Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Iraq snapshot

Wednesday, October 30, 2013.  Chaos and violence continue, Nouri meets with Biden, Nouri's involvement in the attacks on the Ashraf community gets attention, as do his other misdeeds, his fluffer returns to fluff for him, the Pope offers a prayer for Iraqis,  the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee holds a hearing and Chair Bernie Sanders makes a statement that undercuts the work of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and much more.

Julian E. Barnes (Wall St. Journal) reports, "Top officials from the government of Iraq met Wednesday morning with Vice President Joe Biden over ways to address the rising levels of al Qaeda violence in the country, administration officials said. A senior administration official said Wednesday the intensifying violence is a threat to Iraq, regional stability and U.S. interests. The official said that Iraqi forces lack the capability to effectively counter al Qaeda and its camps in western Iraq."  Iraq's prime minister and chief thug, Nouri al-Maliki, is in the US and Reuters notes he met with Biden today for two hours.

US President Barack Obama is set to meet with Nouri on Friday at the White House.  Human Rights Watch publishes an open letter to Barack today which includes:

Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned by the deepening crisis in Iraq, including the harsh crackdown on a range of government critics, which has intensifiedin the two years since Prime Minister al-Maliki’s last state visit. Immediately upon returning from Washington in 2011, al-Maliki ordered the arrests of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and a number of his staff, one of whom died in police custody and whose body displayed signs of torture. The arrests kicked off a year in which security forces under his direct command threatened government critics and used state institutions—some of which the US had a role in setting up, like the Integrity Commission and Inspectors General in the Interior and Defense ministries—to arrest and charge political opponents without disclosing the evidence against them.
Over the past two years, the government dramatically escalated use of the death penalty despite serious flaws in the justice system, executing 65 people already this month and 140 so far in 2013. At least one of those executed in October had a court judgment declaring him innocent shortly before he was executed.
Equally disturbing is the fact that al-Maliki’s government has not implemented promised key legal reforms, such ending the use of secret informant testimony and coerced confessions as a basis for convictions. Authorities exploit vague provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Law to settle personal or political scores, while judges and investigating officers collude to prolong the time detainees are held and ignore their allegations of abuses. Suspects have little or no access to an adequate defense, and are frequently detained for months and even years without charge.
Over the last two years Iraqi security forces illegally detained and tortured scores of peaceful protesters as well as men and women living in areas in which the government believes armed groups operate. This past February Human Rights Watch viewed the physical signs of torture on more than 20 women in Baghdad’s Central Prison for Women and on death row. Court documents in the case against a woman executed earlier this month showed that two courts had dismissed charges against her due to a medical report documenting security forces had severely tortured her to induce her to confess to terrorism.In June 2013 the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) reported that large numbers of detainees, particularly those arrested under Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law, complain that they were “subjected to a range of abuse, mistreatment and torture in order to extract confessions” during detention and interrogation.
Iraq does face serious security threats, but the government’s failure to make urgently needed reforms and hold officials accountable for terrible abuses like torture has made Iraq less safe, not more. In fact, the government’s heavy-handed approach is contributing to greater instability and exacerbating sectarian tensions. Violence this year worsened considerably after security forces stormed a camp of peaceful protesters in Hawija in April, killing 51 people. Attacks by armed groups, which claimed over 5,740 lives already between January and September, have internally displaced another 5,000 Iraqis from Basra, Thi Qar and Baghdad, and within Diyala and Ninewa. The escalation in executions after trials in which people are convicted on the basis of coerced confessions and secret evidence—for the most part in the name of counterterrorism—have done nothing to address the crisis. On the contrary, numerous Iraqis, Shia and Sunni, have told Human Rights Watch that authorities’ failure to hold perpetrators accountable regardless of their sect has polarized Iraq’s population, particularly in Sunni areas where people see the government’s failure to hold Shia-dominated security forces accountable as confirmation that policies remain rooted in sectarianism.
 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called Iraq’s border restrictionsof Syrians seeking asylum cause for “major concern.” Despite Iraq’s insistence they would continue to admit “urgent humanitarian cases” and family reunification cases, authorities severely limited the number of Syrians allowed to enter beginning in August 2012. In September, the Interior Ministry threatened to close al-Waleed camp, where 5,000 Syrians currently reside. New arrivals virtually ceased in late March, when Iraq’s Interior Ministry closed its al-Qaem border crossing, effectively violating the customary international law principle of non-refoulement. Of the over 200,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, all but 5,000 of entered through border crossings the Kurdistan Region Government de facto controls.
Many Iraqis—civilians and government and security authorities—have told Human Rights Watch that they believe the security gains US troops and their allies made after the surge have been undermined. The US has largely turned a blind eye to the terrible abuses Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government is helping to perpetuate. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal cited senior administration officials in reporting that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other US intelligence and security personnel were cooperating with Iraqi security forces that have allegedly committed abuses.

  Nate Rawlings (Time magazine) uses the visit to note:

But Iraq’s current crisis is not purely the work of al-Qaeda and extremists slipping in from Syria—and some would argue Maliki himself is in part at fault OK?. While exacerbated by the Syrian civil war, the violence is largely the result of domestic sectarian and political rifts. The current crisis arguably began in December 2012, when the government raided the home of a prominent Sunni politician, leading to anti-government protests in the heavily Sunni Anbar Province. In the spring, government security forces clashed with Sunni gunmen, sparking a cycle of violence that has continued into the fall.
Maliki recently acknowledged that Iraq suffers from a “crisis of its entire political system,” and few would disagree. Another op-ed this week in the International New York Times, co-written by Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert who served as a political adviser top U.S. commanders in Iraq (who Petraeus lauded in his piece as “brilliant”), eviscerates Maliki and argues he triggered the current crisis, chiefly, by not integrating Sunnis into the political process.
But Sky, and her co-author Ramzy Mardini, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, argued that Maliki is not the root of Iraq’s ills, and that if he were defeated in next year’s elections, “the primacy of survivalism in Iraqi political life” will continue. Maliki was an unlikely prime minister who won the post, in part, because then U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad argued he would be independent of Iran. In the years since, Maliki and his Shi’a State of Law coalition have been criticized for failing to bring Sunnis into the governing quorum and launching authoritarian crackdowns against Sunni politicians.  “Mr. Obama shouldn’t mistake Iraq for a liberal democracy,” Sky and Mardini wrote. “At best, it’s a democracy without democrats.”

That's a good effort from Nate and stronger on the facts than most American reports but before we explain what's missing, let's deal with Nouri's fluffer.  Patrick Cockburn (CounterPunch) is as crazy as his dead brother, the denier of global warming Alexader Cockburn.  In his latest garbage Patrick Cockburn insists:

The civil war in Syria is reigniting the sectarian civil war in Iraq. A vast area of eastern Syrian and  western Iraq is turning into a zone of war. Well-armed and well-organised al-Qa’ida-linked movements are launching attacks with  suicide bombers from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Tigris River. 

Unlike Patrick, we don't have a break from Iraq.  We don't get to forget Iraq for several months as we shift to Syria or some other country.  Which means we actually pay attention.  And you have to do that or you will lose track of what's going on.  I worry that our focus on Nouri's visit means we're not including important stories from within Iraq.

Reality, when nobody in the US media gave a damn about what was going on Iraq, we were saying here  violence was increasing, pay attention to Iraq.  But no one wanted to notice, everyone was too busy.  The violence in Iraq has nothing to do with Syria with the possible exception that violent Iraqis -- Shi'ite and Sunni -- who want Iraq to take a side in Syria may take that anger and frustration out in Iraq.  Patrick's only US media via CounterPunch and Antiwar Radio but he's focused on everything except Iraq and he's been an apologist for Nouri for seven years now.

Nate Rawlings is right about December 2012 forward but he's unaware of what happened before.  For example the targeting of December 2012 echoes the targeting of December 2011 with Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.

But how did Iraq get to this point.  Unlike Patrick Cockburn, Mohammed Tawfeeq is a real reporter. Back in July of 2012, Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) observed, "Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has struggled to forge a lasting power-sharing agreement and has yet to fill key Cabinet positions, including the ministers of defense, interior and national security, while his backers have also shown signs of wobbling support."

Now according to the Iraqi Constitution, if you can't appoint a full Cabinet, you can't become prime minister (someone else is named prime minister designate and given 30 days to build a Cabinet).  But US President Barack Obama wanted Nouri to have a second term and that required tossing aside the votes of the Iraqi people and spitting on the Iraqi Constitution to create The Erbil Agreement -- a legal contract which gave Nouri his second term.  If the Constitution had applied, Nouri would not be prime minister.  More importantly, if the Constitution had applied, Nouri would have had to have created a cabinet (in full).

You can't fail to name people to head the security ministries and not have problems.  Nouri refused to nominate people to head the security ministries because this was a power grab.  Each year, violence gets worse but Nouri's term is almost over and he will have ended it by refusing to have a Minister of Defense, etc.

The Erbil Agreement was brokered by the US government to give Nouri a second term as prime minister.  To get the leaders of other political blocs to sign off, this was a power-sharing agreement which made various promises.  Nouri used the contract to get his second term, stalled on delivering his end of promises and then flat out refused.

It's not December 2012 that the breakdown takes place.  The Erbil Agreement is the poison apple.

By the summer of 2011, tired of being patient, the Kurds, Moqtada al-Sadr and Iraqiya are calling for The Erbil Agreement to be implemented as promised.  Nouri refuses.  Violence is increasing but no one notices apparently.  Then people are tired of asking.

That's when the move begins to unseat Nouri.

In May of 2012, after over a month of threatening, the groups had their signatures.  Enough for a vote of no-confidence.  They handed them over to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani whose only job was to present the petition to the Parliament.  If he had, a vote would take place.  If just the MPs who signed the petition had voted no confidence, if no one else had, Nouri wouldn't be prime minister today.

The US government and Nouri applied strong pressure to Jalal and he's got no spine, he's always been worthless.  So he announces that some people who signed the petition have changed their minds or there are forgeries or there are this or there are that.

Fat ass Jalal's only job was to deliver the petition.

But if he had, a vote would have been called immediately and Nouri would have been out of office.

Violence again increases.

It's not surprising.

You're an Iraqi, you went and voted.  You voted for the winning party: Iraqiya.  But you saw your vote didn't count.  And you tried to be patient with the process.  But you see MPs sign on for a no confidence vote to remove Nouri.  And even though they play by the rules and even though they get the signatures required, it means nothing.

That's the message Barack Obama has sent the Iraqi people: Your vote doesn't matter, your Constitution doesn't matter.

In the face of that, of course people will resort to violence.  Of course they will.  This has been the same story throughout the beginning of time.  That's the point Jackson Btowne makes in "Lives in the Balance:"

Or the people who finally can't take any more 
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone

It is not a mystery.

Granted, there are some who will crawl across cut glass before they will ever hold Barack accountable but his actions with regards to nullifying the 2010 elections in Iraq commanded all that followed.

The increase in violence is in relation to Iraqis attempting to escape Nouri but being denied all legitimate attempts.  When every available legal recourse is taken from you, violence can be seen as a viable option.

What Patrick Cockburn works to hide and conceal, a few can shine a light on.  David Petraeus was once the top US commander in Iraq.  During that time he oversaw the so-called 'surge' (influx of additional US troops into Iraq) and the creation of the Sahwa ("Awakenings" and "Sons Of Iraq" are two other names).  At Foreign Policy, he offers:

Various actions by the Iraqi government have undermined the reconciliation initiatives of the surge that enabled the sense of Sunni Arab inclusion and contributed to the success of the venture. Moreover, those Iraqi government actions have also prompted prominent Sunnis to withdraw from the government and led the Sunni population to take to the streets in protest. As a result of all this, Iraqi politics are now mired in mistrust and dysfunction.

Let's move over to the Ashraf community.  Camp Ashraf in Iraq is now empty.  All remaining members of the community have been moved to Camp Hurriya (also known as Camp Liberty) as of last month.  Camp Ashraf housed a group of Iranian dissidents who were  welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1986 and he gave them Camp Ashraf and six other parcels that they could utilize. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq.The US government had the US military lead negotiations with the residents of Camp Ashraf. The US government wanted the residents to disarm and the US promised protections to the point that US actions turned the residents of Camp Ashraf into protected person under the Geneva Conventions. This is key and demands the US defend the Ashraf community in Iraq from attacks.  The Bully Boy Bush administration grasped that -- they were ignorant of every other law on the books but they grasped that one.  As 2008 drew to a close, the Bush administration was given assurances from the Iraqi government that they would protect the residents. Yet Nouri al-Maliki ordered the camp repeatedly attacked after Barack Obama was sworn in as US President. July 28, 2009 Nouri launched an attack (while then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on the ground in Iraq). That's the attack Lara Logan reported on.  In a report released this summer entitled "Iraqi government must respect and protect rights of Camp Ashraf residents," Amnesty International described this assault, "Barely a month later, on 28-29 July 2009, Iraqi security forces stormed into the camp; at least nine residents were killed and many more were injured. Thirty-six residents who were detained were allegedly tortured and beaten. They were eventually released on 7 October 2009; by then they were in poor health after going on hunger strike." April 8, 2011, Nouri again ordered an assault on Camp Ashraf (then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was again on the ground in Iraq when the assault took place). Amnesty International described the assault this way, "Earlier this year, on 8 April, Iraqi troops took up positions within the camp using excessive, including lethal, force against residents who tried to resist them. Troops used live ammunition and by the end of the operation some 36 residents, including eight women, were dead and more than 300 others had been wounded. Following international and other protests, the Iraqi government announced that it had appointed a committee to investigate the attack and the killings; however, as on other occasions when the government has announced investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations by its forces, the authorities have yet to disclose the outcome, prompting questions whether any investigation was, in fact, carried out."  Those weren't the last attacks.  They were the last attacks while the residents were labeled as terrorists by the US State Dept.  (September 28, 2012, the designation was changed.)   In spite of this labeling, Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) observed that "since 2004, the United States has considered the residents of Camp Ashraf 'noncombatants' and 'protected persons' under the Geneva Conventions."  So the US has an obligation to protect the residents.  3,300 are no longer at Camp Ashraf.  They have moved to Camp Hurriyah for the most part.  A tiny number has received asylum in other countries. Approximately 100 were still at Camp Ashraf when it was attacked Sunday.   That was the second attack this year alone.   February 9th of this year, the Ashraf residents were again attacked, this time the ones who had been relocated to Camp Hurriyah.  Trend News Agency counted 10 dead and over one hundred injured.  Prensa Latina reported, " A rain of self-propelled Katyusha missiles hit a provisional camp of Iraqi opposition Mujahedin-e Khalk, an organization Tehran calls terrorists, causing seven fatalities plus 50 wounded, according to an Iraqi official release."  They were attacked again September 1st.   Adam Schreck (AP) reported that the United Nations was able to confirm the deaths of 52 Ashraf residents.

US House Rep Ted Poe has a written about the attacks on the Ashraf community for The Hill and he notes:

In June 2011, I and other members of Congress met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq to discuss U.S.-Iraqi relations. The meeting that was supposed to last 20 minutes but went for two hours came to an abrupt halt when our delegation asked to see the camp where these opposition members lived. The camp had been attacked just two months prior, resulting in the death of 36 unarmed residents. Al-Maliki’s mood immediately changed, and he said that there was no way that we were going to see the camp. Al-Maliki did not allow us to go because he had something to hide.
Two years and three attacks later, there are troubling signs of at least complicity, if not outright involvement, by the government of Iraq in this latest attack. There are more than a dozen checkpoints manned by Iraqi security forces on the road to the camp. There are also armed Iraqi guards surrounding the camp, ostensibly there to protect the residents. The idea that the assailants could get past all of the checkpoints and carry out an approximately three-hour attack on the camp without the knowledge of the government of Iraq is difficult to believe.
The State Department condemned the attack and asked the government of Iraq to investigate. Given the history of the previous attacks and the circumstances of this latest attack, that’s like asking Al Capone to run the IRS. When I was a prosecutor, the first thing you did in opening an investigation was interview the witnesses, but more than a month after this most recent attack, the Iraqi government has yet to interview any of the 42 survivors. That’s because there is no investigation. It is all a sham. The Iraqi government cannot be trusted to keep these refugees safe.
On Nov. 1, al-Maliki will come dragging the sack to collect more of our taxpayers’ money as he meets with the president. The U.S. must do a better job of holding the government of Iraq accountable; there should be real consequences for the lack of protection of these unarmed, innocent civilians. 

AFP reports today:

Calling for a UN investigation into the attack, the Aachen-based Rights for Migrants group said interviews with the 42 survivors of the attack on Camp Ashraf, in central Diyala province, "unequivocally puts Iraqi forces at the scene."
It alleged Iraqi police moved blockades guarding the camp to allow access to about 120 armed attackers, who were dressed in uniforms identical to those worn by a special Iraqi forces division and spoke with Iraqi accents.
"For two hours, the attackers scoured the camp, killing 52 and destroying millions of dollars in property. Every individual killed was shot in the head or neck, and many were handcuffed before being executed," the report said.

While issues are being raised in the US press about Nouri's visit, there are also opinions being offered in the Iraqi press.  All Iraq News reports MP Hussein al-Shirifi has issued a statement regarding Nouri's visit to the US:

This visit is rejected and we do not welcome it because America occupies Iraq and destroyed its infrastructure in addition to creating terrorism that kills Iraqis daily. Will the Iraqi government call for the rights of the Iraqis who were killed by the US soldiers? and will the crime of Black Water Security Company be discussed?

Hussein al-Shirifi is with Moqtada al-Sadr's bloc.

Let's take a look at violence in Iraq.  AFP reports, "Three suicide bombings killed 14 Iraqi security force members overnight, officials said"  Sinan Salaheddin (AP) adds, "a bomb exploded near an outdoor market in the afternoon in Baghdad's western suburbs of Abu Ghraib, killing three shoppers and wounding nine."  Also overnight,  Press TV notes  "in a village outside the city of Mosul, situated about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, three Iraqi security forces and four civilians were killed after a bomber exploded his explosives-laden car near a checkpoint."   Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) reports, "Attackers targeting security forces staged a coordinated assault on a police checkpoint west of Mosul, Iraq, killing at least nine people and wounding 25 others Wednesday in the latest spasm of violence in an increasingly restive country."  National Iraqi News Agency reports an Abu Sayda roadside bombing claimed the life of 1 Iraqi soldier and left four more injured, a Falluja armed attack left 1 police officer and 1 police member dead, 2 brothers were shot dead outside their Mosul home, a Baghdad sticky bombing claimed the life of 1 Ministry of Interior employee, a Tikrit home bombing (police officer's home) left one civilian injured, a Kirkuk armed clash left three police officers injured, an Albu-Ajeel Village roadside bombing claimed the life of 1 police officer while leaving two people injured, 2 Baquba bombings left three people injured (one s a police officer) and a Muqdadiya bombing injured "a woman and her two children."

On violence, BBC News offers, "Since the beginning of 2013, there have been just 16 days in which there were no deaths from violence in Iraq, the most recent of which was 24 May, according to figures compiled by the AFP news agency."  We try to be nice.

The AFP count is a good thing.  It serves as a check on the official figures Nouri's ministries release each month.  We had noted they were an undercount.  We had noted that for years.  Prashant Rao started the AFP count and suddenly reports can note the official figures are an undercount.  That's great and I'm not being sarcastic.  If the AFP count never accomplished anything else that's something.

For some reason, the last six weeks have seen media outlets -- such as NPR -- suddenly noticing that AFP is keeping a count.  And we were kind and let them have their moment to shine.  But now the BBC is using them.  And fools like W.T. Whitney Jr. (CounterPunch) are rah-rah over them.

They are a reference point, they are nothing more.  Iraq Body Count remains the  best count.  The AFP count suffered last year and this year whenever Prashant was out of Iraq because other AFP employees didn't necessarily feel the need to update.

So you need to be very careful, when using the AFP count.  On May 24, 2013, there were no reported deaths.  But it was a Friday which should make you cautious as well.  Friday's have been the worst for reporting violence.  The Friday in question?  Even worse since reporters were arrested that day:

But as BBC allegedly reports on violence, they rush to insist, per AFP -- they state -- no one died on May 24, 2013.

We've said it many times before, the dead are probably the lucky ones.  Being challenged or disabled is no treat anywhere but it is especially brutal in a war zone.  Did violence take place on May 24th?  Yes it did.  From that day's snapshot:

Too bad all the fairy tales in the world won't chase away the ongoing violence.  All Iraq News notes 1 person was shot dead in Mosul yesterday.  Alsumaria adds that a Mosul attack today left one police officer injured and an armed attack on a Baghdad police station has left seven police officers injuredNational Iraqi News Agency reports an assassination attempt in Awja on Col Akrahm Saddam Midlif which he survived but which left two of his bodyguards wounded, a Falluja attack left two people injured (drive-by shooting), a Baquba bombing left a Sahwa injured, and late last night there was an attempted assassination on Diyala Province Governor Omar Himyari in Hamrin which left one of his bodyguards injured.  Through yesterday, Iraq Body Count counts 653 violent deaths so far this month.

That's 13 injured (we're not counting the attack on Omar Himyari in Hamarin which left a bodyguard injured due to it taking place Thursday night).  And AFP records how many injured for that day?

Zero.  Which means BBC got very lucky because AFP didn't fill out the 24th.  It happens there were no deaths.  But you're reporting on violence and there were 13 people left injured that day.  But AFP took the 24th off and never filled in it.

You need to be very careful about citing AFP.  Prashant Rao has repeatedly explained on his Twitter feed that they may miss some deaths.  It's a reference.  That's all it is.  A stronger count will always be Iraq Body Count.

And while we're being critical of the AFP count, let's also note that  that they do not include civilians as a category.  If you'll deduct all their categories ("Police," "Soldiers," "Sahwa," "Kurdish Security Forces" and "Militants") from the day's total, you can have a number for civilians.  That AFP did not feel civilians rated as their own category is very messed up.  

Civilians do get attention and sympathy from one figure today.  Catholic World News reports, "Pope Francis issued an appeal for prayers for peace in Iraq at the close of his regular weekly audience on Wednesday, October 30."   Vatican Radio (link is audio and text) quotes the Pope saying,  "I invite you all to pray for the dear nation of Iraq, unfortunately affected daily by tragic episodes of violence in order that Iraq might find the way that leads to reconciliation, peace, unity and stability."In Italy today,  Rome Reporrs explains, "At the end of the Wednesday's General Audience, Pope Francis met with the delegates of the many religious groups that call Iraq home. He met with Christian, Shia and Sunni Muslim leaders, as well as Sabeans and Yazidis."  Prensa Latina adds, "The Iraqi delegation, comprised of Shiite, Sunni, Christian and other religious representatives, participates, since Tuesday, in a meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, headed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.  During the meeting, both parties analyzed the situation of religious communities in Iraq and the relations among them and the possible creation of a Permanent Committee for Dialogue of Baghdad and the Vatican."

"Okay," declared US Senator Bernie Sanders this afternoon, "we've got a lot of work in front of us, let's get going."  He is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  Senator Richard Burr is the Ranking Member.  Today was a legislative hearing where people testify about their bills.  So we heard from senators.  We heard from others as well -- and we shouldn't have.

Chair Bernie Sanders:  Before I discuss a few of the bills I have on today's agenda, I want to briefly touch on the issue of the administration's views.  Let me be kind of to the point on this one, I understand that as a result of the government shutdown and a lot of the pressure on the VA  they have not gotten all their comments and views in.  We also understand that in the past, they really have not been prompt in their responses to the legislation that we have proposed.  So let me just say this to them, the job of this Committee and what we were elected to do is to represent the people of this country and, in particular, the veterans of this country.  And if the VA is not responsive in getting their comments in, that's fine, doesn't impact us at all, we're going to go forward.  But clearly the VA is going to have to implement the policies developed by this Committee and this Congress and we want to work with them.   But our job is to legislate and we're going to go forward with or without the cooperation of the VA and the administration.

There is nothing good about that statement. That statement doesn't cut and should not be made by any chair.  Congress has rules.  If they're going to waive them for the VA, they're going to have to waive them for everyone.

And on the House Veterans Affairs Committee?  They're fighting to get statements on time, to get questions answered promptly.  Sanders has no right to say, "It doesn't matter."  That's embarrassing.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is an embarrassment.  Under him, the VA refuses to even turn in written testimony promptly.

Here's how you deal with that, you don't let the VA testify.  I'm not noting them or their testimony because the VA's failure to do what is required means they shouldn't be allowed to testify.  This is not a new problem.  It began emerging just before Sanders became Chair.

And it's been noticeable throughout actually.  Forget the written statements for a moment, Eric Shinseki's first obvious failure was knowing for months that the VA system would be overwhelmed in the fall of 2009 and some veterans would not get tuition checks.  He refused to inform Congress.  This has happened over and over.

From the House VA Committee's website:

Trials in Transparency is designed to highlight one of the committee’s top oversight challenges: getting timely information from Department of Veterans Affairs officials.
This page will be updated on a weekly basis and will keep a running record of outstanding information requests made to VA by both Democrat and Republican members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
VA is currently sitting on nearly 100 separate requests for information made by the committee, some dating back more than a year. The leisurely pace with which VA is returning requests – and in some cases not returning them –  is a major impediment to the basic oversight responsibilities of the committee.
VA’s unanswered questions have created mounting frustration for committee members, and prompted Chairman Miller to take the unprecedented step of writing weekly letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki listing the number of outstanding information requests and asking for “accurate information in satisfaction of these requests.”
Notable Outstanding Info Requests:
Quick Facts (As of October 28, 2013):
Number of Outstanding Requests: 11
Three Oldest Outstanding Requests: June 5, 2012; July 10, 2012; and July 23, 2012
Requests Pending since 2012: 12 

Even if the Senate VA Committee no longer gives a damn whether VA responds or not, it is still not appropriate for Sanders to take that position when it undercuts the House VA efforts to obtain information.  The two need to work together, they do not need to be at cross purposes.  If Sanders is unable to help the House Committee, he should at least refrain from harming it.

From today's hearing:

Senator Bill Nelson:  The first one is a no brainer. It's naming the Bay Pines Hospital in Pinellas County, Florida after the longest serving Republican member of the House of Representatives who we just lost last week, Bill Young. His record as Appropriations Chairman and as Defense Appropriations Chairman, the way he lived his life where he and his wife who literally adopted a Marine who was back from the war and have raised him as their son, and the way that he has reached out to veterans -- so much so, that the Florida delegation and I conferred last week, before his funeral -- while we were still in recess, the House was in session -- and the House took it up and has already passed it, naming the Bay Pines VA Hospital after Bill Young.  That's the first piece and if you all see fit to move that legislation, it would be a timely -- a timely thing for the family.  Veterans Conservation Corps.  This is for post-911 veterans coming home who are unemployed.  They would be employed -- not unlike the old CCC -- for up to one year with a possible one year extension.  It obviously has a price tag of about a couple of million dollars.  The question is: What is the value to society of employing veterans for worthwhile things in our national parks and schools?  And I can go into as much detail as you want but that's the idea.  And the third piece of legislation is what this Committee has already pushed: Electronic Health Records coming out of the Dept of Defense active duty as they then go into the VA health care system.  And of course you know the difficulty there.  And this tries to set a timeline that is achievable and tells the VA and the DoD  set your goals, set your milestones, achieve them, and then have the full implementation of the electronic health records that will allow a seamless transfer which is what we all want.  Those are my three pieces of legislation

Let's go to that third bill:

Official Summary

Servicemember's Electronic Health Records Act of 2013 - Amends the Wounded Warrior Act to require the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans Affairs, in implementing electronic health record systems that provide for the full interoperability of personal health care information between the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to ensure that: 
(1) a health data authoritative source that can be accessed by multiple providers and that standardizes the input of new medical information is created by the Departments within 180 days, 
(2) the ability of patients of both Departments to download their medical records is achieved within 180 days, 
(3) full interoperability of personal health care information between the Departments is achieved within one year, 
(4) acceleration of the exchange of real-time data between the Departments is achieved within one year, 
(5) the upgrade of the graphical user interface to display a joint common graphical user interface is achieved within one year, and 
(6) current members of the Armed Forces and their dependents may elect to receive an electronic copy of their health care records beginning not later than June 30, 2015. Requires the Secretaries to assess the feasibility and advisability of establishing a secure, remote, network-accessible computer storage system (commonly referred to as cloud storage) to: 
(1) provide members of the Armed Forces and veterans the ability to upload their health care records, and 
(2) allow DOD and VA medical providers of the Departments to access such records.

I applaud Senator Bill Nelson for that bill.  Why, though, is it necessary?

Because the VA and DoD were supposed to have done this long ago.  What happened was Eric Shinseki got then DoD Secretary Robert Gates to agree on the computer system they would both use.  And then Shinseki dropped the ball (intentionally, from what I'm told).  Leon Panetta then becomes DoD Secretary and Shinseki starts all over.  We have to pick a system!  Leon is fine with whatever, his attitude is, "Let's just get it started."  But Shinseki doesn't.  Now Chuck Hagel is VA Secretary and Congress has some questions about the progress on this system that was supposed to have started back in 2009 and Eric LIES to Congress and pins the blame on Hagel.  Hagel's so busy and they haven't been able to pick out a system.  That's finally been done thanks to very few who have held Shinseki accountabile.

This is part of the VA stonewalling and not answering or informing Congress.  Again, Sanders should not have made the remarks he did.

We'll close with this from Senator Patty Murray's office:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                            CONTACT: Murray Press Office
Wednesday, October 30th, 2013                                                                                  (202) 224-2834        
VETERANS: Murray Applauds Passage of Veterans Cost-Of-Living Increase
Bill will result in more money in the pockets of millions of veterans across the country
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) announced that a bill she co-sponsored to provide a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) for America’s veterans passed the U.S. Senate Monday by unanimous consent.  The COLA for veterans will match the annual increase provided to Social Security recipients which CBO estimates will be 1.5 percent. The Veterans COLA affects several important benefits, including veterans’ disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children.  It is projected that over 4.2 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits in Fiscal Year 2014.
“Particularly in this difficult economy, our veterans deserve a boost in their benefits to help make ends meet,” Senator Murray said. “We have an obligation to the men and women who have sacrificed so much to serve our country and who now deserve nothing less than the full support of a grateful nation.  A COLA increase will help bring us one step closer to fulfilling our nation’s promise to care for our brave veterans and their families.”
The COLA is designed to offset inflation and other factors that lead to the rising cost of living over time.  The COLA rate is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index. 
Kathryn Robertson
Deputy Press Secretary 
Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray
154 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

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