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How hackers infiltrated federal agency

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In addition to the standard two forms of identification, offer letter and contact information, new hires at the U.S. Department of Education are required to bring along a certificate of completion for cybersecurity training course.

A recent internal investigation shows why that training is probably a pretty good idea.

In a previously undisclosed probe into a 2011 “spear phishing” campaign, hackers targeted senior staff and managed to break through the department’s security protections to steal data from the department.

Much about the incident, which was described in documents released through a Freedom of Information Act request by Federal Times, remains classified, including how much data and what sort of information hackers took.

One of the hackers used an email address — arne.duncan[at]ymail.com – to infiltrate the department’s security protections.

You can read for yourself the summary of the investigation by the technology crimes division of the department’s Inspector General, which passed along its findings to the FBI. That memo can be found here.

Federal Times recently reported on the incident, but the Education Department declined to comment. Still, there’s a lesson in all of this. Even if the name on an email address seems familiar, government employees ought to make sure the sender’s address is legitimate.

And call the IT department if you’re unsure.

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Rep. Paul Broun: Get rid of Energy, Education departments

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Rep. Paul Broun, R-G.A., has one demand to get his vote to raise the federal debt ceiling: eliminate the Education and Energy Departments.

In a townhall meeting with constituents Ma 19 that was captured in video on YouTube, the congressman makes his demand to the cheers of his constituents.

Survey: Many agencies still sluggish on FOIA changes despite White House push

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Two years after President Obama pledged a new dawning of governmental sunshine, barely half of 90 federal agencies say they’ve made concrete changes in their handling of Freedom of Information Act requests, according to survey findings released Sunday.

While 49 agencies reported changes to their FOIA processes, the remainder either said they had no information or did not respond to the Knight Open Government Survey.

In a similar round-up last year, only 13 agencies reported changes, so this year’s numbers reflect a large uptick. Still, “at this rate, the president’s first term in office will be over by the time federal agencies do what he asked them to do on his first day in office,” said Eric Newton, a senior adviser at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which paid for the study.

The results were released by the National Security Archive, a private research organization based at George Washington University that helped carry out the survey. The findings could offer grist for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on FOIA scheduled for this Thursday.

For the survey, researchers filed FOIA requests asking agencies for copies of changes in their FOIA regulations, manuals, training materials or processing guidance resulting from a 2009 memo from Obama favoring disclosure or from follow-up instructions issued last year.

While several large agencies—including the Defense, Interior and Health and Human Services departments—reported changes, other heavyweights did not. Among them were the Commerce, Energy, State and Education departments.  And, oh yes, the Justice Department, the lead agency for carrying out FOIA policy.

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Extreme Makeover: Federal Edition

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A trio of federal agency heads strapped on hard hats and lent their support to Sunday’s episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which featured two building projects just outside the nation’s capital.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined show host Ty Pennington for a tour of the two projects, in which the popular ABC program built a new home and community center that will be used to provide after-school programs to at-risk youths in Prince George’s County, Md.

Chu praised the projects for incorporating green technologies such as solar panels, bamboo floors, energy efficient windows and geothermal heat pumps. Solis said she was impressed with the safety precautions being followed for the more than 2,000 construction workers and 1,300 volunteers working on two job sites. And Duncan discussed the importance of after-school programs such as those offered at the two facilities.

The brief scene, which can be seen here beginning at the 3:30 mark, left me wondering what other TV programs could benefit from a similar Cabinet-level guest appearance.

Perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could help weary travelers on The Amazing Race secure visas for one of their trips? Or Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could discuss the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables to dieters on The Biggest Loser.

Can you think of any other amusing but oddly appropriate opportunities for your agency heads to get their 15 minutes of TV fame?

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Senate approves dozens of nominees

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The Senate approved dozens of President Barack Obama’s nominees this morning before departing for the holidays. The Senate will return on Jan. 21.

Approved nominations include:

  • Adele Logan Alexander as a member of the National Council on the Humanities;
  • Paul T. Anastas as an assistant Environmental Protection Agency administrator;
  • Anne Slaughter Andrew as ambassador to Costa Rica;
  • Alberto Fernandez as ambassador to Equatorial Guinea;
  • Michael Khouri as a Federal Maritime Commissioner;
  • Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis as ambassador to Hungary;
  • David Daniel Nelson as ambassador to Uruguay;
  • John Norris as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission;
  • Robert Perciasepe as deputy EPA administrator;
  • Scott Boyer Quehl as the Commerce Department’s chief financial officer and an assistant secretary;
  • Leslie Rowe as ambassador to Mozambique;
  • Lynnae Ruttledge as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Education Department;
  • Miriam Sapiro as a deputy U.S. trade representative;
  • Rajiv Shah as an U.S. Agency for International Development administrator;
  • Thomas Alfred Shannon, Jr., as ambassador to Brazil;
  • Alan Solomont as ambassador to Spain and Andorra;
  • David Strickland as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration;
  • Mary Burce Warlick as ambassador to Serbia;
  • James Warlick, Jr., as ambassador to Bulgaria;
  • Grayling Grant Williams as director of the Office of Counternarcotics Enforcement, Homeland Security Department;
  • Mary Jo Wills as ambassador to Mauritius.

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Can you tell me how to prevent the spread of swine flu?

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For 40 years Sesame Street has been teaching children their letters and numbers, but this year the residents of the famed street are teaching kids a new lesson: how to prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, better known as swine flu.

The White House, the Homeland Security Department, the Health and Human Services Department and the Education Department have teamed with the makers of Sesame Street to produce four public service announcements to teach children and families healthy habits that will prevent the spread of the potentially deadly virus. The PSAs can be viewed at www.flu.gov.

The 20-second spots feature Gordon and Elmo talking about topics as how to wash your hands and how to sneeze into your elbow.

Of the spots, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said:

Younger children and their parents are some of the people most at risk from the new H1N1 flu virus and with schools starting back up again and the weather starting to get colder, we need to do everything we can to get these important messages about how to prevent the spread of the flu out there.”

This FedLine blogger’s Sesame Street experience predates Elmo, but I understand he’s pretty popular with the preschool set, so perhaps this will be an effective campaign. But to add authority, I think the spots should have included a visit from the one and only Dr. Grover.

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2010 Budget: Program cuts

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During a news briefing this morning at the Old Executive Office Building to roll out his 2010 budget, President Obama provided a little more detail about some of the nearly $2 trillion in proposed cuts he mentioned during his joint session to Congress on Tuesday.

The highlights — or lowlights, depending on your view:

  • Nearly $200 million at the Interior Department by cutting programs to clean up abandoned coal mines that have already been cleaned up.
  • Nearly $20 million by modernizing programs and streamlining bureaucracy at the Agriculture Department.
  • Tens of millions of dollars by cutting an Education Department student mentoring program whose mission is being carrried out by 100 other programs in 13 other agencies.
  • Nearly $50 billion by cutting out benefits to citizens who aren’t entitled to them and closing tax loopholes to businesses.

Additionally, Obama said the budget would save billions by ending no-bid contracts in Iraq, ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas and rolling back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

The $2 trillion is just what has been identified during the first 30 days that the administration has been in office, Obama said. Further cuts will be proposed as part of the full budget Obama said will be released this Spring.

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Senate confirms seven Cabinet nominees

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President Barack Obama’s Cabinet now has eight official members.

The Senate voted by voice vote just before 4 p.m. today to confirm the following seven nominees: Steven Chu for Energy, Arne Duncan for Education, Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, Peter Orszag for director of the Office of Management and Budget, Ken Salazar for Interior, Eric Shinseki for Veterans Affairs and Tom Vilsak for Agriculture.

His Cabinet already included Robert Gates, whom Obama asked to stay on as Defense secretary.

But things aren’t moving so quickly for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state nomination. After her smooth hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, many expected Clinton to be confirmed today.

Enter Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who had questioned donations made by foreign groups and individuals to the foundation run by Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. He threatened a filibuster and said he was not convinced steps she outlined to prevent conflicts of interest between herself and potential donors were enough, and that was enough to stall Clinton’s vote for at least a day.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made it clear on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon he had little patience for Cornyn’s moves. He announced the scheduling of a three-hour executive session of the Senate Wednesday to discuss Clinton’s confirmation and scheduled a roll call vote at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

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