Sunday, March 02, 2008

Editorial: While You Were Distracted

"What law applied when you were commanding troops over there?"

That's the question Senator Jim Webb asked of General George Casey last Tuesday in the Senate Armed Service Committee meeting.

Casey is now the Amy Chief of Staff. From June 2004 through the start of February 2007, Cased was the Commanding General of Multi-National Forces -- the top US commander in Iraq.

The question Webb was asking applied to contractors.

The exchange that followed should have made the news, should have been the focus of editorials but that didn't happen.

Uniform Code of Military Justice is the code and regulations that US service members are prosecuted under and Casey declared that UCMJ was being used for contractors.

The reply was so shocking that Webb got him to repeat that he was telling the committee that "UCMJ applied to contractors?" Casey agreed that he was, that this is what happened when he was the commander in Iraq and then added that it was just for the contractors working for the Department of Defense. [Blackwater, not noted, has operated through the US State Department.]

This assertion by Casey flies in the face of everything the American people have been told and Webb pursued the topic during his allotted time for questioning. He wanted to know how many contractors UCMJ was applied to and Casey declared it was probably 20,000. When Webb pressed him to repeat the 20,000 number, Casey lowered the estimate ("I don't recall the number . . . I want to say the number was around 7,000 - 8,000.") and when pressed as to how many would have been "discharged under UCMJ" during Casey's command, the general replied, "I have vague recollections of a couple of cases, but I can't say for certain."

Repeating, UCMJ is the military code of justice. In September the mercenaries of Blackwater enacted another slaughter on Iraqi civilians. This time they were in Baghdad and this time it actually made the news. Yes, The New York Times waffled and undercounted the dead for over a full week after, but it made the news and there were eye witnesses. Blackwater attempted to lie and state that they came under fire. No witnesses saw that and, strangely we're sure, Blackwater had the cars 'touched up' so that they couldn't be use to back up Blackwater's laughable claim that they were under attack. What happened is Blackwater barrelled through Baghdad like they owned it, giving no warnings to anyone and expecting all Iraqis to immediately yield to their sudden appearance. Entering a busy section, they immediately began firing on civilians.

The fall out from that slaughter resulted in a for-show appearance by CEO Eric Prince before Congress but Congress idiotically agreed not to ask any questions about the slaughter while it was "under investigation." What they were told by US government witnesses was that no laws applied to contractors. The Iraqi government couldn't prosecute them. They were lawless mercenaries allowed to do whatever they wanted and one thing that came out during this period was that a drunken mercenary had shot-dead a bodyguard for one of Iraq's two vice-presidents and then been assisted out of the country with no charges filed by either the Iraqi or US government.

The excuse repeatedly given was that the laws -- US laws -- such as they were, didn't cover contractors. Last week, Casey maintained to a Senate committee that UCMJ had been applied when he was the top commander in Iraq (for Defense Department contractors) and this was the first Congress had ever heard of that claim.

Webb expressed some disbelief at the claim by Casey and noted that he was confused over "how you could have a proper court" for civilians "unde the UCMJ," that the Senate Armed Service Committee had been told in 2007 that there was a proposal the UCMJ might be extended to contractors but here was General Casey telling the Senate "that is was being used?"

This was news. Rather Casey was telling the truth or lying it was news. If he was lying to Congress is was especially news worthy because Casey (and Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army) were making the rounds to tell various committees how things were going in Iraq, how much money was needed to continue the illegal war, how much money was needed for military equipment to carry the US military into the 21st century (we're eight years into the 21st century) and much more. If Casey was lying on something so basic, something so easily disproven, it went to whether or not anything he was telling the House or Senate last week could be believed.

It was news.

But you probably didn't hear about it or read about. The factoids from the hearing, the talking points the press ran with, were simplistic and we'll note them at the end. But this exchange went to Casey's reliability and his honesty. If he was telling the truth, it meant that the White House selected witnesses late last year had not been honest with Congress.

Webb noted all the crimes contractors had committed that were known of and found it hard to believe that if UCMJ had been applied, no one had ever heard of any court-martial or hearing and that if any ("a few," Casey had maintained) were convicted, that no one ever heard of that either.

Realizing how momumental his statements were (which puts him one up on the press), Casey attempted to walk it back from the line with, "I am not 100% certain."

That didn't fly with Webb who noted he could remember, very well, his own time serving in Iraq and "I would think, quite frankly, if you were commanding you would know that" number because "it's not a difficult concept."

Casey hemmed and hawwed and back pedaled and Webb concluded by pointing out, "This came up in the personell subcomittee last year -- as a proposal. And I'm not aware of anyone, any civilian who was subject to UCMJ."

So was Casey lying. Were Department of Defense contractors prosecuted under UCMJ? If so, were they informed ahead of time, prior to going to Iraq, that this would be the case? Whether they were found guilty or innocent, if even "a couple" were prosecuted under UCMJ, there would be records of that? If they were subject to UCMJ, they should have been informed of that before arriving in Iraq and there should be a record of that. There should be a lot of records the government has on this . . . if it happened.

If it didn't happen, that casts a different light on everything Casey told committees and subcommittees last week. He was testifying and he was supposed to be truthful. We the People don't get to ask these questions. We count on our elected represenatives who are supposed to serve us. Webb took that obligation very seriously last week and the breakdown came from the alleged indepentent press which refused to cover the exchange.

Two points came out of that hearing (and others since the points were repeated by Casey and Geren throughout the week) in the news. The main point was that tours of duty would drop from 15 months to 12. Left out of the news cycle was that you couldn't pin Casey or Geren down on that and, on Thursday, when the duo appeared at the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2009 National Defense Authorization Budget Request from the Deptartment of the Army, when US House Rep Patrick Murphy wondered if, to ensure that reduction in deployment tours, Congress should enact an law ("mandate that if you deploy for 15 months, you're home for 15 months, if you deploy for 12 months, you're home for 12 months"), Casey insisted that wasn't necessary and a law would tie the military's hands.

The second point in that drifted out from Tuesday's Senate Armed Services Committee revolved around the backdoor draft and, to read or hear press accounts, stop-loss was being moved away from and would drop from its current application to 8,000 service members -- drop down to 7,000. Stop-loss is referred to as a backdoor draft because what happens is that US service members who have completed their service contracts or are nearing the end of their service contracts are then informed that their contracts have been extended. It is most likely illegal. It is certainly unethical. And it is "drafting" people already serving in the US military. (If it extends a contract beyond seven years, it is illegal, courts have already decided that in contract law. It is also illegal if the person signed before they were of legal age -- even if their parents also signed. Again, that's contract law.)

So Casey and Geren just delivered the happy news to Congress that there would be a reduction (drawdown?) in stop-loss. That's how the press told it. The reality is that it was announced that there was a significant reduction planned for stop-loss and it took the committee chair, Carl Levin, pinning Geren down to obtain the admission that this significant reduction was only a reduction of 1,000.

Again, it is most likely illegal in all cases. It hasn't been tested in a US court of law but if it were to be tested, it should be found to be an illegal practice. You didn't read that or hear that from the press. You just heard the happy talking point that stop-loss was being reduced. And you heard that happy talking point that tours would be reduced (though Congress shouldn't mandate that!). Most of all, you didn't hear what appears to be an absurd claim by Casey -- once the top commander in Iraq for three years -- that UCMJ had been applied to contractors.
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