Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, September 24, 2008.  Chaos and violence continues including an ambush in Diyala Province, no provincial elections this year in Iraq, DoD announces the death M-NF forgot to, Friday's Democratic and Republican presidential nominee debate may be called off, and more.
Today Alissa J. Rubin (New York Times) reports on the Ministry of Trade in Iraq where "three high-ranking officials" and "[t]hree lower-ranking ministry officials" were fired. The firings did not sit well with some members of Parliament who had "collected the 107 signatures they said they needed to discuss a no-confidence motion against the trade minister" who instead remains in office. Why focus on the Ministry of Trade? Parliament's Integrity Committee chair Sabah al-Saadi explains, "The reason to concentrate on the Ministry of Trade is because it gives direct services to the citizens. People cannot live without food. It's not like electricity where they can buy power from private generators. Its' related to poverty and hunger."  Rubin notes of the rations, began under Saddam Hussein, that the quality of them has seriously declined:

The basket consisted of flour, rice, tea, sugar, salt, dried milk for adults and for children, cooking oils, lentils, chickpeas, soap for washing and laundry, and occasional extras, such as tomato paste or cake flour.
During the past three years, both the selection of products and their quality have diminished, many Iraqis say. Milk has been missing for much of the past three years, although it recently made a reappearance, and there have been cases of rice with bugs in it and stale tea.
Left unnoted is that the White House has repeatedly attempted to stamp out the rations and that each year has seen a reduction in the amount of rations handed out by the puppet government as they attempt to end the program incrimentally since they can't do it out right.  For example, from the December 4th snapshot, "The United Nations' IRIN reports that Abid Falah al-Soodani (Trade Minister) announced yesterday that, starting next month, 'the quantity of national food rations delivered freely to all Iraqi families will be futher reduced -- from 10 to five items.'  Now let's be clear, this isn't just halfing the food supplies.  He told the Iraqi Parliament that the five items provided will be provided in lower numbers.  Here's what's getting cut out: tea, beans, children's milk, soap detergent and tomato paste.  Here's what's getting reduced: rice, sugar, cooking oil, flour and milk for adults." 
Turning to US Congressional committees.  First yesterday's snapshot, noted the Senate Democratic Policy Committee's hearing on the corruption in Iraq. Dana Hedgpeth (Washington Post) reported Tuesday and noted, "In one scheme described by [Salam] Adhoob, Iraqi Defense Ministry officials helped set up two front companies that were to buy airplanes, armored vehicles, guns and other equipment with $1.7 billion in U.S. funds. The companies were paid, but in some cases they delivered only 'a small percentage' of the equipment that had been ordered and, in one case, delivered bulletproof vests that were defective and could not be used."  Yesterday the House Committe on Veterans Affairs explored the outreach efforts and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America's Carolyn Schapper was among those testifying.
Carolyn Schapper: When I came home I dealt with a wide range of adjustment issues, PTSD symptoms, rage, anger, seeking revenge, increased alcohol use, withdrawal from friends and family, depression, high anxiety, agitation, nightmares and hyper-vigilance.  My symptoms altered and grew over time.  I was not the person I used to be and I knew it.  I suspected I might have PTSD, but I could not figure out if I did, even though I searched endless websites.  Nothing was comprehensive, nothing spoke to me as an Iraq vet.  I even searched the VA website and it was no help to me.  I could not put the pieces of the puzzle together on my own.  The best way I can describe PTSD is feeling lost and disconnected, sitting in a dark hole.  It is very hard to compose yourself to the point of working your way through the VA maze.  Most people will not get help because it is so daunting.  Personally, I would still be lost -- or possibly worse -- if I had not had the dumb luck of running into another veteran who already had gotten help, and who pointed out that a Vet Center could help me start the navigation of the VA system.  Recently, when I first saw the VA's posters in the Metro, I thought it was fantastic that they were finally reaching out to veterans, instead of waiting for us to come to them.  I have seen the posters several times.  But I also had to ask: where was the VA two years ago?  When I really could have used it?  Because the VA is so late to the game there is a huge backlog of veterans who were not as lucky as I was and who have not yet found their way to the services they need.  There is a huge amount of catching up to do. I also recently read a copy of the letter the VA is apparently sending out in conjunction with this campaign that oulines several of these symptoms I mentioned above in one place.  The letter is good and comprehensive but I ask who is and is not receiving it?  I had not received it.  I also have some concerns about the way the ads are designed.  For instance, the phone number is hard to read.  A veteran in a crowded metro car is not going to want to draw attention to themselves by getting up and walking across to a poster.  If they can sit far from the poster and still see the number, it would be much more effective.  While these ads can and should definately be improved, I am certain that even this outreach will help a few lost souls.
Among the information that the VA needs to be getting to veterans is new changes.  Greg Zoroya (USA Today) reports, "The government plans to substantially increase disability benefits for veterans with mild traumatic brain injuries, acknowledging for the first time that veterans suffering from this less severe version of the Iraq war's signature wound will struggle to make a living."  Yesterday the VA issued a press release on changes in disability rating schedule for TBI and burn scars:
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today announced changes in the way VA will evaluate traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and burn scars for purposes of determining the appropriate level of compensation veterans receive for these injuries.
[. . .] 
Two groups of veterans may be affected by these changes.  The first group includes veterans who will be awarded disability compensation for TBI and burn injuries in the future.  The second group includes veterans already receiving compensation for these injuries whose disabilities are reevaluated under the new criteria.
The effects of blast injuries resulting from roadside explosions of improvised explosive devices have been common sources of injury in the conflicts in Iraq  and Afghanistan  and appear to be somewhat different from the effects of trauma seen from other sources of injury. 
And the VA also issued a press release regarding ALS:
Veterans with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) may receive badly-needed support for themselves and their families after the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced today that ALS will become a presumptively compensable illness for all veterans with 90 days or more of continuously active service in the military.     
"Veterans are developing ALS in rates higher than the general population, and it was appropriate to take action," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James B. Peake said.
Secretary Peake based his decision primarily on a November 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM) on the association between active-duty service and ALS.  
Today the Senate Veterans Affair's Committee held a hearing entitled "Cooperation and Collaboration by VA and DoD on Information Technology efforts."  "This is historic," declared chair Daniel Akaka calling the meeting to order explaining, .  Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense have been talking to each other, have been working together and here's another area that we're getting in where we're working together. This is why I said it's historic. Even in the waning days of this Congressional session we must continue to strive to improve care for service members and veterans.  An essential ingredient to reaching that goals is a sharing of personal health care information between the two departments."  Akaka said the goal was sharing medical information in real time.
The first panel was the Government Accountability Office's Valerie Melvin (Human Capital and Management Information Systems Director) who noted in her opening statements:
DoD and VA are sharing some, but not all, electronic health information at different levels of interoperability.  Specifically, pharmacy and drug allergy data on almost 19,000 shared patients are exchanged at the highest level of interoperability -- that is, in computable form; at this level the data are in a standardized format that a computer application can act on.  In other cases, data can be viewed only -- a lower level of interoperability that still provides clinicians with important information.
And she noted that a number of health care data is still stored only on paper. From her exchange with the chair.
Senator Daniel Akaka: Let me ask you, in your view and based upon the recent progress are VA and DoD on the right track for fully sharing electronic medical information by September 9th [2009]?  The date set by Congress.
Valerie Melvin: They are on an important track and I would say it is a positive track and a track in the right direction.  The concern that I have at this time is that the definition of full interoperability remains unclear.  In my statement, I made the point that VA and DoD had not yet defined an interoperability goal for us at GAO that's a very important step that needs to be taken from a standpoint of really knowing what it is that the department  intends to have in place by September 9.  I think they've made critically important progress as far as moving in the direction of interoperable sharing.  They are sharing at various levels of interoperability as I've stated; however, how much more they intend to share across what facilities and through across what percentage of their patients is still unclear.  So that once that's defined, I believe there'll be a better case for stating whether or not they'll be able to reach the September 2009 date for full interoperability.
Senator Daniel Akaka: Well, you just mentioned interoperability as being unclear, Ms. Melvin.  GAO identified that one of the major challenges for DoD and VA is the ability to develop common standards for shared data.  Please explain for the committee why these common standards are so necessary.
Valerie Melvin: I might start by saying that in developing standards, that's a difficult task, not just for VA and DoD.  Even at the national level at which the office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology is involved and which DoD and VA are involved with, identifying standards and agreeing to standards across multiple entitites -- in this case, two very large federal agencies -- is a complex task that does involve understanding the data that each agency views or deems as most important to meet their needs in caring for veterans and in caring for active duty patients.  But common standards are essential from the standpoint of allowing VA and DoD systems essentially to talk to each other.  At the very basic these standards are needed so that if you are talking about a particular type of medication, for example let's say an aspirin, in terms of sharing data and being able to have computerized data for example where we talked about being able to provide alerts for allergies to certain medications it's important that VA system be able to read an aspirin as aspirin and see that data in DoD's system and know that that's the same aspirin or the same type of medication.  At the same time, standards are important for establishing how data is communicated between those two computers.  For example, from the standpoint that there are standards for messaging, there are standards for establishing specific data elements -- for how data transmits, in what order specific types of information comes over to another computer or is read by another computer.  It's important for example that if VA's computer is looking at information for a patient and they are looking for a date of birth that they in fact -- that that sytems understands where to read that date of birth from DoD's information, that it reads it as a date of birth, not perhaps as a Social Security number.  So having standards allows those systems to have a common way to talk to each other and to make sure that they understand -- those systems can read the data from each other and produce results that are informative in making decisions.
Senator Daniel Akaka: I know you've made some progress in reaching the common standards of ineteroperability.  How far do the departments have to go in achieving these standards for shared electronic health information?  Are we a year away?  Or is it closer to five or ten years before complete standardization can be achieved? 
Valerie Melvin: That's really a question that the agencies will have to answer.  It really goes to the heart of the work that those agencies are undertaking and will have to continue to undertake to really establish what their needs are.  It's rooted in their need to understand what the user requirements are, rooted in understanding how best to serve their patient population and so knowing what their needs are will have to drive what types of data they want, will have to drive the harmonization related to that data and ultimately what they decide will be the standards that establish the specific data and how it's communicated.
So what all the above gets to is that the GAO thinks it is very unlikely that the VA and DoD will meet the date Congress has given them to be compatible with one another.  While that's in gridlock, Iraq's Parliament has news.  Corinne Reilly (McClatchy Newspapers) reports the Parliament has passed legislation for provincial elections.  Tina Susman (Los Angeles Times) explains, "The bill, approved unanimously by legislators, said elections should take place by Jan. 31, 2009. The date is later than U.S. officials had hoped. They have urged elections this year to more evenly spread power among Sunni Arabs, Shiite Muslims, and Kurds in areas where the division of power is lopsided."  Both note that Kirkuk was set-aside.  It will not hold provincial elections.  The oil-rich city will, instead, continue to be the prize the central 'government' in Baghdad and the Kurdish region fight over. Reilly adds, "The committee is to make its recommendations by March 31, and the parliament will then decide how to deal with the city."  Meanwhile Alaa Majeed (UPI) notes a Kurdish newspaper weighing in on the continued US presence in Iraq, "For the sake of the national interest and the independence of Iraq, the foreign military presence has to end as soon as possible, al-Ittihad newspaper of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said Tuesday.  In order for the withdrawal not to be disastrous The call for independence and full sovereignty is the least that people of any country demand to achieve in order to control their fate and their future. It is unsettling for the Iraqi people to see political and social powers deciding their will."
Hussein Kadhim (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad roadside bombing that injured seven Iraqis, a Baghdad car bombing claimed 1 life and left five people injured, a Mosul roadside bombing wounded tow Iraqi soldiers and a Sadiyah roadside bombing wounded three police officers.
Hussein Kadhim (McClatchy Newspapers) reports the Ministry of Interior's Abdul Karim Hussein and "his driver and another person" were wounded in a Baghdad gunfire attack, 1 Diyala Province kindergarten school guard was shot dead, 1 police officer shot dead in Diyala Province (one more injured) and an ambush "in Dulaimiyat village of Khan Bani Saad" [still Diyala Province] that claimed the lives of "12 national policemen and eight Sahwa members".  On the ambus, BBC notes, "Gunmen first attacked a checkpoint in the village, killing a policeman, officials said.  They then ambushed reinforcements, killing another 11 policemen and Sunni Arab fighters."  Al Jazeera quotes Dr. Ahmed Faud stating, "The bodies are riddled with bullets."  AFP notes, "The province has seen a spate of suicide bombings, several of them carried out by women, that commanders have blamed on the jihadists. On September 15, a woman suicide bomber blew herself up in a crowd of people during a feast in the town of Balad Druz in Diyala, killing 22 people and wounding dozens more."
Hussein Kadhim (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 1 corpse discovered in Baghdad.
Meanwhile 4171 is now the number of US service members killed since the start of the illegal war and 20 for the month thus far. That's one up from yesterday and, yet again, the count goes up via DoD and not M-NF. Repeating, M-NF is supposed to announce deaths, DoD is supposed to identify the fallen.
Turning to the US presidential race.  Joshua Frank offers a must read "Oppose Barack Obama? How Dare Thee!!" (Dissident Voice) about how "progressives" continue to express dismay with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama yet still continue to vote for him.  Frank runs through Barack's record including "Obama who says he wants an end to the war but has voted for its continuation and will leave troops and private mercenaries in the country to deal with the so-called insurgents -- even threatening to shift US forces to Afghanistan and Iran, where he's promised to bully our enemies into submission."  The cave on FISA, the support for the "Patriot" Act, the pro-nuclear, it's all there leading Frank to point out, "Obama has never been a true progressive.  He's another centrist Democrat that has done his best to appease all sides of the political spectrum".  Frank examines Norman Solomon "an Obama delegate at the convention in Denver and [who] sits on the board of Progressive Democrats of America, has an agenda: to usher Barack Obama into the White House because he sees John McCain as leading our country closer to the sacrificial ledge.  'Save the Country (read Empire) Vote Democrat' has become a common refrain among a certain segment of the left, one that echoes through progressive and even radical circles every four years like clockwork.  Go ahead and acknowledge their faults, they sing from on high, just don't you dare ditch the Democrats come Election Day, for the rapture will ensue.  Like others of his stature, Solomon has in the past dished out scare tactics in an attempt to threaten progressives into voting against their own interests, an approach not too unlike the Republican's who consistently undermine the concerns and needs of their base."  Frank goes on to demolish the fear card attempted re: Supreme Court and ends with a historical reminder.
GOP presidential candidate John McCain is in the news for proposing Friday's debate be called off.  McCain explains (McCain-Palin 2008, link has text and video): "America this week faces an historic crisis in our financial system. We must pass legislation to address this crisis. If we do not, credit will dry up, with devastating consequences for our economy. People will no longer be able to buy homes and their life savings will be at stake. Businesses will not have enough money to pay their employees. If we do not act, every corner of our country will be impacted. We cannot allow this to happen. Last Friday, I laid out my proposal and I have since discussed my priorities and concerns with the bill the Administration has put forward. Senator Obama has expressed his priorities and concerns. This morning, I met with a group of economic advisers to talk about the proposal on the table and the steps that we should take going forward. I have also spoken with members of Congress to hear their perspective. It has become clear that no consensus has developed to support the Administration's proposal. I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time. Tomorrow morning, I will suspend my campaign and return to Washington after speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative. I have spoken to Senator Obama and informed him of my decision and have asked him to join me.  I am calling on the President to convene a meeting with the leadership from both houses of Congress, including Senator Obama and myself. It is time for both parties to come together to solve this problem."
Ralph Nader is the independent presidential candidate and he writes of the economic meltdown in the US today:
I was up on Capitol Hill yesterday among the swarm of big bank lobbyists.

And the first thing I thought of was something my dad -- Nathra Nader -- used to say:

"Capitalism will always survive in the United States as long as the government is willing to use socialism to bail it out."

Dad was old school.
Dad emigrated to the U.S. in 1912 when he was nineteen.

(Here is a picture of Dad in 1978, leading a demonstration in Winsted, Connecticut, my hometown, to protest a Congressional pay raise.)

"When I sailed past the Statue of Liberty, I took it seriously," he would say.

Dad ran a restaurant in downtown Winsted -- the Highland Arms.

People used to say -- "At Nader's place, for a nickel you got a cup of coffee and ten minutes of conversation."

Dad didn't hesitate to skewer the greed of big business.

He especially opposed the drive by the chain stores to destroy family owned small businesses.

Dad was a man of many sayings.

"Congress is the best big business investment in the country," he would say. "It's one big leveraged sell-out."

When we were young, Dad would tell us:

"Don't look down on anyone and don't be in awe of anyone."

Or this one:

"Almost everyone will claim they love their country. If that is true, why don't they spend more time improving it?"

Dad knew early on that both political parties were under the thumb of big business. (Where did you think I got it from?)

Anyway, being on Capitol Hill yesterday got me to thinking about an idea that would help us push our substantive agenda onto the front burner of American politics.

A few years ago, I sat down at my manual typewriter and typed in 100 or so of my Dad's most memorable sayings and proverbs.

I thought you would enjoy having a copy of them.
So, here's the deal.
Our goal during this current fundraising drive is to hit $150,000 by the end of the month. (Thanks to your generosity, we're already at $36,000.)
If you donate any amount that has the number 3 in it -- as in -- we want a 3-way race -- by midnight tonight, we'll e-mail to you a collection of my Dad's sayings and proverbs.
That simple. 
Or $13.

Or $30.

But it has to have at least one three in it.
If it has a three in it, we'll e-mail you the 20 pages of Dad's sayings tomorrow.
You can share it with your friends and family.
Thank you for your ongoing support.
Together, we are making a serious difference -- and keeping our sense of humor.

Onward to November.
Ralph Nader

PS: And remember, if you donate $100 now, we'll ship to you a copy of The Ralph Nader Reader, a 441-page collection of my writings on Wall Street vs. Main Street, democracy, the corporate state, and our hyper-commercialized culture. If you donate $100 now, we will send you this diverse collection -- and I'll autograph it. (This book offer ends at 11:59 p.m. September 30, 2008.)