Thursday, June 25, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, the US military brass continues its attempts to censor a Stars and Stripes reporter, Congress holds a hearing to see if the VA is ready to issue payments under the new GI Bill, and more.
Starting in the US where Barack Obama likes a scripted press conference. As noted yesterday, Dana Milbank (Washington Post) broke the story on Arianna-toy Nico Pitney being a plant in Barack's press conference. As Cedric and Wally noted in their joint-post yesterday, CBS News' Peter Maer raised the issue to portly Robert Gibbs in yesterday's White House press briefing.
PETER MAER: All right. I've got a procedural question about yesterday's news conference. What led to your decision to plant a designated hitter right here to ask the President a question? And what kind of a message do you think that sends to the American people and to the world about the kind of free-flow and pure questioning that's been expected at presidential news conferences?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it did nothing more than underscore that free-flow. Peter, that was a question from an Iranian in Iran, using the same type of manner and method to get that information as, I guess, many of you and virtually every one of your outlets has done, because in this country we enjoy the freedom of the press.
In Iran, as many of you know, your colleagues have been dismissed. They've been kicked out. Some of them have been rounded up. There aren't journalists that can speak for the Iranian people. What the President did was take a question from an Iranian. That's, I think, the very powerful message that that sent just yesterday.
PETER MAER: Couldn't he have accomplished that without you guys escorting someone through here and planting him the room?
MR. GIBBS: Did you get a question yesterday from an Iranian that you had hoped to asked the President?
PETER MAER: No, I did not.
MR. GIBBS: Well, then I guess the answer to that would have been, no.
PETER MAER: Is this going to become a regular feature of President Obama's news conference, that you all are going to bring people in here that you select to ask questions?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let's understand -- let's be clear, Peter. I think you understand this, so -- but I'll repeat it for your benefit. There was no guarantee that the questioner would be picked. There was no idea of what the exact question would be. I'll let you down easily: A number of questions that we went though in prep you all asked. Iran dominated the news conference, not surprisingly. But Peter, I think it was important and the President thought it was important to take a question using the very same methods, again, that many of you all are using to report information on the ground. I don't have any -- I won't make any apologies for that.
Today Peter Baker (New York Times) attempts to cover the story and misses the major point. He tries to cover his based. He gets the Arianna Huffington to self-importantly blather -- between cobbling together George Clooney quotes to pass off as his 'writing' and between posting 'jokes' about special-needs children -- on with remarks like: "This was an exciting moment for new media and citizen engagement. It's a pity so many in traditional media didn't get it." No, it's a pity that an Aging Socialite whose husband decided to come out of the closet dumped her on the rest of the (unsuspecting) world.
Let's break it down for the dithering, money grubbing, wanna-be Gabor whose face appears assembled out of bits of chicken fat. The US is engaged in three wars currently -- Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the undeclared war on Pakistan. Iraq is non-stop violence these days. It was SHAMEFUL and it was EMBARRASSING that the president of the United States was setting up questions but even more distressing than that was WHAT the question was about: Iran. How nice of Huff & Puff to allow Barry O to gas bag on a topic that's not about his own performance, not about his own obligations and allows him to offer more 'inspirational' words. How nice of Huff & Puff to give Barry a foot rub as opposed to hold his tootsie to the fire.
Citizen engagement, which Arianna knows nothing about -- serving off brands to guests, that she knows about -- would have been little Nico breaking from the script and asking a question that put Barack on the spot. Arianna knows damn well if this was a George W. Bush moment, she'd be screaming her head off. Instead, today's she's her own Jeff Gannon. And how nice of Huff & Puff to prove that they don't give a damn about Iraq. The website could have brought that issue into the press conference. It chose not to do so. Remember that the next time Arianna tries to pretend she cares about anything other than the cold hard cash. Drop a twenty on the dresser and thank her for her time, she's done.
Currently at Newt Gingrich's former girlfriend's website it's tabloid city. New media? That smut's been available in the supermarkets for years, usually under the banner of Weekly World News.
In the real world, Iraq was rocked by violence again today. CNN observes, "Violence is unnerving Iraqis, with attacks increasing as the United States works toward withdrawing combat troops." Susan Webb (People's Weekly World) notes, "The killing spree began June 20 with a series of car bombings and other attacks in several cities, including a massive suicide truck bombing that killed 82 people in a mainly Shiite town near the northern city of Kirkuk, a scene of ongoing ethnic strife." Al Jazeera notes, "At least seven people have died in a new wave of attacks in Iraq amid funerals for some of the victims of a bomb explosion in a busy Baghdad market the previous day." The number's risen to at least nine dead with twenty-eight Iraqis injured. Today's reported violence?
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and left another injured, a Baghdad mortar attack left two people injured, another Baghdad roadside bombing resulted in two police officers being wounded, a Baghdad car bombing left five people injured and a Baghdad roadside bombing resulted in 2 deaths with four injured, a Mosul car bombing which left thirteen people injured and a Falluja roadside bombing which claimed the lives of 5 police officers. Reuters notes two Baghdad roadside bombings resulted in nine US soldiers being injured and a Baghdad bus bombing which left three Iraqi civilians injured..
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports an armed clash in Mosul which left three police officers injured and 1 16-year-old boy male was shot in Mosul.
Dropping back to yesterday's Baghdad bombing whose death toll continued to rise after yesterday's snapshot. Saif Hameed and Ned Parker (Los Angeles Times) inform the bombing "killed at least 78 people Wednesday and wounded 145, highlighting the danger of Iraq slipping back into violence after the deadline for U.S. combat troops to leave its cities -- now less than a week away." Jim Lehrer (PBS' NewsHour -- link has text, audio and video) explained yesterday, "The blast tore through a market in Sadr City, the capital's main Shiite district." Ernesto Londono and Zaid Sabah (Washington Post) add this context, "The blast, the second in Iraq in less than a week to kill more than 70 people, happened six days before the June 30 deadline for U.S. troops to retreat from urban outposts, the first of three withdrawal deadlines mandated under a security agreement." Alice Fordham (Times of London) adds, "The June 30 deadline was made in a status of forces agreement between the US and Iraq at the start of the year. A national holiday has been declared for that day, although a curfew may be imposed." Gina Chon (Wall St. Journal) provides these numbers: "About 300 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives so far in June; more than 330 were killed in May. Eight U.S. soldiers have lost their lives so far in June, while 25 died in May, according to Defense Department figures." Shortly before yesterday's Baghdad bombing took place, Dept of Defense spokesperson Geoff Morrell was holding a press briefing and declaring, "I think -- well . . . First of all, we saw a horrific bombing take place south of Kirkuk over the weeken which was rather unusual given where it took place. It was also unusual just in terms of the trend that we've been seeing lately. Security incidents -- despite that awful attack -- remain at all-time lows since March 2003." BOOM!!! would be the sound of the bombing in Baghdad before Morrell finished his press conference. Alissa J. Rubin and Duraid Adnan (New York Times) offer, "A number of political observers here say they now believe that the attacks are intended to discredit Iraq's prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. He has taken credit for improving security, but the stance carries considerable political risk when violence breaks out." And taking credit apparently translates as "bullying the press," Mike Tharp and Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) note that the harassment of the press continued yesterday in the wake of the bombings, "An Iraqi journalist, who asked not to be named because he feared reprisal, said that Iraqi officials refused to let him and other reporters into local hospitals to try to interview witnesses, family members and victims." Puppet of the occupation Nouri al-Maliki is the self-styled new Saddam. Anthony Shadid (Washington Post) offers a must-read report which looks at the thug the US chose to install: "Although Iraq's parliamenatry elections are not until January, the campaign has begun, and Maliki has shown a determination to fight with a tenacity and ruthlessness borrowed from the handbook of Iraq's last strongman, Saddam Hussein. From Diyala, where men under Maliki's command have arrested and threatened to detain a host of his rivals, to Basra, where security forces have swept up scores of his opponents since January, the message is: cooperate or risk his wratch. Although Iraq's sectarian war has largely ended, and the Sunnis feel they lost, another struggle for power, perhaps no less perilous, has begun in earnest. Maliki has resorted to a more traditional notion of politics in which violence is simply another form of leverage. His goal is simple -- to ensure he emerges as prime minister again after the vote."
Thug Nouri isn't the only one attempting to censor the press in Iraq. Tuesday's snapshot noted the efforts of the US military to prevent Stars and Stripes reporter Heath Druzin from reporting (those efforts are censorship). This is from Joe Strupp's "UPDATED: Reporter Barred from Iraq Embed -- MRE Blasts Move -- Sends Protest Letter to Gates, Petraeus" (Editor & Publisher):
The president of the Military Reporters and Editors group has blasted the move in an email to E&P.
"Asserting that Stars and Stripes 'refused to highlight' good news in Iraq that the U.S. military wanted to emphasize, Army officials have barred a Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division that is attempting to secure the violent city of Mosul," the report says.
It adds that Stripes reporter Heath Druzin, who covered operations of the division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team in February and March, would not be permitted to rejoin the unit for another reporting tour. It also adds that military officials cited a March 8 story Druzin wrote that stated many Iraqi residents of Mosul would like the American soldiers to leave and return security tasks to Iraqi forces.
New West Boise's Jill Kuraitis has worked with Druzin and she offers, "In my opinion, it's a serious matter when the delivery of accurate and timely news is denied to the American people who always deserve the truth in accordance with our founding principles. We are funding the war with our tax dollars, which makes us even more deserving of the information. Druzin is a professional trained to do exactly what he is doing, and his efforts to be accurate should not be impeded, nor his priorities manipulated." Mark Prendergast is a professional journalist whose outlets have included the Washington Post and the New York Timesand he also teaches journalism (St. John's University). In December 2008 it was announced he would be the new ombudsperson at Stars and Stripes. He weighs in on the censorship efforts:
The unit's commander, Col. Gary Volesky, simply does not want Druzin back. The various reasons offered by Volesky and his public affairs officer, Maj. Ramona Bellard, involve Druzin's personality, professionalism, reluctance to discuss story ideas and that he "refused to highlight" aspects of the Mosul campaign that they wanted him to promote (See Editorial Director Terry Leonard's point-by-point rebuttal, "Army denies Stripes reporter access to combat team in Mosul," article, June 24).
In a raft of e-mail correspondence between Stars and Stripes and the military that began May 11, the colonel and the major emphasized that their problem was not with the newspaper but with Druzin -- another Stripes reporter would be welcome in Mosul, they said. (Army officials in Baghdad offered to let Druzin embed somewhere else.)
In other words, they made it personal. And that is wrong, in just about every way.
Before I go any further, let me say that while I do not know Col. Volesky personally, his public record of service to his country bespeaks a soldier's soldier, one who presently bears huge responsibility in carrying out an extraordinarily tough, dangerous and complex mission in Mosul.
Now serving his third tour in Iraq, Volesky has received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star three times, the Purple Heart, and the Combat Infantryman Badge (twice). He has an advanced degree in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton, studied Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, attended the Command and General Staff College and the Air War College, and once held the post of Chief of Infantry Doctrine at the United States Infantry School. And did I mention he's a Ranger?
Even reporters in Baghdad hold him in high regard, according to Thomas E. Ricks, the veteran military affairs reporter for The Washington Post.
But for all that, Col. Volesky is way wrong on this one.
According to both standard journalism practice and Defense Department policy, military commanders do not get to say which reporters get assigned where, whether they work for Stars and Stripes, The New York Times, MSNBC, the Huffington Post or the Podunk Gazette.
And whether Volesky, Bellard, the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry, the people of Mosul or the readers of Stars and Stripes think Druzin is a good reporter or a bad reporter is a matter of opinion outside the legal and policy framework that governs military-media relations and the assignment of reporters.
In that regard, the only opinion that counts, by practice and by law, is that of Druzin's editors. And they are standing by him and his performance in Iraq. And they want him back in Mosul.
As he notes, it's really not the military brass' decision which reporter an outlet sends. Not noted, but equally true, it's appalling in this alleged 'change' government going on in the US that this matter has been allowed to fester. The White House could have taken care of this with one phone call. That it chose not to says a great deal about it and goes to why they feel the need to staff press conferences with ringers.
Many years ago (the 90s) a friend who was nervous about a taping was on the phone as she waited and watched a segment preceding her own. As someone in the audience ran off at the mouth to Orpah (standing there with the microphone), my friend said over the phone to me, "Someone needs to tell Little Miss Voice of a Generation, sit down." It's hard not to feel that way when reading Erik Leaver and Daniel Atzmon's latest at Foreign Policy In Focus. Specifically: "On November 17, 2008, when Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker signed an agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, citizens from both countries applauded." Little Miss Voice of a Generation, sit down. Not only did Iraqis not applaud but many Americans didn't either. The treaty masquerading as a SOFA was hugely unpopular in Iraq which is why so many MPs skipped the vote. Skipped the vote on Thanksgiving Day. November 16th was when Nouri's cabinet voted . . . and ten cabinet members skipped that vote. As for it being about withdrawal? Mary Beth Sheridan (Washington Post) reported in real time that "the Iraqi cabinet on Sunday approved a bilateral agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain in this country for three more years." That's all the SOFA did. The UN mandate (covering the occupation) would expire on December 31st. A new agreement was needed (or the UN mandate renewed) or else US forces (as Joe Biden had noted repeatedly) would be forced to leave Iraq. Even then-White House spokesperson Dana Perino didn't try to inflate it the way it would eventually be inflated. November 17th she declared, "One of the points that we conceded was that we would establish these aspirational dates." Aspirational. As opposed to "actual." Learn the terminology.
November 27th, Parliament passed it -- leading the White House to finally release the document to the American public (another reason there wasn't mass celebration on November 17th -- does any editor at Foreign Policy In Focus actually have any duties that fall under the role of "editor"?). Parliament passed it. 149 members voted. And how many MPs are there? 275. And Leaver and Atzmon want to act as if the SOFA led to celebrations?
Maybe they have to because Phyllis Bennis embarrassed herself at every forum (including FPIF) acting the fool. She was thrilled, she was excited and she knew nothing, absolutely nothing. When Barack adopted Bush's SOFA, Phyllis was thrilled and even made the blood curling statement that it didn't matter to her if 'withdrawal' took a few months more. Doesn't matter to her? Well she's not serving in Iraq and she has no family serving in Iraq and, apparently, she also lacks both empathy and sympathy. So possibly the distasteful opening of Leaver and Atzmon's article is required because FPIF readers have been hyped on the b.s. treaty and lied to about the treaty?
If you can hold your nose through that opening paragraph, you've got the strongest analysis FPIF has provided on the SOFA or on what Barack's actually doing in Iraq:
The failure to fully comply with the withdrawal agreement indicates the United States is looking to withdraw from Iraq in name only, as it appears that up to 50,000 military personnel will remain after the deadline.
The United States claims it's adhering to the agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), even with so many troops being left in the cities. But the United States is changing semantics instead of policy. For example, there are no plans to transfer the 3,000 American troops stationed within Baghdad at Forward Operating Base Falcon, because commanders have determined that despite its location, it's not within the city.
The original intent of moving troops out of the cities was to reduce the U.S. military role and send the message to Iraqis that the United States would be leaving the country soon. But troops that are no longer sleeping in the cities will still take part in operations within Iraqi cities; they will serve in "support" and "advisory" roles, rather than combat functions. Such "reclassification" of troops as military trainers is another example of how the United States is circumventing the terms of the SOFA agreement.
To get the SOFA through the Parliament, a last minute agreement (and plenty of US strong arming) was made that the Iraqi people would be allowed to vote on the treaty in a national referendum which was supposed to take place next month. It will not take place next month and has now been pushed back to January. In 2008, the White House strong armed to get their way, in 2009 the White House strong arms to get its way. No change you can believe in.
Turning to the topic of the VA, Steve Vogel (Washington Post) reports:
The number of unprocessed disability claims has grown by nearly 100,000 since the beginning of the year and totaled 916,625 as of Saturday, a rise driven in part by increasing numbers of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.), who last week chaired a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee meeting titled "Can VA Manage One Million Claims?," said the department needs "a cultural and management sea change."
Veterans "are waiting to have their claims and appeals processed," Hall said at the hearing last Thursday. "They are waiting for compensation. They are waiting for medical assistance and rehabilitation."
That hearing took place Thursday evening and was noted in the June 19th snapshot.
"Any change, any legislative change increases the risk to August 1st," declared the VA's Director from the Office of Education Service Keith Wilson. "There's no question about it. We wouldn't know the full impact until we could sit down and evaluate what the volume of individuals would be."
He was appearing this afternoon before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity and replying to US House Rep John Boozman's question about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which "has those killed on active duty into Chapter Thirty Two, I'm sorry, Chapter Thirty Three would something like that would that cause delay in payment?" Wilson stated anything would. The meeting was about the Post-9-11 GI Bill which requires new payments starting August 1st. US House Rep Harry Teague chaired the subcommittee (filling in for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin) and noted in his opening remarks:
Today we will continue with our series of oversight hearings on the VA's implementation plans for the Post 9-11 GI Bill. It is important that we continue to provide the VA the opportunities to update the subcommittee on their implementation effort for the short-term and long-term solutions. This hearing will also give the VA the opportunity to ask for Congressional assistance if it is required. Since the passage of the Post-9-11 GI Bill, many items of concern have been raised about this very complicated program. I'm sure our Chair and Ranking Member will agree that this Subcommittee will continue to seek answers to the implementation but also veteran outreach, university partnerships and other items of concern. While there was tremendous Congressional support for the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, responsiblity does not end after a bill is signed into law. As our panelists know, this Subcommittee will continue to work with the adminsitration to ensure that our veterans receive their educational benefits in a timely manner.
Ranking Member Boozman noted this was the fifth hearing providing oversight on the implementation of the bill and encouraged the VA to come forward with problems as they arise so they can be addressed.
August 1st is the start date in order to begin making payments for the fall 2009 semesters. These payments, like other government payments, will be issued via computer programs so today's hearing focused on the IT aspects of it.
Keith Wilson was the only witness appearing before the Subcommittee today. He was accompanied by the VA's Stephen W. Warren and Mark Krause. (Warren handled the slide presentation -- he provided the narration of the steps on the flow chart, etc.) Wilson stated that there were two strategies, short-term and long-term. The programs will handle processing and delivering (addressing) the payments and allowing payments to be calculated. This system, however, vanishes December 2010 when a new system replaces it. (That system hasn't been developed yet and will be created with SPAWAR Systems Center.)
Keith Wilson: On May 1, 2009, VA began accepting applications to determine eligibility for the Post- 9-11 GI Bill. We've received more than 75,000 applications, and the RPOs have fully processed approximately 35,000 of these claims. On July 6, 2009, we will start accepting enrollment certifications from school certifying officials and begin processing claims for payment. The first payments will be released by US Treasury Department on August 3, 2009. Approximately 530 claims examiners have been hired under term appointments to support the implementation of the short-term strategy. All employees completed training of Phase 1 of the short-term solutions on June 15th. Phase 2 training started on June 8th and is expected to be complete no later than July 3rd. VA authorized the RPOs to hire 230 additional claims examiners. All of the employees are expected to be on board by August 31, 2009.
Those are hard numbers and in the above and when asked questions, Wilson actually had answers. A rare thing for a witness from the VA. Wilson referenced the VA's GI Bill website as a resource. For those with limited internet access or who would prefer the human interaction, the toll free number is 1-888-GI-BILL-1 or 1-888-442-4551. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) has a webpage that gives you a historical overview and also allows you to locate a VFW service officer who can assist veterans with the application process. Those are resource provided by the VFW and they're a resource many veterans may need to consider utilizing because, at present, Wilson stated they were surprised that the applications coming in are not as high as expected (at present, the VA is able to process more applications each day than it is receiving, according to Wilson). Teague noted his surprise at the low number of applicants and suggested stronger outreach efforts may be needed.
US House Rep Harry Teague: You may recall that with the leadership of Ranking Member Boozman, Congress authorized the VA to conduct mass media outreach services. Today I have not been made aware of the VA using mass media as an outreach option. Will you be using mass media such as television or radio to advertise the new GI Bill benefit?
Keith Wilson: We will. We have, underway right now, a acquistion process to bring a, uh, professional media firm on board specifically for that purpose.
One reason for the delay may be that next week the VA will be providing a list of an estimated 700 colleges who will be part of the Yellow Ribbon Program. Wilson explained those colleges would have "a matching contribution program between VA and IHLs to assist eligible veterans in covering tuition expenses that exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition rate." How much is covered is an issue even in good economic times and some may be waiting on the VA to release that date before beginning the application process.
Also on veterans, Daniel Suddeath (News and Tribune) reports that US Rep Baron Hill's bill Health Care for Members of the Armed Forces Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act was introduced because of the long, long wait veterans suffering from the effects of Agent Oragne had to go through and he "doesn't want to wait 30 years to address similar problems encountered by veterans of the Iraq War." On the issue of Congress, Kat covered a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing (on Iran) last night.
Farrah Fawcett has passed away and that is a huge loss. 20/20 tonight will feature Barbara Walters reporting on Fawcett's life.
Independent journalist David Bacon, whose latest book is Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press). , is one of the last labor reporters left in the US. This is the opening to his latest report, "CRIMINALS BECAUSE WE WORKED" (Political Affairs):
VERNON, CA (6/18/09) -- The production lines at Overhill Farms move very quickly. Every day for eighteen years Bohemia Agustiano stood in front of the "banda" for eight or nine hours, putting pieces of frozen chicken, rice and vegetables onto plates as they passed in a blur before her. Making the same motions over and over for such a long time, her feet in one place on the concrete floor, had its price. Pains began shooting through her hands and wrists, up her arms to her shoulders.
Complaining also had a price, however. "I was reluctant to say anything because of my need," she says. "I have four children. So I preferred to stay hurt, and take pills for it, than to go out on disability." Finally, though, it got too much. She couldn't sleep without pain constantly waking her, and she was moving through a haze of exhaustion. So she went to the company doctor.
"He said my nerves were inflamed, and sent me to therapy," she recalls. "I know I have repetitive stress syndrome, but I asked him not to put me on restricted duty, because there is no easy work in production and I knew the company would just send me home. He put me on restrictions anyway, and that's what happened. It didn't change anything, and eventually I had to go back to my job. It still hurts to work."
It might seem hard to understand that a job like this is worth trying to keep. But being out of work is worse. On May 31 254 people, including Agustiano, were fired. Their crime? According to Overhill Farms, they had bad Social Security numbers. Behind this accusation is the unspoken assumption that the workers' numbers are no good because they have no legal immigration status.
Every day Agustiano and the fired workers are out in front of the company's two plants on East Vernon Avenue, in an industrial enclave in southeast Los Angeles, trying to fight their way back onto those speeding production lines.