- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

WHITE HOUSE

NASA put under microscope

The White House has ordered a complete outside review of NASA’s manned space program, including plans to return astronauts to the moon.

Officials want a report from an independent panel by August.

White House science adviser John Holdren said Thursday that the new panel will look at the design of new spacecraft to replace the space shuttle and go to the moon. He said it will also examine the five-year gap between the shuttle and the new moon vehicles. During that time, NASA would have to rely on the Russians for space travel.

NASA has already spent $6.9 billion on its plan to return to the moon. The review team will be headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.

SENATE

FDA nominee emphasizes trust

President Obama’s pick to oversee food and drug safety pledged Thursday to revamp protection of the nation’s food supply to help prevent disease outbreaks.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a bioterrorism expert who once served as New York City health commissioner, breezed through her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, with no senators expressing opposition.

Dr. Hamburg, 53, said she wants to restore public confidence in the Food and Drug Administration by putting science first and running an open and accountable operation.

The full Senate is expected to vote on her nomination before Memorial Day. If confirmed, Dr. Hamburg’s most immediate task will be to oversee development of a vaccine for the new swine flu. But she said food safety will be her major ongoing project.

“The agency is facing a range of new and daunting challenges,” Dr. Hamburg told senators. “These include the globalization of food and drug production, the emergence of new and complex medical technologies, and the risk of adulteration or deliberate terror attacks on our food and drug supplies.”

BUDGET

Some defend cash for jailing illegals

Members of Congress quickly denounced an Obama administration plan to end federal payments to states and communities for jailing illegal immigrants.

President Obama asked Congress in his budget Thursday to end the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). Instead, the $400 million it received for fiscal 2009 could be used for border security and immigration enforcement, the administration said.

SCAAP reimburses states and counties for jailers’ salaries for holding illegal immigrants who have at least one felony and two misdemeanor convictions. But the Obama administration says the reimbursements also can be used for bonuses, consultants and buying vehicles.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said killing the program “deprives communities of critical funding for public safety services.” California state corrections received more than $118 million in 2008 through the program.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

Budget cuts funds for slain officers

The Obama administration wants to cut almost in half a benefits program for the families of slain police and safety officers.

The president’s proposed budget calls for cutting the Public Safety Officers’ Death Benefits Program from $110 million to $60 million.

Justice Department budget documents say the reduction is being made because “claims are anticipated to decrease” because the number of officers killed in the line of duty has been decreasing.

The proposal is being made just days before Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to attend ceremonies in Washington honoring slain officers.

“It makes us kind of nervous. While we aren’t panicking, it certainly has increased our concern, coming a week before National Police Week,” said Suzie Sawyer, executive director of Concerns of Police Survivors, a group taking part in next week’s events.

DRUG CONTROL

Senate approves police chief as czar

The Senate on Thursday approved the nomination of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as the nation’s drug czar, signaling a change in U.S. drug policy.

Mr. Kerlikowske, a 36-year law enforcement veteran who has been Seattle’s top cop for nine years, has pledged to take a balanced, science-based approach to the job. He also said he will focus on reducing demand for illicit drugs in the U.S., a sharp contrast from the Bush administration’s focus on intercepting drugs as they cross the border and punishing drug crimes.

“Our nation’s demand for drugs often fuels drug production and trafficking, as well as violence and corruption, within other nations,” Mr. Kerlikowske said at his confirmation hearing for the job of director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The position is commonly known as the drug czar.

“Domestic drug use directly funds the terrible drug-related crime currently wracking Mexico and fuels illegal armed groups in Colombia,” he said, adding that while he and other officials will work to reduce the international drug supply, “the greatest contribution we can make toward stability would be to reduce our demand for illicit drugs” in the U.S.

President Obama nominated Mr. Kerlikowske, 59, in March. The Senate on Thursday approved his nomination, 91-1.

BORDER

Government ready to build virtual fence

TUCSON, Ariz. | Federal officials plan to start construction within weeks on a new “virtual fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border that they say could almost completely cover the nearly 2,000-mile frontier within five years.

The first permanent towers holding sensors, cameras and communications gear to detect drug smugglers and illegal immigrants will be built along 53 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico, said Mark Borkowski, a Customs and Border Protection official in charge of the program. He briefed the Associated Press in advance of a general announcement expected Friday.

More towers, up to 120 feet tall and spaced miles apart, will follow on the remaining 320 miles of the state’s southern border. Virtual fencing then will go up in New Mexico, followed by California and most of Texas, said Mr. Borkowski, executive director of the Homeland Security Department’s Secure Border Initiative program.

“Construction should start imminently,” he said. “We’re in the final throes of convincing ourselves that the engineering is fine.”

The plans follow a prototype virtual fence that federal officials and others found inadequate for the job, and Mr. Borkowski said improvement probably will be made to the final version after border agents begin using it.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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