As spending cuts trigger, many say nation's security won't suffer as feared
Defense cut damage viewed as overblown; analysts across the spectrum see room for reductions as the war winds down
by Bryan Bender
WASHINGTON — The warnings only grew more dire as the deadline approached. Automatic cuts to national defense, Pentagon leaders insisted, would be a “disaster,” amounting to “assisted suicide” and “a major step toward creation of an unready, hollow military force.”
But now that the cuts known as sequestration have been triggered, an unlikely meeting of the minds is taking place among some liberals, libertarians, and Tea Party conservatives: They say the US defense budget, which is larger than that of the next nine largest militaries combined, can and should be cut significantly — and that doing so will not harm national security.
“It is not like we have Soviet tank divisions at the German border poised to launch a sneak attack,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent research group in Alexandria, Va. “It is not a question of readiness. It is a question of readiness to do what? The defense budget is twice what it was before Sept. 11th and we have half as many enemies. A lot of this is theater. Let them sequester and they will see that nothing happens.”
That, of course, is not the message coming from the commander in chief, most of the top brass, and members of Congress, many of whom are concerned about job losses or smaller profit margins for defense contractors in their states.
Last week during a swing through Newport News, Va., where many of the Navy's warships are built, President Obama said the cuts “will weaken our military readiness.”
In testimony before a House panel, the chiefs of the military branches sounded similar alarms about the combination of the sequester cuts and the failure of Congress so far to pass a complete budget for this year.
“We will curtail training for 80 percent of our ground forces,” the Army's chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, predicted.
“By the beginning of next year, more than 50 percent of my tactical units will be below acceptable levels of readiness for deployment to combat,” added the Marine Corps commandant, General James Amos.
The Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, noted that with reduced training two-thirds of combat units will “drop below acceptable readiness levels, by our definitions, by mid-May.
“Most will be completely non-mission-capable as a unit by July,” Welsh said.
They all insisted that in addition to the size of the sequestration cuts — nearly $500 billion over the next decade — it is their across-the-board nature that is especially damaging.
Yet a number of close observers from across the political divide say that the Pentagon can withstand the hit and even benefit from the discipline imposed by a budget cutting process that military leaders have derided as a “meat ax.”
“Over the entire 10-year period covered by the sequester, defense spending would average roughly $100 billion more each year than we spent at the height of the Cold War,” said Michael Tanner, a budget specialist at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. “This is hardly a crisis.”
Tanner also noted that the defense cuts — beginning with $46 billion for the remaining seven months of this fiscal year — will only reduce Pentagon spending to the 2007 levels, when the nation was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The cuts are already being incorporated into military planning: one of the nation's 12 Navy aircraft carriers will remain in port instead of joining another on watch in the Persian Gulf; the repair of more than 30,000 pieces of Army equipment will have to wait; and thousands of civilian Pentagon workers have been put on notice they could be furloughed.
Yet a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service indicated that the Pentagon has the flexibility to minimize the negative effects.
The report concluded, for example, that despite the across-the-board nature of the cuts the Pentagon “would have discretion to allocate funding” to higher priority areas and take steps that “could limit reductions to the services' readiness-related” programs.
Others agreed that the rhetoric from top military officials about the threat to the nation's combat edge is exaggerated.
Last Thursday, it was a group of fiscal conservatives and government watchdog groups saying that.
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, said in a Tea Party response to the president's State of the Union address last month that the sequester cuts should be allowed to take effect, including in the Defense Department.
“It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred,” he said. “And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.”
Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican and a leading voice of the Tea Party movement, said that while he believes the across-the-board defense cut is not the best approach, the sequester cuts are better than “having no cuts at all.”
The warnings about the impact of the cuts were also dismissed by a number of budget watchdog groups that participated in a conference call last week about the sequester.
“A whole bunch of Chicken Littles are running around,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “The reality is we can do this level of cuts. If we can't defend the country on half a trillion dollars [a year] then we are doing something wrong.”
Democrats such as US Representative Niki Tsongas of Lowell, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, agreed.
She said the sequester formula is not the most effective way to make spending cuts, but also said she believes the US military will maintain its technical edge even if the cuts take effect as scheduled.
“As we draw down from Afghanistan and Iraq, there is room for savings in the Defense Department,” she said. “I feel confident that given the extraordinary capability of the defense companies that they are very well positioned to provide for technology that will help us address emerging threats – even in an environment of fiscal constraints.”
Those who believe the sequestration cuts will hamper some Pentagon operations agree that Congress could lessen the blow by giving the Department of Defense even more flexibility in applying the cuts.
Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy during Obama's first term, said that over the longer term, the sequestration cuts “would reduce funding to the point where you have a real readiness crisis that could affect the options available to the president or how quickly US forces are able to respond to a crisis.”
But, she added, “If you get a budget deal, the Department [of Defense] can limit some of the damage because it would buy the leadership some discretion to choose where to take cuts. They could have the ability to protect their highest priorities.”
In a statement that many saw as going off the administration's script, the new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, also sought to assure the public in a Friday press conference that the cuts will not make the nation more vulnerable.
The United States, he said, “has the best fighting force, the most capable fighting force, the most powerful fighting force in the world.”
Asked about the impact of the sequestration cuts, he insisted that the Pentagon “will manage these issues.”
“These are adjustments. We anticipated these kinds of realities, and we will do what we need to do to assure the capabilities of our forces.”
Ohio legislator wants a law to allow parents to spy on their kids' texts, social media and other electronic communications
by Stan Donaldson, The Plain Dealer
When Karen Jones' children first started to venture into the world of social media and cellphone use, she and her husband followed them every step of the way.
For her two older children, first it was MySpace, then Facebook. Now, her two youngest kids use Twitter and Instagram to communicate and keep up with trends and friends.
So Jones, and her husband, Al, of University Heights, monitored their kids' online activity. In addition to keeping an eye on their Internet use, the pair looked at who they called and sometimes listened to their conversations.
And proposed legislation in Ohio could help arm parents with more protection in how they keep tabs on their children's use of the Internet and social media.
State Rep. Brian Hill, a Zanesville Republican, wants to amend the state's wiretapping law to exempt a parent or guardian from prosecution if they spy on their kid's electronic communications.
The current law prohibits anyone from intercepting or using devices to monitor wire, oral or electronic communication. The law is considered a fourth-degree felony.
But with an amendment to the 1996 law, Hill wants to increase the rights for grownups to monitor children. He says the current law has a loophole that hinders parents.
The exemption, however, has raised questions about adults spying on kids.
Gary Daniels, associate director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Ohio, says the bill is not limited to just parents or guardians. And he sees that as a problem.
Daniels said if the bill passed with it's current language, it could open the door for school administrators or law enforcement to monitor minors' online or cell phone communications, which could affect their rights to free speech.
"We understand why they kept the language vague and open to interpretation, but at the same time, that vagueness invites some questions about who exactly this law benefits and applies to and who it does not."
He says the law is not needed.
"In the grand scheme of things it is unnecessary because prosecutors are not going to prosecute parents for violating this law," Daniels said.
The current law has exceptions for law enforcement officials who obtain a warrant, and for those who work in jobs where monitoring electronic operations is required, such as a switchboard operator, but nothing that exempts parents who snoop on their kids.
Hill, who did not return calls to The Plain Dealer, wrote on his website that the amendment is about keeping children safe.
"With today's youth being so comfortable with using technology like the Internet and cell phones, the ability for a parent to monitor what their children are doing is critically important to ensuring their safety," Hill wrote.
Or as Jones noted: "Kids are so technologically savvy now and most of them know how to use new devices and the Internet better than their parents."
Last year, Hill authored a similar bill that was passed in the House 87-0. The bill was assigned to a committee in the Senate, but it was never voted on, said Mike Dittoe, director of communications for the Ohio House Republicans.
Hill said he held a meeting in his district in January with educators, law enforcement officials and faith-based groups about school violence and child safety. He reintroduced the bill this year.
Some supporters of the last bill introduced include representatives from Northeast Ohio.
Cleveland Rep. Bill Patmon, who supported the bill, does not think it would extend to schools or law enforcement officials.
"That is not the intent of the bill," Patmon said. "The intent is for a parent or guardian to be able to monitor the child or minor they are responsible for."
Patmon also believes a parent's ability to freely monitor their child's electronic activity could help stop juvenile delinquency, school bullying and "other activities children get themselves into."
Jones said she doesn't believe schools or law enforcement should have direct access to kids personal accounts, but she is supports any law that gives parents more rights.
She said they still continue to monitor the activity of their youngest child, who is in high school, and that she and her husband remain social media buddies with their adult children.
"Parental involvement is much more than making sure your kids do good in school, it's about knowing about what they do on the Internet and who their friends are. Involvement is involvement.
"You can't pick and choose."
Texting While Driving Ban Goes Into Effect
by Dominique Mosbergen
On Friday, Ohio joined the long list of states that have made texting while driving illegal.
Text messaging while driving is now banned in 39 states and the District of Columbia, according to data on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's website.
NBC affiliate WFMJ reports that Ohio's statewide ban came into effect at midnight on Mar. 1. Under the new ban, no one is permitted to text while driving in Ohio. For adults over the age of 18, the act will now be considered a minor misdemeanor and secondary offense.
However, while adults can still talk on the phone when behind the wheel -- and will not be stopped by law enforcement if texting while driving is their only offense -- stricter rules have been put into place for drivers under the age of 18.
According to Troy Daily News, drivers younger than 18 will not be able to use any portable electronic devices while driving. (That means no texting, calling, e-mailing or using a GPS device.) These are now considered primary offenses for individuals under the age of 18, which means that teen drivers can be stopped by law enforcement officers even if the use of an electronic device is their only offense.
For the first violation, drivers under 18 will face a $150 fine and license suspension for 60 days ; for subsequent violations, under-18s will be slapped with a $300 fine and a year-long license suspension. Adults, on the other hand, could be fined up to $150. (For more on this statewide ban, click here to read the entire law.)
According to Distraction.gov, the government's website about distracted driving, in 2011 more than 3,300 people were killed and more than 387,000 were injured in motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver. On the website, texting and using a cell phone are prominently listed as examples of distractions.
Moreover, referencing a report by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the website notes that texting "creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted."
Currently, there are only five states -- Arizona, Florida, Montana, South Carolina and South Dakota -- that have neither full nor partial texting-while-driving bans. (Hawaii does not have a statewide ban but all counties in the state "have enacted ordinances that address distracted driving," according to the IIHS.)
But, just this week, NBC Miami reported that Florida may soon have a texting ban of its own. Several distracted driving bills -- including one seeking a primary texting and driving ban -- are reportedly ready to be discussed in March when Florida's legislative session commences.
Though several attempts to pass state legislation have failed in the past few years, the state's lawmakers say they are hopeful that this year will be different.
“People have to realize that it's that message that you have to get across, that might be the last message you send,” Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Joe Sanchez said, according to NBC Miami.
Neighborhood team a success for Bellingham police
by CLIFF COOK
Bellingham is a city of active, engaged neighborhoods, among the many attractive qualities about Bellingham that inspired me to be your police chief. Bellingham residents' connections to their neighborhoods and the city government's commitment to engaging with them makes our city ideal for solving problems through community policing concepts.
If you are unfamiliar with community policing it is best described as local police departments working together with residents, neighborhoods, businesses, government agencies, non-profit organizations and others to prevent crime and promote community safety. Community policing has been the organizational philosophy of the Bellingham Police Department for many years, and we intend to expand our efforts in the months ahead.
Community policing has been particularly successful in areas with strong community connections and problem-solving systems. Bellingham has many such resources in place, among the most important being the active organization and advocacy of our 25 neighborhood associations. I am making it a personal priority to meet with each neighborhood association during my first few months on the job. Since I started on Feb. 4, I have already had the pleasure of attending meetings of two neighborhood associations and I expect to attend many more in the weeks ahead. I also am scheduled to participate in the March 20 meeting of the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission.
The Bellingham Police Department works very closely with neighborhood organizations and in recent years has had in place an innovative community policing/problem solving unit: the Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team.
NEIGHBORHOOD ANTI-CRIME TEAM
Typically, neighborhood residents are most aware of what goes on in their area and are our "eyes and ears" when it comes to crime prevention and enforcement. The Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team partners with residents to address neighborhood-related issues, find lasting solutions to problems, and make our neighborhoods safer, more comfortable and pleasant places to live.
Formed in 2009, the Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team is a proactive investigations unit charged with preventing, targeting and suppressing crimes through the use of focused enforcement to address crime trends, apprehend repeat offenders and lead the efforts in neighborhood problem solving.
The team uses a variety of techniques, including preventing crime through environmental design, uniformed and plain-clothes officers, bicycle, foot and car patrols, surveillance and the use of information gained from criminal intelligence and crime analysis. A few of the common problems the team tackles include gang activity, drug transactions, vehicle prowls, residential burglaries, disruptive party-houses, mail theft and graffiti.
The Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team works closely with community members and in particular with neighborhood association representatives and Block Watch participants to develop effective solutions to local quality of life issues. When problems are identified, team members reach out to other units within the police department, other city services and to other organizations, groups and community members who possess the expertise, staffing, equipment and appropriate resources to assist in their efforts.
NEIGHBORHOOD TEAM SUCCESS STORIES
We have had many successes since the Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team began. During the last six months of 2012, for example, more than 600 felony and misdemeanor charges were filed by Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team personnel. Here are a few examples of the work of this team:
In the team's first months, two individuals were arrested for possession of heroin and we were able to link those individuals to 11 local burglaries.
The team investigated a neighborhood theft ring that resulted in the seizure of 10 firearms, including several assault rifles, ammunition, one-half pound of heroin, ecstasy and nearly $12,000 in cash. Stolen property was also recovered at a suspect's residence.
The team's work on mail theft last year resulted in the arrest, successful conviction and sentencing of two people found to have extensive stolen mail at their residence. Originally discovered during the course of searching a burglary suspect's apartment, the mail theft investigation resulted in the team contacting more than 240 mail theft victims and a similar number of charges against the suspects, who ultimately were held accountable for their actions.
A current project involves collaborating with property owners to clean up and secure neglected properties rather than have them remain empty and potential nuisances. The property owners have been contacted and asked to repair broken windows and doors, remove dilapidated structures, make exterior repairs and secure the properties from intruders in an effort to eliminate illegal activities.
We also are currently working with a neighborhood experiencing criminal activity and disorderly behavior at bus stops. Recent problems have included drinking, urinating and unwelcome, inappropriate conduct, which then continues onto the buses. The team was assigned to work with neighbors, area businesses, transit officials and others to address the problem. Responses included uniformed officers riding the bus route periodically so riders would feel safe. Drinking problems were actively addressed and have diminished substantially. The transit authority is currently re-designing the stops to increase visibility and customer safety. We expect these and other measures taken by our community partners will result in another success story, for both the team and our community.
These are just a few of the many successes of the Bellingham Police Department Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team. For more information or to report concerns in your neighborhood, contact the Bellingham Police Department at 360-778-8800.
HONORED TO LEAD DEPARTMENT
The Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team is one of the many ways we serve our community with innovation and excellence. It is just one of the many success stories I have discovered in my short time here.
The Bellingham Police Department is recognized across the region and state as a premier public safety organization and I am experiencing that first hand every day. I am also very impressed with the expertise, commitment and caring attitude demonstrated by the members of our department as they go about the business of serving this community. This is a great department and a great city with a lot to be proud of, and I am honored and humbled to serve as your chief of police.
Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook recently was appointed by Mayor Kelli Linville. He took his oath of office and began his duties on Feb. 4, 2013. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or email@example.com.
Teenage outreach workers give food and aid to homeless Anchorage teens
by DAVID HOLTHOUSE
The kid was stoned and the kid was cold. He wasn't having fun.
As he shivered behind shrubbery outside City Hall, a look of relief crossed his face when he saw the POWER Teen Center outreach team come around the corner.
It was a Friday night in early February. The kid, lightly dressed, was one of five youths passing a joint in one of many nooks and crannies in downtown Anchorage where street kids hide just out of plain sight.
"I'm freezing, yo," he said. "You got any gloves tonight? Any hats?"
One of the outreach workers reached in a backpack and gave him both, then handed out granola bars, packs of nuts and bottled water.
POWER stands for Peer Outreach Worker Education and Referral. The program operates a drop-in center for homeless and other at-risk youths and employs teenage outreach workers, most of whom are formerly homeless and abuse survivors.
Four nights a week, the outreach workers hit the pavement in two-person teams. They hand out warm clothing, hygiene items, and food and water. They distribute information about social agencies that serve "at-risk" youths.
That includes POWER, which operates from a space on the second floor of the Downtown Transit Center on Sixth Avenue. Open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, the drop-in center has a food pantry and computers for updating Facebook pages, searching for a job or doing homework. Three days a week a nurse is on site. A University of Alaska graduate student provides psychological counseling.
Alaska Youth Advocates, the nonprofit agency that runs the program, has a housing specialist on staff who helps youths access transitional living programs or find affordable apartments.
The core of the program, though, is peer-to-peer interactions between the youths on staff and the kids who come through the door.
"Our guiding philosophy is 'by teens, for teens,' because youths will confide in other youths in ways they often will not confide in adults," said Alaska Youth Advocates Executive Director Heather Harris. "A lot of our clients have little or no family support, so making peer support available to them is essential to helping them lead a healthier life."
The center has a lounge area with couches, a television and a video game system where teenage staffers hang out and build rapport with clients.
"On the surface it might seems like a cushy job ... But in reality, if you're doing the job right, and you're non-prying and non-judgmental, people are going to start confiding some pretty heavy info. Like, 'I'm thinking about killing myself,' or 'I'm being pimped out,' " said POWER case manager Rebecca Shier, 22, a former client.
"In this job a situation can go from video games to really serious in a minute."
Between 15 and 35 youths spend time at the drop-in center every day it's open. About half are regulars. Almost 4,500 youths sought services at the center in the 2012 fiscal year.
Estimating the number of homeless youths in Anchorage is tricky, in large part because homeless kids tend to be intermittently homeless, rather than full-time homeless. They cycle in and out of emergency foster home placements. They couch surf. They pool money for cheap motel rooms. Some practice "survival sex," trading their bodies for shelter and food. They may not be sleeping on the streets but their living situations are hardly stable or safe.
Some hard numbers give an idea of how many street kids there are in Anchorage in addition to drop-in center visits.
Covenant House Alaska, which provides emergency shelter for youths in crisis, serves about 1,900 homeless teens a year, according to a 2010 study by the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
A 2012 report by the Anchorage School District identified 3,800 homeless children in Anchorage but that includes grade-school-age kids as well as teenagers.
The UAA/ISER report makes clear the challenges that street kids in Anchorage face. Forty-six percent of Covenant House residents in 2010 had been sexually abused, the study found. Forty percent had been in a residential mental health treatment facility and a third had recently been in foster care.
Mental illness linked to childhood sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse is a common factor in the great majority of youths who seek help from POWER counselor Jolene Greenland, a 27-year-old graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
"Most of the clients I deal with have a significant history of complex trauma caused by ongoing childhood abuse," Greenland said. "Often they come to see me in acute crisis mode. I try to help them stabilize, then instill hope and get them to concentrate on future goals."
Greenland began working 20 to 25 hours a week at the center last September.
"I figured out that before I could effectively work with this population, I had to build relationships on a personal level, so I've gotten pretty good at karaoke and (the video game) Dance Dance Revolution," she said.
Every Friday is movie day at the drop-in center. On the first Friday in February, the PG-13 rated film of choice was the romantic comedy "What to Expect When You're Expecting."
Origami birds hung from the ceiling of the center. A client arranged poetry magnets on the food pantry fridge to read, "There are perfect friends who like you."
On a coffee table in the lounge was a notebook inscribed on the front with, "Dear Mr. Journal. Tell your stories here. Judgment free." One journal entry is about a teenaged girl agonizing over whether to have an abortion. She decides to have the baby. Another entry reads simply, "It's my Dad's fault he touched me."
A wall in the front of the 1,500-square-foot space displayed a large map of Alaska next to a sign that read, "Where does your family come from?" Pins in the map ranged from St. Lawrence Island to Sitka. Dozens marked Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley area. Handfuls showed Barrow, Kotzebue and Bethel. Single pins identified Sleetmute, Kivalina and other small villages.
The number of homeless Alaska Native youths in Anchorage is growing. The UAA/ISER study found that 39 percent of Covenant House clients in 2010 were Alaska Native, up from 20 percent in 1999.
Alaska Youth Advocates records show that 34 percent of POWER clients in the 2012 fiscal year were Alaska Native or American Indian. Twenty-seven percent were Caucasian and 20 percent were African-American, with the remaining 19 percent about evenly divided among Asian, Latino and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
POWER originated with an HIV-testing program that began in 1995 as an extension of now-defunct youth shelters run by Alaska Youth Advocates. The first workers didn't have a drop-in center or office. They performed blood draws on benches in the downtown bus station. Kids had to come back weeks later for results.
(The center still provides testing for sexually transmitted infections. Last year 75 clients tested positive for STIs, including 73 cases of Chlamydia. POWER offers free antibiotics to clients who test positive for treatable STIs. Its outreach workers distribute condoms on request.)
Before it moved to its current location two years ago, POWER was located in a 540-square-foot space on the first floor of the downtown bus station. The nurse's station in the cramped space was a cubicle with a plastic curtain.
"We turned up the music loud anytime someone needed to have a private conversation," Harris said. "Clients had to take paper bags to the public restroom for urine samples."
The upstairs space is luxurious by comparison, with private rooms for the nurse and counselor, and space in the back for racks of donated shoes and clothes, including winter coats.
When the movie ended on the recent Friday afternoon, clients and staff competed in an impromptu dance-off. The clear winner was Calesia Monroe, a 15-year-old outreach worker and peer counselor who first started coming to the center in mid-2011 as a client. She was hired on staff in late 2012.
"No matter what's going on in your life outside of here, when you come here, you're going to be feel better about it, because you can talk to someone here," she said. "You can make friends here. Friends make a difference. I made friends here; now I'm trying to offer my friendship in return."
You can support the work of Alaska Youth Advocates with a donation through Pick.Click.Give. Just direct a portion of your Permanent Fund Dividend to it when you apply online. Even if you've already applied, you can go back and add a gift for Alaska Youth Advocates or any of 470 other eligible nonprofits. You have until March 31.