Briefing

After Vietnam

For decades, former employees of Air America, the covert CIA-owned airline that operated in Southeast Asia from 1946 to 1976, have fought to receive federal retirement benefits. Now that goal could be within reach.

Tucked away in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act is a provision requiring the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to look into the feasibility of granting remaining Air America retirees access to federal benefits, including pensions. The study, with recommendations, must be submitted to Congress within 180 days of its enactment, or April 28.

Air America employees, working under the guise of a civilian company, assisted the U.S. military in Vietnam, running flights through Laos, Thailand, China and Vietnam. Although the CIA has acknowledged that it owned and operated the company, its employees never have received federal retirement benefits.

Of course, a study is only the first step that must be taken before the 300 or so remaining Air America employees could see any benefits. But the legislation has given them some reason for optimism. "We had kind of given up hope, because it has dragged on for years," said John Wiren, a former Air America pilot and president of the Air America Association. "Finally there's a glimmer. I won't say there's light at the end of the tunnel, but we're encouraged somewhat."

-Alex M. Parker

Leader of the Pack

Uncle Sam's reach extends as far as the North Pole. No, the federal government hasn't teamed up with Santa and his elves. But the U.S. Geological Survey is employing a special contractor to send information to the agency about the lives of arctic wolves in winter. Since July 2009, Brutus, a 90-pound whitish wolf who leads a pack of about 20 wolves on Ellesmere Island, Canada, has been wearing a satellite collar that transmits e-mails on the animals' location, prey and distance traveled back to two researchers in North America.

Humans cannot survive the harsh winter temperatures on Ellesmere, which is about 600 miles from the North Pole. And the area is in darkness 24 hours a day. So, USGS senior research scientist David Mech and his Canadian colleague Dean Cluff enlisted the help of Brutus, whom they first encountered in 2003 during a summer trip. The collar collects and stores two locations daily via the Global Positioning System and uploads information every four days to satellites that send the data to the researchers' e-mail accounts. Mech and Cluff are able to tell how far and where the pack travels, as well as its hunting patterns.

"It's working beautifully," says Mech, who has studied wolves for more than 50 years. And Brutus doesn't seem to mind. "It just doesn't seem to pay any attention to the collar at all," says Mech, who also has obtained video of the animal.

The collar is supposed to last until June 15, 2011, when it will fall off Brutus. According to Mech, the wolves of the North Pole are not as shy as some of their brethren elsewhere-and they're tamer. "It's the only place in the world where wolves are unafraid of humans, so they allow people to get real close to them," he says.

-Kellie Lunney

Spotlight

WHO: Nancy Fichtner, fiscal program support clerk at the Veterans Affairs Department's Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo.

WHY: The winner of a contest to conceive the best budget-cutting idea, Fichtner had all of Washington to herself on Dec. 21 when she came to accept her award after a record-breaking storm left the nation's capital blanketed in more than 16 inches of snow. The Office of Management and Budget picked her recommendation and three others from 38,484 ideas from federal employees. Her proposal was to allow patients to keep medications from VA hospitals instead of throwing the meds away upon discharge. The public then voted for their favorite online. Officials estimate Fichtner's plan will save $3.8 million in the 2011 budget.

WHAT SHE SAYS: "All this hoopla for a little idea," Fichtner says of her Oval Office meeting with President Obama, tour of the White House and the subsequent interviews with the press. "The president's not larger than life. He's a regular guy. . . . He made time for me on a snow day. He could have slept in."

-Aliya Sternstein

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