Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, July 28, 2010.  Chaos and violence continue, the political stalemate continues, the VA can't account for millions, Congress wants to know why that is, and more.
"The US Dept of Veterans Affairs is the second largest agency in our system of government," declared US House Rep Bob Filner this morning as he called to order the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, "and each year, they are authorized billions of dollars to care for our nation's veterans. Miscellaneous obligations are used by the VA to obligate funds in circumstances where the amount to be spent is uncertain.  They are used to reduce administrative workload and to facilitate payment for contracted goods and services when quantities and delivery dates are unknown."  Bob Fliner is the Chair of the Committee and Steve Buyer is the Ranking Member.  In his opening remarks, Buyer noted that,  "The hearing today is very timely in light of the VA's  announcement to our offices that they plan to halt the development of what the Chairman just talked about -- our integrated financial accounting system [pilot program entitled Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise]. I, franky, was surprised the VA would take this step with the supposed blessing of OMB but without any plan for the real future other than to limp along.  That's what surprised me the most."  The main issue for the hearing was the VA's inability to track millions of dollars filed under "miscellaneous."
The Committee heard from three panels.  The first was made up of the GAO's Susan Ragland, the second by the VA's Edward Murry and the third by the VA's Jan Frye.  The first two witnesses were accompanied by others, Ragland was accompanied by the GAO's Glenn Slocum.  After Ragland finished her opening statement, she was asked a question.
Chair Bob Filner: If you had to give a grade between your initial report and now, what would you give?
Susan Ragland: Oh.
Chair Bob Filner: I'm a teacher, so.
Susan Ragland: Oh, I guess I'd say somewhere between a C+ or a B-. Somewhere in there.
Chair Bob Filner: Sounded like an F to me, but what do I know? 
And we're opening with that because it's a call everyone can follow -- whether they agree with it or not (I agree with the call).  We're jumping ahead to US House Rep Cliff Stearns who picked up on the grade later in the hearing.
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: Ms. Ragland, you gave this exercise a B-. Now the report in 2008 was roughly 5.7 billion miscellaneous obligations that were unable to be identified as how they were spent and now it's 12 billion in 2009.  I mean, so it looks like it's jumped twice.  So the problem has gotten . . .
Susan Ragland: Twice as big.  
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: Twice as big.  And wouldn't that mean that they flunked? I mean, wouldn't you have to be honest to yourself and say, "It appears to me that nothing's been done"?  I mean if this had, if you couldn't get $6 billion -- find out where it was spent in 2008 and now it's 12, following this extrapolation, it will be 24, 25 billion when you come back here again with your GAO report. At what point don't you think that there -- How can you say that they're passing?
Susan Ragland: Well you're making a really good point and really the thinking that I had behind my response was that I do think VA is making efforts in these areas and so --
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: So they get a B- because they're making efforts when it doubles?
Susan Ragland: Well.
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: Would you -- would you have a student that --
Susan Ragland: They do-they do have the policies and procedures in place and they are taking actions to monitor them and that's the information that we got from the MQAS [Management Quality Assurance Service] service, that they are doing inspections and finding these things which is what we would look for any agency.  That they are looking --
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: I, I understand you're being diplomatic. In reading the summary in your report, you say there are "serious longstanding deficiencies we identifed that are continuing." So here, 2008, 2009, you say these deficiencies -- serious long-standing deficiencies are continuing  and that's not very optimistic to me.  And then you went on to say that "serious weaknesses continue to raise questions concerning whether VA management has established the appropriate tone at the top necessary to ensure that these matters receive the full sustained attention." So in both the statements I gave you, it appears that the management's not connecting, that you've identified long-standing deficiencies that continue and these serious weaknesses raise further questions.  So I think you've done your job.  I think you have to be woman enough to say these folks are flunking and you've got to be a little bit more draconian in your statement.  Now let me ask you this question, you mention in your report they have outdated systems.  Does the VA have the technilogical capabilities to do this? What do you mean by outdated systems?
Susan Ragland: You can take that.
Glenn Slocum: There are -- VA systems sometimes revert to manual processes in order to produce its year-end finan --
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: So they haven't used computers? They haven't use the internet?
Glenn Slocum: No-no, they do have -- they do have all that.  But some of the reconciliations that they may need to do at year-end, uh, they have a MinX system which is used to, uhm, produce their year-end statements.
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: It's done manually then?
Glenn Slocum: It's not manually -- it's not totally manually.  But there are, uh, reconciliations that take place that, in a better world, would be more automated. And it effects their inventory systems at pharmacies and that's what we're talking about.
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: In 2008, did you bring that to their attention with the same statement that they had outdated systems?
Glenn Slocum: Well -- well there are two reports.  You know, there's one with miscellaneous obligation and I think that's the one that Ms. Ragland gave them a B- on.  The other report dealt with the financial report deficiencies and those are the problems  that have been around since 2000 or longer.  And maybe there would be uh -- [looks at Ragland] maybe you would give them a lower grade on that? I'm not sure.
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: Okay, well then the statement says "a lack of sufficient personnel."  Uhm, have you found that the personnel is one of the serious problems that they have?  Personnel that either don't have the appropriate knowledge or skills or they just don't have the personnel?
Susan Ragland: That's been one of the independent public auditors' findings in the financial reports.  And that's been over-over years.
US House Rep Cliff Stearns: Was that true in 2008? That same conclusion?
Susan Ragland: I'm  not positive, I believe so. 
US House Rep Jerry McNerney noted that fraud seemed very likely in the conditions Ragland described in her opening remarks (at "a level that would be scandalous") and voiced the belief that they should ''bring that to light before the press does, before outside activities do."  McNerney also noted that the VA's plan for solving the problems, "those seem a little bit far off" (2011 and 2012).  Ragland noted that announcements by the VA in 2008 of deadlines to be met have not been kept by the VA and have been extended.
US House Rep David Roe: I would think that when you have a -- Obviously $12 billion is a lot of money and it's a lot to look after, but there should be a plan that when this isn't implemented and you don't find it, someone ought to be held accountable and-and-and heads ought to roll.  And clearly what Congressman Buyer said in the private sector [you get fired], that's clearly what happens. People get fired.
Susan Ragland: Yeah.
US House Rep David Roe: Is that what happens here? Or do we just don't do anything or what do we do?
Susan Ragland: Uh, I don't know if that --
Glenn Slocum: I would just say that OMB Circular A-50 addresses this point. You know, one of the things it talks about is holding people accountable for the remediation of these problems. But we have not looked at the extent to which that's actually taken place. It's part of a monitoring mechanism that should be there. But we haven't looked at that.
US House Rep David Roe: And I think -- and I agree with Congressman McNerney, my colleague, is that it reflects poorly on the VA which they don't want to be -- I mean, I understand that they want to do a good job -- and this Committee if we allow that to happen and if we come back a year or two years from now and the same thing's going on, what happens? Is there any corrective action that can be taken in your recommendation, Ms. Ragland.
Susan Ragland: I think that the only thing that we have is to come back to you all and-and point that out.  That's-that's our role.  Yeah.
If it reads like the Committee had a consenus building, you're not mistaken.  US House Rep Ann Kirkpatrick would note, "And Mr. Chairman, I share the sentiment of the other members of this Committee, that this is a very serious problem that we really need to stay on top of."  Following that the Ranking Member would weigh in on a pattern, "I mean, right now, you could look back and the last three or four [VA] Secretaries -- I mean, they have, since 2000, increased these directives without execution." He also wondered that "the VA's own audits showed a continued disregard for your recommendations." 
Welcoming the second panel, Chair Bob Filner offered a warning: "I would not underestimate the anger that my colleagues feel on this on both sides of the aisle."  And for the second panel, refer to Kat who is reporting on that at her site tonight. 
A few decades on down the line, history will probably include all the many helicopter crashes in Iraq that crashed due to rebel/resistance attacks. Today, we instead get 'hard landings' (that was hugely popular for years with the press) and 'sandstorms.' Sinah Salaheddin (AP) wants to share this morning that 6 people are dead from an Iraqi helicopter crash due to, yes, "a sandstorm." ("A sandstorm downed an Iraqi military helicopter . . .") Could it have been a sandstorm? Yes, it could have. I wasn't there. (Though I did have the weirdest dream last night/this morning about Jane Arraf being in Mosul and having difficulty taking photos of an explosion.) So what's the problem. I'd say this is the problem (from the same report): "
The crash is under investigation, and no other details were immediately available, al-Askari said." When a crash is under investigation, the reasons for the crash are not known. Reasons may be suspected, but they aren't known -- hence the need for an investigation. Repeating, decades from now we'll no doubt learn just how many helicopters were downed during the Iraq War by something other than 'sandstorms' and 'hard landings due to mechanical failure'. Reuters notes 4 died in the crash and, unlike AP, don't attempt to pin a cause on a crash which is "under investigation." They also note 5 people are dead from a Baghdad bombing with twelve more injured. BBC News also notes 5 dead in the helicopter crash

As noted, Mullen was on a whirlwind trip and we'll blame jet lag for many of his more dubious statements. Dan De Luce (AFP) reports he hailed what he termed "stunning" progress (only on security and only by cheating the scale and referring to the last three years -- if you can't use 2007 as your benchmark, you can't claim 'success' -- stunning or otherwise). While Mullen praised the 'stunning' progress, it was left to his underlings to note the week's violence and to US Deputy Sec of State Jacob Lew to explain, "The events of the last few days are horrific, and they are sobering, but they don't deter us from the process that we're in." Which would be the drawdown. But interesting that the main speaker declares "stunning" while the lesser lights have to deal with reality. Tang Danlu (Xinhua) reports on Mullen's meeting with Nouri al-Maliki and Nouri's laughable claim that, "The regional interference is the reason behind hampering a new government, and we have repeatedly demanded such interference in our internal affairs be halted. We are going forward in the formation of the new government as soon as possible." Jet lag doesn't excuse Nouri's lies. But Mullen was under the weather. Press TV offers a quote, see if you catch it, ""We're still on track to reduce the number of troops to 50,000 by the end of August and to have all combat troops out of Iraq by 2011." Combat troops -- a laughable designation -- are supposed to be out at the end of next month, not "by 2011."

March 7th, Iraq concluded Parliamentary elections. Three months and two days later, still no government. 163 seats are needed to form the executive government (prime minister and council of ministers). When no single slate wins 163 seats (or possibly higher -- 163 is the number today but the Parliament added seats this election and, in four more years, they may add more which could increase the number of seats needed to form the executive government), power-sharing coalitions must be formed with other slates, parties and/or individual candidates. (Eight Parliament seats were awarded, for example, to minority candidates who represent various religious minorities in Iraq.) Ayad Allawi is the head of Iraqiya which won 91 seats in the Parliament making it the biggest seat holder. Second place went to State Of Law which Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, heads. They won 89 seats. Nouri made a big show of lodging complaints and issuing allegations to distract and delay the certification of the initial results while he formed a power-sharing coalition with third place winner Iraqi National Alliance -- this coalition still does not give them 163 seats. They are claiming they have the right to form the government. It's four months and five days and, in 2005, Iraq took four months and seven days to pick a prime minister. It's now 4 months and 20 days. No government.

Steven Lee Myers (New York Times) offers
, "Nearly five months after elections in March ended without a decisive winner, Mr. Maliki and the leaders of the other political blocs are divided over his efforts to stay in power for a second term. With no clear resolution in sight, many politicians now say that the impasse could extend after the United States officially ends its combat mission here after more than seven years of war and reduces the number of troops to fewer than 50,000 by the end of August." Ross Colvin (Reuters) notes that US Vice President Joe Biden has asked that the politicians "get on with the business of governing." The International Crisis Group's Joost Hiltermann weighs in with thoughts on the stalemate in an essay for the New York Review of Books:
What is holding things up, however, is the fear among many Iraqis that whatever party wins the right to form the government and appoint the prime minister will proceed to concentrate power around itself, using gaps and ambiguities in Iraq's new constitution to its advantage. Maliki's detractors point to his record during the past four years -- he has done little by way of concrete governance, but instead has spent much effort to carve out a power base, including setting up security agencies that have no basis in the constitution. In addition to Iyad Allawi and his mainly Sunni constituency, Maliki's critics and competitors include the Kurds and his Shiite rivals in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). This last is a loose grouping that includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrist movement, and a variety of smaller parties and independents, among them the US's erstwhile friend and current nemesis, Ahmed Chalabi. Moreover, Allawi asserts that since his list won the most seats -- ninety-one, compared to Maliki's eighty-nine -- he has the right to take the first stab at forming a government.
Maliki has questioned the election results, hinting in not so unambiguous terms that a "foreign power" -- understood to be the United States -- has defrauded him by manipulating the vote, the count, and the recount in Baghdad. Even now, while resigning himself to the decision by the federal Supreme Court to certify the original results in early June, he continues to challenge Allawi's bid to form the government. His main tactic has been to pursue an alliance with his Shiite rivals in the INA, in order to become the largest bloc in parliament, gain the right to form a government, and thus deprive Allawi of his presumptive right to become prime minister.                        
Whatever their opinion of Maliki and his autocratic tendencies, Shiite politicians fear most of all losing the position of prime minister, and they are convinced that although Allawi would have a hard time collecting by himself the necessary number of seats (a simple majority of 163 in Iraq's 325-member legislature), a hidden hand -- again, the United States -- will somehow assist him and through trickery and deceit cheat the Shiites out of the dominant position they have acquired since 2003, after what they see as the long years of Sunni oppression.               
What is striking about the Obama administration's current approach to Iraqi politics, however, is not its presumed preference for one party, Allawi's, but its unexplained lack of will to push for a solution, something much noted by politicians of all parties.            
Moving to London where the Iraq Inquiry continued public testimony today with Gen Richard Dannatt and Gen Mike Jackson appearing before the Inquiry (link goes to video and transcript options).  Chris Ames notes that the remarks by Dannut about the British military was stretched to the point where it was on the verge of breaking in 2006.  The helicopter issue (specifically yesterday's testimony) was rejected, by the way.
As noted this morning, Hans Blix's testimony yesterday to the Iraq Inquiry was a joke.  Chris Ames, writing at the Guardian, feels differently and feels it said a great deal about David Miliband:
That is Miliband in a nutshell. Too clever for his own good. There are the usual weasel words about voting "to support the government" rather than for war. He wanted to show that he had done his homework but has ended up saying that he supported the invasion on the basis of Saddam's behaviour in the 90s and was thus seeking regime change rather than peaceful disarmament.
Chris does great work at Iraq Inquiry Digest and is always worth reading on this subject.  (And Chris has been working this story before anyone.) But I strongly disagree with his take (a) that there was much of value in Blix's idiotic testimony, (b) that the testimony said that about David and (c) that Ames would ever know what was or wasn't "Miliband in a nutshell."  As disclosed before I have known David and Ed Miliband forever and a day.  That is not David Miliban in a nutshell.  Let's move to Blixie. (And for qualifiers/disclosures on my opinion, click here.)  Hans Blix was, as usual, all over the map with his ridiculous testimony yesterday. His half-baked testimony provided a little for everyone and nothing of substance for anyone.  Should inspections have continued? In retrospect, he believes they should have. And in real time? He wanted them to go on through April. At one point in his testimony. He wanted them to go on for months, at another point. He wanted armed inspectors to roam through Iraq for years, he offered at another point.

With his meandering and ever changing opinions, Bush could well argue that what Blix did find (no WMD, no real violations but some small issues) and Blix' refusal to clear Iraq and say they had no WMD, his move was forced.  Was he forced?  Of course not. It's an illegal war. And it's a war of choice. It's in violation of the UN charter and every international law -- including those the US has signed on to. But if your argument is based on Blix, Bush can shoot back, "Blix supported me!" Because Blix' wishy-washy b.s. does just that.  Blix is forever inconsistent.  Giving a broadcast interview, he tosses charges around freely only to then walk it back after the interview airs. He was asked about some statements from a print interview yesterday and explained that he wasn't responsible for any remarks in an article unless he authored it. 
Hans Blix was the white-wash witness and you have to wonder if, in fact, that's why he was called. Hans Blix appeared before the Inquiry and told a pleasing (for British ears) fairytale. "Sleep easy, England, Tony Blair is not a bad person." That's Blix' testimony in a nut shell. The US, apparently led by Condi Rice (whom Blix is obsessed with), controlled everything and pushed the poor British around. The British, Blix insisted, wanted to follow the UN rules. Really? That's in direct contrast to every British official in the legal department. Are we supposed to forget that? But it was a runaway train on the railroad and the US was driving while the poor British officials were stuck in the caboose unable to disconnect from the rest of the train.

Hans Blix is one of the main reason the illegal war started. That shined through in his testimony. He hedged every statement. No government official would have taken him seriously. (Except for his constant repeating that he believed Iraq had WMD. He repeated that to everyone. And this is our hero? This is who the peace movement wants to support?) He was a joke and he was an idiot.  Doubt it? Go to page 30 of the testimony and read him insisting he believed (up until after the war started) that Iraq had anthrax ("we were very suspicous") and "I came out right from September 2002 on to the very end when I said, 'Yes, there might be weapons of mass destruction'."  The idea that he was a calm voice or one not echoing the stove-piped intell is really a joke.  Caroline Crampton (New Statesman) offers a selective reading of his testimony and attempts to rescue Blix:
He felt that once his team began reporting back that no evidence had been found at any sites, the US and UK should have changed their policy -- that, he feels, is the main lesson that should be drawn from the situation. His only regret, he says, is the "harsh tones" he used in the January document, which consituted a warning to Iraq to improve co-operation, which it then did.
His job was to find WMD or to clear Iraq.  He failed at both.  That's reality.  He did not clear it ahead of the war.  Nor did he find WMD -- he couldn't because there was no WMD in Iraq.  And yet he felt they had it.  That's reality, that's what he testified to.  His enablers and rescuers can pretty it up as much as they want but Blix is as much at fault as Bush and Blair for the illegal war.

And it was a damn shame that someone who knew SO DAMN LITTLE was allowed to testify about so much. If you don't get that, you missed his white washing of all crimes. There are no more war crimes today, Blix wanted to insist. The stupid idiot declared that the US back then "was high on military" but "this has changed with Obama." What the hell does that piece of s**t know about what "changed" or didn't "change"? Is he unaware that he's supposed to be testifying only to what he has witnessed. Is he unaware of what's going on in Afghanistan? Or Pakistan? Or what continues in Iraq? "Obama says yes, they will retain the rights to -- they reserve the possibility to take unilateral action but they will try to follow international rules."

If that statement shocks you (page 28 of the testimony, lines 1 through 4), that may be due to the fact that a number of outlets have 'improved' it to make it say something else. Stream the video, that's what he said.  And Blix is praising Barack for that crap? Where's the 'change'? Barack "says yes, they will still retain the right to -- they reserve the possibility to take unilateral action but they will try to follow international rules." That's not a change? That's exactly what Bush said before the Iraq War for months and months.

His entire testimony exists to whitewash reality, to insist that the problem was George W. Bush (via Condi Rice) and that, with Bush out of office, the threat is gone.  It's the sort of fairytale that exists to keep people ignorant of their governments' actions and motives. It's the sort of fairytale that reduces everything to a simple cartoon. There was no honesty in the garbage. And, if you were British, you may have been thrilled that sweet and cute Tony Blair really wasn't at fault after all. It was Bush . . . led by Condi.
John F. Burns (New York Times) reports on Blix's testimony here. And, yes, if Burns -- Mr. Establishment -- is reporting on it (and not questioning it) then Blix exists to Whitewash and give Empire a pearly smile.
Jalal Ghazi (New America Media) notes that WikiLeaks' latest revelations echo earlier reports by Arab media:

In many cases, Arab media used testimony by American soldiers themselves to validate their reports about U.S. responsibility for civilian casualties. For example, Al Jazeera English reported on March 15, 2008 that hundreds of U.S. veterans of the war in Iraq say the American military has been covering up widespread civilian killings in Iraq. The soldiers who testified said that there have been routine cover-ups of indiscriminate killings of Iraqi civilians.
Former U.S. Marine Jason Washburn, for example, told Al Jazeera English: "We would carry these weapons and shovels so in case we accidentally shot a civilian we would toss the weapon on the body and we would say that he was an insurgent."      
U.S. Army veteran Jason Hurd said, "We would fire indiscriminately and unnecessarily at this building. We never got a body count and we never got a casualty count afterward." He added, "These things happen every day in Iraq."             
The veterans also showed videos supporting their claims. The testimony of the U.S. veterans also highlights the mental state of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that may have led to acts of violence against civilians.                           
Al Jazeera English journalist Omar Chatriwala wrote in a blog ("WikiLeaks vs. the Pentagon") that the WikiLeaks documents are supported by reports from the ground by Al Jazeera English.    
Today, Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!) continued her coverage of the WikiLeaks Afghanistan revelations and spent the hour with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.  We'll note him on Bradley Manning (a suspect who has never issued a public statement on whether or not he leaked to WikiLeaks) and on Iraq.  On Bradley:
JULIAN ASSANGE: In relation to a military source, alleged military source, Bradley Manning, who has been charged with supplying --the charges don't say to us, but supplying to someone the helicopter video showing the killing of two Reuters journalists in Baghdad in July 2007, he is now being held in Kuwait itself. A bit of a problem. Why isn't he being held in the United States? Is it to keep him away from effective legal representation? Is it to keep him away from the press? We're not sure. But there doesn't seem to be any reason why he could not be transferred to the United States. We obviously cannot say whether he is our source. We in fact specialize in not knowing the names of our sources. But nonetheless, he is a young man being held in dire circumstances on the allegation that he supplied this material to the press, and we were the initial publisher of that Iraq video. So we are trying to raise money for his legal representation. We have committed $50,000 of our own funds, that if the general public could contribute or other people could contribute, I know that his military counsel would find that of significant value. The lawyers that we have spoken to say that his representation will cost $200,000, assuming that it's a regular sort of trial, it goes ahead. People can go to, where there is a grassroots campaign that his friends and family and some internet activists have become involved to try and support him.
On Iraq:
AMY GOODMAN: And do you have more documents to release on Iraq?

JULIAN ASSANGE: We have an enormous backlog of documents, stemming all the way back to January. During the past six months, we have been concentrating on raising funds and dealing with just a few of our leaks and upgrading our infrastructure to deal with the worldwide demand. So that huge backlog is something that we are just starting to get through, and this latest Afghan leak is an example of that.

Deep down inside of me, there is the Cindy who is raging against the Democratic Congress's passage of the recent war-funding bill, but so I don't explode, I am outwardly calm. Pissed off Cindy has to be in here, or I wouldn't be writing this piece--but the rhetoric that I have written hundreds of times is now having the feeling of "been there, done that." Well, I am numb, I think, because I have visited this topic continually and words are just not cutting it. How many words are there for: murder, death, destruction, slaughter, starvation, predatory Capitalism, war profiteering, war, illegal, immoral, war crimes, callous, greedy, rape, pillage, plunder, blah, blah, blah!           

We live in an Empire that on a daily basis murders dozens of people without blinking even before I drink my first cup of coffee and which always ignores the basic needs of its own citizens. But its citizens are quietly complacent and materially complicit in these crimes. Slaves of, and to, The Empire.               

I am numb, I think.            

the associated press
sinah salaheddin
dan de luce
tan danlu
iraq inquiry
the new york times
john f. burns
chris ames
new america media
jalal ghazi