Wednesday federal headlines – August 28, 2013

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

  • President Barack Obama named the five members of a panel to review the government’s communications surveillance. He tapped Michael Morell, former CIA deputy director, Richard Clark, former Clinton cybersecurity advisor, Geoffrey Stone, who taught law with Obama at the University of Chicago, Cass Sunstein, former White House regulations chief, and Peter Swire, former Clinton privacy chief. Obama says he wants the group to help the public have confidence that government surveillance is done lawfully and protects privacy. (Associated Press)
  • In her farewell speech, outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned of the cybersecurity threat. Almost at the same moment, major media sites were under a hack attack by a group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army. The New York Times web site was unavailable for parts of Tuesday afternoon. Researchers at domain registrar Melbourne IT say the Syrian Electronic Army also hit Twitter. Computerworld reports, the hacking group doesn’t go after organizations directly, but rather aims at their domain name registrars. Earlier this month the SEA hit Outbrain, a company that provides Web services to the Washington Post. (Computerworld)
  • The Obama Administration is imposing hiring quotas on federal contractors for veterans and people with disabilities. Final rules issued by the Labor Department require contractors to establish annual benchmarks of 8 percent veterans and 7 percent people with disabilities. Those figures will vary from year to year according to overall workforce statistics. Companies will have to keep detailed records of who applied for jobs and who they hired. (Federal News Radio)
  • The Veterans Affairs Department is still evaluating benefits for same-sex couples, two months after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and just a week before the Defense Department begins offering benefits to same-sex military couples. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki says the Court’s ruling did not impact the law on VA benefits. It still defines spouse and surviving spouse as someone of the opposite sex. In a letter to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Shinseki says the VA would support legislation to change the definition. Then, he says, the department would move quickly to update its benefits policies. (Associated Press)
  • Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has found his hatchet man. He taps former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to streamline the Pentagon staff and cut overhead. Donley will have two goals: A $40 billion dollar reduction in 10 years and a 20 percent cut in headquarters headcount. The choice of Donley came out in an internal memo before the Pentagon announced it publicly. Donley led the Air Force for nearly five years. He stepped down in June. Hagel said Donley has deep knowledge about the Defense enterprise. (Federal News Radio)
  • A defense intelligence satellite launches into orbit today. The classified spacecraft is scheduled to take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The National Reconnaissance Office has contracted with the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to run the launch. The Alliance will use a 235-foot Delta Four Heavy rocket. The last time it did, back in 2011, a sound wave as loud as a freight train swept over the nearest town. Some people reported hearing the rocket’s roar from 50 miles away. (Associated Press)
  • Some schools are dropping out of the Agriculture Department’s healthy lunch program. They say students won’t eat the whole grains, fruits and veggies served in school cafeterias. Instead, they are bringing meals from home. That costs the schools money. Federal assistance isn’t making up the difference. Officials say they’ve seen isolated reports. They don’t have exact numbers. They are still optimistic about the one-year-old program’s future. But in Catlin, Ill., the superintendent says lunch sales dropped more than 10 percent. Some kids chose to go hungry. Fish sticks are returning to the menu this year. (Associated Press)
  • The Agriculture Department is failing to collect nearly $7 million in penalties from food stamp fraudsters. It is letting stores on its blacklist continue operating. Those findings come from an inspector general audit of about 300 stores that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The IG says the department’s enforcement activities haven’t kept pace with its move from stamps to a debit-card system. It should require background checks of store owners. (USDA)
  • Facebook says governments demanded information on 38,000 users in the first half of this year. Half of those demands came from authorities in the United States. But it’s not clear how many of those were for intelligence gathering and how many were for law-enforcement purposes. Facebook complied 79 percent of the time. A company lawyer says it frequently shared only basic user information, such as a name. By making the numbers public, Facebook has joined other Internet giants in releasing data on government demands. Microsoft and Google have published similar information. (Associated Press)
  • The most recent background check of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was, in a word, skimpy. The Wall Street Journal reports, the review failed to follow up on potential concerns. It didn’t verify Snowden’s account of a security violation from when he worked at the CIA. And it didn’t look into a trip to India he failed to report. Snowden went on to become one of the most notorious leakers of secrets in the nation’s history. National Counterintelligence Executive Frank Montoya led the review of Snowden’s background check. (Wall Street Journal)