Wednesday, October 6, 2010

She'll interview any man

In her desperate attempt to appear younger than her years, Terry Gross spent the hour yesterday fawning over another man, not just any man, mind you but an actor who's done some bit parts in big films and starred in a lot of bombs. Oh! And he does General Hospital as well.

Yeah, James Franco. The non-star.

When you're fawning over Franco, you may have reached the bottom of the barrel; however, trust me, Terry can (and does) scrape lower.

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

Wednesday, October 6, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, the political stalemate continues, the US takes 'meetings' on the stalemate, violence in Iraq did not drop last month, Iraq's religious minorities remain persecuted, US peace activists refuse to testify to grand juries as part of the governments fishing expedition, Congress is out of session but Chair Daniel Akaka holds a hearing, and more.
The US hasn't left Iraq and who knows if troops ever will? Khalid al-Ansary (Reuters) interviewed Iraqi Staff Lt Gen Anwar Ahmed who states that Iraq will not be able to protect its own air space for many, many years to come: "In the modern military sense, the Iraqi air foce cannot be completed . . . before 2020, and until then we would not be able to say that the air force is ready to defend the skies." In possibly related news, the editorial board of the Washington Post frets that if Congress doesn't fork over all the money the administration wants to spend on Iraq, Iraq's so-called 'democracy' or whatever will fail. Newsflash: Democracy doesn't depend on cash. Forget that the GAO found that Nouri's sitting on billions (the Post has forgotten), democracy is made by citizen participation, not by money. Iraq has been a sinkhole for US tax payer dollars and at a time when Barack's "Fiscal Commission" is making noises about slashing Social Security and veterans benefits, forking over more money to Iraq is insane. That money needs to go towards helping people suffering in the United States from the Great Recession. What the Post confesses, if you read between the lines, is that conventional wisdom is puppet Nouri will be re-installed and he can't hold onto the position he and the other exiles were installed into by the US government without US money to control and attack the people of Iraq. Democracy doesn't depend on money. During the Great Depression, the US didn't stop being a democracy. It's really juvenile -- not very mature, not very 'fiscal,' -- to claim that the US needs to waste more tax payer monies during a recession. At Politico, a War Hawk and former Bushie stomp their feet over the same issue. By contrast, Greg Sheridan (The Australian) argues it's time for the US to leave both Iraq:
In Iraq I believe it was reasonable for the Americans to intervene on the evidence they had at the time. What did they achieve?
They brought an end to the rule of the most murderous tyrant, Saddam Hussein, in the second half of the 20th century. They ensured Iraq would not revive its nuclear weapons program or threaten its neighbours any more. And they gave Iraq a chance at a better future, something approaching self-government and democracy. The violence that accompanied the process was the cause of the terrorists and extremists who opposed the US-led operation, which shortly after it began acquired the legitimacy of UN sanction. Now it's up to the Iraqis.
Or at least up to the exiles the US government installed in Iraq.
Alsumaria TV reports today, "Head of the Islamic Supreme Council Ammar Al Hakim's visits to Iraq's neighboring countries aim to hold talks with Arab leaders and brief them over the situation in Iraq, the Islamic Supreme Council's media advisor Bassem Al Awadi told Alsumaria." Harry Smith (CBS' The Morning Show) offers today, "This news is amazing on a number of levels if true. [Moqtada] Al Sadr helped fan the flames of what turned out to be close to all out war between Sunnis and Shiites back in 2006 when as many as hundred civilians a day were getting killed in Iraq." What's everyone talking about? The political stalemate and talk that it may be nearing an end as a result of al-Sadr backing Nouri al-Maliki. Jane Arraf (Christian Science Monitor) explains, "As the country lurched into the history books with one of the longest delays in government formation ever after holding elections, followers of hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced they had withdrawn their opposition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and would back him for a second term."
March 7th, Iraq concluded Parliamentary elections. The Guardian's editorial board noted last month, "These elections were hailed prematurely by Mr Obama as a success, but everything that has happened since has surely doused that optimism in a cold shower of reality." 163 seats are needed to form the executive government (prime minister and council of ministers). When no single slate wins 163 seats (or possibly higher -- 163 is the number today but the Parliament added seats this election and, in four more years, they may add more which could increase the number of seats needed to form the executive government), power-sharing coalitions must be formed with other slates, parties and/or individual candidates. (Eight Parliament seats were awarded, for example, to minority candidates who represent various religious minorities in Iraq.) Ayad Allawi is the head of Iraqiya which won 91 seats in the Parliament making it the biggest seat holder. Second place went to State Of Law which Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, heads. They won 89 seats. Nouri made a big show of lodging complaints and issuing allegations to distract and delay the certification of the initial results while he formed a power-sharing coalition with third place winner Iraqi National Alliance -- this coalition still does not give them 163 seats. They are claiming they have the right to form the government. In 2005, Iraq took four months and seven days to pick a prime minister. It's six months and twenty-nine days with no government formed.
As Sam Dagher (Wall St. Journal) notes, the US lodged their objection to al-Sadr being part of the government yesterday via US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey. Whether or not this is a deal breaker remains to be seen but al-Sadr is not the only one being objected to in recent days. Pakistan's Daily Times notes, "Ninevah Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi said in an Associated Press interview Sunday that Iraq is "headed for a dictatorship" if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki secures a second term. His warning shows the serious challenges to US-led efforts at bringing Iraq's rival groups together in a unity government to end a nearly seven-month political impasse." Sami Moubayed (Asia Times) surveys the landscape and notes there is no done deal at this point and feels Syria will be a major player: "In theory, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is 100% committed to either Maliki or Allawi. Iran is very keen however, on not making Allawi premier in as much as Saudi Arabia insists that it will not tolerate another four years of Maliki, who it sees as a sectarian politician who greatly harmed the interests of Sunnis. This is where Syria's say comes into play, given its excellent relations with Sunnis and Shi'ites, creating a balance that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran enjoy. Syria has the ear of Hakim and Muqtada of the INA and also is very influential with Allawi and Sunnis." International Crisis Groups' Joost Hiltermann speaks with the Council on Foreign Relations' Bernard Gwertzman about the stalemate:
Bernard Gwertzman: So, despite these latest stories over the long weekend, you're not necessarily enthusiastic that a deal has been struck?
Joost Hiltermann: No deal has been struck. The only thing that has happened is that Maliki was chosen to be the designated prime ministerial candidate for the Iraqi National Alliance, which is the reconstituted Shiite alliance minus the Islamic Supreme Council [headed by Adel Abdul Mahdi] and some other independents and smaller groups. So that's the only thing that has happened, but Maliki, even with that kind of blessing, simply doesn't have the number of seats that he needs in order to form a government.
AFP reports that Nouri and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (and one-time acting Secretary of State) William Burns met today in Baghdad and that Nouri's office issued a statement noting, "The prime minister expressed the hope that in the coming days, there would be openness in the ongoing negotiations between the political blocs to form a government of national partnership." Wang Guanqun (Xinhua) reports that that Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Rafie al-Issawi visited Turkey today and held a joint-press conference with the Ahmet Davutoglu, Foreign Minister of Turkey, and that al-Issawi stated that the cause of the stalemate has been foreign intervention. Meanwhile Hurriyet Daily News notes that the government of Turkey presented "a motion to [the Turkish] Parliament to extend a mandate for military strikes against bases in northern Iraq belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK." If the motion is extended, it would be the third time since 2007 that the Parliament has extended it. Today's Zaman states it's a one year mandate and "The motion allows the government to stage cross-border operations to eradicate terrorism threat and attacks against Turkey from north of Iraq." Rudaw reports that Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Babakir Zebary has stated, quoting Zebary, "the Iraqi Army has no capabililty and readiness to fight the PKK." From the Kurdish rebels to the KRG, Charles McDermid (Time magazine) interviews KRG head Barham Salih:
[Charles McDermid:] Do the Kurds in Iraq want independence?
[Barham Salih:] Yes. Every Kurd dreams of independence. But life is not about what you want; it's about doing what you can do with what you have. I believe we made the right choice to work for a democratic and federal Iraq -- one that guarantees Kurdish identity. Had we pursued our own state it could have been an arduous journey with uncertain consequences. Working for a federal Iraq could have more tangible gains, and I genuinely believe most of the Kurdish people are with us. We have to see if Iraq ends up being truly democratic and federal.
[Charles McDermid:] How long, in your opinion, before a new central government is formed in Baghdad?
[Barham Salih:] I don't know, but I hope not long. This has gone on for far too long -- while the country is plagued by violence and collapse of basic services. It is embarrassing and shameful.

Monday another journalist died in Iraq. Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reported, "A magnetic bomb that was stuck to the private car of Tahrir Kathim, a media assistant who works for U.S. backed al Hurra satellite channel, detonated Monday morning killing him straight away." Reporters without Borders issued a statement as did the Committee to Protect Journalists. Louise Hallman (International Press Institute) notes the death and the continued pattern of targeting journalists in Iraq:

According to the "IPI World Press Freedom Review 2009: Focus on the Middle East and North Africa", in 2009 Iraq was the eighth most deadly country for journalists, down from 'most deadly' in 2008 -- a title it had held since 2003. So far in 2010, Iraq lies fourth behind Mexico, Honduras and Pakistan, all of which have seen significant conflict and lawlessness in 2010.
During the height of the Iraq War between 2003 and 2008, 167 journalists were killed in Iraq, according to IPI's Death Watch, with Iraq consistently topping the list as the world's deadliest country. Last year, however, saw a significant drop in journalist casualties in Iraq, with four journalists killed compared to 14 in 2008 and 42 in 2007.
"The recent increase again in violence against journalists in Iraq is a growing concern," said IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills. "So far this year we have seen more journalists killed in Iraq than in the whole of last year. Whilst, thankfully, this toll is nowhere near the heights seen during the war, Iraq cannot be allowed to slide backwards. On the contrary, the authorities must ensure that the killers of journalists are brought to justice. If a culture of impunity is allowed to continue to thrive, it may fuel further journalist killings."
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova stated of Tahrir Kadhim Jawad, "He died carrying out his mission as a journalist, in the name of freedom of expression, a basic human right that is a cornerstone of democratic society."
In today's violence, Reuters notes a Kirkuk rocket attack which injured one person and a Tuz Khurmato roadside bombing which injured two police officers.
Meanwhile, as last month came to an end last week, the spin was that September was less violent. Using Ministry of Health figures for dead (273) and wounded (485), many outlets insisted that violence was down as a result of lower totals. Two questions: Why would belive a ministry's figures and why aren't news outlets able to keep their own tolls throughout the month? At Third Sunday, we tallied up the reported deaths and wounded and, no, the ministry figures do not match up. The number reported wounded -- by Reuters, McClatchy, New York Times and Xinhua throughout the month -- came to 697, nearly seven hundred and over 200 more than the 'official' figures. Please note that reported deaths and reported wounded do not cover all the dead and all the wounded -- many go unreported. For those who need or want to check the numbers, from Third's piece:
Setting aside US service members and focusing on the day the deaths were reported, we note the following tolls. Tuesday September 2nd 17 people were reported dead and 40 injured, September 3rd 3 people were reported dead and 12 wounded, September 4th three people were reported injured, September 5th 18 people were reported dead and 56 wounded, September 6th 6 people were reported dead and 19 injured, September 7th 6 people were reported dead and 2 injured, September 8th 13 people were reported dead and 46 injured, September 9th 7 people were reported dead and 5 wounded, September 10th 1 person was reported dead and 1 wounded, September 11th 2 people were reported dead and 8 wounded. September 12th 18 people were reported dead and 25 were reported injured, September 13th 22 were reported dead and`18 injured, September 14th 12 people were reported dead and 5 wounded, September 15th 19 people were reported dead and 31 injured, September 16th 12 people were reported dead and 9 wounded, September 17th 6 people were reported dead and 11 injured, September 18th 10 people were reported dead and 28 wounded, September 19th 36 people were reported dead and 122 injured, September 20th 3 people were reported dead and 9 wounded, September 21st 5 people were reported dead and 30 injured, September 22nd 6 people were reported dead and 113 wounded, September 23rd 4 people were reported dead and 5 injured, September 24th 7 people were reported dead and 17 wounded, September 26th 9 people were reported dead and 18 injured, September 27th 7 people were reported dead and 15 wounded, September 28th 4 people were reported dead and 26 wounded, September 29th 3 people were reported dead and 20 injured, and September 30th 2 people were reported dead and 3 were reported wounded. Check our math but we get 252 dead and 697 wounded for the month of September.
In Iraq, the thugs target everyone: LGBT (and those suspected of being LGBT), women, religious minorities, professors, doctors, journalists, etc. First to Iraq's Jewish community and dropping back to the August 30th snapshot for the starred ("**") excerpt:
** Turning to DPA's "Iraq demands the return of a rare Jewish scroll from Israel," if the basic facts are correct (they may be, they may not be -- DPA is wrong as to the number of Jews in Iraq in 2003 -- they woefully undercount the Jewish population which I don't believe hit a dozen utnil some time in 2006), Israel is in possession of a Torah which the Tourism Ministry of Iraq is stating ought to be returned. It ought to be?

No. This has none of the complexities of the earlier call by the Iraqi government for Jewish documents. In the earlier case, the US, after the 2003 invasion, had discovered a large number of records that were kept by the Iraqi government on Jews in Iraq -- it was spying on them. They brought the records back to the US to preserve them -- they had been submerged in water when the US found them. Iraq demanded them back. The dispute was between Iraq and the US, between the occupied and the occupier. As I noted at Third, I was surprised the Israeli government did not step in on that. If they had and had made a claim on the documents, there would have been reasons to dispute claims. However, the US was the occupier and the documents were taken out of the country.

Iraq felt no need to protect the Jewish citizens from targeting by various thugs since the invasion began. The Jewish population was targeted and was wiped out either by violence or by fleeing. To now assert that they have some right to Hebrew artifacts? They have no right. Nor do they or did they ever belong to Iraq. Whose culture was it? And since when can a nation-state, developed centuries later, attempt to lay claim to the people's property?

These are not documents that the Iraqi government kept. Even now the Tourism Ministry can't state whether it was ever in the government's possession, whether it was privately owned by someone in Iraq or whether it belonged to a Jewish facility in Iraq (as many as 100,000 Jewish people were living in Iraq as late as the 1940s). These are religious artifacts and they belong to the people of that religion. The scroll is in Israel and in Israel is where it should remain. Iraq did not protect the Jewish population, it allowed it to be decimated. It has no claim or right to the scroll.

Iraq is created in 1932. The scroll predates the creation of the country by centuries. Having no Jewish population today, the fact that they would even assert a right to the scroll is rather offensive. And that's before you even wiegh into consideration the fact that Iraq's unable to keep their treasures, artifacts and museums open to the public. **


From zero up to seven is the Iraqi Jewish population (all in Baghdad) according to a 'man of the cloth' known and caught spinning. But 7 Iraqi Jews may remain in Baghdad. At Huffington Post, David Harris has reworked his 2003 essay on being Jewish and we're emphasizing the Iraq part because it should further explain how Iraq has no claim on any Jewish artificat:
And I wonder if you have ever heard of the Farhud, the breakdown of law and order, in Baghdad in June 1941. As an AJC specialist, George Gruen, reported:
In a spasm of uncontrolled violence, between 170 and 180 Jews were killed, more than 900 were wounded, and 14,500 Jews sustained material losses through the looting or destruction of their stores and homes. Although the government eventually restored order ... Jews were squeezed out of government employment, limited in schools, and subjected to imprisonment, heavy fines, or sequestration of their property on the flimsiest of charges of being connected to either or both of the two banned movements. Indeed, Communism and Zionism were frequently equated in the statutes. In Iraq the mere receipt of a letter from a Jew in Palestine [pre-1948] was sufficient to bring about arrest and loss of property.
At our peak, we were 135,000 Jews in 1948, and we were a vitally important factor in virtually every aspect of Iraqi society. To illustrate our role, here is what the Encyclopedia Judaica wrote about Iraqi Jewry: "During the 20th century, Jewish intellectuals, authors, and poets made an important contribution to the Arabic language and literature by writing books and numerous essays."
By 1950 other Iraqi Jews and I were faced with the revocation of citizenship, seizure of assets, and, most ominously, public hangings. A year earlier, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Sa'id had told the British ambassador in Amman of a plan to expel the entire Jewish community and place us at Jordan's doorstep. The ambassador later recounted the episode in a memoir entitled From the Wings: Amman Memoirs, 1947-1951.
And now we turn to Iraqi Chistrians. As David E. Miller (Arab News) noted last month, violence has resulted in Iraq's Christian population being cut in half -- some dead, some fled. Patrick Cockburn (Independent of London) explained last month, "The persecution of Christian communities across the Muslim world has escalated rapidly since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Christians are often seen as the natural allies of western occupiers and, as a minority, are highly vulnerable to retaliation. In one case in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul a few years ago US soldiers damaged a mosque with their vehicle and Sunni Arab insurgents retaliated by bombing two churches." Jamal al-Badrani (Reuters) reports today that more Christians are planning to leave Iraq and "Alarmed that their flock could face extinction, Iraqi Christian leaders appealed to the Vatican for help. Pope Benedict, also worried about the shrinking Christian presence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, has called a synod of bishops for October 10-24 to discuss how churches can work together to preserve Christianity's oldest communities."
Often the attacks on Iraqi Christians are pinned (rightly or wrongly) on al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Kelly McEvers (NPR's Morning Edition) reports today on the re-emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq. Last month, Ned Parker (Los Angeles Times) reported on Speaking with an Iraqi who studies the issue, McEvers speaks with Abu Ahmed on the topic.
Kelley McEvers: Abu Ahmed researches militant groups in Iraq and is writing a book about the Sunni insurgency. He doesn't want to give his full name because he maintains contact with some militants. He calls the most recent iteration of al-Qaida in Iraq the Third Chapter. The first one was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who led al-Qaida operations during some of Iraq's most violent years. He was killed in 2006. The Second Chapter was headed by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi. They were killed in April. The Third Chapter, Abu Ahmed says, is made up of men who worked with Zarqawi, left Iraq for a time, and have now returned; and men who've recently been released from American and Iraqi detention centers after serving out short sentences. Abu Ahmed says this group is just as fiercely committed to waging jihad as Zarqawi was. But there are some key differences.
She establishes the point that 'cutting off the head' doesn't kill the group. (He tells her al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is in yet another stage.) What he's saying is in keeping with any political theory and yet the US government didn't grasp that under Bush and they don't under Barack. In fact, the current drone attacks on Pakistan will most likely mean terrorism remains a dominant force for many decades. (Terrorism is a response. It is not an initiating action.) Robert Jensen (War Is A Crime) notes:
Today the United States spends as much on the work of war as the rest of the world combined, and we are the planet's largest arms dealer. Professor Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University reports in her book The Bases of Empire that we maintain 909 military facilities in 46 countries and overseas U.S. territories, and we have more than 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilians working at those sites. That's in addition to U.S. bases, military personnel, and contractors occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.
The military is there to project power, not promote peace. We regularly use these destructive forces, especially in the Middle East, home to the largest and most accessible energy reserves. Flimsy cover stories about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, or self-indulgent tales about U.S. benevolence toward the people of the region, cannot obscure the reality of empire. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were unlawful, in direct violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution, but such details are irrelevant to empires.
Terrorism is real, of course, as are weapons of mass destruction. Law enforcement, diplomacy, and limited uses of military force need to be vigorously pursued through appropriate regional and international organizations to lessen the threats. Most of the world supports such reasonable and rational measures.
In its global policy -- especially in the Middle East -- U.S. policymakers prefer force, not only though invasion but also by backing the most repressive Arab regimes in those regions and unconditional support for Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. In the short term, this cynical and brutal strategy has given the United States considerable influence over the flow of oil and oil profits.
Back to the US, Friday, September 24th FBI raids took place on at least seven homes of peace activists -- the FBI admits to raiding seven homes -- and the FBI raided the offices of Anti-War Committee. Just as that news was breaking, the National Lawyers Guild issued a new report, Heidi Boghosian's [PDF format warning] "The Policing of Political Speech: Constraints on Mass Dissent in the US." Heidi co-hosts WBAI's Law and Disorder Radio (9:00 a.m. EST Mondays -- also plays on other stations around the country throughout the week) with fellow attorneys Michael Ratner and Michael Smith and Monday the program explores the raids with guest Jim Fennerty. You can stream the broadcast at Law and Disorder Radio online and, for the next 89 days only, at the WBAI archives. (There are excerpts in Monday's snapshot and in Tuesday's snapshot of the broadcast.) Stephanie Weiner and Joe Ioskaber's home was among the ones raided. Andy Grim (Chicago Tribune) reports that they say "they will refuse to answer questions before a grand jury". Today Democracy Now! featured the news in headlines and showed Stephanie Weiner stating:
We believe we have been targeted because of what we believe, what we say, who we know. The grand jury process is an intent to violate the inalienable rights under the Constitution and international law to freedom of political speech, association and the right to advocate for change. Those with grand jury dates for October 5th and those whose subpoenas are pending have declared that we intend to exercise our right not to participate in this fishing expedition.
The statement was from a press conference yesterday. Fight Back! News reports Pastor Dan Dale spoke at the conference noting an interfaith statement people were signing on to: "We are people of faigh and conscience who condemn the recent FBI raids in Chicago as a violation of the constitional rights of the people organizations raided. They are a dangerous step to further criminalize dissent. The FBI raids chisel away and byprass fundamental constitutional rights by hauling activists before grand juries under the guise of national security."
This morning the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing held a hearing on the VA's IT program. Senator Daniel Akaka is the Chair of the Committee and his office notes:
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, held an oversight hearing today on the status and future of VA's Information Technology (IT).
"Information technology plays a critical role in all that VA does, from delivering benefits to veterans' health care records," said Chairman Akaka. "VA's use of information technology has been marked by successes and failures. When it was first created VA's electronic health record was on the cutting edge, and I have faight that under the current leadership, VA's use of technology will continue to progress."
The hearing related to both health and claims processing information technology systems, and looked specifically at how aspects of IT have impacted GI Bill recipients. Witnesses at the hearing included top VA IT officials, a VA computer specialist, and a private sector authority on IT and electronic health records.
More information about the hearing, including statements, testimony and the webcast, is available here: veterans.senate.gov
Kawika Riley
Communications Director and Legislative Assistant
U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs
Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman
Ranking Member Richard Burr noted early in the hearing, "Mr Chairman, I thank you for your willingness to schedule this hearing even though the Senate is out of session. I want to thank my colleagues Mr.[Mike] Johanns and Mr. [Scott] Brown, for being here." And if you're Senator was present, you should be thankful as well because the IT problems include the notorious lack of tuition payments to veterans that began in the fall of 2009 and continued well into the spring of 2010 (to be clear, waiting for their fall 2009 education benefit checks -- to cover tuition, books, lodging -- through the spring of 2010.) This is a serious problem and Burr, Brown and Johanns didn't have to be there and not only did Chair Akaka not have to be there, he's the one who had the say-so in whether or not the hearing would take place. He made the call to hold the hearing and deserves strong credit for that. In his opening remarks, Johanns noted that when he was US Secretary of Agriculture (2005-2007), "IT systems were the bane of my existence" so the current problems were not shocking to him.
Burr noted that failed programs and discontinued ones by IT have costs tax payers "millions" of dollars. He noted what he saw as a "genuine effort" on the part of VA Assistant Secretary for IT Roger W. Baker who was confirmed to that position 15 months ago. Baker was one of the witnesses appearing before the Committee. The others were Belinda J. Finn from the VA's Inspector General Office, Tom Munnecke who was a VA IT official, Edward Francis Meagher who chairs VisA Moderinzation Committee of the American Council and Glen Tullman who is CEO of Allscripts. We'll note this from Finn's opening remarks but LTS refers to the "fully automated claims processing system that utilizes a rules-based engine to process Post 9/11 GI Bill Chapter 33 veterans' education benefits."
Belinda Finn: Finally, our audit of the GI Bill Long Term Solution reported that OI&T developed and deployed both LTS Releases 1 and 2 on time; however these releases did not always meet the functionality that was expected for those releases. We concluded that the program still needed more management and disciplines and processes to ensure the project meets both the performance and the cost goals required.
We'll note this exchange from the hearing.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Mr. Baker, what can you point out that would help persuade the Committee that VA has learned from its past and that will not experience expensive IT failures in the future?
Roger Baker: Thank you, Senator, I will keep this answer brief because I'd love to give you ten minutes on that one. I think the biggest lesson that we took from the failure of the Replacement Scheduling Application was that we have to make certain that the hard decisions are faced and made. From there, I think you've seen a series of hard decisions made at the VA relative to other projects. Stopping 45 projects in July of last year was frankly a hard decision for our customers -- based on that those projects were not delivering. Stopping some of those projects and saying 'We're not going to be successful at those,' has been a series of hard -- of hard decisions. Frankly, reforming a few of them was not -- was not viewed positively but we recognized that they were not going to deliver if we didn't change them to an incremental delivery. Even some of the more notable ones that I think that we get criticized for -- for example, stopping the FLITE program [Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise], they're hard decisions. They're not decisions that we take lightly. And they're not decisions that we view from only one aspect. But in the end, we have to determine: Can we be successful? And if we believe we can't be, if we believe it's an overreach, we need to not do the program. So I would -- I would point you to not just some of the things we've done, some of the programs we've instituted but the results of those programs. And, most importantly, we don't allow a project to move forward today if they don't have a customer facing deliverable within the next six months. What that means is they're not going to go a long time like Replacement Scheduling did. Replacement Scheduling went years without delivering anything before they finally figured out it couldn't deliver anything. We now are implementing a technique we're calling "Fail Fast." If it's going to fail, figure it out quickly and stop spending money on it. That has generated a lot of facing up to those hard decisions again inside the organization. So I would give you those two things. Again, in many ways, that's my life inside the VA, is making certain we don't replicate those things from the past and we don't have anymore replacement scheduling. One thing I would add I've also promised Secretary [Eric] Shinseki that we will not have another replacement scheduling while he and I are at the VA.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Well let me give the other witnesses a chance, if you want to add anything to that about how to avoid these high profile failures. Mr. Munnecke?
Tom Munneck: Yes, as a software architect faced with these demands on the technical side, I often find that the users -- and this might come from Senate and Congressional committees, by the way -- want to have the penthouse suite on the skyscraper but they don't want to pay for the lower 22 floors and the foundation of the building. And so they say, "I want this thing up at the top, give it to me tomorrow or yesterday." And everybody else just scrambles to build the rest of the skyscraper -- the building. And, as an architect, you say, "First of all, I have to dig a hole in the ground to build a foundation.' They say, 'No, no, I want this skyscraper. I want this penthouse suite.' So I think Mr. Baker's approach, which I wholly endorse, should also include the requirements that people are building and not make gold plated penthouse suites but maybe even the 10th floor of an existing building and scale it down and allow it to evolve over time rather than go for the big push and the big bang that may not be possible. So it should be a process of discovery and working forward gracefully rather than expecting the gold-plated requirement to be met immediately.
Edward Francis Meagher: One thing I would add to this answer is this notion of accountability, personal accountability. When you have the projects broken up into small pieces, where you make sure all the parts are in place before you begin, that there's agreed upon business requirements, there's a business owner, there's competent, experienced program managers and then you hold people accountable for their deliverables and for meeting their milestones. That's a culture change that is taking place, I would suggest over the last 18 months that's very dramatic and is probably one of the main pillars as to why I think you're seeing the turnaround now that some of you have recognized and I really believe is there.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Mr. Tullman?
Glen Tullman: Yes, I'd again compliment Assistant Secretary Baker on the progress and what I heard today. You know, we believe that the private sector should play an increasingly large role in developing these systems. We're developing very similar systems for the civilian health care system and increasingly what we're seeing is these two are meshing together so people are moving back and forth in and out of the military and other services and the government as well. So we'd like to make sure that, number one, that the government is looking at what the private sector has to offer. And two, we believe that there are much better systems to form the community that my counter-part here talked about: A community of the VA, they're out there, they're social networking systems, their open platforms, their Microsoft-based systems. They're not based on what is essentially a 25-year-old transaction processing language called MUMPS. So we'd like to see the new system based on newer, broader standards and have the government in the role of setting the standards for what they want and let the private sector compete to deliver and get the and be punished if they don't.
Kat will cover more of the hearing at her site tonight.
robert jensen
the washington post
politico

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