Saturday, June 29, 2013

High Cost of VIP Travel: Biden's $665,545 Hotel Bill in Moscow, Obama's $450,000 Warsaw Tab

    The Washington Times reports that the cost of President Obama's Africa trip, estimated as high as $100 million, is overshadowing President Obama's agenda.  If past trips are any indication, lodging and local transportation would represent only a fraction of $100 million, yet those costs would likely dwarf those of the average citizen traveling abroad.  Revelations in late March of Vice President Joe Biden's $321,000 limo bill and $585,000 Paris hotel bill for his trip to Europe earlier this year caused a stir even among veteran White House observers such as CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
    While the amounts spent were deemed fairly ordinary by current and former government insiders, the fact that the closely-held information was found on a publicly available government website had some speculating that perhaps the postings had been inadvertent.  However, further investigation has revealed that the information is not as rare as previously supposed.
    For example, Vice President Biden's trip to Moscow in 2011.  The contract was awarded to the Moscow Ritz-Carlton on February 24, 2011 and , according to the accompanying Justification and Approval (J&A), the estimated cost for 1,778 room nights was $665,545.  As has been noted before, contracts for travel for high level government officials are not subject to the same requirements for competitive bidding as other government contracts due to security concerns:

The vice president's visit to Moscow lasted two days and was said to focus on economic issues and missile defense concerns.
    Although Vice President Biden's foreign travel costs have received most of the attention lately, some details for at least two of President Obama's trips from his first term are available online.  The first was a trip to Warsaw, Poland in May 2011.  The J&A estimated the cost for 2,114 lodging room/nights at the Warsaw Marriott at $450,000.  Due to the special needs of the president and his entourage, the costs included extras such as "Removal and storage of furniture from standard rooms":

The stop in Poland was part of a week-long swing through Europe that included stays in Ireland, Great Britain, and France.  Details of lodging arrangements for the other stops on the trip were not available  The president spent one night in Warsaw. 
    Details of an earlier presidential trip to Prague in 2010 are also available.  At $163,000, the Prague contract  with Marriott initially appears to be a bargain compared to other trips.  However, a closer look shows that the Marriott was being used "simultaneously with the Hotel Hilton (which was the main hotel for the event...)"  The J&A for the Marriott was for only 287 nights (with more than 40 late check-out fees), but also included rentals of three plasma TVs, a pin-board, and a FAX machine:

    The contract for the main hotel, the Hilton, were not found on the website.  The president spent one night in Prague.
    Lodging and transportation costs for First Lady Michelle Obama's ill-fated trip to Copenhagen in 2009 to bolster Chicago's bid to host the Olympics were found online as well.  The costs for this trip have already garnered some attention after it took the State Department 26 months to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch.  While the documentation finally released to Judicial Watch was fairly extensive, it turns out at least some of the information was posted at FBO.GOV as early as November 25, 2009.  According to the J&A (Justification and Approval), the estimated cost for 103 rooms at the Scandic Copenhagen hotel was $430,285.70:

    On January 19, 2010, a contract for the same trip was posted for vehicles & buses provided by Copenhagen Limousine Service for $200,629.  According to the J&A, the trip included a possible visit from the president as well.  The document also includes some interesting insights about the scheduling of such trips and the security-related restrictions (and related increased costs) that are imposed in these cases:

    The president did end up traveling to Copenhagen to join his wife in her efforts and to address the International Olympic Committee, but arrived in Copenhagen and returned to Washington on the same day, Friday, October 2, 2009.  The first lady spent two nights in Copenhagen, arriving on Wednesday of that week and departing to Washington with her husband on Friday.

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

Friday, June 28, 2013

President Obama's Flimsy Case for Climate Change

    Shortly after President Obama gave his climate change speech at Georgetown University, the White House posted Fact Sheets to highlight the ostensible effects of climate change/extreme weather in all 50 states and Washington DC.  If the "facts" presented in Maryland's Fact Sheet are representative of the other fifty, the White House's case is embarrassingly flimsy.
    Each Fact Sheet begins with the same paragraph entitled "The Threat of Carbon Pollution" with broad generalizations about pollution, climate change, extreme weather, and the president's plan to reverse course.  Next comes a section entitled "The Impact of Pollution and Extreme Weather."  After a statistic about how many metric tons of carbon pollution each state produces per year comes this introduction/disclaimer:
Recent  incidents provide a reminder of the impacts to our public health and costs due to extreme weather in Maryland.  Although we cannot say that climate change is responsible for any individual event, climate change is already increasing our risks from these events. 
    The document then goes on to list five bullet points to bolster the case that "climate change is already increasing our risks from these events."  However, a closer look shows that the points are non sequiturs at best, and actually counter-arguments at worst:
 Hurricane Sandy effects in Maryland impacted 477 residences and required over $34 million in federal assistance in 23 counties and the City of Baltimore.  
 The cumulative cost of severe weather events in 2011 and 2012 was over $70 million. 
    Although viewed in isolation these figures might seem high, in 2003, Maryland's costs from Hurricane Isabel alone reached $100 million with 8,691 individual applications for aid approved by FEMA.  And in 1996, there were three weather-related disasters declared in Maryland in one year, though costs figures were not provided on the FEMA website.  2011 and 2012 were not exceptionally costly, let alone indicative of a trend.
 In Maryland, there were over 9,100 hospital admissions for asthma in 2011, with an average charge of close to $8,000 for each stay.
    This chart from a Centers for Disease Control report on asthma, however, shows that hospitalizations in the U.S. for  asthma have been trending down for 30 years:

 Changing temperature and precipitation patterns can affect the life cycle and distribution of insects, many of which transmit  disease that already pose problems to public health in Maryland.  In 2010, there were 1163 cases of Lyme disease in the state. 
    However, just like the asthma statistics, the data on Lyme disease do not back up the White House assertions. Confirmed cases of Lyme disease have been flat for 10 years:

 In 2009, there were 407 emergency room visits in Maryland due to heat stress. 
    The population of Maryland is nearly 6 million.  407 emergency room visits means that just over one of those six million residents per day was in the emergency room for heat stress.  Hardly a crisis, and no attempt is even made to link the statistic to extreme weather.
    The president's call for action on climate change seems to rely largely on anecdotes, statistics without context, and sheer volume of information.  If the situation is as dire as the president suggests, the White House should be able to come up with more convincing arguments than the easily debunked "facts" above.

IRS's National Taxpayer Advocate: Exempt Organizations Division May Have Violated the Law

    In a mid-year report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson weighed in on the controversy surrounding the IRS's review of exempt organization (EO) applications.  The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) "is an independent organization within the IRS and helps taxpayers resolve problems with the IRS and recommend changes that will prevent the problems."  Although Olson noted that "the Advocate’s office does not have investigative authority and did not seek to duplicate other ongoing investigations," the IRS came under harsh criticism for its vague policies and lack of transparency, and even possible violation of the law.
The EO Function Did Not Post Its Procedures on the Internet, Potentially Violating the Law and Contributing to the Problem. The IRS is required to post on its website all “instructions to staff that affect a member of the public,” unless an exemption applies.  Even if an exemption applies, IRS functions should clear most guidance internally with affected program owners and “specialized reviewers” such as TAS.  EO did not clear with TAS or post on the Internet, even in redacted form, relevant training materials, form letters used to request additional information, the screening checksheet used by EO employees in the determinations process, and other key documents.  EO’s failure to clear its procedures with TAS and other stakeholders bypassed an important safeguard of taxpayer rights.

Had these documents been vetted by TAS, TAS would have had an opportunity to raise concerns before implementation. Had these documents been posted on the Internet, members of the public would have had access to them, providing greater transparency and enabling them to raise concerns about improper practices. Key EO documents still are not posted to the Internet, and TAS has not been able to locate them on the IRS intranet. The Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division (TE/GE), of which EO is a part, has agreed to share its guidance with TAS. The Advocate recommends that the IRS adopt more expansive disclosure policies both in TE/GE and throughout the IRS.
    Among the other problems cited by the report:
  • The IRS’s Processing of Section 501(c)(4) Applications Violated Fundamental Taxpayer Rights. 
  • Applicants for Exempt Status (and Other Taxpayers) Have No Easily Available Remedy for the Violation of Their Rights. 
  • Congress No Longer Holds Joint Annual Oversight Hearings to Review IRS Challenges and Performance.
  • EO Management Did Not Maintain an Adequate Inventory Management System.  
  • EO Management Did Not Ensure that Requests for Guidance Received a Timely Response.
  • EO Executives Resisted TAS’s Authority to Order Expedited Processing of Tax-Exemption Applications, and Thereby Isolated EO from TAS.
  • EO Employees Did Not Refer Over-Aged Cases to TAS.
  • EO Employees Did Not Report the Systemic Delays in EO Processing to TAS.  

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

State Department Withdraws Anti-Terror Ad After Pressure From ACLU, CAIR, SEIU, Others

    The State Department yielded to pressure from a coalition of Seattle and Washington State politicians, community groups, and advocacy organizations and agreed to withdraw at least one ad in the department's Metro bus ad campaign in Seattle promoting the “Rewards for Justice” campaign. The program pays rewards to individuals who provides leads about the location of wanted terrorists.
    Congressman Jim McDermott, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, and King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski joined forces with others in the community, as well as organizations like the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), to raise concerns about the ads.  Mayor McGinn reported at least some success in their efforts [emphasis added]:
[Arsalan] Bukhari [of the Council on American-Islamic Relations] worked with the ACLU of Washington State to convene a meeting that included Magdaleno Rose-Avila and Sahar Fathi of our Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. After a productive meeting, the lead investigator for the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program, Tim Corso, acknowledged our concerns with the ad that featured the language “Global Faces of Terrorism” along with photos of men from the Philippines, Somalia, Russia, Sudan and Algeria. He has agreed to take down this particular ad and to work with community advocates in doing outreach in Seattle going forward.
    Mayor McGinn expressed optimism that Seattle's opposition would make a difference elsewhere as "Seattle is the first city to receive these ads and the recommendations provided by the community will drive how the program is implemented in other cities across the country."  In addition to the ACLU and CAIR, the mayor credited a long list of organizations who participated in the efforts which also included the Service Employees International Union:
This was made possible through the collaborative work by the many community advocates who came together on this issue: in particular (and in no specific order), the American Civil Liberties Union – Washington, Council on American-Islamic Relations (Washington Chapter), Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Office of King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, Office of Congressman Jim McDermott,  Minority Executive Directors Coalition, Mothers for Police Accountability, the Seattle Human Rights Commission, Consejo Counseling and Referral Service, SEIU Healthcare 775NW, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Faith Action Network (Seattle).

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

HHS Hosts Seminar on 'Two Spirit' Persons for LGBT Pride Month

    In connection with the observance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month, the Administration for Native Americans division of Health and Human Services is hosting an online seminar ("webinar") on Thursday.  The focus of the seminar is concept of the "Two Spirit" individual in Native societies:
June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. Join ANA for a discussion on the historical role of Two Spirit and LGBT individuals in many Native societies. Presented by ANA's Alaska Region Training and Technical Assistance Center.
    The announcement includes a link to a registration page for the event.

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

Thursday, June 27, 2013

WH Touts Kenyan Program to Obtain National ID Cards for Voter Registration

    As President Obama and his family continue their tour of Africa, the White House put out a Fact Sheet entitled "U.S. Support for Strengthening Democratic Institutions, Rule of Law, and Human Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa."  One of the first items highlighted by the White House is a $53 million program in Kenya that helps young people "obtain National identification cards, a prerequisite to voter registration." [emphasis added]
Civil society and independent media play a critical role in any vibrant democracy.  Across sub-Saharan Africa, the United States supports efforts to ensure civil society organizations and independent media can organize, advocate, and raise awareness with governments and the private sector to improve political processes, transparency, and government performance.  Examples include: 
• In Kenya, the $53 million Yes Youth Can program empowers nearly one million Kenyan youth to use their voices for advocacy in national and local policy-making, while also creating economic opportunities.  In advance of Kenya’s March 2013 general elections, Yes Youth Can’s “My ID My Life” campaign helped 500,000 youth obtain National identification cards, a prerequisite to voter registration, and carried out a successful nationwide campaign with Kenyan civic organizations to elicit peace pledges from all presidential aspirants.
    At an August 2012 press briefing, Jay Carney had the following to say about a Texas voter ID law:
And on the voter ID case, I can tell you that, as you know, this administration believes it should be easier for eligible citizens to vote -- to register and vote. We should not be imposing unnecessary obstacles or barriers to voter participation.

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

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

'War on Coal': Exports Doubled During Obama's First Term

    While Daniel P. Schrag, White House climate adviser, is telling the New York Times that "a war on coal is exactly what's needed," so far the Obama administration has been a boon for US coal exports.  Last week, the Department of Energy reported that coal exports have more than doubled during President Obama's tenure, and exports to Asia went from 2% of the total to 25% from 2007-2012:

    While US exports still make up on a tiny sliver of Asia's coal imports (less than 4%), that is up from almost nothing in 2007, and if anything, the trend has accelerated in 2013, as the report notes:
Growing coal exports to Asia contributed to the all-time monthly record for total U.S. coal exports in March, accounting for more than half of the total growth over March 2012 exports...
...exports to China of U.S. metallurgical coal during the first quarter of 2013 were more than double their 2012 level...
    The report concludes that several factors including demand, U.S. port infrastructure, and the cost of U.S. coal will impact the future growth of U.S. coal exports:
Despite recent growth, U.S. coal exports remain a relatively small source of supply to the Asian coal markets. It faces strong competition from other suppliers to the region, especially Indonesia, Australia, South Africa..., Canada, and Russia... Future growth of U.S. coal exports to Asia will depend upon the pace of Asian coal demand growth; expansion of U.S. port infrastructure, especially on the West Coast; coal pricing in Asia; and the cost of U.S. coal landed in Asia compared to that offered by other major coal exporters.

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

HHS eCards: Lose Weight, Quit Smoking, Stop Bullying

    As the full implementation of ObamaCare draws nearer, the federal government is pulling out all the stops.  Although the president has often professed a "laser-like" focus on creating jobs, much of the attention of the government seems to be centered not on the economic health of the country, but rather the literal health of its citizens. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) website Healthfinder.gov even has a selection of over 100 eCards that can be sent to friends and family to encourage them to lose weight, quit smoking, get screened for various diseases, and even stop bullying.

    Some of the eCards are rather less than subtle.  For instance, one invites the recipient to "make a promise to eat well and move more."

    In case the reader is slow on the uptake, the next page removes all doubt about what the sender has in mind:

    HHS even offered a Father's Day card that went beyond the usual praise and admiration reserved for fathers on their special day and exhorted dads everywhere to "skip the salt" and "take the stairs instead of the elevator."

    Apparently nothing says "Happy Father's Day" like one's child sounding like one's mother.

    The cards do not stop at physical health, either.  There is an anti-bullying card that asks "What's the difference between teasing and bullying?  If we’re not sure, our kids probably aren’t either. Let’s talk about bullying – because all kids deserve a happy, safe childhood."

    It remains unclear from the card if the accompanying photo (above) is intended to represent teasing or bullying.
    To maximize the impact of the cards, the site helpfully informs visitors that they may "send these cards to a friend or loved one by returning to the previous page and entering up to ten (10) recipient names and email addresses."  This feature, however, produces some unlikely scenarios, such as simultaneously congratulating ten friends on recently announced pregnancies.  For some occasions, there's just no substitute for a hand-written note.

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

Friday, June 21, 2013

CDC: Mandated Nutrition Labels on Restaurant Menus Do Not Improve Nutritional Content

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday published the results of a study on the effects of nutrition labeling on fast-food menus from 2005 to 2011.  Researchers were interested in impact of locally instituted regulations by various states and municipalities, including New York City, on the overall "healthfulness" of menu offerings.  The report concluded that mandated menu labeling at fast food chains did not improve nutritional content.  While there was a 50% increase in “healthier” options (from 13% to 20% of all menu selections), overall menu nutrition was unchanged.  From the report [emphasis added]:
These findings suggest that menu labeling has thus far not affected the average nutritional content of fast-food menu items, but it may motivate restaurants to increase the availability of healthier options...
We found that after the implementation of menu labeling there was a statistically significant increase in the percentage of healthier adult entrées at restaurants in jurisdictions with menu-labeling laws compared with restaurants that were not in jurisdictions subject to labeling. Little improvement, however, was seen among children’s entrées during this period, and no significant changes in average nutritional values were seen among adult entrées and sides. 
        In some of the five chains studied, some menu selections even moved in a decidedly unhealthy direction, thus negating the impact of the increased number of "healthy" choices:
...2 of 5 showed no improvement and even launched new options, such as bacon cheeseburgers, that increased average calories by almost 20% and cholesterol by almost 140%.
    Despite the disappointing results, however, the researchers suggest that, in addition to further study, the response to these findings should be more government regulations and increased government and media pressure:
Our results suggest menu labeling may provide fast-food restaurants with motivation to introduce healthier menu options; however, greater pressure may be necessary to generate overall average nutritional improvements... 
Additional public policies and media advocacy campaigns may be needed to spur broader changes in restaurant offerings so that healthier restaurant choices become the default choice for consumers... In addition, policy makers could consider minimum nutritional standards for meals targeted to children, as have been implemented in a few local jurisdictions... Simultaneous strategies should be considered to encourage chain restaurant companies to significantly improve the nutritional quality of the foods they sell, with portion-size reduction a key focus.
    Researchers were particularly concerned with the lack of healthy selections for children, since when using the stricter "nutritional criteria to define healthier options," only one of the nine fast food chains in the study even had any qualifying items.

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

Thursday, June 20, 2013

HHS on Health Insurers' Costs: "Expenses Like Profits and Red Tape"

    The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) put out a press release today promoting the savings to consumers from ObamaCare in 2012.  The department claims that the average consumer receiving a refund will get about $100 as a result of rules on how insurers must spend premium dollars. The press release contains the following curious characterization of ineligible expenses health insurers might incur:
Created through the Affordable Care Act, the rule requires insurers to spend at least 80 cents of every premium dollar on patient care and quality improvement.  If they spend a higher amount on other expenses like profits and red tape, they owe rebates back to consumers. 
    Of course, profits are not expenses, but what remains after expenses have been deducted.  "Red tape" is generally a euphemism for bureaucracy or government regulation.

    The 2011 average cost of a family policy was about $15,000, so the $100 rebates amount to a savings of about two-thirds of one percent.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

FDA Seeks "Data Mining and Targeting Software"

    The Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations is soliciting bids for "Data Mining and Targeting Software" to help in its efforts to combat illegal trafficking in cigarettes and other tobacco products.  The announcement appeared Monday on the federal government's fbo.gov contracting website:
The Food and Drug Administration, Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) was established in March 1992 by the Commissioner, with the urging of Congress, in response to concerns of increased criminal violations of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and related acts. The mission of the OCI is to investigate suspected criminal violations of the FDCA; the Federal Anti-Tampering Act (FATA); and other statutes including applicable Title 18 violations; and to collect evidence to support successful prosecutive actions through the federal or state court systems, as appropriate. 
The FDA/OCI requires a data mining and targeting system for use in law enforcement operations to further ongoing efforts to counter the widespread illicit trafficking of FDA-regulated tobacco products throughout the United States. These products include misbranded, adulterated and counterfeit cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products. The data mining and targeting systems will have proprietary data analysis and extraction software that is utilized in the law enforcement community with user-defined data sets available and only accessible to law enforcement. The software allows users to search one, some, or all of the data sets at once, sort and analyze the data, and spin off new searches.
    The documents go on to say that the data will come from commercial sources and/or US Customs and Border Protection, and that initially the "system will be stand-alone but must be capable of being networked at a later date."

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

WH on American Soldier Kidnapped By Taliban: He's 'Been Away from Us for Four Years'

    On Tuesday, National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden moderated a conference call with two unnamed senior administration officials to provide background for reporters on today's transition in Afghanistan handing over the lead on security in the country to the Afghan National Security Forces.  One reporter inquired about how the recently reported peace talks with the Taliban came about, and what conditions were met or will need to be met in order for those talk to move ahead. While following up, the reporter asked about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. soldier held captive by the Taliban.  In the course of answering the question, one of the unnamed administration officials characterized Bergdahl's time in Taliban captivity as having been "away from us for four years":
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would just add to that, as my colleague mentioned earlier, that we obviously have an interest in the safe return of Sergeant Bergdahl who’s been [now] away from us for four years
    Sergeant Bergdahl has been held by the Taliban since 2009 and has been the subject of prisoner exchange negotiations that so far have not borne fruit.  Over the years, the Taliban have released at least five videos of Bergdahl and have demanded $1 million ransom in exchange for his freedom.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

House to Consider Tax on New Flu Vaccines [Update: Bill Passed House and Senate]

    The House of Representatives is scheduled Tuesday to consider a bipartisan bill to add new seasonal flu vaccines to the IRS definition of taxable vaccines.  The Senate has already reached an agreement to vote on its version of the bill without further debate if the House passes an identical version.  If passed into law, all new seasonal flu vaccines would become subject to the 75¢ per dose vaccine tax, and also become eligible to be included in the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP).  A summary of the bill provided by the House Republican Conference explains:
The VICP is a federal program designed as a no-fault alternative to traditional tort law for resolving vaccine injury claims arising from covered vaccines.  The program is funded through a 75¢ excise tax on each dose of specified vaccines.  However, current law only covers “trivalent” (three-strain) vaccines against influenza.  Recently, many manufacturers have begun producing more effective “quadrivalent” (four-strain) vaccines, but have held off on bringing the vaccines to market until the statute is updated.  H.R. 475 amends the statute to cover all seasonal influenza vaccines under the VICP, ensuring that new, more effective vaccines are made available to the greater public.
    The balance in the VICP fund as of November 2012 was more than $3.5 billion. The fund has paid out only $2.5 billion since it was established in 1988 for cases involving all vaccines. At that rate, the balance in the fund could last another 25 years with no new revenue.  However, in response to initial reports on the legislation in April, Julia Lawless, the press secretary of U.S. Senate Finance Committee issued the following statement:
First off, the Joint Committee on Taxation is clear this bill is not a tax increase.  Secondly, the legislation is about ensuring vaccine manufacturers produce vaccines for the next flu season – not past flu seasons.  Thirdly, the threat of litigation has been so severe against these manufacturers that this compensation fund had to be created or they would not have produced these vaccines.  That threat of litigation still exists and so does the need for vaccines.  We need to be careful how that fund is financed, because having it run a deficit could be dangerous when our goal is to ensure the production of safe vaccines.
     A representative of the Biotech Industry Organization emailed The Weekly Standard to weigh in as well, and largely echoed the response of Ms. Lawless, concluding with:
This is an extremely important public health matter. 
The issue before Congress is whether the newest seasonal influenza vaccine will be covered by the VICP in time for the 2013-14 flu season. 
The other issue raised by the article about the balance in the fund is an entirely separate matter that would require in-depth analysis by experts in the field[.]
     The documentation accompanying the proposed legislation does not indicate whether or not any such analysis of the fund has been conducted.  The tax on flu vaccines raises about $100 million each year.  The "trust fund" is invested in Treasury Bills, helping to finance the national debt.

UPDATE: The bill passes the House, the Hill reports:
The House on Tuesday afternoon approved legislation meant to ensure an ample supply of the latest flu vaccine is available by the next flu season.
By voice vote, members approved H.R. 475, which would include a flu vaccine that attacks a new strain of flu on a list of taxable vaccines.

UPDATE 2: The Senate has also passed the bill, the Hill also reports.  The legislation now heads to the White House for the president's signature.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Not 'Decimated': FBI Director Calls Al Qaeda 'Top Terrorist Threat to the Nation'

    The message regarding terrorism from the Obama administration over the past few years has been that al-Qaeda is on the run, its core leadership has been "decimated," and that the face of the "war on terror" is changing.  In his recent speech on U.S. counterterrorism strategy, President Obama said, "Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self.  Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States."  However, remarks on Thursday by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller to the House Committee on the Judiciary seem to paint a less optimistic picture [emphasis added]:
Overseas, the terrorist threat is similarly complex and ever-changing. We are seeing more groups and individuals engaged in terrorism, a wider array of terrorist targets, greater cooperation among terrorist groups, and continued evolution and adaptation in tactics and communication. 
Al Qaeda and its affiliates, especially al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), continue to represent a top terrorist threat to the nation. These groups have attempted several attacks on the United States, including the failed Christmas Day airline bombing in 2009 and the attempted bombing of U.S.-bound cargo planes in October of 2010. 
In December 2011, Somali national Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame pled guilty to nine counts of providing material support to AQAP and al Shabaab. A Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation found that Warsarme conspired to teach terrorists how to make bombs, provided explosives weapons and training to al Shabaab, and arranged for al Shabaab leaders to obtain weapons from members of AQAP. Warsame faces up to life in prison.
    Director Mueller also spoke of the "continuing threat from homegrown violent extremists" as seen in the Boston marathon bombing, and the "growing scope of the insider threat" posing risks to national security, illustrated by Chinese national Steve Liu, an employee of a New Jersey defense contractor sentenced in March to five years in prison for stealing designs on U.S. weapons systems.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

WH Celebrates New High Performance Computing Center Opening

    The White House announced the opening of a new government supercomputing center in northern Maryland this week.  Patricia Falcone of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) attended a ceremony to mark the occasion along with Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and various army officials:
OSTP’s Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs Dr. Patricia Falcone provided keynote remarks yesterday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of the US Army Research Laboratory’s (ARL) new supercomputing center at Aberdeen Proving Ground in northern Maryland... 
The new ARL Supercomputing Center—containing two new IBM iDataPlex computers with the capacity to perform 50,000 trillion floating point operations per second, or 50 petaflops—will provide state-of-the art high performance computing capabilities as well as extraordinary capacities in advanced high-speed networking and data analysis, providing unprecedented benefits to the Army, the Department of Defense, and the Nation as a whole.
    The new facility is located just steps from the building that originally housed the ENIAC computer, the "world’s first electronic, programmable, general-purpose computer."

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Rest of The Story: The "Founding Founders"

    Today, the White House created a bit of a kerfuffle with a blog post entitled "The Papers of the Founding Founders Are Now Online".  No, that's not a typo of mine.  Here's the screenshot:

    After Charles C.W. Cooke of National Review raised the alarm, Twitchy got into the act. Sooner, Twitter was abuzz with the news.  Many assumed it was actually a case of political correctness gone meta.  Whatever the reason, it was not long before the adjustment was made, and the "Founding Fathers" resumed their rightful place in U.S. history.
    But there's more.  Unlike many of the current scandals (IRS, NSA, DOJ, AP, ETC.) where journalists, pundits, and bloggers have so far searched in vain for the smoking gun, the incontrovertible evidence of presidential fingerprints, this time is different.  The path of this scandal leads directly to the Oval Office, indeed to the lips of President Obama himself.  (OK, technically the path leads to Ford's Theatre, but "Oval Office" sounded more dramatic.  On June 7, 2010, the president spoke at an education and arts event at the famed theatre in Washington, and near the close of his remarks, according to the official White House transcript, he said the following [emphasis added for dramatic effect]:
And as we celebrate Independence Day, there are few better examples of how the spirit of our Founding Founders did more than just create a nation -- it inspired people in every corner of the globe yearning to be free.
     In a somewhat disappointing footnote to this story, the video of the actual event reveals that President Obama actually said "Founding Fathers," White House transcript notwithstanding.  Oh, well, Woodward and Bernstein's place in journalistic history is secure... for now.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

HHS Touts a ‘Huge Year in Data Liberation’ With ‘Health Datapalooza IV’

As the IRS scandal grows, the Department of Health and Human Services today published a blog post titled "Health Datapalooza IV Tops Off a Huge Year in Data Liberation":
Health Datapalooza IV wrapped up last week with over 1900 attendees and 80 companies, this was the biggest ‘palooza’ yet. Kicked off by Secretary Sebelius for the second year in a row, this year’s event was a tremendous display of health data in action...
At HHS, we have evolved and improved how we make health data available to the public. Last year, we launched a new version of healthdata.gov and made it significantly easier for our internal publishers to get their datasets listed, both manually and through an application programming interface (API)...
Although the data that the HHS is "liberating" is not linked to personal individual health information, the government will soon be in possession of new datasets of just such personal information once the Affordable Care Act kicks in on January 1, 2014, and individuals are required to prove via the IRS that they have health insurance.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Friday, June 7, 2013

NSA's Million Square Foot Utah Data Center to be Completed in 2013

    Recent revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency's (NSA) data collection efforts have raised concern about what information the government is collecting, from whom, and about whom.  In March 2012, the website Wired.com published an article by James Bamford about the innocuous sounding Utah Data Center being built by the NSA that could very well be the future home for the mind-boggling bits of information that the agency is collecting.  The article reads like a conspiracy theorist's dream, but contracts located on the government's FBO.GOV website appear to back up much of the information Wired presented about this data center.  Bamford writes:
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.
    On August 18, 2009, a "sources sought" listing appeared on the Federal Business Opportunities website, which, with modifications over the next few months, provided information for potential contractors for the project, including a powerpoint presentation with detailed specifications, diagrams, and even conceptual designs of the Utah facility, such as these:

    A "presolicitation" was posted on the site on December 19, 2009 and culminated in an award of almost $1.2 billion on September 24, 2010:

    Although some of the documents are "locked," this description of the project is available:
The project consists of the design and construction of a Tier III, 65 MW technical data center, located on Camp Williams, Utah. Basic ancillary supporting design and construction services include, but are not limited to: providing basic utility infrastructure, electrical service (primary power and temporary construction power), water, sewer, and gas. The facility itself will consist of approximately 1M SF of facility, of which 100K SF will be mission critical data center space with raised flooring and 900K SF of technical support and administrative space. Ancillary supporting facilities include, but are not limited to: water treatment facilities (pre and post), vehicle inspection facility, interim visitor control center, perimeter site security measures, fuel storage, water storage, chiller plant, fire suppression systems and 100% electrical generator and UPS back up capacity. The schedule will be very aggressive.
     Other contracts related to the data center are available on FBO.GOV, including the most recent from October 2012 for $23 million.  The recipient of the contract was Balfour Beatty, which had also obtained the original $1.2 billion contract.  This newest contract covers Facility Support during the transition of the facility over to government control, which, according to the documents, appears to be scheduled for September 2013, which is the same date Bamford used in his Wired article.  If the NSA is indeed collecting data on the scale that recent news reports seem to indicate, it will not be long before the agency has an enormous new facility in which to store it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

U.S. Responds to Human Rights Concerns From Russia Over Gitmo Hunger Strike

    Thursday, at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Gary Robbins delivered another response to the "many concerns" expressed by Russia about the ongoing hunger strike by many of the terrorist detainees at the Guantánamo Bay facility:
Last Thursday, President Obama reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO), and proposed a series of steps to achieve that end, including his intention to lift the Presidential moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen. The President also called on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Guantánamo, which the Administration has long maintained impede its ability to close the detention facility. To the extent possible, the United States will transfer those detainees who have been designated for transfer, and where appropriate, will prosecute others in our courts and military justice system. While it will take some time to fully close the detention facility in Guantánamo, all U.S. detention operations will continue to be carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, and all other applicable international and domestic laws. 
In the meantime, the Department of Defense is committed to ensuring the health and safety of the detainees who remain at the facility. 
Moreover, the United States remains committed to transparency about the facility and the military commissions. As we have previously noted, we are working with ODIHR to accommodate a visit Guantánamo and observe military commission proceedings. We have also offered to host the visit of a Russian delegation to Guantánamo, given the many concerns that the Russian Federation has expressed about the facility. That invitation remains open.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

    One of President Obama's first acts in office in 2009 was an executive order to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. The president has blamed Congress for its continued operation.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

In Guatemala, Kerry Reminisces About Trip to Visit Communist Sandinista Leader in 1985

    Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Guatemala on Tuesday, reminisced about his first trip to Latin America as a US Senator back in 1985:
I have been traveling, actually, to Latin America for decades now. I think the first trip I made as a United States senator in 1985 was to this region. And that was during a time of great transformation and challenge in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. And like my Senate colleagues, I was then focused on issues of conflict resolution. I worked particularly closely with President Oscar Arias, working on the peace process back then, as well as on counter-narcotics cooperation and on human rights and on seeking justice for those who had lost their lives in the course of the Central American wars and the internal difficulties of a number of countries during that period.
    Kerry did not specifically mention to the OAS gathering that his 1985 trip was to meet with then-president of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega, the head of the Moscow-backed Communist Sandinistas who were fighting a proxy war with the United States via the US-backed "Contra" rebels. The Christian Science Monitor reported on Kerry's trip at the time:
Sens. Kerry & Harkin with Ortega in 1985
Senator Kerry flew to Nicaragua in April with fellow Democratic Sen. Thomas Harkin of Iowa, met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, and brought back word that Mr. Ortega would be willing to accept a cease-fire if Congress rejected aid to the rebels, or ``contras.'' That week the House initially voted down aid to the contras, and Mr. Ortega made an immediate trip to Moscow -- an action that moved House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. to say the ill-timed trip embarrassed those who had voted against aid. 
In spite of this setback, Kerry said in an interview that he doesn't think his trip to Nicaragua damaged him politically and that his mail supports him... 
Kerry emphasizes that he is not an advocate or supporter of Ortega's government. ``I have no illusions about the Sandinistas.'' Nevertheless, he argues, ``We are still trying to overthrow the politics of another country in contravention of international law, against the Organization of American States charter. 
``We negotiated with North Vietnam. Why can we not negotiate with a country smaller than North Carolina and with half the population of Massachusetts? It's beyond me. And the reason is that they just want to get rid of them [the Sandinistas], they want to throw them out, they don't want to talk to them.''
     Ortega, who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Nicaragua, has been once again serving as president of that country since 2007.  He recently politely shared a dinner with President Obama at the May summit of Central American leaders, but was soon after publicly critical of the US and its influence in the region.  Oretga also famously supported Qaddafi during the Libyan conflict in 2011.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

State Department Offers Reward for Leads on ‘Location’ of Terrorists

    The State Department announced on Monday a total of up to $23 million in rewards for information on terrorists in West Africa, the first time the Department's Rewards for Justice program has offered rewards in that part of the continent.  Although the Obama administration has repeatedly insisted that the leadership of al-Qaeda has been decimated, four of the five terrorist on this new list are either current al-Qaeda leadership or alumni of the organization according to the State Department press release.  And from the wording of the new reward offers, as well as many of the previous outstanding reward offers, capturing and taking these men into custody is not the primary focus of Rewards for Justice [emphasis added]:
The Secretary of State has authorized rewards of up to $5 million each for information leading to the location of AQIM leader Yahya Abu el Hammam and Signed-in-Blood Battalion leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar [former AQIM]; rewards of up to $3 million each for information leading to the location of AQIM leader Malik Abou Abdelkarim and MUJWA spokesperson Oumar Ould Hamaha [former AQIM]; and a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to the location of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram.
    One of the distinguishing features of the Rewards for Justice program is the more limited  qualification attached to most of the reward offers.  While other government reward programs for information on fugitives depend on information leading to an arrest or even an arrest and conviction, the vast majority of rewards offered by the State Department's Rewards for Justice ask only for "information leading to the location" of the terrorists in question.
    There are exceptions, such as the $10 million for "[i]nformation leading to the arrest or conviction of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed," but even the $25 million reward for Ayman al-Zawahiri, founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, requires only "location."  In fact, rewards on only five of the 58 terrorists currently listed call for "capture" or "arrest."  The remainder, including all of the new West Africa additions, the first added to the program since President Obama's speech on counterterrorism policy two weeks ago, are subject to the location-only standard.
    In that speech, the president said in his justification of his drone policy, "despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed."  Since 53 of 58 Rewards for Justice offers simply ask for the "location" of the terrorists, it seems safe to assume that "detention and prosecution" is less a "strong preference" and more a rare exception, at least in this collection of high-value targets.  And with the president's renewed call for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the administration arguably has more incentive than ever to keep the number of high-ranking terrorist leaders in custody low.  The current structure of the Rewards for Justice program would seem to reflect the administration's intentions to do just that.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

CBO: Uninsured Under Obamacare Never Falls Below 30 Million

    On Monday, CNBC reported on a new survey that found that two-thirds of Americans currently without health insurance don't know if they will purchase coverage by the deadline, the first day of 2014.  The survey was released by InsuranceQuotes.com, a company that offers comparison shopping for insurance, similar to the "marketplaces" envisioned by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The results of the survey surprised Laura Adams, senior insurance analyst at the company:
"I was really shocked that 64 percent [of uninsured adults] said they haven't decided if they will purchase insurance by the Jan. 1 deadline," Adams said. "I was definitely surprised by the high number of people who really have no clue what they're going to do next year." 
"We don't want these consumers to miss this key deadline," she said, adding that new heath-care exchanges under Obamacare will begin accepting applications for insurance in less than four months. "They're going to potentially go without health care for the entire year."
    However, for those who have kept up with Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections on the implementation and progress of ObamaCare over the next decade, the results will not be all that surprising.  On the contrary, the most recent report issued by the CBO in May appears pessimistic by comparison.  Of the 55 million "Uninsured Nonelderly People" the report lists for 2013, only 11 million, or 20%, are projected to obtain insurance during 2014; the number of uninsured falls only to 44 million next year according to the CBO.  This leaves a full 80% uninsured, significantly more than the 67% found by the survey.
    In fact, the CBO projects that under the ACA over the next decade, the number of uninsured will never fall below 30 million.  Here are the year by year projections from the report:
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
     Despite the ACA's mix of requirements, mandates, subsidies and penalties, the CBO projects that the law will never be able to decrease the number of uninsured below 11% of the population.  During the decade projected by the CBO, the percentage of uninsured nonelderly persons decreases from 20% in 2013 to 11% by 2016, but then remains there for the rest of the ten year period.  Not everything in the CBO report is similarly static, however.  The "Average Exchange Subsidy per Subsidized Enrollee" increases 50% over the same time period, rising from $5,290 in 2014 to $7,900 in 2023.

Note: This article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.