Tag Archives: Government Accoutability

Air Force One Is Just the Tip of the Pentagon Cost Overrun Iceberg

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                                                       The F-35A at Eglin Air Force Base -“Vanity Fair”

“THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR”

“Even the F-35 pilot’s helmet costs $400,000 apiece.

[Total Program] price now is an estimated $1.4 trillion for far fewer than the 2,443 planes originally planned. Put another way, the Pentagon is spending far more on this plane than Australia’s entire GDP ($924 billion).

In test flights the F-35 has failed to outperform the F-16, a plane it is supposed to replace. It will be, hands down (or flaps up), the most expensive weapons system in history — at least until the next Pentagon doozy comes along.

In addition to being over budget, it will also be very late. The F-35 program had originally promised 1,013 fighters by fiscal year 2016 but has delivered only 179. The last of the F-35s won’t be delivered until 2040, at which point who knows how they will perform against next generation aircraft, possibly all drone fighter jets.

The new Ford class aircraft carrier is yet another example of massive cost overruns by Pentagon contractors. The $13-billion USS Gerald R. Ford is already two years behind schedule, and the U.S. Navy’s newest aircraft carrier is facing more delays after the Pentagon’s top weapons tester concluded the ship is still not ready for combat despite expectations it would be delivered to the fleet this past September.

The USS Ford is the first of three Ford-class carriers ordered by the Navy with combined cost expected close to $42 billion. At a recent meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman John McCain was sharply critical of the delays and cost overruns, “After more than $2.3 billion in cost overruns have increased its cost to nearly $13 billion, the taxpayers deserve to know when CVN-78 will actually be delivered, how much developmental risk remains in the program, and if cost overruns will continue.” He is absolutely right. Taxpayers are entitled to some answers.

Changing the Pentagon procurement habits will be as slow as changing the course of a 100,000 ton aircraft carrier. So, given Trump’s obsession with “on time and on budget,” he may be tearing out his long, orange locks in frustration over endless Pentagon budget overruns and delays over the next four years.

But, I’m sure the project to gold-plate the interior of the new Air Force One will come in under budget and ahead of schedule. Yeah, right!”

https://spectator.org/air-force-one-is-just-the-tip-of-the-pentagon-cost-overrun-iceberg/

 

Industry-Paid Fellowships Infiltrate Congress

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“POGO

“The U.S. Congress allows Members to staff their offices with Fellows who are paid by corporations, foundations, universities, non-profits, and other outside private entities.

Fellowship program far too often flies under the conflict of interest radar.


Recommendations:

Require disclosure in the House of Representatives

The House Rules committee should introduce language into the Code of Official Conduct that would require Representatives to report when their office employs an individual who is compensated by any source outside of the United States Government. Such a report should include the identity of the source of the compensation and the amount or rate of compensation.

More oversight in the Senate

Senate reporting of Fellows who are paid by corporations, foundations, universities, non-profits, and other outside private entities is falling short.  The Senate Ethics Committee needs to increase its oversight over the Congressional Fellows reporting requirements, actively checking with Member offices to make sure they don’t have any Fellows employed for years they don’t report any. The Senate Ethics Committee should also increase training for Member offices on what they are required to report, at the start of each Congress it should hold a series of trainings for all Member offices.

Both Chambers should require electronic filing of these disclosures, in a publically accessible format

The Senate, and House as it begins to require reporting on Fellows, should transition to an electronic filing system that can be accessed by the public. This will allow for more uniform participation by Member offices and more public oversight over the Congressional Fellowship programs.

In January 2001, Peter Winokur began working as a Fellow in Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) office. He would ultimately spend almost four years there, specializing in energy policy and eventually becoming the Senator’s Energy & Transportation Advisor. He wrote legislation, offered advice, wrote memos for the Senator, met with lobbyists and public interest groups, and attended meetings on press and policy strategy, according to reports on his work. He was, for all intents and purposes, a Senate staffer. There was one major distinction: his $120,000-per-year salary was paid by the IEEE-USA, an industry group that is an “organizational unit” of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and whose stated goal is to “recommend policies and implement programs specifically intended to serve and benefit the members.”

Many of Winokur’s long hours in the Senate were spent working on the Energy Policy Act of 2002. It was a big bill, combining policy on energy efficiency, alternative energy sources, energy production, and even some amendments to state programs. “My basic workday is from 8:00 AM to 6:30 PM. Throw in 2 hours on the Metro where I read as much as I can, and it’s a 7:00 AM to 7:30 PM day. Then I get home to read my Sandia and IEEE e-mail,” he wrote on his time in the Senate.

Winokur felt he would fit in well at Senator Reid’s office because Reid was the Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee. Winokur stated, “The Senator is committed to making renewable energy technologies a priority. And so am I.” And so is IEEE-USA. Their policy position statements on Energy and Environment from the time are not so different from some of the text of the Energy Policy Act of 2002 introduced in the Senate. Winokur’s Energy Department bio states, “As Energy and Transportation Advisor, crafted energy policy that included tax legislation for renewable energy, resulting in billions in economic development and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.” This work for the Senate while being paid by industry gives the appearance of—and the incentive structure for—a conflict of interest.

Winokur had the kind of access most industry professionals can only dream about. He found that “people have a tendency to return phone calls from a Senate office, whether it’s the Attorney General of a state, the chief counsel of the FCC, or the COO of a California utility,” Winokur wrote in his report.

Regardless of whether there was an identifiable legislative outcome from Winokur’s position (the Energy Policy Act of 2002 never made it out of conference to become a law), it’s fairly easy to see how beneficial it could be for IEEE-USA, or any industry, to have someone on their payroll in a Congressional office, with the ear of a powerful Senator, every day. And the fellowship proved beneficial to Winokur as well. The Project On Government Oversight’s (POGO) review of this and hundreds of other similar fellowships found that most fellowship positions last only a year, and most fellows earned far less than permanent staffers. But Winokur was there for almost four, making $120,000 a year–which was close to the maximum amountSenate staff could be paid at the time.

This kind of arrangement, with fellows working in Congress but paid by an outside source, is legal, and more common than one might think. But are the Members of Congress and their staffs actually following the rules that are supposed to keep a check on conflicts of interest? And how often do fellowship programs end up furthering industry goals over Congressional priorities?

Fellowships Bring Congress and Industry Closer Together

The Fellows are required to abide by all the laws, rules, and standards governing permanent Congressional staff members. Indeed, they are often indistinguishable from permanent staff members. They work on writing legislation and Floor speeches, and represent the Member in meetings with other offices and constituents.

There are additional rules governing fellows. Congressional offices must make sure that fellows have no conflicts of interest and that the arrangement gives no undue advantage to special interest groups. “The participant may not work on issues related to the interest of the individual company or industry providing such funding. Conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts between the participant’s duties to the Senate and his or her responsibilities to the private sponsor must be avoided,” the Senate Ethics Manual states. It is the duty of the Senator to monitor the activities of the fellow to ensure that no potential conflict of interest arises during the course of their work. A similar statement can be found in the House Ethics Manual: “an intern or fellow should not be assigned duties that will result in any direct or indirect benefit to the sponsoring organization or anyone else with which the individual is affiliated (including the employer or fellow), other than broadening the individual’s knowledge.”

On the Senate side, the supervisor of the fellow is required by a Senate rule to report to the Ethics Committee “the identity of the source of the compensation received by such individual and the amount or rate of compensation paid by such source.” The House does not have a similar rule and does not require fellows or their supervisors to disclose their compensation details.

This program is often used for the educational benefit of these fellows and is generally intended to be a temporary placement before the fellows return to their organization. On the House side, “A Member or House office may accept the temporary services of an intern participating in a program … which is primarily of educational benefit to the participant. … Similarly, a Member or House office may accept the temporary services of a fellow participating in a mid-career education program … while the individual receives compensation from his or her employer,” the Ethics Manual states. Many of the organizations sponsoring these fellowships tout how valuable it is for their participants to learn about Congress and the legislative process while Congress benefits from knowledgeable experts. “The objective of the David A. Winston Health Policy Fellowship is to provide a unique opportunity to learn about the political system through direct exposure to public and private sector roles in health policy development,” one brochure states.

Congressional Fellows are in significant demand. They come to an office looking like a year’s worth of free work from some very competent people.

“Approximately 50% of Fellows begin or return to careers in academia following the Fellowship, with strengthened credentials in policy-relevant research and an ability to teach students about the complex issues involved in bridging science and policy,” the Society for Research in Child Development writes about their fellowship. For Congressional Members, it’s understandable why they would look for outside support. “While federal spending and the executive branch have ballooned, Congress has downsized its research and analytical support staff by about one-third over the past 40 years,” former Congressional Research Service analyst Kevin Kosar wrote for National Affairs. Another study by the Sunlight Foundation pointed to low pay and turnover as undermining Congress’s ability to attract and retain talented staff.

Or as one fellow put it, “Congressional Fellows are in significant demand. They come to an office looking like a year’s worth of free work from some very competent people.” These fellowships, funded by outside entities, offer the opportunity for access to experts these offices might not otherwise be able to afford.

Of course the intended purpose of these fellowship programs makes good sense and can be beneficial to all parties, but using these experts could pose a problem.

POGO reviewed 2,014 publicly available reports on Senate fellows and found several examples of the appearance of a conflict of interest, and that Senators did not consistently disclose fellows whose salary was paid by a third party. The House does not maintain records on Congressional Fellows at all.

On the Senate side, fellows and their supervisors are required to file reports detailing when they began their fellowship, how much money they’re making, what entity is paying their salary, and how many hours they’ve worked. Senate rules mandate that new fellows file their “Agreement to Comply with the Senate Code of Official Conduct,” known as form 41.4, at the beginning of their fellowship, at the end of each calendar quarter, and at the end of the fellowship. The fellow’s supervisor must file a “Report on Individuals Who Perform Senate Services,” known as form 41.6, which is often signed by the Senator. While these forms are available to the public, they are not electronically available and anyone interested in seeing them must visit the Senate Office of Public Records during business hours.

While these forms offer fascinating insight into which industries and Senators are utilizing the fellowship program, they also demonstrate how much we don’t know. POGO examined all of the 2,014 publicly available forms on file at the Senate Office of Public Records as of April 22, 2016, to determine the extent of compliance with the law. In our review, we found that approximately 27 percent were missing data on the source of the fellow’s compensation, and approximately 24 percent were missing data on how much the fellow was being paid. We also discovered instances where Senators employed fellows but failed to file the appropriate forms.

On the House side, there was no disclosure at all and no records to be reviewed. According to the House Ethics Manual, the fellows are required to comply with the Code of Official Conduct, but there are no rules requiring reporting and no forms collected by the House Office of the Clerk. The ethics manual also states: “[W]hile internship and fellowship programs are often sponsored by educational institutions, other public or private organizations may act as sponsors, provided the arrangement does not give undue advantage to special interests.” How the House ensures compliance with this requirement is a mystery.

The Appearance of a Conflict of Interest

The rules governing the Senate program are fairly simple: Both the Senator and the Fellow must avoid all conflicts of interest, including the appearance of a conflict. But in POGO’s review, we were able to find several examples of Fellows working on projects that were directly related to the industry paying their salaries. Below are just a few of those examples.

Department of Energy’s National Laboratories

The Department of Energy is responsible for a network of 17 National Laboratories conducting all kinds of scientific research. Three of these labs, Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, have multi-billion dollar budgets and focus on ensuring the US nuclear stockpile is safe, secure, and reliable. The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration manages the labs by hiring contractors to run them—contractors who have a large financial stake in ensuring their work continues and have long worked to influence Congress in any way possible. In recent years they have focused on gaining support for a $1 trillion nuclear modernization effort. “A White House official … described the labs to me as being among ‘the biggest rogue elements in the U.S. government,’” former Energy Department senior policy advisorRobert Alvarez wrote.

Stephanie Teich-McGoldrick was a 2015-2016 Congressional Fellow from Sandia National Laboratories, working on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Sandia is one of the largest national labs in the United States and works mainly to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, manages and operates the lab with an annual budget of $2.9 billion. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has authorizing jurisdiction over the Department of Energy Labs, which means it has jurisdiction for any policy changes impacting the labs. According to the Congressional record, Teich-McGoldrick worked on legislation directly affecting the labs while receiving a salary of $124,000 paid by Sandia. In April 2016, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) thanked Teich-McGoldrick by name for her work on the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016. This bill, which was re-named the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016, passed both the House and the Senate, and includes several references to work done by the national labs. Though neither the House nor Senate versions of the bill mention Sandia National Lab specifically, it’s clear the legislation would affect its work. Indeed, both versions include language on modernizing and increasing the security of the U.S. power grid, an area in which Sandia describes itself as playing “a key role.” It’s impossible for the public to know if Teich-McGoldrick worked on parts of the legislation that would have affected the labs—it is a huge bill and she may well have steered clear of anything to do with Sandia’s work. But there’s no doubt that her position gives the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Fellows in the House are not required to disclose their information.

Teich-McGoldrick is only one of many Sandia-sponsored Congressional Fellows. In 2009 another former Sandia Congressional Fellow named Matthew Allen wrote a report on his time in the House Committee on Homeland Security called Working at Congress: A Sandian’s Experience in which he details what Fellows do. The report also serves to demonstrate how valuable the experience can be, not just for the Fellow but for Sandia as well. One of the reasons Sandia sends people to Congress, Allen wrote, was “the benefit the lab receives in having an employee that can translate the political landscape into opportunities for the lab.” There is, of course, no public record of Allen’s time on the Hill, as Fellows in the House are not required to disclose their information.

Sandia Lab has placed two dozen Fellows over the last 25 years. According to Sandia Lab spokesman Jim Danneskiold, the Lab only sponsors fellows at the request of congressional committees or members of Congress. “Fellows provide unbiased technical assistance, but they never work on specific programs or issues that affect the labs and follow strict requirements that prevent conflicts of interest. Sandia does not seek out Congressional Fellow positions, and only responds when requested,” he told POGO. The other two labs, Livermore National Lab and Los Alamos National Lab, are also no strangers to the Congressional Fellowship program. For example, Kory Sylvester was a 2007-2008 Fellow for Pete Domenici (R-NM) then-Ranking Member on the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee. Sylvester’s Fellowship was sponsored by Los Alamos National Security, the managing and operating contractor of the lab and a consortium of big-name contractors including Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, and URS Energy and Construction. Senator Domenici was known as “Saint Pete” by the nuclear labs for all the money he brought to them. At that time the Los Alamos Lab’s annual budget was $2.7 billion. While Sylvester was working on the committee that decides and appropriates funds for the lab, he was paid $127,000 by the contractor running it. According to Iowa State University’s College of Engineering, Sylvester also completed another Congressional Fellowship at the House Committee on Homeland Security.

A Congressional Fellow sponsored by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows how even when the Fellowship forms are filled out, they may not tell the whole story. Robert Perret was a 1996-1999 Fellow in Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) office. Perret’s paperwork indicates his salary was paid by the University of California Regents, a governing board for the University of California network. However, in a September 2000 statement, Senator Reid thanks Perret for his “exceptional work,” stating he actually came from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Livermore lab was managed by the University of California at the time and the address on Perret’s forms is a post office box from Livermore, CA.

It’s not just the National Nuclear Security Administration laboratories that take advantage of this program. POGO found the managing contractor of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT-Battelle, has sponsored at least six Congressional Fellows. Since 2006 they have had at least one Fellow in Senator Alexander’s (R-TN) office every year, some Fellowships lasting longer than a year. This is an advantageous move for the company since in 2011 Senator Alexander became Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, which decides how much money will go to Oak Ridge National Lab every year. In 2015 he became the Chairman.

These committees decide a lot more than just annual funding. In 2014, Congress passed a bipartisan law called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). Lawmakers were concerned when industry experts found that approximately $20 billion is misused or wasted on duplicative information technology (IT) projects every year. FITARA was meant to increase transparency on how IT funds are spent across the federal government. But the Energy Department laboratories didn’t like this added oversight and accountability, and in 2015 they launched a campaign to secure an exemption from its requirements.

It was Senator Alexander who led the charge in getting the labs the exemption they so desperately wanted. Despite the fact that IT experts across the government as well as the Government Accountability Office were strongly against the exemption, it was included in the appropriations bill crafted by the Energy and Water Development Subcommittee. John Rivard was the UT-Battelle Fellow in Senator Alexander’s office at the time, with an annual salary of $168,000. According to Rivard’s LinkedIn profile, which indicates he’s still working in Senator Alexander’s office, he “co-writes legislation, speeches, and op-eds regarding science, energy, competitiveness, and space policy.” Rivard’s place in Senator Alexander’s office and his stated activities give the appearance of a real conflict of interest, and a potential violation of Senate ethics rules.

IEEE-USA

IEEE-USA also has a long history of placing Fellows in Congressional offices (as well as in executive branch offices). The organization has been placing Fellows in Congressional offices since 1974 and keeps a publicly available record of fellowship alumni.

If a Fellow is working on legislation that will directly fund their industry or the company that’s paying their salary, there’s a clear conflict of interest.

One recent IEEE-USA Fellow demonstrates exactly how these Fellows can use their positions to influence policy to be beneficial toward their industry. Robert Bartolo was a 2014-2015 IEEE-USA Fellow in Senator Robert Casey’s (D-PA) office. When Bartolo became a Fellow in September 2014, he had already earned his Ph.D. and worked at the University of Maryland and the Naval Research Laboratory for several years. “One motivation for applying for the Fellowship was out of a concern for the serious implications of climate change and the current lack of a workable and effective plan to actually minimize carbon emissions in the years ahead. This was a policy topic I definitely wanted to work on,” Bartolo wrote in a report about his placement in Senator Casey’s office.

Bartolo got his wish and was able to work on several energy and environment policies, some of which were directly in line with IEEE-USA’s policy goals. In Bartolo’s report, he describes several projects he was personally involved in. During Bartolo’s Fellowship, Senator Casey introduced legislation to promote the development of clean energy fueling infrastructure called the Clean Vehicles Corridors Act (CVC Act). The bill established clean vehicle areas along interstate highways where the infrastructure necessary to refuel clean vehicles, including electric charging and biofuels, would be made available. In his final report to IEEE-USA, Bartolo said he worked with the Environment and Public Works Committee to incorporate aspects of the CVC Act into the Drive Act, a highway reauthorization bill, but the Drive Act didn’t make it out of Committee during Bartolo’s time in Congress. Bartolo stated, “I expended some effort to try and introduce aspects of the CVC Act that would be germane to [the Energy and Natural Resources Committee]. For instance encouraging the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide grants on a cost sharing basis for clean fueling infrastructure.”

This work was directly in line with IEEE-USA’s publicly stated policy goals for this time period. IEEE-USA’s 2014 National Energy Policy Recommendations includes a section on “Transforming Transportation by Diversifying Energy Sources.” These recommendations are remarkably similar to the legislation developed and introduced by Senator Casey. For example, IEEE-USA recommends, “Promoting the development of battery charging infrastructure, and its development by cities, states, and businesses, and along the interstate highway system with the support of the federal government.” IEEE-USA further recommends the development of alternative transportation fuels including, “promoting the use of biofuels.”

Indeed, Bartolo makes no effort to hide that he directly worked on issues related to the interests of IEEE-USA. On his LinkedIn profile, Bartolo lists the issue areas he worked on during his Congressional Fellowship, including Energy and Climate Policy, Renewable Energy Tax Policy, Zero Emission Vehicles, and Energy Efficiency, all of which coincide with information and recommendations in IEEE-USA’s 2014 National Energy Policy Recommendations.

Senator Casey’s office maintains that potential conflicts of interest are strictly monitored. “The vast majority of our office’s congressional fellows were detailed from other government agencies, and any fellow detailed from an organization outside of government was prohibited from working on any issue that could conflict with the organization,” the Senator’s Communications Director, John Rizzo, told POGO.

But Bartolo’s Fellowship seemed to violate Senate rules that require Congressional Fellows to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. It also raises questions about whether Bartolo’s Fellowship was primarily for his educational benefit.

To make matters worse, there is no official record of Bartolo’s time in the Senator’s office, as they never filed the required forms with the Senate Office of Public Records. Senator Casey did file forms for three other Fellows in 2008 and 2009, indicating that at that time his office is familiar with the rule requiring the filing. Yet the only record of Bartolo’s time in the Senator’s office are his reports on the IEEE-USA alumni list and his own LinkedIn page, which circumvents the transparency and accountability purposes of the rule.

These examples are just a small handful of those that clearly demonstrate a failure to comply with the conflict of interest terms of the rule. Some might ask why this is important. After all, why have a Fellow with a wealth of knowledge if they can’t work on developing policy for that field? But conflicts of interest tend to result in policy that benefits powerful special interests at the expense of taxpayers’ interests. That is why the Senate ethics manual requires each Fellowship to be “analyzed on a case-by-case” basis. If a Fellow is working on legislation that will directly fund their industry or the company that’s paying their salary, there’s a clear conflict of interest.

That’s not to say that Congressional offices shouldn’t have Fellows or that the program should be abolished. It’s a valuable resource for both Members of Congress and industry professionals who want to understand the legislative process better. But more scrutiny of potential conflicts of interests is necessary.

It’s important to note that the public only knows about these conflicts because in most cases the Senators and their Fellows followed the rules and filed their agreement and reporting forms as required. They made an effort to be transparent. POGO’s review of this Fellowship program found evidence to suggest that lack of standardized reporting, or in some cases of reporting at all, is a widespread problem.

A Lack of Compliance

The Senate rule was created to provide important transparency of how this Fellowship program is used both by industry and by the Senators themselves. Lack of compliance with the rule significantly undermines its intent. Despite the fact that the reporting forms are required to be filed every quarter, POGO found Fellows or their sponsors frequently failed to comply. As a result it is difficult to know just how many Senate offices are using this program without disclosure. The total lack of disclosure on the House side makes it impossible to know how those Fellowships are being used.

“We’re concerned about both real and perceived conflicts of interest. We think that’s really important…because it impacts the integrity of the fellowship programs.”

One way of getting an idea of how many Fellows have flown under the radar is to analyze the publicly available Fellowship alumni records posted by some sponsoring organizations. These alumni records provide an excellent glimpse into how many Senators have had Fellows but never had them file forms with the Senate Office of Public Records. As noted above, IEEE-USA has a publicly available list of their 87 Congressional Fellowship alumni dating back to 1974. A little under 50 percent of the listed Fellows were in Senate offices, and of those, 76 percent did not file any documentation with the Senate Office of Public Records.

POGO conducted a similar analysis of the Brookings Institution’s Legis Congressional Fellowship, which provides government and corporate applicants the opportunity to work in Congress. But they’re not required to disclose to the public which government or corporate entity they come from. This Fellowship is intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of how Congress works and to help Fellows create a network of contacts on the Hill. One past Legis Fellow states, “I’m not a lawyer, but I fit in very well. I wrote legislation. I wrote speeches. I wrote floor statements. I analyzed bills. Legis makes us better at what we do.” While Brookings does not have a publicly available list of Fellowship alumni, there is an abbreviated list of some of the Congressional and Committee offices where the Institution has successfully placed Fellows in the past. Of the 17 Senators listed, 7 did not have any kind of records for any Fellows filed with the Senate Office of Public Records.

In addition to a total lack of filing, there are several examples of Senators with gaps in their record keeping or no records before a certain date. For example, Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) office filed 82 forms from 1997 until 2000. But between 2001 and 2011 there’s a gap without records for a single Fellow. Through Fellowship alumni lists, like those kept by the American Psychological Association (APA), it’s clear that Senator Wyden’s office was familiar with rule at one time and did have Fellows during this period, despite the lack of records. Kenneth Lutz was an IEEE-USA Fellow in Senator Wyden’s office in 2009. Although there are no records for Lutz’s time there, he stated in a report about his time as a Fellow in Wyden’s office: “Senator Wyden’s office has had many Fellows, and the staff knows how to ease Fellows into legislative work. I was given quite a lot of responsibility by the legislative staff member with whom I worked.”

Similarly, some Senators do not have records for older dates, perhaps indicating they weren’t aware of the requirement at the time. One example of this may be Amanda Clinton, the 2014-2015 APA’s Congressional Fellow in Senator Chris Murphy’s (D-CT) office. While forms were never filed for Clinton’s Fellowship, it appears Murphy filed for other Fellows beginning in early 2016.

There is also a clear lack of standardization in how the forms are filled out. For example, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) facilitates Fellowships from a number of different Fellowship sponsors including the American Chemical Society, APA, IEEE-USA, and the AAAS themselves. These organizations are responsible for recruiting, choosing, and sponsoring their fellows while AAAS helps them find placements in Congressional offices. Cynthia Robinson, Director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, told POGO that potential conflicts of interest are taken very seriously. “They have to be free agents and the sponsoring organizations can’t take any role in dictating what they do throughout the year,” Robinson said. “We’re concerned about both real and perceived conflicts of interest. We think that’s really important…because it impacts the integrity of the fellowship programs.”

But it’s up to the fellows and their supervisors to decide how they disclosure their sponsors on the Senate disclosure forms. Some Fellows cite the AAAS as the source of compensation, while others cite the underlying sponsoring organization. For example, John Cederquist was an IEEE-USA Fellow in Senator Jon Tester’s (D-MT) office from 2010-2011. On his forms he listed AAAS as the source of compensation though the Fellowship was technically sponsored by IEEE-USA. And, as we mentioned above, Senator Reid’s Fellow Robert Perret listed the University of California Regents instead of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as his sponsor. While these simple misrepresentations may not seem relevant, they serve to make analysis of the records more difficult and can undercut the transparency intent of the rule.

A lack of strict compliance with the Senate rule abounds and would appear to indicate a lack of education about what, exactly, is required. For instance, former Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) filed records for four Fellows from 1989 to 2012. Yet the source of compensation for each is listed as Senator Kohl, indicating either that all the forms spanning 20 years were filled out incorrectly or Senator Kohl was asking all Fellows to fill out disclosure forms, even if they weren’t being paid by a third party. It appears that at least two of the employees listed as Fellows, Arlene Branca and Theodore Bronstein, were full-time staff and would not have been required to fill out the forms.

Senator Michael Bennet’s (D-CO) Fellowship records show a similar pattern. According to records from the Senate Office of Public Records, Jonathan Davidson was a Fellow in the Senator’s office from 2011-2016, though his source of compensation is listed as “Michael Bennet.” A press release from Bennet’s office states Davidson was named Senator Bennet’s Chief of Staff in January 2011, which indicates there was no need for him to file these disclosure forms at all.

Senator Bennet’s records also feature several Fellows with listed compensation as executive branch government offices, including the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and the State Department. Fellows from the executive branch, or detailees, are not required to file out the same form as the Congressional Fellows. While they are required to file an agreement to comply with the Senate Code of Official Conduct, the form is called a 41.3 and is not available for public viewing. Detailees are also prohibited from working on projects that may be considered a conflict of interest. Over 60 of the 2,014 records reviewed by POGO—forms 41.4 and 41.6—list executive branch offices as the source of compensation.

These kinds of gaps, misfilings, and inconsistencies seem to be the result of a lack of education about exactly what this rule requires. Although the Senate Ethics Committee requires all new Senate personnel to complete a training program on the Code of Official Conduct, neither this rule nor its requirements are directly mentioned in the training documents. Though the Senate Ethics staff told POGO that Senators and their staff would be familiar with the requirement as it would be covered in training on the Ethics Manual, it appears that a more direct inclusion of the rule and its requirements should be adopted to increase compliance. It’s important to consider the fact that while some Members will provide more than enough information to be safe, as is the case with Senators Kohl and Bennet, it seems just as likely that the opposite will happen.

This Fellowship program can be a valuable resource for both Congress and non-government professionals across disciplines. But too often the program is misused. Fellows remain in offices for years, their salaries are often much higher than the typical staffer, and far too often they’re in a position to affect legislative changes that can directly benefit the industry paying their salary. The kind of access this Fellowship program provides is invaluable for these industries. It is yet another way that corporations, foundations, and other outside entities affect the legislative process.”

http://www.pogo.org/straus/issues/congress/2016/the-insidious-and-totally-legal-way-industry-infiltrated-congress.html

 

 

 

IRS Gears Up for 3rd Try at Outsourced Tax Collection

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irs-outsourcing-tax-collection

“POGO”

“This week, the IRS unveiled its plan to outsource federal tax debt collection to the private sector.

It will be the third time in 20 years the IRS employs private debt collection companies to recover delinquent federal income taxes, which currently amount to $458 billion.

The IRS’s previous experiments with private debt collection, in 1996 and 2006, were resounding failures. Both times, program costs offset the amount of revenue collected, and taxpayers complained of abusive and underhanded tactics by the collection companies. Government tax collectors have one critical advantage over private collectors: discretion. IRS agents can exercise discretion and flexibility when working with delinquent taxpayers, while contractor collectors can only demand payment.

Nonetheless, Congress is still gung-ho on the idea. It passed a highway funding billlast year which included a provision requiring the IRS to turn over some unpaid tax accounts to private collectors.

The program is expected to go into effect in the spring of 2017, at the earliest. The IRS awarded contracts to four companies: CBE Group, ConServe (aka Continental Service Group), Performant Recovery, and Pioneer Credit Recovery.

The fact that two of the contractors—CBE and Pioneer—took part in the ill-fated 2006 program does not bode well for this latest attempt. Pioneer’s recent track record, in particular, does not inspire confidence.

Earlier this year, Pioneer and another debt collection company paid $575,000 to settle alleged violations of the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Last year, the Department of Education terminated contracts with Pioneer and four other companies after finding they made “materially inaccurate representations” to federal student loan borrowers.

Pioneer reportedly drew the most borrower complaints to federal regulators. A 2012 Bloomberg exposé of the student loan collection industry singled out Pioneer for its coercive and deceptive collection practices.

Another cause for concern is that the tax collection program comes amid a recent surge in phone scams in which callers impersonate IRS agents and swindle victims into paying fictitious tax debts. The agency’s promise to “do everything it can” to mitigate this danger, including notifying taxpayers that their account is being transferred to a private collection agency, seems unconvincing.

Will the third time be the charm for private tax debt collection?

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2016/09/irs-gears-up-for-third-try-at-outsourced-tax-collection.html

 

The Real Versus Perceived Power Of The U.S. Presidency

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A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: 


Those of us in the Military Veteran Community, as well as those among us who have worked for years with the federal government, have become concerned in recent years about the public view of the Office of the President.  


Below are selected excerpts from a classic article by George Friedman, prior to the 2012 National Election. It is our hope that the content will continue bringing reality to American citizen expectations on the eve of the 2016 election. 



STRATFOR GEOPOLITICAL WEEKLY 

“The American presidency is designed to disappoint. 


What the winner actually can deliver depends upon what other institutions, nations and reality will allow him or her.


Each candidate must promise things that are beyond their power to deliver. No candidate could expect to be elected by emphasizing how little power the office actually has and how voters should therefore expect little from him. 


So candidates promise great, transformative programs.  Though the gap between promises and realities destroys immodest candidates, from the founding fathers’ point of view, it protects the republic. They distrusted government in general and the office of the president in particular.

Congress, the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Board all circumscribe the president’s power over domestic life. This and the authority of the states greatly limit the president’s power, just as the country’s founders intended. To achieve anything substantial, the president must create a coalition of political interests to shape decision-making in other branches of the government. Yet at the same time — and this is the main paradox of American political culture — the presidency is seen as a decisive institution and the person holding that office is seen as being of overriding importance.

The president has somewhat more authority in foreign policy, but only marginally so. He is trapped by public opinion, congressional intrusion, and above all, by the realities of geopolitics. Thus, while during his 2000 presidential campaign George W. Bush argued vehemently against nation-building, once in office, he did just that (with precisely the consequences he had warned of on the campaign trail). And regardless of how he modeled his foreign policy during his first campaign, the 9/11 attacks defined his presidency. 

Similarly, Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to redefine America’s relationship with both Europe and the Islamic world. Neither happened. It has been widely and properly noted how little Obama’s foreign policy in action has differed from George W. Bush’s. It was not that Obama didn’t intend to have a different foreign policy, but simply that what the president wants and what actually happens are very different things.

The power often ascribed to the U.S. presidency is overblown. But even so, people — including leaders — all over the world still take that power very seriously. They want to believe that someone is in control of what is happening. The thought that no one can control something as vast and complex as a country or the world is a frightening thought. Conspiracy theories offer this comfort, too, since they assume that while evil may govern the world, at least the world is governed. There is, of course, an alternative viewpoint, namely that while no one actually is in charge, the world is still predictable as long as you understand the impersonal forces guiding it. This is an uncomfortable and unacceptable notion to those who would make a difference in the world. For such people, the presidential race — like political disputes the world over — is of great significance.

Ultimately, the president does not have the power to transform U.S. foreign policy. Instead, American interests, the structure of the world and the limits of power determine foreign policy.

In the broadest sense, current U.S. foreign policy has been in place for about a century. During that period, the United States has sought to balance and rebalance the international system to contain potential threats in the Eastern Hemisphere, which has been torn by wars. The Western Hemisphere in general, and North America in particular, has not. No president could afford to risk allowing conflict to come to North America.

At one level, presidents do count: The strategy they pursue keeping the Western Hemisphere conflict-free matters. During World War I, the United States intervened after the Germans began to threaten Atlantic sea-lanes and just weeks after the fall of the czar. At this point in the war, the European system seemed about to become unbalanced, with the Germans coming to dominate it. In World War II, the United States followed a similar strategy, allowing the system in both Europe and Asia to become unbalanced before intervening. This was called isolationism, but that is a simplistic description of the strategy of relying on the balance of power to correct itself and only intervening as a last resort.

During the Cold War, the United States adopted the reverse strategy of actively maintaining the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere via a process of continual intervention. It should be remembered that American deaths in the Cold War were just under 100,000 (including Vietnam, Korea and lesser conflicts) versus about 116,000 U.S. deaths in World War I, showing that far from being cold, the Cold War was a violent struggle. 

The decision to maintain active balancing was a response to a perceived policy failure in World War II. The argument was that prior intervention would have prevented the collapse of the European balance, perhaps blocked Japanese adventurism, and ultimately resulted in fewer deaths than the 400,000 the United States suffered in that conflict. A consensus emerged from World War II that an “internationalist” stance of active balancing was superior to allowing nature to take its course in the hope that the system would balance itself. The Cold War was fought on this strategy.

Between 1948 and the Vietnam War, the consensus held. During the Vietnam era, however, a viewpoint emerged in the Democratic Party that the strategy of active balancing actually destabilized the Eastern Hemisphere, causing unnecessary conflict and thereby alienating other countries. This viewpoint maintained that active balancing increased the likelihood of conflict, caused anti-American coalitions to form, and most important, overstated the risk of an unbalanced system and the consequences of imbalance. Vietnam was held up as an example of excessive balancing.

The counterargument was that while active balancing might generate some conflicts, World War I and World War II showed the consequences of allowing the balance of power to take its course. This viewpoint maintained that failing to engage in active and even violent balancing with the Soviet Union would increase the possibility of conflict on the worst terms possible for the United States. Thus, even in the case of Vietnam, active balancing prevented worse outcomes. The argument between those who want the international system to balance itself and the argument of those who want the United States to actively manage the balance has raged ever since George McGovern ran against Richard Nixon in 1972.

If we carefully examine Obama’s statements during the 2008 campaign and his efforts once in office, we see that he has tried to move U.S. foreign policy away from active balancing in favor of allowing regional balances of power to maintain themselves. He did not move suddenly into this policy, as many of his supporters expected he would. Instead, he eased into it, simultaneously increasing U.S. efforts in Afghanistan while disengaging in other areas to the extent that the U.S. political system and global processes would allow.

Obama’s efforts to transition away from active balancing of the system have been seen in Europe, where he has made little attempt to stabilize the economic situation, and in the Far East, where apart from limited military repositioning there have been few changes. Syria also highlights his movement toward the strategy of relying on regional balances. The survival of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime would unbalance the region, creating a significant Iranian sphere of influence. Obama’s strategy has been not to intervene beyond providing limited covert support to the opposition, but rather to allow the regional balance to deal with the problem. Obama has expected the Saudis and Turks to block the Iranians by undermining al Assad, not because the United States asks them to do so but because it is in their interest to do so.

Obama’s perspective draws on that of the critics of the Cold War strategy of active balancing, who maintained that without a major Eurasian power threatening hemispheric hegemony, U.S. intervention is more likely to generate anti-American coalitions and precisely the kind of threat the United States feared when it decided to actively balance. In other words, Obama does not believe that the lessons learned from World War I and World War II apply to the current global system, and that as in Syria, the global power should leave managing the regional balance to local powers.

As I have argued from the outset, the American presidency is institutionally weak despite its enormous prestige. It is limited constitutionally, politically and ultimately by the actions of others. Had Japan not attacked the United States, it is unclear that Franklin Roosevelt would have had the freedom to do what he did. Had al Qaeda not attacked on 9/11, I suspect that George W. Bush’s presidency would have been dramatically different.

The world shapes U.S. foreign policy. The more active the world, the fewer choices presidents have and the smaller those choices are. Obama has sought to create a space where the United States can disengage from active balancing. Doing so falls within his constitutional powers, and thus far has been politically possible, too. But whether the international system would allow him to continue along this path should he be re-elected is open to question. Jimmy Carter had a similar vision, but the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan wrecked it. George W. Bush saw his opposition to nation-building wrecked by 9/11 and had his presidency crushed under the weight of the main thing he wanted to avoid.

Presidents make history, but not on their own terms. They are constrained and harried on all sides by reality. In selecting a president, it is important to remember that candidates will say what they need to say to be elected, but even when they say what they mean, they will not necessarily be able to pursue their goals. The choice to do so simply isn’t up to them. There are two fairly clear foreign policy outlooks in this election. The degree to which the winner matters, however, is unclear, though knowing the inclinations of presidential candidates regardless of their ability to pursue them has some value.

In the end, though, the U.S. presidency was designed to limit the president’s ability to rule. He can at most guide, and frequently he cannot even do that. Putting the presidency in perspective allows us to keep our debates in perspective as well.”

STRATFOR Geopolitical Weekly – July 31, 2012

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George Friedman is a geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyzes and forecasts the course of global events. Prior to founding Geopolitical Futures, Friedman was chairman of Stratfor, the private intelligence publishing and consulting firm he founded in 1996.

 

 

 

 

No Protection for IC Whistle Blower Contractors

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(Photo: Mike Mozart / Flickr)

“POGO”

“The restoration of Intelligence Community (IC) contractor whistle blower rights would help safeguard billions of taxpayer dollars in government contracts, grants, and reimbursements annually.

“Snowden:  “I had read the laws. I knew that there were no whistle blower protections.”

Snowden’s disclosure to the media is a perfect example of why intelligence contractors need a mechanism to safely disclose suspected waste, fraud, and abuse.

Three years after Edward Snowden’s leaks, it appears that everyone has an opinion about him—traitor, hero, or somewhere in between. However, there is one undeniable fact surrounding Snowden’s circumstances that has been misreported by Congress and the Executive Branch far too many times: the Intelligence Community (IC) contractor would have had almost no protections had he come forward through proper channels.

Sure, Snowden could have gone to his supervisors and disclosed his concerns. However, had that supervisor retaliated against Snowden by firing him or demoting him, he would have had no protections because he was an IC contractor. In the absence of adequate protections, IC contractors have only two alternatives to almost certain retaliation: 1) remain silent observers of wrongdoing, or 2) make anonymous leaks.

This has not always been the case though. In fact, IC contractors enjoyed the gold standard of whistleblower protections for four years, between 2008 and 2012.

The NDAA for fiscal year 2008 contained temporary provisions that allowed all Department of Defense (DoD) contractors, including those at the National Security Agency (NSA), to enforce their whistleblower rights through district court jury trials. Additionally, in 2009, comprehensive whistleblower protections were enacted for all government contract employees paid with stimulus funds, including other IC agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency. Contrary to predictions that contractor whistleblowers would flood the courts, only 25 cases were filed from 2008 through 2012 under the DoD contractor provision (including from the intelligence community).

This whistleblower shield was so successful in deterring contractor waste and abuse that the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency proposed a permanent expansion for all government contractors. In 2012, McCaskill introduced a whistleblower protection amendment for all government contractors that won bipartisan Senate approval in the fiscal year 2013 NDAA.

However, during that NDAA’s closing conference committee negotiations, whistleblower rights were extended only to contractors outside of the intelligence community. Preexisting rights for IC contractors were also removed, despite a proven track record that the law was working as intended and no evidence that the law had any adverse impacts on national security during its five-year lifespan.

To better protect taxpayer dollars, our country and Americans’ privacy, Congress must restore whistleblower protections for intelligence contractors and stop feeding the false narrative that such protections exist.”

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2016/09/protect-whistleblowers-ic-contractors.html

 

 

Fed Year-End Spending Spree Needs to Change

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  We have often discussed the inefficient one year budget cycle of the US Government and recommend changes.   The One Year Budget Cycle Must Go.  Robert F. Hale  was comptroller and chief financial officer at the Defense Department from 2009 until 2014. As you will see in his opinion below, he heartily agrees.

Robert Hale

Robert Hale


“BREAKING DEFENSE”

“WHY DOD’s YEAR-END SPENDING NEEDS TO CHANGE”

“As the end of the fiscal year approaches at the Department of Defense (DoD), organizations are working hard to spend all the funds which are available for use only during the current fiscal year.

The pithy rationale for these actions: “Use it or lose it.”

We need to find practical ways to apply the brakes to year-end spending so that DoD funds only its highest-priority needs.

DoD spending spikes sharply during the final week of the fiscal year.  (To be technically correct, by “spending” I am referring to entering into contracts or otherwise obligating funds.) In a 2010 report researchers from Harvard and Stanford Universities showed that, based on data for the years 2004 to 2009, final-week spending at DoD was more than four times higher than the average weekly spending during the rest of the year.  Similar trends occurred at other federal agencies.

The spike doesn’t necessarily mean that year-end funds are wasted.  Many year-end funds buy construction-related goods and services, office equipment, and IT equipment and services. These items are needed, but they do not directly support the most critical DoD mission needs, such as training and military readiness.  Moreover, research on federal IT spending suggests that final-week purchases are of lower quality than those made during the rest of the year, and I suspect the same finding applies to other categories of spending.  The surge in spending may also lead overworked contracting officers to push out lower-quality contracts.

Making operating funds available only for one year works against good resource allocation in another way. Resource managers must estimate forthcoming bills for services in the final month of the fiscal year (for example, final bills for electricity and water) and obligate the funds before year’s end. They have to estimate on the high side because, if their estimate is low, they risk violating the federal anti-deficiency laws. High estimates for routine services leave fewer funds available for mission-critical activities such as training and readiness.

Year-end spending worries federal employees, and it should worry taxpayers too.  For several years the Obama Administration conducted a SAVE campaign (Securing Americans’ Value and Efficiency), which asked federal employees to suggest ways to make government more efficient. In my role as DoD comptroller, I reviewed suggestions related to DoD. I was struck by how many employees urged that year-end spending be reduced. A 2007 survey of DoD financial management and contracting professionals showed the same result. Almost all respondents expressed concerns about year-end spending.

The law already has some provisions designed to avoid year-end spending spikes.  For example, only 20 percent of major operating budgets are supposed to be spent during the final two months of the fiscal year. But this provision still leaves room for final-week spikes.

Congress could help by passing DoD appropriations on time – that is, by October 1.  Late appropriations push even more spending toward the end of the year and may exacerbate year-end spending. Unfortunately, Congress has not provided DoD with an on-time appropriation during any of the Obama years, and it will apparently not do so again this year.

But Congress can help by permitting DoD to carry over a small percentage of its operating budgets (perhaps 5 percent) into the next fiscal year. This flexibility would not increase the total funds available to DoD. However, for funds eligible for carry over, managers could decide whether to buy that office furniture for the headquarters at the end of the year or wait and let other needs compete for the funds next year. There is some evidence that carry-over authority helps. Our Harvard and Stanford researchers found that, at one federal agency that had such authority (the Department of Justice), final-week spending spikes were much smaller.

While serving as DoD’s comptroller, I tried to persuade Congress to permit the Department to carry over small amounts of its operating funding into the next fiscal year.  I made a few converts, but not enough to make it happen.

The next administration should try again to secure carry-over authority.”

Why DoD’s Year-End Spending Needs to Change

 

 

 

VA Buying System Archaic & Improvement Slow

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“FCW”

GAO Report:   ordering interface looks like something from when people “first started using computers.”

The VA procurement policy framework as being “outdated and fragmented,” with different procurement regulations covering different parts of the agency. Revisions and standardization of the VA’s overarching procurement regulation isn’t due until 2018.

The Department of Veterans Affairs embarked on an update of its fragmented, overlapping and out-of-date procurement system in 2011. Capitol Hill critics say implementation could be going faster.

“Companies doing business with the VA don’t know what the rules are, and even the VA contracting officers get confused,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) at a Sept. 20 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) said the way the system works right now is “unacceptable” and that she will be “anxiously waiting” any updates to the system.

Greg Giddens, VA’s executive director for acquisition, logistics and construction, said the agency has “strategies in place that align with GAO’s recommendations” in most areas of oversight concern.

Acting Chief Procurement and Logistics Officer Rick Lemmon said the agency is in the process of developing and launching a new Windows-based ordering interface, to replace the aging, text-based legacy system in fiscal year 2017. The current VA system is integrated with the agency’s homegrown VistA health record system, and is coded using the legacy MUMPS computer language.

Giddens noted that VA is in the midst of a financial management IT initiative, and launching plans for a digital healthcare platform. Both of these efforts “will impact legacy and contemporary supply-chain systems and interfaces, as well as influence system-improvement alternatives and investment decisions over the next two to five years,” he said.”

https://fcw.com/articles/2016/09/21/va-procurement-oversight.aspx?admgarea=TC_Management

 

Federal Cyber Incidents Up 1,300% In 10 Years

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“WASHINGTON POST”

“The number of cyber incidents reported by federal agencies jumped more than 1,300 percent, from 5,503 to 77,183, over the 10 years through fiscal 2015.

This is not just a theoretical warning.

Federal information security has been on the high-risk list of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) since 1997, and the situation has only grown worse.

These statistics, at once sobering and alarming, were included in a GAO report presented to the President’s Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity this week. The report was in the form of a statement from Gregory C. Wilshusen, the GAO’s director of information security issues.

“Over the last several years, we have made about 2,500 recommendations to agencies aimed at improving their implementation of information security controls,” Wilshusen said. “These recommendations identify actions for agencies to take in protecting their information and systems. For example, we have made recommendations for agencies to correct weaknesses in controls intended to prevent, limit, and detect unauthorized access to computer resources. … However, many agencies continue to have weaknesses in implementing these controls, in part because many of these recommendations remain unimplemented. As of September 16, 2016, about 1,000 of our information security–related recommendations have not been implemented.”

Ineffective cyberprotection “can result in significant risk to a broad array of government operations and assets,” he added.

Press secretary Jamal Brown of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) responded by saying that “cybersecurity is one of the most important challenges we face as a nation. Over the last nearly eight years, federal agencies have made significant progress in strengthening their overall cybersecurity posture. Yet, as cyber threats continue to evolve and grow, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to combat them.”

Among of those efforts was release of a first-ever cybersecurity workforce strategy and implementation of the Cybersecurity National Action Plan, which established the commission that heard Wilshusen’s statement.

“GAO’s recommendations to the commission are important and welcomed,” Brown said.

These examples from Wilshusen show how broad that array can be: “Sensitive information, such as intellectual property and national security data, and personally identifiable information, such as taxpayer data, Social Security records, and medical records, could be inappropriately added to, deleted, read, copied, disclosed, or modified for purposes such as espionage, identity theft, or other types of crime.”

In June 2014, the Office of Personnel Management announced that personal information, including Social Security numbers, belonging to 22 million federal employees and others had been hacked. That is the largest announced cybertheft but far from the only one. The private sector also has been repeatedly hit by cyberthieves.

“These threats come from a variety of sources and vary in terms of the types and capabilities of the actors, their willingness to act, and their motives,” Wilshusen said. “For example, advanced persistent threats — where adversaries possess sophisticated levels of expertise and significant resources to pursue their objectives — pose increasing risks.”

In a March report to Congress, the OMB linked the rising number of cybersecurity incidents to “an increase in total information security events and agencies’ enhanced capabilities to identify, detect, manage, respond to, and recover from these incidents.”

Although the report indicates that about 40 percent of the GAO’s recommendations have not been implemented at any one time, in an interview, Wilshusen said the government’s long-term record is significantly better. Within four years, 88 percent to 90 percent of the recommendations are followed, he said by phone. “Over time,” he added, “the agencies do a pretty good job of implementing our recommendations.”

The GAO offered several recommendations, including strengthening oversight of government contractors that provide information-technology services. That was a lesson learned the hard way through the OPM breach.  In 2014, the GAO found that five of six selected agencies “were inconsistent” in their oversight of contractor cyber controls.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/22/federal-cyber-incidents-jump-1300-in-10-years/?utm_campaign=EBB%209.23.16&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Sailthru

 

Feds Will Soon Be Able to Legally Hack Almost Anyone

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“WIRED”

“Under a new set of rules, the FBI would have the authority to secretly use malware to hack into thousands or hundreds of thousands of computers that belong to innocent third parties and even crime victims.

The unintended consequences could be staggering.

Digital devices and  software programs are complicated. Behind the pointing and clicking on screen are thousands of processes and routines that make everything work. So when malicious software—malware—invades a system, even seemingly small changes to the system can have unpredictable impacts.

That’s why it’s so concerning that the Justice Department is planning a vast expansion of government hacking.

The new plan to drastically expand the government’s hacking and surveillance authorities is known formally as amendments to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the proposal would allow the government to hack a million computers or more with a single warrant. If Congress doesn’t pass legislation blocking this proposal, the new rules go into effect on December 1. With just six work weeks remaining on the Senate schedule and a long Congressional to-do list, time is running out.

The government says it needs this power to investigate a network of devices infected with malware and controlled by a criminal—what’s known as a “botnet.” But the Justice Department has given the public far too little information about its hacking tools and how it plans to use them. And the amendments to Rule 41 are woefully short on protections for the security of hospitals, life-saving computer systems, or the phones and electronic devices of innocent Americans.

Without rigorous and periodic evaluation of hacking software by independent experts, it would be nothing short of reckless to allow this massive expansion of government hacking.

If malware crashes your personal computer or phone, it can mean a loss of photos, documents and records—a major inconvenience. But if a hospital’s computer system or other critical infrastructure crashes, it puts lives at risk. Surgical directives are lost. Medical histories are inaccessible. Patients can wait hours for care. If critical information isn’t available to doctors, people could die. Without new safeguards on the government’s hacking authority, the FBI could very well be responsible for this kind of tragedy in the future.

No one believes the government is setting out to damage victims’ computers. But history shows just how hard it is to get hacking tools right. Indeed, recent experience shows that tools developed by law enforcement have actually been co-opted and used by criminals and miscreants. For example, the FBI digital wiretapping tool Carnivore, later renamed DCS 3000, had weaknesses (which were eventually publicly identified) that made it vulnerable to spoofing by unauthorized parties, allowing criminals to hijack legitimate government searches. Cisco’s Law Enforcement access standards, the guidelines for allowing government wiretaps through Cisco’s routers, had similar weaknesses that security researchers discovered.

The government will likely argue that its tools for going after large botnets have yet to cause the kind of unintended damage we describe. But it is impossible to verify that claim without more transparency from the agencies about their operations. Even if the claim is true, today’s botnets are simple, and their commands can easily be found online. So even if the FBI’s investigative techniques are effective today, in the future that might not be the case. Damage to devices or files can happen when a software program searches and finds pieces of the botnet hidden on a victim’s computer. Indeed, damage happens even when changes are straightforward: recently an anti-virus scan shut down a device in the middle of heart surgery.

Compounding the problem is that the FBI keeps its hacking techniques shrouded in secrecy. The FBI’s statements to date do not inspire confidence that it will take the necessary precautions to test malware before deploying them in the field. One FBI special agent recently testified that a tool was safe because he tested it on his home computer, and it “did not make any changes to the security settings on my computer.” This obviously falls far short of the testing needed to vet a complicated hacking tool that could be unleashed on millions of devices.

Why would Congress approve such a short-sighted proposal? It didn’t. Congress had no role in writing or approving these changes, which were developed by the US court system through an obscure procedural process. This process was intended for updating minor procedural rules, not for making major policy decisions.

This kind of vast expansion of government mass hacking and surveillance is clearly a policy decision. This is a job for Congress, not a little-known court process.

If Congress had to pass a bill to enact these changes, it almost surely would not pass as written. The Justice Department may need new authorities to identify and search anonymous computers linked to digital crimes. But this package of changes is far too broad, with far too little oversight or protections against collateral damage.

Congress should block these rule changes from going into effect by passing the bipartisan, bicameral Stopping Mass Hacking Act. Americans deserve a real debate about the best way to update our laws to address online threats.”

The Feds Will Soon Be Able to Legally Hack Almost Anyone

 

Corruption Lessons from US Experience in Afghanistan

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Image:  Politifact.com

“POGO”

“The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released the first in a series of reports imparting lessons from the 15-year, $115 billion Afghanistan reconstruction effort.

The core lesson:  establish an anti-corruption strategy before plunging into nation-rebuilding.

The report, Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan, is a review of how effectively the US government—primarily the Departments of Defense (DoD), State, Treasury, and Justice, and the US Agency for International Development—responded to corruption in Afghanistan reconstruction spending. SIGAR identifies six key lessons that will hopefully inform future contingency operations, and makes recommendations for executive and legislative action.

The report defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted authority for private gain,” as exemplified by such acts as bribery, embezzlement, extortion, fraud, and nepotism. It asserts that, while certain forms of corruption have been a part of Afghan culture for centuries, the problem grew to epic proportions after 2001. SIGAR faults the US-led reconstruction effort in three respects: by rapidly injecting billions of dollars into the Afghan economy without adequate oversight, by failing to recognize the scope and severity of corruption, and by subordinating anticorruption efforts to short-term security and political goals.

The recommendation that seems most sensible (to provide the most bang for the buck, if you will) is for the agencies to establish a “joint vendor vetting unit” to more carefully screen contingency operation contractors and grantees. For reconstruction missions to succeed, international aid money must be kept out of the hands of what SIGAR calls “malign powerbrokers”—those who thrive off corruption, such as local warlords, crooked government officials, and insurgents. Robust screening of recipients will also help ensure reconstruction funds aren’t lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.

The United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan for several more years, and it will likely embark on relief efforts in other war-torn countries as well. It is therefore critical that the government heed the lessons collected over the years by its watchdogs: the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which ceased operations in September 2011, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which closed its doors in October 2013, and SIGAR, which will carry on until appropriated funding for the reconstruction drops below $250 million.”

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2016/09/government-watchdog-identifies-lessons-from-afghanistan-reconstruction.html