TIME Australia

Bloodcurdling Images of Australian Jihadists Puts ‘Lucky Country’ on Edge

Australians protest Israeli attacks in Melbourne
Thousands of people stage a demonstration to protest the Israeli ongoing attacks in Gaza on July 26, 2014, in Melbourne, Australia. Recep Sakar—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Shocking photos emerge amid fears that the worsening conflict in Gaza will only prompt more young radical Muslims to enter the fray

The phenomenon of Australian jihadists fighting in the Middle East took a disturbing new turn last week when photos of a Caucasian man in mujahedin fatigues holding decapitated heads were posted on Twitter.

It follows the uploading last month of a YouTube video by the extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) of two men with thick Australian accents calling on Westerners to join their violent quest to create a Muslim caliphate.

One of the pair, a teenager from Melbourne identified in the video as Abu Bakr al-Australi, later detonated an explosive belt in a crowded Baghdad marketplace, killing five people and wounding 90 more. He was the second Australian suicide bomber praised by ISIS in recent weeks; an estimated 200 Australian jihadists are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The figure puts Australia in the unenviable position as the highest foreign per capita contributor to the conflict in the Middle East, and providing the largest contingent of foreign fighters from a developed nation. And there are fears that the worsening conflict in Gaza will only prompt more radical young Muslims to enter the fray.

“The government is gravely concerned by the fact that Australian citizens are heading to Iraq and Syria not only to fight but to take leadership roles,” Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in parliament last week. She paused before adding, “There’s a real danger that these extremists also come back home as trained terrorists and pose a threat to our security.”

The man holding the decapitated heads in the Twitter feed turned out to be Khaled Sharrouf, a boxer from Sydney who was jailed for four years in 2005 for his role in planning the most serious terrorist plot Australia has ever seen. Despite his notoriety, Sharrouf managed to flee while on parole in January by using his brother’s passport to board a flight from Sydney to Southeast Asia from where he made his way to Syria.

The security breakdown has made Canberra redouble efforts to protect the nation from jihadists in the event they return home. Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office added ISIS to its list of terrorists organizations, making it a crime for an Australian to join them punishable with up to 25 years imprisonment.

On advice from intelligence agencies, the Foreign Ministry has canceled the passports of 40 Australians suspected of extremist links. More than $700 million in additional funding will be injected into customs and border patrol over the next six years. In 2015 the service will be streamlined under a tough new national-security agency named the Australian Border Force.

Professor Gary Bouma, acting director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Melbourne’s Monash University, agrees that returning jihadists pose “a very serious problem, as they will be ideologically energized.” But he adds some will have been pacified after witnessing the “hideous gore of battle and the unrighteousness of all sides.”

“The first thing that needs to happen is those people need to be reintegrated into society,” Bouma says. “That means counseling, getting them a job and ensuring their cultural and social needs are met. It’s a much healthier approach than isolating them.”

The leader of an Australian Muslim organization who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity says calling foreign combatants in Syria “terrorists” was wrong, as many had gone there to protect family members from President Bashar Assad’s repressive regime, which has unleashed torture, mass killings, starvation and chemical weapons upon Syrian civilians.

“The idea of them being terrorists just because they go to fight overseas, that is not a fair thing to say,” he says. “It’s also unreasonable to say just because they fought in Syria that they’re going to do the same thing when they come back home. There will always be one or two crazy fanatics among them, but they’re a minority. They’d have to be really misguided to try something here.”

Another community leader, Samier Dandan, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, has accused the government of double standards by outlawing those who fight in Syria while allowing others, namely members of Australia’s Jewish community, to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“It’s hard when you say something to one side, and they look and say ‘How come we’re not being treated the same?’ The law should be across everyone,” Dandan told the Australian Associated Press.

However, Rafael Epstein, author of Prisoner X, a book about an Australian lawyer who fought with the IDF and worked as an operative with Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, before going rogue, insists Dandan’s comparison is flawed.

“What he is saying is someone who fights for Israel will be just as radicalized and have just as many [warring] skills to pose a security risk to Australia,” Epstein says. “But the values under which someone would fight for Israel, a democratic country with the rule of law, are very different to the values someone would fight for under ISIS, and they’d be much closer to Australia’s values than ISIS’s.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott agrees. “The best thing we can do … is to ensure that jihadis do not come back to this country,” he said last month.

Whether that will be enough to maintain Australia’s record as one of the few major U.S. military partners in Afghanistan and Iraq to not have suffered a terrorist attack on its own soil remains open for discussion.

“U can’t stop me and trust me if I wanted to attack aus [sic] I could have easily,” tweeted convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf in a message taunting Australian federal police posted from the battleground in Syria. “I love to slaughter use [sic] and ALLAH LOVES when u dogs r slaughtered.”

TIME Iraq

Islamist Militants Raze Ancient Shrine in Mosul

The monument to the purported burial place of the prophet Younis was erected around 1393

+ READ ARTICLE

The Islamist militants who now control a large swath of northern Iraq destroyed a centuries-old shrine purported to be the tomb of the Biblical figure Jonah Thursday.

Militants from the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rigged the Nabi Younus mosque with explosives and leveled it in front of a large crowd, AFP reports. The shrine was built at the purported burial place of Younis—known in the Bible as Jonah—and once displayed a tooth believers held to be that of the whale in which Jonah survived for a time.

The Sunni militant group ISIS, who subscribe to an austere form of Islam based on a strict interpretation of Shariah law, has declared a caliphate in northern Iraq after overrunning much of the country in recent weeks. The group has razed or damaged 30 shrines and 15 additional sites in and around Mosul, an anonymous official told AFP.

“But the worst destruction was of Nabi Yunus, which has been turned to dust,” he said.

The Nabi Younus mosque was erected atop the ruins of an old Christian church, which itself was built at the site of an ancient palace once located near the town of Nineva, located just across the Tigris River from Mosul.

 

TIME Iraq

UN: ISIS Orders Women and Girls in Mosul to Undergo Genital Mutilation

"This is not the will of Iraqi people," U.N. humanitarian coordinator says

Islamic extremists who control parts of northern Iraq have ordered girls and women in and around the city of Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation, a United Nations official said Thursday.

Nearly 4 million girls could be affected by the “fatwa” issued by the militant group that refers to itself as the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq Jacqueline Badcock told reporters in Geneva via videolink from Iraq.

“This is something very new for Iraq, particularly in this area, and is of grave concern and does need to be addressed,” she said according to Reuters. “This is not the will of Iraqi people, or the women of Iraq in these vulnerable areas covered by terrorists.”

[Reuters]

TIME foreign affairs

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Tragedy Fuels the U.S. Intervention Machine

John McCain
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticizes the Obama administration during a Jackson, Miss., runoff rally in support of Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran at the Mississippi War Memorial in Jackson, Miss., June 23, 2014. Rogelio V. Solis—AP

Whatever happened in Ukrainian airspace doesn’t immediately or obviously involve the United States.

Apart from the probable cause of its destruction, we know almost nothing about the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 that was “blown out of the sky” yesterday over eastern Ukraine, according to Vice President Joe Biden. President Obama confirmed today that one American was among the dead and that separatists with ties to Russia are allowing inspectors to search the wreckage area. In today’s press conference, Obama stressed the need to get real facts — as opposed to misinformed speculation — before deciding on next steps.

Yet even with little in the way of concrete knowledge — much less clear, direct ties to American lives and interests — what might be called the Great U.S. Intervention Machine is already kicking into high gear. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

After a decade-plus of disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (including almost 7,000 American soldiers) and constitutionally dubious and strategically vague interventions in places such as Libya, it is well past time for American politicians, policymakers, and voters to stage a national conversation about U.S. foreign policy. Instead, elected officials and their advisers are always looking for the next crisis over which to puff up their chests and beat war drums.

Which is one of the reasons why Gallup and others report record low numbers of people think the government is up to handling global challenges. Last fall, just 49 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in Washington’s ability to handle international problems. That’s down from a high of 83 percent in 2002, before the Iraq invasion.

In today’s comments, President Obama said that he currently doesn’t “see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic states.” Such caution is not only wise, it’s uncharacteristic for a commander-in-chief who tripled troop strength in Afghanistan (to absolutely no positive effect), added U.S. planes to NATO’s action on Libya without consulting Congress, and was just last year agitating to bomb Syria.

Despite his immediate comments, there’s no question that the downing of the Malaysian plane “will intensify pressure on President Obama to send military help,” observes Jim Warren in The Daily News. Russia expert Damon Wilson, who worked for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, says that no matter what else we learn, it’s time to beef up “sanctions that bite, along with military assistance, including lethal military assistance to Ukraine.” “Whoever did it should pay full price,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the head of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, says. “If it’s by a country, whether directly or indirectly, it could be considered an act of war.”

The immediate response of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2012 Republican presidential, was to appear on Fox News’ Hannity and fulminate that America appears “weak” under the leadership of President Obama and to imply that’s why this sort of thing happens. If the Russian government run by Vladimir Putin or Russian separatists in Ukraine are in any way behind the crash — even “indirectly” — said McCain, there will be “incredible repercussions.”

Exactly what those repercussions might be are anybody’s guess, but McCain’s literal and figurative belligerence is both legendary and representative of a bipartisan Washington consensus that the United States is the world’s policeman. For virtually the length of his time in office, McCain has always been up for some sort of military response, from creating no-fly zones to strategic bombing runs to boots on the ground to supplying arms and training to insurgents wherever he may find them. He was a huge supporter not just of going into Afghanistan to chase down Osama bin Laden and the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks but staying in the “graveyard of empires” and trying to create a liberal Western-style democracy in Kabul and beyond.

Similarly, he pushed loudly not simply for toppling Saddam Hussein but talked up America’s ability to nation-build not just in Iraq but to sculpt the larger Middle East region into something approaching what we have in the United States. Over the past dozen-plus years, he has called for large and small interventions into the former Soviet state of Georgia, Libya, and Syria. He was ready to commit American soldiers to hunting down Boko Haram in Nigeria and to capturing African war lord Joseph Kony. In the 1990s, he wanted Bill Clinton to enter that Balkan civil wars early and often.

In all this, McCain resembles no other politician more than the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, whose hawkishness is undisputed. Like McCain, Clinton has long been an aggressive interventionist, both as a senator from New York and as secretary of state (where her famous attempt to “reset” relations with Russia failed spectacularly when it turned out that the “Reset” button she gave her Soviet counterpart meant “overcharged” rather than the intended conciliatory term). In the wake of Flight MH17 being shot down, Clinton has already said that the act of violence is a sign that Russian leader Vladimir Putin “has gone too far and we are not going to stand idly by.”

For most Americans, the failed wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the folly of unrestrained interventionism. So too do the attempts to arm rebels in Syria who may actually have ties to al Qaeda or other terrorist outfits. Barack Obama’s unilateral and constitutionally dubious deployment of American planes and then forces into Libya under NATO command turned tragic with the death of Amb. Chris Stevens and other Americans, and we still don’t really have any idea of what we were trying to accomplish there.

No one can doubt John McCain’s — or Hillary Clinton’s — patriotism and earnestness when it comes to foreign policy. But in the 21st century, America has little to show for its willingness to inject itself into all the corners of the globe. Neither do many of the nations that we have bombed and invaded and occupied.

Americans overwhelmingly support protecting Americans from terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. They are realistic, however, that the U.S. cannot spread democracy or preserve human rights through militarism.

When the United States uses its unrivaled military power everywhere and all the time, we end up accomplishing far less than hawks desire. Being everywhere and threatening action all the time dissipates American power rather than concentrates it. Contra John McCain and Hillary Clinton, whatever happened in Ukrainian airspace doesn’t immediately or obviously involve the United States, even with the loss of an American citizen. The reflexive call for action is symptomatic of exactly what we need to stop doing, at least if we want to learn from the past dozen-plus years of our own failures.

President Obama is right to move cautiously regarding a U.S. response. He would be wiser still to use the last years of his presidency to begin the hard work of forging a foreign-policy consensus that all Americans can actually get behind, not just in this situation but in all the others we will surely encounter.

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Arrives in Afghanistan to Meet Candidates

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the press conference of the 6th China-U.S. Security and Economic Dialogue and 5th round of China-U.S. High Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange at Diaoyutai State Guest House on July 10, 2014 in Beijing, China.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the press conference of the 6th China-U.S. Security and Economic Dialogue and 5th round of China-U.S. High Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange at Diaoyutai State Guest House on July 10, 2014 in Beijing, China. Feng Li—Getty Images

With Iraq wracked by insurgency, Afghanistan's power dispute over the election results is posing a new challenge to President Barack Obama's 5 1/2-year effort to leave behind two secure nations while ending America's long wars in the Muslim world.

Updated: July 11, 2014, 01:40 a.m. ET

(KABUL, Afghanistan) — Secretary of State John Kerry is making a quick stop in Afghanistan to help resolve an election crisis sowing chaos in a country that the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost more than 2,000 lives trying to stabilize.

The visit comes as Afghanistan shows worrying signs of unravelling in its first democratic transfer of power from President Hamid Karzai, who followed a decade of Taliban governance. Kerry will meet Friday with the two candidates claiming victory in last month’s presidential election runoff.

The U.S. and its allies are growing increasingly concerned as Afghanistan shows signs of unraveling in its first democratic transfer of power from President Hamid Karzai. With Iraq wracked by insurgency, Afghanistan’s dispute over election results poses a new challenge to President Barack Obama’s effort to leave behind two secure states while ending America’s long wars.

“I’ve been in touch with both candidates several times as well as President (Hamid) Karzai,” Kerry said before leaving Beijing, where he attended a U.S.-China economic meeting. He called on them to “show critical statesmanship and leadership at a time when Afghanistan obviously needs it.”

“This is a critical moment for the transition, which is essential to future governance of the country and the capacity of the (U.S. and its allies) to be able to continue to be supportive and be able to carry out the mission which so many have sacrificed so much to achieve.”

The preliminary results of the presidential election runoff suggested a massive turnaround in favor of former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a onetime World Bank economist who lagged significantly behind former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in first-round voting.

Abdullah, a top leader of the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban before the American-led invasion, claims the runoff was a fraud, and his supporters have spoken of establishing a “parallel government,” raising the specter of the Afghan state collapsing. Abdullah was runner-up to Karzai in a fraud-riddled 2009 presidential vote before he pulled out of that runoff.

Chief electoral officer Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail has resigned, denying any involvement in fraud but saying he would step down for the national interest.

Kerry will seek to persuade both candidates to hold off from rash action while the ballots are examined and political leaders are consulted across Afghanistan’s ethnic spectrum. The U.S. wants to ensure that whoever wins will create a government that welcomes all ethnic factions.

If neither candidate gains credibility as the rightful leader, the winner could be the Taliban. Many Afghans fear the insurgent forces will only gain strength as the U.S. military presence recedes. Internal instability could aid the insurgency.

Abdullah and Ghani each have said that as president they’d sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, granting American forces immunity from local prosecution. Without such an agreement, the Obama administration has said it would have to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, a scenario that played out in Iraq three years ago. Karzai has refused to finalize the deal, leaving it to his successor.

James Dobbins, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said this week some degree of fraud was expected, but it’s believed the fraud was “quite extensive.”

Speaking in Washington, Dobbins said the Abdullah campaign particularly mistrusts the impartiality of the Afghan electoral institutions.

Both campaigns and Karzai have asked the U.N. for help, he noted, and the U.N. has been designing a plan for deciding how ballots can be reviewed and which ones would be reviewed for possible fraud.

A U.N. audit, however rudimentary, probably could be done within two weeks, U.S. officials believe. The focus would be on clear fraud indicators, including districts with high turnout or more women going to the ballots than men.

Kerry also will meet with Karzai and U.N. officials.

Obama spoke to each candidate this week, asking them to allow time for investigations of ballot-stuffing. The White House said Tuesday that Obama warned that any move outside the law to seize power would mean the end of U.S. financial aid to Afghanistan.

Obama differentiated Afghanistan from Iraq, which he declared a “dumb war,” while considering Afghanistan a fight worth waging, ordering tens of thousands of new troops into the country in his first year in office.

The risk of a prolonged Afghan political crisis has alarmed U.S. officials already struggling to respond to sectarian tensions in Iraq that have broken out into open warfare.

The situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are distinct. But in each, the U.S. has spent more than a decade trying to set up democratic governments that could effectively police their own territories and stamp out threats to the American homeland.

And in both countries that objective is in peril, their futures threatened by a combination of poor leadership, weak institutions, interethnic rivalry and fierce extremist rebellions.

Suicide bombers and gunmen staged a deadly assault on government compounds Wednesday in southern Afghanistan, killing 30. The U.N. warned this week that such fighting in populated areas was a major cause for a 17 percent uptick in civilian deaths this year in a report that cast doubt on the capacity of government soldiers and police to protect the Afghan people after most U.S. and foreign forces leave.

TIME Iraq

Iraqi ‘Terrorist Groups’ Have Seized Nuclear Materials

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. Stringer/Reuters

Approximately 88 pounds of uranium compounds stored at an Iraq university have been taken, though they are likely unenriched and so difficult to make weapons from

Iraq has told the U.N. that Islamist insurgents have seized nuclear materials used for scientific research from Mosul University in northern Iraq, according to Reuters.

Approximately 88 pounds (40 kilograms) of uranium compounds were stored at the university, wrote Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on July 8.

The letter, obtained by Reuters, calls for international assistance to “stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad” and warns that the materials could be smuggled out of Iraq.

“Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state,” wrote Alhakim. He added that they “can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.”

“These nuclear materials, despite the limited amounts mentioned, can enable terrorist groups, with the availability of the required expertise, to use it separate or in combination with other materials in its terrorist acts,” said Alhakim.

A U.S. government source familiar to the situation told Reuters that the materials seized do not appear to be enriched uranium and therefore would be difficult to produce weapons from.

A Sunni militant group called the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has stirred violent unrest and occupied large areas of Syria and Iraq in recent months.

“The Republic of Iraq is notifying the international community of these dangerous developments and asking for help,” said Alhakim.

[Reuters]

TIME Iraq

What Life Is Like in Iraq’s City of Mosul Under ISIS Rule

Unrest in Mosul
Iraqis walk next to the Al-Noori Al-Kabeer mosque in Mosul city, northern Iraq on July 9, 2014. STR/EPA

Lack of electricity a bigger problem than rising violence

When Sunni extremists seized control of Iraq’s second-largest city, many feared the militants would brutally brandish their new-found power and exert a reign of horror on the residents of Mosul.

One month later, it appears that most in the city are far from terrified, their biggest complaint a lack of electricity rather than explosive violence.

“We all thought ISIS fighters will hurt people, but they did not do so,” said shop owner Fahad, referring to militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). “It is 100 percent safe here. The only thing we suffer from is the lack of public services.”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Syria

The Vast Majority of Syrians Are Opposed to an Islamic Caliphate

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

The data affirms the sentiments of some prominent Muslim leaders and academics in the region

The Islamist insurgents who have seized towns and cities across Iraq and Syria in recent weeks have not received the warmest of welcomes from their new charges. A survey conducted by a British polling group reveals that only 4% of Syrians support the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) group’s crusade for a pan-Arab Islamic caliphate — with one in three Syrians still backing the government of President Bashar Assad.

“This [research] is a unique insight into public opinion in Syria,” Johnny Heald, managing director of the polling firm, told Reuters. “They don’t believe the extremist groups best represent their views.”

The poll, conducted by local interviewing teams, spanned 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces.

The data affirms the sentiments of some prominent Muslim leaders and academics in the region, many of whom have recently spoken out against the struggle for an Islamist state spanning the Middle East as socially reckless and scripturally ill-informed.

“The Baghdadi caliphate is rejected by most mainstream Islamists because they feel it damages their cause to establish an Islamic system through peaceful means,” Farid Senzai, a professor of Middle East politics at Santa Clara University, told al-Jazeera on Monday.

[Reuters]

TIME Veterans Affairs

VA Apologizes to Whistleblowers Facing Retaliation

Veterans Health Care
James Tuchschmidt, a top official at the Veterans Health Administration, the VA's health care arm, makes an opening statement while testifying before a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Tuchschmidt said he was sorry that VA employees have suffered retaliation after making whistleblower complaints. Cliff Owen—AP

James Tuchschmidt, the No. 2 official at the Veterans Health Administration, the VA's health care arm, apologized on behalf of the department at a congressional hearing Tuesday night.

(WASHINGTON) — A top official at the Veterans Affairs Department says he is sorry that VA employees have suffered retaliation after making complaints about poor patient care, long wait times and other problems.

James Tuchschmidt, the No. 2 official at the Veterans Health Administration, the VA’s health care arm, apologized on behalf of the department at a congressional hearing Tuesday night.

“I apologize to everyone whose voice has been stifled,” Tuchschmidt said after listening to four VA employees testify for nearly three hours about VA actions to limit criticism and strike back against whistleblowers. “That’s not what I stand for. I’m very disillusioned and sickened by all of this.”

A federal investigative agency said Tuesday it was examining 67 claims of retaliation by VA supervisors against employees who filed whistleblower complaints — including 25 complaints filed since June 1, after a growing health care scandal involving long patient waits and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics became public.

The independent Office of Special Counsel said 30 of the complaints about retaliation have passed the initial review stage and were being investigated further for corrective action and possible discipline against VA supervisors and other executives. The complaints were filed in 28 states at 45 separate facilities, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said.

Instead of using information provided by whistleblowers as an early warning system, the VA often “has ignored or attempted to minimize problems, allowing serious issues to fester and grow,” Lerner told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. Worse, officials have retaliated against whistleblowers instead of investigating their complaints, she said.

Lerner said her office has been able to block disciplinary actions against several VA employees who reported wrongdoing, including one who reported a possible crime at a VA facility in New York.

The counsel’s office also reversed a suspension for a VA employee in Hawaii who reported seeing an elderly patient being improperly restrained in a wheelchair. The whistleblower was granted full back pay and an unspecified monetary award, and the official who retaliated against the worker was suspended, Lerner said.

The VA said earlier Tuesday it was restructuring its Office of Medical Inspector following a scathing report by Lerner’s agency last month.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the department would appoint an interim director of the medical inspector’s office from outside the current office and was suspending the office’s hotline immediately. All complaints would be referred to the VA’s Office of Inspector General.

The head of the medical inspector’s office retired June 30 following a report by the Office of Special Counsel saying that his office played down whistleblower complaints pointing to “a troubling pattern of deficient patient care” at VA facilities.

“Intimidation or retaliation — not just against whistleblowers, but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem, make a suggestion or report what may be a violation in law, policy or our core values — is absolutely unacceptable,” Gibson said in a statement. “I will not tolerate it in our organization.”

A doctor at the Phoenix veterans hospital, where dozens of veterans died while on waiting lists for appointments, said she was harassed and humiliated after complaining about problems at the hospital.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell said the hospital’s emergency room was severely understaffed and could not keep up with “the dangerous flood of patients” there. Mitchell, a former co-director of the Phoenix VA hospital’s ER, told the House committee that strokes, heart attacks, internal head bleeding and other serious medical problems were missed by staffers “overwhelmed by the glut of patients.”

Her complaints about staffing problems were ignored, Mitchell said, and she was transferred, suspended and reprimanded.

Mitchell, a 16-year veteran at the Phoenix VA, now directs a program for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the hospital. She said problems she pointed out to supervisors put patients’ lives at risk.

“It is a bitter irony that our VA cannot guarantee high-quality health care in the middle of cosmopolitan Phoenix” to veterans who survived wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea, she said.

Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA’s Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, said he was placed on involuntary leave after reporting that officials were “wasting millions of dollars” on a direct mail marketing campaign to promote the health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama. Davis also reported the possible purging and deletion of at least 10,000 veterans’ health records at the Atlanta center. More records and documents could be deleted or manipulated to mask a major backlog and mismanagement, Davis said. Those records would be hard to identify because of computer-system integrity issues, he said.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel, praised Mitchell and other whistleblowers for coming forward, despite threats of retaliation that included involuntary transfers and suspensions.

“Unlike their supervisors, these whistleblowers have put the interests of veterans before their own,” Miller said. “They understand that metrics and measurements mean nothing without personal responsibility.”

Rather than push whistleblowers out, “it is time that VA embraces their integrity and recommits itself to accomplishing the promise of providing high-quality health care to veterans,” Miller said.

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