Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, July 16, 2014.  Chaos and violence continue, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee holds a hearing, we note the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing again, new calls for Nouri al-Maliki to step aside, and much more.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Since our last hearing there have been several developments related to the scheduling irregularities across the VA and its negative impact on patient care.  VA's begun to take the necessary steps to address the systemic problem and the corrosive culture that have been identified and substantiated by several independent sources.  However, these changes will not happen overnight.  And this Committee must provide the critical oversight to ensure those changes occur and are effective. [. . .] At the time of the May 15th hearing, there were several stakeholders who did not want to rush to judgment until the allegations surrounding Phoenix had been substantiated. Since that hearing, the IG released an interim report regarding the allegations of scheduling irregularities and a secret wait list at the Phoenix VA Healthcare System. Not only did the IG substantiate scheduling irregularities and a secret wait list at Phoenix, but the IG identified roughly 1,700 veterans that were waiting for appointments and were not included on appropriate electronic wait lists. The IG found that scheduling irregularities are a systemic issue across VA's healthcare system and this was not an isolated event. Additionally, the IG has received numerous allegations regarding   "mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment, and bullying behavior by mid- and senior- level managers at this facility." These allegations speak to the corrosive culture that has taken deep roots throughout the entire Department. Within a 3 week period, the Office of Special Counsel released a statement on VA whistle-blower reprisals and sent a letter to the President regarding VA's lack of responsiveness to OSC requests. In this letter, the OSC describes the Office of Medical Inspector's consistent use of  "a 'harmless error' defense, where the Department acknowledges problems but claims patient care is unaffected."

Senator Jon Tester prattled on about how more doctors were needed,  that the answer wasn't "scheduling more patients for the doctors." Prattled on really described the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee period.  Ranking Member Richard Burr, Senator Patty Murray and a few others had things of value to say.  But most offered platitudes.

I'm being kind, but "stay the course"?  That hoary, old trope?  And from a Democrat?

I'm being kind and not calling that senator out -- or even offering a name.

But that's what we got instead of anything of value.

Tester wants you to know the answer is not scheduling more appointments for doctors.

That may be what his words said in terms of text but the subtext was:  I don't do my homework.

There is a House Veterans Affairs Committee and a Senate one.  The Senate version has become a joke.

Senators being unaware of what the House has already addressed in their hearings does not make the Senate look any smarter.  Senator Mike Johanns made a passing reference to the House's Monday night VA hearing so at least he's semi-aware of the work the other Committee is doing.  One member of the Senate Committee did pay attention and we'll note that later in the snapshot.

On the House Committee, they have members who are doctors.

Jon Tester isn't a doctor.

Why is it that, for example, US House Rep Phil Roe is so much wiser on issues of medicine than Senator Tester?

Maybe because Phil Roe is also Doctor Roe -- a medical doctor who's had his own practice.

And that's why Tester always whines about the lack of doctors -- and he's whine about it for years -- but Roe's the one pointing out how much time VA doctors are forced to waste because the VA refuses to hire assistants who can work the charts and paper work and free up time that doctors can use -- can use, Tester -- to see more patients.

I'm all for more doctors.  But the VA's gotten everything it's asked for -- regardless of who was in the White House -- for over a decade now.  And Congress has given it to them.

Uninformed members of Congress like Jon Tester.

I'm not a medical expert by any means -- and Tester probably knows more about medicine than I do -- but I am smart enough to listen when a doctor speaks and go back and ask friends -- in practice at the VA and in the civilian world -- "These things Dr. Roe is talking about, does this make sense?"

And when I'm told repeatedly that, yes, they do, I start to get really irritated at people who just want to toss money at a problem as opposed to actually fixing it.

Let's note Senator Patty Murray, Chair of the Senate Budget Committee.  She serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office issued the following today:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                 CONTACT: Murray Press Office
Wednesday, July 16th, 2014                                                            (202) 224-2834
VETERANS: Murray Continues Call For Transparency, Accountability at VA
Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, delivered remarks at a committee hearing on the State of VA Health Care with Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson. In her opening remarks, Murray continued her call to address the systemic problems at the VA in order to ensure veterans are getting the care and support they deserve.
Full Text of Senator Murray’s Remarks:
“Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing. 
“As we all know, this is a critical time for the Department.
“VA is still struggling with major systemic problems, there are many vacancies in key leadership positions, and most importantly, veterans are still waiting too long for care.
“Secretary Gibson, as we discussed yesterday, I appreciate you stepping up during this crisis. 
“The Department needs strong leadership right now - because VA is facing serious challenges.
“Rob Nabors’ review identified several of these issues – which we have also been discussing here for some time.
“A corrosive culture has developed in the Department – one that is unworthy of VA’s many dedicated and talented medical providers who only want to help veterans.
“Management failures and a lack of communication is a problem at all levels of VHA. And VA needs more providers, more space, and  modern IT systems.
“As we continue to work in the conference committee to craft a final bill, I hope an agreement will be reached so we can send it to the President…
“And start making the changes needed at VA to get veterans into care, create transparency, and hold people accountable.
“The compromise bill will be an important first step.  As more reviews are done and more problems are found, we will need to take additional steps. 
“And while we continue working on these problems, we cannot lose sight of many other pressing issues. 
“Too many veterans still die by suicide each day, and sexual assault survivors still need help. 
“VA must continue to make progress toward the commendable -- and even more challenging -- goals of eliminating veterans homelessness and reducing the claims backlog.
“On a more positive note, Secretary Gibson, I appreciate your help in finally getting the money to build the Walla Walla State Veterans Home.   We have been working on this for a very long time. 
“Now, hundreds of veterans in the area will be able to access the long-term care they need.
“As I have said repeatedly here in this room -- when the nation goes to war, it also commits to taking care of the veterans when they return home. 
“Their needs are a cost of war, and we will provide for them – no matter what. 
“We know many veterans will need VA care for several decades to come. 
“Others will come to the VA for the first time many years after their service has ended. 
“So today I want to hear about solutions to these systemic problems, and smart ways to strengthen the VA for the long-term. 
“Because VA needs to be there for our veterans,  ready to help, right away, and every time.”
Meghan Roh
Press Secretary | New Media Director
Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray
Mobile: (202) 365-1235
Office: (202) 224-2834


Murray and Burr don't yammer away.  They're making real contributions.

So many on the Committee can't say that.  (And we'll be coming back to Burr later in the snapshot.)

In fairness to Tester, he brings tremendous knowledge of what rural veterans' needs are.  He has other areas of strength as well.  But when a doctor who serves in the Congress outlines how the VA is wasting doctors' time that could be spent seeing veterans, I think the Senate needs to be aware of that.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is suffering right now from grandstanding -- from people who rush in with their prepared soundbyte on veterans then quickly rush out of the hearing (a tactic US House Rep Barbara Lee resorted to repeatedly during the Bully Boy Bush years when she wanted to pretend she was anti-war).  It's cheap and it's tacky.  It might fool the media (or the media might just want to be fooled); however, veterans are noting it and this nonsense of showing up with your grand standing opening statements -- that are vague and full of meaningless applause lines -- and then ducking out is not playing well.

Let's close on the hearing with this from Senator Jon Tester insisted that some members of the Conference Committee "are balking at the cost. We just shipped 800 folks off to Iraq. I didn't hear one person talk about cost."  Well we did talk about the need for the cost to be addressed.  We talked about it here.  I noted it was outrageous that the Congress wasn't asking for dollar numbers.  But I don't serve in the House or Senate.

I didn't hear Jon Tester raise the issue of cost, let alone 'balk' at it.  But he is a member of the Senate.  So maybe he should have?

(And while he was bringing up the silence on that, the issue was being raised in a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.)

Equally true, Tester's been silent on thug Nouri al-Maliki.  Others spoke out against him -- and did so even if it cost them.  Iraq's Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi continues to live outside of Iraq.  As he has since the end of 2011.  Nouri issued an arrest warrant for Tareq, tried him in absentia and got Tareq sentenced to the death penalty at least five time.

The Sunni politician also stressed that the wider international community shared the blame for Iraq’s descent into chaos. Human rights organisations have documented the deterioration of human rights during Mr Al Maliki’s time in power, he said, “but all those countries that invaded my country in 2003 and talked about respecting human rights, transparency and democratic values, which Iraqis accepted, they did not follow up”.
Mr Al Hashemi, who raised eyebrows last month when he called the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, “a revolution”, reiterated that the extremists, known to execute their opponents and punish those who fall foul of their rules with flogging, amputation and crucifixion, was only the most visible of the Sunni militant groups fighting Mr Al Maliki.
“They are only one part of the spectrum in this revolution”, though “also the most influential”, he said.
Once Mr Al Maliki is out of the way and Sunnis regain a voice in national politics, they will shake off extremist groups such as Islamic State, Mr Al Hashemi said.

AFP reports on calls for thug Nouri to step aside and not seek a third term as prime minister of Iraq:

“That’s part of the solution. An important part,” said Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, spokesman for his father Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, referring to Maliki’s ouster.
“This is the point of view of the marja al-Najafi,” he told AFP on Monday, a “marja” being one of majority Shia Iraq’s four most senior Shia religious leaders, known as the marjaiya.

The most senior of the marjaiya, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, through a spokesman has already called for the “formation an effective government that is acceptable on a ... national level (and) avoids past mistakes”.

Mehmet Celik (Daily Sabah) observes, "Maliki had the chance to reconcile with Iraqis after the elections, where he promised to establish law and order, however, he chose to use state terror, violence, and exclusionary politics against the Sunnis and the Kurds. Thus, Maliki did not have the support of his people to defend Iraq. ISIS's forces are capturing cities one at a time and marching toward Baghdad, Iranian drones are flying over Iraq, the U.S. army is now part of the conflict, there is no legitimate law or order to govern Iraq, yet, Maliki has not resigned. "

We argued weeks before the April 30th parliamentary elections that a new prime minister -- someone other than thug Nouri al-Maliki (and someone not seen as Nouri's stooge) -- could provide a reset.

Violence would not vanish but the level of violence might decrease.

A new prime minister could restore -- even briefly -- hope that things might change.

That possibility is not open-ended.

And that's been demonstrated.  As the press kept calling Nouri the next prime minister after the elections -- despite his not winning enough seats to justify that call, violence in Iraq increased.

As hard as that was for some to picture happening in March when things were already bad in terms of violence, things have gotten even worse.

There's not a lot of time for a reset to work.

Equally true, the more weeks it takes, the more 'anyone' doesn't fill the blank.

The more weeks it takes, the more it will insist that someone like Ammar al-Hakim, Moqtada al-Sadr, Ayad Allawi, Ibrahim al-Jaafari or someone of that stature whose seen as seeing Iraq as a cohesive country made up of Iraqis -- not a loose confederation of sects -- will be needed as prime minister.

Time is running out.

The US government needs to strongly convey that and maybe they need to stop helping Nouri with his targeting of this group for a bombing and that group.  (I think they should for War Crimes reasons but I'm saying it's also helping to prop him up.)

All Iraq News notes KRG President Massoud Barazni informed Ibrahim al-Jaafari that the Kurds continue to reject Nouri as prime minister for a third term.

People, including the US government, better be listening.  While every other Iraqi leader (I'm not including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani) has suffered some form of setback in the last 12 months, Barzani hasn't.  He's actually increased his popularity -- and not just among Sunnis (and the USAID poll that the State Dept's silent on right now bears that out).

Nouri gets named prime minister, Iraq -- already on fire -- blazes even brighter.

And this can't keep up, you can't expect people to keep hoping and hoping and hoping.

It's time for the Iraqi Parliament to get a president and name a prime minister-designate.

Refusal to do is just going to increase the violence.

It's obvious that Nouri's refusing to go quietly.  The tension is mounting along with the fear over a third term of Nouri.

Margaret Griffis ( counts 51 dead from violence in Iraq today.  On violence, Iraq's religious minorities are being targeted. And the US has offered no one to champion the religious minorities.  Morgan Lee (Christian Post) reports:

The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore has called on President Barack Obama to fill the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, which has been vacant since Suzanne Johnson Cook resigned in October.
Moore specifically recommended that the President nominate outgoing Rep Frank Wolf, R.-Va., who has already announced that he will not run for reelection this year. 

The office remains empty as Mark von Riedemann and John Newton (Independent Catholic News) report:

The head of the Catholic Church in Iraq has warned EU leaders that Christians – present in the country for almost 2,000 years – could all but disappear unless the violence is halted. Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church – Iraq's largest Christian community – told EU representatives that unless a peaceful resolution is found, "Christians will be left with just a symbolic presence in Iraq. If they leave, their history is finished."
Amid worsening political turmoil in Iraq,  Aid to the Church in Need invited a delegation to Brussels headed by Patriarch Sako last Wednesday.

Accompanied by Syrian Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of Mosul and Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Youssif Mirkis of Kirkuk, the patriarch met EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy as well as members of the European Commission and Parliament.

Cassandra?  We've been that on many things here.  But an e-mail noted I was right about Patrick Cockburn and offered this column by Faisal J. Abbas.  I was 'right' about Cockburn -- he hates Sunnis -- mainly because Arabic social media has been on this story for years.  I started calling Cockburn out when a Sunni community member e-mailed.

To be clear, I did not 'discover' Cockburn's bias.  I did not lead the way on it.  We have noted it.  We have frequently been the only English language site to do so and that might be why someone's attempting to give me credit for it.


It's neither deserved nor earned.

Arabic social media caught on to Cockburn long ago.  They're the ones who raised the issue. So the credit goes to Arabic social media users and bloggers because they blazed the trail on that.  All I did was amplify their criticisms.  That's so minor it deserves no credit but applause for the Arabic social media community who refused to be silent in the face of Patrick Cockburn's bias against Sunnis.

Let's go back to today's Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.  Here, Ranking Member Richard Burr is speaking to Acting VA Secretary Sloan.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Mr. Sloan, I want to focus a few moments on data integrity and specifically at the VBA.  I want to give you a few examples of some testimony at the VA provided by the Office of the Inspector General and the General Accounting Office in a House hearing Monday night.  The Inspector General made this statement -- and I quote all of these, "We have concerns that VBA's goals are not realistic and [are] comprised by data integrity issues."  Quote: "We're receiving a number of complaints regarding mail mismanagement, manipulation of dates of claims and other data integrity issues in the Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Oakland and Houston VA regional offices.  And today we received an additional allegation regarding the Little Rock VA regional office.  We are concerned about how quickly the list of regional offices with allegations is growing."   Quote: "VBA removed all provisional rated claims from its pending inventory.  VBA's process misrepresented the actual work load of pending claims and its progress towards eliminating the overall claims backlog."  Quote: "An Office of Inspector General team sent to Philadelphia  regional office on June 19, 2014 determined that there were significant opportunities for regional offices to manipulate and input incorrect dates of claims in the electronic record, incorrect application of data claims compromises data integrity related to timeliness of claims processing."  Then there's this exchange that took place between Congressman [Gus] Bilirakis and the Assistant I[nspector] G[eneral] Linda Halliday.  Mr. Bilirakis said, "You remarked in your opening statement that VBA self-reported a decrease in the national backlog of more than 50% since March 2013.  Do you trust those numbers?" Ms. Halliday: "At this point, I would say 'no.'  I can't trust those numbers.  I think we have a lot of work ahead of us to address the allegations we've just received. They all seem to focus on data integrity and they need to be looked at very carefully so I don't want to say I trust them."  Near the end of the hearing, Congressman [Beto] O'Rourke asked Ms. Halliday, and I quote, "One of the things that you said in your opening comment that struck me was that some of the success may be compromised by data integrity issues.  Anything that Secretary [Allison] Hickey has said tonight that alleviates those concerns that you raised in your opening statement?"  Ms. Halliday simply responded, "No."

Monday night, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing.  We noted some of it in Tuesday's snapshot.  We're noting some of it today.  Grasp that what Ranking Member Burr noted of the hearing is important but that it's not even all of the important from that hearing.

Where is the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee?  Why aren't they doing a damn thing.  Not only was there the issues Burr pointed to, it was also true that the VA attempted to record agents of Congress as they questioned VA workers.  US House Rep Jeff Miller is the Chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.  Monday's hearing included a panel of whistle-blowers.  It also included a panel of VA officials including the infamous and notorious liar Allison Hickey.

House Committee Chair Jeff Miller: [. . .] I instructed the Committee staff to make a visit to the Philadelphia regional office on the second of July, 2014.  As of the 20th of June, specific concerns that we've heard some tonight had been raised on the management or more accurately mismanagement of that office.  And I did want our staff to spend a day on the ground to perform a technical review of some of the various files, view the office and meet with some of the individuals who work there.  This is a customary thing for our staff to do.  So let me run through what occurred on this unannounced visit. My staff alerted the office of Congressional Legislative Affairs of their imminent arrival at approximately nine o'clock in the morning and about 20 minutes later they arrive and are greeted by an employee of the regional office and they were accompanied to a conference room on the fourth floor.  Within moments of arrival, while waiting for the acting director of the regional office, one of my staff went to the restroom on the fourth floor and there was another individual who was in the restroom who had set a yellow notepad not far from the sink and when my staff member and when my staff member went by the sink, they noticed there was writing at the top of the page that was circled.  In fact, we've got a copy of it, I'd like to go ahead and post it if we can so everyone can see it.  Members you have a copy of this, it's the yellow legal pad.  And two names were circled at the top of the page.  Now these two employees were from the regional office and they both had acted as whistle-blowers to improper acts in the past.  Alright, my staff then looked at the remainder of the page and on it were written my staff members' names for information as their status for the Committee of Veterans Affairs.  And if you will notice about mid-way down, you'll see where the word "ignore" was followed by one of my staff member's names -- so you see the word "ignore" just, it looks like,  to the left of the pen.  But before I finish the timeline for the members' benefit, the person who exited the bathroom with the yellow notepad in hand was the acting director Lucy Filipov of the Philadelphia Regional Office and now the acting director had met with my staff later in the conference room and when requested who had provided notice of the visit, she stated she had not spoken with OCLA but instead had only spoken with Diana Rubins regarding the Congressional staff's arrival.  She then began the conference with two comments.  First, she said the Philadelphia regional office endeavors to do all  things with integrity and give proper benefits to veterans.  Second, she made a curious statement when taken in the context of Ms. Filipov's possession of the notepad with the name of two of our whistle-blowers at the top -- that were circled.  She said it's difficult to have employees or ex-employees who say we are not doing a good job.

Filipov then insisted that the Congressional staff would conduct any and all interviews in a third floor office.  Upon discovering the third floor office had microphones and recording devices, Miller's staff refused to use the office.

Chair Jeff Miller:  . . . You will not ignore this Committee anymore.  And  be on notice, you will not ignore our staff that is acting as this Committee's agents as well. The Committee has Constitutional oversight and I intend that it shall be carried out unhindered on behalf of the American public and on behalf of the nation's veterans.  If you look very carefully, if you put this note back up, there are some pretty derogatory comments that are on this.  [C.I. note: One Congressional staffer is called an "ass."]  Would anybody at the table like to comment about the comments that are written on this piece of paper?  Ms. Hickey, you're welcome to comment.

Allison Hickey:  Chairman, without question, without question, we respect the oversight of this Committee and your staff. What occurred on that day was not acceptable and not indicative of the normal ways in which Ms. Rubin might behave.  And I know that she has been on visits with your staff and even with members of this Committee before.  And I think if we reflect on those visits in the last year, you would say she did not repeat similar behaviors.  But I will not excuse it.  I have not excused it with her. And we -- And I will just tell you without question it is unacceptable and I offer on behalf of the Dept my sincere apologies to your staff who experienced it that day and my commitment that it will not happen again and that you will receive absolutely with open arms and full-leaning-in support anything that you need on any visit that you go on.

Allison Hickey is such a damn liar.

There's no nice way to put it.  And if you've endured her previous lying you not only understand why the American Legion called for her resignation in May, but you know she never stops lying.  She lies to Congress about numbers -- numbers they have before them and she lies about them.

She's said to be the 'brain' behind the con game (slap a  partial rating on a disability claim -- any rating at all, call the claim done even though it's going to be appealed because the appeals don't count towards the backlog).  She certainly was in charge of selling it to Congress.

She's just a liar.

Chair Miller noted Diane Rubin came to the Committee and lied that she wasn't involved in any of it.  Miller asks Hickey what she thinks of that and Hickey -- with a trembling voice -- insists that Rubin was there to make an honest apology.  No, there's nothing honest about it was someone else's fault.  Or someone else called the staff member an "ass."  Hickey admits, in the exchange, that Rubin did do that, called the staff member and an "ass" and much more.  But Hickey refuses to call Rubin a liar when asked about Rubin trying to pass that off, to the Committee, as someone else having said it, not her.

Chair Jeff Miller:  Ms. Rubens came to our Committee offices and when she did, she did not apologize for that.  What she said was, she had told the acting director to ignore what other people might be saying about my staff.  And you're telling me this person is still employed?  Even though she gave a directive to not tell an agent of this Committee what was happening at the regional office?

Allison Hickey:  Chairman Miller, I will say again without question, without question, we respect the oversight of every single one of you on this Committee and in these hallowed halls

I'm not interested in her damn lies.  She lies over and over.

She should have been fired long ago but she's part of the corruption and the lies of the VA and that she thought she would get away with lying yet again?

Chair Jeff Miller responded, "So I'll take that as a 'no' that Ms. Rubens did not lie, even though she did.  Again, your commitment is appreciated but it is not believed."  Nothing Hickey says is to be believed.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Under Secretary Hickey was the one that testified for the VA and despite her testimony -- which was refuted by the Inspector General  and the GAO -- the VA put out a press release the very next day entitled "VA Takes Action to Ensure Data Integrity of Disability Claims" in which the VA touts that it's reduced the backlog claims by 55%, has reduced the number of days it takes to process claims and has improved its accuracy rate to over 90%.  Now listen, you've said that you've got to gain the trust of the Committee, of the veterans, of the country and I think we agree with you.  Let me ask you, how smart was that press release? Did you sign off on that press release?  And how can numbers that are refuted by the people that are actually doing the investigation of VA facilities -- how can they refute the numbers and the next day VA come out with the same [false] numbers and tout them?

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson: Senator, I think, as you've noted, trust is the foundation of everything we do and where there are questions about what -- about data integrity, I think we've got to bore into those very deeply.  There are a number of issues that have been raised there.  I could sit and go through and pick at an item or two but the fundamental issue remains that there is -- there are questions about whether or not we've got good  data integrity there.  And just as we are undertaking independent reviews in the VHA side, we'll undertake those in the VBA side.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Mr. Secretary, they've been under way.  Much of it initiated by members of this Committee with the Inspector General, with the General Accounting Office.  And you've acknowledged the shortcomings on the VHA side.  This is fresh, this is this week.  And still the press releases stresses that the VA will continue to post these performance data on their website.  How does publicizing suspect data increase the integrity and the trust -- 

Gibson interrupted and began sharing his personal backstory.  The name of this website is The Common Ills -- not The James Boswell.  So we'll leave it to someone else to tell the tale of Sloan Gibson.