Wednesday, June 24, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, Gordon Brown's made another U-turn, Baghdad rocked by violence, at a US Congressional hearing the VA yet again embarrasses itself, and that June 30th 'deadline'? Not so much.
Starting in England with the planned inquiry into the Iraq War. "As the prime minister said last week," Foreign Minister David Miliband declared in the House of the Commons today, tapping the table twelve times for emphasis, "it is not an inquiry that has been set up to establish civil or criminal liability. It is not a judicial inquiry. Everything beyond that is within it's remit. It can uh praise or blame whoever it likes. It is free to write its own report at every stage." [BBC has a clip here currently.] The House of Commons debated many topics including the Iraq inquiry. BBC News live blogged it here. The Daily Mail dubs it the latest "U-turn" from Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet: "It is the latest climbdown on the inquiry, which was only unveiled by the Prime Minister last week as he attempted to restore his authority." Andrew Sparrow (Guardian) also calls it a U-turn and observes, "After watching David Miliband open today's debate on the subject in the Commons this afternoon, I've counted at least five U-turns." Sparrow then reviews the five U-turns. U-turn was also the phrase shadow foreign secretary William Hague used (BBC has clip here): "A U-Turn executed in stages as painful to watch as a learner driver doing a six-point turn, having started off the wrong way down the motorway. And they have performed this U-turn by getting the chairman of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, to announce changes we have all been demanding but to announce them himself so that no minister has had to come back to the House and admit that the government were in the wrong. Indeed Sir John is now -- I will give way in a moment -- indeed sir John is now busily engaged in the very process of consultation with opposition parties and other -- others -- that a prime minister doing his job properly would have carried out before hand."
In addition to the issue of apportioning blame, Philippe Naugton (Times of London) highlights another issue about the inquiry that was raised during the debate, "Mr Miliband was also pressed by MPs from all sides on how the inquiry could take evidence on oath -- as Mr Brown had said he hoped it would -- if it was not established on a statutory footings. The Foreign Secretary eventually told them: 'I am reliably informed that you don't need a statutory power to administer an oath'." Ian Dunt and Alex Stevenson (Politics.co.uk) report that the debate followed a motion put forward by the Conservative Party that the inquiry be a public one. BBC reports the vote was 260 for a public inquiry and 299 against. Joe Murphy (Evening Standard) notes that Milband also "confirmed that Tony Blair will be questioned in public about his role" and that Hague promised if his party wins the upcoming elections (his party is the Conservative party) they will "beef up" the inquiry Brown's proposing if it has not finished its work (the report from the commission will not be released until after the election -- whether or not it will be finished with the investigation before the election has not been addressed).
A lengthy exchange can be found here (YouTube) in an ITN video. Here are two excerpts:
William Hague: We said that the membership of the inquiry, while encompassing people we have no call to criticize seem to us to be too narrow and that in particular some experience of ministerial office was desirable. And the following Monday my right honorable friend, the leader of the opposition, also made the point that military experience was desirable. And we further pointed out that the inquiry as proposed by the government consisted of four nominees -- none of whom was a woman. The government went a small way to meeting a part of these objections by adding Baroness Prasha to the inquiry membership. And I hope the Foreign Secretary will also acknowledge that his statement on the Today program -- that these five people were approached and then the cabinet secretary went to talk to the opposition parties -- was also inaccurate. Because the fifth, Baroness Prasha, was only added when it was pointed out to ministers that they proposed an inquiry to narrow in its membership.
David Miliband: At various points there have been allegations, for example, that the inquiry would not be able to look at the run-up to the war or the decisions in Basra in 2006 to 2008. These concerns, Mr. Speaker, are not well founded. The Chilcot inquiry has the widest possible remit. The committee will be free not just to examine all the evidence as I will document below but also do what it considers to be the most important issues the scope is deliberately not limited. As the prime minister said last week no inquiry has looked at such a long period and no inquiry has the powers to look in so much breadth. Second, Mr. Speaker, independence. The prime minister wrote Sir John Chilcot on the 17th of June assuring him of the government's commitment to a thorough and independent inquiry Sir John confirms in his repo - reply of the 21st of June, "I welcome the fact that I and my colleagues are free to decide independently how to -- how best to fulfill our remit.
There are many unanswered questions surrounding the invasion: the Blair government's rush to war, twisting and turning to justify an attack on Iraq, using the most spurious of arguments to get the invasion they had already decided upon. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed as a result, along with over 4,600 US, British and other coalition soldiers. Massive destruction and devastation has also been wrought on Iraq.
Brown has tried to pose the inquiry as part of a new 'openness' in politics following the MPs' expenses scandal. But given his initial stance that the inquiry should be behind closed doors, clearly Brown is still unsure exactly what 'openness' means!
There has since been an 'establishment rebellion' amongst MPs, civil servants, and top military brass over a secret inquiry. In response, Brown announced a partial retreat last week asking the inquiry chairman, Sir John Chilcot, to consider opening a few sessions to the public - far from a complete climbdown.
The truth is that on Iraq, Brown is in up to his neck. He still has everything to lose from an 'open' inquiry. He voted for the invasion, was part of Blair's war cabinet and has been a consistent supporter of the occupation. Brown could point to the reduction of British troops in Iraq since he took over as prime minister to try and improve his image, if he wasn't for escalating the war in Afghanistan instead!
The news that Tony Blair had intervened in an attempt to keep any inquiry secret will anger people further.
But even if there is a fully open inquiry, its chairman Sir John Chilcot - chairman of the Police Federation and a member of the unelected, unaccountable Privy Council - is clearly part of the establishment. And when establishment figures are left to investigate other establishment figures, even if not directly involved in the events they are investigating, there are still many vested interests in ensuring not too much damage is done.
And while an inquiry may bury itself in details of government shenanigans, the real motives for the war - securing oil resources and geopolitical control of the region by western imperialism - will be conveniently ignored.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg has declared, "We need an independent process to decide exactly what evidence is heard in private. This decision should not be down to the whims of Prime Ministers past and present. The burden of proof must be on the Government to demonstrate a clear impact on national security of specific evidence before any session can be held in private." Anne McElvoy (This is London) observed this morning, "The PM has havered and obscured his own position on Iraq because he did not want to pick a fight with Mr Blair at the time or, more cynically, concluded as the UN resolution unravelled, that the fallout was more likely to precipitate his predecessor's time in office than extend it and so kept shtoom. It is, when you consider the breadth of Mr Brown's other international interests and emphasis on the the 'big picture', an odd thing not to have a position on -- even now. What do you remember the Prime Minister saying at all about Iraq since the war? Nope, me neither." The Stop the War Coalition has issued a call for a full inquiry:
Contact your MP: We need a full public inquiry. Write, phone, fax your MP. Download letter . . . The revelation that Tony Blair -- who led Britain into the illegal war in Iraq -- is behind Gordon Brown's decision to hold an inquiry in secret won't surprise the anti-war movement and will further fuel the anger of MPs, peers, military leaders, former civil servants and bereaved families appallbed by the plan to hear evidence in private. Read more. . . . No surprise either that a leaked memo proves that Tony Blair met with George Bush in January 2003 to hatch a plot to go to war, whatever the United Nations decided. Read more . . . . A full public inquiry would reveal the secrets and lies in Blair's rush to war. What chance of that with Brown's inquiry panel of four knights and a baroness, some of whom were pro war?
ITN News reports that a Baghdad bombing in Sadr City has claimed at least 52 lives and left one-hundred-and-four more people injured. The Telegraph of London adds, "The blast shook the predominantly Shia district of Sadr City, a slum that is home to supporters of the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr." They also state that the bomb was on "a motorcyle rickshaw which had been loaded with explosives hidden underneath its load of vegetables." BBC quotes their correspondent Jim Muir stating the neighborhood "has been struck often and provocatively in the past." CNN updates the death toll to 55 and the number injured to one-hundred-and-sixteen. Al Jazeera cites an unnamed official with the Interior Ministry stating the bomber fled his motorcycle before the bomb went off. When the death toll rose to 56, AP was calling it the third worst bombing of the year in Iraq (based on the death toll). AP counts the dead in Saturday's Kirkuk bombing at 72 (the highest of the year) and then falls back to April 24th's suicide bombings in Baghdad with 71 dead. Sattar Rahim (Reuters) is reporting the death toll has reached 72 which would put it at the second deadliest. The death toll may continue to rise. Alice Fordham (Times of London) reports, "Today's blast came after a spokesman for the US military in Iraq told reporters that after June 30, some US soldiers will remain at posts called Joint Security Stations to train and advise local security forces." The military spokesperson making that declaration was Brig Gen Steve Lanza.
The June 30th 'deadline' calls for US troops to be out of all Iraqi cities. And that's not happening. Rod Nordland (New York Times) reported that months ago -- explaining how, in Baghdad, the sprawling military bases would be overlooked and the 'deadline' fudged. Nordland reports this morning on attempts to explore Anbar Province, supposedly newly safe, and notes that before the police commander Tarqi al-Youssef would allow a reporter to visit "only after the general ordered dozens of Provincial Security Force troops to clear the streets and rooftops first." That's Falluja. Mike Tharp (McClatchy Newspapers) reports on Kirkuk:
The Iraqi army major, a Kurd, didn't know what hit him. Col. David Paschal, the 6'6" commander of the 10th Mountain Division based in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk last year, had taken off the diplomatic gloves. As tea and soft drinks were served by fawning subordinates, the major almost preened in his easy chair. The top-ranked American soldier in the area had come to visit HIM.
After a few minutes of pleasantries--the Arabic translated by Paschal's female Lebanese interpreter--the officer from Chicago leaned forward in his seat. Rawboned hands as big as those of former Bulls defensive ace Jerry Sloan clasped themselves together, as if trying to avoid making fists.
His usual command voice grew even louder. He demanded to know why 200 Sunni Arab inductees had been turned away the previous week by the major. The major started to explain about not enough trucks and lack of bunks and...
"Bull! I know why," the colonel thundered. "Because they were Sunni! We can't have that here. We need every soldier we can get."
Today Jane Arraf (Christian Science Monitor) reports on the problems in Mosul where the US military insists that attacks "have been cut by more than half with far fewer of the devastating suicide bombs and car bombs that hav been the hallmark of Sunni insurgents. But smaller attacks -- three to four a day -- have become the backdrop of daily life here." And to bring that back to today's news from Brig Gen Steve Lanza that US forces will not all be leaving Mosul, Sunday Jane Arraf reported US forces might not leave Mosul and quoted Col Gary Volesky stating, "We're waiting for a final decision, and we're prepared to execute whater they tell us to execute."
In some of today's other reported violence . . .
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad roadside bombing which left two people injured, a Baghdad roadside bombing claimed 1 life and left ten people injured, a Mosul bombing which wounded eight people, a Mosul roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 Iraqi soldier and left five people injured, a Kirkuk roadside bombing left four people wounded and "Insurgent Yaseen Salam died Wednesday when an IED he was planting in Rashad neighborhood exploded while he was handling it."
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 guard for the ministry of Labour and Social Affairs was injured by sniper fire. Reuters notes 1 police officer was shot dead in Mosul.
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 corpse (female, shot in "the head and chest) was discovered in Mosul.
This afternoon in DC, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's DAMA Subcommittee held a hearing. Subcommittee Chair John Hall opened the hearing by allowing US House Rep Joe Donnelly to offer his statements -- as part of the first panel -- because he had another commitment.
US House Rep Deborah Halvorson spoke, as part of the first panel, on behalf of the legislation she is sponsoring (HR 2774, the Families of Veterans Financial Security Act" whic would allow veterans to receive Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) for two years. This takes place at present; however, it is set to expire shortly. Halvorson's legislation makes the two years permanent and in need of no additional legislation to renew it.
Subcommittee Chair John Hall: I would like to ask -- well it seems to make a lot of sense of course to permanently extend the coverage for SGLI for two years since service members who are disabled are going through a very difficult and trying time. Have you had any feedback from service members or their families who have benefitted from this coverage and what did they think?
US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Well what I've heard -- and we're talking here about service related, totally disabled veterans and these are the veterans that often can't find any other commercially offered insurance -- and I have a veterans' advisory committee and this is one of the things that came to my attention as something that they find very, very important as they're making these informed decisions with their family.
The second panel was composed of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' Bonnie Carroll and Disabled American Veteran's Joe Wilson. Wilson noted DAV supported Donnley's bill and had no objections to Halvorson. Joe Donnelly's proposed legislation addresses out of date tables being used today, specifically a 1941 mortality chart used to set premiums -- a table that has continued to be used despite being out of date.
US House Rep Ann Kirkpatrik arrived as Wilson and Carroll were breifly speaking and, following the second panel being dismissed, Kirkpatrik proposed legislation is HR 20968 and she explained:
I introduced this bill with Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina to do just one thing: To make the group life insurance offered to veterans and service members both fairer and more consistent with commercial life insurance Under both veterans groups' life insurance and service members' group life insurance, when a veteran or a service member is terminally ill, they can elect to receive up to half of their coverage while they are still alive. They can use this accelerated benefits option to pay medical bills, improve their quality of life or in any way they see it. However, current regulations require VGLI and SGLI to decrease the pay-out these veterans and service members collect by a percentage based on the prevailing interest rates. In recent years, this has amounted to a decrease in as much as $6,000. By contrast, most commercial life insurance policies that allow ABO withdrawals do not decrease this pay-out to claimants. We can and must do better for our veterans. This simple, common sense, bipartisan bill removes this deduction so that we might better serve terminally ill veterans and service members at the most financially vulnerable time for them and their families. Removing this deduction can be accomplished using the life insurance premium veterans and service members currently pay. This means that we can accomplish this important change without any additional cost to veterans service members or tax payers and without pay-go implications.
The third panel's only witness was the VA's Thomas Lostowka. He insisted that VGLI is competative with private practice and that everyone raises their premiums every five years -- every one. VA's raising has to do with the mortality table, remember that? Subcommittee Chair Hall wanted to know why a 1941 mortality table was being used and Lostowka agreed that it was out of date but insisted there would be a "higher cost to government if you were to change the table at this time." So when could the table be changed? According to Lostowka, never.
The father of a veteran who had traveled to DC for the hearing stopped us (Wally, Ava, Kat and myself) to ask why Lostowka knew so little? He shared that if someone was coming to offer opinions on proposed legislation -- as Lostowka was -- it seemed to him they should be able to answer basic questions. That is not a minor point and it's one that can be made whenever VA sends witnesses (I think we've made it here). His House Rep sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee but not the Subcommittee and he intended to raise that issue with his rep's staff. It's a question the White House and Congress should be raising with the VA. The embarrassingly poor performance of Lostowka's was all the worse when you grasp that he felt the need to "brag" (his word) on the VA and to pat himself on the back stating "so we're doing quite a good job." No, Lostowka, you're not and you might need to meet with the families of veterans if you don't grasp that.
In the US yesterday, Barry O gave another press conference. One that avoided covering the Iraq War or even mentioning it. Helene Cooper and Sheryl Gay Stolberg (New York Times) live blogged it. We'll note this:
A Brief Wrap | 1:33 p.m. | Helene Cooper: Well, Sheryl, he really ramped it up on Iran. We heard the president use the word "condemn" for the first time since the Iranian elections to describe the government's actions. It will be interesting to see what comes next from Tehran in response.
Sheryl Stolberg: Yes, I was struck especially by his last answer to Suzanne Malveaux about the "heartbreaking" video. He showed more passion than earlier in the press conference. And speaking of passion, I was also struck by the way Mr. Obama seemed irritated with reporters at various times during this news conference. The cigarette question seemed to really get under his skin. He rarely loses his cool, but there were more flashes of anger here than in the past.
"Heartbreaking." Some in the US might think the people dying in Iraq are "heartbreaking" but apparently, without video, it's no big deal to Barack. While Barry O had time to market the next war, he had no time for Iraq:
It's Over | 1:31 p.m. | Sheryl Stolberg: Mr. Obama leaves the room. "No questions about Iraq or Afghanistan?" a reporter cries out. The question hangs in the air. It does seem amazing, not a single question for the American president about the nation's two wars.
He didn't have time for Iraq. But he had time for a planted question as Dana Milbank (Washington Post) explains. Aging Socialite's Cat Litter Box (Huff & Puff) was contacted by the White House. They invited Nico Pitney to the show:
They told him the president was likely to call on him, with the understanding that he would ask a question about Iran that had been submitted online by an Iranian. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet," Obama went on. "Do you have a question?"
Pitney recognized his prompt. "That's right," he said, standing in the aisle and wearing a temporary White House press pass. "I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian."
Pitney asked his arranged question. Reporters looked at one another in amazement at the stagecraft they were witnessing. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel grinned at the surprised TV correspondents in the first row.
The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world -- Iran included -- that the American press isn't as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn't so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, "The Obama Show." Missed yesterday's show? Don't worry: On Wednesday, ABC News will be broadcasting "Good Morning America" from the South Lawn (guest stars: the president and first lady), "World News Tonight" from the Blue Room, and a prime-time feature with Obama from the East Room.
Barry O wants to decry Iran . . . from his staged press conference?
A sign of how pathetic Panhandle Media is, you won't find that as the lead item on any Pacifica programming, you won't find it decried at The Nation, et al this morning. Bill Clinton, whom Panhandle Media chose to demonize, got a similar approach during the 90s. He could have handled a push back and probably would have had stronger terms in office if there had been one. Instead it was kid's gloves. So realize, kiddies, this story you're being read aloud? It has the same ending. Eight years from now the same people who've been silent will be screaming their heads off about how Barack did this or did that but, in real time, when it mattered, they didn't say or do a damn thing. Excuse me. That's not true. They begged for money. Endlessly, they begged for money. Always they begged for you to send money. Anything to stop from having to work a real job. The same programs and magazines and websites that rightly called out staged events by Bully Boy Bush now fall strangely silent providing a text book example of "situational ethics."
Many of those same outlets have wasted our time with the nonsense from the PR group "Save Darfur" -- Amy Goodman would be the prime example there and she's refused to book Keith Harmon Snow for over three years now but she's not interested in guests who call out the nonsense but she has repeatedly booked propagandists for the advertising 'activists'. Bruce Dixon (Black Agenda Report) continues the strong work he's done on his own (and with Glen Ford and Ford's done some on his own as well) exposing Save Darfur:
A hundred years ago, in the Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois observed that "...the country's appetite for facts on the Negro question has been spoiled by sweets." If he was around today, DuBois could say the same for America's appetite for facts on Darfur, Sudan, the rest of Africa, Iraq, and most of the world. Facts are messy things. Facts come with historical contexts and uncertain consequences. Eternal truths, like good vs. evil are sweet like candy, simple and comforting.
Since its founding in 2004, the Save Darfur Coalition has spent tens of millions on a state of the art advertising campaign to paint us a picture that is exactly that. Sweet and simple, easy to understand, and most of all, we get to be the good guys. Darfur is, to use Samantha Power's phrase, "a problem from hell," a piece of pure, unambiguous evil in which the global power of the US can be put to use constructively, because stopping a genocide calls for action, not for politics. Stopping genocide, we are told, is above politics. The lesson of genocide is that great powers must act, people of conscience and good will must intervene.
There are several problems with this, both as a general proposition, and specifically as it applies to Darfur. In the first place genocide is defined as the attempt to wipe out a nation or a people. There is so little evidence that mass killings on the scale necessary to be called genocide have occurred in Darfur that back in 2007, Save Darfur's UK operation was prohibited from using the figure of 400,000 dead that routinely appears in its advertisements in the US. Britain has a government truth-in-advertising agency called the Advertisement Standards Authority. They looked at Save Darfur's massive death toll. They took into account a 2006 US General Accounting Office report in which GAO assembled a number of death and casualty estimates, high and low for Darfur, and summoned a panel of experts to determine which were accurate.
The GAO study  found the low estimates of 50 to 70 thousand dead from a variety of causes including disease and starvation due to desertification on all sides of the conflict to be more accurate than the high estimates of 200 to 400 thousand by direct armed violence on one side alone claimed by Save Darfur. The GAO report maintained that the peak death toll occurred in 2004 and early 2005 and had been trending downward since. This was compelling enough evidence for Britain to ban the inflammatory claims that Save Darfur still makes with impunity in the US, which has no truth in advertising laws.
African scholar Mahmood Mamdani  has traveled extensively for many weeks in Sudan and Darfur as part of the African Union's Dialog for Darfur project, interviewing officials, activists and ordinary people on all sides of the conflict. In a talk at Howard University on March 20, 2009  he reported that only days before, the general in charge of the African Union's peacekeeping forces in Darfur pegged the death toll for the entire year in and around the refugee camps at a mere 1,500. While the deaths of 50 to 70 thousand people several years ago on multiple sides of an armed conflict are a grievous matter, not to be minimized or brushed aside, they don't count as the ongoing genocide of helpless civilians.
the new york times
sheryl gay stolberg
the washington post