After the Oct. 12, 2000 al Qaeda bomb attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors and ripped a 40-foot hole in the side of the Navy destroyer, the Pentagon initiated a plan to protect U.S. ships from future terrorist attacks by shielding them with rings of floating, rubberized barriers.
But nearly seven years later, according to a report in Thursday's Washington Post, auditors have concluded that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which was responsible for the program, wasted millions of dollars hiring companies that did little or no significant work on the barriers.
Further, the Post says, invoices, e-mails and audit documents show that the General Services Administration, which oversees federal contracts, allowed the Navy to skirt procurement rules meant to ensure competition and protect against abuse and fraud.
"Millions of taxpayer dollars went out the window, given to companies who did nothing in return," said a former deputy GSA inspector general. "This was particularly disturbing because it was a national security project."
There were other problems with the project, which the Post says cost at least $100 million. Navy officials told auditors that the barriers, which were intended to prevent terrorists from getting close to U.S. ships while in port, "were prone to leaks, can deflate completely, and that defects caused barrier gates to remain open."
An NCIS spokesman would not discuss the allegations, saying "there is a joint, ongoing criminal investigation into this matter." A GSA spokesman also had no comment.
High Gas Prices? Blame Biofuels
With some Americans paying nearly $4 for a gallon of gas, The New York Times reports some oil industry executives are pointing fingers at a "surprising culprit" for the record high prices at the pump.
The Times says the oil execs are pinning at least some of the blame for current fuel shortages – and the high gas prices that follow – on the government's push to increase the supply of biofuels like ethanol in coming years. And they worry the problem could have a long-term impact.
With President Bush urging a sharp increase in the use of biofuels, and Congress considering a bill calling for a nearly fivefold increase in ethanol use, many oil companies say they're being forced to scale back or reconsider plans for constructing new refinery capacity.
The president of Shell Oil called the push for biofuels a "disincentive" for oil companies to invest in refinery expansion.
But not everyone's buying the purported connection between biofuels and high gas prices. The Times says the current jump in fuel costs has "renewed suspicions that the oil industry is looking for ways to keep profits high by delaying much-needed investments."
Campaign Donors Hedging Their Bets
Some Americans are having a hard time deciding which candidate to back in the 2008 presidential campaign – so they're backing more than one.
USA Today reports at least 1,200 people have contributed to the campaigns of at least two White House contenders so far this year. The majority of these multiple-candidate donors – more than 900 – are giving money to Democrats.
Democratic fundraiser William Brandt, for example, is raising money for Hillary Clinton, but he also gave $4,600. the maximum contribution allowed under federal law, to Barack Obama.
"It's a wide-open race," Brandt said, "and we have an embarrassment of riches."
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