Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Incarceration Crisis Revisited -

(Cross-posted to Raising Kaine)

From the Washington Post comes the unsurprising news that more than one percent (1%) of all the adults in America are in jail or in prison. Record-High Ratio of Americans in Prison.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving even far more populous China a distant second, noted the report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

The ballooning prison population is largely the result of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been hit particularly hard: One in nine black men age 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women age 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 white women in the same age group.

Last March Jim Webb surprised a lot of people by telling George Stephanopolous on This Week that
We've -- this is a chance to put a lot of issues on the table. One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy.

Talk about a voice crying out in the wilderness. Is anybody else even paying attention to this enormous social calamity? Can a society be called healthy which incarcerates so many of its members, and at least half the time for non-violent crimes rather than for actual crimes of violence or chronic recidivism? Something's wrong with this picture.
The article tells us
when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- alternative punishments such as community supervision and mandatory drug counseling that are far less expensive may prove just as or more effective than jail time.

Florida, which nearly doubled its prison population over the past 15 years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than New York, which, after a brief increase, reduced its number of inmates to below the 1993 level.

How about the money involved in jailing so many people?
over the past two decades, state spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education rose by 21 percent. For every dollar Virginia spends on higher education, it now spends about 60 cents on corrections. Maryland spends 74 cents on corrections per higher-education dollar.

Despite reaching its latest milestone, the nation's incarcerated population has actually been growing far more slowly since 2000 than during the 1990s, when the spate of harsher sentencing laws began to take effect. These included a 1986 federal law mandating prison terms for crack cocaine offenses that were up to eight times as long as for those involving powder cocaine. In the early 1990s, states across the nation adopted "three-strikes-you're-out" laws and curtailed the discretion parole boards have in deciding when to release an inmate. As a result, between 1990 and 2000, the prison population swelled by about 80 percent, increasing by as much as 86,000 per year.

For over 20 years I've represented criminal defendants in the Virginia courts. Most of my clients have been lower income, minority, under-educated individuals with drug and alcohol problems. Some have significant mental health issues and are referred to as dual diagnosis.

Criminal defendants do not exist in a vacuum. Many have at least one child, at least one significant other (some have an impressive array of significant others, but I digress), and one or more parents or grandparents whose lives will be affected by their incarceration. Few things are more disheartening than watching a mother of young children go to prison for two or three years because her drug addiction is out of control and she steals to support it. It's difficult to tell distraught parents and dependents of such people that they may have to do without them for a few years. An extraordinary number of grandparents are raising their children's children or even their grandchildren's children. In these fractured families the children are at extremely high risk for early involvement in drugs, sex, and alcohol. The grandparents, lacking any financial contribution from incarcerated parents, are stretched to the limit.

There are diversion programs, and access to them has increased over the years. My only quibble with the article's statements about such programs is that they "may" be a better alternative. They ARE a better alternative. Diversion programs require the inmates to engage in counseling, critical self-analysis, job training, and proper management of their finances. Participants are required to pay their child support, address their addictions, learn new behaviors and take personal responsibility for their actions. Does anyone think warehousing people for years is even equal to the positive aspects of a diversion program?

Not everyone in a diversion program succeeds. Sometimes my clients are brought back before the court - it may be years after their diversion - for probation violations. Sometimes life's problems catch up with them and they decompensate, fall of the wagon, and re-offend. Mental health professionals understand this, that recovery from addiction is often a two steps forward/one step back type of process.

I could spend the next two hours highlighting my pet peeves with the criminal justice system. There are far too many offenses which have been labeled felonies, and far too many offenses which are actually symptomatic of social diseases or mental health disorders but which are aggressively prosecuted. There are few resources available for defendants who are genuinely mentally ill. Most diversion programs will not take dual diagnosis inmates. If they are bipolar, schizophrenic, suffering from other disorders requiring medication, then they are SOL when it comes to getting any help. We warehouse our mentally ill inmates and then kick them out into society to re-offend. Still, however, inmates who are eligible for diversion programs more often than not benefit from them. There are some good outpatient treatment programs and some good alternative diversion programs which gradually release inmates onto probation and into society. Some of my clients have gone through such programs, and years later I encounter them in the role of counselor to another inmate seeking diversion.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Contractor Cupidity and the Long, Late Arm of the Law

From the Chicago Tribune on February 21st came this story of indictments of KBR contractors for massive corruption in procuring and administering contracts before and during the occupation of Iraq.

Federal prosecutors in Rock Island have indicted four former supervisors from KBR, the giant defense firm that holds the contract, along with a decorated Army officer and five executives from KBR subcontractors based in the U.S. or the Middle East. Those defendants, along with two other KBR employees who have pleaded guilty in Virginia, account for a third of the 36 people indicted to date on Iraq war-contract crimes, Justice Department records show.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Rock Island sentenced the Army official, Chief Warrant Officer Peleti "Pete" Peleti Jr., to 28 months in prison for taking bribes.

The article gives a mind-numbing account of the many ways in which the law was flouted, corruption flourished, criminal behavior was tolerated, and our troops were ill-served by the ones entrusted to provide for them.
A common thread runs through these cases and other KBR scandals in Iraq, from allegations the firm failed to protect employees sexually assaulted by co-workers to findings that it charged $45 per can of soda: The Pentagon has outsourced crucial troop support jobs while slashing the number of government contract watchdogs.

The dollar value of Army contracts quadrupled from $23.3 billion in 1992 to $100.6 billion in 2006, according to a recent report by a Pentagon panel. But the number of Army contract supervisors was cut from 10,000 in 1990 to 5,500 currently (emphasis added).

Last week, the Army pledged to add 1,400 positions to its contracting command. But even those embroiled in the frauds acknowledge the impact of so much war privatization.

"I think we downsized past the point of general competency," said subcontractor Christopher Cahill, who for a decade prepared military supply depots under LOGCAP. Now serving 30 months in federal prison for fraud, Cahill added: "The point of a standing army is to have them equipped."

I remember the mother of a soldier telling me a year ago that her son had paid exorbitant amounts for basic things like soda and snack foods. She and her retired Army husband were outraged and felt betrayed by the system they had spent their lives supporting.

As for Cahill's comments, they're his way of saying that while the cat was away the mice played. Somewhere in the midst of the current administration's worship of all things private sector was lost the understanding that vast power and access to resources without accountability breeds corruption.

But wait, there's more
By June, Seamans and fellow KBR procurement manager Jeff Mazon, a Country Club Hills resident, had executed subcontracts worth $321 million. At least one deal put U.S. soldiers at risk.

The Army LOGCAP contract required KBR to medically screen the thousands of kitchen workers that subcontractors like Tamimi imported from impoverished villages in Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

But when Pentagon officials asked for medical records in March 2004, Khan presented "bogus" files for 550 Tamimi workers ...

KBR retested those 550 workers at a Kuwait City clinic and found 172 positive for exposure to hepatitis A, Lang told the judge. Khan tried to suppress those findings, warning the clinic director that Tamimi would do no more business with his medical office if he "told KBR about these results," Lang said in court. The infectious virus can cause fatigue and other symptoms that arise weeks after contact.

Retesting of the 172 found that none had contagious hepatitis A, Lang said, and Khan's attorneys said in court that no soldiers caught diseases from the workers or from meals they prepared. It remains unclear if that is because the workers were treated or because they did not remain infectious after the onset of symptoms

A couple of things spring to mind upon considering this information. First, WHY was KBR looking for employees in Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when it had a perfectly employable pool of people sitting right there in Baghdad? After all, we were liberating the Iraqis and making their way straight for democracy and all that; how come we didn't want to hire them to do the work and chose instead to import impoverished Muslims from another part of the world? Think that might have led to some resentment? Naw. I'm sure all those recently-liberated and unemployed Iraqi Shiites were happy to help out their South Asian Sunni brethren. Why, it didn't hardly feel like a foreign occupation at all. And as for the Sunni Iraqis, it was almost as if they were the ones being employed, what with Sunnis being one monolithic entity without national sensibilities or pride.

The second thing is how little oversight the corrupt KBR employees exercised over their subcontractor Tamimi, not even verifying that the workers employed by Tamimi met at least minimum health standards for food workers. These people aren't even real Americans, being willing as they were to risk the very health of the soldiers they were fleecing.

All I can say is that the Webb-McCaskill Commission can't get up and running soon enough to suit me. I look forward to a long line of prosecutions of those who did this to our military.

Veterans Harmed By Errors on DD214s

Cross-posted to Raising Kaine has posted a story, originally from the Buffalo News, of the plight of an increasing number of veterans who are finding their DD214s, the records of their military service, contain sometimes critical errors and omissions.

The story tells of close to 2,000 veterans whose records have been so poorly documented that they are losing access to veterans' services, compensation, and care.

Some highlights:

Christopher M. Simmance helped keep the peace as an American Soldier in the Middle East, but when he returned home and later suffered a breakdown, he was turned away from the VA hospital because the government didn't acknowledge his overseas duty.

Dana Cushing as a Marine served two tours of duty in Iraq and a third in east Africa, but when she returned home, she found herself labeled a "conscientious objector" and also was denied medical care by the government ...

The Army alone has a backlog of 1,890 veterans seeking corrections on their discharge papers, and some have been waiting for three years, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Many other veterans probably have faulty discharge papers but don't know it because they have not sought benefits ...

When [Simmance] returned home to Buffalo Niagara and sought help from the local Veterans Affairs office, he said he was told his discharge papers were not in order and he was ineligible for help. Simmance said he was turned down twice for treatment at the VA's Batavia residential facility for post-traumatic stress disorder ... he continues to wait for a corrected version of his discharge papers -- a wait that started seven months ago and shows no sign of ending soon ...

Errors are occurring more frequently on discharge papers, known as DD214 forms, because the work is often farmed out to civilians, according to Patrick W. Welch, director of Erie County's Department of Veterans Services.

"In the olden days, it was usually military records personnel who were processing you out. They were active duty military people. They had a better feel for what you were entitled to and they would ask questions," said Welch, a Vietnam veteran.

Civilians who never served in the armed forces, he said, are more likely to make mistakes ...

Military officials, contacted by The Buffalo News, said those leaving the armed forces should carefully check their records because they are in the best position to know if the papers are complete and accurate.

"That's not true. This is your very first DD214, so how do you know what to look for? On top of that, you don't know what the code numbers stand for. Unless you work with those codes daily, you don't know what they mean," said Ronal R. Bassham, a veterans advocate for United Auto Workers Region 9.

I'm sorry. I need to have it explained to me again why the private sector always does everything so much better than the public sector, even in specialized areas such as evaluation of military service. I've heard of problems like this from friends who work at Veterans Affairs, complaints not only about clueless civilians, but particularly about the temporary help that's brought in to take care of the overflow. The contractor is there, first and foremost, to make money. When employees don't have to worry about a profit motive they are more likely to take the time necessary to get the information right.

The story continues with accounts of veterans, needful of help for their service-related problems, being turned away or forced to burn through their assets while awaiting correction of their DD214s. Some of these veterans have ended up living in their cars or on the streets.

During World War II, when there were millions in the Armed Forces and millions being processed out at the same time, it seems that most of the records were fairly accurate despite the lack of computers and other modern amenities. There is no excuse in this computer age for months long delays and flagrant inaccuracies in record keeping.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Afghanistan Combat - Civilian Casualties and the Impossible Goal

From the New York Times comes this article by Elizabeth Rubin, who was embedded with Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal River valley of northeastern Afghanistan.

The author originally went to the Korengal Valley to find out why there have been so many civilian casualties associated with the Afghan counterinsurgency. However,

After a few days, the first question sparked more: Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign? More than 100 American soldiers were killed last year, the highest rate since the invasion. Why were so many more American troops being killed?

What follows is an article describing the extraordinary courage, despair, and pain of soldiers who've been set an impossible task. Rubin introduces us to their commanding officer, 26-year old Captain Dan Kearney, and to the men, some of whose deaths and grievous wounds she witnessed while accompanying them on their patrols and operations.
the Americans have steadily increased their presence in Kunar province, fanning out to the small platoon-size outposts that have become the signature of the new counterinsurgency doctrine in both Afghanistan and Iraq ... The soldiers of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team live there in dusty tents and little wooden huts ... the place was protected by not much more than concertina wire and sentries ...

Dan Kearney ... had been in Iraq ... But as hard as Iraq was ... nothing was as tough as the Korengal. Unlike in Iraq, where the captains and lieutenants could let down their guard in a relatively safe, fortified operating base, swapping stories and ideas, here they had no one to talk to and were almost as vulnerable to enemy fire inside the wire as out ...

And unlike every other place I’ve been in Afghanistan ...the Korengal had no Afghan police or district leaders for the Americans to work with ... As Kearney put it ... the Korengal is like a tough Los Angeles neighborhood, “and we’re the L.A.P.D. kicking in the door, arresting guys, demanding information about the gangs ... Now we’ve angered them for so many years that they’ve decided: ‘I’m gonna stick with the A.C.M.’ ” — anticoalition militants — “ ‘who are my brothers and I’m not gonna rat them out.’ ”
Kearney and his men replaced a unit of the 10th Mountain Division so traumatized by their tour that
near the end of their tour, many would sit alone on the fire base talking to themselves. Privates disobeyed their sergeants, and squad leaders refused to step outside the wire to show the new boys the terrain. No one wanted to be shot in the last days of his tour.

Kearney's predecessor had promised he would not bomb Afghans' homes, and Kearney tried to keep that promise:
When Kearney’s moment of decision came, two of 2nd Platoon’s sergeants, Kevin Rice and Tanner Stichter, had been shot, and the fight was still going on. Kearney could see a woman and child in the house. “We saw people moving weapons around,” Kearney told me. “I tried everything. I fired mortars to the back side to get the kids to run out the front. I shot to the left, to the right. The Apache” — an attack helicopter — “got shot at and left. I kept asking for a bomb drop, but no one wanted to sign off on the collateral damage of dropping a bomb on a house.” Finally, he said, “We shot a javelin and a tow” — both armor-piercing missiles. “I didn’t get shot at from there for two months,” Kearney said. “I ended up killing that woman and that kid.”

Rubin goes on to describe the history of Korengali hostility toward the Americans. It wasn't based on their hatred of us "for our freedoms" as our President is so fond of saying. It wasn't because they were seeking a utopian new caliphate or trying to impose Taliban rule on Las Vegas. It wasn't that they were pawns of Osama Bin Laden. No, it was because when the Americans arrived in 2001
the Pech Valley timber lords and warlords had their ear. Early on, they led the Americans to drop bombs on the mansion of their biggest rival — Haji Matin. The air strikes killed several members of his family ... and the Americans arrested others and sent them to the prison at Bagram Air Base. The Pech Valley fighters working alongside the Americans then pillaged the mansion. And that was that. Haji Matin, already deeply religious, became ideological and joined with Abu Ikhlas, a local Arab linked to the foreign jihadis ... Kearney met as many villagers as possible to learn the names of all the elders and their families. But he inherited a blood feud between the Korengalis and the Americans that he hadn’t started, and he was being sucked into its logic.

Rubin describes a frustrated and increasingly traumatized unit full of short-timers who had been stop-lossed and could see no progress and no end to their own suffering. A number of them were on anti-depressants and
after five months of grueling foot patrols up and down the mountains, after fruitless encounters with elders who smiled in the morning and were host to insurgents in the evening and after losing friends to enemy fire, Captain Kearney’s men could relate to the sullen, jittery rage of their predecessors ...

The article goes on to describe Operation Rock Avalanche, a chaotic and brutal air assault on the village of Yaka China. In stark language and with accompanying photos Rubin tells of an operation which resulted in five dead and eleven wounded civilians and angry elders wavering between accepting the Americans' help or seeking vengeance. They opted for vengeance.
THE DAY AFTER the meeting with the elders of Yaka China, Yarnell and John could hear insurgents trying to pinpoint where Kearney and his men were ... We could hear someone who called himself Obeid saying he’d do whatever the Yaka China elders decided — whether to cooperate with the Americans or take revenge ...

Kearney ... would fool the insurgents, feigning a troop extraction when the helicopters came for resupply and pushing out his best guys in small “kill teams.” We heard the insurgents say, “We have wolves on them,” meaning spotters. A hoarse, whispering insurgent had eyes on either Sgt. Larry Rougle and his scouts or on Lieutenant Piosa and his rear guard ... Then nothing happened for almost 24 hours.

Rougle — who was called Wildcat — was on his sixth deployment since Sept. 11, 2001. He was with the first group of Rangers in Afghanistan ...

I hung out with Piosa and his crew ... in a moment, recess was over. The insurgents were on them. Bullets ricocheted all through the woods ... I followed Piosa through the brush toward the ridge. We came upon Rice and Specialist Carl Vandenberge behind some trees. Vandenberge was drenched in blood ... Rice was shot in the stomach ...

Piosa moved on to the hill where the men had been overrun. I saw big blue-eyed John Clinard, a sergeant from North Carolina, falling to pieces. He worshiped Rougle. “Sergeant Rougle is dying. It’s my fault. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I tried to get up the hill. . . .” Sergeant Rougle was lying behind him ...

Two of Rice’s squad mates appeared, eyes dilated. They couldn’t believe they’d seen, up close, the ghosts they’d been fighting for the last five months. “I saw him in the eyes,” Specialist Marc Solowski said. “He looked at me. I shot him.” He and Specialist Michael Jackson had crawled up the hill twice trying to retake it. Each time the insurgents in “manjammies” whipped them back with machine-gun fire. There was blood on the stones around us. Some thought they saw blood trailing down toward the village of Landigal, where they were sure an insurgent had dashed into a cottage.

“We’re not losing this hill again,” Piosa shouted. “This hill is ours!” He wanted bombs to be dropped immediately.

“There’s women praying in that house,” Dunn shouted back.

... The F-15 known as Dude was en route, the Apaches were chasing men and Kearney — who had bolted down the mountain, throwing grenades in caves — was barking orders ... He wanted to punish the valley. Stichter had his eyes on a guy pacing a rooftop in Landigal and wanted to blow his head off. Specialist Mitchell Raeon, whose uniform was now soaked in Rougle’s blood, had the guy in his scope but couldn’t range that far. “That’s a female,” Dunn said.

Kearney had identified insurgents who’d dashed into a house and wanted to hit them, but Stichter got back word from Camp Blessing saying the target was too close to other houses. Kearney sent back a reminder — you let some guys get away the other night. It was impossible to know for sure, but Kearney believed they were the guys who had killed Rougle, and now, he said, you’re going to let another group get away?

Someone cursed, then said, “They’re all leaving the house.”

... with no warning, an F-15 dropped a bomb on Landigal, but off target, or so it seemed. Kearney was furious. He was sure headquarters had intentionally missed the house he had wanted hit.

I noticed Raeon was packing and unpacking Rougle’s things. Rougle’s scouts were in disarray, rudderless, and admitting it. Raeon said he kept seeing in his mind Rougle’s face alert and then dead, switching back and forth; he wanted it to stop.

The next day brought another brief firefight, and Rougle’s scouts rallied swiftly. They said they felt him watching and proud. There were more bomb drops and refusals to drop bombs, and then Becky, everyone’s favorite Apache pilot, swept in. Not only did she offer the comforting voice of a woman seeping right into their ears, but Becky was one of the most aggressive shooters. She flew up and down the canyon walls seeking out and rocketing insurgents. We heard them on the radio again boasting about retreating to safety under fire.
And that's it. Seven men lost and no progress whatsoever, just a lot of blood and pain. No resolution.

This article does call into question how we're supposed to win over the hearts and minds of reclusive, clannish, and impoverished people who live by the blood feud. There are no easy answers here, but it is clear that the entire burden of this war, particularly this part of the two fronts we are maintaining, has fallen on small groups of soldiers. The men of Kearney's unit had been in almost constant combat for 15 months and several were stop-lossed. That is unconscionable. Even the jungle combat of World War II contains few examples of men kept on the line for more than a month before being relieved and sent rear-ward for rest and recuperation. Months ago I read an article about the ground-breaking psychological studies of men in combat during World War II and recall reading that the motto became "Every Man Has His Breaking Point." These men are clearly at their breaking point and not only they, but innocent civilians, will suffer. There is no excuse to place such a burden on such a small number of people.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Touting Torture - Waterboarding and the Ethically Impermissible

The Department of Justice took out the trash on Friday, February 22nd, and dumped a little tidbit into a news cycle which perhaps it hoped would be missed between accounts of Britney's child visitation woes and Hillary's increasingly desperate attacks on Obama.

The New York Times reported Friday that the DOJ's internal ethics office is investigating the origins of the infamous Torture Memo which led to the equally infamous waterboarding and torture of terrorism suspects by the CIA.

H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility (who knew they had one?) responded to a letter from Senator Durbin of Illinois, and Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island:

the legal advice approving waterboarding was one subject of an investigation into “the circumstances surrounding the drafting” of a Justice legal memorandum dated Aug. 1, 2002.

The document declared that interrogation methods were not torture unless they produced pain equivalent to that produced by organ failure or death. The memorandum, drafted by a Justice Department lawyer, John Yoo, and signed by Jay S. Bybee, then head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, was withdrawn in 2004.

Mr. Jarrett said the investigation was also covering “related” legal memorandums prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel since 2002. That suggested the investigation would address still-secret legal opinions written in 2005 by Steven G. Bradbury, then and now the acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, that gave legal approval for waterboarding and other tough methods, even when used in combination.

Mr. Jarrett said his office was “examining whether the legal advice in these memoranda was consistent with the professional standards that apply to Department of Justice attorneys.”

“Because of the significant public interest in this matter, O.P.R. will consider releasing to Congress and the public a nonclassified summary of our final report,” Mr. Jarrett wrote, using the initials for the Office of Professional Responsibility.

Justice Department officials said that the O.P.R. inquiry began more than three years ago and noted that it was mentioned in a Newsweek article in December 2004. It has since been expanded, the officials said, to cover more recent legal opinions on interrogation.

Mr. Jarrett’s letter, dated Monday, came in reply to a Feb. 12 letter from Mr. Durbin and Mr. Whitehouse to him and the Justice Department’s inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, seeking an investigation into the department’s legal approval of waterboarding.

“Despite the virtually unanimous consensus of legal scholars and the overwhelming weight of legal precedent that waterboarding is illegal,” the senators wrote, “certain Justice Department officials, operating behind a veil of secrecy, concluded that the use of waterboarding is lawful. We believe it is appropriate for you to investigate the conduct of these Justice Department officials.”

According to a Washington Post article
The memo was formally withdrawn in 2004 by Jack L. Goldsmith, who succeeded Bybee as head of OLC. Goldsmith concluded that legal opinions on the NSA program, torture and other issues were fundamentally flawed and told the Senate last year that the memos created "a legal mess."

Two other Justice memos that are known to have dealt with waterboarding and harsh tactics are still-secret opinions penned in 2005 by Steven G. Bradbury, who is currently the acting OLC chief. Administration officials have said those opinions authorized a number of techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and head-slapping.
Proving once and for all that crappy research skills and a willingness to overlook teeny-tiny ethical issues like whether coerced confessions violate the very basis of our system of justice don't necessarily pose an impediment to the ambitious and well-connected young persecutor prosecutor, it should be noted that John Yoo is a law professor at the University of California Berkeley College of Law and his co-conspirator former boss, Jay S. Bybee is now a federal judge sitting on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Yes, both men are examples of how those who disregard and flout the highest standards of the legal profession are punished rewarded for their perfidy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The New GI Bill - Webb Proposes and the Pentagon Opposes

In the last two days there have been two broadcasts featuring Senator Jim Webb's proposed S.22, the Bill to amend the GI Bill to provide for payment of the education costs of our returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

The Bush Administration, which is long on yellow car magnets but short on actual substantive relief such as longer dwell times, appears to be compounding its neglect of our returning veterans by refusing to support Senator Jim Webb's New GI Bill, which provides for tuition and stipends for our returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to attend the four year colleges of their choice.

Last week we heard testimony by Admiral Mullen and SecDef Gates before the Senate on the Administration's latest defense appropriations requests. To their credit both Mullen and Gates told Senator Webb that they did not understand the Pentagon's apparent opposition to his Bill. Mullen said "we need to take care of these people from the moment they are recruited for as long as they are in the system" and Gates said he had attended Georgetown on the GI Bill after his Air Force Service.

Yesterday the educational problems of returning veterans and the benefits of the New GI Bill were featured on The News Hour on PBS. Here is the link to the story: The shocking thing was the opposition of the Pentagon spokesman, who appeared to be concerned only with whether the GI Bill was necessary in order to promote retention. In fact, the Pentagon apparently takes the position that the GI Bill will affect retention, and therefore opposes it. This is an unconscionable, selfish argument.

Senator Webb appeared this morning on C-Span's Washington Journal to discuss the legislation. The link is

Just hit the link to the February 13, 2008 complete program and scroll through to about 1:31:35 to pick up Senator Webb's interview and discussion of his press conference on the issue. He discussed the combined veterans groups supporting the legislation, the faults of the Montgomery GI Bill, which was intended to be a recruitment tool, and compared it to the types of benefits returning World War II veterans received. He talked about the difficulty of obtaining good figures, but said it should cost about $2 billion per year. Every dollar that went into the WWII GI Bill was repaid seven times over. Secondly, it's the type of program which will increase military recruitment.

Would everyone get the same benefits? In the sense that it's the same as WWII. The payments are capped at the maximum that a state school would charge, and members of the National Guard and Reserve would be eligible. There are two steps for the NG and Reserve. The first would give benefits even if deployed for a short amount of time, but if they should serve more time overseas then the second step would be that they become eligible for the full scope of benefits just as the regular Army would be.

Senator Webb received overwhelming support from callers, several of whom talked of their own experiences with the GI Bill. Senator Webb made a point of discussing the disruption to National Guard and Reserve troops who are repeatedly called away from their civilian lives and suffer from serious delays in obtaining education.

The issue of mental health and veterans' suicides also came up. Senator Webb pointed to the repeated deployments and the pressures that attend them. He saw the report on the Guard and Reserve. He points out that the young people with four year enlistments are also suffering from terrible difficulties because there is no release for them. He said we should have the right kind of professionals in place to assess PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.

Webb told one caller he did not understand why the Bill hadn't been proposed before, and called it a "pure equity issue" for people who stepped forward to serve their country in a time of need and deserved this benefit. One woman called, frustrated, and demanded to know why the Bill hadn't been proposed before and worried that it would not pass. Webb replied that if he had been in the Senate 5 years ago he would have pushed for it then. He also told her that the best thing we can do is give a veteran an affirmative view of the veteran's service. Educational benefits achieve this goal and may contribute to the mental well-being of returned veterans.

One elderly caller called the Democratic attacks on Bush "propaganda" and compared it to criticisms of Truman during Korea. Webb replied that "this President ... listened to some very bad advice and made a strategic blunder in terms of putting us in Iraq." He likes to refer to it as a double strategic mousetrap. He said "we tied up the finest military in the world and burned our people out." The second prong is that we've tied up our resources and cannot respond on a number of strategic fronts. The issue about PTSD and suicides "is real." Webb talked about knowing what it is like from personal experience for returned veterans to deal with the effects of their experiences.

He said we "should all agree on this". He said "President Bush should be the first guy to step forward and say we should give this to all the people who served." The last caller was a woman from North Carolina. She asked why our troops must stay over so long and come back and suffer from suicides. The moderator also asked him to talk about the SecDef's decision to pause the drawdown in Iraq. Webb replied that after 5 years this Administration should have been able to figure out rotational cycles which would allow 12 month deployments and appropriate dwell times. He suggested that the SecDef should listen to the commanders above Petraeus who want us to draw back our military. He called it "doable."

Complete documentation of the 21st Century GI Bill, the press release, and other materials may be found at Senator Webb's website:

FISA Freakout - Senator Webb, the Constitution, and What It All Means

Cross posted to Raising Kaine

On February 12, 2008 Senator Jim Webb issued the following statement on his vote for passage of the FISA bill:

There were a number of measures brought before the Senate today that I believed could have improved the FISA bill which passed overwhelmingly tonight. This is a complex law. It becomes imperative that we look for ways to both keep our nation safe from further terrorist attacks and ensure that our government's surveillance is conducted in a legal manner that comports with the U.S. Constitution.

"Senators Feingold, Tester and I spent two months working to construct and introduce an amendment designed to add further safeguards against Executive Branch surveillance on innocent Americans. I believe the amendment best answered the call of Americans who have been demanding a proper system of checks and balances for our government's surveillance program. Our amendment regrettably failed this afternoon.

"I also supported two amendments which sought to limit immunity for telephone companies in proper situations. These amendments would have allowed consumers to move forward with legal action in certain situations, for example where companies have acted in bad faith in aiding government surveillance. Unfortunately, both of these amendments failed as well.

"Our current FISA bill expires in two days. As someone who has decades of experience in dealing with national security matters and classified intelligence, I believed it was necessary to implement a surveillance program that provides professionals an updated set of tools to properly respond to terrorist threats. However, I plan to urge my colleagues who sit on the Senate-House conference committee to adopt House provisions that better protect Americans from Executive branch overreach.

I've been monitoring the "debate" over Jim Webb's vote on the FISA bill. Most of the commentary is along the lines of Jim Webb being a Constitution hating fascist, a "sell-out", and a craven cave-in to the Bush Administration. One commentator suggests the best solution for this problem is to harass the stuffing out of his staff by inundating him with calls designed to "change his mind." Yes, harassing phone calls, just the thing to terrorize Webb and cause him to rethink his position, admit he was wrong, and stampede him into a reversal or at best a heartfelt apology. We all know how effective hectoring phone calls can be, especially against people with reputations for pugnacity.

I would suggest on the contrary that all the Webb ranters take a deep breath and chill. Here's why:

All this crap about betrayal and turning on the Constitution is really beginning to frost my nether regions. Webb and the other Dems are stuck in the unenviable position of trying to figure out how to perform their sometimes contradictory functions of protecting the country and protecting the Constitution while dealing with a hostile President threatening veto and Republican colleagues whose numbers are sufficient to prevent overcoming any veto. Now a lot of those guys aren't even running for re-election. There's a desperation in this lame duck crowd that makes it next to impossible to push through any compromises. No one's going to respond to our Democratic Senators reaching across the aisle. They'd rather have their vetoes and their filibusters and when some bad consequence occurs they'll point to the Dems and say "see what you made us do." The Senate Dems are playing with a bunch that has nothing left to lose, dangerous and obfuscatory opponents.

I've seen comments ridiculing the notion that there is a real and present danger to this country posed by terrorists or other criminal types. Webb happens to disagree. Maybe they're right. Maybe he is. He believes, based on his vast experience in the military, in the Defense Department, and on his career as a strategic thinker, journalist, and author that terrorist communications pose a serious threat to this country. Even the naysayers would agree he owes a duty of protection to this country.

Webb also owes a duty to uphold the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Contrary to the suggestions of some in this forum he hasn't torched the Constitution. I checked his website and couldn't find a single invitation to the Constitution-burning at the National Archives this evening. What he HAS done, apparently against his own inclinations, is agree to allow for retroactive immunity for telecoms on their past actions in responding to the overreaching requests of the Executive Branch. He makes it clear in his statement that he did it, not because he wants to abolish the Constitution and destroy the Bill of Rights, but because the time to act was down to two days and he feared the consequence of failing to pass the legislation. It's possible he was wrong, that he weighs too much his duty to protect the country against his duty to uphold the protections of the Bill of Rights, but when we elected him we elected his brain and his experience and we understood that sometimes his sense of the balance between the competing interests might differ from ours.

There are those who are angry that the telecoms will be immune from consequence for their violations of this law. Fair enough. I hate to see law violators absolved of liability. But let us not kid ourselves. There is no purity or consistency in the application of the law. There are times when the competing interests raise their ugly heads and what is right and fair gives way to what is practical and to a certain extent also right. Where do all the naysayers think qualified immunity for public servants comes from? How about sovereign immunity? The law is replete with immunities and qualifications and limitations on liability for untoward behavior. Some of this behavior has a direct bearing on constitutional rights, but along the way courts and/or legislatures made the determination that competing interests outweighed the constitutional considerations. Added to the mix is that the behavior is all past, not ongoing or current, that the laws are still in effect, and that it's clear that the type of behavior the telecoms were engaging in a few years ago would never pass muster today. Usually when a pass is granted a wrongdoer he's placed on notice that future wrongdoing will not be tolerated or excused. There will be no "following orders" defense.

And let us consider this: there is NO absolute right to anything under the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. ALL of them are considered to be subject to competing interests. The law is riddled with exceptions and qualifications and parsing of meaning.

Two other points should be considered by the Webb-bashers: a) the legislation comes up for review again in six months; and b) he is hoping to achieve better Constitutional protections during the Senate-House Conference committee meetings. Instead of burning his telephone lines with angry and pointless attacks, perhaps people's energies would be better expended in encouraging his colleagues to go along with him and the House version. Senator Webb is not the enemy here. Let's let him do his job.