Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Keep an Eye on Korea

While the world remains focused on the U.S. debt ceiling crisis, North Korea may be preparing for another military provocation against its southern neighbor.

South Korea's Chosun Ilbo, citing recent intelligence data, reports that Pyongyang may soon launch a major military exercise along its western coast.

"... government sources say, based on information from intelligence teams, North Korea appears poised for a rare, large-scale military drill.

Government officials, who do not want to be named, say they are "observing closely" North Korean positions. But they say there are no indications the massing of military personnel appears to be anything more than a drill.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, addressing reporters in Washington on Monday, did not make mention of the apparent preparations in North Korea for a military exercise. But the admiral did express concern that Pyongyang’s military will conduct some sort of action against the South again, at some point.

According to South Korean intel reporting, North Korea has assembled a "significant" number of troops and MiG-21 fighters at two bases along the Yellow Sea coast, along with more than 20 naval vessels.

The military build-up is in the same area where ROK forces and the North Korean military have clashed in recent years. There was a major naval engagement in 1999 that resulted in the sinking of a DPRK patrol vessel. In March of last year, one of Pyongyang's submarines torpedoed and sank a South Korean corvette, killing more than 40 sailors. And just six months later, DPRK artillery units shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, killing two soldiers, and triggering the latest standoff between the two rivals.

North Korean preparations come ahead of the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise conducted by U.S. and South Korean forces. Pyongyang has long protested the drill, claiming that it is a rehearsal for an invasion of the North. Never mind that Freedom Guardian (and its predecessor, Ulchi Focus Lens) are purely defensive in nature. Kim Jong-il will use any excuse to ratchet up tensions on the peninsula, and attempt to milk more assistance from Seoul and Washington.

While such tactics are hardly new, the reported level of North Korean military activity is highly unusual for this time of year. Traditionally, DPRK troops spend their summers engaged in "agricultural projects," trying to help eek out their country's meager harvest. Following the end of Pyongyang's annual Winter Training Cycle (December-March), military activity slows dramatically and comes to a virtual standstill during the late spring and summer.

Given North Korea's chronic shortages of food, fuel and electricity, it's rather doubtful that Kim Jong-il would authorize these preparations merely to rattle the sabre. More disturbingly, ROK intel officials claim the elder Kim and his son (designated heir Kim Jong un) recently visited DPRK naval command headquarters in Pyongyang. The Kims conducted a similar inspection of coastal artillery units last November, just hours before they opened fire on Yeonpyeong Island.

A master of brinkmanship, Kim clearly sees an opportunity on the Korean Peninsula. He believes the U.S. is pre-occupied with domestic issues and unlikely to respond forcibly to his next provocation. He is also counting on a restrained response from Seoul, similar to the one that followed the loss of the corvette and the shelling of Yeonpyeong last year. In both cases, South Korea did not respond with direct military force, and Kim Jong-il expects a similar reaction this time around.

Recent military moves in North Korea--virtually unreported in the U.S. media--remind us that the world is still a dangerous place. And that danger is multiplied by an administration which refuses to confront our adversaries.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The War on Military Benefits, Redux

During the current debt limit battle, we've heard several Democratic politicians vow that "any deal" will not come at the expense of the nation's seniors, or working families.

But military members, retirees and their dependents apparently don't fit in those categories, regardless of age or family status. As we noted in a recent post, there's a war on military benefits underway inside the Beltway, and the conflict has only begun.

Last week, we reported on a proposal to end subsidies to military commissaries, where most members of the armed forces buy their groceries. The subsidies (a little over $1 billion a year) allow military personnel and their dependents to buy food and other household staples at prices below civilian grocery stores. The benefit is particularly important for young enlisted members and their families who reside in high cost-of-living areas.

Without reduced prices at the commissary, more military personnel will wind up on food stamps, or other forms of assistance. While the number of troops who qualify for the federal programs remains relatively small, DoD officials reported a 25% jump in food stamp use at military commissaries between 2007 and 2009, an increase that out-paced the general population, even during dire economic times. A more recent survey by the Tulsa World found that food stamp purchases at the four base commissaries in Oklahoma climbed by 187% over the past two years.

Under various proposals now being discussed in Washington, military commissaries would be merged with base exchanges and prices would move closer to those in off-base stores. There has also been talk of providing a $400 yearly payment for military families (to compensate for rising grocery prices). Unfortunately, that subsidy won't come close to replacing the average $4,000 in yearly savings that most shoppers receive at the commissary.

But the eroding benefits don't end there. Earlier this week, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn unveiled a plan for $9 trillion in budget cuts, including $1 trillion from the military. While we've long admired Mr. Coburn's crusade against government waste, some of his proposed reductions make little sense, and will ultimately impact morale, welfare and military readiness. Among his suggestions:

-- Slash Military Tuition Assistance by 90%. Military members currently receive up to $4500 a year to fund their off-duty education, allowing many to earn their college degrees while in uniform. Senator Coburn says the TA program largely duplicates GI Bill benefits. Gutting TA would save almost $5 billion over a 10-year period.

Unfortunately, there are some serious drawbacks to Coburn's education plan. For starters, it would encourage more first and second-term troops to leave the service and enter college, since the GI Bill pays the highest benefits to veterans who have separated from the military.

Secondly, the Senator's assertion that TA is an ineffective recruiting and retention tool is simply wrong. Today's U.S. military is the best-educated in history and the tuition assistance program is one of the primary reasons. For example, over 90% of senior non-commissioned officers in the U.S. Air Force have at least an associate's degree, and the vast majority of those were earned while on active duty, using TA benefits.

And, you can make the case that tuition assistance is cost-effective as well. Since its inception in 2009, the Post-9-11 GI Bill has served more than 50,000 veterans, at a cost of $11.4 billion dollars. During the same period, the Pentagon spent just over $1 billion on TA, a program that benefited six times as many military members, at a fraction of the cost. To be fair, contrasting TA to the GI Bill is something of an apples-and-oranges comparison, but to dismiss the former program as inefficient and ineffective is simply mind-boggling.

Along with tuition assistance, Mr. Coburn also wants to slash these military programs:

-- Close on-base schools at DoD installations in the U.S. This proposal would save an estimated $10 billion over the next decade. At first, this proposal seems like a no-brainer; the 26,000 military dependents now enrolled in those schools would simply transfer to local public schools. But what if the local schools are lousy, and ill-prepared for a sudden influx of hundreds of new students? Are military parents supposed to simply sacrifice their childrens' education? Sadly, we know the answer to that one.

-- Overhaul military health care, and prevent retirees from signing up for TriCare Prime, the health insurance option with the lowest out-of-pocket costs. Coburn's proposal would save a projected $115 billion over 10 years, but retirees would pay an additional $3500 a year in additional medical expenses. That probably sounds like a bargain to many in the private sector, but it's worth remembering that the average military retiree is an E-6 with an average "take home" pension of just over $20,000 a year. Increased out-of-pocket costs will place a significant burden on the largest pool of military retirees.

Clearly, military spending must endure its share of cuts and Senator Coburn's plan is not without merit--just slightly mis-guided. Instead of merging commissary and BX functions, we'd simply shutter the exchanges, except at overseas locations. The BX's price advantage over civilian competitors has been largely erased in recent years, as the stores went upscale in their merchandising. Getting rid of the exchanges in the CONUS would more than cover the cost of subsidizing the commissaries, and providing savings that military members can really use.

In terms of education program, we'd put more emphasis on tuition assistance, encouraging more troops to earn degrees while on active duty. Even in an era of frequent deployments, it's quite possible to start--and finish--your degree in two tours (or less). At an average cost of $250-300 per credit hour, a degree earned using tuition assistance costs the taxpayer $30-40,000. Using the GI Bill (including housing allowance), the "price" for the same degree is $100,000--or more. Under our proposal, the GI Bill would stress degree completion for veterans, with elimination of the "transferability" clause for dependents.

For the Tri-Care issue, we recommend an even more radical solution: fully fund on-base health care. Many have forgotten that Tri-Care was created because Bill Clinton slashed the budget for base health care facilities and was promised illusory savings by sending dependents and retirees to off-base facilities. As a former Air Force Surgeon General later commented, the cost for many procedures in DoD hospitals was nominal, compared to civilian health care centers. He cited a simple appendectomy as a case-in-point. On-base, the tab for the surgery was (at the time) about $300--the cost for a surgical pack. If the military sends the patient downtown, the same appendectomy runs about $7,000. Multiply that by thousands of beneficiaries and procedures, and you can see why military health care costs have skyrocketed.

The Coburn plan is unlikely to pass anytime soon, but unfortunately, some of his proposals may endure. We first heard talk about gutting the TA program more than a year ago, long before the Senator raised that option publicly. It's almost certain that some of his "ideas" will eventually find their way into an eventual DoD down-sizing bill. Mr. Coburn's heart is in the right place, but he needs to adopt a smarter approach in cutting military spending.


ADDENDUM: And for what it's worth, we're still waiting for someone (other than Paul Ryan) to tackle the real budget-busters: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. From our perspective, it looks like military personnel (and retirees) are being asked to shoulder more cuts than the general population. But then again, the military community is a very small voting block. Go after the folks who can't hurt you at the ballot box. What a surprise.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What a Delicious Moment

We don't watch MSNBC very often, so I missed today's on-air exchange between anchor Contessa Brewer and Alabama Republican Congressman Mo Brooks. During a discussion about raising the debt ceiling, Ms. Brewer pointedly asked Congressman Brooks if he has a degree in economics.

Based on the response she, got it's pretty obvious that the MSNBC anchor never reviewed Brooks' biography. His response? "Why yes, I do." If Ms. Brewer had done a little bit of homework, she'd discover that Mo Brooks graduated from Duke in only three years, with a double major in political science and economics, earning highest honors in that latter subject. He later earned his law degree at the University of Alabama.

Here's the actual exchange, via Real Clear Politics. Heh, heh, heh.

Of course, no one ever accused Contessa Brewer of being the sharpest tool in the media shed. For the record, she has a degree in broadcast journalism from Syracuse, which has one of the better programs in that particular area.

But as a J-school grad myself, I know the curriculum is (ahem) less challenging than engineering, the hard sciences or economics. So, the typical journalism graduate has vast holes in their education that must be filled through additional reading and study.

Unfortunately, most journalism school products believe that courses in "communications theory" and "investigative reporting" leaves them well-prepared to explain such complex topics as the U.S. economy. So, they're quite content to share their ignorance with the masses. That's why Contessa Brewer was trying to "educate" Congressman Brooks just before asking about his education. In her learned opinion, the country will fall into a "depression" if the debt ceiling isn't raised.

Gee, Ms. Brewer, a lot of people would say we're already in a depression, and the prospect of adding another few trillion to the national debt won't exactly help our economy.

But such points are clearly lost on TV hosts like Contessa Brewer, whom Don Imus once famously described as a fat a--. Substitute the word "dumb" for "fat" and you've got a much more accurate description.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

Two scandals, very different outcomes. But in both instances, journalists (with the assistance of government personnel) obtain sensitive information. Printing or broadcasting the material could create serious security risks, both at home and abroad. Without much regard for those consequences, the material finds its way into the press, generating both shock and outrage.

But there any similarities between the two episodes. When The New York Times, The Guardian and other publications printed excerpts from the Wikileaks cables (facilitated by the theft of classified material by a U.S. Army Private), those outlets were hailed as heroes. But when the former British tabloid News of the World hacked into phone voice-mails--with the assistance of police officers--and published details, the public furor resulted in the closing of the 148-year-old paper. The scandal has sent shares of its parent (News Corp) plummeting, and just today, the company's CEO and Deputy CEO (Rupert and James Murdoch) were grilled by a British Parlimentary committee.

Is there more than a touch of hypocrisy at work here? Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal certainly thinks so:

In both cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means, was disseminated publicly by news organizations that believed the value of the information superseded the letter of the law, as well as the personal interests of those whom it would most directly affect. In both cases, fundamental questions about the lengths to which a news organization should go in pursuit of a scoop have been raised. In both cases, a dreadful human toll has been exacted: The British parents of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, led to the false hope that their child might be alive because some of her voice mails were deleted after her abduction; Afghan citizens, fearful of Taliban reprisals after being exposed by WikiLeaks as U.S. informants.

Both, in short, are despicable instances of journalistic malpractice, for which some kind of price ought to be paid. So why is one a scandal, replete with arrests, resignations and parliamentary inquests, while the other is merely a controversy, with Mr. Assange's name mooted in some quarters for a Nobel Peace Prize?

The easy answer is that the news revealed by WikiLeaks was in the public interest, whereas what was disclosed by News of the World was merely of interest to the public. By this reckoning, if it's a great matter of state, and especially if it's a government secret, it's fair game. Not so if it's just so much tittle-tattle about essentially private affairs.

Of course, it also depends on which media outlet(s) are involved in the episode. If it's The New York Times, exposing a previously-classified government surveillance program, why alert the Pulitzer Committee. If it's News Corp, alert the authorities.

One final note: the American press isn't above the illegal intercept of phone calls in pursuit of a good story. We recall that both the Times and the Washington Post ran articles based on information from a Democratic activist, who monitored phone calls between then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and John Boehner. And in the late 80s, a reporter from the Cincinnatti Enquirer hacked into the phone system of Chiquita Brands. Material he gleaned from the calls formed the basis for an 18-part "expose" of the company's activities in Central America.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Forgotten Man?

With the pending closure of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Deborah Joel is worried that her father may be forgotten.

For more than 20 years, the main auditorium at Walter Reed has been named for her father, Lawrence Joel, who received the Medal of Honor for Heroism in Vietnam.

In November 8, 1965 Joel was a combat medic, assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade which was participating in Operation Hump, near Bien Hoa. As they attempted to push the Viet Cong from defensive positions in the area, Joel's unit was ambushed by a larger enemy force. For the next 24 hours--and despite being wounded twice--Joel (then a Specialist 5) risked his life to care for scores of wounded men, saving many of them.

When his medical supplies ran out, Joel improvised a bandage from a plastic bag to cover a serious chest wound on an injured GI, preventing him from bleeding to death. Shot twice in the right leg, Specialist Joel defied orders to stay on the ground and kept going out to help his fellow soldiers. At least a dozen survivors of the battle owe their lives to Lawrence Joel and his heroism.

Specialist Joel received the CMH from President Johnson at the White House in March 1967, becoming the first living African-American recipient of that award since the Spanish-American War. Joel retired from the Army as a Sergeant First Class in 1973, after 27 years of service. He died of complications from diabetes in 1984, and received a hero's burial at Arlington National Cemetary. A few years later, the auditorium at Walter Reed was named in his honor. But there are no plans for a similar honor at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center or the new Army Community Hosptial at Fort Belvoir, which will replace Walter Reed as the primary military health care facilities in the nation's capital region.

Deborah Joel told the Washington Post that she was shocked by the decision, and the lack of an explanation from the Army.

Make no mistake: Lawrence Joel is a hero in the greatest sense of that word; a soldier who put his own life on the line to save wounded GIs. From our perspective, his place in the pantheon of America's heroes is secure, based on his service in two wars, and his intrepid actions on that fateful day in November, 1965.

But it's also worth noting that there is no guarantee that the naming of a base (or particular facility) will continue in perpetuity. There are plenty of military installations that were closed--without the name being transferred to another base or facility. For example, there are no plans to name another Army post "Fort Monroe," after the iconic base in Hampton, VA is shuttered later this fall.

We should also remember that the name of Lawrence Joel will live on long after that auditorium at Walter Reed closes its doors. Not only will Joel be memorialized as one of the the handful of brave Americans to receive the MOH, the Army has done its part to honor his legacy. You see, there's an important element missing from the WaPo account: along with the auditorium in Washington, military clinics at Fort McPherson, GA and Fort Bragg, NC are named for him, as is the street that encircles the Army hospital at Fort Campbell, KY. Additionally, the coliseum in Joel's hometown, Winston-Salem, NC, is named in his honor.

Lawrence Joel has been gone for more than a quarter-century. But as long as this nation honors and reveres its war heroes, he will never be forgotten.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Inside Job

Barely 24 hours after the Pentagon announced a massive security breach earlier this year, the story has all-but-disappeared from the media. True, the "hacker attack" (which resulted in the theft of more than 20,000 pages of classified documents) got some play in morning editions of the Washington Post and The New York Times--and it was the lead story last night on the CBS Evening News--but there has been remarkable little follow-up. After all, reporters, editors and producers must move on to bigger stories, like the J Lo/Marc Anthony split and Casey Anthony's impending release from jail.

Too bad, because this has all the makings of a major scandal. This much we know: earlier this year, hackers (read: foreign intelligence operatives) penetrated the secure computer network at a defense contractor and made off with some of the nation's most sensitive information. Among the material pilfered: war plans for Iraq and Afghanistan, and detailed technical information for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

When the breach was announced yesterday by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, he confirmed that the operation was almost certainly the work of a U.S. adversary, most likely China or Russia. That's hardly a surprise; Mr. Lynn suggested the "hackers" got their information in a limited probe, suggesting they knew exactly how to enter the network, and were looking for specific information.

But what's missing from the "official" account (and media reports) is another, equally disturbing element: the theft was, most likely, an inside job, carried out by individuals with access to the classified networks that links the Defense community, SIPRNET (which handles SECRET-level traffic), and JWICS, which carries TS/SCI data.

That assessment is based on a rather simple fact. SPIRNET and JWICS are separate from the internet. The Pentagon has spent billions wiring the world for transmitting classified information, avoiding the use of commercial networks that could be more easily targeted. DoD also invested heavily in encryption systems and security protocols that provided added layers of protection.

So, what's the easiest way to penetrate that type of system? Put a spy on the inside, with the a security clearance and ability to look for information and download it. We're hoping that arrests will be announced in a few days. But there's also the chance that the cyber-raid represented the capstone assignment for a Chinese or Russian operative. Once the data was stolen, the spy may have simply hopped onto an overseas flight and disappeared, long before we realized what happened.

In fairness, it is more difficult for spies to download information from secure computer networks--but not impossible, as illustrated by the Wikileaks scandal. All it takes is a disaffected American, or someone planted in the defense establishment, with access to machines that allow users to copy classified data to portable storage devices. Lest we forget, Bradley Manning was a mere Army private when he copied hundreds of thousands of pages of collateral-level information and sent it to Wikileaks.

From what little we know about the latest security breach, it's hard to say if the penetration occurred on SIPRNET or JWICS. War plans for on-going conflicts are often classified at the collateral level, as are some technical details for allied weapons systems. But given the sensitive technology contained in the F-35, it is possible that the penetration occurred on a Top Secret system or (God forbid), a network reserved for special access programs.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Kiss the Commissary Goodbye?

Who says you can't have entitlement reform? Certainly not Congress and the Obama Administration. True, they won't talk much about fixing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but when it comes to military entitlements--we prefer the term benefits, since they were actually earned--everything is apparently fair game.

Consider these recent developments:

-- In one of his final speeches before leaving the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the need for military pension reform. Mr. Gates doesn't like the current system, which allows members of the armed forces to retire after 20 years of service and begin collecting their pension immediately.

Never mind that the typical military retiree is an E-6 who receives a little over $1600 a month, after taxes--far less than the pension check of your typical state or municipal employee, or retired CIA Director. And it's almost inevitable that Mr. Gates's successor, Leon Panetta, will take up the cause, creating some sort of "corporate" system that would grant a nominal pension after only 10 years of service--but beneficiaries wouldn't start collecting until the age of 60.

Hmmm... has anyone considered the negative impact from the loss of a tremendous recruiting tool and the loss of experienced personnel from the middle ranks? Put another way, how many military members with marketable skills will hang around for another 10 or 20 years when they can bolt for the contractor world or certain federal agencies. And, with a projected decline in recruiting (due to force reductions), it will be more difficult to fill their shoes.

-- If the retirement system overhaul isn't bad enough, the cost of military healthcare is also going up. Tri-Care co-pays are scheduled to increase under the 2012 DoD funding bill. True, the fees have remained unchanged for the past 16 years, but (as the Democrats are fond of saying), the higher co-pays will affect the most vulnerable in the military community, retirees and dependents living on fixed income.

-- Want more? How about higher costs for troops trying to earn their college degree. Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman has asked the SecDef to look at cutting the tuition assistance rate for eligible personnel, from 100% to 75%. Coffman, a retired Army reservist, believes the rate reduction would give military members more "ownership" of their higher education, forcing them to do more research in selecting schools and degree programs. Representative Coffman earned one of his college degrees using TA (as did your humble correspondent), but his proposal ignores an important fact: college tuition rates have exploded over the past 20 years, so a 25% cut in TA would force many junior enlisted members out of the education market--the very group that benefits most from the program.

-- How about higher grocery bills? The Senate Veterans Affair Committee recently passed a bill that would end subsidies for base commissaries, which currently total about $2 billion a year. And for good measure, the legislation calls on DoD to eventually merge commissaries with base exchanges, creating an on-base version of your local Wal-Mart.

Unfortunately, the commissary proposal has a number of flaws. Being able to buy groceries on post (at reduced prices) helps many military families make ends meet, particularly in high-cost-of-living areas. Without the subsidies, prices will inevitably rise, creating hardship for junior enlisted members and their dependents. According to various studies, each dollar in subsidies translates into three dollars in benefits for patrons (and the benefits are even higher for service members below the grade of E-6). Indeed, the commissary program is one of the most effective managed by DoD.

Additionally, the idea of merging commissary and BX/PX functions makes even less sense. The commissaries and exchanges have completely different business models, and merging supply chains and personnel systems (while eliminating waste) would be very, very expensive and it would take years to recoup the savings.

Besides, the proposed commissary/BX changes are nothing more than a money shuffle. Money that now subsidizes base commissaries would be shifted to a program that treats former Marines and dependents from Camp Lejeune, NC, who were exposed to hazardous drinking water for more than 30 years. As MOAA observes, victims of the water problem at Lejeune deserve treatment, but raiding the commissaries isn't the way to pay for it.

Virtually everyone who wears (or has worn) the uniform is willing to make sacrifices to get the nation's fiscal house in order. But it's dismaying to see Congress erode key military benefits, while ignoring the larger programs that threaten our fiscal solvency. But then again, the number of active duty military, dependents and retirees is relatively small, in comparison to the population as a whole. Better to go after the military crowd instead of enraging the membership base of AARP. After all, we know that members of the armed forces community don't vote, or more accurately, many of them can't vote (see next article).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Disenfranchised Over There (2010 Edition)

For years. we've been chronicling the systematic disenfranchisement of U.S. military members (and their families), attempting to vote by absentee ballot. By various estimates, armed forces personnel and their dependents are more likely than any other group to have their votes negated by absentee ballots that arrive too late or can't be returned in time to meet state election laws.

So, why should 2010 be any different? It wasn't, according to Hans A. von Spakovsky, writing at NationalReview.com:

Members of the U.S. military and their families who were stationed overseas during the 2010 elections were disfranchised at an alarmingly high rate, according to a new report released today by the Military Voter Protection Project.

MVPP surveyed 24 states. Of the 2 million military voters covered by the report, 15.8 percent requested absentee ballots, but only 4.6 percent cast absentee ballots that were counted. This is at least partly due to the difficulty and uncertainty of the process. Both numbers were below the 2006 midterm election figures, when 5.5 percent of military and overseas voters cast absentee ballots that were counted.

MVPP also found that local election officials in 14 states and the District of Columbia failed to comply with the federal requirement that all absentee ballots must be mailed at least 45 days prior to the election. That requirement, imposed by the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE Act), was intended to ensure that voters had enough time to receive and mail back a ballot, given the long transit times for overseas mail, particularly in war zones. These failures affected more than 65,000 voters.

Most of the states did a good job counting the ballots they actually got back — the overall acceptance rate was more than 94 percent. However, there was one glaring and shameful exception: The state of New York rejected nearly one-third of all absentee ballots from military voters. Based on a combined estimate of military members who voted in person in the U.S. as well as overseas voters, MVPP concluded that the overall turnout rate of military voters was 11.6 percent. Since the turnout rate of all voters was 41.6 percent in the 2010 election, this means that military voters were 3.5 times less likely to vote than other voting-age citizens.

This is simply shameful. The very Americans who ensure our right to vote are the very ones most likely to be disenfranchised. And while some military members are apolitical, others have grown tired of the tricks and simply given up on the idea of absentee voting. It's also worth noting that many of the problems occurred in the blue states with close elections (Illinois comes to mind) a few red states--including Alaska--asked for waivers as well.

As detailed in the MVPP report, the Obama Justice Department only added to the confusion, ignoring requests for guidance on the waivers from DoD, while telling the state of Maryland that it could avoid a waiver by simply mailing out a ballot for federal races. A federal judge eventually overruled the Maryland opinion, but it was still a scramble to get a complete ballot to military personnel from the state who were serving overseas.

Assessing data from last year's election, MVPP analysts believe 2010 represented a step backward for military voters--and it's hard to disagree:

On the individual state level, as set forth in Appendix A, the percentage of military voters
whose absentee ballots were counted ranged from 1.3 percent in North Carolina, where
only 8,323 of 111,550 eligible military voters had an absentee ballot that counted, to 15.7
percent in Washington. In total, 18 of the 24 states had military absentee voting participation
rates that fell below 5 percent. Nine states had a participation rate below 3 percent.

While the 2010 survey data does not include military members who voted in person (with
two exceptions discussed below), that percentage has been relatively small in the past. In 2006 for example, only 7 percent of military members voted in person. If a similar percentage voted in person in 2010, the total military voter participation rate for 2010 would have been 11.6 percent.

The Heritage Foundation will hold a conference on this matter July 19th in Washington. In attendance will be Admiral Edmund Giambastiani, Jr., a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His comments should prove illuminating, though he never said much about the issue while serving in the Pentagon. Indeed, DoD has never paid more than lip service to the issue, afraid of running afoul of Democrats in Congress and the White House.

Indeed, the military voting problem is referred to as "disenfranchisment" and not something more descriptive like "suppression." Yet, as the MVPP research team notes, how would we describe a system that produced similar voting totals among members of a minority group. Rest assured, it wouldn't be referred to as "disenfranchisement," and DOJ lawyers would already be in court, standing up for the victims.

Slithering Out the Door

Colonel Jeff Smiley has resigned as Commander of the Alabama National Guard's 187th Fighter Wing, but questions still remain about his status and past conduct.

According to Air Force Times and WSFA-TV in Montgomery, Smiley submitted his resignation on 21 June for "strictly personal reasons." His departure came three months after an investigation by the Alabama Guard revealed that Smiley had used his unit's F-16 aircraft for personal trips and received more than $96,000 in extra pay for unauthorized compensatory time.

National Guard Bureau officials would not say June 23 whether Smiley had been reassigned or would retire. Smiley has been in the Air Force for 31 years.

Smiley was investigated during the third year of his command after an anonymous complaint was filed with the Air Force Inspector General’s Office. After multiple investigations, four of eight allegations were deemed to have merit.

The investigation concluded Smiley accumulated excessive comp time and converted it into flight training time, for which he received nearly $96,000. The IG also found that he used government property — an F-16 — to visit family several times in 2006; neglected to conduct a semiannual climate survey of the unit for three years while he was installation commander; and improperly coerced his officers to join the National Guard Association of the United States.

A few years ago, we remember an Air Force Technical Sergeant (E-6) being court-martialled for claiming an extra $75 on a do-it-yourself move. So will Smiley face any charges for fraud or theft? Don't bet on it.

After investigators from the Alabama Army Guard found merit in four of the eight charges, Colonel Smiley received a mild letter of counseling--even by senior officer standards--from Brigadier General Paul D. Brown, Jr., commander of the state air guard.

Brown conducted the initial investigation of the allegations and found none to be substantiated. He referred to his own interpretation of the allegations in his letter to Smiley.

“By a ‘preponderance of the evidence standard,’ a recent Alabama Army National Guard Inspector General investigation has substantiated four allegations of apparent misconduct on your part,” Brown wrote. “While my own review of the allegations and available evidence lead me to conclude that the substantiated allegations are primarily of a technical nature, devoid of any malicious or fraudulent intent, I want to emphasize to you, a senior officer under my command, conditions can develop and/or exist which cast doubt on your overall judgment and create an appearance of impropriety.”

Brown went on to write that he considered “the totality of the circumstances leading up to this counseling” and concluded that he was confident that Smiley was capable of accomplishing his duties as wing commander.

But as Smiley began to feel the heat from the media and the public, he decided to step down. A graduate of Texas A&M, Smiley is said to be living in the Houston area and preparing for retirement, after a career that spans 31 years of active duty and guard service.

Back in February, Air Force Times demanded that Smiley's record be made public, wondering how he retained his job when other wing commanders have been fired for lesser offenses. Obviously, the guard does things a little differently, but it's stunning that Smiley is (apparently) walking away with an extra $96,000 in his pocket, and his pension and benefits intact.

We'll go the Times one better. Smiley should not be allowed to retire until the entire matter has been investigated by the Air Force or DoD Inspector General, with subsequent referrals for criminal prosecution, as required. As a guard officer, Colonel Smiley can be recalled to active duty, even if he is currently on terminal leave, or actually retired. One hundred thousand dollars in undeserved compensation and the misuse of government aircraft are serious offenses, serious enough to warrant a wider probe. Since the Alabama Guard is unwilling to do the job, it's time to move the matter up the chain of command.

Sadly, the Smiley case appears to be the latest example of the "different spanks" rule that is painfully evident in all Air Force components, active duty, Guard and Reserve. Too many senior officers have been allowed to skate on serious charges over the last 20 years, and that only encourages the next generation. Such behavior will continue until someone finally court-martials an Air Force general and sends them to Leavenworth. That's the kind of shock required to restore ethical standards in the USAF.
ADDENDUM: While we don't know Colonel Smiley, we've followed his career. He is one of the best pilots in the F-16 community. As a First Lieutenant at Shaw AFB, SC back in the early 80s, (not long out of RTU) he won the wing's "Top Gun" competition, bettering dozens of far more experienced Viper pilots. Later, he took top honors in two categories at the Air Force's worldwide Gunsmoke competition. Smiley is also a graduate of the USAF Weapons School and is one of only 10 pilots with more than 4,000 hours in the F-16. Regrettably, Smiley's misuse of government aircraft--and his undeserved compensation--have stained what should have been an exemplary career.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Size Myth

It's been a hallmark of education reform plans since the 1950s. Reduce class size in public schools, the argument goes, and student achievement will improve dramatically.

And we've been on a crusade to achieve that goal for six decades. As Larry Sand notes at City Journal, the number of public education employees has increased more than 300% since the mid-1950s, while the student population has grown by only 60%.

True, not all of the additional staffers work in the classroom. Much of the growth in our public schools has been at the administrator level, with increases in other areas as well. But even when you factor in all those additional bureaucrats, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries and security personnel, the number of teachers has also increased dramatically, producing a corresponding decrease in the average class size:

"..according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2007, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 15.5 to one. In California, going back to 1999, the student-teacher ratio across all elementary and secondary schools was 20.9 pupils. Today, it’s 21.3—a paltry 1.9 percent increase."

But does a smaller class mean greater student achievement? According to Mr. Sand, a retired California teacher, the most famous study that advanced the "smaller-is-better" argument was conducted in Tennessee more than 20 years ago, and its methodology has been question. More recent research openly challenges that assertion:

In a 1998 study, for example, Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby found that “reductions in class size from a base of 15 to 30 students have no effect on student achievement.” In 1998, Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek released the results of his impressive review of class-size studies. Examining 277 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all—and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”

Mr. Sand believes the real solution may lie with slightly larger classes, taught by better teachers:

If we accept Hanushek’s numbers and dismiss the lowest-performing 5 percent of teachers without hiring replacements, a class of 20 would then increase by just one student. Ask any parent if he’d rather have his child in a class of 21 kids with a high-performing educator or in a class of 20 with a mediocre one. With only a finite amount of money available for education, fewer working teachers would free up funds for increased salaries, books, computers, or whatever the individual school district chooses. And, as a bonus, retaining fewer teachers would also mean fewer central-office bureaucrats and a smaller pension-fund burden on cash-strapped states.

Unfortunately, no politician is going to take up the rallying cry of "bigger classes for our schools." Already locked in a death battle with public employee unions, governors are afraid of handing their adversaries a weapon that might impede (or even reverse) current reform efforts. Indeed, most governors believe the problem will somehow take care of itself; with districts forced to lay off teachers because of funding problems, class size will almost certainly increase.

But not without a fight. As teacher layoffs begin to take effect, expect even more stories about harried teachers trying to manage unwieldy classes, and ensure that all students are actually learning. It's a sure bet that coverage won't talk about how much class rolls have shrunk over the last 30 years, and expected increases are modest, at best. Instead, reporters will go for the heart-strings, claiming that indifferent politicians (read: Republicans) are sacrificing our schools to help their wealthy friends.

It's a baseless charge; without reform of public education and employee pension plans, many school districts are facing bankruptcy in the coming years. What's more heartless: teaching kids in slightly larger classes, or shuttering the entire district?

Still, the argument advanced by the teacher's union and their Democratic allies does have some traction. At a Navy event, I recently met a Petty Officer Second Class, stationed in New Jersey. She has four school-age children; a civilian husband who's looking for work, and an unsold home at their last duty station. In her current financial situation, the Petty Officer qualified for food stamps. While acknowledging that Governor Chris Christie's reforms are needed, she worried about the loss of art and music programs at her children's schools. I'm sure she would be sympathetic to New Jersey teachers and their arguments about increased class size.

Research affirms that our schools can survive with slightly larger classes. Fact is, we have no other choice.
Meanwhile, there's the matter of getting rid of teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom. In today's edition of the New York Post, there's the story of Yvonne Chalom, a teacher in the city school system who was recently dismissed for leaving threatening messages on the voicemail of three administrators at Murry Bergtraum High School where she taught Spanish. Getting rid of Ms. Chalom, 49, took eight years and more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

...From Elise Jordan, a National Security Council staffer writing at National Review on-line. Her column is devoted to something we've written about extensively in recent months: the Obama Administration's absolute refusal to confront Iran, on issues ranging from human rights abuses, to its nuclear weapons program. A few excerpts:

Iran is feeling pretty confident these days. The Americans are leaving Afghanistan and leaving Iraq, while showing just how far they’re not willing to go in Libya. A handful of former enemies in the Sunni Arab world — regimes that for decades acted as a pro-U.S. counterweight to Iran’s regional ambitions — have fallen in the wake of the Middle East’s democratic uprising. Others Gulf states with significant Shiite populations, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, seem a little shaky. Tehran, meanwhile, rockets ahead.

Literally. Last week, the U.K. foreign minister announced that Iran had tested missiles and rockets that can “deliver a nuclear payload.” The recipients of that delivery, by the way, would be Israel and Europe. It was a not-so-subtle message to the ever-feckless international community: We’re going to get a nuclear weapon. Your sanctions have not worked. There’s nothing you can — or will — do about it.


The White House’s response to the tests? Silence.

Sound (or no sound, as it were) familiar? Flashback to 2009: The Green Revolution sweeps the streets of Tehran. Ahmadinejad and his thugs brutally crack down on protesters of Ahmadinejad’s contested electoral victory. The White House decides to keep quiet. The same pattern unfolded following the democratic revolutions of this past season.

It’s not just “leading from behind,” as one of Obama’s advisers memorably described his leadership style, but speaking from the rear. The result? Tehran survived its brush with democracy, further emboldening the regime. Now they see the Arab Spring as another great opportunity. “[Iran] didn’t create the Arab Spring or start it, but they are clearly trying to exploit it wherever they can,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has observed.

To be fair, Mr. Obama and his team aren't the first administration to kick the Iranian can down the road. Pre-occupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush White House was more than happy to let diplomacy "run its course," a process that resulted in wasted years--and Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapon--while European negotiators labored in vain to dissuade Tehran.

Now, we're literally at the point of no return. Iranian efforts to join the nuclear club will soon hit pay dirt, and its campaign to prop up it allies in Syria and Lebanon appears to be working as well. The mullahs and Ahmadinejad are on the march; our remaining allies in the region are getting very nervous and its time for a new approach to Iran. And the response from the White House?


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Justice Denied

If you need proof that our justice system is broken, look no further than the verdict just rendered in the Casey Anthony trial.

In case you missed it, a Florida jury found Ms. Anthony not guilty of murdering her two-year-old child in 2008. Not guilty on manslaughter charges. Not guilty on various counts of aggravated child abuse. In fact, she was only found guilty on charges of lying to a police officer. While she may receive a short sentence for that crime, it's worth remembering that "Tot Mom" (as Nancy Grace calls her) has already spent three years in jail. With credit for time already served, she may walk out of the courtroom on Thursday morning, a free woman.

But even if she spends a few more months in the slammer, Casey Anthony will emerge from jail a rich woman. Book and movie offers will be pouring in (in fact, they already are) and forget about those laws that prevent the accused from profiting from a crime. There are plenty of ways to structure a deal to avoid the statutes, and besides, she beat the rap on the most important counts.

Say what you will about the lack of DNA and fingerprints. At the end of the day, there is--as prosecutors argued--only one person who benefited from the death of that beautiful little girl. The same woman who partied while her daughter was missing, without an apparent care in the world. The same woman who created an elaborate web of lies to conceal the child's disappearance. She is the same woman who will now profit from the death of her daughter.

Only in America.