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Congressional Updates

The House and Senate are in recess for the election campaigns. A lame-duck session will begin November 13. One third of the Senate seats and all 435 seats of the House are up for election on November 6.

VA Construction Authorization Measure Signed into Law

On October 5, President Obama enacted Public Law (P.L.) 112-191, the VA Major Construction Authorization and Expiring Authorities Extension Act of 2012. The major provisions of this measure include:

·         Authorization for construction of a mental health building at the VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Seattle, WA, with a price tag of $222 million;

·         Authorization for construction of a spinal cord injury center the VAMC in Dallas, TX, in the amount of $155 million;

·         Authorization for renovation of the surgical suite and operating rooms at the VAMC in Miami, FL, for an amount totaling $41 million;

Further, P.L. 112-191 provided a one-year extension of authority for VA to:

·         Operate a VA Regional Office in Manila, Republic of the Philippines;

·         Provide treatment, rehabilitation, and certain other services for seriously mentally ill and homeless veterans;

·         Provide housing assistance for homeless veterans;

·         Continue the Advisory Committee on Homeless Veterans; and,

·         Continue the performance of medical disability examinations by contract physicians.

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House Holds Hearing on Libya Attack

House Republicans called a rare hearing in the middle of their long recess this week. The purpose of the hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee was to examine security lapses that led to the killing in Benghazi last month of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others. It was transparently meant to cast doubt on one of the president’s biggest perceived strengths through his first four years.

The former chief security officer for the American Embassy in Libya, Eric Nordstrom, told the committee that his request to extend the deployment of an American military team was thwarted by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. But a senior State Department official said after the hearing that keeping the team would not have changed the outcome in Benghazi because it was not based there but in Tripoli.

The clashing perspectives of witnesses was echoed in the partisan sparring of lawmakers, with Republicans accusing the State Department of shortchanging security at the compound and Democrats countering that the vast majority of security requests from there had been met. The hearing never established what it might have taken to repel the Sept. 11 attack on the compound in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, or even if the American military team might have played a role in defending the compound if it had been in Libya.

The account of Mr. Nordstorm, who served as the regional security officer for the embassy from September 2011 to July 2012, was supported by Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, the leader of the team, which wrapped up its deployment in August.

“The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there,” Colonel Wood said. “Diplomatic security remained weak.”

The State Department’s position was presented by Patrick Kennedy, its undersecretary for management, who suggested that none of the steps Mr. Nordstrom or Colonel Wood had proposed would have altered the outcome. The attack, he said, was “an unprecedented assault by dozens of heavily armed men,” a characterization that Mr. Nordstrom acknowledged was accurate.

The cantankerous tone of the hearing was evident during the testimony of Mr. Kennedy, who was frequently interrupted by Representative Darrell Issa of California, the committee chairman, and other Republicans. After the hearing, Mr. Kennedy called a news conference at the State Department in an effort to rebut allegations that the department had neglected security at the Benghazi compound. He acknowledged that the State Department did not give Mr. Nordstrom exactly what he wanted, but said, “Nobody takes this more seriously than we do to find the right solution.”

Charlene Lamb, a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, insisted that Mr. Nordstrom’s request to extend the military team was only a recommendation and that the State Department had been right not to heed it. The broader strategy was to phase out the American military team and rely more on the Libyan militiamen who were protecting the compound along with a small number of American security officers.

At the time of the attack in Benghazi, Ms. Lamb said, the outer wall had been raised and external lighting had been installed, along with a network of camera and security grills on windows.

Five American security agents were at the compound at the time of the assault, Ms. Lamb said, though it was later noted that only three were based at the compound and that two had accompanied Mr. Stevens from Tripoli. “There were also three members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade,” she said, referring to the militia that had been retained to help protect the compound. In addition, a well-trained American quick reaction security team was stationed at a nearby annex.

For all that, it was clear that there was a large gap between what the security officers in the field believed was needed and what the State Department officials in Washington assessed was required. Under questioning, Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Lamb acknowledged that they had not visited Libya. Mr. Nordstrom said he tried to improve security by asking for 12 agents, only to be told by a State Department official that he was asking for the “sun, moon and the stars.”

Mr. Nordstrom, who continues to work for the State Department, said he had responded that the most frustrating part of his assignment was not the turmoil in Libya. “It’s not the hardships,” Mr. Nordstrom said he had replied. “It’s not the gunfire. It’s not the threats. It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me. And I added it by saying, ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.’ ”

After declining for weeks to provide details about the assault on Sept. 11, the State Department on Tuesday night arranged with little notice a conference call in which a spokesman gave new details on what had happened.

The account provided by a State Department official, whom the agency declined to identify, differed from the initial Obama administration reports in some important respects. Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, had said that the attack on the compound began with an angry protest about an anti-Islamic film that was “hijacked” by extremists.

But the new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and escorted him to the main gate of the compound around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations, and the situation appeared calm.

Little more than an hour later, there was gunfire and explosions. American agents, watching the compound through cameras, saw armed men moving into it. The barracks for a militia that was protecting the compound was set on fire, and the attack unfolded.


Emerging new foreign policy doctrine

On a related note, George Friedman of Stratfor, a noted private intelligence firm, writes in an October 9 piece how lessons learned from the interventions in Iraq and Libya and the absence of meaningful Western intervention in Syria are indicative of an emerging new foreign policy doctrine, “a doctrine in which the United States does not take primary responsibility for events, but which allows regional crises to play out until a new regional balance is reached,” he writes.

The roots of the new orthodoxy are in two recent interventions, writes Friedman:

Libya and Iraq taught us two lessons. The first was that campaigns designed to topple brutal dictators do not necessarily yield better regimes. Instead of the brutality of tyrants, the brutality of chaos and smaller tyrants emerged. The second lesson, well learned in Iraq, is that the world does not necessarily admire interventions for the sake of human rights. The United States also learned that the world’s position can shift with startling rapidity from demanding U.S. action to condemning U.S. action. Moreover, Washington discovered that intervention can unleash virulently anti-American forces that will kill U.S. diplomats.

These lessons have guided U.S. policy toward the conflict in Syria, which affects only some key interests and the administration’s response has been “instructive of the emerging doctrine,” he contends:

First, the United States accepted that al Assad, like Saddam Hussein and Qadhafi, was a tyrant. But it did not accept the idea that al Assad’s fall would create a morally superior regime. In any event, it expected the internal forces in Syria to deal with al Assad and was prepared to allow this to play out. Second, the United States expected regional powers to address the Syrian question if they wished. This meant primarily Turkey and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia. From the American point of view, the Turks and Saudis had an even greater interest in circumscribing an Iranian sphere of influence, and they had far greater levers to determine the outcome in Syria.

The new doctrine demonstrates that “reality, not presidents or policy papers, makes foreign policy,” but it is not a recipe for isolationism:

The United States has entered a period in which it must move from military domination to more subtle manipulation, and more important, allow events to take their course. This is a maturation of U.S. foreign policy, not a degradation. … This does not mean that the United States will disengage from world affairs. It controls the world’s oceans and generates almost a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. While disengagement is impossible, controlled engagement, based on a realistic understanding of the national interest, is possible.

The important point is that no one decided this new doctrine. It is emerging from the reality the United States faces. That is how powerful doctrines emerge. They manifest themselves first and are announced when everyone realizes that that is how things work.

Bottom line: The U.S. will become increasingly selective about how and where to engage in the world.

The article is available here:


Meeting on Transition Assistance Program Held

The Veterans Entrepreneurship Task (VET) Force held a meeting at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday, October 9 to discuss veteran-owned business contracting opportunities, the vetting of businesses to ensure veteran-owned status, and the revision of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). On hand were Jeanette Brown, Director of EPA Small Business Programs, and Lamont Norwood, EPA Veterans Liaison, as well as a representative of McElroy Enterprises, a company which provides business vetting services, and Rhett Jeppsen, Associate Administrator of the SBA Office of Veterans Business Development on SBA Advisory Committee, Veterans Business Outreach Centers (VBOCs), Boots2Business. Ms. Brown highlighted the precarious nature of the future of government contracting, in light of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” that is, the unsustainable nature of federal spending. She urged VET-FORCE to begin examining new ways to approach their model in the promotion of veteran-owned business contracting. Mr. Jeppsen discussed the new entrepreneurship track of the TAP being piloted in some areas, highlighting its features and progress.

More TRICARE Changes Announced.

Some TRICARE enrollees who pay their monthly premiums by check will have to switch to electronic payments before January 1, 2013. Also, beginning January 1 TRICARE will accept recurring automatic payments from enrollees in TRICARE Reserve Select or TRICARE Retired Reserve only through credit or debit card, or electronic funds transfer from a linked bank account. Beneficiaries who fail to make the change will lose their coverage. For information enrollees should contact the TRICARE regional contractors.

Update on Flag Amendment Bills

Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (UT) office continues to solicit additional cosponsors for Senate Joint Resolution (S.J. Res.) 19, a proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from physical desecration. Its text states simply: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” The cosponsor total for the Senate legislation stands at 36. To date, H.J. Res. 13 – the House companion bill to the Senate measure – has accumulated 90 cosponsors, with the addition of Rep. Sean Duffy (WI) on October 9.

Please contact your representative’s and senators’ offices, and ask them to become cosponsors of the flag amendment in their respective chambers. If they are already cosponsors, be sure to thank them for their support.