Wednesdy, October 3, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, Nouri's got his eyes on more weapons, the US gets ready for a debate with some of the presidential candidates, the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees hold a joint-hearing, and more.
USA Today's Susan Page (link is text and video) has a column today on the presidential debates which kick off tonight for some candidates. (Some? As Isaiah notes his comic this morning, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson will not be on stage, the duopoly does not want them invited.) In her piece, Pages notes a number of topics she feels should be covered including, "President Obama can rightly claim to be an early opponent to the war in Iraq. But once troops were there, he was an opponent of the surge that ultimately proved successful. What has he learned from those two decisions that will make him a more effective commander in chief in the future?" Before anyone points out that tonight's debate is domestic topics, Susan Page knows that, her column is about the three debates President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will take part in.
There are many good questions Barack could be asked about Iraq including why he backed Nouri al-Maliki for a second term as prime minister after Nouri's State of Law came in second? The country's Constitution was very clear on the process and how do you help a fledging democracy take root when you overturn the results of an election? As John Barry's "'The Engame' Is A Well Researched, Highly Critical Look at U.S. Policy in Iraq" (TheDaily Beast) notes:
As Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor charge in their ambitious new history of the Iraq war, The Endgame, Obama's administration sacrificed political influence by failing in 2010 to insist that the results of Iraq's first proper election be honored: "When the Obama administration acquiesced in the questionable judicial opinion that prevented Ayad Allawi's bloc, after it had won the most seats in 2010, from the first attempt at forming a new government, it undermined the prospects, however slim, for a compromise that might have led to a genuinely inclusive and cross-sectarian government."
Another question Barack should be asked is why he keeps talking about bringing the troops home from Iraq when (a) 15,000 troops were moved to Kuwait, (b) a small number of US troops were left in Iraq, (c) Barack just sent a small number of Special-Ops back into Iraq and (d) he's negotiating to send more US troops back into Iraq?
Last week, Tim Arango (New York Times) reported, "Iraq and the United States are negotiating an agreement that could result in the return of small units of American soldiers to Iraq on training missions. At the request of the Iraqi government, according to General Caslen, a unit of Army Special Operations soldiers was recently deployed to Iraq to advise on counterterrorism and help with intelligence." As John Glaser (Antiwar.com) observes, "Most Americans have been led to believe that all US forces besides those guarding the massive American Embassy in Iraq have been withdrawn since the end of last year. But small units have remained in Baghdad to support elite Iraqi forces that report directly to the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki." RTT News reports today, "U.S. military training for Iraqi security forces will continue uninterrupted despite failure of the Congress to approve money for it in a temporary spending bill now funding government operations, the Pentagon has said." northsunm32 (All Voices) points out, "Pentagon officials had warned legislators that the failure to extend the authorization for the program could force the withdrawal of 220 of 296 personnel it currently had in Iraq working with the Iraqis. Obviously, this did not sway Congress. However, just as obviously, there is no plan to withdraw those personnel."
We'll come back to the topic of the US presidential elections at the end of the snapshot. Right now, we'll stay with the US but move to veterans issues. Last week, James Dao (New York Times) reported, "Numbers tell the story. Last year, veterans filed more than 1.3 million claims, double the number in 2001. Despite having added nearly 4,000 new workers since 2008, the agnecy did not keep pace, completing less than 80 percent of its inventory. This year, the agency has already completed more than 1 million claims for the third consecutive year. Yet it is still taking about eight months to process the average claim, two months longer than a decade ago. As of Monday, 890 pensions and compensation claims were pending." That was last week. Today?
James Koutz: We've seen many pilot programs and promises from VA. It's time to roll up our sleeves and really fix what's wrong with this system. As the Social Security Administration and other benefit programs can handle their claims in a timely manner, veterans cannot understand why the VA cannot. In the American Legion, we've made training our Service Officers a top priority. It's part of the job -- not something that gets in the way of the job. We bring our Service Officers together for training twice a year. They make recommendations based on a complex system they must navigate on a daily basis. They're the ones who can see the flaws in the VA's work-credit system that rewards quantity over quality. There simply has to be a better way to get this done. For instance, VA could start counting claims done right as a positive and claims done wrong as a negative so everyone could have a more accurate picture of what's reallly getting done in these regional offices. Veterans waiting past the realistic target date might be compensated with interest on their claims creating an incentive for VA also to get these claims decided on time. There are ways to work with the mechanics of this system and to make it serve the veteran and not the bureaucrats. We're willing to roll up our sleeves and work with you to find those ways.The American Legion has people in the trenches who not only understand the problems but contribute to the solutions. Veterans are tired of hearing how the government is working on ending a backlog that continues to grow. Veterans and the American Legion want results and are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain them. Remember, we're all partners in this. Everyone knows the claims process is confusing for veterans and the American Legion is there with free services to help navigate the system and make things easier for both the veteran and the VA personnel who have decided their claims. Nobody gets charged a penny for this service -- not the veteran, not the government.
[. . .]
Chair Jeff Miller: I want to hone in, just for a bit, on the claims backlog because obviously that is a huge issue that's out there, that everybody in this room is concerned about. Congress is concerned about it. The Dept of Veterans Affairs is concerned about it. But it doesn't seem to be getting any better. [VA] Secretary [Eric] Shinseki has already said several times, you quoted it in your opening statement, that by 2015, they would, within 125 days, the idea was that everybody would have their claims ajudicated at 100%. Well it isn't happening. And unfortunately, we had a hearing just a couple of weeks ago where we kind of took a status check with VA: Where are you? Their focus was more on what they were turning out which is exactly what you talked about. And that's important. A million claims being adjudicated. But the backlog is growing. And if you're not keeping up with that backlog, it's certainly not going to assist and fix the problem. So, again, I would like to hear from you if you would, your perspective on what are the things that can be done? What can Congress do legislatively, if you will, to assist the problem? We all talk about the electronic medical record. But that is years away from being able to truly have that seamless transition. We're moving in that direction. But we've got folks, you know, today that are waiting one, two years waiting to have their claims ajudicated and we've put dollars forward, we've put bodies forward. It does not seem to fix the issue. So I'd like to hear what you think.
James Koutz: Well, Mr. Chairman, I think one of the things that we could do is do more hiring of ajudicators, do more hiring of the processers. As you probably know, a lot of these claims that are coming back, they're not completed. They need to be fully developed claims. I believe like any other business, if you're in the backlog, then the only way to get the backlog taken care of is to hire more people. And I understand the VA -- being a former, or still a commissioner of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs -- that it takes time to train an ajudicator or claims processer. That'll take time. But maybe we can -- and I don't know how much overtime they're working, if they're working overtime -- But I think they've got to do these claims more accurately because, when they come back, the first thing that we see is mistakes and that claim goes right back to the regional office and we're starting all over again from step one. So I think that's the biggest thing, maybe get the accuracy where the Secretary said he would like to have it, 98% accuracy. If we get to that number, then I think you'll see the backlogs claim be reduced.
Chair Jeff Miller: Do you know the percentage of the claims that your Service Officers put together or ajudicated complete? I mean, they may not necessarily get the rating that they're asking for, but the percentage of packages that are completed?
James Koutz: I don't. But Peter Gaytan, our executive director of our Washington office, probably can answer that for you.
Peter Gaytan: Thank you, Commander. Mr. Chairman, the American Legion takes very seriously, the quality of our work and our training of our Service Officres. Twice a year, we put our Service Officers rigorous training to make sure that they have the qualifications, knowledge and skills to not only produce quality, fully developed claims that we submit to the VA but also to help reduce the backlog because it's got to be a team effort to do that. We're going to have qualified, well trained officers to do this work. Now your specific question on the number that the American Legion ajudicates or
Chair Jeff Miller: Or percentage.
Peter Gaytan: I would like to defer to our National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission VA Director Verna Jones who handles that area.
Verna Jones: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We actually received a report from the VA just last week. And I can tell you the number of claims. The American Legion handles 244,000 claims annually. That's our number this year: 244,000. Now I'm not sure of the exact percentage but the number is 244,000 claimsfor the American Legion nationally.
Chair Jeff Miller: Okay. If you would, just for the record, if you could let us know, just trying to get a handle, you know, on how many claims are being done by the veteran themselves obviously using the veterans Service Officer. The assumption, from my standpoint, would be that it would be better to go through a Service Officer in order to file your claim. But I'm interested in knowing for no other reason then I think folks up here on the dais would like to hear it.
Today the US House Veterans Affairs Committee and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a joint-hearing which was a presentation by the American Legion. The American Legion's National Commander James Koutz handled the presentation and he was accomanied by Verna Jones, Michael Helm, Peter Gaytan and Kenneth Governor. The Chair of the House Committee is Jeff Miller who was present. As he noted, "the Congressional schedule changed a few weeks ago so a lot of members are not in Washington today." Ranking Member Bob Filner is not seeking re-election to the Congress but is instead running for Mayor of San Diego. The scheduling change meant that he was not present. US House Rep Mike Michaud was Acting Ranking Member.
Acting Ranking Member Mike Michaud: I was troubled by the July report from CBS News that found suicide rates for our soldiers is up 80%. Our veterans are returning from war with invisible wounds that need treatment but are discouraged from seeking treatment for various reasons. As a nation, we can do better. We must get this right.
He was referring to David Martin's report for CBS Evening News (link is text and video) report on the suicide rate in July: "July was the worst month ever for Army suicides. Thirty-eight active duty and reserve soldiers took their own lives. Among active duty troops, 2012 could turn out to be the worst year ever. Behind the numbers are heartbroken widows who say their husbands sought help but couldn't get it." And as disturbing is the number of veterans suicides.
Over the weekend and through Monday, the Austin American-Stateman began publishing the results of their investigative series on veterans deaths. This was a six-month investigation focusing on the the deaths of Texas veterans and, in their overview article, they noted:
■ More than one in three died from a drug overdose, a fatal combination of drugs, or suicide. Their median age at death was 28.
■ Nearly one in five died in a motor vehicle crash.
■ Among those with a primary diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder, the numbers are even more disturbing: 80 percent died of overdose, suicide or a single vehicle crash. Only two of the 46 Texas veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with a PTSD diagnosis died of natural causes, according to the analysis.
■ The 345 Texas veterans identified by the VA as having died since coming home is equal to nearly two-thirds of the state's casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that only includes veterans who have sought VA benefits, meaning the total number of deaths is likely much larger.
That is from the overview article. The paper also offered "Suicide among veterans receiving less attention than active-duty deaths" which tells the story of Iraq War veteran Ray Rivas who took his own life on a day when his wife, Colleen Rivas, described him being in "good spirits" and notes: An American-Statesman investigation into the deaths of 266 Texans who served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars show that 45 committed suicide, making it the fourth-leading cause of death behind illness, accidents and drug-related deaths. That percentage is more than four times higher than the general population: Suicide accounted for 3.6 percent of all Texas deaths over the same period, compared with 16.9 percent of the veterans the newspaper studied.
Rivas o.d.ed "on sleeping pills in a parking lot." Iraq War veteran Eric Sessions died on his motorcycle and is part of the report entitled "After returning home, many veterans get into motor vehicle accidents" which finds, "Next to illness and disease, motor vehicle accidents such as Sessions' were the leading cause of death among the 266 Texas veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan whose histories were tracked by the American-Statesman. The motorcycle and car wrecks were responsible for 50 deaths, or 18.8 percent of the total ― more than suicides or prescription drug overdoses." The paper also offers "Which veterans are at highest risk for suicide?" The Military Suicide Research Consortium's Peter Gutierrez agrees that "relationship problems, legal problems, mental illness, depression" are the same in the civilian world and among service members and veterans but feels the civilian population is less likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury. Afghanistan War veteran KC Dobson's took her own life last year, "Her Army photos show a beaming, freckle-faced young woman in fatigues, her dark hair pulled back in a bun. But her smile masked what family members said was emotional and physical pain that dogged her throughout her deployment to Iraq and after her 2010 discharge."
For today's hearing, Senator Mark Begich was Acting Senate Committe Chair for the hearing and Senator John Boozman was Acting Ranking Member. One of the issues various groups -- and the American Legion is no different here -- is paying attention to is possible sequestration. What? What NPR has been calling the "fiscal cliff." Marilyn Geewax (NPR's The Two Way) observed this week, "Unless Congress passes legislation in a lame-duck session, taxes will be higher by a half-trillion dollars next year, costing the average household nearly $3,500 a year, according to a just-released report by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center." The VA is not supposed to be effected in terms of services to veterans. The White House has stated there may be some administrative shuffling or losses but it won't effect care -- if sequestration takes place. If it does, let's hope the veterans have been told the truth.
James Koutz: The American Legion understands our nation is in a budget crisis, the likes of which has not been seen in over a generation. First and foremost, our nation's veterans are deeply concerned about the national security in the face of drastic defense spending cuts. Equally important to the American Legion is protection of veterans and veterans programs administered in other federal agencies. Thank to the timeless work of this Committee -- and especially you, Chairman Miller -- Congress and the White House have reassured us that VA will be exempt from sequestration. Unfortunately, many programs that are important to veterans are funded by agencies outside the VA: Arlington National Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Joint Prisoners of War - Missing in Action Accounting Command and the Dept of Labor's Veterans Program, HUD and others. Veterans are seriously concerned these important government functions will be compromised or cut in order to make ends meet. [. . .] The American Legion has been promised that the budget would not be balanced on the backs of veterans. If cuts ot the Department of Defense erode TRICARE, diminish quality of life for our troops, or put more pressure on our National Guard and reserve components, it is clear that an unfair portion of responsibility is falling upon the shoulders of America's current and future veterans.
Based on what others cover (Ava plans to cover the hearing at Trina's site tonight, Wally at Rebecca's site and Kat at her own), tomorrow's snapshot may include other aspects of the hearing.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has shunned U.S. interests. He also pursues polarizing policies, which fuel sectarian and ethnic conflict between Iraqis. Baghdad scorns Iraq's constitution, preferring confrontation to power-sharing. It systematically encroaches on Kurdish territory, inflaming tensions along "disputed internal boundaries." The Iraqi government uses its security apparatus to trample the rights of Iraq's Sunnis and target political opponents. It acts as a proxy for Iran, facilitating the transfer of weapons from Tehran to Syria. In contrast, Iraqi Kurds are unabashedly pro-American. Not a single American has died in Iraqi Kurdistan since Saddam's overthrow in 2003. Iraqi Kurdistan has functioning democratic institutions, a vibrant civil society, and an independent media. While corruption is still a problem, Iraqi Kurdistan is less corrupt than most neighbors. The U.S. shares values with Iraqi Kurds, who are America's best and only friends in Iraq. The United States should deepen security cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). While Baghdad rejected a status of forces agreement with the United States, the KRG welcomes it. The Pentagon's sale of Abrams-A1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets to Baghdad should be cancelled. Such weapons will most likely be used against Iraqis, rather than to protect Iraq from Iran and other rogue regimes with which Baghdad has cozy relations.
I understand the point he's making but, to be clear, Jeremiah Small died in the KRG March 1, 2012. The 33-year-old American was there teaching history and English lit.
In non-violence deaths, Al Rafidayn notes 2 people in Sulaymaniyah died of cholera. Yes, it is time for the annual cholera outbreak in Iraq. It happens every year. The US press used to cover it, used to pretend to care. The World Health Organization explains, "Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It has a short incubation period, from les than one day to five days, and produces an enterotoxin that causes a copious, painless, watery diarrhoea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if treatment is not promptly given. Vomiting also occurs in most patients." In the science section of Monday's New York Times, there was an article on cholera. The best way to end cholera is potable water.
While Iraq's not seen vast sums used to rebuild basic infrastructure, Rudaw notes one segment Nouri's been happy to throw money at:
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is expected to visit Russia to sign a $5 billion deal to procure weapons for the Iraqi military.
A member of Iraqi parliament's committee of defense and security told Rudaw that Maliki is planning to ask the Russians to deliver 20 to 40 helicopters and a number of missiles to penetrate into mountainous areas.
Maliki's first visit to Russia as Iraq's prime minister has sparked different reactions across the country. Many Iraqis, especially Kurds, have voiced concern about Maliki's plans and are alarmed by what they describe as his "unilateral" and "autocratic" style.
Shwan Taha, a Kurdish member of Iraqi Parliament, said, "The arming policy is random and affected by corruption."
Taha said that, despite billions of dollars spent on arming the Iraqi military, "Iraq's weapon needs have not been met yet."
The weapons purchases are alarming some Iraqis. The possibility that Iraq might make significant purchases from Russia is also not going over well with the US government. But file it under one of Nouri's many problems currently.
Dar Addustour reports that last week's assault on the prison in Tikirt has resulted in searches of other Iraq prisons and the confiscation of smuggled cell phones. All Iraq News notes that 1 of the Tikrit prison escapees was arrested today. The news outlet notes that there are conflicting reports but as many as 250 prisoners may still be at large after last week's attack. Al Mada adds that Nouri's council of ministers decided that the protection of the prisons -- which is done by federal police -- should fall under the Ministry of Justice. The federal police fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior. Why the shift?
Who knows but what it looks like is Nouri's trying to hand off to someone to be the fall guy. The Ministry of Justice has a Minister heading it (Hassan al-Shimari). Nouri is the one heading the Ministry of Interior (and Ministry of Defense and Ministry of National Security) because he never nominated anyone to head those ministires. He was supposed to. The Constitution required not only that he present nominees to Parliament but that they be confirmed. But when you're the pet of the White House, laws don't really matter.
Further indicating that distraction is the goal, All Iraq News reports that State of Law MP Abdul Salam al-Maliki is claiming that they have evidence that politicians were involved in the Tikrit prison break. If they had evidence, they would have already presented it. This is more spin from Nouri's State of Law. As Iraqis are supposed to ponder which politicians could be involved, the hope is they'll be too distracted to notice what a complete and utter failure Nouri's government has been.
More problems for State of Law and Nouri, Wael Grace and Mohammad Sabah (Al Mada) report that there are splits in the National Alliance over the infrastructure bill. Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc has already made their opposition public. Grace and Sabah report that Irbrahim al-Jaafari, leader of the National Alliance, is also opposed to it currently and that there is talk of forming a new bloc.
I'm an old guy now, past sixty but not yet senior enough for Medicare, and I've been in the movement a long time. Younger people sometimes ask me what to do. After telling them not to respect their elders all that much --- we didn't respect them that much 45 years ago either --- the main thing I tell them is that movement leaders and participants back in the day had visions and horizons longer than the next election cycle or the one after that. They were prepared to fight whether they had allies in city hall, the legislature or the courts or not. Unlike today's NAACP and NAN, they developed agendas without the guidance of corporate funders and their recommended professionals.
We've proved we can elect as many Democrats as we want, all the way up the food chain without changing much here at the bottom. I know this well. I gave more than 20 years of my own life to electing better Democrats, helping Democrats run better campaigns, and registering more Democrat voters. I met Barack Obama 20 years ago on one of those gigs in Project VOTE Illinois, where he was state director and I was one of three field organizers who signed up 130,000 new voters and flogged them out to the polls that year. We elected Harold Washington, and a lot of state legislators and a few Congressional reps. The Democratic party will still let you work for it, but once in office, big money calls the shots. It's time to leave that house and build a new one.
It's an uncomfortable truth: the present US political system is largely people-proof and democracy-proof. The time and treasure we've sunk into supporting Democrats the last seventy years is gone. It's a horse we raised and watered and fed that somebody else has ridden off and it won't be back.
I still believe my voice and my vote mean something. Kwame Toure used to say the thing to do is find an organization you're in substantial agreement with and join it, or if it does not exist, start one and recruit your neighbors.
So I've joined the Georgia Green Party, and I'm recruiting those of my neighbors who still believes that unemployment and mass incarceration have to be addressed, that illegal wars and deportations must be stopped, that Wall Street must be reined in, and that gentrification and privatization have to be stopped. Most voters who call themselves Democrats, in fact millions of those voting for President Obama believe exactly these things already, but are substantially disinformed about what their elected officials actually DO.
I was at a demonstration in support of Chicago teachers Saturday, and some participants seemed to assume that the president was on their side, that maybe they could enlist figures like Rev. Al Sharpton to aid their struggle to mobilize people against the inroads of school privatizaters. It fell to me to tell them the bad news --- that Sharpton took a half million dollar bribe years ago to jump on the charter school bandwagon, that he toured the country with Newt Gingrich and Arne Duncan beating the bushes for high stakes testing and charters, and the administration is actually the enemy on this one.
Eventually they and many like them, if they want a party that stands up for what they believe, will have to become Greens. It's my job to make sure that happens.
So I'll watch the debates, sure. The crooks who run them won't let Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate on the same stage with the corporate candidates. So I'll watch Democracy Now's coverage, in which Jill Stein and another candidate in real time answer the same questions as they do. My colleague Glen Ford will be a guest at Occupy The Debates in Baltimore as well.
One answer to the lack of real discussions presented us by the rigged "commission" on presidential debates will be Occupy The Debates, a project undertaken by Occupy activists in multiple cities, in which a live meeting will entertain live questions from a live audience. Occupy the Debate's first scheduled public meeting will be in Denver CO, the same night as the first so-called "debate" between the two corporate candidates. Occupy the Debates will be streamed live on the internet that evening, and will include the participation of Black Agenda Report co-founder Glen Ford. Several occupy movements around the country are expected to follow suit and organize their own local events over the next few weeks. For more information on real debates on real issues, visit Occupy the Debates either on Facebook or at www.occupythedebates.org -- that's www.occupythedebates.org.