Thursday, October 30, 2014

Biden Campaigns for Iowa's Dem Senate Candidate Bruce Braley... in New York City

    Just five days out from election day and Vice President Joe Biden is again campaigning for Iowa's Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley -- but not in Iowa. Thursday afternoon, Biden heads to the 8th Floor in New York City according to the official White House schedule for a 6:00 PM event:

    The 8th Floor is a "private exhibition and event space established to promote cultural and philanthropic initiatives." There is a note on the organization's website that "the 8th Floor will be closed to the public on the 29th and 30th of October." It is not clear if Braley himself will be attending the event, but a search for the event on Braley's campaign website comes up empty:

    According to the White House schedule, the event will be closed to the press.

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

Customs and Border Protection Halts Background Checks Over Security Concerns

    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently suspended all background investigations on current and prospective Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees due to security concerns over Personally Identifiable Information (PII). At least five sole-source, no-bid contracts of "unusual and compelling urgency" totaling almost a half million dollars were awarded to various information technology vendors at the end of September.
    Although the justification documents for the contracts state that the awards were "not the result of a lack of planning," the contracts' sole-source, no-bid nature was justified because "[t]ime and urgency did not allow for soliciting multiple sources." CBP halted all background investigations until security upgrades are completed:

        The five upgrade contracts were awarded in ColoradoVirginiaIndianaMaryland, and New Mexico. According to the documents, the need for the upgrade is the result of "a requirement for increased security standards for background investigation contractors accessing Personally Identifiable Information." No source is cited for the "requirement for increased security standards":

    The BPA referenced in the document covers at least 47 transactions stretching back to 2009 totaling $53 million for background investigations for the CBP. Market research, usually a requirement for government contracts, was not done in the case of the security enhancements because, per the government documents, only the selected vendors can conduct the upgrades due to the systems' proprietary nature. Without the upgrades, use of the systems would have to be discontinued.
    It is not clear if the CBP has resumed background checks yet. An email to the CBP requesting an answer to that question and clarification on other issues has been acknowledged by a CBP media representative but a response to the inquiries has not yet been forthcoming.

UPDATE: Although KeyPoint Government Solutions is the vendor shown in the screenshots above, KeyPoint is only one of five vendors involved in the upgrades. The other four are Omniplex World Services Corp., CSC Systems & Solutions LLC, MSM Security Services LLC, and ADC LTD NM.

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Feds Spend $38K on Metric System Superhero Cartoons

    The American public has resisted the metric system for decades, but that has not discouraged the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) from sinking $37,950 into two more episodes of a "motion-comic" video series called "The League of SI Superheroes." (SI stands for International System of Units, the modern metric system.)
    According to the NIST, these "newest champions of measurement" have emerged "from their environmentally shielded headquarters around the globe," and "are dedicated to the fight against uncertainty, imprecision and inaccuracy and to improving the quality of our lives and the things we build." The first episode, posted on Youtube in May 2014, has drawn about 3,200 views in five months:

    The NIST intends the series to be used in middle schools, although Aloe Design, the company that designated produced the videos, says the target audience is a ninth graders. In keeping with the Obama administration's emphasis on STEM education, the NIST says the series "was designed to encourage students to learn about metric measurements as they consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. SI familiarity and fluency must be developed along the STEM career pipeline to prepare the future workers with essential measurement skills."
    The superheroes themselves, pictured here, include Meter Man, Ms. Ampere, Dr. Kelvin and four others:

    At about $38,000 for two episodes and 3,200 views so far on the pilot episode, the cost per view is about $6.00. The NIST assures viewers that the League of SI Superheroes hopes "to release another of their harrowing adventures to the public soon." It remains to be seen if the first installment will have educators and students tuning back in for sequels, giving the NIST a better return on taxpayer dollars down the road.

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Kerry: 'Hopeful That We Can Avoid ... Another Cold War' With Russia

    While some in Congress have warned that Russian involvement in Ukraine portends a "looming" new cold war, Obama administration officials have for the most part brushed off the comparison. The president himself said in July in response to a reporter's question regarding the Ukrainian situation, "No, it’s not a new Cold War." But in Germany for a remembrance of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed less sanguine about the outcome of the current conflict with Russia. While he did say that "we are very hopeful that we can avoid" a new Cold War, he left the door open to the possibility [emphasis added]:
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I wondered if I could ask: You’re here 25 years after the Berlin Wall came down. How confident are you that you can avoid a new Cold War growing over Ukraine? What are the prospects at the moment for the talks there? 
KERRY: ...On the subject of the Cold War, Frank and I talked about that last night and we actually talked about it with the kids this morning right over here by the wall. One of the kids asked us, “Do you think we’re going to be heading towards another Cold War?” And the question itself, frankly, is a question I wish I didn’t have to hear. None of us want another generation growing up with the foreboding sense of a Cold War. None of us want to see another generation see the resources and the efforts of nations diverted from building governments and societies and providing opportunity, and diverted into the mutual action and reaction that comes with a Cold War. 
So we are very, very hopeful – and that is why Germany and the United States and others have been engaged in such robust diplomacy – we are very hopeful that we can avoid that. And it’s certainly our primary mission to try to do so.
    As mentioned above, when directly asked about a new Cold War back in July, President Obama was unequivocal in his response:
Q    Is this a new Cold War, sir? 
THE PRESIDENT:  No, it’s not a new Cold War.  What it is, is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path.
    Earlier in the conflict as sanctions against Russia were being weighed, the president brought up the subject himself in remarks in a March press conference during a visit to Rome, saying that "we’re not looking at a possible return to the Cold War" with Russia:
None of [the snactions], to have a powerful impact on Russia, are going to have zero impact on us, because Russia is part of the world economy. This is part of the reason why I said yesterday we’re not looking at a possible return to the Cold War. The economies have changed, the politics have changed. Russia is not leading an ideological bloc that’s opposed to the world economy.
    The prior remarks the president referred to were made to a gathering of European Youth in Belgium on the day preceding his words in Rome [emphasis added]:
[T]he United States and our allies will continue to support the government of Ukraine as they chart a democratic course.  Together, we are going to provide a significant package of assistance that can help stabilize the Ukrainian economy, and meet the basic needs of the people.  Make no mistake:  Neither the United States, nor Europe has any interest in controlling Ukraine.  We have sent no troops there.  What we want is for the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, just like other free people around the world. 
Understand, as well, this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into.  After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.  The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.  In fact, for more than 60 years, we have come together in NATO -- not to claim other lands, but to keep nations free.  What we will do -- always -- is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies.  And in that promise we will never waver; NATO nations never stand alone.
    Kerry's full remarks in Germany, including video, are found here.

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

Healthcare.gov Down For 'Weekend' Scheduled Maintenance... On a Wednesday

    Healthcare.gov continues to prepare for open enrollment beginning on November 15, hoping to avoid a repeat of the disastrous launch in 2013. Apparently the preparations include extra "scheduled" maintenance. Wednesday morning, the site displays a message reading "The system isn’t available right now. We’re performing scheduled maintenance. Learn more." The message was posted on the site some time Tuesday evening:

    The notice links to a September 25 blog entry that explains, "We’re doing maintenance and upgrades to improve the site during certain time periods over the next few weekends."

    Attempts to log in are met with this screen:

    There was no reason given as to why the "scheduled maintenance" was taking place during the week rather than on weekends as planned. An email to the Department of Health and Human Services seeking an explanation has not been returned.

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Healthcare.gov to Returning Obamacare Customers: 'We’ll TRY To Enroll You Automatically'

    People who signed up for health insurance through Healthcare.gov in 2013 might have deja vu this November. New information posted on the website indicates that everyone, new or returning customers, choosing a new plan or sticking with the current one, must complete five steps to get or maintain coverage for 2015. A new blog post on the site says:
To stay covered through the Marketplace for 2015, you’ll need to follow 5 Steps during Open Enrollment...You’ll need to complete all 5 Steps to staying covered in the Health Insurance Marketplace (PDF) to finish enrolling in a health plan, even if you want to stay in the same plan.
Returning customers will have one month (November 15 to December 15) to continue coverage beginning January 1, 2015. The five steps are:
  1. Review your current plan’s 2015 health coverage and costs.
  2. Update your Marketplace application, starting November 15.
  3. Compare the health plans available to you in 2015.
  4. Choose the plan that best meets your needs.
  5. Enroll in the health plan you want for 2015 coverage, by December 15, 2014.
What happens if a customer does not finished all five steps by December? A flyer produced by Healthcare.gov says, " If you don’t finish all of the steps by December 15, we’ll try to enroll you automatically so you stay covered.  But this coverage might not be your best option for 2015 and you could miss out on cost savings."

    The flyer does not explain exactly what will happen if Healthcare.gov "tries" and fails, or which steps, if left incomplete, will prevent the automatic enrollment from succeeding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Billgate: President Obama and His Unpaid Bills [Updated]

    During various showdowns with Congress over the past few years (government shutdown, debt ceiling, sequester,) President Obama has declared that we've got to "pay our bills on time." Twice in the past week, President Obama has raised the issue of unpaid bills - but not those of the United States - his own personal bills.

President Obama, executive order signing , October 17, 2014:
I went to a restaurant up in New York when I was there during the General Assembly, and my credit card was rejected... And I was trying to explain to the waitress, no, I really think that I’ve been paying my bills.
 President Obama, Democratic fundraiser, October 20, 2014:
One of the nice things about being home is actually that it's a little bit like a time capsule. Because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some unpaid bills (laughter) -- I think eventually they got paid -- but they're sort of stacked up. And messages, newspapers and all kinds of stuff.
    As Daniel Halper noted, the White House did not include the president's remarks about the unpaid bills in the official transcript of the October 20 remarks, but a White House pool reporter caught the omission.
    As they say in Washington, it's the cover up that gets you...


After initially posting a transcript that completely omitted the "unpaid bills" remark...

...the White House transcript was updated to include "-- (inaudible) --":

Apparently the pool reporters' hearing is superior to that of the White House transcriptionist. Or there was a gap in the tape.

UPDATE 2: Aha! So there WAS an issue with the tape...