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May 26, 2006
Notes from the Pentagon

N. Korean sanctions
As this paper reported Tuesday, the Bush administration recently tightened economic sanctions on North Korea after learning that Pyongyang was selling its ship registry to U.S. and foreign companies here for two or three times the going rate for such so-called flags of convenience.

The registry provides cash for Pyongyang, but there also are signs that the ships flying North Korean flags do so to avoid inspections because of criminal activity.

Administration officials tell us the new sanctions followed the interdiction March 29 of the freighter MV Crystal off a European port. The ship was found to be engaged in migrant smuggling. The officials did not identify the owner by name but said it was a company incorporated in Delaware. Under the sanctions that went into effect May 8, the company will be forced to give up the North Korean registry.

Another North Korean-flagged vessel, the Rimyongsu, was stopped by Japanese authorities in 2005 and found to be carrying 6,500 counterfeit $100 bills, a North Korean specialty known as the supernote because of the high-quality forgery.

According to the International Transport Workers' Federation, most ships that sail under North Korean flags are bulk, cargo and fishing vessels. A report by the federation stated that out of 408 North Korean-flagged vessels, 187 were owned by North Korea and the rest were owned by a variety of states, including three U.S. companies. Most of the ships are owned by companies based in Cambodia, Comoros, Tonga, and Sao Tome and Principe.

Navy intercept
The U.S. Navy this week reached a milestone in its sea-based missile defense program. A modified SM-2 interceptor missile launched from the Hawaii-based Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie successfully shot down an incoming short-range test missile in the final few seconds before impact.

It was the first sea-based intercept of a ballistic missile in the terminal, or last stage, of flight.

The target missile was destroyed by a combination of the SM-2's direct contact with it as well as an explosive blast, Pentagon officials said.

"We believe it is an important step towards the desired end-state of a robust sea-based terminal ballistic missile defense capability," Rear Adm. Barry McCullough, director for surface warfare on the staff of the chief of naval operations, said of the test. He noted that the new system "begins to meet an immediate near-term concern of our combatant commanders."

The only other terminal missile defense available is the land-based Patriot PAC-3 system.

There is no current sea-based terminal defense, and the modified SM-2 is a "limited emergency capability" for sea-based terminal missile defense.

China threat
Call it good timing. Just as the Pentagon releases a report critical of communist China's brisk military buildup, a Defense Department hand and a radio talk show host came out with a book on why Beijing wants a military confrontation with the United States.

"Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States" paints several scenarios for how China and the world's only superpower will clash one day.

"China may soon have the capacity to shut down the stock market, take out air traffic control and telephone satellite networks and hijack our electric power grid," writes Jed Babbin, a frequent fill-in for a variety of radio hosts across the country and a former senior Pentagon official; and Edward Timperlake, a Pentagon procurement official and former Marine fighter pilot. Both authors have written previous New York Times best-sellers.

The authors also save space for scolding democratic Taiwan, the island that China claims as its own.

"President Bush and his successors must take a 'tough love' approach with the Taiwanese," the authors write. "If the Taiwanese are unwilling to spend the necessary money to defend themselves they should be told in unmistakable terms that we will not spend blood and treasure in their defense. The Taiwanese need a big dose of reality."

Buyer and the vets
Veterans cannot recall the last time relations were so bad between the chairman of a congressional committee and the groups that go to bat for the country's millions of ex-service members.

It began when House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican, changed the way the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other vets groups provide their views to his committee. The old practice was for joint hearings with the Senate committee counterpart, with individual sessions with each group's leader, who had plenty of time to testify.

Mr. Buyer has condensed those proceedings, according to the American Legion, and has pushed back the hearing date until after the president's veterans budget is delivered to Congress each February. Previously, the groups met with the committee in September as the White House formulated the federal budget.

Thomas Bock, the American Legion's national commander, said Mr. Buyer offered him three minutes to talk as part of a panel and then increased his time by seven minutes. "I thought, 'What a slap in the face,' " Mr. Bock told us.

Earlier this month, Mr. Bock and representatives from three other leading vets groups sent a letter to Mr. Buyer.

"The fact that you have made a decision without consulting the [veterans service organizations] is on its face, disrespectful to our organizations and our millions of volunteer members that live and advocate for their fellow veterans and their families all across this great nation," said the letter, which was hand-delivered to every member of Congress. The groups called Mr. Buyer's attitude "hostile."

Matters got worse. Mr. Buyer fired back on May 12 that the letter was "a political stunt filled with falsehoods, innuendo and misrepresentations."

This week, the four veterans groups replied: "That you would label our attempt to speak to reason on this issue a 'political stunt' is both offensive and disingenuous in the extreme. Your implication that we are putting politics above service to veterans is disgraceful and a calculated misrepresentation." They asked for a meeting with Mr. Buyer sometime after Memorial Day.

Jeff Phillips, Mr. Buyer's spokesman, said in an e-mail: "Chairman Buyer heard from 19 veterans' groups in February, under this new schedule before his committee wrote its views and estimates. That has never been done before. He also plans a 'look-back, look ahead' hearing in September for these groups. That's new, too."

Said Mr. Bock, "We never have had relations so strained with a committee chairman."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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