Friday, June 23, 2017

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week



Human toe stolen from cocktail returned to Yukon bar, with letter of apology - Alaska Dispatch News

The dehydrated human toe that disappeared over the weekend is used as a garnish in the famous drink. Its theft temporarily left the hotel with one usable digit.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wine and Cheese Designs on a Coffee and Doughnuts Budget

New York Times photo














Wine and cheese? My good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations would love to go to charettes like that again! But, these days, I doubt the contractors dish out anything so good.

What put me in mind of wine and cheese was listening to the morning session of today's House Foreign Affairs Committee budget hearing, in which Representative Darrell Issa, questioning SecState Tillerson, spoke up for the plain but functional standard embassy designs that OBO built in the past, and denounced the "New York wine & cheese liberals” advocating works of art whom he believes took over our embassy design planning during SecState Hillary Clinton's tenure.

Like that "glass palace" in London (see this) that costs too much and which we haven't even finished yet, for example. Let's go back to the "efficient design and build" practices of the past, Issa said.

Tillerson really didn't speak to the design issue, but he did assure Issa that the Administration's 2018 budget plan will maintain OBO's current new construction program for another year, although we'll run into "planning difficulties” in 2019.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week


Two South Carolina men charged for forcing alligator to drink beer - KFOR.com

According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources report, "the incident took place on Wednesday, May 24, on a public dirt road between Hardeeville and Tillman in Jasper County. Joseph Andrew Floyd Jr., 20, of Ridgeland, and Zachary Lloyd Brown, 21, of Ridgeland, admitted to officers that they picked up the alligator after they saw it crossing the road. They then poured beer into the animal’s mouth and took photos to post on social media. According to Floyd Jr., they then released the alligator and watched it swim away in a nearby pond."

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

2018 Budget Request Released; OBO Walks Away Unharmed



The 2018 State Department's 2018 budget justification was released yesterday, and with it a press conference was conducted. There you go, news media! Don't say Silent Rex doesn't ever think about you.

Here's how the request impacts my good friends in the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations.

The 2018 budget request basically cuts the funding for Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance, and the much smaller Compound Security Upgrade program, in half. The ESCM request is for $1,142,200, which is $1,731,156 less than last year. Nevertheless, it provides sufficient funding for seven new capital construction projects in some of the dodgiest places on earth. You can see the project list on page 162.

The Compound Security Program goes down to $50,000,000, which is $50.8 million less than last year. That program "funds comprehensive security upgrade projects, major forced entry/ballistic resistant (FE/BR) door and window replacement projects, chemical/biological retrofit projects, and security upgrades for soft targets," it says on page 163.

Here's the Q and A on security funding from the press conference.
QUESTION: Hey. Thanks for doing this. Two quick questions. Senator Lindsey Graham, who is in charge of the appropriations for State, said, quote, “You have a lot of Benghazis in the making if this thing becomes law.” Can you sort of clarify what the funding will be like for Diplomatic Security around the world, for embassy security, and respond to that charge?

MR PITKIN: Sure. This is Doug Pitkin. I’ll start with the security question ... The administration has appreciated the strong Congressional support for the department security programs over the past several years. They also note with appreciation that they fully funded – in addition to the supplemental, they fully funded the previous standing requests for both our embassy security programs and Diplomatic Security for FY17.

However, in looking at FY18, I think we have to recognize that there are significant funds in the pipeline, partly because of the supplemental that was provided in December. Also, for example, OBO, the Office of Overseas Building Operations, has some 53 projects in the planning process and under construction. And so what we’re proposing in FY18 is – essentially is to use some of our current-year money to buy down or apply towards our construction program in FY18. This shows up as a cut or a reduction in the strict budget line as we’ve presented it, but we will still be able to support $2.2 billion in FY18 embassy construction and security upgrades for those posts in the greatest need of such upgrades. And so this, essentially, reflects the fact that we’re taking a slight reduction in capital investments because we have a lot of funding that we – has been previously appropriated.

So that looks like the 2018 request, plus the "significant funds in the pipeline" from current year funding and supplemental appropriations, will equal last year's funding level for new construction and security upgrades. If that budget makes it through Congress, OBO will get away unscathed, at least for next year. 

Political Violence Against Americans in 2016

Yesterday, the same day the Department released its budget justification for next year, it also released the annual report on Political Violence Against Americans in 2016.
To advance American interests and U.S. foreign policy, Diplomatic Security (DS) protects people, property, and information at more than 280 State Department posts worldwide. As a leader in international investigations, threat analysis, cyber security, counterterrorism, dignitary protection, and security technology, DS is the most widely represented U.S. security and law enforcement organization in the world.

Political Violence Against Americans is produced by the Bureau’s Directorate of Threat Investigations and Analysis. Created in May 2008, the Directorate of Threat Investigations and Analysis strives to improve DS's ability to detect and counter threats, and to upgrade the Bureau’s capacity to rapidly disseminate threat and security information to U.S. embassies, consulates, and the private sector.

Introduction

Since its inception in 1987, the goal of Political Violence Against Americans has been to provide the reader with an awareness of the hazards facing U.S. interests abroad by chronicling incidents of terrorism and political violence impacting U.S. citizens and facilities overseas. This publication is not an all-inclusive compendium of acts targeting U.S. interests, but rather a sampling of events involving private Americans and U.S. Government personnel (including locally hired foreign nationals serving at U.S. diplomatic missions), as well as U.S. diplomatic and private sector installations. Whenever possible, the goals and ideologies of those responsible have been included; however, in some cases, incidents have been included despite a lack of clarity as to the motive or direct target, due to the clear intent to cause harm. In addition, some incidents may have been omitted due to their sensitive nature, as have the names of American citizens for privacy purposes.

Read the whole report here. And, the report's Conclusion:
Historically, overseas environments have presented potential hazards to citizens and diplomats of the United States. As our nation’s diplomatic presence and its commercial tourist trade broadened considerably throughout the twentieth century, potential dangers and vulnerabilities increased as well. Over the past quarter-century in particular, the rise of international terrorism and criminal activity has contributed to a worldwide increase in incidents of violence against individuals, organizations, and facilities of the United States. In some cases, U.S. citizens have been victimized randomly; in other cases, assaults appear to have been intentional.

Political Violence Against Americans serves as a reminder that vigilance, preparation, and sensible discretion are valuable safeguards. Reasonable precautions can significantly minimize opportunities for those who would do harm to the people of the United States and its interests.


Throwback Thursday (1991, When DS Just Scraped By)

Gorby closes his speech notes, and resigns















It was a Wednesday, actually, but close enough. On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last leader of the Soviet Union, and the Red Flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time.

With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government stood down a lot of its national security programs. That didn't last long, and the post-Cold War euphoria is hard to even remember now, but while it lasted serious people questioned how much we needed to protect any of our national assets. The great national security threat we had been countering ever since the Truman Administration - assuming it ever really existed - surely existed no longer, as the thinking went. It was even supposed that terrorism would mostly end now that the Soviet Union would not be around to support groups like the Red Brigades and PLO.

Like I said, it didn't last long, but while it did, the USG cut funding.

See the excellent in-house history of Diplomatic Security for how its programs were affected after 1991.
The urgency to improve security after the Beirut attacks had faded, and for fiscal year (FY) 1988, the Reagan Administration requested $303 million for DS, well below the $458 million anticipated by the Bureau. Assistant Secretary Lamb admitted, “Each post is going to see cutbacks in every [security] program.” The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) set a ceiling of $303 million for DS’s budget in FYs 1989 and 1990 as well. In FY 1990, the total funds available to DS were only $180 million, and DS leaders questioned whether they could fulfill the security responsibilities authorized by Congress … The budget cuts, in part, reflected the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991.

Unlike today, there was no OCO funding back then to eke out the DS budget, but there was its predecessor, the Gulf War supplemental.
Meanwhile, tensions increased between the United States and Iraq during 1990 and 1991 when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait, and DS experienced the odd situation of facing increased demands for its services, notwithstanding cuts in its budget … The Department estimated that it incurred an additional $22 million in expenses for increased diplomatic security and another $11 million in evacuation costs as a result of the [1991] Gulf War. Ironically, Congress agreed to large security supplemental appropriations for Operation Desert Storm while debating a reduction of budget appropriation for DS … The [appropriation] supplementals for the 1991 Gulf War did not arrest the trend of budget cuts and staff reductions faced by DS. DS shifted its goals and philosophy from total risk avoidance, as promoted in the mid-1980s, to reducing risk “to an acceptable level” where possible, i.e. risk management. This shift in approach, DS hoped, would allow it to direct its increasingly limited resources toward its most urgent security needs. DS, together with the Overseas Security Policy Group, undertook a wholesale review of existing overseas security standards.

Security standards are politically sacrosanct things, at least until enough time has passed since the last embassy attack and Congress’ interest dwindles, along with its willingness to appropriate funds.
By the spring of 1991, the budget cuts began affecting DS operations. Lamb’s successor, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Sheldon Krys noted that staffing shortages had forced him to employ front office personnel on protective details. Overseas support positions were not filled, and technical security countermeasures work fell behind. In March 1992, Under Secretary of State for Management John W. Rogers informed the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and State that the Department faced a conflict between security measures demanded by its revised security standards and the Department’s ability to pay for implementing those standards.

And so the unavoidable happened, and security programs were reduced to match the resources allocated for them. That situation continued until 1998 and the next round of embassy attacks.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Jason Chaffetz Folds Up His Cot and Goes Home






















Jason Chaffetz, the esteemed Representative from Utah's 3rd Congressional District, announced yesterday that he will resign from Congress on June 30, which sets up a special election for someone to serve out the remainder of his term.

He says he's leaving Washington because he's tired of sleeping on a cot in his office, and can no longer endure the burden of being away from his wife and kids.
My life has undergone some big changes over the last 18 months. Those changes have been good. But as I celebrated my 50th birthday in March, the reality of spending more than 1,500 nights away from my family over eight years hit me harder than it had before.

Julie and I have been married for over 26 years. We have three wonderful children. Two of our children got married over the past 18 months – each having found an amazing spouse. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Our oldest son recently graduated from the University of Utah and his wife from BYU. In August, they will move out of state for law school. Our daughter, who attended UVU, married a great young man who found a terrific job two time zones away. Our youngest daughter remains at home attending high school, but soon she, too, will spread her wings and set off on her life’s path. Julie and I are facing the reality of being empty nesters. All of us, it appears, are ready to begin a new chapter.

I’ve slept on a cot in my office largely to save money for the Chaffetz family, but also to remind myself that my service there was temporary. Though the time away and the travel have been a sacrifice, our family has always been united that public service was the right thing to do. We feel my time in congress has been well spent, but it now seems the right time to turn the page.

Okay. But I'm a little confused. Is this "I'm resigning to spend more time with my family," or a mid-life crisis, or something more opportunistic?

He spent 1,5000 nights away from the kids when they were young(er), but now that they're moving out of the house he finds the separation all too much to endure any longer?

Why resign now? He ran for reelection just six months ago. Did that cot get a lot more uncomfortable all of a sudden?

Why force a special election to fill his vacant seat? He could have announced his plans to retire and then finished his term, allowing his constituents a normal election cycle. Resigning out of the blue also leaves his Oversight Committee in the lurch, since he just called for a new round of high-profile investigations and now they'll need to fill his chairmanship in a big hurry.

I'm always happy to see an entrenched Congressman go away. But I don't think Jason will be going far, or away for very long.