Thursday, November 3, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Moqtad al-Sadr says the occupation of Iraq continues, Sahwa gets targeted, the US Senate hears about lending practices (lending mispractice) when it comes to veterans, and more.
Holly Petraeus: As a lifetime military family member, I've seen first hand the devastating impact financial scams and predatory lending can have on our military families. I also spent six years as the head of the Better Business Bureau's BBB Military Line program and that was an education for me about the consumer issues and scams that impact the military. Unfortunately, there are still too many young troops learning financial lessons through hard experience and years of paying off expensive debt. In January 2011, I was asked to join the CFPB and head up the Office of Servicemember Affairs. The OSA's job is to educate and empower service members to make better informed decisions regarding consumer financial products and services , to monitor their complaints about consumer financial products and services and the responses to those complains and to coordinate the efforts of Federal and state agencies to improve consumer protection measures for military families. In support of our mission, we've already signed a Joint Statement of Princiles with the Judge Advocate Generals of all the services about how we will coordinate the exchange of information between us concerning military complaints and the actions we take to protect service members. We've already set up a working agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs. We are now referring any military personnel or veterans who call the CFPB's hotline claiming that they are in danger of foreclosure directly to the VA home loan program [1-800-827-1000]. As for our educational mission, I think it's important to get out and hear from military families about the issues that concern them the most. I've visited bases all over the United States since I started my job. I also met with the National Guard in Oklahoma, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. So what are the issues that have come up? First, the housing meltdown has hit military families hard. When they received orders to move, . often they can't sell their homes for enough to pay off the mortage. They can't rent it out for enough to cover their mortgage payments. They're told they can't get a loan modification or short sell because they're not yet delinquent and they can't refinance for a better rate because it will no longer be considered their principal residence once they leave. We've heard of a number of cases where the service member has opted to go alone to the new duty station and that's pretty tough when you consider that he or she may have just had an overseas deployment and the family is now facing another separation -- this time for finanacial reasons. [. . .] Another big issue we've been hearing about concerns military education benefits and for-profit colleges. There have been cases of very agressive marketing by for-profit colleges to military personnel and their families -- of both educational programs and private student loans. Another issue is car loans. Service members are often sold clunkers at inflated prices with high financing charges and when the original clunker breaks down, they sometimes take an offer to roll the existing debt into another loan for yet another clunker which may also break down. There is also yo-you financing, where service members drive away thinking they have qualified for financing only to be told later that the financing fell through and they will have to pay more.
That's Holly Petraeus (yes, her husband is David Petraeus) testifying before the Senate Banking Committee this morning. The above is from her opening remarks and that's remarks delivered orally (the written remarks cover the same topics but in more depth). She was part of a panel along with Rushmore Consumer Credit Resource Center's CEO Bonnie Spain, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society CEO Charles Abbot (retired US admiral), USAA's CAO and Executive Vice President Kevin Bergner (retired major general) and Pentagon Federal Credit Union's President and CEO Frank Pollack. Senator Tim Johnson is the Chair of the Committee and Richard Shelby is the Ranking Member.
We'll note this exchange.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: Mrs. Petraeus, in your testimony, you discussed that you joined the [Better Business] Bureau in January of this year. to start an entirely new office, the Office of Servicemember Affairs. How many people have you hired to work in your office? How many total staff members do you hope to hire? What's your budget? And, lastly, are you getting the resources that you need here?
Holly Petraeus: Thank you for the question, Ranking Member Shelby. We now have -- I have six employees working for me. So we're a small but mighty office I hope. I don't expect to have it get much larger than that -- at least not for the moment. Of course, everybody has a wish list and there's nobody that if you ask "Can you use more employess?" that they would say "no." And I do have a wish list of a few more to extend our reach but you know there are other divisions with the CFPB that we are able to tap for their expertise as well. So we don't have to -- don't have to do everything ourselves. As for our budget, that's still being hammered out and, thankfully for me, my deputy's doing the numbers, so I'm a little bit removed from that, so I can't give you accurate information on that right now.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: You think you're getting the resources overall that you need thus far? I know you're just getting started in a way.
Holly Petraeus: Yes. Although the resources are there but I think it's a frustration, again, to not be able to do everything that people expected us to do. When I first began, I got letters saying that 'We're so excited that there's an agency right now that you, Mrs. Petraeus, will be able to do something about these people that pray on the military.' So I'm very excited about the day that our non-bank supervision team can -- if I can use an analogy -- stop circling the earth field and get permission to land and start their work.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: Mrs. Petraeus, as you well know, in 2006, Congress passed the Military Lending and this gave the Department of Defense the ability to promulgate regulations that addressed these unscrupulous lending practices that targeted the military. And after Dodd-Frank legislation was passed, the Department of Defense still continues to have the sole authority to write regulations implementing that particular act. What's your view of the effectiveness of the act in stopping unscrupulous lending?
Holly Petraeus: Well I think we heard from Adm Abbot --
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: Absolutely.
Holly Petraeus: -- that there has been success on the classic definition of a pay day loan. I think the problem is there are a lot of predatory products out there right now that have managed to write themselves a definition that puts themselves outside of the implementation. I went online yesterday and I searched the search term "military loans" and I got 9,980,000 hits and the top two search terms that came up were "military loans bad credit" -- which was almost two million -- and "military loans no credit" which came back also two million. So there's obviously a ton of people out there who are managing to exist outside of the protections of the Military Lending Act and it's a problem.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: Uhm, Mrs. Spain, should the VA require first time home buyers to receive financial education of some sort before they can obtain a VA secured loan? In other words, counseling -- serious counseling as to the implications and obligations of a loan like this.
Bonnie Spain: My opinion would be yes. And the reason that I say that is that buying a home is a complicated process and unless you are a realtor or a morgage lender you can't possibly know everything that you need to know.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: And it's a big buy for most people, isn't it?
Bonnie Spain: It is a big buy. It's probably the most important, largest purchase they will ever make.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: Adm Abbot, have you, uh -- In your testimony, among other things, you stated that the Military Lending Act -- and I'll quote your words -- "has dramatically curtailed payday loans to active duty service members." We're glad to hear that. You also point out, however, that some financial institutions have found loopholes in the regulations that the Department of Defense promulgated in 2007. They always do this and you have to come back. Have you contacted the Department of Defense regarding these issues and, if so, what's been that response to close some of those loopholes?
Charles Abbot: Yes, senator, we did in fact, in the year immediately after the act was passed and implemented, have a period where we examined its effect and we reported the results that we had seen to the Department of Defense and it had already begun to be clear that it was having a positive effect and also the same phenomenon you described of the work arounds were coming. The narrowness with which we saw the act implemented gave us concerns at the beginning and now in the light of four years of experience it continues to cause us concern and that is the direction that the financial industry has gone in using the particular limited application of closed-end loans in certain circumstances to, in effect, offer new products that were essentially new pay day loans.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: Regarding online lending and the growth there, are there additional steps DoD can take to ensure that they adequately cover online lending because people will be resourceful to get around anything.
Charles Abbot: You know, Senator, I believe that education may be the single most important weapon in that particular fight.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby: So you agree with Ms. Spain?
Charles Abbot: Yes.
And we'll note Bonnie Spain from her opening remarks explaining the steps she felt needed to be taken to best prepare service members and veterans as they seek loans throughout their lifetimes.
Bonnie Spain: In wrapping up I'd like to recommend the following actions: Let's close the loopholes that pay day lenders are using to charge military members over 36% interest, require online businesses to post their locations and their range of interest rates, strengthen regulation for the debt settlement companies that target individuals and are abusive, apply the same standards for for-profit credit counseling agencies that non-profits have to adhere to. continue to support financial education for our military and allow the bases to use the funds to purchase materials that they know are good for their agencies and their military, require home buyer education for first time home buyers It's vital we help people seek homes to revitalize our troubled economy, and support and fund housing counseling.
That excerpt pretty much sums up the hearing. It lasted about an hour and three minutes and over 20 minutes alone went to opening statements. On the topic of veterans,
Friday, November 11th is Veterans Day in the US. The White House released this statement today from President Barack Obama that we'll note now on it:
Today, our Nation comes together to honor our veterans and commemorate the legacy of profound service and sacrifice they have upheld in pursuit of a more perfect Union. Through their steadfast defense of America's ideals, our service members have ensured our country still stands strong, our founding principles still shine, and nations around the world know the blessings of freedom. As we offer our sincere appreciation and respect to our veterans, to their families, to those who are still in harm's way, and to those we have laid to rest, let us rededicate ourselves to serving them as well as they have served the United States of America.
Our men and women in uniform are bearers of a proud military tradition that has been dutifully passed forward -- from generation to generation -- for more than two centuries. In times of war and peace alike, our veterans have served with courage and distinction in the face of tremendous adversity, demonstrating an unfaltering commitment to America and our people. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the country they loved. The selflessness of our service members is unmatched, and they remind us that there are few things more fundamentally American than doing our utmost to make a difference in the lives of others.
Just as our veterans stood watch on freedom's frontier, so have they safeguarded the prosperity of our Nation in our neighborhoods, our businesses, and our homes. As teachers and engineers, doctors and parents, these patriots have made contributions to civilian life that serve as a testament to their dedication to the welfare of our country. We owe them a debt of honor, and it is our moral obligation to ensure they receive our support for as long as they live as proud veterans of the United States Armed Forces. This year, as our troops in Iraq complete their mission, we will honor them and all who serve by working tirelessly to give them the care, the benefits, and the opportunities they have earned.
On Veterans Day, we pay tribute to our veterans, to the fallen, and to their families. To honor their contributions to our Nation, let us strive with renewed determination to keep the promises we have made to all who have answered our country's call. As we fulfill our obligations to them, we keep faith with the patriots who have risked their lives to preserve our Union, and with the ideals of service and sacrifice upon which our Republic was founded.
With respect for and in recognition of the contributions our service members have made to the cause of peace and freedom around the world, the Congress has provided (5 U.S.C. 6103(a)) that November 11 of each year shall be set aside as a legal public holiday to honor our Nation's veterans.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim November 11, 2011, as Veterans Day. I encourage all Americans to recognize the valor and sacrifice of our veterans through appropriate public ceremonies and private prayers. I call upon Federal, State, and local officials to display the flag of the United States and to participate in patriotic activities in their communities. I call on all Americans, including civic and fraternal organizations, places of worship, schools, and communities to support this day with commemorative expressions and programs.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this third day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-sixth.
Just yesterday, we were noting, "Nouri's crackdown on 'Ba'athists' has taken a lot of attention off the continued targeting of Sahwa also known as 'Sons Of Iraq' and 'Awakenings'" They're getting press attention today and, as usual when it comes to Iraq, that means violence. First who are the Sahwa? Dropping back to the April 8, 2008 snapshot when General David Petraeus -- then top commander in Iraq -- and Ryan Crocker -- then US Ambassador to Iraq -- appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee:
In his opening remarks, Petraues explained of the "Awakening" Council (aka "Sons of Iraq," et al) that it was a good thing "there are now over 91,000 Sons of Iraq -- Shia as well as Sunni -- under contract to help Coalition and Iraqi Forces protect their neighborhoods and secure infrastructure and roads. These volunteers have contributed significantly in various areas, and the savings in vehicles not lost because of reduced violence -- not to mention the priceless lives saved -- have far outweighed the cost of their monthly contracts." Again, the US must fork over their lunch money, apparently, to avoid being beat up.
How much lunch money is the US forking over? Members of the "Awakening" Council are paid, by the US, a minimum of $300 a month (US dollars). By Petraeus' figures that mean the US is paying $27,300,000 a month. $27 million a month is going to the "Awakening" Councils who, Petraeus brags, have led to "savings in vehicles not lost". Again, in this morning's hearings, the top commander in Iraq explained that the US strategy is forking over the lunch money to school yard bullies.
The plan was for Nouri al-Maliki to take over the payments -- largely due to Senator Barbara Boxer's repeated questioning -- with Crocker and Petraeus at one point admitting they'd never thought of asking that the Iraqi government pay the Sahwa. They were supposed to be brought into the process via government jobs which would allow Sahwa -- an armed militia -- to be phased out. That did not happen.
Today, Aseel Kami, Kareem Raheem, Jim Loney and Elizabeth Piper (Reuters) report there was a double bombing -- suicide bomber and car bombing -- in Baquba today apparently targeting Sahwa one of whom, Younis Mohammed, is quoted stating, 'We heard the sound of an explosion inside the headquarters followed by shooting. We felt panicked, fearful and confused and we started running to the main street in fear the explosion was to be followed by another. We saw a civilian car heading towards us and we felt it was a suicide car bomb. Then it went off and I felw into the air and then hit the ground." Sameer N. Yacoub (AP) explains those killed "all were members of Sahwa" and that they are now "targeted by insurgents who call them traitors." Fang Yang (Xinhua) counts 10 dead and twenty-five injured and notes, "The victims were gathering at the entrance of the base to collect their salaries when the suicide bomber attacked them, the source said." Andrew E. Kramer (New York Times) notes payment for the Sahwa "has gradually been handed over to the Iraqi government over the past three years." Kramer also explains, "A prominent militia leader in Baghdad, Ali Hatim Suliman, said members were now receiving salaries as irregularly as once every three months. Back pay is owed to about 5,000 members, he said." Alsumaria TV counts ten dead citing an unidentified police source who states, "Ambulance cars rushed to the incident area and transported the wounded to a nearby hospital as well as dead bodies to forensic medicine's department. A security force surrounded the incident area and closed all roads leading to it." Citing an unnamed Ministry of the Interior official, Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) counts 10 dead and forty injured and notes last night 3 bombs targeted Basra coffee shops and left 6 dead with forty injured. Raheem Salman (Los Angeles Times) adds, "Less than a week earlier, 18 people were killed in twin blasts in Baghdad."
In addition to the targeting of Sahwa, Reuters notes a Baghdad roadside bombing was followed by a second bombing which claimed 4 lives and left six polilce officers injured, a Qaiyara home invasion in which a police officer (the owner) was killed, a Mosul roadside bombing which injured two people, a Kirkuk sticky bombing last night which claimed the life of 1 man and left his daughter injured and they give the final toll for the Basra coffee shops attack: 12 dead and seventy injured.
Baquba, where the attack on the Sahwa today took place, is in Diyala Province. Ayub Nuri (Rudaw) observes that Iraqiya members in Diyala are calling for the province to become semi-autonomous if their demands, such as the peshmerga leaving and that transferring prisoners from the province to other provinces immediately stop. They've set a time limit of three days for a decision to be made in Baghdad. If their demands are not met, they will follow Salahuddin Province's lead from last week. (The Provincial Council voted to become semi-autonomous, notified Baghdad and now a referendum on the matter -- per Article 119 of the Constitution -- should resolve the issue.) Last week also saw residents of Anbar Province call for a similar move. Aswat al-Iraq reports that, "Parlimentary Speaker Usama Nujaifi regarded the demand of Salah al-Din province to establish a region is 'constitutional' and 'no right to any one, including the government, to intervene'."
Today was the emergency session of Parliament that Moqtada al-Sadr requested. Dar Addustour reported this morning that Moqtada's bloc had been working hard to promote the session including making multiple phone calls to urge members to attend so they would meet the necessary quorum to hold the session and discuss what the US government is doing in Iraq right now and planning in 2013. The session took place one day after Lolita C. Baldor (AP) is reported, "While all but a small number of U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, they won't all be home for the holidays as President Barack Obama promised last month. The Pentagon is poised to move at least 4,000 soldiers from Iraq to Kuwait at the end of the year, pending a final decision expected soon by Pentagon and Kuwaiti leaders, U.S. officials said Wednesday." Lara Jakes (AP) reports Moqtada al-Sadr took to the airwaves, via Al-Arabiya TV, to declare, "The American occupation will stay in Iraq under different names. [. . .] I say to the American soldier: Get out for good." Reuters quotes him stating, "We do not accept any kind of U.S. presence in Iraq, whether it is military or not. If they stay in Iraq, through a military or non-military (presence) . . . we will consider them an occupation and we will resist them whatever the price will be. Even a civilian presence, we reject it."
In public and private settings, Obama supporters have taken pains to remind people that it was President Bush who negotiated and signed the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) that obligates U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Indeed, some have claimed that this is an inconvenient fact of its own, at least for Republican critics who want to charge that Obama is being reckless in his Iraq policy.
The implicit message is obvious: "we can't be criticized for ending the war in this way because, after all, we are just following the treaty obligations that Bush agreed to. If they were good enough for Bush, they are good enough for us."
That's not quite fair to the Bush policy, however. The Bush team viewed the 2008 SoFA, and in particular the 2011 sunset, as a least-worst deal that they could strike with Maliki in advance of Iraqi elections. It was widely understood - and this understanding was directly encouraged by Iraqi interlocutors - that the SoFA would be renegotiated after the Iraqi elections, when the new Iraqi government would have a bit more freedom to take necessary but unpopular decisions like allowing a follow-on stabilization force. Bush officials disagreed amongst themselves as to how forthcoming the Iraqis would be in a follow-on deal, but most agreed that it was imperative that a serious attempt be made to renegotiate the SoFA at the earliest possible moment.
You don't have to take my word for it. If the plan all along had been simply to implement the 2008 SoFA, why did President Obama send a team to Iraq to negotiate a new agreement? Why did the military plan on leaving a residual force? Indeed, as Tom Ricks quotes a colleague as asking, if that was really the plan then why the heck didn't the military plan on leaving at the end of 2011?
Occupy Wall Street. In this community, Trina's covered it. I have a number of friends either participating in it or covering it and I had several requesting that I please note OWSnews.org. I'm noting it but, as I explained, "I don't whore for anyone." Meaning? I'm happy to note Kimberly Wilder when she has something on the OWS (I've never met Kimberly, I know her only through her strong writing online). And I'm happy to note our only real national labor journalist: David Bacon. Other than that, I am leery. I trust Occupy Oakland, I trust Occupy Boston, I trust Occupy LA, I trust a number of the Occupy Wall Street in NYC. The others? I'm not four-years-old, I don't go to bed at night blilndly believing in tooth fairies or super heroes.
Forbes just released their power list. Who did they rank as the most powerful person in the world? Barack Obama. When OWS wants to take on the most powerful person, I might consider them a real movement. Currently, they aren't. DC is the most embarrassing example -- and the most racially insensitive as well. But every time they step forward with a lie about how 'poor little Barry really wishes he could' another nail is hammered into their coffin and I wait for the late night monologues about how, big suprise, a bunch of young people can free load and camp out. In fact, it's that these jokes haven't come that tells so many of us that OWS isn't a real movement. Real movement's struggle, real movements are put down and scorned. The same media that propped up Barack has propped up OWS. And this idea that they have support? This is not longterm support. At some point you have to take a stand and do something other than blame everyone but the leader of the country for what's wrong. I have been in 13 or 14 different states since OWS kicked off. Consider me the weather vane. People are waiting to see real demands made and if none are forthcoming and if the truly powerful aren't called out the support vanishes very quickly.
Support vanishes even faster if OWS across the country continue to use the homeless by rushing off at night to sleep somewhere else while expecting the homeless to keep the camps going on their own. That is very limousine liberal, it's like the text book case and it's a damn shame that this has been going on at various camps with the one in DC being the most guilty. OWS better address that real quick nationally because otherwise it's not just going to be homeless advocates complaining (as they are currently), it's going to take the shine off the camps across the country and it will be damn hard to bring that back. Again, I don't whore for anyone. I mentioned OWS.news.org because we've received e-mails but mainly because I had 5 friends call me asking for it to be mentioned today. It got mentioned and I stopped biting my tongue. OWS needs to get its act together real quick and I'm not joking about homeless advocates throughout the country getting pissed off about the way the homeless are being used. Utilize them, fine but don't use them. There is a difference and it goes to treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve. Don't use them to hold your spot for you because this isn't the line for Coldplay tickets, this is supposed to be about economic justice.