Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Iraq snapshot

October 14, 2009.  Chaos and violence continue, Congress hears from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki who explains that the VA always knew the Post-9/11 GI Bill would be 'problematic,' three senators stand up for a family who's loved one died serving in Iraq, and more.
Today Veterans Affaris Secretary Eric Shinseki appeared before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs for a hearing entitled "Update of the State of the VA."  Shinseki was the only witness appearing before the committee. 
Ranking Member Steve Buyer made an idiot out of himself repeatedly.  Kat will be grabbing most of that at her site tonight (and I agree with her 100%) but to claim, as Buyer did, that Congress is responsible or equally responsible for the VA backlog on the Post-9/11 GI Bill is beyond uninformed.  It goes to Buyer not paying attention to what Congress did do.  We'll address that tomorrow when the Committee hears about the VA backlog on education benefits but the fault lies with the VA and that was clear to anyone attending hearings over the summer.  Buyer apparently has no long term memory.  He can take comfort in the fact that the press was snoozing as well. But the VA was offered additional help and the VA turned it down.
June 25th, US House Rep Harry Teague chaired the US House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity (filling in for US House Rep Stephanie Herseth Sandlin).  He and Ranking Member Boozman noted the VA needed to step forward immediately if there were any problems with the Post-9/11 GI Bill with Boozman especially stressing that if problems came up, let the committee know immediately so they can assist. July 29th Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing found Senator Jon Tester suggesting that -- due to the VA's huge backlog on claims -- the VA might need to add some employees.  The VA's Patrick Dunne insisted more employees weren't needed and that they would mean more administrative duties which would cause even more delays. This was echoed by the GAO's Danile Bertoni who 'said', "We have reported that an infusion of a large number of staff has the potential to improve VA's capacity.  However, quickly absorbing these staff will likely pose human capital challenges for VA, such as how to train and deploy them.  The additional staff has helped VA process more claims and appeals overall, but as VA has acknowledged, it has also reduced individual staff productivity.  . . . According to VA, this decline in productivity is attributable primarily to new staff who have not yet become fully proficient at processing claims and to the loss of experienced staff due to retirements.  VA expects its productivity to decline further before it improves, in part because of the challenges of training and integrating new staff."
"Said"?  It's part of his prepared statement but his time ran out before he completed reading it.  It is part of the record.
And Buyer and the press should be familiar with and Shinseki should have been asked about this.  Did the VA refuse to ask for the help they needed?  Maybe the question will come up tomorrow when a hearing on the Post-9/11 GI Bill is held?
Reading a statement today at the start of the hearing, different from the prepared one, Shinseki did note, briefly, the problems with the education bill.
Eric Shinseki: Complications in implementing the Post-9/11 GI Bill required VA to make advance payments to effected veterans to cover their expenses and to relieve their uncertainty and stress. There are many reasons for those complications but the delays were unacceptable. Advance payments remain in effect -- that's the emergency procedure we put in place two weeks ago.  Advance payments remain in effect as we mature our IT tools to assure timely delivery of checks in the future. And I'm hopeful that early November, we'll have the Phase III automated tool for our use.
IT?  The VA's had a lot of IT problems.  Equally true is that the VA attempted to blame colleges for the delay.  Or are we all supposed to forget that?  Now Congress is told that it was an IT problem?
Buyer wasn't the only one looking foolish, US House Rep Corrine Brown, informing that she was "watching television" yesterday morning, insisted that the media had it wrong and the delays in veterans receiving their checks wasn't the VA's fault it  was the institutions who weren't verifying adds and drops for their colleges.  Brown doesn't know what she's talking about.  She then wanted a response from Shinseki.  Chair Bob Filner attempted to move on and she stopped him asking if she could get a response? 
Shinseki avoided it.  Brown couldn't take a hint so she brought it up again, "Can you discuss the VA's wonderful program that we're having some challenges with? But it's a win-win for the veterans, you know the community, especially with these hard times, the opportunity to go back to school and retrain is a win-win." Does she grasp how uninformed and/or insulting she sounds?  You have veterans across the country who have still not received payment.  Some of them are single-parents.  Several are single mothers with small children and the press has covered this and covered how they are taking out loans as they wait for the VA to get it together, how they fear they may end up homeless.  Is Corrine Brown that out of touch? 
She waited for Shinseki to back her up.  He didn't.
Eric Shinseki: I've-I've-I've been very clear about how important this is. Not just to the VA but to me personally. Uh, it is, uh, a you know an aspect of myself coming back although not in a program like this.  Coming back from Vietnam and having the opportunity to go back and do graduate schooling, I understand the importance of this program. But it's even more important to the country. The potential that will come out of this -- we go back and look at what came after WWII, what that country provided to our country in terms of leadership for the second half of the 20th century, that's what we're about to realize here. And the VA has an important role to make sure this happens.
As he continued to speak, he said a number of things that should have been red flags. 
Erick Shinseki: A plan was written, very quickly put together, uh, very short timelines, I'm looking at the certifcates of elegibility uh being processed on 1 May and  enrollments 6 July, checks having to flow through August.  A very compressed timeframe. And in order to do that, we essentially began as I arrived in January, uh, putting together the  plan -- reviewing the plan that was there and trying to validate it. I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consulatant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment.  'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.'  To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed.  Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take. We based our numbers on the Montgomery GI Bill which is about a 15 minute procedure. The uh chapter thirty-three procedures about an hour on average, maybe an hour and 15 minutes. So right off the bat, we had some issues with assumptions. Uh, we are still receiving certificates of enrollment. This week alone, we received 36,000 certificates of enrollment coming from schools who are working through the process and we put them into the execute of providing those checks -- three checks.
Shinskeki wasn't honest.  The 36,000 certificates this week alone?  These are not 36,000 new certificates.  I asked a friend at the VA and these include a large number of schools refiling in an attempt to help the veterans who are waiting.   Each week, some schools are refiling certifications because their students still do not have funding. In addition, there is late enrollment and some of the forms being processed are late enrollments.
As for the employees, Shinseki made a big to do about grasping 530 wasn't enough employees (as claims examiners) so, apparently quickly, 230 more were hired and trained.  Quickly?  No.  June 25th, VA's Director from the Office of Education Service, Keith Wilson, was stating that they expected to have those 230 "on board by August 31, 2009."
Shinseki testified he was told it wasn't possible by the VA and by some outside contractor.  I'm sorry, I've attended all the Congressional committee and subcommittee hearings on the Post-9/11 GI Bill and never once did the VA express that to the Congress.  Never once did they say, "We won't be able to do it."  They stated they were on track repeatedly.  They were asked if they were worried about a crunch as deadlines for fall enrollment approached, they never blinked an eyelash, they never raised a concern.  Now, after the system falls down in front of the whole country, Shinseki wants to say, 'Oh, we knew back when I started as VA Secretary that it wasn't going to go smoothly.'  At what point in the 'planning' did the VA expect to inform of Congress of that?
This add and drop crap?  It's getting real old and it's amazing that the VA attempted to lie (and got away with it) when the problem emerged.  They blamed the colleges.  Shinseki himself blamed the colleges and said that it was an add and drop issue.  Did no one ever think to ask about the first checks issued? If you issue a check before the semester even starts, you're not waiting for adds and drops.  Did no one grasp that this took place? Did everyone sleep through testimony over the summer when the VA was bragging about how many they had already processed -- before any semester even began?
"But again, we adjusted to the assumptions that didn't bear out and we'll make adjustments in the future," Shinseki declared.  Where in that statement do you find "It's the fault of the colleges!"?  Only Corrine Brown, watching television at five in the morning, and not liking what she sees, can see that.
John Boozman also rushed to excuse the VA. He's a Republican and, as a result, I may not expect him to be reality based but even he did come off as nutty as Corrine Brown. But this idea that the VA is not responsible for the current mess goes to the Culture of No Accountability in DC.  The VA didn't just issue the checks (or not issue them), it also designed the entire system.  Columbia in New York, UCLA, etc did not design the VA's programs.  If there were problems in the system designed by the VA then that falls back on the VA and there needs to be accountability. 
There is none. Despite Shinseki's claim at the hearing that "accountability does count with me." Shinseki admits before Congress that he knew, stepping in as Secretary, that the program wouldn't work as it was being presented.  He admits that today.  The Congress should have been informed of that long ago.  And a Committee less concerned with fawning over a former general and more concerned with serving veterans would have raised the issues noted here.  In other testimony, Shinseki stated that he had heard the stories about women arriving for VA appointments and being turned away because they had brought their children: "I know there were a couple of anecdotal incidents in where -- in which women veterans reported not being able to keep their appointments because they showed up with children and I can assure the chairman that guidance has gone out, correct any of that. Uh, women veterans showing up with children will be seen. With the exceptions that uh would make sense here and the exceptions being those settings uh in ICU or mental health where uh it would not be good to have children in that environment.  We would find other ways to take-take the child and care for it. But right-right now the authorities are not within the department to be able to provide child care on our own and this may be one of those things that we uh have a discussion with the chairman and the committee on how we might look for some help here."
Meanwhile Al Jazeera notes, "At least 85,000 people have been killed in Iraq by bombs, murders and fighting from 2004 until 2008, Iraq's human rights ministry says." Really? Because Betty noted Aadel Rashid's "Finding Husbands for Iraq's Widows: As Some Iraqis Embrace the Program, Others Say Efforts to Help Widows Remarry Is Exploitative" (ABC News) last night and, as Betty pointed out, "The article tells us that Women and Child Committee head Samira al Musawi states Iraq saw more than 1 million women become widows since 2005. " Widows. To be a widow, your spouse has to die. So that would mean 1 million men have died since 2005. Which ministry is telling the truth? Or did 925,000 Iraqi males die since 2005 of natural causes?  That would be a staggering number in a country's whose population is less than 26 million. Reuters notes the first count here. BBC News adds, "The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Baghdad says the numbers may be staggering but they are relatively conservative."

Violence continued in Iraq today and some tried to mask it.  Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports an attack mortars, gunfire and grenades on one Baghdad neighbourhood today was, according to the Defense Ministry's spokesmodel Mohammed al Askari, was "a normal one that could happen in any country."  Right.  I believe just yesterday, downtown Dulith was shelled with mortars, suffered gunfire and grenades. Hammoudi quotes cosmetic shop owner Maitham Abu Zahra stating, "I was in my shop when I heard the sound of the explosion. It was very loud sound followed by white smoke (that) covered market." Nada Bakri (Washington Post) notes 8 dead and nine injured, "A checkpoint was a few miles away, and many residents said they believed soldiers there had allowed the assailants to pass unhindered." Timothy Williams and Anwar J. Ali (New York Times) add 7 of the sodliers "assigned to the market" have been arrested.
In other reported violence?
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad roadside bombing left Imam Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar and his driver wounded, a Baghdad roadside bombing which injured three people and three Karbala bombings which claimed 3 lives and left eleven people wounded. Timothy Williams and Anwar J. Ali (New York Times) report the bombs were homemade and that people had gathered for evening prayers.  Mu Xuequan (Xinhua) reports that the death toll has risen by 3 to six (with the injured toll placed at forty-two) and that it "could rise, as many victims were transported to hospitals and medical centers in the city, the source said."
Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) reports one security guard waskilled in a Mosul shooting.
CNN reports fears abound that if an election law is not passed quickly, there may not be national elections in January.  Gina Chon (Wall St. Journal) has repeatedly reminded that the Parliament has until Thursday to pass the legislation (here and here for Chon's report). Now let's repeat, these elections were supposed to take place in December. US President Barack Obama has used these elections as his 'excuse' for breaking his campaign promise of US troops out of Iraq in ten months (sixteen on the campaign trail until Feb. 2008 when he dropped it down to ten). And there's no law passed. Dow Jones notes that Nouri's cabinet did ratify the 2010 budget -- $67.29 billion. Reuters explains that they came close to making the budget . . . sort of. Iraq's set the budget at $67.29 billion even though that means a $15.3 billion budget deficit. Remember that when the US Congress talks about loaning money to Iraq. (The US needs to make reparations for the Iraq War. Reparations do not need to be made to a puppet government that does nothing for the people.) The US Congress might give Iraq money but if they loan it, don't pretend like (a) Congress knows what they're doing or (b) there's any chance Iraq will ever repay their debt. (Ask Kuwait.)

NPR's Quil Lawrence (Morning Edition -- link has text and audio) reports that as Iraqi children return to school, "[m]any of Iraq's schools lack electricity and running water, but they will be getting something new this year: a history book that reflects the enormous changes the country has been through and includes historical events that were once forbidden topics." Quil leaves out what Xinhua and others have been reporting since school started: Overcrowding, lack of desks, lack of supplies, etc. A modern history book? How about a modern school?
While he can't appear to address anything, let alone fix it, to improve the quality of life for Iraqis, Nouri al-Maliki isn't sitting around doing nothing. Sameer N. Yacoub (AP) reports Nouri "suspended classes and banned political activities at" Mustraniriyah University and "banned the student union" on campus. Never forget all the blood that was spilled -- Iraqi and foreign -- for the US to install a thug with hopes of becoming the new Saddam.
In England, Stephen Adams (Telegraph of London) reports, "Parents of soldiers who died in Iraq have accused [former British Prime Minister] Tony Blair of lying to Britain over the decision to invade in 2003 and one said she wanted him indicted as a 'war criminal', in an emotional first day of the Iraq Inquiry." Caroline Davies (Guardian) adds that "it became clear that most, if not all, fingers were pointing to one man -- the former prime minister Tony Blair. And the clapping erupted. They had found a common voice -- and it was demanding 'accountability'."  Meanwhile the Brussels Tribunal released the following last week:

FOUR US PRESIDENTS              
For immediate release               
Spanish] - [Arabic]               
Date: 7 October 2009            

MADRID: Today the Spanish Senate, acting to confirm a decision already taken under pressure from powerful governments accused of grave crimes, will limit Spain's laws of universal jurisdiction. Yesterday, ahead of the change of law, a legal case was filed at the Audiencia Nacional against four United States presidents and four United Kingdom prime ministers for commissioning, condoning and/or perpetuating multiple war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Iraq.      

This case, naming George H W Bush, William J Clinton, George W Bush, Barack H Obama, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Anthony Blair and Gordon Brown, is brought by Iraqis and others who stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and in defence of their rights and international law.            

Iraq: 19 years of intended destruction           

The intended destruction -- or genocide -- of Iraq as a state and nation has been ongoing for 19 years, combining the imposition of the most draconian sanctions regime ever designed and that led to 1.5 million Iraqi deaths, including 500,000 children, with a war of aggression that led to the violent deaths of over one million more.                     

Destroying Iraq included the purposeful targeting of its water and sanitation system, attacking the health of the civilian population. Since 1990, thousands of tons of depleted uranium have been dropped on Iraq, leading in some places to a 600 per cent rise in cancer and leukaemia cases, especially among children. In both the first Gulf War and "Shock and Awe" in 2003, an air campaign that openly threatened "total destruction", waves of disproportionate bombing made no distinction between military and civilian targets, with schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, shelters, residential areas, and historical sites all destroyed.

Destroying Iraq included promoting, funding and organizing sectarian and ethnic groups bent on dividing Iraq into three or more sectarian or ethnic entities, backed by armed militias that would terrorize the Iraqi people. Since 2003, some 4.7 million Iraqis -- one fifth of the population -- have been forcibly displaced. Under occupation, kidnappings, killings, extortion and mutilation became endemic, targeting men, women and even children and the elderly.

Destroying Iraq included purposefully dismantling the state by refusing to stop or stem or by instigating mass looting, and by engaging in ideological persecution, entailing "manhunting", extrajudicial assassinations, mass imprisonment and torture, of Baathists, the entire educated class of the state apparatus, religious and linguistic minorities and Arab Sunnis, resulting in the total collapse of all public services and other economic functions and promoting civil strife and systematic corruption.                  

In parallel, Iraq's rich heritage and unique cultural and archaeological patrimony has been wantonly destroyed.             

In order to render Iraq dependent on US and UK strategic designs, successive US and UK governments have attempted to partition Iraq and to establish by military force a pro-occupation Iraqi government and political system. They have promoted and engaged in the massive plunder of Iraqi natural resources, attempting to privatize this property and wealth of the Iraqi nation.               

Humanity at stake                

This is but the barest summary of the horrors Iraq has endured, based on lies that nobody but cowed governments and complicit media believed. In 2003, millions worldwide were mobilized in opposition to US/UK plans. In going ahead, the US and UK launched an illegal war of aggression. Accountability has not been established.                

The persons named in this case have each played a key role in Iraq's intended destruction. They instigated, supported, condoned, rationalized, executed and/or perpetuated or excused this destruction based on lies and narrow strategic and economic interests, and against the will of their own people. Allowing those responsible to escape accountability means such actions could be repeated elsewhere.                     

It is imperative now to establish accountability for US and UK war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Iraq because:           

Every Iraqi victim deserves justice.             

Everyone responsible should be accountable.             

We are before immoral and unlawful acts, contrary to the basis on which the international order of state sovereignty and peace and security rests. Whereas the official international justice system is closed before the suffering of those that imperialism makes a target, through this case we try to open a channel whereby the conscience of humanity can express its solidarity with justice for victims of imperial crimes.           

Ad Hoc Committee For Justice For Iraq            

Press contacts:            

Hana Al Bayaty, Executive Committee, BRussells Tribunal         
+34 657 52 70 77 or +20 10 027 7964 (English and French)

Dr Ian Douglas, Executive Committee, BRussells Tribunal, coordinator,           International Initiative to Prosecute US Genocide in Iraq   
+20 12 167 1660 (English)

Amanda Nuredin, +34 657 52 70 77 (Spanish)   

Abdul Ilah Albayaty, Executive Committee, BRussells Tribunal                  
+33 471 461 197 (Arabic)          


Turning to the US where an woman whose husband was killed serving in the Iraq War may have some good news for herself and their son.  Dropping back to the September 25th snapshot, "While some veterans go homeless, efforts are made to deport the spouses of some deceased veterans.  Most recently, the September 17th snapshot, we noted Kristin M. Hall (AP) report Hotaru Ferschke, a military widow. Her husband, Sgt. Michael Ferschke, died serving in Iraq August 10, 2008. They had tried to have children for some time and when they learned she was pregnant, he was already in Iraq so they got married by proxy and the US military recognizes the marriage but the US Immigration and Naturalization Service plays dumb. She and their son Michael "Mikey" Ferschke III, are now facing deportation. INS is stating that the proxy marriage could be a fake because it wasn't consumated. Consumated? He remained in Iraq and they're not counting their long relationship prior to the proxy marriage. Her mother-in-law, Robin Ferschke told Hall, 'She's like my daughter. I know my child chose the perfect wife and mother of his child'."
Michael Collins (Knoxville News Sentinel) quotes Robin Ferschke stating, "I know my son would never want us to stop fighting for what is right. He fought for his country and now we have to fight our country for what is right." WJLA (link has text and video) quotes her stating, "Don't take my family away again.  I lost one and I'm not going to lose his son out of my life." Hota, Mikey and Robin Ferschke now have three Senate allies.  From Senator Jim Webb's office:

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) today introduced legislation to recognize the marriage of fallen U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael Ferschke and his Japanese wife who were married by proxy while Sgt. Ferschke was deployed in Iraq. The Ferschkes' marriage is formally recognized by the military but not the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) -- leaving the immigration status of Mrs. Ferschke in jeopardy.

Michael Ferschke and Hotaru Nakama were married by telephone on July 10, 2008, three months after the couple learned they were having a child. Sgt. Ferschke was killed in combat one month later. The couple's marriage is not recognized by DHS because it was never consummated as dictated by an outdated 1952 immigration law passed during the Korean War.

Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee joined Senator Webb in cosponsoring the legislation.

"Every now and then, there comes an issue that tells us a lot about who we are, and how we live up to our promised, great and small," said Senator Webb today in a speech on the Senate floor. "And particularly the promises we make to those who step forward and place their lives on the line in order to carry out the policies that we create."  

Senator Webb's bill would allow Mrs. Hotaru Ferschke, who is currently here under a tourist visa, permanent residency in the U.S., a right granted to all military widows. Mrs. Ferschke and their 8-month-old son, Michael "Mikey" Ferschke III, are currently staying at the Tennessee home of Sgt. Ferschke's parents surrounded by photos and memories of the father Mikey will never meet.

The targeted legislation will have no impact on broader immigration policies.  It will allow immigration authorities to recognize the Ferschkes' lawful marriage and, according to Senator Webb: "right a wrong for a Marine's family who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country."



Travis J. Tritten (Stars and Stripes) reports that the bill was introduced in the Senate today.  We'll close with this from World Can't Wait's "'The US Military is Out There Spreading Death Right Now':"

Death, rather than nation building -- that is what the US army has brought to Iraq and is bringing to Afghanistan according to former US army sergeant and anti-war activist Matthis Chiroux. He shared his views with RT.                 
For some, Matthis Chiroux is a hero. Others label him a US traitor. The 25-year-old is an army sergeant-turned-war-resistor, and one of roughly 8,000 US soldiers who have reportedly deserted the army since 2003.              
He accuses the US military of having become a corrupt institution built upon spreading death as a response to nations' problems by means of conducting illegal wars.       
"One hundred per cent, Afghanistan war is absolutely an illegal war under the same conventions that Iraq was an illegal war," Chiroux says.
"They are virtually the same thing," he continues. "They are both experiments in going in, smashing the country and trying to rebuild it in our own image as a trading partner. They are both about resources. They are both defined as illegal wars of aggression by the UN Charter -- that's something people don't understand."
Speaking of President Obama's decision to deploy even more troops in Afghanistan, the activist has said that "more troops in an illegal war aren't going to somehow make it inherently right or even winnable."