Friday, May 7, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, is it over for Allawi, Amnesty calls out the killers of Sardasht Osman, the VA can't meet deadlines -- even Congressionally mandated ones -- even ones signed off on by the President -- and thinks seven months late with a report (that was finished in September) is no big deal, and more.
Yesterday Iraqi journalist Sardasht Osman's corpse was discovered. Today Sam Dagher covers it in "Abducted Kurdish Journalist in Iraq Is Found Dead" (New York Times). He is only one of many journalists kidnapped and/or killed all over the world. So people need to think when they speak. Critics? No, the press or the pompous who consider themselves the press. Take the stammering idiot James Kitfield of National Journal who makes an ass out of himself every time he opens his mouth to offer another series of incomplete, unfinished sentences. Today he appeared on The Diane Rehm Show (NPR) and uttered a series of phrases and run on thoughts including, "Also -- These guys -- The drone program as we all know has been increased dramatically, we've been killing a lot of these guys." If you didn't just get offended, let's let him continue. "We killed . . ." "We thought we got . . ." Jimmy Kit, you're in the US military? Now it's offensive that a journalist wouldn't know the large number of civilians killed in Pakistan by Barack's drones. That's offensive. But James is stupid -- listen to flop that mouth around -- and that's a given. But does the world really need his 'enlisting' right now? Are, for example, US reporters in many countries not seen as CIA or working for the government?
Is James Kitfield not aware that the National Movement for the Resortation of Pakistani Sovereignty made that (false) claim against Daniel Pearl, used that as their 'justification' for kidnapping him and killing him? The world really can't afford James Kitfield's stupidity but we'll all adjust some way. Journalism cannot afford Kitfield's stupidity. When Jimmy Kit opens his stupid mouth and starts blathering on about "we killed" or "we did," he perpetuates the myth that the press is not free and that it operates under the direction of the US government and spies for the US government. James Kitfield needs to keep his mouth shut if he can't stop damaging the profession. This is not about a media critique this is about US reporters being in hostile environments around the world. Kitfield needs to learn to present objectively and needs to stop speaking of "we." Every time he pulls that nonsense, he throws gasoline on already smouldering fire.
USA Today's Susan Page guest-hosted The Diane Rehm Show today and Iraq was raised in the second hour with the panel which consisted of Kitfield, Michele Kelemen (NPR) and David Sanger (New York Times).
Susan Page: We talked about the effort to build a government in Great Britian, let's talk about what's happening in Iraq. The two largest Shi'ite parties, the two largest Shi'ites blocs are trying to get together and form a new government. The US does not see this as necessarily a good thing. David, why?
David E. Sanger: They don't because their biggest concern here is that the Sunni minority is going to feel even more frozen out and you would end up in the kind of violence that we saw happen in 2006, 2007, until the surge began to tamp that down. So the idea was build an inclusive government. And if the Shi'ites actually stopped fighting each other and start once again thinking of how they would keep the Sunni out of the government, uh, then you've got basically all of the ingredients for an eruption. Now the next question we ask then is how does that effect the withdrawal schedule for the US? And the answer we get back is: "Not at all. At this point, the Iraqis have to sort this one out themselves and a US presence isn't going to speed this up or slow that down."
Susan Page: So even if there were signs of civil -- the kind of civil unrest that we've seen less of in Iraq, this would not prompt the US to say, "Well we better stay there for awhile and provide some stability."
James Kitfield: They say it would not. I think the pressure to do so would be too great.
Susan Page: What do you think?
James Kitfield: I was just recently in Iraq and talked to-to the military on this. There's two jumping off points since April's already passed where they could put the brakes on this because it's a very complicated rotation scheme. You have to have forces trained if you're going to keep people on the ground longer than anticipated it effects the entire rotation cycle -- in-in basically June. So they have to make their minds up pretty quick or else this withdrawal is going to, you know, go apace as we've seen and its 50,000 troops out of there by August 30th. I will say what they're trying -- You know -- I think they would clearly -- The Americans would clearly rather have Allawi who had the most number -- And he's backed by the Sunnis --The Iraqiya Party -- He's backed by the Sunnis -- They would like to see him part of a coalition. But they're making the point to the Sunnis -- Is that -- "Look, you're going to be a very powerful party in opposition that that's the way it ends up. You're going to have a lot of seats. And that's going to force them to probably give you some ministries. So it's not like they're going to totally freeze out the Sunnis. They won a lot of the -- They won 91 seats in the Parliament. So that's the message the Americans are trying to send the Sunnis. But clearly, if Allawi is frozen out of the coalition there will be hard feelings on the part of the Sunnis.
The post-election madness. Rania El Gamal and Suadad al-Salhy (Reuters) report that the "alliance between Iraq's two main Shi'ite political coalitions to form the next government is far from concluded, with potentially divisive issues such as the nomination of a prime minister still unresolved." Oliver August (Times of London) observes, "Before the election, and even after it, there were hopes that a cross-sectarian alliance might bridge the divide. But a successful intervention by the Iranian Government prevented that. Many Shia leaders owe allegiance, and in some cases their position, to Tehran." Last Saturday, Lara Jakes (AP) reported that Hoshiyar Zebari (Iraq's Foreign Minister) has said the US should not be standing by observing but instead urging a solution to the post-election dispute in Iraq. He accused the Barack Obama administration of being more focused on drawdown deadlines than on the state of Iraq. Zebari was calling for help and doing so publicly. You can't get much more clear than that. Despite calls for US involvement from Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, the US did nothing as Michael Young (Lebanon's Daily Star):
Instead, US officials took great pride in saying that they had not interfered in the election process. What, precisely, was the thinking here? That America would be rewarded by some cosmic moral supreme court? That Iran and Syria would gasp at American uprightness and refrain from exploiting Iraq for their own purposes? Does the administration imagine that international politics unfolds like a Frank Capra film, so that like Mr. Smith in Washington the world would dissolve into tears of affection for Mr. Obama in Iraq?
Once the Iraqi elections ended, it was plain what the US should have done, or tried to do. A coalition government between Maliki and the front-runner Ayad Allawi was the right way to go. It would have helped return the Sunnis to Iraqi political life, while profiting from the Shiite split, to Iran's disadvantage. The priority should have been to keep Maliki away from the Iranians, whom the prime minister was never very close to anyway. A shotgun wedding between Maliki and Allawi might have failed, their conflicting ambitions making this difficult. Yet both could have eventually seen an interest in following through, since they would have thus marginalized their communal rivals. Here was a moment when Barack Obama's personal involvement was essential. But what did the US do? Nothing.
And the US did nothing. It offered no leadership. It just sat on the sidelines. Barack Obama is not in Iraq. Christopher Hill is. He is supposed to be the US Ambassador to Iraq. He's done a lousy job and the administration wishes they'd moved to replace him sooner (he's going bye-bye in a few months). But that's really too damn bad.
Republican objections about Hill were valid when they were based on the fact that he said one thing to your face and then did another behind your back. His personnel file goes on and on about just that. It's Barack's fault and it's the Senate Democrats fault. They should have known what he was. He's done a lousy job. And Iraq was already fragile. He's only made it worse with his dithering and his stupidity and his inability to grasp even the basic issues such as Kirkuk. He couldn't even grasp Kirkuk in his Senate confirmation hearing -- despite the fact that he'd been tutored on it [The March 25, 2009 confirmation hearing was covered in that day's snapshot and the March 26, 2009 snapshots ].
Some missed the point in real time. Such as Tom Ricks' sidekick Spencer Akerman (Washington Independent) who whined the following before the confirmation hearing, "But this is one of the most important U.S. diplomatic postings in the world. It should have an ambassador filling it already." Poor Spency, fired from The New Republic and still a fool. It "is one of the most important U.S. diplomatic postings in the world" but that didn't mean that it should have someone "filling it already" -- it meant that it should have someone qualified filling the position.
Ryan Crocker had already said he would stay on a bit longer (and he did). There was no big rush. And there was no issue of "I can't get along with Crocker!" Ryan Crocker was against the Iraq invasion. He and Barack should have gotten along just fine. There was a qualified person in the position ready to stay on for as long as needed because he realized how important the post was. Chris Hill was the best Barack could do? Unfamiliar with the region, unfamiliar with the culture, unfamiliar with the history, unfamiliar with the culture and prone to morning peaks and afternoon spirals, Hill was the best choice? Were that actually true, it would be very frightening.
Iraq was not a success when Hill (finally) got to Baghdad. But he's leaving it worse than it was when he got there and the decay happened on his watch because he didn't know what he was doing. When the fool occasionally asked basic questions about protocol, he'd blow off the advice he was given. There's no way to spin it for Barack. Chris Hill is a disaster.
And Allawi? Ayad Allawi's slate won the most seat in the Parliament. Now Iraqiya finds itself shut out of the process. Kitfield's idea that some ministries might be awarded is ridiculous. Not that they might be. It could happen. But with few exceptions, the ministries are a joke. They're actually pretty much all a joke but some come with their own militias. Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet -- like his brain -- was never full. The Ministries aren't that important and they don't have a great deal of independence. Add in that if you're truly independent, you usually end up fast tracked into the US because you've got death threats and accusations against you. There is no independence. So what of Allawi? Muhammad Ashour (Niqash) believes Allawi will now have to "settle for a lower-ranking ministerial portfoilo". Paul Schemm (AP) reports that Ayad Allawi has returned to Iraq and is stating the Iraqiya Party has first shot at forming the government due to the number of seats it won in the March 7th election. Schemm notes that the Kurds state they are going with al-Maliki. The Kurds state that. It's not reality. Allawi could get the block by promising to deliver to the KRG what they've long wanted -- as anyone observing the last few years should be aware.
In addition, once the Baghdad recounts are over, MPs are sworn in. Once sworn in, they're in. Meaning?
There are 325 seats, 163 needed to form the government. After an MP is sworn in, they're in. If the new prime minister has not yet been named at that point, any MP can switch to whatever party they want for whatever reward (or bribe) they want. It's in the MPs interest to delay the process because that allows them to make demands for the people they represent and/or themselves. Should an MP switch before they're sworn into the Parliament, they could be stripped of their seat and replaced with someone else from their party. After they've taken office, they're in.
As the Iraqi National Alliance and State Of Law attempt to figure out what to do next, it is likely that the naming of the prime minister may not take place quickly.
In some of today's reported violence, Reuters notes a Tikrit car bombing which injured eleven people, an Abu Ghraib car bombing which claimed 1 life and left two people injured, an armed attack in Rashad resulted in 3 dead and four injured and, dropping back to last night, 1 'suspect' was killed in Ramadi.
Tuesday's snapshot noted the plans to turn Baghdad into a walled-in-city -- apparently Nouri is The Last Emperor and the Green Zone is being redubbed The Forbidden City. Al Jazeera reports today that the fence "will be made of concrete and topped by security cameras" and -- Nouri's not given up on that moat! -- in areas where The Grand Wall Of Maliki will interfere with farming, they will resort to trenches instead. Construction of the fence is said to take at least a year.
Returning to the kidnapping and murder of 23-year-old Iraqi journalist Sardasht Osman whose body was discovered yesterday, Amnesty International issued the following:
The Kurdistan Regional Government must take immediate steps to investigate the abduction and murder earlier this week of Sardasht Osman, 23, a university student who worked as a journalist for the Ashtiname newspaper in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. His abduction and murder follows a spate of other attacks on journalists and other critics of the KRG's two main political parties in recent years for which no-one has been brought to justice.
Sardasht Osman, a final-year student at Erbil's University of Salaheddin, was abducted outside the university on 4 May by a group of unidentified armed men. They forced him into a car and drove away. He was not seen alive again. His body was found in Mosul yesterday morning. He had been murdered.
Prior to his death, Mr Osman wrote articles for Ashtiname newspaper in Erbil, and other publications. According to Kurdish media websites, he had recently published an article in Ashtiname critical of a senior Kurdish political figure following which, according to his brother, Bashdar, he received anonymous threats to his mobile phone.
It appears that his abduction and murder may be the latest in a series of attacks carried out against independent journalists and other critics of the KRG authorities in recent years. There is an emerging pattern of attacks on those who have criticised leading members and officials of the two main political parties in the Kurdistan Region - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Mas'oud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani - which jointly form the KRG. The attacks, mostly physical assaults but including some killings, have generally been carried out by unidentified men in plain clothes who are widely suspected of being agents of or connected to the Parastin and Zanyari, the party security and intelligence organs of, respectively, the KDP and the PUK.
Amnesty is calling on the KRG authorities to institute immediately a thorough, independent investigation into the abduction and murder of Sardasht Osman and other attacks on journalists and others in the Kurdistan Region and areas under the effective control of the KRG, and for those responsible to be brought to justice in full conformity with international law
Turning to the US where a subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled "Quality v. Quantity: Examining the Veterans Benefits Administration's Employee Work Credit and Management Systems." As Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Chair John Hall noted, "One of our longer titles of a hearing." The Subcommittee heard from three panels. The first panel was composed of CNA's Eric Christensen. Why?
Chair John Hall: We also intended for today's hearing to provide an opportunity to examine a Congressionally-mandated report on the VBA's work credit and management system outlined in legislation that I developed and sponsored during the 110th Congress, the Veterans Disability Benefits Claims Modernization Act of 2008, HR 5892, codified in Public Law 110-389. The goal of this legislation, among other things, was to provide VBA with a valuable roadmap to assess and improve its work credit and management systems to produce better claims outcomes for our veterans. The deadline for this report was October 31, 2009 and I note that we have yet to receive it. However, VA has authorized its independent research contractor that was retained to complete this report, the Center for Naval Analyses to testify before us today concerning a summary of the report's findings and recommendations. VA advised the Subcommittee that the report is still under review by the agency and OMB and that it should be transmitted to Congress soon. We look forward to hearing today when this report will be ready and submitted to Congress, and getting a better understanding of why it has not yet been delivered.
The above was in his opening remarks. We'll note this exchange that took place during questioning.
Subcommittee Chair John Hall: Thank you and can you give us any insight into why the VA has been unable to release the study that was made by CNA which I believe you said was completed in September?
Eric Christensen: That's correct. We completed it in September and delivered it to VBA per our contract. I cannot speak for VA in terms of why they have not provided it to you.
CNA completed the report in September 2009. Congress was ordered to report on that study and the report was due October 31, 2009. It is now May 2010 and the report has not been made to Congress. Representing the VA was Diana M. Rubens (on the third panel), the Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations. This is what she stated in her opening remarks:
As the Subcommittee is fully aware, Public Law 110-389 required the Secretary [of the VA] to initiate a stufy of the effectiveness of the VBA's employee work credit to evaluate a more effective means of improving disability claims processing performance. I apologize for the late delivery as we experienced delays in both the initiation of that study and the completion of that concurrence process. I do anticipate that that will be delivered shortly and I'm happy to be available for any questions you have upon review of that study.
She went on to claim that CNA and VBA were similar in their analysis. Were that correct, why would it take so long to release a report on the study? It will be "delivered shortly" -- she anticipates. In the written version of her opening statment (what will make it into the record over her verbal response quoted above), she's stating "we expect to deliver [the report] in the near future."
It all sounds like "Check's in the mail." And what is it with the VA that they can get anything right these days? They can't make fall 2009 payments on time (they just finished -- or supposedly 'finished' -- there may be some veterans still waiting) and they can't turn in a report that was due October 31, 2009. Is Eric Shinseki unable to provide leadership and oversight to the department? If so, then a new VA Secretary may be needed. How does a department head not notice that a report legally due to Congress no later than October 31st still hasn't been delivered 7 months later?
We'll note this exchange from the hearing:
Subcommittee Chair John Hall: Thank you Ms. Rubens, could you please explain, first of all, what has delayed the transmission of the report outlined in PL 110-389? And when you said "shortly," what does that mean? When will we receive that report?
Diana M. Rubens: Yes, sir. I, uh, I will tell you that, uh, this study was one of eleven in 110-389. As we worked to get the studies all engaged, it took us longer than it should have. It was an unexcusable delay. Uhm. That was enacted in October. It took us until March -- you heard Mr. Christensen say we engaged them in March  and so that was an inexcusable delay. Uh, as I understand it and I spent the last couple of days trying to ascertain just where it is. The concurrence process through VA, VBA and working with OMB is closer to the end of that process than the beginning. And we've engaged in some ongoing discussions to ensure that everybody that's looking at it, if you will, outside of VBS recognize that we are late.
Subcommittee Chair John Hall: Well if the report was done in September , are you changing the report? Is it being modified or are you just reading it before we get to read it?
Diana Rubens: I will tell you that I think we were reading it before you get to read it and the concurrence process over the course of October, November and December was painfully protracted. It wasn't so much that we're editing or changing, I think it's making sure that we understand. And unfortunately not staying on top of the concurrence process to move it along.
Subcommittee Chair John Hall: Well I would appreciate receiving it within what I would consider to be a reasonable time -- like the next week. I see no reason why a report that was paid for by the tax payer, that was required by this Congress and by this Committee and that was completed last September by an outside contractor should be sitting somewhere at VA -- and for no good reason that I've been told -- other than, it being reviewed and 'concurred' upon -- whatever that may mean -- has not been shared with us. And I think it's time.
Diana Rubens: Yes, sir.
That was far from VA's only problem. Another example arose in the hearing.
Subcommittee Chair John Hall: As of May 1st of this year, there are over 87,000 compensation claims pending before the New York RO [Regional Office], nearly half of which have been waiting for over 125 days. What can you tell my New York area veterans and those in other Congressional districts about the work that's being done to reform the systems so that the staff -- both line staff and managers alike -- focus on improving quality and still get the benefits to the veterans in a timely manner?
Diana Rubens: Yes, sir. Specifically, the New York -- As you know, we've got a new management team in the New York Regional Office. I'm very excited about their innovation approach, their collaboration approach that they've taken on on their own already with the local medical centers to ensure that we get, uh, timely, accurate exams upon which to make decisions. And so the efforts there with a new management team I think will begin to, if you will, bear fruit as they help the employees better manage the work in innovative ways that they've developed locally. At the national level, you know, I've mentioned some of the things that we've done to generate ideas whether it's internally, whether it's through the roundtable that [House Veterans Affairs Committee] Chairman [Bob] Filner hosted, whether it's our national innovation initiative. And we are working to put together an overarching approach to how do we improve nationwide? Uh, some of the things that I think heard concern about here as well. Interim ratings is one of the things that I've heard discussed in terms of if there are 3 or 4 issues on a claim and we can process one and need to develop further information on the other that we are reinforcing the use of interim ratings. It starts getting money flowing to the veteran, it starts getting them access to health care, uhm, it ensures that they're uh in our system and getting work done. We're also looking at how do we segment claims? I heard some discussion from some of the panel members about those one issue claims that might move more quickly -- whether it's that hearing loss claim or just one single-issue -- and are currently piloting in several offices. How will that work? About 26% of our work is a single-issue claim and if we can move those along more quickly, will we allow ourselves a better focus, if you will, on those more complex claims -- whether it's a complex issue or whether it's a number of issues. Uhm, I talked a little about the pro-active phone development. We've heard some concerns about whether or not we're incentivizing or rewarding employees. I will tell you that as we reward employees, quality is always a part of the requirement for a reward to be given. But it's also about that -- I'll call it "less tangible monetary award" and it's that recognition of who your performers are and making sure that we're recognizing them for that effort. One of the initiatives that we're developing and the Secretary's interested in supporting, if you will, a Who's Who in VBA for VSRs and rating specialists that will allow us to recognize quarterly uh the top 25 in each of those categories and, at the annual level, with recognition from the Secretary in an effort to have people continue to stay jazzed and focused on we've got to get this job done. I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the efforts that we're making in both technology, if you will, the VBMS -- the Veterans Benefits Management System. We are standing up an organization that brings VBA and uses, if you will, field users and the organization together to be focused on this work that will grow from the virtual regional office pilot that was just completed in Baltimore allowing us to change and pursue accurately the electronic claims processing system.
Subcommittee Chair John Hall: Well thank you for all of that. I'm especially happy to hear that you're -- that you're moving toward streamlined granting of claims or approval of claims in clear cut cases like hearing loss. Although I'm a little bit disappointed that, in 2008, Congress passed a law unanimously that was signed by President Bush that said "The Secretary shall issue this partial claims rating," changed the language from "may" to "shall" indicating the clear intent of Congress that when there's an undisputed severe disabling injury -- which I think hearing loss might fall under or a loss of a limb or paralysis or blindness or any number of other things that are clearly service connected and are not in dispute although there may be many other facets of the claim that are either not developed yet, they're needing longer ajudication -- but that "the Secretary shall award an immediate partial rating so that the money starts flowing to the veteran" that was passed unanimously and signed by the previous president and, two years later, I'm surprised that we're talking about being part way on the road to getting that done. I would hope that we would have been there already.
We could go on and on with other examples. That's due to the fact that John Hall prepares. He's paying attention in the other hearings and he's referencing Inspector General reports. It's nothing like the Senate VA Committee. And Hall is among the stars of the House VA Committee (others on the Democrat side would include Bob Filner, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Harry Teague and Debbie Halvorson -- on the Republican side, it would include Steve Buyer, Jerry Moran and John Boozman -- and I'm basing that on Committee performance, being able to question the witnesses and usually knowing a great deal more than the witnesses). Is there a star at the Veterans Affairs Dept? If so, they've yet to emerge and Barack Obama needs to figure out what exactly is going on and whether Shinseki is up to the job he's been appointed to.
The second panel was made up of advocates. There's not space for them in this snapshot; however, the American Legion's Ian DePlanque offered testimony and the American Legion has written about that and the hearing here. If I hear from friends with other organizations that they wrote about their advocate's testimony, we'll link to those in Monday's snapshot.
"We've been here even in the worst possible weather, in pouring rain and exhuasting heat," Joan Wile tells Clyde Haberman (New York Times) for his report on the weekly protest against the wars still held every Wednesday "on Fifth Avenue at the eastern entrance to Rockefeller Center" by the Grandmothers Against the War. Haberman reports this week saw the Grannies "330th consecutive Wednesday" protest. Heberman reports:
Anne Moy went there by bus from the Lower East Side. It was important to her, she said, to register her opposition to the wars. At 92, she was the oldest on the protest line. She beat Lillian Lifflander by two years. Jenny Heinz, 65, was another regular, even though she was in the midst of treatment for breast cancer. Bert Aubrey, 76, had to lean on a cane, his knees not what they used to be.
As so many rushed to walk -- no, run -- to run away from calling out the ongoing wars because a Democrat now occupies the White House, the Grandmothers Against the War have remained firm -- even with some of them having endorsed Barack. 330 Wednesdays (one Wednesday the police prevented the protest) speaks to commitment and so does protesting against what you know is wrong regardless of who is running the war. Joan Wile is also the author of Grandmothers Against the War: Getting Off Our Fannies and Standing Up for Peace.
TV notes, Washington Week begins airing on many PBS stations tonight (and throughout the weekend, check local listings) and joining Gwen around the table this week are Peter Baker (New York Times), Dan Balz (Washington Post), Elizabeth Shogren (NPR) and Pierre Thomas (ABC News). And Gwen's column this week is "The Politics of Panic." Remember that the show podcasts in video and audio format -- and a number of people sign up for each (audio is thought to be so popular due to the fact that it downloads so much quicker). If you podcast the show, remember there is the Web Extra where Gwen and the guests weigh in on topics viewers e-mail about. And also remember that usually by Monday afternoon you can go to the show's website and stream it there (including Web Extra) as well as read the transcripts and more. Meanwhile Bonnie Erbe will sit down with Cari Dominguez, Ilana Goldman, Irene Natividad and Sabrina Schaeffer on the latest broadcast of PBS' To The Contrary to discuss the week's events. And at the website each week, there's an extra just for the web from the previous week's show and this week's it's immigration reform. For the broadcast program, check local listings, on many stations, it begins airing tonight. And turning to broadcast TV, Sunday CBS' 60 Minutes:
The Secretary of State
60 Minutes, Sunday, May 9, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.