Thursday, October 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Customs and Border Protection Halts Background Checks Over Security Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Feds Spend $38K on Metric System Superhero Cartoons

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

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

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

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

Healthcare.gov Down For 'Weekend' Scheduled Maintenance... On a Wednesday

    Healthcare.gov continues to prepare for open enrollment beginning on November 15, hoping to avoid a repeat of the disastrous launch in 2013. Apparently the preparations include extra "scheduled" maintenance. Wednesday morning, the site displays a message reading "The system isn’t available right now. We’re performing scheduled maintenance. Learn more." The message was posted on the site some time Tuesday evening:

    The notice links to a September 25 blog entry that explains, "We’re doing maintenance and upgrades to improve the site during certain time periods over the next few weekends."

    Attempts to log in are met with this screen:

    There was no reason given as to why the "scheduled maintenance" was taking place during the week rather than on weekends as planned. An email to the Department of Health and Human Services seeking an explanation has not been returned.

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Healthcare.gov to Returning Obamacare Customers: 'We’ll TRY To Enroll You Automatically'

    People who signed up for health insurance through Healthcare.gov in 2013 might have deja vu this November. New information posted on the website indicates that everyone, new or returning customers, choosing a new plan or sticking with the current one, must complete five steps to get or maintain coverage for 2015. A new blog post on the site says:
To stay covered through the Marketplace for 2015, you’ll need to follow 5 Steps during Open Enrollment...You’ll need to complete all 5 Steps to staying covered in the Health Insurance Marketplace (PDF) to finish enrolling in a health plan, even if you want to stay in the same plan.
Returning customers will have one month (November 15 to December 15) to continue coverage beginning January 1, 2015. The five steps are:
  1. Review your current plan’s 2015 health coverage and costs.
  2. Update your Marketplace application, starting November 15.
  3. Compare the health plans available to you in 2015.
  4. Choose the plan that best meets your needs.
  5. Enroll in the health plan you want for 2015 coverage, by December 15, 2014.
What happens if a customer does not finished all five steps by December? A flyer produced by Healthcare.gov says, " If you don’t finish all of the steps by December 15, we’ll try to enroll you automatically so you stay covered.  But this coverage might not be your best option for 2015 and you could miss out on cost savings."

    The flyer does not explain exactly what will happen if Healthcare.gov "tries" and fails, or which steps, if left incomplete, will prevent the automatic enrollment from succeeding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Billgate: President Obama and His Unpaid Bills [Updated]

    During various showdowns with Congress over the past few years (government shutdown, debt ceiling, sequester,) President Obama has declared that we've got to "pay our bills on time." Twice in the past week, President Obama has raised the issue of unpaid bills - but not those of the United States - his own personal bills.

President Obama, executive order signing , October 17, 2014:
I went to a restaurant up in New York when I was there during the General Assembly, and my credit card was rejected... And I was trying to explain to the waitress, no, I really think that I’ve been paying my bills.
 President Obama, Democratic fundraiser, October 20, 2014:
One of the nice things about being home is actually that it's a little bit like a time capsule. Because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there’s still junk on my desk, including some unpaid bills (laughter) -- I think eventually they got paid -- but they're sort of stacked up. And messages, newspapers and all kinds of stuff.
    As Daniel Halper noted, the White House did not include the president's remarks about the unpaid bills in the official transcript of the October 20 remarks, but a White House pool reporter caught the omission.
    As they say in Washington, it's the cover up that gets you...


After initially posting a transcript that completely omitted the "unpaid bills" remark...

...the White House transcript was updated to include "-- (inaudible) --":

Apparently the pool reporters' hearing is superior to that of the White House transcriptionist. Or there was a gap in the tape.

UPDATE 2: Aha! So there WAS an issue with the tape...

Friday, October 17, 2014

State Department On Iran Nuke Negotiations: 'We Know Each Other Well Enough to Make Jokes'

    Some American and Iranian diplomats have been spending so much time together lately that they're beginning to crack jokes with one another. Even though the subject matter of the talks, Iran's nuclear ambitions, is quite serious, a senior state department official shared a lighter moment with reporters who had gathered for a background briefing at the P5+1 talks in Vienna, Austria:
I just told Deputy Foreign Minister Araghchi that that I was coming down to do a backgrounder, and I said, you know, “You’ll know what I’m going to say.” And his suggestion was that I simply hand you the transcript from the last one, and that would probably do the trick. (Laughter.) So we thought that was pretty funny. Obviously, you don’t think that’s so funny, but we all thought it was pretty funny.
    Further into the briefing, the official expanded on the state of the relationship that has developed between the Iranian and American negotiators:
In terms of mood, in a professional way, we all know each other pretty well now. You can tell when the [Iranian] Deputy Foreign Minister jokes. He reads the transcripts of these backgrounders, and when he can joke, “Why don’t you just hand over the last one? You’re going to say the same thing,” it’s reached a level of we know each other well enough to make jokes.
    The current round of talks has a November 24th deadline to reach a complete agreement. The official said there has been progress, but a lot of work remains. The talks have been extended in the past when an agreement could not be reached, but the official said to keep the pressure on, an extension has not been discussed this time around.

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

Admiral: 'Be Prepared' for Kobani, 'Other Towns and Other Cities to Fall' to ISIL

    Rear Admiral John Kirby appeared at a joint press briefing with Spokesperson Jen Psaki at the State Department Thursday and addressed the ongoing airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. As a number of Pentagon officials have done in recent weeks, Admiral Kirby downplayed the impact that airstrikes alone can have on stopping ISIL, with particular emphasis on Kobani, Syria, which borders Turkey:
What makes Kobani significant is the fact that ISIL wants it. And the more they want it, the more forces and resources they apply to it, the more targets that are available for us to hit there. I said it yesterday, keep saying it: Kobani could still fall. Our military participation is from the air and the air only right now, and we’ve all been honest about the fact that air power alone is not going to be able to save any town in particular.
    Kirby said that ISIL is likely to continue to gain territory in spite of the coalition air campaign, and that Kobani is not the only city likely to fall:

I think we’ve been pretty consistent about the fact that we need to all be prepared for other towns and other cities to fall too. This group wants ground. They want territory, they want infrastructure. We all need to be prepared for them to continue to try to grab that, and succeed in taking it.

    The extra emphasis placed on strikes against ISIL forces around Kobani, Kirby said, is not only a matter of strategy, but also simply a matter of weather:
One of the reasons you’ve seen additional strikes in the last couple of days is because we haven’t been able to strike quite as much, quite as aggressively inside Iraq. There’s been terrible weather there, sandstorms this time of year. It’s made it very hard for us to get intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms up over to see what we’re trying to do in Iraq. So we’ve had resources available that we might not have otherwise had available to strike them there in Kobani.
    Under persistent question from reporters at the briefing, Admiral Kirby used some colorful language to further explain what the overall strategy of the air campaign is and what it is not:
Airstrikes are dynamic, they’re exciting, you can count them, you can get great video of them. I understand the drama around airstrikes, but we’ve said (a) airstrikes alone are not going to do this, military power alone is not going to do this, and it’s going to take some time...
So this isn’t – I hate to use this phrase, but it’s not whack-a-mole. We’re not going after this – the idea isn’t to just put a warhead on a forehead every single day. The idea is to try to get at their ability to sustain themselves and to disrupt their strategy.
    On the question of ground troops, the admiral made clear there are no plans for combat roles for U.S. forces in Iraq or Syria:
The commander-in-chief’s been pretty clear there’s not going to be a return to U.S. ground forces in a combat role in this effort. That said, we do have 12 advisor teams that are working with the Iraqi Security Forces at a very high level, brigade or division level, inside Iraq. They are not going out into the field. They are not accompanying Iraqi troops. They are simply offering advice and assistance at a headquarters level – seven in Baghdad and the other five are up near Erbil. I do not foresee any instance in which we would put ground troops inside Syria.

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Michelle Obama Mocks Democratic Voters: 'I Ain’t Going to Vote... I Couldn’t Wake Up'

    In speeches designed to fire up Democrats to vote in midterm elections, President Obama has at times described voters in his party as having a "congenital defect." Wednesday, Michelle Obama suggested the problem might just be that they're sleepy.
    Mrs. Obama spoke at a rally in Philadelphia for the Democratic candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf. In an effort to boost turnout in November, the first lady told the crowd that she runs across voters "who are like, no, I ain’t going to vote, or I couldn’t wake up[.]" But she stressed that every vote matters:
So this is where -- when I find people who are like, no, I ain’t going to vote, or I couldn’t wake up, or it doesn’t matter, or why -- 20 votes decided who your Governor was in 2010, and it could decide who the Governor is this time. 
    The first lady wasn't finished with the sleepy-voter theme. Later in her remarks, she expanded on the idea:
You know your 20 people.  You know the people in your neighborhood, in your church, in your family who aren’t focused.  And you can’t leave anybody behind. 
That nephew you know who sleeps -- get him up.  Wake him up.  (Laughter.)  Young people, you all know folks who aren’t paying attention.  Your classmates, your dorm mates -- wake them up, get them out. 
    Mrs. Obama also told her audience that turnout was a large part of her husband's victories, especially "women and minorities and young people." Republicans, she explained, counted on "folks like us" to stay away from the polls:
And I don’t know if you remember, but people were shocked when Barack won -- they’re still shocked -- (laughter and applause) -- because they were counting on folks like us to stay home.  See, but then we proved them wrong.  Barack won because OF record numbers of women and minorities and young people who showed up and voted. 
See, but then when the midterms came along -- which is where we are now -- too many of our people just tuned out.  And that’s what folks on the other side are counting on right now, because when we stay home, they win.  So they’re assuming that we won’t care.  They’re hoping and praying that we’re not organized and energized.  But only we can prove them wrong.
    This Friday, the first lady will be in Florida for a Commit to Vote rally with gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, and next Tuesday will appear in Minnesota with Governor Mark Dayton and Senator Al Franken.

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

White House Seeks Ideas For Building a 'Solar System Civilization'

   While the rise of the barbarous Islamic State and the spread of the modern day plague of Ebola has many concerned about the state of civilization here on earth, some at the White House are turning their attention beyond our planet. A Tuesday entry on the White House blog Tuesday solicits ideas for "massless exploration and bootstrapping a Solar System civilization" and "how the [Obama] Administration, the private sector, philanthropists, the research community, and storytellers can further these goals."
    "Bootstrapping" is a term employed by Dr. Phillip Metzger, former NASA research physicist now on the University of Central Florida faculty. Metzger explains:
If we want to want to create a robust civilization in our solar system, more of the energy, raw materials, and equipment that we use in space has to come from space.  Launching everything we need from Earth is too expensive.  It would also be too expensive to send all of the factories required to manufacture everything necessary to support a solar system civilization. 
Ultimately what we need to do is to evolve a complete supply chain in space, utilizing the energy and resources of space along the way. We are calling this approach “bootstrapping” because of the old saying that you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.  Industry in space can start small then pull itself up to more advanced levels through its own productivity, minimizing the cost of launching things from Earth in the meantime.  Obviously, this isn’t going to happen overnight, but I think that it is the right long-term goal.
    Tom Kali, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and author of the White House blog post, says that NASA is already experimenting with 3D printing with the ultimate goal of printing replacement parts for spacecraft on long voyages, and even "self-replicating large structures" in future missions to Mars. The next rover to be sent to explore Mars will attempt to demonstrate something called "In-Situ Resource Utilization," which converts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on Mars to oxygen to provide fuel and air for future manned missions.
    Anyone with ideas is invited to email the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Congress Members, LGBT Groups Urge FCC To Change Rules on Internet Filters at Libraries, Schools

    Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA), 13 fellow members of Congress and over 20 organizations sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late September urging officials to make sure that schools and libraries receiving federal funds do not block or limit access to websites with "important resources" for the LGBT community. Currently the FCC requires local libraries and schools to block sites that contain material that is "obscene; child pornography; or harmful to minors." Rep. Honda and the other signatories to the letter suggest that schools and libraries may be, intentionally or unintentionally, abusing the rules:
It has been reported to me that filtering software also can be used to block much more. Regrettably, Internet content filtering software can—intentionally or unintentionally—be used to block access to particular viewpoints in a discriminatory manner.
    Rep. Honda, who founded and chairs the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus, cites studies that suggest LGBT individuals rely on the internet more than the general public for social networking and anti-discrimination/anti-bullying resources. The letter to the FCC includes one example, a 2011 case in Missouri where a school district used a filter to block LGBT resources but not anti-LGBT material. That case was handled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the co-signing organizations supporting Rep. Honda's letter to the FCC. Other groups include the Human Rights Campaign, the Santa Clara County (CA) School District, the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, and numerous LGBT groups, among others.
    The letter comes at a time when the FCC is considering "modernizing" the E-Rate program, which "helps schools and libraries to obtain affordable telecommunications services, broadband Internet access and internal network connections." The program costs about $2.3 billion per year and requires grant recipients to adhere to certain guidelines, including the content restrictions mentioned in Rep. Honda's letter. The letter does not suggest exactly how the rules prohibiting material that is "obscene; child pornography; or harmful to minors" should be revised, but simply that "LGBT educational content should not be filtered in a discriminatory manner." Asked for clarification, Rep. Honda's office replied:
The purpose of the letter is two-fold: (1) raise awareness of the issue to the FCC; and, (2) encourage the FCC to address the problem through regulation or guidance to the Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees the E-rate program, or directly to public schools and libraries. The wording you referenced is the statute itself, which would require Congress to pass a law to modify. While the FCC considers its proposal to modernize the E-rate program, the Congressman believes a more practical solution is to ask the FCC to use its expertise--and its regulatory authority--to ensure our students and communities have access to critical LGBT resources at public schools and libraries.
    When asked to comment on Rep. Honda's letter and the internet filter issue, the Family Research Council (FRC), an organization promoting family values and a Christian worldview, responded with a statement from Chris Gacek, Senior Fellow for Regulatory Affairs at the FRC:
Essentially, Honda wants to reduce the restrictions of the neutral filtering software to allow LGBT sexual content to reach public school and public library viewing screens.   A portion of LGBT content is sexual in nature, and it is not surprising that some does not clear content filters.  That said, the filters are entirely appropriate.

FRC opposes any effort to interfere with or lower the restrictions on sexual content reaching public schools and public libraries.  First, the standard given above -- “obscene; child pornography; or harmful to minors” – is too low as it is.  For example, a great deal of indecent or soft-core material might satisfy this standard.  Thus, if regulations are to be issue by the Commission, the restrictions on sexual content should be tighter.  Second, before issuing any regulations the Commission must include language that allows local communities to filter content up to the limit allowed by the federal statute.

    The full text of Rep. Honda's letter to the FCC can be found below:

Congressional Letter to the FCC regarding LGBT Content Filtering in Public Schools and Libraries by Mike Honda

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

Kerry Uses Arab Name 'Daesh' to Refer to Islamic State

    Following the lead of Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday began using the Arabic acronym "Daesh" when referring to the Islamic State (ISIL), although he continued to the latter acronym as well. Kerry was in Egypt for a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry, and spoke extensively about the terrorist group in remarks following the meeting. The new terminology appears to be an attempt to bolster the secretary's contention that there is "nothing whatsoever about ISIL that is related to Islam."
    Kerry first referenced "Daesh" when discussing the coalition to defeat ISIL, where he used the two terms interchangeably:
And as President Obama made clear, the United States is committed to degrading and ultimately defeating ISIL. And I’m very pleased to say that more than 60 partners have now committed to joining us in this effort in a variety of ways. Not everybody will play a military role or a direct kinetic role. Some will help with respect to the delegitimization of Daesh’s claims with respect to religion.
    Throughout the run-up to the forming of the coalition and ultimately the bombing campaign against the Islamic State, Kerry has been insistent about the non-Islamic nature of the group, going so far as to say in September that "we must put real Islam out there." Kerry continued in that vein Sunday, saying that the coalition against ISIL is not "primarily military in nature," with a large part of the equation also being an "effort to counter ISIL’s false claims about Islam":
So the coalition required to eliminate ISIL is not only or even primarily military in nature, and we welcome everybody’s contribution to that effort. Particularly, the effort to counter ISIL’s false claims about Islam, a peaceful religion. There is nothing about ISIL, as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia said, or the council that issues fatwas said, nothing whatsoever about ISIL that is related to Islam.
    Ultimately in his remarks, Kerry used "Daesh" five times and the English acronym ten times. Until now, the US State Department's use of the Arabic acronym has been relatively rare, and a review of Secretary Kerry's previous speeches and remarks did not turn up any prior usage. The White House has not used the term at all.

    In September, France 24 reported the French foreign minister's decision to make the switch:
From now on the French foreign ministry will be calling it Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS or the Islamic State group. 
Last week, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asked journalists and media organisations to do the same. 
He said: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”... 
Daesh is a loose acronym of the Arabic for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham).
    Although the Obama administration has claimed the fight against ISIL has yielded some positive results, Army General Martin Dempsey acknowledged Sunday on ABC's This Week that he is "fearful Kobani [Syria] will fall" to ISIL, and that ISIL's adaptations since the bombing began will complicate the coalition's efforts to identify and strike ISIL targets:
“I am fearful that Kobani will fall,” Dempsey said, adding that he has “no doubt” ISIL will conduct horrific atrocities if they have the opportunity to do so. 
ISIL is putting pressure on the city’s outskirts, and into the city itself, the chairman said. ISIL forces are becoming more adept with the use of electronic devices, he added, and are making themselves harder to find and identify. “They don't fly flags and move around in large convoys the way they did. … They don't establish headquarters that are visible or identifiable,” he said.

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

State Dept. Partners With 'Condom Pledge' Campaign for Youth, Children in Africa

    The banner, featuring a cartoon condom with a smiling face, reads "I am Mr. Condom. Use me whenever you want to have sex. I will protect you from STDs, early pergnancy [sic], and unwanted pregnancy." Across the top of the banner are the words "I took the condom pledge," the slogan from which the non-profit organization responsible for the banner takes its name. And while the stated goal of the group, which recently conducted a fund raising campaign in partnership with the US State Department for a project in Sierra Leone, is "normalizing condom use in youth populations around the globe," the photos shared by the group make clear that "youth" includes some very young children indeed.

    The Condom Pledge organization is careful to utilize the word "youth" on its website (the word appears more than a dozen times) and avoid "child" and "children" altogether. However, a video produced for the Pledge and the group's Facebook page include images of young children holding signs, children such as these young girls and boys, clearly well below the target ages of sixteen to twenty-six:

    While the U.S. State Department usually makes headlines for its role in negotiating political treaties and mediating military conflicts, the agency also plays a less visible role working to bring about social change throughout the world. One such effort is a program described in a recent blog post on State's website as "the Alumni Engagement and Innovation Fund (AEIF) 2.0, an initiative created in partnership by the U.S. Department of State and Rockethub, an online crowdfunding platform." Currently thirty-three AEIF projects are underway, run by alumni of the State Department's international exchange program. Projects range from providing business opportunities and training for low-income women in Nicaragua to training English teachers in Vietnam to eco-tourism in Bangledesh.
    The Condom Pledge project has already reached its goal of raising $3,000 as part of the State Department-Rockethub partnership. The State Department blog article mentions the program just in passing as "turning The Condom Pledge into a nationwide initiative in Sierra Leone." The Condom Pledge organization, however, prominently features the State Department partnership and official seal on its website announcing the fund raising effort.

    The full stated goal of the organization is "normalizing condom use in youth populations around the globe [to] counteract [religious/moral anti-condom] beliefs and ultimately stop the spread of HIV." Few details are available on the organization's website about what is involved in the Pledge campaigns other than a brief note that participants "first craft individualized signs that read, 'I took the condom pledge,'" and then "publicize their signs through social networks[.]" Unsurprisingly, condoms are in plentiful supply at Pledge events, literally distributed by the box.

Other participants are more creative in displaying their acquisitions:

    Not only are condoms distributed freely without regard to gender, the distribution of condoms is conducted in mixed-sex settings, rather than with women for girls and with men for boys:

   When asked to comment on the age appropriateness of the Condom Pledge campaign and whether or not any abstinence advice or other guidance is provided by this group, a US State Department spokesperson deferred to the Pledge organization for specifics on the group's activities. The spokesperson did note that "[s]ince the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, the project has also included an ebola education component, which includes important information on safeguarding yourself from the disease."
    The state department response further said, in part:
The department does not fund AEIF 2.0 projects. Projects must be funded by the public, and project leaders are responsible for promoting their projects...
Projects were selected by embassies (for foreign alumni-led projects) and program offices (for American alumni-led projects). All foreign alumni-led project leaders are past Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) winners. Americans are not permitted to lead AEIF projects, which is why program offices needed to nominate individuals with potential. After being vetted and cleared by the relevant posts, program offices, and PASC, those project leaders were asked to join AEIF 2.0. 
    While the state department is not directly funding The Condom Pledge or other AEIF projects, the agency is lending its promotional support to the projects as noted above, allowing the official State Department seal to be used in fund raising efforts, and describing the cooperation as a "partnership."
    Although the US government has promoted condom use in the past to stop the spread of AIDS, the ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, and correct and consistent Condom use) approach prioritized Abstinence and Faithfulness first. The Condom Pledge, on the other hand, appears to have a rather myopic approach perhaps best expressed by the banner with the cartoon figure mentioned earlier: "I am Mr. Condom. Use me whenever you want to have sex."
    When asked to comment about the ages of the children present at Pledge events and the appropriateness of mixing males and females at the events (even in the distribution of condoms) and whether that might prove an abuse-risk, a Condom Pledge spokesperson replied via email:
While our goal is to target individuals aged 16 to 26, we acknowledge the importance of providing sex education to not only older but also younger individuals as well.
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 5,000 youth aged 14 and under are currently infected with HIV, and of the youth aged 15 to 24, 24.6% of females and 11.0% of males had sexual intercourse before age 15.
The public health literature also demonstrates that in addition to its many benefits, sex education does not lower the age of sexual debut or increase sexual activity thereafter.
Condoms are distributed to youth regardless of their gender as The Condom Pledge supports female empowerment.
The Condom Pledge seeks to uphold the highest ethical standards. Any suspected abuse will be immediately reported to the relevant village chief, school director, or governmental authority. 
    Even accepting the premise that "sex education does not lower the age of sexual debut or increase sexual activity," the message "use me whenever you want to have sex" hardly seems a comprehensive or balanced approach. And this message, being delivered by The Condom Pledge with the backing of the US State Department, is in many cases, at least in Africa, reaching a disturbingly young audience.

    Only time will tell what the ultimate impact of this message will be.

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

HHS Seeks Birth Control... For Deer

    These days, mentioning birth control and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the same sentence will likely draw some strong reactions. But a recent contractor inquiry by HHS for its National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, Maryland adds a new wrinkle. This time, the focus is on deer.
     The NIH site in Maryland is a 500-acre research facility, fully enclosed with a nine-foot perimeter fence and access gates. Lately, the campus has been, relatively speaking, overrun with deer; in this case, overrun means an estimated population of thirty to forty. A Youtube video taken earlier this year on the campus near the access gates illustrates the dilemma in which NIH finds itself:

    As the video shows and the documents say, "[t]he campus is densely developed with few remaining open spaces suitable as deer habitat.  The property is surrounded by high density residential and commercial development."  After mentioning that hunting has never been permitted on campus, the HHS document deadpans that "there are no non-human predators present that are capable of limiting a deer population," a fact for which NIH employees are no doubt grateful. So now that the deer population has reached "a level that is incompatible with some local land uses," NIH is seeking a solution and seems to have settled upon birth control: specifically, ovariectomies.
    Apparently thinking long-term, NIH is not looking for a contractor simply to perform the initial work, but one that can train NIH veterinary staff to perform the operations in the future:
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Research Services (ORS), within the Office of the Director (OD) has a requirement to provide the NIH with wildlife expertise for the control of the deer population on the Bethesda Campus.  The contractor will perform ovariectomies on adult female deer, provide tagging and provide expert advice for humanely controlling the deer population.   Additionally, the contractor will provide training of NIH veterinary staff in the performance of ovariectomies in deer.
    The NIH plan includes using tranquilizer darts to catch an appropriate number of does to sufficiently regulate the size of the deer population. After the operations, the does will be monitored for infection and treated for pain as well before being released. And although hunting is still forbidden on campus, NIH is taking no chances. One of the requirements of the contract is that "[a]ll ovariectomized animals will be fitted with livestock ear tags labeled 'Do Not Consume'."

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

Michelle Obama: 'Fashion Plays an Important Role in My Confidence'

    Clothes may not make the woman, but according to First Lady Michelle Obama, they don't hurt. Mrs. Obama hosted a "Fashion Workshop" for students and fashion industry representatives at the White House Wednesday, something she said had been a "dream" of hers:
But I want to thank everyone here for making this dream -- this was really a dream of mine in so many ways, to have this industry and all those who have supported me, who do so much for people to make us feel beautiful and ready to get out there.  
Then Mrs. Obama personalized it further:
Let me tell you, fashion plays an important role in my confidence.  My ability to do my job is really linked to how I feel about what I’m wearing. 
The first lady also encouraged the students to take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by this White House visit:
If I were you, you all -- students sitting in here -- I would be either writing somebody in this room, I’d be getting a card.  I would get my personal notes together right now, because my letter would be addressed to whoever -- I was one of the students that was at the White House panel, I attended this workshop, we sat in the lunch, I mentioned something that they heard or a quote.  And I’d say I was -- you know, now is the time to get -- this is an opportunity.  This is a door... 
This is really special, so make the most of it.  It won’t be the last door that you have access to, but this door is real different. 
Mrs. Obama told the audience that she was taking her own advice on making the most of being in the White House:
And you have to think, when is the next time I’m going to be invited to the White House?  Because I think about that all the time.  (Laughter.)  I tell my kids, take a look around now, because you may never get invited back here again.
According to the White House transcript, her remarks were met with laughter and applause.

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

General: If Ebola Reaches Central America, 'There Will Be Mass Migration into the U.S.'

    Those looking for good news on the fight against Ebola will not find much encouragement from Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command. As Jim Garamone
of Department of Defense News reports, Kelly told an audience at the National Defense University in Washington, DC on Tuesday that, if the disease reaches Central America, "it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States." He also said with certainty that "there is no way we can keep Ebola [contained] in West Africa."
“By the end of the year, there’s supposed to be 1.4 million people infected with Ebola and 62 percent of them dying, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]..." 
“So, much like West Africa, it will rage for a period of time,” Kelly said. 
This is particularly possible scenario if the disease gets to Haiti or Central America, he said. If the disease gets to countries like Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, it will cause a panic and people will flee the region, the general said. 
“If it breaks out, it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States,” Kelly said. “They will run away from Ebola, or if they suspect they are infected, they will try to get to the United States for treatment.”
Kelly said that human trafficking could be an additional wrinkle in the battle to contain the disease. He related a disturbing anecdote from a recent visit to Central America where some men from Liberia were headed to the United States:
Also, transnational criminal networks smuggle people and those people can be carrying Ebola, the general said. Kelly spoke of visiting the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua with U.S. embassy personnel. At that time, a group of men “were waiting in line to pass into Nicaragua and then on their way north,” he recalled. 
“The embassy person walked over and asked who they were and they told him they were from Liberia and they had been on the road about a week,” Kelly continued. “They met up with the network in Trinidad and now they were on their way to the United States -- illegally, of course.” 
Those men, he said, “could have made it to New York City and still be within the incubation period for Ebola.”
    Earlier this year, General Kelly gave some chilling testimony about the limitations on the United States's ability to protect the southern border:
In spring hearings before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Kelly said that budgets cuts are “severely degrading” the military’s ability to defend southern approaches to the U.S border. Last year, he said, his task force was unable to act on nearly 75 percent of illicit trafficking events. “I simply sit and watch it go by,” he said. But the potential threats are even greater. Kelly warned that neglect has created vulnerabilities that can be exploited by terrorist groups, describing a “crime-terror convergence” already seen in Lebanese Hezbollah’s involvement in the region.
    While Centers for Disease Control director Tom Frieden recently expressed some optimism in the fight against Ebola in West Africa, he acknowledged that "globally, this is going to be a long, hard fight."

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Eric Holder Evokes 'Mississippi Burning' Case to Denounce 20% Reduction in Early Voting Days

    In a video message Monday on the website of the Justice Department, Eric Holder once again broached the subject about which he famously declared Americans cowardly: race. The occasion for his message, however, has nothing overtly to do with race, but rather the recent Supreme Court decision allowing Ohio's plan to scale back early voting to take effect. A U.S. district judge initially threw out the plan, ruling that the reduction of early voting days would disproportionately affect minorities.
    The fact that the plan scales back early voting days only 20%, from 35 days to 28 days, did not stop Holder from raising the specter of the Ku Klux Klan murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi half a century ago in what became known as the Mississippi Burning case. Holder also referred to the Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo, a woman from Detroit killed in 1965 during civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. Here are some screenshots from Holder's message:

    The attorney general has managed to equate a 20% reduction in early voting days with "turn[ing] our back" on Ku Klux Klan victims. If some Americans really are cowards when it comes to race, could it be fear of being branded a Klan sympathizer by the top law enforcement official in the country for simply favoring tighter controls on voting? Once a legislature has expanded the single day of voting that existed for most of the nation's history to multiple weeks of voting, is any subsequent reduction de facto racism? Would perpetually open polls be nirvana?
    When Eric Holder addresses race in his position as attorney general, he often pays lip service to "how far we've come" as a nation on race. But he keeps a full deck of race cards tucked in his back pocket just waiting to play trump on any argument.