Around Government

Raiders of the Lost Art

ICE spans the globe looking for missing historical treasures.

In 1998, the U.S. Customs Service received a tip that a Panama Canal Commission employee was smuggling more than $100,000 in rare pre-Columbian artifacts into the United States from Panama. These items-more than 99 handmade pieces of pottery spanning 1,500 years of the country's history-contained a cultural record that Panama, for the sake of its heritage, could not afford to lose.

Enter the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations unit. ICE agents worked with the U.S. Attorney's Office and Panamanian investigators to track the smuggled goods to Oregon and finally ensure the safe return of the artifacts last spring, directly into the hands of Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.

These sorts of missions are no anomaly for ICE. The agency routinely carries out searches to track down smuggled or wrongfully owned cultural artifacts, often raiding U.S. homes and property. It's part of ICE's Cultural Property Arts and Antiquities Investigations program, which has recovered and repatriated objects ranging from Polish paintings to ancient Iraqi coins and jewelry to a bookmark that once belonged to Adolf Hitler.

As the repatriation investigations typically take several years (13, in the case of the Panama smugglings), it is a cause for celebration when a nation has successfully reclaimed a cultural artifact. For this little-seen side of ICE, the world's missing historical documents become their trophies.

Andrew Lapin

World's Busiest Checkbook?

The Pentagon's financial managers have struggled to modernize their disparate book-keeping systems to make them auditable in time to meet a congressionally mandated deadline of 2017.

The scope of the task was dramatized at a September Senate hearing. Jamie Morin, comptroller for the Air Force, told lawmakers that in December 2010, his office had asserted audit readiness for a major fund in its $165 billion-plus appropriation. "This is analogous to balancing the Air Force checkbook," he said, "albeit one with approximately 1.1 million transactions per month."

Charles S. Clark

Masters of Leadership

A new partnership between the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis has set its sights on equipping federal workers aspiring to the Senior Executive Service with all the skills they'll need to lead complex government organizations. Employees can earn a Master of Science in leadership by taking 22 courses-most of which are only a few days long-and demonstrating that they have applied what they've learned to workplace challenges. The classes, taught in Washington, are designed around the competencies that define the Senior Executive Service.

The program dovetails with agency and employee leadership development plans and allows participants to learn in the context of government-specific situations they may face, says Jackson Nickerson, nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings.

Feds don't have to be enrolled in the program to take advantage of the learning opportunity, however-an interest in leadership development is reason enough to explore a class or two.

Emily Long

Outbreak Outtakes

Filmmakers consulted epidemic sleuths at CDC on the art of containing infectious disease.

Before filming the thriller Contagion, the stars of the movie sat down with their real-life counterparts Rear Adms. Ali S. Khan, M.D., and Anne Schuchat, M.D., at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The movie follows a fast-spreading and lethal virus, and the efforts of the medical community that tries to stop it and the ensuing panic.

Actress Kate Winslet, who plays epidemic intelligence service officer Dr. Erin Mears, a character based on Schuchat, even asked about what she wears while on the job. "Her wardrobe is essentially my wardrobe," Schuchat said at a private screening in Washington.

Officials represented on the big screen gathered to discuss the film's accuracy and what CDC does to prepare for real-life infectious diseases ranging from SARS to the H1N1 virus, or swine flu.

While many in the public called the concern about H1N1 an overreaction, both Khan and Schuchat stressed that preventive techniques are the key to warding off a Contagion-level outbreak.

"I'd rather be accused of overreacting than underpreparing," Khan said, noting that more than 1,000 children died from the disease.

While many key details were right, the agency critics said the movie doesn't show the teamwork inherent in CDC operations. Mears is sent alone to China to investigate the origins of the virus. "That would never happen," Schuchat said. "A team is vital." In reality, 50 or more officers are recruited every year to serve in the epidemic intelligence service.

Despite the occasional stretch of the imagination, Schuchat said the film offers "a chance to introduce the public health community to a whole new generation."

Caitlin Fairchild

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