Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Bergdahl Is Questioned In Army Probe

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Army investigators questioned Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for the first time Wednesday in the Pentagon’s probe of his 2009 disappearance in Afghanistan, subsequent capture, and nearly five years in Taliban captivity.

Bergdahl’s May 31 release in exchange for five senior Taliban militants set off a political firestorm in Washington, with mainly Republican lawmakers accusing President Barack Obama of negotiating with terrorists to secure Bergdahl’s freedom.

The nation’s top military commanders backed the deal, saying it fulfilled the commitment never to leave a fallen warrior behind enemy lines. Some former soldiers who served with Bergdahl said he’d walked away from his post in a remote section of eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.

Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, head of the probe, and his aides interviewed Bergdahl at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Bergdahl was accompanied by his civilian lawyer, Yale University law lecturer Eugene Fidell, and an Army lawyer, Capt. Alfredo Foster.

Fidell said the interview lasted from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a lunch break. Fidell said he thought the interview would be finished after two or three more hours Thursday.

“It was about as stress-free as possible,” Fidell told McClatchy late Wednesday. “It was not an interrogation.”

Bergdahl was read his Article 31 warnings — the equivalent of Miranda rights in a civilian judicial process — and he waived his right to remain silent, Fidell said.

Fidell declined to respond directly when asked if Dahl had asked Bergdahl about how he came to leave his base in eastern Afghanistan before he found himself in Taliban custody. “I’m not going to get into any of the questions or details,” Fidell said. But he expressed confidence that Bergdahl won’t face prison time even if he is found to have gone AWOL or deserted his post.

“It would be very strange if Sgt. Bergdahl, having endured five years of captivity by the Taliban, were to be sent to jail,” Fidell said. “I don’t think this country is ready to do that, and I don’t think the Army is ready to do that.”

Photographs from the interview session, taken and released by Fidell, show Bergdahl appearing healthy and wearing a khaki-green civilian shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

Army officials have said that if found to have deserted, Bergdahl could lose tens of thousands of dollars in back pay held in escrow during his captivity.

The Army did a preliminary investigation in 2009 after Bergdahl went missing from his base, but it suspended it because he could not be interviewed while in captivity. Some soldiers claim that U.S. service members died searching for him, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a contentious June 11 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee that he knew of no such fatalities.

Bergdahl, 28, was released by Taliban fighters to U.S. special forces commandos in Afghanistan during a tense exchange captured in a video clip that went viral when the Islamic insurgents posted it online. After Bergdahl was secure, the United States freed five Taliban from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bergdahl was flown to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, treated and debriefed there for 12 days, and then flown to Joint Base San Antonio. Following more than a month of treatment and what the Army calls “reintegration” at San Antonio Medical Center, Bergdahl received a new active-duty desk assignment July 14 at U.S. Army North headquarters at the base.

Michael Doyle of the Washington Bureau contributed.

AFP Photo

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Five Years After ‘Appalachian Trail’ Scandal, Sanford Rises From Political Dead

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — During a break in the recent congressional session, Mark Sanford sidled up to his pal Mick Mulvaney and sat next to him on a back bench in the ornate chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Cheshire cat’s grin on his lean face.

When Mulvaney made Sanford wait a few moments in silence, the former South Carolina governor couldn’t help himself.

“Notice anything different?” Sanford asked.

Mulvaney panned Sanford up and down, then exclaimed with exaggerated surprise:

“Marshal Sanford, you’ve bought yourself a new suit!”

The notoriously skinflint Sanford, a man of considerable means who wore a sports coat with an open-neck shirt to his own gubernatorial inauguration ball, couldn’t help himself.

“Paid $129 for it,” he said.

For Mulvaney and other Sanford friends, the new suit is a small but telling sign that he’s been, as he claims, humbled by the spectacular fall he took from the edge of national political power thanks to a sexy Argentine mistress, a tearful confession to the extramarital affair on national television, and a claim in subsequent days that he’d met his “soul mate.”

Sanford, who noted several times in a recent interview that he’s the only former governor in the House, no longer insists on doing everything his way and only his way. The onetime loner now watches college football games on Saturdays with other lawmakers. In his hometown of Charleston, S.C., and in the surrounding 1st Congressional District, he lingers with constituents, trades small talk, and shows interest in their families and their lives.

All this might not be newsworthy, save for one bizarre interlude in Sanford’s past: Five years ago, while serving as governor, he abruptly disappeared.

For six days, no one — not his wife or four sons, not his aides, not the Statehouse reporters who covered his every move — knew where he was. His chief of staff left 15 unanswered messages on his cellphone. His spokesman told baffled reporters that he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Fellow Republicans said his absence was irresponsible.

In just a few days, the odd case of the missing governor became a huge news story.

Finally, on June 24, 2009, Sanford resurfaced. Political reporter Gina Smith, acting on a tip that The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., had received, was waiting for him at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport when he got off a flight from Buenos Aires.

Sanford told Smith that he’d been in Argentina and, at a nationally televised news conference later that day, he admitted to the affair.
He resigned as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association — a post many assumed he’d use as a steppingstone to a White House run — but served out his term as governor into January 2011, despite calls for his resignation.

Disgraced and discredited, Sanford disappeared again; this time, most observers thought, for good. But again Sanford surprised everyone, joining Congress in May 2013 via a special election.

Sanford’s rise from the political dead was made possible by a fluke. When South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint abruptly retired in January 2013 to take over the Heritage Foundation, Washington’s leading conservative think tank, Gov. Nikki Haley promoted then-Rep. Tim Scott to replace him in the Senate, forcing a special election for Scott’s House seat.

It happened to be the same Charleston-based seat Sanford had held for six years in the 1990s before he left Congress to fulfill a term-limit pledge.

Mulvaney, who was a state legislator for the second half of Sanford’s stint as governor from January 2003 to January 2011, backed another candidate in last year’s crowded Republican primary for that election.

Mulvaney thought that the whole sordid scandal surrounding Sanford would become a debacle for Republicans should the former governor rejoin Congress. His fears deepened after Sanford dropped by the home of his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, to watch the Super Bowl with his son and she charged him with trespassing.

That dust-up led the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull its ads and other support from Sanford’s race.

“The last thing I wanted was for Mark Sanford to be the face of the Republican Party,” Mulvaney told McClatchy.

But since Sanford emerged from a crowded Republican primary, easily won the general election and came to Washington last year, Mulvaney has been pleasantly surprised.

“He has focused on issues. He hasn’t made himself into a spectacle. He’s working on his committees,” Mulvaney said. “He’s trying really hard to do something that does not come naturally to him: putting time into personal relationships.”
___

When former President Ronald Reagan, an iconic figure to conservatives, died in 2004, South Carolina state Sen. John Courson delivered the eulogy at a memorial service in Columbia, the capital. He’d been a delegate for Reagan at three presidential conventions.

With Sanford, governor for less than 18 months, sitting in the front row, Courson told the mourners that their tall and lean chief executive with the conservative views was Reaganesque and could one day become president. But over the next half-dozen years, as Courson experienced Sanford’s aloofness and perennial tangling with legislators, his view changed.

As deeply conservative as Reagan was, he was willing to accept three-quarters of what he wanted and call it a victory. Sanford rarely bent, and he lambasted his peers even when they were willing to give him 90 percent of his agenda. He also seemed to relish the confrontation.

As governor, Sanford once took piglets into the Statehouse lobby between the South Carolina House and Senate chambers to illustrate wasteful spending, infuriating fellow Republican legislators who saw themselves as frugal. Now, back in Washington, Sanford is trying to keep a low profile and steer clear of anything that might smack of a flamboyant stunt. He’s largely succeeded, save for the time last July when an unexpected House vote forced him to make a mad dash from the National Mall, where he’d been jogging, to cast his ballots wearing shorts, a T-shirt, gym socks, and sneakers.

His former mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, is now his fiancee. The onetime Argentine TV reporter set off a hundred camera flashes last year when she showed up at Sanford’s side in Charleston for primary and general election victory bashes.

“When we’re together, we live together,” Chapur told a Buenos Aires TV station in a rare interview. “Partly in Washington, partly in Charleston.”

Despite the difficulties, Chapur said she was happy being with the congressman.

Saying he’s been “saved by my God,” Sanford is doing a yearlong devotional, each day reading an inspirational religious reflection in a book called “Streams in the Desert.” He often quotes Bible passages. A favorite is Matthew 7:1-2, which says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measures you use, it will be measured to you.”

“I spend a lot less time these days casting judgments on others,” Sanford said. “There is some tempering of any human soul if you go through a big storm, and I went through a big storm in 2009.”

Five years later, South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis views Sanford’s resurrection of a political career that many had given up for dead as a peculiarly American morality tale. Davis, who was the chief of staff for Sanford when he was governor and remains a close friend, said Sanford won election to Congress because his constituents believed that he was deeply sorry for his past personal failings.

“The American people are forgiving people,” Davis told McClatchy. “They want true contrition and true atonement.”

Gina Smith of the Island Packet in Hilton Head, S.C., contributed to this report.

Photo: Abaca Press/MCT/Olivier Douliery

Interested in U.S. politics? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

CIA’s Former Top Lawyer Fires Back At Senate Report, Criticizes Feinstein

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The CIA’s former top lawyer disputes Senate findings that the spy agency lied about its brutal interrogations of terrorists, insisting the tactics produced useful intelligence and flatly denying that the CIA misled the Bush administration, Congress and the American public.

At the same time, John Rizzo, who left the CIA as acting general counsel in 2009, said some CIA employees or contractors were overzealous in the use of the tactics but that the CIA informed lawyers at the Justice Department of the excesses.

Rizzo was responsible for helping to create the legal foundation for permitting waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and other aggressive methods he says were used on 30 people held at secret “black sites” around the world.

In his first extensive interview since McClatchy published the 20 key findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report last week, Rizzo strongly denied the panel’s conclusion that the 10 so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which he acknowledged were brutal, had failed to produce significant intelligence or to prevent more terrorist attacks.

“This program went on for six years,” Rizzo told McClatchy earlier this week. “And I watched daily — every night there was a meeting in those early years at 5 o’clock. It was chaired by the CIA director, George Tenet. And every night, during the course of those briefings, the career CIA analysts and operatives would sit there and recite the information that had been acquired from these detainees. I mean on a daily basis. I’m not an analyst or an operative, but I’m not stupid, and I sat there and listened to this relentlessly.”

Rizzo, who said he hadn’t seen the Senate report but only the published accounts of it, noted that some of the CIA officers and analysts providing updates on the interrogation sessions “were not generally enamored of the Bush administration” and thus weren’t inclined to exaggerate the interrogation program’s effectiveness.

“I was convinced that these techniques were yielding detailed, valuable information into terrorist plots,” Rizzo said. “Now was there ever a ticking time-bomb scenario? I don’t remember a particular (case of): ‘Tomorrow, LAX (airport) is going to blow up,’ but it was incremental and it was steady. And I became convinced just by listening to these career people that the program was yielding very, very valuable benefits.”

Rizzo’s central involvement in crafting the interrogation techniques led Senate Democrats to block his confirmation as CIA general counsel in 2007. He then served as acting general counsel until retiring in October 2009.

Rizzo’s comments mark the first detailed response from a current or former CIA official to the Senate report, which took four years to complete at a taxpayer cost of $40 million.

With Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama claiming to have protected the homeland from follow-on terrorist attacks to the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, the escalating fight between the Senate and the CIA raises an important question:

Did the aggressive interrogation techniques, which some current and former U.S. officials and foreign governments say constituted torture, help protect Americans?

Obama formally ended use of the tough interrogation methods within days of taking office in January 2009. Their use had subsided and several of the harsh methods had been abandoned in 2006, after Justice Department opinions justifying them were made public and U.S. abuses of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused an international uproar.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, hasn’t released the 6,300-page report on her aides’ review of the interrogation program. The committee voted to send the report, its executive summary and the findings to the White House for declassification.

Rizzo, who last year published memoirs called Company Man in which he described the birth and development of the detainee interrogations, also rebutted the Senate report’s conclusion that “the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program,” according to a McClatchy article last week.

“It’s just false,” Rizzo said of the finding. “If the implication is that — and it has to be directed at me — that I purposely misled the Department of Justice about what the techniques were and how they were being implemented, I absolutely reject that.”

Rizzo, who’s likely to be named in the Senate’s investigative report, said it was his idea to seek legal justification for the interrogation program — and to make sure it didn’t violate U.S. and international anti-torture laws and conventions — by asking the Justice Department to provide detailed legal memos.

Three of the Justice Department memos, drafted by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, sparked widespread controversy when they were released between 2004 and 2008 because of their detailed descriptions of the approved interrogation techniques, among them waterboarding — which simulates drowning — prolonged sleep deprivation, wall standing, facial hold, insult slap and cramped confinement in a box.

“I understand why the public found those memos shocking because they ARE explicit,” Rizzo said. “But that’s the way I wanted them to be, so that there would be no misunderstanding about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.”

Rizzo’s response to the Senate report is likely to further exacerbate already high tensions between the CIA and the main Senate committee charged with overseeing it under a broad constitutional mandate.

Feinstein (D-CA) has accused the CIA of monitoring the committee’s computers and possibly impeding its investigation by removing digital documents her aides had identified. The agency, in turn, said Feinstein’s staff removed unauthorized documents from a secret CIA facility. Both sets of charges have been referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation.

In a passionate 45-minute speech on the Senate floor last month, Feinstein said the CIA may have broken the law and even violated the Constitution by infiltrating her aides’ computers and obstructing a Senate oversight investigation.

For his part, Rizzo partially agreed with another key finding of the Senate probe: “The CIA subjected detainees to interrogation techniques that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA headquarters.”

Rizzo acknowledged there were excesses that went beyond the 10 enhanced interrogation techniques he’d vetted within the CIA and then cleared with the Justice Department.

“There were incidents when CIA interrogators went beyond the authorized techniques. So I’m not denying that,” he said. “It didn’t occur frequently, but it did occur. But the point is, each time that was done and discovered, CIA reported it to the Department of Justice because anything that was beyond the authorized scope of the techniques was potentially a criminal violation. … So that conclusion (of the committee) is actually accurate. But if the idea is that we covered this up, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Soon after ending the program in 2009, Obama said CIA officials or agents who had acted “within the four corners of legal opinions or guidance” they’d received on the detainee interrogation program would not be prosecuted. But he said “those who formulated those legal decisions” could have their cases reviewed by Attorney General Eric Holder. Five years later, there have been no prosecutions for the harsh interrogations, even those that Rizzo acknowledges went over the line.

While saying he respects Feinstein as a “serious person” who’s been a strong defender of national security programs, Rizzo criticized the senator and her aides for having failed to interview him or his former colleagues before completing the report and sending it to the White House.

Rizzo said he took the claims that he and his colleagues had withheld important information about the interrogation program from the Justice Department as a personal and professional slight.

“Here they are making an accusation about my honor and my integrity, without the basic fairness of giving me an opportunity to explain and defend myself,” he said. “I just think that’s unconscionable.”

Rizzo said he and other former senior CIA officials who were centrally involved with developing and overseeing the harsh interrogations would have been more than willing to discuss them with Senate investigators.

“There are probably two dozen senior CIA people that were heavily involved in this program, who are retired,” he said. “I’ve talked to a number of them. I can tell you, a good many of them would have welcomed the opportunity to be interviewed. And none of them (were) — nobody.”

Rizzo, who worked at the CIA as a lawyer for 34 years before his retirement, said the Senate Intelligence Committee’s approach differed substantially from earlier congressional probes into controversial CIA programs such as the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.

He also noted that those previous probes had produced bipartisan reports in which Republican and Democratic lawmakers stood behind the findings.

In the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of the enhanced interrogation program, by contrast, the panel’s Republican members bowed out four months into the investigation.

“When the CIA was criticized in those other investigations, it was on a bipartisan basis,” Rizzo said. “That’s not the case here. This is strictly a political exercise by the Democratic side of the Intelligence Committee to castigate a Bush-era program.”

Rizzo said Feinstein’s concern that the CIA would decide which portions of the massive report should be declassified, which she expressed last week in a letter to Obama, was misplaced.

“I’ve been through a number of CIA declassification exercises of congressional reports in my time,” Rizzo said. “And what happens is, CIA takes its cut — what they think should be redacted. It is then sent over to the White House with CIA’s explanations: ‘We think this paragraph discloses secrets.’ But the president is the declassifier in chief. So I understand the concern about CIA getting to censor (a review of) its own conduct, but in the real world, it doesn’t operate that way. … The CIA does not have the final word. The president of the United States has the final word.”

When the declassification is complete and the inevitable public outcry ensues, Rizzo views it as a fulfillment of a prophetic warning he issued in November 2002, shortly after the harsh interrogations had started being used on terror detainees.

Speaking at an American Bar Association forum in Washington on the law and national security, he said: “We at CIA have to be careful what we wish for. The agency has gotten all the authorities it has requested, but I wonder what will happen if something goes awry. The pendulum is bound to swing back, and today’s era of political consensus for increased intelligence authorities will come to an end sometime in the future. It will be good for the country when the terrorist threat is perceived to be less, but it could be bad for the CIA.”

Sipping from a glass of white wine at a Georgetown lounge all these years later, Rizzo boiled down his prophecy.

“In a way, the CIA is a victim of its success at keeping the country safe,” he said.

Photo: Molly Riley/MCT

CIA’s Former Top Lawyer Fires Back At Senate Report, Criticizes Feinstein

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The CIA’s former top lawyer disputes Senate findings that the spy agency lied about its brutal interrogations of terrorists, insisting the tactics produced useful intelligence and flatly denying that the CIA misled the Bush administration, Congress and the American public.

At the same time, John Rizzo, who left the CIA as acting general counsel in 2009, said some CIA employees or contractors were overzealous in the use of the tactics but that the CIA informed lawyers at the Justice Department of the excesses.

Rizzo was responsible for helping to create the legal foundation for permitting waterboarding, extreme sleep deprivation and other aggressive methods he says were used on 30 people held at secret “black sites” around the world.

In his first extensive interview since McClatchy published the 20 key findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee report last week, Rizzo strongly denied the panel’s conclusion that the 10 so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which he acknowledged were brutal, had failed to produce significant intelligence or to prevent more terrorist attacks.

“This program went on for six years,” Rizzo told McClatchy earlier this week. “And I watched daily — every night there was a meeting in those early years at 5 o’clock. It was chaired by the CIA director, George Tenet. And every night, during the course of those briefings, the career CIA analysts and operatives would sit there and recite the information that had been acquired from these detainees. I mean on a daily basis. I’m not an analyst or an operative, but I’m not stupid, and I sat there and listened to this relentlessly.”

Rizzo, who said he hadn’t seen the Senate report but only the published accounts of it, noted that some of the CIA officers and analysts providing updates on the interrogation sessions “were not generally enamored of the Bush administration” and thus weren’t inclined to exaggerate the interrogation program’s effectiveness.

“I was convinced that these techniques were yielding detailed, valuable information into terrorist plots,” Rizzo said. “Now was there ever a ticking time-bomb scenario? I don’t remember a particular (case of): ‘Tomorrow, LAX (airport) is going to blow up,’ but it was incremental and it was steady. And I became convinced just by listening to these career people that the program was yielding very, very valuable benefits.”

Rizzo’s central involvement in crafting the interrogation techniques led Senate Democrats to block his confirmation as CIA general counsel in 2007. He then served as acting general counsel until retiring in October 2009.

Rizzo’s comments mark the first detailed response from a current or former CIA official to the Senate report, which took four years to complete at a taxpayer cost of $40 million.

With Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama claiming to have protected the homeland from follow-on terrorist attacks to the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, the escalating fight between the Senate and the CIA raises an important question:

Did the aggressive interrogation techniques, which some current and former U.S. officials and foreign governments say constituted torture, help protect Americans?

Obama formally ended use of the tough interrogation methods within days of taking office in January 2009. Their use had subsided and several of the harsh methods had been abandoned in 2006, after Justice Department opinions justifying them were made public and U.S. abuses of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused an international uproar.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, hasn’t released the 6,300-page report on her aides’ review of the interrogation program. The committee voted to send the report, its executive summary and the findings to the White House for declassification.

Rizzo, who last year published memoirs called “Company Man” in which he described the birth and development of the detainee interrogations, also rebutted the Senate report’s conclusion that “the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program,” according to a McClatchy article last week.

“It’s just false,” Rizzo said of the finding. “If the implication is that — and it has to be directed at me — that I purposely misled the Department of Justice about what the techniques were and how they were being implemented, I absolutely reject that.”

Rizzo, who’s likely to be named in the Senate’s investigative report, said it was his idea to seek legal justification for the interrogation program — and to make sure it didn’t violate U.S. and international anti-torture laws and conventions — by asking the Justice Department to provide detailed legal memos.

Three of the Justice Department memos, drafted by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, sparked widespread controversy when they were released between 2004 and 2008 because of their detailed descriptions of the approved interrogation techniques, among them waterboarding — which simulates drowning — prolonged sleep deprivation, wall standing, facial hold, insult slap and cramped confinement in a box.

“I understand why the public found those memos shocking because they ARE explicit,” Rizzo said. “But that’s the way I wanted them to be, so that there would be no misunderstanding about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.”

Rizzo’s response to the Senate report is likely to further exacerbate already high tensions between the CIA and the main Senate committee charged with overseeing it under a broad constitutional mandate.

Feinstein, D-Calif., has accused the CIA of monitoring the committee’s computers and possibly impeding its investigation by removing digital documents her aides had identified. The agency, in turn, said Feinstein’s staff removed unauthorized documents from a secret CIA facility. Both sets of charges have been referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation.

In a passionate 45-minute speech on the Senate floor last month, Feinstein said the CIA may have broken the law and even violated the Constitution by infiltrating her aides’ computers and obstructing a Senate oversight investigation.

For his part, Rizzo partially agreed with another key finding of the Senate probe: “The CIA subjected detainees to interrogation techniques that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA headquarters.”

Rizzo acknowledged there were excesses that went beyond the 10 enhanced interrogation techniques he’d vetted within the CIA and then cleared with the Justice Department.

“There were incidents when CIA interrogators went beyond the authorized techniques. So I’m not denying that,” he said. “It didn’t occur frequently, but it did occur. But the point is, each time that was done and discovered, CIA reported it to the Department of Justice because anything that was beyond the authorized scope of the techniques was potentially a criminal violation. … So that conclusion (of the committee) is actually accurate. But if the idea is that we covered this up, nothing could be further from the truth.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Veterans Demand Action To Address Suicide Spike In Their Ranks

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Former Marine Corporal Tyler Tannahill left his home in Overland Park, Kansas, to spend this week lobbying lawmakers in Washington to honor four fellow Marines who served alongside him in Iraq and Afghanistan, but who took their own lives.

Retired Navy Commander Jeff Hensley, a jet fighter pilot in Iraq, joined the “Storm the Hill” mission to help the suicidal veterans who seek treatment at the equine therapy center he runs in Frisco, Texas.

The two men accompanied dozens of other veterans from the nation’s two post-9/11 wars for a push to get Congress and President Barack Obama to take more aggressive steps to counter a historically high suicide rate in their ranks.

“Veterans’ suicide rate has been increasing at an alarming pace over the course of the more than 12 years of these wars,” Hensley told McClatchy. “We feel like it’s time to do something about it.”

With 22 veterans a day taking their lives, according to projections by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the former Iraq and Afghanistan troops met with more than 100 lawmakers on Capitol Hill, attended sessions with senior officials at the Pentagon, the White House and the VA, and participated in mental health panels.

In the unseasonal cold of an early spring morning Thursday, with patches of snow still dotting the grass, the group planted more than 1,800 miniature flags on the National Mall to symbolize the number of veterans believed to have taken their own lives this year alone.

While not all of the suicide victims fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, veterans of those conflicts say that the nature of the two wars, the multiple deployments required by a volunteer force and the rough transitions to a still-uncertain civilian economy have made such tragedies more frequent.

“There are no real defined battle lines,” Tannahill said, describing the kind of battlefield that many veterans experienced. “There’s no front. There are no World War II-type enemies in front of us (or who) hold the ground behind us. So there are constant threats all around you. It’s a high-stress environment throughout the entire theater. And the longer you’re exposed to those high stresses, the more deployments you go on, the greater the odds that you’re going to have difficult personal issues.”

The problems have been exacerbated by the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, which have sent large numbers of mainly young vets back home in a shorter period of time, putting extreme pressure on the VA’s health care system.

In addition, technological advances in military armor, tanks and other equipment, and battlefield treatment have led to more veterans surviving serious wounds that would have been fatal in earlier conflicts. And while that’s been a benefit, recovery from those wounds can be long, painful and life-changing.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that his department is taking steps to reduce the overuse of OxyContin and other painkillers, which has been linked to suicides among veterans.

“We work this hard,” Shinseki said. “Our philosophy is that one (suicide) is too many. And every one is a tragedy.”

Derek Bennett, chief of staff with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a 170,000-member advocacy group, said in an interview that the VA has 1,000 funded but unfilled positions for therapists and other mental health counselors. Shinseki, however, said the agency has added 2,400 mental health providers in the last two years, though he acknowledged that it is having trouble recruiting analysts for some posts.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which organized the lobbying week, wants Obama to issue an executive order creating a post for one person to spearhead suicide-prevention efforts across the government.

The group is also seeking support for legislation that it’s drafting to increase the number of mental health providers for veterans, cut down on wait times for treatment at VA hospitals and clinics, and provide more coverage for private care. The measure also would include provisions to close frequent gaps between treatment that active-duty service members receive under Defense Department programs and their VA care when they return to civilian life.

On Thursday, Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, a retired Army general who earned a Bronze Star while leading an infantry battalion in Iraq, introduced the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, which incorporates most of the aims sought by the advocacy organization.

“Far too often, we’re leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone, and the crisis of veteran suicide now claims 22 of our finest men and women every single day,” Walsh said in a statement about his legislation. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives.”

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was among the key lawmakers who met with Tannahill and other members of “Team Charlie” on Wednesday, one of eight lobbying squads of veterans that fanned out across Capitol Hill for two days.

“The men and women of our armed services risk their lives to protect us, and they deserve nothing but the best support and health care when they return home,” Smith told McClatchy. “The rate of suicides among returning active-duty troops and veterans is unacceptable.”

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers are still grappling with the scope of a “heartbreaking” challenge with multiple causes and no easy fixes.

“This is a complex problem, one that is not fully understood despite all the resources we have devoted to ending military suicide,” said McKeon, who met with some of the veterans this week.

Hensley, after completing his combat in Iraq and retiring from the Navy, came home determined to help the former service members that he’d seen struggle with emotional problems during service and afterward.

He received a master’s degree in mental health counseling from the University of North Texas in Denton, then opened Equest in Wylie, Texas, a therapy center at which distressed vets ride and care for horses as part of their treatment.

Cosmic Smudge via Flickr

Higher Jobless Rates Reported For Iraq, Afghanistan Vets

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Military veterans are having better luck finding jobs, outpacing their civilian counterparts in many states, but younger former troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan still lag behind.

Veterans in North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky are faring relatively well, while those in California, Idaho and Mississippi are having less success finding jobs.

Nationwide, the average unemployment rate last year for all veterans was 6.6 percent vs. 7.3 percent for the country as a whole, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, 9 percent of military personnel who served since the Sept. 11, 2011, terror attacks were without jobs, and in that group the unemployment rate leaps to 21.4 percent among veterans 18-24 years old.

Jim Reed, who grew up poor on an Arizona cattle ranch and now lives in Pinehurst, NC, served nine deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as a military nurse anesthetist. Now 48, he retired from the Army in 2011.

Despite his skills and background, Reed has been laid off from hospitals twice since leaving the military, most recently in December. He’s currently working about half-time pulling temporary shifts in his specialty.

“I risked my life routinely over there (in the two wars),” Reed told McClatchy on Thursday. “I was a lieutenant colonel in the Army with tons of experience and boatloads of combat experience. I thought that might give me some advantage, but it hasn’t because people don’t understand the military.”

Rosalinda Maury, research director with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, said veterans who are women or belong to ethnic minorities also face more difficulties finding work.

“Age is a big thing,” Maury said. “We know that younger veterans have a higher unemployment rate compared to their non-veteran counterparts. Gender and race are factors as well.”

Dan Goldenberg is executive director of the Call of Duty Endowment, a Los Angeles-based group that funds nonprofit programs to help veterans find jobs.

“There’s no question that vets make great employees, and over the long haul they do well,” he said. “The problem is with the post-9/11 vets. It’s these young vets who are suffering. They ostensibly have more skills than their civilian peers, yet their unemployment rate is higher.”

The problem will get worse, Goldenberg said, if the Pentagon follows through on its plans to cut the Army by 80,000 and reduce the Marine Corps by 20,000.

Frederick Wellman, a former senior aide to retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former top military commander in Iraq, is now CEO of Scoutcomms, a Fredericksburg, VA, firm that works with businesses and nonprofit groups to develop employment programs for veterans and military families.

“There has been progress, and companies are doing good things,” Wellman said. “But we still have a challenge with younger and new vets coming out of service finding employment. We need to keep our eyes on the ball and help these younger vets match their skills with jobs in their areas.”

Photo: Cosmic Smudge via Flickr

Pentagon Proposes Deep Cuts For U.S. Military Bases, But Would Spare Some

By James Rosen, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Sweeping budget and personnel cuts proposed Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would hit some military bases hard while protecting others.

With the Army targeted to lose as many as 80,000 active-duty soldiers from its current 520,000-strong force, reaching its smallest size since before World II, major installations like Fort Jackson, S.C., and Fort Hood, Texas, could be scaled back significantly.

The proposal to shrink the world’s mightiest military force comes as the United States seeks to redefine its role in the world, with the Iraq war over and U.S. combat in Afghanistan winding down. That two-front strategy, involving lengthy occupations, severely tested military capabilities. The plan also reflects the competing demands of spending restraints, national security and politics.

Eliminating two dozen A-10 attack planes at Whiteman Air Force Base near Kansas City, for example, is part of a broader move to retire all the aging Warthogs, saving the Pentagon several billion dollars. But lawmakers from Missouri and other states will certainly object.

Meanwhile, installations such as Fort Bragg, N.C.; Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Tacoma, Wash.; and Fort Campbell, Ky. would likely emerge largely unscathed from the cuts because of their specialized missions.

Hagel said he had recommended the realignment plan to President Barack Obama, who is expected to present his annual budget to Congress next week.

“This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that’s not a war-footing budget,” Hagel said.

The Pentagon plan also reflects budget pressures in Washington as partisans struggle over the proper size of government.

Obama’s aides indicated the plan would get a warm reception at the White House.

“The recommendations fit and represent a responsible, realistic approach to supporting the president’s defense strategy,” press secretary Jay Carney said.

Hagel is recommending a 1 percent pay increase for military and civilian employees to match an increase that White House aides said Obama will seek for all federal workers after a three-year wage freeze.

Despite congressional demands to cut overall Pentagon spending, lawmakers almost certainly will oppose hits on installations in their states and resist Hagel’s call for a new round of base closings.

“This is another dumb idea,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Even some Democrats who have burnished reputations as fiscal hawks responded coolly to some aspects of the spending plan for the Pentagon.

“I will be taking a hard look at its new budget proposal to make sure it still provides for the strongest national defense,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee.

McCaskill and Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, are part of a newly formed congressional coalition to save the A-10 from extinction.

Hagel, though, warned that more draconian reductions are in store if Congress allows across-the-board forced budget cuts to reappear after next year under a system called sequestration.

“Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough,” Hagel said.

The forced cuts were replaced by more targeted reductions in a two-year budget deal that Congress passed and Obama signed into law two months ago.

The plan Hagel announced Monday would restore $26 billion of the $75 billion in cuts contained in that budget deal.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, defended the new Pentagon plan.

“Under these conditions, our military leaders are doing their best to put forward a budget that provides national security,” Smith said.

Two prominent Republican governors criticized the recommendation to reduce the size of the Army National Guard from 355,000 to 335,000 by 2017, and to decrease the number of Army Reservists from 205,000 to 195,000 in the same period.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spoke to reporters after governors met with Obama at the White House.

“I hope that we’re not about to make a tragic mistake in this country by hollowing out our Guard in our states,” Perry said.

Haley said her husband has just returned from serving a year in Afghanistan as a National Guard member.

“You don’t go after the National Guard to cut,” she said. “That’s not where you go.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was deputy chief of staff for operations and training, said the Obama administration is balancing the need to cut spending after two major wars with the continuing need to keep Americans safe.

“A reduction in the size of the Army can be in line with U.S. national interests and address national security priorities,” Eaton said. “However, inherent with such reductions, risk goes up, and we owe it to our troops to mitigate that risk.”

Photo: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT