TIME White House

Man Who Crashed Drone at White House Had Reportedly Been Drinking

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The south side of the White House is seen January 26, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Turned himself in after seeing news reports about the crash

The pilot of a small unmanned drone that crashed on the White House lawn early Monday had been drinking before the incident took place, law enforcement officials told the New York Times.

The still-unidentified government employee turned himself in to authorities after seeing news reports about the crash, which triggered a lockdown at the White House and nearby government buildings.

The Times reported the man had a feeling the drone might have touched down on the White House grounds, but he went home to sleep regardless.

While this particular remote-controlled aircraft posed little risk to the President or others, the event caused concern that similar drones could represent a national security threat.

President Obama himself used the incident to call for a new regulatory framework around small unmanned aircraft. Some Federal Aviation Administration rules apply to small, hobbyist-piloted drones, but the agency lacks an effective enforcement mechanism to punish offenders, largely leaving local law enforcement to sanction pilots who put the public’s safety at risk.

Judging by a Secret Service photo released Monday, the drone was a DJI Phantom, which are about two pounds and just over a foot across and retail for $479 and up:

United States Secret Service

Many Phantom models are capable of carrying a video camera, but it wasn’t clear from the image if the unit in question was equipped with one.

[NYT]

 

TIME White House

The Story Behind Bill Clinton’s Infamous Denial

It was on this day in 1998 that President Bill Clinton (as seen around 6:18 in the video above) uttered 11 words that would go down in history: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.”

Though the definition of “sexual relations” — and other phrases — may be questioned, even in hindsight, Clinton did eventually end up admitting to an affair.

So why did he say those 11 words in the first place?

One possible explanation can be found in the Feb. 9, 1998, TIME special report that explored the impact of that speech:

While Starr was trying to make his case, Clinton’s job last week was to persuade the American people to reserve judgment, let the investigation proceed and bear with the Great Explainer’s refusal to explain much of anything. So after days of watery nondenials and rumors of resignation, last Monday Clinton finally gave voters who wanted to believe in him an excuse to do so. In the Roosevelt Room of the White House Monday morning, with Hillary beside him, he stared into the camera and narrowed his eyes. “I want you to listen to me,” he said. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never.”

It was an enormous gamble, the result of a fierce White House battle. While Clinton had for days been urged by adviser Mickey Kantor and others to toughen his denial, the Monday morning statement was finally worked out in a post-midnight strategy session with former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and Hollywood imagineer Harry Thomason. Ickes, the street-smart infighter who had steered Clinton’s re-election campaign only to be bumped out of a second-term job, flew in from California and went straight to the White House. Ickes’ prescription for the President: Look the people straight in the eye and, to the extent you and your lawyer are confident, say, “I didn’t do it.” Only a loud, unambiguous denial would “stanch the wound,” Ickes said. Thomason, meanwhile, helped the President rehearse the stern, reproving body language, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

It was the first of several turning points, and it worked. That afternoon, when Hillary arrived in Harlem to visit an after-school program, the crowd was jeering reporters, chanting, “Leave Bill alone!”

Read more about the semantics of the statement, here in the TIME Vault: When Is Sex Not ‘Sexual Relations’?

TIME White House

Drone That Crashed at White House Was Quadcopter

Drone Quadcopter
Getty Images

A drone that crashed on the White House grounds Monday, causing a brief lockdown, was a two-foot wide remote-controlled quadcopter that is sold in stores, officials said.

According to a Secret Service spokesman, a uniformed division officer stationed on the South Grounds of the complex “heard and observed” the device flying at a low altitude, before it crashed on the southeast side of the 18-acre secure zone around the executive mansion shortly after 3 a.m. Monday. The incident triggered a lockdown of the White House and nearby buildings, as officials scrambled to study the device and ensure it did not pose a threat.

According to Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary, an individual called the agency Monday morning after seeing news reports of the crash to report that they had been in control of the quadcopter. “The individual has been interviewed by Secret Service agents and been fully cooperative,” he said. “Initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device. This investigation continues as the Secret Service conducts corroborative interviews, forensic examinations and reviews all other investigative leads.”

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were in India when the incident occurred. It is not clear whether other family members were present.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed that a device had been recovered. “There is a device that has been recovered by the Secret Service at the White House,” he said in a press briefing in New Delhi early Monday. “Early indications are that it does not pose any sort of ongoing threat right now to anybody at the White House.”

The crash follows several high-profile security breaches at the White House that have shaken the Secret Service, including an incident last year when a disturbed man armed with a knife jumped a fence and managed to enter the mansion before being apprehended by officers. Obama subsequently asked the agency’s director to step aside, and her interim replacement has taken steps to reform its top leadership.

Under longstanding Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, no unmanned aerial system may be flown in the 12-13 mile area around Washington Reagan National Airport, which includes airspace over the White House, Pentagon, Naval Observatory and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The proliferation of small drones is posing new challenges not just at sensitive government facilities, but around the country, as cheap systems equipped with cameras pose new privacy concerns and reports of close encounters with private and commercial aircraft rise.

The Secret Service released a photo of the device Monday afternoon, identifying it as a member of the popular DJI Phantom line of quadcopters which retail for several hundred dollars online. It was not immediately clear whether the device was equipped with a camera, or whether it was recording during its flight.

United States Secret Service
TIME White House

Drone Lands Inside White House Grounds

A member of the US Secret Service stands guard in front of the White House in Washington on Oct. 23, 2014.
A member of the US Secret Service stands guard in front of the White House in Washington on Oct. 23, 2014. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

The device prompted an increased security presence around the White House

NEW DELHI, India — A drone landed inside the White House grounds early Monday, a federal law enforcement official told NBC News.

The official gave no further details about the unmanned aerial vehicle, other than to say it landed in a tree at 3 a.m. ET. The Secret Service responded and determined the drone did not pose a threat, the official said.

Earlier, President Barack Obama’s Press Secretary Josh Earnest told a briefing on Obama’s trip to India that a “device” was found within the White House grounds. Earnest gave no further details.

The device prompted an increased security presence around the White House early Monday…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME 2016 Election

Chris Christie Launches PAC in Preparation for 2016 Presidential Run

Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines
Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2015 Jim Young—Reuters

Several other Republican candidates have long-standing political groups as well

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie launched a federal political action committee, or PAC, Monday as he seeks to lay the groundwork for a likely 2016 presidential campaign.

The new group, Leadership Matters for America PAC, will allow the 52-year-old to travel the country to raise money and support like-minded politicians, but it can’t specifically advocate on his behalf. The launch comes two days after Christie appeared at a conservative cattle call in Iowa, where he sought to prove he could reach out to a skeptical party base.

The PAC’s website features a smiling Christie holding court at one of his signature town halls, and its mission statement hews closely to Christie’s rapidly developing stump speech. News of the PAC’s formation was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“America has been a nation that has always controlled events and yet today events control us,” it states. “Why? Because leadership matters. It matters if we want to restore America’s role in the world, find the political will to take on the entrenched special interests that continually stand in the way of fundamental change, reform entitlement spending at every level of government, and ensure that every child, no matter their zip code, has access to a quality education.”

Former Republican National Committee Finance chairman Ray Washburne, who announced earlier this month he would step down to take a position with Christie, will hold the same role for the new group. Former Republican Governors Association executive director Phil Cox and longtime Christie strategist Mike DuHaime will serve as political advisers. Matt Mowers, the outgoing New Hampshire GOP executive director, and Phil Valenziano, a former aide to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, will be the PAC’s on-the-ground presence in those two presidential early states.

Earlier this month, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush launched a leadership PAC and a super PAC in preparation for his presidential run. Several other Republican candidates have long-standing political groups as well.

Christie is set to return to Iowa on Feb. 9 to address the Dallas County Republican Party, and has planned trips across the country in coming weeks to fundraise and boost his political profile. He is not expected to make a final decision on his candidacy until the spring.

TIME White House

Obama Moves to Protect 12 Million Acres of Alaskan Wildlife

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Polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Getty Images

It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years

The Obama Administration will ask Congress to protect millions of acres of land in Alaska from a range of human activity including drilling and road construction, officials said Sunday.

If approved by Congress, the move would designate more than 12 million acres as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection, and protect native wildlife including caribou, polar bears and wolves. It would be the largest such designation in more than 50 years.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The proposal will undoubtedly meet opposition in Congress. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski condemned the move immediately as an act of federal overreach.

“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” she said in a statement. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them.”

TIME White House

White House Chief of Staff Reaffirms ‘Deep and Abiding’ U.S.-Israel Ties

Meet the Press - Season 68
Denis McDonough White House Chief of Staff appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington D.C. on Jan. 25, 2015. William B. Plowman—NBC/Getty Images

Amid reports of a rift with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough repudiated reports of a widening rift between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday’s morning talk shows.

An unnamed administration official was quoted by Israeli newspaper Haaretz as saying Netanyahu “spat in our face publicly” when he agreed to accept an invitation to speak to the United States Congress in March without President Obama having been consulted first.

But McDonough said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the alliance between the U.S. and Israel remained strong. “Our relationship with Israel is many-faceted, deep and abiding,” he said. “It’s focused on a shared series of threats, but also, on a shared series of values that one particular instance is not going to inform overwhelmingly.”

The White House Chief of Staff said he could not “guarantee” that an administration official hadn’t made the remarks about Netanyahu, but said he had no idea who might have said them. “It’s not me. It’s not the President,” McDonough told interviewer Chuck Todd.

House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress when he visits the U.S. in March, without informing the White House first. The trip coincides with negotiations between the U.S. and others with Iran on their nuclear capabilities, which are strongly opposed by Israel and by some in Congress.

The White House said President Obama would not be meeting with Netanyahu during his visit, out of concerns that it might influence the Israeli elections due to take place two weeks after his trip.

The decision has been portrayed as a snub by the Israeli media, though McDonough said on Meet the Press that the principle would be the same for any other ally. “We think as a general matter we in the U.S. stay out of internal politics of our closest allies,” he said.

In a separate interview on ABC’s This Week Sunday, McDonough urged Congress not to pass new sanctions on Iran while the nuclear negotiations are ongoing.

“We’ve asked Congress for forbearance, for some time to allow us to run these negotiations so that it is we who are, united with our allies, maintaining Iran isolated, rather than going with some kind of premature action up there on the Hill that would risk really splintering the international community, making it we, not the Iranians, who are isolated,” he said.

TIME White House

Here Are the 8 Bills Obama Has Threatened to Veto

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama in the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 16, 2015. Carolyn Kaster—AP

President Obama’s veto threats may end up being more like empty threats.

Though he’s only vetoed two bills so far in office — far fewer than most other presidents — Obama has told the newly Republican-controlled Congress that he will veto more if they send him the wrong bills.

Obama made four veto threats in his State of the Union address alone on stiffer Iran sanctions, the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street oversight and immigration.

“If a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it,” he said.

But just because the President threatens a veto, that doesn’t mean he will. Nearly all of the bills he’s warned Congress about probably won’t make it out of the Senate anyway.

Here’s a look at the eight veto threats Obama has made so far.

Keystone XL Pipeline Act

What it would do: Approve construction of an oil pipeline between Canada and the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Where it stands now: The Senate is currently working out the final amendments to the bill, and it should go to a final passage vote before the end of January. It almost passed the Senate last year but lost by one vote.

Regulatory Accountability Act of 2015

What it would do: Establish tougher requirements for writing federal regulations.

Where it stands now: It passed the House and has some chance of passing in the Senate with the new Republican majority and support from moderate Democrats.

Save American Workers Act of 2015

What it would do: Increase the number of hours a week an employee has to work in order to get employer-provided health insurance, from 30 to 40.

Where it stands now: It passed the House, but there’s a scramble to line up the 60 necessary votes to pass the Senate (which would have to include six Democrats).

No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act

What it would do: Ban taxpayer funding for abortion.

Where it stands now: The act already passed the House, though it will be far less likely to pass the Senate because of the scarcity of pro-life Democrats.

Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act

What it would do: Weaken almost a dozen provisions in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul.

Where it stands now: It passed the House, but likely won’t pass the Senate. However, Republicans could muscle portions of it into law by attaching them to critical spending bills.

Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act

What it would do: Require a decision on natural gas pipeline project applications within 12 months.

Where it stands now: The act has passed the House. While some House Democrats voted for the bill, it will likely stall in the Senate.

Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act

What it would do: Overturn Obama’s 2014 executive action on immigration, which shielded millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Where it stands now: The bill in this form passed the House, but almost certainly won’t pass the Senate with the amendments about Obama’s executive action. However, some form of this bill needs to be passed by the end of February.

Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act

What it would do: Ban most abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Where it stands now: The bill got pulled from the House this week amid concerns from female GOP lawmakers that it would weaken the party’s appeal among women and millennial voters. It will be amended and possibly brought up again later.

 

TIME Environment

EPA Still Slow to Study Toxic Chemicals, Despite Obama Pledge

EPA
;MCT Graphics/Getty Images

In his first inaugural address, between promising to fix the economy and lower the cost of health care, President Barack Obama made this pledge:

“We’ll restore science to its rightful place.”

It might sound arcane as a presidential priority, but it was a big deal at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Political interference from the Bush White House had delayed or derailed dozens of the EPA’s findings on potential health risks posed by toxic chemicals.

Some of those findings applied to chemicals to which all of us are exposed. Formaldehyde is in our kitchen cabinets and carpet. Arsenic is in our drinking water and rice. EPA scientists had determined that both of these carcinogens were more deadly than previously thought. Yet, officially, the agency remains unable to say so or to do anything about it.

On her first day on the job, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator, sent employees a memo echoing the president’s promise to divorce politics from science. The agency has said it needs to assess 50 chemicals a year to do its job properly. Yet in the Bush years it was averaging only five assessments a year. Jackson quickly rolled out a plan to break through the logjam.

The plan seemed easily achievable. It required no congressional approval and involved tweaking the inner workings of bureaucracy. Republicans never passed any legislation to block it.

Yet the Obama administration’s plan has been a failure. In the past three years, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year, it completed only one assessment. Today, the agency has even embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays.

“Of late, the administration has displayed a disturbing tendency to retreat in the face of a blistering and self-serving industry campaign to stifle this vital program once and for all,” said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who closely follows the EPA’s chemical assessment program.

The story of how this happened is a lesson in how Washington works.

Delaying science

There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today. You might think that the government tests each chemical to assure that it’s safe. But in the United States, unlike the European Union, chemicals are assumed to pose no health risk unless the EPA proves otherwise. This task is left to a small program within the EPA called the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS.

It may not be the sexiest job at the EPA. But the agency needs IRIS’s scientific research to regulate chemicals. Without the science, there cannot be new regulations.

During the Bush years, the chemical industry had allies within the White House. Starting in 2004, EPA scientists had to submit drafts of their scientific assessments to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review. There, most assessments languished or died, according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office in 2008.

Jackson announced she was wresting control of chemical assessments from the White House. In addition, she wanted to drastically cut the time spent on each one. . The few reports that were getting published were taking an average of seven years to complete. She vowed to complete them in less than two years.

Yet, almost immediately, the chemical industry found ways to thwart Jackson’s plan with the help of Republicans in Congress. Although the GOP didn’t control either chamber in Obama’s first two years, Republican lawmakers still found ways to delay science at the EPA.

For example, the Senate has a gentleman’s agreement that a single lawmaker can stall a president’s political appointments. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana did just that in 2009. He put a “hold” on a key EPA appointee until the agency agreed to get a second opinion on its formaldehyde assessment.

Formaldehyde is commonly thought of as an embalming fluid. But it’s widely used in building materials, automobiles and even no-iron shirts. According to the National Academy of Sciences, we are all exposed to formaldehyde every day.

EPA scientists began evaluating the chemical in 1998 and determined that it was linked to nasal cancers and leukemia. They were not alone. In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified formaldehyde as a known carcinogen. In 2011, the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did the same.

Yet, the formaldehyde industry, with its political muscle, challenges these findings. “The scientific literature is clear that there is no increased health risk from low-level exposures normally found in home or work environments,” says a statement from the American Chemistry Council, a trade association and lobby group for the chemical industry.

One of formaldehyde’s makers, Georgia-Pacific, is owned by Koch Industries, run by billionaires Charles and David Koch, two of the largest political donors in recent years.

To unblock the appointee, who would oversee the IRIS program, the EPA agreed to have the National Academy of Sciences review its formaldehyde draft. The academy, a fraternity of leading scientists, is the nation’s premier scientific advisor.

But the panel of scientists assembled by the academy in 2011 didn’t focus on whether the EPA was right about the science. Instead, it criticized the formaldehyde draft for being confusing and made suggestions on how to make future IRIS reports clearer. The chemical industry pounced on this.

‘Really unconscionable’

When Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010, they could exert control over the EPA with spending bills. Even with gridlock in Washington, Congress has to pass such bills if it wants to keep the government open. This allows leaders of the appropriations committees to insert language anonymously for pet projects and special interests.

Last year, the Center for Public Integrity revealed that Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, inserted language to block the IRIS assessment of arsenic. Arsenic is commonly found in drinking water. EPA scientists were going to say in the assessment that for every 100,000 people who drank the allowable limit of arsenic every day, 730 would eventually get lung or bladder cancer from it.

But mining, power and pesticide companies all have a financial stake in arsenic. The EPA had an agreement with two pesticide companies to take a weed killer containing arsenic off the market because of the dangers. But the agreement was conditioned on the EPA completing its scientific assessment.

“I have to say that I’m not a lobbyist. I’m a scientist. When the EPA [reached its conclusion]… we found that there’s a lot of flawed science in it. We had to get some help,” said Michal Eldan, vice president of one of the pesticide companies, Luxembourg-Pamol. The other is Drexel Chemical Co.

The pesticide companies lobbied Simpson to stop an EPA ban of their products. In 2011, Simpson used his position on the appropriations committee to instruct the EPA to seek a new review from the National Academy. At that point, the EPA had been working on its assessment for seven years. As a result of Simpson’s delay, the EPA couldn’t enforce its ban and the herbicide remains on the market.

William Ruckelshaus, who ran the EPA for presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, said getting the National Academy to review the agency’s scientific findings is a common delay tactic used by industry. He sharply criticized it for endangering public health.

“Anytime that a scientific group or the EPA or any other agencies that has regulatory authorities over these kinds of chemicals finds something wrong it ought to be immediately published,” Ruckelshaus said. “To the extent that that’s delayed or stalled in some way it’s really unconscionable — particularly if it’s done on behalf of the industry that manufactures the chemical and they have economic benefit associated with it.”

The formaldehyde industry used the same delay tactic as the pesticide companies and at the same time. They even used the same lobbyist: former EPA official Charlie Grizzle.

Leveraging the National Academy’s criticisms about the clarity of the formaldehyde assessment, Grizzle and others got language inserted that delayed all 47 chemical assessments in progress. Here’s how they did it: They instructed the EPA to adopt the academy’s recommendations and explain to Congress how it was going to implement them for ongoing and new assessments.

In an interview, Grizzle acknowledged he was involving in lobbying for the changes. Asked whether this forced the EPA to redo all of its assessments, he said, “I don’t know.”

For each chemical, EPA scientists start by reviewing hundreds of published scientific articles. Until now, they have relied on their expert opinions to decide which studies are the most reliable. But the National Academy recommended the EPA create a system – like a scorecard – to determine how much weight to give each study. EPA scientists complain that scoring hundreds of studies can be difficult and time-consuming.

Bernard Goldstein, an EPA official during the Reagan administration and the former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said it’s not clear that the National Academy’s suggestions will produce better assessments. There’s little scientific dispute that some chemicals are toxic. The EPA may be spending much more time to arrive at the same conclusion as it would have before. The suggestions “could actually prolong the process and contribute to the problem that process was taking too long because you would need additional scientific analyses,” Goldstein said.

Jonathan Samet, who chaired the National Academy panel on formaldehyde, defended its suggestions, saying a scorecard approach “has really become best practices in science.”

But Samet, who also chairs the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, said, “We were quite clear that neither the formaldehyde or other assessments should be stopped or greatly delayed while changes were made to the process. There are too many important agents being evaluated and too many stakeholders awaiting results.”

Ironically, the National Academy released its own assessment of formaldehyde last year. It agreed with the EPA’s findings that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen linked to leukemia. The EPA formaldehyde assessment is still mired in delays, 17 years after work on it began.

Fans of Ken Olden

The Obama administration could have resisted political pressure from the chemical industry and House Republicans. The language instructing the EPA to seek second opinions from the National Academy was not in the spending bill itself. That language was put instead into a document attached to the bill to explain Congress’s intent.

When shown the language, Charles Fox, who served as an EPA official during the Clinton administration, said, “This is what we consider advisory language. The agency is not obligated to implement that language in the report but is, for lack of better word, strongly encouraged to do so.”

Lisa Jackson left the EPA in February 2013 and went to work for Apple. She did not respond to requests for an interview. Neither did her replacement as EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy.

In July 2012, Dr. Kenneth Olden took charge of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, which oversees IRIS. While a director at the National Institutes of Health, Olden raised eyebrows by collaborating with the American Chemistry Council to fund scientific research. Olden has embraced the procedural changes sought by the National Academy of Sciences. In doing so, he has won praise from the chemical industry and Republicans.

Appearing before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology last July, Olden was lauded by Republican congressmen who are usually critical of the EPA.

“I had some folks who care very much about what is done here, and they actually said nice things about you, Dr. Olden,” said Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona. “You have no idea how rare it is to hear nice things about anyone around here.”

Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia has called for the elimination of the EPA. But at the hearing, he said, “Dr. Olden has been a refreshing ambassador for the IRIS program and I applaud his commitment to an open and transparent IRIS process that includes early communication and increased opportunities for meaningful stakeholder input.”

Michael Walls, a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, testified, “You can count me among the fans of Ken Olden.”

In a case of role reversal, it was a Democrat on the committee who challenged Olden. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon said that the EPA’s focus “on building a better relationship with industry has had the effect of crippling IRIS rather than putting the EPA on the path to streamline production of IRIS entries.”

Currying favor with Republicans may have saved IRIS from threatened budget cuts. In the most recent spending bill, Congress cut the EPA’s budget by $60 million. But it spared the IRIS program.

One of the biggest changes Olden has made is to hold public meetings every two months to get input on ongoing chemical assessments. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that those meetings are dominated by speakers paid by the chemical industry. Since the meetings began, 85 percent of the speakers have been industry-funded scientists.

At the first public meeting in 2012, Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund said, “It may seem strange to hear this from a representative of the public interest community, but what IRIS needs is fewer, not more, opportunities for ‘public’ input… More opportunities for input not only require more time, they also result in a process that virtually ensures the input received by EPA is imbalanced and badly skewed toward the regulated community.”

Jennifer Sass, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, regularly attends public meetings on chemicals. She said it’s not unusual for her to be the only scientist there not paid by industry.

“There’s a lot less scientists and community members that have the resources and have the interest and have the time to travel and take the time,” she said. “Whereas, the industry people are getting paid; every hour they are there, that’s a paid hour for them.”

That leads to biased meetings, Sass said.

“I have never seen the chemical industry say, ‘Oh, wow! It looks from all of these data and the public literature like we had better start being safer with this chemical.’ They, in my experience, have always defended their chemical, tried to show that it’s safer, or less toxic, than what independent studies show.”

At the most recent public meeting, Nancy Beck, a scientist at the American Chemistry Council, asked an IRIS scientist to present more information from all the studies the EPA reviewed.

“I know it’s a lot of work in the beginning,” Beck said about the scorecard approach.

IRIS scientist Catherine Gibbons replied, “I think it’s an extremely laborious process.”

Beck declined a request for an interview.

Olden himself acknowledged that the views at the meetings are not balanced. In October, he announced plans to bring in more independent scientists. Two weeks later, at a public hearing on hexavalent chromium, a chemical whose carcinogenic effects have been publicly debated since the film Erin Brockovich, every non-EPA speaker on the agenda was paid by industry.

‘Endless jawboning’

Obama did not mention scientific integrity in his second inaugural address. Nor has he spoken about it lately. On its website, the IRIS program has removed Lisa Jackson’s plan to take politics out of the process and replaced it with a new plan to address the concerns pressed by the chemical industry and House Republicans.

After months of requests for an interview, the EPA made Olden available to a Center reporter for 10 minutes by phone. He defended his emphasis on improving the quality of assessments rather than on Jackson’s promise to increase the quantity.

“You can’t hold me accountable for what happened years ago,” Olden said. “I was brought in in July 2012 to address the issues that had been raised by GAO and the NAS report, and we are addressing those as rapidly as possible.”

Olden had no explanation for why the EPA didn’t resist pressure from Congress to delay assessments, saying that wasn’t his decision.

“It more or less dealt with a policy issue in the regulatory arena that we don’t in fact deal with. That’s my position.”

When asked if that decision was made higher up within the EPA, Olden said, “I stick with my answer.”

He acknowledged that he gets pressure from the chemical industry but said, “We get pressures from lots of quarters, and to be balanced, you should point that out… But our commitment is to stick with the science. And you’ve never had any evidence that we’ve deviated from that during my tenure as director of this program, and you won’t find any evidence of that.”

Asked why IRIS isn’t producing more chemical assessments, Olden said, “We are doing as much as humanly possible. I think the agency is pleased, and I think the scientific community is pleased. I feel good about what we’ve done.

In his 2 ½ -year tenure, the EPA has published only four chemical assessments.

The University of Maryland’s Steinzor, an expert in scientific integrity, testified before Congress that the changes the EPA is making to IRIS are misguided.

“EPA’s political appointees seem to harbor the naïve idea that this process will placate its critics,” she said. “Instead, endless jawboning has left the agency vulnerable to cynical exploitation. In sum, let us not lose sight of what is really at stake, the priceless notion that the water we drink and the air we breathe ought to be clean and healthy.”

TIME White House

Obama Won’t Meet With Netanyahu During Washington Visit

US-ISRAEL-OBAMA-NETANYAHU
US President Barack Obama(R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 3, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

White House blames upcoming elections in Israel

President Obama will not meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next month when he is in Washington to address a joint session of Congress, the White House said Thursday.

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement. “Accordingly, the President will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the U.S. Congress.”

MORE These Are the Elections to Watch Around the World in 2015

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that Netanyahu had accepted an invitation to address Congress on Feb. 11, but neither the Republican leader nor the Israelis informed the White House, in a move Press Secretary Josh Earnest called a breach from protocol. The personal relationship between the U.S. and Israeli leader has deteriorated in recent years, even as both leaders argue that the professional relationship has never been stronger.

“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he’s traveling there,” he said. “That certainly is how President Obama’s trips are planned when we travel overseas. So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

His address comes as congressional Republicans are pressuring Obama over the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. During his State of the Union Address this week, Obama threatened to veto any additional sanctions legislation passed by the GOP-controlled Congress while talks are ongoing.

“The President has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community,” Meehan said. “The President has had many conversations with the Prime Minister on this matter, and I am sure they will continue to be in contact on this and other important matters.”

In a statement announcing the address, Boehner called Netanyahu “a great friend of our country.” “In this time of challenge, I am asking the Prime Minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life,” he said. “Americans and Israelis have always stood together in shared cause and common ideals, and now we must rise to the moment again.”

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