Friday federal headlines – February 28, 2014

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 Homeland Security Department has awarded a $145 million contract for a series of border security towers. They will be built along the Mexican border in Arizona. Customs and Border Protection Spokesman Michael Friel says the contract was given to EFW, Inc. in Fort Worth. The towers will have equipment to detect, track, identify and classify suspicious activity. They’ll start going up later this year. Homeland Security has been searching for several years for a combination of technology and manpower to secure the 2,000-mile-long border. An earlier project was scrapped after the technology didn’t work. (Associated Press)
  • Three senators draft a bill to guarantee federal employees are the ones who review the background checks done on people applying for federal jobs and security clearances. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) says having contractors fill that role “is like letting the fox guard the henhouse.” The Office of Personnel Management recently announced its employees would take over the review process. The bill would make that policy law. It comes as the Justice Department accuses US Investigative Services of widespread fraud. The firm is the largest provider of federal background checks. It conducted them on both former NSA analyst Edward Snowden and Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. (Senate)
  • Low pay and red tape make it hard for the Interior Department to fill key oil and natural gas jobs. It takes more than four months on average to hire petroleum engineers and investigators. Keeping them is a problem, too. The Government Accountability Office says more than one-fifth of the department’s petroleum engineers left in 2012. The energy industry pays better. GAO says Interior isn’t taking full advantage of the tools it has to speed up hiring or supplement salaries. House Republicans grow impatient. A subcommittee accuses the department of being “lackadaisical.” The problem is worst in remote, energy-rich regions like North Dakota, where talent is in high demand. (Government Accountability Office)
  • Maybe the National Security Agency doesn’t need to collect so much telephone metadata after all. That’s what the departing NSA chief is telling the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Wall Street Journal reports, Gen. Keith Alexander says the agency might be able to get what it needs through a far narrower data collection program. He says the agency might be able to find terrorist phone calls without collecting data on everyone’s calls. He likens it to finding needles without the haystack. The mechanism could be secret requests to the telephone carriers for specific parts of data they already have. Alexander’s assessment aligns with what privacy advocates have been saying since NSA’s surveillance programs were first revealed. (Wall Street Journal)
  • A policy update from the Defense Commissary Agency aims to curb system abuse through bulk buying. The commissaries provide groceries to military personnel, retirees and their families. According to the agency’s Facebook post, customers will no longer be able to special order unreasonably large quantities of items. The agency is also tightening the rules on coupon redemption and large quantity item returns. Customers will not be able to make money at the expense of the system by splitting transactions in order to get more cash back. (Defense Commissary Agency Facebook)
  • The Navy’s newest ship, the USS Somerset, will be in service on Saturday during a commissioning ceremony in Philadelphia. This floating tribute commemorates the 40 passengers and crew that were killed aboard flight 93 that was hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Reminders of the heroic acts of flight 93 passengers are everywhere on the ship, with a quilt bearing all the victims’ names and street signs from Somerset County, Pa., where the plane crashed in a field. It is the third ship to be named in honor of 9/11 victims and first responders. The other two are the USS New York and the USS Arlington. D. Hamilton Peterson is chairman of the Families for Flight 93 group. He says the Somerset represents the “ethos of not lying down, but of fighting back.” (Associated Press)
  • The Clinton Presidential Library releases about 5,000 pages of documents from former President Bill Clinton’s administration. They include confidential memos between Clinton and his advisers and records related to federal appointments. The papers are part of a larger set of records being reviewed by the National Archives. A spokeswoman says the agency has cleared about 25,000 previously classified documents for release in the next two weeks. They will be posted on the Archives’ website. Hard copies will be at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark. (Associated Press)