5 February, 2019 07:05

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Tuesday, February 5, 2019, which is Chinese New Year, World Nutella Day, African American Coaches Day, and National Weatherperson’s Day.

Today in History:

  • On this day in 1994, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith is convicted in the murder of African-American civil rights leader Medgar Evers, over 30 years after the crime occurred. Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home on June 12, 1963, while his wife, Myrlie, and the couple’s three small children were inside.
  • On February 5, 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida announce indictments of Panama military strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega and 16 associates on drug smuggling and money laundering charges. Noriega, the de facto dictator of Panama since 1983, was charged with smuggling marijuana into the United States, laundering millions of U.S. dollars, and assisting Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel in trafficking cocaine to America. The Panamanian leader denied the charges and threatened expulsion of the 10,000 U.S. service personnel and their families stationed around the Panama Canal.
  • 1960: The South Vietnamese government requests that Washington double U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG-Vietnam) strength from 342 to 685. The advisory group was formed on November 1, 1955 to provide military assistance to South Vietnam. It had replaced U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group Indochina (MAAG-Indochina), which had been providing military assistance to “the forces of France and the Associated States in Indochina” (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) in accordance with President Harry S. Truman’s order of June 27, 1950.
  • 1917: With more than a two-thirds majority, Congress overrides President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the previous week and passes the Immigration Act. The law required a literacy test for immigrants and barred Asiatic laborers, except for those from countries with special treaties or agreements with the United States, such as the Philippines.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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    Stars & Stripes: Congress issues bipartisan call for more transparency from VA
    By NIKKI WENTLING | Stars and Stripes | Published: February 4, 2019
    WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats in Congress asked Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Monday to work with them more closely and openly as the agency implements sweeping reforms in coming months.
    In a letter, leaders of the veterans affairs and appropriations committees urged Wilkie for a “more collaborative relationship with Congress in the near-term.” Since he was confirmed in July, Wilkie’s team at the VA has provided briefings that were “somewhat limited in scope and details,” they wrote.
    “As we begin a new Congress, we expect regular, detailed briefings to continue and that you will take a collaborative approach that maximizes transparency and demonstrates your intent that Congress be a full and true partner in implementation of these critical laws and initiatives,” the letter reads.
    It was signed by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Jon Tester, D-Mont., John Boozman, R-Ark., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., Phil Roe, R-Tenn., Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and John Carter, R-Texas.
    The letter was the latest in a series of calls from lawmakers for more transparency from the VA, though previous pleadings were made largely by Democrats.
    Last week, after the VA publicly announced proposed rules to expand veterans’ access to private doctors, lawmakers and veterans organizations complained about little forewarning or information about the proposals. The draft rules are part of the VA Mission Act, a major VA reform law scheduled to take effect in June that the lawmakers said would “fundamentally transform the delivery of veterans’ health care.”
    In addition to the new law, the VA is also undertaking a multibillion-dollar project to overhaul its electronic health records, as well as improve its claims appeals process and extend benefits to more veteran caregivers.
    Late last year, the VA faced a host of technology problems as it implemented congressionally mandated changes to its GI Bill. The deadline to implement the reforms has been extended to later in 2019.
    “With all of the reforms underway simultaneously, it is vital for the VA to share information openly – even pre-decisional information – so that we can work together and have a common understanding of the impact of the changes, including costs, and are able to assess the impact any changes will have on other parts of VA,” the lawmakers wrote.
    A Senate Committee on Appropriations subpanel, led by Boozman, was scheduled to hold an oversight hearing Tuesday on the electronic health record project. Takano, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, promised a hearing in the “imminent future” about the VA’s proposals for the Mission Act.

    Associated Press: Senate breaks with Trump on Afghanistan, Syria withdrawal
    By: Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press | 11 hours ago
    WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Monday to oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, breaking with President Donald Trump as he calls for a military drawdown in those countries.
    Senators voted 70-26 for the amendment sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The measure says the Islamic State group and al-Qaida militants still pose a serious threat to the United States, and it warns that "a precipitous withdrawal" of U.S. forces from those countries could "allow terrorists to regroup, destabilize critical regions and create vacuums that could be filled by Iran or Russia."
    Trump abruptly tweeted plans for a U.S. pullout from Syria in December, arguing that the Islamic State group had been defeated even though his intelligence chiefs have said it remains a threat. Trump also ordered the military to develop plans to remove up to half of the 14,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
    The strong bipartisan vote comes as Republican senators have increasingly diverged from Trump on foreign policy. When he introduced the amendment last week, McConnell said "ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated."
    McConnell’s amendment, which is nonbinding, would encourage cooperation between the White House and Congress to develop long-term strategies in both nations, "including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily."
    Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the amendment was not a rebuke to Trump, though he added, "we can do things over there which will make us safer here."
    While the majority of senators voted for the amendment, a handful of Republicans voted against it. McConnell’s Kentucky colleague, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, said before the vote that "enough is enough" and the money spent on wars should be spent at home.
    "I want to compliment President Trump for being bold and brave," Paul said.
    Many of the most liberal members of the Senate — including several Democrats who are eyeing presidential runs in 2020 — also voted against the amendment. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others have agreed with Paul that the United States should withdraw, though they have criticized Trump for his sudden announcement.
    McConnell’s provision was added to a wide-ranging foreign policy bill that has been pending on the Senate floor for several weeks. The legislation includes measures supporting Israel and Jordan and would slap sanctions on Syrians involved in war crimes. The Senate is expected to vote on the broader measure later this week.
    That bill has split centrist and liberal Democrats due to a provision from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that seeks to counter the global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and their settlements. Israel sees a growing threat from the BDS movement, which has led to increased boycotts of the Jewish state in support of the Palestinians.
    That has led to a "boycott of the boycotts" as Israel pushes back against those aligned with BDS.
    In support of Israel, Rubio’s measures would affirm the legal authority of state and local governments to restrict contracts and take other actions against those "engaged in BDS conduct." Several states are facing lawsuits after taking action against workers supporting BDS boycotts of Israel.
    Opponents say Rubio’s measure infringes on free speech.

    Associated Press: US calls for repatriation of foreign fighters held in Syria
    By: Sarah El Deeb and Matthew Lee, The Associated Press | 11 hours ago
    BEIRUT — The United States on Monday called on other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens who traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State group and who are now being held by Washington’s local partners.
    The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces say they have detained more than 900 foreign fighters during their U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS in northeastern Syria, where they are currently battling to drive the extremists from their last tiny pocket of territory.
    The question of what to do with the detained foreigners has grown increasingly thorny since U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he intends to withdraw all American forces from the country.
    "The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin," U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.
    The statement came as the SDF announced the capture earlier this month of three alleged ISIS fighters, from Germany, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In addition to the hundreds of militants, the SDF are also holding more than 4,000 family members of ISIS fighters.
    Very few countries have expressed readiness to repatriate their citizens, posing a dilemma for the Kurdish-led forces, particularly after the US said it plans to withdraw.
    Last week, France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told French media that a handful of French jihadis had already returned home and more would follow soon after the departure of American troops. Britain refuses to take back citizens who joined ISIS and has reportedly stripped them of their citizenship. Other European countries have remained largely silent about the fate of men and women whom many see as a security threat.
    Palladino commended the SDF’s efforts and said the force has "demonstrated a clear commitment to detain these individuals securely and humanely."
    ISIS has lost virtually all the territory it once held in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but Palladino said it remains “a significant terrorist threat,” adding that “collective action is imperative to address this shared international security challenge.”
    A Defense Department Inspector General report released Monday said ISIS “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that could likely resurge in Syria absent continued counterterrorism pressure.” It said the militants are still able to coordinate offensives “as well as operate as a decentralized insurgency.”
    The campaign against the extremists is currently focused on a small, remote patch of land in eastern Syria, where thousands of civilians remain holed up with the militants. The battles have slowed in recent days to allow civilians to flee from the nearly 1.5 square mile (4 square kilometer) area.
    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely tracks the conflict, said more than 36,000 people, including many foreigners and over 3,000 fighters, have trickled out of the small area in recent weeks. Most were evacuated to displaced people camps but many were also taken for interrogation and questioning.
    Syrian opposition activists said Monday that the SDF killed six children and three women who were trying to flee.
    An SDF spokesman did not immediately respond to request for comment on the shooting.
    The Observatory said the incident occurred Saturday night, adding that the gunfire came from SDF positions. It said the civilians had paid money to smugglers to take them out of the area controlled by the extremists.
    The DeirEzzor 24, an activist collective, said the incident occurred near Tanak oil field, which is close to the front line between IS and the SDF, blaming the Kurdish-led force for the shooting.

    Washington Post: Why is the military estimate of civilian casualties so much smaller than outside tallies? The Pentagon aims to find out.
    By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: February 5, 2019
    WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has launched a major examination of civilian deaths in military operations, responding to criticism it has failed to protect innocent bystanders in counterterrorism wars worldwide.
    The far-reaching initiative to create the military’s first-ever policy on civilian casualties, which senior Pentagon officials began last year, seeks to answer a central question: Why is the military’s estimate of civilian deaths so much smaller than outside tallies?
    Last week, the Pentagon reported 1,190 civilians had been killed by American strikes in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of the campaign against the Islamic State in 2014. Airwars, a respected monitoring group, put the figure at at least 7,438 dead, more than six times higher.
    The effort is underway as the Pentagon races to conclude its campaign against the militant group, unleashing a torrent of airstrikes ahead of the ordered withdrawal from Syria. While officials have described the targeting of the Islamic State as the most precise in history, the civilian death toll has fueled questions about whether the bare-knuckled approach has resulted in greater loss of life.
    Over the last year, officials from across the military have reviewed the way the Pentagon plans and conducts airstrikes, its procedures for handling allegations of civilian deaths and decisions about when to acknowledge errant strikes. The assessment, which includes a classified study commissioned by Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comes as lawmakers press the military to improve its handling of noncombatant deaths.
    That study, whose existence and findings have not previously been made public, recommends a more open, standardized investigations process, but does not seek to determine the root cause of a spike in casualties during the peak of the operation against the Islamic State.
    Watchdog and advocacy groups see the effort as a hopeful sign but remain concerned it could reaffirm existing problems or fall short of the substantial change Pentagon leaders say they want.
    "After two years of watching the death toll grow, it’s really tempting to be satisfied that such a study took place," said Daniel Mahanty, director of the U.S. Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), an advocacy group. "While we’re happy that Pentagon leaders saw this as an important issue, our focus now is to make sure it results in meaningful changes to prevent casualties and ensure those who have been killed get the acknowledgment they deserve."
    The attempt to determine a more accurate picture of the impact of operations on civilians and, to codify steps to prevent deaths in the first place, nonetheless represents a milestone close to two decades after the United States launched its global counterterrorism wars in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
    "This is a massive undertaking, and it’s about freaking time," said one former official familiar with the initiative, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. "This should have happened in 2002."
    In late 2017, discussions about civilian deaths had reached a fever pitch at the Pentagon’s highest levels.
    While the military had developed a system to keep civilians safe, including extensive measures to surveil targets and calculate the damage from explosions, senior officials knew they had a problem.
    The battles to liberate the Islamic State’s twin capitals — Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria — included some of the most significant urban operations involving the United States since the Vietnam War.
    Unlike its previous war in Iraq, the Pentagon had only a small ground presence. Tiny cells of Americans worked to advise local forces pressing into military territory, presenting an additional challenge for air operations.
    Galvanizing a sense of crisis was a massive March 2017 bombing in Mosul that killed civilians. In an indication of the confusion that at times has characterized the U.S. response, officials initially said they were unsure if a U.S. strike was responsible for the destruction. Later, an investigation found that an American bomb had struck a building where militant snipers were positioned, setting off secondary explosions that led to its collapse and killed more than 100 people sheltering inside.
    Much of the scrutiny surrounded President Donald Trump’s steps to empower commanders after he promised a swift end to the war and suggested the United States should "take out" militants’ families. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stressed the Pentagon’s commitment to keeping civilians safe. He also pushed back against critics, saying they were trying to hold the military to a standard of zero errant deaths, something "that has never been achieved before in warfare."
    "I’m never okay with any civilian casualty," Mattis told reporters in a heated December 2017 exchange. "Don’t screw with me on this."
    Behind the scenes that same month, Mattis took the unprecedented step of convening aid and watchdog groups at the Pentagon to confidentially discuss the plight of noncombatants. In that meeting, Mattis said he wanted to make sure his forces were equipped to minimize civilian harm.
    "This was an opening salvo that they were taking this seriously," one participant said.
    In early 2018, Dunford commissioned a study to address the accounting gap. That spring, a team of officials and external experts, led by scholars from the National Defense University, interviewed targeteers and analyzed data from thousands of airstrikes.
    "One of the big arguments we were making was, ‘How do you possibly know if you are minimizing civilian harm if you don’t study it?’ " the former official said.
    While the Pentagon had decided against making the study public, Dunford later ordered it to be partially declassified in response to The Washington Post’s plans to write about it.
    Among its more critical findings, the study says the military has not adequately used outside information to verify whether civilians have died. It also found processes for examining allegations varied between geographic commands.
    Recommendations included clarifying "guidance and doctrine" in operations that rely on partner forces; bolstering investigation cells; and developing a system for condolence payments or making amends.
    On other issues, the study found existing procedures to be adequate and did not recommend changes to tactics or rules of engagement.
    Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, called the report "a mixed bag." "It’s significant they’re pursuing a larger policy for the Pentagon, but the gaps in there and the sanitized findings make it questionable that they can really produce something meaningful," she said.
    Individuals familiar with the study described a disagreement between its authors over how critical it should be. Some believed it missed an opportunity to more directly address shortcomings; others said a scathing analysis might lead operational commanders to dismiss it out of hand.
    Those differences are visible in discussion of the system for distinguishing between combatants and civilians. While the study states the "positive identification" process — which typically relies on drone imagery or intelligence — "has sufficient guidance and structure and therefore does not increase the risk for civilian casualties," that assertion is disputed in a lengthy footnote by several authors who characterize it as a primary culprit.
    If investigators rely on the same information to investigate a strike as they did to rule out the presence of civilians ahead of time, they argued, how could they possibly reach a conclusion that civilians died?
    While the study ruled out several factors as being responsible for the increased civilian bloodshed, it stopped short of addressing what had.
    Larry Lewis, an expert on civilian casualties and an author of the study, said he believed the main drivers included a decision late in the Obama administration to increase the noncombatant value, a figure that represents the highest number of civilians strike planners can put at risk without seeking higher approval. He also pointed to what he characterized as "command emphasis," which he said had resulted in reduced civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the past.
    Senior officials said they "took it as a given" that more strikes would result in more accidental deaths. "If you drop 10,000 bombs in a 5-square-mile area," a senior Joint Staff official said, "then you’re going to see a greater effect against the enemy and also some greater impact on civilians."
    After the study concluded last spring, officials began using the recommendations to develop a new policy. That effort, which has included tabletop exercises and workshops on such issues as condolence payments, is expected to conclude in late 2019.
    As the process got underway, Congress was moving to require greater action. Responding to the spike in civilian deaths, lawmakers included measures in the annual defense bill to name a Pentagon coordinator and mandate greater transparency. Advocates saw the selection of David Trachtenberg, a higher-ranking official than the legislation required, as a positive move.
    In a recent interview, Trachtenberg said the department would consider a range of changes, from procedures to prepare air raids to post-strike assessments.
    "War is a messy business so we’re not perfect," he said. But, "there is a serious commitment to doing what we need to do."
    The Joint Staff has started to update internal manuals, while casualty investigators have increased their use of external information. "We’re not waiting," the Joint Staff official said.
    Officials expressed confidence the initiative would not be affected by Mattis’s resignation in December. A Pentagon spokesman said Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan supported the effort "to evaluate and — where possible — improve our ability to minimize civilian harm in our military operations and to be transparent when civilian casualties do occur."
    While advocacy groups expressed reservations about the scope of the study and policy review, they praised the Pentagon for seeking to improve a system that is far more developed than the nations it fights alongside in Iraq and Syria.
    But the military has already taken a step back ahead of the withdrawal from Syria, independent monitors said.
    The military has reported over 1,600 strikes in Iraq and Syria since Trump’s Dec. 16 declaration, accounting for a fifth of American strikes since 2014. But, in a shift, the Pentagon has omitted details on strike dates and locations, making it harder for outside groups to verify casualty reports.
    Airwars director Chris Woods described it as a "fairly fundamental" reversal of what has been an increasingly open system. Military officials cited operational concerns but did not provide details.
    "Until these issues are embedded in the DNA of the Pentagon and its various military commands, decisions by different parts of the military will be able to impair how the department handles civilian harm," Woods said.

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