Ava here, once again hijacking Trina's site (with her permission) to cover a Congressional hearing. What I'm covering tonight fits in with last week's "Sexual assaults at the VA (Ava)."
Monday, the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health held a hearing entitled "Preventing Sexual Assaults and Safety Incidents at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Facilities." This was to explore the recent GAO report on the number of veterans and VA employees who are being sexually assaulted at VA facilities.
First let me note the Subcomittee's Ranking Member Michael Michaud. Why first? C.I. had a long section on Michaud in the snapshot when she dictated it. But it ended up being too long when typed up and kept bouncing back (C.I. dictates the snapshot and then it's e-mailed to the website -- if it's too long, it bounces back with an error message) so she had to edit it quickly and it was easiest to take out Michaud and turn it into how the VA evaded and stalled and just disrespected Congress. That was an aspect of the snapshot originally but when she had to edit it down to make it shorter, that became her main focus for the hearing.
Michaud had many strong moments in the hearing but he was the first to note that sexual assault victims are not all female ("While sexual assault is often considered an issue only affecting women, in fact, both men and women suffer sexual assaults. Further, victims may be assaulted by perpetrators of the same or the opposite sex.")
The GAO noted that approximately 300 cases that were reported at some point in the system were not reported to the Inspector General's office. In addition, we learned that after three years, the VA is destroying all their information, statements, etc. that they took on the matter. Since sexual assault is a crime and since VA repeatedly tried to deflect to the local police or the federal police or jurisdiction let me note that possibly those things they destroyed could have been turned over to the police and that they may have destroyed evidence.
The VA is not just inept. There appears to be an organizational refusal to adapt to these issues and start treating them seriously.
The second panel was composed of many strong witnesses; however, I had a favorite.
Joy J. Ilem was the favorite and it's because of what she said. She is the Deputy National Legislative Director for Disabled American Vets. You can read her written statement here. It's a good statement, but I'm more interested in what she said to the Subcommittee.
Joy J. Ilem: Madame Chairwoman, we noted a statement in the report indicating that many of these matters were brought to leadership's attention and that in early 2011 efforts were said to be underway to correct these problems; however, according to GAO, in mid-June, today, it does not appear that substantive, nation-wide changes have been made or instituted. We see this delay not as a deficiency of program management but a failure of VA leadership. Sexual assault is not solely a women's issue and, likewise, it is not a health care issue per se. Nevertheless, VHA has assigned the director of its women's health care office to be a significant leader in the task force VA created to address it. While we have faith that this office will work hard in an effort to correct these problems and will do so in a responsible manner, we believe the accountability for this problem and for these changes and improvements rests much higher in the organization. Given the serious nature of these issues, it is troublesome that once VA was informed of these incidents that no action appears to have been immediately taken to institute a comprehensive plan or solution.
When she spoke, you could just feel the room release their collective breath. She said what everyone must have been thinking as they sat through the hearing and put up with VA's song and dance.
So what happens now? Supposedly Congress will get data -- that should have already been provided -- in three weeks. We shall see.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, 2 US soldiers are announced dead, a hostage situation takes place in Diyala Province, torture and War Crimes may get investigated in the US, torture and War Crimes may be buried in a British inquiry, the VA stalls, evades and stonewalls a House Subcommitteee, are active duty soldiers be giving the time needed to heal, and more.
CNN and APboth report that the US military has announced 2 US soldiers were killed yesterday. Other than stating the deaths took place in southern Iraq, the military had nothing else to say. Were there any wounded? As we noted yesterday they appear to
be under orders to no longer note when soldiers are injured. The 2 deaths announced
this morning follow last week's 6 deaths. 5 on Monday,: Spc Emilio J. Campo Jr., Spc Michael B. Cook Jr., Spc. Christopher B. Fishbeck, Spc Robert P. Hartwick and Pfc Michael C. Olivieri. Wounded? The military's refused to say but reports vary from five to fifteen. The sixth death was last Pfc Michael J. England on Wednesday. And though the military never bothered to inform the citizens of any wounded, thanks to Ryan E. Little (The Ledger) we know that Spc Charles Lemon was injured in the same Najaf bombing and "lost both legs and suffered other injuries including burns to his body."
to note 5 US soldiers died. It'll be interesting to see if the program makes time to note
the 2 deaths. The Pentagon counts [PDF format warning] 4464 US military deaths from the Iraq War -- that count does not include today's two deaths. After DoD identifies the fallen by name in a news release, the deaths will be added to the count.
In other violence, Xiong Tong (Xinhua) reports, "Car bomb and gunfire attacks were reported at government compound in Baquba City, the capital of Iraq's eastern province
invasion of the government offices "mirrored a similar March raid claimed by Al-Qaeda"
and that "dozens of gunmen involved in the attack [today] in Diyala's provincial capital of Baquba exchanged gunfire with Iraqi security forces, holding them at bay." AP reports that there are possibly as many as 10 assailants in the government compound holding hostages and quotes Nasreen Bajhat stating, "I am trying to call my colleagues and employees in the building but all their mobiles are switched off. The situation now is tense." Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) reports that when security arrived, assailants took cover in the government building and that there are thought to be at least twenty-five people injured. Tim Craig and Asaad Majeed (Washington Post) explain that after the car bomb, "More than 20 insurgents armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenads then attacked from both inside and outside the building, according to security officials. After four guards were killed at a back gate, the insurgents raided the building and took a group of civilian employees hostage, the security officials said." Aswat al-Iraq reports, " A joint Iraqi-U.S. force have implemented the operation of cornering the attackers against Diala Council's building and liberating the persons, taken hostage by the attackers, who were disguised as uniformed policemen, a Diala police source said on Tuesday." Jamal Hashim (Xinhua) adds that "five suicide bombers attacked the compound of the provincial council [. . .] killing three policemen and four suicide bombers, along with wounding 28 people. Fifteen security members were among the 28 wounded and the rest were eight of the council employees and five civilians, according to a source from Diyala's provincial council comound". Aswat al-Iraq reports, "The Iraqi Ministery of Interior accused al-Qaeda organization of the attack against Diala's Provincial Council building today."
In other news, Dar Addustour reports that a man in Mosul yesterday attempted to set himself on fire before the Nineveh Provincial government offices but police stopped him -- the man is a security guard, he used kerosene in his attempt and he stated he attempted to set himself on fire because he works for the government but someone else got selected ahead of him to become a permanent staff member. Dar Addustour also notes that Parliament is meeting today and among the items on the agenda are the second reading of an anti-smoking bill. Really? The country has no Minister of the Interior, no Minister of Defense and no Minister of National Security. When Nouri was named prime minister-designate in November, per the Constitution, he had 30 days to fill his Cabinet or lose the post of prime minister-designate. Instead of following the Constitution, the Parliament moved Nouri on over to prime minister. All this time later, Nouri's still not filled those three Cabinet positions. And, you may have noticed, violence just keeps increasing in Iraq. Not the best time for all three of your security ministries to remain without a leader.
In other reported violence today, Reuters notes 1 army lieutenant-general was shot dead in Baghdad, 2 Iraqi soliders were shot dead in Baghdad, "the manager of the legal department of Baghdad provincial council" was shot dead in Baghdad, 1 police officer was shot dead in Mosul and, dropping back to yesterday, 1 military officer was shot dead in Kirkuk.
"While Congress busies itself about how $2 billion was illegally diverted to Saddam from the U.N.'s Oil-For-Food Program, it would also be instructive to find out why it was apparently administration policy to let Saddam Hussein earn four times that amount through illegal oil shipments. "Before Congress gives another $80 billion for the war in Iraq, the American people would find it instructive for Congress to ask what happened with the unaccounted-for $9 billion which also came from Iraq oil proceeds. "Madam Speaker, before the war, Iraq was about oil. As the war continues, it is about billions in unaccounted-for oil revenues which the U.S. had custody of, responsibility for; and now nobody knows nothing."
Patt Morrison noted that all of this money being shipped over and transferred and passed around in physical cash seemed strange since, as she pointed out, you can transfer money to an account with a cell phone. Bowen stated that this was a disturbing feature and one he tried to address from the start because it was so hard to track. (The late US House Rep Ike Skelton made a point of holding hearings to highlight the problems with doing this all in cash and how there was no accounting system that could track it.) Patt Morrison noted that "we don't know" in answer to where the money went could not be comforting to the Iraqi people and Bowen agreed but wanted to make another point.
US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen: And this is not a new finding, let me underscore that, Patt. As I said, our first audit in 2005 concluded that, a follow up audit of another nine billion last summer reached similar conclusions and we're now conducting a third audit following up on the issues raised by our recommendations -- that is the need to track what we've now identified -- about 6.6 billion. The Pentagon says it can track about 2.8 billion of that and to see what happened to the other 3.8.
Still on the topic of money, Al Rafidayn reports that yesterday the Integrity Commission announced that their work had resulted in 479 convictions (out of 627 cases brought) between January of this year to May ( a 217% increase from the total number last year) and that they had seized $49 million.
Moving over to the US, Adam Zagorin (Time magazine) reports, "It has been nearly a decade since Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi prisoner known as 'the Iceman' -- for the bungled attempt to cool his body and make him look less dead -- perished in CIA custody at Abu Ghraib. But now there are rumbles in Washington that the notorious case, as well as other alleged CIA abuses, could be returning to haunt the agency. TIME has learned that a prosecutor tasked with probing the CIA -- John Durham, a respected, Republican-appointed U.S. Attorney from Connecticut -- has begun calling witnesses before a secret federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., looking into, among other things, the lurid Nov. 4, 2003, homicide, which was documented by TIME in 2005." Mark Memmott (NPR's The Two-Way) citesNPR's Carrie Johnson to note that "war crimes and torture charges" are being discussed. The Daily Mail adds, "Much of the attention surrounding al-Jamadi's death has focused on the actions of interrogator Mark Swanner, who questioned al-Jamadi in a prison shower room before he died. Al-Jamadi's head was covered by a hood. His arms were shackled behind his back and bound to a barred window. That way, he could stand without pain but if he tried to lower himself, his arms would be painfully stretched above and behind him. A military autopsy declared al-Jamadi's death a homicide but an internal CIA investigation found that Swanner never abused al-Jamadi, according to a former senior intelligence official familiar with the findings." AFP contacted the prosecutor's office and his spokesperson Tom Carson stated, "This is an ongoing investigation." And therefore, they can't comment. In England, an ongoing investigation into abuse of Iraqi detainees has been taking place. Murray Wardrop (Telegraph of London) explains, "The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) was established last year to take statements from around 140 Iraqi civilians who claim they were abused by British service personnel between 2003 and 2009." Wardrop notes that attorney Phil Shriner with Public Interest Lawyers states that, in all that time, only one of his many Iraqi clients has been interviewed. Angus Crawford (BBC) quotes Phil Shriner stating, "It's been a complete and utter shambles, it must have cost the taxpayer millions."
Once again, the Obama administration shirked its legal and moral responsibility to ensure torture victims are provided an enforceable remedy when it advised the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear a case brought by Iraqi detainees tortured by private military contractors at Abu Ghraib.
The case, Saleh, et al. v. Titan Corporation, et al., is a civil suit brought by 250 Iraqi detainees for torture by U.S. private contractors CACI and Titan (now L-3 Services). The two companies were retained to provide interrogation and interpretation services at Abu Ghraib, the infamous Iraqi prison that the Department of Defense (DoD) reported was the site of "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" of Iraqi prisoners committed by Americans under the authority of Americans. Army investigations implicated private contractors in the torture and abuse of detainees held there. While 11 soldiers were convicted on detainee abuse charges, no contractor was ever criminally charged.
In September 2009, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the civil case on the ground that contractors involved in combat activities on a battlefield should be protected from lawsuits. The victims appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Human Rights First submitted an amicus brief arguing that the decision by the D.C. Circuit to immunize the criminal conduct of private military contractors is incompatible with the United States' international legal obligations, including its obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) to provide "enforceable" or "effective" remedies to victims for acts of torture and serious abuse.
Before deciding whether or not to hear the case, the Supreme Court asked the U.S. government, which is not a party to the suit, its opinion or interest. Human Rights First sent a letter to the Acting Solicitor General urging the government to advise the Court to hear the case and reverse the decision that denies victims a remedy.
The Acting Solicitor General, however, did the exact opposite.
In the US, jury selection began in Houston yesterday in the case Jamie Leigh Jones has brought against Halliburton. Today, attorneys presented opening arguments. Jones was working as a KBR contractor in Iraq when she was gang-raped. When she attempted to address the crime, KBR responded by imprisoning her and it took a member of the US Congress (Rep Ted Poe) sounding alarms to force KRB to release her. After Jamie Leigh Jones came forward, other women began coming forward noting they had been raped, sexually harassed or sexually assaulted while working for KBR - Halliburton. Nathan Koppel (Wall St. Journal's Law Blog) explains, "Jones was a clerical worker for KBR at a Halliburton office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone and claims she was drugged and raped by several co-workers in her company barracks bedroom. She also alleges she was placed under armed guard and held in a 'prison-like container' for hours after reporting the alleged attack." Joe Consumer (The Pop Tort) notes some of the achivements Jones can already take pride in, "But Jamie has achieved even more. "Due in part to Jones' case, federal lawmakers in 2009 approved a measure prohibiting contractors and subcontractors that receive $1 million in funds from the Department of Defense from requiring employees to resolve sexual assault allegations and other claims through arbitration." "
Despite these activies and more activies, the US government continues to give KBR contracts -- cost-plus contracts despite KBR's accounting 'problems.' Last week, the Commission on Wartime Contracting held a hearing Commission Co-Chair Michael Thibault noted that KBR is still not up to date on their billing paperwork and, as a result, there's been no audit since 2003. The US government has paid KBR - Haliburton millions and millions over the last 8 years and there's no accountability and there's no check on the funds. KBR gets to do whatever it wants, whether it's attempt to cover up rapes or attempts to overcharge the US tax payer. KBR's infamous burn pits have sickened and killed US troops and US contractors -- and contaminated Iraq and harmed who knows how many Iraqis -- but the White House is still signing new contracts with KBR. Of course, if Iraq had a functioning government with a real prime minister, they could ban KBR immediately. They could make it a condition that KBR clean up every burn pit they'd made in the country and pay for the health care and treatment of the Iraqi population effected by the burn pits. If KBR refused, Iraq could forbid the company from operating on its soil.
Turning to the US Congress. We have to hearings but we'll probably only have room for one today. So let's drop back to yesterday. Monday afternoon, the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health held a hearing. On what? Last week, Ava reported on some very disturbing developments discussed in a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing "Sexual assaults at the VA (Ava)." As Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Patty Murray noted, the Government Accountability Office had just released "very disturbing information about sexual assaults among veterans in in-patient mental health and other programs." The veterans she referred to were assaulted within the VA, while attempting to obtain care and treatment, they were sexually assaulted. The House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health is Chaired by Ann Marie Buerkle. We'll note this from her opening statement at yesterday's hearing.
Subcommittee Chair Ann Marie Buerkle: As a registered nurse and domsetic violence counselor, I have seen firsthand the pervasive and damaging effects sexual assault can have on the lives of those who experience it. Last week, the Government Acountability Office released a deeply troubling report entitled "VA Health Care: Actions Needed to Prevent Sexual Assaults and Other Safety Incidents." GAO found that between January 2007 and July 2010, nearly 00 sexual assault incidents including 67 alleged rapes were reported to VA police. Many of these alleged crimes were not reported to VA leadership officials or the VA Office of the Inspector General in direct violation of VA policy and federal regulations. The findings of the GAO are disturbing for many reason. Foremost, they represent a betrayal of trust by a system that was designed to treat our veterans at their most vulnerable time. The gross failure of VA leadership to protect the safety and security of our veterans and VA staff and systematically report and respond to sexual assault and safety incidents is a contempt of justice. It also requires immediate action. This is not the way to run a health care system and it is certainly no way to treat the men and women who sacrificed so much on our nation's behalf.
To telegraph how serious the House VA Committee -- not just the Subcommittee -- was taking this issue, not only did Subcommittee Chair Buerkle and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller introduce HR 2074, Miller also attended the hearing (he does not sit on the Subcommittee). HR 2074 is the Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act. It was introduced by Buerkle on June 1st and reads: "To amend title 8, United States Code, to require a comprehensive policy on reporting and tracking sexual assault incidents and other safety incidents that occur at medical facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs." Click here to read the bill in full.
Miller noted, "In the past week, some have dismissed these allegations, comparing the size of the VA system and the number of allegations to the private sector. Let me be very clear on this point: There is no comparison. Just one assault of this nature, one sexual predator or one veteran's rights being violated within the VA is one too many and is absolutely unacceptable. If we need to do more to protect our veterans and VA employees, we will." Ranking Member
VA is doing a very poor job in many areas. Most of all it is doing a very poor job when it comes to reporting to Congress, when it comes to appearing before them. This really started to become noticeable last year and has only gotten worse this year. On the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, this unacceptable behavior is most often called out by Senator Richard Burr. For his admonishing the VA last week, see Kat's "Senator Burr" and you can also search her site for additional reports on Burr (Kat usually emphasizes him when she reports on the Senate VA Committee) and you'll see this is not a one hearing problem. This is a pattern and it's really unacceptable. Ranking Member Burr and Committee Chair Murray have attempted to communicate that to the witnesses before them (and Ranking Member Burr and former Chair Daniel Akaka attempted to last year as well). If the message is getting through to the witnesses, they're not carrying it back to VA. That was evident in yesterday's hearing with the first panel. The panel was composed of GAO's Randall Williamson, VA's Joseph Sullivan and VA's William Schoenhard. We're noting an exchange. I'm referring to Jeff Miller as "US House Rep" so that there's no confusion as to who was chairing the Subcommittee hearing but, as already noted, he is the Chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
US House Rep Jeff Miller: The [GAO] report covers '07 to July of 2010. Can you tell me what the statistics are from July of 2010 to today of sexual assaults that have been reported within the system?
William Schoenhard: Uh, sir, we do not have that information available here today but we will provide that to you.
US House Rep Jeff Miller: Would it have been a reasonable expectation that somebody might be asking that question?
William Schoenhard: Uh. We. Uh. Had not anticipated that question but we do have the information. We can provide that to you in short order, sir.
US House Rep Jeff Miller: If you would, for the record, so that we can make sure that all members have the answer to that question. When can we expect it?
William Schoenhard: Uh. We would provide that, sir, within three weeks.
US House Rep Jeff Miller: Three weeks?
William Schoenhard: Yes, sir. I want to make sure that we have all the information together in a complete way. We will try to provide it sooner.
US House Rep Jeff Miller: I hope that you have all the information together and that it won't take you three weeks.
This hearing was specifically called by Subcommittee Chair Ann Marie Buerkle in response to the GAO report. The witnesses knew that. Why in the world would a question about sexual assaults after the period covered in the GAO's report throw the VA? They were not prepared for the hearing unless their point was to stall. This is unacceptable. They do this over and over. The VA avoids providing any hard data in these hearings over and over. Why? Because the reporters are present. If they can provide the figures after the hearing, the reporters have packed up and moved on. Which means, if they don't have to answer it in the hearing, there's a good chance it won't be reported.
If this is an accident, it is a freakish one since a pattern has clearly emerged. Miller was clearly surprised to be told that the VA witnesses had arrived for the hearing without that information. He was also surprised when he was told that they had the information, but it would take three weeks to get it to Congress. Why? If they've got the information, it should be delivered to the Subcomittee within 24 hours. It's a spreadsheet, you input the numbers. No one's asking them to devise a new system of measurement or invent a new graph. They just have to plug in the numbers.
If you're not getting how much stalling and evasion is taking place, please note that it was pointed out that money allocated for securing VA properties was being spent elsewhere. It was noted by members of the committee.
US House Rep John Runyan: Mr. Schoenhard, the GAO found a number of facilities that were understaffed. Specifically there was one that, by criteria, there was supposed to be 19 and there was only 9 on hand. Why have you not been able to staff these facilities fully?
William Schoenhard: Uh, Congressman, that's a very important question because we need to be fully staffed with police coverage and that is part of what I am seeking to understand in, uh, our current survey of our field. Uh, I want to understand better what the retention and the recruitment difficulties are with that and see what steps need to be taken to address those.
US House Rep Jon Runyan: Do you -- that was going to be my next question. Do you have an idea of retention problem? Is there a major turnover within the system?
William Schoenhard: There is turnover which varies, sir, by facility and uhm that too is what I want to get a better sense of. [. . .]
He wants to get a better sense of it? The Deputy Under Secretary for Health Operations and Management for the VA should have already had a sense of it before he showed for the hearing. In addition, the economy's in the tank. How do you have problems hiring people? Equally true, from 2008 through 2010, the House Committee repeatedly asked all VA witnesses if they needed anything, additional resources, anything. They were repeatedly told that nothing was needed.
If a VA is understaffed, the VA, high up in the VA, should be aware of that and should be addressing it. If a sexual assault is reported at that VA and it is under staffed, the VA should have had their own emergency meetings to address that and should have arrived in Congress with answers. They didn't provide answers. They begged off repeatedly.
If you were to take a trip down Ft. Hood street in Killeen, you would encounter the same sites of any military town. You would see pawn shops and title loan businesses. You would come across shady car dealerships and rent-to-own stores. All of these estabishments are in the business of exploiting service members. However, the most exploitative establishment in Killeen is not a for-profit entity. It is the Fort Hood command.
Operation Recovery organizers have been talking to Ft. Hood soldiers and collecting their testimony. One common thread is clear: the Ft. Hood command has been negligent in upholding soldiers' right to heal. So far we have collected hundreds of pledges from service members and their families. We have listened to their stories of their experience with trauma and the lack of response or concern from the military.
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that soldiers have been briefed not to talk to us. It seems that General Campbell has chosen to ignore our concerns rather than deal with them. Since he has chosen to not be a partner with us in correcting these wrongdoings, we must do it ourselves. That is why we are down here. We will only be able to uphold soldiers' right to heal when we stand up for ourselves. Each day we become larger and more organized. We are learning from our mistakes and making small victories. Even if it seems so very far into the future, our day will soon come.
Join us in our fight for the rights of service members and veterans. When divided, we have no power; when together, we are unstoppable. It has only been a couple of weeks into our deployment and we are already a force to be reckoned with.
Join the growing GI rights movement! Stand with us and fight for change!