- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

PENTAGON

Gates questions private security

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wants to know why his military uses private contractors for combat and security training, and how widespread the practice is.

He’s asking for answers from the Pentagon’s top military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen.

“In my mind, the fundamental question that remains unanswered is this: Why have we come to rely on private contractors to provide combat or combat-related security training for our forces?” Mr. Gates wrote in a July 10 memo to Adm. Mullen that was released Monday to the Associated Press by the office of Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat.

Mr. Gates’ memo came after Mr. Webb raised concerns about the role of private contractors and specifically Blackwater Worldwide, which opened a new counterterrorism training center in San Diego last month over the opposition of city officials.

WHITE HOUSE

Olympians hear pep talk from Bush

President Bush gave U.S. Olympians a rousing White House send-off to next month’s games in Beijing, urging them Monday to “compete swifter, higher and stronger” but also be mindful they will be “ambassadors of liberty” to the people of China and elsewhere.

Mr. Bush will attend the opening ceremonies and the first few days of the Aug. 8-24 games. Standing in the Rose Garden with about two dozen athletes who will compete in the Beijing Olympics and the corresponding Paralympics there in September, Mr. Bush said he is “fired up” to watch some of the competition.

“I can’t wait to salute our athletes, and I can’t wait to share in the joy of your triumphs,” he said.

FDA

Salmonella found on Mexico jalapeno

The Food and Drug Administration has found a jalapeno pepper contaminated with a strain of salmonella that has sickened more than 1,200 people, officials said Monday.

The pepper, which showed up at a south Texas distribution facility, originated in Mexico, the FDA said.

“FDA has found a genetically matched Salmonella saintpaul isolate from a distribution center called Agricola Zaragosa in McAllen, Texas,” Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA, told reporters in a telephone briefing.

Dr. Acheson said it is not yet clear where the pepper was contaminated and said it could have been anywhere between the farm where it was picked and the facility in Texas.

“It could have occurred in the facility or at some point leading up to the facility,” Dr. Acheson said.

The FDA said no one should eat or serve uncooked jalapeno or serrano peppers, which have a similar appearance, anywhere in the United States.

WHITE HOUSE

Veto threat hangs over housing bill

The White House Monday said it hoped for progress on a sweeping housing rescue plan by the end of this week, but reiterated a veto threat over a provision that Congress looks likely to include in the bill.

Setting up a potential showdown with Congress, the White House said President Bush would veto any bill that includes a provision to send $4 billion in federal grants to states and communities to buy and repair foreclosed homes.

Mr. Bush opposes that measure because it helps lenders rather than homeowners, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

“He does not think that it’s necessary,” she said. “And so our position hasn’t changed, but we’ve continued to work with them.”

GAO

Indian Health Service criticized

The Indian Health Service has lost at least $15.8 million worth of equipment and later falsified documents to cover up some of those losses, according to congressional investigators.

The 5,000 pieces of lost or stolen equipment included a computer that contained more than 800 Social Security numbers and sensitive health information. Also missing are trucks, tractors, all-terrain vehicles and about a third of information technology items - including computers, video projectors and digital cameras - from the agency’s headquarters in Rockville.

The Government Accountability Office estimated losses between the 2004 and 2007 budget years in a report released Monday. Investigators blamed mismanagement at the top of the embattled agency, which often runs out of money to provide adequate health care to the American Indians it serves.

HHS

Online prescriptions a boost for doctors

Beginning Jan. 1, the federal government will boost Medicare’s payments to doctors that send prescriptions electronically to a pharmacy rather than writing them out on paper and handing them to the patient.

The widespread adoption of electronic prescribing is expected to save taxpayers as much as $156 million over the next five years and save lives, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said Monday.

Congress approved the higher payments last week as part of a bill that voided a 10.6 percent cut in reimbursement rates for doctors who treat Medicare patients. President Bush had vetoed the bill because of other provisions that lowered payments to health insurers. But on the issue of electronic prescriptions, lawmakers and the administration were in broad agreement. In the end, Congress ended up overriding Mr. Bush’s veto.

STATE DEPARTMENT

Syrians may meet with U.S. diplomat

The State Department says the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East will meet with Syrian officials traveling to Washington, if requested.

State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters Monday it was not clear who will be participating or when a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State David Welch would take place.

The U.S. and Syria have diplomatic ties, but Syria is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Mr. Gallegos says the U.S. considers the trip being organized by a nongovernmental organization a private visit.

He says the U.S. is still pressuring Syria to change its policies.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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