Tuesday, February 28, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, at least 8 people are killed and eleven left injured in Baghdad, Iraq wants out of Chapter VII, the US Senate Budget Committee launches an attack on Social Security (Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta joins in on the attack), the US Defense Dept is spending $50 billion a day on health care, Troy Gilbert's family learns the search is back on, and more.
Leon Panetta is the US Secretary of Defense. Today he declared that the Defense Department -- not the VA -- was spending $50 billion a day on health care. If that number seems questionable, well after Panetta had mentioned it, he was asked again about the figure to be sure he hadn't been misunderstood.
Senator Rob Portman: You talked about health care earlier. Let me give you a statistic that I have. I hope it's not right because it's scary. $17.4 billion is what you spent on health care in 2000 and you said earlier that we're spending $50 billion a day. Is that correct?
Secretary Leon Panetta: That's right.
The Defense Dept spending fifty billion dollars a day might lead some to be tempted to cut corners. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Senator Patty Murray: Secretary Panetta, you know I spent a lot of time last year on the Joint- Select Committee on Defecit Reduction working with Democrats and Republicans to tackle some of the issues that you're talking about today. All of us went into the Committee knowing that sequestration would be a terrible outcome and we understood that, across the board, cuts to these programs middle class families and most Americans depend on would be bad policy. That was really the point of the bi-partisan triggers that Senator [Harry] Reid and Speaker [of the House John] Boehner agreed to -- they were supposed to be painful to push us towards a compromise. So I was really disappointed that despite the fact that we put a lot on our side, some pretty painful cuts out, we couldn't get to an agreement because we couldn't come to that shared sacrfice moment. I'm still willing to make those compromises needed to get to that. I hope everyone on both sides are because I think we're all really concerned about where that's going to go. But I -- I didn't want to focus on that today on my time, I wanted to ask you a question about an issue that has become very important and recently come to light at Madigan Army Medical Center in my home state of Washington. A number of soldiers had their behavioral health diagnoses changed from PTSD to other behavioral health disorders that didn't come with the same level of benefits. However, following, as you may know, an independent review at Walter Reed, a number of those diagnoses was changed back to PTSD. Obviously, this is really troubling. But what's even more troubling to me and to many service members and their family members in my home state and to a lot of people I've been talking to allegation that the decision to strip those soldiers of a PTSD diagnoses came from a unit at Madigan that seems to be taking the cost of a PTSD diagnosis into account when they were making their decision. Now there's an investigation going on into this but really, to me, one of the things that's clear is that oversight within the army and at the departmental level allowed this break from standard diagnoses process to go unchecked. So I'm really concerned about how the services handle non-PTSD behavioral health conditions like adjustment disorder where service members are administratively separated instead of going through the physical disablity process and I wanted to ask you given that an adjustment disorder is compensable, VA and DoD is required to use the VA's rating schedule, what is the reason for DoD treating adjustment disorder differently?
Secretary Leon Panetta: Well I was, uh, I was very concerned when I got the report about what happened at Madigan. And I think, uh, it-it reflects the fact that frankly we have not learned how to effectively deal with that and we have to. We-we-we need to make sure that, uh, that we have the psychiatrists, the psychologists and the medical people who can make these evaluations because these are real problems. I've met with men and women who have suffered this problem. Just met with a couple last night and they had to go through hell in order to be able to get the diagnosis that was required here. And that should not happen. So we are investigating obviously what took place but I've directed our Personnel Undersecretary to look at this issue and to correct it because it's unacceptable now to have the process we have in place.
Senator Patty Murray: Well I appreciate the attention given to this. It's going to take a lot of work. And I'm deeply concerned when someone comes home from war that they have to go through a diagnosis like this. It's hard enough after you've been told to "man up" during your time of service to then face the fact that you have PTSD -- and then to have that reversed and changed back and told there's nothing wrong with you is just devastating to these men and women and their families. So this is something I'm going to be following very closely. I want your personal attention on it. And I think that the issue raised at Madigan really shows us that we need to have a more clear, consistent guideline for clinical practices for diagnosing and treating PTSD.
Secretary Leon Panetta: I agree with that. I agree with that. Abosluetly. You're absolutely right.
Senator Patty Murray: I never want to hear anybody in any service say we're not going to give you a diagnosis of PTSD because we have a budget problem.
Secretary Leon Panetta: That's for sure.
Senator Patty Murray: Okay. Thank you very much.
The exchanges took place this morning at the Senate Budget Committee hearing with the Committee hearing from Secretary Panetta and Gen Martin Dempsey (Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Senator Kent Conrad is the Chair and he's a pretty lousy chair. The House is limited to five minutes for their exchanges. The Senate has a longer time limit for each senator to ask questions. Except when Kent Conrad's in charge. To be sure Panetta could leave by noon, Conrad limited everyone -- but himself -- to five minutes.
Senator John Kerry is the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And like a strong chair, when time is tight -- due to voting or a witness needing to leave by a certain time -- Kerry is more than happy to table his opening statement. To give a sentence or two off the cuff to start the hearing and just let his prepared remarks be entered into the record. Not so with Kent Conrad who seems to believe that his every repeated bromide is of value (they're not) and should be heard (they shouldn't). He was curt to the point of outright rude to two Senators on the Committee (Senator Kelly AYotte and Senator Bernie Sanders). But if you were one of his pets -- Senator Porter -- he would give you the times up look (and Porter acknowledged it by noting his time was up) but still let you babble on.
Senator Carl Levin is the Chair of the Armed Services Committee. And he's always able to keep things moving without being rude. He maintains his cool and usually a warm smile. Chair Levin also doesn't take his glasses off after he's done with his own questions and stare blankly into space for long periods of time.
Conrad wasn't fair and he didn't impose the time limit on himself. He'd note he was over the limit (such as during the first round) and continue prattling on and then allow -- on 'his' time -- one of the witneses to speak at length. But let Ayotte or Sanders attempt to clarify a response and he walked right over them in the rudest manner I've ever seen in a Senate Committee hearing.
Leon Panetta fed right into it and had his little drama moment as he decided to set professional aside so that he could lecture a Committee, his voice breaking and rising, that "Look, uh, this Congress proposed, as part of the Budget Control Act, a trillion dollars in savings off the discretionary budget."
He took a long pause there while shaking his head no frantically and waving a pointed finger at the Committee before continuing:
You can't meet the challenge that you're facing in this country by continuing to go back at discretionary spending. That's less than a third of federal spending. Now, if you don't -- if you're not dealing with the two-thirds -- that's entitlement spending -- if you're not dealing with revenues and you keep going back to the same place, frankly, you're not going to make it. You're going to hurt this country! You're going to hurt this country's security not only by cutting defense but very frankly by cutting discretionary spending that deals with the quality of life in this country.
Conrad, of course, is a well known opponent of Social Security, one who wants to destroy it. One who can get so carried away with his desire to destroy it that facts get lost along the way (see this PolitiFact check on his claims about what percent Social Security was of the budget -- he was LYING and PoliFact's fact check demonstrates that but they're too scared to call him a liar -- I will: LIAR!!) He's called it broke and worse publicly. Kent Conrad is an enemy of Social Security. And though the topic was supposedly the Defense Dept budget, Conrad made plenty of time to stick knives into Social Security.
As for Panetta, he is one of the Cabinet Secretaries who forgets his place repeatedly. Repeatedly and publicly. Considering all the scandals DoD has, you'd think he'd be focusing on them and not trying to figure out how to 'solve' problems beyond his jurisdiction. Dropping back to February 16th:
Josh Rogin (Foreign Policy) reports on US military maneuvers, specifically the movement of cash. The 2013 budget finds the Defense Department hiding $3 billion. To ensure that DoD has $3 billion in discretionary spending, the White House budget hides that figure under war spending. Rogin quotes Gordon Adams from the Clinton Administration stating this happens all the time and, for Rogin, that's that. Actually, it's not. War spending will not be subject to any automatic caps should sequestering be triggered. That's why it's being hidden. Who determined the caps that trigger sequestering? Who implemented it? Congress. So what you actually have is an attempt to get around the laws passed by Congress. Getting around the laws -- when you don't have a high priced defense team -- is also known as breaking the laws. A case could be made that the White House is engaging in accounting fraud and doing so willfully since the intent to mislead and circumvent the Congress is so clear. This lust for fraudulent budgetary techniques may go a long way towards explaining why the Barack administration has refused to prosecute Wall Street corruption to the full extent of the law. That's not even factoring in how this attempt at smoke & mirrors with the budget goes against Barack's public pledge of transparency.
I think if your department attempted to lie to Congress and to the American people about $3 billion dollars, you really don't have the ethical force to finger-wag.
When Panetta finished his speech, instead of reminding Panetta that he was no longer in Congress and that his concern now should be the Defense Dept and that Social Security is not something that Panetta's opinions are needed on, Conrad had to babble on for over another minute insisting that "entitlements" needed to be cut, blathering on despite the fact that he'd already noted he was over the five minute mark, he'd already noted he was a minute over the five minute mark he imposed on others, and yet, his exchange would take up two more minutes and 32 seconds. But Ayotte and Sanders weren't allowed to clarify their issues. Bernie's mistake was in not grasping that if you wanted to attack Social Security, Chair Kent Conrad would give you and Panetta all the time in the world. Later on in the hearing, Panetta would call for an increase in tri-care fees and more. (More? He thinks conpensation will be reduced -- "I believe" -- that's compensation for veterans. People should be very offended by the little dance Conrad and Panetta did.)
Maybe Conrad had to shut down Bernie Sanders because Bernie was getting to the heart of the matter, addressing where money is wasted.
Senator Bernie Sanders: I'm going to pick up on a slightly different tangent than my friend from Alabama and suggest to you that everybody understands that our country faces huge economic challenges, our middle class is collapsing, we have more people living in poverty than probably anytime in the modern history of this country which is one of the reasons that MediCaid is up, one of the reasons that food stamps are up. We've got 50 million people who have no health insurance and millions of families are struggling to send their kids to college or to pay for child care. So how we deal with every aspect of the budget including the military impacts on every other. Now the reality is -- as I understand it, and somebody correct me if I'm wrong -- military spending has tripled since 1997. Tripled. Not exactly ignoring the military. And we now spend more on defense -- as I understand it -- then the rest of the world combined. So I want to start off by asking you, Mr. Secretary, my understanding is that the United States still operates 268 military installations in Germany and 124 in Japan. Now in Germany, people all have health care. In Germany, their kids go to college without having to pay for it, as a matter of fact. So I'm kind of interested to know why we have 268 military bases defending Germany when I thought that war [WWII] was won a few years ago. Somebody help me out on that one.
Secretary Leon Panetta: I'll also yield to General Dempsey on this one. First of all, that 268 number sounds very high. We've cut almost 140 bases out of Europe over the last few years and, uh, as a result of bringing down two additional brigades out of Europe, we will -- we will bring down that infrastructure even more.
Senator Bernie Sanders: Mr. Secretary, I may be wrong but that's the best information we have.
Secretary Leon Panetta: Okay.
Senator Bernie Sanders: By the way, why are we -- WWII's been over for a few years. Why are we -- Who are we defending? The Soviet Union doesn't exist. Why do we have that kind of presence in Germany when we have 50 million people in this country who have no health insurance?
Gen Martin Dempsey: I can't answer the, uh, the latter part of your question, Senator. But I will say that I'm advocate of maintaining our relationship with NATO. NATO gets maligned on occasion. They've done some great work around the world. They've got a $300 billion budget in the aggregate. If we go to war tomorrow, who's going to be the first people we're going to ask?
Senator Bernie Sanders: But who are we going to war with in Europe, do you think?
Gen Martin Dempsey: No, no. That's not the point, Senator. If we go to war tomorrow, the first people we'll ask to go with us are the Europeans.
Senator Bernie Sanders: But does that answer the question why we have that type of -- 268 military installations ?
Gen Martin Dempsey: Well, Senator, I'll have to -- I'll get you the data. I've spent 12 years in Germany, I can't imagine -- I've never counted up anywhere near 268 installations, but we'll take that one for the record.
Well then Dempsey isn't very observant or he's not very honest. Last year, Senator Jon Tester was discussing the "military installations" with then-Secretary Robert Gates. In fact, it's documented in this press release from December 15th of last year (two months ago) entitled "Senators join forces to save money and strenghten U.S. military" which clearly states "that the United States still operates 268 military installations in Germany and 124 in Japan."
So Dempsey either has serious observation issues -- a very serious liability for the Chair of the Joint-Chiefs -- or else he's lying. Panetta's not off either. Gates was Secretary of Defense through July. Senator Tester and Senator Kay Baily Hutchison were discussing the bases with Gates. When Gates left in July of last year, the number still stood at 268. So to claim that the number's been dropping for years -- no, it hasn't. Again, lack of knowledge or lying.
Bernie Sanders was correct.
Senator Bernie Sanders: I want to pick up on another question -- a question that the Chairman asked about defense contractors. My understanding is that in the past that the DoD has estimated that we have some 500,00 to 600,000 people who are military contractors. Is-is -- And that the GAO has estimated that number at 900,000.
Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale: You know, I think I'd have to see the definitions of what we're including. Are we including private sector contractors who are supporting others? That multiplying effect?
Senator Bernie Sanders: I suspect we are.
Under Secretary of Defense Robert Hale: The numbers I'm giving you -- and I agree they are rough in number -- are the portion, the full time equivalents that we're paying and I believe it's around 300,000.
Senator Bernie Sanders: I had an interesting experience. I was in Afghanistan maybe a year and a half ago. And we were being taken around by two fellows in an armored car. One was with US military, one was a private contractor. They were both doing basically the same work. The guy who was the contractor was making substantially more than the fellow who was in the army. Does that make sense? Can you talk about that?
Secretary Leon Panetta: Uh -- what -- Uh, let me just say, Senator, that the area you've pointed out is an area that frankly needs attention at the Defense Dept. One of the reasons we are looking at $60 billion in trying to make the place more efficient is going after contractors and trying to reduce those numbrs. So I just wanted to assure you that I'm aware of the problem. Senator Gates -- Secretary Gates, at one point, basically said he didn't know how many contractors he had at the Defense Dept. It is a large number. Frankly, it's too large and we need to do what we can to reduce it.
Senator Bernie Sanders: I appreciate that answer. Last question I would ask, Mr. Chairman, my office has gotten involved a little bit in terms of fraud. You've got a huge budget, you're dealing with thousands and thousands of defense contractors, etc. My understanding is that the top three defense contractors, that's Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman paid over a billion in fines over this ten year period to settle fraud allegations. That's just the top three. There's massive amounts of fraud going on in terms of defense contractors dealing with the DoD. Are we moving aggressively to try to address that issue?
Secretary Leon Panetta: That is part of our effort to, uh, -- Two ways. One, to be able to go after those kinds of fraudulent activities in the various contracts that we have to try to achieve savings there, but, in addition to that, the auditing -- I mean, we're a department that still cannot audit all of our books. That's crazy.
Senator Bernie Sanders: It is crazy.
Secretary Leon Panetta: We need to do that and --
Senator Bernie Sanders: I would just say, and I thank you (Chair Conrad) for raising that point. We hear, you know, people talking about 'we need more money,' and what you have just told us is we don't even know what we're spending and how we're spending it.
Secretary Leon Panetta: Well, we don't have audit ability and that's something, frankly, we owe the taxpayers.
Senator Bernie Sanders: I would think so. My last --
Chair Conrad: No. We've got to stop there because we're a minute over and [. . .]
Conrad blathered on some more while claiming time was short. Let's wrap up the US Congress by noting this from Senator Murray's office:
ose with this from Senator Patty Murray's office -- Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee:
FOR PLANNING PURPOSES:
Contact: Murray Press Office
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
TOMORROW: VETERANS: Murray to Hold Hearing to Discuss FY 2013 Budget for Veterans' Programs
(Washington, D.C.) – On Wednesday, February 29th, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, will hold a hearing on the fiscal year 2013 budget for veterans' programs. The Committee will hear from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and representatives of several veterans service organizations. The Senator will ask Secretary Shinseki about the impact of sequestration on VA services, funding for construction and maintenance of VA facilities, and efforts to combat the claims backlog. She will also address VA's ongoing challenges in combating long wait times for mental health care as the number of veterans seeking that care continues to rise.
WHO: U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee
Turning to Iraq, Alsumaria TV reports that the Daughters of Iraq are threatening to stage a sit-in with their 300 plus membership over having not received payment for at least two months. DOI is the female counterpart to the Sons Of Iraq ("Awakenings," Sahwa). Their need become more apparent with the emergence of female suicide bombers. On the subject of Sahwa, Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) reports Sahwa leader Rasool Khalaf Halbousi was killed by a Falluja roadside bombing which also left one of his bodyguards injured and that 4 members of the same family ("young men") were all shot dead in Baghdad's Sadr City section, that 1 "juvenile detention center worker" was shot dead in Baghdad and 2 Baghdad roadside bombings claimed 1 life and left eight more people injured. In addition, Aswat al-Iraq reports that a Mosul bombing targeting prison guards patrol of Badosh prison claimed the life of 1 guard and left three more injured. 8 and 11
No one bought them armored vehicles. As we noted yesterday and over the weekend, the Iraqi Parliament's decision to spend over $50 million on 350 armored vehicles for members of Parliament has become a huge issue in Iraq. (We noted that, of course the New York Times hasn't had time to note that. They're too busy glorifying dictators.) Al Mada reports that despite a 222 vote in favor of the purchase (Iraq has 325 members of Parliament -- many of whom don't attend sessions), the Parliament is now furiously attempting to walk it back as a result of Iraqi anger. As the Cabinet discussed the 2012 budget yesterday, Hussain al-Shahristani, the Deputy Prime Minister for Energy, declared that they should veto the armored cars aspect of the bduget and return it to the Parliament. Aswat al-Iraq quotes MP Najiba Najeeb stating that the presidency might be able to axe the armored vehicle proposal. Al Sabaah cites an unnamed legal expert who says the Cabinet can vote for the budget or against it but cannot modify it as State of Law is claiming. Despite that analysis, Aswat al-Iraq notes, "The Iraqi Cabinet will make some amendments to the 2012 general budget, which was adopted by the Parliament, to preserve constitutional procedures, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced today." Alsumaria TV notes that Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi states that all the blocs in Parliament voted in favor of the armored cars. Sam Dagher and Ali A. Nabhan (Wall St. Journal) explain:
Anger over what Iraqis are referring to as the scandal of the musafahat—"the armored objects" -- is building up in teahouses, newspaper columns, blogs and social-media websites. Even the country's most revered religious authority has weighed in on the matter. In a sermon on Friday, a senior representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most senior Shiite cleric, lambasted what he described as politicians' lopsided priorities. The representative, Ahmed al-Safi, suggested parliamentarians consider donating the $50 million allocated for armored vehicles toward provision of clean drinking water for some of the hundreds of villages currently lacking it. The sermons usually reflect the views of the reclusive Mr. Sistani.
AFP provides a cross section of Iraqi voices decrying the proposed purchase such as journalist Wassan al-Shimmari ("They live in secure areas inside, or even outside, the Green Zone. Each one of them has a full team of bodyguards so there is no need to have other privileges.") and commentator Tariq al-Mammuri ("The subject of buying armoured cars was approved quickly, while other laws are taking a long time, which shows that MPs prioritise their own benefits over the needs of the people.").
The political crisis continues in Iraq and things continue to worsen. Sunday, Joel Brinkley explored many of the emerging realities -- as well as possible outcomes -- in "Iraq outlook looks dim after pullout" ( POLITICO). Excerpt.
After Bush negotiated an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq near the end of his term in 2008, his politicians and generals began warning of three large potential problems: growing Iranian influence in the Iraqi state, increasing sectarian violence and the possibility that Al Qaeda in Iraq "will continue to grow in capacity," as Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who commanded U.S. forces there, put it during a news conference last fall. In interviews, several former officials and experts acknowledged that most, if not all, of that has already happened, in just the few weeks since the last American troops left. Last week, for example, Iran agreed to increase the electric power it supplies to Iraq by as much as 30 percent. Some Sunni leaders, under sometimes lethal pressure from the Shiite-controlled government, have begun talking about breaking away from Baghdad and creating their own state. That has started talk of a possible civil war. And in the past week alone, about 70 people have died in bombings and other attacks. But no one seemed to anticipate what is arguably the biggest problem: The nation seems to be relapsing rapidly into brutal dictatorship. "There's an incredible consolidation of power in the executive," said Jason Gluck of the United States Institute of Peace. During the war, he worked in Iraq for the National Democratic Institute, among other agencies. "The parliament has been rendered extremely feeble, with little ability to stand up to the executive."
Brinkley covered the inability of US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey to be able to meet face-to-face with Nouri al-Maliki (he's more often rebuffed) and other issues including the deliberate attempts by Nouri's underlings to keep the US Embassy from receiving their food supplies. Brinkley covered all of this and it was alarming. Today, Tim Arango (New York Times) wrote a silly and embarrassing 'memo' treating this trend as "It's great for Nouri!" Nouri al-Maliki is not Iraq. He's the current leader. Someday the paper will be doing an obit on him -- maybe sooner than he expects considering the path he's chosen -- because Nouri will go. The Iraqi people will remain. And it's the Iraqi people that Tim Arango disregards (yet again) in his rush to glorify the latest (authoritarian) moves by Nouri.
One thing people rarely bring up when discussing US soft power with regards to Iraq is Chapter VII. Possibly because it's a forbidden topic in the US media to judge by the repeated efforts to ignore it. Iraq wants out of Chapter VII. The US could keep it there for some time. Aswat al-Iraq reports, "The Iraqi Parliamentary Foreign Relations Commission today called the international community to play greater role in removing Iraq from UN Security Council's Chapter VII and adopting a clear stand to support its legitimate issues, according to a statement."
Lastly, dropping back to the US, KCBD reports the family of Major Troy Gilbert has learned that the Pentagon will "resume" their search for Gilbert who died in Iraq while using his plane to provide cover for US soldiers on the ground who were under attack. When his plane crashed, fighters took Gilbert's body from the plane and a year later, in 2007, his body showed up as a prop in a propaganda video. Ariel Walden (KFYO) reports that his parents received the news last Friday. Jim Douglas (WFAA) offers a video report on the news, speaking with the parents, widow Ginger Gilbert Ravella and government officials. Excerpt.
Jim Douglas: The last time we saw Kaye Gilbert she was crying because the government told her that her son's case was closed, that no one would look for the remains of Major Troy Gilbert in Iraq.
Kaye Gilbert: Please, please help us get him home.
Jim Douglas: Now they will.
Kaye Gilbert: You cry when you're sad and you cry when you're happy. But today is a happy, happy day.
Jim Douglas: Air Force and MIA officials told the Gilbert's their son's case is so extraordinary that an Undersecretary of Defense to give it special consideration. The first time that's ever been done.