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Thursday, May 29, 2014

VA Awarded $3M in Prizes in Appointment Scheduling App Contest in 2013

     In October 2013, as the nation was focused on the deeply flawed rollout of the Healthcare.gov Obamacare marketplace, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) awarded $3 million in prizes to three participants in the agency's Medical Appointment Scheduling Contest. The contest was announced in 2012 to help the VA make the move to a more modern and flexible scheduling system:
VA’s current Medical Scheduling Package (MSP) is a component of VistA; it’s legacy electronic health record (EHR) system. The MSP not only makes appointments for clinicians, but also captures data that allows VA to measure, manage, and improve efficiency and access to care. However, VA’s current MSP is more than 25 years old. It neither meets current requirements, nor does it provide the flexibility needed to adapt for future needs[.]
    A press release from the contest winner MedRed noted that the:
VA started to develop a Medical Scheduling Package replacement in 2000. This effort was not successful.  When VA ended the project in 2009, none of the planned capabilities were delivered. It had cost more than $127 million.
    The prize-winning app, Health e-Time, was developed in about two and a half months according to MedRed's CEO William Smith, and was actually a collaboration between MedRed, telecom company BT and the VISTA Expertise Network, who will all split a $1.8 million first prize.
    According to GovernmentHealthIT, the Health e-Time application "offers veterans the ability to schedule visits online across VA locations and gives VA providers the ability to share appointments with veterans’ personal digital calendars and with other non-VA providers.
    Just this past week, CalConnect, a calendering and scheduling consortium, held a "Workshop on VA Scheduling System" at its conference in Dulles, VA, and William Smith of MedRed addressed attendees about the contest and his company's winning entry Health e-Time. Smith has previously described Health e-Time as "an open-source solution that could seamlessly integrate with VistA, the VA’s Electronic Health Record system."
    Second and third place prizes were awarded for the contest as well, earning $705,000 and $512,000 respectively. There were a total of forty-one entries submitted.


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

VA Spent $396K on Appointment Scheduling Software in 2013

    The Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) posted three notices on fbo.gov in 2013 regarding its intent to purchase appointment scheduling software to correct problems with preparation and delivery of appointment notices to veterans for the VA's compensation and pension clinics. The set-aside contract for software was awarded on September 26, 2013 for $395,949 to Tridec Technologies, LLC, a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) located in Dayton, Ohio. However, the contract award was not listed online at fbo.gov, the online government contracting website. According to an email response from the VA press office, the missing contract award notice was due to an oversight.
    The VA's compensation and pension clinics evaluate veterans for eligibility for disability claims, both physical- and mental-health related. The contract solicitation noted that the clinics "have a mandate to schedule and complete any examinations requested within 30 days." The VA faced several problems with the scheduling process as the documents accompanying the solicitation indicate:
  • [T]he appointment letter mailing process is averaging 7-10 days for the Veteran to receive the information.
  • There is a higher incidence of Veterans not showing for their appointments due to delays in notification. 
  • [S]chedulers are currently unable to edit appointment letters in real time which results in pen & ink changes presenting an unprofessional appearance and increasing the opportunity for errors. 
  • [M]ultiple appointments ... generate multiple letters which cannot be automatically consolidated.  
  • Multiple appointments for different clinics that are under the same service line, print in alphabetical rather than chronological order.  This results in missed appointments as well since our Veterans look at the first appointment listed and assume it represents their arrival time.
    The VA also hoped that the quick turnaround time afforded by email would allow cancelled appointments to be refilled more quickly to cut down on unused time slots and more efficiently utilize the clinics. Regarding implementation, the VA said that "initially this program will be launched at multiple VA’s Compensation and Pension Clinics with the goal to transition to all VA Clinics nationally."
    As noted above, the VA press office informed THE WEEKLY STANDARD in response to an email inquiry that the "lack of post-award synopsis was an oversight". A response has not yet been received to a follow up email asking about the status of the software's implementation and if the VA has plans to expand use of the software beyond the compensation and pension clinics.
    The contract with Tridec Technologies covers twelve months, through September 2014. Tridec lists two contracts with the VA on its website, but neither of the two involve the scheduling software. Tridec has not responded to an inquiry regarding the software contract.


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

Monday, May 26, 2014

State Department Official: 'Can Agriculture Save the Planet Before It Destroys It?'

    Secretary of State John Kerry recently told the graduating class of Boston College that climate change is threatening "nothing less than the future of the entire planet."  Now another state department official is asserting that even if the planet dodges the climate change bullet, the earth may be done in by agriculture.
    Jack Bobo, Chief of Biotechnology and Textile Trade Policy and Senior Advisor for Biotechnology in the Department of State's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, recent wrote a two-part article for ArcticApples.com, the website of a Canadian company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc.  The article, entitled "Can Agriculture Save the Planet before It Destroys It?", was republished last Saturday on DipNote, the official U.S. Department of State blog (the original source of the article was not noted.)
    Mr. Bobo's concern revolves around earth's growing population against the backdrop of the "negatives consequences of agriculture -- from polluted waterways to disappearing rainforests":
 With the global population expected to reach nine billion in less than 40 years, the sustainable production of agriculture will be increasingly on the minds of governments, private industry, and even many consumers. Not only do we have to increase the amount of food available, we have to find ways to minimize its footprint on the planet. There is no activity that humankind engages in that has a bigger impact on the planet than agriculture. This is true in terms of impacts on land and water resources as well as in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. 
Therefore one of the great challenges that confront all of us in the next 40 years is to figure out how to maximize the production of food while minimizing the negatives consequences of agriculture -- from polluted waterways to disappearing rainforests.
    Mr. Bobo notes the tremendous advances in agriculture particularly over the past century and concedes that the "rapid pace of technological development suggests that scientists may, indeed, be able to sustain the growth of the past." However, he notes:
In order to sustainably feed 9 billion people, global agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. In other words, we will need to do everything better than we are doing it today and our rivers and lakes are already running dry.
    According to Mr. Bobo, between now and 2050 will be the "most important 40 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture."  On the up side, if earth can make it to 2050 when population growth is projected to crash, "we will be good forever" in Mr. Bobo's words:
The good news is that after 2050 population growth will slow dramatically and everything will get easier. So, if we are able to get to 2050 without cutting down our forests and draining our rivers and lakes, we will be good forever. The next 40 years are not only the most important 40 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture. They are also the most important 40 years there will ever be in the history of agriculture.
    While Mr. Bobo is worried, he places great faith in science to help solve the agricultural crisis, noting that while he is the "first to admit that science doesn’t always get it right. It’s also true, however, that you can’t get it right without science."  The article ends on an optimistic note that, if everyone does his part, "agriculture just might save the planet."


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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kerry: Obama "Will Go Down in History" For "Highest Standards of Transparency and Accountability"

    The same day President Obama held a press conference about the growing scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary of State John Kerry faced the press in Mexico at a joint appearance with Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade. Kerry was in the country to discuss trade, economic growth, higher education, and security cooperation, but a reporter asked Kerry some pointed questions about President Obama and his policies and actions regarding surveillance and deportation.  Kerry responded with unequivocal support for the president, beginning, "Well, I believe President Obama will go down in history as the president who has held himself and his Administration accountable to the highest standards of transparency and accountability."
    In answer to the reporter's assertion that President Obama would be "going into history as the president that has deported the most migrants," Kerry said the Obama administration's relationship with the Mexican government has been "productive on cross-border issues, on immigration issues, extradition issues, deportation issues," but that things wouldn't "change overnight." (Secretary Meade added later that the two countries need a "more structured dialogue so we can talk about migration, security in a framework of the right of migrants.")
    Apparently in response to the reporter's statements about "spying" and "wired" phone calls, Kerry suggested, "everybody here knows President Obama didn’t order [what was happening] because he was in the Senate – and not even in the Senate – when much of this was put in place." Kerry invoked privacy standards that he had authored with Senator McCain that he said influenced new rules that President Obama had recently established, and said that the president would be "measured as having taken the most extraordinary steps of any president in our history in order to try to put that [security and protection and prevention versus privacy] relationship back in balance."  Kerry placed President Obama at the top of the list of all presidents for transparency in this regard, saying, "No President, I think, in our history has laid open as willingly for everybody to judge what we are doing as a guideline or as a standard by which we are going to try to balance this equity between security and protection and prevention versus privacy and respect for the rights of all of our citizens."
    Kerry closed his remarks with the assurance that "the people of the United States and the people of Mexico should be pleased with the direction that we’re moving in. It’s open, it’s transparent, it’s accountable, and it’s productive. And I think we’re headed in the right direction."
    A complete transcript of the exchange between Secretary Kerry and the reporter is as follows:
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) This is a question for Secretary Kerry. When President Pena came into office, the level that he would have with the United States was questionable, especially in terms of unity. After one year and a half, what do you think about the relationship of this administration with the United States? 
You said that the United States doesn’t have any interest in Venezuela, only to foster dialogue. But how can you explain that in Mexico, we learned some time ago that U.S. operatives was spying the candidate Pena Nieto. And recently, we found out that many of the telephone calls are wired. How can you explain this to the Mexican population in terms of migration? Is it true that President Obama has – it is true that President Obama has been fostering the reform, but it seems that he’s going into history as the president that has deported the most migrants. I know that this is something related to Congress, but I don’t know what is the position of President Obama and how he wants to go into history.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I believe President Obama will go down in history as the president who has held himself and his Administration accountable to the highest standards of transparency and accountability. The President has personally committed his Administration, which it has accomplished, to take an in-depth analysis of precisely what was happening, which everybody here knows President Obama didn’t order because he was in the Senate – and not even in the Senate – when much of this was put in place. 
And President Obama has ordered a process of accountability and transparency, and has been willing to lay it out for the world to see and understand that process of accountability. He gave a speech recently in which he set up new standards by which he believed the United States ought to behave, and I will tell you, because I was the author in the United States Senate with Senator John McCain of privacy with respect to the Internet and other uses, that we both believe very, very powerfully in the right of people to privacy (inaudible). 
Now at the same time, the President of the United States has a fundamental responsibility to protect our people and to help protect people in the rest of the world who are potentially targeted by vicious extremists, terrorists in various parts of the world. The fact is that we have, because of our capable intelligence-gathering, been able to thwart many plots which would’ve resulted in the loss of civilian lives in one attack or another. There’s a delicate balance, and President Obama has worked very, very hard to achieve that balance. No President, I think, in our history has laid open as willingly for everybody to judge what we are doing as a guideline or as a standard by which we are going to try to balance this equity between security and protection and prevention versus privacy and respect for the rights of all of our citizens. And I think the President will actually be measured as having taken the most extraordinary steps of any president in our history in order to try to put that relationship back in balance.
Now, with respect to the relationship with President Pena Nieto and Mexico, I am convinced that our relationship is as strong and as vital as it has been. It is as productive on cross-border issues, on immigration issues, extradition issues, deportation issues; on our mutual interests in the economy; on our mutual interests of innovation, research, education that we’ve just been talking about – I don’t think we’ve ever had as in-depth and as repeated a series of meetings in an effort to make sure we’re on track. Now, does everything change overnight? No. I wish it did in lots of respects. But we are on track, with the agenda that we have set and the relationship that has been created, to deal with any bumps in the road, to work through difficulties of border police or policing or military, other kinds of things. 
We’re working cooperatively. That’s what’s important. And we have made tremendous gains in the actual cooperation day to day in those endeavors. So I think the people of the United States and the people of Mexico should be pleased with the direction that we’re moving in. It’s open, it’s transparent, it’s accountable, and it’s productive. And I think we’re headed in the right direction. 

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kerry: If We're Wrong on Climate Change, 'What's the Worst That Can Happen?'

    Secretary of State John Kerry did not shy away from pejorative language when addressing "climate change" in his commencement speech at Boston College on Monday.  Kerry referred to those skeptical of the Obama administration's climate claims as "members of the Flat Earth Society" who are "risking nothing less than the future of the entire planet" by resisting implementation of the administration's policies.  At the very least, Kerry argued, what have we got to lose by taking the steps he and the president are advocating? [emphasis added]:
If we make the necessary efforts to address this challenge – and supposing I’m wrong or scientists are wrong, 97 percent of them all wrong – supposing they are, what’s the worst that can happen? We put millions of people to work transitioning our energy, creating new and renewable and alternative; we make life healthier because we have less particulates in the air and cleaner air and more health; we give ourselves greater security through greater energy independence – that’s the downside. This is not a matter of politics or partisanship; it’s a matter of science and stewardship. And it’s not a matter of capacity; it’s a matter of willpower.
    Kerry also suggested there's not much time to act, because "things will change in a hurry," and indeed some things have already changed:
Two major recent reports, one from the UN and one from retired U.S. military leaders, warn us not just of the crippling consequences to come, but that some of them are already here. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s scientists tell us this is urgent. Why? Because if crops can’t grow, there’ll be food insecurity. If there’s less water because of longer droughts, if there are stronger and more powerful storms, things will change in a hurry and they will change for the worse. 
    Kerry seemed to be echoing the words of French foreign minister Laurent Fabius who last week at an appearance with the secretary said that "we have 500 days to avoid climate chaos."  As CNS News later reported, Fabius went on to warn that the earth stands at "the edge of a climatic abyss."  He was heartened, however, from some "glimmers of hope," adsserting that since the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, "climate denial is – at least in Europe – less audible."


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

Military Leave Policy Altered to Accommodate Same-Sex Weddings [Updated]

    The American Military Partner Association (AMPA) held its first National Gala Dinner in Washington Sunday, and the Department of Defense used the opportunity to tout the rapid advances the military is making in erasing gender distinctions in policies regarding military spouses and partners. As reported by the Armed Forces Press Service, the keynote speaker at the dinner, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Rosemary Freitas Williams, told the attendees that the Pentagon had modified existing military leave policy to allow service members to travel to the nearest jurisdiction where same-sex marriage is permitted to be legally married:
“Since not all local laws are equal when it comes to marriage,” Williams said, “we’ve modified the department’s leave policy to allow service members, regardless of their sexual orientation, to be authorized administrative absence so they may travel to the nearest jurisdiction to be legally married.”
    The military leave policy change was not the only announcement at the dinner.  Williams also said there were ongoing "policy reviews of commissary and exchange privileges, the morale, welfare and recreation program, childcare and youth programs and others to ensure access is inclusive."
    Further, AMPA's Community Hero Award recipient Tracy Johnson revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs had recently notified her that she had been retroactively approved to receive spousal survival benefits after initially being denied.  Tracy and her partner Donna had been issued a marriage certificate in Washington D.C. in February 2012 before Donna was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan later that same year.
    Williams was effusive in her praise for the AMPA and the attendees at the dinner, telling them they were "among the new generation of pioneers within the ranks of military and veterans service organizations.  'History will record your actions and your significance for all time,' she said."
    The AMPA bills itself on its website as "[c]onnecting, supporting, honoring, and serving the partners and spouses of America's LGBT servicemembers and veterans - our 'modern military families.'"
    An email to the press office of the Defense Department seeking clarification on the extent of the leave policy and where the directive originated has not yet been returned.


UPDATE, 5/22/14: Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a DOD spokesman, has now responded via email:

A clarifying policy memo was issued by the Department Sept. 4, 2013...  

As operational requirements permit, commanding officers MAY grant an administrative absence (not paid leave) to service members that are assigned to duty stations located more than 100 miles from a jurisdiction that allows the couple to be married.   

Eligible Service members assigned outside the Continental United States may be granted an administrative absence for a period of up to 10 days, which may include up to 5 days for travel.   

The number of days of administrative absence will be based on:   
 o    The waiting period, required by law, to obtain a legal marriage from the jurisdiction nearest the assignment location; ando    Time to travel to and from the marriage jurisdiction (i.e., a maximum of 2 days travel if a member is assigned in CONUS and a maximum of 5 days travel if a member is assigned OCONUS).

A copy of the September 4, 2013 memo can be found here.



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

Monday, May 19, 2014

Kerry: 'Not Going To Pin Ourselves Down' on Response If Syria Again Used Chemical Weapons

    In London Thursday for a meeting with the foreign ministers of the nations of the London 11, the Friends of Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that “raw data that suggests there may have been” chlorine-based chemical weapons used by the Assad regime in Syria:
Chlorine is not listed on the list of prohibited items by itself freestanding under the Chemical Weapons Convention. But chlorine, when used and mixed in a way that is used as a chemical weapon in the conduct of war, is against the chemical weapons treaty. And I have seen evidence, I don’t know how verified it is – it’s not verified yet – it’s hasn’t been confirmed, but I’ve seen the raw data that suggests there may have been, as France has suggested, a number of instances in which chlorine has been used in the conduct of war. And if it has, and if it could be proven, then that would be against the agreements of the chemical weapons treaty and against the weapons convention that Syria has signed up to.
    Kerry was then questioned by a reporter about the possible responses if the evidence eventually proves that chemical weapons were indeed used again:
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Kerry, to follow up on your last point, if it is proven that chlorine was used as a chemical in war, which is prohibited, what will the Syrian Government face? What steps can be taken? 
SECRETARY KERRY: ...With respect to the CW and what the consequences are, it has been made clear by President Obama and others that use would result in consequences. We’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise time, date, manner of action, but there will be consequences if it were to be proven, including, I might say, things that are way beyond our control and have nothing to do with us. But the International Criminal Court and others are free to hold him accountable. And as you know, we have a resolution that will be in front of the United Nations with respect to culpability for crimes against humanity, atrocities in the course of this conflict. So one way or the other, there will be accountability.
    In an interview on September 10, 2013, the secretary said that proof of Syria's use of chemical weapons was the "straw that broke the camel’s back" that prompted President Obama to order military strikes against Syria:
That’s when the President decided that that was straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak with respect to his usage. And the President decided that it needed a response from the world because chemical weapons were suddenly being used as a tactical weapon in a civil war, and any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. 
That’s why we’re here where we are today. There’s a moral imperative to this, there’s a strategic imperative to this, there’s a practical military imperative in terms of sending him a message that his infrastructure, militarily, and his capacity to wage war could be affected if he continues to use these prohibited, outlawed, and outrageous weapons.
    Two days later at an appearance with Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, Kerry said that the president maintained that "force might be necessary" "should diplomacy fail[.]"  After the Russian-brokered deal with Syria headed off military strikes, Kerry said "Ensuring that a dictator's wanton use of chemical weapons never again comes to pass, we believe is worth pursuing and achieving."
    Kerry did not mention a renewal of the strike threat when questioned this Thursday about the consequences to Syria if use of chemical weapons is proven again.


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

Kerry Compares Governing Libya to Being a Massachusetts Senator

    Secretary of State John Kerry, in the United Kingdom for a meeting of the nations of the London 11, spoke to the press at the Foreign Commonwealth Office in London.  While the gathering was principally addressing the military conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria, the secretary commented on the situation in Libya as well.  Kerry noted the need to bring security and stability to the country in the face of continuing violence and threats from various extremist elements:
We need to try to accelerate the effort to bring about stability and security and the governance that is necessary to provide the time and the space for Libyan authorities to be able to confront the threat from extremism and the challenges that their country faces of just providing governance to their people.
    Kerry then briefly described some steps the Libyan government would be encouraged to take to provide stability and peace for the Libyan people.  He noted the country is "rich in resources, rich in people with talent and capacity."  Kerry also referenced his own experience as a senator from Massachusetts as an example to the Libyans that he knows "something about what you can provide when you want to."
[W]e’re going to do all we can to help the Libyans in these next days to try to be able to gain control over their revenues and begin to forge the kind of coalition that can actually begin to build the offices of governance that are necessary. This is a small country – six and a half million people – smaller than the state that I represented in the Senate – privileged to represent for almost 29 years. I know something about what you can provide when you want to. Libya is a country rich in resources, rich in people with talent and capacity. And we hope that in the days ahead we’re going to be able to tap into that and find a way to help the Libyan people to move forward to have the kind of stability and peaceful governance that they aspire to.
    Kerry's remarks on Libya came on same day Rep. Darrell Issa issued a second subpoena for Kerry to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on May 29 to testify about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.  Kerry was scheduled to be out of the country on May 21, the date of the original subpoena.


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

Saturday, May 17, 2014

French Foreign Minister: '500 Days To Avoid Climate Chaos'

    Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to the State Department in Washington Tuesday to discuss a range of issues, from Iran to Syria to climate change. Or, in the words of the foreign minister, "climate chaos." Kerry and Fabius made a joint appearance before their meeting, and the foreign minister warned that only 500 days remained to avoid "climate chaos"[emphasis added]:
Well, I’m very happy to be with John. There is no week without a phone call or a visit between John and myself, and we have on the agenda many items, many issues – Iran, because negotiations are resuming today; the question of Syria, and we shall meet next Thursday in London together; Ukraine as well; and very important issues, issue of climate change, climate chaos. And we have – as I said, we have 500 days to avoid climate chaos. And I know that President Obama and John Kerry himself are committed on this subject and I’m sure that with them, with a lot of other friends, we shall be able to reach success on this very important matter.
    It is unclear what the foreign minister had in mind with the 500 days.  However, France is scheduled to host the "21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change" in December 2015, about 566 days from now.


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

Friday, May 16, 2014

U.S. Ambassador: Sanctions Against Russia Are '21st Century Use Of Force'

    Given the lack of foreign policy success with "red line" threats of military force, the Obama administration has apparently broadened the definition of "use of force" to include financial threats of red ink against Russia for recent actions in Ukraine.  U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Matthew Barzun wrote an editorial on May 10 for the U.K. Daily Mail newspaper where he refers to sanctions on Russia by the US, Britain and EU as a "21st Century use of force," and said that Russia is in danger of "profound economic costs."  The ambassador insists the mockery and criticism of the sanctions overlooks their "potency":
The reaction of the US, Britain and the EU to Moscow’s malign interventions in Ukraine has been to introduce calibrated, comprehensive and co-ordinated sanctions. We are raising the economic costs on Russia. 
And this week, John Kerry will be in London to discuss with William Hague and their EU counterparts what appropriate next steps might be. Were Putin to take steps that hinder or attempt to prevent the elections, he will bring more costs on Russia. 
There has, however, been criticism of our response. One British paper belittled it by depicting a shirtless Putin on board a tank driving past a sign which said: ‘Stop. Or the West will put you on the naughty step.’ 
This characterisation of our approach ignores the potency of this 21st Century use of force. No longer is the choice between hand grenades or hand-wringing.
    The shirtless Putin in the tank appeared on the cover of the March 22, 2014 issue of The Economist shortly after the first sanctions were put in place in response to the Crimean crisis but before the more recent aggressive actions by Russia and pro-Russian separatists in other areas of eastern Ukraine. Nonetheless, Barzun asserts the sanctions are exacting a "steep price":
Sanctions are making Russia pay a steep price for its actions. Its credit rating has been downgraded to one step above ‘junk’ status, stock prices and economic growth are weakening, and the central bank has spent close to $30 billion (£18 billion) to prop up the rouble.
    Ambassador Barzun closes his editorial with unequivocal confidence that ultimately the sanctions, or, in his words, the "21st Century use of force," will have the desired effect once Russia's "current nationalistic fever" breaks:
Unless Putin changes course, the current nationalistic fever in Russia will soon break. When it does, it will give way to a cold realisation of the profound economic costs of his policies. 
This crisis is one of his own choosing. Now he faces another choice: to leave Ukraine in peace and work with us to create a strong Ukraine – one that is not a buffer between East and West, but a bridge to both.
    An email to the State Department seeking further explanation of the ambassador's words has not yet been returned.

UPDATE: After this post ran at The Weekly Standard, the State Department press office replied: "We don’t have anything on this."


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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

From Here to Eternity... Or Election Day, Whichever Comes First

    In James Taranto's Tuesday edition of his Wall Street Journal Online column The Best of the Web, Taranto quotes from a recent article by the Journal's Gerald Seib: "[S]ix months is an eternity in modern politics."  The phrase sounds very familiar to even the casual consumer of political media, but just how hackneyed the formulation has become may surprise even grizzled political veterans.  The Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God has set eternity in the hearts of men, but clearly eternity is also set in the pens of pundits.  With barely a research effort to speak of, here's an abridged compilation of this most versatile of politics memes:
  • "Fifteen months is an eternity in politics, so Sen. Lautenberg has plenty of time..." Rutgers
  • "Thirteen months is a long time between now and election day. Thirteen months is an eternity in politics." New York Times
  • "...two weeks is a long time in politics, eleven months is an eternity." Canada Free Press
  • "There are also still nine months left in 2014 – an eternity in politics." Breitbart
  • "Eight months is an eternity in politics..." PolicyMic
  • "...seven months away, an eternity in American politics." Bloomberg
  • "Six months is an eternity in modern politics..." WSJ
  • "They say a day in politics is a long time. A little over four months would perhaps qualify as an eternity..." CVMTV
  • "Now we’re under a month to go until the November 6 election, at which point today will seem like an eternity ago." Reuters
    To be clear, I could have gone higher than sixteen months, but since this is not a political campaign, I didn't have eternity to work on it.  And time also fails me to tell of the eternal nature of political daysweeks, and years.
    But the trail leading to the apex of hyperbole doesn't end here. Politico (as reposted by CBS News) managed to squeeze eternity into a single hour back in 2007:
    The grand prize, however, goes to Michael Green writing in the Federal Political News from Joyce Communications in Nevada. Green bests Politico by a factor of sixty:
  • "Much can change in that long a period, since a minute is an eternity in politics." Joyce Communications
    But on second thought, maybe Michael Green was on to something.  After all, many candidates watching returns crawl in on election night could certainly identify with the words of Franz Kafka: "L'√©ternit√©, c'est long ... surtout vers la fin." Eternity is long, especially near the end.

Monday, May 12, 2014

White House: Obamacare Made This Mother's Day "Particularly Special"

    Rahm Emanuel famously declared early in the Obama administration that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." Apparently the White House feels the same about holidays.  On Sunday, a blog post appeared on the official White House website entitled "Happy Mother's Day, from the ACA":
This Mother's Day is particularly special for millions of families this year. 
More than 8 million Americans have signed up for coverage through HealthCare.gov. And for families across America, that's making a difference – providing peace of mind for parents and kids alike.
    After several examples of children and mothers who benefited from coverage under the Affordable Care Act, readers are invited to click on a link to answer the question, "What has getting covered meant for your family this Mother's Day?"


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

Friday, May 9, 2014

U.S. Consulate in Nigeria Asked Clinton State Dept. Why Boko Haram Wasn't Called 'Terrorist Organization'

    Boko Haram, the militant group responsible for the recent kidnapping of 276 girls in Nigeria, was not designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department until November of 2013 despite a long record of violence.  Hillary Clinton has now come under fire, as reported by Josh Rogin at The Daily Beast, for resisting calls for the FTO designation for Boko Haram during her tenure as secretary of state.  Rogin says that "[t]he refusal came despite the urging of the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and over a dozen senators and congressmen."  But in 2012, even U.S. State Department diplomats in Nigeria seemed mystified about why the government was "reluctant" to issue the designation.
    On September 20, 2012, then Bureau of African Affairs Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson appeared on a State Department "Live at State" webchat regarding "U.S. Policy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa."  Questions from journalists and other individuals via webchat were posed to Carson by the host, Holly Jensen. At one point, a question was asked by the "U.S. Consulate in Lagos [Nigeria]":
MS. JENSEN: The U.S. Consulate in Lagos wants to know: Why is the government reluctant to designate the Boko Haram sect as a foreign terrorist organization? 
AMBASSADOR CARSON: Thank you very much. We look at the issue of Boko Haram as a major concern not only to Nigeria but also to Nigeria’s neighbors and Niger and Cameroon and Benin as well. Boko Haram, we believe, is not a homogenous, monolithic organization, but it is comprised of several different kinds of groups.
    Carson went on to note that while the organization itself was not designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, three individuals within Boko Haram were designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists in June 2012:
We have, indeed, recently designated three individuals in Boko Haram as individuals who are involved in terrorism, and we have done so because we believe those three individuals have established contacts with foreign terrorist organizations, have gone out and sought to get financing from foreign terrorist organizations, and have tried to establish broader networks and relationships with them.
     In his Daily Beast report, Josh Rogin said that Johnnie Carson "defended the decision to avoid naming Boko Haram a terrorist organization in a Wednesday phone call with reporters."
[Carson:] “There was a concern that putting Boko Haram on the foreign terrorist list would in fact raise its profile, give it greater publicity, give it greater credibility, help in its recruitment, and also probably drive more assistance in its direction[.]”
    But in the September 2012 webchat, Carson seemed to suggest that the State Department did not even consider the "Boko Haram movement," as he called it, to necessarily be a terror organization, but rather several groups simply "focused on trying to discredit the Nigerian Government":
But we believe that the bulk of the Boko Haram movement is – they’re focused on trying to discredit the Nigerian Government, trying to do everything in its power to show that the government is ineffective in the defense of its people and in the protection of government institutions, so we have not designated the entire organization. We constantly keep that under review, but we have, in fact, designated the three top leaders in Boko Haram who we believe to be out establishing broader terrorist networks and who have a broader jihadist agenda that goes beyond simply discrediting the Nigerian Government.
    In any case, the State Department eventually applied the FTO designation to Boko Haram under secretary John Kerry.  But questions remain about why Hillary Clinton's State Department fought so hard against the designation contrary to the opinions of not only the FBI, CIA, the Justice Department, and lawmakers, but apparently of State Department personnel on the ground in the country where Boko Haram was carrying out its campaign of violence.


Note: A version of this article first appeared at The Weekly Standard.  
Note: Jim Geraghty at National Review and Ed Morrissey at Hot Air each referenced the post, and Josh Rogin tweeted a link. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

John Kerry On Religion: 'Something That Was Written Down a Thousand Plus, Two Thousand Years Ago'

    During a talk to the U.S. embassy staff in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the first stop on his trip to Africa, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked about what he called the "different cross-currents of modernity" and the challenges they present on the African continent. The comments seem to contain a veiled reference to religion and the part that religion might be playing in some of the current conflicts in Africa:
This is a time here in Africa where there are a number of different cross-currents of modernity that are coming together to make things even more challenging. Some people believe that people ought to be able to only do what they say they ought to do, or to believe what they say they ought to believe, or live by their interpretation of something that was written down a thousand plus, two thousand years ago. That’s not the way I think most people want to live.
    The words "something that was written down a thousand plus, two thousand years ago" appear to refer to the Bible, or the Koran, or perhaps both.  More than one conflict in Africa today has either implicit or explicit religious connections:
  • In Nigeria, the Boko Haram, which the State Department has called a "violent extremist organization with links to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" has been "responsible for thousands of deaths since its conception in 2009, including large-scale attacks against Muslim and Christian religious communities."
  • In the Central African Republic, the State Department recently expressed that the United States is "deeply concerned by attacks on both Muslims and Christians[.]"
  • Further, the so-called Lord's Resistance Army with its leader the self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony has wreaked havoc in numerous African nations.  The State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Kony's arrest or conviction.
    Besides military conflicts, other issues with religious connotations have come to the forefront in recent years, from Uganda's recent anti-homosexuality law to some Islamic groups' attempts to institute Sharia law in some countries.
    The press office of the State Department declined to parse Kerry's remarks, instead referring questions to the traveling party accompanying the secretary on his Africa trip.  An attempt to contact State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, who is with Kerry in Africa, to clarify the remarks has so far been unsuccessful.


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

Thursday, May 1, 2014

HHS Spokesperson: "No One Likes to Watch the Daily Show Make Fun of HHS"

    In October 2013, as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was launching Healthcare.gov, CMS also launched a quieter initiative. As part of Ignite, an internal HHS program designed to spur innovation, a team within CMS's press office designed a system to help CMS communicate more quickly and efficiently with the press. The team envisioned that such a system, if functioning well, could also improve CMS's portrayal in the media.  As project leader Emma Sandoe, CMS's Medicaid spokesperson, put it in her presentation of the team's report to other CMS employees, "no one likes to watch the Daily Show make fun of HHS and our job here in the press office is to make sure that doesn't happen as often as it sometimes does[.]"
    The CMS team called their project the Coordinated Press Response Strategy.  In her presentation, Sandoe noted the irony of the project's launch coinciding with that of Healthcare.gov: "We launched this tool in the month of October, which - you may have heard [laughter] we also launched a little website, Healthcare.gov..."
    Ms. Sandoe further said that her team hoped to "develop a coordinated press response strategy in order to get better media and diffuse more media bombs."  "Media bombs" referred back to the beginning of Sandoe's presentation when she likened the atmosphere in a government press office to an episode of the TV terrorism drama "24."  The "ticking time bombs" are reporters' deadlines that the press office is hoping to defuse, but whereas Jack Bauer only had one bomb at a time to worry about, a press office may have dozens.  Sandoe's audience seemed to appreciate the anaolgy.
    The system Sandoe and her team developed was intended to be a "memory vault" to remind press officers what statements they had already made and what cleared information had already been released.  The system was designed not only for official press statements, but a variety of off the record and background information, as well. According to Sandoe, the ease of access to information allowed the CMS press office to cut its average response time on press inquiries from 49 hours to 22.5 hours while the project was in operation.  Sandoe expressed the desire to expand the tool beyond CMS to the press offices of all departments of HHS.
    In addition to improving the response time for inquiries, Sandoe also hoped the project would improve relations with the press and perhaps result in more favorable coverage for her agency.  In Sandoe's words, "if a reporter likes you and the reporter likes working with you, they will write better stories about you; so we're working to improve the stories that are written about HHS."  She later added, "[T]he worst words that you can see in the newspaper as a press officer is 'CMS did not comment.'"
    The Project Summary for the Coordinated Press Response Strategy presented the results in terms of "Time (hours) spent between report inquiry and official response to the inquiry" and "Attitudes of the press officers (via survey)":
The team saw a 52% decrease in the response time for reporter inquiries and a generally positive view from staff of the design. In order to continue the testing and implementation, CMS would like to see increased utilization throughout the department achieved through greater exploration of this workflow model with communications specialists across HHS that are working directly with media.
    To seek clarification and further explanation of the details of the project, THE WEEKLY STANDARD contacted the CMS press office, the Media Relations Group, via email and inquired about what percentage of inquiries CMS responds to and what percentage go unanswered, does CMS prioritize which news outlets will be responded to first, and does CMS usually only respond to 'mainstream' news outlets, or also to less traditional outlets, such as bloggers.  About nine hours later, CMS responded, but with just a single line: "This was an internal project initiated by staff to test a way to improve our operating procedures and increase efficiency within the office."
    A follow up email was sent to CMS: "I assume from your reply that CMS is not prepared to share any further details about the project or whether the system is still being used within CMS’s press office?"
    Shortly thereafter, CMS replied again, this time with but a single word: "Correct."


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