Thursday morning federal headlines – March 8, 2012

The Morning Federal Newscast is a daily compilation of the stories you hear Federal Drive host Tom Temin discuss throughout the show each day. The Newscast is designed to give users more information about the stories you hear on the air.

  • Five NASA rockets will light up the night sky over the North Atlantic region as part of an experiment to study the upper jet stream, 60 to 65 miles above earth’s surface. The rockets will launch and release a glowing smoke-like chemical tracer into the upper atmosphere. Cameras set up in New Jersey and North Carolina will measure where the tracer is carried. The high-altitude rockets will launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. They must launch on a clear night between March 14 and April 3.
  • The Veterans Affairs Department has found 102 more misplaced grave markers in cemeteries it manages. It found 21 graves with no markers at all. That brings the total of problematic graves to 249, out of about 1.5 million VA has examined. Glenn Powers, deputy undersecretary with the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, said the number of discrepancies was small but unacceptable. Earlier, VA notified Congress that problems arose when contractors moved headstones around during grounds renovations. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Hatch Act is designed to keep politics out of the federal workplace. It was enacted in 1939 and last updated 20 years ago. Now, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have proposed an update to the Hatch Act allowing for a range of penalties. So far, one Republican has signed on to the bill. One provision would give the Merit Systems Protection Board more discretion over how to punish violators. (Federal News Radio)
  • The FBI has turned off GPS devices it was using to track suspected terrorists. Director Robert Mueller told members of Congress a Supreme Court ruling has forced the FBI to use human surveillance instead, which Mueller said was time-consuming and expensive. In a case involving a nightclub owner, the court unanimously agreed that planting a GPS device on someone violated privacy laws and required a judge’s prior approval. The FBI operates thousands of tracking devices. Mueller didn’t disclose how many it has deactivated. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Defense Information Systems Agency hired Northrop Grumman to install host-based security tools. The task order, worth $189 million, would place tools throughout the Defense Department. The award came under DoD’s Encore 2 contract. Northrop will provide systems integration, software license management and help desk services. Northrop hired McAfee to provide training in how to use the tools. The Host Based Security System puts commercial security products on desktop and notebook computers. The tools are supposed to guard against both external and internal cyber threats. (Northrop Grumman)
  • Dorothy Robyn, the deputy undersecretary for installations and the environment at the Defense Department, asked Congress for two more base realignment and closure commission rounds, or BRAC, Federal Times reported. They would take place in 2013 and 2015. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) is on record as opposing more BRAC rounds. But Robyn said the Army is reducing its forces by 72,000 and simply needs less space. She appeared before the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction. (Federal Times)
  • Senate leaders have reached a deal on a $109 billion transportation bill, or, at least, they’ve reached a deal on allowing themselves to vote on a $109 billion transportation bill. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the agreement would limit floor action to 30 total amendments. They expected to work their way through votes on those amendments today, with a final vote on the bill expected by next week. The House and Senate both need to pass a transportation bill before the current extension runs out at the end of this month. Otherwise, the federal government would lose the authority to collect gasoline taxes and spend money from the highway trust fund. (Federal News Radio)
  • A former Veterans Affairs official will spend five years in prison for a scheme to defraud the agency. William Brandt was the associate director of a regional mail-order VA pharmacy in Illinois for 11 years. During that time, Justice Department officials said he and his wife set up a staffing company to provide temporary pharmacists to his own pharmacy. They did this while hiding their ownership of the company from the government. Brandt and his wife were also ordered to pay $400,000 in restitution. The former director of the pharmacy pleaded guilty to taking bribes in the same case four years ago. (Justice Department)
  • The Federal Aviation Administration is setting up a half dozen test ranges as it prepares to integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation’s aerospace system. Congress told the agency to start the tests in this year’s defense and FAA reauthorization bills, and to approve unmanned systems in the nation’s airspace by 2015. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood said some of the initial uses of drones on domestic soil could be to spot wildfires and assess natural disasters. The FAA said it would take public comments on its test range plans for 60 days before issuing a request for proposals. (FAA)
  • The Army said it has all the tanks it needs, thank you very much. Service leaders made the same argument last year, but that didn’t stop Congress from funneling $255 million into this year’s defense budget to buy another 42 M1 Abrams. The Army’s secretary and chief of staff were back on Capitol Hill yesterday, telling lawmakers its current Abrams fleet has an average age of only about 2-1/2 years. But Congress wants to keep the Abrams production line open. Defense News reported, an Army analysis found it would cost about $3 billion to keep the line up and running. That’s significantly more than the $600 million to $800 million it would cost to shut it down and bring it back online when more tanks were needed. (Defense News)
  • The Defense Information Systems Agency is working on its terrestrial systems in order to have a better head-in-the-clouds. DISA, along with GSA, is putting together a three-pronged, $5 billion acquisition strategy. It’s looking to buy earth-bound communications technologies and upgrade systems to support its satellite operations. (Defense Systems)