Federal Times Blogs

NIST on track to release preliminary cybersecurity standards

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The National Institutes of Standards and Technology is on track to develop a preliminary set of voluntary cybersecurity standards by October, according to the head of the agency.

Patrick Gallagher, NIST director, said at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee hearing Thursday that the agency is working closely with private industry as mandated by a Feb. 19 executive order.

“We have made significant progress but we still have a lot to do,” Gallagher said.

He said the agency has already held three workshops for industry feedback and will continue to work with the private sector to develop a flexible set of principles that will remain relevant for as long as possible.

President Obama directed NIST in the executive order to work with the private sector on standards that will help protect critical infrastructure – such as telecommunications and manufacturing – from cyber attack.

Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.V., chairman of the committee, said it is critical that NIST and the private sector work together on any cybersecurity framework to make sure it is adopted by the private sector.

“Making progress against our cyber adversaries is going to require a sustained coordinated effort between the public and private sectors,” he said.

Commerce IG finds $280,000 in unsupported conference costs

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More than half of the conference spending reported by the Commerce Department in the first quarter of fiscal 2012 was based on estimated and unsupported costs, according to a new inspector general report.

The IG found that 65 percent or $1.1 million of the total $1.7 million in conference spending reported by Commerce was not based on actual costs for things such as meals and incidental expenses, transportation and lodging costs. This also included budgeted expenses that the department could not provide sufficient documentation for.

Some bureaus said they used estimates because the actual expenses were not available at the end of the reporting quarter, or they had not received invoices, according to the Oct. 17 report.

However, the IG found instances where actual cost data was available at the bureaus but not submitted.

Census Bureau, International Trade Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Patent and Trademark Office reported more than $1.7 million in spending for 24 conferences in the first quarter of fiscal 2012, the report said.

“The department accepted bureau’s conference spending data with only limited validation of the reported data and planning procedures, which resulted in incorrect reporting for select conferences,” the report said.

Two of the five bureaus over-reported some conference costs by a combined total of about $37,000 and under-reported other costs by more than $70,000, the report found. For example, the bureaus under-reported their transporation costs by nearly $28,000.

A 2012 appropriations provision requires the department to submit quarterly reports on conference spending to the IG. When the provision was enacted last year, the department had not fully developed policies or processes for doing the quarterly reports.

Since then, however, the IG noted that Commerce has created written policies for reporting conference spending and has made other drastic changes.

In a response letter to the IG, Commerce’s chief financial officer, Scott Quehl, said the act that requires Commerce to report conference spending does not make the distinction between reporting estimated and actual costs, but Commerce will review the IG’s concerns.

Quehl also said a comprehensive policy with guidance for requesting conference pre-approval, quarterly reporting and other related matters is undergoing final review.

IG recommendations for Commerce include:

- Strengthen operating policy to ensure bureaus accurately report actual conference spending, identify estimated costs and update them when actual costs become available.

- Require bureaus to maintain supporting documentation for costs incurred, planning considerations and decision justifications.

- Acquire assurance from bureaus that all required conferences are included in quarterly reports.

- Develop a process to examine questionable costs and document results.

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Report: NOAA officials see weather service business ops model as “unsustainable.”

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It’s been a couple of months since a hullabaloo over allegedly illegal money moves at the National Weather Service briefly left several thousand employees at risk of unpaid furloughs.

But various inquiries into the affair are still under way, and a recently obtained copy of the original investigative report offers some intriguing details not previously disclosed.

For many years, for example, senior leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have viewed the weather service’s business operations model as “unsustainable” because a high level of labor costs eats into management flexibility, according to a heavily redacted copy of the 61-page report received by Federal Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

As a result, NOAA officials barred the weather service from creating any new positions, “so they must find ways to move forward with the same number of employees or less,” the report said.

In an email last week, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen disputed that a freeze was ever in effect, but acknowledged that the “weather service was challenged to find more efficient ways to perform functions.”

NOAA, a branch of the Commerce Department, is now striving to make the weather service more “stable, flexible and resilient,” Smullen added, with several studies already completed or under way. While NOAA is eager to engage employees and other stakeholders, he said, “we are not pre-judging how to get there.”

The internal investigation was completed this spring by a NOAA team in response to anonymous complaints of financial shenanigans. For anyone in need of a reminder, the inquiry found that the Weather Service finance officials reprogrammed millions of dollars among various accounts without congressional approval in 2010 and 2011, and possibly before that. While the exact amount involved is unclear, the report suggested that it could be in the neighborhood at at least $22 million. The weather service’s former chief financial officer, Robert Byrd, has retired, Smullen said.

No evidence surfaced that personal financial gain was a factor; instead, the unauthorized transfers seemed geared to shoring up funding for local forecasting offices. Needless to say, however, that money had to come from somewhere.

One target was the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, or AWIPS, the high-tech centerpiece of the weather service’s forecasting efforts, which was maintained by Raytheon under a contract worth about $14.4 million per year. In 2011, about $5.5 million was taken from AWIPS, the bulk of it from the Raytheon contract. Such moves “clearly brought significant risk to the AWIPS program,” the investigators concluded. Although it was not their job to decide whether there was actual damage to the program, the weather service “will need to make this determination in the future,” the report said. A Raytheon spokesman declined comment this week.

After NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco publicly summarized the investigation’s findings in May, the agency sought congressional approval to legally reprogram almost $36 million. Although peeved lawmakers eventually OK’d the request, it was only after the Commerce Department  had notified some 4,800 weather service employees that they could be furloughed if the money didn’t come through.



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Agencies launch public FOIA website

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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, search through requests from others and access previously released documents, the National Archives and Records Administration announced Monday.

NARA is partnering with the Commerce Department and Environmental Protection Agency to develop the website, which was built on the same infrastructure as EPA’s Regulations.gov website.

“FOIAonline avoided many start-up costs, resulting in a total of $1.3 million to launch and an estimated cost avoidance of $200 million over the next five years if broadly adopted,” NARA said.

So far, the Treasury Department, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and the Merit Systems Protection Board, have agreed to use the new FOIA portal. Agencies will be able to receive and store requests, assign and process requests, post responses, manage records electronically and more.

The website will also allow agencies to collaborate on FOIA requests and automate certain request tasks, according to OMB Watch, a government watchdog group. ”This should help speed up processing and bring down the number of backlogged FOIA requests,” the group said.

The federal government had a backlog of 83,490 requests in fiscal 2011, up from 69,526 in fiscal 2010, according to FOIA.gov.

For now, users of the new FOIA website will not be able to track the progress of their FOIA request or communicate with the agency processing a request. Don’t be surprised if you can’t view details of the FOIA requests but, instead, get a message saying the description of this request is under agency review.


Commerce IG to review recent cyber attack, security practices

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A Commerce Department agency’s security program is under review, following a January cyber attack that crippled its networks.

As part of an annual audit, the inspector general is reviewing the Economic Development Agency’s security program, according to a June memo. The review will determine the program’s effectiveness, significant factors that led to the cyber attack and how EDA has responded.

The computer virus was discovered Jan. 20, and the agency shut down employees’ Internet access the following week. Workers were eventually given new computer workstations with access to Internet and email, and the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team launched an investigation.

Despite the systems disruption, the agency’s job still got done: It announced 72 grants totaling $32.6 million during that period.

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Furlough threat in the offing, key senators approve weather service funding request

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National Weather Service employees got some heartening news today as two key senators signaled approval of the agency’s request to redirect money in this year’s budget to cover a funding shortfall for local forecasting offices. A similar signoff is still needed from House members to head off the threat of furloughs. Richard Hirn, a lobbyist for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, reiterated that he expects a happy ending, but not before a hearing tomorrow morning by the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency.

Subcommittee members “have very serious questions and they are going to get some explanation first before they say anything,” Hirn said. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Commerce Department agency that includes the weather service, did not reply to an email seeking comment.

The lead witness at tomorrow’s hearing will be NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. Dan Scandling, a spokesman for the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., wouldn’t venture a prediction on when his boss will make a decision on the weather service’s request, but said the panel will “walk through” it tomorrow.

In a June 1 notification to the employees organization, the weather service warned of possible furloughs if  lawmakers didn’t approve the request to “reprogram” almost $36 million in this year’s budget, the bulk of it for the forecasting offices. That request has been stymied by lawmakers’ anger over the recent findings of a NOAA internal investigation that weather service managers improperly moved money between different accounts in fiscal 2010 and 2011 without getting the necessary congressional approval.

Apart from scrutinizing the reprogramming request, tomorrow’s hearing is “going to be about what happened, why it happened and what they are going to do to fix it,” Scandling said.

Leaders of the comparable Senate appropriations subcommittee said today that this year’s request appears valid.  The panel “remains committed to supporting NWS’s critical mission of forecasting and warning about severe weather, and supporting the men and women who work every day to fulfill that mission,” Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said in a letter to Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.  “Therefore, we approve the reprogramming proposal to ensure that NWS forecasting operations are not disrupted.”

Mikulski chairs the subcommittee; Hutchison is its top Republican. In their letter, however, they complained of long-standing budget problems at both NOAA and the weather service.  Accordingly, the panel is conducting an independent review and has also been in touch with the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department “to help resolve these outstanding issues.”

[This post has been updated]

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White House launches BusinessUSA.gov

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The administration on Friday launched a new beta website called BusinessUSA.gov to simplify online interaction between businesses and the government.

BusinessUSA.gov matches “businesses with the services relevant to them, regardless of where the information is located or which agency’s website, call center, or office they go to for help,” federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said in a blog post Friday.

The website is currently in a beta version but will evolve to incorporate user feedback.

Business owners can browse the site and customize their search results to receive information about topics of interest, such as federal contracting, grants, or opportunities that meet their specific needs. For example, if a veteran- or minority-owned business is interested in loans or exporting, the website provides information about those topics.

President Obama first announced plans to launch BusinessUSA.gov in January and also said he would ask Congress for authority to merge agencies that handle business and trade functions into a single department. Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., plan to sponsor a bill that would give the president “fast track” authority to consolidate government agencies, pending Congress’ approval.

“We shouldn’t be an inhibitor through the complexity that we present people,” VanRoekel said.


More opposition to adding U.S. Trade Representative to new department

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The U.S. Trade Representative’s office is a relatively small operation, with just 220 or so employees, according to the most recent statistics. But it’s looming very large in the debate over President Obama’s proposed consolidation of agencies dealing with business and trade policy.

Key lawmakers objected almost as soon as Obama announced Jan. 13 that he wanted the Trade Representative’s office in that new department. Now, dozens of business groups are also voicing “immediate concerns” about eliminating USTR as a stand-alone agency in the Executive Office of the President.  In a joint letter this week to Obama, they said the agency plays “an invaluable role in coordinating the many different entities within the U.S. government that have specialized trade functions.” Not to mention that its position within the executive office lends the agency “enormous credibility,” they added.

“Subsuming USTR into a broader trade and business government department will severely harm that credibility and USTR’s ability to play its unique coordinating role within the U.S. government.”

The diverse coalition of more than 80 signers included the National Association of Manufacturers, TechAmerica, the American Chemistry Council and the Motion Picture Association of America. The letter was posted online by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

In an emailed response, Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack touted the virtues of synergy.  The proposed consolidation would allow USTR “to retain its nimbleness, and also draw on expertise currently spread across the government . . . ,” she said. “By combining and augmenting the analytic and enforcement capabilities currently housed at [the Commerce Department] and USTR, we will be better able to enforce trade laws, combat unfair tariff and non-tariff barriers, and crack down on practices that unjustly harm U.S. companies.”

Besides USTR and a large chunk of Commerce, the new agency would encompass the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, and parts of several other agencies.




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Three massive government projects that could be killed by budget cuts

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2011 was not the best year for federal construction projects (i.e. the worst?) across the country. Accounts were slashed, budgets cut and accounts slashed – I count that one twice – in an effort to cut government spending. So what may be left by the wayside as we move into 2012?

3: Justice Department: The Los Angeles Courthouse

This $399 million, 650,000-square-foot project is supposed to house the overflow of federal justices in the Los Angeles Area. While the money for this project has already been appropriated, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on public buildings have asked the General Services Administration to block the project.

The Civilian Property Realignment Act which is working its way through Congress – would require GSA to sell the land on which plans to build the Los Angeles courthouse.

2: Department of Commerce: Herbert Hoover Building

Remaining Tab: $453 million

When the Herbert Clark Hoover building (it was named later) was finished in 1932 it was pretty awesome. It’s an eight acre, steel-framed 1.8 million square foot structure. It has six internal courtyards for ventilation, Indiana limestone with granite accents and 24 fluted Doric columns flanking the center section. But then again things like treated bronze doors don’t provide federal employees with contemporary IT infrastructure, modern office space or increased security.

Which is pretty important, I’ve been told.

So in 2008 the General Services Administration began an eight-phase renovation (yes, eight) to renovate the interior and exterior of the building. The total cost is estimated to be about $750 million and will be finished around 2021, and GSA has allocated about $256 million so far for the project. After the recession gave GSA a bargaining boost (saving $40 million in costs) the agency is left with a hole of about $453 million to fill.

For those of you following along at home, $453 million is enough money to purchase 453 million items from your local dollar menu (not counting taxes).

Its final budget for non-courthouse renovations: $260 million. That sounds like a lot until you realize that’s for the thousands of buildings GSA owns across the country and not just the Hoover-plex.

1.   The DHS headquarters consolidation at St. Elizabeths

Remaining tab: $3.6 billion (and climbing).

Originally designed as the best way to house more than 14,000 federal employees at the Department of Homeland Security, the project would encompass more than 50 buildings over more than 4 million square feet and 168 acres.  It was a chance to give the Coast Guard a brand new headquarters and bring all of its headquarters operation workers into one location.

When finished, the campus would serve as the operational headquarters of the entire agency.

But now the same project will cost at least $3.96 billion and take until the end of fiscal 2021 to complete – delaying the relocation of more than 10,000 federal workers by up to five years, according to agency estimates.

And that’s if Congress fully funds the project starting in fiscal year 2013.

Newsflash: the Senate accomplishes something

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Contrary to what recent experience might suggest, the Senate can occasionally get something done.

Witness yesterday’s approval of two Obama administration picks whose nominations had been dangling for months. Around noon, the Senate confirmed Heather Higginbottom on a 64-36 vote to become deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget. Later that evening, lawmakers also signed off 74-26 on the  nomination of John Bryson to be the next Commerce Secretary.

Both nominations had been stalled by Republican objections. Higginbottom, who had been policy director for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, more recently served as the number two person at the White House Domestic Policy Council. While OMB Director Jack Lew had praised her as “an outstanding addition” to his team, some GOP lawmakers questioned her qualifications. Bryson, a former energy company CEO, overcame opposition sparked by his role in co-founding the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental organization.

Higginbottom was sworn in Thursday night, OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email today.  “We’re very pleased that the Senate has finally confirmed Heather at such a critical time for America’s fiscal challenges,” Mack said. “Her responsibilities will include playing a key role in the development of the 2013 budget proposal.”

Bryson “will be a key member of my economic team, working with the business community to promote job creation, foster growth, and help open up new markets around the world for American-made goods,” Obama said in a statement.

[Updated at 4:50 p.m. to reflect Mack comment.]]

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