President Obama formally announced proposed reforms to National Security Agency surveillance techniques, saying the government should turn storage of metadata over to private phone companies.
“Having carefully considered the available options, I have decided that the best path forward is that the government should not collect or hold this data in bulk,” Obama said after an administrative review of the controversial NSA program. “Instead, the data should remain at the telephone companies for the length of time it currently does today.”
The administration was forced to address the clandestine metadata program in the wake of leaks from former government contractor Edward Snowden. Civil liberties groups have pressured the White House to halt bulk collection of Americans' information, calling it an Orwellian invasion of privacy.
Phone companies had balked at storing the data, but the White House believes their concerns will be alleviated by the limited time that the information must be housed.
Under Obama's proposal, the government would need authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for every search of a phone number.
His proposals require congressional approval, and Capitol Hill remains divided on how to best overhaul the NSA practices. The White House will continue to reauthorize the program until Congress finds a legislative fix.
For his part, Obama is hoping to put out a political fire that has angered his own base.
“I believe this approach will best ensure that we have the information we need to meet our intelligence needs while enhancing public confidence in the manner in which the information is collected and held,” Obama said.
The president had instructed Attorney General Eric Holder and intelligence officials to report back to him by the end of March with ideas for how the government could turn over the metadata to another entity.
Obama has been in Europe, where U.S. allies have raked the president over the coals for the controversial spying practices. The president told European leaders in recent days that his proposed reforms would address their concerns.
— Brian Hughes, White House Correspondent
OBAMA, POPE FRANCIS DISCUSS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Pope Francis, in a high-profile meeting with President Obama, raised concerns about religious freedom, according to the Vatican.
Obama and the pope “discussed questions of particular relevance for the Church, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform,” the Vatican said in a readout of the meeting.
“Finally, the parties stated their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world,” the Vatican added.
The Catholic Church has raised objections to an Obamacare mandate that employers provide insurance coverage for contraception to their workers, which is being challenged in the Supreme Court.
The White House had hoped to use the papal visit to bring more attention to the issue of income inequality, a debate in which Obama frequently invokes Pope Francis. But reproductive issues have been a constant source of tension between the two leaders.
Obama and the pope also exchanged thoughts on growing volatility on the international stage.
“Views were exchanged on some current international themes,” the Vatican said, “and hope was expressed that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.”
— Brian Hughes, White House Correspondent
LAWMAKERS PASS UKRAINE AID, SANCTIONS LEGISLATION
The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation endorsing President Obama's plan to provide $1 billion in aid to Ukraine and to sanction Russia for invading the country, moving a step closer to clearing the measure for the president's desk.
Each chamber passed slightly different legislation, but Democrats agreed to speed passage by dropping a provision to ratify International Monetary Fund reforms.
Lawmakers in both chambers said it was important to quickly pass the aid and sanctions package to send a message to Ukraine as well as Russia, which has taken over Crimea and is now threatening the rest of Ukraine.
“It supports Ukraine and it pushes back on Russia,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It shows support for our allies in the region. It’s a first step, and more could come.”
The Senate package includes $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine, which lawmakers believe will help loosen Russian President Vladimir Putin's economic grip on the nation.
The measure also would authorize $100 million for “enhanced security cooperation” for Ukraine and neighboring countries in Central and Eastern Europe, aid for recovering assets taken by the Putin-backed ousted government and an additional $50 million to help Ukraine re-establish a functioning government.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been highly critical of Obama’s handling of the crisis, warned that the United States must quickly send a strong signal to Putin to deter him from pushing his troops beyond Crimea.
“I am not predicting World War III but I am predicting Vladimir Putin will go as far as he thinks he can in order to realize his ambition, which is to restore the Russian empire. This legislation before us will indicate the first steps we are taking in response.”
— Susan Ferrechio, Chief Congressional Correspondent
GDP GREW AT 2.6-PERCENT RATE IN FOURTH QUARTER
The U.S. economy grew at a 2.6-percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported in its third and final estimate of real gross domestic product.
The BEA had initially estimated that growth was 3.2 percent, but that was revised down to 2.4 percent before being again revised up to reflected stronger-than-realized consumer spending.
That means that growth slowed at the end of 2013 after accelerating through the year. From near-stagnation in the fourth quarter of 2012, quarterly growth was 1.1 percent, then 2.5 percent, and then 4.1 in the third quarter, which was marked by the government shutdown and debt limit standoff.
But the fourth-quarter GDP broke that trend.
Previously, top economic officials had expressed hope that the improvement would last into 2014. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in January that 2014 "can and should be a breakthrough year for our economy."
Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said in January, before taking office, that she was "hopeful that the first digit [of real GDP growth] could be 3 rather than 2."
But many banks have cut their forecasts for 2014. Goldman Sachs now projects first-quarter real GDP growth at 1.7 percent.
Other analysts have noted that it's hard to separate the underlying strength of the economy from the unusually harsh weather that may have slowed spending and delayed business plans throughout the winter. If weather is mostly to blame for depressed commerce early in 2014, growth would be expected to bounce back later in the year.
— Joseph Lawler, Economics Writer
ADMINISTRATION WILL GIVE CONSUMERS EXTRA TIME TO SIGN UP FOR OBAMACARE
The Obama administration will give consumers who say they were unable to sign up for Obamacare extra time to select a health plan, essentially extending the March 31 deadline for some individuals to obtain insurance or pay a fine.
Individuals will simply have to check a blue box on healthcare.gov that says they tried to enroll before the March 31 deadline. The extension will last until mid-April.
“We are not going to shut the door on people who were in line and could not get coverage through no fault of their own,” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Julie Bataille said.
More than 6 million consumers have signed up, Obama announced.
The White House has long insisted that the March 31 deadline was non-negotiable but hinted that it might grant a grace period to those who had trouble signing up for Obamacare.
The administration will not check whether individuals encountered technical problems.
Republicans swiftly dismissed the latest shift as yet another attempt by the administration to limit political blowback from the president’s signature domestic initiative. The administration has made two dozen adjustments to the law.
"Democrats in leadership may say they are doubling down on Obamacare, but you have to wonder how many more unilateral delays their candidates running in 2014 can withstand," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
“What the hell is this, a joke?” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, exclaimed at his weekly press conference.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters the problems associated with signing up for Obamacare were not caused by the glitch-plagued healthcare.gov website.
Rather, it’s the enrollees who need a lesson in using a computer.
“No, it's through no fault of the Internet, because people are not educated on how to use the Internet,” Reid said.
— Brian Hughes, White House Correspondent, and Susan Ferrechio, Chief Congressional Correspondent
OBAMA BACKS 'ZERO TOLERANCE' FOR SECRET SERVICE MISCONDUCT
President Obama supports the Secret Service's "zero-tolerance approach" to incidents such as one involving three drunken agents in the Netherlands, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“He was briefed and I would refer you to the Secret Service in Washington and say generally [that] the president believes, as he has said in the past, that everybody representing the United States of America overseas needs to hold himself or herself to the highest standards,” Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
He added that Obama supports Secret Service Director Julia Pierson’s “zero-tolerance approach on these matters.”
Three Secret Service agents were found drunk after a night out in the Netherlands, where they were preparing for Obama's week-long trip to Europe, according to reports. The agents were sent home.
The incident is the latest embarrassment for the agency and comes two years after a number of agents were sent home from Colombia after they were found to be drinking and consorting with prostitutes ahead of Obama's visit to the Summit of the Americas.
— Meghashyam Mali, Assistant Managing Editor
IRS COMMISSIONER: 'YEARS' TO PRODUCE DOCUMENTS ABOUT TEA PARTY TARGETING
Years will pass before congressional investigators can review all of the documents pertaining to the inappropriate targeting of Tea Party groups, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen told a House panel.
"What they want is something that's going to take years to produce," Koskinen told Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in reference to Republican requests for IRS documents.
Republicans accused the IRS of slow-walking the document release. "We don't want the excuses anymore," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said. "You're not working fast enough. It's that simple."
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told Koskinen that the IRS, at a minimum, could easily give Republicans the documents they want most, which are the emails of Lois Lerner, the former IRS official who oversaw the division of the agency that conducted the targeting.
"Six months ago, you could have pumped out all of Lois Lerner's emails," Issa said. "I find it less than helpful and I find your talking about redaction and time inappropriate when you could have given Ways and Means all of Lois Lerner's emails in a matter of seconds."
Koskinen replied that "that's not the information I have."
— Joel Gehrke, Commentary Writer
CHELSEA CLINTON ADMITS FEELING PRESSURE FROM PARENTS TO START HAVING KIDS
Chelsea Clinton says she feels pressure from her parents to start having kids, but she explained to Maria Menounos of "Extra" that it was in a loving way.
"I do feel that pressure but in such a kind of loving, lovely way. I mean my parents always say to me that having me was the best thing that ever happened to them, so why would I not want that experience?" she said. "That's really hard as a daughter to sort of not be flattered by and kind of deeply moved by."
Clinton refused to say whether she thought her mother, Hillary Clinton, should run for president.
"I really want her to do what she wants to do," Clinton said, praising her mother's government service. "But ultimately she's my mom and so whatever she decides will by definition be the right choice, and I'll support her in that."
Clinton added that her father, former President Bill Clinton, referred to her mother as "an NGO of one" when she was living in Arkansas.
— Charlie Spiering, Commentary Writer
NLRB SAYS COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYERS CAN UNIONIZE
A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University have a right to unionize, a decision that would have a potentially major impact on college athletics.
In a 24-page ruling, NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr said that because the players received scholarship money and were subject to special rules that did not apply to other university students, they were "employees" of the college, and not "primarily students."
"Thus, I direct an immediate [union] election in this case," Ohr ruled.
Former Northwestern player Kain Kolter, head of the College Athletes Players Association, which filed the complaint, tweeted: "So proud of my teammates … and supporters around the nation! This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes!"
Northwestern University said it was "disappointed" with the decision and plans to appeal it to the full NLRB and explore its other legal options.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes," said Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations.
In its argument against unionizing, the school relied heavily on the NLRB's decision in a 2004 case involving Brown University graduate assistants. In that case, the board said that despite receiving scholarship money from the university, the assistants' relationship with the school was still primarily educational, so they were not employees who could form unions.
Ohr said the reasoning in that case did not apply to the Northwestern athletes, since many of their activities, like training camp, do not involve an academic component. He also noted that the athletes must devote "40 to 50 hours per week" to football during the college season.
"Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies," Ohr noted.
— Sean Higgins, Senior Writer
SUPREME COURT HEARS OBAMACARE-HOBBY LOBBY CASE
The Supreme Court appeared divided on a potentially landmark case addressing whether businesses can opt out of a key Obamacare provision on religious grounds.
The case centers on whether businesses have religious rights, as two for-profit corporations are contesting an Affordable Care Act requirement that employers cover birth control for employees.
The Christian families who own the companies — Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores with 13,000 employees, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a small Mennonite furniture manufacturer — say that forcing them to insure certain forms of contraception violates their First Amendment freedom of religion.
The companies say they're protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which is designed to prevent laws that place a substantial burden on a person's free exercise of religion.
The three liberal-leaning women on the high court expressed concern that denying female employees access to even some contraceptives is unfair and threatens their health.
"Congress has made a judgment and Congress has given a statutory entitlement [with the Affordable Care Act], and that entitlement is to women and includes contraceptive converge," Justice Elena Kagan said.
"When the employer says, no, I don't want to give that, that woman is quite directly, quite tangibly harmed."
The Affordable Care Act provides for a range of free preventive care, including 20 forms of contraception. The Obama administration has strongly defended the provision, saying it puts women in control of their health care.
Both companies say they are amenable to providing 16 of the mandated forms of contraception. But they oppose emergency contraceptives like the morning-after pill and certain intrauterine devices (IUDs), arguing that life begins at conception and that destroying an already fertilized egg in the uterus is tantamount to abortion.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether a ruling in favor of the companies would establish a pathway for other pro-profit entities to ask for a slew of other exemptions on religious grounds for such medical procedures as blood transfusions and vaccinations.
— Sean Lengell, Congressional Correspondent
HOUSE OF CARDS CREATOR: HILLARY CLINTON WOULD MAKE 'AN INCREDIBLE PRESIDENT'
Beau Willimon, the creator of the popular Netflix series "House of Cards," admitted that he is a "huge fan" of Hillary Clinton.
"I loved working on campaigns and certainly am a huge fan of Hillary Clinton," he said during an appearance at Politico's "Women Rule" event.
Willimon campaigned for Clinton's 2000 Senate run and worked for Bill Bradley and Howard Dean.
"You know, I was very proud to have her be my senator, I was a big supporter of her in 2008, and I think she was an incredible secretary of state and would make for an incredible president, so I hope she runs."
— Charlie Spiering, Commentary Writer
POSTAL SERVICE EMPLOYEES USE TRAVEL CARDS TO GAMBLE, BOWL, PAY BILLS
Postal employees have spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on gambling, bills and other personal expenses, according to a series of reports by the U.S. Postal Service inspector general.
Federal employees may use government credit cards for official travel expenses, but some used theirs to withdraw cash before hitting casinos.
Nearly a dozen reports on travel card theft investigations were obtained by the Washington Examiner in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
One manager, who was not identified in the report, used her travel card to withdraw $32,000 in cash so she could gamble, according to the inspector general.
The woman told investigators that it was "difficult to say" why she used the government card, but indicated the withdrawals were made after she reached her credit limit on her personal cards.
She also used her government card on rental cars, gas, parking and tolls for personal use, and said a fast-lane transponder "fell into her purse" out of a Postal Service car she was driving.
She was served with a letter demanding she repay the remaining money she owed and took an "early retirement," according to a USPS spokeswoman.
Another employee used her government card for casinos, taking out $2,400 in cash for gambling. She initially told investigators she used the government card because it looked like her personal credit card, but later admitted she used it intentionally.
The employee "explained that she needed the money to go to the casino and she goes to the casino too much," the report said.
The employee had a $1,300 balance left on her card at the time of her interview, and had paid off the rest of the balance by the following week. She was fired for inappropriate travel card use in November.
Other employees took cash and salary advances to pay bills and other personal expenses. One employee paid herself $8,500 in salary and travel advances during one three-month stint as the officer in charge at a North Carolina post office, then lied about paying them back.
She resigned in February 2013, and a month later was issued a letter demanding she repay the money she owed USPS.
— Michal Conger, Staff Writer
FANNIE, FREDDIE INSPECTORS CAUGHT DOING SHODDY WORK
Inspections on houses headed into foreclosure, meant to save the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) money, may be wasting money instead, the agency's inspector general has found.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are regulated by the FHFA, spent $91.2 million from 2011 to 2012 on pre-foreclosure property inspections, despite the lack of any assurance that the inspections were up to par.
Shortcomings by the inspectors, who are contract workers, include missing photos, no inspector signature, manipulated data and unnecessary inspections resulting in little useful information being collected. Inspectors often failed to complete and pass criminal background checks.
In one instance, an inspector "copied old inspection report information onto each subsequent month’s inspection form," the IG found.
A lack of controls over the inspectors "diminishes an inspection report’s integrity and casts doubt on whether performing pre-foreclosure property inspections adds value," the report said.
The IG found that Fannie and Freddie — which are government-sponsored enterprises — as well as the FHFA were at fault for the inspection issues.
“There has been little attention provided to pre-foreclosure property inspections by both FHFA and the enterprises,” the report said.
— Kelly Cohen, Staff Writer
HOUSE PANEL CREATES WEBSITE TO TRACK STONEWALLING BY VETERANS AFFAIRS
The Department of Veterans Affairs' stonewalling of questions is being showcased by the House Veterans Affairs Committee on a new Web page that tracks a lengthy list of refusals by agency officials to answer inquiries from the media.
The unanswered questions concern issues like patient deaths at VA hospitals due to inadequate care, backlogs of disability compensation claims, big bonuses paid to top VA administrators and the department's overall lack of transparency.
The typical response from the VA press office is to refuse comment, issue a generic written statement or ignore the request for information, based on the list of about 70 instances of agency opaqueness highlighted on the new House website.
The VA press office has 54 full-time employees, according to official documents.
“With 54 full-time public affairs employees, VA’s media avoidance strategy can’t be anything other than intentional,” said committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
“What’s worse, the tactic leaves the impression that department leaders think the same taxpayers who fund the department don’t deserve an explanation of VA’s conduct,” Miller said.
But in a written statement issued in response to the new website, the VA press office said its staff quickly responds to thousands of media inquiries every year.
“At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we strive to provide accurate and timely information as we communicate every day with America’s veterans, their families, their survivors, and the American people," the statement said.
On the Web page, questions from multiple national and local media outlets are on the list of ignored inquiries, including multiple entries from the Washington Examiner.
Having a congressional committee showcase an agency's failure to respond to the media is healthy but unusual, said John Wonderlich, policy director at the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which works for government openness.
"It's useful for a congressional committee to have a collection of media accounts of how responsive an agency is being," Wonderlich said. "Too often, congressional committees don't pay attention to news coverage or the public affairs work of the agencies that they oversee."
— Mark Flatten, Watchdog Reporter