TIME politics

Why Veterans Affairs Can’t Root Out Its Corruption

VA Secretary Shinseki Testifies Before Senate On State Of VA Health Care
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Eric Shinseki may be gone, but there are still indefensible civil service rules in place that put failing bureaucrats' job security ahead of the safety of the veterans they should be serving.

A pair of scathing reports last week on the growing scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout the VA, putting veterans across the country at risk.

The independent VA Inspector General’s report was brutal in its assessment. Department officials at the Phoenix VA Health Care System used tricks to hide months-long delays faced by veterans seeking appointments. This fraud increased hospital administrators’ chances of netting cash bonuses and salary increases while jeopardizing veterans’ health, the report implied. According to the IG, similar scams are taking place at VA hospitals throughout the country.

A second report, done by the VA itself, was even bleaker. Many VA medical centers are plagued by a systemic lack of integrity, it said. Schedulers were pressured into manipulating data in order to make appointment wait times appear shorter, and staff at nearly two-thirds of 216 VA medical facilities reviewed were instructed to cook the books.

Clearly the VA’s entire system for providing timely medical care is in dire need of reform. A number of lawmakers, including me, are in the process of introducing legislation that would do just that. But those reforms will be impossible to implement if the people responsible for this corruption remain entrenched in the VA’s bureaucracy.

As the reports make painfully obvious, the environment in today’s Veterans Health Administration is one in which some VA health officials are so driven in their quest for performance bonuses, promotions and power that they are willing to lie, cheat and put the health of the veterans they were hired to serve at risk. These are not people who deserve a second chance. They deserve a swift exit from federal employment, and possibly an entrance to federal prison. Any VA administrator who ordered subordinates to purposely manipulate appointment data should be fired immediately.

Unfortunately that is currently impossible due to indefensible civil service rules that put the job security of failing VA bureaucrats ahead of the safety of the veterans they are charged with serving. In his last speech as VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki essentially admitted this when he said he had “initiated the process for the removal” of the Phoenix hospital’s senior leaders.

The process Shinseki was referring to can drag on for long periods of time, involves miles of red tape and does not guarantee the removal of anyone, as it is subject to review by something called the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency with complete power to overturn federal personnel actions on the basis of “due process violations” and other legal technicalities.

Last month the House of Representatives passed a bill that would give the VA secretary the authority to sidestep this arcane process and immediately fire VA senior executives based on performance. By an overwhelming bipartisan 390-33 vote, lawmakers sent the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act, which I introduced, to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future amid concerns that it would trample on the “rights” and “protections” of failing VA executives. Ironically, the same lawmakers voicing these concerns do not afford similar “rights” and “protections” to their own employees, making their opposition to the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act all the more incomprehensible.

The VA is in the middle of the biggest healthcare scandal in its history. At least 42 VA medical facilities are under federal investigation for lying about the extent of the VA’s delays in care problem, and by the department’s own count at least 23 veterans are dead due to recent delays in VA medical care. To date, despite numerous requests from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs regarding disciplinary actions in response to these deaths and more than a dozen other recent preventable fatalities at a host of VA medical facilities around the country, there is no indication that any VA executives have been fired. Instead, department officials have pointed to non-disciplinary actions, such as employee transfers, resignations and retirements, or bureaucratic slaps on the wrist, such as temporary written warnings, in order to create the appearance of accountability.

When mismanagement and negligence of this scale go essentially unpunished, it sends a message of cold, hard indifference to veterans seeking care at the VA, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dedicated department employees who go to work every day trying to do the right thing.

In order to pave the way for serious and substantive reforms that will help the VA to effectively deliver the care and benefits our veterans have earned, we need to root out the culture of corruption and complacency that has taken hold within the department and is contributing to all of its most pressing challenges. The only way to accomplish this is by getting rid of the VA leaders whose negligence and dishonesty have enabled these problems to fester.

The only right executives who contributed to the VA scandal should have is the right to be shown the door. It would be a grave mistake for the Senate to stand in the doorway, blocking their exit.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Chumuckla, Fla., is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: June 2

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the News: New carbon rules are coming; lone soldier in captivity in Afghanistan released; GOP, soldiers react to release; why the probe into Carl Icahn, Phil Mickelson and William Walters may have hit a 'snag'; and the 8 primaries to watch

  • Obama’s new carbon rules are coming; here’s a breakdown of what’s coming from Mother Jones [Mother Jones]
  • New carbon rules the next step in Obama’s war on coal [TIME]
  • The New York Times on why: “It is clear Mr. Obama’s immediate goal is not to solve the emissions problem, but to get the country moving faster in the right direction…Mr. Obama’s effort is aimed not just at charting a new course inside the United States, but at reclaiming for the country the mantle of international leadership in battling climate change. If the policy coaxes more ambitious goals from other countries, experts say it could be a turning point.” [NYT]
  • ICYMI: “Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier still in captivity in Afghanistan, was released and returned to U.S. special operations forces Saturday.” [TIME]
  • Joy about Bergdahl release gives way to questions [Washington Post]
  • From TIME’s Mark Thompson: None Dare Call it Ransom [TIME]
  • On CNN, Susan Rice responds to political debate over Bergdahl’s release: “What we did was ensure that, as always, the United States doesn’t leave a man or a woman on the battlefield.” [CNN]
  • Sen. Ted Cruz talks Benghazi on ABC’s “This Week”: “What I think is that she has deliberately stonewalled…The American people deserve the truth; our men and women in harm’s way deserve the truth.”
  • Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on release of Hard Choices chapter on Benghazi : “Hillary Clinton is politics 24/7″ [Huffington Post]
  • The Obama Paradox [Politico]
  • “President Obama will look to boost the fledgling government in Ukraine as he travels to Europe this week, but a series of events with Russian President Vladimir Putin are certain to renew questions about the president’s handling of the crisis in the region.” [The Hill]
  • “Questions about how to apply securities law to activist investors could complicate any potential insider trading case against billionaire Carl Icahn, pro-golfer Phil Mickelson and Las Vegas gambler William Walters, legal experts said” [Reuters]
  • Insider trading probe hits a snag [WSJ]
  • The 8 primary races to watch Tuesday [National Journal]

 

TIME Military

None Dare Call It Ransom

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in handout photo provided by U.S. Army
Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal. U.S. Army / Reuters

Troops weigh in on the wisdom of swapping one of their own for imprisoned Taliban leaders

There are still 73,547 U.S. troops unaccounted for from World War II. Better technology has steadily reduced MIAs—down to 7,883 in Korea, and 1,642 in Vietnam.

In Afghanistan, there was only a single American soldier missing in action. The Taliban captured Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl nearly five years ago, and finally freed him Saturday.

That was the good news. The bad news is that the U.S. government agreed to release five top Taliban officials from the prison at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom. The five will be held by Qatar for a year.

Was it a good deal?

Troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq cheered the outcome, although they expressed concern that Bergdahl may have been snatched during an unauthorized absence from his post in southeast Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.

But, as might be expected, there is a lot of unalloyed joy. “As an active participant in door-to-door, close-quarters combat in Iraq, one of the things that brought me hope was the fact that I was valued enough by my country that I knew my nation would do everything within its power to bring me home if I was ever captured,” says Brock McNabb, who spent 28 months in Iraq as an Army medic with 1st Infantry Division, and now is an Air Force mental health officer. “Each soldier in the U.S. is a valued treasure, and we knew that if we were ever captured, our guys wouldn’t stop looking.”

Former soldier Alex Horton summed up the unconditional love soldiers have for those with whom they share war. “If I had been captured in Iraq, I’d hate to think about anyone risking their lives in an operation to get me back alive,” he says. “But I know it would happen because our ethos to never leave anyone behind is unconditional. There’s not a place in the world I wouldn’t go to bring back the men who served with me. That was true for combat, and it will be true for the rest of my life.”

But beyond human elation was caution. “Is it a good deal? Probably not,” says Ron Capps, who spent 25 years as an Army officer, including time in Afghanistan. “But it’s also probably the only deal we could make to bring an American soldier back home.”

The rules for prisoner swaps that are traditional during state-on-state conflicts don’t exist in messy wars like that in Afghanistan. “We are not dealing with a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, so this looks more like a swap of spies across the Gleinicke Bridge in Potsdam than a traditional exchange of POWs after a cessation of hostilities,” Capps adds, referring to the Cold War’s “Bridge of Spies” in Germany. Yet it does offer a glimmer of hope. “It does show us is that there are elements within the Taliban,” Capps says, “who can be trusted to carry out diplomatic tasks like this.”

But such swaps are murky affairs even when governed by the formal rules of war, which is how Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel explained it Sunday. “This was a prisoner-of-war exchange,” he said flatly (although whoever held Bergdahl didn’t adhere to international POW rules). “He was a prisoner.”

Some lawmakers fear that by showing the U.S. is willing to surrender top foes for an American, Washington has just made every U.S. soldier, Marine, sailor or airman in Afghanistan—or anywhere else—more vulnerable to capture. “The question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?” Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “What does this tell terrorists? That if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after? I mean, that’s a very dangerous precedent.”

Former Marine William Treseder acknowledged that the still-unanswered questions surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance raise concerns. Some reports say he simply walked away from his post; others suggest he was snatched by the Taliban when he lagged behind while on a patrol. “If he was indeed off-base, or if his capture was his own fault in any direct way, then I don’t think I would have the same feelings as someone captured as part of some standard combat operation,” he says. “This would be survivor’s guilt on a whole new level.”

But speaking for himself, he adds, if Treseder fell into enemy hands through no fault of his own “then I would expect the Marine Corps—not necessarily the country—to figure out a way to get me back,” he says. “Even if it wasn’t authorized.”

Past and present military personnel are leery of the precedent the trade has created. “We’ll have to wait and see what the five Taliban leaders do,” former Army officer Capps says, “before we can judge the real cost.”

TIME White House

New Carbon Rules the Next Step in Obama’s War on Coal

For five years, the coal industry and its fossil-fueled allies in the Republican Party have accused the Obama Administration of waging a war on coal. They claim the administration’s new plan to limit carbon emissions at existing power plants is really about carbon emissions at existing coal plants. They see the carbon rules that the president announced Monday, like his previous rules limiting mercury, smog, and coal ash, as a thinly disguised effort to make coal power uneconomical.

They’re right, of course.

Obamaworld likes to portray its efforts to clean up power plants as a war on pollution in general, not a war on coal in particular, but it just so happens that coal spews most of the pollution from power plants. It’s America’s leading contributor to global warming, producing three-fourths of our carbon emissions from electricity, even though it generates just over one third of our electricity. It’s also the dominant source of mercury and other toxics that foul our air and damage our health. It’s filthy stuff. When Obama said Saturday that his carbon rules will prevent 100,000 asthma attacks in Year One, he wasn’t describing the health benefits of emitting less carbon dioxide; he was describing the health benefits of burning less coal.

So let’s face it: When Obama talks up his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, he really means all-of-the-above-except-the-black-rocks-below. In the 21st century, any national leader that takes environmental protection and the fate of the planet seriously will need to launch a war on coal, and Obama takes it very seriously. He hasn’t advertised his war on coal—it would be questionable politics in swing states like Ohio or Virginia, and even his home state of Illinois—but he’s fought it with vigor.

And even before the new carbon crackdown—not to mention stricter ozone standards that are still in the works—he’s been winning. In the Obama era, utilities have already retired or announced the retirement of nearly one third of the nation’s coal plants, eliminating about one fifth of the nation’s coal generation capacity. The surviving coal plants have faced steadily increasing environmental compliance costs, and cheap natural gas has stolen a big chunk of their market share. Gas prices have crept up a bit in the last year, which has slowed the decline in coal generation, but with U.S. electricity use now virtually flat, nobody expects a coal renaissance.

In fact, after a huge boost from the Obama stimulus bill, wind and solar plants are getting cheap, too, and they’re increasingly viable replacements for coal, providing 95 percent of the new capacity added in the first quarter of 2014. An Oklahoma utility that is shutting down three coal plants recently requested bids for 200 megawatts of wind power; the bids came in so low that the utility purchased 600 megawatts. In Kentucky, coal-friendly legislators have introduced a bill to end a requirement that utilities purchase the lowest-cost power; rock-bottom prices used to be coal’s trump card, but no more.

The EPA’s effort to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent will take the war on coal to the next level, and will probably inspire a new round of retirements. The industry has significantly reduced its emissions of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic pollutants by installing scrubbers and other mitigation equipment. But scrubbers can’t scrub carbon. The Obama stimulus did help finance several efforts to capture and store carbon from coal plants, a rare deviation from the administration’s regulatory war on coal, but so far those “clean coal” projects have been uneconomical despite the extremely generous federal subsidies.

“Coal is dead,” says Jon Wellinghoff, who served as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2009 until 2013. “Nobody wants a new plant, and the old ones are going to shut down one by one. I just don’t see a future for coal in the U.S.”

But if coal is no longer the cheapest source of electricity, it is still the largest source, and existing coal plants still have one big advantage over planned wind and solar farms: They’re already built. It’s hard to say that coal is dead when it still has 275,000 megawatts of capacity that isn’t scheduled to retire. The industry warns that the war on coal will ratchet up utility bills in coal-dependent regions, while threatening the reliability of the grid. Coal provides 24-hour “baseload” power whether or not the sun is shining or the wind is blowing; the U.S. electricity supply barely kept up with demand during the extreme freeze created by last winter’s “polar vortex,” and a new wave of coal shutdowns could further limit supply.

“Last winter, the grid was pushed to the edge,” says one industry official. “With these new regulations, it could get pushed over the cliff.”

The National Mining Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other coal-friendly groups are already raising alarms about gigantic rate increases. But they’ve always raised alarms about gigantic rate increases whenever they’ve faced new regulations; that industry official admitted “there’s been some crying of wolf in the past.” Dirty coal-fired electricity will get somewhat more expensive, which is appropriate, since its price ought to reflect the hidden costs of its dirtiness. But even the nightmare scenario posed by a new Chamber study—an 0.2 percent hit to annual economic output—seemed relatively modest compared to the apocalyptic rhetoric that accompanied it. And the EPA noted in a response on its website that three fourths of the Chamber study’s “alleged cost estimates” came from carbon-capture requirements for gas plants, which will not be included in the new rules.

Those rules, after all, will be aimed at coal plants, even though Obama is likely to obfuscate about that politically inconvenient truth tomorrow. In the 2012 campaign, he actually ran ads reminding Ohio voters of Mitt Romney’s long-ago crusade against a massive coal plant in Salem, Massachusetts. “That plant kills people,” Romney had said, accurately, at a 2003 news conference.

Not anymore, though. On Sunday, as Obama prepared for one of the biggest moments of his presidency, the Salem Harbor Station shut down after more than sixty years in operation, the latest casualty of a just but undeclared war on coal.

TIME White House

Republicans Criticize White House Over Bergdahl Exchange

Ted Cruz, Mike Rogers and others say the terms of Bergdahl's release could put the U.S. in a dangerous position

A day after the country celebrated U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s return to American custody after nearly five years in captivity, the White House found itself playing defense Sunday for failing to notify lawmakers in advance before transferring five Guantanamo Bay detainees in exchange for Bergdahl’s freedom.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused President Barack Obama in a statement Saturday of breaking the law by failing to give Congress proper notice of the transfers. The law requires the White House to tell lawmakers about Guantanamo transfers 30 days in advance. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, told Congress about the five Bergdahl transfers Saturday morning, just hours before the prisoners were on a plane and headed to Qatar.

“In executing this transfer,” McKeon and Inhofe said, “the President … clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress thirty days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated. Our joy at Sgt. Berghdal’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.”

Obama himself signed the 30 days rule into law last year. He also wrote a controversial signing statement along with that law in which he said he believes the President is allowed to “act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.” The Bergdahl deal is the first in which he’s put this belief into practice. (It’s also worth noting Obama campaigned in 2008 against the use of signing statements to enhance the executive branch’s power).

Hagel, along with White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, were out playing defense for the White House on Sunday. Hagel said while en route to Afghanistan Sunday that Bergdahl’s worsening health meant the White House needed to move quickly to make the exchange. And Rice, making the Sunday show rounds, told CNN’s Candy Crowley that the administration had previously told Congress a Bergdahl-style scenario was a possibility.

” … this opportunity is one that has been briefed to Congress when we had past potential to have this kind of arrangement,” said Rice on CNN’s State of the Union.

“So it wasn’t unknown to Congress,” Rice continued. “The Department of Defense consulted with the Department of Justice. And given the acute urgency of the — the health condition of Sgt. — Sgt. Bergdahl and given the president’s constitutional responsibilities, it was determined that it was necessary and appropriate not to adhere to the 30 day notification requirement, because it would have potentially meant that the opportunity to get Sgt. Bergdahl would have been lost.”

Other Republicans, meanwhile, knocked the White House over what they said was a move that will put U.S. troops at risk in the future. Republican Texas Senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz pounded home that point Sunday on This Week, saying the administration paid a “dangerous price” to retrieve Bergdahl.

“How many soldiers lost their lives to capture those five Taliban terrorists that we just released?” Cruz asked ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Ambassador [Susan] Rice basically said to you, yes, U.S. policy has changed. Now we make deals with terrorists. And the question going forward is, have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers? What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we’ve gone after?”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), meanwhile, said during Sunday State of the Union that “if you negotiate here, you’ve sent a message to every al-Qaeda group in the world — by the way, some who are holding U.S. hostages today — that there is some value now in that hostage in a way that they didn’t have before.”

And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former P.O.W. himself, was also skeptical of the exchange. “I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan,” said McCain in a statement.

TIME Afghanistan

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Lone American Still Held in Afghanistan, Safely Returned

US-POLITICS-OBAMA
President Barack Obama speaks with Jani Bergdahl, left, and Bob Bergdahl, right, the parents of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, after the announcement that Bowe Bergdahl has been released from captivity, May 31, 2014. Ngan Mandel—AFP/Getty Images

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier still in captivity in Afghanistan, was released and returned to U.S. special operations forces Saturday. Berghdal had been held since 2009, when he was captured in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province.

Berghdal was released in exchange for five Afghan Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, who have been delivered into Qatari custody, officials said.

“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten. His parents thought about him and prayed for him every single day,” President Barack Obama said alongside Bergdahl’s parents at the White House Saturday. “And he wasn’t forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”

The five prisoners are Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq, an administration official confirmed.

According to a senior Defense official, the handover occurred at approximately 10:30 am Eastern time Saturday along the eastern Afghanistan border with Pakistan, and took place quickly without incident, peacefully and without violence. Berghdal was in the custody of about 18 Taliban fighters and was ushered onto a waiting helicopter by U.S. special operations forces. Once aboard, Berghdal wrote on a paper plate “SF?,” asking over the loud aircraft engines whether he was being rescued by special forces operators. The official said the troops replied loudly “yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Berghdal then broke down crying.

Bergdahl is currently being held at a U.S. forward operating base under the care of American doctors until he is cleared for further travel, at which point he will be transferred to Bagram Airfield.

A 23-year-old private first class at the time of his capture on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl, a native of Hailey, Idaho, was promoted twice during his captivity to the rank of sergeant and is now 28 years old. American officials believe he spent much of his captivity in Pakistan and are not sure when he was moved to Afghanistan for the transfer. The last video showing proof that Berghdal was still alive was seen in January of this year.

Bowe Bergdahl
This file image provided by IntelCenter on Dec. 8, 2010, shows a frame grab from a video released by the Taliban containing footage of a man believed to be Bowe Bergdahl, left. IntelCenter/AP

President Barack Obama called Berghdal’s parents Saturday morning to inform them of their son’s release. “We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home! We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” the Bergdahl family said in a statement. “Today, we are ecstatic!”

The U.S. began efforts to bring about Afghan reconciliation with the Taliban in late 2010, and since May 2011 Bergdahl’s release has “been a central element of our reconciliation efforts,” a senior administration official said Saturday. The transfer was not directly negotiated with the Taliban, but through the Amir of Qatar, officials said, whose help is being called “instrumental” to the agreement. Talks to bring about Berghdal’s release resumed only in the last several weeks, after the Taliban showed interest in resuming dialogue regarding Berghdal and its prisoners being held at Guantanamo. Obama called the Amir Tuesday to confirm the transfers, and the Qataris facilitated the handing over of Bergdahl.

The announcement comes days after President Obama announced that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will end this year, pending a complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2016.

“Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years,” Obama said in a statement Saturday. “Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Qatar is taking security precautions with the former Guantanamo prisoners to ensure U.S. safety is not compromised. “The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back,” Hagel said in a statement. The former detainees will be under a travel ban for a year, and will be subjects to other restrictions on their movement and activities, official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to brief him on the agreement Saturday, he said in a statement.

American officials indicated they believe the transfer will ease the way for reconciliation with the Taliban. “By conducting successful indirect talks with the Taliban’s political commission, this transfer was a part of a broader reconciliation framework,” a senior administration official said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Vietnam war P.O.W., said in a statement Saturday that “all Americans share in the joy that the Bergdahl family feels today and for which they have waited so long.” However, he also expressed skepticism about the future of the five prisoners transferred from Guantanamo.

“I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan,” added McCain.

TIME White House

Jay Carney’s Very Public Life, So Far

Barack Obama announced Friday that his press secretary is leaving his post. Here's a look back of some of Jay Carney's most memorable moments at the White House over the years

TIME White House

Top Obama Spokesman Leaving White House

President Barack Obama announced Friday the departure of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney after more than three years in the post

President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance in the White House Briefing Room on Friday to announce the departure of Press Secretary Jay Carney after more than three years in the post.

Obama praised Carney, his second press secretary, and announced the selection of Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest as his choice to be the next press secretary. Earnest joined Obama’s first presidential campaign in Iowa in 2007, and will take control of the ceremonial flak jacket next month.

“As you know, his name describes his demeanor,” Obama said of his new press secretary. “Josh is an earnest guy, and you can’t find just a nicer individual, even outside of Washington.”

Carney was previously the director of communications for Vice President Joe Biden and is the longest-serving press secretary since Mike McCurry in the Clinton White House. Carney is also a former Washington bureau chief for TIME.

Paying tribute to Carney, Obama called him “one of my closest friends in Washington.”

“I’m going to miss him a lot,” Obama added. “I’m going to continue to rely on him as a friend and advisor.”

Carney said he is excited about his options after leaving the White House, but ruled out speculation that he would accept the vacant post of U.S. Ambassador to Moscow. “I can assure you that my family, having won me back, would not be happy with that outcome,” he said.

Obama’s first press secretary, Robert Gibbs, now runs a strategic communications consultancy and has a contributor contract with cable network MSNBC.

TIME Veterans

VA Challenges Still Loom Despite the Change at the Top

Veterans Affairs Secretary Shinseki Addresses Homeless Veterans Conference
Veterans Affairs chief Eric Shinseki waves goodbye after speaking to veterans Friday morning, shortly before submitting his resignation to President Obama. Win McNamee / Getty Images

Swapping Shinseki for his deputy won’t get to the root of the agency’s problems

President Barack Obama lanced the infected boil that has become the Department of Veterans Affairs Friday by accepting the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki. While that action removes the public face of the expanding scandal, it triggers a series of new complications that means the VA’s woes are far from over.

True, Shinseki’s resignation excises the political problems associated with him sticking around. But it does nothing to ameliorate the deep and persistent rot inside the scheduling schemes that led to lengthy waiting lists that may have contributed to ailing veterans’ deaths. “Ultimately, a change in leadership does not address the root of the VA health care system’s problems of access and appropriate funding levels,” said Joseph Johnston, the national commander of Disabled American Veterans, on behalf of his group’s 1.2 million members.

But Obama made clear—five times as he announced Shinseki’s departure—that Shinseki had become a “distraction” that needed to be jettisoned. This focus on “distraction” puts style over substance, and the President said as much. “The distractions that Ric refers to in part are political,” he conceded. Ending such distractions are important in an election year where members of Obama’s own party were growing insistent that it was time for Shinseki to leave. “We’ve also got to deal with Congress and you guys,” Obama told reporters. “Ric’s judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself. And so, you know, my assessment was, unfortunately, that he was right.

Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson VA

It will be vital for Shinseki’s deputy, Sloan Gibson, and whoever succeeds him (assuming Gibson is not tapped for the top spot), to convince the public that he is furious over what has happened at the VA. Shinseki, according to associates, was furious, but seemed incapable of showing it. That’s a big liability in today’s world, where sound bites masquerade as policy.

In a nutshell, Shinseki’s resignation offer—and Obama’s acceptance—took the wind out of the sails of a growing bipartisan chorus of lawmakers calling for Shinseki’s ouster. But the vacuum his departure creates does nothing about the agency’s deep and abiding problems:

The VA will be politically rudderless until a new secretary is confirmed, even as Gibson assumes control after having been in the No. 2 slot for only three months. The West Point graduate and former Army infantry officer headed the United Service Organizations—the USO of Bob Hope renown—that provides troops with war-zone concerts and airport lounges. “Everything we do at VA is built on a foundation of trust,” Gibson told Congress last month. His first task will be to try to glue that shattered trust back together.

Obama made clear he is seeking a permanent Shinseki replacement. It’s likely to take months before such a candidate is found and confirmed—and then additional time for Shinseki’s successor to get up to speed. “President Obama must move now to appoint an energetic secretary who is unafraid to make bold changes and work quickly and aggressively to change the VA system,” said Paul Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

A new boss might not change much. “Those who surrounded Shinseki shielded him from crucial facts and hid bad news reports, in the process convincing him that some of the department’s most serious, well documented and systemic issues were merely isolated incidents to be ignored,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Eric Shinseki trusted the VA bureaucracy, and the VA bureaucracy let him down.” The VA’s 300,000 employees and complicated rules combine to make such chicanery possible.

Candidates willing to subject themselves to the confirmation process—especially to take command of a troubled agency under intense public and congressional scrutiny—are likely to be few. The fact that the tenure in the job would likely be only about two years also decreases the attraction of volunteering for the slot.

The VA has three major responsibilities: taking care of veterans’ health, providing benefits if they are disabled, and tending to the nation’s 131 veterans’ cemeteries. With the notable exception of wait times, it gets good marks on health care. Benefit claims have been plagued by backlogs, which are slowly shrinking. All this means that any VA secretary has a lot to tend to, and that the wait-list issue is only a small part of the job.

Shinseki appeared to be ready to go down fighting in a speech Friday morning to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a group advocating on an issue on which the VA has made major strides. He said he would be firing the leaders of the Phoenix VA, where delayed appointment may have contributed to as many as 40 deaths. (“I’m glad Shinseki torched Phoenix officials before he left,” former VA employee Alex Horton tweeted. “The amount of deadwood at VA could light a perpetual bonfire.”)

In his early Friday morning speech, Shinseki betrayed no intention of submitting his resignation to the President about an hour later.

“Since 2009, VA has proven that it can fix problems, even big ones,” he said, referring to the year he became head of the agency. As for the waiting-list mess? “This situation,” he insisted as he wrapped up his talk, “can be fixed.”

But after 38 years in uniform—and five at the VA’s helm—it just won’t be Shinseki leading that charge.

TIME 2016 Election

Between The Lines Of Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Book Chapter

Hillary Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the New America Foundation (NAF) conference at the Newseum on May 16, 2014 in Washington. Olivier Douliery—ABACA USA

"Hard Choices" offers an exquisitely lawyerly version of Benghazi that is less inaccurate than some Republican accounts.

If you want the simple truth about Benghazi, it’s this:

  • As protests against an anti-Islamic video raged in 40 countries around the world on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, major American media outlets incorrectly reported that protests preceded the attacks on U.S. buildings in Benghazi, too.
  • Despite evidence the attacks were in fact a coordinated assault by heavily armed Islamic militants, the CIA believed the incorrect media reports and spent the following week repeating them to the Obama administration and members of Congress.
  • The Obama administration and members of Congress in turn repeated them to the public, giving Americans the mistaken impression two months before the 2012 Presidential election that four U.S. officials, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed by demonstrators not terrorists.

If, on the other hand, you want a truth that accommodates the best interests of those who, wittingly or not, contributed to that mistaken impression, you will get this:

There were scores of attackers that night, almost certainly with differing motives… It is inaccurate to state that every single one of them was influenced by this hateful video. It is equally inaccurate to state that none of them were. Both assertions defy not only the evidence but logic as well.

That appears to be the bottom line representation of the origins of the Benghazi attack presented in the 34-page chapter on the subject in Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming book, “Hard Choices,” which was leaked to Politico this week. It is an exquisitely lawyerly, and factually accurate, assertion.

It’s also largely beside the point. No doubt the perpetrators of every terrorist attack of the last 20 years acted with “differing motives.” But no mainstream media outlet or politician took “differing motives” as justification, at the time or months later, to frame 9/11 or the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as the result of popular outrage rather than militancy. In retrospect, the mistaken assertion of “protests” at Benghazi is not hard to understand–in three of the 40 countries where protests were taking place, U.S. facilities were attacked by demonstrators. That doesn’t justify the error.

But the Benghazi narrative has drifted so far from the context of the actual events that it is almost impossible to have a useful debate about it. Indeed, Clinton’s version is substantially more accurate than the version of events offered by some Republicans. The GOP head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Congressman Darrell Issa of California, for example, has said he suspects Hillary Clinton told the Defense Department to “stand down” rather than launch counterstrikes against the Benghazi attackers, even though multiple bipartisan reports, including ones Issa himself signed, find no stand down orders and no communication between Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at the time. In other words, no factual evidence at all.

At some point in the coming 2016 Presidential contest there will be a debate about whether Obama administration officials used the uncertainty generated by (incorrect) media and CIA reports to maximum advantage ahead of the 2012 election. That’s called spin, and Americans have a right to know if political interests affected the presentation of the facts in the days after the Benghazi attacks.

When that debate takes place, however, another simple fact will reemerge. When the White House needed someone to appear on all five Sunday shows on Sept. 16, 2012 to translate the (incorrect) media and CIA version of events at Benghazi to the American public, Hillary Clinton stepped aside and let then-U.N. representative Susan Rice speak. It will be interesting to see if Clinton’s book has anything to say about whether that hard choice was the result of luck, wisdom or sound advice from her aides.

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