Friday, July 31, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

"Athletes at Rio Olympics to compete in 'basically raw sewage'" - UK Guardian

Extreme water pollution is common in Brazil, where the majority of sewage is not treated. Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that feed the Olympic water sites ... Doctors urge foreigners heading to Rio, whether athletes or tourists, to be vaccinated against hepatitis A. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends travelers to Brazil get vaccinated for typhoid.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hard Skills Training Center Is a Hard Sell to Senator Claire McCaskill

Yesterday's Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing with the telltale name "Avoiding Duplication: An Examination of the State Department’s Proposal to Construct a New Diplomatic Security Training Facility" was one of the oddest hearings I've ever watched.

There was a weird combination of apathy - check out how few members attended this Full Committee Hearing - and anger. The anger came mostly from Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who was the only member to attend the hearing other than the majority and minority leaders and one Republican member, Joni Earnst of Iowa, who dropped in for just a few minutes.

Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) kicked things off and had the three panelists read their opening statements, which are available here. The panelists were:

  • Gregory Starr, State Department Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, who was there to get through a hostile hearing while he waits for support to come in the form of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis of State's request to build a training facility.
  • David Mader, Acting Deputy Director for Management and Controller, Office of Federal Financial Management, Office of Management and Budget. He was there to say as little as possible, but what he said supported the State Department's request.
  • Connie L. Patrick, Director, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center,, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She was there to be the Committee's pet, the responsible and cost-conscious bureaucrat who is just very excited to run the best gosh-darn joint law enforcement training center in the land, and could efficiently support any agency's training needs but got stiffed by those diplomats who want to have a training center of their own.  

The weirdness started when Ranking Member Tom Carper (D-Delaware) gave his opening statement and decided to tell the panelists "a quick story."

In 2001, when I needed to buy a car, I test drove Porsches, Corvettes, and Mustangs, and I bought a Chrysler Town & Country Minivan. Well, yesterday, as I was driving than minivan across the Bay Bridge from southern Delaware, the odometer ran over 400,000 miles.

He seemed to be a kindly old man.

Chairman Johnson, unlike Ranking Member Carper, seemed to be a grumpy and suspicious old man, and one who gets confused easily. Apparently he's also a frustrated travel agent, since he challenged Starr on every nickle and dime of travel and lodging costs.

Now, Fort Pickett is how many miles away from your headquarters? Let’s see … making some quick calculations on a pad … that’s a nickel a mile for private vehicle reimbursement … What's that? Oh, you’ll use buses? Never mind.

Now, you claim you would have to spend 80 to 90 million a year in travel costs to FLETC in Georgia … dividing that by the annual number of trainees ... Mr. Starr, that’s way too much! That's not a believable number! Oh, that cost is for ten years? Never mind.

Now, did you include lodging costs at Fort Pickett in these estimates, Mr. Starr? Oh, using hotels, are you? You could probably get a deal, what with all those thousands of trainees you'll send. Never mind.

Starr got in a strong statement early on which was not refuted by anyone on the Committee or any other panelist:
“Our request for an advanced hard skills training location to provide specialized training is hardly unique. The Secret Service conducts advanced training at a purpose-built facility in Beltsville, Maryland; the Federal Air Marshals have a tailored facility for their needs in Atlantic City, New Jersey; and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy is located in Quantico, Virginia. A purpose-built facility allows us to tailor our training to the Department of State’s unique overseas mission and the global security realities our personnel face.”

Then Claire McCaskill pounced, all excited and waving her hands in the air for emphasis:

Mr. Starr, I have SO many questions! So MANY questions! What percentage of the guards around the world are foreign contractors as opposed to Marines?

Starr explained that local guards - those are the ones posted outside the perimeter - are always foreigners, and Marine Security Guards are not interchangeable with local guards. Anyway, the hard skills center isn't for training either of those groups.

McCaskill was having none of it. "The training you’re talking about is mostly perimeter training, right?"

Starr kept a poker face where a less experienced witness might have blurted out what the hell are you talking about?

McCaskill next took over Chairman Johnson's travel agent role and pointed out to Starr that a bus ride from Washington to Fort Pickett takes three hours, and a flight from Washington to FLETC in Georgia also takes three hours. So, obviously, the travel to either destination is identical. Try and talk your way out of that, Mr. Starr!

McCaskill next badgered Starr over the incredibly trivial matter of how long it will take to drive a busload of trainees from Fort Pickett to the local hotels where they will stay during training. She was strangely obsessed with whether it will take twenty minutes, thirty minutes, or even longer. As if it mattered.

At some point McCaskill stopped to take a breath, and Johnson asked the FLETC lady to brag about her facility. I heard something like this:

FLETC Lady: We have a wonderful police training center in Georgia!!! We’ve already got a cafeteria, gymnasium, library, training venues, classrooms, computer laboratories, dormitories, and recreational facilities. And we can build any kind of law enforcement training facility that anybody could possibly want.

Starr rebutted that:
We do law enforcement training for DS agents at FLETC. Hard skills, however, is not law enforcement training. FLETC is not what we need. It doesn’t have the space or the isolation to fire .50 caliber machineguns, fly large CH-53 helicopters, do explosive demonstrations, drive MRAPs, train at night, or train without causing noise and environmental problems. Ft. Pickett is where we can do all those things, and do them with our military partners such as Marine Security Guards, Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams, and Marine Security Augmentation Units, all of which are located in Virginia.
Johnson: What do you say about that, Mr. OMB Guy?

OBM Guy: Mr. Starr is correct.

Starr: FLETC’s entire campus is about the same size as what we would build, except at Ft. Pickett it would be on an active military training base where we could practice interoperability with our military partners and be surrounded by thousands of acres of buffer zone that would prevent any intrusion on the local community.

FLETC Lady: Mr. Starr says he has to train with military partners. Well, I just so happen to be looking into using part of an old military base right in Georgia for a safe place to fire those heavy weapons. The Marine Corps is going to use it, too. Marine Corps? That sounds like the same military that Mr. Starr likes to train with so much.

For the wrap up, Chairman Johnson got out of the travel agent business and became all accountant.
Johnson: Mr. Starr, I demand a full and complete accounting of every possible cost and business case analysis for this decision before I agree with you that Ft. Pickett is the best choice.

Starr: Senator, the GAO is doing just such as study, at the request of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and its report is due to be released in about one month. I’ve seen the draft, and I believe the GAO will support using Ft. Pickett.

Johnson: Mr. OMB Guy, what do you know about that?

OMB Guy: Mr. Starr is correct.

The hearing became a little clearer when I saw an updated WaPo piece with quotes from leaked OMB documents and allegations of nefarious doings by Deputy SecState Higginbottom:

In early 2014 it looked like the White House was going to scrap State’s plans for a multimillion-dollar, brand new diplomatic security training facility. Its budget analysts decided that the Georgia site was the cheaper option.

But then Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom got involved.

Higginbottom, previously deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, reached out to her former OMB colleague, Steve Kosiak, who oversaw the national security and defense budget.

According to an OMB analysis and e-mails between Higginbottom and Kosiak, the White House initially decided expanding the Georgia location made more economic sense, according to documents obtained by the Loop.

“FLETC can meet the vast majority of State’s current requirements for access to facilities and course scheduling, training requirements, and life support services, all at a much lower estimated cost than Fort Pickett,” according to a late 2013 OMB cost analysis.

“While Fort Pickett would have an advantage for location and interagency synergies, the [OMB’s resource management office] does not believe that the difference is substantial enough to rule out FLETC… FASTC at FLETC would ultimately have more capabilities than FASTC at Fort Pickett at a lower cost.”

It is not at all clear to me that the training facilities that FLETC was asked to cost out in 2013 are the same ones that State now plans to build at Ft. Pickett. As stated during the hearing, State's soft skills training will remain in existing in-house facilities for efficiency, rather than move to Georgia as per the FLETC proposal. And, as the FLETC Lady acknowledged, her facility in Georgia can't support night training, use of heavy weapons and helos, or interoperability with State's military partners. Is there really an apples-to-apples comparison that favors FLETC?

The WaPo article goes on:

State’s proposal would cost approximately $413 million, which is a dramatically scaled back version of an original $1 billion plan. FLETC claims it could develop the same facility for half that.

Yet, despite the cheaper construction price tag, State argues that the money spent flying diplomats and their spouses to Georgia for hard skills security training would eventually surpass the savings. Plus, it’s less efficient since much of their soft skills training occurs in Washington and Virginia.

State also contends that the Virginia site allows the diplomats to train alongside Marines at Quantico, who serve as embassy security.

State merely “contends” that the Virginia site would allow for joint DOS-Marine training and the Georgia site would not? Well, Quantico isn’t moving to Georgia. It’s more like State pointed out the obvious.

It was odd that Johnson and McCaskill didn’t touch on the WaPo’s allegation that State's Higginbottom improperly influenced the former OMB guy. Maybe they see it as water under the bridge by now, because the current OMB guy said this in his opening statement:

As part of OMB’s efforts to encourage the State Department to consider alternatives to new construction, OMB facilitated analysis of the Fort Pickett and FLETC options. OMB reviewed detailed proposals submitted by both the State Department and FLETC and coordinated interagency efforts to achieve a common understanding of the capabilities and requirements of each proposed facility. In addition, OMB facilitated further discussion between the State Department and FLETC concerning whether FLETC could provide the full suite of training courses and synergies the State Department was seeking to fulfill State’s diplomatic personnel security training needs. This was coupled with an effort by OMB to have the State Department closely review its cost estimates for construction of FASTC. Even prior to this review, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security was re-evaluating its plans in order to focus on hard skills training, de-scoping the original proposal from an over $900 million facility to a $413 million facility focusing on hard skills training, such as training with heavy weapons, explosives, and armored vehicles. These savings made FASTC construction more competitive and represented a better value for the taxpayer.

Presumably the GAO report will say the same. Maybe McCaskill will have updated her bus schedules by the time the committee reconvenes.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Try again

 "From Duds to Suds: Lululemon going into beer business" - Toronto Star

The Vancouver-based business announced it’s going to make something called “Curiosity Lager” ... The enterprise appears to take aim at the men’s yoga apparel market ... It seems that when it comes to reaching men, companies will try just about anything.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Step 1: Release More Prisoners, Step 2: A Miracle Happens, Step 3: Close GITMO

The NYT has a nice read today about why Obama’s Plan For Guantánamo Is Seen Faltering:

The administration’s fitful effort to shut down the prison is collapsing again. Ashton B. Carter, in his first six months as defense secretary, has yet to make a decision on any newly proposed deals to transfer individual detainees. His delay, which echoes a pattern last year by his predecessor, Chuck Hagel, is generating mounting concern in the White House and State Department, officials say.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, convened a cabinet-level “principals committee” meeting on how to close the prison before the president leaves office in 18 months. At that meeting, Mr. Carter was presented with an unsigned National Security Council memo stating that he would have 30 days to make decisions on newly proposed transfers, according to several officials familiar with the internal deliberations.

But the meeting ended inconclusively. Mr. Carter did not commit to making a decision on pending transfer proposals by a particular date, including the repatriation of a Mauritanian and a Moroccan. Nor was it clear whether he accepted the 30-day deadline, those officials said.

Can the administration arm-twist Secretary Carter into approving more releases? What would be in it for him?

Even if they can, they would still have to deal with Congress. Back in January, Politico had an interesting take on the strategy the administration may be planning to use to overcome the very large reluctance of Congress to closing Gitmo:

Administration officials say their strategy is to keep cutting the number of prisoners, which started at 242 when Obama was sworn in and now stands at 127. When the tally drops below 100 and perhaps even as low as a few dozen, officials say, the cost per prisoner will zoom so high that keeping the facility open will be transparently foolish and lawmakers will abandon their resistance to closing the island jail.

“I think the facts and the logic will be very compelling, once we get it down to a small core,” said Cliff Sloan, who stepped down last year after 18 months as the State Department envoy for Guantánamo closure. “I think the case becomes overwhelming for them to be able to be moved to the U.S. and placed in very secure facilities.”

-- snip --

“Nobody should underestimate the determination of the president to close Guantánamo in his presidency,” Sloan said. “He feels very strongly about it.”

He feels very strongly about it? Well, I feel very strongly about buying my own stretch of prime trout-fishing river front someday. Let’s see who gets lucky first, me or Obama.

Back to the story:

“If Obama couldn’t win over Congress on this issue when the Democrats controlled one house, how much more likely is it he’ll be able to win over Congress when the Republicans control both houses?” asked detainee lawyer David Remes.

-- snip --

By 230-184, the House cast a largely party-line vote last year to put a one-year halt on all transfers out of Guantánamo, a measure stripped out in talks with the Democratic-controlled Senate. Republicans now have 12 more House seats than they did last year and have gained a majority in the Senate.

The numbers are against the administration on this, but I must say that's an interesting political strategy they have for turning things around. It is a well-known fact that our elected representatives hate to be associated with wasteful government spending. Why, I'm sure the typical Congressman would like nothing better than to get into a debate with an opponent who promises to spend whatever amount of money it takes to keep those prisoners in Gitmo and away from the United States.

I mean, they would, right?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

de minimis non curat lex, the law cares not for small things?

Maryland Lawmaker Charged With Indecent Exposure” - CBS-DC

A Maryland lawmaker, 38-year-old Montgomery County Delegate Ariana Kelly, has been charged with indecent exposure and trespassing.

In an explanation of the incident in the summary of charges, an Officer J. Herman writes that a cell phone video taken by Kelly’s ex-husband shows her repeatedly ringing the doorbell and exposing her breasts.

Kelly’s lawyer, Luis Simmons, said Tuesday night that Kelly will aggressively contest the charges, which he says are "quite de minimis.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Party Like It's 1789

I like France, and I don't care who knows it.

The French are our first and most constant ally, and the one and only major country in the world that the USA has never fought a war against. (That French and Indian War doesn't count, because it was before our independence.)

Bonne Fête Nationale, you French fellows. I wish I could be there.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

"U.S. Marshals employee caught having sex on courthouse roof" - ABC Eyewitness News, Harrisburg  

 U.S. Marshal Pane said the Marshals Service is confident that the security integrity of the courthouse is intact.