Thursday, May 6, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, a reporter is kidnapped and murdered, the US Congress hears about economic programs for injured service members, what did England ask the International Red Cross to investigate, and more.
Sardasht is a city in Iran with a largely Kurdish population. It's in the northwest region of Iran which put it close enough to Iraq that Saddam Hussein would attack it with a fly over that dropped chemical weapons back in 1987. Sardasht Osman was an Iraqi journalist who disappeared earlier this week while reporting with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He was kidnapped. AFP reports his corpse was discovered this morning and his family has buried him. He was 23-years-old, a college student (kidnapped from Salaheddin University) and he reported for Ashtiname magazine. Kurdish Media notes that Kamal Rauf, Ahmad Mira, Asos Hardi and other Kurdish journalists have issued a statement which includes:
To kidnap a journalist in the regional capital; taking him outside the Kurdistan region; and killing him, raises serious questions. This act cannot be done by one person or small group of people. That is why we believe in the first instance that the Kurdistan Regional Government and the security forces should take the responsibility. We must take maximum step to find this perpetrators responsible. [. . .] We, as a group of Kurdistan's writers and journailsts, believe that kidnapping and threatening of journalists have increased rapidly, and cannot be accepted anymore.
Reporters Without Borders condemns the murder:
Reporters Without Borders voiced concern about the decline in the press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan in a release yesterday, noting that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two parties that control the region, seemed to have reached an agreement to muzzle the press and restrict the freedom of journalists as much as possible.
"Many reports and op-ed pieces have been published in which Kurdish journalists and intellectuals are unanimous in voicing their concern about the current situation and their determination to defend press freedom," yesterday's press release said (http://en.rsf.org/irak-parties-in-ruling-coalition-agree-05-05-2010,37382.html).
The city of Erbil, where Osman was kidnapped, is mostly controlled by the KDP, whose leader, Massoud Barzani, is Kurdistan's President. His son, Masrur Barzani, heads the KDP's security services.
Osman is the first journalist to be murdered in Iraqi Kurdistan since Soran Mama Hama, who was gunned down outside his home in Kirkuk on 21 July 2008. Aged 23 (like Osman), he wrote articles critical of local politicians and security officials for the magazine Leven. He had repeatedly been threatened and warned to stop his investigative reporting but his courage and professionalism pushed him to continue (http://en.rsf.org/iraq-journalist-gunned-down-in-kirkuk-22-07-2008,27900.html).
Iraq's Journalistic Freedoms Observatory calls for the KRG to conduct an investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Osman. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement which includes:
Authorities in both cities must conduct a thorough investigation into the murder of Sardasht Osman and bring those responsible to justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Unidentified gunmen approached Osman on the campus of the University of Salahadin in Arbil, where he was a final-year English student, beat him and dragged him into a white passenger car, said Rahman Gharib, a representative of the Metro Center, a local press freedom group. Police in nearby Mosul found his body with his university ID shortly after midnight today, Gharib added.
We'll come back to Iraq later in the snapshot but right now we'll head over to DC.
"During the 110th Congress," Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin declared this morning, "we held a series of hearings that focused on employment opportunites for veterans. These hearings included the VR&E programs that seek to assist our injured service members and help veterans obtain employment after their military service. As a result of those productive hearings, we were able to expand the VR&E programs by authorizing the VA Secretary to provide waivers for severaly injured veterans seeking to participat in the Independent Living Program, increasing the cap for participation in the Independent Living Program, requiring the VA to report to Congress on the measure to assist veterans participating in VR&E and authorizing a multi-year longitudinal study on VR&E. Today's hearing will allow us to learn more about what the Administration is doing to implement these new changes and to address the concerns raised over the past year."
She was bringing to order a hearing of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. She is the chair and US House Rep John Boozman is the Ranking Member and he used his opening statements to share a concern, "In short I'm very concerned about the time it takes to enter rehab. According to VA data, it takes an average of about 54 days to determine eligibility, 118 days to develop a rehab plan and 200 days to find a job following completion of the customized rehab program. That's 372 days. That does not include the average of 615 days spent completing the rehab program which brings the total average time in rehab to employment to 987 days."
VR&E is the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program and each veteran (or qualifying active duty service member about to be honorably discharged) receives their own plan which focuse on either/or/both employment and life goals. Both the veteran and the Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor sign off on the plan which can be updated. Ruth Fanning, of the VA, was the first panel and she explained, "VR&E's primary mission is to assist veterans with disabilities that are service related to prepare for and obtain sustainable employment. Robust services are individually tailored to each veteran's needs. Services begin with a comprehensive evaluation to help Veterans with understanding their interests, aptitudes and transferable skills. Next, vocational exploration focuses veterans' potential career goals with labor market demands, available training, and individual needs and preferences."
Fanning also noted in her opening remarks that the first job many veterans -- true whether they return with a disability or not -- accept will be a "transitional job" that they take while making plans for the future. Or for making ends meet.
She expanded on that in response to questions from US House Rep Thomas Perriello, "Often times, the first job, as well all know, isn't the right job or the best job. And we do know that veterans want to -- they tell us that they want to get a job immediately after discharge just to normalize themselves back into civilian life."
Last night, Betty wrote about NPR's The Story which featured Iraq War veteran Javorn Drummond as the guest for the first half-hour. Host Dick Gordon explained that "20% of those who come back from war are coming back to no work." Drummond shared his story which included a rough re-adjustment to civilian life, a lack of interest about the Iraq War from people he encountered and a rotten job market. His transition job, while he devised his long-range gaols, was at a pig slaughter house in North Carolina. He is now in college on the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
We'll note this portion of today's hearing.
Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: I guess the question is there does seem to be some concern among veterans about the average time it takes once they submit an application to start receiving services and I'm wondering if that tracks with the uptick you've seen
Ruth Fanning: We've seen a slight uptick in terms of our goal for making an entitlement decision. We're within 10% of the goal. We're not currently at the goal, we're about 10% over. The same is the case with the phase to develop a rehabilitation plan and there is overlap with those two cycles. They're not linear in that the entilement ends and then the evauation portion starts. There's some overlap in those - those two cycles. But there is a slight uptick. We're still -- within 10% is not bad. It's something we can get down. And we're actively working with the Office of Field Operations and with our staff to try to reduce that timeliness. And I can tell you that's part of my reason behind launching into the BPR and looking for ways to streamline. I think that some of the paperwork could be reduced and that could make the timeliness a little more effective. I would like to also mention that the time to develop a rehabilation plan which currently we're allowing 105 days is -- so just three and a half months approximately -- that there is always going to be a need for some time on average for that process. We're working with veterans to look at the labor market, to understand their skills and aptitudes, to understand their interests, to understand the transferable skills that they bring to the table and how they can build on those, to understand all the options that they have for their futures and then to make some decisions. That is a process. And so we don't want to be prescriptive and tell a veteran when he comes in the door what job he or she should seek. We want them to go through that process and make informed decisions that is best for them. So there always will be some time in that process because it's a counseling process. Now, saying that, do I think it could be shortened? I do. And that's somethng that I'm very committed to finding every way possible that we can make it shorter because if a veteran comes to us who's not employed and needs work, I don't want him to wait three months. I don't want him to wait three weeks if we can avoid it. We want to get services started as quickly as we can.
Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Well I appreciate that and, you know, you had responded to a question from Mr. Perriello about the transitional jobs. And your response was, you know, very impressive in terms of the recognizing that that often times is not a good fit, that transitional job, and the importance of keeping the veteran sort of looped back into your program. Do you track that somehow? I mean is the transitional job separate from the rehabiliation plan and the career development stage? Is this just what they go through TAP, maybe your office, your program helps identify that transitional job. Are they in the transitional job during the time that they're working to develop a rehabilitation plan?
Ruth Fannning: Uhm, a good majority of veterans in voc rehab are in transitional jobs. Most of them -- even if they're only supporting themselves -- and a good majority of them have families -- they need to work even if they're pursuing voc rehab. As generous as the VR&E program is, the stipend that we have is not sufficient to pay rent and buy food and pay all the expenses of daily life. So most veterans are working -- at least part-time -- some in work study programs, some in transitional full time jobs. Obviously, obviously from a rehab counselor perspective, some kind of work that's continuing to build their resume is a good thing. But we don't want -- ideally we don't want to see someone having to work full time while they're in college. It extends the period of time before they can really get into that right career.
Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Okay.
Ruth Fanning: So a happy medium would be good but we recognize and understand that veterans need transitional jobs. If we're helping them find them, or we're working with DoL [Department of Labor] in that process, what we're focused on is: Let's make sure it's a job that's aligned with the ultimate career goal so that it's a job that will make them more marketable when they are ready to enter that career.
Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: And I guess, let me ask one more question before recognizing Mr. Bilirakis, when and how does the VR&E program determine or declare as such that a veteran's been rehabiliated?
Ruth Fanning: We track suitable employment first of all. So many veterans actually enter suitable employment while they're still in training and that's the ideal scenario. They are hired as a co-op and they're completing college and also in the job leading toward the job that they really want. A lot of veterans get jobs in their last semester of college, when they're ready to graduate. So as soon as they enter suitable employment, we start tracking it in our data system. We don't declare a veteran rehabilitated until they've completed the goals of their program and we can determine that they are suitably employed and that the employment is stable. And for at least a sixty day period. So a veteran may graduate on May 1st, get a job on June 1st. Maybe they have some initial bumps in the road and we learn that they need some adaptation or some kind of accomidation on the job. We assist with that. Once that stability has been gained, then sixty days beyond that point, we can close the case as rehabiliated.
The US Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is chaired by Senator Daniel Akaka and his office notes:
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, held an oversight hearing yesterday on the state of care for troops and veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury. Akaka praised VA and DOD for making significant progress since a hearing on this issue in 2007, but cautioned that serious obstacles remain in providing the seamless, quality care that is needed by those suffering from what has become the signature wound of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Just a few years ago, the government knew very little about how to treat troops and veterans suffering from TBI. Since then, TBI care has improved dramatically, but we must continue to improve timeliness and enhance partnerships between the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense and the private sector. As long as we have any veterans with undiagnosed TBI, any partnerships with community providers left untapped, or any research left undone, there is still work to do," said Akaka.
More information about the hearing including statements, testimony and the webcast is available here: veterans.senate.gov
You can also refer to yesterday's snapshot which covered some of Senator Jon Tester's remarks in the hearing and Chair Akaka's exchange with DoD's Dr. Michael Jaffee.
Returning to Iraq, let's pick up on some of today's reported violence.
Reuters notes a Baghdad roadside bombing claimed 2 lives and left four people injured, a Kirkuk grenade attack which injured two people and a Tuzkhurmato roadside bombing attack on "a Kurdish security official" which left one of his bodyguards injured and also wounded two bystanders.
Reuters notes the corpse of Abdul-Salaam Hassan was discovered in the trunk of a Baghdad car yesterday.
Noting Abdul-Salaam Hassan, Borzou Daragahi (Los Angeles Times) wonders if the violence of the 'civil war' period is returning to Iraq: "It was the latest in a mysterious string of assassinations and attempted killings of prominent Iraqis that hark back to the bad days of Iraq's sectarian and political violence." Daragahi notes that some sort of intelligence network appears to have been set up for the targeting to be as successful as it appears to be. An Iraqi correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers notes the political cartoons on various violent targetings.
Serage Malik (The National Newspaper) observes, "In Iraq there is now a palpable feeling that the clock has, in some sense, been turned back and that the country may have finally slipped into the kind of sectarianism it appeared to be on course to escape just one year ago." Now? Malik's referring to this week's big post-election news of the power-sharing coalition between the Shi'ite political parties State of Law and Iraqi National Alliance. Michael Hastings (The Hastings Report, True/Slant) offers a similar thought, "I doubt, too, if there will be much incentive for the Shiite government to start sharing more power with their Sunni rivals once the Americans leave. In fact, I expect the opposite–Maliki(or whoever else takes over) will likely continue to eliminate any political opposition, by both political(banning alleged Baathists etc) and martial(arresting, exiling, killing) means." Babk Dehghanpisheh (Newsweek) feels the coalition-sharing move means the three vying for prime minister now are: Ibrahim Jafari, Jafar al-Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki. Many wags consider Nouri now effectively shut out. Would that Iraq could be so lucky. (Betty shared her thoughts on Iraq's p.m. Tuesday night.) Tariq Allhomayed (Asharq Alawsat Newspaper) sees traces of Iran's fingertips in the merger and writes of "a Western official" who declares that the US has "handed over Iraq to Iran" which Allhomayed notes was first stated openly by "the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal when, in the presence of then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he said that America had handed Iraq to Iran on a golden platter. A well-informed Saudi told me that the Americans, Rice in particular, were very angry that day, however today Prince Saud al Faisal's words have been confirmed decisively." Robert Dreyfuss (The Nation via Middle East Online) offers:
The announcement on Tuesday that Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq has joined with the pro-Iranian coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, to seek to form Iraq's next government is the direct result of an intervention in Iraqi politics by Iran's ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi. "The Iranian ambassador met with the Shiite parties a week ago, and he told them that Iran considers it a matter of its national security that the Shiites put aside their differences to form a government," Aiham Alsammarae, a former Iraqi minister of electricity, told The Nation. "He told them, 'Whatever you have to do, do it.'"
The Iran-backed agreement creates an enormous political problem for President Obama and his administration. Not only do the events in Iraq underscore the importance of getting talks with Iran back on track, but they raise the chances that civil war could once again break out in Iraq.
Meanwhile, though both the US and UK government continue to disavow any responsibility or culpability for the huge rise in birth defects in Iraq, Robert Verkaik (Belfast Telegraph) reports that, in 2009, the British government approached the International Red Cross and asked them to examine the issue:
The legal case, which is being prepared for the High Court by Public Interest Lawyers, raises questions about the UK's role in the US-led offensive against the City of Fallujah in 2004 in which hundreds of Iraqis died.
After the battle, in which it is alleged that a range of illegal weaponry was used against the civilian and insurgent population, evidence has emerged of large numbers of children being born with severe birth defects.
Monday's snapshot included: "While we're mentioning Al Jazeera, please note that Annie Lennox was Riz Khan's guest on the latest Riz Khan's One on One which began airing Friday. She wears the HIV Positive t-shirt in the interview and CBS News explains the story behind that. With one minor detail everyone's missed. Trivia question to be answered in tomorrow's snapshot: What music peer of Annie's (in the eighties when she was with Eurythmics) declared publicly that he was going to do something similar to raise awareness but then let it slide? Answer in tomorrow's snapshot." I forgot it on Tuesday. I did remember it yesterday but we ended up having to pull it when other issues had to be added and I had to redictate a portion of yesterday's snapshot. My apologies. The other person who was going to raise awareness with a similar shirt but didn't follow up? Boy George. And those needing a source, look up a 1987 article Kris Kirk wrote on Boy George. (It could be any variety of British publications -- Kris wrote for many -- including Melody Maker or Gay Times. I heard the story from Kris himself many years ago.) (Kris Kirk was a highly influential music critic and he passed away in 1993 from HIV complications.) In the article, Boy George is trashing a variety of people (I'm sure Kris included Boy George's non-stop trashing of George Michael because it included printables and unprintables). (I know and like George Michael and he gets a link. Boy George? As I said, George Michael gets a link.)
In other news, Blood Money makers KBR has more problems. The Justice Dept issued the following yesterday:
Department of Justice
Office of Public Affairs
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
U.S. Intervenes in Suit Against KBR and Panalpina Alleging Kickbacks Under the False Claims Act
Allegations of Kickbacks and Overbilling Related to Logistical Support in Iraq
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has intervened in a whistleblower lawsuit against Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), Panalpina Inc. and others that alleges that employees of two freight forwarders doing business with the companies provided unlawful kickbacks to KBR transportation department employees. KBR is the prime contractor under the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP III) contract for logistical support of U.S. military operations in Iraq. The whistleblowers also allege overbilling by a KBR subcontractor in the Balkans, Wesco, under a military contract.
The United States is pursuing allegations that the two freight forwarders, Eagle Global Logistics (which has since merged with TNT Logistics and become CEVA) and Panalpina provided unlawful kickbacks in the form of meals, drinks, tickets to sports events and golf outings to KBR employees. The government will seek damages and penalties under the False Claims Act and common law, as well as penalties under the Anti-Kickback Act. The United States has declined to intervene in the remaining allegations of the relators' suit.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas under the qui tam or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act by David Vavra and Jerry Hyatt who have been active in the air cargo business–the industry relevant to the case. Under the qui tam or whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, a private citizen, known as a "relator," can sue on behalf of the United States. If the suit is successful, the relator may share in the recovery.
"Defense contractors cannot take advantage of the ongoing war effort by accepting unlawful kickbacks," said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. "We are committed to maintaining the integrity of the Department of Defense's procurement process."
The United States previously intervened in and settled the relators' allegations that EGL included non-existent charges for war risk insurance in invoices to KBR for air shipments to Iraq, costs that KBR passed on to the Army. Two EGL employees pleaded guilty to related criminal charges. EGL paid the United States $4 million in the civil settlement.
The government also intervened in and settled the relators' allegations that EGL's local agent in Kuwait, a company known as Al-Rashed, overcharged it for the rental (or demurrage) of shipping containers. The United States resolved potential claims arising from that matter against EGL for $300,000. Finally, EGL paid the government $750,000 to settle the relators' allegations that the company provided kickbacks to employees in KBR's transportation department. Former EGL employee Kevin Smoot and former KBR employee Bob Bennett pleaded guilty to related criminal charges in federal court in Rock Island.
This case is being prosecuted as part of a National Procurement Fraud Initiative. In October 2006, the Deputy Attorney General announced the formation of a National Procurement Fraud Task Force designed to promote the early detection, identification, prevention and prosecution of procurement fraud associated with the increase in government contracting activity for national security and other government programs. The Procurement Fraud Task Force is chaired by the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division and includes the Civil Division, United States Attorneys' Offices, the FBI, the U.S. Inspectors General community and a number of other federal law enforcement agencies. The Defense Criminal Investigative Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation participated in the investigation of this matter. This case, as well as others brought by members of the task force, demonstrates the Department of Justice's commitment to ensure the integrity of the government procurement process.
The case is United States of America ex rel. Vavra, et al. v. Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., et al., C.A. No. 1:04-CV-00042 (E.D. Tex.).
Tony Capaccio (Bloomberg News) reports that shortly after the Justice Dept announced the above, the US Army announced they were awarding KBR "a no-bid contract worth as much as $568 million through 2011 for military support services in Iraq".
Back to veterans issues, Hike for our Heroes is a non-profit started by Iraq War veteran Troy Yocum who is hiking across the country to raise awareness and money for veterans issues. Katherine Gustafson (Tonic) reports on Troy Yocum and his journey:
When Iraq War veteran Troy Yocum heard that a fellow vet had lost his house in this down economy, he decided to quite literally drum up support for struggling military families around the US.
Last month he began a 7,000 hike across the country while continuously beating on a small drum. The "Hike for our Heroes" aims to raise $5 million to help military families in need, says Yocum's "Drum Hike" website.
The project, sponsored by nonprofit Soldiers' Angels, aims to "spread the word that our American Heroes are fighting just as hard at home as they do overseas."
We'll close with this from Cindy Sheehan's "Here Come Those Chickens Again" (Cindy Sheehan's Soapbox):
Then tonight, as I was driving, I heard on the radio news that Shahzad claimed that he did that because he was upset over the CIA drone-bombing program in Northern Pakistan. So, my initial suspicion was confirmed. Let's, for the time being, take Shahzad's "confessions" at face value. We really don't know what torture, lying, or other pressure was put on Shahzad, or why our government is so readily admitting that he was upset about drone bombings.
However, this incident also puts President Obama's recent remarks about threatening the Jonas Brothers with a Predator drone if they went near his two daughters in a different light, doesn't it? So many people on the "left" are defending Obama's joke -- rationalizing it as vigorously as they condemned and attacked Bush over his WMD joke at a White House Correspondent's dinner in 2004.
What if the bomb in Times Square went off and killed dozens of people, like happens frequently in Pakistan/Afghanistan/Iraq? Would Obama's joke still seem funny? I never thought joking about bombs that kill babies from the Joker that orders these bombings funny, anyway. But we all know that if Americans were killed, the shoe would be on an entirely different foot.
asharaq alawsat newspaper
the national newspaper