A large swath of the US Midwest and mid-South has been devastated by extreme heat and the worst drought since at least 1956. Last week, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared more than 1,000 counties disaster areas—more than half of the land surface of the country—making the drought officially the largest disaster on record in the country. More than two-thirds of the country is experiencing drought.
The US is the world’s largest producer of corn, soybeans, and wheat, accounting for one in every three tons of the grains traded globally. In its weekly crop estimates this season, the USDA has repeatedly downgraded its forecasts for yields on corn and soybeans. The two crops are staple foods, and prime components of animal feed, cooking oils, and many other products.
Food prices will most likely. There is some fear that this could be a dust bowl-type incident. And I am left to grasp how little we know and how not-so-different we are from those that lived 100 years ago or 200 years ago.
For all of the scientific breakthroughts, we are still dumbfounded by drought. That is why it has again taken us by surprise this year. For all our supposed smarts, we know very little.
But is that surprising? We are smart enough to know we are poisoning the earth but do we rush to stop it, to save your planet?
We just shrug our shoulders collectively. 'Drought? Hmm.'
This is C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot" for today:
Thursday, July 20, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, Iraqiya is on the short track to head a security ministry or two, Iraqiya is not on the short track to head a security ministry or two, Cheveron follows ExxonMobil's lead, Nouri blusters in his embarrassed state, the UN Security-General's Special Envoy to Iraq tells the UN Security Council about increased violence in Iraq, Kobler also feels the political stalemate is harming the country, Syrian 'rebels' control the border between Syria and Iraq, Senators Patty Murray and Richard Burr have questions about the VA's Benefits Accreditation Program, we offer another look at the House Oversight Subcommittee's VA hearing yesterday, and more.
Starting off with Syria as it relates to Iraq. Neocon Michael Rubin (Commentary) is alarmed that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani offered condolences to Syrian President Bashar Assad's sister Bushra Assad on the death of Assef Shawkat. It's outrageous, Rubin feels. The man killed Wednesday is Bushra Assad's husband. Is Rubin aware of that? Is he also aware that Syria is one of three countries that borders northern Iraq? Syria, Turkey and Iran. Talabani is a Kurd from the Kurdistan Region -- that's northern Iraq. Of course, he would know the Assads. He's traveled to Syria numerous times to meet with President Bashar Assad -- both before the start of the Iraq War and today. That the two leaders from neighboring countries know one another is not surprising. That they get along has been known since before 2003. Not sure why Rubin sees something sinister in the whole thing but it reads like more of his I-hate-Kurdish-people kick that he's been on of late. Rubin rushes to trash Assad and build up the resistance or 'resistance.' He would though, he'll never admit that he and his kind created al Qaeda in Iraq and that's a key part of the Syrian resistance or 'resistance.' We'll follow Mike's lead in noting Larry Johnson (No Quarter) on this issue:
The war drums are really blasting in Washington and wishful thinking has replaced reason and logic. The Obama Administration, with the full-throated cheerleading of neo-cons like Charles Krauthammer, are celebrating the terrorist attack on the Government of Bashir Assad and hoping that Assad folds his tents. Some breathless analysts on Fox News are even predicting that Assad will be gone in 36 hours. Delusional horses**t.
The Defense Minister who was murdered in this attack was a Christian. The group claiming credit for the attack has direct links to the same folks that fill the ranks of Al Qaeda in Iraq. So who are we backing? Why, the al Qaeda guys, of course.
The Washington Post's Liz Sly spoke with Renee Montagne (NPR's Morning Edition -- link is audio and transcript) earlier today. AP reports Iraqi Brigadier General Qassim al-Dulaimi says the resistance or 'resistance' killed 20 Syrian border guards today "and their commander." Adrian Blomfield, Alex Spillius and Ruth Sherlock (Telegraph of London) note, "Syria's rebels claimed to have seized a series of key border checkpoints with Turkey and an entire swathe of the country's frontier with Iraq." al-Dulaimi tells AP that the 'rebels' have taken control over the crossing into Iraq's Qaim. John Glaser (Antiwar.com) states, "Syrian rebels have taken control of all the border crossings and military outposts between Iraq and Syria, according to senior Iraqi officials." In addition, the Committee to Protect Journalists notes:
New York, July 18, 2012--Two Iraqi journalists living in Syria and covering the conflict in that country were killed on Saturday although news reports differed on crucial details. The Committee to Protect Journalists continues to investigate the circumstances of the deaths, which come amid reports of increasing violence toward Iraqis living in Syria.
Falah Taha, a freelance journalist who contributed to several Iraqi news outlets, was killed while covering ongoing clashes between government forces and the Free Syrian Army in the capital, Damascus, numerous news reports said. An unidentified group of armed men killed Ali Juburi al-Kaabi, editor-in-chief of the Baghdad-based weekly Al-Zawraa, in Jaramana, a suburb of Damascus, according to news reports. Al-Zawraa is a weekly issued by the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, news reports said.
News accounts carried few details about the deaths. While most reports said both journalists were shot to death, some accounts citing Iraqi army officials said they had also been stabbed. Most reports describe the deaths as having occurred separately in different locations although some accounts said the journalists both died in Jaramana.
On the topic of oil, Reuters reports that for the third straight month, Iraq's exports have fallen "below 2.4 million barrels per day". Trade Arabia notes, "Chevron Corp is buying into blocks in Iraq's Kurdistan, according to two oil executives involved in the region, as the second-largest U.S. oil company follows Exxon Mobil Corp into an area where oil rights are a subject of fierce dispute. Chevron is purchasing 80 per cent of the Sarta and Rovi blocks from India's Reliance Industries, according to the two executives, who requested anonymity." If that rumor is true, that would be a big blow to Nouri. Remember Antony Blinken's meeting with Nouri yesterday? (Blinken is US Vice President Joe Biden's National Security Adviser.) Supposedly Blinken made time to press Nouri on ExxonMobil -- Nouri wants the deal cancelled -- but didn't press him on Ali Mussa Daqduq. If true, that's really embarrassing. Remember that first a US official insisted they were already pressing Iraq to extradite Daqduq to the US and then Nouri's spokesperson made clear that no such request had been made. And then a US official said they were 'about to' make the request.
A little over three hours later, Nouri al-Maliki was issuing a statement claiming he had the US backing on ExxonMobil. He's such a damn liar and you really have to wonder about the reporters that print his crap without challenge. It wasn't two weeks ago, that these same outlets were running with Nouri met with the UN and UN says Camp Ashraf must -- no, the United Nations didn't say it but did we ever get a retraction from the press? Of course note. So Aseel Kami and Braden Reddall (Reuters) take stenography today and want you to know that Nouri has the US backing on ending that deal the KRG and ExxonMobile signed back in October.
Now high likely is it that the US government, via Blinken, conveyed anything of meaning regarding ExxonMobil? Not at all likely. In the United States, there is no state control of the oil companies. (Some would argue there is control of the government by the oil companies and certainly the Iraqi press have had stories where the White House has conveyed to Nouri that he needs to work things out with ExxonMobil.) So it's a non-story but watch how it gets parroted over and over by news outlets that make Hedda Hopper look like Bob Woodward.
On this morning's Chevron rumors, AP reports that they are true and Chevron and the KRG signed a deal today. Reuters notes Chevron has purchased "80 percent of two blocks in Kurdistan." Tina Davis (Bloomberg News) clarifies, "Chevron Corp. (CVX) agreed to buy Reliance Industries Ltd. (RIL)'s 80 percent stake in two blocks covering about 490 square miles (1,124 square kilometers) in Iraq's Kurdistan region." Mark Lawson (Wall St. Cheat Sheet) adds, "These blocks are north of Erbil and contain a combined area of around 490 square miles. The subsidiaries in question will partner with OMV Rovi GmbH and OMV Sarta GmbH, which hold 20 percent interest in the Rovi and Sarta PSCs, respectively." Hassan Hafidh (Dow Jones) explains, "Under the agreement with Kurdistan, Chevron must drill two wells by November 2013, company spokesman Gareth Johnstone said." In addition, Oil & Gas Journal notes, "A group led by Hunt Oil Middle East has tested a combined flow rate of 13,584 b/d of oil from three zones at the deepened Simrit-2 well in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with nine more zones to be drillstem tested. Afren PLC, which has a 20% interest in the Ain Sifni PSC, said the well has been drilled to 3,800 m and encountered 460 m of net oil pay."
Meanwhile the latest Sports Illustrated it out and the Jul 23, 2012 issue is the Olympic Preview issue. When it was slid over to me by a friend at Time-Warner-CNN-Pony Express, it was stressed that the issue had a big "Arab Spring" spread. Big? It's ten pages. Why we'd be interested in it -- no Iraq athletes are included in the article -- is beyond me. If Tunisia's your thing, pick up the issue. (They also don't pick any Iraqis to place in the top three of any event. Afghanistan's Rohullah Nikpai is the only one they pick from Aghanistan and they predict he'll take the Silver in 68 kg Taekwondo. It's a shame they spent 12 pages on predictions when they could have profiled more athletes in that space instead of wasting it on I-think-this-will-happen.) The Summer Olympics kick off in London in less than 8 days (7 days, 20 hours the counter currently reads). Iraq has 8 athletes competing. The three women are: Dana Abdul Razak, event: 100m; Noor Amer Al Ameri, event: Women's 10m Air Pistol; and Rand al-Mashhadani, event: Archery, Women's individual. The five men are: Mohanad Ahmed Dheyaa al-Azzawi, event: Swimming, Men's 100m Butterfly; Safaa al-Jumaili, event: Weightlifting, men's 85kg; Ali Nadhim Salman Salman; Wrestling, Men's 120kg Greco-Roman; Adnan Taess Akkar, event: Athletics Men's 800m; and Ahmed Abdulkareem Ahmed, event: Boxing, Men's Welter (69kg). For more on Iraq and the Olympics, you can click here for the folder BBC News has created for this topic. Kay Johnson (AP) did a lengthy (and solid) report on Safaa al-Jumail:
But al-Jamaili has already overcome greater challenges just to keep competing. He was forced to stop lifting weights for more than a year after his family fled their home province of Diyala, 90 kilometres (55 miles) northeast of Baghdad, as waves of insurgent attacks and retaliatory violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslim militias flooded over the area.
One reason they fled: His older brother was kidnapped and held for three days.
Al-Jamaili, then 17, was with his brother on that day in 2007. He remembers walking together toward their aunt's house, feeling lighthearted because he had just returned from winning a gold medal in a regional youth championship in Jordan. Then, several armed men accosted the brothers. Al-Jamaili managed to run away, but his brother was captured.
The family spent three tense days selling their furniture and borrowing money to pay a ransom before his brother was finally returned. Then, they all fled to the northern city of Kirkuk, where al-Jamaili worked full-time on a construction crew to help the family earn cash. Weightlifting was out of the question.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states that the turmoil in Syria has negatively effected Iraq, Al Mada reports, and that the political crisis has prevented Baghdad and Erbil from addressing Iraq's internal problems. The political crisis, Ban Ki-moon stated, has prevented efforts to resolve outstanding issues and, without these issue being resolved, the future of Iraq is threatened.
"As I sit before the Council today," the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy to Iraq Martin Kobler declared this afternoon, "Iraq is in the midst of a seven month long stalemate between the political blocs. a situation which continues to hamper progress in areas essential to Iraq's development including a sustainable solution to the disputed internal boundaries, the unfinished Constitutional agenda and the adoption of essential outstanding legislation and the preparation for next year's provincial council elections."
Kobler was in New York, speaking to the United Nations Security Council as he briefed them on Iraq. We'll note some of his testimony in today's snapshot and some in tomorrow's snapshot.
Special Envoy Martin Kobler: The question today is whether crucial obstacles can be overcome in order for the Iraqi state to realize its true potential. In my assessment, the role of UNAMI will be more important than ever in supporting Iraq on its journey towards stability and development. Mr. President since my last briefing to the Council, I've intensified my engagement with political leaders from all sides in Baghdad and in the Kurdistan Region, met with representatives of many of Iraq's communities and listened to the advice of Iraq's spiritual leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf. I've also sought -- sough the views of the government of Iran, Kuwait and Turkey on the region. The Core of UNAMI's mandate is to support and assist the people of Iraq for it is the people of Iraq who want the political stalemate to end and it is they who want to have a life in security and prosperity. It is they who want to have a better future for their children. And it's they who long for the day when benefits from the natural wealth of the country will translate into the reliable delivery of electricity and other public services and economic development. Almost seven years ago, the Iraqi people laid the foundations for democracy in their country by adopting their Constitution. Today, however, key institutions have yet to be established and fundamental legislation remains outstanding -- including the establishment of the Federation Council, the strengthening of the Judicial System, the legislation on revenue sharing and hydro-carbons, the protec -- the protection of minorities. Just to say a few. My colleagues and I have made the promotion of progress in these areas a priority. In particular, the legal and policy framework for revenue sharing need to be put in place and this would constitute a signficant strengthening of the federal system, improve the environment for investment, and provide for the agreed distribution of national wealth. Revenue sharing is vital to help improve Arab-Kurdish co-existence, vital to ensure that Iraq remains a single federal state and, above all, vital for advancing a solution in the disputed internal boundaries. Making progress in unblocking Iraq's unfinished legislative agenda, however requires an agreement between Iraq's political leaders that will end the political stalement. Such an agreement must be reached through transparent and inclusive dialogue in respect of the Constitution and in a spirt of compromise. Mr. President, there is no democracy without elections and there are no credible elections without a strong and truly independent election commission. As we speak, my political deputy, Mr. Georgi Boston, is engaged in facilitation efforts to bring about the formation of a new, Independent High Election Commission which is representative of the main components of Iraq -- including women and children and minorities. The urgent selection of the commissioners is essential for ensuring that the provincial council elections due to take place in March 2013 can be conducted on time. I'm concerned that the ongoing political stalemate is hindering the process however. In recent days, I have discussed with political leaders -- including Prime Minister al-Maliki -- the need for a swfit conclusion of this political process and the need for an adequate representation of women and minorities in the commission. Today, I would like to re-iterate my appeal to all political blocs to expedite the selection of professional commissioners. UNAMI stands here ready to actively assist. Mr. President, the number of civilian casualties caused by terrorist attacks is increasing across Iraq. Since the beginning of this year an average of 12 violent attacks a day have claimed a total of more than 1,300 lives -- many of them innocent children and women who were simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Uh-oh, what's a news outlet to do? The UN's going with increased violence and the White House is insisting that's not the case? What will the stenographers do? Less than two weeks before the end of the month when they'll have to note violence. What will the stenographers do?
The political crisis has already seen two stalemates. The first one lasted over eight months and followed the March 7, 2010 elections. Nouri's political slate State of Law came in second to Iraqiya (headed by Ayad Allawi) but Nouri didn't want to follow the Constitution and demanded a second term as prime minister. The White House backed Nouri and not the Iraqi people, their votes, democracy or the Constitution. So the US government brokered a contract between the political blocs, the Erbil Agreement, which gave Nouri a second term if he agreed to various concessions (implementing the Constitution's Article 140, creating an independent security commission, etc.). Nouri used the Erbil Agreement (November 2010) to get his second term and then refused to follow the Erbil Agreement. Once this became obvious, the second political stalemate had started. By summer 2011, the Kurds, Iraqiya and Moqtada al-Sadr were calling for a return to the Erbil Agreement. This is the current and ongoing political stalemate.
This morning Al Mada reported that Iraqiya is hopeful that one of their own might be nominated to head one of the security ministries and the names Jawad al-Bolani, Mustafa al-Hiti and Salah al-Jubouri are among those being tossed out (by Iraqiya). An unnamed State of Law official seems skeptical about that happening. al-Jubouri currently serves on the notorious Justice and Accountability Commission. al-Hiti is a member of Parliament and has unofficially served as an Iraqiya parliamentary spokesperson since 2010. He is a member of Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq's National Dialogue Front. In 2009, Jawad al-Bolani wrote a column for the Washington Post which you can read here. Jawad al-Bolani served as Minister of the Interior in Nouri's first Cabinet. It was during that time that the Ministry of the Interior became synomous with terrorism and power struggles. You can refer to the Los Angeles Times archives for many reports on that and you should probably start with this July 2007 report by Ned Parker:
This is Iraq's Ministry of Interior -- the balkanized command center for the nation's police and mirror of the deadly factions that have caused the government here to grind nearly to a halt.
The very language that Americans use to describe government -- ministries, departments, agencies -- belies the reality here of militias that kill under cover of police uniform and remain above the law. Until recently, one or two Interior Ministry police officers were assassinated each week while arriving or leaving the building, probably by fellow officers, senior police officials say.
That killing has been reduced, but Western diplomats still describe the Interior Ministry building as a "federation of oligarchs." Those who work in the building, like the colonel, liken departments to hostile countries. Survival depends on keeping abreast of shifting factional alliances and turf.
On the second floor is Gen. Mahdi Gharrawi, a former national police commander. Last year, U.S. and Iraqi troops found 1,400 prisoners, mostly Sunnis, at a base he controlled in east Baghdad. Many showed signs of torture. The interior minister blocked an arrest warrant against the general this year, senior Iraqi officials confirmed.
The third- and fifth-floor administrative departments are the domain of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, a Shiite group.
The sixth, home to border enforcement and the major crimes unit, belongs to the Badr Organization militia. Its leader, Deputy Minister Ahmed Khafaji, is lauded by some Western officials as an efficient administrator and suspected by others of running secret prisons.
The seventh floor is intelligence, where the Badr Organization and armed Kurdish groups struggle for control.
The ninth floor is shared by the department's inspector general and general counsel, religious Shiites. Their offices have been at the center of efforts to purge the department's remaining Sunni employees. The counsel's predecessor, a Sunni, was killed a year ago.
For any who are confused, per the Constitution, yes, Nouri was supposed to have named heads to the security ministries back in November 2010. His failure to do so was supposed to mean that he did not advance from prime minister-designate to prime minister and that, instead, a new person was named prime minister-designate and given 30 days to come up with a Cabinet. The US-backed Erbil Agreement 'trumped' the Iraqi Constitution.
And this afternoon, All Iraq News reports, Iraqiya spokesperson Maysoon al-Damalouji stated that there were no nominations from Iraqiya for the post of Minister of Defense and that they were not asked to provide any names for that post.
All Iraq News reports Iraqiya's Salem Dali notes that the move to question Nouri before Parliament continues and that this is necessary because public funds are being wasted and due to large numbers of Constitutional violations. He doesn't need to list reasons, the Constitution gives the Parliament the right to question Nouri. It's good that there are reasons but Nouri's continued refusal to appear before Parliament is just another example of how he refuses to follow the Constitution. Nasiriyah reports that Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq is calling for calm and dialgoue. Anybody remember how Nouri's Reform Commission was supposed to meet and finalize things this week? Yeah, what happened to that? Has his diversion already been dropped? There's not been any coverage of it all week. However, All Iraq News reports that Allawi is supposed to meet with Moqtada al-Sadr shortly.
One thing the Parliament is putting time into is funding their own personal purchase of firearms. Al Mada reports the plan to spend five billion dinars is going through and that the Parliament has even turned down the Ministry of Interior's offer to provide them with firearms. To be clear, these guns will only be for the Parliament and they're not passing any laws to provide Iraqi citizens with guns. Despite the fact that the bulk of them live outside of Iraq and that they frequently can't show up for sessions or actually earn their big salaries, they feel that they need guns and that the Iraqi people should foot the bill.
While the Baghdad-based government is happy to arm the Parliament -- which, for the record, has no security area to patrol -- they appear to balk at funding security forces. Specifically, Al Mada reports that the Minister of the Peshmerga in the KRG is stating that it appears Baghdad will not fund the arming of the Peshmerga (Kurdish security forces) and that the KRG will have to foot that bill. It's seen as part of the ongoing distance between Baghdad and Erbil.
In other spending news, the Minister of Justice, Hassan al-Shammari, announced yesterday that Iraq's 27,000 detainees are costing his ministry $20 million per month (it says "dollars," not "dinars" so I won't bother to do a conversion). Despite this large figure, Iraqi prisoners are not receiving health care, the minister notes. Where's the money going? The only big item listed is electricity. Due to international standards, Iraq provides (or attempts to provide) electricity to prisons 24 hours, 7 days a week. Kitabat quotes Minister Hassan al-Shammari declaring that the expenses are food and maintaining/meeting international standards. Meanwhile Alsumaria reports that the Ministry of Interior released a statement stating that Nouri must launch an investigation into the death of prisoner Saddam Mukhlif while in a Baghdad prison. The cry for an investigation comes as Alsumaria also reports the Ministry of Justice is insisting they've stopped a plan by 16 death row prisoners to escape.
On the topic of electricity, Nasiriyah reports that in an effort to try to reach 12 hours of electricity a month for the holy month of Ramadan, Iraqi is increasing energy imports from Iran.
Dropping back to the House Oversight's Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations Wednesday hearing about VA's continued inability to resolve claims in a timely fashion. Yesterday, we mainly noted that while the US is gripped by an economic crisis and facing record debt, the VA has given out $2.8 million to 245 employees. Today we'll cover two other topics. US House Rep Jason Chaffetz is the Subcomittee Chair and appearing before the Subcommittee were VA's Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, the VFW's Gerald Manar and Disabled American Veterans' Joseph Violante.
"SNL"s are Simplified Notification Letters which the VBA sends out to veterans to let them know that their claim has been denied or approved -- if the latter, a disabilty rating will also be in the letter. Hopefully, the letter will make sense. Veterans advocates don't feel that has been the case -- as evidenced by the written statements Manar and Violante handed in to the Subcommittee. Chair Chaffetz raised the issue.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: If you get a 100% disability, you're probably going to agree with it. If you get a five or ten-percent, your probably going to have some questions. We're trying to find the proper balance between handing somebody so many documents and simplifying the process. But these two gentlemen here certainly don't seem to be, based on those statements, fans of this. How do we find that proper balance?
Allison Hickey: Chairman Chaffetz, thank you for that question. I will address it by saying that I, today, provide access to our VSOs to every one of those files for them to do whatever research they want to do. They will have even greater access to knowing exactly the data and the information we know when they are joining us this month on VBMS as we go into the new Veterans Benefit Management System. In addition, I have whole heartedly encouraged -- as we go through change, there's adjustments and adaptations, there's a learning process -- I have wholly encouraged them at the local unit level when they have a service officer, the final one that just doesn't have enough for them to go directly to that supervisor and say, 'Need a little help here, there's not enough here.'
Chair Jason Chaffetz: But don't you think --
Allison Hickey: We will handle that on the spot. We will train to that as we learn more and more about that.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Don't you think that that's contributing to the backlog because --
Allison Hickey: I do not.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: -- back in line again and say --
Allison Hickey: It has not. In fact, it's handled on the spot.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: You really think --
Allison Hickey: And it's reduced our backlog by 30,000.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: You really think that the veterans are convinced that it's just "handled on the spot"? I mean, our office, we get these all the time. This is not --
Allison Hickey: Chairman Chaffetz --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: For you to say that they're just handled on the spot? Mr. Manar, how would you -- Is that true, are they handled "on the spot"?
Gerald Manar: Depending on the regional office and the individuals that our service officers deal with, they are sometimes handled on the spot. In other instances -- and it's rare -- our service officers are told, 'If you don't like it, you can appeal it.' And then there's a wide range of interactions in between. Our concern isn't -- We're concerned about the SNL letters because it's not just our service officers trying to figure out why VA made a decision. We train our people to do that, to go behind and look at the data and basically re-evaluate it and see if they would have arrived at the same conclusion. But-but perhaps 50% of veterans are not represented. So they have to accept whatever VA gives them on blind faith or decide whether they're going to appeal on their own. The point here -- and I'd like to say this -- General Hickey has worked with us signficantly to try to improve these letters. She put out some directives last February to the field that -- if those directives were followed -- the letters, barely adequate in our view, but at least they'd be adequate. The problem is that when we've come along in April and May and looked at letters and decisions that were made in many different offices, we're finding a significant number -- 50 to 60% -- that are not getting the job done.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: That's a pretty high number. Mr. Violante, I know it's past my time, but I want to give you an opportunity to respond though. Then we'll go to the gentleman from Illinois.
Joseph Violante: Like Mr. Manar, we have similar experiences with regard to whether or not we can get something corrected "on the spot" depending on the regional office and the employees. With regards to the SNLs, we're not opposed to the concept. We have seen some good ones come out and we have brought the bad ones to General Hickey's attention. But if they can work on that, there is a balance that needs to be done so that veterans can understand in a simplified way what the VA's decision is.
Now we're going to focus on another exchange but we're just zooming in on the Military Sexual Trauma (MST) aspect. It's an issue that doesn't get enough attention and when it is noted in a hearing, we make a point to include it in our coverage.
US House Rep Jackie Speier: And then my third question is on MST. As you know, military sexual assault is absolutely out of control in the military, 19,000 cases a year. As I understand it, your reviews have found differences in denial rates between sexual assault PTSD and other PTSD cases. I'd like to know what you have found and what you are doing about it? And for those that have been previously denied, what can be done for them in terms of refiling and being reconsidered? Thank you.
Allison Hickey: Thank you, Congresswoman Speier. [. . .] I am so glad you brought up Military Sexual Trauma. It is the very first issue I grabbed the reigns on and ran with when I got on station here aside from, obviously, the backlog. And I will tell you, I'm the one that asked for us to go show -- show me what our grant denial rate is between MSTPTSD and what it is between PTSD for the other three -- combat, fear, terrorism? I asked for us to do that. I got it back and I said, "This is unacceptable." We had a 20% difference in our grant denial rate. I said, "We're going to change this process." We did. And by the way, the process is now in a segmented lane which is one of our new transformation initiatives. We have trained from the VBA person who handles it coming in the door through the exam doctor in the health administration who does the health exam. And we now have everybody trained. I just got the data last Friday that shows I have closed that gap as a result of that effort. We have increased our grants a full 35% in our MST as of last Friday because of the directions we did, the actions we took to make those right and to do those right [. . .]*
US House Rep Jackie Speier: Mr. Chairman, could I ask a follow up question? I know my time has expired.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Feel free.
US House Rep Jackie Speier: Thank you. What are we doing about those that had their claims denied? Are we going back now and saying refile?
Allison Hickey: I am glad you asked that question as well, Congressman -- Congresswoman Speier. We are sending letters to everyone we've ever denied and saying, 'This is what we do. We've got a new process. If you feel like you were denied in error, please send it to us and we will re-accomplish it.'
*After "and to do those right" Allison Hickey may say "for women." She hadn't take a breath and her last words were not clear.
From the House to the Senate, there's important news today from the Senate Veterans Committee and its leadership. Senator Patty Murray is the Committee Chair, Senator Richard Burr is the Ranking Member. Chair Murray's office issued the following:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, July 19, 2012
CONTACT: Murray Press Office
VETERANS: Murray, Burr Call on GAO to Review VA's Benefits Accreditation Program
Recent findings raise serious questions about effectiveness of accreditation process in ensuring proper conduct by individuals assisting veterans with benefit claims
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, joined with the Committee's Ranking Member, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), in sending a letter to the Comptroller General Gene Dodaro requesting assistance from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in examining the Department of Veterans Affairs' accreditation program. The request stems from issues identified during GAO's recently completed investigation into VA's pension program, which revealed that individuals and companies are using VA accreditation as a way to take advantage of elderly veterans and their families.
"The Government Accountability Office's recent investigation of VA's pension program, conducted at our request, raised some significant concerns regarding VA's accreditation program," the Senators wrote in the letter to GAO. "GAO's final report, Veterans' Pension Benefits, highlighted the fact that some VA accredited individuals may be taking advantage of VA benefits claimants, such as by charging illegal or exorbitant fees, engaging in deceptive marketing practices, or selling unsuitable financial products or services."
The full text of the letter
The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro
U.S. Government Accountability Office
441 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20548-0001
Dear Mr. Dodaro:
The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Office of the General Counsel provides accreditation to attorneys, claims agents, and representatives of veterans service organizations so they can assist VA benefits claimants with the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of VA claims. To become accredited, an individual must demonstrate a level of proficiency in VA's policies and procedures to be able to provide assistance with VA claims. Also, restrictions exist regarding fees that can be charged by accredited individuals for services associated with VA benefit claims.
The Government Accountability Office's (GAO) recent investigation of VA's pension program, conducted at our request, raised some significant concerns regarding VA's accreditation program. GAO's final report, Veterans' Pension Benefits, highlighted the fact that some VA accredited individuals may be taking advantage of VA benefits claimants, such as by charging illegal or exorbitant fees, engaging in deceptive marketing practices, or selling unsuitable financial products or services.
In light of these concerns, we request the assistance of the GAO in examining the following questions: (1) What are VA's policies and procedures for accrediting and providing oversight, including data collection and analysis, of those individuals? (2) Are there potential vulnerabilities in VA's existing policies and procedures which may allow abuses of the accreditation system? (3) What is the process for suspending or revoking accreditation if abuses are found to have occurred?
We appreciate your attention to this request.
Specialty Media Coordinator
Specialty Media Coordinator
Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray
448 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510