TIME Military

FBI Launches Criminal Probe Into Veterans Affairs Scandal

The agency director James B. Comey said agents in Phoenix are heading up the investigation

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is launching an inquiry into possible criminal wrongdoing stemming from mismanagement at Veterans Affairs clinics, FBI Director James B. Comey said in congressional testimony Wednesday.

“We will follow wherever the facts take us,” Comey said, in response to a question from Rep. Suzan DelBene (D—WA) in a hearing of before the House Judiciary Committee.

Stories of falsified records and serious misconduct have continued to surface after it was revealed earlier this year that more than a dozen veterans may have died while awaiting care at a Phoenix VA clinic. An inspector general’s report released Monday found that more than 100,000 veterans have waited longer than 90 days to see a doctor, including 64,000 over the last decade who simply fell through the cracks, never seeing a VA doctor after seeking an appointment.

The unfolding scandal brought down former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned under pressure from critics on May 30.

TIME

What Bergdahl’s Journal Entries Tell Us About His Troubled State of Mind

Afghanistan: Bowe Bergdahl
Guardian photographer Sean Smith spent several days with US army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in southern Afghanistan shortly before he went missing in 2009. Sean Smith—The Guardian/Sipa USA

Excerpts from Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's journal, recorded before his captivity and published Wednesday by the Washington Post, reveal a troubled and vulnerable young man

In a diary entry written shortly before Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl headed to Army basic training in Georgia and more than a year before he walked off base in Afghanistan, the young recruit wrote, “I know that there is light in this darkness, and that I can actuly [sic] reach it if I keep walking, keep moving to it.” That excerpt, from a journal kept by Bergdahl before his capture by the Taliban in 2009, is just one of many that suggest a restless soldier eager to walk away.

Bergdahl’s writings, obtained by the Washington Post from a friend of the young soldier, paint a portrait of a vulnerable and troubled young man who was often psychologically at odds with those around him. Bergdahl, who was discharged from the Coast Guard in 2006 and drifted for several years before joining the Army in June 2008, called himself “the lone wolf of deadly nothingness,” and mentioned having “plans” shortly before he apparently walked off the Afghanistan army base.

The excerpts the Post published from Bergdahl’s journal do not answer the question of whether he deserted or not, and may not play a significant role in the House of Representatives’ investigation into the events surrounding his disappearance from base. But they do reveal important details about his character.

Here’s what Bergdahl’s journal suggests about the soldier’s state of mind before his captivity.

  1. He struggled to maintain mental stability. Bergdahl wrote of a “darkness” around him and seemed to harbor deeper psychological unease. “I will not lose this mind, this world I have deep inside,” he wrote shortly before he deployed. “I will not lose this passion of beauty.” In one diary excerpt from 2009, repetitions of the phrase “velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper/velcro or zipper,” cover nearly two pages.
  2. He seemed frustrated with the Army. Bergdahl was disillusioned with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and while his comrades called him “a good soldier,” the private was aloof and brooding. “i’m at an odd place here,” he wrote.”Bullet sponges… This is what some of the SEALs call regular Army and other mass ground troops. Its right, the job of a soldier is basically to die,” he wrote.
  3. He longed to travel. Bergdahl wasn’t accustomed to staying put for long periods of time. “One day, if I make it out of this, I will go around the world. I will not use airplanes, but only trains, boats, vehicles, and… (if I still have them) my feet,” he wrote. And later, “Walk us to the end of this. Walk on. And walk us out of here…”
  4. He had a “plan.” Bergdahl’s journal discusses a “plan” on several occasions, but it’s far from conclusive whether he was planning to desert the Army. In an email to a friend’s daughter written three weeks before he walked off post, he wrote “Im good. But plans have begun to form, no time line yet. . . love you! Bowe.”His friend’s daughter wrote back, “Exactly what kind of plans are you thinking of?”“l1nes n0 t g00 d h3rE tell u when 1 ha ve a si coure 1ine about pl/-\ns,” Bergdahl wrote back in coded script next day. “There is still time yet for thinking.”
  5. He expressed feelings of alienation. “Like i’m pulling away from the human world, but getting closer to people,” he wrote in Afghanistan. “Almost as if its not the people I hate, but society’s ideas and reality that hold them . . . I want to change so much and all the time, but then my mind just locks down, as if there was some one else in my mind shutting the door in my face. . . . I want to pull my mind out and drop kick it into a deep gorge.”

Bergdahl, who is still recovering after his five years in prison, has yet to speak to the media — or, if reports are to believed, his family.

[WaPo]

TIME Congress

Congressman Breaks Down on House Floor After Oregon School Shooting

Amid a moment of silence on the floor

When the Oregon congressional delegation took to the House floor on Tuesday to ask for a moment of silence in the wake of a deadly school shooting, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer was overwhelmed with emotion.

“[The] Troutdale High School is a terrific institution in my district,” Blumenauer said, before showing a gift students there had recently given him during a visit. When Blumenauer held up the wooden bowtie decorated with a bicycle on the House floor, he began to fight back tears.

Police say a teenage gunman killed one student and injured a teacher before turning the gun on himself at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore., on Tuesday. All five members of Congress from Oregon, Democrats Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader, and Suzanne Bonamici, and Republican Greg Walden, stood with Blumenauer as he laid out the details of Tuesday’s tragic events.

“I would ask, Mr. Speaker, that the House observe a moment of silent in support for the victims, their families, and the community,” Blumenauer said through tears.

TIME Military

Hagel Becomes Pentagon Piñata For Lawmakers Upset Over Bergdahl Deal

Chuck Hagel
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens to opening statements prior to testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 11, 2014. Susan Walsh—AP

He recites a litany of reasons, but lawmakers keep swinging sticks

There’s next to nothing Congress can do about the Obama Administration’s swapping five senior Taliban leaders for long-imprisoned Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. That means they can only vent their outrage over the done deal. They finally got a chance to do that Wednesday when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled to Capitol Hill to retro-justify the trade.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the 62-member House Armed Services Committee criticized the way the deal was carried out, and the ultimate price paid by the U.S. The fact that they couldn’t reverse the deal only exacerbated their anger, and led them to tongue-lash Hagel.

“Answer it! Answer it! Answer it!” bellowed Rep. Jeff Miller to Hagel after the Florida Republican suggested the Pentagon was delaying its investigation into Bergdahl’s capture by keeping him under wraps in a German military hospital.

“I don’t like the implication of the question,” Hagel countered.

It quickly became clear that the tussle wasn’t over Bergdahl’s fate so much, or even Hagel, as it was about the stark lack of trust between the Administration and Congress. President Barack Obama’s point man was little more than a piñata to lawmakers, who seemed more intent on bashing the President than listening to Hagel’s justifications, or the legal reasoning of Stephen Preston, the Pentagon’s top lawyer.

Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., the panel chairman, said a closed-door briefing on the deal by Administration officials earlier this week was “misleading and at times blatantly false.” He blasted the Administration for “its unprecedented negotiations with terrorists” (The George W. Bush Administration also negotiated with terrorists, so “unprecedented” might not be the correct word here).

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the senior Democrat on the panel, offered cover, of a sort, to the Pentagon. “The Department of Defense, in my experience, has been very good about consulting with us and about working with this body,” he said. “The White House, on the other hand, has not been very good about keeping in touch with Congress.”

Hagel acknowledged legitimate reasons for congressional ire, but cited the need for swiftness and secrecy for keeping lawmakers in the dark about the deal, despite a law requiring the White House to notify Congress 30 days before any detainees leave Guantanamo. “I recognize that the speed with which we moved in this case has caused great frustration, legitimate questions and concern,” he said. “We could have done a better job… of keeping you informed.”

Lawmakers didn’t focus on the fact that Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral James Winnefeld, the vice chairman—the nation’s top two military officers—approved of the swap. While many in the military didn’t like the particulars of the deal, they thought getting Bergdahl home was the top priority. “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of -a-bitch,” James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general who served as chief of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said earlier this week. “So let’s get him back, let the Army investigate, and we’ll sort it out.”

As the hearing droned on, the Washington Post disclosed some of Bergdahl’s pre-capture writings—and the fact that the Coast Guard had discharged him for psychological reasons in 2006 after 26 days in basic training. That should have required the Army to issue a waiver allowing him to enlist, something the service was routinely doing because it was having difficulty attracting sufficient soldiers when Bergdahl enlisted in 2008.

Some of the facts left Hagel flailing. While the five Taliban released “were part of the planning” of attacks on the U.S. and its allies, he said, “we have no direct evidence of any direct involvement [by them] in direct attacks on the United States or any of our troops.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) seized the opening: “So your point was they didn’t pull the trigger, but they were senior commanders of the Taliban military who directed operations against the United States and its coalition partners. Would that be a better way to do it?”

“That’s right,” Hagel responded. “That’s right.”

“Just like bin Laden didn’t pull a trigger,” McKeon said after a pause.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) expressed chagrin that Bergdahl’s release wasn’t part of a bigger peace accord. “My Marines down in Camp Lejeune, quite frankly, are tired of going to Afghanistan and getting their legs blown off,” he said.

Despite the venom, lawmakers had little interest in swinging at Hagel, other than as a way to smack Obama. And they had political cover: A pair of polls released Tuesday said more Americans opposed than supported the deal.

That adds jet fuel to the controversy, which only means it will continue to burn. Beyond the Army’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture, McKeon opened the hearing by promising his panel will conduct “a full investigation” surrounding the deal that won Bergdahl his freedom.

TIME Drugs

Colorado Marijuana Activists Don’t Want To Pay Pot Taxes

Colorado Marijuana Taxes
A customer pays cash for retail marijuana at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, May 8, 2014. Brennan Linsley—AP

The lawsuit filed in Denver this week is just the latest to challenge discrepancies between federal and state drug laws

A lawyer representing various marijuana activists in Colorado has filed a lawsuit against the state’s governor and the mayor of Denver, claiming that residents buying or selling pot should not have to pay taxes, because that amounts to self-incrimination in the eyes of the federal government.

Attorney Robert Corry argues that the Fifth Amendment should prohibit the collection of such taxes, which include a 15% excise tax and 10% retail tax, because that creates a record of violating federal law–which still treats pot as an illegal substance, despite the fact that Colorado and Washington voters opted to legalize weed in 2012.

The case, filed in Denver District Court, could end up forcing the state and federal governments to address a discrepancy that has been left largely unresolved. The medical marijuana industry has struggled with legal issues raised by federal and state taxes for decades, and related cases are pending in federal tax court. There is for example a case currently pending in federal tax court, filed by a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, Calif., arguing that dispensaries should be treated just like other small businesses when it comes to paying federal income taxes.

Earlier this year, attorney Corry represented the organizers of Denver’s annual 4/20 festival, marijuana’s unofficial holiday. In a letter to city officials, he argued that festival-goers should be able to smoke weed openly despite regulations against public consumption. He eventually rescinded that argument when it became clear that the permit for the entire festival might not be issued.

The first retail pot shops opened their doors on Jan. 1, 2014 and questions have continually arisen around conflicting state and federal views of marijuana, such as whether dispensaries can deposit money in banks. A spokesman for the Colorado attorney general told Reuters that the state will defend themselves vigorously in this case, saying that the “claims are bizarre and lack legal and logical consistency.”

TIME 2014 Election

A National Leader Falls in a Local Rebellion

All politics proved local for Eric Cantor

As late as the afternoon of Election Day, Eric Cantor’s top strategists felt assured that the House Majority Leader was coasting to victory. Turnout was strong across Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, which Cantor has represented for seven terms; his team regarded that as a positive sign. The worst-case scenario that Team Cantor envisioned, says one Republican close to the campaign, was that a narrower victory margin would impede the No. 2 House Republican’s path to the Speakership he has long coveted.

Instead, Cantor crashed out of Congress at the hands of an unknown economics professor named Dave Brat. Nobody in Washington saw the stunning defeat coming, least of all Cantor’s brain trust. But back in his district, in the suburbs of Richmond, there were troubling signs that the House Majority Leader ignored.

“This wasn’t a fluke that accidentally happened,” says Jamie Radtke, a former Virginia Senate candidate and co-founder of the Virginia Federation of Tea Party Patriots. “It was a methodical process that we’ve been building toward for the past five years.”

The story of Cantor’s loss is a tale of how his national ambitions, and his role as the No. 2 House Republican, took him away from a district that grew to resent him. And it is the story of how Cantor’s high-powered campaign team, which boasted the most sophisticated operation in the state, didn’t spot the red flags until it was too late—and then miscalculated when it came time to react.

Cantor’s defeat was not, as many observers have suggested, because of his cautious embrace of immigration reform. It wasn’t propelled by the national Tea Party groups who claimed the victory as their own; few of the outfits waging war on the Republican Establishment lifted a finger for Brat. And it had little to do with the division sowed within the Virginia GOP by Ken Cuccinelli’s failed gubernatorial campaign; Cantor gave more money to the Tea Party favorite than most.

“People want to talk about a national narrative,” says Chris La Civita, a veteran Republican who was Cuccinelli’s top strategist. “This has much more to do with a local one.”

As Cantor traveled the country, lavishing cash on GOP candidates and building his national profile for a future run at the speaker’s gavel, conservatives in his backyard grew to believe that he took their support for granted. Cantor has racked up huge margins in the solidly conservative district. But as the Tea Party gained steam, built a network of volunteers and ultimately grabbed control of much of the state GOP, its members were irked that Cantor had little inclination to solicit support from activists.

“People could not understand why he wouldn’t meet with people, why he wouldn’t hold town hall meetings,” says Radtke. “The feeling and the sentiment for years in the district was that he was way more concerned about Wall Street than the Seventh District. People were really fed up with the corporate cronyism.”

Brat capitalized on that perception by running on a message of economic populism. The professor, a polished and articulate speaker, painted the incumbent as insufficiently conservative, tapping a reservoir of grassroots frustration with the GOP’s national leadership. Brat, whose campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries from TIME, had little cash and fewer national connections. But he worked the district aggressively. Cantor didn’t.

“What Brat did right was he showed up. He created a David vs. Goliath narrative,” says a Republican consultant close to Cantor’s campaign. “Eric’s job required him to spend a lot of time on the road expanding the party’s majority, and therein lies the problem.”

Polling was scant in the sleepy primary, and Cantor’s team boasted that its internal surveys showed the Majority Leader coasting toward a cakewalk. But the warning signs were mounting. At a district convention in May, Linwood Cobb, a top Cantor lieutenant, was toppled in a race for the local GOP chairmanship by a Tea Party favorite. Cantor himself was booed.

The Majority Leader’s team recognized the lurking threat. It went nuclear on Brat, spattering the airwaves with negative advertising and blanketing the district with direct-mail pieces. But the onslaught may have backfired by raising awareness of the unknown upstart challenging a political giant whose base had soured on him.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul suggests Cantor went “too far negative.”

“It may well have increased the name identification of a lesser known candidate,” Paul said.

Radtke, who spent hours at the polls talking to conservative voters on Tuesday, says she heard the same refrain echoed over and over: “People said they’ve voted for Cantor every single time. But enough is enough. We’ve got to send Washington, D.C. a message.”

-with reporting by Zeke J Miller

TIME Crime

This Is the Weirdest Catfishing Case Ever

200378463-001
Tete sea catfish Getty Images

And Mani Te'o thought he had it bad

Most Catfishing fairytales don’t end in a happily ever after—they end in crying, maybe a marred football career, and a cameo on MTV if you’re lucky. But this particularly sordid case of fraudulent social media identity takes the cake.

Alabama.com reports that a Tuscaloosa woman created a fake Facebook account to track her live-in niece’s online activity. According to court records filed Tuesday, 19-year-old Marissa Williams had been inviting men she had met on Facebook over to the house and blocked her aunt from seeing her profile when she was asked to stop. And so Tre “Topdog” Ellis was born, so that Williams’ aunt could see what her niece did online and teach her a lesson about talking to strangers.

Things went downhill from there.

At first Williams just asked Topdog to come over and get drunk. Then she offered to have sex with him if he paid off her $50 phone bill. Then she asked him to “kidnap” her from her unhappy home and, oh yeah, shoot and kill her aunt if she interfered. And to top it off, Williams created plots for Topdog to sneak into her aunt’s room to murder her, her aunt’s fiancé, her cousin, and the family dog if he had a chance on his way out.

When police were called (obviously) and talked to Williams her response was IDK, JK, LOL. Translated to an approximate, Yeah I asked him to murder my family, but I didn’t mean it. SMH.

Williams is currently in county jail on charges of solicitation and murder. If the prison has wifi, she should be chipping away at that $30,000 bail in no time.

[Alabama.com]

TIME Military

Chuck Hagel Defends Bergdahl Exchange Before House Committee

Hagel's opening comments stressed the dangers posed to Bergdahl's life had the administration delayed or exposed any details of the negotiation

Updated 2:02 p.m. E.T. on June 11

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel defended the recent Taliban prisoner exchange before skeptical members of the House on Wednesday, calling it “a fleeting opportunity” to rescue Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from imminent danger.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee questioned Hagel for more than three hours on the legality and wisdom of the deal in a series of exchanges that were at times clipped, testy and as one committee member admonished his colleagues, “prosecutorial.”

Hagel acknowledged the release of the five Taliban detainees raised thorny questions about national security. “All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war,” he said in his opening remarks.” Nonetheless, he stressed that the decision was made with the “unanimous” consent of the President’s security council and amid threats that Bergdahl’s health was rapidly deterioriating.

Hagel said the first warning signs came in January, when officials received a “disturbing” video from Bergdahl’s captors. “It showed a deterioration in his physical appearance and mental state compared to previous videos,” Hagel said. The sense of urgency was compounded by a warning from Qatari intermediaries in May that “time was not on their side.”

Hagel also argued that the secrecy of the negotiations was critical for Bergdahl’s safety, saying that the exact location of the swap was not settled until 1 hour before the exchange took place. “We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any kind of leak, would end the negotiation for Bergdahl’s release,” Hagel said.

Republican members of the committee sparred with Hagel on the legality of releasing Taliban prisoners without giving Congress 30 days notice. Republicans also questioned whether Hagel had considered the ongoing risks posed by the released Taliban commanders. “Did you make an assessment of how many American lives may be put at risk if they have to be recaptured,” Rep. Randy Forbes asked in a repeated attempt to obtain a “yes” or “no” answer.

Hagel rebuffed criticism that the administration had underestimated the security threats posed by the transfer of five Taliban detainees to Qatar. “I take that responsibility damn seriously, damn seriously,” Hagel said, arguing that the detainees were placed under travel restrictions in Qatar and had no direct involvement in attacks on American soil.

TIME Crime

NYC Strippers Drugged and Robbed Wealthy Victims, Cops Say

Strippers Drugs
Samantha Barbash, center, is escorted by law enforcement officers following her arrest. Barbash is allegedly part of a crew of New York City strippers who scammed wealthy men by drugging them and running up extravagant bills at topless clubs while they were in a daze, according to authorities, New York City, June 9, 2014. DEA/AP

Police say the four women would drug their victims with molly before driving them to a strip club and running up their bill

Federal and local officers arrested a group of strippers in New York City Wednesday and accused them of drugging wealthy men, driving them to strip clubs and charging their credit cards tens of thousands of dollars while they were incapacitated, the Associated Press reports.

Authorities say they discovered through an undercover investigation that the strippers would arrange to meet wealthy men at upscale bars in New York and Long Island and then spike their drinks with illegal drugs such as methylone—otherwise known as molly. The women would then allegedly drive the men to either Scores in Manhattan or the RoadHouse in Queens, charge them for private rooms, and expensive meals and drinks. The four victims lost at least $200,000.

Investigators at the Drug Enforcement Administration and New York Police Department arrested four women earlier this week on charges of grand larceny, assault and forgery. Three of the women are expected to appear in court Tuesday and one on Wednesday.

The clubs are not facing charges, though authorities say they did pay the strippers for the visits. Victims of the scam, including a banker, a real estate attorney and a cardiologist, told police that they woke up in a hotel room or their car with little or no memory of the night before. The men said the strippers threatened to blackmail them if they tried to dispute the charges.

[AP]

TIME The Brief

The Religion of Futbol: Christ the Redeemer Balloon Urges Australia to #keepthefaith

Welcome to #theBrief, the four stories to know about right now—from the editors of TIME

Here are the stories TIME is watching this Wednesday, June 11.

A political earthquake shook Virginia last night after Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated by Tea Party challenger David Brat in the primary vote.

A school shooting in Oregon marked the 74th such event since Sandy Hook, leaving President Barack Obama frustrated with the difficulty of gun control legislation.

Traffic in Europe ground to a halt today as Cabbies went on strike in protest of lax laws surrounding ride-hailing app Uber.

And finally, one day before the World Cup, Australia urges fans to #keepthefaith in the “religion” of Futbol with a giant “Christ the Redeemer” hot air balloon.

The Brief is published daily on weekdays.

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