Wednesday, June 24, 2009

You water plants, you don't feed them questions





PETER MAER: All right. I've got a procedural question about yesterday's news conference. What led to your decision to plant a designated hitter right here to ask the President a question? And what kind of a message do you think that sends to the American people and to the world about the kind of free-flow and pure questioning that's been expected at presidential news conferences?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it did nothing more than underscore that free-flow. Peter, that was a question from an Iranian in Iran, using the same type of manner and method to get that information as, I guess, many of you and virtually every one of your outlets has done, because in this country we enjoy the freedom of the press.
In Iran, as many of you know, your colleagues have been dismissed. They've been kicked out. Some of them have been rounded up. There aren't journalists that can speak for the Iranian people. What the President did was take a question from an Iranian. That's, I think, the very powerful message that that sent just yesterday.

PETER MAER: Couldn't he have accomplished that without you guys escorting someone through here and planting him the room?

MR. GIBBS: Did you get a question yesterday from an Iranian that you had hoped to asked the President?

PETER MAER: No, I did not.

MR. GIBBS: Well, then I guess the answer to that would have been, no.

PETER MAER: Is this going to become a regular feature of President Obama's news conference, that you all are going to bring people in here that you select to ask questions?

MR. GIBBS: Well, let's understand -- let's be clear, Peter. I think you understand this, so -- but I'll repeat it for your benefit. There was no guarantee that the questioner would be picked. There was no idea of what the exact question would be. I'll let you down easily: A number of questions that we went though in prep you all asked. Iran dominated the news conference, not surprisingly. But Peter, I think it was important and the President thought it was important to take a question using the very same methods, again, that many of you all are using to report information on the ground. I don't have any -- I won't make any apologies for that.



Starting in England with the planned inquiry into the Iraq War. "As the prime minister said last week," Foreign Minister David Miliband declared in the House of the Commons today, tapping the table twelve times for emphasis, "it is not an inquiry that has been set up to establish civil or criminal liability. It is not a judicial inquiry. Everything beyond that is within it's remit. It can uh praise or blame whoever it likes. It is free to write its own report at every stage." [BBC has a clip here currently.] The House of Commons debated many topics including the Iraq inquiry. BBC News live blogged it here. The Daily Mail dubs it the latest "U-turn" from Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet: "It is the latest climbdown on the inquiry, which was only unveiled by the Prime Minister last week as he attempted to restore his authority." Andrew Sparrow (Guardian) also calls it a U-turn and observes, "After watching David Miliband open today's debate on the subject in the Commons this afternoon, I've counted at least five U-turns." Sparrow then reviews the five U-turns. U-turn was also the phrase shadow foreign secretary William Hague used (BBC has clip here): "A U-Turn executed in stages as painful to watch as a learner driver doing a six-point turn, having started off the wrong way down the motorway. And they have performed this U-turn by getting the chairman of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, to announce changes we have all been demanding but to announce them himself so that no minister has had to come back to the House and admit that the government were in the wrong. Indeed Sir John is now -- I will give way in a moment -- indeed sir John is now busily engaged in the very process of consultation with opposition parties and other -- others -- that a prime minister doing his job properly would have carried out before hand."

In addition to the issue of apportioning blame, Philippe Naugton (Times of London) highlights another issue about the inquiry that was raised during the debate, "Mr Miliband was also pressed by MPs from all sides on how the inquiry could take evidence on oath -- as Mr Brown had said he hoped it would -- if it was not established on a statutory footings. The Foreign Secretary eventually told them: 'I am reliably informed that you don't need a statutory power to administer an oath'." Ian Dunt and Alex Stevenson ( report that the debate followed a motion put forward by the Conservative Party that the inquiry be a public one. BBC reports the vote was 260 for a public inquiry and 299 against. Joe Murphy (Evening Standard) notes that Milband also "confirmed that Tony Blair will be questioned in public about his role" and that Hague promised if his party wins the upcoming elections (his party is the Conservative party) they will "beef up" the inquiry Brown's proposing if it has not finished its work (the report from the commission will not be released until after the election -- whether or not it will be finished with the investigation before the election has not been addressed).

A lengthy exchange can be found here (YouTube) in an ITN video. Here are two excerpts:

William Hague: We said that the membership of the inquiry, while encompassing people we have no call to criticize seem to us to be too narrow and that in particular some experience of ministerial office was desirable. And the following Monday my right honorable friend, the leader of the opposition, also made the point that military experience was desirable. And we further pointed out that the inquiry as proposed by the government consisted of four nominees -- none of whom was a woman. The government went a small way to meeting a part of these objections by adding Baroness Prasha to the inquiry membership. And I hope the Foreign Secretary will also acknowledge that his statement on the Today program -- that these five people were approached and then the cabinet secretary went to talk to the opposition parties -- was also inaccurate. Because the fifth, Baroness Prasha, was only added when it was pointed out to ministers that they proposed an inquiry to narrow in its membership.

David Miliband: At various points there have been allegations, for example, that the inquiry would not be able to look at the run-up to the war or the decisions in Basra in 2006 to 2008. These concerns, Mr. Speaker, are not well founded. The Chilcot inquiry has the widest possible remit. The committee will be free not just to examine all the evidence as I will document below but also do what it considers to be the most important issues the scope is deliberately not limited. As the prime minister said last week no inquiry has looked at such a long period and no inquiry has the powers to look in so much breadth. Second, Mr. Speaker, independence. The prime minister wrote Sir John Chilcot on the 17th of June assuring him of the government's commitment to a thorough and independent inquiry Sir John confirms in his repo - reply of the 21st of June, "I welcome the fact that I and my colleagues are free to decide independently how to -- how best to fulfill our remit.

The Socialist Party issued the following statement by Sean Figg:

There are many unanswered questions surrounding the invasion: the Blair government's rush to war, twisting and turning to justify an attack on Iraq, using the most spurious of arguments to get the invasion they had already decided upon. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed as a result, along with over 4,600 US, British and other coalition soldiers. Massive destruction and devastation has also been wrought on Iraq.
Brown has tried to pose the inquiry as part of a new 'openness' in politics following the MPs' expenses scandal. But given his initial stance that the inquiry should be behind closed doors, clearly Brown is still unsure exactly what 'openness' means!
There has since been an 'establishment rebellion' amongst MPs, civil servants, and top military brass over a secret inquiry. In response, Brown announced a partial retreat last week asking the inquiry chairman, Sir John Chilcot, to consider opening a few sessions to the public - far from a complete climbdown.
The truth is that on Iraq, Brown is in up to his neck. He still has everything to lose from an 'open' inquiry. He voted for the invasion, was part of Blair's war cabinet and has been a consistent supporter of the occupation. Brown could point to the reduction of British troops in Iraq since he took over as prime minister to try and improve his image, if he wasn't for escalating the war in Afghanistan instead!
The news that Tony Blair had intervened in an attempt to keep any inquiry secret will anger people further.
But even if there is a fully open inquiry, its chairman Sir John Chilcot - chairman of the Police Federation and a member of the unelected, unaccountable Privy Council - is clearly part of the establishment. And when establishment figures are left to investigate other establishment figures, even if not directly involved in the events they are investigating, there are still many vested interests in ensuring not too much damage is done.
And while an inquiry may bury itself in details of government shenanigans, the real motives for the war - securing oil resources and geopolitical control of the region by western imperialism - will be conveniently ignored.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg has declared, "We need an independent process to decide exactly what evidence is heard in private. This decision should not be down to the whims of Prime Ministers past and present. The burden of proof must be on the Government to demonstrate a clear impact on national security of specific evidence before any session can be held in private." Anne McElvoy (This is London) observed this morning, "The PM has havered and obscured his own position on Iraq because he did not want to pick a fight with Mr Blair at the time or, more cynically, concluded as the UN resolution unravelled, that the fallout was more likely to precipitate his predecessor's time in office than extend it and so kept shtoom. It is, when you consider the breadth of Mr Brown's other international interests and emphasis on the the 'big picture', an odd thing not to have a position on -- even now. What do you remember the Prime Minister saying at all about Iraq since the war? Nope, me neither." The Stop the War Coalition has issued a call for a full inquiry:

Nothing less than a full public inquiry into Iraq war
Contact your MP: We need a full public inquiry. Write, phone, fax your MP. Download letter . . . The revelation that Tony Blair -- who led Britain into the illegal war in Iraq -- is behind Gordon Brown's decision to hold an inquiry in secret won't surprise the anti-war movement and will further fuel the anger of MPs, peers, military leaders, former civil servants and bereaved families appallbed by the plan to hear evidence in private. Read more. . . . No surprise either that a leaked memo proves that Tony Blair met with George Bush in January 2003 to hatch a plot to go to war, whatever the United Nations decided. Read more . . . . A full public inquiry would reveal the secrets and lies in Blair's rush to war. What chance of that with Brown's inquiry panel of four knights and a baroness, some of whom were pro war?

[. . .]

This afternoon in DC, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's DAMA Subcommittee held a hearing. Subcommittee Chair John Hall opened the hearing by allowing US House Rep Joe Donnelly to offer his statements -- as part of the first panel -- because he had another commitment.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson spoke, as part of the first panel, on behalf of the legislation she is sponsoring (HR 2774, the Families of Veterans Financial Security Act" whic would allow veterans to receive Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) for two years. This takes place at present; however, it is set to expire shortly. Halvorson's legislation makes the two years permanent and in need of no additional legislation to renew it.

Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I would like to ask -- well it seems to make a lot of sense of course to permanently extend the coverage for SGLI for two years since service members who are disabled are going through a very difficult and trying time. Have you had any feedback from service members or their families who have benefitted from this coverage and what did they think?

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Well what I've heard -- and we're talking here about service related, totally disabled veterans and these are the veterans that often can't find any other commercially offered insurance -- and I have a veterans' advisory committee and this is one of the things that came to my attention as something that they find very, very important as they're making these informed decisions with their family.

The second panel was composed of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' Bonnie Carroll and Disabled American Veteran's Joe Wilson. Wilson noted DAV supported Donnley's bill and had no objections to Halvorson. Joe Donnelly's proposed legislation addresses out of date tables being used today, specifically a 1941 mortality chart used to set premiums -- a table that has continued to be used despite being out of date.

US House Rep Ann Kirkpatrik arrived as Wilson and Carroll were breifly speaking and, following the second panel being dismissed, Kirkpatrik proposed legislation is HR 20968 and she explained:

I introduced this bill with Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina to do just one thing: To make the group life insurance offered to veterans and service members both fairer and more consistent with commercial life insurance Under both veterans groups' life insurance and service members' group life insurance, when a veteran or a service member is terminally ill, they can elect to receive up to half of their coverage while they are still alive. They can use this accelerated benefits option to pay medical bills, improve their quality of life or in any way they see it. However, current regulations require VGLI and SGLI to decrease the pay-out these veterans and service members collect by a percentage based on the prevailing interest rates. In recent years, this has amounted to a decrease in as much as $6,000. By contrast, most commercial life insurance policies that allow ABO withdrawals do not decrease this pay-out to claimants. We can and must do better for our veterans. This simple, common sense, bipartisan bill removes this deduction so that we might better serve terminally ill veterans and service members at the most financially vulnerable time for them and their families. Removing this deduction can be accomplished using the life insurance premium veterans and service members currently pay. This means that we can accomplish this important change without any additional cost to veterans service members or tax payers and without pay-go implications.

The third panel's only witness was the VA's Thomas Lostowka. He insisted that VGLI is competative with private practice and that everyone raises their premiums every five years -- every one. VA's raising has to do with the mortality table, remember that? Subcommittee Chair Hall wanted to know why a 1941 mortality table was being used and Lostowka agreed that it was out of date but insisted there would be a "higher cost to government if you were to change the table at this time." So when could the table be changed? According to Lostowka, never.

The father of a veteran who had traveled to DC for the hearing stopped us (Wally, Ava, Kat and myself) to ask why Lostowka knew so little? He shared that if someone was coming to offer opinions on proposed legislation -- as Lostowka was -- it seemed to him they should be able to answer basic questions. That is not a minor point and it's one that can be made whenever VA sends witnesses (I think we've made it here). His House Rep sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee but not the Subcommittee and he intended to raise that issue with his rep's staff. It's a question the White House and Congress should be raising with the VA. The embarrassingly poor performance of Lostowka's was all the worse when you grasp that he felt the need to "brag" (his word) on the VA and to pat himself on the back stating "so we're doing quite a good job." No, Lostowka, you're not and you might need to meet with the families of veterans if you don't grasp that.

RECOMMENDED: "Iraq snapshot"
"Nordland provides some realities, Stars and Stripes is censored"
"Iraq inquiry demands increase, Barack stages press conference"
"DMZ: The Hidden War"
"gordon brown, wonder woman"
"Naoki Urasawa's Monster"
"G.B. Trudeau Talk to the Hand!"
"Heroes Volume Two"
"Mark Evanier's Mad Art"
"Warren Ellis' No Hero, ACLU"
"Barack caught in another lie"

No comments: