Thursday, April 18, 2013

Gun coverage

Yesterday, one of my U.S. senators was on The NewsHour (PBS):

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-Conn.: Today was heartbreaking for me, really sad and shocking, but the hardest part of it was to try to explain to those families how 90 percent of the American people could be in favor of background checks, criminal background checks for all firearms purchases, and the Senate failed to reach the necessary 60 votes.
And their reaction was absolutely inspiring. As one of them said to me -- when I said, we're coming back, she said to me, it's not even close. We're coming back. Not even close.

To which I say, stop whimpering.  Geez.


I am really sorry that you do not seem to realize that your top priority is Jobs and then Jobs and then more Jobs.

In this economy, that is where you focus needs to be.

I am already ticked off that you have wasted so much time on proposed legislation that was never, ever going to pass.

Now stop whimpering and get to work on doing the job were elected to.

They lost.  They do not know how to lose gracefully.  That is a point that Cedric and Wally made this morning:

And it is one we heard on the hysterical Morning Blow on MSNBC.  There was Blow Scarborough and Mika Q-Tip ranting and raving -- as if a dead intern was not found in his office, as if her father is not responsible for the Taliban taking over Afghanistan.

Sin a lot and they give you a show on MSNBC.

There you ignore your own corpses but a make a point to rant and rave about guns.

This is C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot" for today:

Thursday, April 18, 2013.  Chaos and violence continue, Baghdad gets slammed by a bombing in the evening and the western press comes to life, bad analysis of what elections mean may explain why the press doesn't know how to cover elections properly, we look at the attempts of Eric Shinseki and Allison Hickey to lie to Congress this week, and more.

It had already shaped up as a violent day in Iraq when the evening rolled around and a Baghdad bombing went off.  Xinhua reports, "The bombing attack took place at about 9:30 p.m. local time ( 1830 GMT) in Al Ameriyah neighborhood in west Baghdad, with children and women among those killed, a police source told Xinhua.  The cafe was located inside a small shopping building, which also contains clothes shops, Internet cafes and restaurants."  The Times of India describes the cafe as popular with youths "using the internet."   Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) adds that police state "the bomb was hidden in a plastic bag and then put in a cafe" and that most of the dead and wounded "are young men."  However,   Sameer N. Yacoub (AP) notes police declare the death toll includes 1 woman and 2 children.   Al Jazeera cites their correspondent Jane "Arraf said witnesses reported the force of the blast sent shrapnel and glass flying into an ice cream shop and a pharmacy on the ground floor of the building, severely wounding women and children."  Arraf discusses the bombing with Aaron Schachter for PRI's The World.   Kareem Raheem, Michael Roddy and Patrick Markey (Reuters) notes that some are saying it was a suicide bombing, that the cafe was on the third floor of the shopping center and an unnamed police official states, "Part of the building fell in and debris hit people shopping in the mall below." DPA also goes with a suicide bombing: "Police said the bomber set off his explosive belt inside the packed cafe."

While western media is describing the location of the bombing as a cafe, NINA describes it as a billiard hall.  Most Iraqi coverage is noting that the internet cafe had pool tables.   Max Meyer (Neon Tommy) notes 27 dead and fifty-one injured.

Prior to the Baghdad bombing, it was already a day of violence in Iraq.  National Iraqi News Agency reports a Mosul roadside bombing has left three police officers injured, a Mosul car bombing claimed the lives of 3 Iraqi soldiers and left five more injured, a Basra explosion left two city workers injured, and a Falluja sticky bombing claimed 1 lifeAll Iraq News adds that the Basra explosion has left three city workers injured. All Iraq News also notes a Samarra bombing claimed 4 lives.  Xinhua reports, "Meanwhile, gunmen in a car opened fire on a fixed police foot patrol in Baghdad's southern district of Baiyaa, leaving a policeman dead and two others wounded before they fled the scene, a police source said."  That's 35 reported deaths and 64 reported injured.

Saturday, residents of 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces will vote in provincial elections.  Various bans and curfews are being imposed.  NINA notes a traffic ban in Dhi Qar, All Iraq News notes Tikrit's just been placed on curfew, and Alsumaria notes that Basra's announced a curfew and closing of border crossings.  You can be sure there will be more. 

Alsumaria reports that the expectation is that 13 million people will be voting on Saturday.  That's nearly half the country.  (The CIA estimates Iraq's population to be around 30 million.  There has not been a census in Iraq since the 90s and it excluded the KRG.  The last full census was in 1987.)  All Iraq News adds that the electoral commission says the results will be announced five days after the voting.

Jim Muir (BBC News) offers a lengthy analysis of the situation.  And praise to him for that.  I'm now going to point to two flaws.

Most significant flaw is this claim:

They will also provide an important test of the electoral strength of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and also of the man whose Iraqiyya coalition came out narrowly ahead in the last general elections but who was outmanoeuvred in the government formation process, Ayyad Allawi.

I have no idea what the results are going to be but if Nouri's undefined candidates do poorly, I'm not going to be here the day the results are released writing "The Political Death of Nouri."  Because I'm smart enough to grasp reality which apparently eludes Jim Muir.

If the 2016 United States elections take place in 48 states and exclude California and New York, that doesn't tell you how strong Republicans are even though they would likely win the White House in that scenario and would likely have control of the House (84 House elections would not take place in such a scenario -- whereas the Senate would just lose 4 senators).  If you have excluded the two largest states that Democrats do best in, that provide Democrats with 84 electoral votes, then the 2016 elections tell you nothing because it is flawed by design.

Do reporters not have to take methodology classes?  They need to.  They need to take sampling classes as well because more and more they're offering half-baked theories and people run with them because it's 'the press.'

Nouri has excluded the two provinces that are most opposed to him: Anbar Province and Nineveh Province.  That only means that the elections could not be seen as an indicator of Nouri's popularity or of his non-popularity.  These are not true elections.   In 2009, when you have 14 provinces voting in provincial elections, you saw whoring by the press.  They pretended it was a win for Nouri.  Now the KRG hadn't voted and they weren't going to provide Nouri's supporters with any real votes.  That's a given.  Yet when those three provinces voted, not one member of the Press Whore Corps went back and revised their opinion.  The data didn't even show 2009 was a win for Nouri.  The strongest indicator from the data was that you saw Iraqis reach for a national identity.  To make that claim on just that data would have been a mistake.  In 2010, however, you saw that it was a trend by the results of that year's parliamentary elections.

I'm real sorry that the press can't get it straight.  I'm sorry that their education programs failed them.

But when you exclude five provinces that will not go to Nouri from the elections -- the results don't tell you a damn thing about Nouri -- who is not appearing on any ballot.

Five provinces?  The KRG's three provinces will vote September 21st.

We were speaking on a campus today and I sat in on a friend's class.  He was discussing the Iraqi elections -- and unlike the press, is actually trained in the area of elections -- and one of his students asked about the KRG, specifically, since Iraq has had so many internal refugees and so many of those are Iraqi Christians who have fled to northern Iraq for safety, couldn't this lead to a significant vote for Nouri's party?

My friend asked what I did Saturday: What's Nouri's party?  What's the damn measurement.

The press keeps this crap around but they don't define terms and they don't because they're too damn stupid to know what they're talking about.  Nouri is in charge of the Dawa Party.  So are you judging by Dawa?  That's his political party.  Of course, Nouri refused to run with them in 2010 and instead ran on his own State of Law political slate.  So which is it, Press Whore Corps?  Try defining your damn terms. You won't though because then you couldn't whore for Nouri.

The student didn't have an answer -- nor will the press, the student is at least trying to learn which is the more than you can say about the press.

My friend then pointed out that if you were an Iraqi Christian raised in Baghdad who had to flee to the north because of safety concerns, would you really want to support the person who is supposed to be providing security to your country?

Five provinces that would not go for Nouri if his name was on the ballot are being excluded from the vote and yet the Press Whore Corps continues to whore for Nouri.  Which, by the way, I pointed out when my friend asked if I wanted to add anything.  I said the student's question was perfectly normal because people paid to inform others refuse to get it right, they just lie and whore and pretend to know something they don't.

What Muir could have done was an analysis of what does it say about Nouri's leadership that Kirkuk is not participating in the elections?  He could have pointed out, because he was in Iraq at the time, that in his first term, Nouri took an oath to the Iraqi Constitution.  And that includes Article 140 which ordered him to resolve the dispute over Kirkuk by a census and a referendum to be held no later than the end of 2007.  Nouri has still not followed that.  That's why Kirkuk's not voting.  I guess that wouldn't have us playing 'Is nouri going to win, is Nouri going to win?"

Muir writes, "With Prime Minister Maliki widely accused by his many political opponents of harbouring dictatorial tendencies and clinging desperately to power, it would not be surprising if there are allegations of irregularities."  What?

He wouldn't be surprised.  You know what? I wouldn't be surprised either.  I also wouldn't be surprised if Argo won Best Picture at the Academy Awards -- because it already did.  And allegations already surfaced.  Dropping back to Saturday:

The Electoral Commission had to make an announcement declaring special voting over and all centers closed unless people were in line waiting -- if they were, the center closed after those in line at that moment were done votingAlsumaria reports that there were 422 polling centers.  Yesterday, All Iraq News noted the electoral commission declared it has 110,000 vote observers to witness the special vote  and the regular vote April 20th -- the hope is that this will prevent voter fraud or voter intimidation.  Today, All Iraq News notes, Electoral Commission member Kadhim al-Zubaei declared that each polling station also has a complaint box.  Dropping back to Tuesday's snapshot:

Still on the political, from the April 2nd snapshot, "Alsumaria reports that Salah al-Obeidi, spokesperson for the Sadr bloc, declared today that pressure is  being put upon police and military recruits to get them to vote for Nouri's State of Law slate."  Al Rafidayn reports today that Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has also called out the efforts to pressure police and army to vote for a specific list of candidate (Al Rafidayn notes that al-Hakim avoided naming the list in question).  

Wael Grace and Mohammad Sabah (Al Mada) report allegations have already emerged of voter fraud and others problems including that some forces are discovering their names are not on the voter rolls.  Movement leader and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc states that they have video proof of security service officers forcing those serving under them to participate and to vote for one party.  Kitabat adds that observers saw officers pressuring recruits to vote for Nouri al-Maliki's candidates in Karbala. 
Kitabat offers these hard numbers: 8143 candidates running for 378 seats in the 12 provinces holding elections.

He wouldn't be surprised if allegations emerged?  Me neither because they already did on Saturday during early voting.  I seriously question the knowledge pool Muir drew from when writing his analysis.

But let's the other big problem with Muir's analysis or 'analysis':

Two mainly Sunni provinces, al-Anbar and Nineveh (Mosul), have also been controversially excluded for the time being, on the grounds that continuing anti-government disturbances and demonstrations there have made polling too unsafe. The postponement prompted Mr Maliki's many detractors to accuse him of manipulation for his own electoral benefit.
The skills Mr Maliki displayed in outmanoeuvring Mr Allawi in the 2010 struggle for the prime ministerial job have certainly stood him in good stead in turning to his advantage the fragmentation afflicting both the Sunni and Shia political camps.

Nouri's skills? His mad skills?  Iran and the US governments are why he has a second term as prime minister.  The US government specifically brokered The Erbil Agreement.  You can accuse Allawi and all the other political leaders of ignorance for trusting the US government but don't credit Nouri's mad skills.  And stop the whoring.  Nouri's State of Law came in second in the 2010 parliamentary elections.  The Constitution was clear on what should have happened.  Maybe Muir doesn't know that, or maybe he's too busy whoring?  I have no idea.  But Nouri didn't win in 2010, he came in second.  He then stomped his feet like a petulant child for 8 months refusing to allow the process to go forward.  This is the well documented political stalemate.   Then the US comes in with their, "Hey guys, this could go on for 8 more months.  You know how stubborn Nouri is.  Be the bigger person.  Give him a second term so we can all move on.  And you know what, we'll help you.  We'll put it in writing.  And we'll make sure that, in exchange for giving Nouri a second term, your political bloc gets things you need and want.  We'll draw up a legal contract and it will have the full support of the US government behind it."  But it didn't.  The US government betrayed every political bloc in Iraq except Nouri's State of Law.  It's why that 2009 shot at redemption vanished -- the Iraqi people saw there was no difference between Barack and Bush.  Now that couldn't have happened without Iran.  Moqtada al-Sadr was forced to go along with Nouri by Iran.  Supposedly in exchange for being the next prime minister.  That's what government agencies believe the deal between Moqtada and the Iranian government was, that they would force all Shi'ite political blocs to back Moqtada as prime minister in 2014.  Prior to whatever deal was reached, Moqtada had declared he wouldn't support Nouri.  He had held follow up elections (April 2010) where he asked who his supporters backed for prime minister.  Nouri came in third.

We jumped to the second part, let's back up to the paragraph before.

What power does Nouri to call off elections?  The three presidencies set the date.  What power, in writing, does Nouri have?  Because the so-called Independent High Electoral Commission is supposed to be the sole authority for the elections.  How do you do an analysis and avoid questions like that?

Maybe the same way you do it on a day when Baghdad is yet again slammed with violence and, with a straight face, insist that Nouri stopped voting in Anbar and Nineveh due to violence.  As many pointed out -- including Iraqiya -- Baghdad's seen more violence.  But it's voting.  Muir's also unaware that when Iraqiya countered with that Nouri offered a second excuse and has now offered a third.  I'm not here to spoon feed Muir or anyone else, if you can't keep up with what's going on, that's on you at this point.

It's an interesting analaysis that breezes over the assassinations of 15 (though he says 14) candidates -- breezes so quickly over that he can't note what party they belong to or that they're all Sunni.  And certainly, he doesn't take the time to explores what those assassinations mean.

All Iraq News reported earlier today that Iraqiya MP Jamal Kilani has called out the lack of coverage in the media of the targeted killings of political candidates, "Targeting the candidates and killing them is one of the major violations that are neglected by the media." Jim Muir certainly proves him right.  (As I noted this morning, I have failed on that topic as well.)

All Iraq News reports that Anbar Governor Qasim al-Fahdawy entered the Anbar polling center and, as a result, the Independent High Electoral Commission imposed a fine of 50 million dinars on him.  If you read Jim Muir's entire analysis you won't understand that.  You'll be saying, "Wait, Anbar's not voting!"  No, but as we explained this morning, if you're a resident of province that's voting but you are an IDP -- internally displaced -- so you are currently living in Anbar or Nineveh, you will be allowed to vote.  They have set up polling stations.  Which is really just pissing off the actual residents of Anbar and Nineveh even more.  Muir's analysis also neglects to note that Nouri is saying that the provinces must wait at least six months.  At least six months.  Could be more.  Maybe it'll be four years.  Maybe it'll be eight years.  Maybe next time a thug calls off elections and does citing military powers, maybe then the BBC gets off its candy ass and calls it out instead of glossing it over and deep throating Nouri?

Muir's analysis also misses Nouri's attacks on protesters.   Kitabat reports that tribal leaders in Dhi Qar have signed a letter apologizing to activists.  For what?  For Nouri's "abusive verbal attack" on them.  Nouri gave a little speech where he called the peaceful activists lawless rebels and threatened to use force against them.  Peaceful protests have been going on across Iraq, peaceful protests against Nouri, since December.

They aren't the only ones condemning Nouri for those remarks.  NINA notes that Osama al-Nujaifi's party has condemned the remarks and called for Nouri to stop verbally attacking demonstrators and return to Baghdad to oversea security issues.  Osama al-Nujaifi is part of the Iraqiya political slate but this was his Motahedoon Coalition issuing the condemnation.  Iraqiya also condemned the remarks.  Maysoun al-Damlouji, Iraqiya spokesperson, is quoted by NINA stating, "Describing our honorable people who peacefully demonstrate across Iraq demanding their legitimate rights as conspirators is the ugliest words you can use against the oppressed people." Iraqiya MP Ahmed al-Alwani added that Nouri's attacks on demonstrators "incite sectarian strife."

Even Nouri's new bride Saleh al-Mutlaq is calling out the remarks leading Kitabat to wonder if the honeymoon is over for Nouri and Saleh or if this is just more propaganda from Saleh in an attempt to boost the votes for the National Dialogue Front?

Nouri has returned to Baghdad. Kitabat explains that he rushed back to Baghdad after his speech in Nasiriyah was interrupted with cries of "Liar!" when he began verbally attacking the protesters.

I appreciate that Jim Muir tried to do an analysis and it's lengthy and he clearly put a great deal of time into it.  But you can't crash course Iraq.  We used to have to use to point this out to political activists in the US who would go on radio and make idiotic statements.  For example, over six months after Nancy A. Youssef reported for Knight Ridder (KR's final piece on Iraq, it then became McClatchy) that the US government was keeping a count of Iraqis killed, that she'd been shown the count, an activist goes on CounterSpin and brings up the Iraqis killed and how the government says they don't do counts but the activist is sure that the government is keeping a count.  You're on to talk about Iraq, how do you miss Youssef's article from six month before with that major revelation?

But now, sadly, we have to explain to people like Muir who've covered Iraq for years that you can't walk away from it for repeated months and ease back in and not have missed out a hell of a lot.  I have a feeling I've been much kinder to Muir's nonsense than social message boards -- including Media Lens -- will be.  Repeating, you can't crash course Iraq.  There's no all night study session that's going to allow you to ace it.  And here's one more hint, when there's an election, there are issues involved.  I realize that the press is a very stupid body with barely a functioning brain among all of them and that's why they take elections -- which are about issues -- and try to turn them into horser aces.  I realize that.  But does the press get that we, the audience, grasp how stupid they are and we grasp that more and more each year.  Anyone can write a he's up-she's down piece.  It takes some work to do more than a horse race.  The lazy and stupid press try to Iraq into a horse race because that they can almost handle.

Let's go to The Economist because they have an editorial on Iraq and the KRG:

Kurdish officials will not speak of independence yet. But several factors point towards a reckoning. One of these is the dismal state of the rest of Iraq. Battered by al-Qaeda bombings and worried by the likely fall of Syria’s pro-Shia government, a growing number of Iraqi Shias whisper that they should let the Kurds go, better to control what remains.
Meanwhile Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s increasingly dictatorial prime minister, has grown more confrontational towards the Kurds. In December he sent troops to Kirkuk, prompting the KRG to mobilise the peshmerga. In March, over Kurdish objections, the federal parliament passed a $118-billion budget that allotted just $650m to pay what the KRG claims is a $3.5 billion debt it owes foreign oil companies. The angry Kurds withdrew their federal ministers and MPs. They now have no official representation in Baghdad; Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s Kurdish president, whose easy-going charm has often soothed troubles, has been ill in Germany since December.

Yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the Camp Ashraf residents.  These are
approximately 3,400 people were at Camp Ashraf when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.  They were Iranian dissidents who were given asylum by Saddam Hussein decades ago.  The US government authorized the US military to negotiate with the residents.  The US military was able to get the residents to agree to disarm and they became protected persons under Geneva and under international law.

Despite that legal status and the the legal obligation on the part of the US government to protect the residents, since Barack Obama was sworn in as US president, Nouri has ordered not one but two attacks on Camp Ashraf resulting in multiple deaths.  Let's recap.  July 28, 2009 Nouri launched an attack (while then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on the ground in Iraq). 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." Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) observes that "since 2004, the United States has considered the residents of Camp Ashraf 'noncombatants' and 'protected persons' under the Geneva Conventions."  Under court order, the US State Dept evaluated their decision to place the MEK on the terrorist list and, September 28th, they took them off the terrorist list.

 The residents remain in Iraq, most at Camp Liberty.  Secretary Kerry stated that a deal with Albania fell through -- a deal to accept some of the refugees.  Today the United Nations News Centre issued the following:

18 April 2013 – The top United Nations officials in Iraq today welcomed a generous offer by Germany of humanitarian admission for approximately 100 residents from Camp Hurriya, located near the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and urged the camp residents to cooperate with the UN for a speedy and safe resettlement.
“Germany’s offer follows a similar one by the Albanian government to relocate 210 residents in Albania, and I am very grateful to both countries for having offered durable solutions for the residents of Camp Hurriya,” said Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, Martin Kobler.
Camp Hurriya serves as a transit facility for more than 3,000 exiles, most of them members of a group known as the People’s Mojahedeen of Iran, where a process to determine their refugee status is being carried out by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). With the latest offer, 10 per cent of the camp’s residents now have offers to relocate to third countries.
Mr. Kobler added that “this announcement also follows the Secretary-General’s repeated public and bilateral appeals to Member States to offer residents resettlement opportunities.”
In the same statement, UNHCR Representative in Iraq, Claire Bourgeois, encouraged other countries to follow Albania and Germany’s lead, “This generous offer by Germany is a demonstration of international solidarity and burden-sharing for a vulnerable population.”
Last month, following the offer by Albania Government, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he “unequivocally supports” Mr. Kobler’s efforts “to courageously and creatively, in exceptionally difficult circumstances, help resolve this situation.”
In addition, in his recent report about the situation in Iraq, Mr. Ban urged those who express support for the residents of Camp Hurriya and the remaining residents of another camp, New Iraq, to stop spreading insults and falsehoods about Mr. Kobler, who heads the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and instead help to promote a durable solution.
Also today, Mr. Kobler expressed his deep concern that Iraq continues to implement the death penalty. The most recent execution of 21 prisoners took place on 16 April, according to UNAMI.
“I regret that repeated calls of the United Nations to suspend the implementation of death sentences were not heard,” Mr. Kobler said.
“I urge once again the Iraqi government to immediately suspend all pending death sentences and to apply without delay the moratorium on the death penalty, in conformity with General Assembly Resolutions 62/149 (2007), 63/168 (2009), 65/205 (2010) and 67/176 (2012),” he added.
Meanwhile, final preparations are underway in parts of Iraq for the 20 April Governorate Council Elections.
Mr. Kobler today urged eligible Iraqis to actively participate for the success of the poll, “I am calling on all women and men to cast their ballots for a better future for them and their children.”
“My appeal goes particularly to the young Iraqis, because you are the future of this country,” he added.
Stressing that it is the duty of all political leaders to safeguard the integrity of the democratic process, Mr. Kobler underlined that “consolidation of democracy will depend on the willingness of Iraq's political leaders to collectively ensure a transparent and peaceful election, free of intimidation or political interference”.
“Of equal importance is my appeal to the Iraqi security forces to remain on heightened alert and to enable voters to reach polling centres and cast their vote in a safe environment, without fear of violence,” he concluded.
At least 15.5 million Iraqis are eligible to vote in upcoming polls, according to official estimates, where more than 8,000 candidates are reportedly vying for 378 seats.

In yesterday's snapshot, we covered Secretary Kerry's testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Camp Ashraf and on the issue of an Inspector General for the State Dept.  Other aspects of yesterday's hearing were covered by Wally with "The buget hearing that avoided the budget," by Ruth with "Kerry pressed on Benghazi," by Kat with "I'm sick of Democrats in Congress" and by Ava with "Secretary Kerry doesn't really support women's rights."  The bombs in Boston Monday afternoon meant no one was in the mood to cover a hearing on Monday.  Kat said she's going to review my notes and she'll write about Ranking Member Richard Burr in the hearing ("if nothing else because he remains one of the strongest advocates for veterans on the Committee and he refuses to put up with any crap").

We'll note a little of it today.  It was the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  Appearing before them were VA Secretary Eric Shinseki accompanied by the usual motley crew (yes, that includes Allison Hickey).  The topic was the VA budget for Fiscal Year 2014.  If you're thinking that seems familiar, we covered the House hearing on that last week  in last Thursday's "Iraq snapshot" and "Seamless transition? Shinseki wasted the last four years," while Ava reported on it with "Shinseki tries to present 134% increase as a gift for women," Wally with  "How the VA and DoD waste your tax dollars (Wally)" and Kat with "DAV calls for Congress to reject 'chained CPI'."  In addition, Dona moderated a discussion of the hearing at Third "Congress and Veterans."

Senator Bernie Sanders:  While the VA budget presented by the administration is a strong one -- and I applaud the president for that -- I remain deeply disappointed that the White House included in their budget request, the so-called 'Chained CPI.'  Switching to a Chained CPI would mean major cuts in Social Security and the benefits that disabled veterans receive.  Veterans who started receiving VA disability benefits at age 30 would have their benefits reduced by $1425 at age 45, $2341 at age 55 and over $3000 a year at age 65.  Tens of thousands of dollars within their lifetime.  This, to my mind, is unconscionable and I will do all that I can to prevent these cuts from taking place.

Those remarks are on an issue that Sanders has been raising for some time.  When I'm at a hearing and he mentions it, we'll try to always include it until Social Security is safe again.

He is the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair.

Most embarrassing person at the hearing?  Jay Rockefeller.  What a suck-up, what a fool.  Why is he still in Congress?  He has repeatedly told me, "Oh, I'm going to be leaving soon."  No, you never leave and you don't do anything as a member of the Senate.  You just take up space and waste time.  Monday, he wasted it by sucking up to Eric Shinseki in public.  Yes, Rockefeller the problem is veterans, the problem their unrealistic expectations ("Does that give veterans comfort?  No, but everything in life is a process.") -- which presumably include expecting health treatment when they're sick?  Jay whored yet again.  And he thought he was cute and funny.  Here's a hint, Jay, a 75-year-old man mincing in front of a room of people is never going to be cute.  (It may be funny.  Remember Annie Hall when Woody Allen watches the Bob Hope-type do his routine?)

Jay Rockefeller, when you feel the problem is that veterans unrealistic expectations -- this when the backlog reaches record numbers and there's a suicide crisis ongoing, it's probably time for you to retire.  You're not serving anyone.  And we'll back that up tomorrow when we emphasize what Rockefeller had to offer.

Jon Tester's probably thrilled Jay's on the Committee.  It lets him look like less of a suck-up.  He noted he had disagreed with Shinseki before.  Yes, he has.  He didn't say what it was so let's talk about it.  He sided with Senator Turncoat Jim Webb.  The two were opposed to Shinseki's move to grant more Agent Orange claims.  I don't think that's something to brag about.  Obviously, Tester agrees since he didn't mention Agent Orange at the hearing.  In fact, it's why Webb 'retired.'  Webb's position ensured that veterans would not vote for him.  Tester's really lucky that Webb was so annoying on that issue and became the large target.   Don't say I never say anything nice about Tester, the goatee is a nice visual improvement.

Committee Chair Bernie Sanders: If there is anything that many of us have learned in recent years, it is that the real cost of war is far, far greater than simply paying for the tanks and guns and planes and the manpower to fight those wars.  I believe that we now understand, more fully than we have in the past, that soldier who come home from war are often very different people than when they went.  We now understand that the cost of the war includes significant care not only for those who lost their legs and their arms and their eye sight, but for those who came home with what we now call the invisible wounds of war.  Most recently, this includes the tens and tens of thousands of brave soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. So while this $152 billion budget we discuss today is a complicated document with a whole lot of numbers, it all comes down to how the people of our country, through their government, honor their commitment to those who have sacrificed so much -- and to the spouses and children who have also sacrificed.

Sanders has just begun his term as Chair of the Committee and it's great that he has hope and energy and hopefully he'll do a great job.  He's already winning support from veterans attending hearings -- including Monday's -- for his support for various treatments and his refusal to go with one-size-fits-all when addressing issues like TBI or PTS.  And Ava just said she'll note that at Trina's so let me move on.  (Thank you, Ava.) 

I don't have that hope that Chair Bernie Sanders has.  And the reason is because I've heard it all before.  And I don't just mean in the last ten years.

When Jimmy Carter was president he gave many speeches that led to ridicule.  His energy speech was one of those and it may have been the cardigan that led to such derision.  Whatever it was, this part of the February 2, 1977 speech is largely forgotten:

The top priority in our job training programs will go to young veterans of the Vietnam war. Unemployment is much higher among veterans than among others of the same age who did not serve in the military. I hope that putting many thousands of veterans back to work will be one more step toward binding up the wounds of the war years and toward helping those who have helped our country in the past.

Maybe Chair Sanders is correct and something's been learned?  It would be great if he was and I'd love to be wrong on this.  But a lot of what I hear is a lot like what I heard then.  It's really sad or telling -- or both -- that our press doesn't explore that.  There are no pieces noting that.

Before the US government next deploys troops on the ground, possibly the Congress and the media could explore the costs of war so that everyone knows the bill that's going to be coming and the issues that will be faced.  I realize Congress and the media both shirked their responsibilities to provide oversight (and authorization in Congress' case) for the Iraq War.  They failed at examining the justifications.  I'm not talking about that.

I'm talking about everyone being aware of what a ground war means.  It means dead and wounded among US forces and among the country being attacked.  It means health care for the wounded immediately.  It means health care costs on down the line for other veterans.  It means that the VA will have a large influx of new veterans.  It means there will be increases in veterans suicides. It means increased spending to treat all the issues of war.   It means that veterans returning will have issues finding jobs.  None of this, and there's a lot more, is particular to the Iraq and Afghanistan War.  If you don't get that, watch William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946.

I'm not calling Sanders naive and I think its great that he has hope.  Without it, he probably couldn't be the Chair.

Chair Bernie Sanders: Let me begin by addressing an issue that is a serious one, that I think every member here has spoken of and that you have acknowledged and one that is of great concern to this country.  Now my understanding is that the VA is now processing more claims today than they ever have before in significant numbers. But my understanding is that also, according to the most recent Monday workload report,  there were nearly 890,000 claims for entitlements to benefits pending, almost 70% of which have been pending longer than the Department's goal of 125 days.  And this number does not even take into account other pending work including award judgments and appeals.  So here's my question, you have -- and I believe you established that goal not long after you took your position -- you brought forth a very, very ambitious goal.  And you said that you wanted to process all claims in 125 days and with 98% accuracy by 2015.  Is that correct?

Secretary Eric Shinseki: That's correct.

Chair Bernie Sanders:  Let me ask you this, what benchmarks have you set and must VA meet to make sure that VA achieves those goals?  In other words, I think all of us would agree that the task that you have undertaken, going from an unbelievable amount of paper -- a system that was virtually all paper when you took office to a paperless system is just a huge transformation.  The concern here, and others have raised it, is what reason do we have to believe that you are in fact going to be able to successfully undertake that transformation and meet the goals -- ambitious goals -- that you've established?

Secretary Eric Shinseki: Thank you for that question, Mr. Chairman.  I'm going to call on Secretary Hickey to add some detail. But let me just describe what, uh, situation existed when we arrived.  Uh, we're in paper and have been in paper for decades.  We continue to get paper today.  If you're going to manage a situation, it takes a certain kind of approach and resourcing.  Uh, we thought that for the longterm the benefit to veterans was to end the backlog and so we set the goal of ending the backlog in 2015.  We did some rough calculations. Uh, and the backlog when we arrived was not defined as 125 days, 98% accuracy.  If we want to make a bold move here and help veterans, then we have to move quickly.  And so we set ambitious goals, we did our best estimates and we have laid out a plan in this budget that is resourced, that drives those numbers towards ending the backlog in 2015.  I think, uh, all of you will remember after we established that goal of ending the backlog, we also, uh, took on some unfinished business.  Uh, we had Vietnam veterans, my first year here, as I moved around who were not very happy with the fact that they had not had their issues addressed.  Uh, many cases, I was told, that we were just waiting for them to pass so that we wouldn't have to take care of it. I can't think of a more demeaning circumstance for a veteran to feel that that's what their VA who exists for them, uh, looked upon the situation.  And heard the same kind of things from Gulf War veterans, 20 years after the Gulf War, no decisions, uh, regarding their health care issues.  And then, as I think all of us can acknowledge, PTSD has been around as long as combat and had never been acknowledged as associated with combat, verifiable PTSD.  So even as we established ourselves at ending the backlog, we took on three pretty significant decisions: for the Vietnam generation, three new diseases for exposure to Agent Orange;  nine new diseases never recognized before for Gulf War veterans,  and then for all combat veterans with verifiable PTSD service connection so that they could submit their claims.   I would say that those numbers added to the paper process that we had -- in fact was going to grow the inventory and complicate the backlog and we testified to that when those decisions were made.  There were a number of hearings on this and my prediction was we're going to go up but at the same time we're going to put in place an automation system that would correct all of that and, in time, we would bring the backlog back down.  Well we're in mid-stride here.  We are now fueling that automation tool.  It took us two years to develop it.  It is called VBMS -- Veterans Benefits Management System -- it's in 30 of the 56 regional offices.  Uh, we're seeing some indications that it is having good success and, uh, we intend to, uh, fuel the remaining offices as quickly as possible.  We have, uh, some good learning that came out of automating the new 9-11 GI Bill process.  And out of that, the learning indicated to us that there is a tremendous lift that comes once you have the system fielded.  Uhm, we followed that manner of fielding implementing and IT program that's robust enough to handle our claims processing. Uh, as I say, we are scheduled to complete this year, 31 December.  We are pulling that far to the left as we can and fielding as quickly as we can and doing it prudently where we don't run the risk of overreach. 

That probably sounded really good to fresh ears.  To those of us who've been attending the hearings?

The paper issue, I'm not even talking about electronic record that would be seamless, was dealt with some time ago.  We're talking before Barack Obama became president.  The scanning of old documents and digitziation process was outsourced from VA.  So I'm not really understanding why Shinseki feels he's living under a ton of paper.  Or why he thinks paper is an excuse for him when he has less paper to deal with than any VA Secretary to date.  I remember the June 19th hearing last year when Acting Chair Gus Bilirakis asked about VBMS, specifically how their scanning contract expired in about a week and how the VBA still hadn't decided whether to renew it or not.  So if there are problems or delays because of VBMS, maybe you should have focused on it and done your damn job?  Bilirakis wasn't the only one to raise that issue (or the only Acting Chair -- voters were being taken and another committee hearing was taking place).

Acting Chair Marlin Stutzman: I'd like to do a second round because I'd like to talk about the scanning issue.  Why did it take this Committee calling a hearing for the VA to meet with NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] to discuss next week's scanning contract expiration?  I mean this is, I think, the frustration that's felt around here.  It's these sorts of things that we find out about and why isn't there some sort of pro-active movement before this?  Can you -- can you give us an explanation of why the contract is set to expire next week?  There isn't a contract.  Is there some other plan that the VBA is planning on implementing? Is it going to be done in-house? I mean, I know for us, Congressional offices, we have folks that we could use to scan things in.  I'm sure that you're system is a little bit more complicated.  We're spending ten million dollars a year, if I remember the number correctly.  It seems like we could do it cheaper and it seems like we could get it done.  Is there a plan to address that?

Shinseki sure paints a rosy picture -- it's just not realistic.  Jeffrey Hall is with Disabled American Veterans  and he testified at that June 19th House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

Jeffrey Hall: Mr. Chairman, even before VBMS was first conceived, it was clear that in order to have a paperless claims process there must be a comprehensive system in place to digitze paper documents.  Yet VBA has failed to finalize a long-term scanning solution, in part because it has not yet definitively answered fundamental questions about when and which legacy documents will be scanned into VBMS.  Although VBA has committed to moving forward with a papareless system for new claims, it has dragged its feet for more than two years in determining under what conditions existing paper claims files would be converted to digital files.  Because a majority of claims processed each year are for reopened or appealed claims and because files can remain active for decades, until all legacy claims are converted to digital data files, VBA could be forced to continue paper processing for decades.  We have been told that VBA's current plans are to convert claims files that have new rating-related actions, but not those with minor actions such as dependency or address changes.  However, the uncertainty over the past couple of years about how much scanning would be required, and at what cost, is at least partly responsible for VBA's reliance on NARA and its current rush to find a new scanning vendor.  While there are very difficult technical questions to be answered, and significant financial considerations involved in transitioning to all-digital processing, particular involving legacy paper files, we believe VBA would be best served by taking the most aggressive approach feasible in order to shorten the length of time this transition takes.  While the conversion from paper processing to VBMS will require substanital upfront investment, it will pay dividends for VBA and veterans in the future.  We would urge VBA to provide -- and Congress to review -- a clear plan for eliminating legacy paper files, one that includes realistic timeliness and resource requirements.

So if this has been a problem, as Hall notes, it was made worse when VBS "dragged its feet for more than two years in determining under what conditions existing paper claims files would be converted to digital files."

Then there's his issue that Agent Orange has put them behind.  Really?  Did he miss the May 11th House Veterans Affairs hearing last year?

Because I remember the Committee being told by the VA that "we've pretty much worked through the Agent Orange -- the increase in Agent Orange claims.  I think we're well down on the numbers."  And you know what else?  I remember that statement coming from Eric Shinseki.  Because he's the one who said it. 

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was a Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee during Shinseki's first two years.  I don't remember one hearing -- whether she was a Committee member or it was her Subcommittee so she was Chair -- where she didn't ask the VA witnesses, "What do you need? Just tell us what you need?"  Congressional Democrats and Republicans did not question efforts to defeat the backlog.  They funded every logical proposal.  They never balked at any VA hires, they usually suggested them, they often argued with VA witnesses saying that more employees were needed only to have VA witnesses declare that it would slow them down due to the amount of training required.

So Eric Shineski's excuses lost currency long ago and all he's left with now is attempts to mislead the Committee.

Lie?  Yes, Allison was present.

To the question Sanders asked above, she wanted to add . . .

Another automated system.  And it's a success.  Of course, it's the failed system from the start of his term.  The GI Bill.  I don't know why she thinks that's something to be proud of considering the lies that the VA told on that previously.  I don't know why she hoped to spin like that.  She tries distraction, she tries to lie. 

Ranking Member Richard Burr: Madam Secretary, the VA backlog reduction plan shows that in order to eliminate the backlog by 2015, VA will need to decide 1.2 million claims this year, 1.6 million claims next year, 1.9 million claims in 2015.  But VA's projecting in the budget submission that it will decide 335,000 fewer claims in 2013 and 2014.  So can the VA reach 2 million claims in 2015?  That would be a 92% increase in productivity over the 2012 level.

Allison Hickey:  So Senator Burr, I'm sorry, I don't exactly know your numbers but I'm happy to take your numbers and go look at them and come back to you and sit down and visit with you.  But I can tell you --

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  -- I'm pulling them right out of the Budget Reduction Plan which was submitted in January.  I got it January 25th in my office and the math would work out to eliminate the backlog in 2015, VA would need to decide 1.2 million claims this year, 1.6 million claims next year, and 1.9 million claims in 2015.  Now in the projections from the budget submission by the President, that says that over the next two years you will decide 335,000 less claims then what the backlog reduction plan said.  I'm trying to figure out, if 2015, you're certain on that, then that means that you have to process over 2 million claims in 2015.  Is that - is that how your math looks at it.

Allison Hickey:  Uh-uh, Sen-Senator Burr, I would love to come sit down and talk to you about that.  Those numbers are a little different to me than the numbers that we sent across.  And follow up in questions with your staff, I'm happy to do that with you.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Well in the budget submission, you do say that you will decide 335,000 fewer claims in 2013 and 2014, right?

Allison Hickey:  Uh, uh, Senator, the uh-uh, budget submission --

[At that point the VA's Robert Petzel dropped his head and began rubbing his bald scalp in what appeared to be frustration or embarrassment.]

Allison Hickey:  -- is slightly different than the plan that you received in January that was based on some assumptions made last fall.  Uhm, and there has been some differences in terms of what we have seen in the actuals that have been submitted to us.  We've seen a significant drop -- well, not significant -- Uh, uh.  That's not a good word.  We've seen a drop in the number of claims that have been submitted to us of late so we have adjusted the budget based on those issues.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Okay.  Currently, nearly 70% of the claims have been backlogged meaning that they've been waiting for a decision for more than 125 days.  The strategic plan that you submitted less than three months ago predicted that the backlog plan would be reduced to 68% in 2013 and 57% in 2014.  But according to the budget submission, you now expect no more than 40% of the claims to be backlogged during either of these two years.  So in revising these projections, what metrics did you look at and what did they -- how did -- what did they show you?

Allison Hickey:  Sena-Senator, I looked at the, uh, actual submission of receipt claims that we have received from our veterans over the last five months and each month they have been lower than our expected volume.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  So the math works out to where you would have only a 40% backlog situation in five months?

Allison Hickey:  Uh, no, Senator.  And I don't think -- You all would throw me out of here if I said that would happen.   Uh, uh, it's not where we are.  We are, uh, uh, about at 69% of, uh, our claims right now that are older than 125 days. We're working every single day to drive that number south.  We're doing it by focus on our people process technology solutions and as far as we can pushing up our productivity by our folks.  I can tell you today that my raters are 17%  more effective and a higher productivity than they were prior to us moving into this transition plan --

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  General Hickey, last year you testified, or, excuse me, the Secretary testified, that during 2013, the backlog would be reduced from 60% to 40% and that would -- and I quote -- "demonstrate that we are on the right path." At the time, did you anticipate that the backlog would stay above 65% for the first half of the Fiscal Year or that it would be 70% in April?

Allison Hickey:  So-so, Senator, we do have, uh, uhm, uh, some APG guidance in our annual guidance planning that we communicate with to our federal government partners and, uh, the -- they are usually aspirational in nature. When we see a change or a difference, as the Secretary has pointed out in terms of the workload increase that we saw due to Agent Orange, the increased claims associated with PTSD and the like, we did note that we would probably not be able to meet that 40% APG guidance but the thought was you leave your stretch goal out there so that you keep working hard to get to it.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  Well, here would be a simple question.  Is the strategic plan that you sent to Congress aspirational?

Allison Hickey:  So, uh, Senator Burr, I grew up as a strategic planner for, uh, in the military for quite a while and I know that every strategic plan I've built over the years for the United States Air Force a plan.  And plans are always, you know, in-in contact.  You know, they change and, uh, adjust for reality and actuals.  So we have and we will continue to improve upon that plan as it continues.

Ranking Member Richard Burr:  But when you developed that plan was it developed to be aspirational or was it developed to give us an accurate blue print of how VA perceived the timeline would move on disability backlogs.

Allison Hickey:  Uh, well, uh --

Secretary Eric Shinseki:  Senator, I think in all planning there is an aspect of aspiration at the beginning and then it is with assumptions and the availability of resources, then it's adjusted for what we think is achievable.  Uhm, a longterm plan like this one with as much, uh, dynamics, uh, involved, uh, we make an assumption that, for example, that the flow of veterans out of uniform to the VA is going to follow a pattern that we've been provided by the Department of Defense.  If that changes, that, uh, adjustment, we'll have to look and see whether we can accommodate that change and if not we'll have to say that, uh, we have a requirement for resourcing.

If US House Rep Jason Chaffetz caught that exchange?  If so, he probably had a good laugh because Hickey's tried that with him too.  Don't confront her with the number she supplies, she will try to weasel out of it, she will try to eat up time and she will never, not in front of the press, admit that the numbers don't add up. 

We'll close with this from The Headstrong Project:

The Headstrong Project is proud to be hosting the first ever “Words of War” event on May 8th at IAC HQ in New York City.
This cocktail fundraiser is designed to further support the mission of the Headstrong Project, to help veterans recover from the hidden wounds of war in order to lead full and meaningful lives. Specifically, “Words of War” will support comprehensive mental healthcare for military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The evening will include a war poetry reading by Jake Gyllenhaal. Additionally, Adam Driver (from HBO’s Girls and major motion picture Lincoln) and Joanne Tucker of “Theater of War” will perform a scene from Sophocles’ Ajax. This short presentation of wartime poetry, literature, theater and letters articulate the exuberance and ideals that drive men and women to war, the thrill and horror of combat, the difficulties of returning home, and the experience of family members worried about their loved one at war. Iconic wartime images, by photographers Ashley Gilbertson, Lucian Read and Jonathan Alpeyrie will be projected during the presentation.
“Even for those who have fought and served in combat, PTSD can be a tough term to understand,” said Zach Iscol, Executive Director, Chairman of Headstrong Project. “It isn’t accessible and there is a stigma attached to it. This event will speak to how normal and timeless the reactions and emotions felt in and returning home from war can be. Of course you’re going to feel grief over losing a close friend. Of course you’re going to feel shame and guilt about life and death decisions made in the fog of war…any good person would.”
The Headstrong Project began treating military veterans in August 2012, and will be using funds raised from this event to expand care to veterans and their families. In partnership with their media partners Google, Newsweek/Daily Beast, and Pixel Corps, Words of War will also benefit Team Rubicon, Team RWB, and Student Veterans of America. These organizations have been incredibly effective at building communities of veterans- a strong antidote to the effects of PTSD and moral injuries.
Over 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of PTSD. The VA estimates we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide and the Department of Defense reports 30-50 active duty troops take their lives every month. Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are at particular risk. It has been estimated that for every troop we have lost in combat this year, 25-30 take their own lives. These numbers also do not reflect increases in dangerous and destructive behavior – such as astonishing increases in domestic abuse, substance abuse, and even motorcycle accidents.
The evening will benefit the Headstrong Project, Team RWB, Team Rubicon and Student Veterans of America. For more information of the Headstrong Project or to purchase tickets to the “Words of War” please visit