Monday, June 30, 2014

HRC: "Sometimes She Bought Cookies"

So Hillary is at the Aspen Ideas Festival today, and naturally she's keeping up her weird campaign cum book tour insistence about how poor and deprived she was, and how she's not truly well-off even today.

This time she touched my heart by relating how she sometimes bought cookies when entertaining foreign visitors. Yes, she did. She bought cookies, sometimes.

I share her pain. Sometimes I buy a Starbucks coffee traveler when hosting a meeting. So, I've sacrificed, too.  sniff ... pity me

The Aspen Ideas Festival isn't over yet. Check their Facebook page for live Hillary interviews. If you're lucky, you might catch her singing about how her mama used to dance for the money they'd throw.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Price of Excellence in Embassy Design

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has been getting a lot of criticism lately for the escalating costs of its new embassy construction projects, and especially for shifting away from its former program of down-and-dirty "Standard Embassy Design" and toward the much tonier practice of "Design Excellence."

See the CBS News report Are modern U.S. embassies becoming too costly to build? for the arguments against Design Excellence. They boil down to: it costs more and takes longer than the standard designs did, so you can't do as many of them, and therefore you end up leaving some embassy staff in old and unsecure facilities for longer than would be necessary if you did less excellent designs.

Exhibit A for the case against Design Excellence is Mexico City, which was the first new embassy project to be formally solicited under the Design Excellence program. See more on that here. Diplopudit's recent post (New Embassy Mexico City Estimated to Cost $350-$450M Now More Pricey At $763 Million) is a comprehensive summary of the current situation.

The original solicitation for Mexico city included that estimated construction cost of between $350 million and $450 million, and also stated that "the Department of State project shall demonstrate the value of true integrated design that balances aesthetics, cost, constructability and reliability, following the Guiding Principles of Design Excellence." You can read about those principles - or "Principles" - here.

So the project's estimated cost doubled before the first shovel-full of dirt was turned? That is far from excellent. In fact, the Mexico City project might end up being a better demonstration of the unintended consequences of the Guiding Principles of Design Excellence than of their stated goals.

But the biggest slam on OBO this week, the piledriver, the possible knock-out blow for Design Excellence, was delivered by the House Oversight Committee. The committee, by which I really mean Representative Chaffetz, wrote to SecState Kerry requesting a long and comprehensive list of documents concerning new construction planning and Design Excellence practices and justifications, both in general and for several specific projects.

This week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif) and National Security Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), pressed Secretary of State John Kerry after reports [one by CBS News and one by Al Jazeera] that State Department embassy design efforts have recently emphasized style at the expense of security and cost efficiency. The Committee has requested information from the State Department about specific construction projects that have suffered from problems and extended building times resulting from a deviation from the efficient standard embassy design approach, which stresses security and functionality, to the new “design excellence” program, which stresses openness and innovation.

After all that bad news about cost escalations and spiraling-out-of-control design excellence, I would like to point out one recent instance in which OBO completed a new embassy project for what seems to be a reasonable cost. It dedicated a United States Dedicates New U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic this week for the rather normal price of $193 million.

According to the project's fact sheet, that $193 million paid for a five-story office building with 26,000 square meters of space, plus a support annex and a Marine House, on a compound of 16 acres. The consular section has over 50 windows (!) for visa services, and the whole place has all kinds of energy efficiency, sustainability, saving-the-rainforest, greeny-eco stuff.

Not bad. Even better, on June 12, OBO solicited proposals for new construction at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, which include installing a pre-engineered structure to serve as a temporary office annex. "Pre-engineered" as in a prefabricated, or modular building. Something better than a trailer but not as architecturally satisfying as a real building.
A project is in design to construct new housing, expand the existing Marine Security Guard Residence (MSGR), a temporary office annex (installation and fit-out of pre-engineered structure), expand existing American Club, gymnasium and commissary, and update the compound utilities to support the new buildings on the existing Consulate Compound which opened in 2011 [see more on that here] ... and other site work including site utilities, landscaping and surface parking.

The solicitation states that the approximate cost for all that work is $35 million to $47 million. Quite the bargain basement price, for buildings of the size and nature called for in the solicitation.

Pre-engineered buildings are a common practice in the construction world. Most commercial buildings, including bank branches, 'big box' stores, healthcare facilities, etc., are pre-engineered. But this is the first instance I can recall of OBO adding such a building to an existing diplomatic compound that is already full of purpose-designed offices and residences.

For OBO to go with a pre-engineered office building is as far from Design Excellence as it gets. Definitely déclassé. But it's also, most likely, a big reason for the truly excellent cost estimate on that new Karachi project.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Foreign Affairs Security Training Center Remains Homeless

I don't know if there's any truth to it, but the rumor around town is that Representative Edward Royce thinks foreign affairs types can get all the high-threat security training they need by playing Grand Theft Auto in online training modules. "Why do you need to build a real training center when a role playing game like GTA has evasive driving, shooting, bomb awareness, and surveillance detection in a variety of simulated environments?" he may have asked."

Online security training could be the only kind that some U.S. embassy staff will get before heading to high-threat overseas posts. The long awaited Foreign Affairs Security Training Center might get a home someday, or it might not, depending upon the whims and vote-trading of a few key members of Congress such as Royce. If it does not, then the State Department will continue to have to lease eleven separate training facilities, and they will still not be enough to meet increased training requirements. 

Efforts to create a consolidated security training facility for the State Department go back to 1993. In 2008, State sent a report to Congress making the case for a dedicated facility, but our elected representatives did not act. For the past two years, efforts have focused on creating a facility at Fort Pickett in southern Virginia.

State's website gives this background on the effort to acquire a training facility for its specialized needs:
To [improve training efficiency, decrease operating costs, and provide priority access to training venues which meet current facility standards], the U.S. Department of State is establishing the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC). The Department has invested considerable time and effort over the years in reviewing over 70 properties with the U.S. General Services Administration, including the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, before identifying 1,500 acres of publicly-owned land within Fort Pickett, Virginia. Over the last two years, the U.S. Department of State has worked extensively to conduct environmental studies at Fort Pickett, begin negotiations for land use agreements, secure community support and ultimately reassess and reduce the scope of the FASTC project. The cost for a hard-skills exclusive facility at Fort Pickett, as verified by an independent construction cost estimator, is estimated to be $461 million. Some funding has already been appropriated, and the Department continues to look for opportunities to further reduce these costs.

This facility will be dedicated to providing consolidated hard skills security and life saving training to the foreign affairs community. This training develops the practical skills necessary to operate in today’s overseas environment. Hard skills training allows the foreign affairs community to learn how to detect surveillance, provide emergency medical care, increase identification skills to recognize improvised explosive devices (IED), participate in firearms familiarization, and perform defensive/counterterrorist driving maneuvers. Such training improves security and life safety for the protection of U.S. personnel operating abroad.

Providing increased security and survival training to all personnel headed to high threat overseas posts isn't just a good idea, it's also one of the ways State is implementing the Benghazi Accountability Review Board's recommendations.

Surely, no Congressman would refuse to provide State with the means to implement those recommendations.

Shirley, I jest. Because three key Congressman are doing just that.

According to The Daily Signal (a publication of The Heritage Foundation) of June 25: Price to Avoid Another Benghazi? House Leaders Question $461 Million Training Center:
In a series of letters beginning in December 2013, Republicans Edward Royce of California, Michael McCaul of Texas, and Jeff Duncan of South Carolina pushed the White House Office of Management and Budget to consider less expensive alternatives.

The House also included specific language in a bipartisan bill to require the Obama administration to conduct an independent feasibility study comparing the Fort Pickett plan with other options.

A spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security told The Daily Signal that the agency, in conjunction with the U.S. General Services Administration, reviewed more than 70 sites before deciding on several parcels on the Fort Pickett property straddling Chesterfield and Nottoway counties.

The Republican lawmakers focus on one particular rejected alternative in their letters to OMB: The Department of Homeland Security’s offer to expand its Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga.

The Georgia facility already has lodging, weapons ranges, and driving tracks among other features that meet State’s needs, wrote Royce, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs; McCaul, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security; and Duncan, chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency.

The bipartisan bill says this:

No funds under this Act are authorized to be appropriated for any new Department of State security and training facility, including the proposed Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, for which there is not a completed, independent feasibility study that has been provided to the appropriate congressional committees, verifying that safety and security training for all Department personnel who require such training cannot reasonably be provided at the existing Federal Law Enforcement Training Facility.

Nowhere does the bill define what an "independent" feasibility study would be. But then, why bother? Obviously, Representative Royce just wants his preferred option - FLETC in Glynco, Georgia - to be used rather than to have a dedicated facility purpose-built for State elsewhere. That bit about an independent study ... verifying ... reasonably be provided ... etc., is just a trio of politicians playing us some chin music. They must have their reasons for tossing this bone to FLETC, but they aren't about to say what those are.    

The 104-page evaluation of the Fort Pickett site that was done by top-tier architecture and planning firms working for State and GSA spells out exactly why FLETC's Glynco campus doesn't meet the requirements for a Foreign Service training site. It completely fails the key criteria for site selection.

First, it's too small and too crowded. The FLETC Glynco campus is located on the edge of the city of Brunswick, Georgia, two miles off of Interstate 95. The entire FLETC site occupies 1,600 acres, all of which are in use with programs for dozens of different agencies. State's mandatory criteria for a training site require at least 1,500 acres for its exclusive use, as well as the ability to conduct 24/7 operations without causing noise or other conflicts with adjacent uses or communities.

Second, it's too far away. State's criteria also include a proximity of not more than four hours driving time from Diplomatic Security headquarters within the cosmopolitan neighborhood of Rosslyn, in Arlington, Virginia. ["Cosmopolitan" in this instance is a relative term meaning that in Rosslyn you don't smell the stench of pulp mills.] That distance also affords proximity to Washington DC and to vital training partners such as the U.S. Marine Corps.

In addition to those site selection criteria, allow me to point out that FLETC is a police academy. The training facilities its website boasts of - the "library, interviewing suites, mock court rooms, computer forensics laboratories, and other laboratories for fingerprinting and identifying narcotics" - are of exactly no use whatsoever for the type of security and survivability training the State Department must provide to personnel going to overseas diplomatic posts. It's apples and oranges.

And yet, despite all the reasons there are to not use FLETC for foreign affairs security training, FLETC is the only place that will satisfy a clique of Congressmen.

What really annoys me isn't the backroom deal-making between Congressmen so much as their blatant hypocrisy over the issue of embassy security. The same Representative Royce who blocks funding for a satisfactory security training center doesn't hesitate to call others to accept responsibility and accountability for accomplishing tasks which he won't support. As in, 'The security of our people overseas is my highest concern' ... BUT ... I won't  approve more funds for overseas security. Or, 'It is vital that the State Department provide more security training for all personnel going to high threat posts' ... BUT ... I don't see why that should cost anything. 

For example, in this New York Times story that follows up on post-Benghazi recommendations, U.S. Takes Steps to Add Security at Embassies:
By late this summer [of 2013], the State Department plans to send dozens of additional diplomatic security agents to high-threat embassies, install millions of dollars of advanced fire-survival gear and surveillance cameras in those diplomatic posts, and improve training for employees headed to the riskiest missions.

The price tag for the security improvements proposed after the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 has reached $1.4 billion to meet the most urgent needs, including additional personnel. But diplomats and lawmakers say it will take years and billions more dollars to fully carry out the changes called for by the independent review panel that investigated the assault, which killed four Americans and touched off a highly charged political debate about the Obama administration’s ability to ensure the security of overseas outposts.

That "independent review panel" is the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, and one of the things it recommended was increased security and survivability training, i.e., a Foreign Affairs Security Training Center.

The NYT quotes Representative Royce displaying his "but" on the issue of those recommendations:
“It remains to be seen how well the State Department implements the board’s recommendations,” said Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But for any changes to succeed, they must embrace responsibility and accountability at senior levels, which hasn’t happened in this case.”

Apparently, monkeys will fly out of Representative Royce's but before he embraces responsibility and accountability for himself in the matter of those ARB recommendations.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Pithy Reflections, Dirt Cheap

Yesterday's ABC News interview with Hillary Clinton tossed her a softball about her $200,000-a-pop speaking engagements before various business groups. She defended her speaking fees this way:

"Let me put it this way," Clinton told [Diane] Sawyer. "I thought making speeches for money was a much better thing than getting connected with any one group or company as so many people who leave public life do."

Since leaving the State Department, Clinton has spoken before a wide-variety of businesses and trade groups -- from corporations like Goldman Sachs, to a scrap recycling conference in Las Vegas, to a group of Silicon Valley technology leaders. However, not all of the speaking appearances have been paid. For example, earlier this year, Clinton waived her fees and travel expenses to address the United Methodist Women Conference in Kentucky.

Wow, that was nice of Hillary to waive her usual fee for the Methodist ladies. Good thing there is always a multinational investment banking firm willing to pick up the slack.

Speaking of investment bankers, Hillary has had a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Goldman Sacks. That's been noted by journals of opinion on both the left (Mother Jones: Hillary Clinton's Goldman Sachs Problem - she talks populism, but hobnobs with Wall Street) and the right (National Review Online: Hillary Clinton’s Lucrative Goldman Sachs Speaking Gigs).

The left-populist Mother Jones published a list of Hillary's paid and unpaid speaking engagements (here) in yet another article critical of her money-for-access-and-influence business. That article also had this tidbit about what exactly it is that Hillary speaks about during these engagements:
The New York Times reported last summer that Clinton's typical speech features "pithy reflections" and lessons from her tenure as secretary of state such as "Leadership is a team sport," "You can't win if you don't show up," and "A whisper can be louder than a shout."

Those are "pithy?" Pithy like a fortune cookie, maybe, and just as trite. The Methodist ladies ought to be relieved that Hillary didn't charge them anything for that wisdom.