Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Feds Begin Preparing for Possible 2015 Surge of Unaccompanied Children Across Border

    Just two days before Christmas, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took the first step to prepare for a possible "surge" of unaccompanied minors in 2015. HHS posted a Sources Sought notice to gather information on "options for contract surge capacity to shelter and care" for children who enter the country on their own. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 placed the responsibility for such children on HHS instead of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
    At this point, HHS is not estimating the number of children for which care may be needed in the coming year:
No decisions have been made regarding the need for surge capacity in 2015, but ORR is exploring options available should the need arise. The purpose of the temporary structures with staffing and services is to identify agencies capable of standing-up soft-sided structures, trailers, or other temporary structures that could shelter 100-2,500 children on federally leased or owned land.
    The Washington Post reported in October that homeland security chief Jeh Johnson placed the fiscal 2014 total of unaccompanied children at 68,434. After an enormous surge in the summer months, the numbers fell quickly in the fall. It is not yet clear if President Obama's immigration actions announced in late November have had any impact on that trend.

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

Kerry Uses Tsunami Anniversary to Push 'Climate Change' Agenda

    Secretary of State John Kerry used the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Indian Ocean region as a reminder about climate change. The earthquake released huge walls of water that inundated a number of coastal regions in both Asia and Africa just before Christmas in 2004. Kerry recalls hearing the news:
I’ll never forget hearing the news of the tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean 10 years ago. The images were gut-wrenching: entire towns razed from Indonesia to Somalia; raging waters sweeping away people’s homes; hundreds of thousands killed and many more separated from their families. 
Today of all days, we pause to remember those we lost—from farmers and fishers to travelers from our own lands. I know that there are no words to express such a horrific loss. There’s no way to wipe away the pain of parents who lost a child, or children who lost their parents and were forced to assume adult responsibilities at a tender age. 
We recognize the millions of people who contributed to the recovery effort. And we honor those who have continued to work in the years since to help the victims pick up the pieces and rebuild their communities. The tsunami was one of the worst we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.
    However, Kerry went on to say that the tsunami "sounded a warning" about climate change as well:
It also sounded a warning. We know that many regions are already suffering historic floods and rising sea levels. And scientists have been saying for years that climate change could mean more frequent and disastrous storms, unless we stop and reverse course. Last year I visited the Philippines and saw the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. It is incomprehensible that that kind of storm – or worse – could become the norm. The time to act on climate change is now – before it’s too late to heed the warning. 
On this day of reflection, we mourn with our friends in Asia and Africa who were affected by this terrible disaster. We commit to the hard work still ahead to help the region build safer, more resilient communities. And we pledge our best efforts to leave our children and grandchildren a safer and more sustainable planet. Future generations are counting on us.
    Kerry did not indicate what kind of efforts could be taken to mitigate the effects of a similar tsunami in the future.

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

John Kerry Tries to Channel Reagan: 'Tear Down the Digital Wall' in Cuba

    Secretary of State John Kerry, who wrote an op-ed for the Miami Herald along with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, evoked Ronald Reagan's timeless challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall in 1987, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." In reference to President Obama's recently announced policy changes toward communist Cuba, Kerry wrote, "[T]he president’s decision will support new efforts to tear down the digital wall that isolates Cubans."
    Kerry is not the first administration official to draw the allusion. In October 2014, less than two months ago, U.S. Ambassador Ronald D. Godard of the U.S. Mission to the UN used the same phrase, ironically enough, in justifying the continuation of the US's late policy towards Cuba as he explained the US vote against a Cuban-backed resolution. Twenty-three times the United Nations has sided with Cuba and voted overwhelmingly to condemn the US embargo of Cuba; as was the case last year when the same resolution was introduced, Israel alone sided with the United States in voting no.
    Interestingly, however, Ambassador Godard called the "digital wall" a wall of "censorship", emphasizing the free speech violation imposed by the communist government of Cuba. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the Cuban government, which keeps the wall in place while "disingenuously blaming U.S. policy" for its own failures:
The Cuban government now claims to share our goal of helping the Cuban people access the Internet. Yet the Cuban government has failed to offer widespread access to the Internet through its high speed cable with Venezuela.  Instead, it continues to impose barriers to information for the Cuban people while disingenuously blaming U.S. policy. 
Moreover, the Cuban government continues to detain Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for facilitating Internet access for Cuba’s small Jewish community. The United States calls on Cuba to release Mr. Gross immediately, allow unrestricted access to the Internet, and tear down the digital wall of censorship it has erected around the Cuban people.
    Kerry, on the other hand, spoke of a "digital wall that isolates Cubans", placing the emphasis on "isolation":
[T]he president’s decision will support new efforts to tear down the digital wall that isolates Cubans. The country has an Internet penetration rate of 5 percent, among the lowest in the world. Prices are high, and services are limited. Under the new policy, we will permit the sale of technology that will begin to unleash the transformative effects of the Internet on the island.
    The Obama administration argues the policy of isolation has been a failure, and Kerry himself recently said it has isolated the United States instead of Cuba. Kerry addressed the low internet penetration rate, high prices and limited service, but did not mention the limitations on access to the internet that originally led to the imprisonment of Alan Gross who was freed the same day the new Cuba policy was announced. In Kerry's view, Cuban's have been "isolated" by the US's refusal to sell certain technology rather than made victims by a wall of censorship erected by an oppressive regime.
    The two versions of the "digital wall" are not the only disparities in Ambassador Godard's remarks in October and the new Obama administration line. Godard placed the blame for the continued restrictions on US interaction with Cuba squarely at the door of the communist government of Cuba, which he said had even recently acknowledged its own culpability:
Mr. President, the Cuban government uses this annual resolution in an attempt to shift blame for the island’s economic problems away from its own policy failures. The Cuban government now publicly recognizes that its economic woes are caused by the economic policies it has pursued for the last, past half-century. We note and welcome recent changes that reflect this acknowledgement, such as those that allow greater self-employment and liberalization of the real estate market. But the Cuban economy will not thrive until the Cuban government permits a free and fair labor market, fully empowers Cuban independent entrepreneurs, respects intellectual property rights, allows unfettered access to information via the Internet, opens its state monopolies to private competition and adopts the sound macro-economic policies that have contributed to the success of Cuba’s neighbors in Latin America.
    Godard also pointed out the embargo was far from absolute, noting that "[b]y the Cuban government’s own account, the United States is one of Cuba’s principal trading partners":
The Cuban people continue to receive as much as $2 billion per year in remittances and other private contributions from the United States. This support has made possible - was made possible - by U.S. policy choices. By the Cuban government’s own account, the United States is one of Cuba’s principal trading partners. In 2013, the United States exported approximately $359 million in agricultural products, medical devices, medicine and humanitarian items to Cuba.
    Despite giving credit to Cuba for some changes, Godard closed his remarks by reiterating that the "real problems" facing the Cuban people were the responsibility of the "regime":
Mr. President, this resolution only serves to distract from the real problems facing the Cuban people, and therefore my delegation will oppose it. Though Cuba’s contributions to the fight against Ebola are laudable, they do not excuse or diminish the regime’s treatment of its own people.
    On the other hand, Secretary Kerry emphasized the negative effects of US Cuba policy and how those policies handed the Cuban government a justification to continue restrictive policies:
As Albert Einstein said long ago, it’s just not rational to continue doing the same thing in the expectation of obtaining a different result. Since U.S.-Cuban relations were frozen, the world has been transformed; the Cold War ended a quarter century ago. Over time the U.S. effort to isolate Cuba began to have the reverse effect of isolating the United States especially in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, Cuban leaders used our stance as a source of propaganda, to justify policies that have no place in the 21st century. It has been an open secret that the relationship has been in a rut that benefits no one on either side. The time has come to cease looking backward and to begin to move forward in the interests of both freedom-loving Cubans and the United States.
    In spite of Kerry's appropriation of Reagan's cold war challenge, its application in Cuba is markedly different. With his "tear down this wall" speech, Reagan threw down the gauntlet, and in the face of resolute strength by America and her allies, the Soviet Union and its most visible icon, the Berlin wall, crumbled from within. With Cuba, less than two months after reaffirming the legitimacy of current policy before the UN and placing the blame for the status quo on Cuba for its "own policy failures," the Obama administration capitulated to a still defiant Cuban government, whose leader Raul Castro declared this week, "We won the war."
    The "digital wall" of isolation Kerry spoke of may indeed be breached in the coming years as technology expands into Cuba. But the Berlin Wall was never intended primarily to keep out the West, but rather to keep East Berliners in. And unless the communist Cuban government takes uncharacteristic steps to extend unprecedented freedoms to the "freedom-loving Cubans" of whom Kerry spoke, the "digital wall" of censorship is likely to remain in place for years to come.

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

Cost of Healthcare.gov Exceeds $2.2B After Latest Contract Award

    With the announcement Monday of a five-year, $563 million contract award to Accenture, the Healthcare.gov contractor that rescued the Obamacare marketplace after 2013's disastrous launch, the total cost of the site will well exceed $2.2 billion. The new award is on top of the $1.7 billion in contracts reported by the inspector general (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in August.
    Accenture was first hired in January after HHS replaced CGI Federal, the original contractor. Accenture reported the new award on its website, noting that not only will the company maintain current services, but is expanding its work to include the small business health plans marketplace (SHOP), and will also assist those state-based exchanges that have decided to transition to the federal site:
As the 2014 enrollment period closed successfully with Accenture’s support, work began to prepare for the 2015 enrollment. Accenture focused on simplifying the process for issuers to update plans, and implemented tools and processes to expedite the resolution of citizen inquiries.  At the same time, Accenture worked with CMS to find new ways to streamline and improve the customer experience. CMS later expanded Accenture’s scope of work to include enhancements and additional functionality of the FFM, the SHOP and state-based exchange transitions.  All of these efforts helped create a successful launch of the 2015 Open Enrollment season that continues through February 15, 2015.
     Although the transition from CGI Federal to Accenture appears to have been successful, the government is still struggling with other aspects of the marketplace. Although Hewlett-Packard was selected to replace Verizon (Terremark) in June 2013 as the host for Healthcare.gov, Verizon was awarded an emergency contract just four weeks before the current open enrollment period began, extending its contract into 2015. The new Hewlett-Packard system is acting only as backup system and a "development environment" for the current open enrollment period.

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

State Dept: U.S. Nukes Down 85%, From 31,255 to 4,804

    The state department's Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, spoke at the Brookings Institution Thursday where she reaffirmed the United States' "unassailable" commitment to putting the nuclear weapons genie back in the bottle. Gottemoeller told the attendees at the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative-sponsored event that "the U.S. commitment to achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons is unassailable." She went on to note that the nation's stockpile of active weapons is down 85% from maximum cold war levels, falling to 4,804 in 2013 from a high of 31,255. But, she said, "We still have more work to do.":
As you all might know, I have been traveling quite a bit lately and was just recently in the Czech Republic for a conference on the Prague Agenda. I reminded people at that conference that when President Obama laid out his vision for the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons, he made it clear that it was not a desirable, but unattainable dream. The Prague Agenda is an achievable long-term goal and one worth fighting for. I will say here what I said in Prague. There should be no doubt: the U.S. commitment to achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons is unassailable. We continue to pursue nuclear disarmament and we will keep faith with our Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments, prominent among them, Article VI. Our responsible approach to disarmament has borne fruit in the form of major reductions in nuclear weapons, fissile material stocks and infrastructure. These efforts have led us to reduce our nuclear arsenal by approximately 85% from its Cold War heights. In real numbers, that means we have gone from 31,255 nuclear weapons in our active stockpile in 1967 to 4,804 in 2013. We know we still have more work to do.
    According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which is put out by the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has about the same number of active weapons now as the US, and both countries have several thousand more warheads awaiting deactivation. Though due to security concerns governments are reluctant to divulge exact numbers, most of the older nuclear powers (US, Russia, the UK and France) stockpiles have been gradually declining. Israel, never publicly acknowledging its possession of nuclear weapons, is believed to be holding steady on its stockpile. China, India and Pakistan are all still believed to be gradually increasing their numbers. The exact status of North Korea's nuclear program and stockpile of weapons remains unknown.
    Not only is China's stockpile of nuclear weapons believed to still be on the increase, but this week the Washington Free Beacon reported that China is continuing to develop delivery systems. This past Saturday, China conducted a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering multiple warheads. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the report.

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

Kerry: U.S. Cuba Policy Has 'Isolated the United States' Instead of Cuba for Fifty-Five Years

    In Secretary of State John Kerry's statement on President Obama's Cuba policy changes, Kerry doesn't simply suggest the policies in place for five and a half decades are outdated. He seems to be suggesting they were a failure from the start. And in doing so, he apparently misstates his own age at the time President Kennedy made one of the most well known presidential addresses in our nation's history, and certainly the most notable regarding Cuba.
    Kerry's remarks, released by the state department on Wednesday, begin as follows:
I was a seventeen year old kid watching on a black and white television set when I first heard an American President talk of Cuba as an "imprisoned island.” 
For five and a half decades since, our policy toward Cuba has remained virtually frozen, and done little to promote a prosperous, democratic and stable Cuba. Not only has this policy failed to advance America's goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba.
    Originally, a limited embargo against Cuba was instituted toward the end of the Eisenhower administration. However, John F. Kennedy broke off diplomatic relations with the island nation in 1961; then he issued Proclamation 3447 in February 1962 (authorized by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961,) which extended the embargo to all trade with Cuba. However, with minor adjustments now and then, both Republican and Democratic presidents in the interim have kept the embargo in place and have declined to renew diplomatic relations.
    Rather than paint Cuba policy and the embargo as having outlived their usefulness, however, Kerry says that the policy "has remained virtually frozen" for "five and a half decades" and has "failed to advance America's goals." He even goes so far as to say that the policy worked in reverse and "actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba." Kerry's remarks closely mirror those of President Obama, who lays out his new approach by making the case that the last half century has witnessed a "Failed Approach", because "today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party."
    In recalling the early days of US policy toward Castro's Cuba, however, Kerry seems to confuse the timing of events surrounding the formation of that policy. When Kerry says he "heard an American President talk of Cuba as an 'imprisoned island'," he's referring to President Kennedy's speech on October 22, 1962 revealing what would come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the televised address, Kennedy said [emphasis added]:
This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.
    Kerry says he was a "seventeen year old kid watching on a black and white television set" as Kennedy addressed the nation. Kerry, however, was born on December 11, 1943, which would have made him eighteen, less than two months shy of his nineteenth birthday. The state department did not respond to a request for clarification on Kerry's recollection, and as of this writing, the statement on the website remains unchanged.

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

'Sheriff Biden' Versus The Weed Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

Missing From New and Improved Healthcare.gov: Online Customer Service

    New and returning customers to Healthcare.gov this year will have one less option if they run into difficulties. In the run-up to the initial launch in 2013, the Obamacare website promoted a "live chat" feature in addition to the toll-free phone number to be available 24/7 to answer questions:

    This year, however, the "contact us" page on the site includes only a phone number, and the "blue box" mentioned in the excerpt above is nowhere to be seen.
    The online chat feature actually disappeared without fanfare back in the spring of 2014 before the first open enrollment period even ended. In February, the change was alluded to in a blog post by Julie Bataille, director of communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), noting that "we will transition 1500 service representatives from web chat to direct telephone assistance." There was no mention that the chat feature was being discontinued altogether, and CMS did not respond to a request for comment.
    In spite of the fact that the online help feature was dropped more than eight months ago and the site has undergone extensive revamping and reprogramming in the meantime, one artifact of the chat service remains on the site even today (archived here):

    While the notice is technically correct that the "Live Chat feature is unavailable right now", a more accurate message would inform customers that Healthcare.gov Live Chat is in fact dead.

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

"I'm Just an Executive Order" (With Apologies to Schoolhouse Rock)

In the recent past in Washington DC:

Boy: Woof! You sure got to climb a lot of steps to get to this Capitol Building here in Washington. But I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is?

Bill: I'm just a bill
Yes, I'm only a bill
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill
Well, it's a long, long journey
To the capital city
It's a long, long wait
While I'm sitting in committee
But I know I'll be a law someday
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill

Boy: Gee, Bill, you certainly have a lot of patience and courage. But why bother? The president has broad discretionary authority to use his executive power to make government work when an obstructionist Republican party ties up the Congress for their own partisan advantage.

Bill: Well what do I do?

Boy: Just head back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and tell the president John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were too busy schmoozing with the Koch Brothers to care about what is right for the country and you are ready to go to work for the American people... and even those who are not the American people but should be if the Republicans had one shred of humanity inside their cold, dead hearts.

Bill: You mean even if the whole Congress says you shouldn't be a law, the president can still say yes?

Boy: Certainly. The Founding Fathers never intended Congressional gridlock to tie the president's hands.

Bill: Thanks! It's actually pretty easy to become a law, is it?

Boy: Well, technically not a law. But on the other hand, who's gonna stop you?

Bill: Oh yes!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Army Plans 'Improvised Explosive Device Call Center' in Afghanistan

    Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have become infamous for their use by terrorists and other enemy combatants in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the United States continues the draw down of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, the Army is looking to establish a call center to be run by a contractor for the government of Afghanistan to both collect information when IEDs detonate and provide information when IEDs are located. Online documents describe the background for the project:
The National Counter Improvised Explosive Device (C-IED) Call Center will be the coordination and information response center of action when an IED is encountered or in the aftermath of an IED detonation. As part of the Government of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA’s) National C-IED Strategy 2012 as defined by the Afghan Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Call Center will improve Reporting and Exploitation of IED threats. The call center will serve as the collection center for evidence and reporting for IED’s. 
    Initially, the project calls for  eight call center operators and four supervisors to receive about 7-10 days training in call center operations. The supervisors must be proficient in English, Dari and Pashto and have basic computer skills. The operators must also have basic computer skills and speak English and either Dari or Pashto. Once trained, the personnel will staff the center 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. The schedule may be adjusted depending on call volume, and additional personnel may be added later. The documents say that, following training, the twelve individuals will be assembled into "4 person teams; 1 supervisor and 3 operators," although these numbers do not seem to jive with the eight operators and four supervisors sought.
    In a nod to evolving cultural norms in Afghanistan, the document notes that "female candidates are acceptable to staff these positions." In addition, personnel are eligible for "Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan approved holidays. Afghan holidays are determined by the Islamic Calendar and depend on sighting of the moon." Holidays include: " Muharram (Ashura), Prophet’s Birthday, Nawrooz, Afghan Independence Day, First Day of Ramadan, Eid-e Qurban, Martyrdom of National Hero, Eid ul-Fitr and The Victory Day of Islamic Revolution."
    Although the documents say that the call center will function as an "information response center of action when an IED is encountered," there is no indication that the operators or supervisors are required to have any expertise or experience with such devices. An email to the contact listed on the notice requesting additional information was not immediately returned.

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

In China, President Obama Quotes Deng Xiaoping: 'Seek Truth From Facts'

    In the "Great Hall of the People" in Beijing, China, President Obama appeared with China's current president Xi Jinping at a joint press conference Wednesday. During his remarks as he noted the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and China, President Obama recalled a saying of one of Jinping's most well-known predecessors, Deng Xiaoping: "Seek truth from facts."
This year marks the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two nations.  I’m told that Deng Xiaoping said that we must “seek truth from facts.”  On this anniversary, it is a fact that the past three and a half decades have seen an extraordinary growth in the ties between our two countries -- more trade, more collaborations between our businesses and scientists and researchers, more connections between the Chinese and the American people, from tourists to our students.  And it is a fact that when we work together, it’s good for the United States, it's good for China, and it is good for the world.
    As the president closed his remarks, he recalled the saying again, almost reversing the order of the words before catching himself:
As Deng Xiaoping said, we must seek facts from -- “seek truth from facts.”  The truth is that we have made important progress today for the benefit of both of our nations and for the benefit of the world.  The truth is that even more progress is possible as we continue to develop this important relationship.  I am confident that we will be able to do so.  So thank you.  Xie xie.
     Although President Obama said that he and Xi Jinping had a "very healthy exchange" regarding human rights, the president focused largely on economic cooperation between the two countries and downplayed a US role in other issues. He specifically noted that "the United States had no involvement in fostering the protests that took place [in Hong Kong]," and also said that "we recognize Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China.  We are not in favor of independence."
    The president did not mention the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement or the subsequent crackdown ordered by then-president Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese government has never acknowledged the extent of the crackdown and continues to suppress information about the massacre even today.

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pentagon: Military Losing Technological Superiority to China

    During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the US military used a new generation of technological weapons that left the rest of the world far behind. But according the Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for acquisitions, technology and logistics, that advantage is evaporating. Speaking at a breakfast at the Navy League in Arlington, Virginia Wednesday, Kendall said the deterioration has continued during his four and a half years on the job, "in large part because of our budget situation," including sequestration. Claudette Roulo of DoD News reported on the under secretary's breakfast remarks: 
When I talk to people on the Hill and I mention that I'm concerned about technological superiority, … I get a reaction that is a sort of surprise, first of all, and disbelief. … I think we have gotten so accustomed to our technological superiority militarily that it's just a given, and it's one of the things I kind of fight against when I try to have these conversations,” Kendall said.
    While the US military's budget is being cut, China's budget has been growing at about 12% annually, Kendall said, and may soon be as large as the US's. China is of particular concern according to the under secretary because "no one's studied us more -- including immediately after the first Gulf War -- than the Chinese. And they have been building systems since then designed to counteract some of the things that we have." Kendall is not concerned about war with China, but a stronger military will give that country proportionally more influence in the region. Additionally, the Chinese may sell their technology to other countries that the US might end up facing someday in an armed conflict, and this also poses a problem. Again, DoD News reports:
The United States tends to rely on a small number of very expensive, but very capable, assets, the undersecretary said, and that makes the military vulnerable once an enemy learns how to attack those assets, noting that no one has a monopoly on technology, warfighting power or doctrinal and operational concepts.
    In October, Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reported on a draft of the annual report of the congressional, bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that seems to confirm and even expand on Kendall's concerns:
China’s rapid military modernization is altering the military balance of power in the Asia Pacific in ways that could engender destabilizing security competition between other major nearby countries, such as Japan and India, and exacerbate regional hotspots such as Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea,” the report concludes in a section on military developments.
    Accusations of cyberespionage by the Chinese in recent years have also heightened the concerns about China's ability to keep up with US technology and design systems to counteract it. While Kendall did not address espionage by the Chinese, he said that strategic investments in technology by China are targeted at changing the balance of power in Asia:
“They're designed to present us with a very difficult problem if we want to operate in the vicinity of China,” he added. “And it's structured in a way that they can, perhaps, control escalation, so they can force us to back down.”
    Overall, as the one in charge of acquisition the US military's technological assets, Kendall does not seem optimistic: "I'm worried about whether we're keeping up or not."

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

Test Version of Healthcare.gov Inadvertently Exposes New Website Features Early [Updated]

    As 2015 open enrollment for Obamacare nears, Healthcare.gov has been telling consumers that "plans and estimated prices for 2015 coverage will be available in early November." Although signup is not possible until November 15, the website promises this "window shopping" experience will come sooner:

    However, Jayne O'Donnell of USA Today is reporting that this "window shopping" feature, which some were expecting to debut today, maybe still not be available even by Sunday, less than a week before open enrollment begins:

    However, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has discovered that a test version of Healthcare.gov is exposed online with some of the new "window shopping" pages. We reported in September that akatest.healthcare.gov has been accessible for months even though it is only a test version of the live site. Most web browsers only display the pages in html code, but the Firefox browser actually displays the content not yet ready for primetime on the live site. Here are two examples:

    Clicking on the SEE HEALTH INSURANCE PLANS & PRICES button, however, does not deliver; rather, it takes users to the "Full-time Equivalent (FTE) Employee Calculator".
    The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the exposed test site, despite the fact that such test sites have been an issue since at least December 2013, as we reported at the time.

UPDATE: Shortly after this article was posted, the test site, akatest.healthcare.gov, disappeared. A few archives of the site were captured on the Internet Archive here.  However, HHS has still not responded to emailed requests for comment or explanation.

Note: A version of this post (before the update) first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Kerry: If U.S. Gave Up All Fossil Fuels, It Wouldn’t Stop Climate Change

    While the nation was focused on the mid-term elections Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies regarding U.S.-China relations. As he often does, Kerry brought up the subject of climate change, which he asserted is happening "faster and [at a] greater rate than scientists predicted."
    According to Kerry, the U.S. and China are "the world’s two largest emitters of global greenhouse gases," together accounting for "about 45 percent and climbing, unfortunately." And to hear Kerry tell it, the situation almost appears hopeless:
So we need to solve this problem together. Why? Because neither one of us can possibly solve it alone. Even if every single American biked to work or carpooled to school or used only solar panels to power their homes – if we reduced our emissions to zero, if we planted each of us in America a dozen trees, if we somehow eliminated all of our domestic greenhouse gas emissions, guess what? That still wouldn’t be enough to counteract the carbon pollution coming from China and the rest of the world. And the same would be true for China if they reduced everything and we continued. We would wipe out their gains; they would wipe out our gains. 
    Kerry called the recently released United Nations climate report a "wakeup call" that demands "ambitious, decisive, and immediate action":
The UN climate report that was released over this last weekend is another wakeup call to everybody. The science could not be clearer. Our planet is warming and it is warming due to our actions, human input. And the damage is already visible, and it is visible at a faster and greater rate than scientists predicted. That’s why there’s cause for alarm, because everything that they predicted is happening, but happening faster and happening to a greater degree. The solutions are within reach, but they will require ambitious, decisive, and immediate action.
    Kerry sees climate change as "not just an environmental threat but an economic threat, a security threat, a health threat, and a security threat," but he is nonetheless optimistic about solving the problem:
The solution to climate change is as clear as the problem itself. And it’s not somewhere out there, pie in the sky, over the horizon, impossible to grab ahold of; it’s staring us in the face. The solution is energy policy. It’s as simple as that. Make the right choices in your energy policy, you solve the problem of climate change.
    Solving the problem, Kerry says, has the added bonus of creating tremendous wealth, not just for the United States and China, but for the whole world:
Guess what? You also happen to kick your economies into gear. You produce millions of jobs. You create economic opportunity unlike any that we have ever known, because the global energy market of the future is poised to be the largest market the world has ever known. Between now and 2035, investment in the sector is expected to reach nearly $17 trillion. The market that made everybody wealthy in America – everybody saw their income go up in the 1990s, and the greatest wealth in the history of our nation was created in the 1990s... [W]ith a few smart choices, together we can ensure that clean energy is the most attractive investment in the global energy sector and that entrepreneurs around the world can prosper as they help us innovate our way out of this mess and towards a healthier planet.
    Despite Kerry's enthusiasm for working together with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the furthest China has been willing to go so far is to say the country will seek to cap emissions "as soon as possible."

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Obama, Meet The Press in September: 'Elections Matter... Votes Matter'

    Even before President Obama declared that all his "policies are on the ballot" in Tuesday's midterm elections, he told Chuck Todd in September's Meet the Press appearance that "if democrats hold the Senate," Republicans should get the message that "their strategy of just obstructing and saying no... is an agenda that the American people reject." The president said that "people want to get stuff done," and a defeat of Republicans would "[give] us room, hopefully, to find some compromises."
    Here's the exchange between Todd and Obama regarding the midterms:
CHUCK TODD: ... A lot not accomplished here... immigration, overhauling the tax system, raising the minimum raise. You brought up these issues yourself. That was with a Democratic Senate. So that's why you look at this. And you sit there and say, "How do things change?" And do you think your presidency is in bigger trouble than if you have a Republican Senate? 
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, here's the issue. I think elections matter. I think votes matter. And given the fact that the punditry overwhelmingly felt that this was going... to be a good year for Senate Republicans, because the seats that were up were in states that were tilting or significantly with-- with significant Republican majorities. If we-- if democrats hold the Senate, I think that should get Republicans to once again-- 
CHUCK TODD: You think that sends a national message? 
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think what it does is-- is to-- to send a message to Republicans that people want to get stuff done. Their-- their strategy of just obstructing and saying no to every piece of legislation that might help middle class families, that might create ladders of opportunity, that that is an agenda that the American people reject. 
And that then gives us room, hopefully, to find some compromises. I've-- I've said this before, Chuck. You know, if you asked me back in August what I want for my birthday, I'd say, "Give me a loyal opposition that has some common sense and is willing to work on some basic issues that didn't used to be partisan issues." 
It didn't use to be that building roads, bridges, improving our airports, improving our water systems, reducing traffic, those didn't used to be partisan issues. They have become partisan issues, because you've got a small portion of the Republican party that is fixated simply on dismantling government or making sure that we don't get anything done around here. And that's why elections matter.
    As the president said to Todd, "I think elections matter. I think votes matter." If the president was sincere, his attitude at Wednesday's scheduled press appearance should be rather conciliatory. But given that the New York Times reported that an anonymous presidential aide said Tuesday night that President Obama "doesn’t feel repudiated" by the elections results, conciliation does not seem likely.

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Customs and Border Protection Halts Background Checks Over Security Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Feds Spend $38K on Metric System Superhero Cartoons

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

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

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

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