Author Archives: allanbourdius

About allanbourdius

Allan is the founder of "Their Finest Hour" blog (theirfinesthour.blogspot.com) where you can currently catch posts about every Medal of Honor recipient from World War II on their 70th anniversaries. He's also the host of the Internet radio program of the same name which airs via Conservative Daily News' feed (www.blogtalkradio.com/cdnews) on Monday nights at 10E/7P. His writings can also be found in contributions to Pocket Full of Liberty (www.pocketfullofliberty.com) and to Liz Harrison's goldwatergal.com. Allan was incredibly honored to represent citizen journalists and the blogosphere at the White House on August 26, 2013 for the Medal of Honor presentation to US Army Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter. Follow him on Twitter, @allanbourdius

Do we know how bad HealthCare.gov really is yet?

For the past two and a half weeks – sadly partially silenced by the government shutdown and debt ceiling drama – Obamacare as an information system has been melting down since enrollment in the “exchanges” or “marketplaces” for health insurance went live at the HealthCare.gov website on October 1, 2013. It’s clear that the situation is bad, and is starting to alarm even the most forgiving to the President and his policies, as liberal Statist sites like The Huffington Post  publish articles with titles like “Obamacare Website Failure Threatens Health Coverage for Millions of Americans”.

The actual file name of that post is simply delicious: “obamacare-train-wreck_n_4118041.html”.

We’re starting to see lots of material being published about how HealthCare.gov came into being, and either baffled disappointment or a sense of “what else did you expect?” at how a web application project that as much as $634 million has been spent on can’t handle user loads, deliver simple web pages, or manage to correctly display drop-down list box contents, much less enroll millions of uninsured Americans for soon-to-be-universally-mandated health coverage.

It’s also been reported that of the people who have managed to actually not have HealthCare.gov error on them and get themselves enrolled that incorrect information has been passed to the insurers via the government’s website and that possible compromises of personal information (leaving enrollees vulnerable to identity theft) have both occurred.

I work in information technology, and while I’m not a software developer, I’ve got a very good handle on the architecture and design that multi-tier application systems employ, of which Obamacare’s HealthCare.gov certainly is one. For those who aren’t as familiar, multi-tier applications use “front ends” (a website through which you enter or view data, for example) and “back ends” (databases or other systems for storing and organizing data). In between the front end and the back end is normally “middleware”; software that analyzes or processes data as it is inputted into the front end or retrieves data from the back end and formats it for the front end user to see. Based on the common problems reported with healthcare.gov thus far, I think it’s obvious that inter-tier communications between layers of the application are responsible for many of the failures.

It’s not like multi-tier applications are anything new. I’ve been working on multi-tier application systems for over sixteen years. Well, it appears that some software developers might need some remedial education on the programming languages, development tools, and multi-tier systems they’re working with. It certainly seems that interfacing with government-produced, supplied, or owned software components designed specifically for information exchange between applications or application tiers are a challenge for some.

Michelle Ray (Twitter’s @GaltsGirl) drew my attention to a support forum post on the Java.net site from September 4, 2013. I’m pretty sure that the author of the thread-opening post is Srini Dhanam, who according to his page on LinkedIn works for a web site called GetInsured.com. They describe themselves as, “the nation’s easiest way to shop for health insurance. Since 2005, we’ve helped more than 2 million people find the health insurance policies that best fit their needs and their budget.” Sounds like they were a private sector (gasp!) health insurance “exchange” before government had the brilliant idea they had to be, uh, invented by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

Mr. Dhanam is probably in the clear as far as the HealthCare.gov debacle goes for that site directly, but his support forum post indicates use of application code or programming objects that derive from government sources. One namespace URL referred to by the detailed error message he’s trying to get assistance with refers to “applicant-eligibility.ee.ffe.cms.gov” (don’t bother trying to access it; the name does not resolve). However, “cms.gov” is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responsible for administering Medicare and working in partnership with state governments to administer Medicaid. I’m speculating that Mr. Dhanam’s problem could be related to difficulties getting the government’s systems in the multi-tier HealthCare.gov system to interface correctly with private insurers’ systems, which he could be working with or on.

From a data security/information assurance perspective, Dhanam’s use (as he says in his post) of version 7, Update 21 of the Java SDK and corresponding run time environment is also problematic. It expired on July 18, 2013. Version 7, Update 45 is the current release and includes many security fixes for vulnerabilities found in the earlier code.

Another identifiable organization within the post’s content is “NIEM”, the National Information Exchange Model (pronounced like “neam”). NIEM was created in 2005 as an inter-departmental panel to facilitate information sharing standards between government computer systems, and the primary cabinet-level departments who contribute to the organization are HHS, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Is anyone comforted that with an eight-year old developing standard for information sharing standardization between government departments in place, HealthCare.gov is having problems with…information sharing standardization between government departments and the private sector?

Doing some web searches on the “applicant-eligibility.ee.ffe.cms.gov” string led me to a different support forum post that includes it, plus additional references to NIEM. I tried through various approaches, but I couldn’t shed any light on the identity of that thread’s initiator, known by the handle “wbisantosh”. The first responder to his problem though, shed some interesting light on Mr. wibsantosh’s skills as a programmer (click to enlarge):

overyourhead

“Have you attended the training?…[S]eems you are in over your head.” Whether “wibsantosh” is involved in the coding of HealthCare.gov or one of the multitude of systems interfacing with it or not, that still seems like a fitting description of what has produced the horrific user experience of Obamacare thus far..

Lest anyone think a connection here to the actual HealthCare.gov site is tenuous, there’s one more thing I found. If you Google search for just the “ee.ffe” portion of the cms.gov string found from the support posts, the first item returned takes you to…drum roll, please…HealthCare.gov.

I think we’ve only scratched the surface of the technical disaster, from both information technology operational and security perspectives, that is the roll-out of Obamacare.

What do operations in the HealthCare.gov data centers or technical support centers look like? Probably something like this excerpt from the classic 1957 film starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Desk Set:

Honoring a hero…as war drums beat

One week ago on Monday, August 26, 2013, I had the incredible experience of being at the White House as a member of the media for the Medal of Honor presentation to United States Army Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter by President Obama. Staff Sergeant Carter was awarded the Medal for his heroism in action on October 3, 2009 during the Battle of Kamdesh at Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Carter is the second soldier of B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division to be awarded the Medal. The first awardee was Staff Sergeant Clinton L. Romesha who received his award from the President in the same setting on February 11, 2013. The pair are the first two living Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor for the same action since the Vietnam War.

I shot my own video from my vantage point in the East Room of the reading of Staff Sergeant Carter’s citation and the moment when the President placed our nation’s highest honor around his neck.

In addition to the two Medals of Honor, eight members of B-3-61 Cav were awarded the Silver Star for valor and eighteen the Bronze Star with Valor Device. Two United States Air Force and six Army aviators received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the critical air support rendered to the soldiers fighting for their lives on the ground. If you want the full story of what happened at COP Keating, I highly recommend you read The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper. It’s in part thanks to Mr. Tapper’s book and other reporting about what happened over three years at COP Keating, culminating with the October 2009 battle, that the story of some of our nation’s greatest present heroes, as well as the questionable tactics and strategies that placed our fighting men in an Afghanistan valley surrounded by high ground and with tenuous at best access by road or helicopter for resupply and reinforcement if and when the chips were down.

Eight Americans lost their lives during the battle; many others were wounded.

After witnessing the Medal presentation to Staff Sergeant Carter, I also had a front-row position for his personal statement outside the White House West Wing. Carter, still on active duty, suffers from hearing loss in his left ear and has also been open about his ongoing battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On my CDN radio show last week (8/26), we spent some time discussing how poorly we as a nation have cared for our combat veterans’ mental health, certainly not limited to those who have witnessed the horrors of war over the last twelve years since September 11, 2001. Caring for our veterans – men and women to whom we all have a debt of honor – should be a completely non-partisan issue. I’ve got no time for anyone who wants to make it one too.

I looked at my trip to the White House last week as a non-partisan trip. On most days, you can count the points of agreement I have with President Obama on one hand missing all fingers and the thumb, but I wasn’t at the White House to score political points but to honor a hero. If I had been given the chance to ask a question at the press briefing that I was lucky enough to be allowed to attend, it would have been perhaps controversial, but not technically political.

About one month before the fight at COP Keating, a group of US Marines and Soldiers known as an “Embedded Training Team” was ambushed with the Afghan National Army unit they were advising in the Kunar Province. Sergeant Dakota L. Meyer became the first living Marine recipient of the Medal of Honor for his valor during what is known today as the Battle of Ganjgal (also spelled Ganjigal), September 8, 2009. Two other Marines, Captain Ademola Fabayo and Staff Sergeant Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, were decorated with the Navy Cross for their roles.

The question I would have asked would have been concerning Army Captain William Swenson, who Sergeant Meyer credits with saving his life in his book Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War. Swenson was himself nominated for the Medal of Honor, but to date, he has received no recognition or decoration for his undoubtable courage in action. The official story of the Captain’s award recommendation is that the paperwork was “lost”.

Swenson, in after action reports and the official investigation that followed the ambush at Ganjgal was highly critical of his superiors and the “rules of engagement” under which they were fighting and the lack of support, particularly from artillery fires, they got on the battlefield. There’s significant speculation that recognition for Captain Swenson is being held up because of his public stance on his superiors’ actions, or more properly, inactions. I’d have asked Mr. Carney to comment on reports that documentation concerning Swenson’s overdue award of the Medal of Honor have been forwarded all the way to the White House…and is there collecting dust.

Five Americans and eight friendly Afghani soldiers lost their lives in that ambush.

In my blog post announcing that I’d be making the trip to the White House for Carter’s ceremony, I lamented that present-day Americans are too concerned keeping caught up with the Kardashians – illustrated plainly by two magazines I observed at the grocery store check-out on Saturday (In Touch Collector’s special, headline “Greed, Lies & Betrayal: the Complete Kardashian Diaries” and the regular In Touch edition, headline “2 Kardashian Marriages OVER!”) – than honoring heroes, even for all everyone is ready to shout “We support the troops!”.

Not one headline or cover shot at the grocery store of Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter on a weekly or monthly magazine. Not one.

But, back to my afternoon at the White House. Most of the rest of the press present that day in the briefing room focused on the news of the day, which at Press Secretary Jay Carney’s briefing, meant Syria. Carney was expansive in talking about the “undeniable” evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, which our government asserts were wielded by the Assad regime against the rebels. There are conflicting reports that claim the rebels accidentally released the chemicals on their own people. Regardless, President Obama is saber-rattling over attacking Syria because of the chemical weapons use, but at least he’s taken a pause and stopped to ask Congress first when they return from recess.

The stories of American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq – both, I might add will full Congressional oversight and authorization – doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence for military success in Syria, if we start shooting. The debacle in Libya and Benghazi only makes the likelihood of success less. My view of getting into a shooting war is simple. There should be only two possible results for our enemies in a conflict: their unconditional surrender or complete annihilation. It’s been seventy years since that’s how the United States has waged war, and until there’s the political will to do it again, we should probably keep our hands to ourselves.

There are politicians on both sides of the traditional (but flawed) “left/right” divide arguing for and against action against Assad. It’s hard to understand any argument for action as Assad’s enemies are rather closely allied with Al Qaeda and the perpetrators of September 11. Enemies of enemies could be friends…they’re just as likely to be just more enemies. There are no good guys fighting in Syria, so it’s left to our politicians to decide if American intervention can save civilians, and if the cost is worth the treasure that is the life of the American warrior. The lives of our fighting men and women aren’t all that’s at risk either. Our national credibility is just about shot on the world stage, and the indecisiveness seen during nearly five years of Barack Obama’s foreign policy makes doing nothing just as costly as doing something.

Cruise missiles, unless they’re carrying nuclear warheads, can’t destroy chemical weapons. Cruise missiles with conventional warheads might take out commanders, leaders, and delivery systems, but won’t do one thing to the weapons themselves, except perhaps release them and contaminate the surrounding area and perhaps kill innocents. Same goes for precision-guided munitions carried by American warplanes, which naturally puts pilots and aircrews at risk from air defenses. No, the only way we can guarantee the destruction of chemical weapons (since using nuclear ordnance would almost certainly be unacceptable even to anyone who would be allied with us, which looks like just the French), is to put boots on the ground. Which, I’d add, would also expose our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen to the same risk of chemical attack or accidental exposure over and above the risks and hazards of conventional combat operations. Is Syria worth that?

We’re not done in Afghanistan yet, and the full history and assessment of the long term success and failure of our military actions there will take years to learn and write. Even though we’re out of Iraq, the same goes for that war. While we’re still wondering if the sacrifices made thus far will have been worth it, while we’re still waiting for debts of honor to be paid to those who have fought so valiantly so far, shouldn’t we all choose very carefully where, if anywhere, we’re going to send our warriors next?