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August 31 2013

September 3, 2013




NSA Paid Tech Companies Millions For Prism

Leaked documents show taxpayer cost of involving Google, Microsoft and other tech companies in Prism digital dragnet.

By Mathew J. Schwartz, InformationWeek

August 23, 2013



Who paid the cost of giving the National Security Agency direct access to the systems of nine technology companies, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo?

The answer arrived Friday: U.S. taxpayers.

Furthermore, the bill didn’t come cheap. The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which is charged with monitoring the NSA’s surveillance programs, ruled in 2011 that the agency violated section 702 of FISA as well as the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, the court ordered the programs to cease within 30 days unless specific “upstream collection” practice problems were fixed.

“Upstream collection is when the NSA gets a copy of Internet traffic as it flows through major telecommunications hubs and searches through for ‘selectors,’ like an email address or a keyword,” Parker Higgins, an activist at Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a blog post.

That FISA Court ruling triggered a period of successive 30-day extensions, each of which required corresponding changes from the technology companies that were legally compelled to give the NSA access to their systems. Those extensions and the surveillance program certifications they included came at quite a cost, according to a December 2012 NSA newsletter marked “top secret,” which was published Friday by the Guardian and presumably provided by former NSA employee-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“Last year’s problems resulted in multiple extensions to the certifications’ expiration dates which cost millions of dollars for Prism providers to implement each successive extension — costs covered by Special Source Operations,” read the NSA newsletter.

Yahoo confirmed to the Guardian that it had been reimbursed for costs related to responding to data requests from the U.S. government. “Federal law requires the U.S. government to reimburse providers for costs incurred to respond to compulsory legal process imposed by the government,” said a Yahoo official. “We have requested reimbursement consistent with this law.”

Special Source Operations — described by Snowden as the NSA’s “crown jewel” — administers the agency’s surveillance programs that involve service providers, telecommunications companies and corporate partnership arrangements with technology firms that give the agency direct access to the data they handle.

But according to three rulings declassified this week by the director of National Intelligence James Clapper — as ordered by President Obama — the FISA Court in 2011 ruled that the agency had broken the FISA law and violated the Fourth Amendment thousands of times due to its data interception practices. That document disclosure was made in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from EFF.


In one of those declassified documents, FISA Court Judge John Bates wrote in an 86-page opinion that the “volume and nature of the information [NSA] has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe.” Furthermore, he said that the NSA’s so-called minimization procedures for intercepting multi-communication transaction (MCT) data “tend to maximize, rather than minimize, the retention of non-target information, including information of or concerning United States persons,” thus violating the Fourth Amendment.

Accordingly, rather than renewing the requested annual legal certifications the agency is required to obtain from the FISA Court for its FISA surveillance programs, he instructed the NSA to fix specific problems or cease its related surveillance efforts.

In a cover letter published with the declassified court rulings, Clapper characterized those problems as involving “highly technical reasons concerning the matter in which the collection occurred” rather than involving questions of civil liberties. In particular, the problem appeared to center on the capture of MCT data, which might bundle multiple messages in a single communication.

“In large-scale enterprises as technologically sophisticated and operationally complex as the 702 program, mistakes and errors can and will happen,” said Clapper. He said that after the court ruling, the agency proactively deleted all upstream communications it had intercepted in violation of FISA.

Clapper emphasized, however, that the agency reports all such errors both to the FISA Court and Congress. That including reporting earlier “unintended misrepresentations in the way the collections were described to the FISA Court” that resulted in part from “gaps in technical understanding” between different groups at NSA. In the wake of those discoveries and reporting the problems to the FISA Court and Congress, Clapper said that part of the solution entailed making not just technical changes but also related structural, managerial and training changes at NSA.



DHS kicks off $6B cyber program

Federal Times

Aug. 25, 2013 – 06:00AM | By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON | Comments


There’s a lot riding on the Homeland Security Department’s new $6 billion cybersecurity contract.

DHS has committed $185 million this year to fund the initial roll out of monitoring tools capable of firing billions of automatic security inspections across civilian networks every 24 to 72 hours. DHS has additional funding budgeted for at least the next two years, pending congressional approval.

“We need tools to automate security testing and specialized experts to make those tools effectively operate and interpret the results,” said John Streufert, who leads DHS’ Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program. “It’s how we make the repairs,” Streufert said. “In tightening budgets under sequestration, we are trying to make that repair labor more efficiently applied.”

While many agencies today use network scanning tools to detect rogue devices, flawed software applications and other security risks, the technical capabilities vary. So does the departments’ in-house expertise to diagnose and fix those flaws.

DHS’ goal: Standardize security protections across the government over the next three years.


“Agencies are trying to manage threats in real time,” said Andy Maner, a managing partner with IBM. “That is the goal of this vehicle.”

Key to that will be equipping agencies with both tools and experts through a $6 billion, five-year contract it awarded to 17 vendors earlier this month. The General Services Administration awarded the blanket purchase agreement on behalf of DHS, and GSA will charge agencies a 2 percent fee to use the contract.


Funding for monitoring

DHS is now developing task orders on behalf of civilian agencies as part of the first phase of the CDM program. Agencies can also place task orders using their own funding and contracting officers, according to DHS. State and local governments can also work through GSA to use the contract.

Under the contract, DHS will fund operations of the scanning tools or sensors at the basic network level, while agencies will have to fund monitoring tools for mission and custom applications. Funds for remediating security problems will also come out of the agencies’ budgets, Streufert said.

Until now, the administration’s push for agencies to bolster continuous monitoring has been an unfunded mandate, said Niels Jensen, regional vice president of federal sales at ForeScout. “Now, not only is there a mandate but Streufert has done a good job working with the administration and making sure there is funding.”

ForeScout offers a software solution that can detect devices on an agency’s network and determine if the device is properly configured in line with agency policy. Nearly a dozen of the 17 vendors DHS selected have included ForeScout’s offering as part of their wider suite of tools.

While use of the contract is not mandated, Jensen said the DHS program is “very much a top-down” initiative that the administration expects will assist agencies in meeting security goals.

“There are many observers of the federal government that expected substantial resistance to adopting the CMD program and, without the facts available to them, made some characterizations that things were going slower than they actually were,” Streufert said.

So far, most large civilian agencies have agreed to use the contract, with the exception of the GSA, he said. Because of internal issues, including some technical challenges, GSA has not made a formal agreement to use the contract, but Streufert expects the agency will do so next fiscal year

“We have a substantial portion of the entire government covered now,” said Streufert, noting that the 21 largest civilian agencies represent more than 90 percent of the federal workforce.

The program will roll out in three phases, starting with a focus on managing all hardware and software that has access to agency networks and managing known vulnerabilities and preventing unauthorized programs from operating on the network. The second phase will include the roll out of tools to determine who uses the systems and when and the role of that account user. Phase three will offer capabilities for responding to cyber incidents.

A separate contract will be awarded for a dashboard, which will provide agencies a more comprehensive view of their security risks, Streufert said. Based on past experience running continuous monitoring programs at the State Department, he said it takes about that long to understand how to use the new tools and address any false positives from security scans.

“Our strongest objective is to diagnose what those cyber flaws are and leave the data at the department and agency on the detailed level and not move that sensitive information of the content of information that is being protected to the Department of Homeland Security,” Streufert said. “Instead, what we’re worried about on a macro level is how many of the doors are unlocked of the 2.2 million personal computers of the civilian government.”

Embedded into the dashboard will be a method for calculating security risks to help agencies track risks numerically, weight their severity and interpret actionable reports so they can better prioritize which problems to tackle first.

“The actual practices of how [agencies] measure risk will be worked out over time,” Streufert said. “We’re not grading our security in terms of pass/fail but looking at our precise results.”



Bare Bones Health Plans Expected To Survive Health Law

By Jay Hancock and Julie Appleby    

KHN Staff Writers

AUG 25, 2013


Consumer Reports calls it “junk health insurance.” A California regulator described them as “skeleton policies.” To an expert from the American Cancer Society, they “are a perfect example of why health care reform is so crucial.”

They are bare-bones health plans, and critics say they could leave consumers who become seriously ill on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in medical costs. The Affordable Care Act was supposed to do away with them.

“The good news is that these plans will be a thing of the past in 2014,” Steve Larsen, then a high-ranking Department of Health and Human Services official, told reporters two years ago.

The law did outlaw so-called “mini-med” plans, which cap annual benefits at, say, $2,000 even though the average hospital stay costs $14,000. But now a new type of bare-bones policy may take their place.

Consumer advocates, employers and insurers say that unless regulators move to block them at the last minute, plans with limited benefits may continue to be offered by some large businesses, especially those with low-paid workers such as restaurant chains and retailers.

Proposed and final rules issued this spring surprised many by failing to bar large employers from offering insurance policies that could exclude benefits such as hospitalization.

Offering bare-bones policies may result in some fines, but that expense could be less than the cost of offering traditional medical coverage.

For large employers, “the feds imposed no minimum standard on how skimpy that coverage can be other than to say, in essence, it’s got to be more robust than a dental plan or a vision plan,” said Ed Fensholt, a senior vice president at insurance broker Lockton Companies. “We had customers looking at offering some relatively inexpensive and skimpy plan designs to satisfy the individual mandate at modest cost.”


Employers Showing Interest

“There is a lot of interest” from retailers and others that have offered limited-benefit plans in the past, said Joan Smyth, a partner with benefits consultant Mercer. She’s gotten so many inquiries since the Wall Street Journal reported on the issue in late May that limited benefit plans are “my favorite topic,” she joked.

Such plans were typically offered because some insurance was seen as better than none — and the premium costs for both employers and workers were far lower than for traditional coverage.

This summer, the Obama administration gave businesses with 50 or more employees another year, until 2015, to comply with the requirement that they offer insurance or pay a fine.

“Some of the pressure was taken off because of the announcement” to delay the employer mandate, said Neil Trautwein, employee benefits policy counsel at the National Retail Federation, a trade group. “But I think you will continue to see employers in many industries … carefully calculate their strategy for compliance,” in part by considering skinny plans. “As always, the interest is to limit cost increases.”

Officials for McDonald’s, Ruby Tuesday, Darden Restaurants and other large employers that have offered mini-med coverage in the past declined to comment or did not respond to questions about their plans.


Small Businesses Barred

The bare-bones plans cannot be offered to small businesses with fewer than 50 workers, or to individuals buying coverage through new online marketplaces that open for enrollment Oct. 1. But benefit experts expect some larger firms that buy outside the marketplaces or that self-insure to consider them.

The Obama administration says that workers offered such coverage may qualify to shop in the marketplaces and to buy subsidized plans.


Why Health Law’s ‘Essential’ Coverage Might Mean ‘Bare Bones’

“Individuals who are not already offered quality, affordable health care can enter into the marketplaces and choose a health insurance option that works for them,” said Sabrina Siddiqui, spokeswoman for the Treasury Department.

About 2 million Americans are covered by limited benefit mini-med insurance policies, many of which were issued by Aetna and Cigna.

Asked whether Cigna will offer new versions next year, a company spokesman said, “We are currently evaluating the types of plan designs that will meet the needs of employers and employees.” Aetna spokesman Matt Wiggin said the insurer is “still assessing” customer needs.

Skimpy insurance under the Affordable Care Act won’t be quite the same as it is now. Under the new rules, capping the dollar value of annual benefits isn’t allowed, but excluding entire categories from coverage – such as hospital stays – is permitted, say benefit consultants. That’s another way of keeping costs down.


‘Mini-Meds Have Morphed’

The law says only that large-employer policies must cover preventive care such as blood pressure tests or vaccines with no co-pays for consumers. So the plan could cover dental, vision and preventive cancer screenings, but possibly not the treatment or hospital care a patient could need if diagnosed with an illness.

True, the health act requires policies to include coverage for 10 broad categories of “essential health benefits,” such as hospitalization and mental health services, but that provision applies only to plans sold to small businesses and individuals. Larger firms and self-insured employers are exempt.

Benefit advisers say some retailers and restaurant chains are considering limited-benefit plans for 2014 even though the deadline was pushed back for offering coverage or facing fines.

“It seems like mini-meds have morphed,” said Lydia Mitts, a health policy analyst for Families USA, a consumer advocacy group. The new limited benefit policies “are not the same animal but are still substandard coverage.” Employers offering these sorts of plans do face some risks, experts said. If a large employer doesn’t offer “minimum essential coverage,” it’s potentially liable for fines of $2,000 per full-time worker after the first 30 workers. Under the abstruse wording of the health law, however, skinny plans appear to qualify as minimum essential coverage.

But if employers don’t offer “comprehensive” policies — defined as covering at least 60 percent of health expenses — they must pay $3,000 for each worker who receives subsidies to buy coverage. Opinions differ on whether skinny plans will be able to pass the comprehensive test; some regulations are still pending. But employers see that potential expense as far lower than the cost of offering all their workers more robust coverage, experts said.

Some businesses are also betting that few workers will go to the government-run marketplaces to seek subsidized coverage, opting instead for the skinny plan “which costs less than the penalty,” said Dania Palanker, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Signing up for a company skinny plan would fulfill a consumer’s obligation to be covered under the health act and protect her from the law’s fines.

Advocates are still pressing employers to offer more comprehensive policies.

“People need to be covered for hospitalizations,” said Mitts of Families USA. “It’s important for employers to do the right thing and they should not just look at the minimum requirements of the law.”



Colleges Set to Offer Exit Tests

Employers Say They Don’t Trust Grade-Point Averages


August 25, 2013, 7:48 p.m. ET


Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students’ real value to employers.

The test, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, “provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical thinking skills,” said David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. “The students will be able to use it to go out and market themselves.”

The test is part of a movement to find new ways to assess the skills of graduates. Employers say grades can be misleading and that they have grown skeptical of college credentials.



“For too long, colleges and universities have said to the American public, to students and their parents, ‘Trust us, we’re professional. If we say that you’re learning and we give you a diploma it means you’re prepared,’ ” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “But that’s not true.”


The new voluntary test, which the nonprofit behind it calls CLA +, represents the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated.


Even as students spend more on tuition—and take on increasing debt to pay for it—they are earning diplomas whose value is harder to calculate. Studies show that grade-point averages, or GPAs, have been rising steadily for decades, but employers feel many new graduates aren’t prepared for the workforce.


Meanwhile, more students are taking inexpensive classes such as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, but have no way to earn a meaningful academic credential from them.


HNTB Corp., a national architectural firm with 3,600 employees, see value in new tools such as the CLA +, said Michael Sweeney, a senior vice president. Even students with top grades from good schools may not “be able to write well or make an argument,” he said. “I think at some point everybody has been fooled by good grades or a good resume.”


The new test “has the potential to be a very powerful tool for employers,” said Ronald Gidwitz, a board member of the Council for Aid to Education, the group behind the test, and a retired chief executive of Helene Curtis, a Chicago-based hair-care company that was bought by Unilever in 1996.

Only one in four employers think that two- and four-year colleges are doing a good job preparing students for the global economy, according to a 2010 survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Meanwhile, GPAs have been on the rise. A 2012 study looking at the grades of 1.5 million students from 200 four-year U.S. colleges and universities found that the percentage of A’s given by teachers nearly tripled between 1940 and 2008. A college diploma is now more a mark “of social class than an indicator of academic accomplishment,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University geophysics professor and co-author of the study.

Employers such as General Mills Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. long have used their own job-applicant assessments. At some companies such as Google Inc., GPAs carry less weight than they once did because they have been shown to have little correlation with job success, said a Google spokeswoman.

At Teach for America, which recruits college students to teach in rural and urban school districts, the GPA is one of just dozens of things used to winnow nearly 60,000 applicants for 5,900 positions. Candidates who make it to the second step of the process are given an in-house exam that assesses higher-order thinking, said Sean Waldheim, vice president of admissions at the group. “We’ve found that our own problem-solving activities work best to measure the skills we’re looking for,” he said.

The Council for Aid to Education, the CLA + test’s creator, is a New York-based nonprofit that once was part of Rand Corp. The 90-minute exam is based on a test that has been used by 700 schools to grade themselves and improve how well their students are learning.

The CLA + will be open to anyone—whether they are graduating from a four-year university or have taken just a series of MOOCs—and students will be allowed to show their scores to prospective employees. The test costs $35, but most schools are picking up the fee. Among schools that will use CLA + are the University of Texas system, Flagler College in Florida and Marshall University in West Virginia.

The CLA + is scored on the 1600-point scale once used by the SAT “because everyone is familiar with that,” said Chris Jackson, director of partner development at the Council for Aid to Education. Instead of measuring subject-area knowledge, it assesses things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication.

Cory LaDuke, a 21-year-old senior at St. John Fisher, said he had mixed feelings about taking the CLA + but understood why employers might be skeptical of some graduates because “some people don’t work that hard and fake their way through it,” he said.

“It kind of sucks that an employer can’t trust your GPA, but that’s the way it is right now, so this also an opportunity,” said Mr. LaDuke. “It’s another way to prove yourself.”

Other groups also have been seeking ways to better judge graduates’ skills. The Lumina Foundation, which aims to boost the number of college graduates, is offering a way to standardize what students should know once they earn a degree. The MacArthur Foundation has helped fund a system of “badges” for online learning to show mastery of certain skills. Last Thursday, President Barack Obama said he wants the federal government to devise a ratings system to gauge colleges’ performance based on student outcomes.

Meanwhile, established testing companies are introducing new tools. Earlier this year, Educational Testing Service, which developed the Graduate Record Exam, announced two certificates to reward high marks on its Proficiency Profile, which assesses critical thinking, reading, writing and math.

And ACT, the nonprofit that administers the college-admission exam of the same name, has a National Career Readiness Certificate, which measures skills such as synthesizing and applying information presented graphically.

Educational Testing Service was surprised to learn through a survey last spring that more than a quarter of businesses were using the GRE to evaluate job applicants, said David Payne, an ETS vice president.

Sean Keegan, a 2011 graduate of Tufts University, has posted his GRE on his resume because he landed in the 97th percentile, even though he isn’t applying to graduate school. “I think it shows I’m relatively smart,” said Mr. Keegan, who is looking for work in finance. “So far, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from employers.”


Pentagon Planning to Lay Off Thousands of Civilians After September


By Eric Katz

August 23, 2013


The Defense Department is preparing to lay off more than 6,000 civilian employees starting in October, should sequestration cuts continue, as expected.

The Pentagon will begin the paperwork necessary to implement the reductions in force by mid-September if Congress fails to enact an alternative to the reduced budget levels, according to a new department planning document reported by Bloomberg News. In addition to the effects on civilian workforce, Defense is planning for significant cuts to procurement and research spending.

The Obama administration has stated its intentions to once again exempt military pay from sequestration cuts, thereby accentuating the impact of the deficit reduction program on Defense civilians. The Army is planning to cut its workforce by 2,100 employees and the Navy by more than 2,600. Departmentwide, agencies including the Defense Contract Management Agency, would have to lay off about 1,500 workers.

In fiscal 2015, the Pentagon would have to ask Congress for authority to offer early retirement incentives, according to Bloomberg.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 250,000 Defense civilians, said the department is targeting the wrong people.

“Why is the administration threatening to fire 6,300 civilian defense workers and leave its much larger and costlier contractor workforce almost untouched?” AFGE National President J. David Cox said in a statement to Government Executive. “Have they learned nothing from the furlough fiasco when fat cat contractors sat around and did nothing while the people who actually repair the weapons and train the troops were forced out on the street? They need to stop coddling contractors at the expense of military readiness.”



The Atlantic

What Snowden and Manning Don’t Understand About Secrecy

Government often finds bad reasons to keep information hidden, but the recent indiscriminate leaks are foolish.

Mark Bowden

Aug 23 2013, 7:00 AM ET


As an old reporter who has from time to time outed classified information, I have watched the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden with professional interest.

What troubles me about them is not that they broke the oaths they swore when they took their classified government jobs, the thing that makes them liable to prosecution. Government finds all kinds of dubious reasons to keep secrets, sometimes nefarious reasons, and conscience can force one to break a promise. My problem is with the indiscriminate nature of their leaks.

These are young people at war with the concept of secrecy itself, which is just foolish. There are many legitimate reasons for governments to keep secrets, among them the need to preserve the element of surprise in military operations or criminal investigations, to permit leaders and diplomats to bargain candidly, and to protect the identities of those we ask to perform dangerous and difficult missions.

The most famous leakers in American history were motivated not by a general opposition to secrecy but by a desire to expose specific wrongdoing. Mark Felt, the “Deep Throat” who helped steer Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting, understood that the Nixon Administration was energetically abusing the powers of the presidency. Daniel Ellsberg copied and leaked the Pentagon Papers because they showed that the White House and Pentagon had never really believed the lies they were telling about the Vietnam War.

In other words, they had good reasons. The reporters and editors who published their leaks weighed taking that step seriously, ultimately deciding that the public’s need to know trumped the principle of secrecy. They concluded that the government in these instances was abusing its power.

Manning and Snowden are wholesale leakers. I can’t know this for a fact, but I suspect they were not completely aware of all they carried off. It isn’t just that they didn’t completely understand what they were leaking; they literally did not know what all of it was. Computers enable individual operators to open floodgates. Out spills everything, the legitimate along with the illegitimate. It’s easy, and it’s irresponsible. It proceeds from a Julian Assange-influenced, comic-book vision of the world where all governments are a part of an evil plot against humanity.

In my experience, government does routinely abuse its power to classify information, sometimes for ridiculous reasons. Sometimes it seems that officials declare something secret just because they can. As a transportation reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I remember battling state transportation officials to release accident information — I wanted to write a story about which intersections were the most dangerous. Never mind that knowing where it was most treacherous to drive would be useful for public safety, and that the agencies involved in collection this data were public agencies, the numbers were, I was told, a state secret. When I walked through the old U.S. Embassy Chancery Building in Tehran in 2005, now an anti-American museum, there was an exhibit of documents seized during the 1979 takeover. The papers looked damning. They were stamped impressively, ‘Top Secret,” and “Eyes Only.” Few of the Iranian students who were marched through read English, and I’m sure few doubted that the documents on display revealed details of the Great Satan’s “plot” to derail the glorious Islamic Revolution. Close inspection revealed that the framed papers were orders from the embassy motor pool for spare parts.

There have been a few things in the Manning and Snowden leaks that might have warranted taking a principled stand, but the great bulk of what they delivered shows our nation’s military, intelligence agencies, and foreign service working hard at their jobs — doing the things we the people, through our elected representatives, have ordered them to do. It came as no surprise to me that America has been aggressively collecting massive pools of data in order to discover and derail terrorist attacks in advance, an enormously difficult thing to do, and yet the very thing Americans demanded after 9/11.

I think Manning’s 35-year prison sentence is excessive, and expect it will eventually be reduced. Whatever danger Manning (who has now asked to live as a woman named Chelsea) poses to American society can be avoided by denying her access to Pentagon computers. Snowden may have found a way to punish himself worse. He has turned himself into an enduring symbol of idiocy by fleeing the oppressive grip of Barack Obama for the open arms of that great civil libertarian, Vladimir Putin.

Both Manning and Snowden strike me not as heroes, but as naifs. Neither appears to have understood what they were getting themselves into, and, more importantly, what they were doing.


How Saddam Hussein Made the Middle East Stable

By DAVID FRANCIS, The Fiscal Times

August 26, 2013

The U.S. military was ready to intervene in Syria in the wake of President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in the country’s ongoing civil war. The statement was made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Kuala Lumpur Sunday.

“President Obama has asked the Defense Department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that,” Hagel told reporters.   “We are prepared to exercise whatever option, if he decides to employ one of those options.”

But the only options President Obama has now are bad ones. He can’t bomb suspected chemical weapons depots releasing dangerous chemicals. A ground invasion is unlikely, given that American troops would have two enemies – both the Syrian army and the rebels, who have been infiltrated by al Qaeda. Even if a ground operation were feasible, the American public would never support it.

If there were feasible options for the United States, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, urged the United States not to take them. Powell did not urge restraint because he supported Assad. He said the United States should not act to depose him because the rebels he is fighting might be just as bad.

“I have no affection for Mr. Assad. But at the same time, I am less sure of the resistance. What do they represent? And is it becoming even more radicalized with more al Qaeda coming in? And what would it look like if they prevailed and Assad went? I don’t know,” Powell said.

He added: “We can influence things and we can be ready to help people when problems have been resolved or one side has prevailed over the other. That’s when I think we can play a role.”

Powell knows about dealing with Middle East dictators better than most. He fought Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and was the head of the State Department during the second Iraq war.


Bottom of Form

He is also the person who uttered one of the most iconic phrases of the second Bush administration. In warning the president about the dangers of invading Iraq unprovoked, he said, “if you break it, you own it,” meaning that the United States would be responsible for the future of Iraq if it took down a treacherous yet stable Hussein government.

Powell’s comments also recognize a sad fact of international diplomacy. There are lots of bad guys out there, and sometimes bad leaders are needed to keep peace and stability in countries where both peace and stability are rare.


No one would argue that Saddam Hussein was a good guy. He committed dozens of war crimes, used chemical weapons against his own people, tortured prisoners, and tried to exterminate the Kurds, among other atrocities.

But at the same time, his heavy hand was able to keep the country under control. He kept peace between the Sunnis and Shias, all while providing a counterbalance to Iran. He also served as a consistent leader in a region of the world where stability is rare. Under his rule, Iraq was relatively peaceful and safe.

Now, a full decade after he was removed, Iran is an absolute mess; the country’s religious groups are fighting among themselves; its fledgling political system is failing – a dozen candidates for political office have been assassinated in the last ten years. The Islamic State of Iraq, the al Qaeda front there, is still capable of pulling off large-scale attacks.

On Sunday, coordinated attacks killed 42 people. Britain-based NGO Iraq Body Count estimates that some 112,000 Iraqis have died in the last ten years.

One of the main reasons for the problems in Iraq is the United States did not abide by Powell’s advice: The United States broke Iraq, but never bought it. There is a laundry list of things the Bush administration did wrong and the end result has been disastrous.

U.S. involvement in Syria could mean making the same mistake twice. Neither the American public nor the Obama administration has the appetite for another prolonged engagement in the Middle East.

The same can be said of the Egyptian crisis. Hosni Mubarak was another dictator who provided stability: This is why the United States supported him with some $83 billion in aid during his time as Egyptian president. Many in the West thought the Arab Spring protests that removed Mubarak from office were the first step toward a democratic Egypt. As recent violence shows, that’s simply not the case.

Powell hinted at this in his “Face the Nation” appearance. He realizes that the price of stability is often dictatorship and that there are limits to U.S. power.

“But to think that we can change things immediately just because we’re American– that’s not necessarily the case,” he said. These are internal struggles and the parties inside those countries are going to have to sort it out amongst themselves.”

Read more at 


Government eyes regulation of ‘Bitcoins’

Kavya Sukumar, Medill News Service 5:18 p.m. EDT August 26, 2013


WASHINGTON — A Senate committee is investigating whether to establish regulations for online “virtual currencies” such as Bitcoins.

Bitcoins, a widely used virtual currency, are an alternative to money online. Unlike regular money, Bitcoins are not backed by any government or company. The currency is circulated without intermediaries such as banks. This online currency, sometimes called a libertarian’s dream, is not regulated or taxed. This may soon change.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee sent letters last week to the Departments of Treasury, Homeland Security and other government agencies seeking details on how they oversee the use of virtual currencies, part of an investigation begun several months ago. The letters came on the heels of 22 subpoenas issued Aug. 12 by the New York Department of Financial Services to Bitcoin businesses asking questions about their policies to prevent money laundering and to provide consumer protection.

Digital currencies demand “a holistic and whole-government approach in order to understand and provide a sensible regulatory framework for their existence,” committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the top Republican on the committee, wrote in the letters.

The agencies have been asked to provide information to the Senate committee by the end of August.

Patrick Murck, Bitcoin Foundation’s general counsel, praised the committee for “proactively seeking out a productive dialog with the Bitcoin community and authorities.”

Murck said, “New York is trying to set the policy for the entire country. … It is highly questionable if they have any jurisdiction on the issues they are trying to address.”

Bitcoins can be created or “mined” on your computer. Without banks to validate transactions, the task of weeding out fraudulent transactions falls on the users. Some users called miners solve complex mathematical problems to verify transactions. They, in turn, get paid in Bitcoins for their work.

Bitcoins do not have any inherent value, but they can be exchanged for other currencies. The exchange rate for a Bitcoin, which fluctuates wildly, is nearly $120 at Mt. Gox, a Bitcoin exchange.

Multiple attempts have been made at creating rules to oversee virtual currency operations.


In March, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network released guidelines that brought Bitcoin businesses under the same umbrella of laws as other money services businesses.

“FinCEN guidance was a starting-gun shot for the industry,” said Marco Santori, a business attorney and chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation’s Regulatory Affairs Committee. “It signaled that bitcoins were not contraband, but a legitimate form of value transfer.”

Alan Reiner, developer of the Bitcoin software Armory, endorsed regulating Bitcoins to avoid “an unregulated system that is used mainly in black markets.”

Bitcoins work by harnessing the power of computers of the users. It cannot be shut down because there is not one owner or authority, Reiner said.

“Bitcoins put power in the hands of people who use it,” Reiner said. “It is going to do to money what e-mail did to written communication.”

This makes it a difficult system to control. This nearly anonymous currency fuels more than $1.2 million in sales of contraband items, including guns and drugs online, according to a study by Nicolas Christin, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. Transactions cannot be easily traced back to users, making it a law enforcement nightmare.

Some of the means of fighting financial crimes such as money laundering do not work on digital currencies because of the lack of a regulating authority. If the Senate investigation were to lead to regulations, public-private partnerships would be needed to detect financial crimes, Murck said.

Bradley Jansen, director of the Washington-based Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, said the Treasury Department’s March guidance was poorly written and served only to stifle innovation. “This guidance has raised more questions than it has answered,” he said. “Applying our failed banking policies on Bitcoins is a bad idea and may be the definition of insanity.”

Regulations are a “necessary evil” that the Bitcoin community is willing to accept, Reiner said.

“Bitcoin cannot survive as a mainstream concept unless it has governments’ approval,” he said.

The economy as a whole stands to gain if the Senate committee investigation leads to clearer rules, Santori said. “Jobs will be created, tax money will be collected, customer funds will be safeguarded, and the public will benefit from a highly sophisticated and efficient value transfer system.”


Who Hacked China’s Internet Yesterday?


By Rebecca Greenfield

August 26, 2013


On Sunday morning, China’s Internet was hit with the largest Denial of Service attack it has ever seen, according to China Internet Network Information Center. The assault, which took down sites like Weibo (the Twitter of China),, and the Bank of China, resulted in a 32 percent drop in Internet traffic — and nobody knows who did it.

The attacks came in two waves, starting at 2 a.m. and then again at 4 a.m. Denial of service, or DDoS, attacks use malware-infected computers to overwhelm a network by hitting servers with more activity than they can handle, overwhelming websites so that they are rendered inaccessible . Reports say the outages across China lasted somewhere between 2 and 13 hours. It’s unclear if the attacks are ongoing, but much of the Internet under the .cn domain is working now, according to The China Real Time Report

The CNNIC says it will release more information shortly, but so far hasn’t confirmed the origin of the attacks. Despite what sounds like a complex take-down of part of China’s domain, a single person with little hacking experience could have performed the hack, according to Matthew Prince, the CEO of CloudFlare, which provides Web performance and security services for more than a million websites. “I don’t know how big the ‘pipes’ of .cn are, but it is not necessarily correct to infer that the attacker in this case had a significant amount of technical sophistication or resources,” he told The Wall Street Journal‘s Paul Mozur Monday afternoon China time. “It may have well have been a single individual.”

Read more at The Atlantic Wire



Missile strikes on Syria likely response to chemical attack

By Chris Lawrence. Elise Labott and Tom Cohen, CNN

updated 7:00 AM EDT, Tue August 27, 2013


Washington (CNN) — Few question that there was a major chemical attack in Syria last week, and the United States has made clear that it blames the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Now, the question is how President Barack Obama will respond.

For almost two years, Obama has avoided direct military involvement in Syria’s civil war, only escalating aid to rebel fighters in June after suspected smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks by Syrian government forces.

However, last week’s attack on a Damascus suburb that reportedly killed and wounded more than 3,000 people obliterated the “red line” Obama set just over a year ago against the use of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Monday that Obama was evaluating “a response to the clear use on a mass scale with repugnant results of chemical weapons,” adding that “there is very little doubt that the Syrian regime … used those weapons.”

Response to Syria’s ‘moral obscenity’ What are Obama’s options for Syria? Taking action against Syria? The latest from inside Syria

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack “inexcusable” and “undeniable,” and said there was “a clear reason that the world has banned entirely chemical weapons.”

He said that evidence “strongly indicates” chemical weapons were used in Syria and that “we know the Syrian regime maintains custody” of such weapons and has the rockets to use them.

Read Kerry’s remarks

Obama “will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use” of chemical weapons, Kerry added, saying the president “believes there must be accountability” for those who use them.

Options available to Obama range from ordering limited missile strikes to continued diplomatic efforts labeled by critics as a “do-nothing” approach.

Obama will be presented with final options regarding actions against Syria in the next few days, a senior administration official said Monday. Assuming the president decides to go ahead with a military response, any action could come as early as mid-week, though it could be later, the official cautioned.

Factors weighing into the timing of any action include a desire to get it done before the president leaves for Russia next week and before the administration has to make a decision on whether to suspend aid to Egypt because of the ongoing political turmoil there, the official explained. The administration also wants it to be a quick response to the use of chemical weapons, the senior administration official said.

American officials are consulting with allies to ensure they are supportive of any U.S. action, which the senior administration official said would be very limited in scope and a direct reaction to the use of chemical weapons. And three representatives of allied governments involved in those top-level consultations said the goal is to reach a consensus as soon as possible.

“No one is talking about a long process,” one European diplomat told CNN.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said any U.S. response would be “a determination on how to respond to a blatant use of chemical weapons, and it’s not necessarily to change the entire situation on the ground in Syria.”

That might be a mistake, said Michael Doran, an analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. A U.S. strike “can’t just be one and done,” but should be part of a plan to remove al-Assad, he told CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”

“The president has been very reulctant to get involved. Public opinion has been against it. There’s not a lot of support on the Hill,” Doran said. “And yet, here we are again. Time and time again, we get dragged further and further in.” The result could be “a Vietnam-type problem, where we kind of back our way into this, if we don’t come up with a plan about how to win.”

Kerry spoke with his British, Jordanian, Qatari and Saudi counterparts Monday and with the secretary-general of the Arab League, Harf said.

“Obviously, the intelligence assessment is ongoing,” she said. “But he reiterated that the president is studying the facts and will be making an informed decision about how to respond going forward.”

The Obama administration is expected to declassify the intelligence assessment backing up its assertion that the Syrian regime was responsible for last week’s chemical weapons attack, another senior administration official said. The declassification would happen before any U.S. military action would take place.

A senior administration official familiar with the intelligence told CNN that the evidence “includes but is not limited to” satellite images of activity at Syrian military installations identified as including chemical weapons depots.

Earlier Monday, a White House official ruled out sending ground troops to Syria or implementing a no-fly zone to blunt al-Assad’s aerial superiority over rebels fighting to oust his regime. The official insisted that all other options were under consideration by Obama but put no time frame on a decision.

Meanwhile, a senior Defense Department official told CNN’s Chris Lawrence Monday that four U.S. Navy destroyers “maintain readiness and, if required, could execute a mission within hours” of being ordered to do so.

But the official added that the U.S. military remained “in a holding pattern” as Obama considers both military and nonmilitary options.

Opinion: How Al-Assad used chemical weapons to poison debate on Syria

Also, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said while visiting Indonesia that any U.S. action “will be in concert with the international community and within the framework of legal justification.”

While U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that the use of chemical weapons was a crime against humanity and must be punished, certain opposition by Syrian ally Russia and possibly China undermined the possibility that the Security Council would support a military mission.

Instead, a limited coalition of NATO partners such as Germany, France and Britain — all of which have called for action against Syria — and some Arab League members appeared more likely to provide the political backing needed by Obama to order U.S. missile strikes.

A senior administration official told CNN on Monday that the goals of any coalition military action would be to punish al-Assad and show him that there was a cost for using chemical weapons while preventing him from doing so again.

In addition, a military strike would seek to degrade the Syrian regime’s capabilities enough to weaken it without causing it to fall to an opposition considered unprepared to assume power, the official said.

Possible coalition partners include NATO allies Britain, France, Germany and Canada, as well as regional powers Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Last month, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey provided Congress with a list of declassified U.S. military options for Syria that emphasized the high costs and risks of what he said would amount to “an act of war” at a time of deep budget cuts.

U.S. official: Almost no doubt al-Assad regime used chemical weapons

Dempsey’s letter, dated July 19, listed U.S. assets in the region including Patriot missile defense batteries in Turkey and Jordan, as well as F-16 jet fighters positioned to defend Jordan from possible cross-border trouble. In addition, the Pentagon has sent four warships armed with cruise missiles to the region.

According to U.S. officials, updated options offered the president in recent days included:

• Cruise missiles fired from one of four Navy destroyers deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. The missiles would be used to strike “command and control” facilities such as command bunkers, or the Syrian regime’s means of delivering chemical weapons: artillery batteries and launchers. There is no indication that the missiles would strike at actual chemical weapons stockpiles.

• Military jets firings weapons from outside Syrian airspace. This option carries additional risks and is considered less likely.

“They have to be careful to do this in concert with our allies,” Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN on Sunday, adding that “I don’t think the White House is going to want to risk American lives by sending pilots over Syria, so that really limits our options to cruise strikes and think that’s probably where the White House is going to go.”

U.N. chemical weapons inspectors reach alleged attack site

Cruise missile strikes could be “very punishing” on al-Assad’s missile supplies and aircraft without going after the chemical weapons stockpiles to risk dispersing them, Schiff said.

To Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, the situation is forcing Obama to shift from being an “avoider-in-chief” regarding military involvement in Syria.

“It’s almost inevitable that the president will authorize some form of military action,” Miller told National Public Radio in an interview broadcast Monday.

He said he expected a significant response that amounts to “a warning that lays down this time a red line that the president intends to enforce, not one that turns pink.”

“It cannot simply be a couple of cruise missiles into a storage shed somewhere,” Miller said, adding that the goal was to deter al-Assad rather than topple him or radically shift the balance in Syria at this time. “The president’s not on the verge of becoming the cavalry to rescue the country.”

Schiff agreed that Obama has little choice but to respond strongly.

“In terms of the credibility of the White House,” he said, “the cost of not acting now, I think, exceeds the cost of acting.”

CNN’s John King, Frederik Pleitgen, Hamdi Alkhshali and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.



The Military Connects Microgrids for a ‘Secure Cluster’ of Power Networks

A new project will link three U.S. Navy microgrids into a mutually reinforcing, power-sharing unit.



Nobody is more interested in microgrids than the U.S. military. The idea of self-sustaining energy islands that can stay on even during grid-wide blackouts is of obvious value to military bases, which can’t let power outages keep them from performing their missions.

But what if those military microgrids could also serve a broader set of purposes, by linking themselves to one another, or even to the grid at large? That’s a question that the U.S. Navy is now striving to answer, via a first-ever project meant to tie three separate microgrids in San Diego, Calif. into a functioning whole.

Power Analytics (formerly EDSA) is the San Diego-based company that won the contract for the project, under the Department of Defense’s Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP). While we’ve seen other military microgrids start to connect themselves to the grid, this will be the “first centrally managed cluster of multiple cyber-secure military microgrids” in the country, according to last week’s press release. Financial terms of the three-year contract weren’t disclosed, but Karen Cronin, Power Analytics vice president, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that it was more than $2 million.

Power Analytics is a long-time Navy partner; in fact, U.S. naval ships, which are in essence miniature cities running on self-contained nuclear power plants or diesel-powered generators, are designed using its Paladin software product. It’s also the designer of the three Navy microgrids it’s now seeking to combine into a “secure cluster” of microgrids, to help the Navy both improve energy supply security and reduce its overall energy consumption.

Kevin Meagher, Power Analytics president and CTO, said in an interview last week that the three microgrids, at the hospital at Naval Base San Diego, a data center at Naval Base Coronado and at Naval Base Point Loma, are now equipped with the on-site generation, solar power, energy storage and grid controls they need.

“The circuits are there; for the most part, all of the hardware is there,” Meagher said. “The trick to doing this is to take the existing circuits, the existing equipment, and figure out how to make it all work to meet the requirements” of the project, which are to provide the “first comprehensive, real-time view of the status of its critical power systems across multiple bases.”

Meagher broke down the project’s imperatives into three broad categories. First, “it clearly presents the opportunity for a cluster of microgrids from an economic perspective,” to do things like “wheel” power from base to base, or to optimize the way the combination of microgrids draws from the grid at certain times, versus relying on their own generation and energy storage capabilities.

Second, “Because of the synchronization of the data, it allows you to talk about enhancing or modifying the structure, either to enhance stability at a specific microgrid, or not, depending on what happens on each of the bases,” he said. In other words, it’s a way to study not just what the cluster can do as presently configured, but how it can be changed to maximize that potential.

“The third thing is the same thing that everyone talks about, but it’s still very near and dear to the Department of Defense — that’s situational awareness,” he said. In other words, this microgrid cluster is meant to be an “early warning system,” to allow the Navy to predict and prepare for power disruptions, whether they stem from the grid they’re connected to, or from internal changes like routine maintenance of various systems. 

The work being done by the U.S. military on microgrids will doubtless help lay the groundwork for the spread of the technologies involved to the private sector. GTM Research has collected some data from DOD’s microgrid programs, which include R&D into the hardware involved, as well as the system integration and economic analysis software that makes them run.

Military microgrid developers include SAICLockheed MartinRaytheon, Boeing and General Electric, which is already in a big microgrid project with the U.S. Marine Corps. DOD and the Department of Energy are also working on standardizing the technologies that go into microgrids, via the Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security (SPIDERS) projects underway at Fort Carson, Colorado, and at Pearl Harbor-Hickam Air Force Base and Camp Smith in Hawaii.

Building economically feasible, grid-interactive microgrids is the next step in this process. We’re seeing projects around the world testing the ability of locally controlled energy systems  to balance the grid at large, with grid giants like GE, ABB, Siemens, Alstom, Schneider Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi, startups like Blue Pillar, Viridity EnergyPowerit Solutions and Enbala, and technology firms such as SpiraeIntegral Analytics and Power Analytics all taking different tacks on the challenge. Power Analytics’ software, for its part, is used by financial data centers, air traffic control sites, military installations, deep-sea oil platforms, and power generation and distribution facilities worth a collective $120 billion in asset value.

San Diego is emerging as a key test bed for combining government, institutional and utility microgrids into a working whole. Beyond the Navy projects, the University of California at San Diego has built a cutting-edge microgrid that supplies 90 percent of the campus’ power needs. UCSD’s microgrid, in turn, is being integrated into a larger microgrid project with utility San Diego Gas & Electric, which has already tapped UCSD’s capabilities to help it avoid blackouts during a major fire that threatened power lines.

While the Navy project isn’t yet looking at how its microgrids could play a role in that kind of utility stability assistance on an ongoing basis, Meagher said it’s definitely part of what Power Analytics is trying to figure out.

“The Department of Defense has recognized for a long time that it has an opportunity to advance technology, and the allocation of that, for the entire community,” he said. “This is very much in that vein, where they see a huge upside potential to this.”


How the Snowden Effect Is Paralyzing CIOs

– Tom Kaneshige, CIO


August 21, 2013


In the aftermath of the great data heist by Edward Snowden, the now-infamous computer specialist who stole top secret information from the National Security Agency and leaked it to The Guardian earlier this summer, CIOs are feeling a little helpless.

“People are saying that if it happens to the NSA, which must have incredible tools to prevent people from leaking data yet still leaks on a grand scale, we better be really careful,” says Jeff Rubin, vice president of strategy and business development at Beachhead, a mobile security company.

There’s little doubt CIOs are reeling from the Snowden effect.


A New Breed of Rogue Employee Roams the Network

Snowden represents a new kind of rogue employee or contractor: a tech-savvy millennial armed with personal computers who can spirit away highly sensitive data. CIOs will have to deal with this threat sooner rather than later. The old thinking of relying on encryption to safeguard data just won’t suffice in today’s corporate computing environment.

The 29-year-old Snowden hatched a plan to swipe data from arguably one of the safest organizations on the planet. His age is significant because he’s symbolic of today’s millennial, a 20-something tech worker flooding corporations across the country. Millennials will make up the largest segment of the workforce by 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Two-thirds of millennials assess their technology acumen as “cutting edge” or “upper tier,” according to CompTIA. Snowden, who once described himself as a “computer wizard,” not only gained access to sensitive data, he communicated with the media using encrypted email under the codename Verax.

For CIOs, the warning is clear: Your next rogue employee may be good at finding ways around your best-laid security plans.

Social Engineering and Tech Savvy a Dangerous Combo

While there’s no questioning Snowden’s technical chops—after all, he worked at contractor Booz Allen Hamilton as a computer specialist—Rubin doubts Snowden relied on technical skills alone to do what he did. Rather, Rubin believes Snowden employed social engineering tactics to gain access to computers and download data to thumb drives and, eventually, his personally owned computers.

“My guess is he went to NSA employees, said [he was there] to work on their computers and needed access to them, and gained their trust,” Rubin says. “He may have even gone as far as telling them, ‘You may get a notice on your screen that there’s some sort of intrusion, but that’s just me so don’t be alarmed.'”

The idea that Snowden probably used his personal computers and thumb drives should also be alarming to CIOs, especially in the age of BYOD, says Rubin. With BYOD, mobility and cloud storage services such as Dropbox now common, the chances of corporate data leaking out is higher than ever.

In fact, one of Beachhead’s customers recently reversed its BYOD policy because of the security risks. If an employee now wants an iPad, for instance, the company will buy and manage it instead of allowing the iPad to be a part of a BYOD program. They’re saying, We don’t feel we have our act together to really allow this,” Rubin says.

Encryption Is Not Enough

Another lesson CIOs can learn from Snowden is the need for multi-layer security, or automatic triggers for wiping data. Many companies rely on encryption to keep their data safe, yet once a rogue employee gains the password, encryption is worthless.

Rubin says the Snowden case highlights the need for triggers that eliminate data beyond a geo-fence or after a certain number of incorrect logins or amount of time.

Also, companies might want to look into multi-factor authentication and data access controls to prevent rogue workers like Snowden from seeing data in the first place, Rubin says.

Given Snowden’s ability to steal from the NSA, coupled with the rise of both the tech-savvy millennial and BYOD, CIOs are sensing a loss of control over corporate data.

“It’s happening too fast,” says Rubin. “I think companies are a little paralyzed.”

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for Follow Tom on Twitter


U.S. Gov’t Warned Staff: Android Malware Widespread, Use Protection


By Michelle Maisto | Posted 2013-08-27

Google’s Android operating system continues to be the predominant target of malware threats, and we mean predominant. In 2012, Android was the target of 79 percent of malware threats, compared with 0.7 percent for iOS, 0.3 percent for BlackBerry and 0.3 percent for Windows Mobile, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security said in an unclassified July 23 release intended for police, fire, EMS and security personnel.

The Next Web discovered the release and reported on it Aug. 26.

The government report pointed to industry reports stating that 44 percent of Android users are still using Gingerbread versions of Android (versions 2.3.3 through 2.3.7), which were released in 2011 and “have a number of security vulnerabilities that were fixed in later versions.”

The report points out three particular security threats. The first, Short Message Service (SMS) Trojans, represent nearly half of the malicious applications currently circulating, it says. Text messages are sent to premium-rate numbers, “potentially resulting in exorbitant charges for the user.”

In the second, rootkits, malware is hidden from normal types of detection and logs the user’s keystrokes, passwords and location without the user’s knowledge.

Finally, fake Google Play domains allow users to browse and download apps, movies, books, music and other content, while stealing sensitive information, such as financial data and log-in credentials.

The report says Android is singled out for being the world’s most widely used mobile OS, and that given the growing dependence on mobile devices by federal, state and local authorities, it’s “more important than ever to keep mobile OS patched and up-to-date.”

Malware Incidents on the Rise

Earlier this month, Trend Micro warned that vulnerabilities in Android are among its top security concerns.

“Due to the fractured nature of the Android network, it is very difficult for patches to reach all users in an effective timeframe,” JD Sherry, vice president of technology and solutions at Trend Micro, said in a Aug. 8 statement. ” Until we have the same urgency to protect mobile devices as we do for protecting PCs, this very real threat will continue to grow rapidly.

According to Trend Micro, it took three years to reach 350,000 high-risk apps—but only six months for that figure to double.

During the second quarter, it added, premium service abusers remained consistent, but the firm saw an increase in the “data stealer volume,” said Research Director Linda Barrabee, which “may indicate the continued sophistication of this threat type.”

On Aug. 12, the Bitcoin Foundation announced that Android had also opened up Bitcoin users to vulnerabilities. The company warned users about the issue on its Web site and recommended that anyone with an Android wallet upgrade their version of their software and perform several reparative steps.

“Because the problem lies with Android itself, this problem will affect you if you have a wallet generated by any Android app,” the company warned users.


Hagel Taps Donley to Lead OSD Downsizing Effort

Defense News

Aug. 27, 2013 – 03:45AM | By MARCUS WEISGERBER

WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has tapped former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to oversee a Pentagon downsizing effort to cut the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) headquarters staff by 20 percent over the next five years.

Donley — who stepped down as Air Force secretary in June after five years in the post — will also oversee the reduction of senior-level officials who report directly to Hagel through “consolidating functions” and eliminating positions, a Defense Department spokesman wrote in an email.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Hagel’s selection of Donley to Pentagon officials on Monday.

Donley — who will report to Carter — will develop recommendations for meeting Hagel’s staff reduction targets and an implementation plan, the spokesman said. The downsizing effort is officially called the 2013 OSD Organizational Review.

In July, Hagel said he wanted someone “from outside DoD who is deeply knowledgeable about the defense enterprise and eminently qualified to direct implementation of the OSD reductions.”

OSD grew from 2,433 positions in 2010 to 2,665 position in 2012 — a 9.5 percent increase.

Donley has worked on a number of major DoD reorganization efforts throughout his career. As a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer, he worked on the Goldwater-Nichols DoD reorganization act. He also was a member of the National Security Council staff at the White House during the Reagan administration.

Prior to being named Air Force secretary, Donley was DoD’s director of administration and management, the so-called mayor of the Pentagon.

“Mike has been personally involved in just about every major reorganization effort — particularly as it relates to the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and former Senate staffer who now chairs the Reserve Forces Policy Board.

Punaro has been one of the loudest critics of the growth within the Pentagon’s headquarters ranks.

“There’s probably no one on the planet that knows more about these organizational issues than Mike Donley,” Punaro said. “He understands how to [make the cuts] in a very deliberate and thoughtful way while still meeting the secretary’s goals.”


We Almost Had a Giant Robot Spy Blimp

David Axe

July 12, 2013

Fancy Army airship doomed by the usual incompetence, infighting

The Army’s dream was a fantastical one. Build a 300-foot-long, helium-filled, pilotless airship, pack it with sophisticated sensors and other spy gear and park it over the remotest, most dangerous region of Afghanistan, where it would hover for three weeks at a time beyond the range of enemy gunfire, unblinkingly watching for enemy activity.

But the Army’s plan for building this so-called Long Endurance Multi Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV, turned out to be just as fantastical as the vision for the giant robot airship. Badly managed and repeatedly oversold by its advocates, the LEMV’s prospects gradually deflated even as rising expectations across the military added pressure to the airship’s development.

Originally meant to cost as little as $150 million and go from blueprint to working prototype in just a year and a half, the giant airship drifted out of control. Between 2010 when the program began and its termination in early 2013, the cost of just one LEMV ballooned to $270 million. And the schedule for completing the airship stretched from 18 months to 36. The first LEMV managed just one brief flight over New Jersey last August before an embarrassed Army pulled the plug.

The subsequent sucking sound could be heard throughout the Pentagon, so to speak. While program mismanagement and budgetary overspends are nothing new to the Army, rarely have they had such devastating effect on an entire promising class of technology.

That’s because LEMV was the military’s last, best chance to revolutionize its aerial fleet with high-tech airships able to fly far longer, far cheaper, than existing warplanes. It’s no exaggeration to say that as the LEMV program sank to the ground, it dragged with it the Pentagon’s whole ambitious scheme to acquire futuristic war blimps.

Unblinking eyes

Airships fought on the front lines for nearly a century. Hundreds were built for use in World Wars I and II. The U.S. Navy, one of the last major military airship users, finally retired its fleet of patrol blimps in the 1960s and replaced them with airplanes and helicopters. For nearly 50 years the idea of lighter-than-air weaponry lay dormant, giant abandoned hangars in California, New Jersey and North Carolina the only evidence of its glorious past.

Then the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and found itself hunting elusive insurgents in crowded Iraqi cities and the vast Afghan countryside. Bad guys could hide out for days or weeks before striking.Planes, copters and even unmanned drones lacked the endurance to wait out these patient attackers.

So the Army installed video cameras on simple, tethered balloons and sent them thousands of feet into the air to watch over combat outposts. It was a small conceptual leap to untether the airship, add motors and remote controls and use them to patrol vast swaths of hostile territory for potentially weeks at a time — far longer than any manned aircraft or winged drone can manage.

And cheaper, too. Because of their buoyancy and relative simplicity, airships are highly fuel efficient and easy to maintain and thus cheaper than heavier-than-air craft, in many cases. A jet fighter like an F-16 can cost $20,000 or more per flight hour for fuel and repairs. Large airships generally cost as little as a third as much per hour.

The added flying time and potential cash savings of spy blimps compared to planes and copters intrigued planners in offices all over the Defense Department. The secretive Joint IED Defeat Organization, tasked with developing bomb-hunting technologies, wanted a cheaper way to watch for insurgents planting roadside bombs.

With a budget of more than $200 million, JIEDDO teamed up with the Air Force and Mav6, a Virginia-based aerospace start-up, to develop the Blue Devil II unmanned airship starting in 2010. Blue Devil would be a traditional blimp, its lift provided entirely by light, expansive helium gas. But on the inside, Blue Devil would pack some of the most sophisticated — and expensive — sensors and communications hardware ever developed.

By contrast, the Army wanted a somewhat more complex airship withless complex gear. The LEMV would be a so-called “hybrid airship,” which gets its lift from a combination of helium and also a flattened body that acts somewhat like a wing. Starting out, the LEMV’s cameras and radios would be roughly the same as those already used by Army drones.

LEMV and Blue Devil had similar technology and aims and began at around the same time; they couldn’t help but compete for funding. Moreover both new airships were supposed to be ready for combat trials in Afghanistan in 2011. The frontline testing would be expensive: $190 million for a year’s flying for just a single airship, according to one estimate. It wasn’t at all clear that Congress and the Pentagon would be willing to fund both.

“We are doing this to protect the soldiers on the ground,” Marty Sargent, the Army’s airship project manager, said of LEMV. But the giant blimp was also vying with the Air Force’s Blue Devil for another important role: clearing a flight path for a new generation of lighter-than-air war machine.

Faster, faster!

Cracks appeared in the program even before it went out for bids. Eyeing LEMV like a choice cut of technological steak, the Army’s top intelligence staff, then headed by Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, wanted it for itself, according to one program insider who asked to remain anonymous.

Normally major weapons development programs for the Army are overseen by a dedicated organization with an unwieldy name: the Office of the United States Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology — a.k.a., ASA-ALT — whose sole job is to formulate specs, solicit bids from industry, draw up contracts and oversee the contractors’ work.

But the intel staff was determined to handle much of that work itself with bureaucratic reinforcements from the Army’s missile command, despite the intel staff and the missileers lacking experience managing new technology. “We took it on for ourselves, because it is our soldiers that are going into these regional conflicts where we may not get the apportionment of strategic [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance],” explained Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, who succeeded Zahner in early 2012.

To keep the unusual development scheme afloat, the intel staff sought money directly from Congress instead of asking ASA-ALT to arrange for funding, which was standard procedure. After all, the staff had undercut ASA-ALT and could not expect favorable treatment for its giant spy blimp. To convince a skeptical Congress, the intel staff promised LEMV would be ready fast — just 18 months from the signing of the development contract.

The year-and-a-half deadline proved to be a fatal flaw. Allocating just 18 months for such a complex technology development was ambitious, to say the least and forced LEMV’s builders to cut a lot of corners. “A development timeline of twice as long would still be counted as aggressive,” Mav6’s Jay Harrison commented.

LEMV. Northrop photo

Lowest bidder

At first there was competition. Aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both wanted the LEMV contract, worth up to $517 million for several years of work designing and building as many as three huge airships plus all their on-board gear.

Lockheed was the clear frontrunner. The Maryland-based company already had a suitable airship in the air, the P-791. All the firm would have needed to do was add cameras, radios and other internal gear — admittedly a complex task. By contrast, Northrop in Virginia had no hardware at all and would have to assemble the LEMV blimp and its sensors and comms from scratch.

Everyone in Army intel assumed Lockheed would win. The intel staff even put the Lockheed airship on all the program’s flyers, posters and other promotional material.

But when it became clear how quickly the Army expected LEMV to be ready, Lockheed got cold feet. The Maryland company insisted it would take three years, not a year and a half, to complete the airship — even with the basic airframe already flying. “Lockheed basically gave the contract away,” Harrison explained. Northrop insisted it could meet the 18-month deadline and won the contract by default in June 2010.

Program manager Sargent defended the close deadline. “We are on a tight schedule but we want this to be successful for the Army and all services,” he said.

Concept for a hybrid air vehicle. U.S.patent


Problems piled on. Lacking direct airship experience, Northrop subcontracted with British blimp-maker Hybrid Air Vehicles for the basic LEMV airframe.

HAV struggled to build the airship on the Army’s truncated timeline. “It’s not as though components were ready and you could just buy them,” Hardy Giesler, HAV’s business development director, tells War is Boring. The British firm had to acquire custom-made LEMV components.

“They were told to move faster,” the anonymous program insider tells War is Boring. “In doing so, [HAV] didn’t focus on weight of the parts, but rather the speed of getting them to the States.” Torn between building the airship well and building it fast, the Army chose fast — and paid the price.

Parts began arriving at a massive, World War II-era government airship hangar in Lakehurst, New Jersey, for final assembly. The components were “massively overweight,” the insider says — and as a result the airship would be capable of staying aloft for just four days instead of three weeks, as the Army had promised.

In November 2011, panicked managers from the Army, Northrop and HAV met in the U.K. It was clear that the original 18-month schedule would have to be revised, as would LEMV’s ambitious performance specs. LEMV’s first flight, originally slated for no later than December 2011, was bumped back to a unspecified date in mid-2012. The much-hyped combat trial in Afghanistan was deferred indefinitely.

Blue Devil’s demise

The collapse of the Pentagon’s other airship effort in early 2012 increased the pressure on LEMV at precisely the moment the latter program was struggling the most. After two years of work costing more than $200 million, Blue Devil was 95 percent complete, inflated with $350,000 worth of helium, gently bobbing in Mav6’s North Carolina hangar awaiting the installation of cameras and radios.

That March the Air Force abruptly pulled the plug on Blue Devil, citing weight growth, schedule delays and cost overruns. “It doesn’t make sense,” one Mav6 employee mourned. The tiny company would later divest all its aerospace activities.

Blue Devil’s demise left LEMV as the military’s only major airship program. But the Army airship was suffering all the same problems that had plagued the Air Force model, albeit in near-total secrecy. The Air Force had publicly criticized Blue Devil’s troubled development. By contrast, the Army and Northrop cheerily reported only steady progress on LEMV despite repeated delays. “We’re about to fly the thing!” Northrop spokesman K.C. Brown, Jr., crowed in May 2012.

Six tons overweight, tens of millions over-budget and months late, the first LEMV took off for its debut flight that August. For 90 minutes the football-field-length airship motored at low altitude over the forests and fields of central New Jersey, returning as the sun was setting. Although meant to be robotic, for the initial flight LEMV had a pilot aboard.

“LEMV was designed, built and flown in a short 24 months, a considerable accomplishment for a vehicle of this scale and complexity,” Northrop boasted in a statement — as though a mere six-month delay (it was actually nine months) weren’t a total disaster for a program sold on the promise of an 18-month development.

The end

Word within the Army was that it would take another year and an extra $60 million to shave off weight, install more equipment and prep the LEMV for a second test flight in New Jersey—never mind operational missions over Afghanistan.

The additional delay could not have come at a worse time. After 11 years of fighting , the war in Afghanistan was winding down. Budget cuts were forcing the Army to cancel all but the most critical weapons programs. “I kind of knew … this thing wasn’t going back up again,” the LEMV insider says.

Among junior program staff, conversations turned to what-ifs. What if the airship had been developed earlier—say, 2005 or 2006—instead of nearly a decade into the war? What if the Army had been realistic about the time and cost of assembling the airship? What if experienced program managers had been in charge?

What if the Pentagon had been able to get a new airship—any new airship—off the ground, for real? Under his desk in Washington, D.C., the program insider kept a box containing miniature foam replicas of the LEMV, toys for handing out at trade shows. The tiny scale LEMVs would soon be among the only evidence the Army had even wanted a giant, robotic spy blimp.

For nearly another six months after LEMV’s first flight, the program was pretty much in limbo, its fate obvious but never officially stated. The intel staff made half-hearted overtures to ASA-ALT asking if the managers there could maybe find more money for LEMV, but ASA-ALT, previously scorned by the intel staff, blew off the requests.

And in February Legere, the intel chief, called 900 of her staffers to a meeting in the Pentagon to talk about budget cuts, including the possibility of furloughs. Toward the end of the discussion Legere surprised everyone by bringing up LEMV, the insider recalls.

“Some of you may have heard we are going to cancel this project,” Legere said, according to the insider. “You would be correct. Let me tell you all something. I’d rather pay you all of your money than allocate funds for this ridiculous, stupid project again.”

LEMV was dead. And with it, any chance the Pentagon had to acquire a next-gen airship. The prototype was deflated in late May, its pricey helium venting into the air, impossible to recover. HAV, the British airframe-maker, began negotiating with the Army to buy back the blimp components for the company’s own use.

Since then Army has been trying to distance itself from the program’s failure, portraying LEMV mostly as a victim of circumstance. “With the reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan coupled with the technical challenges and limitations of constrained resources, the Army made the determination to discontinue the LEMV development,” service spokesman John Cummings tells War is Boring.

But the insider has a different view. “Army management at the highest levels failed LEMV.” And failed the entire concept of a future war blimp.

NIST seeks feedback on draft cybersecurity framework
Aug. 28, 2013 – 07:17PM   |  


The government is one step closer to finalizing what will become a framework of best practices and voluntary standards for securing critical infrastructure systems.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology on Wednesday released a preliminary draft of the framework , which includes a host of standards and guidelines for companies to measure how well they know what systems to protect, based on priority and impact to the company’s mission, and how well they can detect, prevent, respond to and recover from a cyber attack. The framework advises critical infrastructure companies to:

■ Inventory and track physical devices, systems and software applications and platforms within the organization.

■ Protect remote access to organizational networks to include telework guidance, mobile devices access restrictions and cloud computing policies and procedures.

■ Reduce potential for abuse of authorized privileges by eliminating unnecessary assets, separation of duties procedures and least privilege requirements.

■ Integrate cybersecurity practices and procedures with human resources management, such as personnel screenings, departures and transfers.

■ Perform personnel and system monitoring activities over external service providers.

“The Framework complements, and does not replace, an organization’s existing business or cybersecurity risk management process and cybersecurity program,” according to the document. The goal is to ensure the framework can be adapted to meet the unique threats facing a company, is cost-effective to implement, focuses on outcomes and complements rather than conflicts with current regulatory authorities.

NIST has been working with industry to construct the framework. Under the president’s cybersecurity executive order released in February, NIST has until October to publish a draft framework that includes those standards. A final version of the framework is due in February.

Companies that adhere to the voluntary standards could be rewarded with preferences in obtaining federal grants, lower insurance rates or public recognition, Michael Daniel, White House cybersecurity coordinator said in a blog post this month. The Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have been directed to suggest ways to encourage companies to adopt the standards.

The document released Wednesday is a discussion draft NIST is using to solicit feedback from the public before finalizing the draft framework. Specifically, NIST wants to know if the preliminary draft, as presented, is inclusive of, and not disruptive to, effective cybersecurity practices; adequately defines outcomes that strengthen cybersecurity and supports business objectives; and provides sufficient guidance and resources to aid businesses of all sizes.

NIST expects implementation of the framework will vary by company because each uses information technology and operational technology differently.

The document also includes a methodology for protecting privacy and civil liberties, such as identifying all personally identifiable information a company collects or retains that may be accessible and auditing access to databases that contain PII.


Surveillance drone helps firefighters battle Calif. blaze


Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY 11:16 a.m. EDT August 29, 2013

The 12-day-old fire has grown to 301 square miles and is 30% contained.

A National Guard Predator drone is flying over the vast Rim Fire near Yosemite park to send back real-time data to firefighters on its size and direction of the blaze in the longest such mission in California.

The unmanned drone launched Wednesday will be airborne for 22 hours.

“It will identify where fire activity is located and how it is moving, including locating and identifying spot fires which will improve the ability to protect life, property, and natural resources,” the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement.

The 12-day-old Rim Fire has grown to 301 square miles, and officials said the fire was 30% contained as of Thursday morning.

”We continue to get line around this fire,” said California fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. ”It’s not nearly as active as it was last week.”

Fire officials estimate that it can be contained no sooner than Sept. 10.

The remotely piloted drone, which is the size of a small Cessna, has helped firefighters by shouldering the burden normally carried out by helicopters, which must be refueled every two hours.

The MQ-1 unmanned aircraft is from the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing from Riverside and is operating from Victorville Airport. It flew over mostly unpopulated areas on its 300-mile flight to the Rim Fire

”The drone is providing data directly back to the incident commander, allowing him to make quick decisions about which resources to deploy and where,” Berlant said.

Officials were careful to point out the images are being used only to aid in the effort to contain the fire. Outside the fire area, it will be escorted by a manned aircraft.

In 2009 a NASA Predator equipped with an infrared imaging sensor helped the U.S. Forest Service assess damage from a fire in Angeles National Forest. In 2008, a drone capable of detecting hot spots helped firefighters assess movement of a series of wildfires stretching from Southern California’s Lake Arrowhead to San Diego.


More than 3,000 Civilian Medical Personnel Quit Amid Furloughs, Budget Cuts

Eric Katz

Government Executive

August 28, 2013


More than 3,000 Defense Department medical civilians have left the agency in the face of furloughs and continued budget uncertainty, according to a report in USA Today.

A majority of the departures have come from the Army, where 5 percent of the civilian medical workforce has quit or retired this year. Vacated positions include “highly skilled clinicians, scientists, researchers and other health workers,” Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s surgeon generalsaid.

 Eric Katz joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 after graduating from The George Washington University, where he studied journalism and political science. He has written for his college newspaper and an online political news website and worked in a public affairs office for the Navy’s .

Horoho pointed directly to the nearly departmentwide, mandatory days of unpaid leave as a possible impetus for the separations. Many of the medical staff left DoD to work for the Veterans Affairs Department, which is exempt from sequestration.

While some DoD medical staff were also exempted from furloughs, about 60 percent of the Army’s doctors and nurses had to take six days of unpaid leave.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has repeatedly warned of the effects of sequestration on the morale of the workforce. While Hagel has said he hopes to avoid furloughs starting in October — should sequestration continue in the new fiscal year as scheduled — the department recently announced plans to lay off more than 6,000 workers in 2014.

In addition to the Army’s departures, the Air Force lost 6 percent of its medical staff between late-February and mid-August, USA Today reported, while the Navy lost about 1 percent. All told, nearly 3,400 civilian medical personnel quit in six-month period. 

A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department made the decision to furlough only after careful consideration of the effects they — as well as other cuts — would have.

Hagel “recognized the significant hardship this placed on DoD civilians and their families,” Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said. “We looked at all options to meet these cuts and unfortunately, furloughs became a reality.” 

J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said furloughs are only the latest in a series of challenges causing defense civilians to leave.

“Don’t think that 3,400 professionals left DoD medical facilities in the past quarter only because of furloughs,” Cox said. “It is furloughs on top of pay freezes, on top of hiring freezes, on top of retirement cuts, on top of threats of continued abuse and nine more years of sequestration. It’s the accumulation of cuts, disrespect and declining living standards that pushed them out the door.”


Syria Strike Wouldn’t Be Cheap

Defense News

Aug. 28, 2013 – 03:45AM | By MARCUS WEISGERBER |

WASHINGTON — A cruise missile strike against Syria could cost the Pentagon hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons, according to experts and government documents.

Since any type of US military action is expected to last just a few days, the price tag would be similar to costs accrued during the early days of the 2011, five-month NATO operation to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, defense analysts say.

The first few weeks of the Libyan operation cost the US about $600 million. About $340 million of that was directly was to replenish munitions, specifically sea-launched Raytheon Tomahawk cruise missiles and air-launched Boeing Joint Direct Attack munitions, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (T-LAMs) cost about $1.4 million each, according to government budget documents.

But unlike the Libyan mission, there has been little talk of establishing a costly no fly zone over Syria.

The US and its allies appear to be planning for a limited strike against the Syrian government, which Western nations claim has used chemical weapons against civilians.

The US Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, each with up to 96 missile cells — although experts say these ships are rarely loaded with a full complement of these types of weapons.

Missile-armed submarines are also likely to be in the area, although the US would not confirm their presence. Several submarines, including one SSGN missile sub armed with a capacity of 154 missiles, took part in the Libyan campaign. That submarine, the Florida, reportedly launched as many as 99 Tomahawks at targets in Libya in March 2011 alone.

At least one British submarine also launched missiles against Libyan targets.

Command-and-control and intelligence aircraft — such as E-3 AWACS Airborne Warning and Control System and E-8 JSTARS Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System — which would likely support any type of strike on Syria, could also add to the price tag. During the first 10 days of the Libya operation, the US spent about $1.6 million on these types of missions.

Support from aerial refueling tankers would also add to the cost. During the first weeks of the Libya operation, US Air Force tankers flew for more than 800 hours, costing $9.3 million.


Rasmussen Reports

What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Week’s end finds the Obama administration out on a limb with its military threats against Syria, and despite President Obama’s enthusiastic embrace this week of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington, Americans have a pretty sour view of race relations in this country.

U.S. voters continue to show little interest in getting involved in the civil war in Syria despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement yesterday that the United States has definite proof of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its opponents. Just 37% think the United States should provide increased military assistance to protect the citizens of Syria if it is confirmed that the Syrian government used chemical weapons. Forty percent (40%) are opposed.

Support and opposition are both up slightly from early in the week.
The latest findings come from the night before and the night after Kerry’s announcement.

Seventy-three percent (73%) already think it is at least somewhat likely that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its citizens, including 53% who say it is Very Likely. But voters have consistently opposed U.S. involvement in any of the so-called Arab Spring protests. Fifty percent (50%) believe U.S. involvement in Middle East politics is bad for America. 

Forty-two percent (42%) of voters now think the president is doing a good or excellent job on national security.Thirty-six percent (36%) rate him poorly for his handling of national security issues. Obama’s positives in the area of national security hit a high of 54% in mid-January but by June had fallen to the low 40s, levels not seen since prior to the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Obama’s job approval ratings in the daily Presidential Tracking Poll remain at levels seen for much of his first term in office.   Voters have consistently felt that the president is friendlier toward big businesses than small businesses, and they now believe so more than ever.

Voters think America’s a better place since Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech 50 years ago this week, but nearly nine-out-of-10 say race relations have gotten worse or remained about the same since the election of the nation’s first black president. Sixty-nine percent (69%) think race relations in this country are better today than they were 50 years ago, but just 10% think they are better since Obama’s election. Only four percent (4%) of blacks believe those relations have gotten better since November 2008.

King preached about a day when men and women of all races would have equal opportunity in America. Only 27% of all voters think America has reached a day of equal opportunity for all. But 34% believe the federal government has done too much to promote equal opportunity in this country. Just as many (35%) say the government has done too little.

Raising the federal debt ceiling and funding the president’s national health care law will be front-burner issues when Congress returns to Washington, DC next week. Republicans tend to think a Tea Party-inspired GOP congressional threat to shut down the federal government to halt funding for the health care law will be good for their party, but other voters disagree.

Though most voters believe the Tea Party has less influence these days, 78% of Republicans believe it’s at least somewhat important for their leaders in Congress to work with the Tea Party, with 45% who think it’s Very Important.

While many voters are critical of the Tea Party itself, most continue to share its small government principles. Voters are still in agreement that tax and spending cuts help the economy, and 42% now would be more likely to vote for a candidate who promised to oppose all tax increases over one who would only raise taxes on the rich. That’s the highest level of support in over a year. Forty-one percent (41%) would vote for the one who would only raise taxes on the wealthy.

Most voters still have an unfavorable opinion of the health care law and believe it will increase the nation’s deficit and drive up health care costs.  While voters give the U.S. health care system lackluster reviews, 57% expect it to get even worse over the next couple of years as the new law is implemented. 

As of today, only 16% of adult consumers and 20% of investors believe the U.S. economy is in good or excellent shape.

However, Americans continue to be a bit more optimistic as far as the housing market is concerned. Forty-nine percent (49%) of Americans think buying a home is the best investment most families can make, down from a high of 67% in May 2009. But one-in-three (34%) say now is a good time for someone in their area to be selling a house. That’s up from 15% this time last year. 

Fifty-six percent (56%), though, expect interest rates to be higher next year at this time, the highest level of pessimism in over two years. 

Voters rate the damage done to U.S. national security by recently convicted Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning and former government contractor Edward Snowden as about even, but a sizable number remain undecided.

Republicans lead Democrats by one point on the latest Generic Congressional Ballot. The two parties have been running neck-and-neck since mid-April.

Mid-term elections are coming next year, with control of the Congress again up for grabs, and you don’t want to miss a single survey. Take advantage of Rasmussen Reports’ special offer: A Rasmussen Reader subscription that lasts through December 31, 2014 is now just $24.95. Sign up today!

In other surveys last week:

— For the third straight week, 29% of Likely U.S. Voters say the country is heading in the right direction.

Thirty-six percent (36%) took a summer vacation this year, but 40% of those Americans say economic conditions caused them to cut back on the amount they spent on their vacation this year. 

— While many schools are already back in session, 65% of Americans with school-age children don’t think school should start until after Labor Day

— Forty-one percent (41%) of all adults think students should be required to wear uniforms to school. Forty-seven percent (47%) are opposed, down from 53% two years ago.

— Eighteen states currently offer a “sales tax holiday” – a brief suspension of sales taxes – at this time of year to encourage back-to-school shopping, and 57% like the idea. 

— Fifty percent (50%) of Americans believe movies and the movie industry have a negative impact on American society. Fifty-nine percent (59%) think violent movies lead to more violence in society. 

— Fifty-two percent (52%) of Americans rarely or never go to the movies, but among those who do, 59% say a film’s storyline is the strongest draw. Just 19% say the cast typically determines their movie choices.

Fifty-six percent (56%) say their family regularly flies the U.S. flag on important holidays, and 73% don’t think anyone should be able to stop them unless it’s a public safety issue.  Americans also strongly believe school children should be required to honor the flag every morning.


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