Monday, February 21, 2011

President Day Poll

Gallup's annual President's Day poll is out.

In the eight times Gallup has asked this same "greatest president" question over the last 12 years, one of three presidents -- Lincoln, Reagan, and Kennedy -- has topped the list each time.

Reagan was the top vote getter in 2001, 2005, and now 2011. Lincoln won in 1999, in two 2003 surveys, and in 2007. Kennedy was on top in 2000, and tied with Lincoln in November 2003.

Americans as a group have a propensity to mention recent presidents, not surprising given that the average American constantly hears about and from presidents in office during their lifetime, and comparatively little about historical presidents long dead. Four of the five most recent presidents are in the top 10 greatest presidents list this year -- Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan.

Crude oil jumps 6% as Libya protests spread

Crude oil prices jumped 6% Monday as violent protests spread in Libya, raising the possibility that oil supplies from that OPEC nation could be disrupted.

Oil consuming nations have emergency reserves they can use to stabilize markets in case the violence in Libya or elsewhere in the Middle East escalates and crimps production, officials said Monday.

But international executives and analysts meeting in London were nervously watching developments in the oil-rich region, worried about the sharp shock political unrest is giving to crude oil prices.

Oil prices jumped Monday because of the turmoil in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, warned protesters Sunday that they risk igniting a civil war in which Libya's oil wealth "will be burned."

By afternoon in Europe, light, sweet crude for March delivery was up $5.05 to $91.25 for a 42-gallon barrel. The April contract was up more than $5 to $94.84. A barrel is 42 gallons.

U.S. markets, including Nymex floor trading, were closed Monday for the Presidents' Day holiday.

OPEC members
Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC): Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela.

David Fyfe, head of the oil industry and markets division at the International Energy Agency, stressed that IEA member countries reserves of 1.6 billion barrels of oil — equivalent to some 4 million barrels a day for 12 months — that could be brought onto the market if necessary. The IEA's 28 members are mainly oil consuming industrial nations such as the United States, Japan, Britain and Germany.

The IEA has used government oil supplies to steady the oil market twice before, during the Gulf War in 1991 and after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.

"It's very much a last resort, but it's worth pointing out that it exists and has been used before, when supplies have been disrupted," he said.

"It's a sort of insurance policy for the market. Our view is that it isn't something that should be used for price management," he said.

Fyfe said the situation in the Middle East and North Africa is "of real concern," noting that the region accounts for 60% of global oil resources and 40% of global natural gas resources.

"Compared to Tunisia (a minor crude exporter) or Egypt (not an exporter but a transit country), instability in Libya is a major concern to the oil industry," said analysts at JBC Energy in Vienna.

David Buik, markets analyst at BGC Partners in London, noted that Seif al-Islam Gadhafi's comments that there would be "rivers of blood" in Libya also prompted a surge in gold prices to just above $1,400 an ounce.

"There was a feeling by unsettled investors of a need to take yet another flight to quality," he said.

BP has suspended operations in Libya and is evacuating about 40 expatriate staff and their families because of the escalating violence — halting operations in the North African country just four years after the British company returned from a 30-year hiatus.

"Events in the Middle East are of intense concern as they continue to evolve," Ian Smale, group head of strategy and policy at BP, said at International Petroleum Week, a key event on the oil industry's calendar.

"With specific regard to Libya, our first concern is our people and the security and integrity of our operations," Smale said at the Energy Institute-sponsored conference in central London.

Smale said Libya is not a major operating base for BP, but did not respond to questions about BP's partnerships with state-owned entities in the Middle East and North Africa.

BP signed a deal worth at least $900 million in 2007 to explore in Libya. It said it would monitor the situation on a daily basis and could not confirm when work would start again, but stressed that offshore operations in the region were still open and the closure would not affect oil production.

Italy's Eni gas and oil company said it was evacuating nonessential personnel and family of expatriate workers in Libya "as already scheduled following the early closure of schools in the country."

"At the moment, no problems at plants and operational facilities have been reported. The company's production continues as normal, with no effects on operations," Eni said, adding that it is reinforcing security measures for remaining employees and plants.

Royal Dutch Shell, whose operations in Libya are limited to exploration, said it has temporarily relocated dependents of expat staff out of the country.

In the United States, ConocoPhillips spokesman John McLemore said the company is monitoring the situation but had no comment on the security of its workers there. ConocoPhillips has a joint interest in a oil drilling operation in Libya with Marathon Oil and Libya's state-run oil company,

ExxonMobil, which has licenses for offshore drilling near Libya but no active drilling, said it did not discuss security matters. Occidental Petroleum, the first U.S. company to resume operations in Libya when the U.S. government lifted sanctions against the country in 2004, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Last year, Occidental produced 13,000 barrels of oil, gas and liquids per day in Libya.

Current unrest aside, Fyfe said oil demand growth should slow this year to around 1.5 million barrels per day, down from 2.8 million barrels last year. He said there were a number of differences between now and the shortages and historic price rises that characterized 2008, including more spare capacity, more OPEC production and slowing oil growth after the post-recessionary bubble that year.

"The concerns in the market go beyond Libya," said Victor Shum, an energy analyst with Purvin & Gertz in Singapore. "It's unlikely we're going to see any meaningful disruption of oil from the Middle East or North Africa, but the spread of this unrest has raised anxieties."

Some analysts are worried higher oil prices will undermine a fragile economic recovery in developed countries. For every $1 increase in the price of a gallon of gasoline, U.S. consumer spending falls about $120 billion, said Gerard Minack, an economist with Morgan Stanley.

"Energy is more important for developed-world consumers than food," Minack said. "This is why further sharp rises in oil prices, if they occur, would be likely to be seen as a threat to growth."

In other Nymex trading in March contracts, heating oil and gasoline both rose.

AP News

Egypt Freezes Mubarak's Assets

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top prosecutor requested on Monday the freezing of the foreign assets of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his family, announced state TV.

Security officials said that the prosecutor general asked the Foreign Ministry to contact countries around the world so they can freeze his assets abroad. The president's domestic assets were frozen soon after he stepped down, they added.

The freeze applies to Mubarak, his wife, his two sons and two daughters-in-law, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the press.

The announcement came as British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in Cairo to meet with top Egyptian officials, the first trip of a world leader since Mubarak's fall. He said he would talk to those in charge to ensure "this really is a genuine transition" to civilian rule.

Egyptian state media on Sunday had quoted Mubarak's legal representative as saying the former president had submitted to authorities a declaration that he had no assets abroad. The former president is believed to currently be residing in his estate at the distant Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Egypt has so far asked for asset freezes of one top businessman and former ruling party official, as well as four former Cabinet ministers and detained them pending investigations.

The Mubarak's family's wealth — speculation has put it at anywhere from $1 billion to $70 billion — has come under growing scrutiny since Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster opened the floodgates to three decades of pent-up anger at the regime.

Watchdog groups allege that under Mubarak, top officials and tycoons were given preferential treatment in land contracts, allowed to buy state industries at a fraction of their value during Egypt's privatization process launched in the early 1990s, and got other perks that enabled them to increase their wealth exponentially. The perks came at a price — and the Mubaraks were major beneficiaries, the activists say.

Egyptian youth activists meeting with foreign diplomats in Cairo Monday, also singled out the search for Mubarak's assets as one of the ways other countries could help Egypt following the three week uprising that transfixed the world.

"When Egypt gets back that money, it won't need the foreign aid, and you will be relieved of that burden," said Islam Lutfi, who represent the Muslim Brotherhood on the activist coalition.

In a meeting organized to brief the diplomats from the United States, the EU and Australia, on their activities and future plans, the seven activists said they are deeply worried that the military-backed government is not making enough effort to involve them in the consultations over the post-Mubarak era.

"The message they kept sending to us is that they are not ready to talk to the coalition," said Ziad al-Oleimi, a member of the coalition which along with young cadres from the Muslim Brotherhood represent five youth organizations and political parties that initially launched the anti-Mubarak protests. "They only say we should help them to ensure stability, but never talk about what the people want."

Al-Oleimi, a lawyer, said among urgent demands that the young activists are pressing is to form a broad-based government with no Mubarak's cronies in it, lift emergency rule, release political prisoners and abolishing laws on political parties and allow free and fair election.

The military council has dissolved parliament, which was stacked with Mubarak loyalists, and suspended the constitution, but has declined to discuss specific actions on how to purge the political system of senior Mubarak loyalists.

The activists warned that they will resort to mass protests again if their demands were not met.

The meeting took place as senior U.S. and European officials arrived in Egypt to meet with the country's military leaders.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns came Monday for three-day visit that included a speech before the Arab League.

"We'll continue to encourage concrete steps to build confidence and to sustain the momentum of the transition, ranging from the constitutional amendments that are being considered, through careful preparations for elections, to the further release of political detainees, to the lifting of the Emergency Law," Burns said to the pan-Arab body.

The British prime minister met with Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and members of the country's opposition groups.

He told reporters on the plane to Cairo that he would to "talk to those currently running Egypt to make sure this really is a genuine transition from military rule to civilian rule."

Cameron told Tantawi, the head of the military council running the country, that Britain wanted to support Egypt's transition to democracy. "As old friends of the Egyptian people, we come not to tell you how to do things but to ask how we can help you do what we know you want to do," he said.

Cameron said he would not meet with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized opposition group, which was banned but tolerated under Mubarak.

The group announced Monday that it had chosen a name for its new political party, "Freedom and Justice." Though allowed to compete in elections as independents, the Muslim Brotherhood was never allowed to formally turn itself into a political party under the previous regime.

Addressing recent anti-government protests around the region, Cameron called on Middle Eastern governments to respond with "reform not repression."

Libya's response has been particularly brutal, and Cameron called its treatment of protesters "completely appalling and unacceptable."

Protests continue in Arab world

SANA, Yemen — Demonstrators were back in the streets Sunday in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, where the son of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi said protesters had seized control of some military bases and tanks.

Appearing on Libyan state television Sunday night after six days of protests, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi warned protesters that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya's oil wealth "will be burned."

"We are not Tunisia and Egypt," the younger Gadhafi said, referring to the uprisings that toppled longtime regimes in Libya's neighbors.

"Moammar Gadhafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him," the son said in a rambling 40-minute speech. "The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet."

He acknowledged that the army made mistakes during protests because it was not trained to deal with demonstrators but added that the number of dead had been exaggerated, giving a death toll of 84. Human Rights Watch put the number at 174 through Saturday.

Gadhafi's son offered to put forward within days changes that he described as a "historic national initiative."

He said the regime was willing to remove some restrictions and to begin a discussion of the constitution. He offered to change a number of laws, including those covering the news media and the penal code. He threatened to "eradicate the pockets of sedition" and said the army will play a main role in restoring order.

Rebellion has sprouted in a half-dozen cities against Gadhafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969. Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city with about 1 million people, has been at the center of unrest.

Jamal Eddin Mohammed, 53, said thousands marched Sunday toward the cemetery in the capital of Tripoli to bury at least a dozen protesters. They feared more clashes when they passed Gadhafi's palace and the regime's security headquarters.

"Everything is behind that (Gadhafi) compound; hidden behind wall after wall. The doors open and close and soldiers and tanks just come out, always as a surprise, and mostly after dark," he told the Associated Press by telephone.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. has raised strong objections with Libyan officials, including Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, about the use of lethal force against demonstrators.

In Yemen, a stalemate
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the nation's ruler of more than 32 years, offered to have protesters sit down with him and talk over their differences as thousands of Yemenis gathered Sunday outside Sana University.

"We are ready to respond to their demands if they are legitimate," Saleh said, according to the state-run Saba News Agency. "We have called them and we repeat our call to them for dialogue."

Yemen's main opposition coalition rejected the offer. "There is no dialogue with bullets, batons and acts of thugs," the Joint Parties Meeting, a coalition of six opposition groups, said in an e-mailed statement.

Saleh, 68, has ruled since 1978 and he has backed several U.S. attempts to disrupt al-Qaeda, which has been using Yemen as a base. Rebellions were taking place well before the latest uprisings. In 1994, Saleh used his army to crush an attempt at secession in the south.

Yemen remains the Arab world's poorest state. Almost half of the people live on less than $2 a day, and unemployment is at 40%. Its dwindling oil supply is likely to run out in 2017, according to the World Bank.

Protesters complain of government corruption and political patronage benefiting Saleh, his family and tribal leaders.

Tawakkol Karman, a mother of three, stood outside Sana University on Saturday and told a crowd of protesters it was time for Saleh to go.

"We want an end to the regime. Saleh and his family must all leave," Karman said.

Soon after, riot police hurtled into the protests and forced the crowd to run. Four people were shot.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose principal spokesman is American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, has called on Yemen to join a jihad against Saleh. Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen, said al-Qaeda is telling Yemen that it is time to follow its path.

"Now, they will argue, is the time to do it right; to implement God's law and to return to the straight path," he said.

Protesters complain that the USA is not on their side.

"I want to know why the West does not support the people of Yemen," said Bilquis Al Lahaby, 39. "They support Saleh."

Calm in Bahrain
In Bahrain, host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, a weekend of protests gave way to quiet as the military retreated from a square that was the scene of a bloody attack last week and allowed protesters to go back in. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for political dialogue in an address on state TV.

"We are not refusing a dialogue with the crown prince, but we need guarantees they will back words with action," Abdul-Jalil Khalil, a leader of the main Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, said from Pearl Square.

He said the opposition's main demand is for the resignation of the government, including a prime minister — the king's uncle — who has been in his position for 40 years. They also want the government to address claims of discrimination and abuses against Shiites, who make up about 70% of Bahrain's 525,000 citizens.

In Bahrain's capital, Manama, the army attacked protesters who were marching on Friday from the funeral of a demonstrator, said Ali Saeed Abdul-Aziz, 23.

"I saw the front row of the protesters setting down facing the army and not moving while they were firing directly at them," he said. "Now I am so angry I want revenge."

30 Steps to Better Government

CALLS for greater government efficiency are nothing new in Washington. But with President Obama and Congress now debating budgets for both the rest of this year and the next, with the economy yet to fully recover from the recent recession and with our government’s finances still on an unsustainable long-term path, the need to wring every dollar out of the federal budget and ensure that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth has never been greater.
How, though, do you find these savings?

Today, the Government Accountability Office is issuing its updated roadmap to confronting waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.
Since we started this list of programs at high risk of such problems two decades ago, our office has come to update it with each new Congress, and history shows that sustained, focused oversight from lawmakers and administration officials can save billions of dollars and improve services.
But while over one-third of the programs we listed previously have come off the list over the years, dozens of others have moved onto it. The latest high-risk list presents 30 areas ripe for Congress and President Obama to take action.

One new area on the list is the Interior Department’s management of oil and gas leases and royalties, which are among the largest sources of non-tax revenue to the federal government. One reason this area is at risk is that the department does not have reasonable assurance that all revenues are being collected.
Indeed, in 2008, the G.A.O. reported that the Interior Department had not conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the federal oil and gas revenue system in more than 25 years, despite significant changes in the oil and gas industry.

We have also pointed out that royalty collection relied too heavily on company-reported oil and gas production figures. In fiscal years 2006 and 2007 we found that much of the data reported by oil and gas companies appeared erroneous, resulting in millions in uncollected fees.
And the proportion of revenues that the government collected for oil and gas produced in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a major study, was lower than for 93 of 104 other owners of such resources.

In recent years, the G.A.O. has made more than 50 recommendations to the interior secretary to improve the department’s revenue collection and hiring, training and retaining staff policies and modify its practices for managing oil and gas resources.
The Interior Department has been acting on some of these recommendations — but there were many more that still need to be put into effect. As the G.A.O. and other institutions continue to examine these issues, additional problems and recommendations will likely be identified as well.

We are also dropping two issues from the high-risk list: the Department of Defense’s personnel security clearance program, which processes hundreds of thousands of security clearances annually for service members and civilians, and the 2010 Census. Both dealt sufficiently with identified vulnerabilities to warrant their removal.
Three factors contributed to this success: high-level support from agencies, clear measures with which to gauge progress and strong Congressional oversight. Credit goes to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for holding the agencies involved accountable.

Several other items remaining on the high-risk list illustrate the magnitude of the potential savings that are possible. For example, the Medicare and Medicaid programs need to add better detection and controls to curtail billions of dollars in improper payments.

In fiscal year 2010 alone, Medicare had estimated improper payments of almost $48 billion; this estimate did not include improper payments in its prescription drug benefit program, for which the agency has not yet determined a total amount.
And because Medicare remains on a path that is fiscally unsustainable over the long term, there is heightened pressure to improve its payment methods, as well as its management and oversight of program operations and patient care.

As for Medicaid, it has taken steps to improve transparency and reduce improper payments in recent years, but more can be done. Improper payments to providers that submit inappropriate claims can result in substantial financial losses to states and the federal government. The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated a national improper payment rate for Medicaid of 9.4 percent (with the federal share estimated at $22.5 billion) for fiscal year 2010.

Certain services may be more susceptible than others to improper payments. For example, in 2009 the G.A.O. found that Medicaid beneficiaries and providers were involved in potentially wasteful or abusive purchases of controlled substances in five selected states.
Specifically, we found that Medicaid paid over $2 million in controlled substance prescriptions during fiscal years 2006 and 2007 that were written or filled by 65 medical practitioners and pharmacies barred, excluded or both from federal health care programs, including Medicaid.

As a result, the G.A.O. recommended that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issue guidelines to states for processes that better prevent payment of improper claims for controlled substances in Medicaid. The agency generally agreed with our recommendations — yet such guidance had not been issued by the end of last year.

Billions more could flow to the Treasury through better enforcement of the tax laws and closing the gap between taxes owed and paid. Typically, about 84 percent of owed taxes are paid voluntarily and on time; in its most recent estimate, for 2001, the I.R.S. said the resulting net gap was $290 billion. Congress and the I.R.S. have taken innovative actions aimed at further improving tax compliance.
The I.R.S. last year began putting in place regulations covering paid tax return preparers, an important step given the critical role they play in helping taxpayers meet their tax obligations. Congress also passed laws that require financial institutions to report information on foreign bank accounts, the cost basis of securities and merchants’ credit card receipts.

Greater attention also needs to be paid to how the Pentagon acquires weapon systems. Each year, investments totaling hundreds of billions of dollars too often produce military equipment that is over budget, behind schedule or unable to meet the needs of our troops.
The Government Accountability Office has previously reported that the growth in projected costs on the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2008 portfolio of 96 defense acquisition programs was more than $303 billion (adjusted for inflation). In addition, the average delay in delivering initial capability was 22 months.

For 42 programs the G.A.O. assessed in depth in 2010, there was continued improvement in the amount of knowledge the department had on the technology, design and manufacturing of these weapons programs at key points in the acquisition process. Most programs, however, were still proceeding with less knowledge than best practices suggest, putting them at higher risk for cost growth and schedule delays.

Congress and top officials responsible for programs on the high-risk list have been willing to address these issues. For example, in 2009, Congress required that the Defense Department’s weapons acquisition programs now reflect the basic elements of a knowledge-based acquisition approach and that programs with excessive cost growth be terminated.
In addition, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has proposed canceling major defense acquisition programs that have been plagued with cost and schedule problems.

OUR list also includes programs that are at risk not for financial reasons but because they need better management or broad transformation. Take information security, which the G.A.O. first identified as a government-wide problem in 1997.
Our office in 2003 expanded this high-risk area to include critical elements — like power distribution, water supply, telecommunications and emergency services — that rely extensively on computerized information systems and electronic data to carry out their operations.

The security of these systems and data is essential to protecting national and economic security, and public health and safety; and at the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and numerous other federal agencies, progress is being made. But cyber threats are growing and evolving, reported security incidents are rising and significant security deficiencies pervade federal systems that jeopardize the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the federal government’s security and the information they process.

In addition, the administration and executive branch agencies have not yet fully carried out key actions that are intended to improve the current United States approach to cybersecurity: developing a comprehensive national strategy for addressing global cybersecurity and governance; creating a national and federal research and development agenda for improving cybersecurity; carrying out the near- and mid-term actions recommended by the 2009 cybersecurity policy review directed by the president and updating the national strategy for securing the information and communications infrastructure.

Top agency officials and the Office of Management and Budget have been working with the Government Accountability Office to make greater progress on the high-risk list, and continued Congressional oversight has been essential to this progress. By focusing on oversight and acting to reform these programs on the high-risk list, Congress and the White House send an important message: the public must receive the best possible return on every tax dollar spent. Closing our nation’s fiscal gap will require broader budgetary changes and shared contributions. Greater efficiency and effectiveness in government can help ease that burden on the American people while preserving vital programs of importance to us all.

Gene L. Dodaro is the comptroller general of the United States and the head of the Government Accountability Office.