Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Five Americans killed in friendly fire in Afg; VA audit: 100,000 veterans await care; Five questions on Bergdahl for Hagel; Robert Irvine dishes on new Pentagon restaurant; and a bit more.

FP’s Situation Report: Five Americans killed in friendly fire in Afg; VA audit: 100,000 veterans await care; Five questions on Bergdahl for Hagel; Robert Irvine dishes on new Pentagon restaurant; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

A VA audit reveals 100,000 veterans face long waits for care.  A new audit shows that things just got worse at the VA and gives new lift to critics of the White House who believe the problems within the VA require more intellectual capital than the White House has devoted to it thus far. Reuters’ David Lawder and Emily Stephenson: "More than 100,000 veterans are experiencing waits of more than 90 days for appointments at medical centers run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an internal audit released by the troubled agency on Monday. The internal survey revealed that a scandal over cover-ups of long wait times at VA clinics, during which some veterans are alleged to have died, was broader and deeper than initially thought, prompting a new round of recriminations from lawmakers and veterans groups.

"The agency said staff at 76 percent of facilities surveyed reported that they were instructed to misrepresent appointment data at least once. The VA said it found that in mid-May, 57,436 veterans were waiting for appointments that could not be scheduled within 90 days, while about 43,000 had appointments more than 90 days in the future. Over the past 10 years, 63,869 new enrollees in the VA healthcare system had requested appointments that were never scheduled, VA said.

"The agency said it is working to contact all of these people to try to expedite their care. With more than 1,700 clinics, hospitals and other facilities serving some 8.9 million veterans, the VA operates the largest U.S. healthcare system."
FP’s own John Hudson: "The controversy over the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl-Taliban prisoner swap may have knocked the Veterans Affairs Department scandal off the front pages, but a new report issued Monday revealing that more than 100,000 veterans waited excessively for health care put it back in the spotlight — where it is likely to stay for some time.

"It also makes finding a top-notch replacement for former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki more critical and difficult. Few wanted the job after the first wave of bad news. The report, coupled with the withdrawal of Toby Cosgrove, head of the Cleveland Clinic and considered a front-runner to replace Shinseki, from consideration amid revelations that the Cleveland Clinic had similar problems of its own, could make it impossible. The search for Shinseki’s successor is another source of embarrassment for President Barack Obama as Cosgrove’s withdrawal has critics and veterans questioning the administration’s vetting process.

Benjamin Krause, writing in a blog post on the DisabledVeterans.org Web site: Obama "will need to address the apparent and embarrassing incompetence of his staff regarding its inability to properly vet candidates in [a] timely manner…The second, and most difficult, is that he will need to address the fact that being an executive at VA is a very unpopular career choice in the middle of a major scandal."

Hudson: "…No one expected good news from the internal VA audit unveiled Monday, least of all members of Congress. Even before the audit was released, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee announced it was holding an oversight hearing Monday evening, with an unusual 7:30 p.m. start time, demonstrating how miffed lawmakers are. And also ahead of the report, the House leadership scheduled a Monday evening vote for one of myriad VA reform bills to spring up since news of blatant fraud and dysfunction at a VA facility in Arizona surfaced two months ago.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, in a statement: "Today’s report is more disturbing proof that corruption is ingrained in many parts of the VA health care system… The only way to rid the department of this widespread dishonesty and duplicity is to pull it out by the roots." More here.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s Paul Rieckhoff: "This audit is absolutely infuriating, and underscores the depth of this scandal. Our vets demand action and answers. IAVA again calls on the President to be out-front in reforming the VA and we also encourage members of Congress and the Administration to implement IAVA’s eight-step plan. We would welcome a meeting with the President – the veteran community must hear more from him and be assured that he cares." More here.

Only noting: The VA audit story is on Page One of the WaPo and the WSJ and on the inside pages of the NYT.

BTW, who is George Turek? At the very least, a wealthy man with a mission. Turek took out a full-page ad in the WSJ today, an open letter to Sens. Bernie Sanders and John McCain (as well as Sens. Burr, Casey, Cornyn, Heinrich, Heller, Moran, Reid, Tester, Vitter, and Reps. Brady, Culberson and Miller), in which he raises two issues about the VA – the wait times for treatment and a lesser-known issue – wait times to receive "Compensation and Pension" benefits. He proposes two solutions, including outsourcing all Compensation and Pension medical disability examinations to move things along.

"The solution outlined above provides an immediate win-win for both our veterans and the VA. Let’s not delay any further in providing our veterans timely access to the medical treatment and benefits they so justly deserve. Thank you for listening." We’re told this morning that such an ad could have cost about $20,000 if it’s just the DC market.

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An apparent friendly fire incident in Afghanistan has killed five American troops.  The Pentagon issued a statement within the past half-hour indicating that a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan has killed five American troops. From the Pentagon: "Five American troops were killed yesterday during a security operation in southern Afghanistan. Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen."

The WSJ’s Nathan Hodge and Habib Khan Totakhil: "Five U.S.-led coalition troops were killed in an apparent friendly-fire incident in southern Afghanistan, Afghan and coalition officials said Tuesday, in one of the worst such episodes in recent years. ‘The casualties occurred during a security operation when their unit came into contact with enemy forces,’ the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force said in a statement. ‘Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved. The incident is under investigation.’ The military typically doesn’t release the nationalities or names of casualties until families are notified. As the coalition’s mandate comes to an end in December, combat operations by U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan are increasingly rare, and usually involve the Special Operations forces. The killings occurred Monday, the coalition said.

"An aide to t
he governor of southern Zabul province said five
coalition troops, their Afghan interpreter and one Afghan National Army soldier were killed mistakenly by a coalition aircraft in the Gaza area of Arghandab District of Zabul province on Monday. ‘After an operation, the troops were on the way back to their base when they were ambushed by the Taliban,’ the governor’s aide said. ‘They called on an airstrike and the strike mistakenly killed them.’ The incident was the largest loss of life for international troops in Afghanistan since five coalition service members were killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan April 26." More on this story here.

The Pakistani Taliban staged another attack this morning. Reuters’ Syed Raza Hassan this hour: "Pakistan’s Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for an attack on a security academy at Karachi’s airport on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after an all-night siege by Taliban gunmen at Pakistan’s busiest airport that killed more than 30 people. ‘We accept responsibility for another successful attack against the government,’ Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told Reuters. ‘We are successfully achieving all our targets and we will go on carrying on many more such attacks.’ Two days earlier, 10 militants disguised as security force members and armed with rocket-propelled grenades stormed the airport, one of the most brazen attacks in a long-running Pakistani Taliban insurgency." More here.

The Taliban’s attack in Karachi two days ago demonstrates its lasting strength.  The NYT’s Declan Walsh in London: "Only a week ago, the Pakistani Taliban appeared to be on the ropes. Violent rivalries had split the insurgency in two. Peace talks with the government had collapsed. Military jets had pounded militant hideouts in the tribal belt. Then on Sunday, the Taliban hit back.

The Taliban "…has kept a reach far beyond its tribal redoubt along the Afghan border, with an ability to penetrate the country’s busiest airport in the largest city. And the discovery that Uzbek jihadis were among the attackers underscores how, even in splinters, the Taliban can draw on an international militant network to conduct sophisticated attacks on high-profile targets – which means trouble not just for Pakistan’s government and military, but for American interests in Afghanistan. The determined attack seems to bear out earlier warnings by counterterrorism experts that the Taliban split two weeks ago was unlikely to erode the group’s capacity for mayhem.

Najmuddin Shaikh, a retired head of Pakistan’s foreign service:  "…It’s become a hydra-headed monster… They had limited success in Karachi, but maybe that was just our good luck."

"…For Pakistan’s leaders, who for months have been wavering between talking and fighting, the Taliban’s robustness is likely to inform their next step. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is due to meet with the army leadership in the next two days, Pakistani officials said, to discuss a possible military response to the Karachi attack." More here.

For FP, New America’s Douglas Ollivant reviews two books on the Pashtuns and the Taliban, here.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram has apparently kidnapped 20 more Nigerian girls. From the BBC this morning: "Suspected Boko Haram militants have abducted at least 20 women close to where 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped in northern Nigeria, eyewitnesses say. The women were loaded on to vans at gunpoint and driven away to an unknown location in Borno state, they add. The army has not commented on the incident, which occurred on the nomadic Garkin Fulani settlement on Thursday. The Nigerian military has faced mounting criticism for failing to stop militant attacks in the north-east. Despite a state of emergency in place in the region, residents say the army is largely inactive or even absent, allowing the Boko Haram militants to continue their attacks. The group has waged an increasingly bloody insurgency since 2009 in an attempt to create an Islamic state in Nigeria – and thousands of people have died in their attacks and the subsequent security crackdown. More here.

Who’s Where When today – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is preparing for testimony on Bergdahl tomorrow… Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos is in London for the UK/US Staff Talks… Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is in Finland as part of a multi-nation trip, meeting with government and military officials on maritime and regional security… Andrew Hunter, director, Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell delivers remarks at Brookings at 1:30 p.m… Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey is meeting today with his Joint Chiefs of Staff counterparts in London at the Ministry of Defense. Dempsey: "We share a remarkably close relationship–not just as nations but as militaries. It’s one founded on our history, our values and genuine friendships. Whether we’re deployed in combat operations or in London addressing common priorities, our combined strength and experience make us better."

Did the US give up too much for a likely deserter, and the four other questions House lawmakers will ask Hagel during Wednesday’s Bergdahl hearing. FP’s John Hudson, Shane Harris and Lubold: "…On Wednesday morning, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will have his turn in the hot seat when he appears before the House Armed Services Committee along with the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Stephen Preston. Here are five questions skeptical lawmakers are likely to ask Hagel as the Bergdahl controversy continues to heat up, including: do you believe that Bergdahl was a deserter? If so, will he be punished by the Army for leaving his post?; Why wasn’t the Hill notified that the administration was trading five Guantánamo Bay detainees for Bergdahl? Was his health really in danger, and was the Taliban really so close to killing him?; Why did you sign off on the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo, and how did you determine that they were not at risk of returning to the battlefield?; Doesn’t this deal set a precedent for negotiating with terrorists?; Did any money change hands over the prisoner swap? Full story here.

Also, Politico’s Phil Ewing answers the question about whether there was a payment made in connection with the Bergdahl deal – the answer is no, said Pentagon pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby here.

The White House says the Taliban Five aren’t as bad as you think. Hudson: "Facing growing skepticism on Capitol Hill about its decision to swap five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the White House told lawmakers at a classified briefing late Monday
night that some of the freed militants were political figures, not hardened soldiers, according to lawmakers who attended the session.

"In the past several days, the administration has rolled out a number of reasons to justify swapping Bergdahl, a potential deserter, for the five Taliban officials. White House officials said they had concerns about Berdgahl’s health, felt an obligation to never leave a soldier on the battlefield, and feared the militants were preparing to kill the missing soldier. But House lawmakers exiting a late Monday briefing said the administration was now shifting to a new defense that emphasized the lack of threat posed by the individuals that were released as part of the deal." More here.

But the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake and Kimberly Dozier quote U.S. intelligence officials who say 4 of the 5 prisoners swapped for Bergdahl are dangerous and will fight again, here.

Bowe Bergdahl had questions about the mission in Afghanistan and so the Christian Science Monitor’s Anna Mulrine looks at what happens when a soldier’s sense or right and wrong is shaken. Mulrine: "…Still, a number of reports strongly indicate that Bergdahl deserted his unit, a crime with serious consequences under US military justice. Is there any defense for that?  When Sgt. Robert Bales was taken into custody in 2012 for killing 16 Afghans, including women and children, one of the first questions analysts tended to ask was whether his actions were the result of post-traumatic stress. That was also the (ultimately unsuccessful) basis of Bales’ criminal defense. He was sentenced last August to life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in order to avoid the death penalty.

"Most troops will never intentionally kill innocent civilians, as Sergeant Bales did, but war will cause some to grapple mightily with their decision to become soldiers. It is hard to know how even the most psychologically healthy troops will respond to their experience of war, military psychologist say, which is why it is so important to weigh carefully the consequences of waging it.

"These issues have sparked a relatively new area of research among military ethicists known as "moral injury." It emerges from experiences when "you apply your judgment of right and wrong to an experience and find that your expectations of ‘what is right’ clash jarringly with reality," writes Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, who presented what has become a widely-discussed paper on the topic last month at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College Ethics Symposium." More here.

A TMZ reporter snags a few questions with Robert Irvine about his new restaurant in the Pentagon. The new eatery isn’t government funded and "everyone’s gotta pay" – even the president and his cabinet members, says Irvine.  The TMZ newsroom has some suggestions for the menu: covert dogs, a waterboarding desert and a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell pie because you don’t know what’s inside. Watch it (or don’t) here.

McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef is back at the Pentagon from Egypt. Youssef returned to work in Washington about a month ago but returned to came back to reporting out of the Pentagon when "they finally let me back in," as she said. The colorful Youssef, to Situation Report: "Covering Libya and Egypt for the last two years could not replicate the turmoil of Washington and military reporting. Tahrir Square has nothing on the morning gaggle." BP.

For Defense One, CNAS’ Michele Flournoy and Richard Fontaine on how to rebuild a bipartisan consensus on national security. From the op-ed: "Politics, despite the saying, has never really stopped at the water’s edge. But these days, it seems, policymakers cannot even get to the beach before the sniping begins. The increasing polarization of American politics and the hardening of positions on issues foreign and domestic have led to deep dysfunction, as last year’s government shutdown demonstrated so dramatically. National security is by no means immune, and the chasm between Republicans and Democrats on key issues has resulted in irrational defense budgeting, unfinished trade agreements and the elevation of personal attacks over policy impacts. It’s time to do better." More here. 

NATO launches fresh war games near the Russian border. Agence France-Presse: "NATO on Monday launched one of its largest military maneuvers in the Baltic states since tensions spiked with neighboring Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Around 4,700 troops and 800 military vehicles from 10 countries including Britain, Canada and the United States are participating in the Sabre Strike exercises near the Latvian capital Riga. Russia has voiced its objections to the maneuvers, which move to neighboring Lithuania on Tuesday." More here.

Westboro Baptist Church members protested outside the Pentagon on Monday, again claiming that the deaths of U.S. troops is God’s punishment for America’s acceptance of gays and lesbians. The Pentagon had granted permission for an organized protest outside the building’s Metro entrance yesterday. Stripes’ Jon Harper: "Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for protesting at military funerals, came to the Pentagon on Monday to spread their anti-gay message. said Katherine Hockenbarger, one of its members. ‘This nation fights to shove down the rest of this world’s throat the fact that they say it’s OK to be gay. And it’s not OK to be gay." More here.

Is the U.N.’s new human rights chief up to the job? Suzanne Nossel for FP, here.

Lockheed Martin said Monday that it was banking on international and non-defense orders to offset a drop in U.S. military spending, by Reuters’ Andrea Shalal, here.

What’s missing from Hillary’s Iraq apology. Peter Beinart for the Atlantic: "Among the biggest news from Hillary Clinton’s largely newsless new book is her blunt apology for voting to authorize war in Iraq. ‘I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had,’ she writes "And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong.’ This represents a change. In 2008, her advisors feared that if she called her Iraq vote a mistake, Republicans would savage her for flip-flopping, as they had done to John Kerry four years earlier. So even after John Edwards apologized for his Iraq vote, she refused to. In their book, Her Way, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. quote Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, as insisting that, ‘It’s important for all Democrats to keep the word ‘mistake’ firmly o
n the Republicans.’" More here.

Yesterday at a leading defense think tank in Sweden, Sec. Mabus talked about the importance of naval presence, of our partnerships around the world, and why energy, and energy security, must be understood as a national security concern. From his remarks: "…It is true that America’s defense planning calls for a new focus on the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.  But that same strategy also calls for renewing our partnerships around and world, and therefore our commitment to Europe.  President Obama announced our new initiative to bolster our military presence and security here in Europe.  This will mean more pre-positioned equipment to respond to crises, more exercises, and increased support for our partners.  We are taking these steps not as a threat to anyone, but instead to defend the security and democracy of ourselves and our friends." Watch it here.