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May 5, 2012

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Study: Feds don’t like their agency leaders

By SEAN REILLY | Last Updated:April 28, 2012

 

When it comes to empowering, motivating and communicating with employees, top federal executives fare worse in the eyes of their employees than do corporate leaders.

That is the conclusion of a new study by the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzed data gathered in last year’s federal employee satisfaction survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management.

 

Only 43 percent of feds surveyed last year said their senior leaders inspired “high levels of motivation and commitment.” That compares to 56 percent in the private sector, the report said.

 

Forty-eight percent of feds said they were satisfied with information received from top management about what’s happening in their organizations.

“What’s interesting about this is that government is a fishbowl,” said John Palguta, the partnership’s vice president for policy. “Information about what’s going on is supposed to be out there and available; yet somehow there’s this disconnect.”

 

One reason may be that agency chiefs are reluctant to share bad news on budgets and other matters.

 

“We’ve got to learn to treat employees as adults,” Palguta said. That’s true, he added, even if the message is “right now, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

No matter what the agency, leaders’ standing may be whipsawed by factors outside their control, such as when Congress strips money from a program that is performing well.

The OPM survey defines senior leaders as “the heads of agencies, departments and their senior management teams.” Those leaders are typically members of the Senior Executive Service or the equivalent, the partnership report said.

 

Federal supervisors fared slightly better overall, and in some particular instances, much better.

At the Department of Homeland Security, for example, supervisors scored more than one-third higher in employee satisfaction than senior leaders, the report found.

Governmentwide, two-thirds of survey respondents thought their immediate supervisors or team leaders were doing a good job; almost as many said their supervisors supported employee development.

 

But for senior leaders, there is some good news: They are doing better in their staffs’ eyes than just a few years ago. From 2003 to last year, employee satisfaction with senior leaders edged upward by about 15 percent, the report said.

 

Last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked first among large federal agencies in employee satisfaction with top leadership, according to the survey.

The Department of Homeland Security was last.

 

Concerns about chronically low morale at DHS were severe enough to prompt a congressional hearing last month.

 

Although DHS employees believe strongly in their work, “what does it say when … only 37 percent are satisfied with their senior leaders’ policies and practices?” asked Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security oversight subcommittee.

 

In response, DHS chief human capital officer Catherine Emerson ticked off a series of steps to improve the department’s standing. Among them, she said, was the February launch of a steering committee to promote employee engagement.

 

DHS is also creating a three-week leadership training program for all new executives, including Senior Executive Service members and Coast Guard admirals.

Relatively rapid turnarounds are indeed possible. The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which hears disputes between agencies and federal labor unions, ranked third last year among small agencies on the partnership’s leadership index with a score of 71, up dramatically from 26 in 2007.

 

“You have to continue to be mindful of the needs of employees and the needs of your customers,” FLRA Chairman Carol Waller Pope said in an interview.

Pope, who started at the agency as a career staffer, became chairman three years ago.

When she took over, Pope said, “there was a lack of transparency around agency operations.” It didn’t help that the agency’s staff of about 130 is dispersed among regional and headquarters offices.

 

As an antidote, the agency began publishing a newsletter emailed to all staff every Friday. Besides offering employee profiles, the newsletter shares more substantive information, such as the agency’s budget request and progress toward meeting performance goals.

 

“I’ve learned that employee engagement and satisfaction produce mission results,” she said.

 

Another agency, the U.S. Mint, was a perennial cellar dweller on yardsticks of employee job satisfaction and commitment. In the last two years, however, the needle has swung upwards as top management sought to communicate better with employees, work more cooperatively with unions and “more fully explain” challenges facing the Mint and the reasons for specific decisions, the report said.

 

Besides holding town hall meetings with employees, Mint executives visited all of the agency’s facilities outside of Washington to hear and respond to employees’ concerns.

 

FAQ: What you need to know about CISPA

The House version of the information-sharing bill passed last week

Jaikumar Vijayan

April 30, 2012 (Computerworld)

 

The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act despite opposition from privacy advocates, lawmakers and even the White House, which threatened to veto the bill if it lands on the president’s desk in its current form.

 

Here’s what you need to know about CISPA.

 

What is CISPA? CISPA is short for the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (H.R. 3523). U.S Reps. Mike J. Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) introduced the bill in the House in November. The bill is designed to bolster cybersecurity by enabling better information sharing between Internet companies and the government. An amended version of the bill passed the House by a 248-168 vote Thursday.

 

What sort of information sharing? CISPA would allow Internet companies, such as Internet service providers, to monitor their networks and to collect, analyze and share information on any user activities that they believe present a threat to their networks. The law would allow companies to share any information “pertaining to the protection” of their networks with the National Security Agency and other federal agencies. In return, federal agencies would share both classified and unclassified cyberthreat information in their possession to help Internet companies bolster their defenses against cyberthreats.

Who supports CISPA? CISPA has broad support from many technology companies, industry trade groups and lawmakers who say that information sharing is vital to cybersecurity.

 

Why do privacy advocates and rights groups oppose the bill? Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology say the bill is dangerous because it is too vaguely worded. They worry that the bill would allow Internet companies to collect an almost unlimited set of information about Internet users and would allow the companies to share the information with government agencies such as the NSA, without judicial oversight. The law would also allow Internet companies to use a “cybersecurity exception” clause to skirt the privacy protection provided by statutes such as the Federal Wiretap Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

 

What do you mean by vaguely worded? Critics claim the bill uses loose language to describe cyberthreats, network security attacks, countermeasures, cybersecurity systems, and other crucial terms. They claim the ambiguity can create big problems. For instance, CISPA offers no clear explanation of what activity defines a cyberthreat, although companies would be allowed to monitor and share information about those activities. The language would also allow companies to collect information on almost all Internet communications, and justify it on cybersecurity grounds. Even innocuous activity such as using a proxy server or an anonymizer could be deemed a suspicious activity under CISPA.

 

Are these the only concerns? No. Opponents of the bill say CISPA would expand the government’s ability to monitor private communications under the premise of cybersecurity. They say the bill would allow data that’s collected to detect and deter cyberthreats could also be used for national security purposes and other law enforcement uses. They argue that Internet companies that share data with the government would enjoy a great deal of legal immunity even when they violate personal privacy rights.

How exactly would it affect me? In theory, the bill would allow your ISP, or an Internet company such as Google or a Facebook, to more easily justify collecting information on all your online activities and share them with the NSA and other federal agencies.

Would CISPA require companies to share data with the government? No, it would not. Companies would not have to collect or share any cybersecurity data with the NSA or others. However, most companies are likely to participate in the information sharing because of the promise of getting useful cyberintelligence from the government and other companies in return for their own information. Regardless of whether CISPA becomes law, companies are still be required to provide information to the government if they receive a court order.

 

What about the amendments in the version of CISPA that was passed by the House Thursday? The amendments address some of the concerns but not all, according to privacy advocates. CISPA as passed, does offer a narrower definition of the information that can be collected and shared. The amended version of the bill would also impose new restrictions on how the data can be used by federal agencies.

 

If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?

NYTimes

April 28, 2012, 3:30 pm

By MICHAEL MARDER

 

Imagine a being capable of processing, remembering and sharing information — a being with potentialities proper to it and inhabiting a world of its own. Given this brief description, most of us will think of a human person, some will associate it with an animal, and virtually no one’s imagination will conjure up a plant.

 

Since Nov. 2, however, one possible answer to the riddle is Pisumsativum, a species colloquially known as the common pea. On that day, a team of scientists from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel published the results of its peer-reviewed research, revealing that a pea plant subjected to drought conditions communicated its stress to other such plants, with which it shared its soil. In other words, through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.

 

Curiously, having received the signal, plants not directly affected by this particular environmental stress factor were better able to withstand adverse conditions when they actually occurred. This means that the recipients of biochemical communication could draw on their “memories” — information stored at the cellular level — to activate appropriate defenses and adaptive responses when the need arose.

In 1973, the publication of “The Secret Life of Plants,” by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, which portrayed vegetal life as exquisitely sensitive, responsive and in some respects comparable to human life, was generally regarded as pseudoscience. The authors were not scientists, and clearly the results reported in that book, many of them outlandish, could not be reproduced. But today, new, hard scientific data appears to be buttressing the book’s fundamental idea that plants are more complex organisms than previously thought.

 

The research findings of the team at the Blaustein Institute form yet another building block in the growing fields of plant intelligence studies and neurobotany that, at the very least, ought to prompt us to rethink our relation to plants. Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?

 

Evidently, empathy might not be the most appropriate ground for an ethics of vegetal life. But the novel indications concerning the responsiveness of plants, their interactions with the environment and with one another, are sufficient to undermine all simple, axiomatic solutions to eating in good conscience. When it comes to a plant, it turns out to be not only a what but also a who — an agent in its milieu, with its own intrinsic value or version of the good. Inquiring into justifications for consuming vegetal beings thus reconceived, we reach one of the final frontiers of dietary ethics.

 

Recent findings in cellular and molecular botany mean that eating preferences, too, must practically differentiate between vegetal what-ness and who-ness, while striving to keep the latter intact. The work of such differentiation is incredibly difficult because the subjectivity of plants is not centered in a single organ or function but is dispersed throughout their bodies, from the roots to the leaves and shoots. Nevertheless, this dispersion of vitality holds out a promise of its own: the plasticity of plants and their wondrous capacity for regeneration, their growth by increments, quantitative additions or reiterations of already existing parts does little to change the form of living beings that are neither parts nor wholes because they are not hierarchically structured organisms. The “renewable” aspects of perennial plants may be accepted by humans as a gift of vegetal being and integrated into their diets.

 

But it would be harder to justify the cultivation of peas and other annual plants, the entire being of which humans devote to externally imposed ends. In other words, ethically inspired decisions cannot postulate the abstract conceptual unity of all plants; they must, rather, take into account the singularity of each species.

 

The emphasis on the unique qualities of each species means that ethical worries will not go away after normative philosophers and bioethicists have delineated their sets of definitive guidelines for human conduct. More specifically, concerns regarding the treatment of plants will come up again and again, every time we deal with a distinct species or communities of plants.

 

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” the true identity of a princess is discovered after she spends a torturous night on top of 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds, with a single pea lodged underneath this pile. The desire to eat ethically is, perhaps, akin to this royal sensitivity, as some would argue that it is a luxury of those who do have enough food to select, in a conscious manner, their dietary patterns. But there is a more charitable way to interpret the analogy.

 

Ethical concerns are never problems to be resolved once and for all; they make us uncomfortable and sometimes, when the sting of conscience is too strong, prevent us from sleeping. Being disconcerted by a single pea to the point of unrest is analogous to the ethical obsession, untranslatable into the language of moral axioms and principles of righteousness. Such ethics do not dictate how to treat the specimen of Pisumsativum, or any other plant, but they do urge us to respond, each time anew, to the question of how, in thinking and eating, to say “yes” to plants.

 

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. His most recent book, “Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life” will be published later this year.

 

Lawmakers challenge the Pentagon’s reliance on service contractors

By Charles S. Clark

April 26, 2012

 

Cost-cutting moves by the Defense Department that include capping the number of civilian employees at 2010 levels have prompted protests from House and Senate lawmakers who say the Pentagon is spending too much on contractors to provide services.

 

On Wednesday, 26 Democratic senators led by Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York sent Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a letter saying they are “concerned that while the size of the civilian workforce is proposed to be cut back to fiscal 2010 levels, no comparable constraints were imposed on workforce hired through contractors. We are concerned that this would incentivize managers to use contracting firms rather than civilian employees, even when the latter costs less. We also believe that there are a number of sensitive roles that should be performed by direct employees.”

The letter, which renews an ongoing debate over the Obama administration’s insourcing initiative, follows a similar one sent to Panetta in March by 130 House members led by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. The House letter called the caps on civilian employees “gimmicks” that are “causing mass layoffs” of civilians but aren’t generating savings. “Because of the arbitrary standards set by the Pentagon, civilian employees are being fired, and private contractors that charge more for the exact same service and are less accountable to the public are being hired,” the letter said. “This shift away from a civilian workforce isn’t just inefficient — it’s also a violation of long-standing workforce management rules.”

 

The senators’ letter calls on the Pentagon to eliminate the cap on the civilian workforce or provide a waiver; “embrace” the total force management approach, which looks at the military, civilian and contractor workforces holistically; cap spending on service contracts; conduct cost comparisons when making outsourcing decisions; implement an inventory of contract services; and prohibit outsourcing of inherently governmental work.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said Panetta is on travel in South America and will respond appropriately to the letter later.

 

The letters were welcomed by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which has long argued the government wastes money relying on too many private contractors. Scott Amey, POGO’s general counsel, told a March 29 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Contracting Oversight Subcommittee that “except in very limited circumstances, the federal government does not have accurate data about service contracts and the contractors performing those services. Moreover, the government does not have a governmentwide cost modeling system that compares the life-cycle cost of in-house and contractor personnel. As a result, the government often turns to service contractors under the misguided assumption that market economies enable contractors to be more cost-efficient than the government.”

 

The contracting community appears less enthusiastic. “The senators’ letter demonstrates an unfortunate lack of awareness of what is actually taking place in the Defense Department,” Stan Soloway, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Counsel, said in an email to Government Executive. “Unlike federal jobs, contractor positions disappear when the work is done or no longer needed or funded. In fact, over just the last couple of years, defense spending on contract services has been reduced nearly $20 billion, which translates into tens of thousands of jobs already lost.”

Soloway said his group has “long opposed arbitrary personnel or funding cuts for either contractors or federal employees and supported allowing agencies the flexibility they need to appropriately manage their combined workforces based on their mission needs and resources. But to suggest that contractors have in any way been ‘spared’ by the current fiscal environment is simply wrong and misleading.”

 

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said the letter “seems to throw out the lessons” of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who “abruptly and publicly terminated the insourcing program because it did not produce the intended savings.”

 

He said his trade association agrees with the Office of Management and Budget principle of seeking “an appropriate balance between what can and should be performed by civilian employees, but that the remaining activities,” ranging from trash removal to lawn care to information technology, “can be handled, as agencies look at their missions, in ways that maximize value for the taxpayers.”

 

http://www.govexec.com/contracting/2012/04/lawmakers-challenge-pentagons-reliance-service-contractors/55424/

 

 

Obama plan would ease weapons export rules

Washington post

By Sari Horwitz, Published: May 2

 

The Obama administration is crafting a proposal that could make it easier to export firearms and other weapons to certain countries in an effort to boost sales for U.S. companies, increase trade and improve national security, according to senior government officials.

The plan, which is part of President Obama’s overhaul of U.S. export rules, is being debated by several agencies and it could be months before a final rule is proposed, according to officials.

 

At least two federal agencies — the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department — have expressed concerns that the changes in the export rules could make it easier for drug cartels and terrorists to obtain weapons and make it harder to stop firearms trafficking.

 

Homeland Security raised its objections in an internal memo, saying that the proposed changes could hurt the ability of its agents “to prevent or deter the illegal export/transfer of lethal items such as advanced firearms to criminal groups, terrorist organizations or enemy combatants.”

 

But a senior official described the president’s Export Control Reform Initiative as “a work in progress” and said the concerns raised by Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies were being addressed.

 

“We are confident that the final outcome will represent the consensus of all agencies involved,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process is ongoing.

 

A Homeland Security official Wednesday played down the agency’s memo, saying it was written months ago and “the portion of the draft rule over which DHS had expressed concerns has changed significantly.” He would not elaborate.

 

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment on the export rule proposal or his department’s concerns.

 

The proposed changes, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, would affect a range of items, including firearms and drones.

 

The president’s export control efforts are an attempt to reform a system that operates under 1970s-era rules and was designed to address the challenges of the Cold War period, according to an official familiar with the overhaul plans. The official also said that the proposal is an effort to improve national security by imposing controls on some exports but at the same time helping the nation’s allies.

 

Currently, two export control lists are administered by two departments, Commerce and State, under different statutory authorities with different requirements.

 

The State Department runs the U.S. Munitions List, which imposes tight restrictions on certain weapons, sales of which must be licensed. Under the proposed rules, some high-powered weapons, not including automatic or military weapons, could be moved from the Munitions List to a Commerce list, where they would be governed by fewer restrictions.

An official said it was not clear whether sales of weapons on the Commerce list also would need to be licensed.

 

“We’re still working through that,” said an administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Some items will require a license and some won’t.”

Several members of Congress said they are concerned about the changes in the export rules, which could relax the restrictions on high-powered firearms.

 

“These are serious issues that have been raised, and the White House will have to address them,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

 

Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents firearms manufacturers, said the current export control system is “broken and antiquated.”

 

“Our industry supports the White House Export Control Reform Initiative,” said Keane, who is a member of a committee that advises the State Department on export control issues. “We hope to see our products move from the U.S. Munitions List to the Commerce Department list.”

 

In new figures released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. manufacturers exported 242,000 firearms in 2010. Firearms exports were at their highest in 1993, when the figure was over 431,000. Imports of firearms climbed to 3.2 million last year, according to the ATF.

 

 

Treasury: Tax receipts not changing deadline on $16.4T debt limit

The Hill

By Peter Schroeder – 05/02/12 04:16 PM ET

 

Lawmakers will not have to re-fight their epic battle over raising the debt ceiling until after the November elections, according to the Treasury Department.

April tax receipts have not moved Treasury’s debt-ceiling target date, and Secretary Timothy Geithner still expects lawmakers will have until the tail end of 2012 to raise the $16.394 trillion ceiling.

 

“Treasury anticipates that the debt limit will not be reached again until late this year,” a Treasury spokesman told The Hill on Wednesday.

 

Lower-than-expected tax receipts could have moved up the date on the debt ceiling, forcing a vote both parties would like to avoid before the election.

 

The government has borrowed $15.673 trillion, and the limit is still too far off for Treasury to more accurately predict when it will be reached, an official said Wednesay.

But the Treasury spokesman insisted the agency has the tools to prevent the United States from going over the limit if it draws near prior to Nov. 6, when voters go to the polls.

“If the debt limit were to be reached prior to the 2012 elections, Treasury would be able to invoke extraordinary measures to extend borrowing authority beyond the next elections,” the spokesman said.

 

At an event earlier in the day, a Treasury official noted much could change between now and the end of the year, making it difficult to estimate exactly when the ceiling will be hit.

 

“It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise date because we are more than six months away from that and I think there’s a lot that can change between now and then,” said Matt Rutherford, the Treasury’s acting assistant secretary for financial markets. “We’ll be watching it.”

 

Last summer, Congress faced an Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt limit. The government actually reached that limit back in May, but had more time to haggle thanks to a series of moves by Treasury.

 

The agency began a “debt issuance suspension period” when it first reached the limit, and freed up cash to meet government obligations elsewhere. For example, Treasury held off the need for a debt-limit boost by halting the issuance of special securities for state and local governments, and by halting some investments in federal employee retirement funds.

 

While it is unclear exactly how much time the Treasury could buy Congress on the debt limit the next time around, officials are confident they can at least hold off the need to raise it until after the elections.

 

However, it is possible that the limit will need to be raised by a lame-duck Congress following the election, adding to the already large pile of contentious issues on the slate.

Lawmakers will need to grapple with what to do with expiring income and payroll tax cuts, as well as automatic spending cuts set to trigger in the new year.

 

Not only do observers not believe something will be done on those matters before the election, there is a growing concern on Capitol Hill that those issues could be pushed back even into the next Congress by temporary extensions.

 

Source:

http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/1007-other/225085-treasury-no-debt-limit-hike-before-elections

 

 

Could ‘bullet time’ stop a cyberattack?

If Iran was to attack, for example, “The Matrix”-esque technique might be as much fantasy as the movie, says one expert

 

From: http://www.csoonline.com

by Taylor Armerding, CSO

May 03, 2012

 

Is a cyberattack by Iran against the U.S. a realistic threat? And if so, could it be defeated by a technique called “bullet time,” that slows Internet traffic just enough to give critical infrastructure defense systems time to respond?

 

There is considerable disagreement over that, with some experts saying both that an attack is likely and the defense is possible, while others dismiss both.

 

Nobody in government or in cybersecurity thinks Iran is capable of delivering any kind of serious military blow to the U.S. But some say it could damage computer networks that control critical American assets like the power grid or the financial system.

 

In an interview last week with National Public Radio, Jeffrey Carr, a cyberconflict expert who has consulted for the U.S. Department of Defense said, “[The Iranians] have all the resources and the capabilities necessary to be a major player in terms of cyberwarfare.”

 

The NPR report also said that James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told Congress that Iran is motivated to attack the U.S. and that its cyber capabilities have, “dramatically increased in recent years.”

 

He cited the country’s ability to track dissidents, shut down Twitter, block websites and launch sophisticated cyberattacks within the country. And while NPR said cybersecurity experts doubt that Iran could take down the U.S. power grid, it might be able to hack into the banking system.

 

Meanwhile, a story in New Scientist this week profiles security engineers at the University of Tulsa who say they have developed a way to slow Internet traffic, including malicious data, to give networks time to deal with attacks.

 

The technique has been named “bullet time,” referring to the scenes in “The Matrix,” when Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, was able to dodge bullets, as time appeared to slow down. According to Tulsa’s Sujeet Shenoi, while the system would not be easy or cheap to set up, “slowing the malicious traffic by just a few milliseconds will let the hyper-speed commands activate sophisticated network-defense mechanisms.”

 

But Gary McGraw, CTO of the security software consultancy Cigital, says the problem is not that “bullet time” would be expensive or difficult, but that it is a fantasy to think it would work.

 

“It’s ridiculous. When you’re talking about cyberattacks, it’s beyond milliseconds,” he said. “It’s picoseconds (one-trillionth of a second). And when you use Internet protocols to slow down traffic, that slows everything else, too.”

 

Dan Philpott, editor of FISMApedia (Federal Information Security Management Act), is a little less dismissive, but said “bullet time,” while, “conceptually interesting,” would be effective as countermeasure in very few places. “The problems aren’t in responding, but identifying attacks when they occur.”

 

McGraw also dismisses as “ridiculous” the possibility of a serious cyberattack by Iran. “They couldn’t even defend their nuke,” he said, referring to the Stuxnet worm that wiped out an estimated fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in 2010.

 

He believes Iran has improved its cyber defenses since then. “They would be stupid if they didn’t,” he said, but still contends the country is not close to capable of a sophisticated attack.

 

Philpott is not so sure. “Iran has very well-educated population and good access to computers, so it is probably adequate to the task,” he said. “I don’t know that they have a cyberattack mechanism, since their government is very fractured [among] public, private and religious [entities].”

 

“But I wouldn’t out of hand dismiss their capabilities. I tend to agree with government experts that all of the qualities are there,” Philpott said.

 

Both agree on this much: The U.S. needs to improve its defenses, especially in areas like the power grid. McGraw said those who say the financial system is more vulnerable than the power grid have it backward. “The finance guys have much better defenses than the power grid,” he said.

 

Philpott says the security of energy facilities is “not up to standard. A lot of the things we depend on aren’t built very well,” he said. “They fall down under the simplest of attacks.”

McGraw said the best way to protect critical infrastructure against cyberattack is to “build things that aren’t broken.”

 

Yes, it’s impossible to build devices that are completely invulnerable, he said, but it is possible to build them so they are very difficult to attack. “And if the cost [of an attack] is too high, the bad guys will go elsewhere,” McGraw said.

 

Philpott agrees. “Don’t make it low-hanging fruit,” he said.

 

Military wants to know: Whose satellites are those?

5/3/2012 7:39:16 PM ET
MSN.com

U.S. military observers can have trouble identifying satellites whizzing overheard in Earth’s crowded space lanes. A new Pentagon effort aims to find the unique visual signatures of individual satellites for quick identification, regardless of whether such satellites belong to friend or foe.

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes such signatures — remotely seen from ground or space sensors — could even help identify different satellites made by the same manufacturer. But it’s not easy. Satellites’ orbits may often change between overhead passes, and it’s getting more difficult to spot individual satellites in a space becoming more crowded with vehicles, satellites and pieces of leftover space junk.

The DARPA solicitation for an innovative solution from small business, issued April 27, noted, “Some objects are frequently lost, and sometimes serendipitously reacquired without recognition of its previous catalog existence, unless manpower-intensive analysis intervenes.”

 

Any effort to reliably track “active payloads and tumbling objects” and the like would focus on finding each satellite’s physical or “operational” signatures (perhaps signals or movements unique to a certain satellite). Timeliness and speed would be crucial for helping military observers quickly identify satellites that had gone missing and possibly reappeared.

 

The technology needed here likely would involve some sort of software algorithms that can do automated identification based on satellite signatures. Once such software is created, DARPA envisions passing the testing along to the Joint Space Operations Center, the U.S. military’s center for coordinating space forces and directing space power to support global operations.

 

DARPA’s focus on satellites also includes the recently launched “SeeMe” effort to deploy dozens of cheap satellites that can provide overhead battlefield surveillance for the U.S. military. The Pentagon afency also has the ongoing “Phoenix” project to try to cannibalize dead satellites and use the parts for new “Frankenstein” satellites.

 

 

Air Force chief talks of shrinking budgets, post-Iraq exhaustion

By Charles S. Clark

May 2, 2012

 

As it continues downsizing under tightening Defense Department budgets, the Air Force will give priority to operations and maintenance to make sure that “what remains will be ready and available to act,” its chief of staff said.

 

Gen. Norton Schwartz also told an audience at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, that Air Force operations and tactics are clearly better after two major conflicts and counterterrorism efforts, “but you can’t ignore that fact that we are worn down by 10 years of war in terms of human and physical assets.”

 

Unlike the Army and the Marines, the Air Force has been cutting back assets and personnel for a decade, Schwartz said at the Washington event on Tuesday, noting more than 500 aircraft have been retired and 25,000 airmen have been moved off the rolls.

 

The service’s budget over the next three to five years will be smaller and will emphasize the capacity to play a larger number of roles rather than specialized ones, according to Schwartz. “But none dare go back to the days of airplanes without engines and weapons without bullets,” he said. While some in the budget debates would stress weapons systems and installations to create jobs, “there is no constituency” for operations and maintenance, he said. “You won’t hear this from titans of industry or veterans associations.”

 

A key lesson from the post-9/11 era, Schwartz said, is the need for military planners to “be better prepared for the post-conflict” phase, to anticipate such eventualities as the Iraqi insurgency that rose up after Operation Iraqi Freedom, and “to better scope the consequences of action or inaction.”

 

Citing the “famous question” of Gen. (now CIA director) David Petraeus — “How does this end?” — Schwartz said, “Our brightest people need to address this as well as the issues we’re more comfortable with, such as how do I get there and with what resources.”

 

Asked by Stimson Center Chairman Lincoln Bloomfield Jr. about the ethics of using unmanned drone aircraft to kill al Qaeda terrorists, Schwartz rejected the question’s premise: “Is it more ethical to engage an asset from an F-15 or an F-16 or an [unmanned] M Q9? We have rules of engagement, so if it is a legitimate target, the manner in which we engage that target in close combat is irrelevant.”

 

The future Air Force will remain strong in four areas, Schwartz said, citing control of air and space; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; global mobility, or “getting shooters to the fight;” and global strike, or the ability to “reach out and touch potential adversaries.” The U.S capacity to operate at a high tempo is a “depth that few others share,” he added.

 

Also important in the coming decades will be a forward presence overseas to maintain “lily pads,” as he called bases. That involves continuing relationships with key allies, which depends in part on working with the State Department on a new policy on export controls. “There is some tension between short- and long-term legs, but we need both,” Schwartz said.

 

Asked about congressional proposals heard for greater inter-service sharing of assets, Schwartz said, “History casts some doubt about whether joint major weapons are efficient.” But with the current budget pressures, such collaboration is more likely to unfold, and, “if they are narrow and common enough,” it makes sense, he added.

 

Responding to moves by the House Armed Services Committee to override Pentagon plans to eliminate some aircraft, Schwartz said, “if you give us the force structure back, give us the money too, for training, exercises and sustainment.”

 

Asked whether drone aircraft could someday eliminate the need for pilots, he said, “no one in this room will be alive when that happens, if it does. Remote aircraft can’t survive in contested airspace, so we still need a tactical force.”

 

The chief of staff said the Air Force may already have surpassed the other services in incorporating alternative energy, though the budget crunch toughens the challenge. “It works better in some parts of the country than others,” Schwartz said, noting the base in Las Vegas, Nev., now uses solar-based energy for 10 percent of its requirements, but that such an arrangement would not work in New England.

 

The Air Force is the world’s largest user of hydrocarbons, Schwartz said, but when it comes to fueling planes with alternative blends, “we’re a consumer, not a producer.” The service can achieve some progress in reducing fuel consumption by using more simulation and altering flight paths. “But the bottom line is, if we’re going to be good and not just say we’re good, we have to continue to fly airplanes,” he said.

 

http://www.govexec.com/defense/2012/05/air-force-chief-talks-shrinking-budgets-post-iraq-exhaustion/55544/

 

 

North Korean GPS jamming shows vulnerability of Army radios

 

By Bob Brewin

May 3, 2012

 

North Korea’s jamming of Global Positioning System signals on the Korean Peninsula this week illustrates a “life-threatening” vulnerability of the Army’s Rifleman Radio, which is equipped with a nonmilitary GPS chip, a former top Defense Department official told Nextgov. The Army plans to test the hand-held radio this month at its semiannual Network Integration Evaluation exercise at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., which began Tuesday.

 

GPS satellites broadcast jam-resistant military signals as well as civil signals susceptible to blocking. Jules McNeff, who spent 20 years in the Air Force working on GPS, said the Army evidently decided to use a chip that receives only civil GPS signals as a “cheap and expedient” way to incorporate location information into the Rifleman Radio.

 

McNeff, now vice president for strategies and programs at Overlook Systems Technologies Inc., a GPS engineering firm in Vienna, Va., said any time a jamming incident occurs, “it calls into question why we are using [civil chips] in the Rifleman Radio.”

 

The Army plans to field 5,900 short range Rifleman Radios to infantry squads in seven brigade combat teams over the next year.

 

Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess Jr., director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that North Korea has mounted high-powered Russian-made jamming devices on vehicles near the border — 40 miles north of Seoul, the South Korean capital — which can disrupt GPS signals within a 30-to-60 mile range. He added North Korea has started to develop its own GPS jammer with a greater range.

 

John Merrill, position, navigation and timing program manager for the Homeland Security Department, said small, inexpensive GPS jammers widely sold on the Web have proved difficult to locate. In a presentation to attendees at a National Institute of Standards conference in March, Merrill said it took DHS, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration from November 2009 to April 2011 to locate one GPS jammer in a truck traveling the New Jersey Turnpike and knocking out GPS signals at the Newark, N.J., airport.

 

The Army has billed the Network Integration Evaluation, which runs through June, as a “real-world” exercise and McNeff said the service should include “navigation warfare” maneuvers to test the vulnerability of the Rifleman Radio and other systems to jamming.

 

Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army’s System of Systems Integration Directorate, which manages the NIE, declined to comment on whether the exercise will include GPS jamming for security reasons.

 

The Coast Guard Navigation Center, which coordinates and manages the Civil GPS Service Interface Committee as part of the Department of Transportation’s program to respond to the needs of civil GPS users, maintains a list of military tests that could interfere with GPS. It has posted a notice that GPS signals could be unreliable within 180 miles of White Sands through May 25.

 

http://www.nextgov.com/defense/2012/05/north-korean-gps-jamming-shows-vulnerability-army-radios/55577/

 

 

Fiscal 2013: Brave New Frugality

 

CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY

April 28, 2012 – 10:18 p.m.

By Kerry Young, CQ Staff

 

Congress is at the beginning of a new era of penny-pinching.

 

In the past, budget-cutting efforts have been episodic and small by comparison. Beyond mere frugality, big reductions in the ordinary operating costs of government are now the order of the day.

 

Democrats are fighting to hold the line on next year’s appropriations bills, a posture that would mean real reductions for many programs once inflation is taken into account. But that’s not enough for many Republicans, particularly in the House. They are pressing for a third consecutive round of actual cuts.

 

The combination of deep resistance to higher taxes and the rising costs associated with the federal debt and the aging of baby boomers is putting lawmakers in a box where the only easy way to thin the budgetary red ink is by reducing spending that is euphemistically called “discretionary” on Capitol Hill.

 

The next budget year starts Oct. 1, but Congress has already signaled that it will wait to see the results of the November election before making a final call on how much to spend in fiscal 2013.

 

Each party intends to make an issue of spending in the coming campaigns. Republicans are touting their efforts to dismantle and weaken domestic programs that they contend are unnecessary at best and wasteful at worst, while seeking to soften the budgetary blow to the Pentagon.

 

Democrats are emphasizing that the government could protect many services and programs by raising additional revenue from wealthier Americans.

 

The election amounts to a public forum on “the role and size of government,” says Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

And on that, conservative Douglas Holtz-Eakin agrees. “That’s why this election is going to matter a lot,” says Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and now an advocate for spending constraint in his role as president of the conservative American Action Forum.

 

But unless the election results in a significant — and at this point unlikely — change in the course of fiscal policy, the annual appropriations process will increasingly become what amounts to a street-by-street battle over what constitutes the country’s fundamental needs.

 

Lawmakers agreed last August to set boundaries for annual appropriations over the next decade. That, in turn, will require them to start establishing more austere fiscal priorities in the spending bills that are just starting to move for the coming fiscal year.

In the past, Congress could often comfortably undo or ignore its budgetary controls after a few years. Now, lawmakers may find it necessary to mostly stick with them this time around.

 

As a consequence, budgeting for a rich and enviably prosperous nation suddenly demands more complicated policy choices than Congress has been accustomed to making. And current circumstances pose a risk, seen on both sides of the aisle, that lawmakers won’t always make the right ones.

 

Plus, some lawmakers worry that the public doesn’t fully understand what abstract calls to slash spending will mean to their lives some years down the road. Americans will still demand that Washington maintain the nation’s defenses and guard the borders. They will count on the government to aid business in direct and indirect ways and to help educate and train the workforce. They will assume the nation stays on the leading edge of science and technology and remains competitive globally by preserving the network of highways, navigable rivers and ports.

 

The fear, though, is that those things will not be guaranteed in this era of new frugality, and that the country will pay a big price.

 

“Go to Shanghai, go to Hong Kong and other ports, go to Mideast ports, and we are 20 years behind,” said Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, during a February floor speech lamenting the ways that Congress considers spending bills, as well as its priorities.

 

Democrat Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, is even blunter in his assessment that other countries will continue to invest in such areas as research and infrastructure as America is tempted to stint. “We can’t be a superpower on the cheap,” Fattah says.

 

Not Like Before

The last time Congress made a serious bid to cut spending was in the 1990s, when many baby boomers — a cohort of roughly 78 million — were reaching their peak earnings potential and the economy was growing at a rapid pace. The collapse of the Soviet Union had made it easy to slow military spending, and a technology boom helped swell the reported value of retirement portfolios. That’s all changed.

“Boomers are getting old, and the world’s a dangerous place,” says Holtz-Eakin. “We have not ever had to have this kind of discipline on a sustained basis before.”

Today, with the oldest of the boomers past age 65, the country is paying off the cost of two wars fought in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many Americans still cope with the housing collapse. And even knowing that the tab for Medicare and Social Security is climbing, Congress has pushed the federal debt to a level last experienced at the end of World War II — where the total amount of government borrowing roughly equals the total yearly output of the U.S. economy, or about $15 trillion today in round numbers.

 

Bernstein says the country can afford to tax some citizens more to cover its bills, and thus spare the budgets of many agencies from stagnation and cutbacks. But he concedes that a bigger federal debt isn’t a likely solution with the tea party movement still holding some sway.

“The demographics were baked into the cake long ago,” says Bernstein, a senior fellow at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It’s a matter of political will, of whether we have the maturity to face reality and take the steps needed to meet the obligations of the entitlements in a balanced manner.”

 

So, without a big increase in revenue, Congress looks to trim spending. The richest targets are programs that Congress either has put on legislative autopilot, such as Medicare and Social Security, or addresses only twice or so a decade, such as food and farm benefits. These so-called mandatory spending programs cost about $2 trillion a year, or roughly two-thirds of federal spending. But for political as well as technical reasons, they are hard to reach.

 

Instead, lawmakers have picked on the $1 trillion in annual discretionary spending to bear the brunt of cuts required by last August’s debt limit increase law.

It’s a two-step process, starting with strict annual caps on spending followed by an automatic spending “sequester” that will subtract roughly $100 billion more each year over the next decade. Those cuts must be sorted out through annual appropriations.

 

Lesson From Space

The future of NASA’s manned space program is a test case for this new frugality.

Congress has tried in recent years to spur competition among private engineering companies to drive down the cost of space travel. It halted the shuttle program in 2011 and has left NASA reliant at least for the next few years on Russian spacecraft to get American astronauts to the International Space Station.

 

Capitol Hill got a stark reminder of the potential drawbacks to this approach on April 17, when the shuttle Discovery was ferried on the back of a Boeing 747 three times around the dome on its way to retirement at a Smithsonian museum. The spectacle, which captivated Washington, came just hours before Senate appropriators unveiled their first fiscal 2013 spending bill, coincidentally the one that finances NASA and other science programs.

 

“After the excitement of the day’s events died down, we are reminded that the Discovery flyover was more a funeral procession than a celebration,” wrote F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, in an editorial. “NASA has no domestic replacements ready to fly.”

Congress has already required NASA to push back the target date for transition to private astronaut transport by two years to 2017 because of a money shortfall. The space agency received $406 million for commercial spaceflight in fiscal 2012, less than half the amount requested. And the budgetary outlook isn’t very much brighter for fiscal 2013.

The Senate’s fiscal 2013 spending bill for NASA would provide $525 million for commercial spaceflight, far less than the $830 million requested. House appropriators so far have suggested only $500 million.

 

This relative stinting on commercial spaceflight is happening even with NASA’s budget under the watch of one of its biggest fans, self-described “space senator” Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. Mikulski has been the top Democrat on the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations panel since 1989. As Congress moved NASA toward commercial space transport in 2007, she urged her fellow lawmakers to shorten the time the United States would need to “rely on the kindness of allies” to get into space. “Our national security and our national honor depend upon it,” she said.

NASA must compete for budget dollars, Mikulski observed last year in a speech on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s call to send a man to the moon. “America is no longer in a space race,” Mikulski said. “We’re in a race for our economic future.”

 

Beyond NASA and manned space flight, the fiscal 2013 spending battle cuts to the government’s role in scientific research writ large.

 

The House-approved budget written by Wisconsin Republican Paul D. Ryan would trim much science support, although sparing research and development money slated for the Pentagon. Some House conservatives say companies will fill the gap if the government withdraws some of its support for science. But that rings false to Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and former venture capitalist who made millions of dollars through investments in telecommunications companies.

 

Basic research is simply too risky an enterprise for companies, which are founded with the intent of generating a profit for their shareholders, Warner says. Cutting federal research dollars would put the United States at a disadvantage, especially with many countries continuing to invest despite hard times.

 

“It’s bad business and bad policy, this ‘short-termism’ that only looks to the next election cycle,” Warner says.

 

Congress also has powerful Republicans with a strong commitment to research, including Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee. Wolf wants to boost the National Science Foundation’s fiscal 2013 budget by $299 million to $7.3 billion, topping a $240 million increase sought by Mikulski, his Senate counterpart.

 

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a senior Senate GOP appropriator, says government was the driver of the basic science underlying major breakthroughs in biology and the physical sciences, including ones that have helped the U.S. natural gas industry surge.

“We want the Googles grown here and not some other place,” Alexander said last week during debate over fiscal 2013 spending.

 

Bumpy Road

Alexander is an ardent advocate of Congress taking a more orderly approach to federal spending. He led a polite floor protest in February to demand that the Senate return to its old habit of considering the dozen annual bills that finance the government individually and in a timely way — and not as some year-end omnibus passed in a crisis atmosphere.

 

The Senate has voted on only one such bill since 2010, and this inaction has contributed to the large multibill spending packages routinely used to complete appropriations.

Congress almost certainly will turn to this megabus approach again for fiscal 2013, with a December finish being the most optimistic guess on timing. It’s unclear yet how many fiscal 2013 stand-alone spending bills will reach the floor of the House, which last year passed six of them. Congress finished its fiscal 2012 appropriations Dec. 17 with a nine-bill package that provided more than $900 billion.

 

This process damages the reputation of Congress and leads to poor decisions, said Graham, who joined Alexander’s bipartisan floor protest in February. Had the Senate considered a stand-alone Energy-Water bill, for example, it would have had a chance to advance a strategy for modernizing the nation’s ports, Graham said.

“If we keep continuing to appropriate in the last week of the session in a bill that nobody reads, not only will our fellow citizens think poorly of us, we won’t have a vision,” he complained.

 

Outdated ports are only one reason the nation earned a “D” in the most recent American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card on infrastructure. For many years, Congress hasn’t provided adequate money for roads, public transit, dams or inland waterways, the engineers’ group said.

 

There is strong bipartisan support among Senate appropriators to give the Transportation Department almost $300 million more for fiscal 2013 to meet some of those needs. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 4 Senate Democrat and chairwoman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations panel, has said skimping on infrastructure “simply turns a budget deficit into an infrastructure deficit” that ends up costing Americans in other ways.

 

Yet the Transportation Department isn’t getting quick help from Congress in terms of marching orders or cash. As will most agencies and departments, it is likely to spend the first three months of fiscal 2013 operating under stopgap funding that neither sets new priorities nor establishes a real budget.

 

Moreover, the department is waiting for Congress to complete an overdue reauthorization of the law that finances many road and bridge projects. Congress has passed nine short-term extensions of the 2005 highway bill, which expired in 2009, and negotiations have only begun to replace that law.

 

The eventual outcome for the highway bill may serve as an indicator for how well Congress will do with its fiscal 2013 spending bills, says Jim Dyer of the Podesta Group, a former House GOP Appropriations staff director. Both appropriations and highway bills were easier to pass before an informal ban on earmarks arose in Congress, Dyer says.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, also sees the current austerity drive and associated earmark ban complicating efforts to enact appropriations and other bills.

“Members of Congress have lost personal interest in a lot of legislation because they don’t feel invested anymore,” Daschle says.

 

Defending Defense Dollars

One pocket of federal spending continues to attract broad and deep interest across the political spectrum, and that’s defense. It’s fairly rare to find a lawmaker who doesn’t have a well-developed view on how much money should flow to the Pentagon.

Conservatives in both chambers are fighting to protect the Defense Department from the automatic sequester scheduled to take effect next January. Liberals are pushing just as hard to make sure that the Pentagon shares in the pain as rising entitlement costs crimp other federal spending.

 

Defense consumes roughly half of all discretionary appropriations. Senate appropriators intend to give the military and related activities $511 billion next year, not counting the direct costs of the war in Afghanistan. Their House counterparts have set aside $519 billion for base defense spending.

 

There may be a drawing back in what Americans expect their military to do in a time of more austere budgets, says Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and the author of the 2010 book “The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era.”

 

The nation will be far less likely to get involved with conflicts in which there is not an immediate and apparent threat to the United States, Mandelbaum predicts. Border security may take precedence over operations further away, he says. “People will care a lot more about Mexico than Afghanistan.”

 

There’s already a weakening in what the United States is willing to spend on conflicts close to its borders. Experts on Latin America say the United States invested more than $8 billion since 2000 in helping Colombia fight drug-related crime, an effort that advocates say paid off in having a far more stable neighbor, albeit one whose capital is more than 1,500 miles from Miami.

 

In this time of spending constraint, however, the United States appears to be skimping on partnerships with countries much closer to its shores, even as narcotic-related crime

moves into those nations.

 

Appropriators from both chambers have targeted the State-Foreign Operations bill for spending cuts next year. President Obama offered at least one easy target for savings by proposing to cut almost a third from the combined budget for drug-crime initiatives in the Caribbean Basin and Central America.

 

At a March hearing, an official who oversees efforts to control the international drug trade said the State Department has “a challenge” for fiscal 2013 in terms of controlling drug traffickers.

“We’re squeezing the balloon very hard in Mexico, and what is happening is that they are moving to Central America. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that is what is happening,” said William R. Brownfield, who leads State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

 

“The extent to which we do not put resources into Central America is the extent to which we are punishing ourselves in years to come,” he said.

Brownfield’s is a common refrain — echoed by those concerned about science, education, infrastructure and even defense. In this era of new frugality, the appropriators on Capitol Hill are having to take a fresh look at everything they do.

 

What’s Next in the Appropriations Process

The House and Senate Appropriations committees have begun work already on the 12 regular spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. A few of those bills may see floor votes in coming months, but final action isn’t expected on any of them — or the more likely multi-bill omnibus package — until after the election.

 

Many decisions about the shape of the bills will fall principally to the four dozen men and women who serve as the top Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations subcommittees in each chamber. They and their fellow appropriators — 30 senators and 50 House members in all — will, in open meetings and behind closed doors, hash out the details for each line item in each bill.

 

 

Jobs report shows effects of the incredible shrinking U.S. labor force

Washington Post

Published: May 4

 

If the same percentage of adults were in the workforce today as when Barack Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be 11.1 percent. If the percentage was where it was when George W. Bush took office, the unemployment rate would be 13.1 percent.

That helps explain a seeming contradiction in the unemployment numbers — the rate keeps dropping even though job creation has been soft.

 

In April, the U.S. economy added a mere 115,000 jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released Friday. In a normal month, that would not even be enough to keep up with new entrants into the labor market. But in this economy, it was enough to drive unemployment from 8.2 percent down to 8.1 percent, the lowest point since January 2009.

 

The explanation is a little-watched measure known as the “labor force participation rate.” That tracks the number of working-age Americans who are holding a job or looking for one. Between March and April, it dropped by 342,000. But because the official unemployment rate counts only those workers who are actively seeking work, that actually made the unemployment rate go down.

Critics of the Obama administration have been quick to seize on this as the real reason for the falling unemployment rate. In February, the Republican National Committee released a research note on “The Missing Worker,” arguing that “over 3 million unemployed workers have called it quits due to Obamanomics.”

Economists say the story is considerably more complicated. For one thing, the trend predates President Obama. And while part of the story is clearly that the labor force is shrinking because the bad economy is driving workers out, another significant factor is that baby boomers are beginning to retire early — a trend that has worrying implications for future growth.

 

The percentage of Americans in the labor force has been declining for more than a decade. In January 2000, 67.3 percent of Americans had a job or were actively seeking work. By 2007, just before the recession, that had fallen to 66 percent. In January 2009, the month Obama assumed the presidency, it was 65.7 percent. Since then, it has fallen to 63.6 percent, a level not seen since the first year of the Reagan administration.

The implications for returning to what economists call “full employment” are significant. According to calculations by Michael Greenstone of the Hamilton Project, if the labor force grows by 90,000 a month, then an economy creating 200,000 jobs a month would take about eight years to return to full employment. If the labor force grows by 125,000 a month — plausible if discouraged workers begin returning to the labor force — it will take almost 14 years to return to full employment.

 

It’s easy to see why some workers would, in the current environment, get discouraged and stop looking for work altogether. There are about 3.7 job seekers for every available opening.

 

“We’re not going to see the labor force tick back up until there are enough opportunities that the people who enter aren’t faced with months of fruitless job searches,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

Once the economy improves, the theory goes, more workers will start searching for jobs and the unemployment rate will bounce back upward.

 

The more worrying possibility is that workers discouraged by bleak job prospects will find themselves unable to return to the labor market even after it improves. About 41 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than 27 weeks, and economists have found that as workers remain jobless for extended periods of time, their skills erode, their work contacts move on, their motivation wanes and they have difficulty returning to the labor force when the economy picks back up. They move from being unemployed to being almost unemployable.

 

But a number of economists are arguing that the recession is distracting people from the real story — long-run demographic trends that have nothing to do with the current economy. Baby boomers are starting to retire en masse, which means that there are fewer eligible American workers.

 

Demographics have always played a big role in the rise and fall of the labor force. Between 1960 and 2000, the labor force in the United States surged from 59 percent to a peak of 67.3 percent. That was largely due to the fact that more women were entering the labor force while improvements in health and information technology allowed Americans to work more years.

 

But since 2000, the labor force rate has been steadily declining as the baby-boom generation has been retiring. Because of this, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago expects the labor force participation rate to be lower in 2020 than it is today, regardless of how well the economy does.

 

In a March report titled “Dispelling an Urban Legend,” Dean Maki, an economist at Barclays Capital, found that demographics accounted for a majority of the drop in the participation rate since 2002.

 

And what about the most recent downturn? Based on survey data, Maki found that about 35 percent of Americans who have dropped out of the labor force since the recession began in 2007 do want a job, but they have become too discouraged to fire off résumés. That’s a sign of a weak labor market. But the other 65 percent are people who have left the labor force and do not want a job. The biggest chunk of that group seems to be composed of baby boomers, those 55 and older, who have decided to retire early.

That suggests, Maki and his colleagues wrote, that unemployment will not necessarily start ticking up again as the economy keeps adding jobs, as many people expect.

“Such an event has not happened in the past and we do not believe it will this time either,” they argued.

 

Other reports find a smaller — but still significant — role for demographics. The Chicago Fed estimates that retirements accounted for only about one-quarter of the drop in labor force participation since the recession began.

One thing that makes it hard to predict future retirement trends, Greenstone says, is that it is unclear how many older Americans will postpone retirement and work longer to rebuild their 401(k)s and retirement savings that were battered by the recession. That would increase the size of the labor force in the coming years.

“We’ve seen some indication of this recently,” Greenstone said. “But we still don’t know if it’s a short-term blip or long-term trend.”

 

How fast the labor force shrinks will also have implications for future U.S. growth prospects. The Barclays report, which argues that older workers are retiring more quickly than most economists had assumed, projected long-run economic growth at around 2 percent. That’s significantly lower than the Federal Reserve’s forecast of somewhere between 2.3 percent and 2.6 percent.

 

As U.S. government contracts dwindle, losers protest more

Washington Post

By Kathleen Miller, Published: April 29

The U.S. government’s push to reduce spending on contracts has left it fending off the most challenges in 16 years from unsuccessful bidders.

Contractors filed 2,353 protest-related cases during the last fiscal year with the Government Accountability Office, which arbitrates contract disputes.

That’s up 18 percent from the 1,989 cases filed when federal contract spending peaked in fiscal 2009 and the most since 1995, when more than 2,500 were filed, according to GAO data.

 

Federal contract spending has declined as agencies seek cuts as part of efforts to reduce the U.S. deficit. With fewer opportunities, companies such as UnitedHealth Group and IBM have fought for lost work.

“There is no denying the impact of a tough economy on a company’s willingness to protest,” Ralph White, the GAO’s managing associate general counsel for procurement law, said in a phone interview.

 

Government contract spending declined 3.6 percent to $531.9 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, from a record $551.8 billion in fiscal 2009.

At the same time, the United States is awarding fewer contracts as agencies cut costs by consolidating work. There were 933,357 direct contract awards last year, down 38 percent from fiscal 2007.

 

It often makes economic sense to challenge a lost contract, said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, a procurement consulting firm in Arlington County. It might cost less than $100,000 to file a protest, while the payoff may be an agreement for millions or billions of dollars.

 

“There are fewer decent-sized procurement opportunities out there right now, so companies want to make sure they have exhausted all their options if they are not selected as the original winner,” Allen said in a phone interview. “Government contract attorneys certainly aren’t going hungry right now.”

 

In addition to the economic downturn and the increase in contract spending after 2000, the GAO’s expanded jurisdiction may be contributing to the boost in protests, White said.

One of the biggest protests last year came from UnitedHealth, the largest U.S. health insurer by revenue. The Minnetonka, Minn.-based company unsuccessfully protested its loss of a $23.5 billion military health contract to Humana.

 

New York-based IBM and at least four other companies, including a General Dynamics unit, last summer challenged their exclusion from a $12 billion technology contract with the Department of Veterans Affairs. GAO officials in August dismissed both protests.

Taxpayers benefit from increased protests because the extra layer of scrutiny helps ensure that the process is fair and that an agency is getting the best value, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Arlington-based Professional Services Council, which represents more than 300 vendors.

 

“I’m a fan of protests,” Chvotkin said in a phone interview. “I think that when used properly they do hold the government accountable for following the rules.”

“That’s a good thing because Lord knows the government has lots of opportunities to hold the contractor community accountable.”

 

 

Perception of government could affect agency hiring

Fcw.com

By Alice Lipowicz

Apr 30, 2012

 

A majority of Americans in a recent survey said they view the federal government as mostly corrupt—an opinion that a public service advocate said was likely to make it more difficult to recruit top talent to federal agencies.

 

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press interviewed more than 3,000 adults about their views of government in the second week of April. They released a report on the results on April 26.

 

Fifty-four percent of the respondents said the federal government is “mostly corrupt,” while 31 percent said “mostly honest,” and 11 percent said they did not know, or neither.

“That is really quite disturbing,” John Palguta, vice president for policy with the Partnership for Public Service, told Federal Computer Week.

 

“Certainly it does not help recruitment,” Palguta said. “I am worried about the negative attitudes turning people off about working for the government.”

He said the dampening effect could be subtle because many people are looking for work and there is competition for federal jobs. However, pervasive negative attitudes make it harder to attract the best qualified talent, he added.

 

Morale of the current 2 million federal employees also is likely to be hurt, but to a lesser degree, Palguta said.

“When people badmouth the government, it takes a toll,” Palguta said. At the same time, he added, federal employee morale is somewhat resilient because the public recognizes some of the benefits of government, such as Social Security and national defense.

 

Federal agencies “will have to work harder” to reduce the negative perceptions, Palguta said. “Fight perceptions with facts. Tell people about the outstanding work of government.”

Other measures of corruption have shown the United States government to be among the least corrupt. For example, Globalintegrity.org recently rated the U.S. as scoring 85 out of 100 for its strong integrity laws.

In the Pew report, state governments got higher ratings than the federal government for honesty. Forty-nine percent said state governments are mostly honest, while 37 percent said they are mostly corrupt. 

It was the first time Pew had asked the question about corruption, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research. The goal was to probe voters’ attitudes more deeply, he said..

Overall, the Pew survey also showed that just a third of Americans have a favorable opinion of the federal government, the lowest positive rating in 15 years.

 

Palguta suggested several reasons why the survey results were so negative. For one, with Congress experiencing partisan gridlock, its favorability ratings also are at historic lows. For example, a poll by Rasmussen Reports in early April said only 6 percent of respondents rated Congress’ performance as good or excellent. Many people also paint the federal government with the same brush, Palguta said.

 

“If the pollsters do not distinguish between elected officials and the government workforce, you get this blurring of opinion, and the negative opinion of Congress tends to bleed over,” Palguta said.

 

Keeter agreed that might be the case to some extent, saying that the respondents were not asked to distinguish between elected and politically-appointed officials and career government workers.

 

Another factor possibly contributing to the perception of corruption could be the recent General Services Administration scandal over conference spending, and the Secret Service scandal over hiring prostitutes in Columbia. People tend to remember the most recent incidents of misconduct the most, Palguta said.

 

Palguta also suggested that people may misperceive the integrity of federal workers because they seldom interact with them on a one-to-one basis. When there is close interaction, the views of integrity probably would be much higher, he suggested.

He also said that presidential election rhetoric likely is contributing to the strongly negative views of the federal government. The candidates often talk about government being broken and needing to be fixed, he said.

 

Candidates running for office against an incumbent will tend to say “Elect me and I will fix it,” Palguta said. “It does not pay, if you want to win, to talk about what the government does well.”

 

Other views expressed by the survey respondents also were negative about federal agencies.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said the federal government is “generally inefficient,” while only 24 percent said it is generally efficient. By contrast, 51 percent said state governments were inefficient and 38 percent said they were efficient.

In addition, 79 percent of respondents said the federal government was “not careful with people’s money,” 75 percent said it is “too divided along party lines.” And 66 percent said it “does not address people’s needs.”

 

 

 

Source: FCW (http://s.tt/1atHP)

 

Flashback gang could be making $10K a day off infected Macs

Symantec spells out the malware’s money-making mechanism: click fraud

By Gregg Keizer

May 1, 2012 06:11 AM ET

 

Computerworld – The Flashback malware that’s infected hundreds of thousands of Macs may be generating more than $10,000 a day for the hackers who made the Trojan horse, Symantec said Monday.

 

The malware steals clicks from ads that Google’s search engine displays alongside search results.

 

In a blog entry posted today, Symantec published an analysis of Flashback’s money-making capabilities, and concluded — as others had earlier — that the gang was turning a profit through click fraud.

 

Flashback.K surfaced in March and by early April had infected more than 600,000 Macs.

 

“Click fraud” describes campaigns where large numbers of people are silently redirected to online ads not normally served by the site the user is viewing. The criminals receive kickbacks from the sometimes-legitimate, sometimes-shady intermediaries for each ad clicked.

 

The clicks are “ghost clicks” in that they are not triggered by a human, but instead by the botnet.

 

That’s exactly what Flashback.K does, said Symantec. After worming its way onto a Mac via an exploit of a since-patched Java vulnerability, Flashback.K loads an ad-clicking component into Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers.

 

“Flashback specifically targets search queries made on Google and, depending on the search query, may redirect users to another page of the attacker’s choosing, where they receive revenue from the click,” said Symantec. “Google never receives the intended ad click.”

 

In one code snippet shown by Symantec, a hijacked ad based on the user searching for “toys” would generate $0.008 per click, meaning that 1,000 clicks would earn the hackers $8, 10,000 clicks $80, and so on.

 

The Flashback gang is still earning this fraudulent revenue, even though much of the botnet has been “sinkholed” by Symantec and other antivirus companies, said Vikram Thakur, principal security response manager at Symantec. By registering as many potential command-and-control (C&C) domains used by the malware to receive instructions, security researchers prevent orders from reaching the infected Macs. The commands fall down a metaphoric “sinkhole” instead.

 

But in an interview today, Thakur confirmed that Flashback-infected Macs, even those that have been sinkholed by security firms, continue to produce revenue for the hackers.

“They’re still making money,” said Thakur, explaining that the ad-clicking component communicates to different C&C servers whose IP addresses are hard-coded into the malware. Those servers have not been sinkholed. “In fact, they’re making a lot of money.

How much wasn’t clear. Symantec hasn’t been able to uncover the botnet revenue, but instead compared its size and money-making abilities to the 2011 “W32.Xpaj.B” botnet, a collection of 25,000 compromised Windows PCs that returned up to $450 per day to its handlers.

 

If Flashback’s profit-making is as efficient, and with its size hovering around 600,000 Macs, by that example it could generate up to $10,800 per day, or $75,600 per week or $3.9 million over the course of a year. All tax free.

“That’s a lot of money,” Thakur said.

 

So as not to arouse suspicion, the Flashback ad-clicking component looks at a “whitelist” of websites that it will refuse to redirect. That whitelist includes major destinations — on the level of Amazon and PayPal — said Thakur. “That keeps things on a lower profile on the client side,” Thakur said, referring to the infected Mac.

 

In any case, most users won’t even notice that they’ve been shunted to a different ad than the one they clicked, Thakur maintained. And if they do, they probably don’t care.

“From the [user’s] perspective, very little has changed, even though they’re shown a different ad,” said Thakur. “It’s the search providers and those paying for ads who are out the money.”

 

Click fraud relies on the fact that the user is not the victim; instead its the search provider — Google, for instance — and the businesses paying for each time someone clicks on an ad.

“Suddenly they’re being billed a lot more than they expected,” said Thakur of the latter. “They may have expected to pay for 100 clicks per day, and then sell their product to one of that 100. But suddenly, they’re being billed for 1,000 ‘ghost clicks,’ and no one is buying anything.”

 

Symantec has notified Google of the scam that Flashback is running, but frankly, there’s not a lot the search giant can do. “Everything is happening on the client side,” said Thakur, talking about the ad-click redirection.

Mac owners running either OS X 10.7 or 10.6 — Lion and Snow Leopard, respectively — can protect themselves from Flashback attacks by updating Java using their machines’ Software Update tool.

 

Because Apple has stopped shipping security updates for older editions — OS X 10.5, or Leopard, and its predecessors — those users must disable Java in their browsers.

About 18% of Mac owners ran Leopard or earlier on their systems last month, according to the most recent statistics from Internet metrics company Net Applications. However, Snow Leopard has been the most-infected OS X edition, accounting for 63.4% of all Macs in the botnet.

 

In its analysis of Flashback’s monetization strategy, Symantec also took a swipe at Apple for helping the hackers.

 

“Unfortunately for Mac users, there was a large window of exposure since Apple’s patch for this vulnerability was not available for [seven] weeks,” said Symantec. “This window of opportunity helped the Flashback Trojan to infect Macs on a large scale … [and] the Flashback authors took advantage of the gap between Oracle and Apple’s patches.”

Oracle patched the Java bug on Feb. 14 for Windows and Linux users, but Apple, which still maintains Java for OS X, didn’t issue its update until April 3.

 

Later this year, Oracle will release Java 7 for OS X; Mac users who upgrade to Java 7 will then receive security updates directly from Oracle, not from Apple.

 

Air Force accepts final F-22 Raptor

by Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Gaston

94th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

 

5/3/2012 – MARIETTA, Ga. (AFNS) — Senior Air Force officials attended a ceremony here May 2 commemorating the delivery of the final F-22 Raptor to the service.

 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was joined by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and other industry, Air Force and civilian leaders as they were welcomed to Dobbins Air Reserve Base and the Lockheed Martin Marietta plant for the event.

 

The final delivery completes the Air Force’s fleet of 195 F-22s. The Raptor is a key component of the Global Strike Task Force and is unmatched by any fighter aircraft due to its speed, stealth and maneuverability, according to Air Force officials.

 

During his remarks at the ceremony, Schwartz said the delivery represents an important element in the Air Force’s overall modernization effort.

 

“Thank you to all of the partners in industry and government that made this occasion a reality,” the general said. “I especially want to pay tribute to the line workers and engineers whose technical expertise, attention to detail and commitment to our nation’s defense transformed an innovative notion into America’s first 5th generation fighter aircraft.”

 

When it was time to unveil the final F-22, the hangar doors rose and cheers from the assembled guests and workers erupted.

 

Robert Stevens, Lockheed Martin chairman and chief executive officer, said the very existence of the F-22 has altered the strategic landscape forever.

 

“It is also fair to say that, along the way, the F-22 has had a fair number of challenges and a fair number of critics,” Stevens said. “But let’s not fail to take note today of the number of nations, who rank among either competitors or adversaries, who are frantically trying to replicate what you have done.”

 

The final F-22, tail number 4195, will be flown to its new unit at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage, Alaska.

 

Retirement claims backlog shrinks

By Kellie Lunney

May 3, 2012

 

The Office of Personnel Management received fewer retirement claims in April than expected, after a spike in applications submitted during the first three months of 2012.

OPM received 6,616 claims last month — 1,384 less than the 8,000 claims expected and 474 less than the number the agency received in March. The slowdown likely helped OPM chip away at its 50,000-plus backlog of claims: The backlog currently stands at 51,016 claims, down 1,258 from March. Since January, the backlog is down 17 percent from 61,108 claims. The agency projected it would have a backlog of 55,078 claims in April, so by those measures, OPM is ahead of the game.

 

OPM released the latest statistics Thursday.

 

The agency slightly overestimated the number of claims it projected it would process in April — 8,028 actual claims completed versus a target of 8,300 claims. Since January, OPM has received 41,600 retirement claims. It began 2012 with a backlog of 48,378 claims.

 

OPM administers benefits for 2.5 million federal retirees and processes about 100,000 new claims annually. Director John Berry has said eliminating the backlog is his highest priority in 2012. Earlier this year, OPM unveiled a plan that aims to get rid of the claims backlog within 18 months and to reduce processing times so that 90 percent of claims are administered within two months of receipt.

 

Lawmakers asked OPM in February to report monthly on the status of the backlog.

Processing retirement claims, particularly disability claims, can be complex and time-consuming, and OPM relies heavily on other federal agencies to provide retirees’ information, including the amount of their annuity. The agency uses more than 500 different procedures, laws and regulations to address retirement applications.

 

http://www.govexec.com/pay-benefits/2012/05/retirement-claims-backlog-shrinks/55566/


 

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