Blackwater's Fired Up by Audit Coverage

Bruce Falconer and I reported yesterday that a federal audit [PDF] of Blackwater's security contracts in Iraq concluded, among other things, that the firm had regularly failed to meet staffing requirements on two of its State Department task orders and could owe the government $55 million. Blackwater's spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, just emailed an "amended statement" on the audit, disputing how its conclusions were characterized in some media reports. I saw this one coming when I read the Wall Street Journal's coverage this morning, which carried the headline, "Audit Finds That U.S. Overpaid Blackwater." (Similarly, ABC is now reporting: "There is no assurance that personnel staffing data was accurate or complete and that correct labor rates were paid.")

Here's what Tyrrell had to say:

The joint audit by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the United State Department of State Inspector General released yesterday does not, as some press reports have suggested, allege that Blackwater was ever complicit in overbilling the United States government for work it performed in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. The audit does not even state that the government overpaid Blackwater for staffing issues.  All it suggests is that invoices spanning a period of time are reviewed. A $55 million penalty has in no way been determined. 

In fact, the government contracting officer determined that Blackwater was compliant with the terms of the contract at the time for which they were reviewing and the therefore did not apply any deductions or penalties. Blackwater only billed for services provided. 

Responding to Iran

Jonah Goldberg on Obama's response to the mass protests in Iran:

Reportedly, you are biding your time, waiting to see what happens, as if it is a great mystery. Your campaign lived and breathed YouTube. Check it now, check it often. You and your team promised "soft power" and "smart power." Well, let's see some of that. Because by not clearly picking a side, it appears you have chosen the wrong side.

Do you fear antagonizing the powers-that-be in Iran? That ship has sailed. Though I am sure they're grateful for your eagerness not to roil the seas around them. Is it because you think "leader of the free world" is just another of those Cold War relics best mothballed in favor of a more cosmopolitan and universal awe at your own story?

"Enough about those people bleeding in the street. What do you think of me?" Is that how it is to be?

Obama really drives conservatives to the loony bin, doesn't he?  I mean, the story here is pretty simple: if the Great Satan forcefully intervenes on Mousavi's side, it gives the clerics just the excuse they need to brand him a foreign stooge and really crack down.  Goldberg can't possibly not know this, can he?  Obama, so far, is doing exactly the right thing: deploring the violence but otherwise staying in the background until and unless Mousavi and the protesters themselves ask for more.  He's doing his best not to make it about him, but about them.

Obama Sides With Bush on White House Records

Remember the flap over the White House visitor log? After George W. Bush was elected, the White House instructed the Secret Service to delete its daily record of visitors so that it couldn't be released to the press under the Freedom of Information Act. The deletions were exposed and halted in 2004, before the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington requested records for White House visits made by nine conservative religious leaders, prompting a drawn-out court battle. 
 
Give that Obama has promised to create "an unprecedented level of openness in Government," you might expect his administration to reverse Bush's position. But in January and May, his White House filed court briefs supporting Bush, who'd argued that the logs were protected by the a presidential communication privilege. Though the Obama administration has repeatedly said the Bush policy is under review, today it denied a request filed by CREW for records of White House visits made by coal company executives.
 
Obama's position in nothing unique. Presidential administrations have rarely released their visitor logs. Among the few recent exceptions were releases in connection with the Jack Abramoff investigation in the Bush years and Filegate during the Clinton era. The Obama administration argues that it should be allowed to hold secret meetings in the White House, "such as an elected official interviewing for an administration position or an ambassador coming for a discussion on issues that would affect international negotiations," an Obama spokesman told MSNBC, which has also requested recent visitor logs. Still, it's too bad that those secret meetings can also include coal companies.

Yet More on Charter Schools

A new Stanford University study on charter schools was released yesterday.  The LA Times summarizes:

The study of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia found that, nationally, only 17% of charter schools do better academically than their traditional counterparts, and more than a third "deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student[s] would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools."

That's accurate as far as it goes.  The overall results showed charter schools nationwide delivering slightly poorer results than public schools.  However, there were a couple of significant caveats in the report itself:

Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multiā€level schools have significantly worse results.

....Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.

The pair of charts below shows the size of the effect: compared to public schools, charters are moderately better in elementary and middle schools but fall off a cliff in high school.  Likewise, kids tend to do a lot worse in their first year in a charter school — possibly the result of adjusting to a new environment — but are doing considerably better by their third year.

Overall, then, the results are mixed.  And once again we see that the biggest problems are in high school.  Improving test performance in elementary school appears to be quite doable, but the effects usually wash out by the time kids are 17.  It's unclear how to fix this.

However, if the Stanford report is correct, at least it provides a strategy for confused parents: put your kids in a good charter school in first grade so they get past the first year jitters early and then get seven years of higher performance than they'd get in public schools.  Then, after eighth grade, switch them to a public high school, where they'll get higher performance than they would in a charter school.  It's as good a plan as any.

The full report, including state-by-state results, is here.  Note that the methodology employed by the study isn't perfect, but appears to be pretty good.  Their results are probably worth paying attention to.

Secrecy Corrupts

Last week, I warned that the White House's argument for suppressing (and perhaps classifying) photos of detainee abuse—that the photos would make the US look bad and inflame anti-American sentiment, thereby endangering US troops—was infinitely extendible. I wondered what would happen the next time information emerged that embarassed the US and might inflame opinion against Americans. Would Obama suppress that, too? It turns out that the answer may be yes. McClatchy reports:

Pentagon wavers on release of report on Afghan attack

WASHINGTON — Defense Department officials are debating whether to ignore an earlier promise and squelch the release of an investigation into a U.S. airstrike last month, out of fear that its findings would further enrage the Afghan public, Pentagon officials told McClatchy Monday.

The military promised to release the report shortly after the May 4 air attack, which killed dozens of Afghans, and the Pentagon reiterated that last week. U.S. officials also said they'd release a video that military officials said shows Taliban fighters attacking Afghan and U.S. forces and then running into a building. Shortly afterward, a U.S. aircraft dropped a bomb that destroyed the building.

However, a senior defense official told McClatchy Monday: "The decision (about what to release) is now in limbo."

Pentagon leaders are divided about whether releasing the report would reflect a renewed push for openness and transparency about civilian casualties or whether it would only fan Afghan outrage and become a Taliban recruiting tool just as Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal takes command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, this is an exact repeat of the detainee photo argument. Once you start suppressing information that makes the US look bad, it's easy to do it again. And again. The slippery slope of government secrecy is real. And President Obama is sliding down it.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 16

Hello, and happy Tuesday. Here's what's new in health, environment, and science:

Healthcare mythology day: In critiquing Obama's plans for more healthcare spending, conservatives revive two favorite chestnuts of anti-nationalization rhetoric. Meanwhile, Obama trots out his own old wives' tale, suggesting that restricting medical malpractice lawsuits could help reduce healthcare costs.

Geek out on futuristic climate solutions: Should we tether kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream to harvest its massive wind power? Maybe. Block out the sun to keep earth from heating up? Probably not.

Salacious wildlife news: An environmental group says Obama's nominee for head of the US Fish & Wildlife Service whored out panther habitat to sprawl-mongering developers. 

And one last question: Did you celebrate Meatless Monday?

Today's photo is from Iraq.Spc. Kristopher Doktor, of Peoria, Ill., a Soldier in Company A, 1st Battalion 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Multi-National Division-Baghdad, scans his sector of fire through the sights on his M240 Bravo machine gun, on top of Combat Outpost Texas, in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo courtesy army.mil).

The cute, endangered animal for this week is the state mammal of Hawaii, the Hawaiian Monk Seal. According to forbidding signs posted on Hawaiian beaches, the monk seal is "one of the most endangered species in the world," with only 1,400 individuals. The Hawaiian Monk Seal lives in the quiet Northwestern islands of Hawaii like Kawa'i whose golden beaches and jungled peaks appear in movies from South Pacific to Jurassic Park. If you do happen to see a monk seal, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking they're dead since the animals always seem to be lying comatose on the sand while warm Hawaiian waves crash over their rotund bodies. Approaching the be-whiskered beasts is a federal crime, and a health risk: because these seals evolved without human contact, they have little fear of people and will bite. Hard.

When not lazing under a tropical sun, monk seals eat fish, squid, and even lobster when they can get it, reaching up to 600 lbs in weight and 7 feet in length. Continuing commercial development, disease, fishing nets, and global warming are current threats to the seal population, especially to new mothers who do not eat and lose hundreds of pounds while nursing their young for six months. As human development continues, Hawaiian Monk Seals are being seen on the more inhabited islands of Hawaii: the Center for Biological Diversity,  Ocean Conservancy, and (as of last week) NOAA are proposing the federal government expand the protected seal habitat to include the main islands, but no word yet on when, or if, the government will revise the seals' protected range. 

To learn more about the Hawaiian Monk Seal and see a gallery of pictures, you can visit the Kaua'i Monk Seal Watch Program's website here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

TweetWatch: The Many Moods of Chuck Grassley

Only since the recent rise in popularity of our favorite 140-character messaging service do we actually get to see what some of our most influential leaders are thinking as the thoughts pop into their heads. Inside the head of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, these thoughts are brutal, banal, and generally make us glad that he doesn't control America's nuclear football. Below, five of our favorite Grassley tweets:


The Tweet: Ran 3miles w 5 delegate of the30th annual DsM Partnership at 515am. Barb had oatmeal for all.

The Analysis: I'm glad that a 75-year-old-man can still run 3 miles, but do I really give a crap that your wife knows how to make OATMEAL? Is this something to brag about?

The Tweet: My carbon footprint is abt 25per cent of Al Gore. I'm greener than Al Gore. Is that enuf?

The Analysis: Really, his carbon footprint is greener than a person? Strunk and White are rolling over in their grammarian graves.

The Tweet: Pres Obama you got nerve while u sightseeing in Paris to tell us"time to deliver" on health care. We still on skedul/even workinWKEND.

The Analysis: FoxNews looked into this Tweet most carefully and Grassley stood by it 100%. I wouldn't exactly call Obama's trip abroad -- where he marked the 65th anniversary of D-Day and visited the sites of other World War II atrocities -- a sightseeing journey. And for the record, George W. Bush spent 487 days at his ranch in Texas during his presidency...

The Tweet: My office softball team beat my Chr Baucus softball team last nite.

The Analysis: This is the guy who criticized Obama for sightseeing in Paris? Get your lazy staff back to work!

The Tweet: Met with new crop of sumer intrns today 1st of 2 6 week sessions I offer in DC office If ur interested in being an intrn ck my website.

The Analysis: I could think of few people who would be more fun to work for than a man who Tweets with as much mindless vigor as Chuck Grassley.

 

[h/t to my buddy Jim Newell and others at Wonkette for first drawing attention to this Mad Tweeter's lack of style.]

Chastity Bono's Sex Change=Shrug

Chastity Bono is having a sex-change. America's reaction? Whatevs.

When Bono was outed by a tab nearly 20 years ago, she called the experience "terrifying"— and mom Cher famously "flipped out."

Yet the reactions to Chastity's evolution into Chaz have veered from supportive (Cher, Hollywood Gossip, Mexican singer Thalia) to ho-hum (even Fox News couldn't muster a negative response).

This on the heels of American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert announcing his (admittedly not-at-all-surprising) homosexuality to a collective yawn.

America obviously has a long way to go when it comes to LGBT acceptance (I'm talking to you, Prop 8). But it seems Chastity/Chaz isn't the only one undergoing change.