In a statement posted online last Saturday, local *ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ* leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced a new campaign dubbed "Breaking the Walls".
He said it sought to undermine the nation's weakened Shia-led government by realigning with Sunni tribes, and returning to areas it was driven from before the American military withdrew from Iraq last December.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is regarded by Iraqi officials as significantly weaker than at the peak of its strength in 2006 and 2007, but it is still capable of spectacular mass-casualty attacks across the country.
A day after al-Baghdadi's threat, shootings and bombings killed 115 people in Iraq's deadliest day in more than two years - an assault for which the group claimed responsibility.
I made a correction. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq. He is affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq and presumably is in leadership but is he the leader? They do not know.
On Sunday, a recording thought to be of al-Bghdadi was released in which he announced "Breaking The Walls" and also stated that they would attack the US in the US.
You'd think when a group expressed a threat to the US, the president would have a statement. But I guess 9-11 never happened in Obama Land.
Here's C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot:"
Thursday, July 26, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, the political crisis and Baghdad's oil stand off with the KRG continue, the temperature reaches 52 degrees Celsius (125.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in Iraq, Paul Bremer makes a questionable assertion, again on the joint-hearing of the House Armed Services and House Veterans Affairs Committeess, and more.
Namo Abdulla (Rudaw) reports on Paul Bremer, the Bwana of Baghdad, the first US viceroy after the start of the illegal war in 2003. From May 2003 through June 2004, Bremer was the Administrator and among the most controversial orders he issued was Provisional Authority Order Number 1 which opens:
Recognizing that the Iraqi people have suffered large scale human rights abuses and depravations over many years at the hands of the Ba'ath Party,
Nothing the grave concern of Iraqi society regarding the threat posed by the continuation of Ba'ath Party networks and personnel in the administration of Iraq, and the intimidation of the people of Iraq by Ba'ath Party officals,
Conerned by the continuing threat to the security of the Coalition Forces posed by the Iraqi Ba'ath Party,
I hearby promulgate the following
Section 1 is "Disestablishment of the Ba'ath Party." Abdulla reports:
One of which was a decree drafted to outlaw the former Baath Party. It was called “de-Baathification” in English, but what Iraqis implemented was closer to the Arabic or Kurdish version of the word, "ijtithath - rishekeshkrdn" -- to uproot.
About the implementation of this, Bremer showed a little regret. "Of course," he said, "the de-Baathifcation decree was never intended to exclude Baathists from being in the government."
"It affected only 1 percent of the Baath Party, the top 1 percent. The mistake I made was turning the implementation of the decree over to Iraqi politicians, who then expanded the implementation far beyond what was written in the decree," Bremer said, adding that he should have turned the decree over to lawyers and judges who would have had a narrower, legal approach.
Bremer believes that de-Baathification itself was the correct decision and had been made long before he was appointed as Iraq's governor.
Now we've tried to be fair to Bremer on this issue. He has taken the blame on this in the press and that's largely because most of the reporters covering this were friends with or friendly with Colin Powell who tossed Bremer to the wolves to protect his own ass -- a little trick Collie's practiced for years. We'll allow that he did not go off on his own with this. He was acting on the White House's orders (Bush White House). But to go further and agree with him that only 1% were effected? Wrong. That's completely wrong to the point that it is a lie and he's smart enough to know how wrong it is so he is a liar who knows he's lying. His sudden 'I didn't know this would happen'? The British warned him against this and have testified in public to that fact. He also knew it was more than 1% and wanted it to be more than 1% according to John Sawers who is now the head of MI6 [England's secret service]. Let's revisit that in light of Bremer's claim today because he sure did come up a lot in testimony in London.
In fact, he may be cited in the testimony of the Iraq Inquiry more than any American except for George W. Bush. The Iraq Inquiry is a London inquiry by the UK government which has completed taking testimony but has still not released a report.
December 15, 2009, the British Ambassador to the US, Jeremy Greenstock, testified to the Iraq Inquiry that not only did Bremer ban all the Ba'athists (the dominant political party prior to the US invasion of Iraq) but he put Ahmed Chalibi in charge of the program which was also seen as a huge mistake. These actions were not minor. In 2010, the Justice and Accountability Commission would ban over 500 candidates and do so on the pretext that they were dangerous Ba'athists.
Chair John Chilcot: On the contrary, I was planning to offer you the opportunity
to make your final reflections on this very theme, and you have and thank you,
but are there other comments or observations you would like to offer before
General Michael Walker: Only ones that I -- to try and be helpful really. I think
the poor old Americans have come in for a lot of criticism, and my personal
belief was that the biggest mistake that was made over Iraq, notwithstanding
the decision that you may have made your own minds up about, but it was the
vice-regal nature of [Paul] Bremer's reign, and I think -- I mean, I don't want to
be personal about this but that particular six months, I think, set the scene for
Iraq in a way that we were never going to recover from.
The Inquiry repeatedly heard from military and diplomatic witnesses that Paul
Bremer's decision to disband the Ba'ath Party and being de-Ba'athification was harmful
and too sweeping. were no longer allowed to work for the government. While some witnesses may (or may not have) been offering statements that benefitted from hindsight, certainly those who warned Bremer before the policy was implemented were able to foresee what eventually happened. John Sawers now heads England's MI6. In 2003, he was the UK's Special Representative in Baghdad. He shared his observations to the Iraq Inquiry in testimony given on December 10th:
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: You arrived on 8 May, [head of CPA, the US' L. Paul] Bremer on the 12th, and within Bremer's first two weeks he had promulgated two extremely important decisions on de-Ba'athification and on dissolving the former Iraqi army. Can we look at those two decisions? To what extent were they Bremer's decisions or -- how had they been pre-cooked in Washington? I see you have got the Rand Report there, and the Rand Report suggests there had been a certain interagnecy process in Washington leading to these decisions, albeit Rand is quite critical of that process. And, very importantly for us, was the United Kingdom consulted about these crucial decisions? Was the Prime Minister consulted? Were you consulted? It is pretty late in the day be then for you to have changed them. Can you take us through that story.
John Sawers: Can I separate them and deal with de-Ba'athification first.
Committee Member Roderic Lyne: Yes.
John Sawers: When I arrived in Baghdad on 8 May, one of the problems that ORHA were facing was that they had been undiscriminating in their Iraqi partners. They had taken, as their partners, the most senior figures in the military, in -- not in the military, sorry, in the ministries, in the police, in institutions like Baghdad University, who happened to be there. And in several of these instances, Baghdad University was one, the trade ministry was another, the health ministry, the foreign ministry, the Baghdad police -- the working level were in uproar because they were being obliged to work for the same Ba'athist masters who had tyrannised them under the Saddam regime, and they were refusing to cooperate on that basis. So I said, in my first significant report back to London, which I sent on the Sunday night, the day before Bremer came back, that there were a number of big issues that needed to be addressed. I listed five and one of those five was we needed a policy on which Ba'athists should be allowed to stay in their jobs and which should not. And there was already a debate going on among Iraqi political leaders about where the line should be drawn. So I flagged it up on the Sunday evening in my first report, which arrived on desks on Monday morning, on 11 May. When Bremer arrived late that evening, he and I had a first discussion, and one of the first things he said to me was that he needed to give clarity on de-Ba'athification. And he had some clear ideas on this and he would want to discuss it. So I reported again early the following monring that this was high on the Bremer's mind and I needed a steer as to what our policy was. I felt that there was, indeed, an important need for a policy on de-Ba'athifciation and that, of the various options that were being considered, some I felt, were more far-reaching than was necessary but I wasn't an expert on the Iraqi Ba'ath Party and I needed some guidance on this. I received some guidance the following day, which was helpful, and I used that as the basis for my discussion with Bremer -- I can't remember if it was the Wednesday or the Thursday that week but we had a meeting of -- Bremer and myself and our political teams, where this was discussed, and there was very strong support among the Iraqi political parties for quite a far-reaching de-Ba'athification policy. At the meeting itself, I had concerted beforehand with Ryan Crocker, who was the senior American political adviser, and I said to him that my guidance was that we should limit the scope of de-Ba'athification to the top three levels of the Ba'ath Party, which included about 5,000 people, and that we thought going to the fourth level was a step too far, and it would involve another 25,000 or so Iraqis, which wasn't necessary. And I thought Crocker was broadly sympathetic to that approach but at the meeting itself Bremer set out a strong case for including all four levels, ie the top 30,000 Ba'athists should be removed from their jobs, but there should be a policy in place for exemptions. I argued the alternative. Actually, unhelpfully, from my point of view, Ryan Crocker came in in strong support of the Bremer proposal, and I think he probably smelled the coffee and realised that this was a policy that had actually already been decided in Washington and there was no point getting on the wrong side of it. I was not aware of that at that stage and, in fact, it was only when I subsequently read the very thorough account by the Rand Corporation of these issues that I realised there had been an extensive exchange in -- between agencies in Washington.
Despite Sawers' recommendation, Bremer wanted to expand it to four levels. He knew what he was doing and until Paul Bremer's willing to testify in public on the record about what happened, all we have is the British witnesses who (a) were all British officials and (b) seemed plausible in their comments about Bremer's actions.
Bremer's de-Ba'athifcation is still an issue today although some of that is not his fault. The Bush White House set as a benchmark in 2007 national reconciliation and Nouri al-Maliki signed off on it but that never happened. Due to the increased security problems -- little reported in the US press -- the decision was made last month to bring back the Ba'athist members of the former army. Former army? Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2 [misspelled on the original government document as "COALITION PROVISIONAL SUTHORITY ORDER NUMBER 2"] disbanded the army. Some Shi'ite politicians have expressed concern over the decision but it is happening. Xinhua reports, "Hundreds of ex-army officers under the ousted president Saddam Hussein have gathered Wednesday at a Baghdad military base to sign up to return to the army, or to be pensioned off. On June 8, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered to reinstate the former army officers during a visit to the northern Iraqi Sunni province of Nineveh."
Turning to the oil issue, Aimee Duffy (The Motley Fool) explains Nouri's Baghdad-based government's annoyance over ExxonMobil and Chevron's contracts with the KRG:
Essentially, the Iraqi central government has a problem with the autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, when it comes to the oil business. At the heart of the matter is, naturally, money. Crude oil exports make up two-thirds of the country's GDP. As domestic demand increases, the importance of maintaining complete control of its reserves and production increases as well.
Part of maintaining that control means avoiding production-sharing contracts with foreign oil companies, which is exactly what Iraq has done. The central government signs service contracts instead.
But, production-sharing agreements are much more lucrative than the typical service contracts offered by many foreign governments with national oil companies. It is the reason, for example, that Exxon won't do business in Mexico; that country's constitution outlaws PSAs.
Naturally, when Kurdistan offered up production sharing contracts, the majors jumped at the chance.
One important aspect Duffy leaves out is the March auction Baghdad staged. It was a bust. We knew that going in. Check the February 22nd snapshot where we noted what was being offered by Baghdad was "a dingo dog with fleas." That's just one example. We explained repeatedly that what was being offered -- the fields themselves -- were considered substandard, that the issue raised above (the contracts themselves -- service contracts) and other issues. They don't appear in Duffy's analysis but let's go to the day after the May auction ended, from the May 31st snapshot:
Iraq's two day energy auction ended today. Yesterday brought one successful bid. W.G. Dunlop and Salam Faraj (AFP) explain, "Iraq on Thursday closed a landmark auction of energy exploration blocks with just three contracts awarded out of a potential 12, dampening hopes the sale would cement its role as a key global supplier." The offerings weren't seen as desirable and the deals offered even less so. But big business began sending signals this auction would not go well over two months ago. (And we've noted that at least three times in previous months.) That's due to the instability in Iraq caused by Nouri -- and it is seen as caused by Nouri in the oil sector because he is the prime minister, he did pick a fight with Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, he did order Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi arrested. All the instability in recent months have not helped. His attacks on ExxonMobil and their deal with the KRG has not helped. Nouri al-Maliki is bad for business. If Iraq had the arrangement they did under Saddam Hussein, Nouri could get away with that. But he's going to have to grasp real soon that state oil isn't what it was under Hussein. The economic model (imposed by the US) is mixed. And if Iraqis hadn't fought back, it would be strictly privatized. Nouri's not yet learned that his actions impact Iraq's business. (And, in fairness to Nouri, this is a new thing for Iraq. Saddam Hussein could do anything and it wasn't an issue unless the super powers decided it was. But, again, it's a mixed model now. Nouri might need to bring in some economic advisors from out of the country.) W.G. Dunlop and Salam Faraj (AFP) report Iraq's response to the poor showing at the auction is to declare that they will hold another one.
Those issues do matter to businesses. The reason the KRG has a better business sector post-March-2003 invasion of Iraq is because it is seen as more stable and more calm and businesses feel safer -- both physically and in terms of stability -- doing business in the KRG. [If you dbout that, not only have you missed years and years of press on the KRG but you've also missed Priyanka Pradhan's article today for Kipp Report -- "Iraqi Kurdistan seems far removed from those stereotypical war torn, strife ridden images conjured up in the minds of people who've last heard of Iraq as one of the world's most dangerous places to visit." -- or yesterday's piece by Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program I for the Richmond Times Dispatch.] Also very importnat, Nouri's crazy does not play well for the business community and his inability to move Iraq forward after 6 years in the post does not go unnoticed by the international business community. Patrick Osgood (Arabian Oil and Gas) offers this view on the issue:
The confirmed entry of Chevron has also dealt Iraqi Prime Minister Nour Al-Maliki a blow in his campaign against Exxon’s Kurdish contracts, and further highlights the attractiveness of the terms on offer from the KRG relative to those from the central government after the Oil Ministry's fourth fidding round fiasco in late May.
Chevron had a long-standing relationship with the Iraqi government, having started a technical assistance program in Iraq in 2003. The company had pre-qualified to bid in the fourth round auction, but declined to bid.
It is, however, easy to overplay the significance of the Chevron move.
Unlike Exxon, Chevron has no prior interests in south Iraq, save for a commitment to take liftings of Iraqi crude, which the Oil Ministry did not mention. The blocks are not in disputed territory, unlike three of the six blocks awarded to Exxon, which have tied Rex Tillerson’s company to Kurdish territorial maximalism as well as the dispute over oil policy.
Trend News Agency notes, "The Kurdistan administration in nothern Iraq has oil reserves of 45 billion barrels." Sunday, Nasiriyah reported the National Alliance MP Abdul Salam al-Mliki was telling the press that the National Alliance would file a lawsuit against the KRG becuase of exports to Turkey as well as contracts with ExxonMobil and Chevron. An on the record threat of a lawsuit. That's among the many things that makes AKnews assertion, "An Iraqi legal expert said he is counting on the results of the efforts of the parliamentary committee responsible for monitoring the oil disputes between Baghdad and Erbil after visiting and meeting with officials in the Ministry of Natural Resources in the Kurdistan Region, adding that the crisis will be resolved during the next two days," so questionable.
Questionable is also reporting or 'reporting.' Rod Nordland (New York Times) writes today, "Al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq clashed with the country's security forces on Thursday, the second attack this week in what Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader has depicted as a new offensive aimed at recapturing lost ground." Considering the paper's 'reporting' on Iraq since 2001 (days after 9-11 they ran a front page story falsely connecting Iraq to 9-11 and, no, Judith Miller wasn't the writer), you'd think the paper would try sticking to what they know when detailing 'facts.' The group is the Islamic State of Iraq. Their leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Nordland and his paper may believe (today) that al-Baghdadi is the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq but they do not know that and they can't prove it. His group is affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq. Again, with all they've gotten wrong in the not-so-distant past on Iraq, you'd think they'd tread very carefully when offering 'facts' on Iraq. Prashant Rao (AFP) notes of the Islamic State of Iraq, "Last weekend, the group said it would look to retake territory, and appealed for Sunni tribes to provide support and send fighters, in an Internet audio message purportedly left by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi." The Islamic State of Iraq issued a public statement on Sunday which included a threat of attacks on US soil.
Brian Bennett (Los Angeles Times) reports that the House Homeland Security Commission held a hearing to assess the threat. Janet Napolitano, the Secretary on Homeland Security, appeared before the Committee.
Secretary Janet Napolitano: While the United States has made significant progress, threats from terrorists -- including, but not limited to al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated groups -- persist and continually evolve, and the demands on DHS continue to grow. Today's threats are not limited to any one individual group or ideology and are not defined or contained by international borders. Terrorists tactics can be as simple as a homemade bomb and as sophisticated as a biological threat or coordinated cyber attack.
I wasn't at the hearing, that's from her opening statement. You can read it [PDF format warning] here. Matthew Olsen of the National Counterterrorism Center also testified. You can read his opening statement here.
Matthew Olsen: [. . .] we remain at war with al-Qa'ida, and we face an evolving threat from its affiliates and adherents. America's campaign against terrorism did not end with the mission at Bin Ladin's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Indeed, the threats we face have become more diverse. As al-Qa'ida's core leadership struggles to remain relevant, the group has turned to its affiliates and adherents to carry out attacks and to advance its ideology. These groups are from an array of countries, including Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Iran. To varying degrees, these groups coordinate their activities and follow the direction of al-Qa'ida leaders in Pakistan. Many of the extremist groups themselves are multidimensional, blurring the lines between terrorist group, insurgency and criminal gang.
If there is a threat, it's important that the press identify it correctly. It's also important that the press report it. As a whole the American press is failing at both objectives.
Violence continues in Iraq. Xinhua notes this late Wednesday violence, "As many as seven al-Qaida fighters and five security members were killed in clashes at a former al-Qaida stronghold in Iraq's eastern province of Diyala, a provincial police told Xinhua on Thursday." AP notes that 11 police officers were killed late last night and early this morning and "Diyala provincial spokesman Salih Ebressim Khalil said militants targeted the Iraqi army helicopter, killing one soldier, wounding another and forcing it to make an emergency landing." Al Rafidayn reports that a Tikrit car bombing has left 5 people dead and ten injured.
Like violence, the political crisis continues. The Economist offers their take on the political crisis today:
But Mr Maliki, who has been in charge since 2006, is opposed not just by Sunni jihadists. Many moderate Iraqis, both Shias and Sunnis, fear he is heading down a path to dictatorship. The political atmosphere is toxic. No meaningful legislation, apart from an annual budget, has been passed for several years. One of the country’s two vice-presidents, Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, is being tried in absentia for alleged links to terrorism. Iraq’s Kurds are increasingly divorced from the rest of the country: their regional government has now signed 48 oil contracts without the consent of the national government in Baghdad, which is infuriated. Meanwhile people in the capital and other towns, suffering sweltering temperatures during the fasting month of Ramadan, are frequently bereft of electricity. There have been angry mass protests in Basra, the main town of the south, against dire public services.
However, Mr Maliki is still managing to shore up support, mainly among his fellow Shias, who make up a good 60% of the population. One of the Kurds’ two main leaders, Jalal Talabani, the country’s president, who wants to sustain the status quo by keeping Mr Maliki in place, has ensured that parliament does not have a chance to vote on a no-confidence motion.
Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. al-Mutlaq belongs to Iraqiya which came in first in the March 2010 elections while Nouri belongs to State of Law which came in second. Dar Addustour reports that the two discussed the stalemate, upcoming provincial elections and the election commission. Alsumaria notes that Ayad Allawi (head of Iraqiya) has stated today that the need to question Nouri before Parliament continues and needs to be speeded up. Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law came in second to Iraqiya which should have ended any hopes Nouri had for a second term as prime minister. But the White House backed Nouri -- and spat on the Iraqi voters and the Iraqi Constitution -- allowing Nouri to create Political Stalemate I which lasted for 8 months. It was ended when the all parties -- including Nouri -- agreed to the US-brokered Erbil Agreement. It gave the Kurds this, Iraqiya that, etc. Nouri? It gave him a second term as prime minister. He used the Erbil Agreement to get that, pretended he was going to honor the contract but, as soon as he was named prime minister, he tossed it aside. Since the summer of 2011, the Kurds, Iraqiya and Moqtada al-Sadr have been publicly calling for a return to the Erbil Agreement. This is Political Stalemate II. Currently, there is a move -- and it's Constitutional -- to call Nouri before the Parliament and question him. After questioning, a vote could be taken to determine whether or not the answers he provided restored confidence in him or meant that the MPs registered a no-confidence vote.
Alsumaria notes that Ayad Allawi stated he was reviewing the strategy for the next move. All Iraq News adds that he restated, in the press statement, his opinion that the Reform Commission was a waste of time. Back on December 21st, Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi (a member of Iraqiya) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) began calling for a national conference to address the ongoing stalemate and/or crisis. Nouri threw every road block he could think of to delay and stop that from happening. In June, suddenly he wanted a Reform Commission to 'solve' the problem. The Reform Commission is a joke. It's always been a joke. It's Nouri's pets declaring what they want for him and it has no teeth so even if the other political players had full participation, nothing would come from it. Allawi notes that the Erbil Agreement needs to be reinstated and that a series of 'reforms' prepared by (Nouri's) National Alliance isn't going to change that. He notes the demands remain the same as they've been all along.
In a sign of what a tool the National Alliance is becoming for Nouri (largely Ammar al-Hakim and Ibrahim al-Jafaari's segment of the National Alliance) on Saturday, Nasiriyah reported that the National Alliance was vowing to refuse to allow the bill to pass that would limit a prime minister to two terms (it would also put a two-term limit on the presidency and on the Speaker of Parliament but the National Alliance is only concerned with Nouri).
The Khaleej Times' editorial board notes, "While politicians squabble for control in the Iraqi parliament, the roads and streets of the country are stained with blood of innocent people. If the country’s politicians don’t realise the gravity of the situation and reach a compromise, there’s a possibility that Iraq might become ungovernable again."
Today the Parliament was supposed to pass an Election Law which would allow for provincial elections in March of next year. Nasiriyah reports that the vote has been postponed. Also today, Alsumaria notes, the temperature was expected to reach 49 degrees Celsius. That's 120 degrees Farehnheit (actually 120.2 degrees). Al Rafidayn notes that today's been declared a holiday as a result of the heat. AFP notes that it actually reached 52 degrees Celsius (125.6 degrees Farehnheit) and they report:
Hunched over, Yaqub mutters softly, "It's Ramadan, and I am fasting," as if to justify his actions, before he steps underneath an outdoor shower in central Baghdad to cool off in the boiling heat.
"It's hard," the delivery man admits, referring to the temperatures across Iraq which have topped 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in recent days, spurring authorities to declare Thursday a holiday for all government workers.
"This feels good," Yaqub, 53, says after a refreshing splash of water.
Yesterday's snapshot covered the joint-hearing of the US House Armed Services Committee and House Veterans Affairs Committee. I stated, "Sequestration was discussed. This is an automatic measure that will kick in if the buget is not balanced. Established in the hearing is the Veterans Affairs will not be effected but the Defense Dept will be." A community member noted Michael Levine's Honolulu Civil Beat who quotes VA Secretary Eric Shinseki stating VA "is exempt from sequestration -- except for administrative costs." Which is it? Levine's correct in his quote. But that's not what we've been covering or that veterans have been worried about. Their concern and what we've been covering is health care, etc. That will not be effected. Sequestration will not touch that. Administrative efforts? Though hard for many to believe, the VA could get slower. But if sequestration kicks in (automatic budget cuts), VA will not be effected in terms of what it supplies veterans. Senators Patty Murray and Richard Burr and House Reps Jeff Miller and Bob Filner -- among others -- worked very hard on addressing this: Veterans will not be effected. The White House is very clear on how bad that would look for them if veterans benefits were cut. Barack Obama already has enough problems with veterans issues as Reuters pointes out:
His 2013 budget request for the VA is more than $40 billion, or 41 percent, bigger than the one he inherited when he took office, helping to cover construction of hospitals and clinics, staff increases, and expanded disability benefits. That has come despite the warning from some in the outgoing George W. Bush administration that the VA apparatus "is broken, just play defense," according to a member of Obama's transition team.
Yet, based on interviews with veterans, their advocates, and VA and other administration officials, as well as a review of available data, life for many veterans has grown more challenging under Obama's watch.
Veterans returning home today join lines for disability payments much longer than those Obama called intolerable in 2008. Their chances of finding jobs in a bleak economy are worse than those of most other Americans. Veterans' complaints of employment discrimination by the federal government have actually risen.
Veterans remain more likely to be homeless than the general population. The VA estimates more than 67,000 sleep in shelters and on the streets or are otherwise considered homeless, a figure that is only slightly better than in 2009.
In the hearing yesterday, Shinseki and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta were the two witnesses offering testimony. Ranking Member Bob Filner spoke of how he felt there should be an exit boot camp to address various issues that can come up in civilian life. Last night, Ava's covered that in "The joint Armed Service and House Veterans hearing (Ava)." On the continued lack of interface between VA and DoD, Steve Vogel (Washington Post) notes this morning, "The Washington Post reported in November that despite the recommendations of the Dole-Shalala commission in 2007 to create a single point of contact to cut red tape for the most severely wounded service members, DoD and VA had instead created at least a dozen programs to coordinate the care." Esther Carey (Federal News Radio) reports today, "The two departments signed a roadmap agreement that will let them develop a future integrated system under a common technology framework. Shinseki said a key difference between the current effort and other failures over the past 10 years was that the way ahead envisions an open-architecture system rather than one that hinges on closed, proprietary systems." Shinseki said a lot. A lot of hot air, a lot of justifications, a lot of nonsense. We'll note two members who called this happy talk out.
US House Rep Ann Marie Buerkle: My question has to do with -- and you've heard some references to it -- the Dole - Shalala Commission and the fact that now, five years later, after they issued this urgent call to streamline, to make sure that we have a single point of reference for the care and service and benefits of our military we have to very distinct entities. We've had multiple hearings trying to get assurance from DoD and the VA as to how you're going to get this together so we can make sure that our veterans get the services without being overwhelmed by an extremely complex system. So I would ask you both today, please, how specifically -- what are the goals, what is the plan, to get these two entitites under one roof so that you're complying with the Dole - Shalala Commission and their recommendations for our veterans. I thank you both.
Secretary Eric Shinseki: The program, the Federal Recovery Coordination Program, in existence since 2007, and I think as Secretary Panetta indicated earlier, two good Departments launched and essentially developed good programs that don't quite harmonize. We have a task force with the specific direction to study and bring harmony to these programs, where are we being -- duplicating one another? Where are we not doing things that we should be doing? So it's going to get a good look here. And I'd say in the next couple of months. And I'd be happy -- and I think
Secretary Panetta would be as well -- to make our people available to provide the results of that.
Secretary Leon Panetta: You know, we -- Look, we -- I think -- Secretary Shinseki and I share the same frustration. I mean, I -- We've been working on this and frankly we've been pushing on this to say why can't we get faster results? Why can't we get this done on a faster track? And, you know, bottom line is: Frankly, we're just going to have to kick ass and try to make it happen and that's what we're going to do.
US House Rep Ann Marie Buerkle: I would suggest in your opening statement, Mr. Panetta, you mentioned commitment and we look to the military, their commitment, as an example to our country. We should be that committed to them to make sure that we get this job done. I thank you both very much.
Though he spoke several people before Buerkle, US House Rep Bill Johnson's comments really fit with her remarks .
US House Rep Bill Johnson: I understand that you can't account for the last 10 years, Mr. Secretary [Shinseki] and I understand that you've got two bureaucracies that don't necessarily like to be told what to do and get along all the time. But I'll submit to you that another five years is-is unacceptable. It's unacceptable to me and, gentlemen, it ought to be unacceptable to you. This is not a matter of can-do or should-do. This is a matter of want-to and will-do. This is 2012. And one of the underlying issues, Mr. Secretary, quite honestly is the VA's lack of an overall technology architecture. You and I have talked about this before and it still doesn't exist today as far as I know. I've pointed that out. My Committee has pointed that out. Organizations outside that have looked at the VA's IT Dept have pointed that out. You know, I'm just not convinced that five years from now -- given that I don't know where you two will be -- but my fear is that we're going to be sitting right here talking about this same issue again because we're not going about it with the discipline that's needed. I come from an information techonology career of over 30 years. I worked at US Special Operations Command as the Director of the CIO staff. I know what it takes to get this stuff done and five years, gentlemen, is totallly unacceptable. And I don't really have a question for you I just want you to fix this for crying out loud.
Those are some pretty important statements even before you factor in that they came from someone with an Information and Technology (IT) background. We'll close out on Wednesday's hearing by including this section where US House Rep Niki Tsongas is noting the documentary The Invisible War:
US House Rep Niki Tsongas: As you [Shinseki] say, "That which starts during military service ends up in the VA." And that movie so painfully highlights the multiple bureaucratic hurdles survivors of such assualts -- which are all too frequent across all the services -- must endure to prove that their physical or their psychiatric symptoms are connected to an incident of Military Sexual Trauma. And shows that too often, victims are unsuccessful in pursuing their claims for assistance. To address one aspect of this problem, the Fiscal Year 2012 Defense Authorization Act included language that required the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to develop a comprehensive policy for the Dept of Defense on the retention of access to evidence and records relating to sexual assault involving members of the Armed Services. This policy is to be in place by October 1, 2012. Can you both comment on the status of this policy? I'd also welcome any further thoughts you may have on how these claims can be processed faster and more accurately.
Secretary Leon Panetta: It's a -- It's a very important issue for me. I'm not going to wait for the legislation to put that policy in place because I think it ought to take place in providing that kind of guidance and assistance to those that have been the victims of sexual assault so that they get the kind of support that they need in order to get not only the care they need but, if they want to continue their career, to get the support system that would allow them to continue their career. And I think it's fair to say that Secretary Shinseki and I are going to work together on to make sure that we can -- we can deal with this on both sides -- not only on the Defense side, but on the Veterans side for those that ultimately move in that direction.
US House Rep Niki Tsongas: Thank you both. I look forward to seeing that policy in effect.