Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The press reluctance

Hump day, hump day. I've got a nasty cough, don't know how much longer I can put up with this crud (the cold). But other than a cough, I'm fine. POLITICO's Josh Gerstein reports:

It’s illegal in some places to eat peanuts in church. And in some states it's illegal to sell beer on Sundays. But could it really be illegal to talk politics in the White House press briefing room?

Shocking as it may be to some hard-nosed Washington operatives, when top White House aides use an official forum like the briefing room or Air Force One to talk about candidates’ standing in the polls, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s record or the latest campaign ad from the Democratic National Committee, they risk violating the Hatch Act, legal experts say.

“There are a number of comments from the podium from both parties that might cross the line” created by the 1939 law, said Scott Coffina, a White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.

“It’s their obligation to make it clear whether they’re speaking in their official capacity as White House staff members, as assistants to the president, or not. If they are in their official capacity, they really can’t get into talking about campaign ads or events,” said Richard Painter, another Bush White House lawyer.

We've covered this topic at Third in "Has the White House broken the Hatch Act?" and I think that the press really needs to be covering this topic. Glad to see Gerstein has. It's an important topic and one that, my opinion, the press has been repeatedly reluctant to pursue.

But that's been the case on anything dealing with Princess Barack.

Here's C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot:"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Moqtada asks 'what withdrawal,' DoD tells a Congressional Subcommittee that "we're spending money that we're not watching," January 4th four IG positions go vacant and the White House is making no effort to fill them, attacks on electricity transmission towers in Iraq, the White House condemns statemenst Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters, and more.
"This is the sixth hearing addressing the accountability of tax dollar in war zones," declared US House Rep Jason Chaffetz as he brought to order the hearing into Iraq and Afghanistan this morning. Chaffetz is the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform's National Security Subcommittee. Appearing before the Subcommittee was the Defense Dept's Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell, the State Dept's Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel, the acting inspector general of US AID Michael Carroll, the acting inspector general for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Steven J. Trent and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen.
Subcommitee Chair Chaffetz summarized the fraud and abuse problems early on,, "In October, the full committee heard testimony from the Commission on Wartime Contracting about its final report. The Commissioners allege that between $30 and $60 billion dollars had been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan due to waste, fraud and abuse in the contracting process. According to the Commission, this was due to ill conceived projects, poor planning and oversight, poor performance by contractors, criminal behavior and blatant corruption. This is unacceptable. And while some may agree or disagree with our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is universally unacceptable to waste tax payer money."
Early on, he also noted a serious failure on the part of the White House.
Subcommittee Chair Jason Chaffetz: Before recognizing Ranking Member [John] Tierney, I'd like to note that the Defense Dept, State Dept, USAID and SIGAR will not have IGs in January. In May of this year, I wrote the President asking him to move without delay to appoint replacements. That letter was signed by Senators [Joe] Lieberman, [Susan] Collins, [Claire] McCaskill and [Rob] Portman, as well as [House Oversight Committee] Chairman [Darrell] Issa and Ranking Member [Elijah] Cummings and Ranking Member Tierney. I'd like to place a copy of htis record into the record. Without objection, so ordered. To my knowledge, the President has yet to nominate any of these replacements, nor has he responded to this letter. I find that totally unacceptable. This is a massive, massive effort. It's going to take some leadership from the White House. These jobs cannot and will not be done if the president fails to make these appointments. Upon taking office, President Obama promised that his administration would be "the most open and transparent in history." You cannot achieve transparency without inspectors general. Again, I urge President Obama and the Senate to nominate and confirm inspectors general to fill these vacancies and without delay.
The public face of reconstruction in Iraq has been the Speical Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen. We'll note the following from his opening statement.
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: First, I am concerned about maintaining SIGIR's ability to get the information we need to complete ongoing audits and investigations and to continue to provide the kind of comprehensive Quarterly Report coverage that the Congress has come to expect from us. The State Department recently instituted a new bureaucratic process, requiring the channeling of information that we request from the Embassy through Foggy Bottom offices. This process inevitably will cause delays, impede our capacity to deal directly with the individuals in Iraq responsible for providing the necessary data, and thus reduce our responsiveness. Symptomatic of this bureaucratic development, one of my investigators, working jointly with the FBI on a criminal case, recently was refused information by the State Department regarding a potential subject (who is a State employee). State directed my investigator to use the "audit process" to obtain this investigative information. Worse, he was challenged as to whether the information, which he had requested in good faith, was even related to "reconstruction funding." This development is just the latest quandary in a predicament-filled year, during which the State Department has repeatedly raised fallacious objections to varying SIGIR requests. I thank the Chairman and Ranking Member -- and the full Committee's leadership -- for their steadfast support of our oversight mission; but these recent issues underscore the reality of the continuing oversight challenges that confront us.
You can't do oversight without the staff. Or, as Stuart Bowen noted during questioning, "You have to be there, to do the work." On that topic, we'll note this exchange from the hearing.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: I'd now like to recognize myself for five minutes and Mr. Heddell, let's start with you. The Defense Contracting Auditing Agency, I know is a little bit outside of your lane but I would appreciate it if you would offer a perspective. The Commission on Wartime Contracting had indicated that there were some 56,000 -- 56,0000 -- contracts behind in terms of auditing these contracts. Why is that? How can that be? How is it that DoD can be so far behind in this? Sorry, your microphone please.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Mr. Chairman, my office has actually done a lot of work with respect to DCAA. I would just say generally, first off, that I think that they probably are under-resourced and need help in that respect but historically DCAA has been a very challenged organization. They do a tremendous amount of work for a lot of agencies -- not just inside the Department of Defense but outside the Department of Defense. In the last three to four years, the DCAA has undergone some sweeping changes as a result of some fairly significant criticisms of their leadership, of their processes, and-and not meeting expectations. As a result of that, it has new leadership today with Pat Fizgerald who was the Director of Army Audit. And Pat has taken on a gigantic job. And with the work that my office has done to try to help them identify vulnerabilities in their mangagement, in their processes and how to be an effective organization, for the last two years, their focus has been -- and this is Gordon Heddell talking -- more internal than external. So while, under ideal circumstances, they would have been focusing outward, doing great work, doing lots of audits with very experienced and good leadership, they've had to focus inward to correct management deficiencies and vulnerabilities. I think that's partially a result of this backlog in audits, not entirely.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: And-and my understanding is we've been participating in a lot of wars and spending a lot of money and a lot of resources, as that expenditure has gone up, help me understand what's happening with the actual auditors themselves because you have been appropriated more money.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Absoultely. In fact, I've been a very fortunate organization. In the last three or four years, the DoD Office of Inspector General has been plussed up some $87 million, Mr. Chairman. I doubt that any other IG can say that, so I'm very fortunate. The Congress has been very supportive of me. And for that matter, so has the Department of Defense.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: But have you been spending that money?
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: No. The problem there is that the budget, the $87 million in plus ups that I have received have not been annualized. And what that means is that although I'm very fortunate to get these plus ups, I'm not able to use that money to hire permanent staff. So I can hire contractors, I can -- I can do other things with that money but I cannot, because it's not being annualized by the Department, I cannot run the risk of hiring people and then having to RIFF them [lay them off] the following year for fear that I don't have enough money in my budget to pay them. It's a problem.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Of that $87 million that you've gotten, how much did you actually spend?
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Well we have spent almost all of it because --
Chair Jason Chaffetz: But you're hiring outside contractors to do --
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: Yes, sir. We're hiring outside contractors. We're creatively doing work that is positive and meets the needs of both the Congress and the Department and the American people. But, for instance, you know one of the -- in the early 2000s, there's two things that happened that have come to haunt us today. One is that while we sent our military forces into southeast Asia to fight two wars, there was a mistaken belief by many of the civilian agencies that they could fight those two wars in the continental United States, my own organization being one of those. And it wasn't until three of four years ago that we came to the realization you cannot do that, that you must be present, and you have to have the people in place, you have to have the footprint. The second thing that happened is that the Department of Defense's budget doubled to about $650 billion dollars. And at the same time, the contract -- Aquistion and Contract Management Workforce, in fact, was reduced in size meaning that we lacked thousands and thousands of needed contracting specialists that are not there to oversight these contracts, that are not there to raise their hand and say 'stop the assembly line.' We're spending money that we're not watching. We're not surveillling it. So those are the two major issues.
Subcommittee Chair Jason Chaffetz: Well thank you, I appreciate that. I think this highlights a mulit-billion dollar problem and challenge that we certainly need to address and fix because I think there is a definite need that is pervasive in the Congress -- both in the House and the Senate -- to make sure that these types of functions are in place. But the way that the money is appropriated is obviously falling short and failing.
Now we're going to fall back to the December 1st snapshot to note the November 30th hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia hearing:
Ranking Member Gary Ackerman: He [Bowen] has testified before other bodies of Congress, he has released written quarterly reports, as well as specific audits and the message is the same: The program for which the Department of State officially took responsibility on October 1st is nearly a text book case of government procurement -- in this case, foreign assistance -- doesn't buy what we think we're paying for, what we want and why more money will only make the problem worse. Failed procurement is not a problem unique to the State Department. And when it comes to frittering away millions, Foggy Bottom is a rank amateur compared to the Department of Defense. As our colleagues on the Armed Services committees have learned, the best of projects with the most desirable of purposes can go horribly, horribly off-track; and the hardest thing it seems that any bureaucracy can do is pull the plug on a failed initiative. How do we know the Police Development Program is going off-track? Very simple things demonstrate a strong likelihood of waste and mismanagement. Number one, does the government of Iraq -- whose personnel we intend to train -- support the program? Interviews with senior Iraqi officials by the Special Inspector General show utter disdain for the program. When the Iraqis suggest that we take our money and do things instead that are good for the United States, I think that might be a clue.
Ackerman went on to note how "the program's objectives remain a mushy bowl of vague platitudes" and how it had "no comprehensive and detailed plan for execution, there is no current assessment of Iraqi police force capability and, perhaps most tellingly, there are no outcome-based metrics. This is a flashing-red warning light."
We dropped back because this issue was also raised in today's hearing.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: Mr. Bowen, right now the police development program is the administration's largest foreign aid project for Iraq going forward. And there's some evidence that the Iraqis don't even want this program. So have you or your staff asked the Iraqi police forces if they need the $500 million a year program that the Obama administration is planning to spend on the police development program?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: Yes, Mr. Labrador, we have and we reported on that in our last quarterly report noting that the senior official at the Ministry of the Interior, Senior Deputy Minister al-Assadi said "he didn't see any real benefit from the police development program." I addressed that with him when I was in Iraq a couple of weeks ago and I asked him, "Did you mean what you said?" And his response was, "Well we welcome any support that the American government will provide us; however, my statements as quoted in your recent quarterly are still posted on my website."
US House Rep Raul Labrador: So why is the administration still spending $500 million a year to provide this program?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: There's a beliff that security continues to be a challenge in Iraq, a well founded belief, I might add, given the events of this week. Killings of pilgrims again, on the way to Najaf, on the eve of Ashura. The focus though on trying to address those problems has been a widely scattered, high level training program involving about 150 police trainers who, as we've seen again this week, are going to have a very difficult time moving about the country.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: So what other problems have you found with the police development program, if any?
SIGIR Stuart Bowen: Several. Well, Mr. Labrador, we pointed out in our audit that, one Iraqi buy-in, something that the Congress requires from Iraq, by law, that is a contribution of 50% to such programs,has not been secured -- in writing, in fact, or by any other means. That's of great concern. Especially for a Ministry that has a budget of over $6 billion, a government that just approved, notionally, a hundred billion dollar budget for next year. It's not Afghanistan. This is a country that has signficant wealth, should be able to contribute but has not been forced to do so, in a program as crucial as this.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: I know I've run out of time but, Mr. Geisel, do you have any comments on this?
Deputy Inspector General for US State Dept Harold Geisel: Well, of course, first of all, I'm not going to second guess my friend and colleague on what his people found. And, of course, the people you need to bring up here are the people from the State Department to comment on what he found. I do -- I saw that the Department published a document -- a 21-page document that includes goals and measures of performance for the police development program but it's my friend's baby, not mine.
After that bit of hot potato, the next big issue was returning to the lack of nominees to fill the soon to be vacant oversight roles.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: One of the things that's most frustrating to me as a freshman in Congress is that there are some things that both sides agree on that we need to be working on and yet we're not doing them. I look at the Oversight Committee, here, I don't think there's a lot of difference. There might be some small differences between the two sides, but it seems like we can identify some things like the $500 million that we're going to spend on the Iraq police force that they don't even want, that we should be finding things in common that we could be saving on. I want -- if we could put on that transparency here on President Obama. And I'm not saying this, I'm not using this to embarrass anybody, but President Obama has said on his website that he's committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history. He wants a window for all Americans into the business of government. And that's something that I want. I actually agree with him on this issue. Yet this panel is representing the IG offices principally responsible for overseeing tax payer money in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as of January 4th of next year, four of the five offices will not have an IG. I'm concerned about that. I want everybody to comment, do you know whether the President has nominated anyone to fill these vacancies? If so, who has been nominated? Have you made any recommendations? And do you think the absence of permanent IGs will actually harm our efforts in oversight? And anyone can take this question.
DoD IG Gordon Heddell: I-I certainly would like to comment. Number one, I don't know the names, Congressman Labradour, of anyone who might have been nominated or who is being considered to be nominated. Number two, I can tell you that the confirmation -- the nomination and confirmation process that we have is cumbersome and slow and it has an adverse impact on the leadership of these organizations. Number three, when I took over as the acting inspector general in July of 2008, the DoD IG had -- at the very top -- been vacant for so many years -- over the past 10, 12 years, you can't imagine. And so to run an organization using an acting inspector general as the leader is foolhardy. You can do it for a few months, but you cannot succeed over years and decades and that is what has happened.
US House Rep Raul Labrador: Does anybody know why that has happened? Is there any reason why? It seems like both sides would agree that we need a robust IG in all of these agencies. Does anybody have any comments on that? Mr. Carroll?
US AID acting IG Michael Carroll: I can't comment on what the White House is doing but I just want to assure you on behalf of the USAID IG that one of the great things about working for Don Gambatesa, it was truly a partnership between him and I, so as I moved into the acting role, other than the fact that it's a bit of a work load issue for me, the work goes on and the leadership philosophy continues and so I just want to assure the Subcommittee that-that there'll be no-no degredation in our effectiveness or what our work is going to be for as long as it takes the President to make a decision on the IG job.
Meanwhile Al Mada reports that Moqtada al-Sadr declared (in his online column to followers) that, "I do not know of a withdrawal of the occupation" in reply to a question about celebrations taking place in Iraq as US forces are repostured. Related, Jim Michaels (USA Today) interviews US Lt Gen Robert Caslen about the current status of the Iraqi forces and quotes Caslen stating, "That leaves a significant training gap in the Iraqi security forces. Iraqi security forces are going to have to address how to meet that training gap in the future." reports Al Rafidayn notes Nouri al-Maliki is scheduled to visit DC next week and meet with members of the US administration. Al Mada states he will be leading a delegation and notes that Abbas al-Bayati, MP with the National Alliance is insisting that Nouri cannot enter into any agreement on his own.

Rumors continue that Nouri al-Maliki will ask Gulf countries to patrol Iraqi air space (since its own air force is not prepared for the job yet and won't be until 2014 at the earliest). Kitabat reports the rumors as truth and part of a plan -- by Iraq and other Gulf states, according to the newspaper -- for this Gulf air force to patrol the entire region. That seems very unlikely. Setting aside the various conflicts Nouri has with Saudi Arabia and other neighbors, it seems highly unlikely that Iraq would agree to such a deal which, in 2014, would no longer be necessary but would be very difficult to get out of. Al Mada reports that government sources are denying any plan to enter into an agreement with Gulf region countries to have them protect Iraqi air space.

In other news, Al Mada reports that the Christian bloc in Parliament has declared that there is no need for "international forces" in any disputed territories. "International forces" most likely means both the US and NATO. Last week, Iraqi Christians were targeted in northern Iraq. Alsumaria TV reports that the Union of Kurdistan Islamic Clerics is rejecting the charges that incendiary language by one of their members led to the attacks.
In the Middle East, Iran borders Iraq on the east. AFP notes an attack in north east Iraq which claimed 1 police officers life and left two more injured as powerlines supplying electricity to Iraq from Iran's Kermanshah were sabotaged. Deutsche Presse-Agentur notes, "Iraqi Electricity Ministry spokesman Museb al-Madras said the attack on Tuesday in Baquba, 60 kilometres east of Baghdad, targeted pylons that are part of a network that brings in some 400 megawatts of Iranian power annually. " In addition, Aseel Kami, Kareem Raheem, Fadhil al-Badrani and Rania El Gamal (Reuters) report another attack was planned but prevented, "In the vast western Anbar province, the Iraqi army defused bombs planted around a power plant early on Wednesday, local army sources said. The attackers had tied up the guards and took their weapons, the sources said."

Reuters notes today's violence in Iraq alrso includes 1 police officer shot dead in Falluja, a Kirkuk sticky bombing which claimed the life of 1 person, a Kirkuk roadside bombing which injured an official with "Iraqi Railways Company," a Baghdad roadside bombing which claimed the life of 1 police officer and left three more injured, an attorney shot dead in Mosul, a Jurf al-Sakhar sticky bombing which injured a worker with the National Security Ministry, a Jurf al-Sakhar roadside bombing whcih injured one person and, dropping back to last night, 1 peshmerga shot dead in Kirkuk.
Sam Dagher (Wall St. Journal) examines today's violence and sees three deaths as potentially linked and a disturbing portent of the future for Iraq, "Maj. Gen. Jamal Taher Baker, Kirkuk's provincial police chief, says these attacks were carried out by militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's former regime to derail any easing in the dispute in Kirkuk, which has pitted local communities against one another. The day's violence came after at least four people were killed and 45 others wounded over the previous 10 days in roadside bombings and mortar attacks targeting members of the Shiite Turkmen community in and around Kirkuk, according to local police." Oil-rich and disputed Kirkuk, long predicted to be a flashpoint in Iraq, Dagher notes, is rumored to be drawing in Iranians and Turkish operatives to foster more violence.
Turkey borders Iraq from the north and in addition to purchasing electricity from Iran, Iraq is conducting business with Pakistan and India. Khalid al-Ansary (Bloomberg News) reports that Iraq's purchased 30,000 tons of rice from India and 90,000 from Pakistan and that Iraq is predicted to produce 250,000 tons of rice this year (basically a fifth of what Iraq is expected to consume in 2012).

While Iran borders Iraq from the east, Turkey borders it from the north and Jordan borders it from the southwest. MENAFN News notes that Jordan is requesting that Iraq help them with an alternative trade route for their exports to Turkey and Europe should Syria close their borders. (Syria borders Iraq on the northeast and is directly north of Jordan.) In addition, Omar Obeidat (Jordan Times) reports:

Owners of cargo trucks are mulling using Iraq as an alternative transit route to Turkey and Europe as just a few trucks enter Syria per day due to the turbulence in the northern neighbour.
According to Mohammad Dawood, president of the Jordan Truck Owners Association (JTOA), over the past two weeks Jordanian trucks carrying vegetables and other goods to Turkey and Europe have "rarely" travelled through Syria due to the ongoing instability.
He told The Jordan Times over the phone on Saturday that although Syrian authorities are not banning the entry of Jordanian cargo trucks through their land, owners and drivers are reluctant to enter the violence-hit country. On the topic of Jordan,
Aswat al-Iraq notes, "The number of Iraqis in Jordan has recently dropped down to 195,000, according to the Iraqi Embassy in Amman on Sunday."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given his first US interview to ABC News' Barbara Walters. Click here for transcript and video.
ABC's Barbara Walters: Mr. President, you have invited us to Damascus and you have not given an interview to the American media since this crisis began. What is it you want us to know?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: I would like to reiterate what I used to say after 11th of September, to every American delegation I met, first of all I think the American people, people should know more about what's happening beyond the ocean, second the American media I would like them to tell only the truth about what's happening in the world, and for the American administration. Don't look for puppets in the world.
Walters: Don't look for puppets?
Assad: Only deal with administration that, on people that can tell you know about the truth, because what's happening in the world now is taking the world toward chaos, what we need now is we need to deal with the reality. So the message now is about the reality.
Walters: Tell me what the reality here is your country is. What is the reality?
Assad: It's too complicated, it takes hours to talk about... so let's be specific.
Walters: Not long ago you were widely seen as a fresh pragmatic leader, a doctor whose life was in healing people, now sir, much of the world regards you as a dictator and a tyrant. What do you say to that?
Assad: What's important how the Syrian people look at you, not how you look at yourself. So I don't have to look at myself. This is... second, it's about the system. You have a dictator and you have dictatorship, there's a big difference between the two, dictatorship is about the system, we never said we are democratic country, but we're not the same, we-- we are moving forward in, in reforms, especially during the last nine month, so I think we are moving forward, it takes a long time, it takes a lot of maturity to be full fledge democratic country, but we are moving that, that direction, for me as a person, whatever I do should be based on the will of the people, because you need popular legitimacy and this is against dictatorship for person.

Walters' exclusive interview has rolled out on various ABC news platforms and continues on Nightline tonight. Meanwhile the White House denounces the remarks Assad makes in the interview.
And turning to veterans issues, Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and her office notes:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Murray Press Office - (202) 224-2834
Wednesday, December 7, 2011 Tester Press Office – (202) 228-0371

VETERANS: VA Responds to Concerns Raised by Chairman Murray and Senator Tester for Improved Military Sexual Trauma Claims Process

(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray and Committee Member Jon Tester announced the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will be working to improve the accuracy and consistency of their disability claims process related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST). This announcement comes after Chairman Murray and Senator Tester sent a letter to Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey in October about the critical need to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.

The letter was sent as a response to a December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General Report, Review of Combat Stress in Women Veterans Receiving VA Health Care and Disability Benefits, which found VBA had not fully assessed available MST-related claims data, which led to no clear understanding of how consistently these claims are being adjudicated.

"With an unacceptable number of our troops returning home with the damaging effects of MST, something had to be done," Chairman Murray said. "The actions recently taken by the VA to address this issue are a significant step in the right direction. I am thankful they heard our concerns and moved quickly to tackle them. As Chairman, I will continue to monitor the progress of these improvements."

"VA standards need to be fair and accountable for all victims of service-related trauma," Senator Tester said. "It's also critical that the VA is responsive to the evolving needs of America's veterans and I'm pleased that the agency will be taking a close look at how it handles Military Sexual Trauma. I appreciate the VA's quick response to our letter and will keep a close eye on their progress."

Chairman Murray and Senator Tester's letter requested that the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) take action to address concerns about the ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST. Last week, VBA took action on the concerns raised by Chairman Murray and Senator Tester and issued a training letter, "Adjudicating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Claims Based on Military Sexual Trauma (MST)." Compliance with this training letter and a new on-line training program for decision makers will help them correctly decide a claim related to MST.

Finally, Chairman Murray and Senator Tester's letter expressed concern with the current evidentiary standard for adjudicating PTSD claims based on in-service personal assault, such as MST. The issued training letter clarifies the types of evidence, and provides specific examples to aid decision makers in applying a liberal interpretation of the requirements, consistent with medical and lay evidence, which may be used to support a claim based upon MST.

The full text of the Senators' letter is below:

The Honorable Allison A. Hickey
Under Secretary for Benefits
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420

Dear Under Secretary Hickey:

We are writing to commend your recent efforts to improve the recognition of disabilities related to Military Sexual Trauma (MST). These efforts are long overdue and more work remains to be done. Far too many servicemembers, both men and women, are returning home from service carrying the devastating wounds that result from MST. After sacrificing so much to serve their country, they often face tremendous challenges in obtaining the services and benefits they desperately need. That is why we urge you to take further action to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided.

A December 2010 VA Office of Inspector General Report, Review of Combat Stress in Women Veterans Receiving VA Health Care and Disability Benefits, found that VBA had not fully assessed available MST-related claims data. As a result, there is no clear understanding of how consistently these claims are being adjudicated. We understand that you recently directed a review of MST-related claims and request that you provide us with the results of this review and the actions taken in response to the review findings. There are also additional steps you can take to ensure that veterans who suffer disabilities related to MST will have their claims properly decided. These actions include ensuring that regulations and policies concerning MST are based upon sound medical research and are providing VBA decision makers with the training and supervision needed to correctly adjudicate these claims.

In 2002, VA implemented universal MST screening after research found that medical and mental health conditions associated with MST were unreported and thus untreated. VA's own research, The Veterans Health Administration and Military Sexual Trauma, (December 2007), found that 22 percent of screened female veterans and one percent of screened male veterans reported MST. This research found that the likelihood of a mental health diagnosis, including but not limited to PTSD, more than doubled for veterans exposed to MST. This underscores the need for VBA to properly recognize mental and physical health conditions associated with MST.

Additionally, we have concerns regarding the evidentiary standard for adjudicating PTSD claims based on in-service personal assault such as MST. Under the current standard, evidence such as records from law enforcement authorities or rape crisis centers may be used to corroborate the veteran's account of the stressor incident. However, research shows that MST is severely underreported in both military and civilian settings. As a result, the evidence described in the regulation may not exist.

Although the current regulation allows medical or mental health professionals to consider evidence, such as behavioral changes, and to provide an opinion as to whether the evidence indicates that a personal assault occurred, claims processors may not correctly interpret evidence used by a medical professional in the context of a particular case. A clinician skilled in diagnosing and treating disabilities associated with MST should make determinations as to whether the post-MST behavior change is consistent with the reported MST experience. We request that you consider our concerns as you explore potential regulatory changes that may be necessary to resolve the issues surrounding the reported improper adjudication of PTSD claims based on MST.

We are also aware of the steps you have taken to require training concerning MST, and are pleased that you are focused on improving VBA's ability to correctly identify and adjudicate claims for disabilities based on MST. While much attention has been given to PTSD claims, we urge you to provide training on other mental health and medical conditions that may result from MST.

Thank you for your attention to this request. We look forward to continuing to work with you on behalf of our nation's veterans.


Patty Murray

Jon Tester
U.S. Senator


Meghan Roh

Deputy Press Secretary

Office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray



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