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February 2 2013

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Social Security going paperless – not everyone pleased

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By Claudia Buck – The Sacramento Bee

January 26, 2012

 

By Claudia Buck The Sacramento Bee

Ready or not, millions of America’s seniors are being pushed into the age of digital banking. Starting March 1, in a cost-cutting move by the U.S. Treasury, most Social Security checks will no longer arrive by mail.

Like IRS forms and U.S. savings bonds before them, it’s bye-bye paper. That means some 5 million Americans who still get a Social Security, disability or other federal benefit check in their mailbox must switch to electronic payments: either direct deposit into their bank account or onto a Treasury-issued debit card.

For those unaccustomed to ATMs or online banking, the prospect is a bit unnerving.

“Older seniors like having that check in their hand,” said Patricia Beal, executive director of the Senior Center of Elk Grove, Calif. “As we age, we lose control over a lot of things and this is just one more.”

And it’s got some folks riled up.

Michigan resident Mike Clement, after reading online that the Sacramento Bee wanted to talk with those who prefer paper checks, emailed and called to say that he and his elderly mother are “hopping mad” that she is being forced to switch to electronic payment.

“It really should be a matter of personal choice,” Clement said. “Unfortunately, the feds seem not to care a whit about personal preference.”

There’s even organized opposition to the switch. A group called Consumers for Paper Options, based in Washington, D.C., has been fighting the paper-free mandate for more than a year.

Many Social Security recipients “are unbanked, while others are simply uncomfortable in the digital world,” John Runyan, president of the group, said in an email to The Bee.

In testimony to a House committee last year, he said it’s unfair to force seniors to navigate “a new and potentially confusing world full of PINs, ATMs and online statements.” He also pointed to instances of direct-deposit-related fraud with Social Security payments.

Federal cost-cutter

The Treasury Department, however, says that, unlike paper checks that can be lost or stolen, electronic payments are easily traced and quickly restored in the rare instance of fraud.

The Treasury’s paperless campaign is primarily billed as a federal cost-cutter, saving an estimated $1 billion in check-processing and mailing costs over 10 years. It also is touted to be safer, easier and more convenient.

Currently, 65 million federal benefit recipients – or 93 percent – receive their payments electronically. That includes Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, veterans’ and railroad retirement, all of which are subject to the switch.

California has the largest number of residents – roughly 399,000 – receiving a benefit check by mail, followed by New York (308,000), Texas (300,000) and Florida (196,000). North Carolina has the seventh largest number of residents – more than 160,000 – still receiving checks by mail. Roughly 92 percent of the state’s beneficiaries are now receiving their payments electronically.

There are some exemptions to the paperless requirement, such as those who are age 91 or older. Those who ignore or miss the mandatory deadline won’t get cut off or face penalties.

“We can’t stop sending their payments. They depend on them,” said Walt Henderson, director of the Treasury’s GoDirect campaign in Washington, D.C. “But we will be communicating with them in a more direct way via letter.”

Required to choose

The paper-free move is partly to address the wave of baby boomers who are retiring and entering their Social Security years. Since the paperless plan was announced in April 2011, all new applicants for federal benefits are required to choose an electronic payment method.

Beal, from the Elk Grove senior center, said that while seniors may complain about the change, most of them are resilient and will adapt.

“They’ve already been through so much transition in their lives – the Depression, world wars, the loss of spouses, the loss of children – that is far bigger than this. They’ll adjust, but it’ll take time.”

Certainly, not every senior is upset by the change.

At 82, Sacramento, Calif., resident Frances Comstock said she has had her monthly Social Security check automatically deposited into her bank account for nearly 20 years.

“I was so afraid someone would steal it from my mailbox. (With direct deposit,) I didn’t have to go the bank to cash my check. You always know your money is there. It’s peace of mind,” said Comstock, a former Aerojet telephone operator.

 

 

First-class stamp price increases to 46 cents

Posted: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013

Charlotte Observer.com

 

WASHINGTON The cost of mailing a first-class letter went up by a penny Sunday, to 46 cents, while the price of a postcard increased from 32 cents to 33 cents.

A new global “forever” stamp now allows customers to mail letters anywhere in the world for one set price of $1.10. Currently, the prices for international letters vary.

The increase will make only a small dent in the U.S. Postal Service’s financial losses of $15.9 billion. Associated Press

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2013/01/28/3817583/first-class-stamp-price-increases.html#storylink=cpyShe predicts that once paperless payments go into effect for all Americans on March 1, “They’re going to kick themselves: ‘Why didn’t I do this before?’ ”

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/01/26/2635447/social-security-going-paperless.html#storylink=cpy

 

 

 

Defense Biz Ignores Pending Cuts—A Case of Denial?

By DAVID FRANCIS, The Fiscal Times

January 31, 2013

 

Wall Street and the rest of the country woke up yesterday to the surprising news that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product had contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012, falling by 0.1 percent. The news was especially disappointing in light of analysts’ expectations of 1.1 percent growth. It was also the first time GDP growth was negative since 2009.

The drop was attributed to a 22 percent drop in defense spending in the fourth quarter, shaving 1.28 percentage points from GDP. What’s alarming about this decrease is that it happened before the more than $50 billion in sequestration cuts, set to take effect in March.

“In less than 30 days, unless Congress and the White House act, sequestration will kick in, leading to higher unemployment, reduced tax revenue and lower consumer spending,” Marion Blakey, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, a defense industry lobbying group, warned in a statement released Wednesday in response to the GDP report. “This will be the second wave that overwhelms our floundering economic boat, likely sinking us back into a recession.”

Given the tone of such warnings, the rough fourth quarter the defense industry experienced and the coming sequester, one might think that defense stocks would struggle along with the industry. But that isn’t quite the case. As the markets have reached new highs, they’ve pulled defense industry stocks along, lifting many to within striking distance of their peak prices for the past year. In fact, many defense contractors are saying that they aren’t concerned with the impact of sequestration Defense stocks have failed to match the broader market’s recent gains, though.

The stocks of most major defense contractors did take a tumble after the November election, as investors worried that a continuation of the Obama presidency guaranteed that defense spending would be cut, whether or not sequestration took place. Since the market hit its post-election low on November 15, though, shares of defense contractors like Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman have all posted gains, but none have kept pace with the 10 percent increases in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index or the Dow Jones industrial average.

The next month could be more challenging as the threat of sequestration draws near.

“There’s still so much uncertainty over what’s going to happen with the sequester,” said Deana Arnett, a financial planner at the Rosenthal Wealth Management Group in Virginia,. “It’s difficult to ascertain which companies would be most harmed by cuts in defense.”

As they reported quarterly earnings in recent days, though, executives have expressed concerns about the potential effects of the automatic spending cuts.

“We remain deeply concerned that sequestration could occur as the default outcome, if negotiations failed to produce an agreement,” Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson told analysts on a conference call last week. At the same time, CEOs such as Wes Bush of Northrop Grumman have chosen not to speculate publicly about just what type of hit their companies would face if the sequestration went through – and company after company issued projections for 2013 that did not include the spending cuts.

Arnett said that the companies may be able to withstand the spending cuts without significant losses. “”I do believe there are strategic alliances that the companies can engage in that will offset losses from DOD spending cuts,” she said. For instance, Lockheed, anticipating a shift from fighter jets to drones, recently acquired Chandler/May, Inc., a company that makes unmanned aircraft. Raytheon recently bought the government solutions arm of SafeNet, Inc., in an effort to make the company more competitive for cyber security and data protection contracts.

Arnett added that many investment managers have little faith that the sequester will happen as expected. She said she expects political infighting to delay and change how the cuts would be implemented. Until there’s certainty on what Washington will do, she said that defense stocks would remain in limbo.

“We are neutral on defense stocks because we simply don’t know what Congress is going to do,” she said. “There no guidance on how this all plays out. It’s like the fiscal cliff all over again but this time it’s the debt ceiling and sequestration.”

Wall Street and the rest of the country woke up yesterday to the surprising news that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product had contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012, falling by 0.1 percent. The news was especially disappointing in light of analysts’ expectations of 1.1 percent growth. It was also the first time GDP growth was negative since 2009.

The drop was attributed to a 22 percent drop in defense spending in the fourth quarter, shaving 1.28 percentage points from GDP. What’s alarming about this decrease is that it happened before the more than $50 billion in sequestration cuts, set to take effect in March.

“In less than 30 days, unless Congress and the White House act, sequestration will kick in, leading to higher unemployment, reduced tax revenue and lower consumer spending,” Marion Blakey, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, a defense industry lobbying group, warned in a statement released Wednesday in response to the GDP report. “This will be the second wave that overwhelms our floundering economic boat, likely sinking us back into a recession.”

Given the tone of such warnings, the rough fourth quarter the defense industry experienced and the coming sequester, one might think that defense stocks would struggle along with the industry. But that isn’t quite the case. As the markets have reached new highs, they’ve pulled defense industry stocks along, lifting many to within striking distance of their peak prices for the past year. In fact, many defense contractors are saying that they aren’t concerned with the impact of sequestration Defense stocks have failed to match the broader market’s recent gains, though.

The stocks of most major defense contractors did take a tumble after the November election, as investors worried that a continuation of the Obama presidency guaranteed that defense spending would be cut, whether or not sequestration took place. Since the market hit its post-election low on November 15, though, shares of defense contractors like Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman have all posted gains, but none have kept pace with the 10 percent increases in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index or the Dow Jones industrial average.

The next month could be more challenging as the threat of sequestration draws near.

“There’s still so much uncertainty over what’s going to happen with the sequester,” said Deana Arnett, a financial planner at the Rosenthal Wealth Management Group in Virginia,. “It’s difficult to ascertain which companies would be most harmed by cuts in defense.”

As they reported quarterly earnings in recent days, though, executives have expressed concerns about the potential effects of the automatic spending cuts.

“We remain deeply concerned that sequestration could occur as the default outcome, if negotiations failed to produce an agreement,” Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson told analysts on a conference call last week. At the same time, CEOs such as Wes Bush of Northrop Grumman have chosen not to speculate publicly about just what type of hit their companies would face if the sequestration went through – and company after company issued projections for 2013 that did not include the spending cuts.

 

Arnett said that the companies may be able to withstand the spending cuts without significant losses. “”I do believe there are strategic alliances that the companies can engage in that will offset losses from DOD spending cuts,” she said. For instance, Lockheed, anticipating a shift from fighter jets to drones, recently acquired Chandler/May, Inc., a company that makes unmanned aircraft. Raytheon recently bought the government solutions arm of SafeNet, Inc., in an effort to make the company for competitive for cyber security and data protection contracts.

Arnett added that many investment managers have little faith that the sequester will happen as expected. She said she expects political infighting to delay and change how the cuts would be implemented. Until there’s certainty on what Washington will do, she said that defense stocks would remain in limbo.

“We are neutral on defense stocks because we simply don’t know what Congress is going to do,” she said. “There no guidance on how this all plays out. It’s like the fiscal cliff all over again but this time it’s the debt ceiling and sequestration.”

Read more at http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2013/01/31/Defense-Biz-Ignores-Pending-Cuts-A-Case-of-Denial.aspx#4JC1ouECBQ8jrSov.99

 

 

Office 2013 is the best Office yet

With Office 365 Home Premium, Microsoft brings excellent cloud features and pay-as-you-go pricing to the world’s best office suite

Serdar Yegulalp

January 29, 2013 (Infoworld)

 

With Office 365 Home Premium, available today, Microsoft’s office productivity suite inches as close to the cloud as possible without actually running in the cloud. The cloud orientation is reflected in the new Office 365 branding (borrowed from Microsoft’s online services for business), the new application streaming delivery model (no installation discs), and new subscription-based pricing (whereby you can pay per month or year). For those who like having installation discs or who prefer to buy rather than rent, more traditional SKUs of Office 2013 are also available.

Office 365 Home Premium has been crafted to make the rent-as-you-go plan as appealing as possible to the masses who haven’t yet abandoned Microsoft Office for OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or Google Docs. For $100 a year, you get five installations of Office 2013 Home Premium (traditional SKUs limit you to one installation) and access to Office resources in the cloud. These cloud resources include not only SkyDrive and the browser-based Office apps, but also personalized settings that follow you wherever you happen to be working and the ability to install temporary copies of the Office 2013 programs on demand on a PC that doesn’t have it.

Every Office 365 Home Premium subscription also includes 60 monthly minutes of international calls via Skype and 20GB of SkyDrive storage. At the end of the licensing period, all programs revert to read-only status unless you renew. The biggest drawback to Office 365 Home Premium is that it’s licensed for noncommercial use only; if you use Office 365 for “revenue-generating activity,” you must use the Office 365 Small Business Premium SKU or higher. According to Microsoft, you’re likewise covered if your Office license at work includes home use.

Cloud connectionsMicrosoft prides itself on the way Office 365 is delivered to PCs. Instead of running the traditional .MSI installer from media, you download a 500K installation stub from the Web. The stub triggers a “streamed” download that fetches components of Office on-demand and installs them in a virtual file system using Microsoft’s application virtualization technology (App-V). One benefit is that Home Premium can be installed side by side with previous versions of Office.

Another benefit is a fast install. On my connection, the entire Office 2013 suite — Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, and OneNote — took about five minutes to get installed and running, with a PowerPoint slide deck unfolding in the foreground to walk me through the new features. If installing a portion of the suite threatens to slow down proceedings, a dialog box pops up from the tray to alert you. I saw this warning a couple of times, but only during the first usage of a given program. Everything after that was snappy.

Office 2013 integrates closely with Microsoft’s online services, both for the sake of making one’s own work portable and for enhancing collaboration. You don’t have to use a Microsoft sign-in identity to use the suite, but doing so gives you automatic access to files in SkyDrive, through which you can collaboratively edit documents with other users in real time. Plus, any Office settings you have will move with you between systems — not just cosmetic preferences like visual styles for the program, but also low-level settings like custom dictionaries in Word.

A particularly snazzy feature, Office On Demand can “stream” a copy of Office 365 Home Premium to a PC for provisional use. Once you’re finished, you simply close the program; it uninstalls itself without a trace. I used Office on Demand to run Word 2013 on a Dell Latitude 6430u Ultrabook, and while the program sometimes stalled to download additional pieces as needed, I was able to get completely up and running in about five minutes. The installers are cached locally, so even after a reboot I was able to fire up fresh instances of Word from Office On Demand in seconds. It doesn’t remember any user settings, but that makes sense if you’re trying not to leave anything behind. (A consequent downside: Custom dictionaries aren’t streamed to Office On Demand setups.)

Meaningful improvementsThe biggest visible change to each app is the Modern UI-style theme, plus a setting to make visual elements more useful on a touch display by ramping up their size. Outlook contrasts most dramatically with its previous versions, and it looks far less crowded and busy. But the changes to Outlook don’t stop there: It has a more efficient mail-storage format; lets you reply to emails “inline,” meaning directly from the inbox (a nice way to avoid cluttering your screen with open windows); and finally lets you view appointments or contact information without having to switch away from email.

Outlook’s cleaned up Modern UI makes dealing with piles of mail (and contacts, and events) far less suffocating.

I mentioned collaborative editing — Word makes good use of it — but a few other new features in Word turned my head even more. In-document comments now work more like discussion threads, so you can pass detailed notes about changes back and forth without crowding the document. Markup can also be presented in an abbreviated form, and comments can be marked as “done” when you’ve responded to them. Another nice touch is the “pick up where you left off” function. When you reopen a previously edited document in Word, the program remembers the last edit point and offers to take you there.

One of Word’s best new features is remembering what you were doing. When you return to a document, you’re invited to pick up right where you left off when editing.

Excel’s new features are a mix of goodies for the bean counter and tools for the average user. For everyone, there are helpful features like Flash Fill. Essentially Autocomplete 2.0, Flash Fill detects existing patterns in a spreadsheet and helps replicate them automatically, although it seems to only work in very specific cases. For more advanced users, there are PivotTable enhancements, such as the ability to suggest the best way to have selected data transmuted into a PivotTable, and a genuinely useful data visualization feature called Quick Analysis Lens, which lets you preview charts and graphs of selected data in much the same way you’ve been able to preview applied text styles for Office documents.

 

Excel’s new Quick Analysis Lens feature gives you immediate and multiple visualizations for selected ranges of data.

Most of the changes in PowerPoint are minor, but handy. You’ll find new alignment and object-placement tools to make presentations look consistent across slides, a revamped presenter’s view (you can now navigate and rearrange slides via a presenter-only grid view, for instance), and automatic setup for multiple displays. I’m surprised Publisher hasn’t been completely eclipsed by Word, but it remains popular with home and small-business users, so Microsoft has kept it for 2013. Access, too, remains in the suite, even if most of its functionality for end-users has been gradually eclipsed by everything from Outlook to Web-based services like Remember the Milk. The final standout is OneNote (not available as an Office On Demand app), which faces stiff competition from the likes of Evernote these days but gets a major boost by allowing notes to be automatically synced via SkyDrive and SharePoint hosting.

The presentation view for slide decks is one of the few features that have been revamped for PowerPoint.

An Office app storeOne new feature I’m still on the fence about is Apps for Office, which lets you add various tools — dictionaries, textual analyzers, bar code creators — that developers make available (generally for a fee) in the Office Store. Install an app, and it appears in a pane to one side of the current document. Not all of the apps I tried worked, unfortunately, and some of them were little more than repurposed websites. I suspect this feature needs a bit more polish and a better roster of apps before it can be taken seriously, but I like where it could go. With Excel, for instance, the add-ins encompass genuinely useful features, like tools for generating heat maps and other data visualizations.

The revised licensing methods, expanded integration with Microsoft’s services, and unique deployment options all make Office 365 Home Premium a great value for households with up to five users. It remains to be seen whether consumers will opt for the rent-by-the-year model as opposed to buying the suite outright as a boxed product. It’s clear, however, that this is the sweetest Microsoft Office suite yet. Further, Office 365 Home Premium bodes well for the Office 365 business editions, which Microsoft will launch on Feb. 27.

 

Senate delays debt limit deadline

By Alan Silverleib, CNN Congressional Producer

updated 4:35 PM EST, Thu January 31, 2013

CNN.com

 

Washington (CNN) — The Democratic-controlled Senate passed legislation on Thursday extending the federal government’s ability to borrow new money through mid-May, delaying a partisan standoff that some analysts warn could derail a fragile economic recovery.

The bill, which passed in a 64-34 vote, cleared the Republican-run House of Representatives last week. It now advances to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law.

While the measure suspends Washington’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling through May 19, some budget analysts estimate it will give the U.S. Treasury the ability to meet all federal spending obligations through at least the end of July.

In exchange for temporarily suspending the debt ceiling, the bill requires lawmakers in both chambers of Congress to pass a budget by mid-April or have their pay withheld.

The requirement was added at the insistence of congressional Republicans, who wanted to highlight the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a budget resolution since 2009. Democrats note that such resolutions are not binding, and insist they would have been superseded by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which established budgetary restrictions for the last two fiscal years.

Top Capitol Hill Democrats have been divided over the bill. Some railed against the pay withholding provision — calling it a political gimmick — while others supported the measure as a whole because it removes an immediate threat of default and at least temporarily divorces the debt ceiling from GOP spending cut demands.

For their part, top Republicans have essentially conceded that a fight over raising the debt ceiling is not the best political avenue for achieving their twin deficit and spending reduction goals. Most political analysts believe that a 2011 debt ceiling fight, which led to the passage of the Budget Control Act, did not play to the GOP’s political advantage.

That partisan fight led to a downgrade in the gold-plated U.S. credit rating and was thought to have slowed the fragile economic recovery.

Beyond the debt ceiling, the House and Senate will be forced to grapple shortly with two other polarizing budget-related deadlines.

If Congress fails to act by March 1, a pending sequester will trigger roughly $1 trillion in new defense and non-defense cuts over the next decade — cuts generally disliked on both sides of the aisle.

In addition, federal funding for the current fiscal year is currently set to expire on March 27, forcing a government shutdown unless Congress can agree on at least a new temporary spending package.

Jeanne Sahadi and Ted Barrett contributed to this report

 

Hagel Sees Cybersecurity as Top DoD Priority

Nominee Promises to Collaborate with Other Government Entities

By Eric Chabrow, January 31, 2013. Follow Eric @GovInfoSecurity

 

Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, says cybersecurity would be a high priority if the Senate confirms him.

“Cyber represents as big a threat to this country as any significant threat,” Nagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It’s insidious, a quiet kind of threat we haven’t quite seen before. It can paralyze a nation in a second.”

During the Jan. 31 hearing, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, addressed Hagel about the threats of cyberwar. “People can die and society can be brought to a standstill without a rocket ever taking off or an airplane penetrating our air space,” the newly minted senator said. “I hope that will be a point of emphasis because that, as I say, could be the next war.”

Hagel responded that he agreed with everything King said. “This is a huge issue that continues to loom large over our future and our security. It will have, if confirmed, a lot of my attention.”

Before the confirmation hearing, Hagel submitted a 112-page document, obtained by The Hill, answering questions posed by committee members on a number of topics, including cybersecurity. Hagel, quoted in the report, said he would carefully consider various cyber-challenges facing the department and consult with other military officials and agencies before making decisions that will affect the country’s cybersecurity policy.

Hagel said the Department of Homeland Security leads the country’s domestic cybersecurity efforts with the Defense Department, when needed, providing military forces to deter an adversary, as well as prevent cyberthreats against critical infrastructure and classified networks. Still, Hagel said various departments within the federal government and industry should share information about cyberthreats and work together to boost network defenses.

“I believe that the defense, homeland security and law enforcement communities should work together, and with our private sector partners to improve network defenses, share information on cyberthreats, and ensure swift response to threats when they manifest themselves,” he said in response to panel members’ questions.

The U.S. Cyber Command, according to published reports, seeks to quintuple the size of its workforce to about 4,000 over the next few years. Hagel, in the document submitted to the Armed Services Committee, concedes that recruiting and training skilled military and civilian personnel needed for cyber-operations at U.S. Cyber Command “will be a challenge” in light of the looming budget cuts facing the department. “This is a high priority area for the department with regard to investment of both resources and management oversight and, if confirmed, I will review these systems and practices,” Hagel said.

Hagel, in his testimony, noted the “agonizing three months” at the end of 2012 that the Senate experienced in trying, unsuccessfully, to enact comprehensive cybersecurity legislation [see Senate, Again, Fails to Halt Filibuster]. He said Congress needs to act on cybersecurity legislation to address conflicting intergovernmental authorities and capabilities.

Follow Eric Chabrow on Twitter: @GovInfoSecurity

 

 

US weighs tougher action over China cyberattacks

SF Chronicle

LOLITA C. BALDO, Associated PressCopyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press

Updated 2:17 am, Friday, February 1, 2013

 

(Page 1 of 2)

WASHINGTON (AP) — High-level talks with the Chinese government to address persistent cyberattacks against U.S. companies and government agencies haven’t worked, so officials say the Obama administration is now considering a range of actions.

China-based hackers have long been an economic and national security concern, but as cybersecurity experts report an increase in attacks, U.S. leaders are looking at ways to better address the threat and analyze its impact.

Two former U.S. officials said the administration is preparing a new National Intelligence Estimate that, when complete, is expected to detail the cyberthreat, particularly from China, as a growing economic problem. One official said it also will cite more directly a role by the Chinese government in such espionage.

The official said the NIE, which reflects the views of the nation’s various intelligence agencies, will underscore the administration’s concerns about the threat, and will put greater weight on plans for more pointed diplomatic and trade measures against the Chinese government. The two former officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified report.

“We have to begin making it clear to the Chinese,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday, “that the United States is going to have to take action to protect not only our government’s, but our private sector, from this kind of illegal intrusions.”

She said the U.S. must help build an international alliance against the cyberthreat and added that there is a lot the U.S. is working on “in the event that we don’t get some kind of international effort under way.” She said no specifics have been finalized.

Underscoring that widespread threat, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that their computer systems had been infiltrated by China-based hackers. In both cases they said the focus was on monitoring news coverage and the reporters digging into stories the Chinese government deemed important.

Although the Obama administration hasn’t yet decided what steps it may take, actions could include threats to cancel certain visas or put major purchases of Chinese goods through national security reviews.

“The U.S. government has started to look seriously at more assertive measures and begun to engage the Chinese on senior levels,” said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They realize that this is a major problem in the bilateral relationship that threatens to destabilize U.S. relations with China.”

To date, extensive discussions between Chinese officials and top U.S. leaders — including President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — have had little impact on what government and cybersecurity experts say is escalating and technologically evolving espionage. The Chinese deny such espionage efforts.

The newly disclosed four-month long cyberattack against the Times is just the latest in a long string of breaches said to be by China-based hackers into corporate and government computer systems across the United States. Companies ranging from defense and high-tech industry leaders to Internet search leader Google have complained for years of computer network attacks that cybersecurity firms traced back to China, including allegations that some were backed or endorsed by the Beijing government.

The Times attacks, routed through computers at U.S. universities, targeted staff members’ email accounts, the Times said, and were likely in retribution for the newspaper’s investigation into the wealth amassed by the family of a top Chinese leader. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, said its computer systems were breached by China-based hackers in an effort to monitor the newspaper’s coverage of China issues.

Media organizations with bureaus in China have believed for years that their computers, phones and conversations were likely monitored on a fairly regular basis by the Chinese. The Gmail account of an Associated Press staffer was broken into in China in 2010.

Richard Bejtlich, the chief security officer at Mandiant, the firm hired by the Times to investigate the cyberattack, said the breach is consistent with what he routinely sees China-based hacking groups do. But, he said it had a personal aspect to it that became apparent: The hackers got into 53 computers but largely looked at the emails of the reporters working on a particular story. The newspaper’s investigation delved into how the relatives and family of Premier Wen Jiabao built a fortune worth over $2 billion.

“We’re starting to see more cases where there is a personal element,” Bejtlich said, adding that it gives companies another factor to consider. “It may not just be the institution, but, is there some aspect of your company that would cause someone on the other side to take personal interest in you?”

The Chinese Foreign and Defense ministries called the Times’ allegations baseless, and the Defense Ministry denied any involvement by the military.

“Chinese law forbids hacking and any other actions that damage Internet security,” the Defense Ministry said. “The Chinese military has never supported any hacking activities.”

In a report in November 2011, U.S. intelligence officials for the first time publicly accused China and Russia of systematically stealing American high-tech data for economic gain. And over the past several years, cybersecurity has been one of the key issues raised with allies as part of a broader U.S. effort to strengthen America’s defenses and encourage an international policy on accepted practices in cyberspace.

U.S. cybersecurity worries are not about China alone. Administration officials and cybersecurity experts also routinely point to widespread cyberthreats from Iran and Russia, as well as hacker networks across Eastern Europe and South America

The U.S. itself has been named in one of the most prominent cyberattacks — Stuxnet — the computer worm that infiltrated an Iranian nuclear facility, shutting down thousands of centrifuges there in 2010. Reports suggest that Stuxnet was a secret U.S.-Israeli program aimed at destabilizing Iran’s atomic energy program, which many Western countries believe is a cover for the development of nuclear weapons.

The White House declined comment on whether it will pursue aggressive action on China.

“The United States has substantial and growing concerns about the threats to U.S. economic and national security posed by cyber intrusions, including the theft of commercial information,” said spokesman Caitlin Hayden. “We have repeatedly raised our concerns with senior Chinese officials, including in the military, and we will continue to do so.”

Cybersecurity experts have been urging tougher action, suggesting that talking with China has had no effect.

In an unusually strong speech last October, Panetta warned that the U.S. would strike back against cyberattacks, even raising the specter of military action. And the White House has been urging Congress to authorize greater government action to protect infrastructure such as the nation’s electric grid and power plants.

Alan Paller, director of research at SANS Institute, a computer-security organization, said that the level of cyberattacks, including against power companies and critical infrastructure, has shot up in the last seven or eight months. And the U.S. is getting more serious about blocking the attacks, including an initiative by the Defense Department to hire thousands of high-tech experts.

Lewis, who has met and worked with Chinese officials on the issue, said their response has been consistent denial that China is involved in the hacking and counter-accusations that the U.S. is guilty of the same things.

“In the next year there will be an effort to figure out a way to engage the Chinese more energetically,” he said. “The issue now is how do we get the Chinese to take this more seriously as a potentially major disruption to the relationship.”

The answer, he said, is, “You have to back up words with actions, and that’s the phase I think we’re approaching.”

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/US-weighs-tougher-action-over-China-cyberattacks-4242030.php#ixzz2Jf2B3gxM

 

U.S. Army Makes Room in Budget for Rapid Equipping Force

www.defensenews.com

By PAUL McLEARY

January 31, 2013

 

Despite mounting budget pressure that could slash $17 billion from the service’s 2013 budget — and long-term funding cuts already programmed into future year funding — the U.S. Army is working to move its Rapid Equipping Force (REF) into the base budget beginning in 2015, according to REF director Col. Pete Newell.

Created in 2002 to help the Army quickly acquire and ship new equipment to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan (and then Iraq), the shop has always been funded through the yearly Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, with a slice of funding coming from elements of the base budget.

With the OCO account shrinking, the REF “is in the midst of a fairly significant redesign” Newell said, as the Army begins to expand its focus from Afghanistan to places like Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Rim.

Speaking after at an event announcing REF’s partnership with Local Motors, a company that specializes in bringing the latest technologies to the auto industry on Jan. 31, Newell said that since he works primarily with funds obligated for the war effort, he doesn’t expect too much fallout from sequestration and the possibility that Congress will extend the continuing resolution (CR) for the remainder of the fiscal year.

But he doesn’t expect to be totally immune.

“There are always issues when you operate under a continuing resolution” he said, adding that as the Army sorts through cash flow issues caused by both sequester and the CR, it is becoming more difficult to ask the Army for urgent funds. He stressed, however, that budget issues haven’t caused any delay in getting equipment to Afghanistan.

“If I have a money problem that’s going to impact delivery [to Afghanistan], my phone calls go straight to the Army chief of staff, personally. They don’t allow those types of things to cause issues.”

Given these financial unknowns, Newell said he was confident that his office is “the number one priority for the chief and the vice chief of staff of the institutional Army, so they’re going to make REF a permanent part of the Army, and our funding will go from primarily OCO funding to base funding.”

As part of the expanding global reach of his organization, Newell said that a team from REF recently spent two weeks with Special Operations forces in Africa “looking at issues they have,” and will deliver their recommendations to him when they return to the U.S. in the coming weeks.

He is also visiting the Pacific Command in early February to speak with leaders there and he said that his shop has already worked with the European Command in Turkey, with the Southern Command’s Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, and is working with 8th Army and 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea.

Significantly, Newell added that REF has also been directed to support the Army’s new Regionally Aligned Brigade concept, and he has had contacts with 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, which will be the first brigade to be assigned to Africa in 2014.

The goal, he said, is for REF to “become part of the psyche of deploying commanders” so that they reach out to his office before deploying so the two can work together to find new solutions to the particular problems that soldiers in the field may face.

“If we do this right and create this community, there will be soldiers in every unit that we have found and identified” that can be the point man for the unit’s rapid equipping needs.

 

CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY

Jan. 26, 2013 – 4:53 p.m.

The Battlefield Grows Larger

By Jonathan Broder, CQ Staff

Adecade of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be coming to an end, but America’s battle against terrorists appears only to be widening. Employing armed drones and a “kill list,” President Barack Obama already has taken the fight beyond al-Qaida’s hideouts in Pakistan to strike terrorist targets in Yemen and Somalia. Now, in the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring, the battlefield has grown exponentially as new groups of Islamic extremists take over vast stretches of territory in North Africa.

The threat to U.S. and Western interests from these groups intensified earlier this month, when Islamic extremists seized a natural-gas facility in eastern Algeria and took hundreds of workers hostage. In the clumsy response by Algerian forces, at least 60 people died, including three Americans.

The attack had clearly been in the works for some time, but the hostage-takers said they were reacting to another chapter in this never-ending war — France’s military intervention, supported by the U.S. military, against Islamic extremists controlling northern Mali. To draw another line, Algerian officials insist that some of those behind the Algeria attack took part in the deadly assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September.

U.S. military commanders say the major Islamist groups in Africa are now heavily armed with weapons from stockpiles of deposed Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi. They’re also rich from the ransoms they’ve collected from kidnapped Westerners, drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises. Unless the United States takes action, some lawmakers warn, the threat from these groups will grow.

“Today, North Africa is the next frontier in the war on terror,” says Texas Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

These groups also pose legal, military and political problems for the Obama administration. Until now, the U.S. military has conducted its war against terrorism under a 2001 congressional resolution that authorizes American forces to wage war against al-Qaida members and those who helped them carry out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The militant Islamists in Africa had nothing to do with that attack. Moreover, legal experts say, they have loose or nonexistent ties to al-Qaida’s Pakistan headquarters, making it legally questionable for the United States to go after them.

“One thing I’ve learned is, every time I turn around, I face a group of lawyers,” outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters Jan. 16, discussing Mali and the Algeria hostage incident. “And it’s no different now. You know, lawyers basically have to review these issues to make sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis for what we’re being requested to do.”

There is also the question of whether it’s wise, both militarily and politically, for the United States to mount new missions to hunt down terrorists in North Africa. The Obama administration is clearly torn over how deeply to get involved. As Obama said last week in his second inaugural address, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” So far, U.S. assistance to France’s Mali operations involves only intelligence cooperation and logistical help. But as the terrorist threats in Africa grow, some in the administration are weighing more lethal assistance, such as the military’s use of armed drones and special-operations teams, to target these groups.

The CIA has the authority to conduct covert drone strikes without congressional action, but John O. Brennan, nominated to serve as the next CIA director, prefers that the military conduct such operations in the future. After lobbying by Pentagon officials, some lawmakers would like to see Congress authorize such operations. Depending on how it’s written, any new authorization might shape the way the United States fights terrorists for years to come.

 

Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs Subcommittee, says the danger from terrorists in Africa — and the administration’s growing use of drones outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater — demands that Congress take another look at the authorization of force under which U.S. forces currently operate.

“I’m concerned about continually expanding these geographic regions where we’re deploying these new tools of war without serious reconsideration by Congress,” Coons says. “Congress has a role. The authorization of force that’s more than a decade old deserves some reconsideration in light of the expanding scope of the drones.”

 

Test Case in Mali

When it comes to lawless havens for budding terrorist groups, Mali is quickly becoming the new Afghanistan. Coons calls northern Mali “the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world.”

Last spring, indigenous Tuareg rebels joined forces with three outside Islamist groups — al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, Ansar al Din, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known by its French initials, MUJAO. Together they took control of the northern two-thirds of the country, an area the size of France. Then the Islamists pushed the secular Tuaregs aside and began to apply strict Shariah law, including amputations for thieves, floggings and the destruction of historic sites in storied Timbuktu. Earlier this month, the Islamists began a drive southward toward the capital, Bamako, prompting the French intervention to head off a terrorist takeover of the country.

“You have a very well-financed and a very well-armed organization operating in a safe haven,” said Gen. Carter Ham, the outgoing chief of the U.S. Africa Command who has been lobbying lawmakers and leadership staff on Capitol Hill to consider a new authorization for force against these groups. Speaking last month at George Washington University, Ham said training camps have appeared in northern Mali, attracting Islamist recruits from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. From these bases, he said, Islamist militants can hit Western targets across North Africa, Europe and, eventually, the United States.

But terrorism experts say AQIM, which first surfaced in Algeria as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat during that country’s bloody civil war in the 1990s, isn’t an operational part of core al-Qaida in Pakistan. The Algerian group changed its name in a show of ideological solidarity with al-Qaida, but it doesn’t take orders or money from the group’s Pakistan headquarters, these experts say. Other Islamist groups operating in northern Mali also aren’t believed to have any operational ties with the al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan.

“There has been a devolution of al-Qaida away from a core structured group toward multiple affiliated organizations and other groups over which al-Qaida maintains no command and control, no targeting influence, and no resource influence,” says Andre Le Sage, a terrorism expert at the National Defense University.

Ham says the lack of strong ties to al-Qaida in Pakistan doesn’t make Africa’s Islamist groups any less dangerous. In addition to establishing a base in northern Mali, AQIM also acts as an enabler for other regional Islamic extremists, he says. Ham cites intelligence reports that the group has provided training, funding and explosives to Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group in northern Nigeria trying to overthrow the government in Abuja.

U.S. officials also express concern that AQIM is using its base in northern Mali to destabilize neighboring governments in Algeria, Mauritania and Niger.

Administration officials say such conditions will place increasing demands on the military’s Africa Command — something that lawmakers on authorizing and Appropriations committees will have to address. Despite being in existence for since 2007, the Africa Command has fewer than 2,000 troops at its disposal and is still based in Europe.

The situation in Mali is complicated by the fact that the United States is prohibited by law from providing direct military assistance to the country. That’s because its democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was ousted in a March coup by disgruntled army officers who felt he wasn’t doing enough against the rebellion in the north.

In addition to providing intelligence and logistical support to the French, the United States has been training a regional African force of 3,300 soldiers to help take back the northern part of Mali from the Islamist rebels. Some units of the African force already have arrived in Mali.

Meanwhile, reports from Mali say AQIM and the other Islamic militants are using bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment to erect a strong set of defenses against the intervention. And, French and Malian army forces have blunted the militants’ southern advance and retaken some territory.

Administration officials continue to debate whether to use drones and special-operations forces against such groups under existing laws or whether the military needs more specific authority from Congress.

“This is going to be a very serious, ongoing threat,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told lawmakers last week. “We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven. People say to me all the time, well, AQIM hasn’t attacked the United States. Well, before 9/11, 2001, we hadn’t been attacked on our homeland since, I guess, the War of 1812 and Pearl Harbor. So you can’t say, well, because they haven’t done something they’re not going to do it.”

 

A Role for Congress?

In fact, Congress has debating the authorization issue for some time but with relatively little urgency.

The House-passed version of the fiscal 2012 defense policy bill contained an amendment by California Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that provided an updated authorization to use force that covered a broader array of militant groups around the world.

John McCain of Arizona, then the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham supported the language, too, but couldn’t round up enough votes on the committee to include it in the Senate’s version of the bill. Language in the final measure reaffirmed the 2001 authorization of force resolution and broadened it slightly to include “associated forces” of al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Meanwhile, in June 2011, Obama released his “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” citing “al-Qaida and its affiliates” as the “preeminent security threat” to the nation. But the document also notes that “affiliates is not a legal term” and refers to “groups and individuals against whom the United States is not authorized to use force,” based on the 2001 law.

Ham began to lobby House and Senate leaders and staff last June for a new authorization of force with broader authority. But others in the administration haven’t sought such an authorization. And according to a Jan. 20 report in The Washington Post, the administration is working on a new counterterrorism manual that will establish clear guidelines for military and CIA drone strikes.

If the administration decides to approach Congress for a broader authorization of force, it is likely to have an ally in Coons, as well as in such defense hawks as McCain, Graham, McKeon and McCaul.

 

“It seems more and more likely that we will need to confront and engage with terrorists in countries like Somalia and Mali,” Coons says. “The question isn’t whether we’ll need to confront them. The question is how, and what is the role of Congress in oversight and authorization.”

To resolve those questions, Coons says Congress should join the administration in a debate over the scope of any new authorization for the use of force.

“It’s important for there to be a healthy dialogue between Congress and the executive branch over when and where and how we will use drones and the process by which they’ll be authorized,” he says. “We’ve been engaged now in a conflict with al-Qaida and jihadists for more than a decade since 9/11. We need to make the case to the world why we’re expanding this effort beyond the small number of countries that have served as lawless havens. What’s the case? Why are we doing this? How are we doing this? It’s important for Congress to play an appropriate role in oversight and authorization of the use of force.”

Some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, along with officials in the Justice Department, don’t see a need for new legislation. Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, a former ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Africa subcommittee, says that in his view the president already has the constitutional authority to send U.S. forces into combat.

“I’ve always thought that the president has the power to react to a crisis and use U.S. forces and resources,” Isakson says.

On the left, however, some lawmakers are wary of any administration request for a broader authorization of force, concerned that future presidents might abuse it.

“I worry about an authorization,” says Maryland Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, another member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recalling the 2001 law. “I saw how it was used by President [George W.] Bush to expand our military commitment beyond where we needed to. So, I’d be very concerned about military authorization that could be used to expand our footprint beyond the need to defend our country.”

Much more thought has to go into such a resolution before Congress takes up any such measure, says Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The worst thing for Congress to do would be to give an open-ended blank check to this president and any future president to send American forces to the African continent,” Anders says. “At a time when the Iraq War is over and the administration is trying to figure out how to pull out of Afghanistan as quickly as they can, it makes no sense to authorize a brand-new, expansive war in Africa when we don’t even know who the enemy is, much less what the objective is there.”

As threats from Islamist groups in Mali and elsewhere in Africa grow in severity, the debate over a broader authorization of force is likely to intensify, both within the administration and in the new Congress. In the end, legal experts say, such a resolution would either hand the president carte blanche to pursue whatever groups or individuals he determines pose a threat, or provide a specific list of groups to be targeted.

See map at http://www.cq.com/graphics/weekly/2013/01/28/wr20130128-04africa-cht.pdf

“This is a very big question,” says Robert M. Chesney, a professor of national security law at the University of Texas School of Law. “The fact is, it’s going to be really hard to come up with clear language that would address this issue.”

 

Speaking With Many Voices

Apart from the debate over the legality of lethal U.S. counterterrorism measures in North Africa, there is also the question of whether deeper involvement is wise.

 

In public statements, administration officials haven’t spoken with one voice on the threat from terrorists in North Africa, nor have they explained the urgency to address that threat.

“Any attempt to militarily oust AQIM from northern Mali must be African-led, well-planned and well-resourced,” the assistant secretary of State for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, testified before Congress in December.

But in remarks earlier this month, Panetta drew no distinction between core al-Qaida in Pakistan and its affiliates, vowing to hunt them all down. “We have a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are,” Panetta told reporters during an official trip to Europe. “We’ve gone after them in the FATA,” he said, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northwest Pakistan. “We’re going after them in Yemen and Somalia. And we have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.”

So far, no one is talking about sending U.S. ground troops to help fight Africa’s various civil wars. But Coons and other lawmakers are using their committee perches to drive home the point that the United States no longer can afford to dismiss Africa’s Islamic militants as merely localized threats.

Those killed in the Algerian hostage takeover were “victims of a growing global threat of extremism too often thought to be of only local or regional concern,” Coons said in a Jan. 19 written statement issued after the bloody end to the incident.

“We’ve seen time and time again that it is possible to attack the United States without stepping foot on American soil,” Coons’ statement said. “Our interests abroad — which certainly include Americans working around the world — are vulnerable to extremists who do not value human lives above their own political objectives.”

And Panetta has made clear that drone strikes will play a big part in future U.S. action against terrorists. “We’ve done that in Pakistan. We’re doing it in Yemen and elsewhere. And I think the reality is it’s going to be a continuing tool of national defense in the future,” he told ABC News in a Jan. 21 interview.

 

Softening the Ground

Such remarks may be intended to prepare a war-weary public for another chapter in the post-Sept. 11 fight against terrorism. For now, however, the administration appears content to restrict its involvement to nonlethal assistance to the French operation in Mali and its military training effort in African countries with weak governments, including Mauritania, Niger and Chad.

The United States also has stationed Special Forces trainers in Uganda to help government forces there capture Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a renegade militia with child soldiers that has committed serial atrocities throughout central Africa.

But Washington’s posture might change if French forces get bogged down in northern Mali. Analysts expect protracted fighting by French and Malian forces against the extremists, who have avoided frontal confrontations and fight a fast-moving guerrilla war, relying on their knowledge of the terrain and their ability to blend in with the local population.

Last week, for example, as French forces recaptured the central town of Diabaly, the militants melted back into the Sahara to fight another day. “They’re building bunkers, fortifying caves, distributing themselves among the population,” says Michael Shurkin, a Mali expert at the Rand Corp. think tank, who compared the militants’ methods with those of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that fought Israeli troops to a standstill in 2006. “They’re playing it smart.”

Even if the French and Malian forces manage to drive the Islamists out of the north, they can retreat into the neighboring deserts of Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. There, they could sit out the intervention and wait for the French forces to withdraw. In the past, the Malian army by itself has proved no match for the Islamists.

 

Under such circumstances, the French might benefit from U.S. armed-drone strikes. Military experts say France doesn’t have many armed drones, and those they do have are already deployed in Afghanistan.

Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who served as Obama’s first director of national intelligence, says drones would be perfectly suited for use against Islamist extremists in Mali.

“They are excellent surveillance platforms to find out what’s going on in your enemies’ territory,” Blair told a Jan. 22 conference call held by the Council on Foreign Relations. “They can be used to attack hostile forces directly. If there is a convoy of Tuareg dissident al-Qaida gunmen heading toward French forces, then they can be declared hostile, and you destroy them with drones just the way you would with artillery or fixed air.”

Nicolas van de Walle, an Africa expert at Cornell University who recently conducted extensive field research in Mali, says any U.S. military involvement there probably would be welcomed by the vast majority of Malians, whose brand of Islam is far more moderate than the austere version practiced by the militants.

But he warns that U.S. drone strikes also would be likely to draw more foreign fighters to the Islamists’ cause — a consequence that was also mentioned in a report this month on Mali by the Congressional Research Service.

“Military action could provoke otherwise noncohesive groups to rally around anti-southern or anti-Western sentiment, to boost recruitment, or to launch new attacks on Western or regional targets,” CRS Africa expert Alexis Arieff wrote in the report.

Some analysts say the administration is stalling its response to the situation in Mali by using the law prohibiting U.S. aid in case of military coups as an excuse to justify no more than intelligence and logistical support for the French offensive. Also at stake, these analysts say, are major U.S. investments in oil and natural gas operations across North Africa.

 

“President Obama has the authority to engage al-Qaida wherever and whenever he so determines — anywhere in the world that al-Qaida presents a threat to U.S. interests,” says David Ottaway, a former foreign correspondent in Africa for The Washington Post and now a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Now the time for dithering is over. U.S. interests are being threatened.”

 

Ottaway and other experts maintain that only the United States is in a position to help France stamp out the terrorist threat. After all, the United States has been trying for months, to no avail, to persuade Algeria to use its powerful military against AQIM.

 

But even after Algerian forces thwarted the hostage takeover, political leaders in Algiers are still fearful of reviving the civil war against the group, favoring a political settlement between the Islamists in northern Mali and the government in Bamako. And there is strong lingering resentment and distrust in Western capitals about Algeria’s bloody approach to ending the hostage incident.

 

Factor in continuing concerns in Washington about the costs and consequences of another U.S. intervention — just as U.S. forces have left Iraq and are drawing down in Afghanistan — and it seems likely the debate won’t end anytime soon.

 

CQ NEWS

Jan. 31, 2013 – 7:22 p.m.

GOP Lawmakers Say Deficit Reduction Outweighs Short-Term Economic Blip

By Paul M. Krawzak, CQ Roll Call

Congressional Republicans said Thursday that a small contraction in the economy at the end of last year has not weakened their determination to reduce federal spending, even if that means letting the automatic cuts go forward.

Analysts blamed reduced government spending and business inventories for the 0.1 percent decline in the gross domestic product during the October-December period. Some Democrats blamed the looming automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to begin March 1.

“One way or another, we’re going to cut spending by $1.2 trillion,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., referring to the amount that would be cut over nine years by the sequester mechanism established by the 2011 debt limit law (PL 112-25).

Rather than focusing on the three-month fall in gross domestic product, Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma and other GOP lawmakers point to the overall weakness of the economy, which they blame on President Barack Obama’s policies. “This doesn’t change my tenacity to cut government spending so that we can increase private investment,” said Lankford, the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said he doubts that the economic report will affect the Congressional debate over what to do about the sequester. “I just have a feeling the sequester’s going to happen,” he said. “I just think there’s so much concern about the debt and spending that it overrides most issues these days.”

Most lawmakers in both parties would prefer that sequestration not occur. But Republicans say the automatic cuts will be canceled only if they’re replaced with other spending cuts. Democrats insist on a balanced alternative that includes increased revenue.

Cole argued late last year during fiscal cliff negotiations that Republicans should accept higher tax rates on the affluent in order to prevent increases for all taxpayers. But he said Thursday that Republicans are united in their determination to prevent additional tax hikes. “You’re not going to get Republicans to raise taxes,” he said. “Taxes just went up.”

Cole predicted that the $85 billion sequester will take effect March 1 unless Democrats agree to replace it with spending cuts alone.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said the drop in GDP adds urgency to the search for a way to avoid sequestration. He predicted that the automatic cuts would have a short-term adverse effect on the economy.

But, he said, he remains committed to ensuring that the deficit reduction, which sequestration would achieve, is preserved. “I believe we need to be very careful to protect the bottom-line savings numbers so that we don’t do what Congress always does with every budget it adopts, which is to, basically, a year or two later say we can’t achieve the savings,” he said

“In the short term, more spending can help to keep the economy chugging along,” Crapo said. “But the long-term impact of that borrowed spending is detrimental to the economy.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who has been pushing to avert the sequester’s cuts in defense spending, said sequestration “looks like . . . where we’re headed.”

 

“The president said very clearly in his campaign that sequestration is not going to happen, but I haven’t seen the leadership from him to say this is an absolute priority and to bring people together to resolve it,” she said.

 

 

 

 


 

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