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News Briefs: Oct. 8, 2012

Oct. 7, 2012 - 09:09AM   |  
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Retirements spike in September

Federal retirements spiked in September to nearly 12,000 — the highest number since January.

The 11,952 retirement claims received by the Office of Personnel Management represent a 33 percent increase over August.

The steadily increasing numbers of retirement claims suggests the long-predicted retirement wave arrived in 2011 and is continuing.

In the first nine months of 2012, 86,676 federal employees have applied for retirement — a nearly 8 percent increase over the same time last year.

Retirements have been driven up in recent years by repeated rounds of buyouts and early retirements. But despite the spike in retirements in September, OPM was able to whittle its backlog of unprocessed retirement claims down 1 percent to 41,176 in September. OPM processed 12,563 claims last month, the most so far this year.

Report: $1.4B DHS fusion centers ‘useless’

Federally funded centers created to improve terrorism-related information-sharing with state and local governments often produce “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting,” congressional investigators concluded in a review released last week.

Most fusion center reporting didn’t involve terrorists or potential plots, but instead focused on arrest information related to drug, cash or human smuggling, according to the review by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee. Some reports drew on news releases or media accounts; others appeared to duplicate information provided by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the subcommittee found. Of 610 reports reviewed by the panel for a 13-month period in 2009-10, none uncovered a terrorist threat or aided in disrupting an active plot, the review said.

Staff for the subcommittee’s top Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, carried out the investigation, but the findings were endorsed by the panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

DHS officials said federal spending on fusion centers could be as much as $1.4 billion between 2003 and 2011, the subcommittee said. DHS spokesman Matt Chandler did not respond to a Federal Times query seeking the 2012 budget for the program.

The review’s key finding was disavowed by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn, the chairman of the full committee. The record shows that fusion centers “have played a significant role in many recent terrorism cases and have helped generate hundreds of tips and leads that have led to current FBI investigations,” Lieberman said in a statement.

DHS urged to hire more cybersecurity experts The Department of Homeland Security needs to hire about 600 cybersecurity experts and ensure current and future employees have the skills needed to defend against sophisticated attacks, according to new recommendations.

In June, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano directed a newly formed CyberSkills task force to develop recommendations for growing DHS’s cyber workforce and expanding the pipeline of cyber talent nationwide.

DHS has not properly identified the skills needed to defend against threats, making it difficult to hire people with those skills, the report said. To keep pace with the growing threat, DHS has relied heavily on contractors, “leaving fewer of these sought-after positions open to federal employees.”

FLRA: Whistle-blowers improperly fired

The Federal Labor Relations Authority last month upheld a ruling that found the Broadcasting Board of Governors improperly fired 16 employees who criticized the agency to investigators.

Arbitrator Suzanne Butler ruled last November that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting employees — who had spoken to the Government Accountability Office about alleged fraud and abuse at the agency — were illegally targeted for layoffs because they blew the whistle.

BBG said the reductions in force were necessary because of budget shortfalls and a lack of work, but Butler concluded that BBG did not prove the layoffs were for legitimate reasons and that BBG laid off the employees because they spoke critically about the agency.

FLRA upheld Butler’s ruling Sept. 25.

The American Federation of Government Employees said in an Oct. 3 release that unless BBG files an appeal, FLRA’s decision clears the way for the 16 employees to be rehired without loss of seniority or benefits.

Whistle-blower bill on Senate agenda The Senate could give final approval next month to a bill strengthening safeguards for federal workers who report waste, fraud and abuse.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which won unanimous House approval last month, would extend whistle-blower protections to Transportation Security Administration employees and expand the authority of the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates complaints of retaliation against employees who report wrongdoing.

GAO denies protest of $4.6 billion DISA contract

The Government Accountability Office last week denied a protest against Lockheed Martin’s $4.6 billion contract to support the Pentagon’s global data network.

Incumbent contractor Science Applications International Corp. in its June protest faulted the Defense Information Systems Agency’s evaluation of Lockheed’s technical risks and costs, according to GAO. SAIC also said that DISA failed to meaningfully investigate whether Lockheed had unequal access to information pertaining to the contract, which would have been an organizational conflict of interest (OCI).

DISA’s evaluation of Lockheed’s proposal was “reasonable and consistent with [the] solicitation’s evaluation criteria,” Ralph White, GAO’s managing associate general counsel for procurement law, said in a statement. “GAO also concluded that the agency reasonably investigated Lockheed’s alleged OCI.”

White House is victim of cyber attack The White House confirmed an attempted cyber attack on its computer system but said it thwarted the effort.

The Obama administration is not identifying the source of the attack, but a Washington Free Beacon report accuses China.

“This was a spear phishing attack against an unclassified network,” a White House official said via email. “The attack was identified, the system was isolated, and there is no indication whatsoever that any exfiltration of data took place.”

Index: Foreign aid agencies lack transparency

Six federal agencies that provide foreign aid have improved how they report their spending but lag behind other organizations, a report shows.

Efforts to coordinate foreign aid and ensure that assistance is effective cannot be achieved without greater transparency, Publish What You Fund, a group that monitors the transparency of aid organizations, said in its 2012 Aid Transparency Index.

The index, released Oct. 1, scored transparency based on information that 72 organizations worldwide publish about their foreign aid recipients and budgets.

Of the six U.S. agencies, the Millennium Challenge Corp. was ranked highest, at No. 9; and the Defense Department lowest, at No. 56. Other rankings:

• U.S. Agency for International Development, No. 27.

• President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, No. 29.

• Treasury Department, No. 34.

• State Department, No. 46.

VA goal: 4.7M claims in 3 years

For the Veterans Affairs Department to meet its goal of eliminating its benefits claims backlog by 2015, it will have to process 4.7 million claims in the next three years.

That’s a significant hurdle, considering VA has been processing about 1 million claims a year and is receiving new claims faster than it can complete those already in the pile.

Deputy VA Secretary Scott Gould, testifying last month before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, stuck with the stated 2015 goal for eliminating the backlog, which VA defines as claims that have been pending longer than 125 days.

Gould described himself as “daunted but confident” that a combination of better people, technology and processes will not only achieve the goal, but do it with 98 percent accuracy.

Key lawmakers are skeptical. “Many of us, myself included, are worried as to whether this goal remains realistic,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman.

GSA plans Southwest D.C. redevelopment

The General Services Administration plans to redevelop 22 acres of federal office space in Southwest Washington.

The agency published a “notice of intent” Sept. 28, asking industry to generate ideas on how to refresh Washington’s Federal Center section, which includes buildings constructed from the 1940s to 1960s, such as the Energy Department headquarters, the empty Cotton Annex, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Homeland Security and GSA. Many of the buildings have high operating costs and a backlog of maintenance and repair projects.

The agency said it plans to release a request for information by Dec. 27.

Agencies launch public FOIA website

Several agencies have partnered to launch an online system for streamlining Freedom of Information Act requests.

The website, Foiaonline. regulations.gov, allows the public to submit FOIA requests, file appeals and search requests from others, the National Archives and Records Administration announced last week.

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