Friday federal headlines – August 16, 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 National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority a few times. Actually, thousands of times each year since Congress gave it broad surveillance powers in 2008. Most of the infractions involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans or foreigners in the United States. Not all violations are alike. Some end up as serious invasions of privacy. Others involve typographical errors that result in unintended interception of email or phone calls. In some cases, data collection went on until stopped by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The Washington Post says it found out about the errors from documents revealed by leaker Edward Snowden. (Associated Press)
  • Furloughs and sequestration haven’t dampened federal employees’ generosity. Food donations to the Feds Feed Families program are coming in way above last year’s levels. June donations, at 477,000 pounds, ran twice the level of last year, GovExec reports. July contributions hit 1.4 million pounds, also far above last year. Doug Keeler of the Agriculture Department is the 2013 program director. He’s hoping to surpass last year’s total of 7.2 million pounds of food. USDA has been spear-heading a multi-agency food drive that runs through August. (GovExec)
  • The Agriculture Department is banking on food trucks and debit cards to help feed needy children. It is funding more programs like one in Seattle that sends a school bus loaded with food, games and books through low-income neighborhoods. USDA also is experimenting with giving kids debit cards worth up to $60 a month to spend on groceries. The department has set up a text-messaging service and toll-free number to help parents locate summer food programs. About 21 million students receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. Just one in six are fed regularly in the summer. (Associated Press)
  • A federal judge says it looks like the Environmental Protection Agency was trying to avoid open-records requirements by assigning administrators multiple email accounts. A conservative legal group has sued the EPA. It wants access to emails that former Administrator Lisa Jackson sent under the pseudonym Richard Windsor. It is looking for anything that might prove the agency delayed new environmental regulations until after last year’s presidential election. The EPA says it responds to open-records requests for all emails. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are accusing Jackson of using a private email account to conduct official business. (Associated Press)
  • Health and Human Services is unleashing an army of people to help citizens find their way through forthcoming, online health care insurance exchanges. It awards $67 million in grants to 105 organizations to train and deploy so-called navigators. Under the Affordable Care Act, some states are building their own exchanges, while others are using a federal version. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius promises, in her words, a network of volunteers on the ground in every state — health care providers, business leaders, faith leaders, community groups, advocates, and local elected officials — to help spread the word and encourage their neighbors to get enrolled. (Health and Human Services)
  • Federal judges are demanding more funding from Congress. Chief judges at 87 federal courts have written to Vice President Joe Biden in his role as Senate president. In the letter, they say budget cuts are endangering public safety and the administration of justice. They cite a recent request by the New York public defender’s office to postpone the trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law because of cutbacks. The staffing level is the lowest its been since 1999. They say that is slowing down civil and bankruptcy cases and forcing cuts in probation services. (Associated Press)
  • It’s true. There is an Area 51, that mysterious facility in the Nevada desert where the government tests spy tools. Despite years of rumors and passing mentions, the CIA had not officially acknowledged the place until recently. George Washington University’s National Security Archive obtained CIA history through a public records request and released it publicly. Researcher Jeffrey Richelson filed the request back in 2005. He says the new documents shows the CIA is becoming less secretive about Area 51’s existence, if not about what goes on there. (Associated Press)
  • A group that supports Syrian President Bashar Assad says it hacked the Washington Post, CNN and other major news websites. The Post says the Syrian Electronic Army exploited a vulnerability in Outbrain. That’s the third party that publishes content recommendations on the websites. Readers who clicked on the recommendations were redirected to the website of the Syrian Electronic Army. The group has claimed responsibility for a string of Web attacks on media targets that it sees as sympathetic to Syria’s rebels. The targets have included the Twitter feeds of The Associated Press, Al-Jazeera English and the BBC. (Washington Post)
  • The National Science Foundation awarded three grants to universities for research into cybersecurity of critical infrastructure. The grants total $20 million. Each one is shared by several institutions who will work together. NSF says it issued the grants under its Frontier program aimed at so-called grand challenge research topics. So far, the Frontier program has issued 110 cybersecurity research grants. Twelve colleges and universities will share the latest three. Research topics are how to improve Web privacy notices, cloud computing, and trusted healthcare information systems. (National Science Foundation)
  • Dot-gov web sites went dark for a few hours earlier this week. Now the General Services Administration trying to find out why. A spokesman tells Federal Times, the problem seems to involve security of the government’s domain name servers. GSA oversees registration of dot-gov domains, and it approves applications from non-federal governments. The outage also affected Alexandria’s web site. City spokesman Craig Fifer says he could reach the site with his smart phone, but not with a desktop computer. The problem lasted about two and a half hours. (Federal Times)
  • It took 30 years, but solar panels are going back on the White House roof. Work began this week. It makes good on a nearly three-year-old promise by the Obama administration. The panels will help power the residential side of the White House. President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof in 1979. They were taken down by President Ronald Reagan. (Associated Press)
  • The Navy is dusting off techniques that once gave it television star power. Divers and the crew of the USS Arlington have completed several days of training in the retrieval of space capsules. They worked with a mock-up of the forthcoming Orion capsule in the Elizabeth River at Norfolk, Va. NASA plans to use the Orion for an asteroid or Mars voyage some day. In the 1960s and ’70s, Navy divers, helicopters and ship-board cranes regularly plucked astronauts and their capsules out of the water following splash-downs. But the Space Shuttle program ended that practice in 1975, because it landed on dry earth. (Associated Press)
  • Fort Benning, Ga. is honoring four soldiers for becoming the first women in the Army to qualify for tank maintenance duty. The four came to the base to learn how to maintain the 91A M1 Abrams tank system. The women say they became close friends through the training. That bond helped them get through it. They say it was a challenge to deal with the heavy equipment, with some parts weighing 110 pounds. (Defense Department)