Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Taking care of veterans
I caught the front-page story "Influx of Wounded Strains VA" in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago but had little time then to consider it. The article painted a very disappointing picture of the way America was taking care of its veterans from the global war on terrorism -- which has produced more casualties than Desert Storm and the deployments of the 1990s combined. Here's a brief excerpt:
Thousands of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental health problems are encountering a benefits system that is already overburdened, and officials and veterans' groups are concerned that the challenge could grow as the nation remains at war.

The disability benefits and health care systems that provide services for about 5 million American veterans have been overloaded for decades and have a current backlog of more than 300,000 claims. And because they were mobilized to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 150,000 National Guard and reservist veterans had become eligible for health care and benefits as of Aug. 1. That number is rising.

At the same time, President Bush's budget for 2005 calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims, and some veterans report long waits for benefits and confusing claims decisions.

* * *
Through the end of April, the most recent accounting the VA could provide, a total of 166,334 veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan had separated from military service, and 26,633 -- 16 percent -- had filed benefits claims with the VA for service-connected disabilities. Less than two-thirds of those claims had been processed, leaving more than 9,750 recent veterans waiting.

Officials expect those numbers to increase as the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues.

"I think we're doing okay now, but I am worried," VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said in a recent interview. "It is something you have to be concerned about. We don't have a good handle on the extent to which the demand for care and benefits will be a year or five years from now."
I probably would've skipped the story entirely, but for this letter from VA Secretary Anthony Principi (himself a wounded Vietnam vet) in today's Post. He takes issue with the article's statistics, its tone, and even its anecdotes:
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) was dead wrong in his assertion that my department is underfunded and unprepared. The story's assertion that the VA fiscal 2005 budget cuts 500 claims examiners' jobs was also wrong. While there may be a small reduction in the Veterans Benefits Administration, we will have added more than 1,300 claims processors since I took office in 2001.

The story erred in calling the VA's workload inventory of more than 300,000 claims a "backlog." At any given time, more than 250,000 claims are being processed; we receive over 60,000 every month. We have greatly improved service for veterans since 2001. The inventory of pending claims is down from a high of 432,000. We have increased the number of claims decisions we make in a month from about 40,000 to about 70,000.

* * *
My concern is that we provide the benefits and services that all veterans, especially those wounded in combat, need. President Bush, working with Congress, has given us the resources to do so.
So who's right? Unfortunately, it's really hard to tell. Mr. White is correct that the VA budget -- specifically, the line items for the Veterans Benefits Administration that doles out money -- was cut for FY2005. However, Sec. Principi is right to point out that the VA has worked hard to improve its systems for benefits determinations and payment. I have personal knowledge of this, as a vet with a small service-connected disability. The process has improved significantly since when I filed my initial application in 2002 to now, where nearly everything is automated. Granted, some amount of friction remains, as it does in every large bureaucratic institution. But the VA has been very aggressive in doing predictive analysis to assess its needs, reforming its infrastructure to the extent the law allows, and contracting out for more medical support when necessary to meet demand. You will still find long lines for VA services, but given the high demand right now, I think they're doing a good job.

Is a good job enough? Sadly, no. America's veterans deserve more than good effort -- they deserve good treatment too. The VA has decided to cut services and realign its priority system to allocate its scarce resources to those veterans with the greatest medical need and the greatest financial need. Unfortunately, this creates a services gap, which has the potential to swallow a number of veterans with more chronic ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder, long-term respiratory issues, long-term orthopaedic issues, and so on. Over time, some of this may level out as the WWII and Korea generations age and today's generation of veterans increasingly obtains its health care from the private sector. But right now, there is a train wreck, because you still have a large WWII/Korea population and a large population of current combat vets seeking immediate care after service before they acquire coverage from their civilian employers.

Even if Secretary Principi is right that the VA is doing a good job, there is still more to be done. And when it comes to these men and women, who have given so much in our name, I think it's the least we can do. Congress and the President ought to be more aggressive in identifying other areas of fiscal largess that could be shifted to this area. I can think of dozens of defense projects alone that deserve to be eliminated in favor of America's veterans -- I'm sure there are plenty more.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

MEJA gets its first at-bat
According to the website for the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, the first criminal case brought under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act will go to a jury at 8 a.m. tomorrow before Judge Percy Anderson in Los Angeles. United States v. Latasha Arnt involves a U.S. Air Force defendant (Arnt) accused of committing murder while accompanying her husband overseas in Turkey. I don't know if the federal public defender made a jurisdictional challenge to the use of MEJA in this case. But the fact that the case is going to trial indicates either one was filed and ruled against, or that the FPD decided this was not a good case to fight jurisdiction on.

And in other MEJA news, Congress included a provision in this year's defense authorization bill to enlarge the scope of MEJA to include all U.S. contractors working overseas on DoD or DoD-related projects — not just those formally working for the Pentagon. This effectively closes a loophole that existed in the previous version of MEJA, which meant that contractors at Abu Ghraib hired under Interior Department contracts were likely not subject to any federal criminal jurisdiction. Instead of just applying to those persons:
(A) employed as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense (including a nonappropriated fund instrumentality of the Department), as a Department of Defense contractor (including a subcontractor at any tier), or as an employee of a Department of Defense contractor (including a subcontractor at any tier);
Assuming the president signs the bill, and he's expected to, the MEJA will apply to anyone:
(A) employed as--

(i) a civilian employee of--

(I) the Department of Defense (including a nonappropriated fund instrumentality of the Department); or

(II) any other Federal agency, or any provisional authority, to the extent such employment relates to supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas;

(ii) a contractor (including a subcontractor at any tier) of--

(I) the Department of Defense (including a nonappropriated fund instrumentality of the Department); or

(II) any other Federal agency, or any provisional authority, to the extent such employment relates to supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas; or

(iii) an employee of a contractor (or subcontractor at any tier) of--

(I) the Department of Defense (including a nonappropriated fund instrumentality of the Department); or

(II) any other Federal agency, or any provisional authority, to the extent such employment relates to supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas;'.
Looks like the loophole is closed to me, although at least one expert tells me there may still be some wiggle room. We'll see.

Monday, October 11, 2004

The tip of the spear
Linda Robinson, a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, has an interesting report in the Oct. 18 issue of U.S. News regarding the Pentagon's moves to expand the role of special operations forces in the war on terrorism. The initiative comes at a time when various members of Congress, as well as newly-sworn-in CIA Director Porter Goss, are calling for a concomittant expansion of CIA special operations capabilities. Aside from the obvious Washington turf war, there is a real debate going on about the relative efficacy of each type of special ops, and which type can get the job done better.
New rules. Despite all his efforts, however, Brown and SOCOM have been ensnared in a grinding Pentagon turf war. Several of the powerful four-star officers who lead the Pentagon's five geographic commands have raised questions about SOCOM's new global mandate. The State Department and the CIA have also raised objections, officials say. Thomas O'Connell, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict--and a former comrade in arms of Brown--argues that the U.S. decision-making system must adapt to cope with a wholly new kind of enemy. "We are operating under rules written in the cold war," O'Connell says. "The rules need to be changed because the game has changed."

But refining the new rules is proving to be no easy matter. SOCOM's special operators are multifaceted warriors, trained to apply a mix of discrete force, intelligence, and nonlethal measures. They have performed superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have largely operated at the behest of conventional commanders in both places. In countries where the United States is not at war, SOCOM forces have operated under the watchful eyes of ambassadors and CIA station chiefs.

* * *
By law, the Pentagon's regional combatant commanders answer directly to the president through the secretary of defense. These commanders can argue (and several have, loudly) that giving SOCOM a lead role in the war on terrorism would interrupt the chain of command. An amendment to the same law that outlines that chain of command, however, says that the president may order SOCOM to execute certain missions directly. In fact, this has occurred on a number of occasions in which the president has authorized SOCOM's Joint Special Operations Command to deploy classified "special mission units" to hunt down targets like Osama bin Laden and Somalia's Mohammed Farah Aidid.

U.S. News has learned that Rumsfeld is set to sign a memorandum that will spell out SOCOM's purview and specify how it will coordinate with the regional commanders. The language of the memo would be incorporated into the commands' official orders, a document known as the Unified Command Plan. A Pentagon official explains how the new system might work: Soldiers from the Pentagon's Central Command might capture a terrorist in Afghanistan that triggers a manhunt in Yemen or Somalia; Brown's SOCOM commandos would lead the manhunt. Seeking to allay regional commanders' concerns, a senior Pentagon official emphasizes that they will be kept informed of any SOCOM missions occurring in their areas of responsibility.
Interesting stuff... And given the nature of clandestine special operations, it's unlikely we're reading the full story here. A great deal of attention has been paid to reforming America's intelligence community and making its various intelligence and law enforcement agencies work together. But much less attention has gone to the question of how to make America's special operators more capable of exploiting that intelligence. The Pentagon, as one might expect, has its opinion on the matter. Before that opinion gets carved into stone, I hope some folks on the National Security Council and/or White House staff get a crack at this problem. It's much bigger than simply adding force structure to special operations, as Sen. Kerry says he wants to do. The real issue is how you use these capabilities, and match the right unit at the right place with the right intel to get the job done. That will require more force structure, because there are a lot of "right places" right now. But it will also require some smart decisionmaking from the White House and Pentagon E-Ring, not to mention the command cells at CENTCOM and SOCOM.
Halliburton speaks
David Lesar, the chief executive for Halliburton Corp., had an interesting op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times which tried to respond to some of the controversy it has created in the past couple of years. The Kerry-Edwards ticket has targeted Halliburton, and its military logistics subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), for a great deal of criticism in this campaign, particularly for its ties to Vice President Dick Cheney. However, Lesar responds that much of this criticism is unfair, and that his company and its employees deserve an honest look during this political season.
Let me try to clear up some of the misinformation. First of all, the talented people of KBR have been supporting the military for 60 years.

We began providing support to the U.S. military during World War II — building warships — and continued that support in the Korean and Vietnam wars, when we built port facilities and airports. We helped provide humanitarian assistance in famine-stricken Somalia and logistical support in the Balkans. We also provide military support in Uzbekistan, Georgia, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey.

* * *
For instance, there are frequent references to our "no-bid" contract to support the U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The fact is that after a fully competitive and open bid process we were awarded a contract in 2001, well before the war in Iraq, to provide logistical support for U.S. soldiers wherever they might be deployed.

KBR did receive, at the outbreak of the war, a sole-source contract issued under urgent conditions to quickly restore the flow of Iraqi oil. But what you will not often read is that the independent General Accounting Office has since reviewed the contract and reported that it was "properly awarded ... to the only contractor [the Defense Department] had determined was in a position to provide the services within the required time frame given classified prewar planning requirements." And you will almost never read that profit margins on these contracts are extremely low and that the oil contract was replaced early this year by one that was competitively bid.

Mischaracterizations and incomplete facts do a grave disservice to the employees and subcontractors who are working in Iraq. Never before has any contractor worked in as dangerous a situation as they are. Halliburton is providing jobs for Americans, and we are supporting the troops with the largest civilian workforce ever assembled in support of a military operation.

* * *
Not many companies in the world could or would do this work.
Analysis -- he's right. Not only can few companies do this work, but the U.S. military can't even do this work!!! That's the point. Over the past decade and a half, the Pentagon has downsized the military and focused it on its "core competencies" of warfighting -- and it has outsourced anything outside of those lanes, including military logistics and nation-building. Short of a national mobilization (which would most likely have to include a draft), the only way to conduct these kinds of missions on this scale is to contract them out to a company with the capacity of KBR or DynCorp, who in turn raise the workforces themselves via economic means. It's not a perfect system, as I've written about before. There are serious issues with respect to force protection, rules of engagement, command responsibility and accountability for misconduct. However, these corporations are not the bad guys -- they are simply profit-driven corporations responding to a business opportunity the way any business in America (or a capitalist economy) would. If our problem is outsourcing, then we ought to focus on the source of the problem: the Pentagon and White House decisions from the last two administration to outsource so much of the U.S. military's capacity. Sure, the contractors deserve criticism when they screw up. But by large, I think they do a good job, and the blame for the systemic problems belongs to Washington.

Friday, October 8, 2004

New Abu Ghraib documents
The Center for Public Integrity has obtained a series of previously classified documents from Rolling Stone writer Osha Gray Davidson surrounding the abuse investigations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Most of the documents are appendices to the various investigative reports that have been done, such as sworn statements from BG Janis Karpinski's aide-de-camp and a high-ranking JAG officer at the prison, as well as an Army CID report documenting some of the worst abuses there. Together, these reports paint a picture of abuse far worse than what was originally reported. I'm under deadline pressure now so I can't provide much analysis. But as we say in the legal field, res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself.
Bremer speaks out
L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer III has an op-ed today in the New York Times that attempts to respond to the firestorm his comments earlier this week generated. Unfortunately, it doesn't say much, other than Bremer did say he thought we needed more troops in Iraq, but that he continues to support the Bush administration's prosecution of the war effort.
It's no secret that during my time in Iraq I had tactical disagreements with others, including military commanders on the ground. Such disagreements among individuals of good will happen all the time, particularly in war and postwar situations. I believe it would have been helpful to have had more troops early on to stop the looting that did so much damage to Iraq's already decrepit infrastructure. The military commanders believed we had enough American troops in Iraq and that having a larger American military presence would have been counterproductive because it would have alienated Iraqis. That was a reasonable point of view, and it may have been right. The truth is that we'll never know.

* * *President Bush has said that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. He is right. Mr. Zarqawi's stated goal is to kill Americans, set off a sectarian war in Iraq and defeat democracy there. He is our enemy.

Our victory also depends on devoting the resources necessary to win this war. So last year, President Bush asked the American people to make available $87 billion for military and reconstruction operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military commanders and I strongly agreed on the importance of these funds, which is why we stood together before Congress to make the case for their approval. The overwhelming majority of Congress understood and provided the funds needed to fight the war and win the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan. These were vital resources that Senator John Kerry voted to deny our troops.
Does anyone else see the disconnect here? On the one hand, Jerry Bremer criticizes the administration for not sending enough troops to Iraq to do the job. But then, he says that "victory also depends on devoting the resources necessary to win" -- and has the audacity to criticize Sen. John Kerry for his vote on the supplemental appropriations bill while supporting the same Bush administration that failed to devote the resources necessary to win. It just doesn't make sense; it's the kind of logical inconsistency that has plagued Bremer since the day he touched down in Baghdad, and which has plagued U.S. policy in Iraq since before then.

You cannot say on the one hand, as the White House has done, that you will commit everything necessary to win in Iraq -- and then fight a war on the cheap without sufficient numbers of boots on the ground. I have been told by mid-level officers and commanders that the U.S. "troop to task ratio" never was what those commanders wanted. But at some point in the chain of command, political calculations entered the decisionmaking process, and the administration made the conscious choice to not send the resources necessary to Iraq in order to support the effort there. Bremer knows that, and Bremer said as much in his speeches that were reported this week. It's a shame he felt obligated to backpedal and spin his comments. Although, as we can see from this op-ed, the core of his opinions haven't changed: "I believe it would have been helpful to have had more troops ..." All that has changed is the spin.