipate a political brawl of a contest with a lot of mud slinging. I used to think that I should encourage Director Spencer to resign due to his involvement in a conflict of interest scandal with Director Carpenter. Now I am having second thoughts. As I recall, at the July 20th 2004 meeting, during the period reserved for public comment, I did publicly tell Bart to do the honorable thing and the courteous thing and resign. Of course, he blithely ignored me. Right now, having Bart living in Peter's house is more of a political liability to Peter than an irritant to me. It gives me a target at which to sling lots of mud during the campaign.
Yes, I filed a formal complaint with the FPPC after the last election and yes, Bart Spencer was investigated by the Enforcement Division of the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento. The FPPC didn't do a very thorough job of it but at least they give it lip service. From January of 2004 to October of 2004 their investigators made a token effort to determine if Bart's vote to appoint Peter Carpenter to the Board was possibly influenced by the business partnership between them, a partnership involving the purchase (90/10% ownership) and rental of a home in Menlo Park.
To my chagrin, Bart wiggled off the hook not once but several times. His first piece of luck occured at this same July 2004 meeting, which featured a report by the District's lawyer, based on a letter of advice from the FPPC which, on the face of it, appeared to exonerate Bart Spencer. There was some desultory Board discussion about how to prevent by abstention, a future conflict of interest should the Board vote to reimburse Bart or Peter for travel expenses to a Special Districts seminar, but as far as the Board was concerned, Bart was cleared. The whole investigation just kind of fizzled. In short, it was a white wash. Why the MPFD's lawyer contacted the Advice Department instead of the Enforcement Division at the FPPC, when implicitly directed to do so by the unanimous decision by the Board at the November 2003 meeting, was beyond my comprehension. It is worth noting that the Advice Department of the FPPC was never designed to get politicians OUT of trouble. Their advice keeps politicians AWAY from trouble. The Enforcement Division sends them packing. The whole investigation to this point was as if the Fire District's lawyer had written Dear Abby instead of calling the cops. Garbage in. Garbage out you know.
But I had my ace in the hole in the form of my own pending complaint with the FPPC, so I wasn't worried. I knew that politicians don't attend Board meetings for free and so professional political ethics are not optional. There must be hundreds of Special Districts in California (Cemetary Districts, Water Districts, Sewage Districts) that employ the services of thousands of impartial and dedicated Board members who serve as 1099 independent contractors. Local government couldn't function without these unsung heroes.
This faith of mine in California State Government and the Schwarzenegger administration may have been misplaced because Bart wriggled off the hook a second time. You see, an FPPC complaint typically takes 18 months from start to finish. The first time I called the FPPC to inquire about progress on the case I was told that, "The fact that you haven't heard anything from us is a good sign because it means that we are still investigating." So I called again at the end of 18 months and was told, "Didn't you get the letter from us saying that we had closed the file?" "What letter?" The one we sent out in October." (eight months earlier) "Nope. Why don't you fax it to me?"
This letter from the Enforcement Division borrowed liberally from the Advice Department letter sent to the Fire District's lawyer and explained that since the Board members aren't paid, then Bart had no monetary incentive to appoint his landlord. Why the Enforcement Division accepted the Fire District's lawyer's deceptive logic and convoluted contention that the Board members are not paid, is baffling. ie The Board officers are not paid anything above and beyond what they are paid as Directors so they must "volunteer" their services and and since Bart is an officer then Bart is therefore not being paid. Why the Enforcement staff didn't do their own research, is curious. Why the Enforcement staff quoted from the Fire District's lawyer's letter is puzzling. When I pointed out that the Board members were indeed paid, (a hundred bucks a meeting, up to four meetings a month) the FPPC's story changed for the second time. The FPPC's next explanation was that since Bart is the cash paying tenant and not the cash receiving landlord, then Bart's motive could not have been a monetary one. So Bart wriggled off the hook a third time. Maybe the investigators thought that their written advice previously given, on the facts as presented by the District's lawyer, conferred some kind of immunity on Bart. This is the usual procedure when a politician asks for advice, acts on the FPPC's advice and catches hell for it. The catch is that Bart's situation was after the fact, ex-post facto.
The other catch is that Bart's 10% investment in the home has been very rewarding. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle published on 7/20/2005 "The typical Bay Area house appreciated a whopping $99,000 in the last year- or more than $8,200 per month....up 18.2% in a year." According to my reading of the article, the value and investment performance of Bart's house is pretty typical of homes in San Mateo County. Specifically, according to the San Mateo County Assessor's Office in Redwood City, the value of the home was set at $672,000 when it was purchased on April 27th, 2000. The home has now (July 2005) been appraised by a real estate broker at $800,000 based on a formal CMA (current market analysis) using pricing formulas and comparisons to similar homes in the neighborhood that recently have been sold. In just over five years, Bart has thus realized a paper profit of $12,800 on his original $67,200 investment, minus what he's delivered up to Peter as rent. If the Commission ever recognized this nifty rent discount/obscene profit as a sincere motivation, then Bart might end up back in his old apartment. This is unlikely to happen, however.
As it stands now, according to a high ranking administrator with the FPPC, it takes a full year to get an attorney up to speed on the conflict of interest provisions in the law and private industry often hires away the best attornies on the staff with higher wages, nicer offices and better benefits. Thus, the FPPC doesn't have nearly enough experienced attorneys to handle cases far worse than this. So files are closed, the scoundrels go free, people think that politicians are corrupt, people cheat on their taxes depriving government of the means to police itself, the best and brightest young minds in the country choose other careers and other employers and the cycle repeats itself. I say, "to be or not to God Damn be. Whether tis nobler to take the crap or sling it right back at 'em". To appeal or not to appeal. Whether tis nobler to suffer the injustice or sling the mud far and wide on cable TV?
Stay tuned for another couple months and read the front page articles in the Palo Alto Daily News and The Almanac as they follow the campaign. The wheels of justice (and the courts of public opinion) grind slowly but they'll grind very, very fine.
5) Echoes of 9/11
Though my experience in local politics was short, my degree in political science has not been totally wasted. Events on the world stage have a way of echoing back into local politics including the Menlo Park Fire District. It is ancient history now but just 21 days after the Board meeting in August 2001, an astonishing 340 NYFD firemen were tragically killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. Within six weeks, the Menlo Park Fire District's Urban Search & Rescue Team was working in New York City on the pile, inhaling toxic smoke every time they wanted to say something intelligible to another team member. The cost of the operation was a million dollars (they flew multiple pallets of tools, search dogs, protective gear, hardware and heavy CASES of bottled water to New York) . The number of live people they rescued was ZERO.
Most of the firemen who spent time on the pile had breathing problems upon returning and will probably be retiring on disability (if not for that reason then for other accumulated back, neck and shoulder injuries,) at a tremendous additional cost to the taxpayers over the life of the retiree. (The SF Chronicle reported on 9/10/03 that the Bush administration put heavy pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to suppress test results showing brutally poor air quality at ground zero that lasted for months.) And ironically, huge firefighter retirement costs are now the rationale for spending $50,000 to hire a team of "assessment engineers" who will craft a fire suppression assessment based on fire risk and property value and then present the issue to the voters in the mail. I plan to oppose this "parcel tax" on the grounds that without dishonesty and deception on the part of the officer staff against the Board, the District wouldn't need additional income.
It is not so much that I regret not asking how much it would cost to grant the current retirement package to the District's oldest retirees, who worked for the District before a pension plan was introduced. I just resent that the Apparatus Replacement Committee lied to the Board about the mechanical condition of the Quint. The needless and premature replacement of this vehicle (which had been saving the District $100,000 a year on labor costs and we had two of them) put the District in a financial bind that they feel compelled to solve with a tax increase which I'm glad that I won't be around to approve.
The other big ticket item that was bandied about in my last year in office was a proposal to replace Station One, which is kind of a Winchester Mystery House of a structure. I feel that the District doesn't need the prestige of a new headquarters building in the immediate future as much as the District needs to pay competitive wages to its rank and file employees. If the voters approve the assessment and the new headquarters is authorized then I will fight for community access priveleges to the new building, including public dances in the Board assembly hall and email access during power outages. I have already floated this idea to the public during a MPFD pancake breakfast and gotten a favorable response from residents. Of course Chief Wilson had to have the cops escort me off the property before I did so.
So why did I give Peter Carpenter that wonderful opportunity to step on a "word mine" that I hoped would someday blow up in his face? Although I am not an armchair quarterback, I am a news junkie and I had read a great deal about Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the San Francisco Chronicle through the spring and summer of 2001. I accepted at face value, the suggestions made by the knowledgeable that America was about to be attacked by terrorists. I had read that Palestinians had learned the value of the one-two punch in their bomb and terror campaigns in Israel. I also knew that airliner cockpits the world over were vulnerable (except on EL AL, the Israeli airline of course). I just knew that a bold attack would be coming our way but thought maybe the terrorists would try something different, an attack designed to instill fear in the mind of the average American. So my new terror prediction is an attack on a domestic symbol of tranquility like Disneyland, a cable car or the Statue of Liberty. Although my crystal ball can be a little blurry, after 9/11, I felt my concerns were well vindicated.
Chapter 6. The Quints
After the 9/11 attacks, I felt the same helplessness as everyone else, so I did some creative thinking and came up with an innovative solution. I called my brainchild, The Afghan-American Mutual Aid Program. You see, the Afghan people were suffering from a long running drought and years of oppression under the Taliban. The Menlo Park Fire District had an allegedly balky fire truck and a local economy that was going downhill fast. So I thought that between the two nations, we could make some lemonade from these lemons and the District would come out ahead on the favorable publicity.
You see, several of our Board members had publicly stated a desire for the District to make money training firefighters from other fire departments using our state of the art, structural collapse training facility, located by the Dumbarton Bridge and I was willing to gamble that sending a fire engine overseas to another country as a token of our friendship would really put us on the map, publicity wise. But pardon my small digression because I must really digress in a major way. . .
Several years ago, before my appointment to the Fire District Board, Fire Chief Rick Tye bought the Fire District two radically different pieces of rolling fire apparatus called "Quints". These were combination ladder trucks and pumper engines, with the innovation of having both an 85 foot extension ladder and being able to carry 800 gallons of water. They were big beasts, with an axle in front and two axles in the rear, kind of the Swiss Army knife of fire engines. Chief Tye knew that they would save money on labor. Three men on one vehicle could do the job of four men on two vehicles. But County dispatch took a long time to figure out that the Quints could perform well in both roles and the new "red haired step children" were sometimes directed to "park around the corner" on large, mutual aid, surround and drown type fires like you'd see when a warehouse burned.
So the Quints got no respect from Fire Chiefs outside the District and Chief Tye had made the unforgivable mistake of failing to consult with his staff before spending a half million dollars on each of them. So the Quints were unpopular among the rank and file from the get go and apparently had some chronic maintenance issues on top of that, like quickly going through tires. But you'd expect this with a vehicle that had rear wheel steering that could move the Quint sideways, right up to a hydrant from the street or make a tight U turn in an intersection.
But the worst of these maintenance issues was the peculiar tendency for the transmission on one of the Quints to lock up. ie They'd get a call for a fire, jump in the engine, turn on the lights, turn on the siren, pull out onto Middlefield Road and put the pedal to the metal. But the Quint would refuse to take second gear. Or third or fourth gear. So they'd pull off to the side of the road. They'd shut off the engine. Wait 20 seconds. Start it back up again. And it would run fine. And off they'd go to the fire. At least, that was the story.
Our mechanic couldn't diagnose the problem. The factory technicians couldn't solve the problem. The manufacturer made only 6 Quints that model year and we all concluded that there was a flaw in the firmware coding in the EPROM in the logic board in the transmission. We just resigned ourselves to the fact that this was a problem that we'd have to live with for the duration. With only six of these machines made that year, a product recall, a redesign of the chip or a software patch was not a possibility. This breakdown happened so often, allegedly at least once a week, that the drivers quit logging it down in the book.
As a Director, I was afraid that this intermittent problem would happen on a freeway on ramp, the Quint would be rear ended, there would be major injuries to the passengers in the car which impacted the rear of the Quint and we'd be sued for knowingly operating a defective fire engine. This would be a major political embarrassment for the Board while the career of the driver of the Quint would be pretty well screwed too. And if we sold the Quint in this condition to a fire department in the mid-West, we'd either have to disclose the problem and get half of what the rig was worth or risk a lawsuit when the new owners got themselves in a ugly rear end accident with multiple cars on an icy highway. It was a no-win situation.
7) The Afghan-American Mutual Aid Program
So shortly after 9/11, I got to thinking and I asked myself, "What if we just gave up on that tranny problem and sent the Quint to Afghanistan?" The new government probably wouldn't sue us if they got rear ended because, swift Afghan justice and Afghan emergency medical care being what it is, there would be few survivors among the accident victims. And with huge pot holes, washed out bridges and other road hazards, the tranny would be the least of their worries. So how could they put this Quint to productive use?
First of all, the Quint would be a prestigious vehicle for the new Afghan government to own. They could put it proudly at the head of the parade down Main Street in Kabul and look like the government of a modern country. They could use it in its traditional role of fire suppression. I mean, what bank would finance a new wooden frame building in Kandahar if it was gonna burn down the first year? And then I got really creative and thought that they could use the Quint as a mobile platform for dispensing first aid at the scene of construction accidents, vehicle accidents, to gunshot victims and to landmine victims (Kabul is some of the most densely mined real estate on Earth). It could be a mobile vaccination clinic. They could also put up the ladder and expose or detonate land mines with a powerful stream of water across an acre at a time. They could haul water to construction sites for mixing concrete. They could haul water to a corral full of thirsty animals. They could draft water from a well and spray it on a farmer's field on a hot summer day. They could field a multi-ethnic crew, hire an Afghan woman to drive the thing and use the Quint as a model for the racial integration of the country. And last but not least, they could use it to encourage Afghan farmers to grow something besides opium.
This got me to thinking again. I wondered how long it took for Afghan opium to make it from a bleeding seed pod in an Afghan field to a dime bag on a street corner in East Palo Alto. I wondered if Afghan farmers knew or cared that my neighbors would kill for that piece of turf or steal, prostitute, cheat, lie and embezzle for the money to buy heroin. I wondered if Afghan farmers knew about hepatitis, AIDS, welfare mothers, the pathology of welfare dependency, crack babies, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and flesh eating bacteria.
I wondered if Afghan tribesmen knew about hundred mile commutes that began at 4:30 AM in Stockton and Modesto and ended in Silicon Valley three hours later. I wondered if illiterate Afghan tribesmen knew about gas at $2.25 a gallon and the $35 fill up and I wondered what it would take to get them to allow the construction and operation of a crude oil pipeline across the Afghan countryside from the ' tan countries to the north to warm water ocean ports with easy access to global oil markets.
And then I realized that few rural Afghan people under the age of thirty had ever known a time of peace and an AK-47 was considered just a symbol of manhood. So I guessed that few Afghans cared that Americans lived in fear of international terrorism or were hard working and decent people. So I made a few phone calls to SF politico Carol Ruth Silver and members of the Afghan Community in Fremont. I sent some emails, I attended a few meetings, I came up with the plan and I lined up all the support that I could muster.
Thus, at the February 2002 Board meeting, Paul Choe spoke about his business and the cost of exporting luxury automobiles (and by implication, a fire truck) by ocean going freighter from the Port of Oakland to Karachi, Pakistan. (Estimated cost, approx $25,000 although he couldn't guess how much import duties, taxes and bribes would set us back nor the cost of rail transport into Pakistan plus local drivers, guides and translators.) Of course, the figure he quoted half in jest, $250,000, a figure he more or less made up because we didn't really expect that Federal Express would ship the Quint by air, is precisely the number the local newspapers reported the next day.
Next up to speak was a friend of mine from the 'hood who spoke about the cost to society of his addiction to heroin (at least $350,000 for damages done during dozens of car stereo thefts at Stanford Shopping Center and home burglaries plus the cost to the taxpayer of several arrests, trials, years of incarceration and his on-going treatment in a residential rehab program.) He concluded his piece by stating flatly that there were lots of guys like him in rehab who'd done the same thing.
Then, the President of the Afghan Coalition, Waheed Momand, spoke about the death and suffering of his people during the war against the Red Army and during the 15 years of Civil War that followed. He estimated that 1.5 million of his countrymen had become casualties during that time. He mentioned the collapse of the Soviet Union as a result of the war but his plea for a fire engine or any fire equipment that we could spare, fell on deaf and unsympathetic ears.
And then Captain Harold Schapelhouman spoke, the handsome 6'4" all-American boy and leader of the Urban Search & Rescue Team. Harold told the crowd that I'd gone far beyond my role as Director. He said the Afghans could never maintain and operate a vehicle as complex as the Quint. He said Afghanistan didn't have the infrastructure to support a vehicle like the Quint. He then continued to rip me up one side and down the other and told me basically, to know my role and shut my hole, leaving the whole Afghan-American Mutual Aid program virtually dead in the water. I learned later that Harold had just returned from the funeral of a colleague killed in the collapse of one of the Trade Center Towers so perhaps this opposition was understandable, if not expected. When he finished, my friend in the recovery program and I looked at each other and just shrugged.
Director Krause later commented with a smile, "At least it was an interesting meeting." Hey Del, these are interesting times! So Osama Bin Laden disappeared, the Taliban faded away and stopped discouraging Afghan farmers from growing opium. Exports of raw opium from Afghanistan will jump from 187 tons in 2001 to an estimate of more than 3,000 tons this year. This heroin is coming to a rave party or street corner near you soon. And hey, how many glamorous pop stars do you think are out there who have more money than brains and would rather die young and be famous for it than slide off the charts into obscurity?
There are a lot of low life party animals in Hollywood who'd like to boast that so and so among the rich and beautiful calls them at home. Personally, I hope Harold Schapelhouman sees his share of these overdose cases in East Palo Alto and among the bored and cynical teen age children of his neighbors. So who will Syringe Syringe take next? A NFL quarterback? A beloved character actor? A comedian? I hope Harold's daughter asks him while he hangs up that new plack, "Daddy, what did you do in the war on drugs?"
8) The War in Iraq
Since this Board meeting in February of 2002, I have watched as the US government launched a war on Iraq, spending billions in the process and with Congress approving $87.5 BILLION more for occupation duty and massive reconstruction contracts. This have since proved to be only a down payment. American trops are going to be there for years. I have NOT seen any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. I have seen over 1,000 American, Italian, Spanish and British troops come home in body bags, with more than a few casualties the victims of friendly fire and many more soldiers expected to die during occupation duty.
Two Japanese diplomats were also recently killed. I have seen American women wounded in combat, taken as prisoners of war and major liberties taken with that story. I watched President Bush promote a tax cut proposal for the wealthiest Americans in a year with record budget deficits. I've seen the Baghdad Museum LOOTED of priceless antiquities, hospitals ransacked of their medical equipment, Iraqi government buildings burned, whole buildings deconstructed and Iraqi oil pipelines sabotaged.
I know that President Bush avoided combat in Viet Nam and flew with the Texas National Guard (in case that Oklahoma attacked Texas). I know that Iraqis risk their lives to cooperate with the Americans and if we pull out they'll be at the mercy of the insurgents unless we take them out with us by helicopter from the roof of the American embassy. And I've asked why to all of the above. My conclusion is that the war has been fought not over Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction, nor Iraqi oil, but more likely to impress a few naïve Saudi princesses with the fact that funding the American immigrant lifestyles of the poor and fanatical is not a wise investment nor a particularly good idea.
We all know that this kind of imperial logic by a US president is not without precedent. After all, didn't Lyndon Johnson keep the war going in Viet Nam for several bloody years after he knew it was un-winnable, just to impress the Kremlin with American resolve and determination? How many thousand American lives were lost in that pointless exercise? Such is the logic of brutality and the arrogance of power.
Then again, maybe the defeat of Saddam was necessary to allow Israel to dispose of the West Bank, rather than be a one man, one vote democracy. Go figure. In my humble opinion, we are locked in a permanent embrace with Saudi Arabia. That country lost the ability to feed itself around 1973. We lost the ability to produce enough oil for domestic consumption at about the same time. (Including Alaska, we produce 2% of the world's crude while consuming 25% of the world's oil output.) The Saudis import food and export oil. They own 6% of the American economy while American business owners are sending manufacturing jobs overseas.
Saudi Princes swagger around the kingdom while their nation contributes little to the global economy other than the spigot. They have little manufacturing, write no software, produce few movies for international distribution and contribute little to scientific knowledge. Like us, immigrants wash their dishes, change their beds, raise their children and do all the dirty work. The loudest voice in their society is the one condemning Israel.
So what if we cut off their imported food supply? What if the US Navy blockaded cargo freighters from visiting their ports? What if whole shiploads of Australian sheep never left port down under? There is something wrong when Saudi imams call us corrupt while their congregations are getting fat on our food. We need to have the full and undivided attention of the Saudi people. The Saudi Royal family cannot continue to reap stock market gains on investments in American defence contractors who are profiting handsomely from the war in Iraq, when 15 of 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
9) The Tail Light Scandal
While dreaming about starving your enemies is a pleasant waste of time, reality is a whole lot better. Local politics can be just as interesting and local politics is probably twice as twisted. Like any good story this one has several twists to it. In February of 2003 the MPFD Board voted to sell the second of the two Quints for $240,000 dollars back to the manufacturer and bought a brand new, $600,000 ladder truck with a full 100 foot ladder. This ladder truck began active service in early May of 2003. The Board also bought a new pumper engine for $500,000. The old Quint still had at least two years of front line duty left in it and could have spent several years in the reserve fleet. But every good story has a kicker and this one is no exception.
The story goes that one day the District's mechanic (Steve Strom) was doing routine maintenance on the Quint and stopped to replace a burned out tail light. He noticed that the old bulb had two contacts but the new bulb had only one contact. So in went the new bulb and lo and behold, the tranny problem seemed to go away. So it wasn't faulty firmware code in the EPROM in the logic board in the transmission. The second prong on the tail light bulb was introducing an erroneous DC ground into the logic board causing intermittent failures. Ahh, diagnosis by replacement of parts! A miracle!
And there my story almost ends with a fully functional Quint rolling off into the morning sunrise. Some months later, after the Board and I had voted to dispose of the Quint, I saw the apparatus in the headquarters parking lot, where it was waiting for delivery to its new owners and so I got permission from Chief Wilson to examine one of those brake light/tail light bulbs. When I took off the lens cover I discovered a garden variety, two contact, two lug bulb. A few days later, when I discussed this alleged tranny problem with Howard X, a night shift, fire engine mechanic at Stewart & Stevenson in San Leandro, he was highly dubious.
So the bottom line is this, after two years of following the issue and using indirect observation, I concluded that the whole line about the transmission problem was bogus from the get go. If I hadn't seen older machines intentionally bugged to force their replacement during my years as a photocopy technician then I wouldn't have believed it. This lie had several large grains of truth. First, the tail light bulb/tranny problem connection was technically feasable. Pierce Manufacturing, the maker of the Quint, got into an argument over responsibility with Allison Manufacturing which made the transmission. And then Osh Kosh bought out Pierce.
So, essentially the hardware guys were blaming the software guys. So the executives in charge could blow it off and never reach a solid diagnosis. Secondly, it was an intermittent problem that none of the Directors ever witnessed. And it was a problem that seemed to go away after a team of experts had labored on it for a week or so. But then it would come back again after a few weeks. So the problem seemed unsolvable... unless you looked at the most simple explanation. The tranny problem was a bogus claim.....and a lie is the least intelligent form of imaginative thinking.
The bottom line is that I am a technician and not a number cruncher and that put me in a awkward position. I also knew one of the Apparatus Replacement Committee members back in high school (Rob DeHoney-Capuchino Class of '75) and although he was my friend, I also knew that he liked to win, whatever the cost. So I had a political problem that was really thorny and few allies on the issue. You see, the fire department in St. Louis, MO uses nothing but Quints. Their tactics and strategy revolve around Quints. But when your MPFD crews are trained to work from either pumper engines or hook n' ladder trucks and an oddball Quint shows up first on the scene, it throws the whole dance off.
Every person has a role on a structure fire. They'll have water on the fire, people out, the roof vented, the smoke cleared and rooms searched in 8 minutes flat. But if a Quint shows up first on the scene, the question becomes, who does what, where and when? It throws off the whole routine. So anybody that was in on the scheme understood why these guys were lying through their teeth and wouldn't blow the whistle to the Board. So the firefighters lied to the Board and got their shiny new pumper engine and their new hook n' ladder rig for $1.2 million. Now, the District is short of money and the Joint Powers Authority has voted to let the District walk away from the money losing ambulance contract with American Medical Response.
The MPFD used to send $500,000 of tax payer dollars to AMR, a private company, every year for the priviledge of staffing AMR's ambulances with our EMT/Paramedics. It was a bad deal from the get go. Way before my time on the Board, Chief Tye wanted our own ambulances with our own paramedics but a Superior Court ruling nixed that. So reps from all the other fire departments in the County had been meeting for a year and a half and by the time we got to the party.....we were a little bit late. So the best we could do was pick up the crumbs. So now the MPFD is out of the ambulance transport business. The District's paramedics and EMT's are still usually the first on the scene. But someone else will transport them to Stanford Hospital and charge the patient $1,200 for the three mile ride plus the high cost of the disposable oxygen mask, bandages, syringes and medications.
10) Crash & Burn
So I had this sneaking suspicion about the Quint that the other Directors were not eager to hear about. And, to be honest, I had a bad habit of putting my foot in my mouth which, when blown out of proportion and twisted by Spencer and Carpenter, damaged my credibility. Here's one small example. Deputy Chief Ed Greene took over as Acting Chief when Chief Miles Julihn resigned. So one day, during a break from a Board workshop, I was put into an awkward social position and was pressed for something to say to Ed. Anything. So I blurted out an offer (which I'd been mulling over as an ace up my sleeve) to support him (morally, emotionally and logistically) during his candidacy for the Chief's position in exchange for his support (moral, emotional and logistical) for my proposal to send used fire equipment (like defibrillators) to third world countries. He replied that he wanted to think about it.
Well, it took Ed at least two days to decide that this was an attempted bribe. So he went to the President of the Board, Bart Spencer, who went to the Fire District's attorney, Bill Esselstein, who went to the San Mateo County District Attorney's office and there I was, looking at a jail term for bribery and the end of my political career. I tell you it is no fun being called at home by the Deputy District Attorney for clarification of your remarks ("Hey, trust me, I just want to get this cleared up.") Neither is it fun, fielding calls from reporters and seeing your name and picture in the paper, especially when you've been advised by legal council to keep your mouth shut for the duration.
When it comes to legal matters I'm not a "legal eagle" but IF I was going to commit bribery and risk losing my political career over it you can bet there would be something substantial in it for me. Woody Allen might make this kind of offer to a fire chief for two tenths of a point after quadruple break even (on the associated comedic travel documentary film) but I'm not a professional film maker and I'm definitely not Jack Kennedy. Or something like that. Anyway, I managed to keep my mouth shut while my reputation was dragged through the press.
The bottom line is that I ruined my political career with a single sentence. I lost my bid for re-election to the Board by 169 votes on November 4th, 2003. I know I said and did some other things that gave the newspapers good stories about my lack of ethics to put on their front pages but that alleged attempted bribery one was the biggest. Life sure has a strange set of rules. Ed, Bill and the rest of the Board took absolutely no risk at all in deciding to censure me for attempted bribery. Just as there was little risk in reporting a bogus problem with the transmission in the Quint.
11) The Moral of the Story
If there are any morals to this story then here they are. First of all, if you want a vehicle fixed quickly (or just sold to the highest bidder) then threaten to send it to Afghanistan. Secondly, if you're going to blow the whistle, do it at the end of your political career and not at the beginning. Thirdly, in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. Finally, let me offer this second hand advice. War is at first, the hope that we'll all be better off when it is over. Next comes the expectation that the enemy will be worse off. Then comes the satisfaction that the enemy isn't any better off. In our case, I predict a dawning realization that everyone is, or will soon be, a whole lot worse off than we were before those passenger jets came in, flying under the radar, and torched those towers on September 11th. I never thought we'd miss Bill Clinton but....
All the world's a stage and so where are these characters now?
Ed Greene gracefully retired after being passed over for the permanent Chief's position.
Chief Miles Julihn found a new job as the EMS Administrator for El Dorado County Emergency Medical Services Agency located in Placerville, CA.
Chief Rick Tye retired on a heart and knee disability and found a job as Fire Chief with a new fire department (but liked those disability checks so much that he forgot to tell the MPFD that he was feeling well enough to work.)
Peter "so be it" Carpenter served a full term as President of the Board of Directors with Bart as his Vice-President. Peter's seat on the Board will be up for grabs in the November 2005 election.
Chief Paul Wilson will leave the MPFD and return to Arizona with his family when his contract expires in October of 2005 (despite an 80% approval rating by the firefighters). A national search through a personnel agency for his replacement will cost the district at least $60,000. The search may be hampered by the Board's habit of turning over Fire Chiefs in quick succession. This practice also means a Division Chief like Randy Shurson, may step up from the officer corps to serve an open ended (but probably nerve wracking) term in office as Acting Chief. It is interesting to note that Chief Wilson has long been interested in knocking down his Winchester Mystery House of a headquarters and rebuilding, presumably with a larger corner office for the Chief and 100 feet of additional land on two sides of the corner lot. Presumably the future Acting Chief will be also interested in leaving this new building behind as a legacy. This interest meshed well with plans being made by the City of Menlo Park to buy land from St. Patrick's Seminary for a huge new underground water tank, above deck soccer fields and Soccer Mom's SUV parking lot. If the new headquarters building was 2 stories high and had a two story deep basement then perhaps additional land on the sides of the lot would not be necessary. As long as they were trucking away all that dirt.... According to the Chief and the local press, these negotiations between the City and St. Patrick's (with The Vatican probably having the final sayso) have broken down over the issues of land costs and recreational compatibility (passive vs active). The issue remaining, however, is would the City of Menlo Park actually need that new water storage tank if it wasn't for 9/11 and the perpetual war on terror? Go figure! All politics is local and a lot of discretional spending in your neighborhood hinges on the outcome of the war in Iraq.
Captain Harold Schapelhouman is now a Division Chief and Public Information Officer in charge of Special Projects. He works in a new office at headquarters that was carved out of Fire Chief Wilson's floor space. Meanwhile, his talents have not gone unnoticed by the community. ie Harold received the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce's "Golden Acorn-Professional Individual of the Year" award. He also got an award from the Department of Homeland Security at the November 18th, 2003 Board meeting. It was a 3" X 4" piece of half inch thick structural steel inside an enclosed glass case, the steel coming from an I-beam taken from the pile of debris that was the World Trade Center Tower This gift was presumably to hang on his wall as a plaque. I suppose that plack is like getting a vial containing a few drops of bunker oil from the USS Arizona, but he accepted it with a smile.
Bart Spencer has possibly escaped an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento over a potential conflict of interest. He did forget to mention to me and our colleagues on the Board, the business relationship involving the home that Peter Carpenter bought for him (90/10% investment). And Bart did cast the deciding vote to appoint Peter to the Board of Directors on March 20th, 2001. This little factoid about the mutual investment, sure escaped my notice when I nominated Peter for the position.
Del Krause, another Board Member, is IMHO, also a candidate for investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to report on his Statement of Economic Interests/Form 700, in 2001 and 2003, his annual income and investments. Until I can find out what he is legally required to report according to the Fire District and the County and until I can write off the case against Bart, I'm not going to pursue this one. But, even if we discount his home in Menlo Park, as his primary place of residence, and even if his assets are in a blind trust, explain to me how a guy can live in and own an attractive home, have a ski cabin in the Sierra's, drive a nice car and take ski vacations in France if he has no reportable income nor investments? I think the people still have a need to know this information as a matter of public record. Del's seat is up for grabs in the November 2005 election.
Ollie Brown, another colleague who never missed an opportunity to vote with the majority in censuring me for my conduct as a Board member, offered me a bargain on one of these rental units during a discussion of my landlord and income problems. I politely declined his generous offer, preferring to keep my political independence and personal integrity intact. Of course, the private decision that I made didn't dissuade my apartment manager from posting a campaign sign for Bart and his running mate in front of the building I live in, for a month before and at least two months after the 2003 election, because there is no accounting for taste. Ollie's seat is up for grabs in the November 2005 election (although I hope that Ollie wins his race). Anybody who has helped a plump and elderly black woman who has fallen off a curb in front of a church, (landing on her side), back to her feet with a minimum of embarassment and a maximum of professional care, deserves a vote for reelection. I witnessed this act of a Good Samaritan after a service at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in May of 2005.
The ironic thing is that my private decision to decline Ollie's generous housing offer didn't deter my apartment manager, Mike Rogan, from filing a bogus restraining order, alleging "emotional torture" and demanding my appearance in court, a couple days before the November 4th, 2003 election. Of course, Mike never bothered to show up for the hearing so it was just me and the taunting judge. It was just one more effort (on top of the fire-hazard-in-the-backyard, contact-the-fire-department and call-the-press-for-a-photo-op while Steve's-apartment-is-empty, Steve-is-on-vacation and Mike-is-supervising-the-replacement-of-the-carpet, trick) to sabotage my political career, for which I hope that cheapshot artist, schoolyard bully, chemically dependent and emotionally disturbed Viet Nam War veteran was well paid. Thank you very much, Howard Dean for that beautiful scream. I couldn't have said it better myself. The good news is that Mike Rogan moved out in May of 2005 when my apartment building was sold and I am living happily ever after.
During the November 2005 elections, three seats on the Board of Directors will go to the candidates that receive the most votes. I may or may not find myself running against Ollie, Del and Peter, depending upon their intentions to file for re-election or retire from politics, which may depend on how many other well qualified candidates throw their hats in the ring. And I may or may not receive the endorsement, this time around, of local 617 of the IBEW, plus IATSE (the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees), the Labor Trades Council and the MPFD Firefighters Association. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that those three candidates voted to give themselves raises and those candidates voted against restrictions on wood shingle roofs and I didn't do either. You know the US Air Force is still flying B-52's that are older than the pilots flying them and I'm kinda attached to all of our old fire station buildings. While electrical self sufficiency and public access to the new buildings for neighborhood meetings are not campaign issues yet, I hope that I can make them so when I start speaking to the press and the voters, even if the station up for rebuilding is in East Palo Alto. I'll be back.