Thursday, January 28, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, a former US Staff Sgt admits to money laundering (for plastic surgery and other 'needed' items) while serving in Iraq, the US Senate continues to ignore a bill proposed to assist veterans exposed to toxic hazards, Iraq cracks down on the media again, and more.
Today the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing to vote on a nomination and proposed legislation. Starting with the nomination, November 9th, US President Barack Obama nominated Raul Perea-Henze to be the Assistant Secretary of Policy and Planning, Department of Veterans Affairs. Today the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee took a vote. Excepting Ranking Member Richard Burr, Lindsey Graham and Johnny Isakson, all voted in favor of Perea-Henze (Graham was not present during the vote, Burr asked that the record reflect Graham and his own votes opposing the nomination). ("All voted in favor? I would assume the entire committee. Most of whom did not show -- eight of the fifteen committee members were present during the vote -- for the hearing but if Graham's vote in opposition is recorded despite him not being present, I would assume those not present could also vote in favor of the nomination.)
Markup hearing? If you're thinking they addressed S. 1779, you are wrong. That bill addressed the need for a federal registry, similar to the one for Agent Orange exposure, for veterans exposed to contaminates while serving. It was introduced by Senator Evan Bayh, has been held up by the Committee since October 21st. Bayh's bill is co-sponsored by Byron Dorgan (who has been also been a leader on this issue), Robert Byrd, Jeff Merkley, John Rockefeller, Ron Wyden and Richard Lugar. That bill's still buried.
If that surprises you, imagine being Senator Jay Rockefeller who had a statement on the bill all ready for delivery. In fact, it's posted at the Committee's website:
Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for this mark up, following up on the powerful and emotional hearing of October 8th last year with military personnel and family members exposed to toxic materials in their combat service, and even from their military housing.
At that hearing, my remarks and questions focused on Russell Powell, a medic with the West Virginia Guard. He and hundreds of other members of the Guard were exposed to toxic chemicals while on duty guarding the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility in Basra, Iraq. For years, they were kept in the dark -- not told about their exposure. And today, they are still struggling to get the health care they need.
That is simply not acceptable. It must be fixed. And I believe today's mark represents the first important step forward.
I greatly appreciate that Chairman Akaka has incorporated a vital provision from Senator Bayh's legislation -- which I have cosponsored -- to guarantee these guardsmen the quality VA health care coverage they have earned.
That guarantee is an important element of the Homeless Veterans and Health Care Act and I strongly support it.
But at last fall's hearing, we also were moved by the heartbreaking testimony from military family members.
In particular: families describing serious water problems at Camp Lejeune and dangerous toxins in the air at Atsugi Naval Air base in Japan.
There is no doubt, we all agreed: Military personnel and family members dealing with the painful consequences of toxic exposure deserve the best health care possible.
Chairman Akaka's new legislation provides the right kind of care to families from Camp Lejeune and Atsugi Naval Air base.
But his bill goes beyond those two locations and their toxic exposure incidents. It creates a process between the VA and DoD to deal with thousands of potential exposures through a joint board. And, so future families don't have to wait for decades, the bill establishes a clear time frame for the board's decisions.
I firmly believe we must be absolutely clear about our shared responsibility. The VA's responsibility is our veterans and their care. DoD has a longstanding policy of caring for their military dependents.
DoD bears significant responsibility and has to take responsibility, today. The Pentagon has to acknowledge what happened and bear the financial costs. This matters.
The Akaka bill strikes the proper balance -- allowing the VA to provide coverage for veterans while DoD covers their families. The Chairman's legislation gets it right and I strongly support his efforts. This is our chance to do the right thing, honor our veterans' service and recognize their families' sacrifice, by ensuring they get the care they seek, they need, and they deserve.
It needed saying. Sadly, it went unsaid. There was no time for the needed bill.
What did they discuss? We'll note Richard Burr's remarks.
Ranking Member Richard Burr: As you know one of my top priorities in the Congress has been to end homelessness among our country's veterans. And the Committee Print S. 1237, the Homeless Veterans and Other Health Care Authorities Act of 2010, furthers that goal and I applaud all the members for their commitment to homelessness. I'm concerned however that the Committee's marking up legislation without having the official views of the Dept of Veterans Affairs on S. 1547, one of the key measures in the Committee Print before us today. We've heard the President talk about el-eliminating duplicate programs. We have had a legislative hearing on 1547 in October at which time where officials views from the administration were promised but, three months later, we still don't have those views. Without those views, the Committee doesn't have a full scope of key questions such as how the creation of a new program or the expansion of an existing ones will be coordinated with other homeless programs administered by the VA and other federal agencies? Or how this legislation fits with the [VA] Secretary's overall plan to end homelessness in five years? As well: What is the cost of the legislation and how long will it take the VA to be able to be appropriately staffed to carry out the bill's mandates? Now I'm not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that any administration's testimony should dictate how this Committee proceeds but it would be helpful to have information to make an informed judgment on what's best for veterans and addressing their specific needs. As for the second bill on the agenda, quite frankly I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed at the approach used to provide health care for veterans and family members exposed to contaminated well water at Camp Lejeune. Not only might this bill be subject to Rule 25 Point Of Order because of subject matter, it's arguably in another Committee's jurisdiction, it also fails to appreciate the deep distrust that family members and veterans have for the Dept of Defense and, specifically, it's handling of these matters once these wells were found to be contaminated and, in the years since, on the scientific inquiries that have been ongoing. Frankly, to those effected by the contamination at Camp Lejeune, requiring DoD to be a key decision maker and provider of health care is absurd. Now. I'm disappointed personally that the majority has decided to take the tack that they have to put a different bill in. Uh-uh. I don't think it's been the practice of the Committee in the past. And, uhm, I hope this is not an indication of how we proceed forward in this Committee. I understand the Chairman has the votes, I know what the outcome is. It won't change my passion for this debate. It will not change the degree of description of what I share with the members . It is the reason that and I other members have turned to this legislation and it is certainly indicative of why Democrats and Republicans in the House next week will introduce practically the same bill with VA responsibilities to provide health care to individuals and family members that have disease that could likely be tied to exposure to contaminants on a military installation. Now I would only ask the members of this Committee -- likely included that group are some of your constituents -- and though you haven't had to fight the Dept of Defense day in and day out on behalf of this group, I have and members before me have -- without any conclusion, without any finality, without any help. Today as we sit here getting ready for this markup, even though under US Code 42, statutorily the Secretary of the Navy is obligated to pay for the studies required to understand the health and mortality effects of this exposure, the Secretary of the Navy refuses to fund the CDC's arm at ASTDR that is obligated entity to go out and share with the country their scientific conclusion. Let me say that again: The Secretary of the Navy has refused to fund -- even though the law says he has to. So for me in good conscience to turn this over to the Dept of Defense to determine the scope of coverage for these individuals is insane. If the outcome of this vote is pre-determined, then so be it. I would hate for members to leave the markup today and believe that they will not revisit this issue. It will be revisited time and time and time again until the Congress recognizes that maybe the Dept of Defense, maybe the Secretary of the Navy can hide but the Congress can't hide from these people. These are people we represent. These are people that have asked us to come here and represent their interests, their health concerns, their future and I can't hide from them.
To be clear, his objection to the second bill is that DoD is being put in charge when DoD is seen as the person who put people at risk to begin with and is seen as refusing to admit to the contamination after the public discovered it. He is advocating for, among other things, the VA being over the issue the way that the House proposal will advocate (US House Rep Chet Edwards is introducing that measure). Burr proposed an amendment, 9 (Democrats plus Bernie Sanders -- Sanders was not present) voted to table the amendment, all five Republicans voted against tabling it. (Again, only 8 of the 15 Committee members were present.)
On the first bill, his objection is one that is being whispered by Democrats and will probably come out in public in the next months: The administration promises to get back to Congress but never does. Publicly, Ike Skelton and Carl Levin (chairs of the House and Armed Services Committee) have made statements in hearings regarding this issue but look for more serious statements to be made. (Congress -- those two committees in fact -- have still not been provided with the so-called 'withdrawal' plan from Iraq by the administration despite repeated promises.)
Burr is stating that he is unsure of whether the bill is workable or what is needed because the VA has not provided the feedback that was promised. He is stating that hearing from the VA wouldn't mean a yes or a no vote for him but it would mean that he and the Committee would have a stronger framework to judge the bill and the needs. That is what he is saying. But what Democrats are saying (Burr is a Republican) is that they're getting very tired of the administration promising testimonies and witnesses and reports that never arrive. A Republican brought it up for the first time in a hearing this year but if the White House doesn't start living up to their promises to Congress, Democrats who are complaining privately are going to go public and they will not do it as nicely as US House Rep Skelton and US Senator Levin did last year.
For Jon Tester and you can read Kat tonight -- she'll cover his testy nature. Wally filling in for Rebecca tonight intends to note one aspect of Burr's remarks.
Today the US Justice Dept announced that Theresa Russell (not the actress, this is a one-time US Army Staff Sgt) entered a guilty plea to money laundering while 'serving' in Iraq and that her ill gotten gain went on to fund her purchase of "a car, cosmetic surgery, and" more. From the Justice Dept news release:
WASHINGTON -- A former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army pleaded guilty today to a one-count criminal information charging her with money laundering arising from a scheme involving the fraudulent awarding and administration of U.S. government contracts in Iraq, announced Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division.
Theresa Russell, 40, of Pleasanton, Texas, pleaded guilty in federal court in San Antonio. According to court documents, from January 2004 through October 2004, Russell was deployed to Logistical Support Area (LSA) Anaconda, a U.S. military installation near Balad, Iraq. As part of the plea, Russell admitted that from April 2004 to February 2005, she received more than $30,000 in cash from John Rivard, a former major in the U.S. Army Reserves. Russell admitted that she knew the money she received from Rivard was the proceeds of bribery.
In July 2007, Rivard pleaded guilty to bribery, among other offenses, in connection with his service as an Army contracting officer at LSA Anaconda. According to court documents, from April 2004 to August 2005, Rivard conspired with a government contractor to steer federally-funded contracts to the contractor's company in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit bribe payments.
According to court documents, Rivard instructed Russell to divide the payments she received from him into several smaller monetary bank deposits, which she admitted she did, in an effort to avoid the detection of law enforcement authorities. Russell admitted that she subsequently used the criminal proceeds to purchase, among other things, a car, cosmetic surgery, and household furnishings and goods.
The maximum penalty for the money laundering charge is 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release following the prison term. Sentencing is scheduled for May 21, 2010.
This case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Daniel A. Petalas and Justin V. Shur of the Criminal Division's Public Integrity Section, as well as Trial Attorney Ann C. Brickley. This case is being investigated by Army Criminal Investigation Command; Defense Criminal Investigative Service; the FBI; Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation; Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction; and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
While we're on the legal system, we'll drop back to last week. Danny Fitzsimons is a British citizen who stands accused of killing two 1 British citizen (Paul McGuigan) and 1 Australian citizen (Darren Hoare) while wounding one Iraqi (Arkhan Madhi) in an August 9th Baghdad shooting.
"They gave me a gun" he said
"They gave me a mission
For the power and the glory --
Propaganda -- piss on 'em
There's a war zone inside me --
I can feel things exploding --
I can't even hear the f**king music playing
For the beat of -- the beat of black wings."
[. . .]
"They want you -- they need you --
They train you to kill --
To be a pin on some map --
Some vicarious thrill --
The old hate the young
That's the whole heartless thing
The old pick the wars
We die in 'em
To the beat of -- the beat of black wings"
-- "The Beat of Black Wings," words and music by Joni Mitchell, first appears on her Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm.
Iraq War veteran Danny Fitzimons joined the British military at the age of 16 and was deployed on his first mission at the age of 18. Before he was 28-years-old, he'd been diagnosed with PTSD. Out of the military, he began working for the contractor AmrourGroup Inc in August 2009. The shootings took place August 9th. By August 10th, Martin Chulov and Steven Morris (Guardian) were reporting that British embassy staff was not allowed to speak with Danny and that the Iraqi government or 'government' was announcing Danny had been in court (the day after the incident) and given a full confession. To be clear, the reporters were not vouching for the confession. Only an idiot -- or an American reporter -- would do that. Iraq has a long history (even just post-invasion) of forcing 'confessions'. August 11th, Amnesty International issued the following:
Responding to reports that a British employee of a security company working in Iraq may face a death sentence, Amnesty International UK Media Director Mike Blakemore said:
'It's right that private military and security company employees like Danny Fitzsimons are not placed above the law when they're working in places like Iraq and it's right that the Iraqi authorities are set to investigate this very serious incident.
'However, as with all capital cases, Amnesty would strenuously oppose the application of the death penalty if applied to Mr Fitzsimons in this case.
'Iraq has a dreadful record of unfair capital trials and at least 34 people were hanged in the country last year alone.
'The important thing now is that if Danny Fitzsimons is put on trial he is allowed a fair trial process without resort to the cruelty of a death sentence.'
Last year 34 criminals were hanged in Iraq. Private security guard Fitzsimons, employed by UK firm ArmorGroup, would be the first Westerner on trial since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Kim Sengupta (Independent of London) reported last Thursday that Danny appeared in Iraqi court and "was sent for psychiatric evaluation minutes after the start of his trial". Oliver August (Times of London) adds, "Efforts to have Mr Fitzsimons tried in the UK have failed since Iraq and Britain do not have a prisoner transfer agreement. However, once he has been sentenced or is found to be mentally ill, London and Baghdad may discuss the possibility of bringing him back." Adam Schreck (Time magazine) reports, "The trial has been adjourned until Feb. 18, according to Fitzsimons' attorney, Tariq Harb." There is a petition on Facebook calling for Danny to be tried in the United Kingdom and not in England. Reprieve is raising funds for Danny's defense.
Yesterday's snapshot noted: "Vying for the title of Idiot of the Week, Hill has competition!, is Ali al-Lami who insists to Asharq Al-Awsat that he is not controlled by Iran. The fresh from prison al-Lami heads the extra-legal Accountability and Justice Commission. And certainly, if you were released from prison mere months ago, you too would be heading a government commission because that's what cronyism is all about, right, Ali? Don't call him Ahmed Chalabi's lover because they insist they are just friends. With no benefits. Or none they admit to. But Ali explains that he's cracked down on the media and they've figured out their place and 'calmed down' because he's threatened them with 'lawsuits'. He's a little bully." Lawsuits are just one path to censorship in Iraq -- a path Nouri al-Maliki's sashayed down repeatedly. Aseel Kami, Missy Ryan and Andrew Roche (Reuters) report today that Iraq's government or "government" is attempting to convince Syria, Lebanon and Egype to shut down various satellite channels originating from their countries. This will be presented as 'fair' but anyone in the world paying attention will say, "Hey, Iran's a neighbor. Iran's got stations 'inflaming' tensions as much as anyone else." But notice that Iran isn't a source of concern. Notice that and then start looking at the media reports and noticing how many fail to raise that issue.
Let's turn to some of today's reported violence . . .
Reuters notes a Kirkuk roadside bombing injured seven police officers and a Kirkuk mortar attack left four people injured.
Reuters reports 1 Sunni Imam shot dead outside a Baghdad mosque and that 1 police officer was wounded in a Baghdad shooting.
Monday, Baghdad was slammed with bombings and the death toll is at least 41 with over seventy wounded. Yesterday Ann noted Martin Chulov of the Guardian appearing on KPFA's The Morning Show and explaining:
After that there was a lot of shooting very near our location. Some colleagues of my staff wanted to run to their families who lived inside the Hamra compound. We had to restrain them. We were very near and it became clear that a car was trying to get through -- to get inside the hotel. So we ran and the car did get inside and it detonated. During the explosion, most of my colleagues emerged unscathed. There were some walking wounded at the Washington Post who had a house inside the area and also in the hotel itself. And sadly, one of our collegues from the Times of London a longtime local employee was killed.
Ann also notes, "Now to see photos of the destruction inside the al-Hamra Hotel, click here for an Iraqi correspondent with McClatchy Newspapers." Yasser was killed and yesterday's snapshot noted Lourdes Garcia-Navarro (NPR's Morning Edition. link has text and transcript) remembering him and James Hider (Times of London) remembering him as well. The Times of London's Richard Beeston notes:
Yasser, the Times's driver killed on Monday in a bomb attack, was among the very best. He delivered daily accounts of the vicious sectarian street battles that erupted in Baghdad between 2005 and 2007. He knew better than anyone how the contest between Sunni gunmen and Shia militias was being played out because he and his family lived in one of the disputed areas.
Driving through the city he would point out which roads were safe and which were dangerous. His intelligence assessment was far more valuable than anything I ever heard at security briefings in the American or British embassies.
The Economist notes today that their correspondent was wounded in the al-Hamra Hotel bombing. The Economist also tackles the banning of political candidates in Iraq:
IN THE run-up to a general election due on March 7th, Iraq's authorities seem to be taking a page out of Iran's illiberal electoral rule book by barring candidates they dislike. One of the competing parties, the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime Shia exile who helped persuade George Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, has persuaded the election's overseers to ban some 500 candidates deemed too close in the past to Saddam Hussein's Baath party. After the invasion the Americans put Mr Chalabi, then their closest Iraqi ally, in charge of "deBaathification", but he later fell out with them, so he turned for succour to Iran. Now, with a view to winning more votes for himself, he is using his long-dormant post to accuse his foes of having supported the deposed dictator. Though the list contains many Shias, Iraq's minority Sunnis, who ruled the roost under Mr Hussein, are outraged, seeing a plot to discriminate against them. The episode could badly tarnish the poll.
Many other Shia politicians have joined what looks like a witch hunt. Muhammad al-Haidari, a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a powerful Shia group, says that Baathists are worse than Nazis; all past members should, he says, be banned from public life. In the holy city of Najaf, ISCI's heartland, a new rule decrees that former Baathists must be purged from government and chased out of town. Never mind that Iraq's post-invasion constitution bars only senior Baathists from public office and that millions of ordinary Iraqis joined the party only out of necessity, not conviction. Ostracising them threatens once again to split Iraq down the middle and disfranchise many Sunnis, who used to dominate the Baath party.
Maliki has not only failed to condemn the commission's decision to bar 511 candidates, he has embraced it, piously invoking the law -- and surely reckoning that standing up for the Baath party in the name of reconciliation is political suicide, especially in an election year. Yet not many months ago, Maliki was negotiating with the Sunni leader Saleh al Mutlaq, one of the current campaign's main targets, to form a joint coalition.
The crisis of today represents the consequences of yesterday's bad policies: both the Americans and the ruling parties have encouraged the selective use of de-Baathification -- whether to protect people with suspect records who were prepared to serve the new order, or those who proved useful in the campaign against insurgents. The US appears motivated primarily by the need to keep things relatively stable and solidly on track for a smooth troop withdrawal, regardless of what may come afterward. The Maliki government has used the threat of de-Baathification to bring people to its side and under its control, while getting rid of those who were unwilling to co-operate or whom it felt it could never trust.
The Baath party, which is today a thoroughly discredited shadow of its former self, would seem to pose little threat even to Iraq's fragile political stability. But a small group of self-interested figures have seized the opportunity to use de-Baathification to advance their own electoral prospects, precipitating a far greater crisis in the process: the de-Baathification genie has escaped and gone on a rampage.
Turning to England where it's surely not Waiting For Lefty so maybe it's Waiting for Godot?
What is known is that Tony Blair is set to appear before the Iraq Inquiry in London -- the Inquiry did not hold a public hearing today. A major protest is expected to take place as War Criminal Tony attempts to wash the blood off his hands. From Stop The War Coalition's "Protest on Tony Blair's Judgement Day: 29 January from 8am:"
Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, BroadOn Friday 29 January, Tony Blair will try to explain to the Iraq Inquiry the lies he used to take Britain into an illegal war.