Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jack Johnson's Sleep Through The Static

"What We’re Listening to This Week" (CounterPunch):

Phil Ochs: I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore (A & M, 2002)
All the reminiscing about Freedom Summer in the mainstream media found me singing Phil Ochs’ lyrically cutting “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” repeatedly this week. So, I pulled my CD reissue of this 1965 album off my shelf and loaded it into my mp3 player. I forgot how great this man and his guitar can sound. A typical Phil Ochs mix of social criticism, satire and reflection, his wonderful tenor carries makes the melodies his words exist in pleasant to the ear, almost giving lie to the harsh realities those lyrics describe. The electric version of “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” on this reissue features Al Kooper on piano. Meanwhile, there are those in today’s world who would make that “state of Mississippi” the entire United States, rendering the gains of that long ago summer moot and Ochs’ lyrics unfortunately prescient.
Doc and Merle Watson: Songs From Home (Sugar Hill Records, 1998)
This 2002 CD is a compilation of earlier Doc and Merle vinyl albums released earlier. Just Doc and his son, these songs represent a variety of American roots styles, from a blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson to the Celtic classic “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”  Some from live shows and the rest from studio albums; every tune is a joy to listen to and reminds the listener how much the music world lost after Doc followed his son into the beyond.
Miles Davis: Live/Evil (Columbia, 1997)
Because, sometimes, when the rivers are rising and the rain keeps coming down….you want to get your mind blown. Because, sometimes, when the sun is shining and everything is wonderful…you want to get your mind blown.
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.

I went with Jacobs again.  In part because I can get behind all three choices and the Miles Davis was especially a non-obvious choice (Live/Evil is a great album but not a lot of people know it the way they know other of his work).  I also couldn't tell if Jeffrey's comment about Tori Amos' album was intended as a dis to her.

But Jacobs did have three solid choices and they were all less than obvious.  Good job.

"This edition's playlist"


1) Joni Mitchell's Shine.

2) Prince's Around The World In A Day.

3) Cat Power's The Greatest.

4) Sade's Soldier of Love.

5) Soundgarden's Superunknown.

6) PJ Harvey's Let England Shake.

7) Ben Harper's Both Sides of the Gun.

8) Cowboy Junkies' at the end of paths taken.

9) Jack Johnson's Sleep Through The Static.

10) Carly Simon's This Kind Of Love.

First, to clear something up -- that is not a ranking.  That's just the order that we listened to them in as we work on the edition.

Of the above, I think I'm going to go with Jack Johnson's Sleep Through The Static to write about.  I love all the albums but Jack created one that just makes my brain go off in fireworks.

I'm not joking.  He uses music as coloring in a way no one ever has for me before except for Miles Davis and Laura Nyro.

He's seen as "the f**king mellow man" and the surfer dude.  So some are going to just dismiss him right there.

But he does have musical chops.  He can transport you with his guitar, if you let him.  There's so much richness and color in the notes he chooses.  It's there on the title track, certainly, but also on "Same Girl" and "All At Once."  It's noticeable throughout.

He creates this sonic canvas that wraps around your brain.

It's fine if you've listened and don't hear it.  But if you've never really listened to any of Jack Johnson's songs, go over to YouTube and stream a track or two from Sleep Through The Static and see if the colors don't overwhelm you.

"Iraq snapshot" (The Common Ills):
Friday, June 27, 2014.  Chaos and violence continue, Nouri whines about buying "US jets," militarized drones are reported over Iraq, Hillary can't stop lying about Iraq, we call out Michael Ratner's suggestion of forced deportation of those who got it wrong on Iraq, and much more.

Today's big news?  The Peshmerga, elite Kurdish forces, entered Kirkuk this month to provide protection.  Aslumaria reports KRG President Massoud Barzani declares that action is a form of Article 140 and the issue of who has the right to Kirkuk -- the KRG or the central government out of Baghdad -- has been decided with this action.  Of Article 140,  Chelsea J. Carter, Arwa Damon and Raja Razek (CNN) maintain, "However, the vote never took place because of instability in most of the disputed areas."

That's spin, that's not reality.

First, it wasn't just a vote.  It was a census and a referendum.

Second, in October of 2010, Nouri was backing holding a census in Kirkuk at the start of December 2010.  He only dropped that idea after The Erbil Agreement gave him a second term as prime minister.  Shortly after that happened, he announced the census was being put 'on hold.'  And, no, he did not give violence as a reason.

Dropping back to the July 26, 2011 snapshot for more on this issue:
Of greater interest to us (and something's no one's reported on) is the RAND Corporation's  report entitled "Managing Arab-Kurd Tensions in Northern Iraq After the Withdrawal of U.S. Troops."  The 22-page report, authored by Larry Hanauer, Jeffrey Martini and Omar al-Shahery, markets "CBMs" -- "confidence-building measures" -- while arguing this is the answer.  If it strikes you as dangerously simplistic and requiring the the Kurdish region exist in a vacuum where nothing else happens, you may have read the already read the report.  CBMs may strike some as what the US military was engaged in after the Iraqi forces from the central government and the Kurdish peshmerga were constantly at one another's throats and the US military entered into a patrol program with the two where they acted as buffer or marriage counselor.  (And the report admits CBMs are based on that.)  Sunday Prashant Rao (AFP) reported US Col Michael Bowers has announced that, on August 1st, the US military will no longer be patrolling in northern Iraq with the Kurdish forces and forces controlled by Baghdad. That took years.  And had outside actors.  The authors acknowledge:

Continuing to contain Arab-Kurd tensions will require a neutral third-party arbitrator that can facilitate local CMBs, push for national-level negotiations, and prevent armed conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish troops.  While U.S. civilian entities could help implement CMBs and mediate political talks, the continued presence of U.S. military forces within the disputed internal boundaries would be the most effective way to prevent violent conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

The issue should have been resolved long ago.  Equally true, Nouri took an oath to uphold the Constitution in 2006.  The Constitution said a census and referendum had to be held by the end of 2007.  Nouri blew it off. In 2010, when his State of Law lost the elections, he refused to step down as prime minister and the US-brokered Erbil Agreement gave him a second term.  The Kurds insisted that the contract include Nouri's promise that he would implement Article 140.  He never did.

As tensions increase between Nouri and the Kurds, the editorial board of the Times of India looks at what it would mean for other nations if Iraq split into three self-governing sections (Shi'ite, Kurd and Sunni) and they conclude, "With Iraq's blundering PM Nouri al-Maliki refusing to accede to a national unity government, the US and Iran should work together to stabilise the region and deal with new sovereign entities that may emerge."  AP reports Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called on Iraq's political blocs to decide on a prime minister-designate before Tuesday's expected session of Parliament.

RT reports, "Jets from Russia and Belarus will hopefully make a key difference in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, the country’s Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said. He expressed regrets over Iraq's contract with the US, saying their jets are taking too long to arrive."

Yes, thug Nouri is complaining that he's been hampered in the tools he needs to attack the Iraqi people. The delay, for those who've forgotten, was to avoid allowing a despot to use them before the parliamentary elections.  All Iraq News notes Nouri declares it a mistake to have "just bought US jets."  A mistake by whom?

Alsumaria reports the UK has announced they will not participate militarily in Iraq.  Unlikey the US which clearly does not fear angry voters the way the UK does.  Today, UPI reports:

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said, of the 500 American military personnel in Iraq, "Some of them are conducting an advise and assist mission, some are manning the joint operations center, some of them are part of the [Office of Security Cooperation] and yet others are Marines that are part of a [fleet anti-terrorism security team] platoon."
 All Iraq News notes only 180 of the 500 are 'advisors' so 120 are still en route to make up Barack's 300 'advisors.'

Meanwhile, is Nouri lying about drones or is US President Barack Obama?

Weaponized drone aren't being used in Iraq, we're told by Barack.  However, Duraid Salman (Alsumaria) reported this morning weaponized drones are being flown in Iraq.  And, no, it's not the Russians.  Salman reports they are US drones and sources it to Iraqi officials including MP Abbas al-Bayati who sat on the Defense and Security Committee.  Chelsea J. Carter, Arwa Damon and Raja Razek (CNN) report, "A U.S. official confirmed to CNN that armed American drones started flying over Baghdad in the previous 24 hours to provide additional protection for 180 U.S. military advisers in the area. Until now, U.S. officials had said all drone reconnaissance flights over Iraq were unarmed."

 On this week's Law and Disorder Radio,  an hour long program that airs Monday mornings at 9:00 a.m. EST on WBAI and around the country throughout the week, hosted by attorneys Heidi Boghosian, Michael S. Smith and Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) topics addressed include Julian Assange and, it looked like, drones in Iraq. But that apparently would have required too much work so instead a host chose to make an argument that will make anyone's skin crawl if they remember the Palmer raids and the attacks on Socialists in the early part of the 20th century.

Heidi Boghosian: Michael Ratner, at the time that we're taping this show, it looks as though the US might be considering drone attacks on Iraq.

Michael Ratner:  It's hard to believe this country sometimes.  I mean, it's impossible.  Michael and I are the same age, you're a little younger, Heidi -- I don't know, a lot younger.  What are you, thirty now? 


Michael Ratner:  But in any case, not to make fun of this, but Michael and I have been basically fighting against war since we were kids.  I mean, WWII was one thing -- of course, they could have done something by not arming the Germans.  But then we had the Korean War.  Then we had Vietnam.  I mean a lot of other stuff.  Then we have Central American wars.  Then we had the Iraq War -- first number one then number two Iraq War.  And, of course, that's the one that you could argue brought us to where we are now.  Where we had a war that was utterly supported by the press, the [New York] Times, the media, by all these people -- from people like Anne Marie Slaughter who supported it and now regrets it, George Packer "New Yorker liberal" now regrets it, all these people who our friend Tony Judt, the writer from the UK called "Bush's useful idiots."  So you have all of these Bush's useful idiots who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein -- which is about all the stability Iraq has probably seen in a hundred years -- and now, they basically -- the Biblical expression is "sew the wind and reap the whirlwind."  So now we're reaping the whirlwind.  And one of the things that we talk about here is how do these people who gave us the illegal war in Iraq and supported it -- including Tom Friedman, our wonderful guy at the New York Times -- all of these people, Bush's useful idiots, how are they put in newspapers, how are they put on TV to tell us again that we have to go to war with Iraq?  Or with Syria?  Or with name your country in the Middle East. I mean these people should be drummed out of the country.  They should [. . .]

We stop there.

That's quite enough.

And those words he said?  That's how we lose. That's how we on the left lose.  Thomas Friedman is a bad writer -- more prone to cornball than Dan Rather.  Forever in search of a cab driver he can mold a column around -- preferably one who repeats what Friedman wants to hear. Anne Marie is a War Hawk and we've long called her out here -- even when she was in Barack's administration.

But I've never said Ann Marie or Friedman needed to be "drummed out of the country."

And it's disgusting that Michael Ratner, of the Center for Constitutional Rights -- Constitutional Rights -- thinks being wrong about a war means you "should be drummed out of the country."

I took a stand February 2003 on the impending war.  I was opposed to it, I spoke out against it.  I never waivered on that.

But, newsflash, I could have been wrong.  History backed me up.  Reality had my back.

But I could have been wrong.

If I had been wrong, did that mean I "should be drummed out of the country"?

What in the world are we coming to on the left.

Anne Marie and Friedman were not in the Bully Boy Bush administration.  As far as we know, the two of them were not plotting the war and choosing the spin.  They chose a side.

Those two, and others like them, always choose war.

And at some point, they'll be right, those are the odds.  (Or if not right -- I don't believe in war -- they'll have the majority of the US population agreeing with them.)

When that time rolls around, I really don't want hear people screaming that those of us against the war "should be drummed out of the country."

That is an outrageous statement to come from the left.

'You can't yell fire in a crowded theater!'

That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with a fire or a movie theater or a Broadway theater.

It's from Oliver Wendell Holmes' outrageous opinion in Schenck v. United States.  That 1919 case was about free speech.  Specifically it was about brave people -- like Eugene V. Debs (who would spend two years in prison) -- speaking out against the WWI draft.  Holmes was notorious for distracting in his decisions.  A number of people love him to this day because we're really kind of stupid  and tend to praise things we know nothing of instead of just saying, "I've never read one of his legal opinions."   Holmes clearly has no lasting positive impact -- he found rights for property that didn't exist while suppressing the rights of the people.  But what's really going to harm him is that he repeatedly degraded his arguments by making them straw man arguments.

Again, fire and a theater had nothing to do with urging people to resist the draft.

But because he was such a mental midget, he couldn't craft an opinion on the issues.  He would have said he was using 'metaphors.'  No, he was not.  He was unable to argue the points of the case in his opinions so he created straw men arguments.

Michael Ratner is a smart person who made a very offensive statement.

That statement justifies the Palmer Raids and every bit of ugly that attacked Socialists in that time period.

Michael's a Socialist so that really wasn't his intent.

But if he's going to criticize people for opinions, he needs to think before he speaks.

Michael can be one of the strongest and one of the smartest people on the left.  He is 100 times more intelligent than I could ever hope to become.

But what was stupid and dangerous.

This urge to hate and demonize is something we need to be aware of.  We should never, ever on the left allow those impulses to run over the basic principles of speech and freedom we believe in.

Anne Marie Slaughter got it wrong.  I'm not surprised.

I've mocked her repeatedly here.  And, unlike Michael Ratner, that includes when Barack was attacking Libya.  To be clear, Michael called that action illegal as it was.  But there was no time to take on the cheerleaders for those actions.  I can remember being on a campus with an earbud in one ear and a cellphone in another and saying to a friend, "F**k, is there one NPR program that's not going to trout out Anne this week?"  Because she was on every damn one.

And that's the problem.

It's not, "Shut up, Anne!"

She's an American citizen living in what's supposed to still be a democracy.  She can speak as much as she wants and should.  She can write as much as she wants and should.

Where there's a problem is when the media doesn't play fair.  They shut out voices all the time.  The ridiculous and non-left Bill Maher is applauded by stupid idiots on the left who never seem to notice that Glen Ford, for example, isn't shy about opinions.  Why isn't Glen Ford, a genuine voice of the left, ever invited on Maher's programs.

I don't like whiners.

I define a whiner as someone who abdicates their own power while complaining about others.

Michael Ratner, you co-host an hour long weekly program heard across the country.  What voices who got it right on Iraq have you featured this month?

Last week, Michael gave  fiery and passionate remarks which I applaud.  This week he offered another commentary.

But it's whining, Michael.

You have the power to book whomever you want on the show.  There are hundreds of people who got it right in real time, book them.  (I've noted this before but to be clear, I do not do press as C.I.  I am very standoffish to the press these days in my real life though I will do favors for friends.  But I do not do press as C.I.)  You can book these people.  You can bring on Janeane Garofalo, Tim Robbins, Debra Sweet, Alice Walker and so many others.  Yes, the start was so long ago that we've lost too many of those voices -- Norman Mailer, Howard Zinn, etc. -- but there are millions still around.  February 2003 saw the largest global protest against a war ever.  Those people are not in hiding.

To Michael's credit, he, Heidi, Michael Smith and Dahlia Hashad booked them in real time when it mattered.  But obviously he thinks it still matters today.  I happen to support him on that.  So book these people.

Because if you don't use your own power, your just whining.  You're not protesting, you're not standing up, you're whining.

Ava and I called out Rachel Maddow for this nonsense in "TV: That awful Rachel BadFoul:"

Watching Rachel Maddow last week, between grimaces and shielding our eyes, we caught something else.
Rachel wants X voices shut out.
It's so unfair, she insists, that those who were right aren't on these shows, so unfair!!!!
But she's got an hour show on MSNBC Monday through Friday.
What guest did she have on last week who got it right?
She had on Condi Rice's former speech writer -- a fact she refused to inform her audience of.
That's rather strange, isn't it?
She's arguing Condi shouldn't be allowed on programs because she was wrong.  But she had the woman who wrote Condi's speeches on Monday's program -- the only guest on Monday's program -- and she never told the audience, "My guest here?  She used to write Condi's speeches."
Instead, she just identified Elise Jordan as Michael Hastings' widow.
Tuesday, she had Carne Ross on.
Here's how she misled her viewers, "He`s a former British diplomat who resigned over the war in Iraq."
He's a regular Ann Wright!
Remember Ann Wright?  State Department diplomat, retired army colonel, who resigned March 19, 2003 over the Iraq War.
Yeah, Ann did that.  Good for Carne for doing the same.
What day in 2003 did he resign now?
What's that?
He didn't resign in March of 2003?  Well the next month then.
Well when?
A year later.

You can add Peter Hart and FAIR to the list of whiners.  FAIR has a 30 minute weekly radio show (they also try TV but only Peter Hart can pull off TV -- you have to have magnetism to succeed on TV).  It's called CounterSpin.

While they have addressed Iraq this week and last week, they didn't have on anyone who got it right.  A young writer who really hasn't spent his career even focusing on Iraq -- check Common Dreams' archives.  And they had on a veteran of the Iraq War.

Hillary Clinton, in her new book, says people can change their minds.  She's right.  They can.  Ross Caputi did.  He can tell you all about his transformation on Iraq.  While Hillary can't which is why she looks insincere at best and, as Marcia noted, there is no excuse for her needing 2013 to 'wake up' to marriage equality.  Gay men and lesbians consistently supported her and it is a slap in the face for her to claim that some indescribable epiphany came to her last year.

But Ross did have a transformation and he can describe it and good for him.

That said, he's not someone who was right before the war started.  Tareq Ali was.  As Betty asked in a different context, "Where the hell is Norman Solomon?" Why didn't CounterSpin feature a whole show of voices who got it right before the war started?

They can whine, they just lack Ross' ability to transform and make something meaningful out of their lives.

They want a different media?  Then they need to show it is possible with their own resources.

But they don't and they won't.

They won't put on the people who were right but they will waste our time whining that the MSM doesn't put on the people who were right.

Diane Rehm can bring Phyllis Bennis onto her NPR program this month -- Phyllis is one of the ones who got it right -- but CounterSpin, The Rachel Maddow Show and Law & Disorder Radio can't. And they can't bring anyone -- not one person -- who got it right onto their shows.  But they want to slam others?

And I'm sorry to call Michael Ratner out.  I waited several days to get into my most calm place to do so because Michael does great work and is someone who is loved by everyone who knows him because he's a good guy.

But what he said was outrageous.  He doesn't need to be crucified for it.  He doesn't need to step away from the microphone.  But from someone on our side, the left, to say that people should be run out of the country for their opinions and/or advocacy?

Emma Goldman was run out of the country.  She was urging men not to register for the draft.  She was thrown in prison for that and then deported out of the country (to Russia).  That was so wrong and went completely the fabric of democracy.  We should never, ever say someone needs to leave the country because of their opinion or advocacy.

We mentioned Hillary, let's stay with Hillary Clinton because she appeared on The NewsHour (PBS -- link is video, text and audio) this week.

GWEN IFILL: I want to start by talking about Iraq. There’s much debate now about what the would-haves and the could-haves and the should-haves. If we had left a residual force on the ground as some critics are now saying, do you think we’d be seeing the collapse we’re seeing today?

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I think it’s impossible to answer that question. Certainly when President Obama had to make the decision about what to do, he was deciding based on what the Bush administration had already determined, because they were the ones who said troops have to be out by the end of 2011. And I was part of the discussions where we were putting together proposals for the Iraqi government to consider about a residual force that would be there to help train, to provide intelligence and generally support services.
Unfortunately as we all know now, the Maliki government was not willing to do what was necessary for us to be able to do that. So the problems that we’re seeing in Iraq, I would argue are primarily political, but they are of course manifest in this very dangerous extremist group being able to gain ground and hold it. That is only possible in my opinion because the Sunnis, who had partnered with the United States and even with Maliki to drive out Al Qaeda in Iraq, feel as though they have been isolated and excluded. So I think it’s, it’s difficult to say if we had kept a residual force even for a year or two, or three, that we would have had the ability to control what Maliki did, and I think his behavior, his sectarianism, his purging of Sunni leaders, the way he stopped paying the Sunni awakening soldiers and so much else contributed to where we are today.

GWEN IFILL: So Maliki has to go for this to work itself out?

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Well, I think it’s highly unlikely that he will embrace the kind of inclusivity that is required, but it’s up to the Iraqis to decide who they want to lead them, but of course their decision affects whether, and to what extent, we should be involved  to trying to help them.

Hillary's misleading:

I think it’s impossible to answer that question. Certainly when President Obama had to make the decision about what to do, he was deciding based on what the Bush administration had already determined, because they were the ones who said troops have to be out by the end of 2011. And I was part of the discussions where we were putting together proposals for the Iraqi government to consider about a residual force that would be there to help train, to provide intelligence and generally support services.

Barack was deciding based on what Bully Boy Bush had already determined?

I'm sick of that  lie.

But before we get to what no one ever talks about regarding the SOFA, Hillary's lying through her teeth.  She reveals in the next sentence.  There were negotiations for a new SOFA stop blaming it on Bush.

I hate Bully Boy Bush.  I dislike Barack but I will use the "p" word there -- President Barack Obama.  I will not do the same for Bully Boy Bush.

So I'm really the last person to defend him.

But I'm sick of all the damn lies.

Barack broke a campaign promise before he was ever sworn in.  He decided to break it within hours of the election.  That's why it was pulled from his campaign website.  The only time, briefly, that anyone ever noted it.  That was back in November 2008.

Bully Boy Bush got the SOFA pushed through.

And did so with Barack's blessing.

That's the detail no one wants to get honest and I'm just sick of all the damn lies.

Hillary Clinton, campaigning for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, declared any SOFA would have to be approved by the Senate -- citing thhe Constitution for why.  Which meant?  Barack immediately said, "Me too!"  Biden had already staked out that ground as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Bully Boy Bush administration met with Barack's transition team to discuss the SOFA.  Not only did Barack like it (and like that someone else would be on the hook for it and not him) but he gave his word that he would not call for the SOFA to be approved by the Senate.

He hadn't even been sworn in and already he was breaking campaign promises.

And, yes, the SOFA was a treaty and should have had US Senate approval.  It mattered to him when he was a senator but it didn't when he became president.

Let's repeat that: It mattered to Barack when he was a senator but it didn't when he became president.  That just about sums up his two terms thus far, doesn't it?

And while we're noting lies, this was a crafty little report by PBS which ignored an American imprisoned in Mexico by making the focus "overseas."

Image from Free USMC Sgt Andrew Tahmooressi Facebook pageThe VFW issued the following:


VFW calls for nationwide boycott of Mexican products and travel until Marine is release

WASHINGTON — The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States is calling for a nationwide boycott of Mexican products and travel until Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi is released from a Mexican jail.
“This combat Marine has been languishing away since he was arrested March 31 for allegedly crossing the border accidentally with three personal firearms that were legally registered in the States but not in Mexico,” said VFW National Commander William A. Thien. “It was a mistake, but so is the Mexican government’s reluctance to release him unharmed back to the U.S.”
As America’s oldest and largest major combat veterans’ organization, the VFW wants to apply economic pressure to the Mexican government because Tahmooressi’s arrest and captivity is mirroring that of former Marine Jon Hammer, who was arrested for carrying an antique shotgun across the border in August 2012, despite having proper American paperwork. He wasn’t released until four months later.
Thien said the VFW tried the politically polite route by twice asking President Obama to contact Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, but a phone call specifically about the Marine sergeant never took place. Now that Tahmooressi is approaching his third full month in jail, the VFW national commander said it’s time to take the gloves off.
"This is about politics, and if my government won’t do anything, then I guess we need to let the power of the purse take over. No products, no travel, a total boycott … then maybe a dialogue will start.”

Turning to violence.  All Iraq News reports violence has forced 400 Christian families to flee Mosul.
 Alsumaria reports 3 young Shabak were kidnapped in Nineveh Province, a mortar attack on a village east of Baquba left 6 civilians dead and two more injured, a Diyala Province battle left 1 rebel dead and two security forces injured, a Samarra mortar attack left 2 security forces dead and seventeen more injured, security forces killed 15 suspects in Latifiya, the corpses of 2 young men were discovered dumped in Kirkuk, and, dropping back to late last night, a Samarra mortar attack left 1 Iraqi soldier dead and eight more injured.  Chelsea J. Carter, Arwa Damon and Raja Razek (CNN) report, "Human Rights Watch said two mass graves believed to contain the bodies of Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians killed by the Sunni ISIS fighters and their militant allies have been discovered in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit."  It's left to Reuters to report that Iraqi forces killed 69 prisoners they were transferring and blamed it on Sunni militants.  Reuters notes, "The deaths in Hilla came less than a week after the killing of 52 prisoners in Baquba, a regional capital north of Baghdad."

Iraq and violence came up in today's State Dept press briefing moderated by spokesperson Marie Harf:

QUESTION: At least two Indian nurses were beheaded by the ISIL and they were serving (inaudible) and the sick and needy in hospitals and around the country. And at least 40 Indians are still being held, and if Indian Government has asked any help from the U.S. or what’s --

MS. HARF: Let me check on that. I don’t know the answer to that. Obviously, both of the incidents you just mentioned really underscore the brutality of ISIL. This is a group that al-Qaida has even deemed to be too brutal for it, which I think is saying something.
So clearly we know there’s huge challenges here. I can check on that specifically.

QUESTION: Marie, on Iraq, this has – we haven’t asked this for a while – but are you aware, since Vienna, I mean – yeah, Vienna and Deputy Secretary Burns’s meeting with the Iranians on the Iraq issue. Are you aware if there have been any more contacts?

MS. HARF: I am not. But let me double-check. I am not, but --

QUESTION: The reason I ask is because the Pentagon now says that, yes, it is flying drones --

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: -- and the Iranians are also flying drones. And I’m just wondering what the mechanism is to prevent these drones from flying into each other.

MS. HARF: I am happy to check and see if there is anything we can share on that.

QUESTION: Okay. I would be --

QUESTION: Any coordination with the Iranians?

MS. HARF: No. None.

QUESTION: Right. But in terms of contacts in Baghdad and --

MS. HARF: I’m happy to check. Not to my knowledge, but I’m happy to check.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: Different topic?

MS. HARF: Yeah.


MS. HARF: Uh-huh. Okay.

QUESTION: Just follow-up on hostages. There are still eight hostages – Turkish hostages in Mosul as well. Do you have any update on that?

MS. HARF: I don’t have any update on those as well.

QUESTION: And on Kurdistan region, last couple of days both the Israel officials and today Turkish spokesman – administration spokesman – again talk about the independence of the Kurdistan region. And they would support or – it’s inevitable. Do you have any change of analysis on the Kurdistan?

MS. HARF: No change of policy here. We’ve said that a unified Iraq is the strongest Iraq, and have said that an inclusive government that includes Sunni, Shia, and Kurds needs to be formed as soon as possible to help deal with this crisis.

QUESTION: It looks like ISIL’s forces are gaining some more momentum around the borders. Do you have any assessment on the --

MS. HARF: We don’t have a detailed battleground assessment to share. Obviously, the threat from ISIL is very serious and we know that it’s very challenging on the ground. We know that units are trying to fight back, but that’s why we’re trying to provide more assistance to help them do that.

law and disorder radio
michael s. smith
heidi boghosian
michael ratner

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Waste of our tax dollars

Kit Daniels has a story at Global Research which is supposed to outrage me over Hillary Clinton's insults to indymedia.  It doesn't.

This is what outrages me:

Clinton was at the BookPeople bookstore in Austin to sign copies of her latest book “Hard Choices” and the attendees of the event faced TSA-style security.
Visitors were not allowed to enter the bookstore with bags and before entering the top floor of the building, where Clinton was signing books, they were told to empty their pockets for a wand search.
Several secret service agents and Austin police officers were managing security, and one uniformed Austin SWAT officer was also present.
In addition to the security inside the building, at least one city street was closed off for three blocks.
Austin was stop number 10 for Clinton’s book tour, which so far has been fraught with disappointments.

"Several secret service agents"?

She's a millionaire.  She should have to pay for her own security.

Isn't it nice?  She can go around the country selling her book to enrich her own pockets and we're stucky paying for Ms. Greedy Pig's security, just because her husband was president.

We need to stop all the perks.

They're all rich and wealthy and should be paying for their own security.

"If they need it"?

Oh, honey, they're all crooks.  Of course, they need it.

"Iraq snapshot" (The Common Ills):
Wednesday, June 25, 2014.  Chaos and violence continue, the polls are not good for Barack, the Kurds are singing the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," and much more.

Polls this week have not brought good news for Barack Obama.  For example, Andrew Dugan (Gallup) notes that 61% of respondents in a new Gallup poll "still support President Barack Obama's 2011 decision to remove nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq" but that this has fallen from 75% in October of 2011 and that the new poll was taken as Barack "has sent 275 military troops to help secure the U.S. embassy in Iraq and 300 military advisors to assist the Iraqi government."  This on the heels of the NBC-Wall St. Journal poll.  For those who missed that poll earlier this week, Carrie Dann (NBC News) reports 71% of the respondents in that poll describe the Iraq War as not "worth it."   Fox News announced the results of their latest poll today.
Dana Blanton (Fox News) reports:

President Obama’s decision to send 300 special-forces advisers to Iraq leads most voters to believe a large number of combat troops will eventually go back there.
That’s according to a new Fox News poll released Tuesday.
The poll also finds that although most voters think the terrorist insurgents will win if the U.S. doesn’t help Iraq, a majority says it is more important to keep our troops out of Iraq than it is to stop the fighting.

This has not been a good news week for Barack.

Might it get even worse?

Some think so.

"But sooner or later, honest liberals will have to admit that Obama’s Iraq policy has been a disaster." That's an argument Peter Beinart made earlier this week in "Obama's Disastrous Iraq Policy: An Autopsy" (The Atlantic).  In the essay, Beinart sketches out events so many want to avoid.

We'll note this section on The Erbil Agreement which gave Nouri al-Maliki a second term after voters and the Iraqi Constitution didn't:

For the Obama administration, however, tangling with Maliki meant investing time and energy in Iraq, a country it desperately wanted to pivot away from. A few months before the 2010 elections, according to Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”
When Iraqis went to the polls in March 2010, they gave a narrow plurality to the Iraqiya List, an alliance of parties that enjoyed significant Sunni support but was led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. Under pressure from Maliki, however, an Iraqi judge allowed the prime minister's Dawa Party—which had finished a close second—to form a government instead. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran, perhaps because they believed his claim that Iraq’s Shiites would never accept a Sunni-aligned government. “The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust.
By that fall, to its credit, the U.S. had helped craft an agreement in which Maliki remained prime minister but Iraqiya controlled key ministries. Yet as Ned Parker, the Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad, later detailed, “Washington quickly disengaged from actually ensuring that the provisions of the deal were implemented.” In his book, The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, who worked at the State Department at the time, notes that the “fragile power-sharing arrangement … required close American management. But the Obama administration had no time or energy for that. Instead it anxiously eyed the exits, with its one thought to get out. It stopped protecting the political process just when talk of American withdrawal turned the heat back up under the long-simmering power struggle that pitted the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds against one another.”

The agreement Peter's writing about is The Erbil Agreement.  Not only did it spit in the face of democracy, it did something even worse as time went on.  To get the political blocs to agree to sign off on this contract, the White House insisted the contract had their full backing.   The day after the contract was signed, Parliament finally held a session.  And, that day (November 11, 2010), The Erbil Agreement had the White House's backing as evidenced by a phone call Barack made.  From that day's snapshot:

Martin Chulov (Guardian) reports one hiccup in the process today involved Ayad Allawi who US President Barack Obama phoned asking/pleading that he accept the deal because "his rejection of post would be a vote of no confidence". Ben Lando, Sam Dagher and Margaret Coker (Wall St. Journal) confirm the phone call via two sources and state Allawi will take the post -- newly created -- of chair of the National Council On Higher Policy: "Mr. Obama, in his phone call to Mr. Allawi on Thursday, promised to throw U.S. weight behind the process and guarantee that the council would retain meaningful and legal power, according to the two officials with knowledge of the phone call." 

So then, that day, the contract had the full backing of the White House.

But Nouri used the contract to get his second term and then refused to honor what he had agreed to in writing, in the contract, to get that second term.  And the White House said and did nothing.  In the summer of 2011, Iraqiya, the Kurds, cleric and movement leader Moqtada al-Sadr began publicly demanding The Erbil Agreement be implemented as promised.

And the White House?

Said and did nothing.

And we could follow this through to all the later failures of the White House to back The Erbil Agreement (including May 2012 when the White House actively works to undermine it), but we've covered that before and we have a great deal to cover today.

Nouri signed a contract and broke his promise.  That's typical Nouri.  He has twice taken an oath to the Iraqi Constitution but refused to honor that oath by implementing Article 140 of the Constitution.  He breaks every promise.  Something as simple as buying weapons from Russia goes from the announcement of an over 4 billion dollar deal to months and months of on again off again -- all after a sales contract is signed -- because Nouri's word doesn't mean a thing.  He's known for breaking his word.

Despite Nouri's well known reputation for breaking his word, Barack wanted to make deals with Nouri this month.

Monday, June 16th, the New York Times explained the basics on The Diane Rehm Show (NPR):

Peter Baker:   That's the reason why President Obama's even thinking about, you know, potentially getting involved again in a place he really, really doesn't want to get involved in. 

Diane Rehm: How does he think he might be able to get involved? 

Peter Baker:  Well, for him, the first thing is trying to use this moment to leverage Prime Minister Maliki to be more inclusive, as we were just talking about, to reconcile to the extent he possibly can with the Sunni groups who have been marginalized, to take some of the political momentum out of ISIS as they are marching across Iraq. Then, in terms of military capacity, if he chooses to use it, he's not talking about boots on the ground, he says. He's talking about potentially air power, whether they'd be piloted aircraft or drone strikes, in addition to more intelligence, more equipment, more, you know advising kind of role.

It's Wednesday which means Nouri takes to TV to deliver his weekly 'I hate Sunnis and Kurds' speech.  He offered a twist today.  To form a national salvation government, Alsumaria quotes him stating, would be a coup against the Constitution.  DPA reminds:

The U.S. has pushed for an inclusive government in Baghdad, citing charges by minority Kurds and Sunnis that Mr. al-Maliki, a Shia, has marginalised them during eight years of rule.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the call on Monday during talks with officials in Baghdad.
Mr. al-Maliki, who has been in power since 2006, eyes a third term. 

Nayla Razzouk and Selcan Hacaoglu (Bloomberg News) add, "Politicians including former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as well as Shiite leaders who had helped bring Maliki to power have called on him to step down to allow the formation of a unity government to counter the advance of Sunni militants threatening to break up Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also urged Iraqi leaders to form a more inclusive government "  Patrick Cockburn (Independent) explains, "Mr Maliki is opposed by the Sunni, Kurds, several Shia parties, the US and the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia spiritual leader. To have a chance of keeping his job he would need the full support of Iran, which does not want him to be replaced by a pro-American prime minister."   BBC's Richard Galpin offers an analysis which includes:

It was Mr Maliki's political rival Ayad Allawi who raised the issue of a national salvation government which the prime minister has so firmly rejected.
But it seems Mr Maliki is also firing a warning shot across the bows of the international community.
The United States in particular has been putting intense pressure on him to ensure a new government is formed as quickly as possible, with a broad spectrum of politicians.

NPR's Bill Chappell quotes Deborah Amos stating of the speech, "The prime minister lashed out, calling any attempts to form a unity government a coup against the constitution and Iraq's democracy. The U.S. has pushed for a more inclusive government, one that represents all religious and ethnic groups. Iraqi politicians widely blame Maliki for failing to reach past his Shiite Muslim political base."  Nouri's bellicose response may have been, in part, a reply to an interview John Kerry gave CBS News on Tuesday in which he noted (rightly) that Iraq has no government currently and also has military issues so US air strikes are not a possibility currently.  (They shouldn't be a possibility ever but at least they're not a possibility currently.)

Let's look at the text book example of how not to report.  This is from Lindsay Wise (McClatchy Newspapers):

Maliki said that a “national salvation” government wouldn’t be representative of the results of April’s parliamentary elections, which awarded his own party 92 of 328 seats.

Read more here:

The US is a nation which lacks math skills so why don't you try putting that into a very simple perspective: "The man whose party got roughly a third of the seats in Parliament is insisting that others be shut out."  Nouri lost.  He lost because he defined success ahead of the elections as winning a majority government.  That meant he could have his say.  That also meant he had to win many more seats than he did.  That makes him and his dream of a majority government losers.

Losers?  The Kurds are bound and determined not to be losers this go-round.  Tuesday, US Secretary of State met with Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barazni (pictured below with Kerry) as well as other Kurdish officials.

 Mark Tran (Guardian) reported:

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has urged Kurdish leaders to stand with Baghdad as fighting continued for control of Iraq's largest oil refinery at Baiji.
Kerry flew to the Kurdish region on an emergency trip through the Middle East amid fears that Iraq faces disintegration under the onslaught by Islamist militants – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) – backed by disgruntled Sunni tribes.

The problem with visiting Erbil?

It was the day after Kerry had visited Baghdad.

The US government repeatedly counts on the Kurds to smooth over, to compromise, to go along, etc.  And it rewards the Kurds how?  By making them the last item on the itinerary time after time.  The White House used the Kurds to sell The Erbil Agreement.  Do you know what the Kurds wanted most in The Erbil Agreement?

Article 140 implemented.

Kirkuk is disputed territory.  The oil-rich province is claimed by the KRG in the north and by the central government out of Baghdad.  Both groups maintain they have historical claims to the province.

How do you settle it?

The 2005 Iraqi Constitution outlined how to settle it.  Per Article 140, a census and referendum would be held in Kirkuk to determine its fate.

Nouri took an oath to the Iraqi Constitution when the Bully Boy Bush White House installed him as prime minister.  Article 140 states it should be implemented by the end of 2007.

That year came and went and nothing.  Because Nouri never keeps an oath or a promise.

In 2010, when the White House wanted to give Nouri a second term, the Kurds insisted that The Erbil Agreement include a clause promising Nouri would implement Article 140.

Just another broken promise.  Nouri used the contract to get a second term but he did not honor any of the promises he made in the contract.

In May 2011, the Kurds joined other groups in publicly demanding Nouri implement The Erbil Agreement.  The White House refused to assist -- the same White House that had said The Erbil Agreement had the full backing of the White House.  That promise, for the Kurds, came directly from US Vice President Joe Biden. Biden would play friend to the Kurds again May 2012.  That's when enough Members of Parliament had signed a petition calling for a vote on Nouri in Parliament.  If the vote went against Nouri, he would no longer be prime minister.  While those gathering the signatures followed the Constitution, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani did not.  Under pressure from Biden and Brett McGurk (among other US officials), Jalal agreed to 'invent' a new power not in the Constitution.  He was supposed to do nothing more than present the petition to the Parliament.  It's a ceremonial role, nothing more than introducing it.

Instead, he claimed he had the right to verify every signature and, if people said they'd signed it, he had the right to ask them are they sure they'd still sign it today?  If they said "maybe" or "no," he crossed off their signatures and then claimed the petition fell a few signatures short.

Immediately, within 24 hours, of this illegal stunt, Jalal fled to Germany with his press office insisting this was a life or death health matter.  No, turned out, it was elective knee surgery.  He hid out in Germany until the fall of 2012 when he hoped the issue had died down.

What had died down was Jalal's power.  The Iraqi Kurds include two powerful families: the Talabanis and the Barzanis.  One heads the PUK political party, the other the KDP.

One spoke of Kurdish autonomy as a dream that would never happen (Jalal), one sees Kurdish automony as a natural outcome (Massoud).

The White House this month failed to grasp that they were no longer dealing with Jalal.

December 2012,  Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke.   The incident took place late on December 17, 2012 following Jalal's argument with Iraq's prime minister and chief thug Nouri al-Maliki (see the December 18, 2012 snapshot).  Jalal was admitted to Baghdad's Medical Center Hospital.    Thursday, December 20, 2012, he was moved to Germany.  He remains in Germany currently.  A handful of photos and one segment of video is all that confirms Jalal is still alive.  He apparently can't speak still which is why the family has refused to allow anyone to see him -- including MPs and including officers in his political party. Jalal's over.  Even if he had not had his stroke, he had two terms as President of Iraq and that's all the Constitution would allow him to have.

In fall of 2013, the KRG held provincial elections. Provincial or parliamentary, the outcome was always the same -- the two dominant parties would be the KDP and the PUK.  Until fall of 2013 when, in a major upset, Goran followed the KDP in getting the most votes and the PUK was in a very distant third. Jalal was seen as the problem in that election, his refusal to meet with party officers, his not being in Iraq, etc.  Hero Ibrahim, First Lady of Iraq and Jalal's wife, was forced out of her office in the PUK.  For the parliamentary elections held last April, the Talabani family agreed to record video of Jalal and release it to rally voters which it did.  But that's a one time trick only.

While the PUK struggles with Goran for second place in the KRG, Massoud Barzani and the KDP are in control.  The White House hasn't seemed to grasp the changes taking place.

Prior to Tuesday's visit with John Kerry, KRG President Massoud Barazni, Alsumaria reported, stated he intended to broach the topic of a fully independent KRG with Kerry (currently, the KRG is only semi-autonomous).  That's a sign of the changes.  Unlike Jalal, pretty words won't be enough for Barzani.

Back in February, the the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Iraq. Appearing before the Committee was  the US State Dept's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran Brett McGurk.  We've covered the hearing in the February 5th Iraq snapshot, February 6th Iraq snapshot and February 7th Iraq snapshot. At the hearing, this was said.

Brett McGurk:  Uh, Mr. Chairman, thank you for asking that question and for allowing me to put our response on the record. Uhm, as you said, the Kurdish people -- the PUK, the KDP -- have been among our closest friends in the region going back decades.  

But empty words don't do a thing for the Kurds.  And the population is seeing a long, long string of broken promises and outright lies that the US government has repeatedly and consistently made to them from the very beginning.

The very beginning of the relationship was documented by the US Congress in the Pike Report which the Congress quickly decided not to publish.  But it was leaked to the press and, February 16, 1976, The Village Voice published Aaron Latham's "Introduction to the Pike Papers."  Latham explained:

In 1972, Dr. Henry Kissinger met with the Shah of Iran, who asked the U.S. to aid the Kurds in their rebellion against Iraq, an enemy of the Shah.  Kissinger later presented the proposal to President Nixon who approved what would become a $16 million program.  Then John B. Connally, the former Nixon Treasury Secretary, was dispatched to Iran to inform the Shah, one oil man to another.
The committee report charges that: "The President, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah] hoped our clients would not prevail.  They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's neighboring country [Iraq].  The policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.  Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise."
During the Arab-Israeli war, when the Kurds might have been able to strike at a distracted Iraqi government, Kissinger, according to the report, "personally restrained the insurgents from an all-out offensive on the one occasion when such an attack might have been successful."
Then, when Iran resolved its border dispute with Iraq, the U.S. summarily dropped the Kurds.  And Iraq, knowing aid would be cut off, launched a search-and-destroy campaign the day after the border agreement was signed.
A high U.S. official later explained to the Pike committee staff: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

That is the root and start of a relationship where the US government repeatedly used and misled the Kurdish people and repeatedly lied and broke promises.

Talabani might have been willing to look the other way but with Article 140 not being implemented and with the White House supplying Nouri with weapons (something Massoud Barzani spoke publicly against and even traveled to the US to object to -- meeting with Congress and with the White House), Massoud Barzani is not willing to look the other way.

The Barzani family wants to see previous promises honored.  Until they do, they feel their loyalty is only to the Kurdish people.

Which is how a major scoop emerges this week.  Jaime Dettmer (Daily Beast) reported the White House had months of warnings about ISIS and the warnings were ignored.  And who's talking about this?  Dettmer reports:

The prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Nechirvan Barzani, says he warned Baghdad and the United States months ago about the threat ISIS posed to Iraq and the group’s plan to launch an insurgency across Iraq. The Kurds even offered to participate in a joint military operation with Baghdad against the jihadists.
Washington didn’t respond—a claim that will fuel Republican charges that the Obama administration has been dangerously disengaged from the Middle East. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki dismissed the warnings, saying everything was under control.
The Kurds’ intelligence head, Lahur Talabani, says he handed Washington and London detailed reports about the unfolding threat. The warnings “fell on deaf ears,” he says.

Again, not a good idea to short change the ones you depend on.  Raed Asad Ahmed and Rekar Aziz (Rudaw) report:

In Erbil, Kerry went into a meeting with Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani to urge the Kurds – who have no love lost for the Shiite Maliki and have said he must step down instead of seeking a third term -- to help in the formation of a new Iraqi government. 
Kurdish support will be key to hold Iraq together. 
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), on the other hand, has moved its Peshmerga military into vast territories outside its official borders to secure Kurdish-inhabited areas left vacant by a wholesale retreat of the Iraqi army. That includes the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds consider the capital of a future state. Convincing the Kurds will be a tough sell for Kerry, because for years Erbil has had nothing but problems with Baghdad. 
In a CNN interview aired Monday, Barzani said “it is time now for the Kurdistan people to determine their future,” the strongest statement he has made regarding independence.

Dropping back to yesterday's snapshot:

National Iraqi News Agency reports a Syrian fighter jet bombed the city of Qaim in Anbar Province today resulting in 20 deaths and ninety-three people being injured.  And this is why Barack can't guarantee "mission creep."  Incidents like the bombing of Qaim -- which may or may not have happened -- can pull the US further into a country.
'Advisors' were in Vietnam and then came the Gulf of Tonkin incident involving the USS Maddox. William P. O'Connor (CounterPunch) noted in 2008:

According to President Johnson, the U.S.S. Maddox was fired upon by North Vietnamese forces. This so-called attack in international waters led to the direct and massive build up of American forces in the region. Many years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed, however, President Johnson said, “Hell, for all I know, we could have been shooting at a bunch of seals out there” (McNamara 141). The young soldiers in the field were not privy to such remarks.

In 2010, O'Connor noted:

After Kennedy’s assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson never told the more than 150,000 U.S. casualties that his administration made up the “attack” on the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, which expanded the war. Johnson later joked, “For all I know they could have been shooting at a bunch of seals out there.” Determined not to be the first American administration to lose a war, the Executive Branch beat its breasts, twisted arms and waved the flag until Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Johnson laughed and later called the resolution “grandma’s nightgown.” because he said, “It covers everything.” 
Today, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Holly Yan and Chelsea J. Carter (CNN) report:

Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns this week is further evidence of the blurring between the two countries' borders as they face an offensive by Islamic extremists.
At least 57 Iraqi civilians were killed and more than 120 others were wounded by what local officials say were Syrian warplanes that struck several border areas of Anbar province Tuesday.

In response to the reported air strikes, Sameer N. Yacoub and Lara Jakes (AP) report John Kerry has issued a warning to Syria and quote him stating, "We've made it clear to everyone in the region that we don't need anything to take place that might exacerbate that sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension. It's already important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respects to the sectarian divide."

In Brussels, Kerry took questions:

MS. [Jen] PSAKI: The final question is from James Rosen of Fox News.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I wanted to ask about two different facets of the Iraq crisis, if I may. First, I presume you saw the comments that Prime Minister al-Maliki made in his weekly address, in which he spoke of a “national salvation government,” quote unquote, as a coup against constitutional processes in Iraq and one in which he declared his refusal to participate. I wonder what you make of those comments, whether you regard them as helpful or not to the task of government formation in Iraq, and whether it is still the professed position of the United States Government that the Obama Administration is utterly disinterested in the question of whether al-Maliki stays or goes.
And the second facet of the crisis I’d like to ask you about is this: I wonder if the disclosure that Iran has been secretly flying drones over Iraq – from an airfield in Baghdad, no less – and has been secretly shipping literally tons of military equipment to the central government in Baghdad serves effectively to complicate the United States’ own evolving military operations and diplomatic mission in Iraq, and whether in fact it represents a widening of the war there.

SECRETARY KERRY: So let me take each question. With respect to the prime minister’s remarks about a so-called salvation government, that is not something that I discussed with him. That is not something that was on the table in the context of our meetings while we were there. In fact, there was no discussion that I had with any of the leaders there regarding a so-called salvation government. And I’ve heard reports about it, but I’m not sure exactly what it is that he rejected or spoke to.
What I do know is that in the prime minister’s remarks today he did follow through on the commitments that he made in our discussions. He clearly committed to completing the electoral process, he committed to meeting on the 1st of July and having the Council of Representatives come together, and he committed to moving forward with the constitutional processes of government formation. And that is precisely what the United States was encouraging. He also called on all Iraqis to put aside their differences to unite in their efforts against terrorism. That is also what we had discussions about.
So what he said today with respect to the things we talked about was entirely in line with the conversations that I had with him when I was there. And the constitutional process that we’ve urged all Iraqis to commit to at this time, we believe is critical to the ability to form a government.
Now, Iraqis will decide that. And the United States is not disinterested in what happens in a future leadership, but the United States is not going to engage in the process of suggesting to Iraqis who that ought to be. It’s up to Iraqis to make those decisions. And we have stated clearly that we have an interest in a government that can unite Iraqis that, like Grand Ayatollah Sistani said, will not repeat the mistakes of the past and go backwards but can actually bring people together. It’s up to Iraqis to decide who has the ability to do that and who represents that future.
With respect to Iran and its intentions and role in Iraq, frankly, you should best direct that question to Iran and to the Government of Iraq. But from our point of view, we’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension. And so it’s very important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respect to the sectarian divide. And --

QUESTION: Has the war been widened?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, widened from what? Widened from five minutes ago, an hour ago, yesterday? It’s been widened, obviously, in the last days with the reports of IRGC personnel, of some people from Iran being engaged in Iraq, with perhaps even some Syrian activities therein. And that’s one of the reasons why government formation is so urgent so that the leaders of Iraq can begin to make decisions necessary to protect Iraq without outside forces moving to fill a vacuum.

And again, President Obama is very, very clear that our priority is that government formation, and we’re going to take every step we can over the next days. We had conversations about it here. There are people here who will be encouraging that to take place. I know William Hague, the foreign secretary of Great Britain, will be traveling there. He will be having conversations. This is a multiple allied interest in having a unity government that can move Iraq to the future and pull it back from this precipice. And all of us remain hopeful that in the next days that can happen.

At today's State Dept's press briefing moderated by spokesperson Marie Harf, efforts were made to link Syria and Iraq.

QUESTION: In terms of all of you – you are helping Maliki to defend and to push back ISIL.

MS. HARF: We’re helping the Iraqi Government.

QUESTION: Well, correct. Maliki is shorthand for the Iraqi Government. So are the Syrians apparently, militarily, with these air strikes, and so are the Iranians. Is this a – is this problematic at all?

MS. HARF: Well, I think there’s a couple issues all tied up in that question. First, we know that ISIL is a threat to the entire region, including to Iran. We know that – we’ve talked about that over the past few weeks in this room and elsewhere on that front. But to be clear, one of the, if not the main, reason ISIL has been allowed to grow in strength is because of the Assad regime, because of the climate they’ve created in Syria. And it’s been a direct result of that.
So look, our interests in Iraq are to have as quickly as possible an inclusive government formed that can create a path forward and to help the Iraqi Government push back on ISIL.
In terms of these strikes, we obviously are aware of these reports. I don’t have any reason to dispute them at this point and, more broadly though, underscore the point that the solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime, which, again, really allowed ISIL to drive into Iraq in the first place. But it’s the kind of solutions we’ve been talking about over the past few days.

QUESTION: But he’s actually doing something that might have a – that may have an immediate impact on the ground in Iraq.

MS. HARF: Well, everything he’s done over the past several years has led to this point where we are where ISIL is threatening Iraq.

QUESTION: All right. Well, two things --

MS. HARF: So again, I can’t underscore enough the culpability lying with the Assad regime for creating this climate that could allow ISIL to flourish.

Reuters notes, "Militants attacked one of Iraq's largest air bases and seized control of several small oilfields on Wednesday as U.S. special forces troops and intelligence analysts arrived to help Iraqi security forces counter a mounting Sunni insurgency."  Turning to some of today's reported violence, Alsumaria notes that the security forces are stating they killed 20 people and wounded fifty more via various air bombings throughout Tikrit, they also state they killed 12 people in Salahuddin Province via bombings, and an Ishaqi roadside bombing killed 4 Iraqi soldiers and left a fifth injured.  National Iraqi News Agency adds 1 corpse was discovered in Shula, 1 person was shot dead in Shurta al-Rabaa, Salahuddin Operations Command states they killed 1 rebel leader, rebels killed 4 Sahwa in Hawija, and security forces state they killed 36 people in Jurf al-Sakar.  All Iraq News reports Ad Hussein al-Jobouri was shot dead in an Erbil hotel, a Baquba battle left 2 Peshmerga dead, and a Jalawla mortar attack left 2 people dead and four more injured. AFP notes a Kirkuk car bombing left 5 people dead and twenty more injured.  Through yesterday, Iraq Body Count counts 3156 violent deaths for the month so far.

Yesterday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing.  Ruth covered it in "Reflections on today's I.R.S. hearing" and, filling in for Kat at her sight, I noted it with "They did not follow the law (IRS scandal)."  Lastly, David Bacon's latest book is The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration  is Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press). We'll close with this from Bacon's "CREATING COMMUNITY ON SKID ROW" (Equal Voice News):

LOS ANGELES, CA  (6-16-14) -- "I'm the people's general," says TC, explaining the nickname he's been given on Fifth Street.  He earned it by keeping the homeless residents of Los Angeles' Skid Row informed and educated, in part through the literature table he maintains next to the blue tarps of his tent.  Under the table are the donated clothes he collects, which anyone can take.

"I'm a soldier in the war on poverty," 'General' TC declares.  "I've been living here on Skid Row for two years, and I love it because I love the people - most of 'em, at least.  I don't like being homeless, and down here it can be hard.  But sometimes it can be beautiful too, because people are beautiful, now matter how down and out they may be." 



Happy Birthday

It's all of our birthdays this summer . . . All together now:

It's all of our birthdays this summer
One number older
Another year younger
I'll go to your party
You'll come to mine
We've given up cigarettes
We've given up wine

We've given up caffeine
And sworn off desserts
I don't try to seduce you
We don't even flirt
We're too good to be happy
Too straight to be sad
So just blow out the candles
Happy Birthday

Stay out of the ocean
Stay out of the sun
Stay in perfect shape
And be number one
We've got brilliant excuses
For having no fun
So just blow out the candles
Happy Birthday

That's Carly Simon's "Happy Birthday" which appears on her Have You Seen Me Lately? album.

What's June 25th?

Carly Simon's birthday.

So happy birthday to Carly.

Happy birthday to all of us.

Carly's one of our country's finest singer-songwriters.

She's shared her gifts with us and inspired so many.

Carly's hits include "You're So Vain," "Jesse," "Anticipation," "You Belong To Me," "The Right Thing To Do," "Coming Around Again," "Let The River Run," "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," "Vengeance," "Waterfall," "Mockingbird," "Devoted To You," "Gimmie All Night," "All I Want Is You," "Love of My Life," "Better Not Tell Her," "The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" and (a song she didn't write or co-write) "Nobody Does It Better."

Of all the singer-songwriters, male or female, Carly was really the only one who could have made it if she hadn't been able to write songs.

She's an amazing songwriter but she's also an amazing singer.

My top five favorite Carly albums?

1) The Bedroom Tapes
2) Anticipation
3) Playing Possum
4) This Kind Of Love
5) Have You Seen Me Lately?

I love all of the albums but those are my top five.

My top five non-single tracks written by Carly?

1) "We Just Got Here"
2) "You Don't Feel The Same"
3) "Scar"
4) "Hold Out Your Heart"
5) "How Can You Ever Forget?"

"Iraq snapshot" (The Common Ills):
Tuesday, June 24, 2014.  Chaos and violence continue, 3076 violent deaths so far, the UN plays a con game where they reduce Iraq to 4 provinces (it has 18), Cindy Sheehan and Dahlia Wasfi talk reality on Iraq, Congress looks at veterans issues, and much more.

On this week's Cindy Sheehan Soapbox, Cindy speaks with Iraqi-American peace activist Dr. Dahlia Wasfi.

Cindy Sheehan:  Well, obviously, we were talking before the interview, it's just disheartening because Obama has gotten away with so much since he's been president.  And I'm not saying, you know, that an active movement against what he's doing would have stopped anything --

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi:  Right.

Cindy Sheehan:  -- but at least we would have -- we would be out there showing our opposition.  Now I want to talk about an article you just posted on CounterPunch called "Keep Calm and Trust Iraqis with Iraq."  Now I have been getting some communications with people and they're telling me, "But, Cindy, this is different because I protested to oppose the 2003 invasion and occupation but I don't want to see Iraq fall to Islamic fundamentalists."  First of all, is that what is happening? And secondly, like you wrote in your article, keep calm and trust Iraqis with Iraq.  What business is it of ours?  And can you just talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi:  Sure.  It's been actually -- It's eye opening and quite disappointing though I think understandable just the level of discomfort and suspicion around Muslims in general. 

Cindy Sheehan:  Mmm-hmm.

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi:  That people can be so easily -- Just the concept of Islamic fundamentalism -- the seeds were planted and the roots run deep in this country of this fear of The Other.  And it's still working to trigger fear here.  It's upsetting.  But actually, if they didn't want Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq, then we shouldn't have handed the keys over to Nouri al-Maliki.

Cindy Sheehan:  Right.

Dr. Dahlia Wasfi:  We essentially brought a very conservative -- I don't know whether to say "right wing."  In this country, I would say right wing.  But a very conservative fundamentalist party that Nouri al-Maliki belongs to called the Dawa Party.  And they found, the Dawa Party started in Iraq but found its base in Iran when they -- some of them -- were exiled, some of them fled on their own.  But the reason for that was Saddam Hussein was secular and parties like the Dawa Party -- they're not the only ones -- but the multiple parties that were seeking theocratic rule which is, of course, what has been in Iran since 1979.  And they got support for that in Iran so they grew very strong -- at least grew strong in Iran since their days of exile -- I think mostly in the 1980s.  And over that time parties like this built up religious militias.  Now what happens when the US invaded was the borders were left wide open and, of course, for many years the Shia majority in Iran wanted access to the holiest  cities like Karbala in Iraq and Saddam Hussein purposely shut down that route -- that travel route -- again, to limit the amount of theocracy that was in the country and also everything was about maintaining and protecting the regime.  So after 2003, a lot of the parties, a lot of the followers, a lot of the militias, they all crossed the border into Iraq and the southern part of Iraq was greatly influenced and controlled, dominated, by these militias.  When we brought Nouri al-Maliki to power and  just before him Ibraham al-Jafaari and the Constitution that we helped "independent Iraq" write, this opened the door for Sharia Law -- very conservative rule and it's very sectarian.  What happened as we helped the training and arming of the new Iraqi army and police was that these militias -- members of these militias -- became incorporated into the army and police and they have been acting as death squads in Iraq.  So the big fear should have been back in 2003 -- very religious influence.  What we're seeing now is the backlash of that.  There are extremist groups on the other side.  Because we brought one extremist group to power, just from cause and effect, you're going to find other extremist groups merging like ISIS.  They are one of multiple groups who have set their political differences aside for now and are working together for the common goal of removing the Shia sectarian regime in Baghdad. It's messy.  It's not fully neat and tidy but this is what I'm hearing from the people on the ground.

That's just the opening of the interview.  Time permitting, we'll note more of it this week. Dexter Filkins (New Yorker) observes:

As dramatic as the insurgents’ approach has been, it is not terribly surprising. They have fed on the deep discontent that prevails across the Sunni heartland, provoked and sustained by Maliki. Since the last American forces departed, he has embarked on a stridently sectarian project aimed at marginalizing the Sunni minority. He has presided over the arrest of his Sunni political opponents, jailed thousands of Sunni men, and excluded the Sunni population from any meaningful role in government. The Sunni Finance Minister, Rafe al-Essawi, fled the capital; the Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, fled the country and faces a death sentence if he returns. When the Sunnis rose up in anger, as they did in Falluja and elsewhere, Maliki ordered the Army to shell civilian areas and detain more Sunni men. Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Sunnis have been faced with the choice of pledging their allegiance to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad or to the armed groups within their own community.

Let's start with non-surprising news.  Jacob Siegel (Daily Beast) reports:

As Iraq devolves into a multi-party civil war, President Obama has moved one step closer to sending military forces back into the country. Yet the White House has not clearly explained what the proposed contingent of 300 special operations troops would actually do, other than some vague talk about advising their Iraqi counterparts. Veterans of the special operations community spoke with The Daily Beast about what the operation would likely entail and expressed their skepticism about how much it could accomplish.
Asked if he believed sending the small military force into Iraq was a good thing, a special operations veteran and former CIA officer said, “It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s a no thing. These guys are being given an impossible mission. What are they going to do? Host a dinner party? It’s 300 guys to stop ISIS from taking over Baghdad.”
On Monday, as reports spread that ISIS had captured border crossing points along the length of Iraq’s western frontier, the Obama administration cleared the most significant obstacle to sending the U.S. military to Iraq. The White House announced a diplomatic agreement providing immunity for U.S. forces from prosecution under Iraqi law. It now seems like only a matter of time before the planned 300 special operations troops arrive in Iraq. But what they will do there is an open question.

Last Thursday, we noted the plan was murky at best

It's an important point.  I don't support Barack sending troops in, [Senator Saxby] Chambliss does. We can agree that the mission needs to be clearly defined.
What is success?
How it will it be measured?
What would warrant even more troops being sent in?  What would result in US troops leaving?
None of this is defined.
A speech consisting of 946 words and nothing is clearly defined.
Whether you support or oppose the move, whether you support or oppose Barack, it needs to be defined.  If it's not defined, and Barack is your favorite president of all time, there's a good chance this mission will do huge damage to his reputation and his legacy.  It is in everyone's interest -- including the Iraqi people -- for Barack to clearly define this mission, its goals and the measurements for success or failure.
Barack insisted in his speech that there would be no "mission creep" -- well he was insisting that in 2007 to the New York Times -- check the transcript.

National Iraqi News Agency reports a Syrian fighter jet bombed the city of Qaim in Anbar Province today resulting in 20 deaths and ninety-three people being injured.  And this is why Barack can't guarantee "mission creep."  Incidents like the bombing of Qaim -- which may or may not have happened -- can pull the US further into a country.

'Advisors' were in Vietnam and then came the Gulf of Tonkin incident involving the USS Maddox. William P. O'Connor (CounterPunch) noted in 2008:

According to President Johnson, the U.S.S. Maddox was fired upon by North Vietnamese forces. This so-called attack in international waters led to the direct and massive build up of American forces in the region. Many years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed, however, President Johnson said, “Hell, for all I know, we could have been shooting at a bunch of seals out there” (McNamara 141). The young soldiers in the field were not privy to such remarks.

In 2010, O'Connor noted:

After Kennedy’s assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson never told the more than 150,000 U.S. casualties that his administration made up the “attack” on the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, which expanded the war. Johnson later joked, “For all I know they could have been shooting at a bunch of seals out there.” Determined not to be the first American administration to lose a war, the Executive Branch beat its breasts, twisted arms and waved the flag until Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Johnson laughed and later called the resolution “grandma’s nightgown.” because he said, “It covers everything.” 
Some have mistaken Rachel Maddow's column this week -- originally for the Washington Post -- as 'antiwar.'  How stupid are you?
Rachel wants legislative cover for Barack.
There are many in Congress who want Congress to pass a bill granting authorization.  They're not opposed to providing troops on the ground.  They want to define (help spread war) what responses can further war.  An attack from Syria, like the one NINA is describing, would likely be such a response.  This is how you get mission creep.
(Aided by creeps like Rachel.)
Barack can't convey to the American people what he wants out of his Iraq mission.
And it's not a plan worth having.  The US shouldn't be in Iraq. 

 Gary Langer (ABC News) reports on a new ABC News - Washington Post poll.  "Two-thirds oppose sending ground troops to fight the Sunni insurgents in Iraq" and 52% of those surveyed disapproved of Barack's methods of addressing the issue of Iraq (the poll has a 3.5% margin of error).  Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto and Fred Backus (CBS News) report on another poll, a CBS News - New York Times poll, which finds only 18% of those surveyed feel the Iraq War was 'woth it' (75% say it was not worth it) and:

When Americans are asked about a range of military options in Iraq, there is support for some actions, but not others. A slim majority of Americans (51 percent) favor sending military advisers into Iraq to train and advise the Iraqi military and collect intelligence, which President Obama has proposed. Forty-two percent oppose it. There is bipartisan support for this plan.

Barack's mission is both controversial and ambiguous.  He's failed to define the mission, define success or even the need for it.

He's floundering.

She's floundering
Good God, what she does in one day you wouldn't believe
She's into Christian Science
And voodoo
And laugh therapy
And bathtub therapy
One day she's a Jesus freak
Then she goes Orange with Rajneesh
Oh, God, she uses the mandela
Gone to Silva Mind Control
She's into homeography
And Sufism
-- "Floundering," written by Carly Simon, first appears on Carly's Hello Big Man

Sufism?  Sufyan bin Uzayr (Foreign Policy in Focus) explores that and more in an article which opens:

So Iraq is in turmoil, and a full-fledged sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites looks imminent. Probably, USA will need to interfere yet again (there’s oil at stake, after all), and the inefficiency of Nouri al-Maliki’s rule has been exposed.
However, beyond all that, something else is worth discussing here. The message and motives of ISIS have clearly shown that they intend to restore the Caliphate, like it or not. This has sent the alarm bells ringing: Caliphate poses a threat to both Western hegemony in the region as well as the misrule of regional despots. Quite obviously, everyone is alarmed at the success of ISIS.

The fact that ISIS have shown a visible dislike for Shiite rule in Iraq further adds a new dimension to the age-old question: Sunni Caliphate or Shiite Imamate? Which one is better as a self-rule option for Muslims, and more importantly, for preserving the peace of the entire region?

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the KRG today.  We'll note it in tomorrow's snapshot.

On some of today's reported violence, Alsumaria reports 2 corpses were discovered dumped in Muqdadiya, security forces bombed Baiji and state they killed 19 people, a Yathrib battle has left 13 rebels dead, and Nouri's ofice states it killed 24 suspects and left ten more injured in Anbar.  All Iraq News notes security forces say they killed 13 suspects in southern Tikrit with 40 more killed by aerial bombings.

Iraq.  The violence.

Today the press whores were out in full force insisting that 1,000 'civilians' had died in Iraq since the start of the month and that UNAMI said so.

Did UNAMI say that?

Here's what the UN said:

According to UNAMI, at least 757 civilians were killed and 599 injured in Nineveh, Diyala and Salah al-Din Provinces between 5 and 22 June. This figure – which should be viewed very much as a minimum – includes a number of verified summary executions and extra-judicial killings of civilians, police, and soldiers who were hors combat.
At least another 318 people were killed, and a further 590 injured during the same period in Baghdad and areas in the south, many of them as a result of at least 6 separate vehicle-borne bombs.

See the problem?  Nineveh, Diyala, Salah al-Din and Baghdad?  Provinces.  Four provinces.

Iraq has 18 provinces.

The ones with the largest death tolls for each month this year have been Baghdad and Anbar.

Not only does UNAMI ignore 14 provinces in the country -- one of the fourteen they ignore is Anbar.

3076.  That's the number of violent deaths for the month through yesterday as tabulated by Iraqi Body Count.

Last night, Anderson Cooper 360 broke a major story on veterans.  Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin and Nelli Black (CNN) report:

Records of dead veterans were changed or physically altered, some even in recent weeks, to hide how many people died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital, a whistle-blower told CNN in stunning revelations that point to a new coverup in the ongoing VA scandal.
"Deceased" notes on files were removed to make statistics look better, so veterans would not be counted as having died while waiting for care, Pauline DeWenter said.

DeWenter should know. DeWenter is the actual scheduling clerk at the Phoenix VA who said for the better part of a year she was ordered by supervisors to manage and handle the so-called "secret waiting list," where veterans' names of those seeking medical care were often placed, sometimes left for months with no care at all.

Staying with the topic of veterans . . .

Chair Jeff Miller:  This morning, we're going to examine the outlandish bonus culture at the VA and the larger organizational crisis that seems to have developed from rewarding performance awards to senior executives despite the fact that their performance fails to deliver on our promise to our veterans. As the Committee's investigation into the Dept continues and new allegations and cover ups are exposed, it's important that we examine how the Dept has arrived at the point where it is today. Sadly, it's a point which has eroded veterans' trust and Americans' confidence in VA's execution of its mission. Part of the mistrust centers on a belief that VA employees are motivated by financial incentives alone, and I can see why.  It appears as if VA's performance review system is failing veterans.  Instead of using bonuses as an award for outstanding work on behalf of our veterans, cash awards are seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product.  I know we all agree that preventable patient deaths, delays in care, the continual backlog of disability claims, cost over-runs and construction delays for VA facilities, and deliberate behavior to falsify data are not behaviors that should be rewarded. Yet, despite startling issues that continue to come to light, as well as numerous past IG and GAO reports highlighting these same issues, a majority of VA's senior managers received a performance award for FY13. According to VA's own data, over $2.8 million was paid out in performance awards to senior executives for FY13. These performance awards went to at least 65% of the senior executive workforce at the Department.  In fact not a single senior manager at VA, out of 470 individuals, received a less than fully successful performance review for the last fiscal year. Based on this Committee's investigations, outside independent reports, and what we have learned in the last few months, I wholeheartedly disagree with VA's assessment of its senior staff.  It should not be the practice of any federal agency to issue taxpayers dollars in addition to paying six-figure salaries to failing senior managers just because a current OPM statute for members of the SES allows it. Bonuses are not an entitlement. They are a reward for exceptional work. VA's current practice only breeds a sense of entitlement and a lack of accountability, and is why we are where we are today.

We're dropping back to Friday to note a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.  US House Rep Jeff Miller is the Committee Chair and US House Rep Mike Michaud is the Ranking Member.  What was the focus of the hearing?

Chair Jeff Miller:  Today we will explore the circumstances surrounding the award and eventual rescission of a performance award provided to the former director of the VA Medical Center Director in Phoenix, AZ, Ms. Sharon Helman. In February 2014, Ms. Helman was given an $8,500 bonus for her performance during fiscal year 2013. Only after allegations against Ms. Helman came to light, as a result of this Committee's work, did a conscientious VA employee examine whether she received a bonus in fiscal year 2013. When we questioned the award, VA determined that she was given this bonus due to an "administrative error." However past documentation from VA has stated that all performance reviews and awards are ultimately reviewed and signed by the Secretary.  Furthermore, Ms. Helman's direct supervisor, former VISN 18 Network Director, Susan Bowers, stated in May that Sharon Helman received her bonus "for a highly successful rating, and for improving access concerns and wait lists." Perhaps we should also question Ms. Bower's qualifications? These stories do not match up, and I believe it further brings into question VA's transparency, as well as diligence when issuing thousands of dollars to individuals.  Although Acting Secretary Gibson has rightly put a freeze on all bonuses for Senior Executives at VHA for the time being, it is still this Committee's responsibility to understand the rationale for awarding five figure bonuses to individuals who have clearly fallen short of the Department's mission and their commitment to those who have served.

Due to time constraints (included floor votes), Ranking Member Michaud spoke briefly but had his full statement entered into the record.  We'll quote from a section he didn't read outloud:

I have sat here, hearing after hearing, as we have learned, over and over again, that VA senior executives received significant bonuses after the people and organizations under their responsibility have failed to deliver on reasonable expectations of performance, and, in some cases, have harmed the very people they are supposed to be serving.  How does this happen?  In its testimony, VA will lay out a very extensive and diligent process with all the seemingly right pieces, parts, checks and balances.  So, what has repeatedly gone wrong?  Where does the system break down?   I have asked numerous people -- in and out of the federal senior executive system - this question, and the most consistent answer is that the measures are wrong.  That the goals and objectives defined for some VA senior executives are not adequate or appropriate to elicit the actions and behaviors desired or required.  That the senior most leaders in VA are held accountable for managing the process that benefits VA, not delivering an outcome beneficial to veterans. This has got to change.  Making the current form electronic and fillable isn't the answer.  Transferring performance management data from a spreadsheet to a database isn't the answer.  Defining goals and objectives based on what needs to be done for veterans is the answer.   Rewarding senior executives only when they consistently do those things well is the answer.

Appearing before the Committee was one witness, the VA's Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration Gina Farrisee.  We'll note this key exchange:

Chair Jeff Miller:  According to your testimony, from FY2010 to 2013, not a single member of the SES [Senior Executive Services]  -- a pool of 470 individuals -- received a less than fully satisfactory or successful rating.  Is that correct?

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrisee:  That is correct. 

Chair Jeff Miller:  Knowing what we know now about the fraudulent actions being taken in facilities all across this country that have harmed our veterans, do you think the assessment of 100% of senior managers at VA have been fully successful in the past four years is in line with reality? 

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrisee:  Mr. Chairman, if we knew what we know today at that time, it is unlikely that their performance would have reflected what it reflected at the time the [performance] reports were written.

Chair Jeff Miller:  Do you go back and change a performance review based on information that's gathered after the fact?

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrissee:  Mr. Chairman, you cannot go back and change a rating once it has been issued to an employee as the final rating.

Chair Jeff Miller:  Even if there's information that was hidden from the raters?

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrissee:  Even if there's information that was -- 

Chair Jeff Miller:  Is that a law or a rule?

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrissee:  It is a law.

Chair Jeff Miller:  It's a law that needs to be changed? 

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrissee: [Long pause]  There are other ways to discipline employees for misconduct.  If you find out -- 

Chair Jeff Miller:  Wait, wait, wait. You're telling me that if you find out somebody does something that specifically harms veterans, is potentially criminal, that the Dept's position is you would not go back and change somebody's rating if you had the ability to do that?

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrissee: If we had the authority, we would use all authorities provided to us.

Chair Jeff Miller:  And so my question to you is is that something that you would recommend that this Committee do?  To look into having the law changed so that you can go back and change performance reviews?

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrissee:  Mr. Chairman, if that was for across the federal government, I could agree with that.

Chair Jeff Miller:  Well, we're focused on the VA, okay?  And VA ain't been doing very well lately. And I would hope that the anger and the frustration that I hear in the Acting Secretary's voice [Sloan Gibson] would filter through every employee -- and especially in the central office.  Things have to change.  We can't keep doing it the way it's been done.

Assistant Secretary Gina Farrissee: I concur, Mr. Chairman.

On the above, if the Congress can pass a law on this, great, I support that.  I don't know that it's needed though. We'll get to the way around it in just a second.

But Sharon Helman's bonus was pulled and there have been press reports about how wonderful that was.  In the hearing, it was explained that was actually exceptional.

Helman hadn't officially been awarded the outcome of her performance review.  Because of questions about her work, her performance appraisal had been placed on a pending list.  As a result of her part in the VA scandal coming to light, and because she was on the pending list, her bonus was 'pulled.' It had never been delivered.

This won't be the case for many because most already received their bonuses.  Defrauding the government is a criminal activity. There should be an investigation by the Justice Dept to address the criminal activity.  That's the only way to deal with all the people who received bonuses that shouldn't have been awarded.  I'd be all for a sort of amnesty for any VA employee to return their bonus (and provide testimony about what happened) and they wouldn't be criminally investigated.  But a criminal investigation is the only way to deal with what happened.

For the future, a law is great if Congress can get it passed.  I'm not sure that they can.  Farrissee's reluctance to see a law like that only applied to VA may be because she fears VA is being singled out or it may be due to legal issues or whatever.  She didn't express her thoughts on that.

But what Sloan Gibson could do right now is have VA's legal staff redraft the performance appraisal to include one to three sentences at the bottom, above the signatures of the reviewer and the reviewed noting that the review is based on the best possible information available and should information later emerge of criminal or ethical misconduct, the bonus can be and will be rescinded.

A bonus is a reward for good work, it is not salary.  If your performance appraisal is false and evidence emerges to prove that, your bonus can be pulled.  A sentence or two or three should also tie in that the rating will be dropped as well.  And it should be dropped to the lowest rating possible and that should be in there so no one's getting favors from those reviewing them.  And VA might also address the ratings of the reviewers who repeatedly and consistently get it wrong when conducting performance reviews.

We should also note the I-quit-after-I've-already-put-in-my-retirement-notice con artist Dr. Robert Petzel was noted in the hearing.  He'd promised the Committee to look into a specific bonus and whether it could be rescinded.  And he told the Committee after 'looking into' it that it couldn't.  But Farrissee is whom he should have been speaking to and she testified that he never spoke to her about that individual.

And let me point out that the press loved Petzel.  They treated him like a god and did so for years.  But those of who were at the hearings?  We noted he lied repeatedly from one hearing to the next.  We called out Petzel for years.  We also called out Allison Hickey and you'll note she's under a rock these days thinking she can wait the scandal out.  She misled and lied to the Congress repeatedly.  As long as she remains at the VA, the Dept is never going to be fixed.  (In May, the American Legion called for her, Shinseki and Petzel to resign.)

US House Rep Phil Roe:  Look, and I think you hear this from both sides of the aisle, we want the VA to go from good to great.  And to be able to do that, though, we have to have information that's accurate and timely.  And I looked at the memo today that we were sent on the RVUs  [Relative Value Units] and I know this is not a big thing but I think it is a symptom of what goes on in the VA.  If you look at a law that was passed in 2002, it looks -- it appears to me when you look at the evaluation that the IG did with these five medical centers in Boston, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia -- that it looked at the staffing levels we're talking about for specialty services, it's taken 12 years and we're still don't know what they are.  I mean, this law was passed in 2002 and it's 2014 and we're still talking about, 'Well we don't know what our staffing needs are.' 

That's Dr. Roe speaking at the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Monday and that's where we start because I came into the hearing around that point.  We also start there because you can't attend hearings and pay attention and not grasp that the VA officials always promise they're changing and they're implementing and . . .  At the end of the day, the officials do damn little but offer excuses for why they still haven't done what they were supposed to have done years prior.

Ranking Member Mike Michaud:  Providing timely, quality, safe care to veterans is the primary mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs  Integral to accomplishing this mission is the ability to successfully measure the capacity and capabilities of the organization. Mr. Chairman, at this point in time, I do not have much confidence VA has been able to do that analysis. I firmly believe if you do not have good numbers on which to base calculations, then you cannot possibly begin to accurately measure capacity or demand.  Anticipating capacity and demand is central to good strategic planning.  Clearly VA is struggling to get a handle on how many veterans are undergoing or waiting for treatment.  It seems to me having a significant number of patients on waiting lists indicates a system that is overwhelmed and unprepared.  VHA simply cannot handle the increasing number of veterans to whom we have a moral obligation to provide sound treatment.  The VA OIG reported in testimony on March 2013, that VHA's Office of Productivity, Efficiency, and Staffing conducted studies in 2006 of 14 specialty care services.  The report had nine recommendations. One of the recommendations was to have VHA develop Relative Value Unit productivity standards and staffing guidance for the field. I recognize this is a complicated process and VA health care has continued to change over the years, but eight years to develop this system is too long. It's unacceptable.

That's from Ranking Member Mike Michaud's opening written remarks.  Appearing before the Committee were the VA's Dr. Thomas Lynch and Dr. Carolyn Clancy -- neither of whom can see patients, as US House Rep Tim Walz established -- because they haven't kept up their credentials and training.

"Get out of the administration office and go see patients," Walz said echoing the recommendation of Vietnam Veterans of America called on administrators who were medical doctors to start seeing patients four days a week to address the problems with lengthy wait time for medical appointments.  Walz felt the refusal of medical doctors in the VA's administration posts to see patients during this crisis went to the problem itself.  He declared, "This is cultural, it's leadership, it's structural and it runs deep."

Chair Miller wanted to know, "How many physicians are there in the system who don't see patients that are in administrative roles?"  Lynch replied, "I don't know, Mr. Chairman."  Asked to find that number and report it to the Committee, he responded, "Yes, sir."

We'll note this exchange.

US House Rep Ann Kirkpatrick: Dr. Lynch, I just have two questions.  Is there a complaint system within the VHA?  Something like a hotline a veteran can call and someone gets back to them about their complaint? 

Dr, Thomas Lynch:   Dr. Clancy, do you want to take that?

Dr. Carolyn Clancy:  Yes.  Every facility has the patient advocate and in fact they get complaints, they get all kinds of calls.  And that is actually tracked in terms of time to resolution and so forth.  That, uhm, that -- All of the patient advocates now come under an Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation. So we have begun working with them a bit from the quality and safety side to figure out how could we learn more from what they're hearing because we're noticing that a number of private sector organizations are taking to heart just how important and useful it can be to learn from the patient themselves.  So --

US House Rep Ann Kirkpatrick:  So is that information looked at nationally?  Nation wide?  Not just -- It doesn't just stay at the local facility?

Dr. Carolyn Clancy:  Yes, there is a national data base. 

US House Rep Ann Kirkpatrick:  And then my second question is, are you consulting with the VSOs in how to engage innovation within the system when it comes to scheduling these appointments?

Dr. Thomas Lynch:  We have not been communicating directly with the VSOs.  I-I think we-we certainly have been looking at ways the VSOs can help us understand how the veterans are perceiving our care and the timeliness of that care.  I think there's a huge opportunity there.

US House Rep Ann Kirkpatrick:  I agree.  And you know, Chairman Miller, I think it might be good to have a hearing where we hear from the VSOs about their suggestions about how to fix this problem.  I yield back.

Chair Jeff Miller:  Thank you very much Ms. Kirkpatrick.  We do have one hearing that will be coming up in several weeks.  It will be specifically geared towards the VSOs.  And it's at that particular hearing that we will invite the [acting] Secretary to be here to hear their recommendations as well.

It's good that they're going to hear from the VSOs (Veterans Service Organizations) but did not one patient advocate hear about the problems with the wait lists?  Why didn't any patient advocate step forward?  Or did they?  The Committee should schedule a hearing where they hear from the patient advocates.  This hearing would allow the Committee to know what issues are being reported to the advocates as well as what happens with the advocates when they attempt to resolve problems or report them.  I'm sorry but Dr. Clancy did not seem very trustworthy in her remarks and we've seen this dance before, the Committee's told, 'Oh, yes, yes, this is handled by _____ and they're doing a great job with it.'  But then it turns out that _____ either isn't tasked with it or they're not being listened to in the chain of command.

Patient advocates are not a 1-800 complaint line and that was Clancy's first lie.  I'd be interested how much more she misrepresented in her remarks.

I wasn't at the full House VA Committee hearing last night.  I started out at the IRS hearing at the House Oversight Committee [and wrote about that last night at Kat's site with "'Officer, I didn't throw the gun into the river!' (IRS hearing)"].  Ruth covered it in "Gerald Connolly sobs and whimpers like the lead in a Harlequin Romance" and I was at that because Ruth got some nasty e-mails after her Congressional report on Friday  resulted in a number of e-mails insisting this wasn't a story.  I don't know what happened at this point and don't pretend but it is news and when Ruth mentioned the nasty e-mails, I told her I'd go to the hearing with her and write about it.  When the IRS hearing was over (it was in recess actually, but it was clear that it was over), I went over to the VA hearing and caught maybe 20 to 25 minutes of that.

And we'll close with this from Senator Patty Murray's office -- Murray serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and is the Chair of the Senate Budget Committee:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                 CONTACT: Murray Press Office
Tuesday, June 24th, 2014                                               (202) 224-2834
VETERANS: Murray Delivers Remarks at Veterans’ Affairs Conference Committee Meeting
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, delivered remarks at the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Conference Committee Meeting. In her opening statement, Murray called on the conference committee to continue to build on recent bipartisan momentum to address some of the immediate accountability and transparency concerns plaguing the VA, and fix its deep-seated structural and cultural challenges. 
Full text of Senator Murray’s remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“Thank you Mr. Chairman.
“I believe that when it comes to caring for our nation’s heroes, we cannot accept anything less than excellence.
“So while the Department generally offers very high quality health care and does many things as well as, or better than, the private sector—I am very frustrated to be here, once again, talking about these deeply disturbing issues and allegations.
“It’s extremely disappointing that the Department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for health care. 
“GAO and the Inspector General have reported on these problems many times over the years. 
“And last Congress we did a great deal of work around wait times, particularly for mental health care. 
“We learned then that VA has no reliable or accurate way of knowing if they are providing timely access to mental health care.
“I think VA is starting to see that business as usual is not acceptable.
“So I am very glad to be serving on this Conference Committee. 
“Calling for a formal conference is a very rare step in veterans issues, and I think that shows how severe the problems facing VA are, and how serious Members are about fixing them.
“There have been major bipartisan efforts in both the House and the Senate to move legislation addressing these problems. Many of the Members here have been part of those efforts and I commend them all for their commitment to bipartisanship and putting the needs of our veterans first.  
“I want to personally thank Chairman Sanders and Senator McCain for all the work they did over the last few weeks to get us here.
“I appreciated working with you over those weeks and look forward to seeing where we can make compromises in order to pass a bill and begin ensuring veterans get the care they need and deserve. 
“I also want to commend Chairman Sanders and Chairman Miller, for bringing this conference together as it shows how serious the two of you are about getting to the heart of this matter and addressing this critical issue. 
“Working with you two over the past few years, I know how dedicated you are when it comes to taking care of our veterans.
“Now it is vital that we continue to build on that bipartisan momentum to address some of the immediate accountability and transparency concerns plaguing the VA, and to fix its deep-seated structural and cultural challenges. 
“The bills before us have some important provisions that will help address these very complex problems.
“First and foremost, caring for our veterans is a commitment we make as a nation when we go to war.
“Our brave servicemembers have sacrificed so much and we need to make sure their country is there for them when they come home—no matter what it takes.
“I know Members here have a wide range of concerns.
“I hope to work with all of you to address these concerns responsibly and in a way that puts our veterans first and gives the VA the tools they need to address the challenges they face.
“That means building and strengthening the VA system so it delivers the best care over the long term.
So it is important for us to act quickly to start making these changes.
And as more problems are uncovered, and as the investigations proceed, we will need more action from VA, the Administration, and Congress.
Because the government made a promise to the men and women who answered the call of duty—and one of the most important ways we uphold that is by making sure our veterans can access the health care they need and deserve.
Kathryn Robertson
Deputy Press Secretary 
Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray
154 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510


RSS Feed for Senator Murray's office