Monday, June 25, 2012

Iraq snapshot

Monday, June 25, 2012.  Chaos and violence continues, Senator Patty Murray proposes new veterans legislation, Nouri al-Maliki gets ready to shut down dozens of press outlets in Iraq, Tony Blair just can't seem to rehabilitate his bad image, and more.
Starting with legal and with proposed legislation in the US.  Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  This evening, she took the Senate floor to introduce and advocate for a new mental health bill.
Senator Patty Murray:  Mardam President, last February in my office in Seattle I sat down with an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran named Stephen Davis and his wife Kim.
Stephen and Kim were there to talk to me about their experience since he returned home and about the invisible wounds of war that they were struggling with together -- every single day. 
At the meeting, Kim did most of the talking.  She told me about the nightmares.  She told me about the lack of sleep. She talked about confusion and the anxiety that was now a constant in their lives.
But it was the way that she summed up her experience since Stephen returned home that struck me hardest.
She said that her husband still hadn't returned home.
She said that the husband she had been married to for nearly two decades -- although sitting directly next to her -- was still not back from war.
And you know what, despite the fact that we often refer to these wounds as invisible -- you could see it.
When it came time for Stephen to describe his experiences he shook as he explained how difficult the transition home has been for him, for his wife, and for their family. 
Now Madam President, the Davis family's story is no different than what thousands of other families have faced.
But their story does have a tragic and frustrating twist.
You see, Sergeant Davis knew when he returned home that he had a problem with post traumatic stress -- and he was courageous enough to reach out for help.
He sought care and was diagnosed with PTSD.
But just a few months later -- after a visit to Madigan Army Medical Base in my home state of Washington -- he was told something that shocked and appalled him and his wife.
After a 10 minute meeting and a written questionnaire -- Sergeant Davis was told that he was exaggerating his symptoms and that he didn't have PTSD.
He was told -- in effect -- that despite serving in two war zones, despite being involved in three separate IED incidents, and despite his repeated deployments, he was making it all up. 
He was then sent home with a diagnosis for adjustment disorder and told that his disability rating would be lowered and that the benefits that he and his family would receive would ultimately be diminished.
Now, Madam President, if this sounds like an isolated, shocking incident -- here is something that you'll find more shocking. 
And that's that Sergeant Davis was one of literally hundreds of patients at this Army hospital that was told the exact same thing.
Soldiers who had been diagnosed with PTSD -- not just once -- but several times -- had their diagnoses taken away.
In many instances these soldiers were told that they were embellishing or even outright lying about their symptoms.
In fact, so many soldiers were being accused of making up their symptoms by doctors at this hospital that I began to get letters and phone calls into my office.
Soon after documents came to light showing that the doctors diagnosing these soldiers were being encouraged to consider not just the best diagnosis for these patients but also the cost of care.
These revelations have led to a series of internal investigations that are still under way today.
But even more importantly, they have led to these soldiers being reevaluated and to date hundreds of soldiers -- including Sergeant Davis -- have had their proper PTSD diagnoses restored. 
Now, Madam President, this too, could be viewed as an isolated incident.
And in fact, when I first raised concerns that the problems we saw at Madigan could be happening at other bases across the country -- that's exactly what I was told.
But I knew better.
I remembered back to this article that ran a few years back.
In that article a doctor from Fort Carson in Colorado talked about how he was "under a lot of pressure to not diagnose PTSD."
It also went on to quote a former Army psychologist named David Rudd who said, "Each diagnosis is an acknowledgment that psychiatric casualties are a huge price tag of war. It is easiest to dismiss these casualties because you can't see the wounds.  If they change the diagnosis they can dismiss you at a substantially decreased rate."
I also had my own staff launch an investigation into how the military and the VA were diagnosing mental health conditions at other bases around the country.
And I was troubled by what they found.
It became clear there were other cases where doctors accused soldiers of exaggerating symptoms without any documentation of appropriate interview techniques.
They encountered inadequate VA medical examinations -- especially in relation to Traumatic Brain Injury.
And they found that many VA rating decisions contained errors, which in some cases impacted the level of benefits the veteran should have received.
Now, Madam President, to their credit the Army didn't run and hide as the questions about other bases continued to mount.
In fact they took two important steps.
First, in April they issued a new policy for diagnosing PTSD that criticized the methods being used at Madigan and pointed out to health officials throughout their system that it was unlikely that soldiers were faking symptoms.
Then, in May the Army went further and announced that they would review all mental health diagnoses across the country dating back to 2001.
This in turn led to Secretary Panetta to announce just last week that all branches of the military would undergo a similar review.
Now, Madam President, without question, these are historic steps in our efforts to right a decade of inconsistencies in how the invisible wounds of war have been evaluated.
Servicemembers, veterans, and their families should never have had to wade through an unending bureaucratic process.
And because of the outcry from veterans and servicemembers alike the Pentagon now has an extraordinary opportunity to go back and correct the mistakes of the past.
But Madam President . . . we still need to make sure these mistakes are not repeated.
We still need to fundamentally change a system that Secretary Panetta admitted to me has "huge gaps" in it.
And that is why I am here today.
Madam President, today I have introduced the Mental Health ACCESS Act of 2012.
It is a bill that seeks to make improvements to ensure that those who have served have access to consistent, quality behavioral health care.
It is a bill that strengthens oversight of military mental health care.
And improves the Integrated Disability Evaluation System we rely on.
Now Madam President, as anyone who understands these issues knows well this isn't any easy task.
The mental health care, suicide prevention, and counseling programs we provide our service members are spread out through the Department of Defense and VA.
Too often they are tangled in a web of bureaucracy.
And frankly too often this makes them difficult to address in legislation.
So what I did in crafting this bill is I identified critical changes that need to be made at both DoD and VA and set up a checklist of legislative changes needed to do just that.
Some provisions in this bill will likely be addressed in my Veterans Committee others will need to be addressed through Defense bills and work with the Chairs of other committees.
But all of these provisions are critical and today I wanted to share some of the most important ones. 
Madam President, high atop the list of changes this bill makes it addressing military suicides -- which was we all know is an epidemic that now outpaces combat deaths.
My bill would require the Pentagon to create comprehensive, standardized suicide prevention programs. 
It would also require the Department to better oversee mental health care for servicemembers.
Second, my bill would expand eligibility for a variety of VA mental health services to family members.
This will help families -- and spouses like Kim -- who I spoke about earlier -- cope with the stresses of deployments and help strengthen the support network that is critical to servicemembers returing from deployment.
Third, my bill will improve training and education for our health care providers.
Often times our servicemembers seek out help from chaplains, medics, and others who may be unprepared to offer counseling.  This bill would help prepare them through continuing education programs.
Fourth, my bill would create more peer to peer counseling opportunities.
It would do this by requiring VA to offer peer support services at all medical centers and by supporting opportunities to train vets to provide peer services.
And finally, this bill will require VA to establish accurate and reliable measures for mental health services.
This will help ensure the VA understands the problem they face so that veterans can get into the care we know they can provide.
Madam President, all of these are critical steps at a pivotal time.
Because the truth is -- right now -- the Department of Defense and the VA are losing the battle against the mental and behavioral wounds of these wars.
To see that you don't need to look any further than the tragic fact that already this year over 150 active duty servicemembers have taken their own lives.
Or the fact that one veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes.
And while there are a number of factors that contribute to these suicides including repeated deployments, a lack of employment security, isolation in their communities, and difficulty transitioning back to their families.
Not having access to quality and timely mental health care is vital.
When our veterans can't get the care they need they often self medicate.
When they wait endlessly for a proper diagnoses they often lose hope.
Last year at this time, I held a hearing on the mental health disability system that this bill seeks to strengthen and heard two stories that illustrate this despair.
Andrea Sawyer, the wife of Army Sergeant Lloyd Sawyer testified about how her husband -- an Iraq veteran -- spent years searching for care.
Together they hit barriers and red tape so often that at one point he held a knife to his throat in front of both her and an Army psychiatrist before being talked out of it.
Later in the same hearing, Daniel Williams an Iraq combat veteran testified about how his struggle to find care led him to stick a gun in his mouth while his wife begged him to stop -- only to see his gun misfire.
Madam President these are the stories that define this problem.
These are the men and women who we must be there for.
They are those who have served and sacrificed and done everything we have asked of them.
They have left their families and homes, several multiple times, and protected our nation's interests at home and abroad.
Madam President, this bill will help make a difference.
But we need to make changes now.
Today, I am asking members of the Senate from both sides of the aisle to join me in this effort.
We owe our veterans a medical evaluation system that treats them fairly, that gives them the proper diagnosis, and that provides access to the mental health care they have earned and deserved.
Thank you.
Her office noted the speech in a press release which also noted:
(Washington, D.C.) – As it becomes increasingly clear that the Pentagon and VA are losing the battle on mental and behavioral health conditions that are confronting so many of our servicemembers and veterans, Senator Murray gave a speech on the Senate floor to introduce her new servicemembers and veterans mental health legislation, the Mental Health ACCESS Act of 2012. Her speech also comes as the Pentagon begins a comprehensive military-wide review, which Senator Murray urged Secretary Panetta to conduct on diagnoses for the invisible wounds of war dating back to 2001.  The misdiagnosis of behavioral health conditions has been a constant problem for soldiers at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, where to date over 100 soldiers and counting have had their correct PTSD diagnosis restored following reevaluation.
The Mental Health ACCESS Act of 2012 would require the Department of Defense to create a comprehensive, standardized suicide prevention program; expand eligibility for a variety of Department of Veterans Affairs mental health services to family members; strengthen oversight of DoD Mental Health Care and the Integrated Disability Evaluation System; improve training and education for our health care providers; create more peer-to-peer counseling opportunities; and require VA to establish accurate and reliable measures for mental health services. More about Senator Murray's bill HERE.
Still on the legal, in England today, a major case.  ITV News reports, "Three Court of Appeal Judges -- The Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, Lord Justice Moses and Lord Justice Rimer -- are scheduled to hear arguments" as to whether the family members of British soldiers can sue the UK government for damages.  Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian) explains, "Lawyers representing families of soldiers killed by 'friendly fire' in Iraq, and others killed while travelling in Snatch Land Rovers, argue they have the right to sue the Ministry of Defence for negligence.  The MoD argues it cannot be held legally liable and should be released from a duty of care arising from cases involving combat and how to deploy resources -- decisions, it says, that are essentially political or a matter for executive discretion." BBC News adds:
Robert Weir QC, who is acting for some relatives, said: "The state is under a positive obligation to take all reasonable measures to protect the lives of its soldiers."
He said that - even in the context of dangerous activities - this positive obligation required the state to "adopt and implement regulations and systems to mitigate the relevant risk to life - including adequate equipment and training".
Brian Farmer (Independent) notes that the safety issue revolves around the Snatch Land Rovers, "In this case the (MoD) took a decision not to provide medium armoured vehicles in Iraq but instead to deploy soldiers using Snatch Land Rovers.  It did this in circumstances where it was aware of the inadequacy of those vehicles and the increased risk to life that they involved."  Will Inglis (British Forces News -- link is text and video) adds, "Lawyers say the judges' decision could also affect potential claims by injured servicemen and women."  Some in the US will be watching the case closely.  US service members saw their own government play cheap with their lives as well.  From The NewsHour December 9, 2004 broadcast (link is text, audio and video):
RAY SUAREZ: The war in Iraq has followed the defense secretary to India.
As Donald Rumsfeld met his Indian counterpart in New Delhi today, he was dogged by the fallout from the town hall meeting he held yesterday with U.S. soldiers in Kuwait.
Rumsfeld sought to downplay his blunt exchange with a national guardsman over the lack of properly armored vehicles.
DONALD RUMSFELD: The military makes judgments about what types of vehicles with what types of armor should be used. They have priority list in terms of the pace at which they are adding armor.
For the person who asked the question, someone has to sit with him -- find out what... I have heard three different things about that comment on his part.
I don't know what the facts are, but somebody is certainly going to sit down with him and find out what he knows that they may not know and make sure he knows what they know that he may not know, and that's a good thing.
So I think it's a very constructive exchange.
RAY SUAREZ: The soldier who sparked the controversy yesterday was Specialist Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard.
SPC. THOMAS WILSON: We're digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that has already been shot up, dropped, busted-- picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles go into combat.
We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us North.
DONALD RUMSFELD: As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.

In June 2003, the U.S. Army realized that it didn't have enough armored Humvees in Iraq to protect soldiers from a growing number of attacks by insurgents. By Friday, officials expect to correct that problem by having almost 22,000 armored Humvees in Iraq -- up from 235 when the war began.

Why did it take the government almost two years to remedy a deficiency that the Army acknowledges was costing soldiers' lives?

A verdict for the families in the UK case might lead some US families to file comparative law suits in the US.  War Hawk Tony Blair just can't escape his bloody past.  Ian Dunt ( reports:

  Tony Blair failed to hide his frustration today after his comeback to the British political scene was again met by questions over the Iraq war.
The former prime minster cut an irritated figure on the Andrew Marr programme when he was stopped from discussing the eurocrisis and asked whether he had preventing Cabinet from hearing the attorney general's legal evidence against the Iraq war.

Though it's being largely ignored in the US press, the story has dominated the British press since Saturday night.  James Cusick (Independent) notes:

In the latest volume of his diaries, Alastair Campbell claims Lord Goldsmith, then Attorney General, was prevented in 2002 from telling the Cabinet about his "doubts" on the legal basis for war.
But in an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr, Mr Blair denied he had intervened to stop Lord Goldsmith giving the Cabinet the "reality" of the legal position Britain faced if it went to war against Saddam Hussein's regime without the backing of the United Nations.

As we've noted before, don't trust Campbell.  He's a known liar.   Daniel Martin (Daily Mail) reports that Campbell's already rushed to deny that what he wrote means what it says: "Mr Campbell said on his blog yesterday that the entry had been misinterpreted, and that Lord Goldsmith had addressed Cabinet after the meeting referred to in the diary. He had argued in Cabinet that there was a legal case for war and was cross-questioned by ministers."  You have to wonder how much Hutchinson regrets publishing an author who repeatedly insists that what he wrote isn't what he meant?  And at what point do the few people who've bought copies of Campbell's bad book start demanding a refund as a result of Campbell's repeated denials that what's on the page of his 'diary' isn't actually true?

Rory MacKinnon (Morning Star) notes the estimated death toll of 1.5 million Iraqis killed in the illegal war and that antiwar activists are saying Blair and Campbell must be recalled for new questioning before the Iraq Inquiry.  Stop the War coalition's Lindsey German is quoted stating, "I think there is yet another piece of evidence that Blair set out to mislead not just the British public but his own Cabinet."  Journalist Chris Ames (Iraq Inquiry Digest) notes differences in accounts and concludes, "If the Inquiry does not address this, it will have no credibility at all."
Still with the legal, Iraq has a new legal guideline, one effecting the media.  Saturday, Iraq's Journalist Freedoms Observatory has issued the following alert:

An official document has been obtained by the JFO, revealing that security forces in Iraq have received orders from the authorities to shut down the offices of 44 media agencies. Included are prominent local TV channels and radio stations such as Sharqiya and Baghdadia satellite television stations and foreign-owned media such
as BBC, Radio Sawa and Voice of America.  
This matter comes at the time of escalated public debate between the administration
of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and political opponents about the threats and the pressures that journalists have been exposed to during the current ongoing
political crisis. On June 20, followers of cleric Muqtada al Sadr held a
demonstration in Baghdad's Firdos Square, in which they protested restrictions
on Iraqi media, as well as calling for a vote of no confidence in Mr. Maliki to be
held at the Iraqi parliament.

The document obtained by the JFO was issued by the CMC (Communications and Media Commission), signed by acting director Safa al-Din Rabiah, and was
addressed to the Ministry of Interior. It recommends banning 44 Iraqi and foreign
media agencies from working in various areas in Iraq, including Kurdistan. The document states it has already been approved by the Deputy Interior Minister
Adnan al-Assadi, described in the letter as having instructed the ministry's
Department of Relations and Media "to stop media cooperation with these
agencies and to notify the police to ban these channels along with the necessity
of informing the channels to contact the CMC."
In past decisions, the CMC has caused controversy for its heavy-handed
regulations and tactics, seen by critics as conducting a program to undermine freedom of expression in Iraq by ordering arrests, fines and the closing of media organizations, which many media workers argue demonstrates a bias in favor of
the current political administration.  
The document was circulated among police forces in Baghdad on May 8, 2012,
five days after the International Press Freedom Day. In it, the CMC informs the
interior ministry that it has suspended the operating licenses, or has banned cameramen and other media workers from working, from television stations such
as Sharqiya, Baghdadia, al-Diyar, Babliya and BBC, and radio stations such as al-Marbad, Nawa, Radio Sawa, Nawa, and Voice of America. In the document, the
CMC also states that additional TV channels and media agencies are currently not licensed and requested by the interior ministry to have legal action taken against

Dar Addustour reports on it here. RT adds, "The followers of prominent Islamist cleric
Muqtada al Sadr flocked to Baghdad's central square on Wednesday to protest against
what they see as a government crackdown on press freedom. They also called for a vote
of no confidence against PM Nouri al-Maliki to be held in the country's parliament.
Al-Maliki is currently acting head of the CMC."  From Thursday's snapshot:

A large number of Iraqis took to Baghdad's Firdous Square this week to protest
Nouri.  Dar Addustour (check out the photo of the turnout, this was a huge turnout) reports Moqtada al-Sadr supporters showed up demanding that the media be free,
that people speak freely and that no one muzzle the voice of democracy. 
Kitabat notes that Nouri's effort to shut down satellite chanel Baghdadi resulted in the large turnout and that the crowd chanted Moqtada's name.  Dar Addustour reports that Nouri attempted to limit -- if not halt -- the protests by butting off raods to the square, stationing security guards throughout and more.  Nouri dismissed the protest and their objections to him while insisting that his critics can say anything about him but he's gagged/prevented from speaking about them.
Sunday, Qassim Abdul-Zahra (AP) reports that the head of the Communications and Media Commission, Safaa Rabie, has confirmed the memo is genuine and that the plan is to go forward.  Rabie insists that it's "not a crackdown" and offers a 'reason' for the planned closures: They don't have operating licenses.  But Abdul-Zahra checks with two and quickly establishes that they do have them.  Margaret Griffis ( notes the history:

For years, the Iraqi government has harassed journalists and organizations it has seen as a threat. One of the stations on the list, Baghdadiya TV, has been shut down before and even seen the occupation of its station in the past for its coverage of a massacre at a Christian church. Other stations are less politically inclined, but their religious affiliations may be the focus of the government's attention.
Today in DC, Victoria Nuland handled the US State Dept press briefing.  US journalists and foreign journalists gathered to act like little fools and to laugh at bad puns from those paid to spin for the government.  Never once did Iraq come up, never once did anyone express concern for the outlets or for freedom of the press in Iraq.  They thought they were clever talking about t-shirts, they weren't clever.  Forget clever, it's a stretch for just aware in that room.  But they and the US State Dept made clear that what happens to the press in Iraq might as well stay in Iraq because they only give damn about their own tiny little worlds.  Ammar Karim (AFP) reminds, "Iraq regularly ranks near the bottom of global press freedom rankings. It placed 152nd out of 179 countries in media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders' 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index, down 22 from the year before."   But, hey, as far as the press covering the State Dept is concerned, that's someone else's problem.

Violence continued in Iraq today.  Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) reports that a Baquba raodside bombing claimed 4 lives and left eight people injured while a Hilla bombing claimed 6 lives and left 25 injured.