Friday, May 31, 2013

State Dept. Report Lists 6 Terror Attacks Last Year in Benghazi Before 9/11 Attack

    The State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism 2012 survey on Thursday.  The section on the Middle East and North Africa includes a report on incidents in Libya.  All told, there were eleven terrorism-related incidents in Libya prior to the 9/11 attacks in Benghazi that took the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods.  Six of those eleven incidents took place in Benghazi:
• On May 22, assailants launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s building in Benghazi. The violent Islamist extremist group Brigades of Captive Omar Abdul Rahman claimed responsibility for the attack. The ICRC evacuated Benghazi in mid-July. 
• On June 6, violent extremists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi with an improvised explosive device (IED). The group claimed that the attack was in retaliation for the assassination of Abu-Yahya al-Libi, the second highest ranking leader of al-Qa’ida. 
• On June 11, a convoy carrying the British Ambassador to Libya was attacked in Benghazi
• In August, there was a series of attacks against security personnel and facilities, including the bombing of the Benghazi military intelligence offices on August 1...
• On August 10, Army General Hadiya al-Feitouri was assassinated in Benghazi
• On August 20, a car belonging to an Egyptian diplomat was blown up near his home in Benghazi
     The report then lists the most infamous attack as well:
• On September 11, terrorists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three staff members.
    Also noted are five terrorism-related incidents in Benghazi following the 9/11 attacks.

Note: The article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

President Obama's Student Loan Rate Proposal Saves Average Borrower 25¢ Per Day

    Reprising the Don't Double My Rate theme used during the 2012 presidential campaign, the White House is pushing a plan by President Obama this week to prevent interest rates on some student loans from doubling effective July 1.  However, the savings for most borrowers is rather less significant than might appear at first glance.  The White House uses the example of an incoming freshman who will save $4,000 under the president's plan:
If Congress fails to act, college will be further out of reach for millions of students and families.  In fact, an incoming freshman who borrows $27,000 over the next four years -- a typical debt incurred by today’s college graduates – is projected to pay over $4,000 dollars more over the life of their loans without the President’s proposal.
    However, the chart included with the plan shows that the average savings for student loan borrowers is actually $1,126.  Despite tweets from the White House that seem to suggest the savings are annual ("Last year, President Obama helped students save an average of $1,000 on their college loans"), the footnote to the chart explains that the savings assumes the borrower "repays the loans over the expected period of 12 years."  A savings of $1,126 over twelve years is $94 per year, or about 25¢ a day.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Note: Here's a post from last year's Don't Double My Rate campaign when the Obama administration used the same playbook, and Congress eventually signed on.

WH: Federal Contractor Executive Pay Higher than President Obama's Salary Is 'Excessive,' Wasteful

    On Thursday, the White House's Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy, Joe Jordan, wrote on the White House blog about a legislative initiative that President Obama is sending to Congress next week "to stop excessive payments to Federal contractors."  Jordan continues:
The proposal builds on previous Administration proposals and language included in the President’s Budget, and marks another important step in our ongoing effort to buy smarter and end wasteful, fiscally imprudent contract spending.
Under current law, contractors that are paid based on their incurred costs (which represents about one-third of current contract spending) may demand reimbursement for executive salaries, bonuses and other compensation up to the level of the Nation’s top private sector CEOs and other senior executives. This taxpayer reimbursement level has skyrocketed by more than 300 percent since the law was enacted in the mid-1990s.
    The president believes excessive compensation for executives is unnecessarily driving up costs for the government.  What is excessive?  Apparently, anything more than the president himself makes [emphasis added]:
The Administration’s proposal calls on Congress to abolish the current formula and instead tie the reimbursement cap to the President’s salary and apply it across-the-board to all defense and civilian cost-reimbursement contracts. Tying the cap to the President’s salary provides a reasonable level of compensation for high value Federal contractors while ensuring taxpayers are not saddled with paying excessive compensation costs. 
    The White House is quick to point out that there is no actual cap being instituted for private sector firms:
And to be clear, nothing in the proposal limits the amount contractors pay their executives. The cap only limits how much the government will reimburse the contractors for the services of those executives. 
    Despite the caveat, as the president likes to say, let us be clear.  Firms that pay their executives more than the president makes are "[saddling] taxpayers ... with paying excessive compensation costs."  IN case there was any doubt, Jordan closes with this:
We hope that this Congress, unlike the last one, will heed the urgent call to restore fiscal responsibility before additional taxpayer dollars that could be used to fund critical agency mission work are wasted unnecessarily to pay for costly overhead in the form of excessive contractor compensation.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Obama Signs Fundraising Email for 'Non-Partisan' Organizing for Action

    Today, President Obama personally became re-involved in his former campaign organization's new incarnation Organizing for Action.  On the same day he is scheduled to appear at two DCCC fundraisers in Chicago, the president of the United States sent the following email to OFA's mailing list, signed "Barack":
Friend --
This is an experiment.
Organizing for Action isn't like any other organization. It's based in Chicago, not Washington, and its task is to help restore the balance of power in government.
We've seen that a bottom-up movement of passionate people can still win an election in the era of big campaign spending. That's not what this is about.
Organizing for Action is about discovering whether ordinary people can reclaim the process of legislating from special-interest groups and lobbyists, and help give your friends and neighbors the voice they deserve in Washington.
This project needs your support -- I'm counting on you to be there for the fights ahead.
Say you're in today:
Let's finish what we started.
    The link takes recipients to an email sign up page, after which visitors are invited to donate up to $1,000 to Organizing for Action. OFA, a 504(c)(4) non-profit, has cast itself as a non-partisan advocacy group.

    Although the president and first lady were both heavily involved in OFA's re-launch shortly after President Obama's inauguration in January, more recently OFA has downplayed the president's role in the continuing mission of the group's effort to support his agenda.  Nevertheless, OFA has retained the barackoabam.com website address and @BarackObama Twitter account with its 32 million followers.  OFA's new Twitter account, @OFA, has been rather less successful signing up followers.  It currently stands at 288,000.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Shouting "Pedophile" in a Crowded Theater

    Movies in general and the Cannes Film Festival in particular have been in a downward spiral for decades.  This year's winner at the French film festival, which I will refrain from describing in detail, is being praised in the film community as not only great art, but as delivering an important social message as well.  Here's the description of the film, Blue is the Warmest Color, from the (extremely sanitized) Reuters article:
"La Vie d'Adele" is an emotional tale of love and sexuality centred on 15-year-old Adele (Exarchopoulos) and her lover Emma (Seydoux) that follows the course of their tumultuous relationship.
    However, it is not simply the hardcore pornography that makes this year's winner particularly noteworthy.  Hollywood has been breathing down Larry Flynt's neck for years.  It's that a film glorifying pedophilia is not only being honored with the top prize at Cannes, but is also considered a great celluloid ambassador on behalf of same-sex marriage by the festival director Thierry Fremaux. And, arguably the most respected director in America, Steven Spielberg, who led the Cannes jury who selected the winner, was obviously very pleased with the movie also:
"I think it will get a lot of play ... I think this film carries a very strong message, a very positive message," Spielberg told journalists. "It was the perfect choice between those two actresses and this incredible very sensitive and observant filmmaker." 
Spielberg said he supported same-sex marriage, but downplayed any suggestion the award was to promote this cause. 
Festival director Thierry Fremaux said the film was timely, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched in Paris on Sunday to protest France's recent legalization of same-sex marriage. 
"Everyone who is against same-sex marriage or love between two people of the same sex must see the film," he told Reuters.
     Graphic lesbian pedophilia is a great advertisement for same-sex marriage?  The director is "incredible very sensitive and observant"?  How about criminal? How about morally bankrupt? This is art?  This is praiseworthy?  Was there no one willing to stand up and cry out,"The emperor has no clothes!"  Of course, in the current climate, the crowd at Cannes might see that as a plus.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Inspector General Finds 5% Compliance Rate With Regulations on Certain IRS Contracts

    The Internal Revenue Service has come under heavy criticism of both Republicans and Democrats in recent days after a Treasury Inspector General's report detailing "inappropriate criteria" used to identify certain applications of mainly conservative organizations for special review resulting in long delays in processing and invasive inquiries.  The acting commissioner of the IRS himself admitted to "horrible customer service" and "foolish mistakes."  While the harshest criticism came from the GOP, even Democratic members of Congress found the IRS practices completely unacceptable.  But another report issued by the Treasury Inspector General just two weeks earlier found that the vetting process for tax-exempt organizations was not the only flawed aspect of the agency's practices.
    The report was issued on April 30, 2013, and was titled "Cost-Reimbursement Contracts  
Did Not Fully Comply With Federal Acquisition Regulation [FAR] Revisions."  The findings make the title seem like an understatement:
The IRS did not comply with the majority of  the new FAR requirements for 46 of the 49 cost-reimbursement contracts entered into between March 17, 2011, and June 30, 2012, totaling nearly $47 million. 
    None of the three contracts that complied with some of the Acquisition Planning Requirements were in full compliance.  With a list of 10 criteria and 49 contracts, there are a possible 490 pass/fail marks.  As the chart below shows, there were only 13 passing marks out of 490 for a compliance rate under 3%.

    When the two other areas audited are also included (Contracting Officer Responsibilities and Adequacy of Contractor Accounting System Requirements, see Figure 2 and Figure 3 in report,) there were 46 passing marks out of 882 for a compliance rate of about 5%.

    The Background section of the report explains what cost-reimbursements contracts are and why they require special handling [emphasis added]:
Certain contract types, such as cost-reimbursement contracts, pose risks of inefficiency and waste to the Federal Government because they provide no direct incentive for contractors to control costs.  Under cost-reimbursement contracts, contractors are paid based on the incurrence of allowable costs, as opposed to the delivery of a completed product or service.  
    The IG report found that although Congress had passed legislation in 2008 to address high-risk contract awards, the IRS did not follow the act or the related Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR.)  In fact, the IRS simply ignored the new regulations:
The IRS did not issue internal procurement policy guidance to implement the FAR revisions that were required by the Act.  Although the revised FAR became effective on March 17, 2011, the IRS has not issued any procurement policies and procedures to implement recent FAR changes for cost-reimbursement contracts.  Instead, the IRS has used the prior FAR and its existing internal procurement policies and procedures[.] [B]ecause no guidance had been provided, the COs who we interviewed were not aware of revisions to the FAR required by the Act as they related to documentation requirements in the contract file.  One CO stated there was no communication from the Office of Procurement regarding any FAR revisions on the subject of cost-reimbursement contract documentation requirements.  
     The IRS concurred with the findings in the report and has begun to develop and circulate procedures to address the shortcomings.  But along with testimony from IRS administrators this week blaming at least some of the problems at the IRS on overwork and understaffing, this report adds legitimacy to the concern about adding the requirements of enforcing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) beginning in 2014.  The agency will likely still be getting its house in order for its current responsibilities while taking on the additional ACA workload.  The Inspector General seems likely to have his work cut out for him for years to come.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Another IRS Scandal: Two ‘Sentenced for Unemployment Insurance Fraud’

    Congressional hearings over the last two weeks have been filled with stories of misconduct due to incompetence and inexperience among certain IRS employees.  Both Republicans and Democrats have leveled the accusations, and Internal Revenue officials testifying before Congress have admitted as much.  At the same time, all parties have stressed that the vast majority of IRS employees are hard-working, competent, and honest civil servants.

    This story isn't about them either.

    The Indiana Department of Workforce Development just announced the sentencing of two former IRS employees for unemployment insurance fraud.  Seven other former IRS employees have already been convicted and sentenced as a result of the investigation:

INDIANAPOLIS  – Over the past week two former United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees have been sentenced for unemployment insurance fraud. Carmen Brown, also known as Carmen Smith, 41, of Indianapolis, and Terri Wardell, 48, of Fishers, both pled guilty to unemployment insurance fraud. The two filed for and received unemployment insurance benefits while working full-time for the IRS. Smith illegally received nearly $14,000 in benefits. Wardell fraudulently collected over $18,000... 
“It does not matter who you are or who you work for, we work diligently to make sure those who take funds they are not eligible for, are held accountable”, said Scott B. Sanders, Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. “These funds are for Hoosiers truly in need and we take our job safeguarding these funds very seriously.” 
    The IRS detected the original signs of fraud and reported the information to the DWD who then pursued the investigation resulting in these convictions.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

GAO: ‘Visa Overstay’ Backlog at DHS Remains Over One Million

    Visa overstays by visitors to the United States received attention recently amid reports that some students from Kazakhstan linked to the Boston bombing suspects remained in the U.S. despite invalid or expired student visas.  Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office issued a report of preliminary finding on the progress the Department of Homeland Security has made in its efforts to reduce the backlog of such visa issues.  Although almost 863,000 records were "closed" in the last two years, the backlog of potential overstays remains at more than one million [emphasis added]:
In the summer of 2011, DHS reviewed the 1.6 million potential overstay records. As a result, DHS closed about 863,000 records and removed them from the backlog. Since that time, DHS has continued to review all potential overstay records for national security and public safety concerns. However, as of April 2013, DHS continues to maintain more than 1 million unmatched arrival records in ADIS. GAO's preliminary analysis identified nonimmigrants traveling to the United States on a tourist visa constitute 44 percent of unmatched arrival records, while tourists admitted under a visa waiver constitute 43 percent. The remaining records include various types of other nonimmigrants, such as those traveling on temporary worker visas.
    The report does note a change implemented since the Boston bombing related specifically to student visas:
Beginning in April 2013, ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) began automatically sending data to ADIS on a daily basis, allowing ADIS to review SEVIS records against departure records and determine whether student visa holders who have ended their course of study departed in accordance with the terms of their stay. Prior to this date, DHS manually transferred data from SEVIS to ADIS on a weekly basis. According to DHS officials, these exchanges were unreliable because they did not consistently include all SEVIS data—particularly data on “no show” students who failed to begin their approved course of study within 30 days of being admitted into the United States.
    DHS has yet to comply with federal law requiring reporting of visa overstays, but the GAO notes that Janet Napolitano has said that DHS intends to begin such reporting by the end of the year:
Federal law requires DHS to report overstay estimates, but DHS or its predecessors have not regularly done so since 1994. In September 2008, GAO reported on limitations in overstay data that affect the reliability of overstay rates. In April 2011, GAO reported that DHS officials said that they have not reported overstay rates because DHS has not had sufficient confidence in the quality of its overstay data and that, as a result, DHS could not reliably report overstay rates. In February 2013, the Secretary of Homeland Security testified that DHS plans to report overstay rates by December 2013.

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

For $221k, July 4th Fireworks Show on National Mall in Washington Will Go On

    The show will go on.  Sequestration may have cost Washington D.C. tourists a chance to tour the White House, but the Independence Day fireworks will go off as planned.  A contract was awarded today to Garden State Fireworks of Millington, NJ for $221,819.77.  The listing for bids on the typically business-like fbo.gov website contained this somewhat colorful solicitation:
Provide supervision, labor, materials, supplies and equipment necessary to present an innovative, bounteous, dynamic and attractive fireworks display for Independence Day on the Grounds of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C. on July 4, 2013.
    The National Park Service that puts on the fireworks show each year offers several suggestions for enjoying the show which is scheduled to begin at 9:10 on the evening of the 4th:
  • Consider wearing hearing protection. These fireworks are BIG and LOUD.
  • Consider wearing eye protection to protect yourself from falling debris.
  • Consider not bringing pets.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

NARAL Uses Kermit Gosnell's Photo in Pro-Abortion Push

    Via J.D. Mullane, the Philadelphia-area reporter who did much of the work exposing the Kermit Gosnell murder trial to much of the nation:  A May 16th blog post on the NARAL Pro-Choice America website included this graphic:

    Incredibly, in describing the horrors of Gosnell, not once does NARAL even allude to the babies he killed.  The post refers to "[a]ll the women whose lives were affected" and "what Gosnell inflicted on women." It reads in part:
This week, a jury returned a guilty verdict in the case against Kermit Gosnell. 
This man will pay the price for the horrible acts he committed. All the women whose lives were affected deserve at least this much. 
The Gosnell tragedy should serve as a wakeup call that we need to work even harder to ensure that all women have access to safe and legal abortion care. We can't let anti-choice politicians use the Gosnell trial to make it even more difficult for women to access abortion care.
    Planned Parenthood issued a similar yet shorter statement on the Gosnell verdict:
  “The jury has punished Kermit Gosnell for his appalling crimes. This verdict will ensure that no woman is victimized by Kermit Gosnell ever again. 
“This case has made clear that we must have and enforce laws that protect access to safe and legal abortion, and we must reject misguided laws that would limit women's options and force them to seek treatment from criminals like Kermit Gosnell.”
    Planned Parenthood made no reference to Gosnell's baby-killing convictions either.

U.S. Dedicates New $133M "Green" Embassy in Burundi

    Many Americans might be hard pressed to pick out Burundi on a map, but (as Daniel Halper noted at The Weekly Standard) the United States just dedicted a brand new "green" embassy complex in the city of Kigobe in the African nation.   The State Department press release calls the embassy complex "an important symbol of America’s commitment to an enduring friendship with the Republic of Burundi."  Two Washington D.C. architectural firms, Perkins + Will and Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, designed the buildings and Caddell Construction of Montgomery, Alabama did the construction.  A significant part of the announcement touts the green credentials of the new embassy compound, pictured below:
The new facility incorporates numerous sustainable features to reduce operating costs and conserve resources, most notably an extensive system of over 950 photovoltaic panels; a white “cool” roof and the use of architectural shading of the building to reduce solar heat gain and energy cooling costs; and on-site treatment of wastewater that is reused for irrigation. An estimated 95% of construction waste was diverted from landfills for reuse by the local community. The facility has been registered with the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) certification.

    While the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with the country for 40 years, the CIA Factbook entry for Burundi spells out its troubled past and challenged for the future:
Burundi's first democratically elected president was assassinated in October 1993 after only 100 days in office, triggering widespread ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi factions. More than 200,000 Burundians perished during the conflict that spanned almost a dozen years. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians were internally displaced or became refugees in neighboring countries. An internationally brokered power-sharing agreement between the Tutsi-dominated government and the Hutu rebels in 2003 paved the way for a transition process that led to an integrated defense force, established a new constitution in 2005, and elected a majority Hutu government in 2005. The government of President Pierre NKURUNZIZA, who was reelected in 2010, continues to face many political and economic challenges.
    Although the embassy complex was just dedicated this week, the new location actually opened for business in October 2012.  The ambassador to Burundi is Dawn M. Liberi, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, who was nominated for the position in July 2012 and confirmed by the Senate in October.  Most recently, Ms. Liberi had functioned as the Senior Assistance Coordinator at U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya in 2012.

Monday, May 20, 2013

IRS in Its Own Words: "Disburse Social Benefits to Target Populations"

    The Internal Revenue Service has been in the headlines for more than a week now as details of its targeting of conservative non-profits have trickled out.  Senate hearings this week (via Politico) on Apple's tax strategies have indirectly referenced the IRS as well as Democrats decried the huge tech company's efforts to avoid turning over any more of its money than necessary to Uncle Sam's tax collector.  But a 2011 Annual Report from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) of the IRS suggests that Apple is simply following the counsel that the TAS offers.
    The section of the report in question is called Introduction to Diversity Issues: The IRS Should Do More to Accommodate Changing Taxpayer Demographics.  The document begins with some history of the IRS and its mission:
When the federal individual income tax was enacted in 1913, it applied to high-income taxpayers.  At that time, the predecessor to the IRS began as a hands-on collector of various excise and other taxes.  In 1942, Congress enacted the “greatest tax bill in american history” largely to fund the U.S. effort in World War II, expanding the income tax to the middle class.  At this juncture, the Treasury made an historic effort to popularize the income tax, and employed tactics such as famously deploying the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck as a mascot of the public fisc.  Since then, however, the IRS has not made a parallel effort to popularize the income tax to an increasingly diverse population.
    It is almost unimaginable that the IRS could even contemplate how it might "popularize the income tax", and yet the report proceeds to, if not popularize the income tax itself, attempt to revive the image of the IRS in the eyes of an "increasingly diverse population."  One of the recommendations is titled "Conduct Targeted Outreach to Increase Take-up Rate for Special Tax Provisions." [emphasis added]
Develop a pilot program to better communicate about special tax beneits in which participation is key, e.g., health-care provisions under the patient protection and affordable care act of 2010.  While the traditional mission of the IRS was to collect tax, now the IRS administers several special tax breaks that effectively disburse social benefits to target populations (e.g., small businesses or low income taxpayers).  A measure of success for such programs is their take-up rate, which means that the IRS must not only counsel compliance with the tax law but also encourage participation by taxpayers, many of whom may not otherwise have to file returns.
    This admission of the IRS's role in the government's social engineering is focused on low income taxpayers and small businesses, and yet the high-income taxpayers, such as Apple, would seem to have just as much right to take advantage of what the tax code has to offer as the former groups.  As the Politico article noted, "lawmakers behind the inquiry did not describe Apple’s tax conduct as illegal."  Apple says that "the company “pays all its required taxes, both in this country and abroad.” And Apple stressed it does not use “tax gimmicks.”"
    It certainly speaks to the social engineering aspirations of those in Congress who are critical of companies that pump billions of dollars into the economy and provide thousands of jobs for using tax law to keep as much of their own money as possible while on the other hand using the IRS to "disburse social benefits to target populations."  Certainly both Republicans and Democrats have used the tax code over the years for various social engineering schemes, or at the very least have shaped the tax code to influence certain behaviors.  And with the discovery of the targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny, apparently the IRS itself has an agenda of its own.
    The income tax marks its centennial this year.  While through the 1940s, the "traditional mission of the IRS was to collect tax," these two episodes are just further examples of how intrusive government has become thanks to the 16th Amendment.  Further Congressional hearings, investigations and reforms in the coming months may reveal if there is hope for reform, or if the genie is out of the bottle for good.

Veterans Administration Spends $378K on Signs for Civil War-Era Cemeteries

    Last week, a contract totaling more than $378,000 was awarded to develop and manufacture signs for Civil War-era cemeteries, including "18 unique interpretive signs for Confederate lots."  The contract was awarded by Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

    The "interpretive signs" provide context and analysis of the information presented as opposed to strictly informational or directional signs.

    In the original solicitation for bids, the project is described this way:
The scope of work for this project includes, but is not limited to providing all labor, material and design services needed to analyze and distill into one to three interpretive signs to be placed in 79 Civil War-era National Cemeteries and 24 other NCA-managed cemeteries. The purpose of this contract is to procure one generic interpretive sign for 79 National Cemeteries and 18 unique interpretive signs for Confederate lots; with up to 90 unique interpretive signs for the same National Cemeteries. The content of generic interpretive signs to be produced has been developed in draft by NCA; the content for the other signage to be produced will require research, development and design by the contractor.
    Care of the cemeteries falls under the National Cemetery Administration, which is a division of the VA.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) largely escaped the automatic budget cuts, widely known as sequestration, that hit in March. As the Washington Post reported at the time, a bipartisan consensus spared the VA's $140 billion budget from the legislation.

    The new signage may relate to the Civil War Sesquicentennial, which runs from 2011 through 2015.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

CBO on ObamaCare: Uninsured Remain Above 30 Million Through 2023

    When the most recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the Affordable Care Act came out last week, most media outlets, particularly conservative ones like the Washington Examiner, focused on the doubling of the costs of the program since it was first scored in 2010.  Philip Klein writes:
When President Obama was selling his health care legislation to Congress, he declared that “the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over 10 years.” But with the law’s major provisions set to kick in next year, a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office projects that the law will cost double that, or $1.8 trillion. 
    While the cost increase is certainly noteworthy and was predicted by the opponents of the legislation, the CBO report includes a second aspect of the effects of ObamaCare, or perhaps more appropriately the lack of effect.  Besides the promise that ObamaCare would help control costs, the elimination of barriers to obtaining health insurance to the current uninsured was one of its largest selling points.  It is interesting to note then that under CBO projections, the number of uninsured in the country never drops below 30 million.  Under the heading "Uninsured Under the Affordable Care Act", here are the projections for next decade for "Number of Uninsured Nonelderly People":
2013 - 55,000,000
2014 - 44,000,000
2015 - 37,000,000
2016 - 31,000,000
2017 - 30,000,000
2018 - 30,000,000
2019 - 30,000,000
2020 - 30,000,000
2021 - 31,000,000
2022 - 31,000,000
2023 - 31,000,000
    Also according to CBO projections, this level of uninsured persons persists despite the increase of those on Medicaid and CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) from 36,000,000 in 2013 to 47,000,000 in 2023.  Not even the heavily subsidized exchanges will apparently be able to shrink the uninsured population. By 2023, the number of subsidized exchange enrollees is projected at 20,000,000 with an average subsidy of $7,900 for a total of $158 billion.
    It is unclear from the CBO report exactly who these continued uninsured are and how they will obtain healthcare.  But assuming the CBO's projections are accurate, it seems fair to speculate that when the number of uninsured plateaus at 30,000,000 for several years or even begins to increase again, calls will begin afresh for healthcare reform that will provide insurance to those chronically uninsured.  And if ObamaCare's detractors are correct that the law will not lower costs and improve healthcare in the ways promised, the same reasons may be resurrected to push for ObamaCare II: the uninsured clogging emergency rooms, neglecting preventive care, and driving up costs for the rest who are "playing by the rules."
    The reviews coming in so far on ObamaCare are decidedly mixed, and full implementation is still seven months off.  It will be years before the story plays out.  If the Democrats still control the White House after 2016, those uninsured will be on display as 30,000,000 reasons to "finish what we started."  And as everyone knows, the sequel is never as good as the original.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Commerce Department: $3.4M "Disaster Recovery" Grant to School for Chefs

    The Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration announced on Monday the awarding of $7.8 million in grants to "Support Disaster Recovery" in several states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank said the money was for:
...economic recovery in Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New York, and the U.S. Virgin Islands following natural disasters in 2011.
“The Obama administration is committed to helping communities impacted by natural disasters rebound and rebuild stronger than ever,” said Acting Secretary Blank. “The EDA grants announced today will strengthen local capacities in Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New York, and the U.S. Virgin Islands by rebuilding their infrastructure, supporting local industry, creating jobs, and enhancing their ability to respond to future disasters.”
    Some of the projects included the rehabilitation of a pumping station in Stamford, CT; a new wastewater treatment plant in Savannah, IL; and a $2 million revolving loan fund for small to medium enterprises in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  However, more than one-third of the money is being directed to a school for chefs in Hyde Park, NY.  The press release explains:
In New York, a $3.4 million EDA grant to the Culinary Institute of America in  Hyde Park, New York, will support the Hudson Valley Food and Beverage Alliance, which will operate a new training facility for agribusinesses located in the Hudson Valley. The region’s agriculture-based economy suffered severe damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. According to grantee estimates, the new facility will generate up to $5.1 million in new revenue in the Hudson Valley and will support 32 full-time jobs.
    The grant is reminiscent of the projects funded by the 2009 stimulus bill from the president's first term, but the Commerce Department notes that funds are "part of a $200 million appropriation made by Congress to EDA to help communities that received a major disaster designation in fiscal year 2011 with long-term economic recovery and infrastructure support."  The press release did not indicate if the $5.1 million in revenue is an annual estimate, nor did it indicate how long those 32 full-time jobs would be supported.  However, for the northeast region of the country still reeling from monster storm Sandy's hit in October 2012, a $3.4 million grant to a culinary school (tuition is about $27,000/year) might seem better directed towards more concrete infrastructure restoration.

AG Holder's Non-Answer on Warrants for Email

    At a Congressional hearing on May 15, Attorney General Eric Holder faced some rather hostile questions from lawmakers regarding recent Obama administration scandals, such as the IRS targeting of conservative non-profits, the Justice Department acquisition of Associated Press phone records, and Benghazi. However, about three hours into the hearing, a relatively friendly questioner, Susan DelBene (D-WA), inquired about a recent report from the ACLU concerning FBI documents that suggest that the FBI does not need a warrant to obtain access to at least some private emails.  The attorney general's answer was barely an answer at all, despite The Hill's assertion that "Holder backs warrant requirement for most email searches":
Attorney General Eric Holder said on Wednesday that the Justice Department will likely support legislation requiring law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant before accessing private online messages, such as emails or Facebook messages.
"It is something that I think the Department will support," Holder said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
He urged Congress to exempt "certain very limited circumstances" such as civil investigations.
"But the more general notion of having a warrant to obtain the content of communications from a service provider is something that we support," Holder said.
    However, The Hill's article actually reports Holder's answer to DelBene's follow up question.  Here is the full exchange, beginning with DelBene's original question regarding obtaining certain emails without a warrant:

    Perhaps The Hill was simply being kind to the attorney general by not printing his initial answer given the lack of coherence.  Whatever enthusiasm Mr. Holder showed for updating legislation, he was clearly not anxious to surrender the freedom the FBI and the Justice Department currently assume the right to exercise.  This non-answer combined with the non-apology for the seizure of AP phone records cannot give privacy advocates a good feeling about this administration's view of government's limits on its investigative powers.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

White House: Million, Billion, Whatever

    The White House briefly confused millions and billions today in a tweet about the money seniors have saved on prescriptions due to ObamaCare:

    The tweet was deleted within minutes and replaced with the adjusted figure:
    Instead of the usual #ObamaCare hashtag, the White House used one with a more personal feel: #Obamacares.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Seeds of the Benghazi Talking Points

    Last week, the Benghazi talking points took center stage in the ongoing investigation of the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Libya.  Jay Carney came under intense questioning at Friday's White House press briefing as he struggled to justify the dozen iterations of talking points before Susan Rice used the final version for her now-infamous five Sunday talk show appearances on September 16, 2012.  However, a background briefing by the State Department four days before Rice's appearances provides the earliest extended look at the information used to prepare those talking points.
    On September 12, in the evening following the attacks, three unnamed Senior Administration* officials briefed journalists via teleconference on the rapidly developing story.  Although President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton had already made some public statements, this briefing contained far more detail than any previous remarks.  As the teleconference commenced, the most striking part about it was is the complete absence of any mention of "protests" or "demonstrations":
So let me give you a little bit of the chronology to the best of our knowledge. Again, the times are likely to change as it becomes a little bit more precise, but this is how we’ve been able to reconstruct what we have from yesterday.
At approximately 4 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time yesterday, which was about 10 p.m. in Libya, the compound where our office is in Benghazi began taking fire from unidentified Libyan extremists. By about 4:15, the attackers gained access to the compound and began firing into the main building, setting it on fire...
     Later in the briefing, a journalist asks a question about protests [emphasis added]:
QUESTION: ...[T]he larger question is, you didn’t talk at all about the protests. You started your timeline with that the firing began. Can you talk about the timeline of when the protests started, how that fit in with it, and your sense of whether or not the protestors and the assailants were the same?...
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: ...With regard to the protests – I assume you’re not talking about protests in Cairo, are you? You’re talking about protests in Benghazi?... We frankly don’t have a full picture of what may have been going on outside of the compound walls before the firing began. So I really just don’t have any specifics on that at the moment. I apologize.
    It is apparent that the idea of protests at Benghazi had not yet even entered into the discussion at the State Department.  The official in fact clarifies that the questioner is not referring to the protests outside the Cairo Embassy which of course had dominated the news the previous day.  Another journalist raised the Cairo protests again later in the briefing:
QUESTION: ...Do you believe that this attack was in any way related to the incident in Cairo? You suggested this attack in Benghazi was more complex; so is it safe to rule out that this was a reaction to the inflammatory internet video?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: ...With regard to whether there is any connection between this internet activity and this extremist attack in Benghazi, frankly, we just don’t know. We’re not going to know until we have a chance to investigate. And I’m sorry that it is frustrating for you that so many of our answers are “We don’t know,” but they are truthful in that.
    Again, when given the opportunity to connect the Cairo protests with Benghazi and the anti-Muhammad video, the State Department official referred to the lack of "any connection between this internet activity and this extremist attack in Benghazi," not "the protests in Benghazi."  This complete absence of "protests" or "demonstrations" in the State Department's discussion of Benghazi makes the revision in the talking points (via Foreign Policy) changing "attacks" in the first version to "demonstrations" in the third version even more curious.
    A second point of contention regarding the talking point revisions relates to the spontaneous versus planned nature of the attacks and the participation of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda affiliates.  Andrea Mitchell raised this question early in the briefing:
QUESTION: ...there’s a lot of reporting now on this being linked to a terror attack, an organized terror attack – possibly al-Qaida sympathetic or al-Qaida linked. Can you speak to that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: ... Frankly, we are not in a position to speak any further to the perpetrators of this attack. It was clearly a complex attack. We’re going to have to do a full investigation. We are committed to working with the Libyans both on the investigation and to ensure that we bring the perpetrators to justice. The FBI is already committed to assisting in that, but I just – we’re – it’s just too early to speak to who they were and if they might have been otherwise affiliated beyond Libya.
    As the administration has stressed in defense of the early statements, the official declined to confirm or deny the suspected participation of al-Qaeda groups.  In fact, Mitchell's question contains the only reference to al-Qaeda or "terror" in the entire briefing, and yet the first version of the talking points prepared by the CIA included multiple references to al-Qaeda and its affiliates.  This is perhaps an early indication of the differences between the State Department and the CIA that would eventually lead to the twelve revisions in the following days.
    Regardless, the State Department official did note that "[i]t was clearly a complex attack."  In fact, "attack" or "attackers" is used twelve times throughout the briefing.  By contrast, in reference to Benghazi, "protest", "demonstration", and "spontaneous" are not used at all.
    A third and final point raised over the talking point revisions was the removal of references to prior attacks in Libya in the months leading up to September 11.  A questioner raised the issue of prior security incidents at the briefing:
QUESTION: ...Listen, there’ve been troubles in Benghazi for some time now. I understand the Consulate was attacked or bombed two, three months ago. The British have put out threat warnings about Benghazi. Was there any consideration before the attack yesterday of beefing up security there? 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, again, I’m not going to get into the specifics of how we were postured in terms of security at our mission in Benghazi beyond what I said. So – because we don’t ever talk about the details of those kinds of things.
What I would say, though, is that we did, as we did in missions around the world, review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of September 11th. And at that point, there was no information and there were no threat streams to indicate that we were insufficiently postured.
    Although the official stated that "we did, as we did in missions around the world, review the security there in the context of preparing for the anniversary of September 11th," an overview of State Department warnings and alerts shows a clear drop off between 2011 and 2012 in 9/11 anniversary warnings.
    After the background briefing on September 12 and over the next three days, the information the administration had presented in this briefing was combined with new information that continued to be gathered by intelligence and other agencies and ultimately led to the talking points used by Susan Rice.  It was also during this time, as reported this week by The Weekly Standard, that the Overseas Security Advisory Council withdrew a report that had been issued on September 6, five days before the attack, entitled "Terrorism and Important Dates."  The report downplayed the likelihood of a 9/11 anniversary-date attack by al-Qaeda or other terror groups, noting that concerns over such attacks are often due to "increased media attention to the issue."  A State Department official contacted via email said the report was withdrawn because "the content had expired," and did not respond to requests for further clarification.
    The removal of references to prior security incidents from the talking points and the withdrawal of the Terrorism and Important Dates report suggests that the administration was not inclined to draw attention to its pre-Benghazi posture on diplomatic security and preparedness.  Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland wrote in an email, such reminders "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either?"
    Clearly the information during the first few days and even weeks after the Benghazi attacks was incomplete and even contradictory.  But in retrospect, it is clear that the Obama administration understood almost from the beginning the politically vulnerable position it was in due to its actions (and inaction) before, during, and as soon became apparent, after the attacks.  The clear frustration of the White House press corps during Friday's press briefing with Jay Carney may be another sign that the concerns over the last eight months of mainly conservatives and Republicans are beginning to spread.  Even Democrats at the Benghazi congressional hearings on Wednesday were openly calling for additional hearings to resolve the many remaining unanswered questions of Benghazi and the deaths of four Americans.  The coming weeks and months will be a strong test of the sincerity of an administration that has claimed on many occasions to be the most transparent in history.  The continuing obfuscation on Benghazi by administration officials up to and including the president is casting further doubt on that claim.

*Post originally said "State Department"

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

Monday, May 13, 2013

W.H. Retweets Article on Rising Insurance Costs

    Today, the White House retweeted a link to an OregonLive.com story on competition among healthcare insurers purportedly instigated by ObamaCare:
    The story is entitled "Two Oregon insurers rethink 2014 premiums as state posts first-ever rate comparison" and begins as follows:
This is what competition looks like: One health insurer wants to charge $169 a month next year to cover a 40-year-old Portland-area non-smoker. Another wants $422 a month for the same standard plan.
The new health insurance marketplace envisioned by federal health reforms doesn't formally kick in until fall. But it already is taking shape – and consumers for the first time can compare, premium by premium, identical plans by different insurers.
    Some of the insurance players in Oregon give at least partial credit to the new "marketplace" instituted by ObamaCare for lowering the projected 2014 rates for Oregon health insurance consumers:
"Posting rate comparisons company-by-company is a taste of what is to come," says Cheryl Martinis of the Oregon Insurance Division. 
Judging by the reaction, there's already an impact. 
Providence Health Plan on Wednesday asked to lower its requested rates by 15 percent. Gary Walker, a Providence spokesman, says the "primary driver" was a realization that the plan's cost projections were incorrect. But he conceded a desire to be competitive was part of it.
    However, one gets the idea that perhaps the White House retweeted the link without reading the entire article.  Further in the story comes this [emphasis added]:
The easy rate comparison is only one of the changes consumers who buy their own insurance can expect in 2014. 
Another is higher premiums in the 2014 individual market, though for many people they'll be offset by tax credits. The higher rates are because people with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied coverage. Also, plans have to offer stronger benefits than they used to, leading to higher premiums. 
The changes have spawned much speculation, with some predicting "rate shock" for people who buy their own policies. Now consumers can see for themselves what premiums could be available, at least for certain plans. 
    This might appear to be a classic case of burying the lead.  Competition, yes, but higher rates?  And due to the Affordable Care Act?  However, the article quickly adds the saving grace that may have tipped the scales in the White House retweet decision.  Federal government income-based subsidies of the higher rates :
Meanwhile, at least half the potential customers who buy their own insurance will qualify for a sliding scale of income-based tax credits that could more than-eliminate any price hikes. Nearly 400,000 Oregonians are expected to purchase their own insurance as tax credits lure previously uninsured consumers. 
In addition to comparing insurance plans, Cover Oregon can enroll people and qualify them for tax credits. 
     So, the Obama administration pushed through a 2,800 page piece of legislation that cut consumer choice (I mean "simplified the health insurance system") and raised rates by forcing companies to accept sick customers (I mean "eliminated unfair exclusions for pre-existing conditions") and to offer benefits that not everyone wants or needs (I mean "offer stronger benefits".)  But not to worry.  The government will kick in the difference.  And lower the deficit.  And improve health outcomes.

    What could possibly go wrong?

Note:  This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Presidential Rank Awards in the "Era of Federal Austerity"

    On April 25th, a black-tie dinner was held at the State Department to recognize the 2012 winners of the Presidential Rank Awards.  Each year, according to guidance from the Office of Personnel Management, the president awards the "ranks of Distinguished Executive and Meritorious Executive on a select group of career senior executives who have provided exceptional service to the American people over an extended period of time."
    In addition to a framed certificate from the president, the two ranks of awards come with a bonus equal to 35% of base pay and 20% of base pay respectively. (The pay freeze currently in place for federal workers did not apply to these awards.) This year, according to Government Executive, the Distinguished Executive awards totaled 54, and Meritorious Executive awards totaled 78.
    While it was noted that together the winners had saved the federal government $94 billion, "SEA [Senior Executives Association] President Carol A. Bonosaro, the banquet’s master of ceremonies, told Government Executive she was disappointed that the number of winners has shrunk in the current era of federal austerity." Bonosaro noted there were no winners from the intelligence agencies because the White House had not responded in time:
Bonosaro said the hold-up on intelligence agency winners comes from the White House. She also worried the administration was behind schedule in setting in motion the process for selecting the 2013 Distinguished Rank winners. That months-long process usually starts in November, Bonosaro said, and involves agency nominations, OPM vetting, and further review by panels and the White House. There’s also the banquet preparations, she added. “We can’t give a party like this overnight.”
    Oddly, given the absence of any winners from the intelligence agencies, the keynote speaker for the evening was General James Clapper, director of national intelligence.  Several other high ranking administration official attended also.  Government Executive inquired of the White House about the delay in declaring intelligence agency winners, but had not received a response by the time the article was published.
    As a footnote:  Although Carol Bonosaro referenced "current era of federal austerity," the austerity did not extend to the framing of the award certificates.  A contract for 135 custom made "mahogany stained poplar wood frames with gold leaf liner" was awarded to Artline Wholesalers.  At $28,464.75, the total contract breaks down to $210.85 per frame.  Although one can carry austerity only so far, a similar frame may be had at Wal-Mart for the everyday low price of $22.97, although it is not clear if glass is included. And no sales tax!  At least for now...

White House: Nothing Says Happy Mother's Day Like Free Birth Control

    As part of the White House campaign to push the Affordable Care Act by linking it with Mother's Day, the White House tweeted this today:
    And kids, you don't even have to wrap it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Federal Government's "Death Master File" (I Am Not Making That Up)

    While I certainly would not dispute the reasons for maintaining such a record, does it strike anyone else as just a little creepy that the government has a database called the Death Master File?  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is currently conducting a review of the Social Security Administration's Death Master File to determine weaknesses and irregularities and recommend improvements to prevent improper payments.  The review is still in process, but the GAO issued a preliminary report this week.  Apparently this review is a long time in coming.  In a run-through of some 98,000,000 records, the GAO found a few peculiarities:
Specifically, we identified:
• 130 records where the date of death was recorded to occur before the date of birth;
• 1,295 records where the recorded age at death was between 111 and 129; and
• 1,791 records where the recorded death preceded 1936, the year SSNs were first issued, although the decedents had SSNs assigned to them. 
SSA officials said some of these anomalies were likely associated with records added prior to the mid-1970s that were manually processed.
    Obviously the government's interest in knowing when U.S. citizens die is not so it knows when to send flowers.  The report noted the real reason: money.
Federal benefit-paying agencies generally can access the information in this file and match it against data in their files to alert them to deceased benefit recipients, and therefore help reduce improper benefit payments. As the steward of taxpayer dollars, the federal government must guard against improper payments. Yet for fiscal year 2012, the Office of Management and Budget reported federal agency improper payment estimates totaling almost $108 billion.
    If it is true that the only two things certain in life are death and taxes, then I think there's plenty of evidence that the government has got the certainty of the latter handled.  With the help of the GAO, the government should be able to nail down the former, too.

W.H. Touts $30 Million Award for Technology that Led to 3D Gun

    Just this week, news broke that the "world’s first entirely 3D-printed gun" was successfully built and test-fired by an engineer in Texas.  The technology involves a special printer that uses melted polymers to generate plastic components for a variety of uses, now including working firearms.  Today, in a press release announcing a $200 million program for a "Competition for Three New Manufacturing Innovation Institutes," the White House also touted a $30 million award in a similar competition in August 2012 for the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.  President Obama mentioned the new institute in his February State of the Union speech.  The purpose of the institute is to help develop the very 3D technology used to produce the newly revealed 3D gun:
Pilot Institute 
In August 2012, the Administration announced the winner of an initial $30 million Federal award to create a pilot institute, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII).  Headquartered in Youngstown, Ohio, NAMII consists of a consortium of manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges, and non-profit organizations primarily from the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia ‘Tech Belt’.  NAMII was selected from amongst twelve teams from around the country that applied for the award.  The members of NAMII will co-invest $40 million against the initial Federal award.  
Additive manufacturing, often referred to as 3D printing, is a new way of making products and components from a digital model, and will have implications in a wide range of industries including defense, aerospace, automotive, and metals manufacturing. Like an office printer that puts 2D digital files on a piece of paper, a 3D printer creates components by depositing thin layers of material one after another using a digital blueprint until the exact component required has been created. The Department of Defense envisions customizing parts on site for operational systems that would otherwise be expensive to make or ship. The Department of Energy anticipates that additive processes would be able to save more than 50% energy use compared to today’s ‘subtractive’ manufacturing processes.
    This announcement comes in the midst of the ongoing gun-control debate led by the White House and spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden.  Some lawmakers, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, have already called for legislation to ban the plastic guns and regulate the technology involved.  Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY, renewed a call to pass his recently introduced Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act which renews the current ban on undetectable weapons that expires this year.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Two Hours After Learning of Benghazi Attacks, White House Tweets About "A Safer World"

    The congressional hearings on Benghazi this week have once again refocused attention on the events of September 11, 2012.  On that day, news of the attack on the Benghazi Consulate reached the White House Situation Room at 4:05 PM Eastern Time (ET).  CBS News prepared a timeline of the events and the actions of administration officials:
10:05 p.m. (4:05 p.m. ET): An alert from the State Department Operations Center is issued to ... the White House Situation Room... "US Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack" -- "approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well... 
Around 10:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET): Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his top military adviser learn of the incident... 
11 p.m. (5 p.m. ET): ...White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon tells President Obama of the attack and the fire at the main villa... 
Midnight (6 p.m. ET) ... Over the next two hours, Sec. Panetta holds a series of meetings and issues several orders...
    Missing from the timeline is this, at 6:02 p.m. ET:
    In retrospect, the timing for this message could hardly have been worse.  And along with President Obama's fund raising trip to Las Vegas the following day, it does little to dispel the notion that the White House did not take the events in Benghazi as seriously as it should have.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Benghazi Whistleblower Gregory Hicks in Same Building as ARB in October [corrected]

Correction: Gregory Hicks was interviewed by the ARB as he stated in his testimony at the congressional hearing on May 8th.

    Gregory Hicks is one of the so-called whistleblowers due to testify at congressional hearings on the Benghazi attacks on Wednesday.  He is prepared to give some of the most explosive testimony at the hearings, reportedly telling congressional investigators that "if the U.S. had quickly sent a military aircraft over Benghazi, it might have saved American lives."  Despite having been on the phone with Ambassador Chris Stevens as the Benghazi attacks were beginning, Hicks was not interviewed by the Accountability Review Board (ARB) convened by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and was not even mentioned in the report that the ARB produced.
    The ARB was convened on October 4, 2012.  Three weeks later, on October 25, 2012, Hicks was listed on a State Department schedule as meeting with Rick Barton, the Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the State Department.
9:00 a.m. Assistant Secretary Barton meets with Deputy Chief of Mission for Embassy Tripoli Greg Hicks, at the Department of State.
    According to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, the ARB's meeting place was in the State Department building in Washington, D.C., the same place Hicks met with Barton.
    There is no public record of what transpired at the meeting between Hicks and Barton, and it is not clear why Hicks would not have been interviewed by the ARB given his presence in the same building as the investigators.  Perhaps Hicks's testimony this week will shed some light on this and other questions about why the American public has had to wait eight months to hear Hicks's version of the events surrounding the Benghazi fiasco.

State Dept. Official: 'The Content Had Expired' in Withdrawn Pre-Benghazi Terrorism Report

    The Congressional hearings on the 9/11 Benghazi attacks this week will likely focus on the classic questions often asked on such occasions: what did those involved know and when did they know it.  Not only will the post-attack words and actions of government officials come under scrutiny, but those preceding the September 11, 2012 attacks on the Benghazi consulate, as well.  One largely overlooked aspect of the investigations thus far involves a report issued by the State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council on September 6, 2012, just five days before the attack. That report was removed from the OSAC website on September 14, just three days after the attacks because, in the words of a State Department official, "the content had expired." The report was removed the same day that the now infamous "talking points" were undergoing extensive revision.  The report begins as follows (the text of the entire report is included at the end of this article):
Terrorism and Important Dates
OSAC currently has no credible information to suggest that al-Qa’ida or any other terrorist group is plotting any kind of attack overseas to coincide with the upcoming anniversary of September 11. However, constituents often have concerns around important dates, holidays, and major events, Often times, these concerns are the result of increased media attention to the issue, rather than credible evidence of a terrorist plot.
    This apparent downplaying of the likelihood of an anniversary-date attack is repeated in the conclusion of the report:
 As highlighted throughout the report, al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups are unlikely to conduct large-scale attacks on significant dates or holidays due to the heightened security levels.  However, U.S. private sector organizations operating abroad in countries that have not raised their overall security levels may want to consider their vigilance and guard against complacency.
    The Overseas Security Advisory Council is part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security under the U.S. Department of State.  The mission of the council is "to promote security cooperation between American private sector interests worldwide (Private Sector) and the U.S. Department of State."  Part of its function is to issue Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts, Emergency Messages to U.S. Citizens, and the like.   Many of the reports issued by the OSAC are available in full only to registered "constituents." However, there is a publicly accessible menu of reports, some requiring a login to access, some freely available to all.  Originally, the Terrorism and Important Dates report was listed in the public menu with the others.  Here is a screencap from September 8, 2012:

    Hundreds of such reports are listed on the OSAC website going back years.  However, three days after the Benghazi attacks, the Terrorism and Important Dates report disappeared from the menu.  A current search of the OSAC website for it still fails to turn up any evidence of its existence.  A source with subscriber access confirmed back on September 29, 2012 that as of that date, the report was behind the subscriber wall, accessible only with a login.
    When asked this week about the current status of the report and for an explanation of its disappearance, a State Department official replied via email, "A report was posted on September 6 and was removed on September 14, after the content had expired."  When pressed for clarification on what "expired" meant and who made the determination that it had "expired," the official did not respond.  The "expired" comment is curious since dozens of reports whose content has arguably "expired" are still listed on the site.
    Although the missing report received a substantial amount of attention on conservative blogs and news sites in the weeks following the attacks, the story was not reported in the wider media.  Additionally, it was not mentioned in either the State Department's Accountability Review Board report or the report issued by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  (The latter report does mention a February 2012 OSAC report, see footnote on page 11, but not the September 6, 2012 report.)
    The OSAC's reports are prepared within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the State Department specifically for the private sector interests serviced by the Council.  However, the reports presumably draw upon the same intelligence available to the State Department as a whole and reflect the attitudes and posture of the larger department.  Indeed, at an August 29, 2012 press briefing, in response to a question about a State Department travel warning about Pakistan, spokesperson Victoria Nuland disavowed any connection of the travel warning to the upcoming anniversary, stating, "It doesn’t have anything to do with September 11th."
    Congress will have an opportunity this week to delve further into the decisions that led to the initial issuance of the Terrorism and Important Dates report, as well as the decision to remove the report after it "expired."  The answers to who made those decisions and for what reasons may help Congress get to the bottom of this disastrous episode.


Full text of Terrorism and Important Dates report:
The apparent full text of the OSAC report, as posted on September 6, 2012 on the website of an OSAC constituent, reads as follows:

Terrorism and Important Dates
OSAC currently has no credible information to suggest that al-Qa’ida or any other terrorist group is plotting any kind of attack overseas to coincide with the upcoming anniversary of September 11. However, constituents often have concerns around important dates, holidays, and major events, Often times, these concerns are the result of increased media attention to the issue, rather than credible evidence of a terrorist plot.
While it is true that In the aftermath of the May 2, 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, several media sources reported on various documents recovered during the raid that suggested al-Qa’ida was seeking to conduct significant attacks on major holidays and anniversaries, there are no indications that any of these plans were ever operational. OSAC constituents should review their local emergency action plans and security protocols ahead of major U.S. holidays and anniversary dates.
Terrorism and Holidays/Anniversary Dates
Historically, al-Qa’ida and other transnational terrorist groups have not conducted successful attacks on major U.S. holidays and anniversary dates. One possible explanation for this lack of activity is due to the increase in security on major dates because of a perceived vulnerability. A terrorist group that has spent a significant amount of time monitoring a potential target, training operatives, and acquiring the weapons necessary for a major attack would be less likely to attack when security is at a heightened level.
Terrorist groups are predisposed to conduct the attack first and justify the reasoning subsequently. One recent example of this predisposition was the June 28. 2011 attack on the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul. The attackers primary motivation was to kill as many Westerners and Afghan officials as possible; however, after media reports began erroneously claiming that an important Transition Conference was going to take place at the hotel the next day, the terrorists responsible for the attack claimed that they were in fact targeting that conference. Although specific dates may be important symbolically to terrorist groups, a near-term successful attack will likely be painted as both revenge for the death of bin Laden and a blow against the United States.
An international terrorist attack around a major international date or holiday would likely fall into one of the three following scenarios.
1) Attacks abroad on significant U.S. holidays, such as July 4 – while U.S. Missions abroad have likely increased their security profile during major U.S. government holidays, host nation security forces are unlikely to elevate their security levels.
2) Attacks following a drawdown of security after a major date – foreign countries will often increase their security posture during a major event such as the Olympics or World Cup, effectively deterring major attacks during the event. However, following the conclusion of the event, security is often reduced. Terrorist groups may wait for security levels to decrease before launching an attack.
3) Lone wolf attacks by independently radicalized individuals on significant dates – while terrorists operating as part of an established cell or network may prefer to bide their time and wait for an opportune moment to strike, individual sympathizers with no formal training or connection to a terrorist group could be inspired to conduct an attack on a significant date despite heightened levels of security. Lone wolves are less likely to attract the attention of host nation counter-terrorism officials.
At this time, OSAC is aware of no specific or credible threats against the U.S. private sector on September 11. As highlighted throughout the report, al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups are unlikely to conduct large-scale attacks on significant dates or holidays due to the heightened security levels. However, U.S. private sector organizations operating abroad in countries that have not raised their overall security levels may want to consider their vigilance and guard against complacency. OSAC continues to monitor trends and emerging issues that may have a significant security impact on U.S. private sector operations overseas.

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

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

President Obama's $2.5M Hotel and 'Vehicle Rental' Tab on Last Mexico Trip

    As the White House first announced in March, Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Mexico and Costa Rica later this week. The trip is billed as "an important opportunity to reinforce the deep cultural, familial, and economic ties that so many Americans share with Mexico and Central America." And at yesterday’s White House press conference, the president stated that he is "very much looking forward to taking the trip down to Mexico" this week.
    But the trip won’t exactly be cheap for taxpayers, assuming the costs mirror those incurred by the American taxpayers for President Obama's last trip to Mexico, for the G-20 summit in June 2012. According to recently discovered documents relating to the costs of that trip, taxpayers paid nearly $2.5 million for hotel and “vehicle rental.”
    The first government document is a contract with a travel agent for the hotels required for the president's delegation and entourage for the conference:

    The accompanying Justification and Approval (J&A) document estimates the total cost at $1,889,388.60, with a maximum payout of $2,078,327.46.  The document does not give details concerning the number of rooms or other special requirements.  It notes the usual security concerns and time constraints that apply to such VIP trips, but also lists this additional restriction imposed by the Mexican government:

    The second document relates to transportation needs for the presidential delegation for the G-20 visit.   The J&A accompanying this contract estimates the cost of transportation-vehicle rental at $630,760.00 with a maximum of $693,836.00, and also notes that the same company, Operadora Transtur, which had been contracted for an earlier visit to Los Cabos by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was the best value:

     Both contracts were approved in late May 2012, a few weeks before the trip, but were not posted on the fbo.gov website until more recently. Although members of the president's travel party arrived in advance of the president and departed later, President Obama himself stayed in Mexico two nights.
    Regarding the president's upcoming trip, the Washington Examiner reported that there has been some speculation that the true motives for the trip may revolve more around the president's push for immigration reform.  And at a White House meeting on Monday with Latino leaders, President Obama discussed his upcoming trip to Mexico and Costa Rica.  The readout of the meeting provided by the White House concluded with, "At the meeting, the President made clear that immigration reform continues to be a top legislative priority this year."

Note:  This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.