FP's Situation Report: The White House wakes up to VA troubles; As Republicans played politics, Libya burned; Hagel needs to make nice with the House; Will Robert Irvine open a restaurant in the Pentagon?; and a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel
The White House seems to be caught flat-footed, again, over the heat it's taken over the V.A.'s troubles. The NYT's Michael Shear and Jonathan Weisman on Page One this morning: "The White House fought on Tuesday to contain the growing political furor over allegations of misconduct at the nation's veterans hospitals as Republicans, eager to use the issue in the midterm elections, seized on the reports as new evidence that President Obama is unable to govern effectively.
"...So far, White House officials have waved aside calls for Mr. Shinseki to resign in much the same way they rejected calls for the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, over the botched health care rollout. Mr. Carney said Monday that the president still has confidence in Mr. Shinseki."
"...As a candidate for president, Mr. Obama denounced delays and poor care for veterans at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and vowed that his administration would address the backlogs and greatly improve care. He pledged in a 2008 campaign speech to build 'a 21st-century V.A.' and to confront what he called 'the broken bureaucracy of the V.A.'
"But more than five years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has again found himself exposed to political danger by a bureaucracy that seems beyond his immediate control. In responding to the allegations of delays at veterans hospitals, the Obama White House has embraced what has become a familiar public relations pattern in dealing with political crises: Administration officials declare their outrage as they urge patience while an investigation is completed." More here.
Cold Calculations: How the VA determines "the true cost of war." The WaPo's Greg Jaffe, on Page One this morning: "... War can be a series of cold calculations: the distance a bullet travels, the blast radius of a bomb, the number of minutes it takes to reach a soldier bleeding out on the battlefield. For wounded troops leaving the military, there is one more: the price paid for a broken body, a missing limb, a lost eye, a damaged brain.
"The longest stretch of fighting in American history is producing disability claims at rates that surpass those of any of the country's previous wars. Nearly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are filing for these benefits when they leave the military - a flood of claims that has overwhelmed the VA and generated a backlog of 300,000 cases stuck in processing for more than 125 days. Some have languished for more than a year.
"'We're not where we need to be,' President Obama has said of the glut, which peaked last year at 611,000 claims. 'But we're making progress.' The backlog has become one of several issues that have drawn the ire of veterans and lawmakers, leading to calls for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. How do you solve a problem that has been called a 'national embarrassment,' 'a mess,' and yet another instance of Washington 'bureaucracy run amok'? If the backlog is going to be fixed, the solution will come one soldier at a time in small offices such as this one at Walter Reed." Big piece, here.
Defense One's Stephanie Gaskell, on why Shinseki appears to be refusing more authority to fire employees, here.
On the VA, Jon Stewart fishes in a barrel. Jon Stewart, this week, reacting to Shinseki's recent stone-faced, devoid-of-emotion I'm-mad-as-hell remark: "Your ‘mad as hell' face looks a lot like your ‘Oh, we're out of orange juice' face."
Stewart, con't, coming in for the kill: "That wake up call was seven years ago, but for some reason we keep hitting the [bleep] snooze button. Here's what disgusts me: somehow, we as a country were able to ship 300,000 troops halfway across the world in just a few months to fight a war that cost us $2 trillion dollars... yet for some reason, it takes longer than that to get someone hurt in that war needed medical care or reimbursement, all while we profess undying love for their service... [clips of Obama and other senior officials saying they love the troops, etc.]...
"so it's clear love and respect ain't getting the job done, so there's really only one way to put our government's full resources behind anything. If we really want to improve the life for these veterans, I'm afraid we have to declare war on them. [laughter]... Congress, write a blank check to fund Operation Enduring Wait List: A War on Error." Because if you want Americans to feel shock and awe, go fix this [bleep] thing."
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Russian troops are apparently preparing to leave the Ukraine border region. Reuters this morning: "Russian troops that took part in military exercises in three provinces bordering Ukraine have dismantled equipment and are moving to train stations and airfields for return to their permanent bases, the Defense Ministry said on Wednesday. The Kremlin said on Monday that Putin had told his defense chief to order troops back to their bases after drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, but NATO and the United States say they have seen no signs of a withdrawal.
"A ministry statement said the units in question had spent 24 hours dismantling field camps, packing and preparing military vehicles and were now "moving toward train stations and airfields" to return to their bases, RIA news agency reported." More here.
Have Russian troops moved away from the Ukraine border? There are no such signs as of yet, we're told. In fact, a defense official tells us this morning in response to our question: "The usual Sgt. Schultz line." Meaning, "I see nothing!" Hogan's Heroes youtube clip here.
Who's Where When today - Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will deliver remarks at Freedom Night, a celebration of Poland's 223rd Constitution Day and 25th anniversary of transition to freedom and democracy, at the residence of Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, Poland's ambassador to the United States... Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos will attend the Tribute to Military Families Gala tonight at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington.
Playing House: Does Hagel need to play nicer with Congress? Bloomberg's Tony Capaccio and Roxana Tiron: "After almost 15 months on the job, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has failed to build a strong relationship with the House panel that funds the Pentagon, according to its chairman. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, the New Jersey Republican who heads the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said he's had only infrequent contact with Hagel, a former Republican senator and fellow Vietnam War veteran, since taking over the panel in November. ‘I don't find it an ego thing,' Frelinghuysen, who's sat on the panel since 1999, said in an interview. ‘If one committee controlled your entire budget, I think you might make some effort to build up personal relationships. I think it is a no-brainer.'"
But the Dems are a little more understanding: "...While Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, a Democrat who serves on the House panel, said Hagel has ‘an awful lot on his desk to deal with,' he also said, ‘I do think it would probably be a good idea to reach out a little.' ‘If Rodney is concerned, it is a legitimate concern,' Moran said. ‘I think the world of Chuck too. I know Secretary Hagel is doing a great job, so if there is a way for him to strengthen his ties with the legislative branch, I think it would only be to his benefit.'"
"Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which authorizes defense programs, said ‘I am not one of the people who complained' about Hagel. ‘I think he's got a very good relationship with the Congress.'" More here.
But Hagel stands behind his budget. Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby to reporters yesterday: "He... knows that this debate is just now beginning. This is the beginning of it, certainly not the end, and there's lots more discussion to happen. He stands firmly behind the tough decisions that were made in that budget proposal, decisions that he believes are necessary to preserve our military edge in a very difficult fiscal environment."
While Republicans played politics, Libya was imploding. Now the Pentagon is readying an embassy evacuation, and the country may be beyond salvation. FP's John Hudson: "This week, scandal-hungry Republicans worked to establish the ninth congressional committee investigation into the deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. But the real scandal in Libya may be the one playing out in real-time as the country descends into the bloodiest bout of chaos since the civil war that led to the ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Libyan authorities, to put it bluntly, have lost control of their country.
"A revolt by a rogue general against Libya's Islamist groups has pitted the nation's vast constellation of militias against one another, with civilians increasingly caught in the crossfire. The country's neighbors and partners are frantic: Over the weekend, Algerian forces dropped into the capital city Tripoli to exfiltrate their ambassador and later closed all border crossings with Libya; Tunisia amassed 5,000 troops at the Libyan border; and the U.S. Defense Department doubled the number of aircraft on standby in Italy and deployed hundreds of Marines to Sicily in case they needed to abruptly evacuate the embassy, a decision that could come at literally any moment." More here.
The Pentagon said yesterday there are about 250 Marines on Sicily, and about seven MV-22 Ospreys and three C-130s as part of the Marine "air-to-ground task force." They are there "as a precaution," Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters yesterday at the Pentagon, "to be able to be in a posture and in a location that should they be needed in North Africa, specifically, yes, specifically Libya, that they would be -- that they would be ready to do so." But, Kirby said, there have been no request for military operations or assistance in Libya.
"The new normal." Kirby, yesterday to reporters, regarding Libya: "...I mean this is part of what we consider the new normal. You know, one of the things that we learned from Benghazi was the need to have an agile footprint, you know, that you can -- that you can move quickly to address just these kinds of issues in North Africa.
An election is set for June in a bid to ease the crisis in Libya. The AP's Esam Mohamed: "Libya's election commission set new parliamentary elections for next month, trying on Tuesday to find a peaceful resolution to a crisis triggered by a renegade general's efforts to crush Islamist militias and his demand that the Islamist-led legislature disband for allegedly supporting extremism. The announcement of a nationwide June 25 vote came after the parliament met in what lawmakers had hoped would be a secret location. A missile was fired at the hotel where the session was taking place, causing panic but no injuries." More here.
Two explosions kill scores at a market in central Nigeria. The NYT's Adam Nossiter: "Two powerful explosions killed scores of people, many of them female vendors, in the central Nigerian city of Jos on Tuesday afternoon, officials and witnesses said. While no one claimed responsibility for the bombing, it occurred as international attention has focused on the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram following the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls last month and may have been a bloody act of defiance. The blasts shattered a bustling market area as working people were doing afternoon grocery shopping. With rescue operations still underway in a chaotic, smoky tangle of blasted stalls and body parts, the police commissioner confirmed that at least 46 were killed and 45 wounded in the explosions. Other news reports put the death toll at more than 100. ‘That place is a commercial nerve center,' said Salis Muhammad Abdul Salam, who saw the blasts from his office nearby. ‘There were more women casualties.'
"...An Islamist militant attack on Jos could have particularly dire consequences as it has been a flash point of Christian-Muslim tensions for years. The sprawling city lies at the edge of the Muslim-majority northern half of the country. Already on Tuesday evening, there were reports of reprisal attacks in Jos." More here.
The Pentagon said yesterday there have been no new requests for assistance in Nigeria. Kirby said the surveillance aircraft looking for the schoolgirls is only unmanned - the CIA's manned craft - an MC-12 Beechrcraft - has been taken out of the mission for now for maintenance. That leaves just the unmanned aircraft operational.
What does Boko Haram want? Newsweek's Janine di Giovanni: "...So what is behind the snatching of the girls? How can such horrific behavior be explained? What has Islam got to do with such a despicable crime? And what can be done to prevent such an incident from becoming a regular feature of life in countries where Islam is on the march? When I began my journey back in 2002, it had been three years since Sharia law was introduced by individual northern Nigerian states, and along with it hudud punishments-stoning and amputation-in an attempt to end corruption and bring justice to ordinary citizens. But what I saw in northern Nigeria had little to do with justice. Up and down the red, unpaved roads, in and out of villages, shanties and urban centers, a suffocating sensation of fear pervaded everything. By that point, in the north there had been three amputations and four people sentenced to death by stoning, and 11 children were waiting to have a limb amputated for petty theft."
U.N. special envoy Angelina Jolie to CNN and quoted in the Newsweek piece: "One of the root causes for the horror of these girls being kidnapped is the culture of impunity... The perpetrators believe they can get away with it. And if they do get away with this, with the world watching, then it sends a message to others that they too can commit similar attacks." More here.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will convene a hearing on Boko Haram at 9:45 a.m. today. Find the deets here.
The Obama White House will release the drone memo. The NYT's Ashley Parker: "Facing the potential defeat of an appeals court nominee, the Obama administration decided Tuesday to publicly release much of a classified memo written by the nominee that signed off on the targeted killing an American accused of being a terrorist. The solicitor general, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. made the call to release the secret memo - and not appeal a court order requiring its disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act - and informed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. of his decision this week, according to two administration officials. The White House was informed Tuesday. But the memo will not be released right away because officials said they needed time to redact it and to prepare an appeal asking the court not to reveal classified sections of a federal appears court ruling last month requiring that most of the memo be made public." More here.
China is playing the waiting game with Russia on that huge energy deal, and could leave Putin at the altar. Keith Johnson for FP: "Everybody from financial analysts to the Russian government expected Moscow and Beijing to finally ink a massive, $400 billion energy pact Tuesday that's been in the works for nearly two decades. But it didn't happen, with the first day of Russian President Vladimir Putin's much-touted trip to China ending not with a bang but a whimper. After weeks of Russian insistence that the landmark energy deal was virtually in hand, including Putin's own comments just before jetting off to Shanghai, the two sides failed to clinch the deal Tuesday. That was a shock, a blow to Putin's objectives, and a reminder of how much China has the upper hand when it comes to gas deals with Europe's biggest gas supplier.
"Indeed, the failure of Russian and Chinese negotiators to strike the deal on the first day of a two-day trip stems from the issue that has bedeviled them for years: price. Russia still wants to charge roughly the same, high rates it charges customers in Europe, which average about $12 per million British Thermal Units, a standard measurement of gas volumes. But China only wants to pay what it already pays for gas piped in from Central Asia, which costs about $10 per million Btus. Over the expected, 30-year life of the contract, such a difference translates into at least a $60 billion difference between what the seller wants and what the buyer is willing to pay." More here.
The NYT's Robert Mackey reports on six Iranians who were arrested for posting their own cover of Pharrell's ‘Happy,' here.
Obama officials target Russians, not over Ukraine, but over the 2009 death of a Russian lawyer. FP's Jamila Trindle: "The Obama administration added more Russian names to a U.S. blacklist Tuesday, risking a further deterioration in Washington's already troubled relationship with Moscow. The trigger wasn't the high-profile standoff over the future of eastern Ukraine, however. This time around the hard-hitting measures came in response to the mysterious 2009 death of a Russian lawyer-turned-whistleblower. The U.S. added 12 people -- including doctors, prison officials and a judge -- to a list of Russian human rights abusers for their alleged roles in the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and two other Kremlin critics. Magnitsky, the highest profile victim, was arrested after trying to bring to light a wide-ranging tax fraud and died in prison after authorities allegedly denied him urgently needed medical care. The new U.S. move -- which freezes the assets and denies visas to virtually everyone involved in Magnitsky's arrest, trial and medical treatment -- came in response to lobbying by powerful lawmakers who see the case as part of a broader pattern of abuse in Vladimir Putin's Russia." More here.
The Hague Institute for Global Justice's Tom Buitelaar's post on what might be done in South Sudan, here.
A Marine who apparently fell out of an Osprey is found dead in North Carolina. CNN's Ralph Ellis: " Nobody knows how the Marine happened to fall out of the MV-22B Osprey on Monday, 1st Lt. Hector Alejandro, media officer for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, North Carolina, told CNN on Tuesday. The aircraft had taken part in a training exercise at the airport in Elizabethtown, Bradley Kinlaw, Bladen County emergency management director, told CNN affiliate WECT. A crew member noticed the Marine missing about half a mile past White Lake, WECT reported. Alejandro said Marines in Ospreys are always supposed to be secured, either by seat belts or tether cables. He didn't know how the missing Marine was secured." More here.
The RUMINT (that's rumor-based intelligence) is that celebrity chef Robert Irvine will open a restaurant IN the Pentagon, which could USE it! There's been wide speculation - we mean wide - that Irvine, a former Royal Navy seaman, was going to open a restaurant inside the Pentagon. This is probably because Irvine himself tweeted that he would open a restaurant in the Pentagon (tip o' the hat to AP's Sagar Meghani, who spotted the tweet, and the natural curiosity of the rest of the Pentagon's AP team, Lita Baldor and Bob Burns, all of whom normally focus on more serious topics).
Irvine tweeted two days ago: "On the road again headed to DC this morning for meetings. we are opening a restaurant in the Pentagon yea awesome.. Have a great day folks," adding a smiley face.
Naturally, that fed speculation that Irvine was either opening a restaurant near the Pentagon - perhaps in Pentagon City - or just maybe, he meant what he said. Defense One's Stephanie Gaskell got into it, tweeting back to Irvine. The response she got, apparently from an Irvine minion who tweets for him, appeared to confirm that the restaurateur and workout artist will indeed open a restaurant in the Pentagon. "@sgaskell yes he is later this year where the market basket is now, they are moving."
Defense News Marcus Weisgerber, during yesterday's press briefing, asked Rear Adm. John Kirby what he knew about it. Kirby: "Well, listen, as a guy who spends 12 to 14 hours a day here, I welcome a new place to eat. No, I was not aware of that. Do you want me to get back to you on that on the record? Because I could do that. Are you serious? You want me to do that? Okay. I'll do it. You're going to have to give me his name again. What's the name?"
Who is Robert Irvine? We didn't know either. His official Web site, here.
Stay tuned for further confirmation/non-confirmation of Irvine opening up a restaurant at the Pentagon.