Friday, December 09, 2011

Mumia

The District Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia announced on Wednesday that they would no longer seek the death penalty against Mumia Abu-Jamal. A former member of the Black Panther Party and radical journalist, Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He has spent the last thirty years of his life on death row.

Abu-Jamal has proclaimed his innocence all along, and there is ample evidence to suggest that he was the victim of a police frame-up. No longer facing execution, Abu-Jamal is however to serve a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams informed the media of his decision not to pursue the death penalty at a press conference on Wednesday. He told reporters a new sentencing hearing would likely not produce a favorable outcome for the prosecution, because eyewitnesses from the 1982 trial had died or become otherwise unavailable in the ensuing decades.

I would love for Mumia to be released from prison today. But I don't think that's going to happen. I do think that all the pressure brought on behalf of Mumia is why the death penalty no longers swings over his head.

I'm very glad about that.

A part of me feels that Mumia can never be released so I am especially glad that the death penalty is no longer an option.

Why does a part of me feel he will never be released?

I feel the state knowingly and willfully lied to convict Mumia who they either knew might have been innocent or knew outright was innocent. Therefore, I believe the state has too much vested in keeping Mumia behind bars to let him go.

That's my opinion.

I hope I'm wrong.

But I do fear that too much is tied into his being behind bars and that certain individuals will not allow him to be released because that would only raise more questions.




''Iraq snapshot" (The Common Ills):
Friday, December 9, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the Camp Ashraf plan Martin Kobler presented to the UN Security Council Tuesday continues to gain support, the Defense Department attempts to again short-change National Guard service members, 28 firefighters bring a class-action lawsuit over contracting, and more.
Despite the Islamic Republic News Agency insisting today that the European Union endorses Nouri al-Maliki's decision to expell the MKO, the EU doesn't endorse that. Today the European Union's High Representative Catherine Ashton released the following statement:
Yesterday I met with Martin Kobler, the Sepcial Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). As I did earlier this week in my meeting with the UN SG Ban Ki-moon, I expressed my full support for the efforts both UNAMI and UNHCR are making to solve the problem of Camp Ashraf. I stressed that the safety of the people in the camp must be our primary concern. The initiative by United Nations High Commissioner Antonio Guterres and the work of Mr. Kobler are essential to facilitate an orderly solution to the problem which fully respects human rights and international humanitarian law. I have stressed to all the parties involved, including the Iraqi Foriegn Minister who I met this week and the EU Foreign Ministers, that the UNAMI and UNHCR-led process must be fully supported as the best and only way forward. I have asked my Special Adviser Jean De Ruyt to continue liasing with the United Nations on my behalf, inclduing on practical ways of working together. I want to praise the work of Martin Kobler and reiterate my call on all parties to show flexibility and cooperate fully to find a satisfactory solution.
What is the UNAMI and UNHCR-led process? Martin Kobler outlined it to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday:
SRSG Martin Kobler: The Secretary-General has spoken personally to Mr. Maliki to appeal for flexibility and for full support for the UN's efforts to faciliate this peaceful solution the government has assured that it seeks. He has asked me to attach the highest priority to this case. In trying to facilitate a solution, we are emphasizing a number of important points. First, that lives are at stake and must be protected. The government has a responsibility to ensure the safety, security and welfare of the residents. Any forced action that results in bloodshed or loss of lives would be both ill-advised and unacceptable. Second, we believe that any workable solution must be acceptable to both the government of Iraq and to the residents of Camp Ashraf. The solution must respect Iraqi soveriegnty on the one hand and applicable international humanitarian human rights and refugee law on the other hand. Third, a solution must also respect the principle of nonrefoulement. No resident of Camp Ashraf should be returned to his or her home country without consent. While some progess has been made in our latest discussions in Baghdad, many obstacles remain to arriving at a plan that would meet the concerns and requirements of all concerned. Subject to all conditions being met, UNHCR is ready to begin verification and interviews for the purpose of refugee status determination; however, the process will take time to complete and clearly the situation cannot be fully resolved before December 31st. I, therefore, appeal to the government of Iraq to extend this deadline in order to permit adequate time and space for a solution to be found. I also appeal to the leadership and residents of Camp Ashraf to engage constructively and with an open mind to this process. They should give serious consideration to the proposals under discussion. There should be no provocation or violence from their side nor a challenge to Iraqi sovereignty. Finally I appeal to the international community to do more to help. A lasting solution cannot be found and as governments step forward and offer to accept Camp Ashraf residents to resettle in their countries.
Today the Staten Island Advance reports,"About 220 people from First United Christian Church in Tompkinsville will travel on Monday to Washington, D.C., to protest what they believe is an impending massacre of Iranian dissidents. Nationwide, about 960 humanitarian and faith-based organizations numbering 50,000 to 60,000 people are expected to converge on the White House at 10 a.m. to protest the situation at Camp Ashraf in Iraq."
Background, Camp Ashraf houses a group of Iranian dissidents (approximately 3,500 people). Iranian dissidents were welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1986 and he gave them Camp Ashraf and six other parcels that they could utilize. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.The US government had the US military lead negotiations with the residents of Camp Ashraf. The US government wanted the residents to disarm and the US promised protections to the point that US actions turned the residents of Camp Ashraf into protected person under the Geneva Conventions. As 2008 drew to a close, the Bush administration was given assurances from the Iraqi government that they would protect the residents. Yet Nouri al-Maliki ordered the camp attacked twice. July 28, 2009 Nouri launched an attack (while then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on the ground in Iraq). In a report released this summer entitled "Iraqi government must respect and protect rights of Camp Ashraf residents," Amnesty International described this assault, "Barely a month later, on 28-29 July 2009, Iraqi security forces stormed into the camp; at least nine residents were killed and many more were injured. Thirty-six residents who were detained were allegedly tortured and beaten. They were eventually released on 7 October 2009; by then they were in poor health after going on hunger strike." April 8th of this year Nouri again ordered an assault on Camp Ashraf (then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was again on the ground in Iraq when the assault took place). Amnesty International described the assault this way, "Earlier this year, on 8 April, Iraqi troops took up positions within the camp using excessive, including lethal, force against residents who tried to resist them. Troops used live ammunition and by the end of the operation some 36 residents, including eight women, were dead and more than 300 others had been wounded. Following international and other protests, the Iraqi government announced that it had appointed a committee to investigate the attack and the killings; however, as on other occasions when the government has announced investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations by its forces, the authorities have yet to disclose the outcome, prompting questions whether any investigation was, in fact, carried out." Nouri al-Maliki is seen as close to the government in Tehran. They have made it clear that they want the dissidents out of Iraq and returned to Iran -- where they would face trial at best, torture most likely. Nouri has announced he will be closing Camp Ashraf at the end of this year. UK MP Brian Binley (Huffington Post) writes, "As things are evolving and if Maliki gets away with his plan to impose the deadline, just as the Christmas and New Year holidays are in full swing, the prospect is that the world will sit and watch while men and women are killed in cold blood or mutilated, crushed by US-supplied armoured personal carriers."

In response to a column Nouri al-Maliki penned for the Washington Post, MEK attorneys Allan Gerson and Steven M. Schneebaum point out, "Only the United States and Canada -- and, of course, Iran -- continue to maintain the MEK on their respective lists of terrorist organizations. More than two years ago, an appellate court in Britain threw out that designation as baseless, and the European Union soon followed suit. " ""
Wednesday, US House Reps Dana Rohrabacher and Gary Ackerman oversaw a hearing on Camp Ashraf by the House Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Ashish Kumar Sen (Washington Times) described the hearing an an effort "to seek an explanation from State Department officials about a court-ordered review of the terrorist label and an update on developments at Camp Ashraf." Sen reminds that the court ordered the review back in July 2010. Erik Slavin (Stars and Stripes) adds, "The State Department is re-examining MEK's status as a terrorist organization, said Ambassador Daniel Fried, who was appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to oversee the MEK's situation."
In his prepared remarks, Fried declared, "The Secretary has tasked me to report to her, using experience I have as a career foreign service officer of 34 years, to ensure that the US government is taking every responsible action possible, working with the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and our allies and partners, and in contact with the residents of Camp Ashraf and those who speak for them, to assure that any relocation of residents from Camp Ashraf is done humanely, with our principal concern being the safety and well-being of the residents. We are working urgently." Repeating, the court-ordered review came down in July of 2010.
Meanwhile weeks after ExxonMobile's deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government, it continues to dominate the news. Patrick Cockburn (Independent) reports, "The bombshell exploded last month when Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company, defied the instructions of the Baghdad government and signed a deal with the Iraqi Kurds to search for oil in the northern area of Iraq they control. To make matters worse, three of the areas Exxon has signed up to explore are on territory the two authorities dispute. The government must now decide if it will retaliate by kicking Exxon out of a giant oilfield it is developing in the south of Iraq." Sam Dagher (Wall St. Journal) reports that Nouri al-Maliki has announced the contract won't be cancelled.
Tensions around what's going on in Syria weren't cancelled either. Liz Sly (Washington Post) offers an an analysis of the impact on Iraq including, "As the Syrian conflict takes on increasingly sectarian dimensions, the crisscrossing rivalries that had been held somewhat in check in recent years among Iraq's Shiite majority and its Kurdish and Sunni minorities also risk being inflamed. Syria's sectarian makeup is almost a reverse image of Iraq's, with a minority, Shiite-affiliated Alawite regime confronting a protest movement drawn largely from the country's Sunni majority. " Brian Katulis (American Progress) argues that Nouri's trip to DC next week should include discussions of Syria, "Iraq and the United States currently have different positions on what to do about Syria. The United States maintains that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must step down and has carved out a strategy to stop the violence and support a political transition through economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and support for the opposition. Iraq has rejected calls for Assad to step down. In the fall Maliki echoed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Syria, saying that Syria needed to implement a series of political reforms to overcome the current crisis."
I don't understand that all. Syria will surely come up in passing but is the Center for American Progress now advocating for telling Iraq what to do? I believe, in regards to Syria, Nouri has already stated Iraq is not a follower. I also believe Nouri's expressed his belief that civil war could easily break out in Syria. He's also staked out a position of friendly input. Why is it Nouri's job to do the US job?
I know Nouri's a puppet. I'm just surprised that the Center for American Progress is now openly advocating for puppets and for them to dance for the US. CATO's Doug Bandow (at The Huffington Post) offers a clear-eyed assessment of Nouri:
However, what kind of democracy has resulted after eight years of U.S. occupation? Once seen as weak, Prime Minister Maliki has concentrated power in his hands. He turned a minority parliamentary position into the premiership and refused to honor a power-sharing agreement his chief opponent.
The International Crisis Group pointed to Maliki's expansion of government control over supposedly independent agencies tasked with overseeing the government. Worse, reported Yochi Dreazen: "Maliki has refused to appoint either a permanent defense minister or an interior minister, keeping Iraq's U.S.-trained armed forces and intelligence services under his sole control. He has also taken direct command of the ostensibly neutral 150,000 Iraqi troops stationed in Baghdad, using them to arrest rival politicians, human-rights activists, and journalists."
Maliki brutally suppressed anti-government demonstrations coinciding with the Arab Spring, targeted human rights activists, and cracked down on the media, having critics of his regime arrested and tortured. A number of journalists have been murdered, with government agents the chief suspects. Ghada al-Amely of the al-Mada newspaper told National Journal: "We feel just as scared as we did during Saddam's time." Maliki recently used improbable rumors of a Baathist coup to arrest more than 600 former members of the Baath party, including academics.
Washington has said little. Indeed, Wikileaks captured America's ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, observing that "It is in the interests of the U.S. to see that process of strengthened central authority continue." So much for democracy.
Crucially, the mission in Iraq has come to change -- and indeed militarize - the way in which the State Department operates.
First the expense. The State Department budget for FY2012 in Iraq is $6.2 billion. While that number may not shock in the context of the torrent of dollars that flowed during the war itself, it is nonetheless a major outlay, significantly larger than this year's budget for, to take an important example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, the Department of Defense will also continue to spend money to redeploy thousands of troops from Iraq to U.S. military bases in Kuwait and elsewhere nearby.
Then the risk. Violence continues as daily fare in Iraq, including continued resistance to U.S. presence. To deal with this fact, fully one third of the 16,000 civilians to be posted in Iraq will wield guns: a phalanx of security contractors -- 5,500 strong -- will operate in the country. This is definitely not State Department business as usual, even in the more dangerous areas in which it operates. The Iraq total is three times the number of people the State Department has employed to protect all of its other diplomatic missions in the world combined.
Breaking it down, the State Department's 5,500 security personnel join 4,500 "general life support" contractors who will be working to provide food, health care, and aviation services to those employed in Iraq, and approximately 6,000 US federal employees from State and other agencies. After Jan. 1, there will also be 157 U.S. military personnel and about 700 civilian contractors in Iraq who will train local forces in how to use the more than $8 billion in military equipment U.S. military corporations have sold to Iraq.
Also at Foreign Policy, Peter Feaver outlines some risks in the latest stage of the Iraq War.
Moving from risks to violence, Reuters notes a Muqdadiya roadside bombing injured one "tribal leader," a Muqdadiya sticky bombing claimed 2 lives and 1 Sahwa shot dead in Baquba -- all events were from Thursday.
Turning to the Defense Dept scandal over the Air Force dumping the remains of the fallen into a landfill, Charley Keyes and Barbara Starr (CNN) report:


Backtracking on initial information about how it handled the remains of American service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force now says the cremated body parts of hundreds of the fallen were burned and dumped in the landfill.
Earlier, the Air Force said only a small number of body parts had been buried in a commercial landfill and claimed it would be impossible to make a final determination of how many remains were disposed of in that manner.

Yesterday Craig Whitlock and Mary Pat Flaherty (Washington Post) reported that the number of troops whose remains have been dumped is much greater than the Defense Dept has acknowledged, that the "partial remains of at least 274 American troops" have been dumped "in a Virginia landfill."

Jill Laster and Markeshia Ricks (Marine Corps News) report, "Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he believes the service has found and fixed problems at Doer Port Mortuary and that a Defense Department panel will back up that belief." If that belief is backed up, that's disgusting. As Keyes and Starr report the Air Force's position is that they will apologize to any family . . . who objects. They are not contacting families and informing them of what happened. The families have to contact the Air Force. Who does the Air Force work for? Having already disrespected the fallen, they now can't even offer an apology. This is not accountability, this is not a sign of a government that works for the people. This is about bureaucrats who feels they shouldn't be bothered and that their mistakes are justifiable because they don't have to answer to anyone.

Mike Bowersock (Ohio's NBC 4i -- link has text and video) speaks with Iraq War veteran Daniel Hutchison who states, "I served in Iraq in 2006 and four of my really good friends were killed and it makes my blood boil to think they may be in a landfill right now. The argument can be made that it is difficult to try to identify all the pieces to bring it back home, but it's difficult to fight in a war."
The Defense Department is hardly a one scandal department. The Pentagon is coming under intense and deserved criticism for its refusal to initiate "a mental health program for National Guard soldiers." USA Today's Gregg Zororya reports on this latest government effort to save a penny by spitting on the National Guard. Zoroya quotes Senator Patty Murray who is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, "I was really surprised that the Departemtn of Defense decided to oppose this. It's just a no-brainer to make sure that this is out there for every Guard and Reserve member wherever they live." The Pentagon's own tracking demonstrates more National Guard service members have died from suicide in the last five years than have been died serving in Iraq or Afghanistan for any reason (other than suicide). At a time when the Pentagon has already used the National Guard in ways most didn't ever see happening, are they going to again refuse to give the Guards its due?
We don't have the time or space to go into all the times in the last years the Guard has been used to carry out military missions while being offered second-rate treatment in return, but we will note two things. First, this is from an NBC report former-US House Rep Martin Frost posted at his website:
When they came home from Iraq, 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard had been deployed longer than any other ground combat unit. The tour lasted 22 months and had been extended as part of President Bush's surge.
1st Lt. Jon Anderson said he never expected to come home to this: A government refusing to pay education benefits he says he should have earned under the GI bill.
"It's pretty much a slap in the face," Anderson said. "I think it was a scheme to save money, personally. I think it was a leadership failure by the senior Washington leadership... once again failing the soldiers."
Anderson's orders, and the orders of 1,161 other Minnesota guard members, were written for 729 days.
Had they been written for 730 days, just one day more, the soldiers would receive those benefits to pay for school.
So you've got what appears to be the Pentagon actively attempting to cheat Guard members. (Appears to be? I'm trying to be kind.) You've also got the Pentagon screwing them over when it comes to paying them. From Lisa Myers and NBC Nightly News' November 12, 2010 report:
Soldiers with the National Guard are already under the gun in Iraq and Afghanistan. But now a new government report claims that while the troops are fighting far from home, red tape is preventing many of them from being paid.
While National Guard soldiers fulfill their duty, risking their lives around the world, the Pentagon apparently is not living up to its obligation to pay them the right amount or on time. That's according to a new congressional report obtained by NBC News, which finds the Pentagon's pay process is such a mess it's having "a profound financial impact on individual soldiers and their families."
"This is well beyond anything I could ever imagine," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., "I would like to think if we send people off to war that we're not going to have them worry about whether their home is going to be taken because they can't pay their mortgage."
Those are just two examples. They both have to do with the Pentagon's problems paying the Guard for the work they're being asked to do. At a time when the Pentagon keeps insisting it's addressing the suicide issue, it's appalling that yet again they're trying to save a few pennies by short changing National Guard service members.


In other news of cheapness and crooked behavior, Ryan Abbott (Courthouse News Service) reports 28 firefighters are part of a class action lawsuit against "Wackenhut, KBR and Halliburton [who they allege] forced them to work around the clock in Afghanistan and Iraq but paid them for only half their time." Zoe Tillman (The BLT) quotes one of the attorneys representing the firefighters, Scott Bloch, stating, "This case is about very big government contractors making billions off of the back of firefighters and other people who work over there in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're going to make billions if they pay for work performed, but somehow that's not enough for them."
Lastly, the US Justice Dept notes a 20-month sentence for a US Army Corps of Engineers employee for bribery:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, December 9, 2011
Former Army Corps of Engineers Employee Sentenced to 20 Months in Prison for Accepting Bribes from Iraqi Contractors

WASHINGTON - A former employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, was sentenced today in the Eastern District of Virginia to 20 months in prison for conspiring to receive bribes from Iraqi contractors involved in the U.S.-funded reconstruction efforts, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride for the Eastern District of Virginia and Assistant Director in Charge James W. McJunkin of the FBI's Washington Field Office.

Thomas Aram Manok, 51, of Chantilly, Va., was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga. In addition to his prison term, Manok was sentenced to three years of supervised release. Judge Trenga ordered a forfeiture hearing to be held on Jan. 13, 2012. Manok pleaded guilty on Sept. 19, 2011.

Manok admitted to using his official position to conspire with Iraqi contractors to accept cash bribes in exchange for recommending that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approve contracts and other requests for payment submitted by the contractors to the U.S. government. According to court documents, in March and April 2010, Manok agreed to receive a $10,000 payment from one such contractor who had been involved in constructing a kindergarten and girls' school in the Abu Ghraib neighborhood of Baghdad and had sought Manok's influence in having requests for payment approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to court documents, Manok was to receive an additional bribe payment from the contractor once the contractor's claim had been approved. Manok also admitted that he intended to conceal the payments from authorities by transferring them, via associates, from Iraq to Armenia.

This case was investigated by the FBI's Washington Field Office, the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, as participants in the International Contract Corruption Task Force. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul J. Nathanson of the Eastern District of Virginia and Trial Attorney Mary Ann McCarthy of the Criminal Division's Fraud Section.

This prosecution is part of efforts underway by President Barack Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. President Obama established the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. The task force includes representatives from a broad range of federal agencies, regulatory authorities, inspectors general and state and local law enforcement who, working together, bring to bear a powerful array of criminal and civil enforcement resources. The task force is working to improve efforts across the federal executive branch, and with state and local partners, to investigate and prosecute significant financial crimes, ensure just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate financial crimes, combat discrimination in the lending and financial markets, and recover proceeds for victims of financial crimes. For more information about the task force visit: www.stopfraud.gov.

the wall st. journal
sam dagher

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

I am not that forgetful

I'm always surprised by e-mails which inform me what I'm supposed to write about. Seemingly, at my own blog, I would know what I am supposed to write about; however, even more surprising are e-mails explaining that I forgot to go into full detail on something -- on something I never wrote about.

Does the person have me confused with another blogger? Or is this just some standard junk e-mail they send out to a variety of bloggers hoping someone says, "Oh, sure, I'll write on that! Why didn't I already?"

I will not be voting for Barack Obama in 2012. I have no idea who I will be voting for. I can tell you that if Newt Gingrich gets the nomination, I won't be voting for him either. He's seeking the GOP presidential nomination. (Could I vote for any Republican? I could consider voting for Jon Hunstman and I would have no problem voting for anti-war Ron Paul.)

But supposedly I was blogging about Newt this month (no, I was not) and I forgot to mention the whole woman with the missing kids thing in the 90s.

When Sunny told me about the e-mail, I couldn't stop laughing.

I can forget many things, this blog isn't really my primary focus. But that?

No.

I wouldn't forget that.

Here's why.

A woman and her children (three?) made the news. The woman claimed, I'm not researching this, I'm using my memory so it may be faulty, that her children were attacked by a stranger. Newt insisted this was what happened with permissive Democrats.

Turns out the woman was the child of some big-whig in the state's Republican Party. Woops, Newt.

But why I remember it is I was dating a guy with CBS News and having a small dinner party. After we finished eating, my date asked if we could turn on the TV to catch the competition (NBC's Dateline). I believe this was a Monday night. Check with C.I. if you need specifics. She never forgets anything and she had flown in for the party.

So there are probably ten of us and we move to the living room while I turn on the TV. The story is that story, the woman and the kids. I am thinking -- I could be remembering wrong -- that Katie Couric was the one conducting the interview.

C.I. doesn't follow scandals. Over half the people present are, from the program's lead in, talking about the woman (S.S. -- I won't put her name up here). C.I.'s asking who this woman is and getting all this background. The interview starts and about 2 or so minutes in, C.I. says, "She killed those kids."

All hell breaks loose. You have half the group insisting she's a victim, about two wanting to know why C.I's saying that and three more just going over the facts of the case (and my then-boyfriend on the phone with colleagues telling them to look into the mother killing her own kids because he knew C.I.'s instincts).

As it turned out, the woman lied about the assailants and she did, in fact, kill her own kids. I have a million stories like that. I have never shared that one here which is how I know I haven't ever written about that woman or Newt's ridiculous claims.


"Iraq snapshot" (The Common Ills):

Wednesday, December 7, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Moqtada asks 'what withdrawal,' DoD tells a Congressional Subcommittee that "we're spending money that we're not watching," January 4th four IG positions go vacant and the White House is making no effort to fill them, attacks on electricity transmission towers in Iraq, the White House condemns statemenst Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters, and more.
"This is the sixth hearing addressing the accountability of tax dollar in war zones," declared US House Rep Jason Chaffetz as he brought to order the hearing into Iraq and Afghanistan this morning. Chaffetz is the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform's National Security Subcommittee. Appearing before the Subcommittee was the Defense Dept's Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell, the State Dept's Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel, the acting inspector general of US AID Michael Carroll, the acting inspector general for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Steven J. Trent and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen.
Subcommitee Chair Chaffetz summarized the fraud and abuse problems early on,, "In October, the full committee heard testimony from the Commission on Wartime Contracting about its final report. The Commissioners allege that between $30 and $60 billion dollars had been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan due to waste, fraud and abuse in the contracting process. According to the Commission, this was due to ill conceived projects, poor planning and oversight, poor performance by contractors, criminal behavior and blatant corruption. This is unacceptable. And while some may agree or disagree with our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is universally unacceptable to waste tax payer money."
Early on, he also noted a serious failure on the part of the White House.
Subcommittee Chair Jason Chaffetz: Before recognizing Ranking Member [John] Tierney, I'd like to note that the Defense Dept, State Dept, USAID and SIGAR will not have IGs in January. In May of this year, I wrote the President asking him to move without delay to appoint replacements. That letter was signed by Senators [Joe] Lieberman, [Susan] Collins, [Claire] McCaskill and [Rob] Portman, as well as [House Oversight Committee] Chairman [Darrell] Issa and Ranking Member [Elijah] Cummings and Ranking Member Tierney. I'd like to place a copy of htis record into the record. Without objection, so ordered. To my knowledge, the President has yet to nominate any of these replacements, nor has he responded to this letter. I find that totally unacceptable. This is a massive, massive effort. It's going to take some leadership from the White House. These jobs cannot and will not be done if the president fails to make these appointments. Upon taking office, President Obama promised that his administration would be "the most open and transparent in history." You cannot achieve transparency without inspectors general. Again, I urge President Obama and the Senate to nominate and confirm inspectors general to fill these vacancies and without delay.
The public face of reconstruction in Iraq has been the Speical Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen. We'll note the following from his opening statement.
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: First, I am concerned about maintaining SIGIR's ability to get the information we need to complete ongoing audits and investigations and to continue to provide the kind of comprehensive Quarterly Report coverage that the Congress has come to expect from us. The State Department recently instituted a new bureaucratic process, requiring the channeling of information that we request from the Embassy through Foggy Bottom offices. This process inevitably will cause delays, impede our capacity to deal directly with the individuals in Iraq responsible for providing the necessary data, and thus reduce our responsiveness. Symptomatic of this bureaucratic development, one of my investigators, working jointly with the FBI on a criminal case, recently was refused information by the State Department regarding a potential subject (who is a State employee). State directed my investigator to use the "audit process" to obtain this investigative information. Worse, he was challenged as to whether the information, which he had requested in good faith, was even related to "reconstruction funding." This development is just the latest quandary in a predicament-filled year, during which the State Department has repeatedly raised fallacious objections to varying SIGIR requests. I thank the Chairman and Ranking Member -- and the full Committee's leadership -- for their steadfast support of our oversight mission; but these recent issues underscore the reality of the continuing oversight challenges that confront us.
You can't do oversight without the staff. Or, as Stuart Bowen noted during questioning, "You have to be there, to do the work." On that topic, we'll note this exchange from the hearing.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: I'd now like to recognize myself for five minutes and Mr. Heddell, let's start with you. The Defense Contracting Auditing Agency, I know is a little bit outside of your lane but I would appreciate it if you would offer a perspective. The Commission on Wartime Contracting had indicated that there were some 56,000 -- 56,0000 -- contracts behind in terms of auditing these contracts. Why is that? How can that be? How is it that DoD can be so far behind in this? Sorry, your microphone please.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Mr. Chairman, my office has actually done a lot of work with respect to DCAA. I would just say generally, first off, that I think that they probably are under-resourced and need help in that respect but historically DCAA has been a very challenged organization. They do a tremendous amount of work for a lot of agencies -- not just inside the Department of Defense but outside the Department of Defense. In the last three to four years, the DCAA has undergone some sweeping changes as a result of some fairly significant criticisms of their leadership, of their processes, and-and not meeting expectations. As a result of that, it has new leadership today with Pat Fizgerald who was the Director of Army Audit. And Pat has taken on a gigantic job. And with the work that my office has done to try to help them identify vulnerabilities in their mangagement, in their processes and how to be an effective organization, for the last two years, their focus has been -- and this is Gordon Heddell talking -- more internal than external. So while, under ideal circumstances, they would have been focusing outward, doing great work, doing lots of audits with very experienced and good leadership, they've had to focus inward to correct management deficiencies and vulnerabilities. I think that's partially a result of this backlog in audits, not entirely.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: And-and my understanding is we've been participating in a lot of wars and spending a lot of money and a lot of resources, as that expenditure has gone up, help me understand what's happening with the actual auditors themselves because you have been appropriated more money.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Absoultely. In fact, I've been a very fortunate organization. In the last three or four years, the DoD Office of Inspector General has been plussed up some $87 million, Mr. Chairman. I doubt that any other IG can say that, so I'm very fortunate. The Congress has been very supportive of me. And for that matter, so has the Department of Defense.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: But have you been spending that money?
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: No. The problem there is that the budget, the $87 million in plus ups that I have received have not been annualized. And what that means is that although I'm very fortunate to get these plus ups, I'm not able to use that money to hire permanent staff. So I can hire contractors, I can -- I can do other things with that money but I cannot, because it's not being annualized by the Department, I cannot run the risk of hiring people and then having to RIFF them [lay them off] the following year for fear that I don't have enough money in my budget to pay them. It's a problem.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Of that $87 million that you've gotten, how much did you actually spend?
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Well we have spent almost all of it because --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: But you're hiring outside contractors to do --
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Yes, sir. We're hiring outside contractors. We're creatively doing work that is positive and meets the needs of both the Congress and the Department and the American people. But, for instance, you know one of the -- in the early 2000s, there's two things that happened that have come to haunt us today. One is that while we sent our military forces into southeast Asia to fight two wars, there was a mistaken belief by many of the civilian agencies that they could fight those two wars in the continental United States, my own organization being one of those. And it wasn't until three of four years ago that we came to the realization you cannot do that, that you must be present, and you have to have the people in place, you have to have the footprint. The second thing that happened is that the Department of Defense's budget doubled to about $650 billion dollars. And at the same time, the contract -- Aquistion and Contract Management Workforce, in fact, was reduced in size meaning that we lacked thousands and thousands of needed contracting specialists that are not there to oversight these contracts, that are not there to raise their hand and say 'stop the assembly line.' We're spending money that we're not watching. We're not surveillling it. So those are the two major issues.
Subcommittee Chair Jason Chaffetz: Well thank you, I appreciate that. I think this highlights a mulit-billion dollar problem and challenge that we certainly need to address and fix because I think there is a definite need that is pervasive in the Congress -- both in the House and the Senate -- to make sure that these types of functions are in place. But the way that the money is appropriated is obviously falling short and failing.
Now we're going to fall back to the December 1st snapshot to note the November 30th hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia hearing:
Ranking Member Gary Ackerman: He [Bowen] has testified before other bodies of Congress, he has released written quarterly reports, as well as specific audits and the message is the same: The program for which the Department of State officially took responsibility on October 1st is nearly a text book case of government procurement -- in this case, foreign assistance -- doesn't buy what we think we're paying for, what we want and why more money will only make the problem worse. Failed procurement is not a problem unique to the State Department. And when it comes to frittering away millions, Foggy Bottom is a rank amateur compared to the Department of Defense. As our colleagues on the Armed Services committees have learned, the best of projects with the most desirable of purposes can go horribly, horribly off-track; and the hardest thing it seems that any bureaucracy can do is pull the plug on a failed initiative. How do we know the Police Development Program is going off-track? Very simple things demonstrate a strong likelihood of waste and mismanagement. Number one, does the government of Iraq -- whose personnel we intend to train -- support the program? Interviews with senior Iraqi officials by the Special Inspector General show utter disdain for the program. When the Iraqis suggest that we take our money and do things instead that are good for the United States, I think that might be a clue.
Ackerman went on to note how "the program's objectives remain a mushy bowl of vague platitudes" and how it had "no comprehensive and detailed plan for execution, there is no current assessment of Iraqi police force capability and, perhaps most tellingly, there are no outcome-based metrics. This is a flashing-red warning light."
We dropped back because this issue was also raised in today's hearing.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: Mr. Bowen, right now the police development program is the administration's largest foreign aid project for Iraq going forward. And there's some evidence that the Iraqis don't even want this program. So have you or your staff asked the Iraqi police forces if they need the $500 million a year program that the Obama administration is planning to spend on the police development program?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: Yes, Mr. Labrador, we have and we reported on that in our last quarterly report noting that the senior official at the Ministry of the Interior, Senior Deputy Minister al-Assadi said "he didn't see any real benefit from the police development program." I addressed that with him when I was in Iraq a couple of weeks ago and I asked him, "Did you mean what you said?" And his response was, "Well we welcome any support that the American government will provide us; however, my statements as quoted in your recent quarterly are still posted on my website."
US House Rep Raul Labrador: So why is the administration still spending $500 million a year to provide this program?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: There's a beliff that security continues to be a challenge in Iraq, a well founded belief, I might add, given the events of this week. Killings of pilgrims again, on the way to Najaf, on the eve of Ashura. The focus though on trying to address those problems has been a widely scattered, high level training program involving about 150 police trainers who, as we've seen again this week, are going to have a very difficult time moving about the country.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: So what other problems have you found with the police development program, if any?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: Several. Well, Mr. Labrador, we pointed out in our audit that, one Iraqi buy-in, something that the Congress requires from Iraq, by law, that is a contribution of 50% to such programs,has not been secured -- in writing, in fact, or by any other means. That's of great concern. Especially for a Ministry that has a budget of over $6 billion, a government that just approved, notionally, a hundred billion dollar budget for next year. It's not Afghanistan. This is a country that has signficant wealth, should be able to contribute but has not been forced to do so, in a program as crucial as this.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: I know I've run out of time but, Mr. Geisel, do you have any comments on this?
Deputy Inspector General for US State Dept Harold Geisel: Well, of course, first of all, I'm not going to second guess my friend and colleague on what his people found. And, of course, the people you need to bring up here are the people from the State Department to comment on what he found. I do -- I saw that the Department published a document -- a 21-page document that includes goals and measures of performance for the police development program but it's my friend's baby, not mine.
After that bit of hot potato, the next big issue was returning to the lack of nominees to fill the soon to be vacant oversight roles.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: One of the things that's most frustrating to me as a freshman in Congress is that there are some things that both sides agree on that we need to be working on and yet we're not doing them. I look at the Oversight Committee, here, I don't think there's a lot of difference. There might be some small differences between the two sides, but it seems like we can identify some things like the $500 million that we're going to spend on the Iraq police force that they don't even want, that we should be finding things in common that we could be saving on. I want -- if we could put on that transparency here on President Obama. And I'm not saying this, I'm not using this to embarrass anybody, but President Obama has said on his website that he's committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history. He wants a window for all Americans into the business of government. And that's something that I want. I actually agree with him on this issue. Yet this panel is representing the IG offices principally responsible for overseeing tax payer money in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as of January 4th of next year, four of the five offices will not have an IG. I'm concerned about that. I want everybody to comment, do you know whether the President has nominated anyone to fill these vacancies? If so, who has been nominated? Have you made any recommendations? And do you think the absence of permanent IGs will actually harm our efforts in oversight? And anyone can take this question.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: I-I certainly would like to comment. Number one, I don't know the names, Congressman Labradour, of anyone who might have been nominated or who is being considered to be nominated. Number two, I can tell you that the confirmation -- the nomination and confirmation process that we have is cumbersome and slow and it has an adverse impact on the leadership of these organizations. Number three, when I took over as the acting inspector general in July of 2008, the DoD IG had -- at the very top -- been vacant for so many years -- over the past 10, 12 years, you can't imagine. And so to run an organization using an acting inspector general as the leader is foolhardy. You can do it for a few months, but you cannot succeed over years and decades and that is what has happened.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: Does anybody know why that has happened? Is there any reason why? It seems like both sides would agree that we need a robust IG in all of these agencies. Does anybody have any comments on that? Mr. Carroll?
US AID acting IG Michael Carroll: I can't comment on what the White House is doing but I just want to assure you on behalf of the USAID IG that one of the great things about working for Don Gambatesa, it was truly a partnership between him and I, so as I moved into the acting role, other than the fact that it's a bit of a work load issue for me, the work goes on and the leadership philosophy continues and so I just want to assure the Subcommittee that-that there'll be no-no degredation in our effectiveness or what our work is going to be for as long as it takes the President to make a decision on the IG job.
Meanwhile Al Mada reports that Moqtada al-Sadr declared (in his online column to followers) that, "I do not know of a withdrawal of the occupation" in reply to a question about celebrations taking place in Iraq as US forces are repostured. Related, Jim Michaels (USA Today) interviews US Lt Gen Robert Caslen about the current status of the Iraqi forces and quotes Caslen stating, "That leaves a significant training gap in the Iraqi security forces. Iraqi security forces are going to have to address how to meet that training gap in the future." reports Al Rafidayn notes Nouri al-Maliki is scheduled to visit DC next week and meet with members of the US administration. Al Mada states he will be leading a delegation and notes that Abbas al-Bayati, MP with the National Alliance is insisting that Nouri cannot enter into any agreement on his own.

Rumors continue that Nouri al-Maliki will ask Gulf countries to patrol Iraqi air space (since its own air force is not prepared for the job yet and won't be until 2014 at the earliest). Kitabat reports the rumors as truth and part of a plan -- by Iraq and other Gulf states, according to the newspaper -- for this Gulf air force to patrol the entire region. That seems very unlikely. Setting aside the various conflicts Nouri has with Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, it seems highly unlikely that Iraq would agree to such a deal which, in 2014, would no longer be necessary but would be very difficult to get out of. Al Mada reports that government sources are denying any plan to enter into an agreement with Gulf region countries to have them protect Iraqi air space.

In other news, Al Mada reports that the Christian bloc in Parliament has declared that there is no need for "international forces" in any disputed territories. "International forces" most likely means both the US and NATO. Last week, Iraqi Christians were targeted in northern Iraq. Alsumaria TV reports that the Union of Kurdistan Islamic Clerics is rejecting the charges that incendiary language by one of their members led to the attacks.
In the Middle East, Iran borders Iraq on the east. AFP notes an attack in north east Iraq which claimed 1 police officers life and left two more injured as powerlines supplying electricity to Iraq from Iran's Kermanshah were sabotaged. Deutsche Presse-Agentur notes, "Iraqi Electricity Ministry spokesman Museb al-Madras said the attack on Tuesday in Baquba, 60 kilometres east of Baghdad, targeted pylons that are part of a network that brings in some 400 megawatts of Iranian power annually. " In addition, Aseel Kami, Kareem Raheem, Fadhil al-Badrani and Rania El Gamal (Reuters) report another attack was planned but prevented, "In the vast western Anbar province, the Iraqi army defused bombs planted around a power plant early on Wednesday, local army sources said. The attackers had tied up the guards and took their weapons, the sources said."

Reuters notes today's violence in Iraq alrso includes 1 police officer shot dead in Falluja, a Kirkuk sticky bombing which claimed the life of 1 person, a Kirkuk roadside bombing which injured an official with "Iraqi Railways Company," a Baghdad roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and left three more injured, an attorney shot dead in Mosul, a Jurf al-Sakhar sticky bombing which injured a worker with the National Security Ministry, a Jurf al-Sakhar roadside bombing whcih injured one person and, dropping back to last night, 1 peshmerga shot dead in Kirkuk.
Sam Dagher (Wall St. Journal) examines today's violence and sees three deaths as potentially linked and a disturbing portent of the future for Iraq, "Maj. Gen. Jamal Taher Baker, Kirkuk's provincial police chief, says these attacks were carried out by militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's former regime to derail any easing in the dispute in Kirkuk, which has pitted local communities against one another. The day's violence came after at least four people were killed and 45 others wounded over the previous 10 days in roadside bombings and mortar attacks targeting members of the Shiite Turkmen community in and around Kirkuk, according to local police." Oil-rich and disputed Kirkuk, long predicted to be a flashpoint in Iraq, Dagher notes, is rumored to be drawing in Iranians and Turkish operatives to foster more violence.
Turkey borders Iraq from the north and in addition to purchasing electricity from Iran, Iraq is conducting business with Pakistan and India. Khalid al-Ansary (Bloomberg News) reports that Iraq's purchased 30,000 tons of rice from India and 90,000 from Pakistan and that Iraq is predicted to produce 250,000 tons of rice this year (basically a fifth of what Iraq is expected to consume in 2012).

While Iran borders Iraq from the east, Turkey borders it from the north and Jordan borders it from the southwest. MENAFN News notes that Jordan is requesting that Iraq help them with an alternative trade route for their exports to Turkey and Europe should Syria close their borders. (Syria borders Iraq on the northeast and is directly north of Jordan.) In addition, Omar Obeidat (Jordan Times) reports:

Owners of cargo trucks are mulling using Iraq as an alternative transit route to Turkey and Europe as just a few trucks enter Syria per day due to the turbulence in the northern neighbour.
According to Mohammad Dawood, president of the Jordan Truck Owners Association (JTOA), over the past two weeks Jordanian trucks carrying vegetables and other goods to Turkey and Europe have "rarely" travelled through Syria due to the ongoing instability.
He told The Jordan Times over the phone on Saturday that although Syrian authorities are not banning the entry of Jordanian cargo trucks through their land, owners and drivers are reluctant to enter the violence-hit country. On the topic of Jordan,
Aswat al-Iraq notes, "The number of Iraqis in Jordan has recently dropped down to 195,000, according to the Iraqi Embassy in Amman on Sunday."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given his first US interview to ABC News' Barbara Walters. Click here for transcript and video.
ABC's Barbara Walters: Mr. President, you have invited us to Damascus and you have not given an interview to the American media since this crisis began. What is it you want us to know?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: I would like to reiterate what I used to say after 11th of September, to every American delegation I met, first of all I think the American people, people should know more about what's happening beyond the ocean, second the American media I would like them to tell only the truth about what's happening in the world, and for the American administration. Don't look for puppets in the world.
Walters: Don't look for puppets?
Assad: Only deal with administration that, on people that can tell you know about the truth, because what's happening in the world now is taking the world toward chaos, what we need now is we need to deal with the reality. So the message now is about the reality.
Walters: Tell me what the reality here is your country is. What is the reality?
Assad: It's too complicated, it takes hours to talk about... so let's be specific.
Walters: Not long ago you were widely seen as a fresh pragmatic leader, a doctor whose life was in healing people, now sir, much of the world regards you as a dictator and a tyrant. What do you say to that?
Assad: What's important how the Syrian people look at you, not how you look at yourself. So I don't have to look at myself. This is... second, it's about the system. You have a dictator and you have dictatorship, there's a big difference between the two, dictatorship is about the system, we never said we are democratic country, but we're not the same, we-- we are moving forward in, in reforms, especially during the last nine month, so I think we are moving forward, it takes a long time, it takes a lot of maturity to be full fledge democratic country, but we are moving that, that direction, for me as a person, whatever I do should be based on the will of the people, because you need popular legitimacy and this is against dictatorship for person.

Walters' exclusive interview has rolled out on various ABC news platforms and continues on Nightline tonight. Meanwhile the White House denounces the remarks Assad makes in the interview.
And turning to veterans issues, Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office notes:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Murray Press Office - (202) 224-2834
Wednesday, December 7, 2011 Tester Press Office – (202) 228-0371

VETERANS: VA Responds to Concerns Raised by Chairman Murray and Senator Tester for Improved Military Sexual Trauma Claims Process

(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray and Committee Member Jon Tester announced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will be working to improve the accuracy and consistency of their disability claims process related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST). This announcement comes after Chairman Murray and Senator Tester sent a letter to Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey in October about the critical need to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.

The letter was sent as a response to a December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General Report, Review of Combat Stress in Women Veterans Receiving VA Health Care and Disability Benefits, which found VBA had not fully assessed available MST-related claims data, which led to no clear understanding of how consistently these claims are being adjudicated.

"With an unacceptable number of our troops returning home with the damaging effects of MST, something had to be done," Chairman Murray said. "The actions recently taken by the VA to address this issue are a significant step in the right direction. I am thankful they heard our concerns and moved quickly to tackle them. As Chairman, I will continue to monitor the progress of these improvements."

"VA standards need to be fair and accountable for all victims of service-related trauma," Senator Tester said. "It's also critical that the VA is responsive to the evolving needs of America's veterans and I'm pleased that the agency will be taking a close look at how it handles Military Sexual Trauma. I appreciate the VA's quick response to our letter and will keep a close eye on their progress."

Chairman Murray and Senator Tester's letter requested that the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) take action to address concerns about the ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST. Last week, VBA took action on the concerns raised by Chairman Murray and Senator Tester and issued a training letter, "Adjudicating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Claims Based on Military Sexual Trauma (MST)." Compliance with this training letter and a new on-line training program for decision makers will help them correctly decide a claim related to MST.

Finally, Chairman Murray and Senator Tester's letter expressed concern with the current evidentiary standard for adjudicating PTSD claims based on in-service personal assault, such as MST. The issued training letter clarifies the types of evidence, and provides specific examples to aid decision makers in applying a liberal interpretation of the requirements, consistent with medical and lay evidence, which may be used to support a claim based upon MST.

The full text of the Senators' letter is below:

The Honorable Allison A. Hickey
Under Secretary for Benefits
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420

Dear Under Secretary Hickey:

We are writing to commend your recent efforts to improve the recognition of disabilities related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST). These efforts are long overdue and more work remains to be done. Far too many servicemembers, both men and women, are returning home from service carrying the devastating wounds that result from MST. After sacrificing so much to serve their country, they often face tremendous challenges in obtaining the services and benefits they desperately need. That is why we urge you to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.

A December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General Report, Review of Combat Stress in Women Veterans Receiving VA Health Care and Disability Benefits, found that VBA had not fully assessed available MST-related claims data. As a result, there is no clear understanding of how consistently these claims are being adjudicated. We understand that you recently directed a review of MST-related claims and request that you provide us with the results of this review and the actions taken in response to the review findings. There are also additional steps you can take to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided. These actions include ensuring that regulations and policies concerning MST are based upon sound medical research and are providing VBA decision makers with the training and supervision needed to correctly adjudicate these claims.

In 2002, VA implemented universal MST screening after research found that medical and mental health conditions associated with MST were unreported and thus untreated. VA's own research, The Veterans Health Administration and Military Sexual Trauma, (December 2007), found that 22 percent of screened female veterans and one percent of screened male veterans reported MST. This research found that the likelihood of a mental health diagnosis, including but not limited to PTSD, more than doubled for veterans exposed to MST. This underscores the need for VBA to properly recognize mental and physical health conditions associated with MST.

Additionally, we have concerns regarding the evidentiary standard for adjudicating PTSD claims based on in-service personal assault such as MST. Under the current standard, evidence such as records from law enforcement authorities or rape crisis centers may be used to corroborate the veteran's account of the stressor incident. However, research shows that MST is severely underreported in both military and civilian settings. As a result, the evidence described in the regulation may not exist.

Although the current regulation allows medical or mental health professionals to consider evidence, such as behavioral changes, and to provide an opinion as to whether the evidence indicates that a personal assault occurred, claims processors may not correctly interpret evidence used by a medical professional in the context of a particular case. A clinician skilled in diagnosing and treating disabilities associated with MST should make determinations as to whether the post-MST behavior change is consistent with the reported MST experience. We request that you consider our concerns as you explore potential regulatory changes that may be necessary to resolve the issues surrounding the reported improper adjudication of PTSD claims based on MST.

We are also aware of the steps you have taken to require training concerning MST, and are pleased that you are focused on improving VBA's ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST. While much attention has been given to PTSD claims, we urge you to provide training on other mental health and medical conditions that may result from MST.

Thank you for your attention to this request. We look forward to continuing to work with you on behalf of our nation's veterans.

Sincerely,

Patty Murray
Chairman

Jon Tester
U.S. Senator

###

Meghan Roh

Deputy Press Secretary

Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray

@PattyMurray

202-224-2834

Get Updates from Senator Murray

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Accountability

"Chilean prosecutor charges ex-US officer in 1973 murder of American journalists" (Bill Van Auken, WSWS):
A judge in Chile last week issued an indictment against a retired US Navy officer in connection with the arrest, torture and murder of two American journalists, Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi, in the wake of the CIA-backed military coup led by Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet that toppled the government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.

Judge Jorge Zepeda has charged Capt. Ray Davis (retired) with providing the Chilean secret police with intelligence that led to the abduction and murder of Horman and Terrugi and with failing to take any action to stop the killings. At the time of the coup, Davis was the chief of the US Military Group at the American embassy in Santiago. The judge has filed a motion with the country’s Supreme Court to seek Davis’s extradition from the US.

It's way past time for the people of Chile to get justice. The US government is responsible for the massacre that took place. Henry Kissinger should have been put on trial for War Crimes a long, long time ago.

The refusal to hold Kissinger responsible, the need to 'rehabilitate' Tricky Dick Nixon, were the stepping stones that led to the current lack of accountability.

Chile was another 9-11 and we don't treat it as such. We are outraged by our own 9-11 but indifferent to what took place in Chile -- and our government was responsible for that.

But no one was ever held responsible.

Not even when US-backed thug Augusto Pinochet carried out his assassination of Orlando Letelier in DC. Yes, 'former' CIA agent Michael Townley did go to prison, 62 months. For murder, 62 months. Convicted of murder and only 62 months in prison. That's less than six years. Guess what he's in now? The US Federal Witness Protection Program. Doesn't it feel like it was ensured he'd get out of prison from the beginning? Probably due to the fact that the murder of Letelier was a joint-action between Pinochet and the CIA.


"Iraq snapshot" (The Common Ills):

Tuesday, December 6, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, the UN Security Council discusses Camp Ashraf, Barbara Walters lands an interview with a news maker, Senators Patty Murray and Richard Burr demand an investigation into the VA wait time for mental care, and more.
Today the UN Security Council discussed the situation in Iraq (link is streaming). Appearing before them was Martin Kobler who the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq.
SRSG Martin Kobler: Let me start at the outset by condemning in the strongest possible terms yesterday's atrocious, terrorist attacks on Ashura pilgrims which killed dozens and injured many more. Mr. Ambassador, my condolences go to the families of the victims. The Iraqi religious and ethnic diversity is the ultimate strength of the country. This diversity is at the heart of the country's effort to establish a peaceful, prosperous and all-inclusive society.
It wasn't a good start. S'hi'ites are the dominant group in Iraq -- both in terms of controlling the govnerment and in terms of sheer numbers. So Kobler looked like a little kiss ass sucking up to the butt of power. It would have taken one sentence to note the Friday assault on Iraqi Christians. But he didn't.
Today, UPI quotes the Iraqi Minorities Council's vice chair Louis Climis explaining, "The sad fact that minrorities still need to camouflage their identity implies they are often ignored or discriminated in public life." And they note that Minority Rights Group International has determined as many "as 4,000 Christian families fled Baghdad" in the last thirteen months. Though many of the more than one million Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the start of the war, a significant number have moved to the Kurdistan Regional Government's three provinces which is thought to be 'safer' Iraq and more welcoming. As noted in yesterday's snapshot, religious minorities were targeted there as well on Friday. Catholic Culture explains it this way, "Following an imam's sermon -- described as 'vitriolic' by AsiaNews -- Islamist protestors destroyed dozens of liquor stores and other property owned by Christians in Zakho, a city of 200,000 in northern Iraq. The violence then spread to surrounding towns."
Damaris Kremida (Christian News Today) adds, "After mullah Mala Ismail Osman Sindi's sermon claiming there was moral corruption in massage parlors in the northern town of Zakho on Friday (Dec. 2), a group of young men attacked and burned shops in the town, most of them Christian-owned. The businesses included liquor stores, hotels, a beauty salon and a massage parlor, according to Ankawa News." Hevidar Ahmed and Ahmed Iminki (Rudaw) interviewed Mala Ismail Osman Sindi who denies doing any inciting and insists all he did was talk "about massage parlors" and "I only said that instead of massage parlors, people should build mosques." However, they also interview someone attending the service who states that the message preached got the response of angry cry for destruction and Sindi affirms that one person did shout out during the service but states he handled that. An observer in Zakho states, "After the Friday sermon, a large number of people gathered in front of the massage parlor, attacked and set it on fire. Later on, they stormed liquor stores and women's hair salons." City officials states 20 liquor stores, 3 hotels, 1 woman's hair salon and a massage parlor were set on fire while Sumel officials state "four liquor stores were burnt in their town."
IRIN notes, "While violence in 2011 is slightly lower than in 2010, [Minority Rights Group International's Chris] Chapman said, there have been several attacks on churches; an attack on a Turkmen political party; repeated attacks on members of the Shabak, Yezidi and Mandaean minorities, including kidnappings and murders, according to local NGOs; and continued targeting of shops providing goods or services deemed un-Islamic, including liquor stores owned by Christians and Yezidis, according to USCIRF[US Commission on International Religious Freedom]."
It takes a special kind of insanity to insist that religious and ethnic diversity are the strength of the country and refuse to acknowledge attacks on that diversity. Again, the dominant population is Shi'ite. Alsumaria TV reported yesterday:
Iraqi Yazidi citizens in Dahuk Province, 450 km northern Baghdad, are concerned about the situation and its accelerated implications in the province as well as in some areas of Kurdistan Region following some sectarian attacks on alcohol shops and bars in Dahuk Province. Yazidis began guarding their territories on their own, while the Directorate of Yazidi affairs called security forces to take strict measures to protect citizens.
"The compound residents fear the same attacks that took place last night in Zakho and Samil regions," mayor of Khanik Al Yazidi Compound Kiran Ido told Alsumarianews. "Since last night, about 400 men are guarding the compound in anticipation of any attack," Ido added.
"The compound's residents fear to be targeted," Ido affirmed calling concerned authorities to "take action towards fixing this unusual situation."
The worries of Yazidis and other minorities in the Kurdish part of Iraq following Friday's incidents are justified," some observers said. "These incidents threaten peace in this region known for its ethnic diversity especially after the latest incidents which Christians considered as targeting them since they are the biggest traders of alcohol in the region," observers added.

The slogan is "This is your UN" but when they're forgotten and ignored, it may be very difficult for Iraqi Christians and Yazidis (among other groups) to feel that way.
Kobler spoke of spending a great deal of time on the issue of Camp Ashraf and this issue was the one he most emphasized.
Background, Camp Ashraf houses a group of Iranian dissidents (approximately 3,500 people). Iranian dissidents were welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1986 and he gave them Camp Ashraf and six other parcels that they could utilize. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.The US government had the US military lead negotiations with the residents of Camp Ashraf. The US government wanted the residents to disarm and the US promised protections to the point that US actions turned the residents of Camp Ashraf into protected person under the Geneva Conventions. As 2008 drew to a close, the Bush administration was given assurances from the Iraqi government that they would protect the residents. Yet Nouri al-Maliki ordered the camp attacked twice. July 28, 2009 Nouri launched an attack (while then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on the ground in Iraq). In a report released this summer entitled "Iraqi government must respect and protect rights of Camp Ashraf residents," Amnesty International described this assault, "Barely a month later, on 28-29 July 2009, Iraqi security forces stormed into the camp; at least nine residents were killed and many more were injured. Thirty-six residents who were detained were allegedly tortured and beaten. They were eventually released on 7 October 2009; by then they were in poor health after going on hunger strike." April 8th of this year Nouri again ordered an assault on Camp Ashraf (then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was again on the ground in Iraq when the assault took place). Amnesty International described the assault this way, "Earlier this year, on 8 April, Iraqi troops took up positions within the camp using excessive, including lethal, force against residents who tried to resist them. Troops used live ammunition and by the end of the operation some 36 residents, including eight women, were dead and more than 300 others had been wounded. Following international and other protests, the Iraqi government announced that it had appointed a committee to investigate the attack and the killings; however, as on other occasions when the government has announced investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations by its forces, the authorities have yet to disclose the outcome, prompting questions whether any investigation was, in fact, carried out." Nouri al-Maliki is seen as close to the government in Tehran. They have made it clear that they want the dissidents out of Iraq and returned to Iran -- where they would face trial at best, torture most likely. Nouri has announced he will be closing Camp Ashraf at the end of this year. UK MP Brian Binley (Huffington Post) writes, "As things are evolving and if Maliki gets away with his plan to impose the deadline, just as the Christmas and New Year holidays are in full swing, the prospect is that the world will sit and watch while men and women are killed in cold blood or mutilated, crushed by US-supplied armoured personal carriers."

We're going to include two more excerpts of Kobler's testimony. Both because this is a serious issue and because it matters what he said. Many people following this issue don't want summaries -- which might or might not be accurate -- they want the actual words.
SRSG Martin Kobler: The government of Iraq has asked the United Nations to facilitate a peaceful and durable solution to this matter and we are making an exhaustive effort to do so. We believe that such a solution is possible. However, the positions of the government of Iraq and the Camp Ashraf residents and their leaderships still remain far apart. The government of Iraq repeatedly emphasized its intention to close down the camp by December 31st this year and to transfer its residents to another location until countries are found outside Iraq where they can reside. This deadline is fast approaching. The position of Camp Ashraf residents to remain in the Camp until countries are found to receive them -- is to remain in the Camp until countries are found to receive them. They still do not agree to be transferred to a new location outside the camp without the protection of Blue Helmets [a phrase referring to UN peace keeping forces]. I'm pleased by the progress made so far and by the government of Iraq's agreement to give UNHCR the role it has under its mandate.
Yes, that's how sad it was. The UN envoy is thanking the Iraqi government for following the mandate. We'll note another section and I'm not sure what he's attempting to say in the last sentence of the quote (possibly no "lasting solution" in Iraq?).
SRSG Martin Kobler: The Secretary-General has spoken personally to Mr. Maliki to appeal for flexibility and for full support for the UN's efforts to faciliate this peaceful solution the government has assured that it seeks. He has asked me to attach the highest priority to this case. In trying to facilitate a solution, we are emphasizing a number of important points. First, that lives are at stake and must be protected. The government has a responsibility to ensure the safety, security and welfare of the residents. Any forced action that results in bloodshed or loss of lives would be both ill-advised and unacceptable. Second, we believe that any workable solution must be acceptable to both the government of Iraq and to the residents of Camp Ashraf. The solution must respect Iraqi soveriegnty on the one hand and applicable international humanitarian human rights and refugee law on the other hand. Third, a solution must also respect the principle of nonrefoulement. No resident of Camp Ashraf should be returned to his or her home country without consent. While some progess has been made in our latest discussions in Baghdad, many obstacles remain to arriving at a plan that would meet the concerns and requirements of all concerned. Subject to all conditions being met, UNHCR is ready to begin verification and interviews for the purpose of refugee status determination; however, the process will take time to complete and clearly the situation cannot be fully resolved before December 31st. I, therefore, appeal to the government of Iraq to extend this deadline in order to permit adequate time and space for a solution to be found. I also appeal to the leadership and residents of Camp Ashraf to engage constructively and with an open mind to this process. They should give serious consideration to the proposals under discussion. There should be no provocation or violence from their side nor a challenge to Iraqi sovereignty. Finally I appeal to the international community to do more to help. A lasting solution cannot be found and as governments step forward and offer to accept Camp Ashraf residents to resettle in their countries.
.
Kobler's not the only one speaking out on the issue. Louis Charbonneau (Reuters) reports Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General is calling on countries to accept the Camp Ashraf residents and is quoted stating, "In order to find a durable solution for the camp residents, it is essential that potential third countries indicate their willingness to receive them for resettlement." Meanwhile David Alton, of England's House of Lords, weighs in at UPI:


Ashraf residents have shown all kinds of flexibility; they have agreed to the European Parliament's plan to be transferred to third countries, despite their obvious right to remain in Ashraf, where they have lived for a quarter century.
But they cannot allow themselves to be dispersed and forcibly displaced inside Iraq -- and they surely cannot volunteer to be slaughtered. If their displacement is ordered, they will have no option but to resist. Who would agree to be forced from his home to be killed in a quite dark alley?
Time is running out for the United States, United Nations and European Union to take a stand.

The US State Dept was supposed to be reviewing the issue of the status -- official designation by the government of the United States -- of the MEK. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month, it was noted that the Congress was still waiting to see what the State Dept was going to decide. It would be very embarrassing for the foot dragging State Dept if other countries claimed they couldn't take in the residents because the US considered them a terrorist group.
Staying with the US and Iraqi government relationship, Bob Cox (Fort Worth Star-Telegram) announces, "It's finally official: Iraq is getting F-16s. On Monday, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics an $835 million contract to supply the Iraqi government with 18 F-16 fighter jets plus equipment, continued logistics and other support." Similarly, Guy Norris (Aviation Week) writes, "The long-running saga of selling F-16s to Iraq has come to an end with Lockheed Martin winning an $835 million foreign military sales contract to provide 18 aircraft." And there's the order and potential new orders. UPI notes, "Iraq wants to make a deal with the United States for another 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 multi-role fighters to expand its fledgling air force as the U.S. military withdrawal nears completion." Right now, you might want to remember an interview AFP's W.G. Dunlop did and realize what a US official was saying. Hint, more purchases means more 'trainers.'
The issue of Iraq was raised today at the State Dept's press briefing by CNN's Charley Keyes.
Charley Keyes: Also a new topic. Please, on Iraq, the security situation, particularly as the drawdown of U.S. military forces continues and the buildup of the contractor force for the State Department, have diplomatic activities been curtailed amidst concerns over security? And can you just bring us up to date where we are in that security transfer?
State Dept Spokesperson Mark C. Toner: Sure. I wouldn't say that our diplomatic activities have been curtailed in any way. I do know there was a Warden Message. I know that's not what they're called anymore -- Alert to Americans talking about a kidnapping, so that may be where some of that reporting came from -- a kidnapping threat, rather -- kidnapping threat. Thank you, Matt -- that -- where some of those reports came from. Those things obviously are very common there, and we issue warnings, or alerts, rather, as we get them. I mean, speaking more broadly --
Charley Keyes: Just before you go on --
Mark C. Toner: Yeah.
[???]: -- the date of that was December 2nd, right?
Mark C. Toner: Correct. I think, though, that's right. Anyway, to get back to your question about the transition in general, we're looking at – I mean, this is a very broad-based transition. In terms of personnel and numbers, I think our overall diplomatic presence in 2012 will be about 15- to 16,000 people. And that's going to include, obviously diplomats, business and development experts, security assistance staff, law enforcement officers, commercial, financial, agricultural professionals from a number of U.S. agencies. And that's on track. So the size of our core mission is about the size of – that you'd – of other large country missions. But obviously in Iraq, there are security concerns, and that's going to mean an expansion of security personnel. And again, we're – some of these contractors are in place. Some of them are going to be expanded. I don't have any real hard numbers to give you with regard to extra security personnel at this time.
Charley Keyes: But not divulging any operational details --
Mark C. Toner: Yeah.
Charley Keyes: : -- but is it possible to say those 5- or 6- or 7,000 security contractors are in place or will be in place by New Year's Eve?
Mark C. Toner: I think we can confidently say that there'll be a sufficient security presence as provided by contractors in place for the transition.
Thomas E. Ricks (Foreign Policy) highlights an analysis of Iraq by Adam L. Silverman and here's an excerpt:

The Shi'a exile dominated government of Iraq, especially Prime Minister Maliki, has made no pretense of indicating it wanted to roll up the Awakenings' members. From a very heavy handed Sons of Iraq (SOI) transition that failed to foster and promote societal reconciliation and civil society reformation to cracking down on both the Awakenings and the SOI, Maliki has demonstrated that his goal is consolidation of power. One of the three Iraqis elected to parliament on the Iraqiyya list earlier in the year, then suddenly faced with an arrest warrant by Maliki's government in order to change the electoral outcome was an Awakenings and SOI leader (full disclosure -- he was also the subject of one of my social history/tribal study interviews, which you can read at the link). Add to this the fact that the Kurds still have plans of their own for Kirkuk, let alone an independent Kurdistan, and post U.S. presence Iraq looks to be unsettled and unpleasant for a long time to come.


Staying with the government, Al Rafidayn notes Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet did mange to finally complete their fiscal year 2012 budget (FY 2012 started October 1, 2010) of $100 billion. Khalid al-Ansary (Bloomberg News) adds, "The budget is based on an oil price of $85 a barrel and is smaller than the $112 billion spending plan discussed by the Cabinet in September, which was based on an oil price of $90 a barrel, Dabbagh said by phone from Baghdad. The deficit will be about 16 trillion dinars ($14 billion), he said." While the Cabinet continues to move slowly, Aram Roston (Daily Beast) points to a new development:

Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi, two rival Iraqi opposition politicians who were instrumental in pushing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, are setting aside their differences for the time being to try to create a formidable counterforce to Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, according to Iraqi and American officials.
[. . .]
Those familiar with the current maneuverings by Chalabi and Allawi say their budding alliance is momentous, especially given the circumstances. "The system has come full circle," said one former CIA official who knows both Allawi and Chalabi, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Historical opposition figures are working together against another tyrannical government in Baghdad. It just drips with irony."

And more criticism comes from one of Nouri's allies. Al Mada reports that Moqtada al-Sadr's political bloc is criticizing the current system noting it is gridlock and that little is accomplished. Moqtada is calling for Saudi Arabia not to execute three Iraqis. This as Al Rafidayn notes that the Iraqi government has announced that Tariq Aziz will be executed next year. And while all it took for the US press to declare Nouri a target of an assassination attempt was for his spokesperson and Nouri to offer conflicting stories, the Iraqi press has more skepticism and, in fact, Ahmed Abdul-Jabbar Abdullah (Dar Addustour) looks back at last week and notes that Osamaal-Nujaifi was the target of Monday's bombing (not Nouri).

In other news Al Sabaah reports that Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashimi has accused the Parliament of violating the Constitution by ignoring the request of Salahuddin Province to have their desire to become semi-autonomous forwarded to the Electoral Commission. He notes that the decision of what Salahuddin should do is up to the people -- per the Constitution, a vote of the province's residents will determine what happens next. Related, Rania El Gamel (Reuters) reports the province of Basra is making noises about wanting more control and more say (especially on oil) and may follow Salahuddin's lead in demanding to go semi-autonomous. (Currently only 3 of Iraq's 18 provinces are semi-autonomous -- the three make up the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.)
In today's reported violence, Reuters notes a Tal Afar rocket attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters, a Baquba roadside bombing claimed the life of 1 police officer and left another injured, a Mosul roadside bombing injured one person and a Kirkuk mortar attack claimed one life and left eight people injured.


Syria borders Iraq on the northwest. Nada Bakri (New York Times) reports, "Syria said Monday that it would agree to allow an Arab mission of military and civilian observers into the country as part of an Arab League proposal to end months of bloodshed there, but it attached a number of conditions, among them the cancellation of economic sanctions decreed by the league." Meanwhile Al Mada notes that the Iraqi Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony today that a civil war in Syria could spill over into Iraq. In addition, MP Nada Jubouri is quoted stating that a Syrian intervention by the US would result in a negative situation and that she fears Syrian insurgents would cross over into Iraq should that happen. Her comments about a civil war echo those made my Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq, who declared this week, "The killing or removal of President Bashar in any way will explode into an internal struggle between two groups and this will have an impact on the region. It will end with civil war and this civil war will lead to alliances in the region. Because we are a country that suffered from the civil war of a sectarian background, we fear for the future of Syria and the whole region."
Bashar al-Assad is the president of Syria. He is a newsmaker. Barbara Walters (ABC News) has interviewed him on developments in and around his country:
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad sat down with ABC News Anchor Barbara Walters for his first exclusive on-camera interview with an American journalist since the uprising in Syria began last March. Walters' no-holds-barred interview with President Al-Assad in Damascus comes as he is under unprecedented international pressure to step down and stands accused by the Arab League, the United Nations (UN), and human rights groups of gross and systematic human rights violations.
The interview will air across ABC platforms on Wednesday, December 7, first on ABCNews.com and Yahoo! News' Newsmakers series (6:00 am ET), then on "Good Morning America" (7:00 am ET), "The View" (11:00 am ET) and "World News with Diane Sawyer" (6:30 pm ET). "Nightline" will air a Special Edition: "Barbara Walters in Syria: Assad Speaks" devoting full program to Walters' report from inside Syria (11:35 pm ET). Portions of the interview will also be available on ABC News Radio and ABC NewsOne.
Though forgotten by some today, Barbara Walters was a trailblazer for women in TV journalism -- and not because she interviewed Diana Ross or Barbra Streisdan (though she did) but because she interviewed the news makers and the Middle East leaders were often her focus in the 1970s. The interview should be of great interest and some of President Bashar al-Assad's responses to Barbara Walters have already been denounced by the US State Dept (see today's press briefing).
Turkey connects at Iraq's northern border. Engin Duzgun and Burcu Kiranci (Mondaq) offer an analysis which includes:

Iraq intends to be impartial in this chaos due to its new reconstruction process. Iraq's impartiality to the embargoing decision of Arab League to Syria will make Iran's attack to Syria more difficult and prevent gonig to the war with Iran. Because Iraq has Access demand of energy in contrast with its energy resources. Largest energy companies of the World (including Turkey) invest in Iraq. ABD, Turkey, England and European countries shall endeavour to prevent Iraq from a probable war and protect their investments. This proves that Iraq will have a strategic situation perspectively.
Turkey is the key country of these geopolitic and strategic plans. In opinion, Turkey is expected to be coordinator country in new world order. Yet, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan has declared in 2010 that he was the Co-chair of Greater Middle East Initiative. Turkey is a model for Islamic countries which have energy resources in particular, on the ground that its close relationship with eastern countries, democratic and secular construction despite its Islamic nature, its role as terminal for energy transportation as well as its agricultural and water resources.


Kuwait borders Iraq from the south-east. AP notes that Kuwait's Emir, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Saah, has "dissolved parliament." CNN adds, "The dissolution of parliament comes a week after al-Sabah accepted the resignations of the former prime minister and the cabinet. Former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah said 'negative practices' of a minority of members of Parliament made progress impossible."
Lastly, Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Her office notes:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Matt McAlvanah (Murray) - (202) 224-2834
Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 David Ward (Burr) -- (202) 228-1616

Sens. Murray, Burr Ask VA Inspector General to Launch Investigation into Mental Health Care Wait Times

As veterans continue to take their own lives at unprecedented rates, top Democrat and Republican on Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee call for inquiry after evidence of long wait times for appointments, questions over bookkeeping practices, and dissatisfaction from frontline health care providers surface at Senate hearings

(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, asked the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Inspector General to begin a formal audit of mental health care wait times at the VA. The call for action comes after a series of Senate hearings raised questions around the time it takes for veterans to receive an initial appointment and whether VA facilities are accurately reporting mental health care accessibility.

"We write to request that your office conduct an audit of how accurately wait times for mental health services are recorded for both the initial visits and the follow-up appointments and determine if wait time data VA collects represent an accurate depiction of veterans' ability to access those services," the Senators wrote. "In addition, we ask that your office evaluate whether VA is accurately and completely reporting the data they collect."

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee has held two hearings this year on VA mental health accessibility. At
the first hearing on July 14th the Committee heard the first-hand stories of two service members, who even after attempting to take their own lives, had appointments postponed and difficulties cutting through the red tape in order to get care. Then, just last week, the Committee heard from a VA psychologist and mental health care coordinator who testified about delays in providing mental health care treatment, including care for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That hearing also raised questions on whether VA providers where using techniques to ensure initial mental health care appointments fall within the VA's required 14 day window, without providing true access to care at those appointments. A survey of VA mental health providers requested by Senator Murray showed dramatically different results from the waiting time data that VA reports.

Senator Murray also called VA's Inspector General, George Opfer to reiterate the importance of this investigation and the high priority she places on attaining accurate and complete mental health care wait time data from the VA. At the Committee hearing last week, the VA witnesses said the Department would cooperate fully with the investigation requested by Senators Murray and Burr.

The full text of the Senators' letter follows:

December 6, 2011

The Honorable George J. Opfer
Inspector General
Department of Veterans Affairs
801 I Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20001

Dear Mr. Opfer,

We continue to hear from veterans about long wait times for VA mental health services. For that reason, the Committee held a hearing last week to discuss wait times and access to mental health care. While we understand that VA is in the midst of implementing new actions which build on the continuing transformation of mental health services to improve veterans' access to care, the Committee cannot properly evaluate the implementation unless provided with accurate information.

We write to request that your office conduct an audit of how accurately wait times for mental health services are recorded for both the initial visits and the follow-up appointments and determine if wait time data VA collects represent an accurate depiction of the veterans' ability to access those services. In addition, we ask that your office evaluate whether VA is accurately and completely reporting the data they collect. We have many questions about the overall implementation of mental health services at VA, but the most important is whether or not veterans can access the mental health care they need in a timely manner. Our request would build upon your previous work regarding wait lists for mental health care. At the Committee's recent hearing we requested that the Department cooperate fully with this audit, and they have agreed to do so.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this important request. We appreciate your work to ensure our nation's veterans are provided high quality care and timely services at VA and look forward to your report.

Sincerely,

Patty Murray
Chairman

Richard Burr
Ranking Member

###

Matt McAlvanah

Communications Director

U.S. Senator Patty Murray

202-224-2834 - press office

202--224-0228 - direct

matt_mcalvanah@murray.senate.gov

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