Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, April 17, 2019 which is Holy Wednesday, Ellis Island Family History Day, National Kickball Day and Blah, Blah, Blah Day.
This Day in History:
- 1970: With the world anxiously watching, Apollo 13, a U.S. lunar spacecraft that suffered a severe malfunction on its journey to the moon, safely returns to Earth. On April 11, the third manned lunar landing mission was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise. The mission was headed for a landing on the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon. However, two days into the mission, disaster struck 200,000 miles from Earth when oxygen tank No. 2 blew up in the spacecraft. Swigert reported to mission control on Earth, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” and it was discovered that the normal supply of oxygen, electricity, light, and water had been disrupted. The landing mission was aborted, and the astronauts and controllers on Earth scrambled to come up with emergency procedures. The crippled spacecraft continued to the moon, circled it, and began a long, cold journey back to Earth.
- President John F. Kennedy waits for word on the success of a covert plan to overthrow Cuba’s government on this day in 1961. Kennedy had authorized Operation Zapata, the attempt to overthrow Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro, on April 15. The failed coup became what many have called the worst foreign-policy decision of Kennedy’s administration.
- 1975: Khmer Rouge troops capture Phnom Penh and government forces surrender. The war between government troops and the communist insurgents had been raging since March 1970, when Lt. Gen. Lon Nol had ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a bloodless coup and proclaimed the establishment of the Khmer Republic.
- On April 17, 1790, American statesman, printer, scientist, and writer Benjamin Franklin dies in Philadelphia at age 84. Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin became at 12 years old an apprentice to his half brother James, a printer and publisher. He learned the printing trade and in 1723 went to Philadelphia to work after a dispute with his brother. After a sojourn in London, he started a printing and publishing press with a friend in 1728. In 1729, the company won a contract to publish Pennsylvania’s paper currency and also began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette, which was regarded as one of the better colonial newspapers. From 1732 to 1757, he wrote and published Poor Richard’s Almanack, an instructive and humorous periodical in which Franklin coined such practical American proverbs as “God helps those who help themselves” and “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Defense One: New VA Whistleblower Protection Office Is Under Investigation for Retaliating Against Whistleblowers
- Marine Corps Times: Marine vet running Boston Marathon to honor fallen comrades completes race crawling across finish line
- Military.com: Trump Vetoes Measure to End US Involvement in Yemen War
- Bloomberg: Poland and U.S. Closing In on Deal to Build ‘Fort Trump,’ Sources Say
- Military Times: Iran labels all US forces in Middle East ‘terrorists’
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Defense One: New VA Whistleblower Protection Office Is Under Investigation for Retaliating Against Whistleblowers
By Eric Katz Senior Correspondent, Government Executive Read bio
April 16, 2019
"You don’t want to come forward," one whistleblower said. "People are afraid."
The Veterans Affairs Department’s watchdog is investigating a new office created by President Trump early in his administration that was designed to protect whistleblowers from reprisal but is now facing allegations of aiding retaliation against them.
VA’s Office of Inspector General is leading the investigation from its new Office of Special Reviews, which the IG created to conduct “prompt reviews of significant events” and examine allegations of senior VA employee misconduct, an IG spokesman said. The new IG office is looking into activities at the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection as part of an ongoing review of the implementation of the 2017 law that created OAWP.
Trump created OAWP by executive order in 2017 and later codified it when he signed the 2017 VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act into law. The office was mostly celebrated, with advocates hopeful that the focus on the rights and protections for whistleblowers would reverse a culture infamous for intimidation and reprisal. That optimism has largely soured, however, leading to hotline tips to the inspector general and bipartisan scrutiny from Congress.
“There has been considerable interest by some members of Congress and other stakeholders in this effort,” said Mike Nacincik, the IG spokesman, who said he could not comment further on ongoing work.
President Trump has frequently touted the law as one of his signature legislative achievements, focusing primarily on the reforms it made to expedite the disciplinary process for VA employees. But Trump also spoke of the promises on which skeptics now say the law has failed to deliver: “This bill protects whistleblowers who do the right thing,” Trump said. “We want to reward, cherish, and promote the many dedicated employees at the VA.”
Government Executive spoke to several VA employees who expressed frustration or anger toward OAWP, three of whom have already been interviewed by IG investigators. They described feeling betrayed or neglected by an office they believed was going to help them but ended up doing the opposite. They said they have shared information with the investigators, including documentation of alleged reprisal.
Curt Cashour, a VA spokesman, said the department “welcomes the inspector general’s oversight,” but defended it against most allegations. He acknowledged that the office experienced some growing pains, but said it has “evolved over time, refining and improving its policies and practices along the way.”
What Whistleblowers Are Telling Investigators
“It’s a crooked system where literally the fox is guarding the hen house,” said Jay DeNofrio.
DeNofrio, an administrative officer at a VA facility in Altoona, Pa., had prior experience as a whistleblower before OAWP was created—years ago, he disclosed information about a doctor he said was losing mental capacity and putting veterans at risk—so he thought he understood the investigative process that takes place after employees make disclosures to investigators. OAWP, however, was the first body he’d ever worked with that coordinated with VA headquarters to find blemishes on his own record after he reported wrongdoing, he said. Investigators questioned his coworkers, telling them DeNofrio does not “walk on water” just because he is a protected whistleblower and encouraged them to immediately report “any instances of poor behavior,” according to transcripts of those conversations obtained through records requests and provided to Government Executive.
DeNofrio said IG investigators took the allegations against OAWP seriously and called their review “high profile” and “high priority.”
Dan Martin, a chief engineer at VA’s Northern Indiana Health Care System, said OAWP failed to protect him when his case came before it. Martin said in 2016 he discovered contracting violations related to a non-functioning water filtration system, but when he reported the problems to superiors he was stripped of his responsibilities and sent to work in an office without heat or air conditioning. The VA inspector general launched an investigation into the contracting practices, and asked Martin to surreptitiously record conversations with procurement officers, Martin said.
It was not until OAWP got involved in the case that Martin’s supervisors became aware of that cooperation. When OAWP allegedly shared that information with leadership at his facility, Martin said his supervisors “had no choice but to shut me down” so he could no longer send recordings about the supervisors’ “very inappropriate relationships with contractors” to investigators in the OIG.
“OAWP set me up,” said Martin, who initially felt far more optimistic about OAWP’s capacity to help his cause. “They incentivized [my facility] to go after me.”
Martin is also fighting his case through the Merit Systems Protection Board. During that process, VA’s Office of General Counsel came to Martin and his attorneys asking for certain information about the case. The attorneys representing Martin told the lawyers in the Office of General Counsel they would only hand the information over during discovery. Shortly after rejecting the request, Martin said, OAWP followed up to ask for the same information.
“Some of them are so crooked they swallow nails and spit up corkscrews,” Martin said.
‘They Turned on Whistleblowers’
The alleged collaboration between the Office of General Counsel and OAWP has troubled observers. Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group, said his initial excitement about OAWP has been dampened by “structural developments,” including what he called veto power the department’s general counsel has over the whistleblower protection office.
This would appear to be in violation of the 2017 law that permanently authorized OAWP, which prohibits the office from existing “as an element of the Office of General Counsel” and its leadership from reporting to OGC. Cashour said it was false to suggest that the Office of General Counsel exercises veto power over whistleblower claims, but acknowledged OAWP and OGC do coordinate.
“OAWP has a collaborative working relationship with OGC, but OAWP retains final decision making authority on all OAWP matters,” Cashour said.
Rebecca Jones, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said the office can likely not completely fix its issues while it remains an “internal clearinghouse” for whistleblowers rather than a truly independent office. Jones praised the IG for investigating the alleged retaliation.
“I wish it hadn’t come to this,” she said.
Devine praised some of OAWP’s early accomplishments, such as delaying VA’s disciplinary decisions that involved alleged reprisal and the hiring of high-profile whistleblower Brandon Coleman as a liaison between whistleblowers and the office. Coleman even established a mentoring program to help assist victims of retaliation, but it has since been shut down.
“They didn’t have the teeth to enforce their good deeds,” said Devine, who has significantly curbed his cooperation with OAWP. “They turned on whistleblowers.”
‘You Don’t Want to Come Forward’
A third VA employee, who requested anonymity to protect his ongoing cases, recently informed IG investigators about what he alleged is OAWP’s betrayal of trust and subsequent inactivity. The employee made an initial whistleblower disclosure in early 2017 that was bounced around to several offices within VA. He subsequently was removed from his position as a technician and is now relegated to “brain-dead work,” he said.
He contacted OAWP about the alleged reprisal later that year. During his interactions with the whistleblower office, he turned over sensitive information about his hospital that a colleague had provided—the OAWP investigator was the only individual with whom he shared the information. Days later, the employee said, the colleague was “chewed out” by leaders at the facility for sharing the information. To the employee, it felt like OAWP had betrayed him, he told Government Executive.
The employee said he then experienced 21 months of “radio silence.” He recently spoke with OIG about his negative experiences with OAWP. A few days later, the employee said he unexpectedly heard from the OAWP investigators. He said he is now “very, very cautious” in his interactions with OAWP.
“It scares you,” he said. “You don’t want to come forward. People are afraid.”
Tonya Van, formerly a doctor a VA facility in San Antonio, also became a whistleblower after disclosing to a supervisor that a doctor at her facility was giving incorrect diagnoses. She filed a complaint with OAWP after she alleged her supervisor made her work life so miserable she was forced to resign. But she quickly became disenchanted with the office due to lack of communication, she said. She tried to follow up with OAWP but never heard back. The office eventually closed out her case, though it later contacted her about opening a second investigation. She said she has “no idea” what the results of either investigation were.
Van alleged that her supervisors’ reprisal against her took the form of accusations of using foul language in the workplace. Martin, the Northern Indiana employee, said he faced an investigation for similar accusations.
Changes and Cautious Optimism
Cashour, the VA spokesman, said OAWP does not provide “detailed information related to the specific outcome of an investigation to employees” due to privacy concerns. He added that the office has revised its policies to disclose more information to claimants, including when an investigation has been closed and if claims of retaliation were substantiated.
Multiple VA employees criticized this practice, calling it counterintuitive that VA would claim privacy concerns over investigations that the employees themselves requested.
Cashour said OAWP has changed other practices after a draft of a June 2018 Government Accountability Office report faulted the office for its investigatory practices, including allowing officials accused of retaliation to be directly involved in the inquiries in which they are named. VA told GAO it would not end its practice of “referring cases of misconduct back to facilities and program offices where the misconduct occurred.” However, Cashour said OAWP now informs employees upfront when their matters will be referred elsewhere for review. To protect whistleblowers, he said, OAWP now allows employees “to either opt-out of the disclosure or withhold the release of their name.”
In August 2018, however, when Van had an in-person interview with OAWP investigators, she and her attorney were still alleging retaliation by OAWP. While asking about Van’s allegations, an OAWP investigator told Van she could be penalized for violating a prior settlement with VA by asking a former colleague to write a recommendation. Her attorney said Deirdre Weiss, the OAWP employee, was ignoring the intent of that prior agreement.
“The bottom line is that, as accountability investigators, where we see possible wrongdoing we cannot look the other way just because somebody is a complainant, okay,” said Weiss, according to a transcript of the proceedings.
Last year, before his office formally launched an official investigation into the practices of OAWP, VA Inspector General Michael Missal became part of a public spat with then acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke over documents housed within the office. The IG requested access to information on the cases filed with OAWP, but O’Rourke refused to comply. They aired their grievances through a series of public letters, which included O’Rourke harshly reminding Missal that the IG served as the secretary’s subordinate. Congress ultimately intervened by emphasizing in a spending bill that the IG had the right to any and all documents it requested.
O’Rourke had previously served as the first head of OAWP, a period in which many of the complaints against the office originated. Current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie reportedly asked O’Rourke to resign last year after determining he was doing little work as a senior advisor.
OAWP is still a small office, employing just 96 workers—28 of whom are investigators—for a workforce of 380,000. Its employees receive standardized training in investigative techniques, both internally and from outside experts such as those at the Homeland Security Department and the Office of Special Counsel.
The office is now headed by Tammy Bonzanto, who previously served as an investigator on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Her tenure has received mixed reviews. DeNofrio, for example, is still concerned by what he calls her lack of transparency. Other observers are cautiously optimistic that her leadership could get the office back to its original mission.
“We’re confident they have good-faith leadership now,” said GAP’s Devine. “The question is how much professional freedom she’ll have.”
Marine Corps Times: Marine vet running Boston Marathon to honor fallen comrades completes race crawling across finish line
By: Shawn Snow 18 hours ago
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A viral video from Monday’s Boston Marathon shows Marine veteran Micah Herndon crawling across the finish line to complete his race after suffering from severe leg cramps.
The 31-year-old Marine vet told the Record-Courierthat he entered the Boston Marathon in honor of three comrades who lost their lives in an IED explosion in Afghanistan in 2010.
It was an IED explosion he survived.
“Survivor’s guilt, it’s real,” Herndon told The Washington Post. “I definitely have it because I was the lead machine-gunner on that convoy and I didn’t see that bomb that was buried. I live with that every day.”
A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Herndon deployed in 2010 to Marjah, Afghanistan, with the “Lava Dogs,” a nickname for 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, headquartered out of Hawaii, the Record-Courier reported.
During that deployment, Herndon’s unit struck three IEDs, the first one claimed the lives of two friends Mark Juarez and Matthew Ballard, and a British journalist Rupert Hamer, according to the Record-Courier.
The third strike tore through Herndon’s Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, launching him from the the gunner’s turret and knocking him unconscious, the Record-Courier reported.
Herndon said he now finds solace in running.
“I went from being in a war zone one day to trying to live a normal life the next day. We were going on three or more missions a day, constantly on guard and when I got back home, I was still in that mode. I never will be able to get over it, I don’t think, but I am coping. I am trying to get rid of the demons," Herndon told the Record-Courier.
During the race, Herndon wore the names of the three who lost their lives in the Afghanistan IED blast on the his shoes, according to a Facebook photo.
According to race statistics, Herndon completed the Boston Marathon in three hours and 38 minutes and finished 11,334 overall.
“There’s a reason why I’m here,” he told the Post. “I’m just trying to find out what that reason is for.”
17 Apr 2019
The Associated Press | By Deb Riechmann
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump vetoed a resolution passed by Congress to end U.S. military assistance in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The veto — the second in Trump’s presidency — was expected, and Congress lacks the votes to override it. But passing the never-before-used war powers resolution was viewed as a milestone for lawmakers, who have shown a renewed willingness to assert their war-making authority after letting it atrophy for decades under presidents from both parties.
"This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future," Trump wrote in explaining his Tuesday veto.
Congress has grown uneasy with Trump’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia as he tries to further isolate Iran, a regional rival.
Many lawmakers also criticized the president for not condemning Saudi Arabia for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi who lived in the United States and had written critically about the kingdom. Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October and never came out. Intelligence agencies said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the killing.
The U.S. provides billions of dollars of arms to the Saudi-led coalition fighting against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. Members of Congress have expressed concern about the thousands of civilians killed in coalition airstrikes since the conflict began in 2014. The fighting in the Arab world’s poorest country also has left millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and has pushed the country to the brink of famine.
Trump said the measure was unnecessary because, except for counterterrorism operations against Islamic State militants and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the United States is not engaged in hostilities in or affecting Yemen.
He said there are no U.S. military personnel in Yemen accompanying the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthis, although he acknowledged that the U.S. has provided limited support to the coalition, including intelligence sharing, logistics support and — until recently — in-flight refueling of non-U.S. aircraft.
The president also said that the measure would harm bilateral relations and interferes with his constitutional power as commander in chief.
He said the U.S. is providing the support to protect the safety of more than 80,000 Americans who live in certain areas of the coalition countries subject to Houthi attacks from Yemen.
"Houthis, supported by Iran, have used missiles, armed drones and explosive boats to attack civilian and military targets in those coalition countries, including areas frequented by American citizens, such as the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia," Trump said. "In addition, the conflict in Yemen represents a ‘cheap’ and inexpensive way for Iran to cause trouble for the United States and for our ally, Saudi Arabia."
House approval of the resolution came earlier this month on a 247-175 vote. The Senate vote last month was 54-46.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement Tuesday night saying: "The conflict in Yemen is a horrific humanitarian crisis that challenges the conscience of the entire world. Yet the president has cynically chosen to contravene a bipartisan, bicameral vote of the Congress and perpetuate America’s shameful involvement in this heartbreaking crisis."
Pelosi added: "This conflict must end, now. The House of Representatives calls on the president to put peace before politics, and work with us to advance an enduring solution to end this crisis and save lives."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Trump’s veto "shows the world he is determined to keep aiding a Saudi-backed war that has killed thousands of civilians and pushed millions more to the brink of starvation."
Kaine accused Trump of turning a blind eye to Khashoggi’s killing and the jailing of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
"I hope my colleagues will show we won’t tolerate the Trump administration’s deference to Saudi Arabia at the expense of American security interests by voting to override this veto," Kaine said.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, acknowledged the dire situation in Yemen for civilians, but spoke out in opposition to the measure when it was passed. McCaul said it was an abuse of the War Powers Resolution and predicted it could disrupt U.S. security cooperation agreements with more than 100 countries.
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid group, said, "This veto by President Trump is morally wrong and strategically wrongheaded. It sets back the hopes for respite for the Yemeni people, and leaves the U.S. upholding a failed strategy."
Trump issued his first veto last month on legislation related to immigration. Trump had declared a national emergency so he could use more money to construct a border wall. Congress voted to block the emergency declaration, and the president vetoed that measure.
Bloomberg: Poland and U.S. Closing In on Deal to Build ‘Fort Trump,’ Sources Say
Nick Wadhams Marek Strzelecki
April 16, 2019 12:14 PM
Poland is nearing a deal with the U.S. to establish an American military base in the former Communist bloc country, according to people familiar with the matter — an outpost the Poles see as a deterrent to Russian aggression and that the Kremlin would likely consider a provocation.
If a deal is reached, President Donald Trump is considering traveling to Poland in the fall, in part to commemorate the agreement. But it’s unclear whether he fully supports the idea, even after he said during a September meeting with Polish President Andrzsej Duda that the U.S. was looking “very seriously” at establishing a base. Duda, who joked that it could be named “Fort Trump,” remains committed to contribute $2 billion for its construction.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki planned to visit Washington this week to discuss the proposal with Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, but his trip was postponed, according to two people familiar with the matter. He’s traveling to Chicago and New York instead.
Trump has often criticized NATO allies for not spending enough toward their own defense, and he’s considered demanding that countries hosting U.S. forces pay the full cost of the bases, plus as much as a 50 percent premium for the privilege, according to people familiar with the matter. But the American president has an affinity for Poland, a NATO member whose government has repeatedly clashed with European Union leaders in Brussels over rule-of-law issues. Duda has employed Trump-style anti-migrant and nationalist rhetoric.
Trump stopped in Warsaw in July 2017 to deliver a speech before attending a Group of 20 summit in Hamburg.
The U.S. now rotates about 4,000 troops in and out of Poland. Rather than immediately begin constructing a base, that arrangement could be bolstered, according to a person familiar with the White House’s thinking. Polish and U.S. officials now don’t want an eventual base to be named “Fort Trump,” according to a person familiar with the discussions.
All of the people asked not to be identified because the issue concerns national security.
The plan is now being considered in what’s known as an inter-agency process led by the Defense Department with input from Bolton, the national security adviser, the people said.
“The United States and Poland are engaged in ongoing discussions on the status of forces, and we have nothing to announce at this time,” Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an email.
A spokesman for Duda said that talks are progressing but declined to comment further. One person familiar with the matter described the outstanding issues as largely technical matters, such as how many more U.S. troops would be sent to Poland, where precisely they’d be located and what equipment they’d bring with them.
Earlier: NATO’s Muted 70th Birthday Overshadowed by Skeptic-in-Chief
Polish leaders have been eager to increase the U.S. presence in their country and have asked American officials for the permanent stationing of a a full Army brigade. Like many eastern European states, the Poles grew more wary of Russian territorial aspirations after the Kremlin annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in 2014.
After the Crimea episode, the U.S. and allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization established a constant, but fluctuating, rotation of troops in Poland. The Poles have argued for a permanent, costlier plan, including a headquarters.
Polish officials raised the subject when Vice President Mike Pence visited the country in February, according to a person familiar with the talks.
The idea of permanently stationing U.S. troops in Poland could prompt opposition from European allies chagrined by the country’s turn toward autocracy, including a revamping of the judiciary that critics say would subordinate courts to politicians.
And some U.S. critics have said the permanent stationing of American forces in Poland would be a disincentive for additional defense spending by NATO members. Poland says it already meets the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense.
Military Times: Iran labels all US forces in Middle East ‘terrorists’
By: The Associated Press 22 hours ago
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s lawmakers on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill labeling U.S. forces in the Middle East as terrorist, a day after the U.S. terrorism designation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard formally took effect, state TV reported.
Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami introduced the bill authorizing the government to act firmly in response to “terrorist actions” by U.S. forces. It demands authorities use “legal, political and diplomatic” measures to neutralize the American move, without elaborating.
The U.S. move aims at "thwarting Iran’s influence," and shows that America’s longstanding sanctions against Iran have become ineffective, Hatami told lawmakers.
During the debate, some hard-liner lawmakers had demanded listing the entire U.S. Army and security forces as terrorist.
The TV report said 204 lawmakers approved the bill, out of 207 present at the session in the 290-seat chamber.
Two lawmakers voted against the bill and one abstained.
However, it remains unclear how the bill’s passage in parliament would affect the Guard’s activities in the Persian Gulf, where the U.S. Navy has in the past accused Iranian patrol boats of harassing American warships.
The Revolutionary Guard has forces and wields influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and is in charge of Iranian missiles that have U.S. bases in their range.
The Guard’s designation — the first-ever for an entire division of another government — adds another layer of sanctions to the powerful paramilitary force and makes it a crime under U.S. jurisdiction to provide it with material support.
Depending on how broadly "material support" is interpreted, the designation may complicate U.S. diplomatic and military cooperation with certain third-country officials, notably in Iraq and Lebanon, who deal with the Guard.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation with great fanfare last week.