Saturday, February 18, 2017


US & Soviet Nuclear Submarine Collision Kept Hidden Over 40 Years

USS James Madison

A Russian spy ship lingering off the US coast has been in the news recently. Within the last day or so, the spy ship Viktor Leonov was hanging out off the US Navy submarine base at New London. (The ship has apparently now shifted to Norfolk.) The Navy has dismissed the importance of the spy ship. More threatening, however, may be submarines waiting underwater to follow US submarines from their bases. In some cases, high-stakes games of underwater "chicken" have been reported.  A recent release of documents by the CIA has confirmed a previously top-secret report of a collision between a US and a Soviet nuclear submarine off Scotland 43 years ago.

In November of 1974, the USS James Madison, carrying 16 Poseidon nuclear missiles, was heading out of the US naval base at Holy Loch, 30 miles north-west of Glasgow, Scotland.  It was being shadowed by an an unidentified Soviet Victor Class nuclear attack submarine. Not long after the US submarine left the naval base, the two submarines collided. Neither submarine appeared to be critically damaged. Both submarines surfaced. The Soviet submarine subsequently submerged and left the area.

The collision happened so far inside UK territorial waters that it was considered to be an embarrassment, so the event was kept a secret. General Brent Scowcroft sent a "Secret–Eyes Only" cable to Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State to President Gerald Ford, which began: "Have just received word from the Pentagon that one of our Poseidon submarines has just collided with a Soviet submarine…."

There was, however, a leak, although, not necessarily in the submarine. On January 1, 1975, investigative reporter Jack Anderson writing in the Washington Post reported an unconfirmed collision between two submarines.  Anderson wrote: "Two prowling nuclear submarines, one American, the other Soviet, sideswiped one another under the North Sea on Nov.3. The bizarre undersea collision, which came within inches of sinking both subs, has never been revealed. But we have obtained the details from on-the spot sources."

That Anderson got his story right was confirmed in mid-January, 2017 when the CIA released more than 13 million pages of previously classified reports in 930,000 documents.

While the collision in 1974 involved a US ballistic missile submarine and a Soviet attack submarine, in 1992 and 1993, the circumstances were reversed. In less that one year, two US attack submarines collided with Russian submarines.

On February 11, 1992, the attack submarine USS Baton Rouge collided with the Russian Navy nuclear submarine B-276 Kostroma off Severomorsk. The damage to the Baton Rouge may have been severe enough to result in the submarine being the first of her class to be decommissioned in 1995. 

On March 20, 1993, the nuclear attack submarine USS Grayling collided with the Russian Navy nuclear ballistic missile submarine K-407 Novomoskovsk 150 km (90 mi) north of the Russian naval base of Severomorsk. Neither ship was reported to be badly damaged.

This entry was posted in Current, History, Lore of the Sea, Ships. Bookmark the permalink.

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North Korea’s Launch Tests Missile and President Trump

North Korean state media announced – and U.S. officials have confirmed – that North Korea tested a new ballistic missile over the weekend. The missile, either medium- or intermediate- range, does not directly threaten the U.S., but may endanger American allies and U.S. military assets in the region. North Korea's continued missile testing underscores the ineffectiveness of current U.S. policy towards Pyongyang and highlights why the Trump Administration should urgently engage the North in diplomatic negotiations.


North Korea's newest missile, the Pukguksong-2, was launched on Sunday morning local time (Saturday evening on the U.S. east coast) and traveled approximately 500 km before landing in the Sea of Japan. It has been reported that the missile reached a maximum altitude of 550 km, suggesting that it was launched in a lofted trajectory to avoid entering other countries' territory. David Wright, co-director and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calculated that if this is true, the normal range of the missile would be around 1,200 km. At this range, the Pukguksong-2 would be considered a medium-range ballistic missile.

The Pukguksong-2 is the land-based version of the submarine-launched KN-11 that was first tested in April 2016. Both missiles use solid instead of liquid fuel, representing a major advancement in North Korean missile technology. Solid-fuel missiles can be launched more quickly and secretively than their liquid-fuel counterparts because they do not require as much time and infrastructure for fueling. The Pukguksong-2 provides North Korea with an additional military option that will be much harder to track because it can be transported on a mobile launcher without the accompanying infrastructure needed for a liquid fueled launch.

This is the first missile test that North Korea has launched since President Trump was inaugurated, and may have been intended as much to gauge his reaction as it was to test new technology. Thus far, President Trump has responded with restraint, pledging American support to Japan in a brief statement. The President's reaction is a stark contrast to his decision to "put Iran on notice" for a missile test earlier this month, or his tweet that a North Korean missile test "won't happen" after leader Kim Jong-un announced Pyongyang's intent to test in a New Year's Day speech.

Going forward, President Trump should do more than reiterate American support for our allies in the region. He should engage North Korea in diplomatic negotiations with no preconditions, something that has not been attempted since the six party talks broke down early in the Bush administration. This policy has long been supported by experts in the defense and arms control communities.

According to Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, "today a war would be no less than catastrophic, possibly destroying the societies of both Koreas as well as causing large casualties in the U.S. military. It is imperative that we employ creative diplomacy to avert such a catastrophe." Similarly, former Senator Sam Nunn and retired U.S. Navy Admiral and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen suggest, "new and genuine incentives should be offered for North Korea to participate in substantive talks … A new diplomatic approach could potentially freeze North Korea's nuclear and missile programs and lay the groundwork for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."

Negotiating with North Korea will not immediately achieve the ultimate objective of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, but talks are much more likely to freeze or slow North Korea's nuclear program than continued sanctions without dialogue. In many areas of both domestic and foreign policy, President Trump's policies have been the opposite of his predecessors. If he adopts a policy of negotiation with North Korea, he may get results that have evaded the U.S. thus far.

Bernadette Stadler is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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Israeli nuclear arsenal biggest threat to international peace, says Iran

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi reiterated that Zionist regime's nuclear arsenal is the biggest threat for regional and international peace and security.

Israeli nuclear arsenal biggest threat to int'l peace, says IranHis remarks came after baseless allegations of the new US President and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a press conference in Washington.

"The remarks included nothing but repeating futile and worthless claims on peaceful Iranian nuclear program. The remarks are being made, whereas the IAEA's reports have frequently approved peacefulness of Iranian nuclear program. This reality has also been confirmed by various countries across the world."

He said that there are hundreds of warheads kept in Israeli nuclear arsenals which are the biggest threat to regional and international peace and security.

Qassemi continued that Iran believes that nuclear weapon is religiously forbidden in terms of religious viewpoint and Supreme Leader's 'Fatwa', and that nuclear weapons have no place in Iranian military doctrine.

The Islamic Republic of Iran would press ahead with its peaceful nuclear program under the JCPOA which has been approved by the UN Security Council, Qassemi added.

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Russian Spy Ship Off Delaware Brings Back Cold War Memories

Soviet Intelligence Trawler (AGI) 3/1972 (National Archives # K-93182)

By David F. Winkler, Ph.D.

The spotting of a Russian surveillance ship 70 miles off of the Delaware coast is reminiscent of the Cold War. Of note back then, bathers on East Coast beaches could frequently spot the trawlers with the red stack bearing the familiar hammer and sickle. Back then, the U.S. only claimed three miles for territorial waters. Now it's twelve miles.

Perhaps the first time the American people were made aware of this close Russian presence was a press conference in May 1960 where the U.S. Navy revealed the late April presence of a Soviet spy trawler off the U.S. East Coast. Noting the craft's similarity in appearance to fishing trawlers lying off the Newfoundland Grand Banks, a naval intelligence officer displayed large slides of the vessel Vega, pointing out eleven portable antennas protruding from a van mounted on the bridge. The Navy's Chief of Information (CHINFO), Rear Adm. Charles Kirkpatrick, complained that at one point while off Long Island, the 600-ton trawler attempted to interfere with the recovery of a dummy missile by a Navy tug participating in a Polaris missile-firing maneuver. Kirkpatrick emphasized that the trawler remained unmolested because of its location in international waters: "We are a legal people and abide by international law."

Although the Navy's press conference attempted to portray the Soviet spy trawler as a new provocation, by 1960 the presence of these rugged little ships on the world's oceans had become a fact of life for Western navies. The Intelligence Directorate of the Alaskan Air Command first became suspicious of the function of a group of "trawler-type" vessels in the summer of 1955. The question posed was: "Have the Soviets set up a line of picket ships in the Bering Sea, for offshore surveillance and early warning?" Throughout the spring and summer of 1955, Navy P2V Neptunes lifted off to determine an answer. From May through August, the Navy patrol planes made twenty-seven sightings of vessels so equipped to lead intelligence officers "to speculate the possibility of a primary purpose other than fishing." Operating in waters not usually frequented by the Soviet fishing fleet, only one of the spotted vessels appeared to have nets in the water. Some of the vessels had nets and fishing equipment stowed on the deck while others had no nets or net floats in sight.

Eventually, Western navies designated these "trawler-type" vessels as Auxiliary, General, Intelligence (AGIs). During the late 1950s, the Soviets built more of these ships, using trawler designs for blueprints. Trawler designs were adaptable because the insulated refrigeration compartments provided ideal space for electronic equipment. Trawlers also possessed the necessary stability for operating in heavy seas. During the 1960s, AGIs became a common sight off American submarine bases, at shipping choke points, off Cape Canaveral, near test facilities such as those at c, and among U.S. Navy carrier task forces. Because of the assertiveness of some of these spy ships in gathering intelligence, many American skippers probably believed that "be a nuisance" must have been part of the AGI mission statement.

In a 1972 study of six years' worth of incidents involving Soviet ships and aircraft on the high seas, thirty-two of seventy-nine cases involved one or more of these spy ships. However, this number probably represented only a fraction of the actual instances in which one navy's ship maneuvered so as to impede the movements of the other navy's ship because higher command authorities did not receive incident reports. Those that were reported often became a subject of diplomatic notes passed between the two governments.

A former commander of a destroyer stationed in the Tonkin Gulf in 1965, Robert P. Hilton, Sr., observed that Soviet AGIs had a habit of cutting across refueling formations and cutting across carrier bows. He added, "I think they were a little reluctant to cut across the bow of a carrier going at full speed because I think they discovered that if the carrier had the right of way, it was not going to alter course." Hilton further explained that task force commander assigned destroyers to keep the AGIs out of the way, using shouldering tactics if needed. He noted, "Of course, we were instructed to comply with the rules of the road even when it came to shouldering."

Vice Admiral J.P. "Blackie" Weinel

There is no record of collisions between aircraft carriers and AGIs. In a game of chicken between a truck and a motorcycle, the fellow on the motorcycle invariably gives way. Thus, many carrier skippers maintained course and speed when challenged by an oncoming Soviet trawler. Some carrier skippers even took deliberate steps to let the uninvited guests know that their mischief-making was not welcome. Captain James L. Holloway III, acted with assertiveness in 1965, when he took Enterprise on its first combat deployment to Vietnam. When the Soviet eavesdropper showed up in the Gulf of Tonkin, Holloway ordered the 90,000-ton carrier to flank speed and headed right for it, "And he got the hell out of our way." Holloway would continue to use that tactic to keep AGIs at bay. Still, Soviet AGI harassment of Enterprise would eventually be discussed at a diplomatic level. Over in the Mediterranean, Commander U.S. Sixth Fleet Vice Admiral William I. Martin commented in 1967 on Soviet AGIs in the Mediterranean stating, "There have been times when Russian electronic intelligence ships have moved in the way seemingly to embarrass us; either we change course or [we would] ram them."

Surface ships also took measures to avoid observation. Admiral J. P. "Blackie" Weinel recalled one deceptive measure employed while he commanded the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga when he wanted to conduct some nuclear weapons-related exercises. Somewhat concerned that the nearby Soviet spy trawler that steamed within his task force formation might obtain intelligence on U.S. tactics, Weinel desired to get the AGI out of the vicinity. Ordering one of his destroyer captains to divert the AGI, Weinel admired the scheme that was employed. Sailors on the destroyer took a frame of a bunk with the springs and tied a line to each corner. The sailors lowered the bedspring in the water and then pulled it up. One sailor stood by wearing a set of big earphones and wrote down notes on a clipboard. After a while, this routine caught the AGI's attention, and the Soviet stayed with them for the next day while Weinel went off and completed his exercises. Reflecting, Weinel wondered what Moscow thought of this intelligence data.

Eventually, in May 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an Agreement for the Prevention of Incidents at Sea. The accord is still in effect and has succeeded in moderating the behaviors of the two navies. When an alleged incident does occur, such the recent buzzings by Russian aircraft of the destroyer Porter operating in the Black Sea, communications mechanisms are in place through naval attaches for an immediate exchange of information, and an annual review meeting is held each year to discuss the incident further.

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Watch: Freighter Passes Over Diver – Crazy!

Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 10.47.26 AM

Check out this amazing video that apparently has been on YouTube for a few years now, but is just now getting attention after it was posted as a gif to Reddit. Luckily one of the commenters was able to find the original (maybe?) online. 

According to the uploader it happened on the St. Clair River in the Great Lakes.

Can't say I've ever seen anything like it (on second thought, check the link below). Part of me actually thinks this guy was down there on purpose, but the sound alone gives me the shivers. Check it out: 

Now check this out: Divers Almost Caught in Cruise Ship Propeller

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Coast Guard: 1,100 Gallons of Diesel Spilled from ‘Samson Mariner’ in Alaska

The tug Samson Mariner alongside the cargo barge St. Elias anchored in Ward Cove, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard Photo
The tug Samson Mariner alongside the cargo barge St. Elias anchored in Ward Cove, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

The U.S. Coast Guard and other federal and local agencies are continuing to respond to the tugboat Samson Mariner that ran aground and spilled fuel while towing a barge in the vicinity of Rosa Reef in north Tongass Narrows, Alaska, Wednesday evening.

Approximately 1,100 gallons of diesel spilled from the tug prior to being patched by Alaska Commercial Divers Wednesday night, the Coast Guard said Friday.

The Samson Mariner has since been refloated and is anchored in Ward Cove alongside the barge it was towing.

A Coast Guard on Friday was conducted to determine the extent of any possible sheen or environmental impacts. It said a sheen has been reported in the area and Southeast Alaska Petroleum Response Organization (SEAPRO) has been tasked with fuel containment and recovery using boom and absorbent pads.

The Coast Guard is working in partnership with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, SEAPRO, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Alaska Commercial Divers, on the response.

"We are working closely with our partner agencies to recover as much of the spilled product as possible," said Capt. Shannan Greene, Coast Guard Sector Juneau commander. "When spilled, this type of diesel spreads quickly into thin films forming patches of rainbow and silver sheens. We expect the sheen to break up within the next 12 to 24 hours, with scattered sheens potentially still visible under the low wind conditions forecast for tomorrow. Although not expected to impact sensitive areas or wildlife, we routinely collaborate with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to mitigate these risks."

Weather on scene on Friday was reported to be 14 mile per hour winds and calm seas.

The 90-foot tugboat Samson Mariner was towing a cargo barge when it ran aground Wednesday night and reported a minor hull breach. The crew aboard was able to plug the hull, but not before some fuel leaked into the environment.

The Samson Mariner was reported to have 30,000 gallons of fuel on board and the barge has 40,000 gallons of diesel. The barge did not sustain any damage and has been secured.

The Samson Mariner was towing the dry cargo barge St. Elias as part of  Samson Tug and Barge's regular service from Seattle to Western Alaska.

Tongass Narrows is located northwest of Ketchikan and is part of Southeast Alaska's sheltered Inside Passage.

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Coast Guard Hearings Wrap-Up in El Faro Probe

SS El Faro. Photo: Tote Maritim
SS El Faro. Photo: Tote Maritim

ReutersBy Letitia Stein

TAMPA, Fla., Feb 17 (Reuters) – U.S. investigators stood in silence for 33 seconds on Friday as they concluded the public phase of a probe into the sinking of the El Faro cargo ship during a 2015 hurricane, recognizing each crew member aboard who died.

The Coast Guard's Marine Board of Investigation, convened for the most serious accidents, heard two weeks of testimony in the last of a series of hearings on the worst disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel in more than three decades.

Captain Jason Neubauer, the panel's chairman, said it had collected sufficient evidence for a forthcoming analysis. Eventually, the board expects to issue a report that could make recommendations to prevent another disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Board also plans to release a report finding the probable cause of the accident.

Investigators said they were inspired by the relatives of the deceased, many attending six total weeks of testimony during the three rounds of hearings held in Jacksonville, Florida.

"It has been difficult to watch and listen as the struggle to come to terms with the tragedy continues on a daily basis," Neubauer said.

All 33 crew onboard died when the 790-foot (241-meter) El Faro sank during Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, 2015, two days after leaving Jacksonville on a run to Puerto Rico.

The widow of El Faro captain Michael Davidson, a veteran mariner from Maine, shared a closing statement through an attorney. It noted that Davidson was shown during the hearings to be a careful professional who had refused to leave a crew member behind, giving up a chance to fight for his own survival.

"We all owe it to the El Faro 33 to learn what happened," said Tim Nolan, president of Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, the ship's owner, at the end of the hearing.

During the final round of testimony, the panel learned that the El Faro had little room for troubles on its final voyage, operating with a minimal stability margin. (Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017.

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Just say no to BRAC

BRAC is back, and at the worst possible time.
The vice chiefs of the Army and Air Force on Tuesday threw their support behind another round of base closures as a way to save substantial amounts of money that can be put to use for the military's other needs. "It's real money that we really need to reinvest into deferred maintenance and infrastructure backlog," Gen. Daniel Allyn, the Army's vice chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Gen. Stephen Wilson, vice chief of staff for the Air Force, agreed: "In today's budget environment, it makes sense to invest wisely, so BRAC would help us make smart investments to prepare for the future."

Wilson and Allyn were testifying alongside their Marines and Navy counterparts on the state of the military. They painted a bleak picture, lamenting that budget cuts have slashed the readiness of the force to fight in a war against a high-end adversary such as Russia. 

But the closure process, known as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), has been a politically unpopular solution to the issue. Lawmakers in both parties oppose BRAC because of the potential for negative economic impact on the communities around bases.

The last round of BRAC was in 2005, and under current law, another round is banned.

I feel dirty just reading that. If anyone uses the terms, "wisely" and "smart investments," they are simply insulting the listener by implying that, if you don't agree, then you are "dull" and "stupid."
Well General Wilson - pack sand.
There are a lot of reasons not to support a new series of base closures, but the top one should be that in 2017 we are looking at growing our military, not shrinking it.
There is a certain logic to doing a BRAC for those who live and breathe inside the Beltway and see things only through the refracted light of the green eye-shade, and that is the problem. They drive the discussion.
There is a lot more to military base utility than a simple spreadsheet snapshot in a time of peace, you have to look at why you have a military to begin with; to fight and win your nation's wars.
Let me give you a few bulleted items to consider as to why we should firmly say no to a new BRAC. 
In no specific order;
1. Quality of life/work: In the course of my couple decades of military service, I had the pleasure of being stationed at small, medium and large bases on both coasts. The ability to get to work, home from work, and to get actual work done at small bases was always much better than the large, impersonal, industrial sized bases. Living out in the economy (I never lived in and do not support base housing) was easier, and the military has a lighter impact on the host community.
2. Risk mitigation: Just put on your "red hat" for a few minutes, study your history, and then tell me again why it is best to have all your military forces packed in to a few static locations. If I need to say more, then you really aren't paying attention.
3. National presence: The cynic thinks we should have military bases scattered around in order to increase support for the military in Congress. As anyone from the former Representative Dellums (D-CA) district would tell you, that theory only works on the margins. I am more interested in a higher purpose - the people and their representatives need to know people in their neighborhood who fight their nation's wars. Nothing bridges the military-civilian divide as being neighbors. As an unalloyed Southerner, I am quite happy that so much of the officer corp is Southern and Western - but I don't think it is good for the nation as a whole to make that skew worse by packing military bases in the South and West. The paucity of military bases remaining in New England, for instance. Tell me that is good for DOD or the people of New England or the nation.
4. Redundancy: Saturate the Virginia Tidewater area or San Diego with a large "dirty bomb" - or give the bad guys a "Weekend Boat Club" number of remote control boats. See #2. No need to say more.
5. Surge capability: Hey, stuff happens. We need to grow from 350 to 500 ships, and the Army, USAF and USMC need to grow 50% in the next three years? In a nation of 320 million and growing - where are you going to find the next Ft. Hood or Norfolk when they are already at maximum capacity?
6. When you lose it, you don't get it back: If you squint your eyes a bit and grab a few bags of cash to buy people out - you can almost see on the East Coast being able to re-militarize North Charleston and Cecil Field. Almost. Many of the other areas, not so sure. The last BRAC didn't just cut away a few extra bits of fat, it took out huge chunks of meat and bone.
7. Politics, developers and petty corruptions: Don't discount that many people want the land military bases are on. In an increasingly crowded nation, especially along the coasts, the military has some prime land. People want it for their own purposes. As in many things in politics; follow the money.
Back to the beginning. Let's just look at our Navy. If we are going to grow to 350, where are we going to put them if we close down what few naval bases we have left? One could argue that we should be looking again at what we may need to claw back from the last BRAC. I still get cold sweats every Christmas when I look at "Murderer's Row" in Norfolk.
Our fleet needs to be more dispersed not less. Say no to BRAC and let's invest our political capital instead on growing the Fleet of the future, and improving the one we have now.

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1949 ... XC-99

... when you build the world's biggest airplane - it gives you strange ideas! The Convair company was busily cranking out the B-36 'Peacemaker' (Gigadinosaurous Strategicus) and began to think; what else can you do with such a large airplane besides drop atomic bombs on people's heads? 
One answer was the XC-99; a cargo and troop carrier version of the strategic bomber. Another idea was to create the world's first Jumbo-Jet Prop airliner. One military cargo version was built. Sadly no commercial airliners were ever ordered; with hot and cold running martinis and wall to wall sirloin steaks.
top photo: XC-99 which saw a lot of service during the Korean War
other photo: observer sits in former gunner's bubble making sure both wings are still on.

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What Was the Last Major Fight at Gallipoli?

At the beginning of August 1915, Hill 60, which commanded the shoreline communications links between the forces at Anzac and Suvla, was in Turkish hands. Hill 60 was included as an objective for the renewed Suvla offensive of 21 August. Its capture would secure the link from Suvla Bay to the Anzac beachhead. On 22 August, the hill was attacked from Anzac by the Canterbury and Otago Mounted Rifles from New Zealand. They succeeded in seizing part of the Turkish trench system but could not dislodge the Turks from the hill. Six days later the remnants of the whole New Zealand brigade (about 300 men, down from the 1865 who landed in May) made another daylight attack that extended the line but again failed to capture the target.

Skeletal Remains on Hill 60 Afterward

The initial attacks were followed later by the 18th Australian Infantry Battalion and supported on the flanks by other troops. Hill 60 was partly captured and on 27–29 August the captured ground was extended by the 13th, 14th, 15th, 17th, and 18th Australian Infantry Battalions, the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, the 5th Connaught Rangers, and the 9th and 10th Australian Light Horse. The summit of Hill 60 was never wrested from the Turks, but, by holding the seaward slopes, the ANZAC flank was secured and the link with Suvla opened. In 1920 Major Fred Waite, New Zealand's historian of the Gallipoli campaign, wrote, "The struggle near Kaiajik Aghala was the last pitched battle on the Peninsula."

Hill 60 Cemetery and New Zealand Memorial Today

The British historian Robert Rhodes James later wrote that "For connoisseurs of military futility, valour, incompetence and determination, the attacks on Hill 60 are in a class of their own." 

The position, however, was held until the evacuation in December.

Sources: New Zealand and Australian governmental and veterans websites

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A Rare Aviation-Themed War Poem

By F.V. Branford

Illustration by Francois Flameng
Aloft on footless levels of the night 
A pilot thunders through the desolate stars, 
Sees in the misty deep a fainting light 
Of far-off cities cast in coal-dark bars 
Of shore and soundless sea; and he is lone, 
Snatched from the universe like one forbid, 
Or like a ghost caught from the slay and thrown 
Out on the void, nor God cared what he did. 
Till from these unlinked whisperers that pain 
The buried earth he swings his boat away, 
Even as a lonely thinker who hath run 
The gamut of greatlore, and found the Inane, 
Then stumbles at midnight upon a sun 
And all the honor of a mighty day. 
About Frederick V. Branford

Born Frederick Victor Rubens Branford Powell in 1892, the Scottish poet was educated at Edinburgh University and Leiden University.

Serving as a captain in the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I, Branford was very badly wounded at the Battle of the Somme, when he was shot down over the Belgian coast and swam ashore to Holland, where he was interned. Most of his poems were written in a long period of recovery from his injuries, which left him totally disabled. He lived on a disability pension for the rest of his life.

Branford stopped writing poetry in 1923, disillusioned with the prospects for future peace. He remarried in 1937; his second wife was his cousin Margaret Branford, the playwright daughter of John Branford. He died in 1941.

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The Centennial at the Grass Roots: "The Great War: Kentucky & Beyond."

Roads to the Great War contributor Margaret Spratt is the curator for a new World War I  exhibit at the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Kentucky, that opened this past Sunday. The displays and accompanying presentations are designed to help remember Kentucky's experience in the war. The program runs until October, and more information can be found HERE about the museum and special events associated with "The Great War: Kentucky & Beyond."

Our Friend, Professor Margaret Spratt, Helped Organize the Exhibit
Uniforms and Kit of a Kentucky Soldier and Nurse

Lt. Pfanstiel Was Originally Assigned to the 335th Inf. of the 84th Division But Was Reassigned to the 79th Division, Probably as a Replacement
Dr. Edith Smith of Cynthiana, KY, Was a Surgeon Who Saw Frontline Service
During the War

Aviation Corner
Solomon Lee Van Meter, Jr. of Lexington, Kentucky, in July 1916 Received a Patent for the Backpack Style Parachute 

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Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony Officially Opens Naval Dosimetry Center's New Location

BETHESDA, Md. (NNS) -- The Naval Dosimetry Center (NDC) held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the official opening of their new location at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bethesda, Feb. 16. The monthlong move from their former location at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) compound to the new state-of the-art facility onboard NSA was completed Jan. 12. Vice Adm. Raquel C. Bono, director, Defense Health Agency, was the guest speaker for the event. "I'm excited for the opportunity to participate in the ribbon cutting, but I'm just as excited to have a few moments with you to simply say 'thank you,' and to reflect on what you provide for the Navy, Department of Defense, and the nation," said Bono. "We talk a lot about medical readiness being our number one mission in military medicine, and it is. Our ability to project both our hard and soft power in the world depends on sustaining a strong and safe nuclear program. The work you do has a direct effect on our medical security, and the confidence that our Sailors and Marines have to do their job well." Also in attendance were Rear Adm. Terry Moulton, deputy surgeon general of the Navy and deputy chief, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery; Capt. Marvin Jones, commanding officer, NSA Bethesda; Capt. Todd Wagner, commanding officer, Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center; and John Hallworth, Naval Reactors. The opening of this new facility marks an incredible improvement for the NDC staff and its operations. According to Cmdr. Thad Sharp, NDC officer in charge, the new $9 million facility is equipped with new equipment to read thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLDs). "The facility will also have a state-of-the art information technology infrastructure and network, and will give us the ability to bring the center into the 21st century," said Sharp. "The move has also been a morale booster for the staff. It's exciting to have a new home to call our own and it gives us a fresh start." The five-year initiative, part of the Defense Health Agency's Comprehensive Master Plan for NSA Bethesda, will enable the command to continue providing excellent, centralized dosimetry processing for over 350 Navy and Marine Corps commands worldwide, health physics consultations, advanced technical research, and In Vivo Gamma Spectroscopy services. The NDC, a field activity of the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, also manages the Department of the Navy's radiation exposure registry program; they've maintained occupational exposure records from approximately 3.9 million ionizing radiation exposures since 1946, analyze trends, and support requests for information regarding radiation exposure. The new facility includes $2 million in new TLD processing machinery, increasing processing capacity by 40 percent and reducing time lost to mechanical failure by 50 percent. The NDC has also invested $2 million in new information technology equipment, more than doubling the NDC's processing efficiency as they continue to grow the exposure registry database. The facility also provides a dedicated laboratory for the science advisor and technical manager to continue making strides in advancing naval exposure monitoring and improving dose algorithms. "This move is much smoother than previous moves at the center, and the facility we are moving to is well equipped to support the mission" said Robert Colter, physical science technician and long-time employee of the NDC.

For more information, visit,, or

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GAO-17-242, VA Health Care: Actions Needed to Ensure Medical Facility Controlled Substance Inspection Programs Meet Agency Requirements, February 15, 2017

What GAO Found

GAO found weaknesses in the way four selected Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities were implementing their controlled substance inspection programs. Two of the four did not conduct monthly inspections of controlled substances as required by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). For example, one facility missed 43 percent of monthly inspections in critical patient care areas and the pharmacy for the period GAO reviewed—January 2015 to February 2016. Further, inspections that three of the four facilities performed did not include or follow three or more of the nine VHA requirements GAO reviewed. At two of the three facilities, for example, inspectors did not properly verify that controlled substances had been transferred from VA pharmacies to patient care areas; nor did inspectors ensure that all controlled substances on hold for destruction were properly documented. The VA Office of the Inspector General identified similar inspection program weaknesses at other VA facilities in 2009 and again in 2014.

GAO found that several factors contributed to nonadherence to VHA policy at selected facilities. First, the two facilities that missed inspections lacked an additional control procedure—such as the use of an alternate controlled substance coordinator—to help prevent missed inspections when inspectors could not conduct them due to professional or other personal responsibilities. Second, while facilities develop their own set of inspection procedures that must follow VHA's policy requirements, three of the four facilities did not ensure their written procedures included the nine VHA program requirements GAO reviewed. Third, VHA relies on coordinators at the facilities to ensure that the inspections are completed appropriately, but GAO found that VHA's training course for the coordinators does not focus on its required inspection procedures. As a result of these weaknesses, VHA cannot ensure that its inspection programs are following all of its requirements.

GAO found inconsistent oversight at the selected facilities of their controlled substance inspection programs by facility directors and the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (network) to which the facilities report. VHA assigns oversight responsibilities to each facility director and network. GAO found that directors at two of the four selected VA medical facilities had not implemented corrective actions to address missed inspections identified in the monthly inspection reports. In addition, two of the four selected networks did not review their facilities' quarterly trend reports, as required by VHA. Such reports identify inspection program trends such as missed inspections and areas for improvement. GAO found that one network that had reviewed the trend reports failed to follow up with a facility to ensure it had submitted missed trend reports. Inconsistent oversight by the directors and networks is contrary to federal internal control standards that state oversight should be ongoing to assess performance and promptly remediate deficiencies in order to achieve objectives, including holding individuals accountable for their responsibilities. Without effective oversight of the inspection programs by directors and networks, VHA lacks reasonable assurance that its programs are being implemented as required to prevent and identify diversion of controlled substances.

Why GAO Did This Study

Diversion of opioid pain relievers and other controlled substances by health care providers has occurred at several VA medical facilities. Such diversions for personal use can pose a threat to patients by depriving them of needed medications. Absent effective practices to mitigate its risk and quickly identify it, diversion can occur undetected. VHA requires each of its facilities to implement a controlled substance inspection program to help reduce the risk of diversion.

GAO was asked to examine VHA's processes to prevent diversion and its oversight of these processes. This report examines VHA's implementation and oversight of controlled substance inspection programs at selected facilities. GAO reviewed VHA policies and interviewed officials from VHA central office and from a nongeneralizable selection of four facilities and the networks that oversee them. Facilities were selected to reflect variation in geography and in the number of opioids dispensed at retail pharmacies in the state in which the facility operates. GAO compared the facilities' implementation and oversight of the programs to VHA's policy requirements and to federal standards for internal control.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that VHA establish procedures to prevent missed inspections, review facilities' inspection procedures, improve coordinator training, and direct facility directors and networks to ensure that facilities correct facility nonadherence to VHA policies. VA concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Randall B. Williamson at (202) 512-7114 or

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GAO-17-412T, Union Activities: VA Should Improve the Way It Tracks the Amount of Official Time Used by Its Employees, February 16, 2017

What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) cannot accurately track the amount of work time employees spend on union representational activities, referred to as official time, agency-wide because it does not have a standardized way for its facilities to record and calculate official time. Specifically:

  • Recording official time—VA uses two separate time and attendance systems that capture official time differently. VA's new system (VA Time and Attendance System, or VATAS), which VA began rolling out at some facilities in 2013, has specific codes to record official time, but the older system does not. The inconsistent recording of official time raises questions about VA's ability to monitor its use, but VATAS could help to standardize this process. In rolling out the new system, which VA expects to complete agency-wide in 2018, VA has provided inconsistent training and guidance on how to use the codes in VATAS. While VA has taken steps to provide better training and guidance on recording official time, GAO recently found that timekeepers at two of three selected facilities where VATAS has been rolled out were still not using the codes. Without consistent guidance and training, personnel may not know how to properly record official time in the new system. 
  • Calculating official time—VA provides its facilities with a range of options for calculating the amount of official time used. VA annually collects and compiles these data agency-wide using the Labor-Management Relations (LMR) Official Time Tracking System—separate and distinct from VA's time and attendance systems. In calculating official time, facilities may use records, estimates, or other methods, which results in inconsistent data. VA officials told GAO that all facilities will eventually be able to rely on VATAS time and attendance records to calculate official time when submitting data in the LMR system. The full implementation of VATAS will provide VA with an alternative to using the LMR system to collect and compile more reliable official time data. Without reliable data, VA cannot monitor the use of official time agency-wide or share reliable data with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which reports on the government-wide use of official time.

At all five selected VA facilities, designated space for representational activities comprised less than 1 percent of the overall square footage at each location, according to GAO's analysis. VA does not collect or track data from individual facilities on the amount of space designated for representational activities. Union officials at three of the five facilities GAO visited said that limited space for representational activities made it difficult to provide privacy for employees. A VA official said that certain VA facilities may have space constraints depending on where they are located and the number of veterans served, for example. 

At most selected VA facilities, VA managers and union officials GAO interviewed cited similar benefits of employees using official time, such as improving decision-making and resolving problems. However, they had differing views on challenges associated with employees' use of official time, such as when and how much official time may be used.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal year 2012, there were over 250,000 bargaining unit employees at VA, and these employees spent about 1.1 million hours performing union representational activities on official time, according to an OPM report. The ways in which VA manages its human resources, including the use of official time, have received increased scrutiny in recent years. GAO was asked to review the amount of official time used by VA employees as well as the amount of space designated for representational activities. 

This report examines (1) the extent to which VA tracks official time, (2) what is known about the amount of designated space used for union representational activities at selected VA facilities, and (3) the views of VA managers and union officials on the benefits and challenges of employees using official time. 

GAO reviewed VA's fiscal year 2014 and 2015 data on official time—the most recent data available; analyzed information on designated union space and held group interviews with VA managers and union officials at a nongeneralizable sample of five VA facilities selected based on the number of bargaining unit employees and other factors; and interviewed officials at VA, OPM, and from national unions.

What GAO Recommends

In its January 2017 report, GAO recommended that VA increase efforts to provide consistent guidance on recording official time, standardize the methods used by facilities for determining the amount of official time used, and take steps to transition from using the LMR system to VATAS to collect and compile data on the amount of official time used agency-wide. VA concurred with all three recommendations.

For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at 202-512-7215 or

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GAO-17-409T, Department of Homeland Security: Important Progress Made, but More Work Remains to Strengthen Management Functions, February 16, 2017

What GAO Found

As GAO reported in its 2017 high-risk update, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) efforts to strengthen and integrate its management functions have resulted in the department meeting three and partially meeting two of GAO's criteria for removal from the High-Risk List (see table). For example, senior DHS officials demonstrated exemplary leadership commitment by frequently meeting with GAO to discuss the department's progress in addressing the high-risk area. Additionally, DHS established an action plan for addressing the high-risk area, of which it has issued 10 updated versions since 2011. Since GAO's 2015 high-risk update, DHS also strengthened its monitoring efforts for financial systems modernization programs by entering into a contract for independent verification and validation services, and met the monitoring criterion for the first time. However, DHS needs to make additional progress in strengthening capacity by identifying and allocating resources in certain areas, such as staffing for acquisition and information technology positions.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Progress in Addressing the Strengthening DHS Management Functions High-Risk Area, as of February 2017

Criterion for removal from High-Risk List


Partially metb

Not metc

Leadership commitment




Action plan


Framework to monitor progress


Demonstrated, sustained progress






Source: GAO analysis of DHS documents, interviews, and prior GAO reports. | GAO 17-409T

a"Met": There are no significant actions that need to be taken to further address this criterion.

b"Partially met": Some but not all actions necessary to generally meet the criterion have been taken.

c"Not met": Few, if any, actions toward meeting the criterion have been taken.

Key to addressing the department's management challenges is DHS demonstrating the ability to achieve sustained progress across 30 outcomes that GAO identified and DHS agreed were needed to address the high-risk area. GAO found in its 2017 high-risk update that DHS fully addressed 13 of these outcomes, while work remains to fully address the remaining 17. For example, DHS fully met 1 outcome for the first time by linking workforce planning efforts to strategic and program planning efforts. DHS has mostly addressed an additional 8 outcomes, meaning that a small amount of work remains to fully address them. However, DHS has partially addressed 6 and initiated 3 of the remaining outcomes. For example, DHS does not have modernized financial management systems, which affects its ability to have ready access to reliable information for informed decision making. In addition, DHS has considerable work ahead to improve employee morale. Addressing these and some other outcomes are significant undertakings that will likely require multiyear efforts. In the 2017 high-risk update, GAO concluded that in coming years, DHS needs to continue implementing its plan for addressing the high-risk area, ensure that it has the people and resources necessary to resolve risk, and fully address the remaining 17 outcomes.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO has regularly reported on government operations identified as high-risk because of their increased vulnerability to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges. In 2003, GAO designated implementing and transforming DHS as high-risk because DHS had to transform 22 agencies into one department, and failure to address associated risks could have serious consequences for U.S. national and economic security. Challenges remain for DHS across its range of missions, but it has made considerable progress. As a result, in its 2013 high-risk update, GAO narrowed the scope of the high-risk area to strengthening and integrating DHS management functions (human capital, acquisition, financial, and information technology).

This statement discusses, among other things, DHS's progress and actions remaining in strengthening and integrating its management functions. This statement is based on GAO's 2017 high-risk update and reports and testimonies from September 2011 through mid-February 2017. Among other things, GAO analyzed DHS strategies and interviewed DHS officials.

What GAO Recommends

Since 2003, GAO has made about 2,500 recommendations to DHS to strengthen its management efforts, among other things. DHS has implemented more than 70 percent of these recommendations and has actions under way to address others.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or

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GAO-17-137, NASA Commercial Crew Program: Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events, February 16, 2017

What GAO Found

Both of the Commercial Crew Program's contractors have made progress developing their crew transportation systems, but both also have aggressive development schedules that are increasingly under pressure. The two contractors—Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, Corp. (SpaceX)—are developing transportation systems that must meet the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) standards for human spaceflight—a process called certification. Both Boeing and SpaceX have determined that they will not be able to meet their original 2017 certification dates and both expect certification to be delayed until 2018, as shown in the figure below. The schedule pressures are amplified by NASA's need to provide a viable crew transportation option to the International Space Station (ISS) before its current contract with Russia's space agency runs out in 2019. If NASA needs to purchase additional seats from Russia, the contracting process typically takes 3 years. Without a viable contingency option for ensuring uninterrupted access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, NASA risks not being able to maximize the return on its multibillion dollar investment in the space station.

Commercial Crew Program: SpaceX and Boeing's Certification Delays

Commercial Crew Program: SpaceX and Boeing's Certification Delays

Both contractors are also dealing with a variety of risks that could further delay certification, including program concerns about the adequacy of information on certain key systems to support certification. Another top program risk is the ability of NASA and its contractors to meet crew safety requirements.

The Commercial Crew Program is using mechanisms laid out in its contracts to gain a high level of visibility into the contractors' crew transportation systems. The program is using a different model than every other spacecraft NASA has built for humans. For example, NASA personnel are less involved in the testing, launching, and operation of the crew transportation system. The program has developed productive working relationships with both contractors, but the level of visibility that the program has required thus far has also taken more time than the program or contractors anticipated. Ultimately, the program has the responsibility for ensuring the safety of U.S. astronauts and its contracts give it deference to determine the level of visibility required to do so. Moving forward though, the program office could face difficult choices about how to maintain the level of visibility it feels it needs without adding to the program's schedule pressures.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. The purpose of NASA's Commercial Crew Program is to facilitate the development of a domestic transport capability. In 2014, NASA awarded two firm-fixed-price contracts to Boeing and SpaceX with a combined total value up to $6.8 billion for the development of crew transportation systems that meet NASA requirements and initial missions to the ISS. The contractors were originally required to provide NASA all the evidence it needed to certify that their systems met its requirements by 2017.

A house report accompanying H.R. 2578 included a provision for GAO to review the progress of NASA's human exploration programs. This report examines the Commercial Crew Program including (1) the extent to which the contractors have made progress towards certification, (2) the risks facing the program, and (3) the extent to which the program has visibility into the contractors' efforts. To do this work, GAO analyzed contracts, schedules, and other documentation; and spoke with officials from NASA, the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, SpaceX, and independent review bodies.

What GAO Recommends

Given the delays in the Commercial Crew Program, GAO recommends that NASA develop and report to Congress on its contingency plans for maintaining a U.S. presence on the ISS beyond 2018. NASA concurred with the recommendation and intends to develop a contingency plan.

For more information, contact Cristina T. Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or

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GAO-17-331, Southwest Border Security: Additional Actions Needed to Better Assess Fencing's Contributions to Operations and Provide Guidance for Identifying Capability Gaps, February 16, 2017

What GAO Found

Border fencing is intended to benefit border security operations in various ways, according to officials from the U.S. Border Patrol (Border Patrol), which is within the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). For example, according to officials, border fencing supports Border Patrol agents' ability to execute essential tasks, such as identifying illicit-cross border activities. CBP collects data that could help provide insight into how border fencing contributes to border security operations, including the location of illegal entries. However, CBP has not developed metrics that systematically use these, among other data it collects, to assess the contributions of border fencing to its mission. For example, CBP could potentially use these data to determine the extent to which border fencing diverts illegal entrants into more rural and remote environments, and border fencing's impact, if any, on apprehension rates over time. Developing metrics to assess the contributions of fencing to border security operations could better position CBP to make resource allocation decisions with the best information available to inform competing mission priorities and investments.

Pedestrian Fencing in San Diego, California, April 2016

Pedestrian Fencing in San Diego, California, April 2016

CBP is taking a number of steps to sustain tactical infrastructure (TI) along the southwest border; however, it continues to face certain challenges in maintaining this infrastructure, such as addressing maintenance of roads owned or operated by other public and private entities. In 2014, according to Border Patrol officials, Border Patrol began implementing the Requirements Management Process that is designed to facilitate planning for funding and deploying TI and other requirements. Border Patrol headquarters and sector officials told GAO that Border Patrol lacks adequate guidance for identifying, funding, and deploying TI needs as part of this process. In addition, officials reported experiencing some confusion about their roles and responsibilities in this process. Developing guidance on this process would be consistent with federal internal control standards and would provide more reasonable assurance that the process is consistently followed across Border Patrol. This is a public version of a For Official Use Only—Law Enforcement Sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2016. Information DHS deemed For Official Use Only—Law Enforcement Sensitive has been redacted.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal years 2013 through 2015, Border Patrol recorded a total of 2.1 million estimated known illegal entries between ports of entry along the southwest border. In an effort to secure the border between ports of entry, CBP spent approximately $2.4 billion between fiscal years 2007 and 2015 to deploy TI — fencing, gates, roads, bridges, lighting, and drainage infrastructure—along the nearly 2,000 mile southwest border.

GAO was asked to review the use of border fencing along the southwest border. In this report, GAO examines (1) border fencing's intended contributions to border security operations and the extent to which CBP has assessed these contributions and (2) the extent that CBP has processes in place to ensure sustainment and deployment of TI along the southwest border and challenges in doing so. GAO reviewed CBP documentation and data and interviewed officials in headquarters and three southwest border locations. These locations were selected based on CBP's extensive investments in TI in such areas.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Border Patrol develop metrics to assess the contributions of pedestrian and vehicle fencing to border security along the southwest border and develop guidance for its process for identifying, funding, and deploying TI assets for border security operations. DHS concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

GAO-17-407T, High-Risk Series: Progress on Many High-Risk Areas, While Substantial Efforts Needed on Others, February 15, 2017

What GAO Found

Since GAO's last high-risk update, many of the 32 high-risk areas on the 2015 list have shown solid progress. Twenty-three high-risk areas, or two-thirds of all the areas, have met or partially met all five criteria for removal from the High-Risk List; 15 of these areas fully met at least one criterion. Progress has been possible through the concerted efforts of Congress and leadership and staff in agencies. For example, Congress enacted over a dozen laws since GAO's last report in February 2015 to help address high-risk issues.

GAO removed 1 high-risk area on managing terrorism-related information, because significant progress had been made to strengthen how intelligence on terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement is shared among federal, state, local, tribal, international, and private sector partners. Sufficient progress was made to remove segments of 2 areas related to supply chain management at the Department of Defense (DOD) and gaps in geostationary weather satellite data.

Two high-risk areas expanded—DOD's polar-orbiting weather satellites and the Department of the Interior's restructuring of offshore oil and gas oversight. Several other areas need substantive attention including VA health care, DOD financial management, ensuring the security of federal information systems and cyber critical infrastructure, resolving the federal role in housing finance, and improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations.

GAO is adding 3 areas to the High-Risk List, bringing the total to 34:

Management of Federal Programs That Serve Tribes and Their Members. GAO has reported that federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior's Bureaus of Indian Education and Indian Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services' Indian Health Service, have ineffectively administered Indian education and health care programs and inefficiently developed Indian energy resources. Thirty-nine of 41 GAO recommendations on this issue remain unimplemented.

U.S. Government's Environmental Liabilities. In fiscal year 2016 this liability was estimated at $447 billion (up from $212 billion in 1997). The Department of Energy is responsible for 83 percent of these liabilities and DOD for 14 percent. Agencies spend billions each year on environmental cleanup efforts but the estimated environmental liability continues to rise. Since 1994, GAO has made at least 28 recommendations related to this area; 13 are unimplemented.

The 2020 Decennial Census. The cost of the census has been escalating over the last several decennials; the 2010 Census was the costliest U.S. Census in history at about $12.3 billion, about 31 percent more than the 2000 Census (in 2020 dollars). The U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) plans to implement several innovations—including IT systems—for the 2020 Census. Successfully implementing these innovations, along with other challenges, risk the Bureau's ability to conduct a cost-effective census. Since 2014, GAO has made 30 recommendations related to this area; however, only 6 have been fully implemented.

GAO's 2017 High-Risk List

Strengthening the Foundation for Efficiency and Effectiveness

  • Strategic Human Capital Managementa
  • Managing Federal Real Property
  • Funding the Nation's Surface Transportation Systema
  • Modernizing the U.S. Financial Regulatory System and the Federal Role in Housing Financea
  • Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service to Achieve Sustainable Financial Viabilitya
  • Management of Federal Oil and Gas Resources
  • Limiting the Federal Government's Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks
  • Improving the Management of IT Acquisitions and Operations
  • Improving Federal Programs that Serve Tribes and Their Members (new)a
  • 2020 Decennial Census (new)
  • U.S. Government's Environmental Liabilities (new)a

Transforming DOD Program Management

  • DOD Supply Chain Management
  • DOD Weapon Systems Acquisition
  • DOD Business Systems Modernization
  • DOD Support Infrastructure Managementa
  • DOD Approach to Business Transformation

Ensuring Public Safety and Security

  • Ensuring the Security of Federal Information Systems and Cyber Critical Infrastructure and Protecting the Privacy of Personally Identifiable Informationa
  • Strengthening Department of Homeland Security Management Functionsa
  • Ensuring the Effective Protection of Technologies Critical to U.S. National Security Interestsa
  • Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safetya
  • Protecting Public Health through Enhanced Oversight of Medical Products
  • Transforming EPA's Processes for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals
  • Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data

Managing Federal Contracting More Effectively

  • DOE's Contract Management for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Office of Environmental Management
  • NASA Acquisition Management

Assessing the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Tax Law Administration

Modernizing and Safeguarding Insurance and Benefit Programs

  • Improving and Modernizing Federal Disability Programs
  • Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation Insurance Programsa
  • National Flood Insurance Programa
  • Managing Risks and Improving VA Health Carea

Source: GAO. | GAO-17-317

aLegislation is likely to be necessary in order to effectively address this area.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government is one of the world's largest and most complex entities: about $3.9 trillion in outlays in fiscal year 2016 funded a broad array of programs and operations. GAO's high-risk program identifies government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.

This biennial update describes the status of high-risk areas listed in 2015 and actions that are still needed to assure further progress, and identifies new high-risk areas needing attention by Congress and the executive branch. Solutions to high-risk problems potentially save billions of dollars, improve service to the public, and strengthen government performance and accountability.

GAO uses five criteria to assess progress in addressing high-risk areas: (1) leadership commitment, (2) agency capacity, (3) an action plan, (4) monitoring efforts, and (5) demonstrated progress.

What GAO Recommends

This report contains GAO's views on progress made and what remains to be done to bring about lasting solutions for each high-risk area. Perseverance by the executive branch in implementing GAO's recommended solutions and continued oversight and action by Congress are essential to achieving greater progress.

For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202) 512-6806 or

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Heat is on Florida Lawmakers to Fix Assignment of Benefits Crisis

Florida’s insurance industry will apply significant pressure on lawmakers to pass assignments of benefit (AOB) reform in the upcoming legislative session as consumers face rate increases and a looming coverage availability crisis due to serious and costly abuse of the policyholder benefit.

While the industry seems to finally have reached a consensus on what is fueling the widespread AOB abuse and how to fix it, the question of whether the Florida Legislature will agree to act on the industry’s recommendations remains to be seen.

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The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) and Citizens Property Insurance Corp., as well as other stakeholders, are working together with Florida lawmakers to introduce a bill for the 2017 legislative session, which begins on March 7. The goal is to keep the assignment of benefits consumer protection in place, but take away the incentive that is driving the abuse by assignees, who have included attorney groups, unregulated water mitigation, remediation, and roofing contractors.

The unanimous feeling is that Florida’s one-way attorney fee statute is the main driver of the problem, and that’s what the industry says needs to be addressed by legislation in the upcoming session. Under Florida’s current law, policyholders suing their insurer over a claim dispute can recover their attorney’s fees if the insurer is shown to have underpaid the claim, by any amount.

The industry says third party contractors and attorneys have been abusing the policyholder benefit, particularly for water losses, to inflate claims and fees.

“Is there an incentive in the market currently that entices people to abuse the system. We think that the answer is yes,” Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier said in an interview with Insurance Journal. “The logical step, in our opinion, would be to take that incentive out of the marketplace.”

However, Altmaier emphasized that doesn’t mean eliminating the one-way attorney fee statute altogether.

“That is a very good statute for an insured – we think it should stay in place FOR insureds,” Altmaier said. “We think that it was not intended to apply to anybody other than insureds. So, we think that a good first step is to look at whether we can clarify the intent of that statute and make sure that it remains intact for insureds, but isn’t able to be abused by folks that are not the insured.”

A recent draft bill from OIR would do just that, stipulating that attorney fees would not be awarded under the current statute (627.428) “in favor of any person or entity seeking relief against the insurer pursuant to an assignment agreement.”

Other proposals being discussed include: establishing minimum standards for valid assignment agreements; limitations on assignee recovery from a policyholder; and requirements related to litigation that may include requiring the assignee to notify the policyholder and the insurer prior to initiating litigation.

Requiring regulation of water and emergency mitigation providers, such as requiring them to be licensed, and expanding the criminal offense of aiding in solicitation of legal services to include water and emergency mitigation providers have also been considered.

Altmaier said increasing frequency and severity of water claims underscores the importance of legislation getting passed this year.

“If you look at the trends of water claims over the last five years – it’s alarming,” said Altmaier. “Absent any kind of reforms to address those trends, we could be seeing rate increases of 10 percent a year just to keep up with those trends…That 10 percent is absent any other factor. If there is some other sort of market mechanism that would be a cost driver, then it could be worse.”

Altmaier said nearly 73 percent of insurance company rate filings requesting an increase were approved by OIR, largely because of AOB claims.

“I don’t take that lightly, approving rate increases,” he said. “We spend a lot of time scrutinizing each filing that comes in and making sure that the numbers are supportive of the ultimate approved rates. When 73 percent of them are for rate increases and we have the data showing that those trends are continuing to go upwards, that is a pretty telling story, in our opinion.”

And insurers aren’t just raising rates to combat the abuse – they are also pulling out of certain areas of the state, filing for policy wording changes, and accepting fewer take-out offers from Citizens, the state-run insurer of last resort. Citizens has reached its lowest policyholder count in more than 10 years, but there are concerns those efforts will be reversed if the AOB problem continues.

“This is what we have to fix,” Barry Gilway, CEO and executive director of Citizens, told attendees at the recent Florida Chamber of Commerce Insurance Summit, saying the increase in litigation is what is causing increased costs for insurers and policyholders.

“In 2011, 12 percent of our total claims went into litigation – last year, 45 percent of our claims went into litigation. We had 9,806 lawsuits last year and we’ve got 860 lawsuits per month coming in the front door,” Gilway told attendees. “It’s trying to put your finger in a dike.”

Last year for the fourth year in a row, legislators failed to address the abuse because of lobbying from the trial bar and contractors who are taking advantage of the current system. But consumer advocates and the insurance industry are hopeful this year that lawmakers have finally gotten the message that this is a problem harming consumers, not insurers.

Gilway said the issue with getting legislation passed in previous years was due in part to the industry being out-lobbied, but also the industry wasn’t working together to fix the abuse.

He says that is no longer the case.

“What I expect from the industry is exactly what is happening right now,” Gilway said. “It’s a problem for everybody so the industry is getting behind [fixing] it.”

Altmaier said if another year goes by without reform, Florida consumers will face serious insurance affordability issues.

“At the end of the day that is the bottom line – we want to make sure insurance products remain affordable for insurance consumers,” Altmaier said.

OIR’s support has been crucial to getting the industry on the same page. Altmaier said OIR and the industry have worked closely to make sure that everyone agrees on the fix from an insurance standpoint.

The goal now is to tell that story to the Florida Legislature.

“We’re working very hard to make sure that we tell a very good and very data driven story. We want to rely as little as possible on anecdotal evidence of bad actors and things of that nature and just present a very fact based, data-driven story of what we believe is taking place in the marketplace,” Altmaier said. “Couple that with a solution that is very surgical in nature…and makes sure that it keeps intact the ability for insureds to assign their benefits, for them to use third party contractors…That’s the end game for us.”

Still, even with OIR’s backing, it won’t be easy.

“It’s going to be a hard battle,” Gilway said. “Let’s face it, the trial bar is extremely powerful and there’s absolutely no question they are going to fight this hard. They are going to fight anything that in any way shape or form impacts their ability to take on vendors as clients and eliminates any possibility for them to get fees.”

About Amy O' Connor

O'Connor is associate editor of More from Amy O' Connor 
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