Congress puts VA on the hot seat; Hagel to hire ethics officer; USAID's Larry Sampler on negative reporting on Afg: 'don't believe it.'; Ethics: Passing and Failing 'The Washington Post Test;' and a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold
Page One: Congress turns up the heat on the VA and considers a ban on executive bonuses. The WSJ's Michael Phillips and Ben Kesling: "Congress is poised to tighten its leash on the Department of Veterans Affairs over its response to what lawmakers say are management and medical errors, just as VA facilities are flooded with a new generation of injured troops. In a rare show of bipartisanship, top members of the congressional committees that oversee the VA are increasingly frustrated with the agency in the wake of incidents ranging from a patient's death after an altercation with a nursing assistant in Louisiana to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers say these episodes reflect a lack of accountability at the 1,700 VA hospitals, clinics and other facilities.
"Congress now appears likely to impose legislative penalties on the VA. The House last week unanimously passed a bill that included a five-year ban on bonuses for senior VA executives. The Senate is considering less severe restrictions on performance pay. The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), says he plans to introduce a measure this week that would make it easier to fire or demote hospital directors and other executives whose performance falls short."
Says Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the top Democrat on the House VA committee to the Journal: "VA needs to more directly and explicitly measure each leader's contribution... If they do not, they will never be able to truly hold themselves accountable to veterans, or the American taxpayer."
"The dispute has taken a testy turn in recent weeks, with Mr. Miller and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki swapping comments about VA accountability practices. In a Jan. 31 letter to Mr. Miller, the secretary defended the agency's bonus and dismissal practices, even going so far as to explain bonuses given to particular employees. "Results, or lack thereof, for which employees and executives are responsible and accountable, are factors when evaluating performance," wrote Mr. Shinseki, a former Army general.
Mr. Miller shot back on Friday: "It's becoming more apparent by the day that there seems to be just two types of people who think VA is properly holding its leaders accountable: VA executives who have received huge performance bonuses year after year despite failing in their jobs and those who work in VA's central office." Read the rest here.
Meanwhile, Michelle Obama announces a new vets hiring initiative - by construction companies - to be announced later today. Michelle Obama, also in the WSJ this morning: "On Monday, more than 100 construction companies-many of whom are direct competitors-are coming together to announce that they plan to hire more than 100,000 veterans within the next five years. They made this commitment not just because it's the patriotic thing to do, and not just because they want to repay our veterans for their service to our country, but because these companies know that it's the smart thing to do for their businesses.
As one construction industry executive put it, 'Veterans are invaluable to the construction industry. Men and women who serve in the military often have the traits that are so critical to our success: agility, discipline, integrity and the drive to get the job done right...'"
"Take the example of Glenn Tussing, who currently works at Disney. Glenn is an Air Force veteran who served as chief of future joint manpower requirements. In that role, he was responsible for figuring out the exact numbers and types of troops-from the pilots, to the engineers, to the medical personnel-needed for a mission to succeed. He would then locate those troops and help send them where they needed to go.
"When Disney was looking for someone to oversee the menus at Disney properties around the world, it would have been easy for them to overlook Glenn since the link between manpower planning and menu management isn't exactly intuitive. But Disney has trained its HR specialists to translate military experience into civilian qualifications. So when they were looking for someone who could determine the exact quantities and types of ingredients for every meal they served-and get that information anywhere in the world it needed to go-they knew Glenn was their guy. In fact, today at Disney, Glenn uses the same types of databases and programs he used in the military." More here.
And ICYMI, how the military could learn a few things from business leaders, part of the Denver Post's "American Homecomings" project here.
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Jim Bullion, head of the Pentagon's controversial Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, is out, Situation Report has learned. Bullion, who heads the "TFBSO" as it's known - the entity created in 2006 to drum up business in war zones, strengthen the economies there and create stability as a result, was just told his last day would be Wednesday.
A defense official confirmed to Situation Report that "Mr. Bullion and the Department had different visions for the task force's final year," and that "this leadership change, though early, is in the best interest of all concerned." Deputy Director Joe Catalino will serve as acting director. On Dec. 4, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced, to some surprise, that the task force would be phased out by the end of 2014 as part of a reorganization of the Pentagon's policy shop.
"We have every confidence that task force members remain up to the challenges before them and we are grateful for Mr. Bullion's service," Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Elissa Smith told Situation Report last night.
The task force has been controversial for some time and didn't have a lot of supporters at the Pentagon, State or USAID as it had shifted its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan in recent years and continued to play "matchmaker," linking the private sector to opportunities in war zones. Bullion succeeded Paul Brinkley, the larger-than-life businessman who started TFBSO and was controversial in his own right. Bullion, like any other agency manager, was likely not pleased that the Pentagon had discontinued the task force after 2014, when the bulk of U.S. forces are expected to be out of Afghanistan. Bullion had been pushing to have its life extended past 2014, but that was an unlikely proposition and was not met well within State and DoD. Although under Bullion the task force had pushed to bolster Afghanistan's carpet industry and made inroads in other areas of the Afghan economy, those pleas to keep the TFBSO going despite the writing on the wall may have been part of his undoing.
Meanwhile, Paul Brinkley has a new book and is having a party. Brinkley, who left the task force in 2011 amid controversies about the role of the task force, has a new book, "War Front to Store Front." It's out soon and he's having a party in Tysons Corner tonight to celebrate. Time's Fareed Zakaria, in the current edition of Time: "...Karzai might be playing an erratic game of brinkmanship in his negotiations with Washington, but he might also be trying to navigate a post-American Afghanistan. While U.S. troops might well remain and some American aid will continue, Afghanistan is going to look very different in 2015 than it does today. Consider these facts from a highly intelligent forthcoming book, War Front to Store Front, by Paul Brinkley: In 2009, Afghanistan had a nominal GDP of $10 billion. Of that number, 60% was foreign aid. The cultivation of poppy and the production and export of raw heroin--all of which is informal and underground--accounted for 30%. That leaves 10%, or $1 billion, of self-sustaining, legitimate economic activity. During the same year, the U.S. military spent $4 billion per month to protect a country with a real annual economic output of $1 billion."
Brinkley to Zakaria: "Kabul is a metaphor for the country... It is a city sized for 500,000 people. It has grown to 8 million, who have been drawn to the city by the massive influx of foreign money, military and nonmilitary. But that money is going to slow down very significantly soon. What happens then?" Read the rest here.
Speaking of all of this, USAID's Larry Sampler is talking Afghanistan at the New America Foundation today at around noon. Sampler, who heads AID's Afghanistan and Pakistan program, will be explaining how AID is pivoting from a war footing to "transition and transformation" and just how the agency plans to do that. A sample of Sampler, based on prepared remarks today: "...If you follow Afghanistan in the media, you are bombarded with negative stories of corruption, violence, bitterness, and lack of hope. The media - and even some in the US government - would have you believe that 12 years of sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan is being squandered and will soon be lost, as that country falls back into civil war and chaos. Or that USAID is shoveling money out the door to corrupt Afghans, as schools and hospitals crumble into money-pits unsuitable for human use.
"So my first message today is this: Don't believe it. I don't. And I have both the opportunity to know, and a responsibility to pay close attention. I am not naïve: I know that our track record has not been perfect, and that Afghanistan's future will not be easy, but we're not working in Afghanistan because we expect it to be easy. We're working in Afghanistan because it is important to our own national interests... I can't tell you how disappointed I am - and how demoralizing it is for our staff in the field - to have so many reports and stories come out that articulate quite well our own assessment of the frailties of particular ministries, but then completely ignore the significant work that goes into mitigating those frailties in the short-run and working with the Afghans to eliminate them over time." Event deets here.
ICYMI: AP's brief profiles of all 11 Afghanistan presidential candidates, here.
Chuck Hagel announced Friday that he would hire a senior officer to deal with the ethical issues rocking the Defense Department. Hagel, speaking more tautly and confidently than usual, to reporters at a last-minute briefing Friday: "Over the next few weeks, Chairman Dempsey and I will be announcing actions that all of our services are taking to deal with this problem. I will assign to my senior staff a general officer who will report directly to me on issues related to military ethics, character, and leadership, and work directly with the service secretaries and the service chiefs. This officer will coordinate the actions of our services on this issue, work every day with all of our services, and we will meet weekly so I can receive reports from DOD's senior leadership, including both officer and enlisted leadership, on the progress we're making."
Wait, is addressing ethics A priority, THE priority or what? Hagel, con't, during different parts of the briefing: "This will be an absolute top priority for the service secretaries, the service chiefs, General Dempsey, and me... And that's why I am putting this as a number-one priority for this institution... I said a number-one priority. A high priority, I think is what I said... We have a lot of priorities."
Dempsey has already assigned Marine Lt. Gen. Tom Waldhauser to lead his "profession of arms" initiative to work to re-instill the professional aspects of military service and leadership across the military, but Hagel's effort will be a separate and yet coordinated effort with what Dempsey is already doing. BTW, read our piece from last year about Dempsey's plan to address ethical conduct - in April 2013, here.
Also: Hagel announced that Air Force up-and-comer Paul Selva, now the four-star who runs Air Mobility Command, will be nom'ed as the new commander of U.S. Transportation Command. Hagel: "If confirmed, he will be an outstanding successor to General Fraser, who's been an exemplary, effective TRANSCOM commander, and we will miss him, and we appreciate his tremendous service to this country."
Read the full transcript of Hagel's remarks Friday here.
Ouch! The Marine Corps is seeking to "professionalize" the newsstand at the PX and is relegating Marine Corps Times from its prominent location near the checkout lines to an area in the PXes with all the other pubs. MCT's Lance Bacon: "Marine Corps leaders have ordered the independent Marine Corps Times newspaper removed from its prominent newsstand location at base exchange stores worldwide and placed instead in areas away from checkout lines, where it is harder to find and fewer copies are available. The move raises troubling questions about motive and closely follows a directive prohibiting commanders from using budget funds to buy Marine Corps Times and a number of other publications.
Marine Corps Times is widely recognized for its comprehensive coverage of the Corps, focusing on everything from career tracks, to pay and benefits, family and spouse issues, and employment after leaving the military. Throughout much of the past year, the paper has published dozens of articles as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations the service's commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, abused his authority to ensure Marines were punished for an embarrassing war-zone scandal. Numerous reports have captured the attention of mainstream media outlets, including NPR, CNN and Time magazine, among several others.
"Spokesmen for the commandant's office would not answer questions about whether Amos or his staff were aware of or involved in the decision to relocate the newspaper, but a source with knowledge of the new directive said it was approved with the commandant's knowledge." More here.
Senior Officer Ethics: How does it sniff? On Friday, the WaPo's Craig Whitlock wrote that there was another, new problem with some admirals taking a trip to the U.K. and if it passed 'The Washington Post Test." Whitlock: "Amid a flurry of ethical scandals vexing the military comes a new transgression: The Navy has rebuked three admirals for taking a questionable trip to Britain and thereby flunking what was termed 'The Washington Post Test.' Unlike other cases of personal misconduct that have been dogging U.S. military leaders in recent years, this episode hardly amounted to a high crime. The admirals went on an official, seven-day trip to Britain in April 2012 that, to some eyes, seemed more about pleasure and less about business. A whistleblower reported the trip to the Naval Inspector General, alleging that the three commanders were longtime pals, that they took along their wives and that it was perceived as 'no more than a taxpayer financed vacation to London, England for six close friends to celebrate.'
"At the time, two of the Navy officers had just been selected for promotion to one-star admiral. The anonymous whistleblower acknowledged that many aspects of the trip might be 'technically legal' but asked Navy investigators whether it would "stand up to ‘The Washington Post Test.'?" In other words, what if The Post found out about it - would it provide embarrassing material for a news story?" More here.
Meanwhile, are the military's senior leadership problems reminiscent of "frat boy antics?" The WaPo's Amanda Bennett (wife of former WaPo owner Don Graham, who still owns Foreign Policy), writing in the WaPo: "...On one level, it's not surprising that these [senior officers] thought they could have it all. For the most part, they could. They could be powerful, respected, well paid, influential - and never had to outgrow their frat-boy behavior. There was never any real blowback. Even as public displays of bias or crudeness became unacceptable, these men figured out how to show two faces. Many learned that it paid to mouth platitudes about "zero tolerance" and "equal opportunity" but that there was no real incentive to walk the walk. After all, they could check off the human resources training, give the 'respect for all' speech and still tell crude jokes - or worse - on the golf course. But little by little, we are seeing that, as we might tell 5-year-olds, choices have consequences.
"...Now the consequences are becoming personal. The realization that this type of nonsense might actually harm one's career will help speed the shift in behavior in ways that mere concerns about fairness, or even national security, did not." Read the rest of her piece here.