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April 21, 2012

April 23, 2012

21April 2012

Newswire

 

ICANN extends new domain name application deadline

Next Gov

By Juliana Gruenwald, National Journal 04/13/2012

The group that runs the Internet’s address system is extending by a week the deadline for applications to run a new top-level domain name such as .horse or .bank to compete with .com, .net and other existing extensions.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers announced on its website Thursday that it is extending the application deadline for its controversial new domain name program until April 20 at 11:59 pm GMT because of technical problems with its application database. Those seeking to apply to run a new top-level domain name had to first register by March 29 before they could submit an application. They have to pay a $185,000 fee and show they have the technical and financial means to run a generic domain.

“Recently, we received a report of unusual behavior with the operation of the TAS system. We then identified a technical issue with the TAS system software,” ICANN said in a note on its website. “ICANN is taking the most conservative approach possible to protect all applicants and allow adequate time to resolve the issue.”

ICANN has said it will reveal at the end of the month the list of proposed names that applicants are seeking.

While most applicants have declined to publicize the names they applied for, among those who have gone public is ICM Registry, which now operates the adult-oriented .XXX top-level domain. The company said Thursday that it is seeking to expand the red light domain name district by applying to run .sex, .porn and .adult. The company says if it is successful in launching the new domains, it will allow those who already have .xxx names to reserve matching second-level names in the three new top-level domains for no extra charge.

“ICM Registry has worked for more than a decade to create .XXX which has become a globally accepted and responsible place for adult online entertainment to thrive in an easily recognizable self-regulated environment,” ICM Registry CEO Stuart Lawley said in a statement. “We chose to submit applications for additional TLDs to spare .XXX participants from needless expense and to ensure the TLDs will be run in the same trustworthy and appropriate ways that .XXX is today.”

 

To build a better virtual border fence, CBP melds past and current tech

NextGov

By Aliya Sternstein 04/13/2012

Customs and Border Protection

Customs and Border Protection will modernize surveillance towers remaining from its abandoned Southwest project, known as the Secure Border Initiative network, and populate the rest of the region with lower cost, scaled-down structures, CBP officials told Nextgov.

When first envisioned in 2005, SBInet was intended to spot illegal activity through an interconnected series of towers flanked by radars and cameras. CBP hired Boeing Co. to build the system, which was expected to detect 70 percent of incursions within a given field of coverage. But developing technology around this requirement and other arbitrary stipulations led to delays, cost-overruns and camera performance problems, when existing technologies could not meet those prerequisites, said Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

Now officials are embarking on a pared-down, tailored version of the system while continuing to fund the two sets of towers that ultimately proved functional in Tucson and Ajo.

“We’re starting with what is readily available,” Borkowski said this week, after CBP released a request for project proposals on April 6. “Industry has got to prove it to us it’s readily available.” That’s a much different approach than telling a contractor on day one to “start designing a system that will meet your needs,” he added.

By the end of 2010, the towers in Tucson and Ajo were working, but officials decided some of their features would be superfluous if replicated elsewhere. So, in early 2011, Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees CBP, ditched the concept of strung-together, one-size-fits-all towers along the border. “We developed requirements for the system that frankly we had trouble defending,” Borkowski said.

Outdated acquisition procedures that many DHS officials had cut their teeth on contributed to the misconceived SBInet. “You have to create the requirements because you need to essentially check that box,” he said. They began questioning whether the time and cost of fulfilling the criteria would be worthwhile for the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’ve seen they’ve had a big effect in the area where they were deployed,” Borkowski said. “That system there is working. It continues to work. But that system is more than what we need.”

In Ajo, Border Patrol agents, within several weeks, apprehended tens of thousands of people who authorities had not even realized were in the vicinity, he said. Now, adding upgrades such as cameras on the market with longer ranges or higher resolution pictures is a relatively inexpensive proposition, Borkowski said. Officials had set aside funding for operations, maintenance and modest enhancements for the remains of SBInet.

Federal auditors and skeptics have likened the new plan to SBInet because both initiatives rely on towers and cameras to withstand fierce environmental conditions. But Borkowski said one of the major differences between the tower sets in SBInet and the new program is the towers will not blanket an entire area of responsibility, inclusive of clutter such as hills and mountains — but rather only locations where the cameras have clear visibility.

The planned eight and a half year project will begin by erecting a tower series in Nogales and then adding up to five more tower sets in Sonoita, Douglas, Casa Grande, Ajo and Wellton.

Officials conferred with industry for 18 months to refine the job specifications before releasing a solicitation last week. Now they are seeking a system suitable for the rugged terrain that consists of “nondevelopmental” technologies — a term procurement specialists say signifies military or industrial-grade materials that can be immediately pulled off production lines.

And officials have opted to drop radars from the tower designs. Detecting motion in a town could be nonproductive. “Radar in a highly trafficked area doesn’t help,” Borkowski said.

 

DARPA wants more efficient computing systems

NextGov

By Dawn Lim 04/16/2012

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon venture capital arm, is seeking ideas to develop more power-efficient processes in embedded computing systems, according to a request for proposals. Embedded systems are electronic components that control functionality of computer systems.

The RFP spotlights that existing computer systems don’t process data quickly enough for military operations. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems today have sensors that collect far more information than can be processed in real time, reads the broad agency announcement. “As a result, what could be invaluable real-time intelligence data in the hands of our warfighters is simply discarded, or perhaps recorded and processed hours or days after it was collected,” it adds.

The DARPA research program, which goes by the moniker Power Efficiency Revolution For Embedded Computing Technologies, or PERFECT, aims to design systems that reach a power efficiency of 75 giga floating point operations per second per watt. GFLOPS/w is a measure of the computing ability of a computer. Current embedded processing systems have power efficiencies of around 1 GFLOPS/w, according to the announcement. Read the full solicitation here

 

What Are They Going to Do With a Drone in Otter Tail County?

Next Gov

By Bob Brewin   04/20/12 03:42 pm ET

As I reported in our news page today the Federal Aviation Administration provided the Electronic Frontier Foundation with a list of 60 organizations authorized to fly drone aircraft in domestic airspace. The list includes obvious candidates such as the Homeland Security Department (for border surveillance) and the Agriculture Department (to scope out forest fires), along with 11 local law enforcement departments.

But, why, oh why, does Otter Tail County, Minn., located 60 miles southeast of Fargo, N.D., and 178 miles northwest of Minneapolis, with a population of 57,000, need its own drone? I called and asked, but no response yet. Maybe it’s to check out the fishing possibilities among the 1,048 lakes in the county.

Large city police departments, including Miami and Seattle, have FAA authorization to operate drones, but so do the cops in Gadseden, Ala., a town of 39,000 located 65 miles northeast of much larger Birmingham, which does not yet have its own drone air force.

Not for long I’m sure. The police love gear, and I predict sooner rather than later every cop shop in the country will have its own drone flee

https://www.eff.org/sites/default/files/filenode/20120416_FAA_Drones_COA_0.pdf

 

Maj. Gen. Vautrinot discusses the importance of cyber operations

by Auburn Davis

Air Force Space Command Public Affairs

 

4/17/2012 – COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.  — The Commander of 24th Air Force and Air Force’s Cyber Air Component to USCYBERCOM Network Operations, Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot, spoke Monday at the 4th Annual Cyber 1.2 event at the 28th Annual National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

General Vautrinot, who is responsible for the Air Force’s component force that provides combatant commanders with trained and ready cyber forces, discussed the importance of the 24th Air Force mission.

“When we talk about cyber, we are talking about mission, a mission focus and a mission accomplishment. My mission focus, just like in any other domain-whether it is ground, sea, air or space-the same is true for cyber: we are responding to orders and guidance that support this nation in its responsibilities and national security efforts around the globe,” the general said.

She described how the 24th Air Force is the operational warfighting organization that establishes, operates, maintains and defends Air Force networks and conducts full-spectrum operations in cyberspace.

The general explained that full-spectrum is offense, defense and exploitation and they merge together at Cyber Command and are provided to the combatant commands so they can execute their missions.

She also said that it is important to defend Air Force networks to ensure warfighters can maintain the information advantage as we prosecute military operations.

 

“The defense can make a huge difference,” the general said, “and it makes the difference by understanding what is happening on the field of play and getting in front of it before a play can form, that is the beginning of forensics.”

When looking at forensics from a defensive stand point, it is like reviewing the game tapes before a football game. You’re able to “stop the play” before adversaries get any ground, General Vautrinot explained.

When you watch them over and over again, the “signature” advises the defense. And more importantly you can get to the next step of heuristics and know what any play may look like and let the system automatically adjust…in cyber-time.

“It is about proactive defense in depth” she said.

She said cyber defense is all about being able to apply your knowledge across all possibilities of how someone can take advantage of your architectures and your ability to use cyber to your own advantage and to their disadvantage.

 

GSA official’s wife accompanied him on trips at taxpayer expense

Washington Post

By Lisa Rein, Published: April 17

The senior government executive who organized the lavish Las Vegas conference at the center of a General Services Administration spending scandal took dozens of trips for the agency. The boss’s wife accompanied him on some of them — and taxpayers picked up the tab.

Deborah Neely wasn’t always just sharing husband Jeffrey E. Neely’s hotel rooms at resorts from Las Vegas to the Pacific islands. She handled party arrangements, directed event planners to spend government money and arranged lodging for relatives on the GSA trip to Las Vegas in 2010, an unusual role revealed in transcripts of interviews that the agency’s inspector general’s office conducted with Jeffrey Neely, as well as in congressional hearings.

Her role as the “first lady of Region 9” — as an investigator called her — shows a management culture in GSA’s Pacific Rim region that not only allowed the $823,000 Las Vegas gathering for 300 people and overspending on other conferences but also openly condoned perks for managers and their family members.

Deborah Neely, reached Tuesday at the couple’s home in Mill Valley, Calif., said she is hiring an attorney and could not comment until she has legal representation. Her actions are among the alleged misconduct that Inspector General Brian Miller has asked the Justice Department to investigate, government sources said. Jeffrey Neely declined through his attorney to comment.

On Monday, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Neely, 57, did not appear at another House hearing Tuesday.

Deborah Neely, 49, does not work for the government, but she used the credentials of a manager on her husband’s staff so she could join him at a trade show, according to transcripts reviewed by The Washington Post. Taxpayers covered the $711 registration fee.

And as recently as February, when a draft of Miller’s highly critical report on the Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas was awaiting a response from GSA officials, the Neelys took a 17-day government-related trip to Hawaii, Guam and the Mariana Islands. The couple planned to celebrate her birthday on the trip.

“It’s yo birfday. . . . We gonna pawty like iz yo birfday!” Deborah Neely said in an e-mail to her husband, according to documents.

“Mr. Neely and his wife believe they were some sort of agency royalty who used taxpayer funds to bankroll their lavish lifestyle,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the oversight panel, said Monday.

The scandal widened Tuesday as GSA officials said they have placed five additional career employees on administrative leave, and lawmakers pressed current and former officials to explain why they did not move against Jeffrey Neely and other managers sooner.

Miller described a culture of excess in the government’s real estate and purchasing agency.

“Every time we turned over a stone, we found 50 more with all kinds of things crawling out,” Miller told members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. In Las Vegas, the GSA paid for a mind reader, bicycles for a team-building exercise, lavish food spreads and several private parties.

A total of 13 agency leaders and managers have been fired or placed on leave or have resigned in the wake of Miller’s report.

Investigators are scrutinizing how many trips were attended by Deborah Neely or other family members and what expenses were charged to the government.

She owned a database company in Arlington when she met Jeffrey. They married in 1999 and moved in 2004 to Northern California, where he was regional buildings commissioner for the GSA’s Public Buildings Service, based in San Francisco. In 2009 he also became acting administrator.

At another conference in Las Vegas, an outside event planner hired by the GSA got special room rates at a luxury hotel for the 21-year-old daughter of an agency event planner and helped arrange her birthday party, Miller said Tuesday.

“They have it backwards,” he said. “If you have to travel, it’s permissible if a family member stays in your hotel room and you pay for that family member’s travel apart from that. . . . But to plan travel for a birthday is totally impermissible.”

The Neelys discussed the itinerary for the Pacific islands trip: “So we head to Hawaii. I’ll probably go over on Saturday Feb 4. I will work in Honolulu on Monday Feb 5. Head to Guam on Tues. Wednesday in Guam. Thursday in Saipan. Friday Feb 10 leave saipan. That gives us a couple of days each on Guam and Saipan,” Jeffrey Neely wrote to his wife in an e-mail that was read at Tuesday’s hearing.

It was unclear whether the GSA paid Deborah Neely’s travel expenses for that trip.

The couple drove to Long Beach, Calif., in 2010 for a trade show for building managers. A manager on Jeffrey Neely’s staff had to cancel at the last minute. Instead of inviting someone else on his staff to take her place, Deborah Neely did.

“You will be Sherry,” Neely wrote in an e-mail to his wife.

“So is it safe to say that at this . . . conference that Deb basically took Sherry Hutchinson’s spot?” the investigator asked him.

“I think it’s safe to say that Deb — Deb walked around the floor using Sherry Hutchinson’s tag,” Neely answered.

“We probably shouldn’t have done that,” he acknowledged to the investigator.

By the 2010 Las Vegas conference, Deborah Neely was well-known to the event planners on his staff. She told her husband on a planning mission to the M Resort Spa Casino that she liked the lip balm in the hotel gift shop.

“I just put on some chap stick from the M,” she wrote in an e-mail to her husband, according to the transcripts reviewed by The Post. “It’s great chap stick. I think GSA could private label chap stick for the event. They’re that good.”

He suggested that she approach one of his event planners with her idea. The planner wrote back that she thought they could “go to a promotion company.” The idea eventually died.

Jeffrey Neely told the investigator that his wife was trying to “influence the quality of the event” and “make things better.”

GSA officials landed special deals with the M Resort that got VIPs, including the Neelys, 2,200-square-foot loft suites at a government rate of $93 per night. The couple held a private party in theirs on the last night of the conference, then billed the government $2,700. Deborah Neely directed her husband’s event planner to buy more food, “now that we know that we have more in the budget,” the transcripts say.

“I used the standards for a cocktail party,” she e-mailed an event planner. “I think people are going to be hungry. Do you think we should have an alternative for people who can’t eat shrimp?”

Jeffrey Neely told the investigator that the party was an employee awards event.

He invited his staff to the gathering. According to the transcript reviewed by The Post, Neely said in an e-mail to a colleague: “I know I’m bad, but as Deb and I often say, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Ain’t going to last forever.”

The investigator told Neely that his wife’s role at the conference looked bad. “I mean, you know, it’s just I think there may be a concern of the — I don’t know, for lack of a better term, the first lady of Region 9 having all this influence on menus and chap stick,” he said.

Deborah Neely also asked the event planner to secure a suite for three nights for her niece and her husband at the government rate.

After the conference, the Neelys stayed an additional night at the M Resort. They tried to get the government rate, Miller said, but could not, even after the event planner tried to intervene.

Jeffrey Neely said the event planner led him to believe that the room cost for the couple on the extra night was covered in the base price the hotel charged for the conference, although a staffer later billed the GSA.

The $969 balance on the room tab was charged to taxpayers.

Staff writer Timothy R. Smith and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report

 

AFGSC leads DoD’s new SIPRNet token program

by Staff Sgt. Brian Stives

Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs

 

4/18/2012 – BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La.  — Barksdale Air Force Base is evaluating a new smart card, known as a hardware token, on the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet.

“As we learned through the events of Wiki Leaks, we had a blind spot in protecting our classified networks,” said Robert S. Jack II, Air Force Global Strike Command director of communications. “So at the DoD and national level, we have a national strategy and program to implement a Public Key Infrastructure hardware based authentication system on the classified network – hence the SIPRNet token.”

Air Force Global Strike Command, along with members from select units and combatant commands, began using the new smart cards, as participants in DoD’s SIPRNet hardware token Initial Operational Test and Evaluation. Similar to the common access card, the SIPRNet token contains individual PKI certificates used for network logon, Web site authentication and secure e-mail.

Similarities between the CAC and SIPRNet tokens exist–both are hardware tokens, cryptographically bound to your identity, and the card format is an exact duplicate. The differences between the cards are very pronounced, but not obvious to the average user, other than the fact the SIPRNet token doesn’t have a picture, name, grade or service component listed.

“The card was created to get us to a state of security on our classified network where we do a predominate amount of our command and control work in the business to fly, fight win, in a much more secure and sustainable fashion than the login ID and password,” said Jack.

The new token also helps the communication squadron’s help desk area because everyone will have personal identification number and not have to remember multiple passwords.

 

“Life will be much easier with this token because users only have to remember an eight digit pin and it is one that is not required to be changed or refreshed every 90 days,” said Jack.

There have been 1607 SIPRNet tokens issued at Barksdale AFB, or roughly 63 percent of the base. Some users have discovered issues with the cards as the roll out continued.

“We are going through and finding all of the infant problems associated with a new program and technologies and we did find some glitches,” said Jack. “We found out that two of the technologies were like two ships passing in the night and not communicating, so we are working with the Air Force PKI and DoD program office to fix those.”

The DoD-wide implementation date is December 2012, and AFGSC pushing hard to be the first MAJCOM to issue tokens to all its SIPRNet users, well ahead of the implementation date .

“I’m extremely proud to be part of AFGSC and the leadership here from [Lt.] General [Jim] Kowalski on down to the wings, they have been absolutely committed to doing this project,” said Jack. “They understand the operational imperative because cyber is a contested environment and you don’t have to go any further than today’s newspaper to read the latest and greatest exploits of things happening to people, like identity theft, intellectual property theft or cyber crime, happening to people in the wild, wild world of the web. Therefore, this is our approach to dealing with it. This program comes with great benefits to the users.”

The SIPRNet token will roll out to the rest of the command in stages. F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., and Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., will be in the second phase of rollouts.

“It is very much aligned with the fundamental precepts of safe, secure and efficiency in the management and oversight of the nuclear enterprise,” said Jack.

 

Lawmakers call for sweeping reforms at GSA

By ANDY MEDICI | Last Updated:April 18, 2012

Lawmakers are pressing the General Services Administration for widespread reforms in the wake of a blistering scandal over wasteful spending, and some have even questioned whether the agency should continue to exist.

At a hearing Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told GSA’s new acting chief to go further in overhauling the troubled agency.

“I want you to be more sweeping in your reforms perhaps than people will be comfortable with,” Boxer said to acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini.

The White House tapped Tangherlini to replace Administrator Martha Johnson on April 2 and clean up the agency as GSA Inspector General Brian Miller released a scathing report documenting widespread waste and mismanagement, especially at GSA’s Region 9 office in San Francisco.

The IG report detailed GSA’s spending on a lavish $822,000 2010 conference in Las Vegas and numerous other examples of waste. The report prompted not only Johnson’s resignation, but the firing of GSA Public Buildings Commissioner Bob Peck and Johnson’s senior counsel Stephen Leeds, and the placement of 10 employees on administrative leave.

Boxer urged Tangherlini to appoint someone to oversee spending and reform efforts at each of GSA’s 11 regional offices.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said at the hearing that shuffling the agency’s chain of command around is not enough, and asked if GSA’s role would be better handled by the private sector.

“Has GSA outlived its usefulness as a federal agency?” Barrasso asked.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees public buildings, which are managed by GSA, said Tuesday at a hearing that a “culture of waste” at GSA ran from interns to top officials.

Denham warned GSA officials of severe consequences if the agency continues wasteful spending practices and “stonewalling” his committee’s requests for information.

“I am prepared to systematically pull apart GSA to the point where we will make it a question to the American public of whether GSA is needed at all,” Denham said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said at the same hearing Tuesday that GSA is not only wasting money, but fumbling its core mission of owning and maintaining government property. He referred to examples of excess and underutilized federal property sitting idle and wasteful construction projects.

“Maybe it’s time to look at a total replacement,” Mica said.

Tangherlini said at the hearing Wednesday that the agency is needed now more than ever to help the government save money.

“I believe there is a powerful value proposition to a single agency dedicated to this work,” Tangherlini said.

Tangherlini said he is installing numerous reforms to prevent wasteful spending in the future, including:

• Consolidating oversight of conferences into a new Office of Administrative Services, which is responsible for contracting, approving and reviewing spending for conferences.

• Requiring all regional office chief financial officers to report directly to headquarters instead of to regional administrators. Tangherlini acknowledged that the budget autonomy of each of the regions was partly to blame for the “gross misuse of taxpayer dollars.”

• Conducting a top-to-bottom review of GSA’s operation that will be finished by September and may lead to more reforms.

• Appointing four acting regional public buildings commissioners to replace those placed on administrative leave.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said at the hearing Wednesday that the ongoing scandal is indicative of a GSA culture that has become too close to the private sector.

He said any structural reforms should establish clear boundaries between GSA employees and private business and put in place controls to ensure money cannot be spent easily.

“What’s most important now is that Congress work with the agency to promote thoughtful reforms,” Cardin said.

 

Agencies seek to shed antiquated acquisition model

Federal Times

By Amber Corrin

Apr 19, 2012

As the Defense Department and the government writ large struggle to match policy to the pace of technology, the gap that is acquisition speed doesn’t seem to be getting much smaller. Now DOD and the intelligence community are looking at new ways of buying technology, goods and services, but are still determining when to buy fast – and when to stick with the status quo.

DOD’s acquisition model effectively is still rooted in an industrial-era model, but leadership is hopeful that new ways of buying are on the horizon, according to a panel of DOD and intelligence officials who spoke April 17 at an AFCEA DC event in Arlington, Va.

“The asymmetry I deal with on a daily basis is the difference in speed between the amazing technology that’s being produced by industry and the agility of the commercial space, [and] the different tempo and processes used internal to the government to take advantage of those,” said Ted Cope, director of geo-intelligence research at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “That seems to be its own type of asymmetric warfare.”

Increasingly, acquisition officials are looking to a pilot-style model of developing and fielding technologies that are less than 100 percent solutions, but still effective.

“We’ve been successful when we’ve taken an approach where things are built to be piloted versus being built to last. You recognize that maybe you don’t have the perfect solution,” Cope said. “Maybe doing things in smaller chunks versus bigger blocks…but then you get the challenge of how do you make these pieces interoperable?”

Cope said that’s a process his agency is still learning, along with trying to determine how to scale pilot-type projects to an enterprise level. “That’s a gear we’re still learning to shift,” he said.

Furthermore, the incremental approach isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution by any means, according to Tami Johnson, project manager with the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.

“With some things it just doesn’t work. It has to be individual-specific to a program. That’s where the acquisition community really needs to stay on top of this, and when it doesn’t make sense, regardless of the pressure, we need to be able to stand up and say, ‘Look, if we deliver this capability in 12 months, you’re going to get garbage. We need to push forward on some things, but stay realistic.”

According to Gus Hunt, CTO for chief information officer, Central Intelligence Agency, security is also a high-priority issue, along with finding solutions that can accommodate the mass capacity required by DOD and the intelligence agency’s volumes of data. Still, he remained optimistic.

“I’m hoping this is the harbinger of our future economic engine,” he said.

 

Government to quit sending Social Security checks by mail

The Associated Press

Published: 15 April 2012 04:20 PM

WASHINGTON – Starting next year, the check will no longer be in the mail for millions of people who receive Social Security and other government benefits.

The federal government, which issues 73 million payments a month, is phasing out paper checks for all benefit programs, requiring people to get payments electronically, either through direct deposit or a debit card for those without a bank account.

The changes will affect people who get Social Security, veterans’ benefits, railroad pensions and federal disability payments. Tax refunds are exempt, but the Internal Revenue Service encourages taxpayers to get refunds electronically by processing those refunds faster than paper checks.

About 90 percent of people who receive federal benefits already get their payments electronically, the Treasury Department says. New beneficiaries were required to get payments electronically starting last year, and with a few exceptions, the rest will have to make the switch by March 2013.

“It’s just that natural progression of moving to how people are used to receiving their funds,” said Walt Henderson, director of the Treasury Department’s electronic funds transfer division.

Henderson said electronic payments are safer and more efficient than paper checks; in 2010, more than 540,000 federal benefit checks were reported lost or stolen. The switch will save the government about $120 million a year. Social Security will save $1 billion over the next decade, according to the Treasury Department.

“You think of that paper check floating out there in the delivery system, with personal information on it, it’s much more susceptible to fraud versus an electronic payment,” Henderson said.

Advocates for seniors say they understand the government’s desire to cut costs and take advantage of technologies that most workers already use. The food stamp program switched from paper coupons to debit cards in 2004.

But they have raised concerns about requiring the switch for older retirees who may not be used to electronic payments.

“This will affect some very frail elderly people who are living by themselves, many of them, and doing well, but usually within the context of that old paper check that they deposit in the bank,” said Web Phillips, a senior policy advisor for the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare.

“The change has to be handled carefully and with a lot of sensitivity so that there aren’t people who lose track of a payment or don’t understand that they have a card that came in the mail that’s the source of their payment,” Phillips said. “That’s our concern.”

The switch is mandated by a Treasury rule issued in December 2010. Since then, the department has worked to educate the public. The government has created a website, http://www.GoDirect.org and a toll-free phone number, 1-800-333-1795, people can call for assistance.

“Treasury acknowledges they have a lot of education to do for people about how these things work,” said David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP. “We’re a bit concerned about how easy it’s going to be to provide education, particularly for some in this older population who are not familiar with debit cards and don’t have bank accounts.”

Certner said AARP wants the government to make it easier to get an exemption. Under the Treasury rule, current beneficiaries who are 90 and older won’t be required to make the switch. People can get a waiver if using a debit card would impose a hardship, but the Treasury Department says those would be “extreme, rare circumstances.”

These waivers are not well publicized on the government’s website.

“There are several million people who receive paper checks today,” Certner said. “Some of them do it because they have worked out arrangements for them that work.”

AARP also has concerns about fees associated with the debit cards. The Direct Express cards are issued by Comerica Bank, Treasury’s financial agent. Each month, benefit payments are added to the cards, which can be used to make purchases or withdraw cash from ATMs.

There are no fees for using the debit card to make purchases. They can be used at any retailer that accepts MasterCard debit cards. If a card is lost or stolen, the beneficiary is protected from unauthorized use as long as the missing card is reported promptly.

Cardholders can make one free ATM withdrawal each time a payment is registered in the card. Subsequent withdrawals will cost 90 cents each, and all withdrawals may be subject to fees by the owner of the ATM.

The government’s switch to electronic payments also comes with a side effect: less business for the U.S. Postal Service, an agency that is already facing big budget problems with the rise of email and electronic bill paying.

The private sector has been migrating to electronic payments for years, costing the Postal Service millions of customers, said Alan Robinson, editor of the Postal Journal, a trade publication.

“Normally, these things happen one customer at a time,” Robinson said. “In terms of payments, this is probably one of the largest.”

 

Pension backlog dwindles despite retirement surge

Federal Times

By STEPHEN LOSEY | Last Updated:April 15, 2012

The Office of Personnel Management’s effort to fix its long-standing pension processing backlog is progressing faster than expected — even though many more feds have been retiring in recent months than expected.

Ken Zawodny, OPM’s associate director of retirement services, said the improving numbers show the strategy the agency adopted in January is succeeding.

“We made a lot of process improvements,” Zawodny said. “We’ve been working with the staff, we’ve been working with management, we’ve been working with the union folks, and we’ve been taking a good look at everything we’re doing, and seeing what we can do better.”

OPM has struggled for decades to process federal retirees’ pension claims quickly and accurately. As a result, tens of thousands of new retirees wait months to receive their complete annuities — some wait more than a year — and in the meantime they struggle to get by on reduced interim pensions. Some of those interim pensions are less than half of what retirees are owed.

However, OPM says interim pensions now average 80 percent of what retirees are eventually owed.

OPM Director John Berry — who says fixing the problem is now his top priority — in January outlined a strategy to fix the problem once and for all through a combination of increased staffing, streamlined processes, improved information technology and better cooperation with other agencies.

OPM said April 5 that its claims backlog dropped to 52,274 in March, a 14 percent drop since January. That is lower than the 55,378-claim backlog OPM expected to have by this point.

And OPM processed 12,386 pension claims in March. That is a 40 percent increase in monthly processing since the agency began tracking numbers in January, and it is nearly 50 percent more than the 8,300 claims OPM said it expected to process last month.

This allowed OPM to more than handle an unexpected spike in pension claims received in March.

Dave Snell, retirement benefits director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said OPM’s progress is encouraging.

“They’ve evidently got a fix, and it’s working,” Snell said.

In an interview last week with Federal Times, Zawodny said one of the most significant process improvements has been to make sure case files are complete when legal administrative specialists (LASs) start to calculate pensions. Berry and other OPM officials have, in the past, said that incomplete case files are one of the biggest problems hampering pension processing, since adjudicators often had to stop working to hunt down missing documents.

“When an LAS got 10 cases on their desk, instead of opening 10 and only being able to complete three because of further work needed, we ensured the work was placed in their hands so they could complete 10 at that same time,” Zawodny said.

OPM has already hired 20 new customer service specialists, as Berry promised in his January plan, to work on a claims development team to prepare case files. Those specialists are in charge of reviewing retirees’ service history records, making sure no documents are missing, and then putting the documents in the proper order. If something is missing, those customer service specialists are in charge of tracking it down.

Berry also ordered OPM to overhaul how it answers phone calls and e-mails from retirees with questions on their pensions. In the past, many legal administrative specialists have been pulled away from their pension calculations to answer basic questions from retirees.

But OPM has put a so-called “escalation” process in place, where call center staffers first answer basic questions about retirement claims. Only complicated questions that those staffers can’t answer are passed on to LASs, Zawodny said. These changes have helped adjudicators dedicate more time to processing pension claims, he said.

And OPM has hired all 56 new legal administrative specialists called for in its January plan. Zawodny said the first 20 or so new hires began training in January and are now adjudicating claims under the supervision of more experienced specialists. Those claims go through a stricter quality review process to make sure they are error-free.

The first wave of new specialists will likely be fully trained by July, and the other waves will follow. OPM expects the newly hired adjudicators will be able to process an additional 3,000 claims per month when they are fully trained.

Berry told the Senate in February that he had hired a new chief technology officer, Dave Bowen, to find “small, bite-sized” automation solutions that will further speed up retirement processing. Zawodny said the agency is still looking for those solutions.

“The folks in the [chief information officer] shop are still trying to figure out exactly what will be the best solution, that will give us the biggest bang for our bucks immediately within our current [fiscal] constraints,” Zawodny said.

Snell said that NARFE hasn’t yet seen a drop in complaints from their members about incomplete annuities. But he said he’s hearing from more NARFE members that their calls are getting answered more promptly.

NARFE and other critics have slammed OPM’s pension reform plans for not including a strategy for including the Social Security supplemental payment in the interim annuities of younger Federal Employees Retirement System retirees. In the past, OPM said it cannot include that FERS supplemental, which can be several hundred dollars a month, in the interim annuity because employing agencies do not provide Social Security payroll information needed to calculate it.

But Zawodny said OPM is trying to do better. OPM now asks agencies to flag cases where employees are eligible for a FERS supplemental, and then manually adds an estimate of it to the interim payment.

“It goes back to communication,” Zawodny said. “We can only work with what we know without stopping the train and looking at each and every case that comes in through the door.”

Snell said that Zawodny and Berry told NARFE last month that they were going to try to add the FERS supplemental back in when possible, though he hasn’t seen much progress yet. Snell is also concerned that OPM is relying on retirees’ employing agencies to alert them when someone may be eligible for a FERS supplemental.

Even though OPM is processing more pension cases, Zawodny said it still takes roughly 150 days to finish the average claim — not far off from the 156-day average OPM cited in January. He said that is partly because the agency is clearing out backlogged cases, some of which are many months old and dragging down the overall average.

“We hope that as we get more current, that’s going to go down,” Zawodny said. “But we have a lot of older cases out there, and as we go through those, that number’s going to remain static for a little while.”

Zawodny said he does not foresee any speed bumps that could throw off OPM’s progress, but he said that could change. If a large agency offers mass buyouts or if Congress makes a major change to federal retirement systems, he said, that could result in thousands more retirements than expected in a particular month and put OPM behind again.

 

DHS Network Monitoring: 4th Amendment Problems?

Einstein network monitoring system, designed to spot cyber attacks, could raise privacy concerns related to Fourth amendment, Congressional Research Service says.

By J. Nicholas Hoover, InformationWeek

April 13, 2012

URL: http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/security/232900279

An intrusion detection program that the federal government uses to protect its computer networks could raise privacy concerns under the Fourth Amendment, Congress’ policy research organization said in a recent report.

In a March report, the Congressional Research Service said that the federal government’s monitoring of network traffic under the Einstein network monitoring and intrusion detection and protection program could constitute unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, though it noted that the government has strong arguments that the program is constitutional.

Einstein, operated by the Department of Homeland Security with some help from the National Security Agency, is a cross-government effort to monitor federal networks for cyberattacks. As part of those efforts, the system monitors all communications, including federal employee communications with private citizens, which, according to the report, “may trigger Fourth Amendment guarantees to the right to be free from unreasonable searches and excessive government intrusion,” despite the steps the government has put in place to mitigate privacy concerns.

Einstein monitors and copies all network activity into and out of federal networks, including the content of emails to and from government officials’ work and private emails and any communication on Twitter and Facebook. Einstein then scans the data for known malware and other attacks, and saves the data when it discovers an attack or attack vector.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees people’s right “to be secure in their own persons, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” and was written to protect people against the government in particular. The Amendment only applies when a government act is a “search or seizure,” and is unconstitutional only where unreasonable, which turns partially on whether the individual asserting that his or her rights were violated had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Although courts have found that Internet users don’t have privacy expectations for the routing information of their Internet communications, which could indicate who someone is communicating with, the content of that communication is another issue altogether, and the fact that EINSTEIN actually stores that content is a cause for concern, according to the report.

The issue could be concerning from a legal perspective for both federal employees and for private citizens whose communications might be swept up as part of the monitoring effort, the report says. The Supreme Court has ruled that employers may read employees’ communications if the monitoring is conducted for a “noninvestigatory work-related purpose” and isn’t “excessively intrusive,” but the report notes that the purpose could be questioned, and there are “reasonable argument[s]” that monitoring of all employee communications is intrusive. The report indicates that more serious concerns arise from the monitoring of private communications with the government.

Although the Obama administration has steadfastly defended Einstein’s constitutionality, the program’s adherence to the Fourth Amendment has been questioned in the past. As early as 2010, Brookings Institution fellow Jack Goldsmith, professor of law at Harvard Law School, wrote that the Fourth Amendment is a “significant hurdle” for the Einstein program.

More recently, this January, Constitutional rights watchdog The Constitution Project flagged concerns about whether the program might violate the Fourth Amendment, and said that future plans to expand the program and cybersecurity efforts like it could raise even further questions.

 

 

Air Force IT Strategy Stresses Mobile, Thin Clients

Agency seeks an additional 2,725 iPads and updates a procurement for a virtual desktop infrastructure to support most of the Air Force.

By J. Nicholas Hoover, InformationWeek

April 16, 2012

URL: http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/mobile/232900371

 

The Air Force’s plans to shift away from desktops toward thin and mobile clients are moving forward, as the military service is taking a second stab at a previously canceled iPad procurement and has updated plans to move a large portion of its users to a virtual desktop infrastructure.

Last week, the Air Force issued a request for proposal for 2,725 iPads to be used as a flight management and reference device for flight crew members. This replaces a procurement that was canceled after it came to light that the original procurement called for a brand of PDF reader that had been developed in Russia.

And earlier this month, the Air Force released some new details on a March request for information that has set the stage for the service to ditch desktops in favor of zero- and thin-client computing.

[ Mobile computing is taking flight across government. See FAA Clears iPad For Takeoff Throughout Agency. ]

Taken as a whole, the Air Force’s plans align well with broader plans by the Department of Defense to rely less on PCs and turn toward mobility and thin clients. Air Force CIO Teri Takai has placed mobility among her top priorities, and has also recently endorsed a move toward thin clients.

The new iPad procurement seeks 64-GB, Wi-Fi only, third-generation iPads to be used as electronic flight bags, which will replace reference books and older flight management logs. Per the procurement, the devices will need two-year service plans, compatibility with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Flight Information Publications application called Phaero, and compatibility with night vision filters. Many of the device requirements, such as support for 256-bit encryption, are built into the iPad.

The new procurement for iPads isn’t the only one the Air Force has released in recent months. The Air Force Mobility Command awarded a $9.36 million contract for up to 18,000 iPads in early March.

The Air Force’s thin client plans, meanwhile, are part of a wider effort to design and move to an entirely new client architecture beginning in 2014, according to the procurement. The Air Force’s thin client plan would support “at least 80%” of Air Force users with virtual desktop infrastructure. According to the RFI, which was initially issued in early March, the end goal of the plan would be to allow Air Force users to “access desktop-like capabilities through any device, including commercial mobile devices.”

The RFI seeks an architecture that supports up to 1 million users on the military’s unclassified network and 220,000 on the classified network, including a total of 775,000 concurrent users. Behind the scenes, the data center would centrally store user profile information, stream individual applications based on users’ security groups, and support unified communications.

The procurement indicates that the Air Force will pilot the program before deployment with 9,000 users on the military’s unclassified network and 6,200 on the classified network at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, which houses the headquarters of numerous Air Force and military organizations.

The Air Force updated the procurement in the last several weeks with responses to would-be vendors’ questions, indicating, among other things, that the Air Force was open to using even commercial cloud technology for the thin client strategy if it could meet the Air Force’s security demands.

 

Study: Charging up electric cars could create more emissions than fueling up

Detroit Free Press

April 17, 2012 |

By Zlati Meyer

Detroit Free Press Business Writer

 

For most Michiganders, charging their electric vehicles could produce more greenhouse-gas emissions than fueling up and driving the most efficient gas-powered hybrids, according to a new study released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The organization looked at how electricity is produced around the U.S. — regions more dependent on coal for their electricity received a lower score.

“Today, in Michigan, our analysis is an electric vehicle is as good as some of the best gas vehicles and some hybrids, and if Michigan continues to invest in renewable energy, it can go from being a ‘good region’ to a ‘best region,’ ” said Don Anair, one of the researchers.

He said that in Michigan, where 70% of electricity comes from coal-burning power plants, a plug-in electric vehicle affects the environment the same as a car that gets 38 m.p.g. That’s not as environmentally beneficial as a 2012 Toyota Prius, for example, which gets 50 m.p.g. Michigan’s score is about equal to the all-gasoline 2012 Scion iQ. The Rocky Mountain region ranked last with a 33 m.p.g. score.

The southwestern corner of Michigan and parts of the Upper Peninsula are lumped with the region that ranked cleaner at 41 m.p.g. and includes mostly Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia.

“When people are considering electric vehicles, I think emissions is one question,” Anair said. “This will certainly make it clear that even with no tailpipe emissions, there are emissions associated with charging it.”

Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for the new vehicle research and pricing site TrueCar.com, doesn’t anticipate the study will affect consumer behavior. Plus, despite the study findings, buying an electric vehicle now could help the environment in the long run by helping drive down the costs of the cleaner vehicles through higher demand, he said.

“The idea of introducing these cars, fuel cells, anything not going to use the traditional supply of oil, is that one day we’ll be able to reach an economies-of-scale number … so the masses can afford electric cars,” he said. “The ultimate multiplier effect of that eventually will be much cleaner air, due (to) not using much gas.”

Environmental concerns aside, many car shoppers simply want to save on their gas expenses.

The study — which took into account the higher cost of the electric vehicles and the price of electricity and gas — found that electric vehicle owners could save as much as $1,200 a year compared to the average compact gas-powered car, based on the national average electricity price of 11 cents per kilowatt hour and an average gas price of $3.50 per gallon.

For most of Michigan’s population, a person with a standard rate plan with DTE Energy would save $880 a year. That savings jumps to more than $1,000 for people who plug in during low-peak times, such as overnight, according to the study.

 

House GOP releases first 2013 spending bill

The Hill

By Erik Wasson – 04/17/12 10:38 AM ET

 

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday released its first bill of the 2013 spending cycle, funding the Department of Energy and related agencies.

House appropriators are on a collision course with their Senate counterparts over the 12 annual spending bills for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The House is crafting its bills based on the top-line spending level of $1.028 trillion found in the House budget resolution. The Senate is in the process of drafting bills with $19 billion more in total spending, based on last August’s debt-ceiling levels.

The Energy and Water bill is one of the less controversial of the 12 bills, however. It contains a 0.3 percent increase from 2012 of $88 million. This represents a cut of $965 million below President Obama’s budget request.

 

Larger cuts are expected to come later in the year in the Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State funding bills.

The office of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the bill reflects the GOP’s focus on addressing high gas prices and protecting nuclear facilities from attack.

The bill includes $207 million above last year’s level for fossil energy technologies and creates a new $25 million shale oil program.

The bill increases funding for nuclear security by $275 million increase from 2012.

As in previous years, the bill provides $25 million in funding for Yucca Mountain nuclear waste activities despite the fact the Obama administration has abandoned plans to store high-level nuclear waste there.

Ranking member Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said the allocation for Energy was “decent” but warned deeper cuts will be coming in the remaining bills.

“”Despite the dangerously low overall allocation, Republicans fund the Energy and Water bill above last year’s level and within the range of what would have been expected if Republicans had stuck to the agreement they voted for in the [Budget Control Act,” he said. “This subcommittee’s relatively decent allocation raises serious concerns about what funding levels will be assigned to the remaining bills.”

Dicks also said that some priorities such as energy efficiency, which gets a $374 million cut, are underfunded.

Source:

http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/appropriations/221919-house-gop-releases-first-2013-spending-bill

 

House GOP leaders rebuff White House push on cybersecurity mandates

The Hill

By Brendan Sasso – 04/18/12 08:00 PM ET

 

House Republican leaders are standing firm against intense pressure from the White House to embrace regulatory mandates for cybersecurity.

The Obama administration is leaning on Congress to pass legislation that would require some private companies to meet minimum standards for protecting their computer networks.

Heavyweights from the administration, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander, were dispatched to Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening to outline the threats facing critical infrastructure.

But GOP leaders in the House are opposed to adding more regulatory mandates on private businesses and are moving forward with cybersecurity legislation next week that would be purely voluntary.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) was working on a cybersecurity bill that would have included new regulatory standards, but he dropped the mandates from the legislation after speaking with Republican leaders.

“I am not going to suggest that it was poorly written or with wrong intent,” Lungren said of the old version of his bill during a markup Wednesday. He said he dropped the critical infrastructure regulations “in an effort for us to proceed” and for the House Homeland Security Committee “to put some stamp” on the cybersecurity debate.

Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) said overhauling the bill was a “long, hard decision,” but that if the committee tried to move forward with new regulations, “we will be cut out of the process.”

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) said he was “deeply discouraged by the changes made to the bill, apparently with the influence of the majority leadership.”

“House Republican leadership appears determined to approach this vital national-security challenge like every other issue: in an extremely partisan way that impedes progress, in this case siding with those in critical industries who are neglecting public safety,” Langevin said.

Aides to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) declined to comment.

The House is expected to vote next week on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The bill, authored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), would encourage companies to share information about cyber threats, but would not make the disclosures mandatory.

The Obama administration criticized the bill in a statement Tuesday evening, arguing it is inadequate.

“The nation’s critical infrastructure cyber vulnerabilities will not be addressed by information-sharing alone,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement.

The White House unveiled its own cybersecurity proposal last May. Officials urged Congress to pass legislation that would encourage companies to share information about online threats while empowering the Homeland Security Department to enforce cybersecurity standards for critical infrastructure systems.

The White House warned that without mandatory cybersecurity standards, hackers could attack a critical system, such as an electrical grid or a water supply, and cause mass chaos.

“Think about how many people could die if a cyberterrorist attacked our air traffic control system and planes slammed into one another,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said at a hearing earlier this year. “Or if rail-switching networks were hacked — causing trains carrying people, or hazardous materials — to derail and collide in the midst of some of our most populated urban areas, like Chicago, New York, San Francisco or Washington.”

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced a bill that closely tracks the administration’s proposal, giving the Homeland Security Department new regulatory powers over critical infrastructure.

The White House has endorsed the Lieberman-Collins bill, but Republicans have criticized the measure, warning that it would create a burdensome and unnecessary regulatory environment.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the Lieberman-Collins bill would impose regulations that “would stymie job creation, blur the definition of private property rights and divert resources from actual cybersecurity to compliance with government mandates.”

After McCain introduced his own alternative bill that jettisoned the regulatory provisions, Hayden warned Congress not to resort to “half-measures.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated he will bring the Lieberman-Collins bill up for a vote, but even if the Senate approves the new regulatory powers, the chances of the legislation making headway in the House seem slim.

In a speech on Tuesday, Rogers warned against adopting “big, prescriptive, regulatory ‘thou shalt’-type bills in an arena like cyberspace” and predicted Democrats would have trouble even getting the cybersecurity mandates through the chamber they control.

Rogers said he has already had discussions with Senate Democrats about moving forward with the information-sharing provisions if their effort to pass the regulatory piece fails.

But the White House isn’t giving up.

Tuesday’s briefing with members of the House was just the latest closed-door session where Obama officials tried to impress upon lawmakers the need to address the cybersecurity threats facing the country.

Senior administration officials have held numerous classified briefings with the House and Senate on the danger of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure. Last month, officials performed a simulation for dozens of senators showing how the government would respond to a cyberattack on the New York City electrical grid

“As the president emphasized in the State of the Union, we need Congress to act swiftly to provide the authorities we need to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from the growing danger of cyber threats,” Hayden said in Tuesday’s statement.

 

 

Keystone pipeline developer proposes new route

By Ben Geman – 04/19/12 08:35 AM ET

The Canadian company behind the embattled Keystone XL pipeline project – which is at the heart of the Washington, D.C. energy battles – has proposed a new route through Nebraska aimed at avoiding the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region.

TransCanada Corp. filed the proposal with state environmental officials in Nebraska on Wednesday, the company said. The Omaha World-Herald has more on the plan here.

The filing came on the same day that the House passed a GOP-led bill that mandates federal approval of the proposed pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil sands south to Gulf Coast refineries.

President Obama rejected a federal cross-border permit for the pipeline in January, citing the need for more review of routes through Nebraska and other matters. But the administration has invited TransCanada to reapply for the permit, which the company intends to do.

Republicans say construction of the overall project should commence quickly while state and federal officials review the Nebraska-specific portion.

They have used the White House failure to approve the project to attack administration energy policies, alleging Obama is passing up a chance to create jobs and increase energy security.

Back in Nebraska, TransCanada’s filing with state officials came a day after Gov. Dave Heineman (R) signed a bill into law that will enable an expedited state review of the project.

“Nebraska will move forward on the review process of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and any future pipelines that will create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil,” he said in a statement earlier this week, calling the review a “top priority.”

But Jane Kleeb of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska said the new route still cuts through environmentally sensitive areas. Opponents of the project fear that spills could contaminate a vital aquifer.

“If TransCanada cared about our state, landowners, water and Sandhills they would have proposed a safer, more responsible route instead of trying to play games with landowners,” she said in a statement Wednesday evening.

Environmentalists bitterly oppose the pipeline due to greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands extraction and other concerns. Major business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute are lobbying for its approval.

Source:

http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/222475-keystone-pipeline-developer-proposes-new-route

 

States Fight Back Against National Guard Cuts

CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS

April 14, 2012 – 12:43 p.m.

By Megan Scully, CQ Staff

Top Pentagon officials are accustomed to months of haggling with Capitol Hill over the details of the Defense Department’s annual request. This year, however, the budget battle is extending beyond Washington to state capitals across the country, where governors are rallying in opposition to a cost-cutting Air Force plan that would make deep cuts in National Guard planes and personnel.

The governors — usually relegated to the sidelines and forced to rely on lawmakers to tweak Pentagon spending plans — are newly energized and organized to fight the Air Force’s plan, which spreads the cuts across many states. And they have a new weapon: a bipartisan council, created by a little-noticed executive order from January 2010, that is supposed to advise the Defense secretary on issues affecting their state Guard units.

The mere existence of the 10-member council has opened doors in the Pentagon — including that of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who met with the council in late February, just weeks after the Pentagon’s budget proposal became public. The main topic of conversation was the Air Guard proposal, and the governors, who serve as the commanders in chief of their state units, made it clear they believed they were shouldering an unfair share of the Air Force’s budget cuts.

It’s almost unheard-of for the Pentagon to make wholesale revisions to its budget proposal months after sending it to Congress. But the February meeting prompted Panetta to reopen the budget, forcing Air Force officials to reconsider the Air Guard cuts.

Officials on both sides of the debate call the governors’ involvement unprecedented. They have met several times with Air Force leaders, and their alternate proposal to mitigate the effects of the plan is now being considered by the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian and military officials.

Many at the Defense Department worry about the long-term consequences if the governors prompt a revision of the budget request. How, they ask, could this affect changes the Army wants to make to its own Guard units? And what kind of control would the governors hope to exert over the two base-closure rounds the Pentagon wants to launch in 2013 and 2015?

State advocates, on the other hand, maintain that the governors, who administer their own budgets, have no interest in overstepping their boundaries here. Their goal, rather, is to ensure that the Guard’s needs are considered during budget deliberations. The current budget proposal “disproportionately impacts the Guard [and] removes from the governors the capabilities they rely on at home,” says Heather Hogsett of the National Governors Association.

 

‘Real Problems’

In making their case, Guard advocates have stressed that the budget request trims the active-duty Air Force’s end strength by only 1.2 percent, compared with a proposed manpower cut of 4.8 percent within the Air Guard. In terms of aircraft, the Air Guard would lose three times more planes next year than the active-duty Air Force.

“I’ve got some real problems with these proposed force reductions,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, told Air Force leaders during a March 20 hearing.

Michigan’s Selfridge Air National Guard Base would be one of the hardest hit, with the installation slated to lose 21 A-10 close-air support aircraft and 808 positions. In the place of the A-10s, the Air Force wants to move four KC-135 aerial refueling tankers to Selfridge, which would create only 90 new positions.

Levin, who rarely weighs in on parochial defense issues, challenged the Air Force’s plan to chop the number of A-10s within the National Guard, arguing that the units had shown their ability to support combat operations in Afghanistan. In line with the Pentagon’s decision to step back from its two-war force structure, the Air Force wants to cut almost one-third of the A-10 force, with most of those planes coming from the Guard.

“Why are we reducing Air Guard units of the A-10s?” Levin said after the hearing. “They’re effective in combat; they’re proven to be that way.”

The Air Guard also would lose 38 new C-27J cargo aircraft planned for stateside units — including Kellogg Air Guard Station in Battle Creek, Mich. — as part of the cost-cutting effort. The Air Force also plans to retire 27 C-5A aircraft from Air Guard and Reserve units, as well as 65 older C-130s, which would come mostly from the Guard and Reserve.

Air Force officials note that they are moving some key missions to the Guard, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley told reporters April 5 that the service is “fully committed to the total force” and the changes strike a balance between the active and reserve during a time of deep budget cuts.

The Air Force’s arguments, however, are falling short on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are drafting language to mitigate what they perceive to be a blow to their respective Air Guards. In addition to Michigan, some of the hardest hit states are Texas, Ohio and New York, all of which have strong representation on the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

One congressional source closely tracking the issue says the Pentagon may be better off negotiating with the governors than with Capitol Hill. Lawmakers, the aide says, may be more inclined to take a “meat cleaver” approach to the proposal. The states, on the other hand, appear willing to find a middle-of-the-road compromise.

“We understand the need to cut, but let’s look at this thing practically, where we get the best bang for the buck for the country,” says Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, Delaware’s top Guard officer and the chairman of the board of the National Guard Association.

 

Boosting the Guard

Congress inserted language in the fiscal 2008 defense authorization law that required the president to create a Council of Governors “to advise the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the White House Homeland Security Council on matters related to the National Guard and civil support missions.”

 

At the time, it was just one of a spate of changes aimed at giving the heavily deployed National Guard a more powerful voice at the Pentagon. The George W. Bush administration ignored the provision, leaving it to President Obama to create the council.

Even after Obama signed the executive order, the council received much less attention than higher-profile changes, such as making the chief of the National Guard Bureau a four-star general and, most recently, elevating him to a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But this group of state executives could ultimately prove to be one of the most influential changes made to date on National Guard policy.

“We’re in an unprecedented place,” Vavala says. “I applaud the president for establishing the Council of Governors because it gives us that conduit of communication to the Department of Defense.”

As Defense secretary, Panetta has made a concerted effort to meet with the council on a semi-regular basis, Vavala says. Panetta also has taken its concerns seriously, directing the Air Force and the governors to attempt to negotiate a compromise palatable to the states.

In early March, the governors, aided by their adjutants general, drafted their own plan for aircraft and personnel cuts. They assert that the proposal, which has not been made public, would save $700 million more than the Air Force’s original plan, sources tracking the issue say. The Air Guard cuts in the Pentagon budget request would save about $770 million over the next five years.

In a March 29 letter to all governors, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, the council’s co-chairs, said their proposal would preserve “the experience and technical expertise of the ANG [Air National Guard].” The proposal would also spread manpower cuts “more evenly across active and Guard forces,” they wrote.

But Donley said he felt that there were “aspects of that [plan] that were problematic.” The Air Force drafted a counterproposal, prompting more back and forth with the governors.

The issue has been kicked up to a group led by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld, who are drafting their own alternatives.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the independent review conducted by this group will produce an alternative budget for the Air Force that will better preserve the ANG’s capabilities,” Gregoire and Branstad wrote in their letter.

In a letter to Carter, Gregoire and Branstad pledged to work with defense officials “to resolve our concerns and develop a more collaborative process for future year defense decisions.” At this point, however, the Pentagon is working out of sight of the governors.

As governors await a final decision, Hogsett said they remain hopeful that defense leaders will address their concerns. In the meantime, governors are using a tried and true tactic: working with congressional delegations to insert favorable language in the annual authorization and appropriations bills.

 

Coal states fear for future of the industry

Stateline.org

FRIDAY, APRIL 20, 2012

By Jim Malewitz, Stateline Staff Writer

This is an unsettling time for states whose economies revolve around coal. But the future may not be as bleak as doomsayers predict.
Last month, when the Obama administration moved for stricter regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin accused the administration of “trying to end the use of coal as we know it.”

He was echoing sentiments in other coal-producing states and those of the coal industry itself. Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, called the proposal “the latest convoy in EPA’s regulatory train wreck that is rolling across America, crushing jobs and arresting our economic recovery at every stop.”

The greenhouse gas crackdown followed another EPA rule, announced in December, limiting the amount of mercury and other toxics that power plants can spew into the air, requiring coal-fired units to employ new pollutant-capturing technology.

While officials in coal-producing states were condemning these decisions, environmentalists were generally cheering for them. They believed that the new rules would not only clean up existing coal plants, but increase production costs of coal-fired electricity, perhaps accelerating the country’s shift away from coal, with some environmentalists predicting the coal industry’s demise.

But the current consensus of experts is that coal may not be in quite as much trouble as its supporters sometimes claim — or as its enemies might wish.

It’s true that coal’s share of the U.S. energy market is shrinking, a trend that’s expected to continue over the coming decades, challenging states such as Wyoming and West Virginia, which produce and consume large amounts of the product.

But the industry won’t be dying any time soon, experts say, as existing coal-fired power plants continue to operate and U.S. coal-producing states look to expand their markets overseas.

“We’re not talking about a coal-less future,” says John Hanger, former director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

 

Changing economics

Some of the oldest coal-fired power units are shutting down across the country, and few new coal plants are likely to be built in the future. But that trend was well underway before the EPA rolled out its new regulations. The reason is that the abundance of cheap natural gas is pricing coal out of the market.

 

“It has nothing to do with the EPA regulations,” Hanger says. “It has everything to do with the shale-gas revolution.”

Several forces have combined to slash natural gas prices to record lows. New discoveries of shale deposits, along with the advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have unlocked vast reserves of natural gas, enough of the resource, many researchers say, to meet U.S. energy demands for the next century.

This phenomenon, coupled with the fact that natural gas-powered plants are relatively cheap to build, has spurred many utilities to look to natural gas instead of coal to generate new power. Coal has been losing market share since 2008, and the U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts U.S. consumption of coal will fall about 10 percent in 2012, while electricity generation from natural gas increases by about 17 percent.

 

Slow-shift

But none of that suggests an industry on the verge of extinction. “No one believes that coal will disappear in the next 10 or 20 years,” says Mark Snead, an economist and executive at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

In the short run, natural gas prices may level off, as some producers discouraged by low prices pause in their drilling. A leveling off of natural gas prices would slow the shift from coal. In fact, the EIA projects that electricity generated by coal will increase by about 7 percent in 2013 as natural gas prices slowly inch up.

Coal also has time on its side, because utility companies can’t instantaneously overhaul their fleets to natural gas. Most coal plants already meet or can afford to meet federal air toxics regulations and, grandfathered past EPA’s new carbon rules, may well burn coal for decades more.

Though utilities now have reason to replace some aging coal plants with natural gas, they are unlikely to replace most plants that are still functioning. “Utilities are sort of like a battleship,” says Tim Considine, a professor of economics at the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources. “It’s hard to quickly turn them around.”

In West Virginia, for instance, where almost all energy consumed comes from coal, one of the state’s leading utilities says it can’t afford to drop coal as an energy source. “We’re going to be using coal for the foreseeable future,” says Jeri Matheney, a spokesperson for Appalachian Power, a unit of the utility American Power.

The utility recently announced that three plants in West Virginia and two in Virginia will close by 2014, citing the cost of the new air toxics regulations. Without the regulations, says Matheney, the company would have staggered closures of each plant over the next ten years.

Appalachian Power recently opened one natural gas plant and has converted two of three coal-powered units at another plant to natural gas. But the bottom line is that by 2015, the company still plans to be producing 71 percent of its energy from coal.

 

Looking to exports

The pace of the shift from coal to natural gas may give coal producers time to grow markets outside of the country.

While coal use dwindles domestically, coal producers are enjoying a surge in exports, particularly to rapidly developing Asia, more than doubling those exports since 2006 and increasing them by more than 20 percent between 2010 and 2011.

Current export terminals aren’t large enough to meet global demands for U.S. coal, but new terminals proposed along the coasts of Washington State and Oregon would boost capacity for the coal industry in Wyoming, producer of 40 percent of American coal, and in Montana, the nation’s fifth-leading coal producer. Along with that, companies are courting investors for port expansion in Texas.

Though environmentalists are lining up to oppose the projects, Considine expects most of the expansions to progress. With that added capacity, he says, exports could become a major component of the coal industry.

For Wyoming and other states whose economies boom and bust on energy revenues, expanded export markets would help to avoid “serious economic shock,” economist Snead says. “Nobody has a larger interest in this than Wyoming,” he says. “They are the classic test case.”

—Contact Jim Malewitz at jmalewitz@pewtrusts.org

Pentagon chief: ‘We’re within an inch of war almost every day’

The Hill

By Jeremy Herb – 04/18/12 05:43 PM ET

 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered a blunt assessment of the threats facing the United States on Wednesday, saying the potential for another war breaking out remains high in places like North Korea.

“We’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world,” Panetta said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in response to a question about the threats in the Korean Peninsula. “And we just have to be very careful about what we say and what we do.”

Blitzer then asked Panetta, who joined with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for an interview during the secretaries’ NATO meeting in Brussels, whether the North Korean threat kept him up at night.

“Unfortunately, these days there’s a helluva lot that keeps me awake,” Panetta responded, listing Iran, Syria, the Middle East, cyber warfare and weapons of mass destruction as other insomnia-inducing issues.

Panetta responded to charges from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that “incompetence” from the Obama administration led North Korea to launch its failed long-range missile last week.

“I think it’s pretty clear this administration took a firm stand with regard to provocative behavior North Korea engaged in,” Panetta said. “We made clear they should not do it, and we condemned the action even though it was not successful.”

Panetta would not say what action the Obama administration would take if North Korea now conducts its third nuclear test, as is suspected. It would be “another provocation,” the defense secretary said, and would “worsen” the U.S.-North Korea relationship.

On the violence in Syria, Clinton said the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is “running out of time.”

“I don’t think we’re halfway through this story yet,” she said. “We’re going to see a lot happen over the next few weeks, and it truly is up to the Assad regime. They’re the ones that hold it in their power to end the violence.”

Clinton said the Obama administration was waiting to see whether or not Assad was implementing the peace plan from UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and upholding a cease-fire, which appears to be faltering.

Panetta said the Obama administration is not getting involved in Syria militarily unless the international community backs involvement, which is what happened in Libya. In Syria, however, Russia and China remain opposed to the UN Security Council taking stronger action than the peace plan.

 

Doubts linger about space station’s science potential

April 20, 2012 By Mark K. Matthews, The Orlando Sentinel

 

After more than 12 years and at least $100 billion in construction costs, NASA leaders say the International Space Station finally is ready to bloom into the robust orbiting laboratory that agency leaders envisioned more than two decades ago.

“The ISS has now entered its intensive research phase,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA operations and human exploration, in recent testimony to Congress in defense of the roughly $1.5 billion the agency spends annually on the outpost.

 

But doubts linger.

More than a quarter of the space that NASA has designated for experiments sits empty. Much of the research done aboard the station deals with living and working in space – with marginal application back on Earth. And the nonprofit group that NASA chose to lure more research to the outpost has been plagued by internal strife and recently lost its director.

 

And more broadly, questions remain about whether NASA can develop U.S. capability to send experiments up and bring them back to Earth – and whether, in fact, the station can live up to the promises that were used to justify its creation.

“Now that NASA has finished ISS construction, I hope the incredible potential of ISS is not squandered,” said U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chair of the House science committee.

This “incredible potential” is what NASA used to justify the decision to build a space station, which has been in the works since the Reagan administration.

“When we finish, ISS will be a premier, world-class laboratory in low-Earth orbit that promises to yield insights, science, and information, the likes of which we cannot fully comprehend as we stand here at the beginning,” said then-NASA chief Dan Goldin during a 2001 congressional hearing.

In the decade following, NASA and its international partners used the space shuttle and other vehicles to assemble the station, complete with several on-board laboratories lined with science “racks.” These racks, each about as big as a telephone booth, provide a home for dozens of experiments and can stream data and video to researchers back on Earth.

But then – as now – some questioned the station’s future as a center of science. They note much of the research done aboard the station deals with surviving the space environment, from studies of spaceflight’s effect on human muscles to developing improved smoke detectors for human spacecraft.

Privately, some NASA officials worry the outpost could feed into the agency’s reputation as a “self-licking ice-cream cone” in that space-based experiments help NASA keep doing space-based experiments.

Others note that station research – there have been about 500 American experiments and 800 international ones – has produced comparatively little scientific literature. Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which tracks such publications, has identified about 3,000 scientific articles that have resulted from station research.

 

By comparison, a 2001 satellite that cost about $150 million – NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe – has generated more than three times as many papers; many scientists used the probe’s analysis of temperature differences in space to theorize about the origin and structure of the universe.

“If you wanted to grade space-station science, it would be an incomplete right now,” said Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review, a popular online magazine.

He said critics could make the argument that money spent on the station might be better invested in other missions. For example, the budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope, seen as successor to the Hubble telescope, still is only a fraction of the station’s cost at nearly $9 billion.

 

But, Foust said, “there is a rationale for the ISS that goes beyond simply science” – promoting partnerships and better relations among space-faring nations, including Russia.

NASA officials, however, say research is just beginning and already there have been advances.

Scientists at Johnson Space Center have taken advantage of the station’s lack of gravity to develop “micro-balloons” the size of red blood cells that can carry drugs to cancer tumors. And the European Space Agency is looking to help doctors better diagnose asthma by using an air-monitoring device developed for astronauts.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Marybeth Edeen, NASA manager of the station’s national laboratory.

The inability to completely fill NASA’s science racks, she said, is simply one of priorities. Up until now, NASA has been more focused on building the station. Indeed, the station crew – which expanded from three to six members in 2009 – now spends about 50 hours a week on science, as opposed to just three hours a week in 2008.

“Our goal is to get the racks fully utilized,” she said.

To help do that, NASA hired a nonprofit group last summer called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage the national lab and find new experiments.

The early efforts of the Florida-based group, however, hit a bump when the center’s director resigned in March and lawmakers started to raise concerns about its effectiveness. Congress since has put CASIS on notice to get its act together or risk losing its contact.

These issues, though, are less worrisome to Congress than concerns about how NASA plans to resupply the station with U.S. crew and cargo.

The retirement of the space shuttle last year left NASA completely reliant on its international partners – primarily Russia – for these services, and NASA’s plan to fix that situation depends on new commercial “space taxis” from companies such as SpaceX.

While tests have been promising, these companies have yet to successfully dock with the station.

A key test is scheduled later this spring when SpaceX attempts to berth its Dragon capsule to the station.

If successful, SpaceX could start hauling cargo – and experiments – to and from the station later this year, a company spokeswoman said.

In the meantime, NASA is making plans to expand its research capability.

This summer, the agency plans to fly a small centrifuge to the station aboard a Russian rocket to increase the capability to conduct cellular investigations.

“The whole attitude and focus of the program has shifted in the last year,” Edeen said. “We are increasing utilization as fast as we can.”

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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