Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, June 30, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, the political stalemate may be ending, the Iraq Inquiry releases a number of previously classified documents, the US Congress hears about the ethically challenged Office of General Counsel for the VA, and more.
The Iraq Inquiry continued today in London.  Today's big news wasn't the witnesses offering testimony before the Inquiry chaired by John Chilcot, it was documents the Inquiry released. Sarah Gordon (Sky News) explains that the Inquiry released "classified documents" which included England's then-Attorney General Peter Goldsmith offering his legal advice with regards to a proposed war with Iraq including, "I remain of the view that the correct legal interpretation of resolution 1441 is that it does not authorise the use of military force without a further determination by the Security Council."  Paul Waugh (London Evening Standard) adds, "The Cabinet Office published Lord Goldsmith's first draft of his legal advice and confirmed that he had serious doubts about the legality of the conflict without a fresh UN mandate." If it's getting complicated, the Inquiry wanted to release the document, it was classified and they needed approval from the Cabinet Office.  Civil Service head Gus O'Donnell, in a June 25th letter to the Inquiry, explained why the papers could be released:
Nonetheless, the Iraq Inquiry was established with the purpose of learning lessons from how decidions were made and which actions were taken in the run-up to conflict, during the conflict and in its aftermath.  The question of the legal base for military action and how the advice that led to the Government's view on this developed is consequently a central part of the Inquiry's work. In this light, I have noted the extent to which the form Attorney General covered these issues in detail during this evidence to the Inquiry on 27 January.
Peter Biles (BBC News) explains, "The 27 pages, each one with the words 'secret' or 'confidential' struck out, were distributed without ceremony."  These are the previously classified documents which the Inquiry made public today:
Appearing before the Inquiry January 27th, Goldsmith agreed that in the days right before the invasion, he flipped his legal advice but he denied that he did so as a result of pressure from Blair and others.  His denial may have been the weakest thing to be paraded before the Inquiry since it began.  It was in that hearing that Chair John Chilcot publicly expressed "frustration" over the refusal of the government (then led by Gordon Brown) to allow the Inquiry to release documents which were classified.  Now that the documents are released and Goldsmith's testimony appears even shakier when examining those documents, that "frustration" may have been a subtle warning to Goldsmith i.e., "Be careful what you say because we have the documents and are currently unable to release them but that may change."  Change? Goldsmith based his objection on war without a second resolution on the law.  When he flipped days before the invasion, he didn't look to the law.  He declared that his decision was based upon a game starting and his need to choose whose side he wanted to be on. Chris Ames (Iraq Inquiry Digest) observes, "At first sight, the most significant document is a memo from Goldsmith to Blair dated 30 January 2003 making this point. The next day, it has been revealed, Blair told George Bush that Britain was committed to the war."  Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian) works through the new documents and the old one and focuses mainly on Blair's January 31, 2003 trip to DC where he met with Bush and Bush informed him that there would be no second resolution.  Blair raised no objections and did not even mention Goldsmith's legal opinion which was that without a second United Nations resolution, the war would be illegal.  He instead, according to documents, "said he was solidly with the president." Rosa Prince (Telegraph of London) adds that "Lord Goldsmith was repeatedly told that his formal advice about the legality of an invasion was not welcome" and that " Lord Goldsmith repeatedly made clear that he had concerns about the legality of an invasion."  Tony Blair was the Prime Minister of England when the illegal war began.  Minutes to a December 2002 meeting were released (the Iraq War begins in March 2003 with the invasion) and they quote Blair's Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell.  Gordon Brown, Mohammed Abbas and Michael Roddy (Reuters) quote  Powell stating, "At the other extreme, the U.S. becomes(s) frustrated with the UN process and decide(s) to take military action regardless, i.e. without UN support. There would be no question of the UK supporting military action in the event of (this) scenario."
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: You became Permanent Secretary in January 2002 and that was a moment with regard to Iraq where it was becoming clear that the approach of the United States Government to the issue was changing. At the end of January, President Bush gave his Axis of Evil speech, for example, and other indications were coming through different channels that the Americans were beginning to think very seriously about possible actions against Iraq. At this time, when you came in, say around February 2002, what was the impression that you and your colleagues had in the Foreign Office of American policy, the American approach to Iraq?
Michael Hastings Jay: We though that there was clearly serious concern about Iraq. There was clearly, in the United States, a growing sense that there was an opportunity to deal with Iraq and I think those of us in the Foreign Office thinking about these things were concerened that this was going to be a very difficult issues for us to handle. I don't think at that stage we were on the same line really, as the United States were.
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: What do you recall as being the reactions of the then Prime Minister [Blair] and the then Foreign Secretary [Jack Straw]  to these indications, that Washington was moving Iraq up to the top of the priority list and maybe really seeing Iraq as the target for action?
Michael Hastings Jay: I can speak more of the Foreign Secretary than I can for the Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary's view as -- I think the Foreign Secretary's reaction to the Axis of Evil speech, which was criticised, as far as I remember, by President Bush, was that this was for domestic political reasons as much as for foreign policy reasons. I don't think at that stage the prospect of a conflict, as it later turned out, was very much at the top of our minds.  I should say that, at the beginning of 2002, I was myself getting myself into the job. Iraq was one of a large number of issues I was dealing with. It was not at the top of my own agenda at the beginning of 2002.  I was travelling a lot, I was meeting everybody, I was getting to know what the job involved, and Iraq at that stage was a difficult issue but no more difficult than many of the issues that we were dealing with.
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: By the middle of that year, after you had been in the job for half a year, where would Iraq have stood on the Foreign Office's list of priority issues?
Michael Hastings Jay: I think it rose up during the first half of 2002. It rose up the agenda, but it would be wrong to think it was always at the top of the agenda.
Asked about Blair and Bush, Michael Hastings Jay declared, "I had the impression that he [Blair] had his own views on how he should deal with his relationship with President Bush.  It was not how I would have dealt with President Bush, but I was not Prime Minister and there were things said and things done and maybe commitments half-given which I would not myself has given, but that was a part of his relationhip with President Bush. That was how he felt, as I understood it, he was best able to influence President Bush."
Committee Member Martin Gilbert brought up Jeremy Greenstock who told the Inquiry that he had talked to  Michael Hastings Jay about the possibility that England might go to war without any UN resolution at all -- not even 1441 which the UN did pass (and it allowed weapons inspectors back into Iraq).  MHJ stated he did not remember such a conversation and that the possibility wasn't being addressed.  After the UN Security Council passed 1441, Greenstock told the Committee that there was strong debate as to whether a second resolution might weaken 1441 and whether or not a second resolution should be pursued. Michael Hatings Jay agreed there was debate over whether or not to seek a second resolution.  He also stated that talk of a timetable -- particularly by the US -- influenced the decision to go to war.
Michael Hastings Jay: It created a deadline in the sense that we kept hearing that it would get too hot around March/Aprli and tanks wouldn't work and therefore,  we had to have a decision on the diplomatic process, whether it would continue or not by then. I never fully understood that argument. It seemed to me that tanks operate in whatever condition in whatever part of the world and that they have done over the years, but it was clearly a view strongly felt and strongly put and did act, without any question at all, as a constraint on the negotiating process.
Shortly after that MHJ would declare that decisions were also made based on the belief or possibility that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons -- and he stopped, noted the look on Committee Member Lawrence Freedman's face, stated "I withdraw that" and corrected himself with "chemical biological weapons." Why the slip?  There were no nuclear weapons.  (Though Bully Boy Bush did love to refer to "a mushroom cloud.")  Why the slip?  Did his department sit around fantasizing?  This was a key player in the leadup to the Iraq War and it's rather distressing that, had Freedman not had an expression of disbelief ("A little too far," he told MHJ) than MHJ might have continued down that fanciful -- if fact-free -- line.
Committee Member Usha Prashar pursued his statement that his department needed "a clear statement from the Attorney General on the legality of  the war" and she wanted to know when that statement was conveyed.  Michael Hastings Jay appeared to stumble for an answer and began falling back on meetings -- listing them -- informal that he had already gone over which really had nothing to do with when they got the legal verdict from the AG.  His verbal gymanstics ended with, "I could not see how the staff we had in the region could be -- how they could be acting, if they were not doing so on the basis of a legal -- legal advice which said that what they were doing, the support they were giving the troops was in accordance with international law."  In other words, though Michael Hastings Jay testified that he and his department needed a statement from the AG, in fact, no statement was conveyed as to the legality of the war and MHJ surmised it was legal by the fact that British staff remained in the region. Pressed on this topic of legality by Committee Member Lynne, MHJ insisted, "I'm not a lawyer. I didn't see it as my job to question the advice that lawyers were giving."
MHJ then went into Drama Queen mode as Committee Member Gilbert turned to the post-war.  They wanted to influence, MHJ whined, but "there was a pretty incoherent state of mind in the United States administration at that point."  If you dozed off in the midst of the Drama, he returned to the point, "But it was a rather incoherent state in Washington at that time, and it was not -- and we were, of course, in any way the junior partner."  It's so rarely any British official's fault.  This one today wanted to whine about the "incoherent state" -- seriously?  Because if a government is in an incoherent state -- here's the obvious question -- why did you partner up with them for war?
There was nothing more,  Michael Hastings Jay wanted the Committee to know, that he and others could have done.  Through several rounds, he babbled about that apparently embracing victimhood status as if it were a full length mink, tugging it around his shoulders.  Around the point that Committee Member Roderic Lyne was explaining to him that "we" would be the British government and he was replying back that "-- it was not, after all, the United Kingdom that was running the show. It was the Americans basically running it," that you knew he wasn't much for accountability.  Like so many, he blamed Paul Bremer.  Who knew Paul Bremer was so all powerful?  Bremer screwed up -- on his own and on the orders of the White House.  We don't defend Bremer here.  Except when foreign governments want to act as if they had to take orders from him.  The US and the UK were the lead partners in the illegal war.  But to hear the UK officials tell it, they'd rather have been painting their nails but the boys drove by in the jalopy and said "Let's go get burgers!" and there wasn't anything else to do, so they just went along. Andrew Sparrow is live blogged the Inquiry for the Guardian.
Yesterday's witnesses included former British Ambassador to France John Holmes. Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian) reports:

Tony Blair repeatedly blamed Jacques Chirac, the then French president, for the failure to get a second security council resolution -- something most senior government lawyers, including at first the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, agreed was needed if the invasion was to be lawful.           
The claim was repeated in evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, notably by Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the invasion. Straw pointed to a television interview Chirac gave on 10 March 2003, less than two weeks before the invasion.
Straw claimed Chirac had made it clear France would not back a fresh UN resolution "whatever the circumstances". Straw added: "I don't think there was any ambiguity." Asked what his view was of Chirac's intervention, Sir John Holmes, British ambassador to France at the time, replied: "The words are clearly ambiguous."                  

Holmes and his refuting of previous claims and testimony is the big story for the British media from yesterday's public testimony; however, Chris Ames (Iraq Inquiry Digest) observes, "Today's papers have quite limited coverage of yesterday's resumption of public hearings, which is no doubt an indicator that media interest has waned since the election." Chris' report on yesterday's hearing includes this:

On the issue of why attorney general Lord Goldsmith could not, as he claimed, have asked the French directly about the history of negotiating UN resolution 1441, Holmes said: "I don't see why he couldn't have done." This direct answer exposes Goldsmith more clearly than ever to the charge that his trip to Washington in early 2003 was not an objective fact finding mission but a one-sided process of having his arm twisted in a particular direction.           
Holmes made very clear what has always been obvious, that the French were unwilling to sign up to a second UN resolution in early 2003 because it was clear that the US was going to go to war imminently come what may and that they and Britain were simply looking for legal cover. He made clear that if Britain had been able to offer a different timetable, the French could well have supported a new resolution, albeit one that did not authorise war without a further assessment of Iraq's compliance.   

The other news of yesterday's hearing includes a written statement the Inquiry was given. The Telegraph of London reports, "Paul Kernaghan, Association of Chief Police Officers lead on international affairs from 2000 to 2008, revealed today that he prohibited British police seconded to train their Iraqi counterparts from using the Land Rovers." Ruth Barnett (Sky News -- link has text and video) reports on yesterday's other witness offering oral testimony before the Inquiry, "Douglas Brand, former deputy chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, criticised the lack of support he received, including the Foreign Office's failure to give him bodyguards for his first three weeks in Iraq. He also highlighted a missed opportunity to model Iraqi intelligence on British lines because the UK would not send out an experienced Special Branch manager." 
Turning to Iraq, Zahraa Alkhalisi, Caroline Alexander and Kadhim Ajrash (Bloomberg News) report that the State Of Law and Iraqi National Alliance are stating they have decided on a candidate for prime minister . . . they just aren't sharing with anyone who they've selected.  Other things not shared are Iraq's history with students.  Tim Arango (New York Times) reports the schools and the colleges don't teach about Saddam Hussein and they officially avoid the Iraq War but:

When the war is mentioned in class, some teachers change the subject quickly. But others see a need to encourage discussion, even if it is beyond the bounds of what they are told to teach.                   
"Sometimes we need to have a discussion about it," said Wasan Mahmod, a teacher at Al Ahrar, a secondary school for girls in Baghdad. "When I mention the American invasion, I say occupation, not liberation."              
Hutham Hussein, who teaches modern European history, said, "Where there is a discussion of colonization, I bring up the American invasion."            
"We speak about French colonization, British colonization," she said. "Why not talk about the American colonization?"    
Violence always gets 'shared' (with those not living in the Green Zone).
Reuters reports a Baghdad roadside bombing which left two people injured,  a Mosul car bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and injured another and a Mosul roadside bombing which injured a prisoner being transported by the police. Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad sticky bombing targeting Tha'ir al Zubaidi ("senior media officer at the Parliament") who was not wounded,
Reuters reports a Baghdad armed clash in which 2 police officers were killed and a third wounded.  Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports an armed attack on a Falluja medical compound 1 police officer and his two brothers were killed while his wife was injured, one assailant was shot and -- once in the hospital -- he detonated a bomb and wounded four people.

 Reuters reports 1 corpse (female, "signs of torture") discovered in Kirkuk.  Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports Sabri Abu Adnan's corpse was discovered in Basra (he was kidnapped Sunday).
Moving over to the United States.
Chair Harry Mitchell: You mentioned at the very beginning, all the great satisfaction reports you've received from your clients.  Who are your clients?  They're not veterans are they?
Will Gunn: Sir, we do not directly serve veterans, you're correct.
Chair Harry Mitchell: Who are your clients?
Will Gunn: Ultimately my client is the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. And so as the department's top lawyer, my job is to make sure that the Secretary is well armed.
How every nice for Gunn.  Chair Mitchell had to provide that walk through for clarity and it may have been necessary (my opinion is that it was necessary) because Gunn's opening remarks appeared to portray his work as "service" and "continued service" to veterans when, no, that is not who he serves.  Along with confusing that aspect -- apparently deliberately -- Gunn wanted to declare that their "customers" had rated them 4.75 on a scale (with 5.0) being the highest in customer feedback.  But those customers, as Chair Mitchell established, were not veterans.
Chair Mitchell was holding a Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to provide some sort of evaluation of the Office of General Counsel -- of which Gunn is a part.  The hearing was made up of two panels.  On the first panel was attorney Matthew B. Tully (Tully Rinckey PPLC) who painted a disturbing picture.  Disturbing but at least two Subcommittee members (not the Chair) grabbed onto the safety line of a 'few bad apples.' 
Tully allowed that the problems did appear to be from a few bad apples but cautioned that these apples have been in the OGC for some time.  Tully outlined how the law was broken (that's my judgment, not his, he was very cautious and calibrated in his testimony).  For example, altering the date on an official government document.  That is breaking the law -- altering an official government document is breaking the law and that's before you get into the intent which was to 'protect' the VA.  Ranking Member David Roe pointed out that in a court case, altering a medical document would automatically get the case kicked out.Tully agreed and pointed out that there was no ethics check, that there was no place within the OGC for people to report problems.  He painted a portrait of a legal arm with no oversight and no accountability.
From Tully's opening remarks:
For example, a fellow attorney had witnesses privately badgered by a VA lawyer prior to a hearing.  A VA lawyer threatened disciplinary action against VA employee witnesses if their testimony did not conform to the agency's desires.  In my firm's dealing with the VA's Office of General Counsel, VA lawyers had utilized numerous litigation tactics  that would have been -- or would have made the lawyers for BP, AIG or Enron proud. In one case earlier this year, our client was demoted based on charges of misconduct and our firm appealed to the -- appealed the VA decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board The VA lawyer in this case failed to respond to our discovery request and even our motion to compel discovery. This unprofessional conduct translated into greater financial cost for our client due to the VA's tactics.
Gunn was wrong about who his client was.  As Tully would explain on the first panel (possibly Gunn was snoozing or texting?), the OGC serves the tax payers, its responsibility is to fairness and to the tax payers.  It's refusal to grasp that is why it gets into so much trouble (this is me not Tully) by taking sides in battles they shouldn't take sides in and changing official records which just cannot do.
Matthew Tully: The VA attorneys have an obligation not to the manager that is involved in the employment dispute but to the tax payers and to the government as a whole. I am a legal mercenary.  I go to the highest bidder and I do my best to protect the people that retain me.  The VA attorneys do very similar things but that's not their job.  Their job is to protect the tax payers.  Their job is to make sure justice is done.  And routinely in these EEOC cases, in particular, they spend a great deal of time trying to protect the manager that allegedly -- and has often been proven -- to have engaged in unlawful conduct versus doing what was right for the person who was subjected to injustice.
Mitchell asked about financial penalities for this behavior and Tully explained that there was none but if this were a federal court manner -- not an OGC -- he could face fines and disbarment.
Tully was panel one.  Panel two was the OGC's General Counsel Will Gunn. If the above didn't disturb you, this might.  The discussions?  Completely knew to Gunn who told Mitchell he found out about these problems just an hour before the hearing.  Apparently, the OGC told him he'd be testifying but forgot to tell him what about?  Is that the story he's gong for?  If so it makes him look even more out of touch of an out of control agency.  For someone who only learned of the problems an hour before the hearing, he must have spent at least 40 minutes writing that opening statement.  Or, are we to believe, he just has 'customer feedback scores' and other data memorized?  (Why did he need to look at the paper in front of him repeatedly if that is the case?)  More importantly, you're not allowed to make an opening statement if you haven't submitted it ahead of time.  You can't show up day of the hearing and say, "Here's my prepared remarks.'' You have to submit them to the committee or subcomittee ahead of time.  Is no one supposed to notice that either?
We'll note this exchange.
Chair Harry Mitchell: You know there have been times in the past where the VA frequently declines to produce a witness either requested to testify at hearings or brief Subcommittees. And the OGC's guidance often gets cited as the reason for not producing witnesses at either hearings or briefings. Two questions. What role does OGC play in the VA deciding who either testifies or briefs the Subcommittee and does the OGC provide an opinion when the VA refuses to produce certain information as requested by Congress or through the public?
Will Gunn: Sir, with respect to the first issue in terms of, uh, whether or not OGC plays a role in who will testify, I will say "no." We do not see ourselves as having a role with respect to that. In terms of the second issue, we do play a role in terms of providing to requests for documents and our advice is focused on two things.  What can we, uh, provide, what is permissable?  And secondly, what are we required to provide?
So he opens as the big veteran and big veteran defender, citing military code and how he has to be his best and he's going to make those civilians under him be their best and blah blah blah but it really all comes down to "what are we required to provide?"  Not the bluster he was shining on in his opening remarks.
The Republican side of the House Veterans Affairs Committee issued the following this month (it was e-mailed today to the public account, we would have noted it June 15th if we'd had it then):
For more information, contact: Brian Lawrence (202) 2225-3527

Washington, D.C. -- In recognition of his longstanding dedication and commitment to serving veterans, the Blinded American Veterans Foundation (BAVF) today presented its prestigious George 'Buck' Gillispie Congressional Award to Congressman Steve Buyer.

The Gillispie is awarded to Senators and Representatives who, in the opinion of the BAVF, have made significant contributions toward furthering the foundation's efforts on behalf of sensory disabled American veterans. Buyer, who serves as Ranking Member on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, received BAVF's award during the foundation's annual Flag Week celebration.

"I am deeply honored and humbled to receive recognition from this esteemed group of veterans who have sacrificed so much in the name of liberty," Buyer said. "It has been my privilege to serve the men and women who have defended our nation and freedom we cherish. For me, there is no higher calling."

In 2006, when he served as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Buyer secured support to direct funds to conduct a series of tests and evaluations on combat helmets to improve protections against blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) associated with IEDs are among the leading cause of impaired vision due to damage to the occipital area of the brain. More than half of all TBI patients treated at Walter Reed Army Hospital and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto, California have vision dysfunction.


Buyer, himself a veteran, is a 1980 distinguished military graduate of The Citadel and a career Army Reserve officer who continues to serve with the Judge Advocate General Corps as a colonel. He has received numerous military honors, including the Bronze Star.          

Buyer also worked with Congressman John Boozman in the 110th Congress to help pass the Blinded Veterans Paired Organ Act and to authorize $5 million to create military vision centers of excellence.                

For more news from House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Republicans, please go to:

Closing with independent journalist David Bacon whose latest book is Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press) which won the CLR James Award. Bacon can be heard on KPFA's The Morning Show (over the airwaves in the Bay Area, streaming online) each Wednesday morning (begins airing at 7:00 am PST).  "Dying for an iPad?" (Political Affairs) is a photo essay:
Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans in San Francisco protest the long hours and bad conditions at the Foxconn factory in southern China, where the Apple iPad is manufactured. They lined up in front of Apple's flagship store in San Francisco, holding signs with the names of workers at the factory who have committed suicide because of the conditions.             
Those conditions include 80 hours of overtime a month, according to the Chinese media. Chinese law limits overtime to 36 hours per month. No one is allowed to talk on the production line, and workers complain of constant high line speed and speedup. Most workers live in huge dormitories, where often 12 people share a room.