Finding a balance between cybersecurity and liberty to take center stage in months ahead

Well-publicized cyberattacks on the U.S. in late 2014 have made it almost certain that government will focus heavily on the nation’s technological security in the year ahead. And as cybersecurity talks heat up in Washington, policymakers will be tasked with striking a balance between protecting the nation’s cyber infrastructure and enacting rules that threaten U.S. Internet liberties, such as 2012’s much maligned Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.

Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, in an op-ed Thursday for The Washington Times, said that the cyberattack on Sony late last year marks the beginning of “a new era of cyberterrorism where threats cause just as much damage and fear as a bomb threat.”

“While the economic damage of this hack is disconcerting, the real significance lies in the fact that, according to the FBI, this marks the first major destructive cyberattack waged against a company on U.S. soil,” wrote McCaul, who heads up the House Committee on Homeland Security.

The national security aspect of the Sony attack may be marginalized because the hackers’ intentions were limited to keeping “The Interview,” a comedy leader poking fun at North Korea, out of theaters. But McCaul warns of devastating consequences if the same tactics were employed against U.S. infrastructure.

“While the economic damage of this hack is disconcerting, the real significance lies in the fact that, according to the FBI, this marks the first major destructive cyberattack waged against a company on U.S. soil,” he wrote.

Making the situation more worrisome, McCaul said, is that the federal government is currently as ill prepared to respond to cyberattacks as private companies that have been targeted in the past.

“We have no effective strategy in place to stop it,” he wrote.

McCaul has moved cybersecurity legislation in the past which created a federal civilian interface at the Department of Homeland Security to address cybersecurity threats to the United States. In the months ahead, he says he plans to do more.

And while government action on cybersecurity almost always draws negative attention from Internet freedom advocates who fear a misplaced clampdown on information freedom, McCaul’s concerns about the nation’s cybersecurity have been echoed by at least one staunch champion of transparency.

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden warned in a recent interview that the U.S. has “more to lose than any other nation on Earth” when it comes to the growing threat of cyberwarfare.

On PBS’s “NOVA Next” program Snowden argued that the U.S. should reallocate resources dedicating to online spying to cyberdefense initiatives.

“Defending ourselves from Internet-based attacks, Internet-originated attacks, is much, much more important than our ability to launch attacks against similar targets in foreign countries because when it comes to the Internet, when it comes to our technical economy, we have more to lose than any other nation on Earth,” Snowden said.

The technical economy, Snowden argues, gives adversaries an endless number of vulnerable entry points for attacks that could cripple critical infrastructure.

“If an adversary didn’t target our power plants but they did target the core routers, the backbones that tie our internet connections together, entire parts of the United States could be cut off,” he said. “That would have a tremendous impact on us as a society and it would have a policy backlash.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) revived CISPA, a failed 2012 cybersecurity bill that encourages government and private sector sharing of cyber information, on Friday.

“The reason I’m putting the bill in now is I want to keep the momentum going on what’s happening out there in the world,” Ruppersberger told The Hill. “We have to move forward.”

The legislation will likely muddle the cybersecurity debate further, as privacy activists have repeatedly charged that it has little cybersecurity merit and serves as little more than a back door for the National Security Agency to more easily access communication data on private networks.

“We must do everything within our power to safeguard the privacy rights of individual Internet users and ensure that Congress does not sacrifice those rights in a rush to pass vaguely worded cybersecurity bills,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, when CISPA was defeated back in 2012.

Legislation would make it impossible for bureaucrats to abuse photographers in public places

In response to repeated stories of Americans being abused by police and government authorities for exercising their constitutional rights to take photographs in public places, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) introduced legislation to strengthen photographers’ rights. It was among his last acts as a congressman.

Stockman’s Ansel Adams Act, named for a famed American landscape photographer, would mostly serve to reassert rights that are already constitutionally protected, such as taking pictures in national parks and other public areas and of subjects including government buildings and public employees. In recent years, photographers have increasingly complained of a disturbing trend of regulations at all levels of government seeking to limit such photography.

From the bill:

In recent years, photographers on Federal lands and spaces have been threatened with seizure and forfeiture of photographic equipment and memory cards, and have been arrested or threatened with arrest for merely recording what the eye can see from public spaces.

Even in the absence of laws or regulations, Federal law enforcement officers, other government personnel, and private contractors have been instructed to prohibit photography from public spaces, and threatened photographers with arrest or seizure of photographic equipment.

Arresting photographers, seizing photographic equipment, and requirements to obtain permits, pay fees, or buy insurance policies are abridgments of freedom of speech and of the press.

In recent years, a number of liberty organizations have cropped up throughout the nation to bring attention to bureaucratic efforts to clamp down on photography, which many activists say keeps government agents accountable. Groups such as Photography is not a Crime (PINAC) encourage members to record and photograph police officers and other public employees on duty, use recording devices in public buildings and conduct periodical free speech assessments by blatantly videoing and taking photographs in public places.

Because of advocate efforts, encounters between furious government officials and photography advocates often make their way onto the Internet, highlighting the many unconstitutional claims that officials make for not wanting to be photographed.

Stockman’s legislation posits that government entities that want to prohibit photography should have to do so through a transparent legal process, which would eliminate officials’ ability to use half-truths and threats to intimidate photographers without creating legitimate national security concerns.

From the bill:

It is contrary to the public policy of the United States to prohibit or restrict photography in public spaces, whether for private, news media, or commercial use.

Should a Federal agency seek to restrict photography of its installations or personnel, it shall obtain a court order that outlines the national security or other reasons for the restriction. Such court order shall allow restrictions of photography when such photography may lead to the endangerment of public safety or national security. Nothing in this Act shall restrict Federal agencies from taking lawful steps to ascertain whether or not photography may consist of reconnaissance for the purpose of endangerment of public safety or national security or for other unlawful activity.

Many photography advocates have applauded Stockman’s efforts. But some, including PINAC, have been quick to note that it is unnecessary based on photography’s designation as constitutionally protected free speech.

“While well-intentioned, the bill was unnecessary as far as legalizing photography,” the group said. “Because, of course, Photography Is Not A Crime!”

Stockman introduced his legislation on Jan. 2, as the lawmaker’s congressional tenure came to an end. It is currently being held for consideration.

Rand Paul: Defend Israel by cutting foreign aid to Palestinians

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced legislation this week aimed at cutting U.S. aid to Palestinians in response to efforts by leaders in the region to pursue war crimes charges against Israel by joining the International Criminal Court.

Paul’s Defend Israel by Defunding Palestinian Foreign Aid Act would immediately cut all U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority if it moves forward with the plan.

“It is up to the new Republican-led Congress to move on its own so that the President does not once again circumvent clear funding restrictions. We are currently sending roughly $400 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Palestinian Authority,” Paul said of the legislation. “Certainly groups that threaten Israel cannot be allies of the U.S. I will continue to do everything in my power to make sure this President and this Congress stop treating Israel’s enemies as American allies.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed a series of international conventions on Dec. 31 in an effort to join the International Criminal Court to pursue actions against Israel. It remains unknown whether the Palestinians will use membership, which U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says will take effect April 1, to pursue charges against Israel.

While membership on the International Criminal Court is not grounds for cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. is prohibited by law from assisting the Palestinians if they seek criminal claims against Israel.

So far, the Obama administration has remained mum on whether it will cut aid to the Palestinians if Abbas does attempt to levy charges, saying that it is review options for the aid package.

Paul, meanwhile, laments that President Obama appears “disinclined” to cut aid to the Palestinians even after the Authority formed a unity government with the terror organization Hamas, which has declared “there is no solution to the Palestinian question except by Jihad.”

Foreign aid has been a tricky subject for Paul as he has increasingly been mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential contender. The GOP lawmaker came under fire recently for past positions advocating for cutting all U.S. foreign aid, even to key allies such as Israel. The senator has since walked back on such remarks.

Christie proposals would complicate business for New Jersey gun sellers

If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has any 2016 presidential ambitions, it’s safe to assume that probably won’t be vying for votes from the GOP’s strong contingent of 2nd Amendment supporters. Christie’s administration is currently working to push through a massive package of minor gun laws in New Jersey that could make it more difficult for gun dealers to do business in the state.

Citing an increase in firearm thefts and lapses in gun sales oversight over the past decade, the Christie administration is championing a package of laws that would open gun shop records to inspection by local police, strengthen reporting requirements for missing firearms and require gun shop owners and employees to acquire new licenses for firearm sales.

The new rules would also require the state’s 337 licensed firearm sellers to comply with strict requirements mandating alarm systems at premises where firearms are sold and get state approval to move firearm stock from one business location to another.

“From 2012 to the present time, there have been six reported incidents of thefts and/or lost firearms from retail dealers,” reads the proposal. “It is critical and in the best interest of public safety, health, and welfare that retail and wholesale dealers and manufacturers of firearms be held to the highest standards of security to prohibit the possibility of a firearm being used in the commission of a violent crime.”

Beyond making things tougher for firearm sales in New Jersey, the new proposals will also bring changes for private gun owners in the state. The governor is calling for a changes that would classify shotguns with either a magazine capacity of over six rounds, a folding stock or a pistol grip as “assault firearms.” Currently, shotguns in the state are demonized as “assault” weapons only if they feature two of the aforementioned characteristics.

Education experts: Average college freshman reads on 7th grade level

At a time when the average U.S. college graduate is entering a saturated job market with an average of $30,000 in student loan debt, Americans might be tempted to believe that high schools and colleges are going above and beyond to produce well-rounded graduates prepared to take on every employment challenge. But here’s some depressing news: A new report indicates that the average college freshman reads on about the same level as a middle-school student.

According to an education assessment from Renaissance Learning, U.S. students are increasingly getting behind at the high school level due to inferior standards implemented through federal initiatives such as Common Core and are increasingly unprepared to make the best use of their time in college.

“We are spending billions of dollars trying to send students to college and maintain them there when, on average, they read at about the grade 6 or 7 level, according to Renaissance Learning’s latest report on what American students in grades 9-12 read, whether assigned or chosen,” education expert Dr. Sandra Stotsky said of the report.

In an interview with Breitbart, Stotsky explained that colleges, in turn, are assigning lower-level texts as required reading for incoming freshmen.

“The average reading level for five of the top seven books assigned as summer reading by 341 colleges using Renaissance Learning’s readability formula was rated 7.56,” she said.

In order to reverse the disturbing trend, Stotsky argues that government education standards must first cultivate a strong focus on reading in the nation’s elementary schools. In addition, she argues that colleges must do more to send “a signal to the nation’s high schools that high school level reading is needed for college readiness.”

“Indeed, they seem to be suggesting that a middle school level of reading is satisfactory, even though most college textbooks and adult literary works written before 1970 require mature reading skills,” she said.

Fed up: Record number of Americans identify as political independents

Americans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the U.S. political establishment. New polling data indicate that a record number are eschewing partisan political affiliation and describing themselves as political independents.

According to data out from Gallup, an average of 43 percent of Americans identified as political independents in 2014, up from 35 percent in 2008. In each of the past four years, the number of U.S. political independents has been more than 40 percent, following previous highs of 35 percent and 39 percent of party non-affiliation in 1995 and 1999, respectively.

Gallup attributes much of the decline in American loyalty to the political establishment to U.S. dissatisfaction of government as a whole and dysfunction in Washington.

From the polling agency:

The decline in identification with both parties in recent years comes as dissatisfaction with government has emerged as one of the most important problems facing the country, according to Americans. This is likely due to the partisan gridlock that has come from divided party control of the federal government. Trust in the government to handle problems more generally is the lowest Gallup has measured to date, and Americans’ favorable ratings of both parties are at or near historical lows. Thus, the rise in U.S. political independence likely flows from the high level of frustration with the government and the political parties that control it.

Gallup also indicates that President Barack Obama may be at least partially responsible for the overall American trend toward political independence in recent years, with the number of Americans identifying as Democrats falling from 36 percent to 30 percent over the past six years. Republicans, meanwhile, suffered a more modest decrease in party loyalty in recent years, from 28 percent in 2008 to 26 percent last year.

Still, the number of Americans who identify as loyal GOP supporters is lower than it has been since 1983.

Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election cycle, Gallup predicts that the number of American independents will increase over the course of the next year.

Washington wants more taxes on gas in response to price drops

Falling oil prices in recent months have provided a little paycheck padding for Americans. But as average folks celebrate less pain at the pump, some policymakers are preparing to jump at the chance to offset the savings with fuel tax hikes.

Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), who is entering his second term running the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, recently said that the recent price drops give lawmakers looking for new infrastructure funding new options for increasing revenue. According to the lawmaker, no option should be left off the table, including raising the gas tax above 18.4 cents per gallon, where it has been since 1993.

“John Thune made the statement that ‘nothing is off the table,’ and I agree with his statement,” Inhofe told reporters Wednesday.

Thune, a South Dakota Republican Senator, made the comment over the weekend, joining GOP colleague Sen. Bob Corker in calls for raising the tax by as much as 12 cents.

Inhofe also argued that the gas tax should be considered a “user fee” because it is paid only by people who use U.S. infrastructure.

Meanwhile, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers also called for increased fuel taxes and other possible carbon taxes this week in a column for The Washington Post.

“The case for carbon taxes has long been compelling,” Summers wrote. “With the recent steep fall in oil prices and associated declines in other energy prices, it has become overwhelming. There is room for debate about the size of the tax and about how the proceeds should be deployed. But there should be no doubt that, given the current zero tax rate on carbon, increased taxation would be desirable.”

Youth Misery Index: Obama is killing young America’s future

President Barack Obama was able to sail into the Oval Office twice thanks largely to his campaign efforts to woe young, idealistic voters into believing that “hope,” “change” and, of course, massive student loan forgiveness and basically free insurance were on the horizon. Now, young people are paying for having been fooled twice as Young America’s Foundation reports that its Youth Misery Index numbers for 2014 reached a record high.

The YMI is calculated by compiling information on youth unemployment, average graduating student debt (in thousands), and national debt per capita (in thousands). For 2014, the foundation reports that the YMI hit 106.5, up from 98.6 in 2013.

The increase is attributed to youth unemployment hovering around 18.1 percent last year as nearly 6 million young Americans between 16 and 24 were unable to find jobs. Making the problem worse, college graduates shouldered an average student loan debt burden of $30,000 for 2014, according to the index.

National debt per capita, meanwhile, was the highest ever for 2014 at $58,400.

Via YAF:

What does this number mean? Like Jimmy Carter’s Misery Index, the YMI uncovers some real threats to our nation’s prosperity. The government is largely responsible for all three problems, and we’ve found a statistically significant relationship between government expenditures and the Youth Misery Index. Each indicator can be tied to government actions.

Since 2008, the YMI has increased by about 53.7 percent.

“Millennials should take notice of this study and realize that this is not quite the hope and change they desired. President Obama has been the WORST president for youth economic opportunity,” YAF spokesperson Ashley Pratte told Townhall. “Spending is out of control and our generation will have to bear the brunt of that massive national debt.”

Reports illustrate failures of U.S. occupation in Middle East

Dual reports from Iraq and Afghanistan shed new light on just how much of a resounding failure the U.S.’s long-running occupation of the Middle East has been as the nation enters another year of efforts to combat new terror threats in the region.

Following rapid gains by the Islamic State terror group in Iraq last year, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said this week that American troops at Al Asad air base in the country are coming under “regular” artillery fire from ISIS militants.

To date, none of the 320 U.S. troops stationed at the base have been injured by the attacks, which have been called “completely ineffective” by the Pentagon.

“It’s fair to say Al Asad air base is coming under regular … harassment fires,” Warren said.

“What’s most important is that the fire has been completely ineffective,” he continued. “Purely nuisance attacks … American forces there right now have sustained absolutely no injuries, wounds or even equipment damage.”

But the aggression toward U.S. forces is raising new questions about the “advise and assist” efforts U.S. personnel in Iraq have been tasked with in recent months.

Warren described the current U.S. mission in Iraq as one focused on “support planning, information and intelligence fusion, close air support coordination operations, and overall development of security strategies.”

Meanwhile, 13 years of U.S. occupation has done nothing to quell opium production in Afghanistan. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that 2014 was a banner year for Afghan farmers growing opium, a drug which has been noted as a key revenue stream for radical Islamic groups in the region.

“The total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated to be 224,000 hectares in 2014, a 7 percent increase from the previous year,” says UNODC’s “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2014.”

The report also notes that Afghanistan, which produces about 80 percent of the world’s opium supply, is also finding new markets.

CNS News reports that the increase in opium production should be particularly maddening to U.S. forces, noting: “Most of the U.S. casualties in Afghan War have occurred in the Hilmand and Kandahar provinces, which are also the two leading opium-growing provinces.”

Billions of hidden taxes in government Internet takeover, Groquist warns

Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist lashed out Tuesday against what he warns is a coming “gusher of new taxes” if Washington bureaucrats enact regulations reclassifying broadband Internet as a public utility.

President Barack Obama joined net neutrality advocates last year in calling for the Federal Communications Commission to create rules that would allow the government to regulate the Internet in the same way that it does phone companies.

Norquist, who heads up Americans for Tax Reform, said that an FCC proposal to do so by placing broadband under government authority through Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 would ultimately raise taxes for about 90 percent of Americans and hurt the overall economy.

“This move would make broadband subject to New Deal-era regulation, and have significant consequences for U.S. taxpayers,” Norquist, along with Americans for Tax Reform state director Patrick Gleason, wrote for Reuters.

Citing numbers provided by the Progressive Policy Institute, Norquist warned that new state and local taxes that would result from the change, in addition to new fees, would total about $15 billion annually. For consumers, that means an average price hike of $67 per year for landline broadband and $72 for mobile broadband per year, according to the figures.

Proponents of the FCC plan say that the tax increased will be a non-issue, arguing that the recently extended Internet Tax Freedom Act would prohibit state and local taxation of Internet service. In addition, they claim that that the FCC can block attempts to tax the services on state and local levels by designating broadband as an interstate service.

Norquist and Gleason, however, point to a report from the Progressive Policy Institute that explains why advocates for the Internet as a utility are mistaken.

From the report:

When the Commission previously considered the jurisdiction of Internet traffic, it determined that such traffic was “largely interstate,” but “jurisdictionally mixed.” States routinely tax jurisdictionally mixed services that are classified as “interstate” for purposes of regulation. For example, wireless services may not be regulated by state public utility commissions, but they are subject to a host of state and local taxes and fees. In several states, interstate wireless revenues are subject to taxation.

Norquist and Gleason further contend that the issue extends beyond a potential tax increase because the proposal would discourage private investment in Internet infrastructure, which has proven effective in getting reliable, high-speed access to a majority of Americans.

“The telecommunications industry has invested more than $1.2 trillion on broadband infrastructure since 1996. As a result, roughly 87 percent of Americans have access to broadband,” he wrote. “It would be foolish for government to discourage the significant investment required to maintain, expand and improve this infrastructure by subjecting broadband to circa 1930s regulation. Subjecting Internet service providers to such onerous rules would depress innovation and penalize Web users.”

Norquist and Gleason have are joined by a number of tech companies in warning of the harmful possibilities of regulating the Internet as a utility. Last month, companies including Cisco, Ericsson, Panasonic and Sandvine wrote to Congress, warning that the FCC plan represents a “dramatic reversal in policy” that would “stifle growth across the entire economy.”

“This is not idle speculation or fear mongering,” they wrote. “As some have already warned, Title II is going to lead to a slowdown, if not a hold, in broadband build out, because if you don’t know that you can recover on your investment, you won’t make it.”

Obamacare subsidies will make for a confusing tax season for millions

For Obamacare subscribers, tax season could be a real headache this year. That’s according to a study from the tax experts at H&R Block estimating that as many as 3.4 million Americans will be forced to repay subsidies from the healthcare overhaul.

According to H&R Block, as many as half of the 6.8 million Americans who received Obamacare subsidies last year will be getting smaller refunds than they expect as they file taxes.

About the same number could be eligible for more subsidies than they were previously given

The Wall Street Journal reports that tax filers confused by the faulty Obamacare calculations will be a boon for tax preparers: http://www.wsj.com/articles/affordable-care-act-creates-a-trickier-tax-season-1420157063

“The ACA is going to result in more confusion for existing clients and many taxpayers may well be very disappointed by getting less money and possibly even owing money,” said Charles McCabe, president of Peoples Income Tax and the Income Tax School, a Richmond, Va., provider of tax preparation and education. “The whole implementation of Obamacare will be frustrating for tax preparers.”

But the season could be a lucrative one for tax firms. Liberty Tax Service, a tax-preparation franchise, began calling hundreds of thousands of customers in November to invite them to a store to get help applying for an exemption to the insurance-coverage requirement. About half of the company’s 4,000 stores opened weeks ahead of their usual start date to provide health-law tax advice.

In other words, the Affordable Care Act is going to make filing taxes more expensive for many Americans this year.

In 2014, Obama out legislated Congress 27-1

While the Congress that just came to an end only narrowly avoided being dubbed the least productive in modern U.S. history, don’t be fooled into believing that nothing is happening in Washington. It’s just that nothing is happening on account of the nation’s duly elected representatives. The Competitive Enterprise Institute recently reported that the Obama administration enacted 27 new rules and regulations for every law passed by Congress in 2014.

According to the CEI analysis, the Obama administration issued 3,541 rules and regulations and Congress passed 129 laws that Obama also signed.

The institute also warns that little will likely change under new Republican congressional leadership:

The president, via unilateral executive actions — the now famous “pen and phone” — is making law, too, no matter what the Constitution says.

The new 114th Congress kicks off this week, so let’s look at where we are. The new GOP majority is readying Keystone, jobs bills, regulatory liberalization and tax reform.

It’s becoming clear, though, that Obama’s emphasis will remain his own executive actions, not the presumed trade deal and tax reform that were acknowledged mutual interests.

Between now and the January 20 State of the Union Address, the president will be out on a nationwide PR swing touting other kinds of programs like housing and higher education assistance that involve unilateral executive actions—and taxing and spending.

As Obama readies his pen and phone for another round of executive fiat, it remains to be seen whether GOP lawmakers will make good on campaign promises to walk back Obama’s executive orders from last year.

Government snoops encourage self-censorship in free countries on par with that under totalitarian regimes

A new analysis of how government surveillance has affected writers throughout the world finds that those living in liberal democracies censor their own material at a rate on par with intellectuals in countries deemed “not free,” including Russia China and Sudan.

Pen America surveyed a pool of nearly writers in 50 countries throughout the world for its “Global Chilling” report, which examines the broad “damaging impact of surveillance by the United States and other governments on free expression and creative freedom around the world.”

The survey illustrates that writers in liberal democracies reported self-censoring work for fear of government surveillance about 75 percent of the time. By comparison, 80 percent of writers in countries such as Russia and China, where intellectuals assume that government snoops are on the lookout for subversive, reported self-censorship.

“Writers are reluctant to speak about, write about, or conduct research on topics that they think may draw government scrutiny,” the survey notes. “This has a devastating impact on freedom of information as well: If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers — particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today — may be greatly impoverished.”

In the U.S., 27 percent of writers said that they avoided or considered avoiding speaking out or writing on certain topics because of government spying in the past year.

“Fear of government surveillance is prompting many writers living in democratic countries to engage in the kind of self-censorship associated with police states,” Pen Executive Director Suzanne Nossel said in a statement. “We’re all well aware of writers in places like China and Russia who must live life knowing they are always being watched — it’s disturbing to recognize that those in the U.S., Canada, and Australia are now coming to adopt similar behavior.”

Parting gift from Congressional budget hawk: A scathing report on DHS failures

Former Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma spared no criticism with the weekend release of his final oversight report, a harsh assessment of the Department of Homeland Security’s failures in meeting its five main missions.

Coburn report cited a waste of taxpayer money on homeland security initiative, corruption in DHS agencies, failures to enforce immigration laws and failure to meet cybersecurity threats among the biggest problems plaguing the nation’s homeland security apparatus.

“Ten years of oversight of the Department of Homeland Security finds that the Department still has a lot of work to do to strengthen our nation’s security,” Coburn said in a statement. “Congress needs to review the Department’s mission and programs and refocus DHS on national priorities where DHS has a lead responsibility.”

Coburn said that one of the biggest problems plaguing DHS is its proclivity for hiding important data from Congress and the public. Worse, he reports, the agency fails to follow its own policies.

With little oversight, the agency is allocating resources to ineffective programs that provide little security benefit to the American public while simultaneously threatening liberty.

“The Department of Homeland Security spent $50 billion over the past eleven years on counterterrorism programs, including homeland security grants and other anti-terror initiatives, but the department cannot demonstrate if the nation is more secure as a result,” Coburn noted.

Among the unjustified anti-terror expenditures are state and local information fusion centers designed to help law enforcement agencies more efficiently share information, of which the Coburn report notes: “Independent reviews — including audits and investigations by watchdogs — show that DHS’s intelligence and analysis programs, including its state and local fusion centers and other information sharing programs, are ineffective or providing little value.”

The report goes on to report that DHS has provided more than $38 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the purpose of improving government’s ability to respond to terror attacks but never followed up on how the money was used.

“Many of the Department’s programs to prevent chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks have been ineffective and are yielding little value, despite significant expenditures,” the report says.

In addition to spending taxpayer money on ineffective initiatives, Coburn’s report shows DHS failing in one of its most basic missions: keeping the nation’s borders secure.

“While DHS officials have claimed that the border is more secure than ever, evidence reviewed shows that vast spans of the Southern and Northern borders remain uncontrolled and are vulnerable to illegal entry,” the report points out. “In 2014, 700 hundreds of miles of the Southern border were not secure, since DHS and its component, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), had not deployed assets to control these areas.”

The report lists DHS’s failures to successfully use surveillance assets along the nation’s borders and a lack of a long-running comprehensive border strategy as key contributors to the U.S.’s border problems. It also notes that there is considerable Border Patrol workforce corruption.

Weak enforcement of immigration laws has also made the borders less safe under DHS’s watch, according to the report.

“The Department’s lax approach to immigration law enforcement, and broad applications of prosecutorial discretion with regard to enforcing immigration laws, also exacerbates DHS’s challenge securing the border,” Coburn’s assessment says. “Rather than deterring illegal immigration, lax immigration enforcement creates an expectation that people entering the nation illegally or violating the terms of their visa will be allowed to stay, facing no consequences.”

The report also notes that DHS programs designed to benefit immigrants have proven beneficial to terrorists looking to do harm to Americans, including the student visas used by the 9-11 hijackers as a key example.

On cybersecurity, the outgoing senator’s report shows that the government cannot even protect itself from attacks despite major taxpayer spending.

“DHS spends more than $700 million annually to lead the federal government’s efforts on cybersecurity, but struggles to protect itself and cannot protect federal and civilian networks from the most serious cyberattacks,” the report says.

One major problem, according to Coburn’s research, is that the massive government spending is offset by agency officials’ failures to comply with the federal government’s own cybersecurity protocol.

In addition to failing to meet its responsibility to keep Americans safe, the Coburn report charges that DHS is wasting a major share of its budget subsidizing private losses in small storms that are increasingly declared “major disasters” by government bureaucrats.

“Structural problems in FEMA’s programs result in federal funding being spent inefficiently, disaster assistance being provided to state and localities for many events that would not have been declared disasters twenty years ago, and a flood insurance program that encourages citizens to build and rebuild homes and businesses in flood plains, where they are more vulnerable to disaster,” the report says.

In total, the disaster spending accounted for $14 billion or approximately 23 percent of DHS’s total departmental enacted budget of $61 billion for fiscal year 2014.

Despite the failures listed in his parting report, Coburn said that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson can improve DHS efficiency by working with Congress in the years ahead.

“One of the biggest challenges that Sec. Johnson and DHS face is Congress and its dysfunctional approach to setting priorities for the Department. Congress needs to work with the Department to refocus its missions on national priorities and give Secretary Johnson the authority to lead and fix the Department,” the former senator said.

Coburn’s full report:

Former U.S. Senator to become pot peddler

Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel served as a Democratic lawmaker between 1969 and 1981. He walked marbled halls during Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” and witnessed his congressional colleagues trying to see who could produce the most heinous draconian drug laws.

Today, Gravel is getting ready to sell some kush, or rather, serve as the CEO of an edible marijuana company called KUSH, a Cannabis Sativa, Inc. subsidiary.

“I’m anxious to assist in bringing this important resource to a broader market in a serious and credible way,” the former lawmaker said in a statement.

KUSH announced in a recent press release that it plans to focus on marijuana marketing and development in the medical and recreational realms. One of its flagship products is a marijuana-infused lozenge, dubbed “Kubby.”

While Gravel’s new gig may seem surprising, it’s worth noting that he was a vehement critic of the War on Drugs philosophy during his legislative tenure and opposed Nixon’s signing of a law classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance back in 1970.

“Where we have cannabis legal today is where the people have spoken,” Gravel told The Huffington Post. “The people know better than their leaders, that’s what’s going on here.”

He’s also been involved with KUSH since the company was formed.

“Senator Gravel stood up to Nixon, stood up to the Pentagon, and now he is standing up to those in power who would keep the healthful benefits of cannabis from those who need them. He’s been a director of KUSH since its inception and brings invaluable perspective and connections to our group. He’s a true American hero and we’re excited to have him serving in this capacity,” said Cannabis Sativa, Inc. Board Chairman Steve Kubby.

Gravel isn’t Cannabis Sativa, Inc.’s first high level employee with a political background. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was named the company’s president and CEO back in July.

Police body cam study finds reduction in force and citizen complaints

Police body cameras have been lauded by justice reform advocates for their ability to capture evidence essential to sorting out disagreements between civilians and peace officers. But a first of its kind study from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology (IOC) a much more important societal benefit of outfitting officers with the cameras: drastic reductions in violence from officers as well as a drop in abusive behavior by civilians during police-public encounters.

Researchers examined 12 months of policing by officers wearing body cameras in Rialto, California, in 2012, finding an increased “self-awareness” of all parties involved in police interactions when the cameras are present.

That accounted for a 59 percent reduction in officer use of force and an 87 percent drop in the number of complaints against officers from the previous year.

“An officer is obliged to issue a warning from the start that an encounter is being filmed, impacting the psyche of all involved by conveying a straightforward, pragmatic message: We are all being watched, videotaped and expected to follow the rules,” Barak Ariel, a Cambridge researcher and coauthor of the study, said in a statement.

While Rialto has become a poster child for the positive benefits of police body cams, the researchers warn that the findings are only a first step in determining whether the technology should be mandatory for all departments.

“Rialto is but one experiment; before this policy is considered more widely, police forces, governments and researchers should invest further time and effort in replicating these findings,” researcher Alex Sutherland said in a statement.

One question the researchers are still trying to understand is how the cameras might change the legal process.

“Historically, courtroom testimonies of response officers have carried tremendous weight, but prevalence of video might lead to reluctance to prosecute when there is no evidence from body-worn-cameras to corroborate the testimony of an officer, or even a victim,” said Ariel.

President Barack Obama recently pledged to allocate $75 million in federal funds to equip officers throughout the nation with body cams.

AAA records massive gas savings for U.S. drivers

AAA reported Wednesday that the past few months of falling gas prices in the U.S. have saved American motorists $14 billion on fuel costs in 2014 compared to the previous year. If the trend continues throughout 2015, AAA reports that the number could jump to as much as $75 billion by this time next year.

The AAA’s monthly gas price report noted that the savings per household break down to about $115.

“U.S. drivers ended the year on a high-note with gas prices plummeting over the last few months,” said AAA spokesman Avery Ash. “Cheaper gas prices have helped to improve the economy by boosting both consumer confidence and disposable income.”

In 2013, the national average price per gallon of gasoline hovered around $3.49 in 2013. That’s about 12 cents less than the record high prices at the pump American drivers endured in 2012.

Gas prices today are lower than they have been at any point since May 2009, averaging $2.26 per gallon after trending downward for around three months.

The falling gas prices may be good for American pocketbooks, but there is a bit of a hitch for the broader U.S. economy.

The price drops have come as U.S. oil production climbed to its highest point in three decades this year resulting in a standoff between U.S. producers and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC has refused to cut production as a result of the American oil boom, wagering that they can weather the low prices long enough to put some new American producers out of business.

But what could be bad times ahead for the U.S. oil industry will turn out to be good news for U.S. drivers — at least in the short term. AAA’s price watchers say they expect average gas prices to remain below $3 a gallon well into 2015 because of the ongoing global glut of crude oil.

“Next year promises to provide much bigger savings to consumers as long as crude oil remains relatively cheap,” Ash said. “It would not be surprising for U.S. consumers to save $50-$75 billion on gasoline in 2015 if prices remain low.”

Top conservatives call for Boehner’s ouster as speaker

As House Speaker John Boehner’s Jan. 6 re-election vote for the speakership nears, a growing number of conservatives are calling for his ouster from the key position. Some prominent conservatives are calling for Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina to be named as the Ohio Republican’s replacement.

Following questions about Boehner’s decision to throw full public support behind embattled House Majority Whip Steve Scalise — the Louisiana Republican accused of cavorting with Klansmen — top conservative pundits Mark Levin and Sean Hannity lashed out against Boehner. Boehner’s support, they say, stems from the fact that Scalise had helped the speaker eliminate conservative opposition in the past.

“GOP establishment a disastrous mess. Clean them out. Time for new leaders with conservative principles,” Levin said on Facebook, adding that RINOs should “do a much better job of vetting your leaders & candidates.”

“Boehner needs to go …,” Levin also said.

Fox News’ Hannity has also weighed in, saying that the situation highlights the need for a change in the GOP establishment. Gowdy, he contends, is the right man for the speaker job.

“The American people need bold inspiring solutions to reverse the damaging policies of the President and his party. This is not a time for half measures,” Hannity said in an email. “It’s time for new dynamic leadership in the House of Representatives. Trey Gowdy is my choice for speaker. He has the ability to articulate and implement the changes needed to get the country on the right path.”

Hannity added that Gowdy’s record and “plan to balance the budget, secure the borders, push for energy independence and replace Obamacare with personal healthcare savings accounts” make him a much more attractive leader for conservatives.

“John Boehner has snubbed and ignored conservatives for too long as evidenced by the recent cromnibus budget deal he made with Obama, Reid and Hoyer,” Hannity said. “It’s time he step aside for the good of country and the conservative movement.”

Shootings of police rise in 2014 as some officers fear for safety

Public anger at law enforcement following several highly publicized controversies involving the shootings of unarmed civilians by police officers in the U.S. have many police departments throughout the nation worried about officer safety. A report released Tuesday by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) detailing a rise in the number of officers killed in 2014 is likely to worsen the problem.

The NLEOMF report states that 50 officers were shot to death in the U.S. in 2014, up from 32 in 2013. The report goes on to note that the majority of officers killed in 2014 were ambushed.

“Of the 50 firearms-related fatalities in 2014, fifteen officers were shot and killed in ambush, more than any other circumstance of fatal shootings in 2014,” according to the report.

The statistics have led to calls for politicians and pundits to cool anti-police rhetoric in the U.S.

“With the increasing number of ambush-style attacks against our officers, I am deeply concerned that a growing anti-government sentiment in America is influencing weak-minded individuals to launch violent assaults against the men and women working to enforce our laws and keep our nation safe,” NLEOMF Chairman and CEO Craig W. Floyd said in a statement Tuesday. “Enough is enough. We need to tone down the rhetoric and rally in support of law enforcement and against lawlessness.”

In New York City, the ambush assassination of two NYPD officers on Dec. 20 has provided an example of how some law enforcement agencies who feel they lack proper support from local governments could handle perceived increases in threats to their safety.

The shooter, who dispatched himself after killing the NYPD officers, had written online that he was avenging the deaths of unarmed black men killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York earlier in the year.

Prior to the officer shootings, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed support for anti-police protesters in the city and made other remarks disparaging the police.

As a result, New York police unions encouraged officers to adopt new practices, including responding to every call with at least two units and making arrests “only when they have to.”

The New York Post reports that policing in the city has taken a “nose dive” and NYPD arrests have fallen by 66 percent since Dec. 22 compared to this time last year.

Via the Post:

Citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587, during that time frame.

Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent — from 4,831 to 300.

Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241.

Drug arrests by cops assigned to the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau — which are part of the overall number — dropped by 84 percent, from 382 to 63.

But while Americans throughout the country — and especially those living in high crime areas — likely don’t want to see significant drops in community policing similar to those occurring in New York, there is still growing public consensus that law enforcement in the U.S. should change some policies.

In a recent Washington Post poll, 86 percent of Americans called for all police officers to be outfitted with body cameras while on duty. About the same number — 87 percent — believe that officers accused of wrongdoing be charged by prosecutors independent of their local jurisdictions.

Obamacare architect’s problems continue to grow

For conservatives and other Obamacare detractors, Jonathon Gruber, the so-called architect of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, is turning out to be the gift that keeps giving.

Gruber has already appeared before Congress at the request of lawmakers wanting to get to the bottom of his remarks that Obamacare’s success depends upon the stupidity of American voters. And as he looks ahead to another appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee after the first of the year, it’s pretty clear that he is no mood to cooperate.

As Breitbart noted Monday:

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee subpoenaed all of Gruber’s work product and billing documentation related to his 2009 federal contract with the Department of HHS, as well as all his many state contracts related to Obamacare earlier this month. To date, Gruber has failed to respond to this subpoena, which is set to expire in early January when the new Congress convenes.

Incoming Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) is expected to reissue this subpoena and also require Gruber’s testimony at new hearings of the committee. On December 9, Gruber testified before the committee under outgoing Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA). At those hearings Gruber “lawyered up” and refused to provide any work product or billing details to the committee.

Lawmakers and the leaders of states slapped with Obamacare-related bills by Gruber are seeking documentation to justify millions of dollars in spending by the Obamacare architect.

Boston Herald columnist and syndicated talk show host Howie Carr, who predicts “2015 is not going to be a Happy New Year for crackpot MIT professor Jonathan Gruber,” outlined some of the questionable spending last week.

From Carr’s column:

Perhaps you recall Gruber’s appearance before a Congressional committee last month. Whenever he was asked about providing back-up documentation for his multi-million-dollar bills, Goober would squeak: “You’ll have to take that up with my attorney.”

Not his accountant, but his lawyer. Strange. I mean, according to Goober’s bills, he must have had dozens upon dozens of “research assistants.” In Vermont, where his house-of-cards microsimulation fell apart earlier this month, the state has paid him $80,000 for 800 hours of research by his, ahem, assistants, at $100 per hour. (The per-fesser himself charges $500 an hour.)

In the time since his December testimony, more ammo has come to light for lawmakers looking to skewer Gruber — like statements he made insinuating that the creators of the Affordable Care Act were under no illusion that it would actually be affordable.

The Daily Caller reported Tuesday:

Gruber said that Obamacare had no cost controls in it and would not be affordable in an October 2009 policy brief, presented here exclusively by TheDC. At the time, Gruber had already personally counseled Obama in the Oval Office and served on Obama’s presidential transition team. Obama, meanwhile, told the American people that their premiums would go down dramatically.

“The problem is it starts to go hand in hand with the mandate; you can’t mandate insurance that’s not affordable. This is going to be a major issue,” Gruber admitted in an October 2, 2009 lecture, the transcript of which comprised the policy brief.

“So what’s different this time? Why are we closer than we’ve ever been before? Because there are no cost controls in these proposals. Because this bill’s about coverage. Which is good! Why should we hold 48 million uninsured people hostage to the fact that we don’t yet know how to control costs in a politically acceptable way? Let’s get the people covered and then let’s do cost control.”

Gruber also said that the only way to control costs is to effectively deny treatment.

“The real substance of cost control is all about a single thing: telling patients they can’t have something they want. It’s about telling patients, ‘That surgery doesn’t do any good, so if you want it you have to pay the full cost.’”

Only time will tell, but the Obamacare architect could turn out to be a leading cause of the healthcare law’s demise.

Lindsey Graham assures Netanyahu that Congress works for Israel

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) promised that the U.S. Congress will be at the beck and call of Israel’s leadership with regard to Iran in remarks he made alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Middle Eastern country over the weekend.

“No. 1: I wanted to come here in the most desperate way before the new Congress reconvenes, to let you and the people of Israel know that the United States Congress, above all entities in America, has your back in a very bipartisan way,” Graham said.

“The Republican Party now runs the House and the Senate, and things will be a bit different,” the GOP lawmaker said before vowing that the U.S. will take action against Iran.

Graham noted that the Senate is scheduled to vote on legislation that would strengthen sanctions against Iran if the country violates an interim nuclear agreement or walks away from talks soon after Congress reconvenes in January. The legislation was drafted by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

“Mr. Prime Minister, of all the leaders in the entire world, you’ve had the most consistent message regarding Iran: Beware of the Iranians — they lie, they cheat. To those who believe the Iranians have not been trying to develop a nuclear weapon, if you come to America, you should not be allowed to drive on our highways. Clearly, this regime for years has been deceiving the international community, has been trying to pursuit, in my view, a nuclear weapon,” Graham said to Netanyahu.

The GOP lawmaker went on to say that he believes heightened sanctions are a better course of action than the diplomatic solutions being explored by the Obama administration.

“I’m here to tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Congress will follow your lead,” Graham said.

In the coming months, Graham said, Congress will impose sanctions that “are real and will be re-imposed at the drop of a hat.”

“The fate of one country determines the fate of the other,” the lawmaker said.

While Graham’s remarks were certainly crafted to endear him to the Israelis and war hawks at home, he has drawn criticism from others who believe the U.S. could work with Iran in other ways.

One writer for former Congressman Ron Paul’s Institute for Peace and Prosperity wrote of Graham’s speech: “Imagine the reaction if a sitting United States Senator travelled to France, or Russia, or Saudi Arabia and assured the foreign leader that the U.S. lawmaking body would ‘follow your lead’ when it comes to a decision on whether ‘more sanctions, and stronger sanctions’ should be placed on a third country. That a U.S. government official would openly subject his own country’s policies to the national interest of another country seems to be unpatriotic by definition.”

President suggests GOP Congress is no match for veto pen

In a wide-ranging interview with NPR, President Barack Obama vowed to keep he veto pen handy as the newly GOP controlled Congress heads to Washington after the first of the year.

Asked whether he planned to approach Congress differently now that the GOP has control, Obama discussed his disappointment with the midterm elections before turning his attention to Republican lawmakers.

“Now you’ve got Republicans in a position where it’s not enough for them simply to grind the wheels of Congress to a halt and then blame me,” he said. “They are going to be in a position in which they have to show that they can responsibly govern, given that they have significant majorities in both chambers.”

Obama went on to note that he has big plans for the rest of his presidential tenure and doesn’t plan to allow the GOP to get in his way.

“There are going to be areas where we agree and I’m going to be as aggressive as I can be in getting legislation passed that I think help move the economy forward and help middle-class families,” he said. “There are going to be some areas where we disagree and, you know, I haven’t used the veto pen very often since I’ve been in office, partly because legislation that I objected to was typically blocked in the Senate even after… Republicans took over the House.”

The president’s willingness to flaunt his veto power could spell trouble for GOP lawmakers who ran campaigns based on unraveling some of Obama’s efforts in recent years, including White House actions on the environment and immigration reform.

“I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made in healthcare; I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made on environment and clean air and clean water,” Obama said.

Read a transcript of the full interview here. http://www.npr.org/2014/12/29/372485968/transcript-president-obamas-full-npr-interview

Gallup names Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton as America’s most admired

Here’s something that likely make conservatives want to hurl: President Barack Obama and former first lady Hillary Clinton have again held the top spots in a poll examining which public figures Americans admire the most.

In an annual poll that has been conducted for nearly seven decades, Gallup asked Americans: “What [woman/man] that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire the most? And who is your second choice?”

For the 17th time in the past 18 years, Hillary Clinton’s name came up more often that other women mentioned, with about 12 percent of a random sample of 805 Americans picking her.

President Barack Obama held the title of most admired man in America among the survey group for the seventh consecutive year, with 19 percent mentioning him.

According to Gallup, the implications of the poll could carry over into 2016:

At this time next year, Clinton may be actively campaigning to become Obama’s successor as president. It is unclear whether doing so would make it more likely or less likely that she would continue her reign as most admired woman. On one hand, being a presidential candidate and the clear front-runner would ensure she stays a prominent figure in the news. On the other hand, as a presidential candidate she likely would be evaluated from a more partisan perspective, which may cause some — particularly Republicans — to view her in a less favorable light.

In the No. 2 spot for most admired woman and man were Oprah Winfrey and Pope Francis, with a respective 8 percent and 6 percent of respondents mentioning their names.

The list of remaining most admired people includes names that you might expect along with a few head scratchers.

Rounding out the top 10 most admired men are: the Rev. Billy Graham, President George W. Bush, Tea Party darling Ben Carson, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Fox pundit Bill O’Reilly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the female side: Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, first lady Michelle Obama, actress Angelina Jolie, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, British royal Kate Middleton, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former first lady Laura Bush.