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.