Thursday, December 20, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is moved to Germany, a spiritual leader is leaving Iraq, Iraqi children remain at risk, a new report on targeting journalists ignores Iraq, the House and Senate hold Benghazi hearings, and more.
US House Rep Mike Kelly: Ambassador Burns, when you talk about resources -- only 1% of the budget -- so what is 1$ of the budget? So what is our budget?
Thomas Nides: Our budget is $50 billion.
US House Rep Mike Kelly: Fifty-billion dollars.
Thomas Nides: That's right. Approximately 8% of the defence budget.
US House Rep Mike Kelly: Okay. So when people hear "1%" it doesn't sound like a lot of money but fifty billion is certainly a lot of money. When we talk about resources -- and I'm trying to understand because I've listened to a couple of different briefings, I've heard Mr. Pickering and Adm Mullen, I've heard you gentlemen today and think maybe you're not the folks that should be here because, as Mr. Johnson pointed out, you weren't really part of the decision making process. But what I'm trying to understand, what I can't get my mind wrapped around is everybody says this was a very unstable and highly volatile area. Then why, for God's sake, would we take out the best trained people we have? Why? Why did we move the SST team? Was it because of money
Thomas Nides: Well as you're aware, as we spoke about earlier --
US House Rep Mike Kelly: It's just a yes or a no. Was it because of money?
Thomas Nides: No, it --
US House Rep Mike Kelly: No, it wasn't because of money. Because we know the SST team really came out of the Department of Defense budget, right? So it didn't have anything to do with your budget --
Thomas Nides: The SST, as you are aware were in Tripoli and --
US House Rep Mike Kelly: No, I'm aware where they were. And I'm also aware that Lt Col Woods had begged to stay there. Mr. Nordstrom, the regional officer, had begged to stay there. Ms. Lambe said it wasn't because of money that they couldn't stay, somebody made a really bad decision. Now I don't have any idea of the voting registration of Ambassador [Chris] Stevens, of Sean Smith, Mr. [Tyrone] Woods, Mr. [Glen] Doherty. I have no idea how any of these folk registered. It's not a matter of it being a partisan issue. We have four dead Americans. I'm trying for the life of me to understand how, when we say, [. . .] You know what everybody says about the area? It's a wild west show, nobody's in charge. We're in a host country that can't supply us with the assets that we need? What in the world were we thinking? Why would we pull out people and make our ambassador more vulnerable? And who made the decision? And if neither one of you made the decision, say 'I didn't have anything to do with it.' Because, what I'm finding out in this administration is that nobody had anything to do with it. If you had anything to do with it, just say I had something to do with it and I made the decision.
Thomas Nides: No, we didn't. We did not have anything to do with it. That said we do need to make sure of --
US House Rep Mike Kelly: Okay. Are you aware of a GAO request from 2009 to do a review because they thought it was woefully -- a strategic review of our embassies were not taken and it was a strategic problem, a security problem, anyone of you aware of that? We had a hearing on October the 10th, the GAO said that to this day the Department has not responded or done the review. I find it interesting now we're going to do the review. It's a little bit late. So that hasn't taken place. Now, I want to ask you, in addition to the four dead Americans, how many people were wounded that night?
William Burns: I think there were three Americans who were wounded that night and one of the wounded is still in Walter Reed Hospital and --
US House Rep Mike Kelly: Just one of them?
William Burns: I'm not certain. I --
US House Rep Mike Kelly: Any idea of how bad they were injured?
William Burns: Yes, sir, the gentleman, our colleague, who's at Walter Reed was injured very badly --
US House Rep Mike Kelly: Very badly. Okay.
That's from this afternoon's House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas R. Nides appeared before the Committee to address the findings from the investigation by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Retired General Mike Mullen (former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) into the events of September 11, 2012 when the US Consulate in Benghazi was attacked and Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods and Chris Stevens were killed. There are two versions of the report -- the classified one and the unclassified. The unclassified version has been [PDF format warning] posted online at the State Dept's website.
Senator John Kerry: I also want to emphasize that every member of this committee felt the loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team in a very personal way. We knew Chris Stevens well before he came before us for confirmation. He had been a Pearson Fellow for Senator Lugar and the Committee. We knew the depth of his character, of his intelligence and his dedication. His death was a horrible blow in personal terms to the Committee as well as to the country and his family. It evoked an outpouring of emotion on our Committee from the condolence book in our office in the Capitol to the private gestures of members of this Committee who shared their grief in private ways at Senate 116 signing the condolence books, touching the picture, saying a prayer. Equally tragic was the loss of three courageous men whom I personally never met but whose families I had the chance to greet and hug when the military brought their loved ones' remains back, one last time, to Andrews Air Force Base. That heartbreaking and solemn ceremony brought home the impact of our nation's loss. Glen Doherty was a former Navy SEAL. He was also from my home state and I talked a couple of times with his family. Tyrone Woods was a former SEAL, Sean Smith an Air Force veteran, all people for whom service to country was their life. So today we again say "thank you" to all of them, to the fallen and the families. They all gave to our nation and we are grateful beyond words for their service and their sacrifice.
That was also today. No, the Senator didn't show up at the House hearing. John Kerry is also the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Burns and Nides appeared before his Committee this morning. The two were appearing in place of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had planned to attend but then passed out over the weekend, injured herself in her fall and is on doctor's orders to work out of her home. (Actually, she was ordered to be on rest. She got her doctor to agree to allow her to work out of her home.) Chair John Kerry noted that the plan was for her to now appear before the Committee in January (she can't appear this month, this was the last hearing for the Committee this year). US House Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the outgoing Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. (Outgoing because the Republicans impose term limits, she'll remain in Congress, she was re-elected in November.) Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen noted that Hillary is also scheduled to appear before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January.
A few observations about the hearings. Burns was a good witness. Nides was testy and combative in the afternoon (House hearing). That may make 'sense' to some. And if you want to be simplistic (and stupid) you can assume that a Democrat being in the White House, the witnesses had an easier time in the morning when a Democrat controls the Committee (Kerry) than in the afternoon when a Republican controls the Committee (Ros-Lehtinen). But that wasn't the case. (And both Chairs conducted their hearings professionally.) Nides was most testy when being questioned by US House Rep Russ Carnahan. Carnahan is a Democrat and an easy going person in a hearing. It was never clear why Nides decided to get rude but it was uncomfortable and Ros-Lehtinen tried to smooth it over after by thanking Carnahan for a photo of his grandfather (former US House Rep A.S.J. Carnahan) serving on the House Foreign Relations Committee decades ago. (Russ Carnahan is the son of former Senator Jean Carnahan who was appointed to the Senate to fill her husband's seat after Senator Mel Carnahan passed away while in office.) Repeating, there was no visible reason for Nides to have been rude to US House Rep Russ Carnahan.
It was not a good day for Democrats period. If I'm a member of Congress who got damn lucky that the FBI waited until after the election to round up a member of my staff who was a sex offender (waited until after the election on the orders of Homeland Security), I really don't think I'd be on a high horse about how much I value accountability. Especially since I didn't take accountability for providing a sex offender with the prestige to brag that he was working for a US Senator. So, if I were that member of the Senate, I think I'd try to keep a low profile. Fortunately, that's the only embarrassing moment for the Senate Dems in today's hearing. In the House? Four embarrassing moments. We'll note Priss-Priss. If US House Rep Gerry Connolly wants to waste everyone's time with crap, well let's hope his constituents hold him accountable. But in the halls of Congress, you're not a little girl or a boy going through puberty. No one needs to hear your voice breaking as you go higher and higher. Your mincing as you attempt to be rude hurts the ears and it doesn't come off stately or professional. And your mocking of other members of the Congress was extremely unprofessional and something you should be ashamed of.
US House Rep Jeff Fortenberry would later declare, "I don't care to be lectured to about the need to be bi-partisan particularly in such an intolerant and uncivil tone. Now this is an important hearing. There are serious questions here and to suggest that our motives are a ruse for political motivation to me is disrespectful and discourteous and I think unworthy of the levity of this important matter." Though he spoke much later (he was the last to speak), he was referring to Connolly. Fortenberry is correct that it was intolerant and uncivil.
One of the embarrassing moments in the House will be covered by Ava tonight at Trina's site, Wally's going to note money tonight at Rebecca's site and Ruth's covering the House hearing at her site tonight.
The Senate was more civil and more focused on getting answers to questions. There was no speechifying or pretending you were actually a spokesperson for the White House (that happened in the House hearing). Senator Barbara Boxer, if she's at the top of her game in a hearing, usually hits a note that others will pick up on in the weeks and months to come. It was Boxer who, in April 2008 (April 8, 2008), wanted to know why the Iraqi government wasn't paying for the Sahwa? She is the one who asked why these fighters who were paid to stop fighting the installed Iraqi government and the US forces were being paid by US tax payers -- $182 million a year. Had Boxer not raised the issue, it might never have been raised and the US taxpayers might still be footing that bill.
Near the end of her questioning, she slipped in the following.
Senator Barbara Boxer: May I ask one last quick question? Thank you. Was it appropriate to rely so heavily on Libyan militias to guard American personnel? How was that decision made and how do we avoid these types of failures? Are there standard policies and procedures for the hiring of contract guards? Was Libya an anomaly or are there other embassies around the world where we're relying on the same type of forces?
Thomas Nides: Well, as you know, Senator Boxer, we rely upon the Vienna Convention which we have for over 200 years. The reali -- the fact for us on the ground is to rely on the local governments to protect us. We can -- We have to do that because we do not have the ability to have enough troops on the ground and most of the countries would not allow us to so we are -- One of the tasks that Secretary Clinton asked us to do when we send out the assessment teams is to ask two very clear questions: A country's intent to protect us and their ability to protect us. Sometimes those two are different. And as we see what we refer to as the new normal, we have to constantly ask ourselves those questions.
Senator Barbara Boxer: Would you write to us and let us know if there are any other facilities that are relying on militia. Thank you. I thank you.
Again, when Boxer's at the top of her game, there's usually one key exchange that demonstrates where things are headed, how the issue will be seen by the Congress. It's very likely that is the big takeaway from the attack: Why are militias being used, should we be using them? (This will be addressed more in tomorrow's snapshot as we continue the coverage of the hearings.)
Thomas Nides was the disappointment from the State Dept. The report Mullen and Pickering came up with had a list of recommendations, twenty-nine of them in fact, as Nides would declare to the Committee. Yet he came before the Committee to talk about this report and its recommendations and he can't tell you how many items State has broken the recommendations down into?
This isn't a minor issue. Nides, "The Task Force has already met to translate the recommendations into about 60 specific action items. We have assigned every single one to a responsible bureau for immediate implementation and several will be completed by the end of the calendar year."
"About 60"? If the recommendations have been broken down into action items and these action items have been assigned throughout the department, he should know how many there are.
And if you disagree with me on that he should know the exact number and not "about 60" since he's testifying to Congress, then maybe this will change your mind. He also told the Committee, "Secretary Clinton has charged my office with leading a task force that will ensure that all 29 are implemented quickly and completely -- and to pursue steps above and beyond the board's report."
If he's in charge of that, he should know the exact number. Supposedly, these have been assigned. Then he should know the exact number. Not only because he was appearing before Congress but also because he's the person Hillary has tasked to be responsible for ensuring the implementations are made.
Senator Boxer had another important issue that might take over the one above so we'll also note it.
Senator Barbara Boxer: Secondly, the troubling thing here is that there were repeated requests to implement security upgrades in Tripoli and Benghazi and, as we look at this report, we know what happened. And I would like to know, do you intend to put it to process -- Sorry, to put into place a process that would allow for a second review of these requests by another body in the State Dept? Because it seems like what happened was the requests came and went to one particular individual or desk and then it never saw the light of day.
Thomas Nides: Senator, the answer to that is yes.
That's going to be it for today due to space issues. To move from the Congress to Iraq, let's note US House Rep Mike Ross. Roby Brock (City Wire) notes that the Democrat is ending his 12 years in Congress (he lost the election in November) and an interview he gave to Talk Business. Among the topics he discusses in the interview is Iraq, "I regret my vote on going to war in Iraq. I sat in the White House with the President [Bush] and I'll never forget what he said. He said Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and if military force is required, it will be 'swift' was the word he gave us… Look, there's evil dictators all over the world. There's no doubt Sadaam was an evil guy, but he didn't have nuclear weapons, he didn't have weapons of mass destruction, and you know America has paid the price through the loss of lives, through soldiers that are injured in ways that will forever change their lives, and through the enormous amount of money we spent which helped contribute to this debt that we have today. Fighting in that war, and like I said, there's evil dictators all over the world, but we can't police the world. I think had we not done what we did in Iraq, I think we could have perhaps been more focused on what we were doing in Afghanistan, which I certainly supported."
This week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has dominated Iraq's news cycle. Marco Werman (PRI's The World) spoke yesterday with Al Jazeera, PRI and the Christian Science Monitor's Jane Arraf about Talabani, who he is, the place he occupies in Iraq. Excerpt.
Marco Werman: So, Jalal Talabani, President of Iraq. Where did he come from politically speaking?
Jane Arraf: Well it's interesting that you use the term Kurdish warlord because he did actually come from a background as a fighter as all of the current Kurdish leaders of that generation did. He was a Peshmerga, fighter in the mountains and then beame a political dissident. And became one of the two leading figures in Kurdistan. He is, in many ways, an integral part of the history of that unique entity known as Iraqi Kurdistan which many Kurds would like to see known as its own country. In recent years, he's played a unique role in Iraqi politics as well. So he came from the background of a fighter but honed his political skills and is considered really one of the best politicians in the region.
Marco Werman: I mean, president in Iraq is really a mostly ceremonial role. How does he actually exert that kind of power?
Jane Arraf: Well Iraq lurches from crisis to crisis. And Jalal Talabani has, in many cases, been the man who has stepped in to try to play a mediating role and he's able to do that because in an atmosphere where relations are essentially toxic and posionous between the prime minister and other leading figures including Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Region. He manages to retain ties that are cordial enough to be able to bring people together which is a pretty tough thing in a place like Iraq. So he's brokered several recent agreements. The most recent one -- actually just a few days ago -- which is to bring Kurdish forces and Iraqi forces -- who had been coming to head in disputed territories in the north -- to the bargaining table. And he brokered an agreement to have them actually pull back. He's done that repeatedly over the years.
Marco Werman: Mmm. So what does his illness mean for Iraq's stability? I mean, if he's out of the picture for ahile, in a hospital for awhile, what happens?
Jane Arraf: You know, people have been expecting this for quite awhile. He's been in ill health. He has been hospitalized quite a few times -- including treatment in the United States. So, in a sense, the party and Kurdish politics have moved around him and perhaps moved a little beyond him. There will be a power struggle after he's gone. His son has moved back to the Kurdish region from the United States. There are other major players Barahm Saleh, the former Kurdistan prime minister. None of them have the weight, the power -- "weight" literally and figuratively -- the power and the stature really to take his place. And what a lot of people believe is that Kurdish politics and his own party will in essence be transformed and might not even exist for that much longer after he's gone.
Dar Addustour reports that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and his family issued a statement noting that they had been in contact with the office of and family of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to check on his condition and to convey their sincere concern for Talabani's health and their hope that he have a speedy recovery. Talabani is a Kurd and the first Kurdish president of Iraq. Rudaw notes that Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani posted the following on his Facebook page, "I am saddened by my dear brother and president Talabani's ill health and I wish him a speedy recovery. In following President Talabani's condition I am touch with the doctors in Baghdad." Qassim Abdul-Zahra (AP) quotes Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's Foreign Minister, stating today, "He is starting to regain his senses. He is able to feel pain, and this is a sign of progress."
Talabani went to Baghdad's Medical Center Hospital Monday evening. His office has used vague terms like "health condition." Others, including the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have stated Talabani had a stroke. He was being treated yesterday by a team of Iraq, British and German doctors. Deutsche Welle points out, "Questions remain about just how ill the 79-year-old is, although doctors say he has shown signs of improvement." Jaber Ali (Middle East Confidential) observes, "His departure adds however an element of uncertainty to the division that Iraq has been facing since the departure of the US army. In addition people are more worried because some officials have been suggesting that his condition might be more serious on a private note." People wonder because there's a pattern of disguising Talabani's health. As Ashley Fantz, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Hamdi Alkhshali (CNN) point out, "In February 2007, he fell ill and was flown to Jordan for treatment, and there were conflicting reports about what prompted his hospitalization. A hospital source told CNN at the time that doctors performed a catheterization procedure on his heart, but his family and aides denied that."
Under the constitution, parliament elects a new president and a vice president takes over in the interim. The power-sharing deal calls for the presidency to go to a Kurd while two vice president posts are shared by a Sunni and a Shi'ite.
But even that temporary step is complicated. Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, is a fugitive outside of the country after he fled to escape charges he ran death squads.
The other vice president is Khudair al-Khuzaie, who is seen by some as a hardline Shi'ite from Maliki's alliance.
Among Kurds, analysts said former Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Salih is favoured as a leader with ties across Iraq's sectarian divide. But there could also be a struggle within Iraqi Kurdistan, where Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party shares power with the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Behind the scenes, some senior Sunni political leaders have suggested they may present their own candidate for the presidency in a challenge to the Kurds, who some Arab leaders see as more loyal to Kurdish interests than Baghdad.
Sunni political sources said those names include Sunni Vice Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq and Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi.
BBC News summarizes their correspondent Jim Muir's take, "Because the PUK is so centred around him, there is nobody approaching his stature who would be acceptable both to Baghdad and to his Kurdish constituency as a replacement." All Iraq News notes that there are discussions among officials and a few are saying it shouldn't be a Kurd. The article credits the quota system (Sunni as Speaker of Parliament, Shi'ite as Prime Minister and President as a Kurd) to Paul Bremer. If that's correct, it's surprising. The first real election is at the end of 2005. That's Parliament. (Despite a false report by one outlet today, the President of Iraq is not directly elected -- that post and the prime minister are supposed to be voted on by Parliament.) Bremer was not beloved in Iraq when he was the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority and he leaves that post at the end of June 2004. So why would they follow some system -- not written into law -- that he set up? More importantly, he wasn't popular when he was in Iraq. He's even more unpopular in Iraq today as they live with the effects from his decisions and actions. So if he was responsible or even if he's wrongly seen as coming up with the quota system (he may have, I don't know), that system could be trashed in replacing Talbani. In fact, if he did create it or if he's thought to have, the quota system is more likely to be trashed.
Iraq is losing one leader for sure. All Iraq News notes that Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly of Baghdad's Chaldean Church has announced his intention to step down from his post. The 85-year-old Cardinal has headed the church since 2003. Kitabat notes that the January Chaldean Synod will be presided over by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri. Catholic World News adds, "The Pope has named Archbishop Jacques Ishaq as administrator of the Chaldean patriarchate until a new leader is chosen."
All Iraq News reports that children (plural, no number given) were injured in a Babylon bombing -- it was a landmine.
American ammunition may be the reason behind the mounting number of babies born with birth defects in Iraq, a study revealed. Accounts of children being born with cancer and birth defects have been highlighted in German newspaper Der Spiegel, where Iraqis who were interviewed were not sure of the explanation behind so many dead and deformed newborn babies in Basra, according to Al Arabia. "Some had only one eye in the forehead. Or two heads," Askar Bin Said, an Iraqi graveyard owner, told the newspaper, describing some of the dead newborn babies that are buried in his cemetery. "One had a tail like a skinned lamb. Another one looked like a perfectly normal child, but with a monkey's face. Legs of one girl had grown together, half fish, half human," he added. The report cites a study published in September in the Germany-based Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology saying there was a "sevenfold increase in the number of birth defects in Basra between 1994 and 2003. Of 1,000 live births, 23 had birth defects."
For more on the study by the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, see the October 15th snapshot. Tom McNamara (CounterPunch) noted the 2004 assaults on Falluja and the weapons the US used including white phosphorous, "A medical study conducted on Fallujah after the battles (Busby et al 2010) confirmed anecdotal reports of an increase in infant mortality, birth defects and childhood cancer rates. It found that Fallujah had almost 11 times as many major birth defects in newborns than world averages. A prime suspect in all of this is what the report calls 'the use of novel weapons,' possibly those containing 'depleted uranium.' The increase in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in Fallujah are greater than those reported in the survivors of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945."
17 November 2012 - Samir Sheikh Ali - "Al-Jamahir Al-Baghdadiya" editor in chief
14 November 2012 - Ziyad Tarek - Diyala TV
30 July 2012 - Ghazwan Anas - Sama Al-Mossoul TV presenter
2 April 2012 - Kamiran Salaheddin - Salahaddin TV
Turning to the US and veterans, Michael Coleman (ABQJ) reports that the Burn Pit Registry bill passed in the Senate today. We'll go into that tomorrow. Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office notes.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Murray Press Office
Thursday, December 20th, 2012 (202) 224-2834
Murray Bill to Ensure Dignified Burial for Every Veteran Passes Senate
Bill also includes provisions to improve veterans' benefits, including transportation assistance and the creation of a burn pit registry
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman
of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, applauded Senate passage of the Dignified Burial and Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of
2012. This House and Senate-negotiated package contains proposals from Democrats and Republicans in both Chambers.
The legislation includes provisions from Chairman Murray's original
bill to authorize the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to
furnish a casket or urn to a deceased veteran when VA is unable to identify the veteran's next-of-kin and determines that sufficient resources are not otherwise available to furnish a casket or urn for burial in a national cemetery. Under current law, VA is not
authorized to purchase a casket or urn for veterans who do not
have a next-of-kin to provide one, or the resources to be buried
in an appropriate manner. Earlier this year Chairman Murray and Ranking Member Burr, joined by U.S. Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL)
and Marco Rubio (R-FL), introduced this legislation after a veteran,
with no known next-of-kin, was buried in a cardboard container at
a VA National Cemetery in Florida. The exposed remains were discovered during a project to raise and realign headstones at the cemetery.
The Dignified Burial and Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012 would also
establish a registry for those veterans exposed to open burn pits while serving in
Iraq and Afghanistan and commissions an independent scientific report on the
health effects of such exposures. The legislation would expand and protect
access to VA services by furnishing eligible veterans with transportation to and
from VA facilities and provide transition assistance to eligible veterans and their
spouses outside of military installations.
"When America's heroes make a commitment to serve their
country, we make a promise to care for them,"said Chairman
Murray, following passage of the bill. "That includes helping them access VA facilities and providing them with a burial befitting their service."
The House and Senate-negotiated package also includes authority for restoration of the Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines and renames several VA facilities across the country, including the Spokane VA Medical Center, in honor of veterans and individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to veterans, to their communities, and to their country. The bill will now move on to the House of Representatives.