Friday federal headlines – September 6, 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.

  • The Office of Personnel Management has sharply reduced its backlog of retirement benefits claims. That’s because it stepped up processing in August and fewer applications came in. OPM officials say the agency’s throughput also went up because it was able to restore some of the overtime pay curtailed because of sequestration. In all, OPM closed just under 11,000 applications. The backlog fell by 3,000. It now stands at about 23,000. For several months, retirements have been coming in at a lower rate than OPM expected. (Federal News Radio)
  • The EPA has reached an agreement with a big cruise shop operator to clean up what comes out of ship smokestacks. The agency says it’s part of a U.S.-Canadian agreement with the International Maritime Organization. The agreement set up lower, tougher standards for how much nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and soot the ships can spew. Carnival Corporation will develop and install scrubbing equipment on 32 ships over the next three years. In a statement, the EPA says Carnival will combine two technologies, one used for power plans and one used for cars. The Coast Guard is also party to the new agreement. (EPA)
  • This time it’s The New York Times blowing open secrets of the National Security Agency. The latest documents leaked by Edward Snowden show NSA has broken encrypted communications of billions of Internet users. It works with the British government in doing so. The agency has managed to bypass or crack encryption systems businesses use to protect information sent by Web customers. It built dedicated supercomputers. It partnered with unnamed technology companies to program back doors into their software. The leaked documents were published internally in 2010. Snowden also leaked them to the Guardian and ProPublica. (Associated Press)
  • The American Civil Liberties Union says the internet is less secure as a result of the National Security Agency’s efforts to crack encryption. Officials from the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the ACLU say by defeating encryption, NSA is exposing the public to criminal hacking, foreign espionage and unlawful surveillance and is eroding the economic competitiveness of U.S. companies. Earlier this week, The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica reported the NSA manipulated global encryption standards. (American Civil Liberties Union)
  • The Obama administration has revealed proposals for how it plans to collect health care coverage information from large employers. The Wall Street Journal reports, businesses have been clamoring for those plans for months. Under the Affordable Care Act, the government wants information so it can enforce two requirements: 1) that individuals can prove they “have” coverage, and 2) that businesses can prove they provide it. The data collection rules aren’t final. Mark Mazur, the assistant secretary for tax policy, says they’re designed to start a conversation with business. Mazur says Treasury wants to minimize the paperwork burden on industry. (Wall Street Journal)
  • A Homeland Security Department employee admits disclosing the illegal immigration status of President Obama’s aunt. But he says it wasn’t for political purposes. The unnamed law enforcement official sent the information about Kenyan native Zeituni Onyango to The Associated Press in 2008. Now, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released a 20-page report about its investigation into the case. The Huffington Post revealed that report. The investigation found the employee released the information improperly. He was less than candid with investigators, and misused a government telephone. (Associated Press)
  • The Defense Department and defense contractors say they are cutting their travel budgets, some by more than 10 percent, in an effort to cut costs. Companies like Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Boeing and EADS North America tell the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit the reduction in travel expenses is a reflection of the uncertainty sequestration casts over the weapons industry. Some are even asking their clients to put caps on travel expenses. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, says travel cuts do little to close the large Pentagon budget gap. But in the context of furloughs, the trips do come under higher scrutiny. (Reuters)
  • A defense research agency is developing a new craft called a UUV, or an unmanned underwater vehicle. In other words, a submersible drone. DARPA is calling it the Hydra system, whereby a fleet of underwater drones would be deployed for surveillance, logistics or offensive purposes all over the world. The Hydra drones would also come in handy after natural disasters to deliver emergency equipment to the affected coastal areas. DARPA may have a functional demo of an underwater Hydra drone network by 2018, but only if the project is funded. (DARPA)
  • The Navy’s top admiral says the four destroyers off the coast of Syria are fully ready for what, if anything, the Obama administration decides to do. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval Operations, spoke to an audience at the American Enterprise Institute. He says the ships are ready to launch Tomahawk missiles, and to protect themselves if Syria retaliates. The missiles cost $1.5 million each. Greenert also says the Navy would require five years to restore readiness eroded by sequestration budget cuts. He says the Navy has one carrier group ready to respond to a crisis, instead of the usual three. Greenert says another year of sequestration would force the Navy to anchor half of its fleet. (Associated Press)
  • Several agencies have taken the first steps in developing a health IT regulatory strategy. Earlier this week the Health IT Policy Committee approved recommendations from the FDA Safety and Innovation Act working group. These recommendations along with public comments gathered from eventually will be combined into a report. The risk-based strategy intends to promote innovation, protect patient safety and avoid regulatory duplication. (FDA Voice)
  • IT Security experts are being asked for their opinions in a new survey. The SANS Institute’s 2013 Network Security Survey is collecting input from security professionals on Intrusion Prevention Systems. SANS plans to share the results of the survey in a webcast in October. (SANS)