Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Real Scandal Behind Benghazi

For conservatives, the Benghazi scandal is a Watergate-like presidential cover-up. For liberals, it is a fabricated Republican witch-hunt — aimed squarely at Susan Rice, a candidate to succeed Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. For me, Benghazi is something else: a call to act on an enduring post-9/11 problem that both political parties ignore.

One major overlooked cause of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans is the underfunding of civilian agencies that play a vital role in our national security. Instead of building up cadres of skilled diplomatic security guards at the State Department, we have rented security personnel from the lowest bidder, trying to acquire capacity and expertise on the cheap. Benghazi showed how vulnerable that makes us.

I’m not arguing that this use of contractors was the sole cause of the Benghazi tragedy, but I believe it was a primary one. Let me explain.

The slapdash security that resulted in the death of Ambassador Stevens, technician Sean Smith and CIA guards Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty started with a seemingly inconsequential decision by Libya’s new government. After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s interim government barred armed private security firms – foreign and domestic – from operating anywhere in the country.

Memories of the abuses by foreign mercenaries, acting for the brutal Qaddafi regime, prompted the decision, according to State Department officials.

Once the Libyans took away the private security guard option, it put enormous strain on a little-known State Department arm, the Diplomatic Security Service. This obscure agency has been responsible for protecting American diplomatic posts around the world since 1916.

Though embassies have contingents of Marines, consulates and other offices do not. Moreover, the main mission of Marines is to destroy documents and protect American government secrets. It is the Diplomatic Security agents who are charged with safeguarding the lives of American diplomats.
Today, roughly 900 Diplomatic Security agents guard 275 American embassies and consulates around the globe. That works out to a whopping four agents per facility.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department relied on hundreds of security contractors to guard American diplomats. At times, they even hired private security guards to protect foreign leaders.
After President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan narrowly survived a 2002 assassination attempt, the State Department hired security guards from DynCorp, a military contractor, to guard him. Their aggressiveness in and around the presidential palace, however, angered Afghan, American and European officials. As soon as Afghan guards were trained to protect Karzai, DynCorp was let go.

But the State Department’s dependence on contractors for security remained. And Benghazi epitomized this Achilles’ heel.

Unable to hire contractors, the Diplomatic Security Service rotated small numbers of agents through Benghazi to provide security, on what government officials call temporary duty assignments, or “TDY.” Eric Nordstrom, the Diplomatic Security agent who oversaw security in Libya until two months before the attack, recently told members of Congress that when he requested 12 additional agents he was told he was asking for “the sun the moon and the stars”

After his request was turned down twice, Mr. Nordstrom replied bluntly to his superiors in Washington.
“It’s not the hardships,” he testified he had said. “It’s not the gunfire. It’s not the threats. It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me. And I added it by saying, ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.’”

Other State Department officials also say the reliance on contracting created a weakened Diplomatic Security Service. They say department officials, short on staff and eager to reduce costs, nickeled-and-dimed DS security requests.

“That is not a DS-centric issue,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That is a Department of State issue.”

Democrats have blamed Republicans for the lack of funding. They point out that House Republicans rejected $450 million in administration requests for increased Diplomatic Security spending since 2010. They say Senate Democrats were able to restore a small part of the funding.
But these partisan charges and counter-charges ignore a basic truth. Resource shortages and a reliance on contractors caused bitter divisions between field officers in Benghazi and State Department managers in Washington.

State Department officials confirmed complaints from Lieutenant Colonel Andy Wood, the former head of a U.S. Special Forces “Site Security Team” in Tripoli, that Charlene Lamb, the Diplomatic Security Service official who oversees security in Washington, urged them to reduce the numbers of American security personnel on the ground even as security worsened across Libya. Mr. Wood and his team left the country the month before the attack.

In equivocating and evasive testimony before Congress in October, Ms. Lamb at first said she received no formal requests for additional security from Libya. She then claimed, “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi.”

Ms. Lamb’s superior, David Kennedy, has defended her. He argued that a handful of additional Diplomatic Security guards in Benghazi – or the Special Forces team in Tripoli – would not have made a difference.
To date, no evidence has emerged that officials higher than Ms. Lamb or Mr. Kennedy were involved in the decision to reject the requests for additional security from Libya. Both are career civil servants, not Obama administration appointees.

Ms. Lamb has declined all interview requests.

There is a broader issue beyond the political blame game. Benghazi is a symptom of a brittle, over-stretched and under-funded State Department. Without being able to hire private contractors, the department provided too few guards and hoped a nearby CIA base or friendly Libyan militia would help them. An excellent recent report in the New York Times found that the U.S. military’s Africa Command was under-resourced as well as unable to help.

The investigation by the Senate and House intelligence committees into whether or not the Obama administration misled Americans after the attack or altered intelligence should continue. But the core issue before the attack was a lack of resources and skilled management, not shadowy conspiracies.

A Round of Golf for Presidents 42 and 44

President Obama took advantage of unseasonably warm December weather on Sunday to head to the golf course with his most prominent campaign surrogate, former President Bill Clinton.

The two hit the links at a course at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, along with Mr. Clinton’s close friend, Terry McAuliffe, the fundraiser running for governor of Virginia, and Ron Kirk, the president’s trade representative who is expected to step down soon.

White House officials did not know what the two presidents were talking about as they whacked the ball, but they presumed that the looming fiscal crisis would probably come up. Mr. Clinton, after all, is the last Democratic president to engage in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations with Congressional Republicans over spending and tax issues and is rarely shy about offering advice if asked.

Mr. Clinton and Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich went off their own fiscal cliff in the 1990s when their failure to negotiate a budget deal led to a couple of government shutdowns. But eventually after a long, arduous few years of maneuvering and brinkmanship, the two sides came together for an agreement to balance the budget. In the end, the government reached surplus several years in a row before Mr. Clinton left office.
Whatever was discussed, Sunday’s golf outing will be seen as the continuation of a four-year thaw between the 42nd and 44th presidents. Mr. Clinton was openly contemptuous of Mr. Obama in 2008 when his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was running for president, and Mr. Obama seemed dismissive of Mr. Clinton’s record as president, making clear he did not consider him a transformative figure.

But over the last four years, with Mrs. Clinton now in the cabinet as secretary of state, the two presidents have slowly put that behind them. Mr. Clinton became especially important to Mr. Obama as an ally on the campaign trail this fall. Mr. Clinton’s convention speech was deemed by many Democrats as better than Mr. Obama’s, and the two traveled together at times, including in the final days of the campaign.

Mr. Obama cheerfully acknowledged his predecessor’s skill at articulating his own policies and record, dubbing him the Secretary of Explaining Stuff.

Sources :

‘Twilight’ and ‘Lincoln’ Thrive at Box Office

Post-Thanksgiving audiences dined on cinematic leftovers over the weekend. “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2” (Lionsgate) repeated as the No. 1 movie at North American theaters, taking in an estimated $17.4 million, for a three-week total of about $254.6 million, according to, which compiles box-office data.

“Skyfall” (Sony) was a close second, taking in $17 million, for a four-week total of about $246 million. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (Disney) placed third, with ticket sales of $13.51 million; “Lincoln,” a leading Oscar contender, is turning into a runaway hit, at least as far as serious historical dramas go these days, taking in about $83.7 million over four weeks.

DreamWorks Animation’s struggling “Rise of the Guardians” (Paramount) was a whisker behind, taking in an estimated $13 million, for a two-week total of $48.9 million. Another Oscar contender, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” (20th Century Fox), was fifth, selling about $12 million in tickets, for a two-week total of $48.4 million. The weekend included one notable flop: “Killing Them Softly,” a drama starring Brad Pitt and released by the Weinstein Company (with financing from the Oracle heiress Megan Ellison), arrived in seventh place, taking in about $7 million.

Doctor’s Orders? Another Test

It is no longer news that Americans, and older Americans in particular, get more routine screening tests than they need, more than are useful. Prostate tests for men over 75, annual Pap smears for women over 65 and colonoscopies for anyone over 75 — all are overused, large-scale studies have shown.

Now it appears that many older patients are also subjected to too-frequent use of the other kind of testing, diagnostic tests.

The difference, in brief: Screening tests are performed on people who are asymptomatic, who aren’t complaining of a health problem, as a way to detect incipient disease. We have heard for years that it is best to “catch it early” — “it” frequently being cancer — and though that turns out to be only sometimes true, we and our doctors often ignore medical guidelines and ongoing campaigns to limit and target screening tests.
Diagnostic tests, on the other hand, are meant to help doctors evaluate some symptom or problem. “You’re trying to figure out what’s wrong,” explained Gilbert Welch, a veteran researcher at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.

For these tests, medical groups and task forces offer many fewer guidelines on who should get them and how often — there is not much evidence to go on — but there is general agreement that they are not intended for routine surveillance.

But a study using a random 5 percent sample of Medicare beneficiaries — nearly 750,000 of them — suggests that often, that is what’s happening.

“It begins to look like some of these tests are being routinely repeated, and it’s worrisome,” said Dr. Welch, lead author of the study just published in The Archives of Internal Medicine. “Some physicians are just doing them every year.”

He is talking about tests like echocardiography, or a sonogram of the heart. More than a quarter of the sample (28.5 percent) underwent this test between 2004 and 2006, and more than half of those patients (55 percent) had a repeat echocardiogram within three years, most commonly within a year of the first.
Other common tests were frequently repeated as well. Of patients who underwent an imaging stress test, using a treadmill or stationary bike (or receiving a drug) to make the heart work harder, nearly 44 percent had a repeat test within three years. So did about half of those undergoing pulmonary function tests and chest tomography, a CAT scan of the chest.

Cystoscopy (a procedure in which a viewing tube is inserted into the bladder) was repeated for about 41 percent of the patients, and endoscopy (a swallowed tube enters the esophagus and stomach) for more than a third.

Is this too much testing? Without evidence of how much it harms or helps patients, it is hard to say — but the researchers were startled by the extent of repetition. “It’s inconceivable that it’s all important,” Dr. Welch said. “Unfortunately, it looks like it’s important for doctors.”

The evidence for that? The study revealed big geographic differences in diagnostic testing. Looking at the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, it found that nearly half the sample’s patients in Miami had an echocardiogram between 2004 and 2006, and two thirds of them had another echocardiogram within three years — the highest rate in the nation.

In fact, for the six tests the study included, five were performed and repeated most often in Florida cities: Miami, Jacksonville and Orlando. “They’re heavily populated by physicians and they have a long history of being at the top of the list” of areas that do a lot of medical procedures and hospitalizations, Dr. Welch said.
But in Portland, Ore., where “the physician culture is very different,” only 17.5 percent of patients had an echocardiogram. The places most prone to testing were also the places with high rates of repeat testing. Portland, San Francisco and Sacramento had the lowest rates.

We often don’t think of tests as having a downside, but they do. “This is the way whole cascades can start that are hard to stop,” Dr. Welch said. “The more we subject ourselves, the more likely some abnormality shows up that may require more testing, some of which has unwanted consequences.”

Properly used, of course, diagnostic tests can provide crucial information for sick people. “But used without a good indication, they can stir up a hornet’s nest,” he said. And of course they cost Medicare a bundle.
An accompanying commentary, sounding distinctly exasperated, pointed out that efforts to restrain overtesting and overtreatment have continued for decades. The commentary called it “discouraging to contemplate fresh evidence by Welch et al of our failure to curb waste of health care resources.”

It is hard for laypeople to know when tests make sense, but clearly we need to keep track of those we and our family members have. That way, if the cardiologist suggests another echocardiogram, we can at least ask a few pointed questions:

“My father just had one six months ago. Is it necessary to have another so soon? What information do you hope to gain that you didn’t have last time? Will the results change the way we manage his condition?”
Questions are always a good idea. Especially in Florida.

Sources : Paula

Missouri Powerball winner identified as 52-year-old mechanic

A 52-year-old Missouri mechanic and his wife claimed their share Friday of the record $588 million Powerball jackpot.

Lottery officials sent a statement announcing that Mark and Cindy Hill, of Dearborn, held one of two winning tickets for the nation’s biggest Powerball jackpot.

“It’s really going to be nice to spend time — not have to work — and be able to take trips with our family,” Cindy Hill, a former office manager laid off in June 2010, said in the statement.

Her husband, Mark, is a mechanic at the Hillshire Brands meat processing plant in St. Joseph. The couple adopted a daughter from China five years ago and are now considering a second adoption with their winnings, according to the statement. They also plan to help other relatives, including their grandchildren and nieces and nephews, pay for college.

The Hills will split the nearly $588 million prize with whoever holds a winning ticket sold at a convenience store in suburban Phoenix. No one has come forward yet with the Arizona ticket, lottery officials said.
The $587.5 million payout, which represents the second-largest jackpot in U.S. history, set off a nationwide buying frenzy, with tickets at one point selling at nearly 130,000 per minute. Before Wednesday’s drawing, the jackpot had rolled over 16 consecutive times without someone hitting the jackpot.
Lottery officials’ announcement that the Hills had one only confirmed what many residents in Dearborn, a town of about 500 about 40 miles north of Kansas City, already knew. Lottery officials said Thursday that a winning ticket had been sold at a Trex Mart gas station and convenience store on the edge of town, and the Hills’ names circulated quickly. While the Hills did not speak to reporters, friends and relatives identified the couple as the winners.

Myron Anderson, pastor of the Baptist Church in nearby Camden Point, said he heard Thursday that the Hills had won the huge lottery prize. Anderson said he has known Mark Hill since they attended high school together.

“He’s a really nice guy, and I know his wife, and they have this nice little adopted daughter that they went out of their way to adopt,” Anderson said. Funeral services for Hill’s father were at the Baptist church, but the family attends church elsewhere, he said.

“I hope it’s good news for them,” Anderson said. “I’ve heard awful horror stories about people who get all that money in their lap and how everybody treats them, and if you don’t mind me saying, I mean just the fact that the press is going to be after them.”

Kevin Bryan, a lifelong Dearborn resident, said the only other local lottery winner he could remember was a farmer who won about $100,000 in scratch-off game years ago “and bought himself a combine.”
The statement from the lottery didn’t indicate whether the Hills planned to take their payout as a lump sum or in annual payments. Mark Hill does have his eye at least one thing: a red Camaro.

“I was just telling my daughter the night before, ‘Honey, that probably never happens,” Cindy Hill said about their odds of hitting the jackpot.

The winning ticket sold in Arizona was purchased at a 4 Sons Food Store in Fountain Hills near Phoenix, state lottery officials said.

In a Mega Millions drawing in March, three ticket buyers shared a $656 million jackpot, the largest lottery payout of all time.

Hill and the holder of the Arizona winning ticket have numerous decisions ahead, including how to accept their new wealth. The cash payout from the overall jackpot has been estimated at about $385 million, or about $192.5 million for each ticket. The winners can take their jackpots in lump sums or annual payments.

Lindsay Lohan arrested: Real-life performance at Avenue lounge much more entertaining than 'Liz & Dick' effort

The video of Lindsay Lohan crying and yelling “Are you kidding?” to cops as they hauled her away in handcuffs probably had more viewers than her movie “Liz & Dick” on Sunday night.
Lohan’s real-life repeat performance at the Avenue lounge on Thursday was in Lohan’s usual time slot — last call after Lohan punched Tiffany Mitchell in the face. Mitchell is a psychic who reportedly charges $2,500 to “cleanse people’s auras.” Oddly, she never saw this coming.
Some witnesses claim that Lohan became jealous when musician Max George, whom she latched onto after his band The Wanted opened for Justin Bieber at Madison Square Garden, began talking to Mitchell. The 28-year-old psychic was wearing a fur coat, circa 1980, and George had his choice of far younger women.
Lohan fled out the back door and into an SUV, a police source told the Daily News, trying to get away yet again.

Why not? She gets away with everything. The 26-year-old has a rap sheet longer than many rappers and athletes, but you rarely see her behind bars. Lohan has slugged people,  chased them down like dogs in her car, she’s been busted for cocaine and virtually got off scot-free.
In February 2011, police say Lohan stole a $2,500 necklace from a California jewelry store. She was sentenced to 120 days in jail, but got community service instead. She never performed it, so on the following Nov. 7, a judge sent her to jail for 30 days. Lohan was out within hours. 
In June, she crashed her Porsche into an 18-wheeler and authorities said she lied to cops, saying her assistant was driving. She was charged on that lie in California Thursday — the same day she was arrested in the New York assault.
Here’s my question: What if a black or Hispanic man committed the same crimes that Lindsay Lohan was accused of? 
“If (one of my clients) stole a necklace worth over $1,000, the judge might reduce the felony to petit larceny, a misdemeanor, if he had no prior record,” top defense lawyer William Rita said. “At best, they would get three years probation. But if that probation was violated, they would be incarcerated.”
It remains to be seen whether there’s a judge on either coast who will treat Lindsay Lohan like anybody else who breaks the law.


Palestinian envoy: new Israeli settlements are a provocation after UN vote on Palestine state

The Palestinian U.N. envoy accused Israel on Friday of carrying out “an immediate provocation” following the U.N.’s recognition of the state of Palestine by announcing the expansion of settlements which he denounced as illegal.

Israel accused the Palestinians of bypassing direct negotiations by seeking recognition as a state, and less than 24 hours after the vote the government approved the construction of 3,000 homes in Jewish settlements on Israeli-occupied lands. The Palestinians have insisted that settlement building stop before negotiations resume.
 “They are trying to provoke us to react — I don’t know in which way,” Riyad Mansour told the General Assembly.

Mansour said the Palestinians “will continue to extend our hand in peace,” but warned that more provocations would be “testing our resolve” and could lead to unspecified actions.
Diplomats in the General Assembly chamber burst into applause when Mansour was called on to speak following the annual adoption of five Palestinian-related resolutions and one on the Golan Heights.
Sitting behind a nameplate saying “State of Palestine” for the first time, Mansour called Thursday’s overwhelming vote in the assembly to raise the Palestinians’ status to a nonmember observer state historic for his people and the United Nations.

Mansour said Israeli settlement building, attacks like the recent bombings in Gaza and violations of international law and Palestinian rights must be stopped immediately.

In pressing for the statehood resolution, Mansour said the Palestinians were contributing to saving the two-state solution where Israel and Palestine can live side by side in peace, and to opening doors for the possibility of creating an atmosphere conducive to negotiations with Israel that would end the occupation that started in 1967 and “allow for the independence of our state.”
He said the choice is up to Israel.

“If they want to move in the direction of peace, the message of our president was crystal clear yesterday,” Mansour said. “Again, our hand is extended in peace but we need the other side to reciprocate in the same spirit.”

Abbas signaled that he wanted U.N. recognition as a state to give him leverage in future talks with Israel, and not as a tool for confronting or delegitimizing Israel, as Israeli leaders have claimed. He said his aim is to try “to breathe new life into the negotiations” and he promised that the Palestinians “will act responsibly and positively in our next steps.”

Mansour concluded his remarks to the General Assembly saying: “Again, our hand is extended in peace but we need the other side to reciprocate in the same spirit.”
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