Saturday, April 28, 2012

Instant Karma's gonna get you






Starting in the US where perceived whistle blower Bradley Manning and his defense have been in pre-court martial hearings this week.  The judge has issued a ruling.  AP reports Col Denise Lind announced yesterday that she would not toss "aiding the enemy" allegation the government has made against Bradley.
Monday April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks released US military video of a July 12, 2007 assault in Iraq. 12 people were killed in the assault including two Reuters journalists Namie Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh. Monday June 7, 2010, the US military announced that they had arrested Bradley Manning and he stood accused of being the leaker of the video. Leila Fadel (Washington Post) reported in August 2010 that Manning had been charged -- "two charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The first encompasses four counts of violating Army regulations by transferring classified information to his personal computer between November and May and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system. The second comprises eight counts of violating federal laws governing the handling of classified information." In March, 2011, David S. Cloud (Los Angeles Times) reported that the military has added 22 additional counts to the charges including one that could be seen as "aiding the enemy" which could result in the death penalty if convicted. The Article 32 hearing took place in December.  At the start of this year, there was an Article 32 hearing and, February 3rd, it was announced that the government would be moving forward with a court-martial.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of pre-court-martial hearings.  Arun Rath (PBS' Frontline) explains, "Yesterday, Army Col. Denise Lind, the presiding judge in the court-martial of alleged WikiLeaker Bradley Manning, announced that his trial would begin on Sept 21.   After weighing arguments from the defense and prosecution, she also ruled that all 22 charges against Pfc. Manning would stand."  Larry Shaughnessy (CNN) adds:
Manning's attorney, David Coombs, argued that the charge should be dropped for two reasons. First, the prosecution failed to show intent in the way the charge is worded, he argued. Second, Coombs said, the charge is so vague and broad that it's unconstitutional.
Coombs argued the charge is "alarming in its scope." He told the judge that if he accepted the government's argument, "no soldier would ever be comfortable saying anything to any news reporter." Coombs said they could even be charged after posting something on a family member's Facebook page.
Trent Nouveau (TG Daily) notes that Maj Ashden Fein, prosecutor for the United States government, states that the government isn't required to prove that any damage took place, "Just because a damage assessment might say damage did occur or didn't occur, it's completely irrelevant to the charges.  That tomorrow's effect is somehow relevant to the charges on the crime sheet is irrelevant."
That's certainly a curious take on the law.  If there's no injury, what's the point? If Bradley Manning is guilty -- he's thus far entered no plea -- and there were huge damages, the judge would certainly be encouraged by the prosecution to keep that in mind.  The government has not only declared him guilty -- that includes US President Barack Obama who truly does not know the law if he thought pronouncing the accused guilty before a trial was how a president conducts themselves -- they've insisted repeatedly that tremendous damage was done.
Having used that to drive the press coverage, the government now wants to claim that the level of damage -- if any -- doesn't matter?  The court-martial has been set for September 21st.  The Center for Constitutional Rights  Michael Ratner retweets:
In Iraq, violence continues.  Erik West (Australian Eye) reports an Abu Garma home invasion in which 3 children (ages ten to fifteen) were shot dead along with their mother when a killer or killers broke into the home around three in the morning.
KUNA notes that Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, met with Hussein al-Shahristani, deputy prime minister for energy, yesterday at the White House and that Biden "reaffirmed U.S. commitment to work with Iraqi leaders from across the spectrum to support the continued development of Iraq's energy sector."  While Joe was making nice, al-Shahristani was showing his ass.  Alister Bull (Reuters) explains, "A simmering dispute between Iraq's central government and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan is an internal affair, a top Baghdad official said on Thursday, in an implicit rebuff of U.S. efforts to broker a compromise between the two sides."
Thursday Erbil witnessed what some news outlets are calling a historic moment.  Press TV reports on Moqtada al-Sadr's visit to the KRG  to meet with KRG President Massoud Barzani and the press conference Moqtada held in Erbil.  They quote him stating, "I came here to listen to their (Kurds') points of view (on issues related to Iraq's political situation).  In fact, I adovcate getting closer to the Iraqi people and protecting the Iraqi people before protecting our parties and blocs.  All sides have to pay attention to the public interest and the Iraqi people. The oil of Iraq is for the people and no one has the right to claim it for himself and exclude others. . . . Dialogue is the only solution to end former and current political disputes and all other issues."  Margaret Griffis ( notes, "During talks with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani yesterday, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr mandate insisted that there would be no support for an overthrow of the government, but he did suggest the possibility of not renewing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's mandate as premier. Barzani and Sadr have both called Maliki a dictator in recent weeks, and the increasingly marginalized Sunnis mostly agree with them."  At Foreign Policy, journalist James Traub examines Nouri al-Maliki:
Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, has a remarkable ability to make enemies. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group puts it, "Personal relations between everyone and Maliki are terrible." This gift was vividly displayed in March, when the annual meeting of the Arab League was held in Baghdad. Although the event was meant to signal Iraq's re-emergence as a respectable country after decades of tyranny and bloodshed, leaders of 10 of the 22 states, including virtually the entire Gulf, refused to attend out of pique at Maliki's perceived hostility to Sunnis both at home and abroad, turning the summit into a vapid ritual. The only friend Iraq has left in the neighborhood is Shiite Iran, which seems intent on reducing its neighbor to a state of subservience.
[. . .]
But one can be agnostic about Maliki's motivations and still conclude that he is doing harm to Iraq's own interests. No sensible Iraqi leader would pick a fight with Turkey, as he has done. Back in January, when Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggested that Maliki should not be waging war against the Sunni opposition at home, Maliki accused Turkey of "unjustified interferences in Iraqi internal affairs," adding for good measure that Erdogan was seeking to restore Turkey's Ottoman hegemony over the region. This in turn led to another escalating round of insults and a mutual summoning of ambassadors.

Moqtada was attempting to address the ongoing political crisis. Briefly, March 2010 saw parlimentary elections.  State of Law (Nouri al-Maliki's slate) came in second to Iraqiya (led by Ayad Allawi).  Nouri did not want to honor the vote or the Constitution and refused to allow the process to move forward (selecting a new prime minister).  Parliament was unable to meet, nothing could take place.  This is Political Stalemate I and it lasted for over eight months.  In November 2010, Political Stalemate I finally ended.  What ended it?

The US-brokered Erbil Agreement.  This was a written document where everyone made concessions and everyone got something out of it.  Nouri got to be prime minister.  He was loving the Erbil Agreement then.  And as soon as he was named prime minister-designate, he began demonstrating he wouldn't honor the Erbil Agreement.  He had called for a referendum and census on Kirkuk for December 2010.  He was supposed to have done that by the end of 2007.  But he refused to even though Article 140 of the Constitution demanded it.  But as he was trying to get everyone to agree to the Erbil Agreement, he was trying to appear resonable and scheduled the referendum and census.  After being named prime minister desisngate, he called off the census and referndum.  It's still not taken place all this time later.  He was also fully on board with the idea of an independent national security commission and it being headed by Ayad Allawi.  But then he got named prime minister-deisgnate and suddenly that was something that couldn't be created overnight but would take time.  17 months later, it's still not happened.

Nouri used the Erbil Agreement to get a second term as prime minister and then trashed the agreement.  He used everyone's concession to him but refused to honor his concessions to them.
This is Political Stalemate II, the ongoing political crisis in Iraq and, no, the political crisis in Iraq did not start December 19th or 21st as Nouri went after political rivals from Iraqiya (Iraqiya came in first in the 2010 elections).  From Marina Ottaway and Danial Kaysi's [PDF format warning] "The State Of Iraq"  (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace):

Within days of the official ceremonies marking the end of the U.S. mission in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved to indict Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges and sought to remove Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq from his position, triggering a major political crisis that fully revealed Iraq as an unstable, undemocractic country governed by raw competition for power and barely affected by institutional arrangements.  Large-scale violence immediately flared up again, with a series of terrorist attacks against mostly Shi'i targets reminiscent of the worst days of 2006.
But there is more to the crisis than an escalation of violence.  The tenuous political agreement among parties and factions reached at the end of 2010 has collapsed.  The government of national unity has stopped functioning, and provinces that want to become regions with autonomous power comparable to Kurdistan's are putting increasing pressure on the central government.  Unless a new political agreement is reached soon, Iraq may plunge into civil war or split apart. 

Kitabat reports Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani declared today in Karbala that the Erbil Agreement should be published.  The Ayatollah noted that there are disputes about whether or not it was implemented.  He says the way to end the dispute is to publish the agreement and that the people can then decide for themselves whether the agreement was carried out, whether or not it was Constitutional*, whether or not it represented the best interests of Iraq.  The agreement and the Constitution? There's nothing in the Constitution that allows for the Erbil Agreement.  There's also nothing in the Constitution that bars the Erbil Agreement.  The White House and the State Dept examined that at length before it was put into writing.  They brokered the agreement and did so to end the eight-month-plus gridlock (Political Stalemate I).  The agreement is clearly extra-constitutional and we warned about that in real time.  But it is not forbidden by the Constitution.  After getting what he wanted from the agreement, Nouri and his lackeys began to insist that it couldn't be honored because it was unconstitutional.  It's not.  If it is unconstitutional then the Parliament needs to vote on a PM because they haven't freely done that, they've allowed Nouri to become prime minister-designate (and then prime minister) in spite of the Constitution.  An argument can be made that the only known aspect of the Erbil Agreement that might be unconstitutional would be Nouri being PM since the Constitution is specific on how you become prime minister designate (Nouri didn't meet those qualifications and he knows it, that's why he implemented the eight month stalemate) and since it is specific on how you then move to prime minister. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Barry O gets by with a little help from his friends








Starting with violence, Al Rafidayn notes 3 car bombs were discovered in Anbar Province (before they went off) and the Ramadi home of a police officer was blown up and 1 corpse (Iraq soldier -- shot dead and tossed in the river) was discovered in Diyala  Province.  On Diyala, RIA Novosti notes a suicice car bombing there today.  BBC News adds that it was a suicide car bombing followed by a cafe bombing.  Reuters counts 10 dead and eighteen injured.  Mohammed Lazim (CNN) reports Baghdad also saw twin bombings -- a car bombing in the al-Hurriya district and another bombing in Sadr City. Raheem Salman (Reuters) counts 5 dead and twenty-seven injured in the Baghdad bombings.  Violence in Iraq has risen sharply since the 2003 invasion.  (Yeah, that's the way AFP and the others should report it instead of their embarrassing clowning where they use 2006 as a 'base year' for everything in Iraq.) And  Margaret Griffis ( counts 10 dead yesterday and seventeen injured.
We noted an important column by Joel Wing about nine days ago and were going to note it as the month drew to a close with the hopes that some outlets would actually pay attention to the topic.  I hadn't planned for us to do that today but we'll jump the gun on it due to another article.  First, the coverage -- the lack of coverage -- of violence in Iraq is ridiculous.  Reuters, of course, dropped their "Factbox" which was one of the few things that covered daily violence -- McClatchy long ago dropped their daily roundup of violence.  With most western outlets no longer covering violence unless at least 20 die in one day, the false impression that violence disappeared in Iraq takes hold.  Reality is further threatened by a lazy press which has never kept their own numbers for Iraqi dead but now just pander to Nouri al-Maliki and cite his and only his figures.  It's in Nouri's interest to lie and pretend violence is dropping, dropping, almost gone.  As we've noted repeatedly in the last months, the 'official figures' don't even meet the totals of Iraq Body Count.  And for the bulk of the Iraq War, the press went with Iraq Body Count's numbers.  Now they won't even acknowledge those numbers because it might make Nouri look bad.  You've got a press corps that has bowed and scraped to Nouri in a way that makes CNN's overtures to Saddam Hussein under Eason Jordan look like nothing more than professional courtesy.  Credit to Joel Wing for his column on the issue of the dead and the way their being counted.  Excerpt.

In February 2012, the Iraqi government released its official figures for casualties from April 2004 to the end of 2011. It had over 69,000 deaths for that time period. That count was 30,000 less than other organizations that keep track of violence in Iraq. During the height of the civil war, the country's ministries' numbers were comparable to other groups, but since 2011 they have consistently been the lowest. While some Iraqi politicians have claimed that the official counts miss many deaths, it could also be argued that the statistics are being politicized by the prime minister who controls all of the security ministries.
On February 29, 2012, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh announced the government's numbers for deaths in the country. He said that from April 5, 2004 to December 31, 2011 69,263 Iraqis were killed. 239,133 were also wounded. The deadliest year was 2006 when there were 21,539 dead, and 39,329 wounded. 2011 was the least violent with only 2,777 casualties. Of the nation's eighteen provinces, Baghdad was the deadliest with 23,898 dead for the reported time period, followed by Diyala, Anbar, and Ninewa. Muthanna in the south was the safest with only 94 killed over the seven years covered. A member of parliament's human rights committee immediately criticized the report. The deputy claimed that there were thousands of people who disappeared during the civil war that were never counted. He also said that out in the countryside, reporting to the ministries was poor. No numbers on violence in Iraq can be anywhere near complete. During the civil war from 2005-2008 there were sections of the country that were too dangerous to enter and do any serious reporting. Some insurgent groups also buried their victims. The problem with the ministries numbers however are that they are so far below other organizations that keep track of violence in Iraq, which was not always true.
Read the column in full.  But with that in mind, see if you can spot the problem in the following passage by Robert Tollast from an interview with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (again, the passage below is writtne by Tollast):
In March 2006 for example, an estimated 1500 people died a violent death in Baghdad according to Iraq Body Count, and that was not the capital's worst month. In sharp contrast, official figures show a civilian death toll of 112 across all of Iraq for March 2012.
Did you catch the problem?  In 2006, X is the figure and Iraq Body Count is the source.  Last March, Z is the number of deaths but they're using "official figures," not IBC.  That's what they call comparing apples and oranges.  112 people died in Iraq last month?
No.  That's not what Iraq Body Count found.  They found 295 deaths in the month of March.  We used a screen snap of their monthly total in this earlier editorial for Third Estate Sunday Review. Right now -- with no addition of today's deaths, they're counting 250 dead so far this month in Iraq.  Will the press note this when they cover deaths in their monthly look back?  If the new pattern holds, they'll ignore Iraq Body Count.  And continue to pretend that reporting the tallies released by an interested party as if (a) they're objective and (b) the only tallies that exist.
On the topic of violence, Robert Tollast did explore the targeting of Iraqi youth -- Emos and LGBTs and those suspected of being either with Michael Knights:
RT: This month we have seen a disturbing spike in violence against young Iraqis who are guilty of nothing more than sporting western style fashions, which the Iraqis have dubbed "emo" (after the American music genre.) They are only the latest group to be targeted by religious extremists, alongside barbers deemed un-Islamic and homosexuals. Iraqi religious leaders have been united in condemning attacks against "emos" notably al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. The violence is also specific to Iraq, since these fashions are banned in Iran, but were briefly popular and not punishable by death. There is clearly a new generation in Iraq who are desperate to move on from war and oppression, and they are being targeted by men who are simply after the next person to kill, now that their local Sunnis have fled and the US has departed. Perhaps this is what the reconciliation of groups like Asaib ahl-Haq will look like: they will always find something to violently resist. Can the Iraqi government reasonably expect to rehabilitate groups like AAH, who could well be behind a lot of these killings?     MK: Anyone familiar with the "loss" of Basrah to the militias in 2006-2007 will shudder to see the same trends writ large across Baghdad and southern Iraq. In Basrah, the first targets for the Shiite vigilantes were the alcohol vendors, the music shops and eventually the university campuses. Some horrific things happened back then and this most recent set of attacks on youth is a reminder that religious vigilantes remain a major threat to personal security and liberty in Iraq. Back in 2006-2007 in Basrah, the British effectively surrendered the city to the vigilantes; now groups like AAH have greater license to operate because they are starting to side with the government in national politics.
The lesson from Basrah is that the militias do not stop after they target the minorities and niche groups: they keep pushing until they begin to rival the government and threaten the public perception of the government's "monopoly of force." When that day comes, the government is forced to smash the militants back down to their roots again, as occurred in Basrah and Baghdad in 2008. Getting back to your question, it is clear that reconciliation efforts should, as a prerequisite, only involve movements that have frozen their involvement in violence. AAH has never fully recanted violence: even when the United States was seeking to de-militarize AAH, the movement would not agree to any of the preconditions that other insurgent groups accepted (providing an oath to renounce violence, surrendering biometric data, etc.). Building up AAH -- which is the real Iraqi counterpart to Lebanese Hezbollah, unlike Moqtada's scattered followers -- is a dangerous game for any government to play.
By the way, if you're in Boston tomorrow (we will be but not in the afternoon), Boston University is hosting a panel on Iraq and Afganistan moderated by BU professor John Carroll with the following panelists: professor Andrew J. Bacevich, the Boston Globe's David Greenway, former US Ambassador Peter Galbraith and retired General David McKiernan.  Details are here and the 1:00 pm event is free and open to the public.  Early on the Boston Globe covered Iraq itself (instead of reprinting articles by their corporate owners the New York Times).  Back when they were covering Iraq, Elizabeth Neuffer was their correspondent.  She died May 9, 2003 in a car accident outside Samarra. Since her death, the International Women's Media Foundations has annually awarded the Elizabeth Neuffer fellowship. The most recent journalist honored with the fellowship is Ugrandan reporter Jackee Budesta Batanda who has covered acid attacks on women in Uganda among other topics.  IWMF notes of the fellowship:
One woman journalist will be selected to spend seven months in a tailored program with access to MIT's Center for International Studies as well as media outlets including The Boston Globe and The New York Times.  The flexible structure of the program will provide the fellow with opportunities to pursue academic research and hone her reporting skills covering topics related to human rights.
The Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship is open to women journalists whose focus is human rights and social justice.  Applicants must be dedicated to a career in journalism in print, broadcast or online media and show a strong commitment to sharing knowledge and skills with colleagues upon completion of the fellowship.  Excellent written and spoken English skills are required.  A stipend will be provided, and expenses, including airfare and housing, will be covered.
For the next honoree, applications are currently being accepted and will be through April 30th -- May 1st will be too late.  If you're interested in applying, you can click here for more information.  In addition, next week, May 3rd, IWMF will announce their winners of the 2012 Courage in Journalism Award and Lifetime Achievement Award.  We will be including that whether it involves Iraq journalism or Iraqi journalism or not.  A friend with IWMF feels that last year's winners did not get coverage from the bulk of the press.  (We didn't cover it here at all, I'll freely admit.  But she's talking about the press, not about this site.)  I told her last night I'd do what I could offline as well as mention it here.
Back to Iraq, the political crisis continues.  Al Rafidayn reported this morning that Moqtada al-Sadr would be visiting KRG President Massoud Barzani today to discuss the crisis   Earlier, Aswat al-Iraq reported Barzani had invited Moqtada to a May 7th meet-up in Erbil to address the political crisis.  Today AFP quotes the Sadr bloc's Salah al-Obeidi stating, "The crisis needs such a move to resolve the situation.  The Sayyed is trying to put Al-Ahrar [his parlimenatry bloc] and himself personally in the middle." Lara Jakes (AP) reports on a "45 minute interview" with Barzani in which he calls out the ongoing crisis and states, "What threatens the unity of Iraq is dictatorship and authoritarian rule. If Iraq heads toward a democratic state, then there will be no trouble.  But if Iraq heads toward a dictatorial state, then we will not be able to live with dictatorship."  A longer version of Lara Jakes' report can be found at Lebanon's Daily Star.  In the interview, Barzanai says that September needs to be agreed to as the time by which the political crisis must be solved and, if not, breaking with Baghdad may be put on the KRG ballot.

The KRG is supposed to hold provincial elections September 12th.  They do their provincial elections differently than the rest of Iraq.  Not just because they're semi-autonomous but also because when the KRG says they're holding elections, they do so.  The 2010 parliamentary elections across Iraq were supposed to have been held in 2009.  But Nouri and company couldn't get it together to pass an election law.  The 2010 elections led to eight months of political stalemate as Nouri refused to relinquish the post of prime minister even those his State of Law came in second.  In November 2010, Political Stalemate I was ended when the US-brokered Erbil Agreement was signed off on by all the parties.  This was a series of concessions.  Nouri, for example, conceeded to allow Ayad Allawi (of Iraqiya which came in first in the elections) to head an independent security council and to hold the census and referndum in Kirkuk that the Iraqi Constitution demands he hold.  He had to make other concessions (on paper) but those were among the biggies.  In exchange, the other parties agreed to allow Nouri a second term as prime minister.  Nouri used the Erbil Agreement to get that second term and then (Decemeber 2010, one month later) trashed the agreement, refusing to honor his promises to the other political blocs.  That's what started Political Stalemate II, the ongoing crisis.  Since last summer, Iraqiya, the Kurds, ISCI and the Sadr bloc have called for a return to the Erbil Agreement and for it to be fully implemented.  Yesterday, Margret Griffis ( reported, "Separately, the Iraqi Accord Front, which is a member of the Iraqiya bloc, complained that Maliki has ignored the Arbil Agreement that he accepted in order to retain the premiership for a second term. Barzani was instrumental in the creation of the agreement after 2010 elections failed to produce an uncontested winner. A spokesman for the front said if they agreement is not fulfilled, they would withdraw confidence from Maliki."  Alsumaria reports that Barzani has called a meeting "next Saturday" and invited members of the Kurdistan Alliance serving in Parliament as well as all members of the KRG's Parliament -- all regardless of political party. Barzani has not announced what the topic of the meeting will be leading to speculation that this meet-up may explore Iraq politics (such as replacing Nouri) or KRG politics (such as breaking further with Baghdad). 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Roeper takes one for Barry



More than 40 years after Richard Nixon said, “Sock it to me!” on “Laugh-In,” some 20 years after a sunglasses-wearing Bill Clinton played the sax on Arsenio Hall’s show, we’re long past the point of being shocked when presidents or candidates play the rodeo clown on TV. They’ll do what they gotta do to get elected or stay in office.




An important hearing took place in DC this morning.  Before it started, Morning Edition (NPR -- link has text and audio) was explaining the problem.  Excerpt.
Larry Abramson: Over the past five years, the Department of Veterans Affairs says the number of former service members seeking mental health services has climbed by a third. In response, the agency has boosted funding, and tightened standards. Now, any vet asking for help is supposed to be evaluated within 24 hours and start treatment within two weeks. The VA has claimed that happens in the vast majority of cases. But a new investigation by the agency's inspector general says the VA statistics are skewed to make wait times appear shorter. [. . ] The inspector general's report says rather than starting the clock from the moment a vet asks for mental health care, the VA has been counting from whenever the first appointment came available. That could add weeks or months to the wait time. So while the VA has been saying 95 percent of vets were seen as quickly as they were supposed to be, actually, nearly 100,000 patients had to wait much longer.
"Today's hearing builds upon two hearings held last year," declared Senator Patty Murray this morning as she brought the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to order.  "At each of the previous hearings, the Committee heard from the VA how accessible mental health care services were.  This was inconsistent with what we heard from veterans and the VA mental health care providers.  So last year, following the July hearing, I asked the Department to survey its own health care providers to get a better assessment of the situation.  The results as we all now know were less than satisfactory.  Among the findings, we learned that nearly 40% of the providers surveyed could not schedule an appointment in their own clinic for a new patient within the 14 days. Over 40% could not schedule an established patient within 14 days of their desired appointment.  And 70% reported inadequate staffing or space to meet the mental health care needs.  The second hearing, held in November, looked at the discrepancy between what the VA was telling us and what the providers were saying.  We heard from a VA provider and other experts about the critical importance of access to the right type of care delivered timely by qualified mental health professionals.  At last November's hearing, I announced that I would be asking VA's Office of Inspector General to investigate the true availability of mental health care services at VA facilities. I want to thank the IG for their tremendous efforts in addressing such an enormous request.  The findings of this first phase of the investigation are at once substantial and troubling.  We have heard frequently about how long it takes for veterans to get into treatment and I'm glad the IG has brought those concerns to light."
There was one panel. William Schoenhard and Mary Schohn were among those present representing the Dept of Veterans Affairs, Iraq War veteran Nick Tolentino was present as a former VA employee who had an understanding of how the VA worked (and didn't work), Outdoor Odyssey's retired Major General Thomas Jones shared his thoughts and observations, and the VA's Office of Inspector General was represented by Linda Halliday and John Daigh. 
We'll jump to this exchange where Committee Chair Patty Murray questioned the VA.
Chair Patty Murray: First, let me say that I'm very happy that the VA is finally acknowledging the problem.  When the Department is saying there's near perfect compliance but every other indication is that there are major problems, I think it is an incredible failure of leadership that no one was looking into this. In fact, when you sit at that table before this Committee, we expect you to take seriously the issues that are raised here. It should not take multiple hearings and surveys and letters and ultimately an IG investigation to get you to act. I  also would like to suggest that if the reality on the ground could be so far off from what central office thought was happening as it relates to mental health, then you better take a very hard look at some of the other areas of care for similar disconnects. Now what we have heard from the IG is very, very troubling. For months now, we have been questioning whether Central Office had a full understanding of the situation out in the field and I believe the IG report has very clearly shown that you do not. So I want to start by asking you today, after hearing from this Committee, from veterans, from providers and from outside experts, why you were not proactive about this problem months ago.
William Schoenhard:  Chairman Murray, we have been looking at mental health for, uh, many years, as you know. With the support of the Congress, we increased our capacity and hired about 8,000 new providers between 2007 and 201.  We relied primarily on a uniform mental health handbook that would be the source of the way in which we would deliver care to our nation's veterans. That has been the focus of the department to ensure that we're getting evidence-based therapies and a staffing model that is largely based on the handbook put out in 2009.  I think what we have learned in this journey -- and we have been wanting to work with our providers -- is a number of things.  As I mentioned in my opening statement, the way in which we measure these performance measures is not a good measure of wait time. We want to work very closely with the IG and with, uh, any resources that are available to assist us in ensuring that we provide veteran centered performance measures --
Chair Patty Murray: Mr. Shoenfield, with all due respect, I think back in 2005 the IG said this information was there.  So that's a long time with a lot of veterans in between.  So my question is how are you going to address that growing gap that we've seen --
William Schoenhard: Well I --
Chair Patty Murray:  -- between what Central Office believes and what's actually happening out there.
William Schoenhard: As Dr. Daigh described in our response to the IG report, we have a number of things going on.  One is first we have a working group that will report this summer on a new set of performance measures that includes providers on the ground assisting us with ensuring us that we develop measures in conjunction with support from the IG that are really veteran-centered -- that are centered on a veteran's individual condition and one in which we can revamp and go forward. We fully embrace that our performance measurement system needs to be revised and we will be doing that with the work of people on the front lines to assist us.  We have the benefit of, uh, these mental health site visits that are assisting us.  We're learning as we go on other issues to do with scheduling and all of this effort is assisting us in not just having people at Central Office develop proposed solutions but to engage the field the way that we need to in order to ensure that we're veteran-centered and we're able to support our providers in delivering this care.
Chair Patty Murray:  I-I appreciate that but it is very troubling to me that this didn't happen five, ten years ago.  That we're just now, after months of this, years of this, that that disconnect is there.  But we'll go back to that because I  want to ask Mr. Tolentino and I really appreciate your willingness to come forward today and I believe your testimony is going to be very helpful to addressing many of the changes that are needed in a timely fashion.  In your testimony, you suggested that VA institute more extensive oversight into how mental health care is actually delivered and funds are spent.  Given how adept many of the facility administrators are at getting around the current system without being caught, how do you think the VA can most effectively perform that oversight?
Nick Tolentino: Madam Chairman, to be perfectly honest, I don't have a very good answer for you because of the fact that the gaming is so prevalent.  As soon as something is put out, it is torn apart to look to see what the work-around is.  I-I feel that the reports -- the reporting is -- It's very redundant reporting that feels like it goes nowhere, there's no feedback loop.  It's one way.  We're telling you exactly what -- and most of the times you want to hear -- we did at the facilities and even at the network.  But there's no coming back and rechecking or coming back with feedback to say, 'Well you said you spent the money on these services but there's no workload to verify it. There's nothing concrete to speak to what you say you've done.'  I'm remembering in the short time that I -- that I worked there, many times we got vast amounts of financial monies for different programs but very, very seldomly did we get requests to verify what we've done with work load, with any kind of feedback reports or anything like that. So I think opening the lines of communication and development of feedback loop would be very helpful -- and a very transparent feedback loop at that.
Chair Patty Murray:  Mr. Shcoenhard, my time is out and I want to turn it over to Senator Brown. But I do want to address an important issue here.  The Department has announced 1600 new mental health care providers and I appreciate that step, I think it's really needed but I am concerned that VA hospitals all across the country are going to run into the same hurdles that Spokane VA has been in not being able to hire health staff and I hope that medical centers are doing everything including using all available hiring incentives to fill those vacancies.  And I assure you, that is the next question this Committee is going to look at. But I want to ask you specifically, how are you going to make sure the 1600 new health care providers that you announced don't become 1600 new vacancies?
William Schoenhard:  Chairman Murray, that's a very important question.  And we have stood up in our human resources group and our VHA workforce two task forces to assist us with this.  One is the Recruitment and Retention of mental health providers with particular focus on psychiatry.  That's where our greatest need and problem is in retaining and recruiting mental health providers.  The second task force is a Hiring Task Force.  That is what can we be doing to expedite and make sure that we are having the process of recruitment as speedily as possible.  The group has put together a number of good recommendations that we will be implementing. Part of what Dr. Daigh spoke of earlier in terms of our four-part mission, one of our great assests -- having been in the private sector for many years before coming to VA -- is that many mental health providers including hundreds of trainees today get part of their training in VA and have the opportunity to experience us going forward.  We need to better link with these trainees and ensure that we have a warm hand-off for employment when they finish this.
Chair Patty Murray:  Okay, that's one issue but then how you arrived at your staffing plan is really unclear to me.
William Schoenhard:  Oh, I'm sorry.
Chair Patty Murray:  The new 1600 mental health providers that you allocated, the information that we got from the department yesterday on where that was going to go isn't supported by any concrete evidence or facts.  In fact, the VISN 20 director told Senator [Mark]  Begich and I that she learned about the new positions only a couple of days ago, didn't know if it was sufficient and didn't know how the department even reached those numbers. So I want to ask you how did you arrive at that number 1600 and what makes you confident that it's going to be effectively placed across the country?  What is the plan -- staffing plan -- that you used to do that?
William Schoenhard:  Thank you.  Uh, I'm sorry, I misunderstood the question and I'm going to ask Dr. Schohn who may want to embellish on that.  We used a model that looks at the volume of services and I wonder if Dr. Schoen might speak to this? We are piloting this in 3 VISINs.  I would be happy to answer further.
Mary Schohn: Thank you. Yes, as part of our response to the Committee in November, we planned to develop a staffing model.  The staffing model --
Chair Patty Murray:  I'm sorry.  You planned to -- planned to develop a staffing plan?  It's not yet in place?
Mary Schohn:  No, no.  We did develop the staffing model.  But we submitted to you that that was part of our action plan in November. We developed the staffing model. We're in the process of implementing it in VISNs 1, 4 and 22 to -- to understand how to implement it so we don't want to simply say, 'Here's the number of staff,' without actually a plan for how this rolled out.  Is this really the right number of staff to really evaluate how well and how effective this methodology is?  Our plan, however, also is not to wait until we get a full evaluation of this plan but basically to staff up so that we'll be fully ready to implement this plan throughout the country by the end of the fiscal year. So we will have -- we are planning --  the plan itself is based idnetification of existing staff at facilities, the veteran population, the range of services offered and the demand for services. And our plan is to be able to use this to project the need so that we will have a standard so that we will have a standard model in the future that is empirically validated, that we will all know how many staff is needed.
Murray then passed to Senator Scott Brown who was serving as Ranking Member on the Committee in Senator Richard Burr's absence.  Ava will be covering Scott Brown at Trina's site tonight. Kat will offer her impressions on the hearing at her own site tonight and Wally will be reporting on the hearing at Rebecca's site tonight (and probably covering Scott Brown as well -- in terms of money issues).  We'll move over to some of Jon Tester's questions. Only four Senators were present for this hearing: Chair Murray, acting  Ranking Member Scott Brown, Senator Jon Tester and Senator Jerry Moran.  Both Moran and Tester have rural concers due to their states (Moran represents Kansas, Tester represents Montana).
Senator Jon Tester: Just from a rural persepctive, I will tell you that one of the reasons the VA can't contract out in a rural state like Montana is because the private sector doesn't have anymore mental health professionals than the VA has.  And I just want to point that out because it's -- it's mental health professionals -- whether it's in the private sector or the VA -- getting these folks is a big problem.  And I very much appreciate Mr. Tolentino's statements about nobody's going to go to work for a year or two years in the VA when, in fact, in the private sector, they have much more predictability in their jobs.  So we need to take that into consideration when we start allocating dollars for the VA to make sure that they have the advantage to compete. And I very much appreciate that perspective. Along those same lines, I just want to ask -- Senator Brown was right in the area of 1500 positions open and an additional 1900 so there is about 3400 positions.  They may not all be psychiatrists, they may not all be clinicians.  But how you're going to fill those in an area where the private sector's sucking folks up because this is a big issue there too.  And the VA, it's interesting to me.  Do you have an allocation by VISN of these 1600 folks?  And if you do -- Do you? Could we get a list of those?
William Schoenhard:  Yes, sir.
Senator Jon Tester:  And how they're going to be allocated?
William Schoenhard:  Yes, sir.
Senator Jon Tester:  And the metrics.  I know you talked about metrics -- number of veterans and that kind of stuff.  Could you give me a list of metrics on why the number are there?  How many are going to be psychiatrists, how many of them are going to be nurses, clinicians?  Are any of them going to be psychologists?
William Schoenhard:  Uh, sir, we are leaving to VISN in discussion with the facilities, they could be psychologists --
Senator Jon Tester:  Okay.
William Schoenhard:  -- they could be family therapists -- a variety of different health care providers.
Senator Jon Tester: Okay, thank you. And when it comes to contracting out, do you guys typically only use psychiatrists?  Or can you use psychologists too?
William Schoenhard:  No, we can contract with others.
Senator Jon Tester:  Super. That's good.  Because there are some -- there are some accessibility to those folks in place.  I like Montana. I want to put two things that Mr. Tolentino said along with Major General Jones said.  Major General Jones, I want to thank you for what you're doing. I very much appreciate it.  Mr. Tolentino said when he was there it was fairly common if someone came in with a problem, don't ask if there's another issue.  There are all sorts of correlations here that are wrong but I just want to tell you that, okay, if that's done -- and I believe he's probably right because then we can have a problem.  But if you combine that with what Maj Jones said, that the folks that he's working with, the major stressor is unknown.  We've got a problem in our system here.  Because the only way you're going to find out how to get to the real root of the problem when it comes to mental health -- and I'm not a mental health professional -- is that you've got to find out what that stressor is, you've got to find out what created that problem.  Does that kind of -- Well let me just ask you.  If you had a VA professional in one of the CBOCs [Community-Based Outpatient Clinics] or in one of the hospitals, do you tell their people: Don't ask any questions because we don't want to know?  I'm hoping to hell that doesn't come from your end. And why would they do that?
William Schoenhard:  Sir, if that is being done, that is totally unacceptable.
If it's being done, it's unacceptable?  That's a rather interesting comment.  If the VA hadn't lied about wait time, the hearing wouldn't have been called.  Had Schoenhard been asked if the VA was lying about wait time a month ago, he most likely would have replied, "If that is being done, that is totally unacceptable."  What's totally unacceptable is that the supervision level of the VA doesn't appear able to do their job.  They're in supervision for a reason and that is, yes, to supervise.  So all these things that are going wrong -- these things they allegedly know nothing about and certainly didn't encourage -- these fall on them. Training apparently needs to be done at extremely high levels of the VA to explain review what job duties are and what these duties entail.  There is no oversight at the VA.  That's been clear for some time now.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Barry O is such a putz








"Pfc. Bradley Manning made headway Tuesday in his bid to prove that WikiLeaks' publication of more than 700,000 confidential files did not damage national security," reports Adam Klasfeld (Courthouse News Service).  "Claiming that the documents [damage assessments] are classified, however, prosecutors have refused to give Manning access.  Military judge Col. Denise Lind ordered the government Tuesday to turn the documents over to the court by May 2."  What's going on?
In January, Josh Gerstein (POLITICO) reported, "Another military officer has formally recommended that Army Pfc. Bradley Manning face a full-scale court martial for allegedly leaking thousands of military reports and diplomatic cables to the online transparency site WikiLeaks." In addition, Article 32 hearings are almost always rubber stamps. Monday April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks released US military video of a July 12, 2007 assault in Iraq. 12 people were killed in the assault including two Reuters journalists Namie Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh. Monday June 7, 2010, the US military announced that they had arrested Bradley Manning and he stood accused of being the leaker of the video. Leila Fadel (Washington Post) reported in August 2010 that Manning had been charged -- "two charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The first encompasses four counts of violating Army regulations by transferring classified information to his personal computer between November and May and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system. The second comprises eight counts of violating federal laws governing the handling of classified information." In March, 2011, David S. Cloud (Los Angeles Times) reported that the military has added 22 additional counts to the charges including one that could be seen as "aiding the enemy" which could result in the death penalty if convicted. The Article 32 hearing took place in December.  In January, there was an Article 32 hearing and, February 3rd, it was announced that the government would be moving forward with a court-martial.
Currently, pre-court martial rulings are being made.  The Center for Constitutional Rights' Shane Kadidal Tweeted the hearing today (Tweeted at CCR's Twitter Feed).
#Manning hearing: ruling from court tomorrow on arguments re: defense access to grand jury testimony - presumably investigating #Wikileaks
#Manning trial: defense argues gov didn't cite right disclosure standard. Gov won't publicly disclose even its legal arguments from briefs.
#Manning hearing: Judge asks if gov has found material that might be useful to defense but hasn't been disclosed. Gov says yes.
#Manning trial: Coombs: gov has been working to find harm from cables. From docs received so far it's clear answer is 'no damage' #Wikileaks
AFP explains, "The judge, Colonel Denise Lind, said she would review the reports from the CIA, the FBI and other agencies to determine whether the documents were pertinent to Manning's defense. The damage reports, including those from the CIA, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Deparmtent, could cast doubt on prosecutors' claims that the exposure of classified documents on the WikiLeaks site had devastating or lethal results."  Larry Shaughnessy (CNN) adds, "As for the request to dismiss the charges, Coombs said because the prosecutors did not understand the discovery rules, he and his fellow attorneys have not been given information that could help in his defense."  Sky News notes, "A court-martial date has yet to be set and Manning so far has declined to enter a plea on the counts he faces in a case that involves one of the most serious intelligence reaches in US history."
Defense motions can be found at David E. Coombs' website Army Court Martial Defense Info.  These are the redacted ones the government is issuing as well as the unredacted ones.  The issue of public access to motions -- a standard in any legal case in the United States -- was raised today and the judge declared that the public could make a freedom of information request if they want documents.  At the US State Dept today, spokesperson Victoria Nuland was asked about the judge's decison that the government had to turn over documents to the defense.
QUESTION: In the WikiLeaks case, the judge in the Bradley Manning case this morning ordered the State Department, among other agencies, to turn over some of their documents to the defense in order to help the Manning team better prepare its case. Is the State Department going to turn over those documents? And my follow-up is: Does the U.S. still see a negative impact on its relations with other countries in diplomacy because of what happened in the alleged leaking of these documents?
MS. NULAND: Let me take the last part first. I think our view of the entire WikiLeaks incident has not changed at all in terms of the negative effects. With regard to what the court has ordered, Ros, I haven't seen it, so let me take it and see what we know about what's been requested of us and what our response is.
As an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and a legal adviser to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, I continue to attend Manning's hearings and can only describe them as a theater of the absurd: the trial involves numerous and lengthy off-the-record conferences, out of sight and hearing of the press and public, after which the judge provides an in-court summary that hardly satisfies standards of "open and public". Perhaps more remarkable is the refusal even to provide the defense with a pre-trial publicity order signed by the judge – an order that details what lawyers can and cannot reveal about the case. Yes, even the degree to which proceedings should be kept in secret is a secret, leaving the public and media chained in a Plato's Cave, able only to glimpse the shadows of reality.
The press and advocacy groups, however, have not been quiet about the trampling of their rights. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, on behalf of 46 news organizations, urged the Department of Defense to take measures that would allow the news media to view documents prior to court arguments. The committee pointed out that the trial for the "alleged leak of the largest amount of classified information in US history" is of "intense public interest, particularly where, as here, that person's liberty is at stake". The Center for Constitutional Rights, too, has requested access in the interest of an "open and public" trial, but neither appeal has been answered.
This is a clear violation of the law, but it will likely take burdensome litigation to rectify this lack of transparency. The US supreme court has insisted that criminal trials must be public, and the fourth circuit, where this court martial is occurring, has ruled that the first amendment right of access to criminal trials includes the right to the documents in such trials.
The greater issue at hand is why this process should be necessary at all. As circuit judge Damon Keith famously wrote in Detroit Free Press v Ashcroft, "Democracies die behind closed doors."
In Iraq today, Alsumaria reports that an Anbar Province bombing left seven Iraqi soldiers injured,a Mosul car bombing targeting a checkpoint claimed the life of 1 Iraqi soldier and left two more injured and 1 person was kidnapped in Nineveh Province.  Margaret Griffis ( reports 12 died in Iraq violence yesterday and ten were left wounded.   As violence continues in Iraq, AFP reports that Nouri al-Maliki has reduced the wages of Sahwa (Awakening, Sons Of Iraq) members by 20%."  Dropping back to the April 8, 2008 Senate Armed Services hearing when Gen David Petraeus, then the top US commander in Iraq, was explaining the "Awakenings.'
In his opening remarks, Petraues explained of the "Awakening" Council (aka "Sons of Iraq," et al) that it was a good thing "there are now over 91,000 Sons of Iraq -- Shia as well as Sunni -- under contract to help Coalition and Iraqi Forces protect their neighborhoods and secure infrastructure and roads.  These volunteers have contributed significantly in various areas, and the savings in vehicles not lost because of reduced violence -- not to mention the priceless lives saved -- have far outweighed the cost of their monthly contracts."  Again, the US must fork over their lunch money, apparently, to avoid being beat up. 
How much lunch money is the US forking over?  Members of the "Awakening" Council are paid, by the US, a minimum of $300 a month (US dollars).  By Petraeus' figures that mean the US is paying $27,300,000 a month.  $27 million a month is going to the "Awakening" Councils who, Petraeus brags, have led to "savings in vehicles not lost".
The Awakening Movement has been in a tricky position for some time. They haven't been integrated into the state and they've also become targets for al-Qaeda extremists, who, after the withdrawal of US troops, started a campaign of intimidation and murder targeting Awakening members. They have been, al-Jibouri says, "abandoned by everyone".   
Previously the Awakening Movement had been seen as a resoundingly successful initiative. Founded in 2006, the armed groups were so successful in their counter-insurgency campaign and in assisting the US troops, that the idea was copied in Afghanistan too. 
No doubt the fact that the US was paying out around US$300 per month in wages to Awakening members also helped – at the height of the Awakening Movement's duties, this cost more than US$30 million a month. In late 2008, the Iraqi state began paying the wages of Awakening Movement members and it also promised to begin integrating the militias into state forces proper. 
However up until today, around half of those involved in the Awakening Movement say that they don't know if they will ever be employed by the Iraqi government. And others say they haven't been paid in months.