Retired for now are the shutdown and debt ceiling countdown clocks which seemed to be ubiquitous over the past few weeks as the U.S. government’s partial shutdown dominated news stories and political reporting. While these two events deserved the attention which was afforded them, one byproduct of the intense focus on the fiscal crises emanating from Washington was that a number of other important political stories slipped under the radar. Here’s a brief overview of a few news stories that took place during the shutdown.
Obamacare roll out – The day the shutdown began was also the day that the Affordable Care Act’s online market places went live, allowing uninsured Americans to begin searching for health insurance on the exchanges that were set up as part of the Affordable Care Act. This story was the largest non-shutdown story over the past two weeks, as it should have been. Thus far, the Obamacare roll out has been an unqualified disaster. For the first few days after their launch, the official exchange websites were overwhelmed by traffic and many believed that the unexpectedly high volume of traffic was the reason behind error messages which many visitors were receiving. The Obama administration reported that the federal website, Healthcare.gov, received 2.8 million visits the day it went live.* As problems continued throughout week two of the roll out however, questions began arising about whether there were underlying problems with the digital framework which supported the insurance exchange website. (Here’s a graphic showing how the exchange works)
The Obamacare exchange was set up largely by CGI Federal, an IT contractor which played a role in developing the IT infrastructure for Canada’s healthcare system. It’s unfair to place all of the blame with CGI since the federal exchange website isn’t the only one facing serious problems. Individuals attempting to enroll in the fifteen states that set up their own exchanges have also reported difficulties and delays. While the roll out has been mired in problems thus far, all hope is not yet lost. In 2005, the online launch of Medicare Part D’s prescription program was plagued with problems similar to those which have affected the ACA. Eight years later, Medicare Part D is largely regarded as a success. What this means is that the next few weeks will really be a defining period for the online exchanges. With the shutdown and debt ceiling debates no longer dominating headlines, the scrutiny placed on online exchanges, there successes, and their shortcomings will greatly increase and take center stage – as it should. The kicker to all of this is that by diverting attention away from the roll out during it’s most problem plagued phase, the shutdown – and the Republican lawmakers who helped engineer it – gave President Obama and his signature domestic accomplishment they biggest give they could have asked for.
*It’s unclear whether this statistic is for the number of unique visitors to the site on October 1st, or the number of page views. If it’s the later, the 2.8 million figure could be artificially high due to individuals repeatedly refreshing the page after receiving error messages similar to the one above.
Snowden reveals NSA and CIA cooperation – On the final day of the shutdown, when almost all major news outlet were devoti ng a significant portion of their resources towards covering the Congressional negotiations, the Washington Post broke a story about the NSA collaborating with and providing information to the CIA in order to help them carry out foreign drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. These drone strikes have served as a lightning rod for criticism and condemnation. President Obama and his administration have been strongly criticized both at home and abroad over the past few years. The Post’s article cited documents given to them by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who is now living in Moscow after receiving temporary asylum from the Russian government. The Post declined to release the documents due to security concerns.
The recent revelations of the NSA and CIA’s co-operation centered around the targeted killing of Hasan Ghul, an Al-Qaeda operative who provided the CIA with information about Osama Bin Laden’s courier network before he was released in Pakisatan and rejoined Al-Qaeda. Emails from Ghul’s wife which were uncovered by the NSA as part of their Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell allowed the U.S. to carry out drone strikes which killed Hassan Ghul in October of 2012. The U.S. had never formally claimed responsibility for the strike and Ghul’s death. The Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell, nicknamed CT-MAC, is likely to develop into a talking point for individuals within the intelligence community who defend the NSA’s electronic surveillance programs.
EPA regulation gets a nod of approval – On Tuesday, October 15th, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would leave much of the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon regulation policies untouched. The Court announced that EPA rules concerning carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light trucks and rules concerning carbon emissions from coal and natural gas plants could continue without review from the Court. At the same time, however, the Court decided to review an EPA program which requires new industrial factories to receive greenhouse gas permits and implement carbon reduction technologies. All of these regulations and requirements were established after a 2007 ruling in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to regulate carbon emissions.
Many environmental advocacy groups were relieved by the Court’s decision no to grant certiorari to questions challenging the bulk of the EPA’s regulations. They believe that the Court’s decision to address a more narrow question in the upcoming case, which is formally Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, is an indication that there is strong ground for the EPA to stand on concerning the legality and the constitutionality of many of their carbon regulation policies. One important aspect of the Court’s grant of certiorari in this case is that the court did not challenge the EPA’s conclusion that carbon emissions from vehicles endanger public health.
Bye bye online underground marketplaces – On Wednesday, October 2nd, U.S. authorities shut down Silk Road and seized $3.6 million worth of bitcoins. This was the largest seizure of the electronic currency to date and Silk Road is the largest illicit online marketplace which has been targeted as part of an FBI investigation. In addition to shutting down the website, officials arrested Ross Ulbricht in San Francisco. Ulbricht, who FBI agents allege owned Silk Road, went by the online psuedonym “Dread Pirate Roberts”. He’s expected to face charges including drug trafficking, soliciting murder, facilitating computer hacking, and money laundering. If that soliciting murder charge seems to stick out, it stems from an incident during which Ulbricht allegedly attempted to hire a hitman to kill a Silk Road user who threatened to expose the identities of other users.
Here’s some background on Silk Road: The website was launched in February of 2011 and at the time it was shut down had approximately 957,000 registered users, around 30% of whom lived within the United States. Over the course of two years, the website raked in around $80 million on $1.2 billion worth of sales. While Silk Road was the largest and most prominent online marketplace to shut down in the past month, it was joined by competing sites Atlantis, which shut down in late September, and Black Market Reloaded which was shut down On October 18th after the site’s source code was leaked.