By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
May 5, 2013, 5:02 p.m.
The jobs of the nation’s citizen soldiers are supposed to be safe while they are serving their country: Federal law does not allow employers to penalize service members because of their military duties.
Yet every year, thousands of National Guard and Reserve troops coming home from Afghanistan and elsewhere find they have been replaced, demoted, denied benefits or seniority.
Government agencies are among the most frequent offenders, accounting for about a third of the more than 15,000 complaints filed with federal authorities since the end of September 2001, records show. Others named in the cases include some of the biggest names in American business, such as Wal-Mart and United Parcel Service.
With good jobs still scarce in many states, the illegal actions have contributed to historically high joblessness among returning National Guard and Reserve members — as high as 50% in some California units — and created a potential obstacle to serving.
Just hours after across-the-board spending cuts officially took effect, President Barack Obama pressed Congress on Saturday to work with him on a compromise to halt a fiscal crisis he said was starting to “inflict pain” on communities across the United States.
Obama and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders failed on Friday to avoid the deep spending reductions known as the “sequester,” which automatically kicked in overnight in the latest sign of dysfunction in a divided Washington.
If left in place without legislative remedy, government agencies will have to hack a total of $85 billion from their budgets between Saturday and October 1, cuts that over time could cause economic harm, slash jobs and curb military readiness.
“These cuts are not smart,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. “They will hurt our economy and cost us jobs. And Congress can turn them off at any time - as soon as both sides are willing to compromise.”
Obama signed an order on Friday night that started putting the cuts into effect.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont has killed a controversial portion of a bill he proposed that would have allowed more than 20 government agencies to access Americans’ emails without a warrant, CNET reports.
Leahy originally proposed the bill to increase email and Internet privacy. But he received pushback from law enforcement interests, so he amended it to allow warrantless access to email by a bevy of government agencies, from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Mine Enforcement Safety and Health Review Commission. That revised version sparked outrage among civil liberties proponents and a coalition of technology companies. On Tuesday Leahy abandoned the offending amendments altogether.
Leahy’s office said Tuesday on Twitter the proposed changes were only “ideas,” and would not withstand the mark-up phase of the bill process in the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
WHEN SUPREME COURT Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rose to speak to the American Constitution Society on June 15, many in the audience hoped she would hint at the fate of the Affordable Care Act. The justices had voted on Obamacare on March 30, and by mid-June the Court’s opinion, as well as any concurrences or dissents, had been drafted and circulated internally. But despite palpable panting by journalists, no one outside the Court knew what it had decided. And Ginsburg gave no clue. “Those who know don’t talk,” she said. “And those who talk don’t know.”
In the national security bureaucracy, the opposite rule has prevailed: Those who know talk quite a lot. In recent weeks, the press has reported on U.S. cyber-attacks on Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities, a double agent inside the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, and internal deliberations about drone operations. And by all accounts, the primary sources for these revelations were executive branch officials. “The accelerating pace of such disclosures, the sensitivity of the matters in question, and the harm caused to our national security interests is alarming and unacceptable,” charged congressional intelligence committee leaders in rare bipartisan unison. Why is the Court so much better at stopping leaks than the government agencies entrusted with the country’s most critical secrets?
The wall of separation between church and state is under tremendous fire in Tennessee, and we are asking Gov. Bill Haslam to help us defend it.
The state legislature has passed three measures that undermine religious liberty in public schools, and they are now sitting on the governor’s desk. One promotes creationist concepts in science classes, another allows teachers to participate in student-led religious activities and a third allows Ten Commandments displays at public schools and other public buildings.
In a letter to Gov. Haslam yesterday, Americans United urged him to veto all three misguided schemes.
Wrote AU State Legislative Counsel Amanda Rolat, “These three bills not only pose a threat to Tennessee’s public education, but also insert religion into Tennessee’s public schools, where courts have been particularly vigilant in monitoring religious expression because school-age children are more impressionable than adults…. [W]e respectfully ask you to carefully consider these bills and their significant effect on Tennessee’s public schools and citizenry.”
In the missive, Rolat explained the constitutional problems with each of the bills.
HB 368 dubs evolution “controversial” and allows teachers to help students “critique” the theory’s “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses.” Implying that there is a scientific controversy around subjects like evolution, said Rolat, is “just plain false and bad science.” The bill is clearly designed, she said, to circumvent federal court rulings barring the teaching of creationism, a religious concept, as science.
HB 3266 invites teachers to join in student-led religious activities at schools before and after classes. Rolat said student-initiated, student-led prayer is constitutional, but the courts have held that school officials, teachers, and employees are not permitted to lead or participate in religious activities with students. “This is true,” she said, “whether the prayers take place during the school day or as part of extracurricular activities.”
HB 2658 allows government agencies, including public schools, to erect displays of “certain historical documents,” including the Ten Commandments, that are part of the “freedom and rich history” of Tennessee.
In recent weeks, the United States has come under increasing pressure from Latin American leaders to rethink its drug control policy—and specifically, to at least start talking about decriminalization. As analysts such as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance have pointed out this week, this is a big shift: At first it was just academics and activists advocating for legalization; then it was former heads of state. Now, the sitting presidents of countries including Colombia and Guatemala are demanding that Washington change course. Earlier this month when Vice President Joe Biden visited the region, he got an earful from the leaders of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica to that effect.
This debate is long overdue for many practical reasons; every pundit in every relevant country seems to agree that the drug war long ago failed. But there is also a very good ethical reason to start rethinking current US strategy. As the world’s largest consumers of narcotics, the American market has stoked violence, conflict, armed insurgency, corruption, and human rights abuses abroad. It would be akin to if U.S. consumers had bought diamonds from West African warlords in Sierra Leone and Liberia during conflicts there a decade ago. Whether those purchases are legal or not, they’d support groups that take a heavily civilian toll. Today, American money (and guns—another story) are propping up the drug wars faster than any government agencies, U.S. or foreign, can fight back. More than 50,000 have been killed in Mexico since 2006 alone. The president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, expressed the frustration that many in Latin America are experiencing when she told Biden “we demand the United States assume responsibility.”
Of course, one might argue that it’s not up to the United States to help sort out drug war conflicts abroad. And anyway, Washington certainly has contributed money to the cause—more than $6 billion in Colombia and another several billion now in Mexico. Biden promised to ask for more funds to assist countries in Central America during his visit earlier this month.
No amount of aid, however, can de-link the United States from these conflicts—and it’s this piece that has long frustrated many Latin American leaders. The United States isn’t just a foreign country, helping out troubled neighbors. It’s actually the very country whose consumers are keeping the market bouyant. It is part of this equation. So when Mexico goes to war with its cartels, the United States is, essentially, also at war.
The capture of Osama Bin Laden this past year took discipline, interagency cooperation, the artful use of new technology, willingness to accept risk and steely nerves. I recommend we apply these same skills and fortitude to an equally challenging task: the effective management of U.S. government secrets.
So far the U.S. government has been trying but failing to manage this seemingly far simpler task. Senior policymakers seem unwilling or unable to give the subject the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, there will be serious consequences for such inattention. We are riding a tiger: an outdated classification system that threatens either to overwhelm us with data or to deliver vital secrets to our adversaries. Fortunately, fixing this shouldn’t be too hard.
The first and most difficult step is to figure out what’s wrong. For example, some experts have argued the key issue is excessive secrecy, which poses a round-about security threat because it dumbs down policy debates, denies Americans knowledge and thus undermines accountability. In addition to dredging up surprising examples of flawed classification decisions of the past (such as the World War II-era assessment of the number of annual shark attacks on humans, a number not declassified until 1958), they point to the issue of sheer numbers: In 2010, government agencies reported 224,734 new U.S. government secrets, an increase of 22.6 percent over the prior year. (Numbers are from the Information Security Oversight Office of the National Archives and Records Administration, “2010 Report to the President”, pp. 8-9.)
Such new secrets, what we call original classification decisions, are just the seed corn. Based on these new secrets and all prior ones, 2010 saw 76.6 million derivative classification decisions, involving the incorporation of existing secrets into new documents, videos, speeches and other products. This total was almost double the number of such decisions just two years earlier. A tsunami of electronic secrets is growing exponentially, threatening to break over U.S. taxpayers’ heads. When it does, the size and cost of managing a rescue could prove very painful. At one intelligence agency alone, the growth of classified records is approximately 1 petabyte (1 million gigabytes) every 18 months. According to the information security oversight office at the National Archives, it takes two full-time employees one full year to review just one gigabyte of data. Where is the U.S. government going to find two million full-time employees to review one petabyte, let alone the 18 petabytes or more generated by all our national security agencies?
The costs associated with keeping this backlog are also mounting. According to the U.S. National Archives, just keeping secrets classified cost more than $10.17 billion in 2010 and continues to skyrocket. The costs of declassification will be even greater.
The problem has led some experts to argue for more bureaucracy. The authors of one report see skewed incentives and incompetent or wrong-headed officials at the core of the problem.1 To fix things, they advocate introducing new processes and people to strengthen oversight of every one of those 76.8 million derivative classification decisions. Overclassifiers, once found, would be punished with fines.
In a SPIEGEL interview, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the Euro Group, talks about the need for Greece to push ahead with economic reforms. If the country doesn’t meet Europe’s demands, it will have to declare bankruptcy in March, he says.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, should one be allowed to give money to a corrupt country?
Juncker: I can already guess what you’re referring to.
SPIEGEL: We’re referring to something you said yourself. Not too long ago, you called Greece a “corrupt state.”
Juncker: It’s true that, three years ago, I said that there was corruption in Greece. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be allowed to support Greece. On the contrary, one has to help Greece if the country is making honest efforts to put a stop to the corrupt elements that were recognizably there. And Greece is doing just that.
SPIEGEL: Still, these efforts are not bearing any fruit. The so-called troika — made up of representatives from the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — has just concluded that practically nothing has changed in the catastrophic state of Greece’s public sector.
Juncker: Greece’s government is itself aware of the fact that there are elements of corruption at all levels of the public administration, and it has realized how much this issue — which continues to come to the surface — weighs on the country’s image. The Greeks are currently working hard to stop corruption within government agencies.
SPIEGEL: Though your optimism is admirable, it’s already clear that the second aid package for Greece will have to be increased once again because there is a shortfall of tens of millions of euros in the financial plans. Where should the money come from?
Juncker: For a start, private creditors have to make their contribution. Then, we will talk with the Greek government about additional austerity measures. And only after that will we see whether the second aid package, with the €130 billion ($170 billion) that is currently planned, will suffice.