Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Update on Obama's Australia Trip: Five Hotels, $2.1M

    When President Obama visited Brisbane, Australia in November for the G-20 summit, the entire delegation required multiple hotels and thousands of "room nights" for the length of the stay, though the president himself spent only one night in his hotel. Initially, as first reported by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, it appeared a total of three hotels and 4,096 room nights were booked. However, additional contracts posted last week bring the total to 5,146 room nights and $2.1 million.
    In addition to the Marriott, the Urban and the Adina hotels, the state department also contracted with the Watermark and the Traders hotels in Brisbane. The Traders contract was for $224,776.66 to cover 503 room nights plus function space, while the Watermark was $175,263.67 for 547 room nights. An attempt was made to confirm that no more hotel contracts were issued for this trip, but after an initial response acknowledging the inquiry, no answer was forthcoming.
    Each of the contract documents states that "Senior High Level USG Principal traveling with a delegation inclusive of support elements in: Security, Communications, Logistics and Operations." Despite the 5,000-plus "room nights" in the contracts, the number of persons on the trip could be considerably less since advance security teams, diplomatic personnel and others may arrive in advance and stay multiple days or even weeks. The state department has been reluctant in the past to reveal details about the size of the delegations accompanying the president on such trips, and the Australia trip is no exception. The state department did not respond to a request to clarify, even broadly, the number of US government personnel that were involved in this trip.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Monday, December 15, 2014

U.S. Military Has 1,000 Full-time, 22,000 Part-Time Sexual Assault Response Coordinators

    Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently reported on the efforts his department has made against sexual assault within the ranks of the military. A year ago, President Obama directed Hagel to conduct a full review of progress being made, and while Hagel reported a decrease of twenty-five percent in the prevalence of sexual assault, he said "[t]here’s much more to be done."
    One area of progress Hagel cited was simply in the reporting of such assaults, which he said has increased by 50 percent in just a year. He said it is believed now that one in four assaults are reported, whereas two years ago it was one in ten. The statistics are based on surveys taken throughout the military.
    The improvements are due, at least in part, Hagel believes, from increased confidence victims now have in the ability of the military to deal with these crimes. "Compared to 2010," Hagel said, "because more survivors participated in the justice system than ever before, we’ve been able to hold more perpetrators accountable."
    Another factor may be the sheer number of personnel the Pentagon now has committed to dealing with the problem. "We now have over 1,000 full-time certified response coordinators and victim advocates," Hagel revealed at the press conference, "and over 17,000 volunteer personnel ready to assist survivors."
    To confirm Hagel's statement, an email inquiry was sent to the defense department asking if Hagel's statement meant that these 1,000 response coordinators literally work full time on sexual assault matters as opposed to combining this work with other duties. Laura Seal, a DoD spokesperson replied, "The answer to your questions is: Yes. In addition, more than 22,000 Sexual Assault Response Coordinators and Sexual Assault Response Victim Advocates have been certified in a process administered by the National Organization for Victim Assistance. These [additional 22,000] Coordinators and Advocates do not work on the issue on a full time basis." A followup email seeking explanation for the discrepancy between the 17,000 and 22,000 figures was not returned.
    With 1.4 million personnel on active duty and another 718,000 civilians working for the defense department, the 23,000 response coordinators/victim advocates comes to one for every 91 members of the department.
    Major General Jeffrey Snow, who addressed the press with Secretary Hagel, stressed that while sexual assault reports have increased, sexual assault and other forms of unwanted sexual contact in the military are actually on the decline, saying that "[r]ates of unwanted sexual contact are down significantly for both men and women from levels seen in 2006." Using available data, Snow said "we estimate that about 19,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2014."

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Reporter: Benghazi 'Still a Major Issue With Right-Wing and Obama-Haters'

    General David M. Rodriguez of the U.S. Africa Command updated reporters Wednesday on the defense department's efforts to assist the response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. However, later in the briefing, the general addressed questions on other topics as well. Several reporters inquired about the U.S. military's current role in Libya, and eventually the subject of the 2012 terrorist attacks on the Benghazi diplomatic facility came up. One unidentified reporter referred to Benghazi as "a major issue with the right-wing and Obama-haters..." (video)
    The broader exchange regarding Benghazi involved two different reporters and went as follows [emphasis added]:
Q: General Rodriguez, can I just follow up on Libya? Do we -- does the U.S. have military personnel operating in Libya right now? 
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, we do not. 
Q: And -- are you still continuing to search for any of the Benghazi attackers? 
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, we continue to search for the Benghazi attack network, yes. 
Q: But without U.S. military on the ground. 
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: That's right, without people on the ground, yes. 
Q: My train of though train of thought. I was going to ask you about Libya -- Liberia, excuse me, but Benghazi. Two years after the attack on the U.S. consulate, this has become still a major issue with the right-wing and Obama-haters, that the conspiracy theorists about why we didn't rescue. Two years later, what assets do you have at your disposal right now? Review the bidding. If something like that happened again, what do you have available? 
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We have the FAST teams from the Marines. We have -- we have a commander's emergency response forces from the special forces. We have the special purpose MAGTF crisis response that's up in Moron, Spain. And then we have the East African response force in Djibouti.
We also have force-sharing agreements with European Command to be able to be much more responsive and quicker. And then we think we have developed an improved way to execute the indications and warnings with our interagency partners to ensure that we can move and reposition closer.
We have done that three times, for example, into Sigonella based on indications or warning. And then, of course, the reinforcement of the embassies, both by diplomatic security and the Marine security guards, as happened throughout the region, and we've done that in Libya. We've done that in Tunisia. We've done that in the Central African Republic and, of course, in South Sudan, between that time and now.
    The recent release of the House Intelligence Committee's report on Benghazi did little to settle the controversy surrounding the events of September 11, 2012.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Documents: Healthcare.gov Narrowly Avoided Repeat of Last Year's Debacle

    Less than four weeks before the launch of 2015 open enrollment for Obamacare, the government agency that runs Healthcare.gov suddenly realized the Marketplace site was heading for a repeat of last year's debacle. Documents show that on October 19, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of Health and Human Services (HHS), learned that a shortage of computer storage would "cause long outages and slow response times" leading to "a poor user experience." An emergency, no-bid contract for $1.8 million was quickly awarded to Terremark (a subsidiary of Verizon) for 100 terabytes of additional storage plus various computer licenses.
    Since the order was needed in such a hurry, the government decided to skip the usual bidding process mandated for such a contract, a practice that has not been uncommon in the development of Healthcare.gov to date. The Limited Source Justification that was required and subsequently approved internally at CMS spelled out the consequences of delay in stark terms:

    The documents do not disclose how long installation and configuration of the new equipment would take. However, shortly after the problem was discovered on October 19, Healthcare.gov was shutdown for "weekend maintenance" on a Wednesday, October 22. It remains unclear if this shutdown was related to the inadequacies CMS discovered, and CMS did not return an email at the time requesting comment.
    Terremark/Verizon is actually the outgoing contractor for Healthcare.gov. The government announced in June 2013 that Hewlett-Packard would be replacing Terremark/Verizon. However, launch problems and other delays led to numerous extensions on the Terremark/Verizon contract. Most recently, as THE WEEKLY STANDARD reported in September, CMS disclosed that the Terremark/Verizon system would continue to host Healthcare.gov through 2015 open enrollment with the new Hewlett-Packard system acting only as backup and as a "development environment".
    By most accounts, the current open enrollment period is proceeding with few of the problems experienced in the fall of 2013. CMS has undergone some reorganization in the past year, but at least some of the steps spelled out by former HHS director Kathleen Sebelius are still unfulfilled. In a December 2013 press appearance, Sebelius announced her intention to create a Chief Risk Officer position at CMS to, in part, oversee future IT (information technology) planning and purchases such as the one described above and prevent unpleasant surprises. However, the position is still vacant and both CMS and HHS have disregarded numerous inquiries about the status of Sebelius's commitment.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Biden's Hotel Bill for Turkey Visit: $625K

    Vice President Joe Biden just returned Sunday from a three-nation trip that concluded with a 48 hour visit to Turkey. The vice president, his wife, and his entourage arrived in Turkey via Ukraine Friday evening around 7:30 local time for meetings with President Erdogan  and other government officials. Biden departed for Washington, DC Sunday after meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The stay in Turkey alone racked up a hotel bill of approximately $624,734.
    The notice of the hotel contract was posted online uncharacteristically quickly, appearing on the very day of Biden's departure from Turkey. The documents called for 200 rooms and one large conference room at the Hilton Harbiye in Istanbul:

    Numerous other hotels were considered but not deemed suitable due to various reasons including lack of sufficient rooms, distance from planned events, and even ongoing renovations at one facility.
    Documents related to lodging for the the Moroccan and Ukrainian legs of Biden's trip have not yet been posted.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Monday, November 24, 2014

State Dept. Spends $541K on 'Arab' Opinion Polls Overseas

    The U.S. State Department recently awarded a contract worth $541,250 to a foreign research firm to conduct public opinion surveys as part of an "Arab omnibus study" in at least eight foreign countries beginning this month. Significant portions of the justification documents were redacted, including the name of the firm awarded the contract (additionally, one entire page of the document is blacked out.) According to the documents, the award was a "sole source" contract as market research found that no US or other foreign firm could handle the assignment at a competitive cost.
    The surveys are to include 1,000 adults and will be conducted in three waves. The first two will include six countries in November 2014 and April 2015, and the third will cover eight countries in July-August 2015. The survey results are to include twenty unique data sets. The documents do not details the nature of the questions to be asked, and the state department did not respond to an inquiry about the questions nor even about the countries where the surveys are to be conducted.
    Although the state department has not disclosed the exact nature or location of the studies, testimony given by Jeffrey D. Feltman, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, to a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee in 2011 includes this passage that appears to mirror the type of survey revealed in the above contract:
The continuous coverage of the Assad regime’s brutality in the pan-Arab media has decimated Assad’s standing on the Arab street. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute suggests that Assad has become a pariah in the Arab world. The poll, conducted in early October surveyed over 4,000 Arabs in six countries. Just three years ago, a region-wide poll of the same six countries asked respondents to name a leader, not from their own country, that they most respected. Bashar al Assad scored higher than any other Arab head of state. Today, however, the overwhelming majority of Arabs side with those Syrians demonstrating against the government (with support for them ranging from 83% in Morocco to 100% in Jordan). When asked whether Bashar al Assad can continue to govern, the highest affirmative ratings he receives are a mere 15% in Morocco and 14% in Egypt, with the rest in low single digits.
    The Arab American Institute (AAI) poll cited by Feltman was conducted by AAI President James Zogby, who is also the managing director of Zogby Research Services that specializes in polling in the Arab world. (James Zogby is the brother of well known US pollster John Zogby.) As previously mentioned, however, the documents accompanying the recently awarded contract have been carefully scrubbed to remove any mention of the contract winner, as well as the reasons that the winning firm was selected to the exclusion of all others, as these excerpts show:

    It is unclear if the state department played any role in previous surveys or if this contract represents the department's first foray into direct commissioning of polling in the Arab world. A search of the government contracting website fbo.gov did not turn up any comparable contracts in the past. An email to Zogby Research Services seeking comment was not returned.
    The recent coalition bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Obama administration's continued opposition to Bashar al-Assad's rule in Syria seem to be compelling reasons for the state department's continued interest in attitudes of the local populations. Given that Arab attitudes towards the US and President Obama quickly plummeted after initial positive reactions after the president's 2008 election, the administration may wish to keep closer tabs on how US policies are impacting attitudes towards the United States in the Arab world. With only two years remaining in his second term, President Obama has relatively little time to recapture the promise for healing and reconciliation that some saw in his 2009 Cairo speech. Five years later, that hope seems as elusive as ever.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

'Sheriff Biden' Versus The Weed Agency

    In a 2011 blog post titled There's a New Sheriff in Town, the White House announced that Vice President Joe Biden was spearheading a new "effort to root out wasteful spending at every agency and department in the Federal Government" called the Campaign to Cut Waste. As if to emphasize the urgency of the situation, another post went up on the White House blog just fifty-six minutes later entitled TooManyWebsites.gov (a tongue-in-cheek title). Then-Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips singled out several websites on Sheriff Biden's most wanted list:
As the President points out in this video, our government doesn't need a website dedicated to foresters who play the fiddle. We also don’t need multiple sites dealing with invasive plants (here and here).  And I‘m pretty sure the website dedicated to the Centennial of Flight can come down... particularly since the Centennial was in 2003.
     Here's where reality runs smack into fiction, or vice versa. In 2014, National Review's Jim Geraghty released his novel The Weed Agency. His book chronicles the saga of the fictional USDA Agency of Invasive Species, a zombie-like government entity that refuses to quit. In a parallel with Geraghty's book that almost seems like a promotional stunt, the two real-life "invasive plant" websites showcased by the White House more than three years ago as examples of redundancy that we "don't need"... both still exist today (here and here, and pictured below):

    As you might imagine, Geraghty wasn't exactly caught flat-footed by this revelation.  When asked for comment, he responded:
Somehow I am less than stunned to see that bold promises about cutting waste have not been kept. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, like Bill Clinton and Al Gore before them, and Jimmy Carter before them, knew that a key part of the progressive agenda requires restoring people's faith in government, including its efficiency and effectiveness. Thus, they contend - and fool themselves into thinking -- they have some magic formula for getting large bureaucracies with many layers of middle management, widely dispersed accountability, and a culture of complacency - and turning them into cost-efficient well-oiled machines. The forces of the status quo nods, smiles and carries on as if nothing changed. The difference between the Right and the Left is that this drives us bonkers, while the Left eventually shrugs its shoulders and accepts it as part of the price of doing business, so to speak.
     The invasive plant websites were not the only ones to evade, at least initially, Biden's Campaign to Cut Waste. As Macon Phillips points out in his blog post, President Obama himself recorded a video in which he derided the notion that the federal government needed "a website dedicated to foresters who play the fiddle." Here's a screen capture of the website from the president's video:

    However, more than three years after President Obama's chiding video was recorded, the government was still paying for the "fiddlin' foresters" site. (The address to which the White House linked, "fiddllinforresters.gov", never actually existed; both "fiddllin" and "forresters" were spelled incorrectly in the url Phillips used.) As recently as May 2014, www.fiddlinforesters.us was still in place as this archived page shows:

    While visitors to the main address of the site were greeted with a message that the "site has been temporarily shut down," the whole site was actually still intact. A check on the domain registration for the site reveals an official Forest Service email address and phone number under contact information. The individual listed is none other than one of the original Fiddlin' Foresters, Jane Leche, who works as a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service. So while the website was finally shut down, the domain name remains registered even today.
     The final example in the TooManyWebsites.gov blog post was the Centennial of Flight website. This government-operated website celebrating the Wright Brothers' first flight did not go down without a fight, either. More than a year after Macon Phillips said he was "pretty sure the website... can come down," a cached version shows it was still hanging on in October 2012, though its days were numbered.
    However, even in this case, that's not the end of the story. The site was rescued by a non-profit organization and centennialofflight.gov was rechristened centennialofflight.net where the original content of the site is preserved and even updated. But, in fairness, at least it's no longer on the government's dime.
    Finally, Vice President Biden singled out one more website in the New Sheriff in Town blog post, noting that "your tax dollars pay for a website dedicated to the Desert Tortoise." That website indeed was shut down, though more than a year later the site was still active as a redirect... to the new tortoise site at majovedata.gov... which was also subsequently shut down. However, in true government fashion, the desert tortoise is by no means ignored. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency all have the desert tortoise well covered:

    Jim Geraghty has pointed out that his novel The Weed Agency debuted back in June at number eight on the Washington Post's Bestsellers list, it was categorized, ironically enough, under "Nonfiction/General". The government's real-world inability to even eliminate redundant websites certainly lends credence to the suggestion that the preternatural resilience of the Agency of Invasive Species portrayed in Geraghty's book is all too realistic.
    When launching the Campaign to Cut Waste in 2011, Vice President Joe Biden wrote, "So, folks, we’re changing the way your government does business (and spends your hard-earned tax dollars), and I think you’re going to like the results." As it turns out, the "folks" might not agree.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.