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Archive for the ‘national defense’ Category

Government Accounting

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

It’s hard getting good numbers about what the government spends. Part of the reason is that the government doesn’t have an official organization chart. How are you going to know where the money goes if you don’t know how you’re organized?

But there are other reasons, and they’re on display in the cost estimate for H.R. 3381, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

Here at WashingtonWatch.com, we primarily use reports from the Congressional Budget Office for producing our cost estimates. CBO takes the gross amount of spending authorized by a bill and estimates how much will actually be spent over time. Authorization to appropriate $601 million in a given year, for example, might result in $595 million being spent over five years. Usually, the bulk gets spent in the first year, and then a decreasing amount over the ensuing years. CBO estimates usually only go out five years, though some go ten.

But when the spending is done by the intelligence community, the estimating stops. The cost estimate for H.R. 3381 says “CBO does not provide estimates for classified programs.”

There have been estimates of government spending in this area for many years, and the government has released overall estimates of spending on intelligence activities since 2007. This year information on the so-called “black budget” was leaked. The intelligence budget for fiscal year 2013 was $52.6 billion. That’s a little over $500 per U.S. family, $165 per person in the United States.

The CBO does provide estimates for the unclassified sections of the bill, such as the “Intelligence Community Management Account.” That’s spending on coordination, overseeing budgets, and managing the intelligence agencies. The bill for that is $601 million, producing $400 million in spending in fiscal 2014 and $195 million in the four years after that.

The Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System is another part of the bill that the CBO can estimate, but take a look at what they do here: “[B]ecause the authorization is the same amount as the CBO baseline, CBO does not ascribe any additional cost to that provision relative to the baseline.”

Many programs in the federal government are accounted for using the assumption that spending on them will rise—they have a “rising baseline.” So even if the number of dollars spent on the program increases from one year to the next, the CBO will report no change. It will report a cost only if a bill increases spending beyond the increase that CBO already assumed! That’s one of the wackiest parts of government accounting, and something of an insult to the millions of Americans who can’t assume a “rising baseline” in their budgets.

Because CBO told us what the increase in the baseline is, we’ve added that to our estimate of the costs for H.R. 3381. The Intelligence Community Management Account and the Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System cost about $10 per U.S. family. The other $490 in spending is classified.

Surveillance!

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Most representatives and senators will be figuring out this week what they think about the massive domestic surveillance program revealed through leaked documents reported in the Guardian last week.

They’re sitting on the sidelines, listening to the advocates on both sides, and they’ll come forward when they see which way the wind is blowing strongest.

Oh—you know who else they’ll be listening to? You. …and we don’t mean listening in on your calls. You have to phone them.

The number for the Capitol switchboard is (202) 224-3121.

You can call right now. (Look up your member of Congress and senators here!) And say your piece.

The story continues to unfold, but it’s fairly clear that the government is requiring all the major telephone companies to turn over data about every call made in the United States or from within the United States to a foreign country. That data isn’t the content of your conversations, but the date and time of the call, who called who, how long each call continued, and the location of the callers. Washingtonian magazine national security writer Shane Harris says that this data “can be more useful than the words spoken on the phone call.”

There were other releases last week. One showed that the National Security Agency has a program called “PRISM,” which accesses information from major Internet service providers, including Microsoft, Apple, Google and Yahoo!. A third showed that President Obama has ordered cyberattack plans to be drawn up. The leaker of the information came forward on Sunday. He’s Edward Snowden, who until recently worked for a contractor to the NSA.

Defenders of the call collection program point out that it is authorized by law. Congress permitted it under the USA-PATRIOT Act. A secret court approves the collection of this data, and Congress reauthorized that secret court just last December—you can see the votes on the page for the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012. And they say there are many protections in place to appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties. Abuses like those that surfaced in the IRS scandal won’t happen with this information.

There are many more dimensions to the debate, but chances are you already know what you think. Your job is to make up your representatives’ minds. They can’t know what you think unless they hear from you. Make that call now. That call will go on your permanent record, but it’s probably worth it.

Kim Jong Il is Dead

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Here’s hoping North Korea is soon released from the grip of totalitarian rule—and peacefully so. A strange reminder of his strange legacy can be found at the Tumblr site “Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.”

A number of bills in Congress deal with North Korea.

H.R. 2105, is the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Reform and Modernization Act of 2011. The bill would consolidate and modify existing law related to the transfer of certain sensitive goods, services, or technology to Iran, North Korea, and Syria. It would increase the frequency of reports required under current law identifying any foreign country, corporation, or individual that has engaged in such transfers. The reports would be more extensive and come out three times a year. The bill also would require the President to impose sanctions (including the denial of visas) for not less than two years against those responsible for transfers or to report the reasons for not doing so.

The cost of implementing H.R. 2105 would be about $0.25 per U.S. family.

S. 1048, the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Sanctions Consolidation Act of 2011, would expand sanctions imposed with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The bill hasn’t had a cost estimate yet.

H.R. 1321, the North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Nonrecognition Act of 2011, would continue restrictions against and prohibit diplomatic recognition of the Government of North Korea (at little or no cost).

H.R. 1464 and S. 416 are both called the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2011. They would cause the U.S. government to develop a strategy for assisting stateless children from North Korea. The cost of their passage would be minimal.

Because the Federal Government Has a Say in Everything

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

S. 1918 would impose a fee on air carriers that charge passengers for a first checked bag or a first carry-on bag.

The folks at the Transportation Security Administration think that one of the reasons that airlines are imposing fees on checked bags is because the downstream effect of that is to complicate things for the TSA, not the airlines themselves. When more people carry bags onto planes, that lengthens the TSA’s lines, not the airlines’. So along comes the Department of Homeland Security to get Congress to balance things out by penalizing airlines for charging for bags.

So the checkpoints at the airport aren’t just annoying to travelers. They’re a way for the government to wend its way into how airlines do business in each and every respect.

Congress should probably fix the underlying policy of transportation security excess rather than imposing additional fees on airlines that charge for checked bags.

It’s Almost Like Fort Hood Never Happened…

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Thank you to the men and women serving in our armed forces.

But that appreciation doesn’t mean that every member of the U.S. armed forces has their heads screwed on. Some of them don’t. Which makes H.R. 1801, the Risk-Based Security Screening for Members of The Armed Forces Act, such an interesting bill. It would provide expedited security screenings for members of the armed forces at airports.

Yes, it would base expedited screenings on a review of some profile about the service member and his or her family, but I don’t think you want to open that security hole. And if you do, why not do it for all Americans?

Love our service members and wish them few deployments. Don’t quite get this bill…

What to Do About Libya

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

The U.S. military has been engaged in Libya longer than the War Powers Act allows without congressional approval. Bills introduced yesterday provide something of an options memo for Congress:

H. Con. Res. 51 would direct the President, pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution, to remove the United States Armed Forces from Libya

S. J. Res. 13 would declare that a state of war exists between the Government of Libya and the Government and people of the United States, making provision to prosecute the same

S. J. Res. 14 would declare that the President has exceeded his authority under the War Powers Resolution as it pertains to the ongoing military engagement in Libya

S. Res. 194 would express the sense of the Senate on United States military operations in Libya.

Extending USA-PATRIOT

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Congress will soon have to decide what to do with some controversial parts of the USA-PATRIOT Act, which were made to sunset, forcing this decision.

Maybe the thing to do is extend the sunset date! So says S. 1022, which would extend USA-PATRIOT provisions until December 31, 2014.

Be sure and do the political math: That’s right after a non-presidential election, so it’s a time when the public is least likely to be paying attention. Now, how that plays politically, who knows?…

Thank You for Killing Bin Laden

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Congress is in an appreciative mood. Four different resolutions have been introduced expressing thanks for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

They are:

  • H. Res. 240, Commending President Barack Obama and the men and women of the military and intelligence agencies for the successful completion of the operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden;
  • S. Res. 159, A resolution honoring the members of the military and intelligence community who carried out the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and for other purposes;
  • H. Res. 241, Honoring the members of the United States Armed Forces, the intelligence community, and the Obama and Bush Administrations whose dedicated service brought the murderous terrorist leader Osama bin Laden to justice; and
  • H. Res. 248, Honoring the members of the military and intelligence community who carried out the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and for other purposes.

Feel the same way? Or maybe the U.S. reaction has been a little bloodthirsty. Decent people can feel either way.

Express yourself in the comments, or in your votes on the bills linked above…

Osama bin Laden is Dead!

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

What delightful news! Osama bin Laden is dead.

President Obama called him “Al Qaeda’s leader and symbol” in announcing that a team of U.S. operatives had killed bin Laden and taken custody of his body in a firefight at a compound in Abbottabad inside the Pakistan interior.

Coming nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden’s death is a welcome piece of good news for the United States and its western allies, who have been struggling against terrorism on any number of fronts.

This is not the end of terrorism, of course. Bin Laden did not exercise control of the al Qaeda network, and it won’t fall apart because of his loss. A new, lesser leader may emerge, and independent, al Qaeda-branded groups need not look to central leadership for action.

But the killing of bin Laden is an important symbol to potential terrorists around the world that terrorism is not a mode of action that leads to success. The death of a symbol like Osama bin Laden is an important symbol of terrorism’s failure. Al Qaeda terrorism has certainly suffered a setback with the loss of its founder and nominal leader.

Of course, terrorism has had the intense interest of Congress since the 9/11 attacks. Below is a list of the bills dealing with terrorism that have been introduced so far in the new Congress that began this year. They illustrate the variety of ways that terrorism has affected U.S. policy. The American approach to counterterrorism will change in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, but probably not by much…

  • H.R. 67, To extend expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 and Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 until February 29, 2012
  • H. Res. 28, Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the Transportation Security Administration should, in accordance with existing law, enhance security against terrorist attack and other security threats to our Nation’s rail and mass transit systems and other modes of surface transportation; and for other purposes
  • S. 34, The Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2011>
  • S. 86, A bill to close the loophole that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to obtain credit cards from United States banks that financed their terrorist activities, to ensure that illegal immigrants cannot obtain credit cards to evade United States immigration laws, and for other purposes
  • H.R. 478, The Military Tribunals for Terrorists Act 2011
  • H.R. 504, The First Responders Fighting Terrorism Protection Act of 2011
  • H. Res. 60, Urging the Secretary of State to remove the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran from the Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations
  • H.R. 901, The Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Security Authorization Act of 2011
  • H.R. 908, The Full Implementation of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act
  • H.R. 916, The Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act of 2011
  • S. 473, The Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act of 2011
  • S. 497, The Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2011
  • H.R. 959, The Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2011
  • S. 554, A bill to prohibit the use of Department of Justice funds for the prosecution in Article III courts of the United States of individuals involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
  • S. 614, The Securing Terrorist Intelligence Act
  • H.R. 1270, To direct the Secretary of State to designate as foreign terrorist organizations certain Mexican drug cartels, and for other purposes
  • H.R. 1506, The Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2011
  • H.R. 1644, To amend section 412(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to prohibit the provision of cash assistance or medical assistance to any refugee who, after entering the United States, travels to a country that supports international terrorism

USA-PATRIOT—The Debate Congress Doesn’t Want to Have

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Update: On Tuesday, the House failed to pass H.R. 514 as the Republican leadership had expected. This symbolizes that support for the USA-PATRIOT Act is weaker in their caucus than they thought, but it will not prevent the bill from passing, probably later in the week. The bill was brought to the floor under a procedure called “Suspension of the Rules,” which limits debate but requires a 2/3rds majority vote. When several Republicans broke ranks to vote against the bill, it did not get that 2/3rds majority. The leadership can bring the bill back to the floor and get a majority vote any time. Here’s more from the Washington Post.

eagle_and_american_flag_by_bubbelsJust over a month after the September 11th attacks, Congress passed the USA-PATRIOT Act. It was a time when Americans were still shocked by the images of the World Trade Center towers in New York City collapsing. We don’t know whether another shoe would soon drop.

Even then, many recognized that the new powers being given to the federal government were draconian. So they were made temporary. The USA-PATRIOT Act had “sunset” provisions, recognizing that the peril Americans felt just after 9/11 would give way. Normal life and normal liberties would be restored.

Since then, Congress has extended the sunset several times. Currently, the sun will set on many PATRIOT Act provisions on February 28th.

So the question is joined: Are the emergency powers Congress gave the government still needed? Or is the problem Congress meant to address in USA-PATRIOT largely under control?

Because of the obscurity of USA-PATRIOT, what it does, and how it is used, these are very hard questions to answer. And most people do so with their guts. So go to your gut: Thinking of how you felt after 9/11, is that fear still with you? Or has your confidence in the security of our country increased? Do you prioritize the modern problem of security against terrorism, or the classic problem of security against having a too-powerful government?

These are tough questions to answer—heck they’re tough questions to ask! But it might be time for Congress to actually debate the USA-PATRIOT Act powers rather than kicking the can down the road.

This week, the plan is to kick the can. H.R. 514, which is slated for debate in the House this week, would extend the sunset date on several USA-PATRIOT Act provisions from February 28th to December 8, 2011. If it passes both houses of Congress, we might have a Christmas-time debate about USA-PATRIOT. Or we might have another kicking of the can…

Here’s the current vote on H.R. 514. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill