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News Digest: July 23

Jul. 22, 2012 - 02:55PM   |  
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Pentagon adds ‘top down’ review of leaks

The Defense Department’s top intelligence official will monitor the news for stories containing leaks of classified national security information and will make sure that potential violations are investigated appropriately, the Pentagon announced last week.

Under the new “top down” system, the department’s undersecretary for intelligence will also ensure that any legally required notifications and referrals to Congress and the Justice Department are made, according to the release from the Pentagon public affairs office.

The new system supplements the existing “bottom up” approach, where alleged leaks are reported up the chain of command, the July 19 release said.

The announcement came the same day that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials testified on leaks at a closed-door session of the House Armed Services Committee.

The new measures join a host of others — such as improved monitoring of DoD computer networks and creation of an insider threat program — that the Pentagon has taken to better control access to classified information since 2010, when the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks began posting tens of thousands of government records on the Internet.

Guidance in works on federal hiring of vets

The Office of Personnel Management must issue guidance on how agencies can improve their hiring and re-employment of veterans, under an Obama administration memorandum released last week.

The guidance, due in six months, will draw on the recommendations of a working group of agencies that employ particularly large numbers of vets, the memo says.

Agencies must also ensure their managers are trained to support the employment, development and re-employment of service members and members of the National Guard and military reserves.

Overall, veterans made up about 27 percent of the federal workforce last year, which the White House said was the highest share in 15 years.

Treasury plans new spending database

The Treasury Department is rolling out a new reporting system intended to shine more light on the government’s spending on contracts, grants and loans.

The new system, called the Payment Information Repository (PIR), will collect information about each federal payment made as well as the corresponding appropriations, Richard Gregg, the department’s fiscal assistant secretary, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at a July 18 hearing.

The data can then be linked to other government databases, such as USASpending.gov, so people can follow a payment through the complete spending cycle — from appropriation to disbursement, he said.

Committee chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said USASpending.gov, the primary site for government spending information, is not user-friendly.

Information is not stored in a consistent manner, and contractors are often listed under multiple names, making it difficult to run searches on the data, he said.

Agencies will start reporting to the Treasury system in August and have until October 2014 to adopt the new format, Gregg said.

Premium pay extended for civilian employees in Iraq

Eligible civilian employees working in Iraq may continue receiving premium pay under a waiver extended through the end of December, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said in a memo last week.

OPM’s move follows the Obama administration’s decision in May to extend for another year “a national emergency with respect to the stabilization of Iraq.”

New coalition opposes LEED certification

A new coalition of trade organizations has formed to oppose the General Services Administration’s use of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program to rate “green” buildings.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and 25 other groups formed the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition to lobby against the government’s use of the LEED program.

GSA requires that all of its new buildings be LEED Gold certified, but every five years, GSA and the Energy and Defense departments are required by law to evaluate all certification systems. The first such review is underway.

The coalition opposes LEED because it is not a consensus-based approach to green building standards and penalizes manufacturers of specific building materials — such as vinyl or polycarbonate, according to a coalition statement.

Post office closing appeals skyrocket

Here’s one area where the U.S. Postal Service is showing growth: the number of appeals of post office closings.

As of mid-May, the year-to-date total for fiscal 2012 was 126, well above the 103 appeals filed in all of 2011 and the two appeals from 2007 to 2009, according to a new joint report from the inspectors general for the Postal Service and Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC).

The increases aren’t a surprise, given that the Postal Service has ramped up its efforts to get rid of underperforming post offices. The tally for closures as of mid-May stood at 537, almost four times the number in 2010.

Anyone served by a post office targeted for demise can appeal to the PRC within 30 days of a final USPS decision.

GSA in search of experts with ideas to go digital

The General Services Administration’s new Digital Services Innovation Center is searching for federal experts to help agencies improve how they build and develop digital services.

As part of the government’s digital strategy released in May, GSA stood up the center to help agencies create shared solutions for web hosting, content management, video captioning and related needs. One of the center’s primary goals is working with agencies over the next year to make at least two services available as mobile applications.

To do that, the center is looking for feds to help with projects through half-day or extended assignments that include code development, blogging and software testing.

Click here to apply.

FBI made ‘mistakes’ in Fort Hood case

The FBI “made mistakes” when it did not launch a deeper investigation into an Army psychiatrist’s correspondence with a known terrorist leader before the psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, allegedly opened fire on his colleagues in 2009, killing 12 service members and wounding 42 others at a Texas military post, a review of the bureau’s actions has concluded.

The review, conducted by former FBI director William Webster, centered on 18 emails, 16 of them written by Hasan to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American cleric who had sought refuge in Yemen.

The correspondence, which included two responses from Awlaki, were intercepted by the FBI from December 2008 to June 2009.

The FBI concluded, over the objections of some agents, that the contents of the emails did not suggest that Hasan was a terror threat and that his communications were probably an attempt at research. Awlaki was killed last September in a U.S. military strike in Yemen.

Hasan faces trial in a military court in the shootings at Fort Hood.

Webster’s investigators said the FBI’s assessment was “incomplete and rushed,” primarily because of an excessive workload carried by terror analysts and agents in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Seasonal firefighters get immediate health benefits

Thousands of seasonal wildland firefighters are immediately eligible for federal health benefits under an interim regulation published last week by the Office of Personnel Management.

Up to now, those firefighters, employed by the Agriculture and Interior departments, have been unable to enroll in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan because they work less than six months a year. An online petition started in late May gathered more than 126,000 signatures in support of providing coverage. The National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents firefighters, also endorsed the move.

After visiting the scene of a devastating wildfire in Colorado last month, President Obama ordered OPM to find a way to extend coverage to those temporary employees while they are on the job. Under the new program, firefighters will have the option of continuing coverage at their own expense when their seasonal stints are done, OPM Director John Berry said in a news release.

The interim regulation has a 60-day comment period.

Foreign Service struggles to fill midlevel vacancies

The Foreign Service is grappling with a lack of experienced midlevel diplomats despite a hiring surge several years ago, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released last week.

Although the State Department is attempting to compensate by hiring retirees and placing current civil service employees in Foreign Service jobs, it “lacks a strategy to fill those gaps,” the report said. As a result, diplomatic readiness may be sapped by a loss of institutional knowledge and a shortage of diplomats to report on conditions in the host country.

Under a 2009 initiative, the State Department hired about 1,900 more Foreign Service officers than it lost through the end of fiscal 2010. Last year, however, tighter funding slowed growth to just 38 new hires, and growth is likely to be only slightly higher in the future, according to State Department projections cited in the report.

IRS spends $38M in aftermath of Texas crash

The IRS spent more than $38 million on extra security, document recovery and other expenses following a February 2010 attack in which a private plane intentionally struck an agency office building in Austin, Texas, according a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Besides the plane’s pilot, the attack killed an IRS manager and injured 13 other people.

Along with some $6.4 million in costs related to the immediate aftermath, the IRS spent $1.2 million on an independent security review and $30.5 million on extra security guards at its operations nationwide through last September.

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