Sunday, June 29, 2014

State Dept: Egypt's Jailing of Journalists a 'Detour on the Path to Democracy'

    In spite of a string of worrisome human rights and freedom of expression violations, the Obama administration is holding out hope that Egypt's government lead by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is still headed for democracy.  State Department official Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, wrote a blog post this week entitled Egypt’s Chilling Detour on the Path to Democracy where he expressed grave concern about the three Al Jazeera journalists convicted and sentenced this week for "terrorism" by an Egyptian court, as well as other repressive actions:
Imprisoning working journalists appears to be part of a broader effort by Egypt’s transitional government to repress freedom of expression and peaceful dissent.  Along with the arrests of journalists, the government has imprisoned many nonviolent protestors, activists, and intellectuals.  These actions call into question the stated intention of the Egyptian government to complete Egypt’s transition to democracy.
    Stengel said Egypt's actions called into question "what kind of Egypt does President al-Sisi hope to build," yet said that "President al-Sisi assured Secretary Kerry that he desires to see the country advance." He also suggested that "political sentences and verdicts" and "injustices" of recent months called for quick remedies, including pardons, in order to help Egypt get a "fresh start" with the newly elected al-Sisi.
    With many of the Obama administration's foreign policy woes centered in the Middle East, the administration has a lot riding on this "most populous Arab country" that it considers "a bellwether for the Middle East region." Egypt's actions regarding the imprisoned journalists and opponents of the government may give a good indication if the "Arab Spring" trumpeted by the president and his foreign policy team early in the president's tenure still has any life left in it.

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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The UN and the Rise of the Seas: A Miss is As Good As a Mile. Or Even Three.

   In case you missed it, June 5 was World Environment Day. The United Nations heavily promoted this day-of-awareness-raising, which finds itself neatly sandwiched between the anniversaries of the Tianeman Square massacre in China and the D-Day invasion in France. And to hear the environmentalists tell it, the tolls of those two events will pale in comparison to the devastation to be reeked without draconian measures put in place immediately to rein in carbon pollution.
    The official slogan of World Environment Day this year was "Raise your voice, not the sea level." (The slogan leaves one with the impression that perhaps it sounded better in the original language in which it was coined.) This year, the UN deployed a unique new weapon in the climate change arsenal: an award-winning website called World Under Water. Visitors are greeted with an ominous warning:
Sea levels are rising. Soon, climate change won’t just affect people living in coastal regions, but each and every one of us.  See the effect of global warming in your neighborhood.
    The next page features various well known locales with famous landmarks (utilizing Google Street View,) but with a twist. The website's gimmick is superimposing a shimmering, moving image of water of the lower part of the screen, presenting the mildly hokey illusion of devastating inundation:

    But remember, the website invites visitors to "see the effect of global warming in your neighborhood." There is a slight problem with the concept, however. The interface accepts any street address. Any. Regardless of the location's elevation. As you might be guessing by now, this allows for some rather incongruous images.  For instance, here is Mile High Stadium in Denver, CO:

Here's an exterior shot:

    For non-football fans, "Mile High" is not hyperbole or clever marketing. The official elevation of the city is 5,280 feet, which is, if you recall from your elementary school days, exactly one mile.  So while "climate change deniers" are the ones usually blamed for ignoring science, the World Under Water folks may have some explaining to do. All other things remaining equal, a glacier roughly the size of Jupiter would have to melt to flood Denver. [Full disclosure: I am not a scientist. I ball-parked the glacier size.]
    But a mile is nothing compared to this image from Cerro de Pasco, Peru, which sits at 14,370 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains:

    The caption says, "When large storms hit land, higher sea levels mean bigger, more powerful storm surges." But the earth hasn't seen a storm surge like this since Noah.
    Just to see how sea-level rise might hit closer to home, I entered President Obama's current address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which, according to my sources, is 59 feet above the current sea level:

Despite the caption captured in the photo above, it remains unclear how many species of fish currently reside in the Entrance Hall of the White House that may be displaced by rising sea levels.
    So while the impacts of predicted increased sea levels (which President Obama famously albeit obliquely pledged to hold back) may be somewhat up in the air (so to speak,) it seems safe to say they will not be a mile up in the air, or three miles, or even 59 feet. The text captured at the bottom of the photo of Mile High Stadium above says, "Even a small amount of sea level rise will have profound and largely negative effects." Even as a non scientist, I believe I can say with confidence that flood-delayed Broncos games, cruises in the Andes, and White House tours via submarine will not be among them.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"You Can Ignore the Facts; You Can’t Deny the Facts"

    Facts, White House Style:

    One can't help but wonder if the climate change "facts" as as stubborn as the health care "facts."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sweet Nothings of Foreign Policy: Our Relationship Has 'Never Been Stronger'

    This month, President Obama welcomed New Zealand Prime Minister Key to the White House to discuss, as they say, a range of issues. After the meeting, the president's remarks included the following:
[T]he U.S.-New Zealand relationship has never been stronger. - June 20, 2014
    Prime Minister Key could have been forgiven for retorting, "I'll bet you say that to all the foreign leaders."
    Well, perhaps not all, but one can almost picture White House aides in the back of the room mouthing the words along with the president, or the vice president, or the press secretary, as the case may be. And as a review of the White House website reveals, the case may be rather often:
  • [T]here's every indication that the alliance between our two countries [U.S. & South Korea] has never been stronger. - November 20, 2009
  • Ties between our two peoples [U.S. & India] have never been stronger. - August 13, 2010 
  •  [T]he relationship between our two countries [U.S. and Poland] has never been stronger. - May 28, 2011
  • [T]he alliance between the United States and Australia has never been stronger. - November 17, 2011
  • [T]he relationship between Italy and the United States has never been stronger. - February 9, 2012
  • I'm so pleased to be here today, to celebrate an essential relationship [U.S. & Great Britain] that, as you say, has never been stronger[.] - March 14, 2012
  • [T]he relationship between Brazil and the United States has never been stronger. - April 9, 2012
  • [S]ecurity cooperation between the United States and Spain has never been stronger. - January 13, 2014
  • [T]he United States-Chile partnership, which has never been stronger. - March 11, 2014
  • Our relationship with ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia have never been stronger - April 28, 2014
  • [T]he relationship between the United States and France has never been stronger. - June 5, 2014
    A recent report out of Poland quoted a secret recording of the Polish prime minister as saying that Poland-United States ties were "worthless," and signs of strain are evident in our country's relationship with Israel.  So while New Zealand may be the latest  country to be courted by the United States, for others the bloom is clearly off the rose.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kerry: 'I'm Working Hard to ... Have Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Ambassadors'

    With much of the Obama administration's foreign policy in tatters, John Kerry is clear on at least one goal he hopes to achieve by the end of his time as secretary of state: having lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ambassadors representing the United States.  In remarks to a GLIFAA (formerly Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies) Pride event in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department, the secretary ran through a litany of accomplishments by the Obama administration that benefit the "LGBT/gay community." During his speech, Kerry said that, if confirmed, Ted Osius (nominated by President Obama for the post in Vietnam) would be the sixth openly gay U.S. ambassador currently in service:
So I am very proud of the progress that we are now making even in appointing LGBT ambassadors. I worked with the committee here at the State Department – with the D Committee, and I worked with the White House. And as a result, Ted Osius, sitting here, whom I’ve known a long time, and his family I know, will be the first openly LGBT officer nominated to serve as an ambassador in Asia. And on confirmation, he’s going to join five openly gay ambassadors who are now serving their country. I’m working hard to ensure that by the end of my tenure, we will have lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ambassadors in our ranks as well.
    As he began his talk, Kerry recognized GLIFAA event moderator, Robyn McCutcheon, as the "first transgender Foreign Service officer to come out on the job":
Robyn is the first transgender Foreign Service officer to come out on the job, and believe me it wasn’t easy. I think everybody here knows that. When she was posted in Bucharest, she faced a lot of prejudice, she had to deal with completely inappropriate judgments that people were making, questions about her abilities, but she didn’t just persevere. In the end, she won the hearts of the Ambassador, her career Foreign Service colleagues, Civil Service colleagues, and the local staff, and she actually made Embassy Bucharest a model of acceptance. She even authored the first State Department report on transgender issues, and she didn’t just get through a difficult period, she was determined to turn it into a precedent-setting event, and as a result she made it a lot easier for those – or at least a little easier for those who follow.
    The guest of honor at the event was Masha Gessen, whose Pink Triangle Campaign caused a stir in Russia after that country passed what Kerry termed "repressive anti-LGBT laws." Kerry went on later to note that:
...we now have hundreds of LGBT individuals in our bureaus at State, USAID, and at posts all around the world. Foreign Service Officers like Lucia Piazza – where is Lucia? Somewhere – is she here? Not here right now. But she’s here in Washington. Kerri Hannan in Buenos Aires. Michelle Schohn and her wife, Mary Glantz, in Tallinn.
    After pointing out a number of LGBT diplomats currently in service in the state department, Kerry said  the "wonderful thing" is that no one looks at these individuals doing their jobs as "LGBT diplomats," but just "diplomats":
And the wonderful thing about this is nobody looks at these folks when they’re out there and says, “Wow. That’s a great LGBT diplomat.” They look at them and say, “Those are great diplomats.” And that’s exactly how we make progress in this fight.
    Kerry went on to note the progress made in the fight against AIDS, the repeal of the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, the Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (which Kerry said would "never pass" Congress today,) and also changes in healthcare laws benefiting LGBT individuals. He particularly noted efforts to make sure the transgendered were fully covered, something he said was a right and not a privilege:
I am proud that we worked with GLIFAA and Pat Kennedy to press OPM [Office of Personnel Management] to remove its exclusionary language from health insurance plans so that employees who have undergone a gender transition can get the health care that they need. And that’s what it means to fight and that’s what it means to win in a battle that we all know matters enormously, not as a matter of making these things a privilege, but to make sure that they are, in fact, a right.
    In spite of the progress noted by Kerry, some members of GLIFAA expressed concern about the direction of their cause, saying that in some ways, they are "feeling even more squeezed" as more countries prohibit issuing visas to same-sex partners.  One member said he had to cross off sixty-eight percent of the jobs on his bid list because of the visa issue and wanted to know what the State Department might do to address this obstacle. Kerry assured his listeners that "we are instructing embassies to inform governments locally that this is our policy and that they need to honor our policy. It’s that simple."
    Another member zeroed in on problems faced by the transgendered around the world, saying that they "are denied documents that reflect the gender in which they live their daily lives" and that "too often they feel forced into sex work" because of their limited options. Kerry responded:
...We have instructed our posts to report on and perform outreach to transgender communities in countries. In addition, we have instructed our human rights and health officers to raise transgender issues in their host countries, and we have encouraged our public affairs officers to include the needs of transgender groups in their programming, so that we are showing that this is something that we’re going to engage in...
    Kerry said that while the state department hoped to handle "real trouble spots" on the transgendered issue with "reasonable conversation and an understanding," it may be necessary to "isolate those people for those policies" as the U.S. considers "what the options are with respect to actions that we’ll take."
    Back in December 2011 in Geneva, Hillary Clinton gave a speech to the Human Rights Council where she said, "[G]ay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights." Kerry said that he was "proud to follow in the footsteps of an extraordinary advocate for the cause" and updated Clinton's words:
[S]tanding here with [moderator Robyn McCutcheon], I want to build on that legacy, because LGBT rights are human rights, and human rights are LGBT rights.
    The State Department is not by any means the only agency celebrating LGBT Pride Month as proclaimed by President Obama. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence posted a celebration message on its website and tweeted a number of items on Twitter, including a photo of Kristin Beck, a transgendered former Navy Seal who took part in intelligence community celebrations of LGBT Pride Month.

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Obama Administration on Governing: Brains Optional

    There's an old joke that says if aliens are seeking for signs of intelligent life on earth, let's hope they don't start in the nation's capital. But to hear this White House tell it, much of the work in DC could be accomplished anyway without the benefits of brains. Here are just some examples of administration members' thoughts on the subject from the White House website:
  • “Making Title IX as strong as possible is a no-brainer,” said Vice President Biden.
  • So it is a no-brainer for Congress to do what it's supposed to do: Pass transportation funding.
  • The President then detoured briefly from his prepared remarks, explaining why it's a “no-brainer” for Congress to pass the bill [on student loan debt.]
  • Providing people with health care, that should be a no-brainer.  Giving people a chance to get health care should be a no-brainer.
  • So you would think this [minimum wage increase] would be a no-brainer. Politically, you'd think that folks would be rushing to do this.
  • During the speech, the President called on Congress to pass a bill that makes clear that current insider trading laws apply to Members of Congress... This is a no-brainer.
  • And your neighboring states have made that decision because they look at it and they say, this is a no-brainer, why would not -- why would we not want to take advantage of this [expansion of Medicaid coverage.]
  • This kind of waste is just unacceptable. Particularly at a time when we’re facing tough decisions about reducing our deficit, it's a no-brainer to stop spending taxpayer dollars on things that benefit nobody. [Vice President's Campaign to Cut Waste]
  • It’s a plan [to help responsible homeowners refinance their mortgages] that we know will work.  It has the support of independent, nonpartisan economists and leaders across the housing industry.  It’s a no-brainer that should have passed easily.
  • Do the right thing.  It is a no-brainer.  Let’s get it done.  Let’s pass these [Bush] tax cuts.
  • Congress should renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, Democrat or Republican, this is a no-brainer.
  • It should be a no brainer. The United States has been subsidizing the oil industry for a century. President Obama believes that's long enough.
  • Ensuring paycheck fairness for women should be a no brainer. And they need to pass that bill.
  • Green consumer products can only become mainstream if businesses make the right environmental choice a financial no-brainer...
  • This sounds like common sense.  It should be a no-brainer.  It just doesn’t happen in this country.  And if we can invest to create access to high-speed broadband, we open up a new world of educational opportunity.
  • That should be a no-brainer.  That should be a bipartisan no-brainer to make sure that we've got the best possible nursing staffs in the country.
  • We all agree on prohibiting insurance companies from arbitrarily cancelling [sic] insurance policies.  That's a no-brainer; there's strong agreement on both sides of the aisle there.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list. But if this much can be accomplished sans grey matter, maybe there's hope in Washington for one of the White House's favorite characters who is trotted out frequently in arguments against Republican policies. And no trip to Oz will be required.

Postal Service Explores Sensors, Data Collection Via 'Vehicles, Mailboxes, Machines, Letter Carriers'

    The U.S. Postal Service is seeking a company to help develop a program called The Internet of Postal Things. The Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC), part of the Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General (OIG), is looking for a supplier "who possesses expertise and critical knowledge of the Internet of Things, data strategy and analytics, and the Postal Service’s operations, infrastructure, products and services."  The OIG is exploring ways for the Postal Service to benefit from the technology that provides "virtually unlimited opportunities to collect and process data from any device, infrastructure, machine and even human beings."
    The idea was first raised at a January 28, 2014 meeting sponsored by the OIG and the Universal Postal Union. The "Internet of Things" concept is defined in the documents accompanying the OIG's solicitation as:
[T]he ability to embed sensors and other data collection technologies into physical objects, infrastructures, and the surroundings in which people live and businesses operate – is one of the latest technology revolutions that are affecting the nature of business.  
The OIG acknowledges the issue of privacy and asks that respondents have "appropriate knowledge to assess the impact of privacy and transparency policies on the design of data strategies is also requested."
    The documents note that the collection of data is nothing new for the Postal Service, and that the new technology will supplement and enhance the information already collected in various ways:
The U.S. Postal Service has always been a major creator of large datasets – from mail origin/destination information to quality of service data, and letter mail scans.   
The application of sensors and other data collection technologies to the various components of the postal infrastructure (vehicles, mailboxes, machines, letter carriers etc.), combined with powerful software and analytical tools, could help the Postal Service bring data management to the next level. It would create new rich data sources that could help the Postal Service improve operational performance, customer service, create new products and services, and support more efficient decision-making processes. The “Internet of Postal Things” could also have a positive spillover effect on other adjacent non-postal sectors, as the information collected by and for the Postal Service could be useful to others[.]
    The contract for the research and reporting for the Internet of Postal Things project is expected to be less than $100,000. The timeline calls for the work to be completed with various presentations and possibly a white paper on the subject before the end of 2014.

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

Director of National Intelligence Celebrates LGBT Pride Month: 'What The IC Is About'

    In line with President Obama's official proclamation of June as "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month", the current banner headlining the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) Wednesday proclaims the agency's celebration of the same, noting, "It’s also about what the IC is about: integration":

    The graphic contains a quote from a March speech given by director James Clapper at the Intelligence Community (IC) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Allies (LGBTA) Summit which was held this year at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland:
[T]his isn’t just about what’s altruistically right. It’s also about what the IC is about: integration. It means having and using a widely diverse workforce, and taking advantage of all those great intellects we have, while removing as many frustrations and distractions as possible. So – it’s not just about what’s right. It’s about good business in our profession.
    In his speech, Clapper noted his experiences with gay members of the intelligence community, from initially helping to expel two gay airmen in the 1960s to later, as Clapper's rank and authority grew, accommodating and retaining gays who were outed, at least in part to "atone for what happened to those two airman."
    Clapper closed his remarks to the LGBTA summit with a repurposing of an Arthur C. Clarke quote about "hoping to find intelligent life in Washington":
Let me finish with the words of the brilliant science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was in part about the quest to find intelligent life in the universe. He said some great things over the years, including: “I'm hoping to find intelligent life in Washington.” 
Clarke, who was just way ahead of his time, also said this: “We stand now at the turning point between two eras. Behind us is a past to which we can never return.” 
I’d like to think that we’re now well beyond the turning point that applies to equal opportunity and diversity for the LGBT community. Because I know, there’s no going back.
Update: The ODNI since tweeted several LGBT Pride-related tweets, including this one featuring a former Navy Seal:

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

88 Charged in One of Largest Food Stamp Frauds Ever

    The FBI announced Tuesday in Savannah, GA that eighty-eight persons have been charged in "one of the largest federal food program frauds ever prosecuted."  Fifty-four of the defendants were charged with conspiring to open "purported grocery stores" specifically for the purpose of defrauding the Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) and Food Stamp program.  After the fake stores were "approved as WIC and Food Stamp vendors," many of the fifty-four defendants went through neighborhoods soliciting WIC and Food Stamp participants to exchange government benefits for cash instead of food in clear violation of the law.  The remaining thirty-four defendants were such benefit recipients who sold over $1,000 of their own or their minor children's benefits for a fraction of their worth.  In all, over $18 million was laundered in this way in at least nine cities in Georgia.
        The list of those charged includes some colorful nicknames, like Grand Hustle, Big Bo, Da Man, Rah Rah, and even The Money Wizard.  The fifty-four defendants were charged with mail and wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, each of which carry a maximum of twenty years in prison plus fines of $250,000 and $500,000 respectively. The thirty-four defendants charged with selling their benefits could face five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  The government is attempting to seize "$20 million and various bank accounts and assets, including a 2008 Land Rover and a 2008 Mercedes Benz."
    A report in August 2013 revealed that in the latest period studied, 2009-2011, Food Stamp fraud had increased from 1% to 1.3%, an increase of 30% over the previous study period of 2006-2008. However, with the explosion in Food Stamp participation beginning with the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, the increase in the dollar value of fraud illustrates the jump more dramatically, from $330 million in 2006-2008 to $858 million in 2009-2011.
    It is unclear from the FBI's press release how the "purported grocery stores" managed to acquire approval from the USDA as WIC and Food Stamp vendors without, at least initially, arousing suspicion. The FBI did not reveal how the fraud was uncovered, but credited a number of federal, state and local agencies and authorities for cooperation in the investigation.

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

Audit: IRS Does Not ‘Effectively Track’ Computers That Are ‘Recycled Or Donated’

    The results of a Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) audit released Tuesday found that "[w]hile the IRS is complying with GSA requirements to recycle or donate used information technology (IT) equipment, TIGTA found several areas for improvement." The IRS got rid of more than 100,000 computers between 2009 and 2012 by recycling or donating to schools. However, the agency does not "effectively track which equipment is recycled or donated," which made it difficult for TIGTA to measure compliance to General Services Administration (GSA) requirements.
    The press release from TIGTA reads as follows:
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) needs to improve its processes for disposing of unneeded computers, printers, and servers, according to a report publicly released today by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). 
TIGTA reviewed the accuracy of the disposal asset inventory and the IRS’s actions taken or planned to fulfill General Services Administration (GSA) requirements. 
While the IRS is complying with GSA requirements to recycle or donate used information technology (IT) equipment, TIGTA found several areas for improvement. According to the report, the IRS needs to: improve documentation to ensure compliance with media sanitization guidelines; report any IT equipment that cannot be located to the Computer Security Incident Response Center as required; and improve documentation of disposal actions. 
The IRS disposed of 63,031 desktop computers and 44,734 laptops between 2009 and 2012 through a combination of recycling and donating to schools. However, it does not effectively track which equipment is recycled or donated, making it difficult to measure compliance with GSA requirements. 
TIGTA made eight recommendations to improve documentation of the removal of all data from IT equipment before it is donated and the equipment’s final destination, and the reporting of lost or stolen equipment. The IRS agreed with TIGTA’s recommendations and is taking actions to implement them.
    The report is dated April 25, 2014, but was released publicly Tuesday.
    The IRS has been under scrutiny lately for missing emails of former Exempt Organizations Unit director Lois Lerner, whose laptop hard drive crashed in 2011.  The IRS released a statement on Tuesday saying that through other methods of recovery, "the IRS has or will produce 24,000 Lerner emails from this 2009-2011 time period, largely from the files of the other 82 individuals. The IRS’s production to Congress of the 67,000 Lerner emails is nearly complete."

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

Gov't Report: Nearly Half Sampled Approved School Lunch Applications Found to Be Ineligible

    A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published a month ago but just publicly released on Monday found that while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken steps to see that ineligible beneficiaries do not receive reduced-price or free school meals, oversight still needs to be improved. An analysis of a small, "nongeneralizable" sample of twenty-five approved applications found that eleven of them were in fact ineligible.
    The sample included two categories of applications: those which automatically qualify due to "categorical eligibility (by participating in certain public-assistance programs or meeting an approved designation, such as foster children)", and those which qualify based on self-reported household size and income.
    Of the six applications that indicated categorical eligibility, half were either completely ineligible (2) or qualified for reduced-price meals instead of free. These type of applications are not even subject to standard verification. The GAO recommended that the USDA conduct sample verification such as the one conducted by the GAO to help prevent this problem.
    Of the remaining nineteen applications, the GAO found that nine were ineligible, and only two of the nine could have been verified as ineligible under standard USDA procedures. The GAO suggests that using computer matching with external income data (state payroll records) could help in weeding out participants who do not qualify despite the self-reported information that resulted in the initial approval.
    A chart included in the report illustrates the relatively small window of income variation ($1,200) from the established thresholds that subjects an application to standard verification:

    The report noted that "[t]he Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has designated the NSLP [National School Lunch Program] as 1 of 13 federal 'high-error' programs due to its large estimated improper payments—approximately $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2013," for an error rate of 15.7 percent.  The School Breakfast Program (SBP) error rate was even higher at 25.3 percent for an estimated $831 million in improper payments in fiscal 2013.
    As of this date, the USDA has not responded to the GAO regarding the recommendations made in the report.

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Kerry: Terrorists in Syria, Iraq 'Thinking About How They Can Hurt People... in the United States'

    Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows recently with her assertion that the five Taliban commanders transferred to Qatar in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl are "not a threat to the United States." John Kerry, in remarks Thursday to the U.S. Embassy staff in London, seemed to take issue with Clinton's assessment on the relative danger posed to the United States by terrorists in foreign lands [emphasis added]:
[W]e’re living in an era – a tectonic shift, a moment of extraordinary change. And our interests are at stake everywhere.
That’s what I want to reinforce in you. There’s no us and them, over there, over here, and you’re safe. We’re all connected to what’s going on. Terrorists in Syria today, in Iraq today are thinking about how they can hurt people in London or Paris or Berlin or even in the United States. And they don’t offer anything else to their people. They’re not offering an education plan, they’re not offering – well, actually, it’s do what we tell you. Read one book and that’s it, and you live by it. But they’re not offering a broad-based set of opportunities and education. They don’t talk about building their country, they don’t have healthcare, nothing. That’s what we’re struggling with.
    In an interview at The Hague in 2009, Clinton herself seemed more concerned about the direct threat posed to the United States by the Taliban than her recent remarks would indicate:
QUESTION: President Obama just last week was talking about the Taliban and al-Qaida. He said that they are regenerating and they’re a threat to the United States and to its allies. And just today we had the head of the Pakistan Taliban making a threat against directly the United States, in fact, Washington, D.C. – Baitullah Mehsud saying he’s planning a terrorist attack that would “amaze the world.” What can you tell us about that? Do you know how serious it is and could the Taliban actually mount such a threat? 
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, remember that leaders of the Taliban are in a syndicate relationship with al-Qaida. They are allies, they depend upon one another. Al-Qaida provides planning, logistical, financial support. The Taliban provides a safe haven. So it’s a totally interconnected relationship. So what we respond to something like that is to make clear that threats like that will be dealt with. We will be obviously vigilant and prepared. But it illustrates exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing. Anybody who thinks we can walk away from Afghanistan and Pakistan and the border area is forgetting it happened on September 11th, 2001. I was a Senator from New York. I don’t forget. I know what these people are capable of doing. And we’ve kept them at bay and we’re going to dismantle them, disrupt and defeat them.

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

President Obama's Second $1.5M Brussels Hotel Bill in Less Than Three Months

    In late March of this year, President Obama stayed in Brussels, Belgium for about 24 hours on a weeklong trip through Europe.  Lodging at The Hotel in Brussels cost $1.5 million, as we reported in April, including rooms for the president and his entourage, as well as for the advance team in the weeks preceding the visit.
    Less than two and a half months later, President Obama returned to Brussels again for about 24 hours for a G-7 meeting in early June, once again stayed at The Hotel, and again incurred a cost of $1.5 million.  This time, the documents cited a need for "399 Lodging Rooms, office rooms, and conference rooms from 5/22/2014 – 6/6/2014":

    For the same trip, a contract for over $1 million for rental vehicles was posted as well.  The contract covered an "[e]stimated 141 Rental Vehicles from 5/20/2014 – 6/7/2014."

    The rental vehicles are in addition to the vehicles that accompany the president on all his trips, including The Beast, the president's armored limousine.

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

Monday, June 9, 2014

Honor and Distinction: A 'Throwaway Line'?

    National Security Advisor Susan Rice's dubious assertion on ABC's "This Week" that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl "served with honor and distinction" has further tarnished her Sunday morning news show reputation. In a with-friends-like-these-who-needs-enemies attempt at a defense of Rice, the American Prospect's Paul Waldman, blogging for the Washington Post (via James Taranto,) wrote:
Conservatives are up in arms over the fact that Susan Rice said Bergdahl "served with honor and distinction" before he was captured by the Taliban. But how many times have we heard that phrase? It's become a meaningless throwaway line.
    If "honor and distinction" has become a meaningless throwaway line, then Susan Rice has a lot of company in the Obama administration throwing it. The White House website is replete with examples, among them:
Barack Obama, on Memorial Day, 2011: "From Gettysburg to Kandahar, America's sons and daughters have served with honor and distinction, securing our liberties and laying a foundation for lasting peace."
Barack Obama, on Memorial Day, 2012: "...our veterans are part of an unbroken chain of men and women who have served our country with honor and distinction."
Barack Obama, on Memorial Day, 2013: "America has been blessed with an unbroken chain of patriots who have served our country with honor and distinction."
Valarie Jarrett, about gay soldiers: "...many patriotic servicemembers who were forced to live the same kind of lie that David [Hall] lived, and were discharged, despite serving our country with honor and distinction." 
Barack Obama, proclamation in 2009 about Hispanics: "Hispanics have served with honor and distinction in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, and they have made invaluable contributions through their service to our country." 
Michelle Obama, about the Coast Guard: "And I have no doubt that you will carry on the proud Coast Guard tradition and serve our country with honor and distinction." 
White House on Iraq War soldiers: "American troops served in Iraq with honor and distinction from March 19, 2003 until December 2011." 
Barack Obama, on Marine survivors of Beirut, Lebanon barracks bombing: "They were faithful to their comrades in arms and served with honor and distinction in the finest tradition of the U.S. military." 
Barack Obama, on veterans, including those from upstate New York, where he happened to be giving a speech: "Our men and women in uniform have served this country with such honor and distinction -- a lot of them come from upstate New York." 
Barack Obama, on Native Americans: "Native Americans have also served in the United States Armed Forces with honor and distinction, defending the security of our Nation with their lives." 
Barack Obama, on Richard Holbrooke: "For nearly 50 years, Richard served the country he loved with honor and distinction."
    Over on the State Department's website, examples abound as well, including this one:
Hillary Clinton, September 13, 2012: "Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty were both decorated military veterans who served our country with honor and distinction."
    Perhaps Paul Waldman could review the above list and determine which instances were also in his view "meaningless throwaways." Or perhaps he could just acknowledge that in the case of Susan Rice's ill-advised use of the words, political considerations and an attempt to justify President Obama's much maligned and possibly illegal prisoner swap led to a different throwaway: the truth.

Intel Official: Three Biggest National Security Threats Are Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda

    Addressing a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum Tuesday, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers detailed a laundry list of national security threats that the United States faces today, the American Forces Press Services reports, including:
...several permutations of al-Qaida and its affiliates, homegrown violent extremists, unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, Russian revanchism, cyber threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
    But when it came to naming the top three threats, al Qaeda swept the rankings:
"But the three biggest threats are al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- centered in Yemen -- and the growing al-Qaida threat in Syria and al-Qaida's affiliates, … who are spread elsewhere and who are taking advantage of what we call metastasization … across the Middle East and North Africa. … And so this really remains job one for the intelligence community and our special operations forces," he told the audience. 
    Vickers repeated the Obama administration's contention that "core" al Qaeda has been severely degraded, but he acknowledged that even that core group remains a viable threat:
"While we've had a lot of success in severely degrading the Al-Qaida core in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, they continue to pose a threat, in particular a [constitutional] threat down the road," Vickers said.
    Vickers noted that the war in Syria has presented a particular challenge as it is "giving rise to a significant terrorism threat[.]" The complicating factor is that while the Obama administration is seeking to support the opposition, the opposition finds itself in de facto alliance with al Qaeda linked groups who also oppose Bassar Assad's government.
    A report in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal underscores Vicker's warnings. According to the Journal, the Rand Corporation will release a report on Thursday showing the "number of [global jihadist] groups increasing by more than 50% and the estimated number of militants doubling." The war in Syria is said to be responsible for the greatest growth in recent years with "more than half of the number of al Qaeda-sympathizing jihadists world-wide" located in Syria.
    Undersecretary Vickers also alluded to the continuing challenge of balancing the risks and rewards of intelligence, an issue that has caused a number of headaches for President Obama throughout his tenure:
Intelligence is a significant source of advantage for the United States. … It's an advantage that's very important to us, but it's also one that has to be used aggressively, but also prudently, to make sure we're helping our leaders solve problems and not adding to their problems," Vickers said.

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

Friday, June 6, 2014

State Dept. in January: Giving in to Terrorist Demands 'Perpetuates the Action' of Kidnappings

    Time Magazine is reporting that, during an interview about the deal to trade Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo, when "[a]sked whether the Taliban would be inspired by the exchange to kidnap others, a commander laughed. 'Definitely.'" The response should not come as a surprise to the Obama administration given an exchange that took place at a State Department press briefing in January of this year.
    A reporter asked spokesperson Jen Psaki about a UN resolution to discourage private companies from paying ransom to terrorists for the release of kidnap victims. The reporter said that "basically, these companies paying a ransom through their own insurance is really one of the only ways that we’ve seen success of release of these kidnapping victims." Despite the apparent "success", Psaki told the reporter that giving in to the terrorists' demands simply "perpetuates the action":
MS. PSAKI: Well, our concern is, as I mentioned, the – what this perpetuates, which is the fact that terrorists kidnap people and they have raised well over $120 million in ransom payments. So the belief here, clearly, by the UN Security Council, but the United States, is that this is not an approach that can continue because it perpetuates the action. But beyond that, I’d have to check with our team and see if there’s more specifics on it.
    The Washington Posts has reported that early in the Bergdahl ordeal, the Taliban's demands for his release included "$1 million and 21 Afghan prisoners." Spokesperson Marie Harf could not confirm or deny this week whether or not cash payments were considered as part of the deal as executed by the Obama administration last week when five Taliban commanders released into Qatari custody. But in the January press briefing, Psaki warned against not just ransom, but "concessions" as well [emphasis added]:
So we commend the consensus adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2133 on kidnapping for ransom, which identifies kidnapping for ransom as a source of terrorist financing and expresses the Council’s determination to secure the safe release of hostages without ransom payments or political concessions... 
The resolution is also directly in line with the United States longstanding policy to make no concessions.
 However, this week, Harf would not concede that releasing the five detainees even amounted to a concession:
QUESTION: Well, it’s just – it’s very general, but it relates to this. When people are saying the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorist groups, is that statute or is that general policy? And -- 
MS. HARF: Well, our line is that we don’t make concessions -- 
QUESTION: That’s what I was about to ask you. 
MS. HARF: -- which is different. I mean, that’s the – you’re quoting it colloquial. That’s actually not what you’ll hear us say from the podium (inaudible). 
QUESTION: Okay. And how do you define the difference? 
MS. HARF: How do we define the difference? Well, I -- 
QUESTION: Between making concessions and negotiating. 
MS. HARF: I think it’s clear that we don’t make concessions to terrorists. And that’s a judgment, right, that we don’t – I think – I don’t know. I think those words, using Matt, I think are fairly well defined. 
QUESTION: So releasing five of their prisoners or five of their -- 
MS. HARF: Is not making a concession. 
QUESTION: It’s not a concession? 
MS. HARF: No. It is consistent absolutely with what’s happened in previous wars, including Korea, including Vietnam. I think one of the large tranches of prisoners in Vietnam, it was something like around 500 Americans for 1,200 North Vietnamese. So again, this has a long history in the United States of prisoner swaps.

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

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

WH in 2013: Return of Bergdahl, Release of Detainees Two Separate Issues

    At the White House press briefing Monday, Jay Carney was not asked directly about his statement from June 2013 that "we would not make any decisions about transfer of any detainees without consulting with Congress and without doing so in accordance with U.S. law," as THE WEEKLY STANDARD first reported yesterday.  However, the Washington Post reports that Carney rejected criticism about the lack of notice to Congress:
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday dismissed criticism from lawmakers over the administration's Taliban prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, saying the deal "should not have come as a surprise to members of Congress" because the basic outlines had been discussed for years.
    White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough echoed Carney's assertion:
At a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough also defended the move, saying: "We've been consulting with members of Congress about this effort, including the potential transfer of five Gitmo detainees, for years."
    However, in the same June 2013 press briefing where Carney made his statement that the White House would consult with Congress before making any detainee transfer decisions, he made clear that the White House considered the return of Sgt. Bergdahl and the release of any detainees to be two separate issues [emphasis added]:
Q    So you haven’t ruled it out [the Taliban has offered to release Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five members of the Taliban who are currently being held at Guantanamo Bay]? 
MR. CARNEY:  I’m simply saying that -- first of all, you have to separate the two issues.  We are focused on the return  -- the safe and immediate return of Sergeant Bergdahl, and we continue to use the tools at our disposal to help bring that about. 
We also expect the Taliban to raise the issue of their detainees in discussions that we have with them if those discussions take place.  And at this time we’ve made no decisions about the transfer of detainees.  And in accordance with law, we would be consulting with Congress should we make any decisions about that.  So we remain committed to the closure of Guantanamo Bay, as you know.  But separate from that on these specific issues about individual detainees, that would be a process that is done in accordance with law.
    The Obama administration is also claiming that secrecy and lack of time were other considerations in the lack of Congressional consultation or even notification.  House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers is now saying Congress was last consulted about a possible Bergdahl-detainee swap in 2011, the Hill reports.

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

Jay Carney, 2013: No Decisions About Bergdahl-Detainee Deal 'Without Consulting With Congress'

    Among the questions being raised about this weekend's exchange of  Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five top Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo is why Congress was not informed of the move ahead of time.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Meet the Press on Sunday that concerns over the health and perhaps even the survival of Bergdahl required secrecy, telling reporters, "We couldn't afford any leaks anywhere" because the deal was "essentially an operation to save the life of Sgt. Bergdahl."
    But just under a year ago in June 2013, then-Press Secretary Jay Carney was unequivocal in his response to a reporter's questions about this very deal, saying, "[W]e would not make any decisions about transfer of any detainees without consulting with Congress and without doing so in accordance with U.S. law."
    Here is the full exchange from the White House transcript [emphasis added]:
Q    Jay, going to back to Afghanistan, the Taliban has offered to release Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five members of the Taliban who are currently being held at Guantanamo Bay.  Is this something that the administration is considering?  Is this something that the President would agree to? 
MR. CARNEY:  What I can tell you is that the main dialogue that we support is the dialogue between Afghans -- between the Taliban and the Afghan government.  However, there are some issues that we would like to discuss with the Taliban directly, and this includes the safe return of Sergeant Bergdahl, who has been gone for far too long. 
We continue to call for and work toward his safe and immediate release.  We cannot discuss all the details of our efforts, but there should be no doubt that on a daily basis we are continuing to pursue -- using our military, intelligence and diplomatic tools -- the effort to return him home safely.  And our hearts are with the Bergdahl family. 
With regard to the transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, we have made -- the United States has not made the decision to do that, though we do expect the Taliban to raise this issue in our discussion, if and when those discussions happen. 
As we have long said, however, we would not make any decisions about transfer of any detainees without consulting with Congress and without doing so in accordance with U.S. law.
    President Obama announced on Friday, the day before the Bergdahl-detainee exchange, that Carney was leaving his position as press secretary.

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

VA Official Bragged About Agency's Scheduling System in 2013 Speech

   A report released this week by the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) found that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout VHA." But as recently as September 2013, Stephen Warren, the Executive in Charge for Information and Technology for the VA, said that he could not "pass up an opportunity to brag about how" VistA, the scheduling software in use for more than two decades by the VA, "plays a role in providing the quality care Veterans receive at VA."
    Warren made the remarks in his keynote address at the 2nd annual summit of the Open Source Electronic Health Record Alliance (OSEHRA):
I know I have already talked a lot about VistA, but I cannot in good [conscience] pass up an opportunity to brag about how it plays a role in providing the quality care Veterans receive at VA.  VistA at VA supports the care for over six million veterans, with 75 million outpatient visits and 680,000 inpatient admissions at more than 1,500 sites of care, including: 152 hospitals, 965 outpatient clinics, 133 community living centers, and 293 Vet Centers. 
These facilities are run by over 244,000 employees including more than 20,000 physicians and 53,000 nurses and have affiliations with more than 1,200 educational institutions where more than 100,000 health care students receive clinical training from VA each year.
    Warren spoke about VistA Evolution, the VA's current effort to use "open source" software innovations to improve the scheduling and other aspects of the care provided to veterans by the VA. (The VA recently awarded $3 million in prizes in a contest for medical appointment scheduling applications.) An April 2014 presentation by the VA spells out the VistA Evolution concept in great detail, including this timetable for its development and implementation:

    The presentation borrowed from the popular comic strip Dilbert to make the point about the challenges faced in upgrading the information systems:

    Warren addressed the VA's ambitious plans for VistA evolution at the OSEHRA summit:
VistA Evolution will improve patient-centered care and provide Veterans access to a comprehensive medical profile that supports the transition of care between VA and DOD treatment facilities.  
One of VA’s top priorities is increasing access to care for our nation’s Veterans.  VistA is a prime example of how Open Source is helping to develop and deliver an evolved version to meet that priority.  The fundamental purpose of VA’s Open Source initiative was to accelerate the evolution of VistA.  While VistA provides an integrated view of a patient and VA clinicians love it, we were not keeping up with the demands of our customers, the clinician.. 
The ultimate goal of this Open Source effort is to standardize 133 production VistA instances in support of the VA’s medical centers and clinics and is expected to be complete at all VA sites by the end of 2015.
    The VA's previous effort to upgrade its systems ran for nine years, from 2000 to 2009, and cost $127 million, but in the end did not deliver and was scrapped.
    While the inspector general's report this week does not appear to be critical of VistA itself, it noted that "[d]uring our review at Phoenix HCS we determined that certain audit controls within Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) were not enabled. This limited VHA and the OIG’s ability to determine whether any malicious manipulation of the VistA data occurred." The VA since turned VistA's audit controls.

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