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No beating about the bush.
Health and Human Services asked for comments about its website. It got them by the hundreds. Consumers and insurance agents say they were stymied, and one applicant said he and his wife were wrongly listed as incarcerated - then denied
Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began unveiling its effort to fix Healthcare.gov, the home for the federal insurance marketplace. Part of that was a blog post soliciting comments from folks who have tried the site.
"Most importantly, we want to hear from you, and make sure that your experience with HealthCare.gov is a positive one. If you have any comments, either complimentary or critical, please let us know by sharing your feedback at https://www.healthcare.gov/connect/. We've already heard so many stories of individuals getting health insurance for the first time, and we are dedicated to making that possible for all Americans."
The Obama administration has not always been transparent about Healthcare.gov: A case in point is how HHS has withheld the number of people who have been able to successfully enroll. But in this instance, the administration allowed comments to the blog post to be seen by all (after moderating them and removing identifying information). Commenters’ identities were not verified and they are identified by whatever name they entered.
As of yesterday afternoon, we counted more than 500 comments. My colleague Mike Tigas pulled them from the site, and I’ve been analyzing the feedback.
“Repeal Obamacare,” several commenters wrote, making political statements based on the website’s problems.
Some urged patience: “Turn off the TV and stop listening to the naysayers,” Darlene wrote. “Its [sic] better to wait patiently and get great health care than to get emotional and frustrated and wind up with NO healthcare...”
Others, like Kim, offered to help: “I have a home office and am VERY tech savvy. I would like to be able to help in whatever way I can.”
By and large, however, the feedback has been negative. While some comments root for the site’s failure, many are from people who’ve tried to use the site without success. Some pose specific questions; others voice general frustrations. Because their identities and contact information isn’t listed (for understandable reasons), there was no way to verify their stories.
The problems touch people from all over the country. The posts below have been trimmed for length, but the original grammar and spelling are used (even if they contain errors).
Wrongly Listed As Jailed
“Website said my wife and I were ineligible due to current incarceration. We have never been arrested in our lives, both 63!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Fred wrote on Oct. 21.
Health Problems Made Worse
“I have a pre-existing condition .... a-fib.....and actually had an attack after getting frustrated with this confusing mess,” Bill wrote on Oct. 22. (A-fib refers to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat.)
Daughter is Not a Daughter Anymore
“I am having difficulty with my account,” Joanna wrote on Oct. 22. “It appears that my daughter was added twice so that I now have two daughters with the same name and social security number. I am unable to delete one of them. Also, the drop down menu that relates to what relationship someone is to another is faulty. I choose that my husband is the father of our daughter and that my daughter is a dependant [sic] to me and my husband. What it actually shows though is that my daughter is a stepdaughter to her father and that my daughter is now both my husband and I's parent. “
“I can sign in ... but cannot see the plans available to me — they claim my identity has been compromised. So frustrating!” Rhonda wrote on Oct. 22.
Going in Circles
“I have been trying to get into the system since the beginning,” Marion wrote on Oct. 22. “I have created 3 different accounts and am not able to log into any of them. When I request the user ID or to reset the password it throws me back to the log in page where I can't login because it says I don't have an account. When I try to reset the password with the email I used it, I never get an email to validate my account. I won't let me create another account telling me I already have an account. I feel like I keep going around in circles. Will I ever be able to set up an account? “
“I've now filled out that same application multiple times and even though there are hitches and glitches, I do manage to get to the point where I should be able to shop,” wrote one person whose name is listed as “likebillmurrayingroundhogday, on Oct. 21. “However, once at that point, there is no place for me to shop! The system just kicks me back to starting the application again. It's like "Groundhog Day."
“After many attempts I did manage to set up an account with a log in and password,” Francine wrote on Oct. 23. “NOW when I'm about to get to the meat and potatoes and go shopping a red box pops up and says "you can only do one application per state". WTF? Several times I was able to find a page that asked me if I was a Florida resident with a yes and no button and it appears that after the site drops off my computer it moves this from yes to no. I can no longer find this page, so this site has BLOCKED me.”
Circular Security Questions
“I get an error message after I answer the security questions that say the answers can't be the same, but they aren't the same. If people are getting past this error message, I would like to know how,” Samara wrote on Oct. 20.
Name Not Unique
“I've been trying to create an account since program inception (October 1). I continually get a variety of crazy messages, the most recent being that I could not create an account because my first name, last name and email address are not unique!” Tom wrote on Oct. 20. “What the devil does that mean? Most people use their names in their email address, so it's never going to be "unique." I need health insurance for my 61-year-old wife and the Marketplace appears promising. Clean this mess up!”
Insurance Agents Stymied
“I am insurance agent also President of Insurance Agency (50+ Insurance Agents plus 30 employees),” John wrote on Oct. 21. “We have 1000's of customers who want to sign up for health insurance and most will be subsidized. We have tried everyday since 10-1-2013. Maybe 2 applications have been processed. I have spent well over 250K getting ready for the ACA roll-out. My agency has been writing individual and small group insurance for over 25 years. We have marketed the uninsured and lower income. We have held events to get pre-enrollment applications. We just want to help people get the insurance they need. What can you do to help me?”
Application Counselor Frustrated
“I am employed as a Certified Application Counselor in Scranton, Pennsylvania and I have not been able to successfully assist the approximately 50 people that visited me looking for assistance,” Suzanne wrote on Oct. 21. “I created an account for myself prior to October 1st to walk myself through the system and have not been able to successfully log in since October 1st. Needless to say, I am as frustrated as the consumers who visited me are. I hope the log in situation is fixed soon.”
ProPublica fellow Mike Tigas contributed to this report.
The agency, President Obama, and members of Congress have all said NSA spying programs have thwarted more than 50 terrorist plots. But there's no evidence the claim is true
Two weeks after Edward Snowden’s first revelations about sweeping government surveillance, President Obama shot back. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany,” Obama said during a visit to Berlin in June. “So lives have been saved.”
In the months since, intelligence officials, media outlets, and members of Congress from both parties all repeated versions of the claim that NSA surveillance has stopped more than 50 terrorist attacks. The figure has become a key talking point in the debate around the spying programs.
“Fifty-four times this and the other program stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe — saving real lives,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on the House floor in July, referring to programs authorized by a pair of post-9/11 laws. “This isn’t a game. This is real.”
But there's no evidence that the oft-cited figure is accurate.
The NSA itself has been inconsistent on how many plots it has helped prevent and what role the surveillance programs played. The agency has often made hedged statements that avoid any sweeping assertions about attacks thwarted.
A chart declassified by the agency in July, for example, says that intelligence from the programs on 54 occasions “has contributed to the [U.S. government’s] understanding of terrorism activities and, in many cases, has enabled the disruption of potential terrorist events at home and abroad” — a much different claim than asserting that the programs have been responsible for thwarting 54 attacks.
NSA officials have mostly repeated versions of this wording.
When NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander spoke at a Las Vegas security conference in July, for instance, he referred to “54 different terrorist-related activities,” 42 of which were plots and 12 of which were cases in which individuals provided “material support” to terrorism.
But the NSA has not always been so careful.
During Alexander’s speech in Las Vegas, a slide in an accompanying slideshow read simply “54 ATTACKS THWARTED.”
And in a recent letter to NSA employees, Alexander and John Inglis, the NSA’s deputy director, wrote that the agency has “contributed to keeping the U.S. and its allies safe from 54 terrorist plots.” (The letter was obtained by reporter Kevin Gosztola from a source with ties to the intelligence community. The NSA did not respond when asked to authenticate it.)
Asked for clarification of the surveillance programs' record, the NSA declined to comment.
Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Alexander on the issue at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S.?” Leahy said at the hearing. “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”
“Yes,” Alexander replied, without elaborating.
It's impossible to assess the role NSA surveillance played in the 54 cases because, while the agency has provided a full list to Congress, it remains classified.
Officials have openly discussed only a few of the cases (see below), and the agency has identified only one — involving a San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to Somalia to support the militant group Al Shabab — in which NSA surveillance played a dominant role.
The surveillance programs at issue fall into two categories: The collection of metadata on all American phone calls under the Patriot Act, and the snooping of electronic communications targeted at foreigners under a 2007 surveillance law. Alexander has said that surveillance authorized by the latter law provided “the initial tip” in roughly half of the 54 cases. The NSA has not released examples of such cases.
After reading the full classified list, Leahy concluded the NSA’s surveillance has some value but still questioned the agency’s figures.
“We've heard over and over again the assertion that 54 terrorist plots were thwarted” by the two programs, Leahy told Alexander at the Judiciary Committee hearing this month. “That's plainly wrong, but we still get it in letters to members of Congress, we get it in statements. These weren't all plots and they weren't all thwarted. The American people are getting left with the inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of NSA programs.”
The origins of the “54” figure go back to a House Intelligence Committee hearing on June 18, less than two weeks after the Guardian’s publication of the first story based on documents leaked by Snowden.
At that hearing, Alexander said, “The information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.” He didn’t specify what “events” meant. Pressed by Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., Alexander said the NSA would send a more detailed breakdown to the committee.
Speaking in Baltimore the next week, Alexander gave an exact figure: 54 cases “in which these programs contributed to our understanding, and in many cases, helped enable the disruption of terrorist plots in the U.S. and in over 20 countries throughout the world.”
But members of Congress have repeatedly ignored the distinctions and hedges.
The websites of the Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee include pages titled, “54 Attacks in 20 Countries Thwarted By NSA Collection.”
And individual congressmen have frequently cited the figure in debates around NSA surveillance.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who is also on the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement in July referring to “54 terrorist plots that have been foiled by the NSA programs.” Asked about the figure, Westmoreland spokeswoman Leslie Shedd told ProPublica that “he was citing declassified information directly from the National Security Agency.”
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, issued a statement in July saying “the programs in question have thwarted 54 specific plots, many targeting Americans on American soil.”
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., issued his own statement the next day: “The Amash amendment would have eliminated Section 215 of the Patriot Act which we know has thwarted 54 terrorist plots against the US (and counting).” (The amendment, which aimed to bar collection of Americans’ phone records, was narrowly defeated in the House.)
Mike Rogers, the Intelligence Committee chairman who credited the surveillance programs with thwarting 54 attacks on the House floor, repeated the claim to Bob Schieffer on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in July.“You just heard what he said, senator,” Schieffer said, turning to Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., an NSA critic. “Fifty-six terror plots here and abroad have been thwarted by the NSA program. So what’s wrong with it, then, if it’s managed to stop 56 terrorist attacks? That sounds like a pretty good record.”
Asked about Rogers’ remarks, House Intelligence Committee spokeswoman Susan Phalen said in a statement: “In 54 specific cases provided by the NSA, the programs stopped actual plots or put terrorists in jail before they could effectuate further terrorist plotting. These programs save lives by disrupting attacks. Sometimes the information is found early in the planning, and sometimes very late in the planning. But in all those cases these people intended to kill innocent men and women through the use of terror.”
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., went even further in a town hall meeting in August. Responding to a question about the NSA vacuuming up Americans’ phone records, he said the program had “been used 54 times to be able to interrupt 54 different terrorist plots here in the United States that had originated from overseas in the past eight years. That’s documented.”
The same day, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who sits on the Intelligence Committee, defended the NSA at a town hall meeting with constituents in Cranston, R.I. “I know that these programs have been directly effective in thwarting and derailing 54 terrorist attacks,” he said.
Asked about Langevin’s comments, spokeswoman Meg Fraser said in an email, “The committee was given information from NSA on August 1 that clearly indicated they considered the programs in question to have been used to help disrupt 54 terrorist events. That is the information the Congressman relied on when characterizing the programs at his town hall.”
Wenstrup, Heck and Lankford did not respond to requests for comment.
The NSA has publicly identified four of the 54 cases. They are:
The case of Basaaly Moalin, the San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to Somalia to support Al Shabab, the terrorist group that has taken responsibility for the attack on a Kenyan mall last month. The NSA has said its collection of American phone records allowed it to determine that a U.S. phone was in contact with a Shabab figure, which in turn led them to Moalin. NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has argued that the NSA could have gotten a court order to get the phone records in question and that the case does not justify the bulk collection of Americans' phone records.
The case of Najibullah Zazi, who in 2009 plotted to bomb the New York subway system. The NSA has said that an email it intercepted to an account of a known Al Qaeda figure in Pakistan allowed authorities to identify and ultimately capture Zazi. But an Associated Press examination of the case concluded that, again, the NSA's account of the case did not show the need for the new warrantless powers at issue in the current debate. “Even before the surveillance laws of 2007 and 2008, the FBI had the authority to — and did, regularly — monitor email accounts linked to terrorists,” the AP reported.
A case involving David Coleman Headley, the Chicago man who helped plan the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Intelligence officials have said that NSA surveillance helped thwart a subsequent plot involving Headley to attack a Danish newspaper. A ProPublica examination of that episode concluded that it was a tip from British intelligence, rather than NSA surveillance, that led authorities to Headley.
A case involving a purported plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange. This convoluted episode involves three Americans, including Khalid Ouazzani of Kansas City, Mo., who pleaded guilty in 2010 to bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda. An FBI official said in June that NSA surveillance helped in the case “to detect a nascent plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange." But no one has been charged with crimes related to that or any other planned attack. (Ouazzani was sentenced to 14 years last month.)
The Kansas City Star reported that one of the men in the case had “pulled together a short report with the kind of public information easily available from Google Earth, tourist maps and brochures” and that his contact in Yemen “tore up the report, 'threw it in the street' and never showed it to anyone.”
Court records also suggest that the men in Yemen that Ouazzani sent over $20,000 to may have been scamming him and spent some of the money on personal expenses.
For more from ProPublica on the NSA, read about the agency's campaign to crack Internet security, a look at the surveillance reforms Obama supported before he was president, and a fact-check on claims about the NSA and Sept. 11.
Last week, Ryan Lizza, a Washington correspondent with the New Yorker, did what I and many other journalists have done in the past three weeks: He attempted to sign up for an account on healthcare.gov, the federal government’s health insurance marketplace site.
And like me, at least, he initially thought he had succeeded. What follows is an instructive lesson in the speed of the news cycle and how incorrect information takes on a life of its own.
Here’s what happened:
He even tweeted screengrabs showing the steps of his “success.”
But within 40 minutes, he realized what the rest of us already had: His apparent success was illusive.
But at this point, it was too late. His initial tweet caught fire, being retweeted within the White House and even by Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Lizza kept tweeting his problems, but those tweets didn’t get noticed by federal officials.
When I flagged him online that he had become a “success story,” he said he shouldn’t be considered one.
Yesterday, I emailed Lizza and asked if he’d been back to the site. He said he hadn’t yet. But he had strong thoughts about the way in which his initial tweet was used. His email to me:
It seems that the web site launch was such a disaster that the White House was incredibly desperate to retweet any shards of good news.
I considered deleting that tweet because after two senior White House officials retweeted it, it took off and left the false impression that my conclusion was that the site worked, which isn’t the case.
It was the Twitter equivalent of blurbing a book using the one positive line from a review that actually trashed the book.
For what it’s worth, Lizza’s experience was similar to mine (but his was magnified). Here’s mine in a few tweets:
The moral of the story: Be careful with your first tweet. Even if you later amend it, it could take on a life of its own.