In an alternate reality, President Obama always talks the way he did at Ft. Belvoir Thursday.

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Larry Downing / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Obama praised several Republican lawmakers at a press event in Virginia Thursday, congratulating them for crossing the aisle and helping create legislation reforming the Veterans Administration he then sat down and signed into law.

It was a rare sight in modern Washington, and it sounded, well, bizarre. Obama himself noted the strangeness of the moment, quipping while signing the bill into law that he’s “out of practice” when it comes to signing legislation.

“This feels good,” Obama said. “You know, I don’t get enough practice at this.”

In an alternate universe, more Obama events would sound like the one the president hosted at Fort Belvoir, an Army base in suburban Virginia. In recent weeks, Obama’s public appearances have featured the president openly mocking Republicans for the gridlock that’s helped produce the least-productive Congress in generations.

The difference was stark. Late last month, Obama said the Republicans were “hating all the time” and ripped the House for voting to sue him over his executive actions.

At Fort Belvoir, Obama was markedly more friendly to the Republicans in the room who helped craft the bipartisan Veteran’s Administration reform package, which was spurred on by the lingering wait list scandal at the agency in charge of delivering health care to former members of the armed services.

“I want to thank all the members of Congress who are here today, and I especially want to thank those who led the fight to give [new VA Secretary Robert McDonald] and the VA more of the resources and flexibility that they need to make sure every veteran has access to the care and benefits that they’ve earned,” Obama said.

Obama called the bill “a good deal,” and noted it “passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan majorities, and that doesn’t happen often in Congress.”

Obama then gave the Republicans who helped craft the bill along with Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, a shoutout by name.

While he was using the multiple pens to sign his name to the legislation typical of a bill singing, Obama commented further on how extraordinary the moment was — and ribbed the Republicans just a little.

“We should do this more often,” Obama said.

Video of Obama signing the bill and talking about how weird it is:

Video available at:×306.mp4.

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A unprecedented new campaign by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America teaches VA employees and veterans how to become the next Edward Snowden.

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U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary, retired general Eric Shinseki, in 2012. Tim Shaffer / Reuters / Reuters

WASHINGTON — After the deaths of at least 40 veterans on a health care waiting list, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will announce Thursday an online whistleblower project meant to expose widespread problems plaguing the Veterans Administration health care system.

The online kit will instruct veterans on best practices for reporting abuses and potentially leaking documents. The tools are critical now, organizers say, when veterans face a health care system they say is in crisis and an Obama administration that has had a “chilling effect” on whistleblowing. The White House says it values and protects whistleblowers.

Asking VA employees to go outside the system and straight to the public with problems is in keeping with the military traditions veterans are taught to uphold, said IAVA Chief of Staff Derek Bennett, a former Army Captain and Special Assistant to General David Petraeus.

“As a veteran myself, I recognize the importance of the chain of command,” he said. “But as a former company commander, I know that my soldiers always had the opportunity to circumvent the chain of command if my work or my staff were part of the problem.”

The ongoing VA hospital scandal, which has seen top officials subpoenaed by Congress amid allegations that VA hospitals have covered up long wait times, has infuriated veterans’ groups, including the IAVA, which deals specifically with veterans of post-9/11 conflicts.

After delays at the Phoenix VA hospital went on so long that some veterans allegedly died while waiting for care, complaints about the overloaded VA hospital system have emerged all over the country. Veterans and congressional investigators have complained that it has been tough to get straight answers from inside the VA and its embattled leadership.

To combat the problem, the IAVA is joining with the Project On Government Oversight to launch, a site specifically designed to help VA employees leak to POGO investigators and the media. POGO, which has long helped whistleblowers and other leakers get their information out, says the collaboration is the first of its kind in the group’s history.

The website and the whistleblower campaign will be announced at a Thursday press conference featuring IAVA leaders, POGO officials, and veterans. BuzzFeed was given an early look at the site and how the program works.

It recommends would-be leakers install the encrypted Tor software, mimicking Edward Snowden.

Even with the help provided by POGO, Newman said leaking remains a dangerous business, especially in the Obama era.

“Certainly the fear of reprisal is real,” he said. “We don’t have any personal knowledge of reprisals in the VA at the moment… but in general it’s the norm not the exception.”

The site offers detailed training in how to circumvent the stringent anti-leak efforts put in place across the government by the Obama administration, which has made cracking down on unauthorized leaks a priority.

“What we’ve seen with the Obama administration is the lengths they will go to try to keep things in house,” said Joe Newman, communications director at POGO.

Newman, a former journalist, said the Obama administration has for the most part carried over intense anti-leak programs launched in the George W. Bush administration. Changing technology and a changing emphasis on national security have focused attention on whistleblowers and investigating leaks, he said.

Still, Newman added, the Obama administration’s zeal to track down and punish leakers is well-documented.

“The thing that makes the Obama administration really stand out is the use of the Espionage Act. They’ve invoked it seven times [against leakers] and that’s more than every other administration combined when it comes to going after people who have leaked to the media,” he said. “That really puts the Obama administration in a different category as far the extent they’ll go to keep things secret.”

Bennett said Obama’s prosecutions have had the desired effect when it comes to leaks.

“If you just look at the number of whistleblower prosecutions, this administration is significantly higher than the previous administration,” he said. “I can imagine that post-Snowden, there is even more concern about that. So, yeah, I can imagine there’s a chilling effect.”

But the VA is not an intelligence agency, where even speaking to the media on any topic without authorization is strictly, forbidden. And successful whistleblowing has played a major role in the unfolding VA scandal. On Monday, employees at the Durham, North Carolina VA hospital were put on leave after a fellow employee alleged they falsified records to hide wait times.

While there are built-in reporting systems for problems, IAVA says internal systems aren’t working fast enough to fix the VA and more employees need to be encouraged to come forward. Bennett said veterans can’t wait for the problems inside the VA to be fixed.

“Our members are outraged and flabbergasted about the allegations that are coming out,” he said. “As somebody’s who’s not in the system, I don’t know their exact process [at the VA.] But clearly there is something about the culture or the structure that these employees…do not feel comfortable sharing internally.”

The White House says it appreciates and welcomes whistleblowing.

“The Obama administration has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting whistleblowers,” an administration official said. “The president appointed strong advocates to the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board who have been widely praised. The President also signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, which improves whistleblower protections for Federal employees.”

Beyond the high-tech tools, Newman added, sometimes the simplest advice is the best when it comes to avoiding being caught as a leaker.


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“We broke the country, and we do need to fix it. But we need to do it without risking more men’s and women’s lives.”

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Iraqi military fighters AP Photo/Iraqi Military via AP video

WASHINGTON — The veterans who served in the last war in Iraq and are now seeking Democratic votes in 2014 have been warning their fellow Democrats this week.

They say even limited steps that put U.S. military forces back in harm’s way in Iraq would be a big mistake with ramifications for the future of Middle East foreign policy — and the Democratic Party’s credibility with its progressive base.

“If we have airstrikes, we’ll kill as many civilians as we do fighters. And that’s not right or effective,” said Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer who led forces into combat during four tours of duty in Iraq. “We need to engage this problem. But it needs to be political engagement that comes first.”

Moulton is out of the Marines and running for Congress in Massachusetts, mounting a primary bid against Democratic incumbent Rep. John Tierney. Moulton’s campaign has been endorsed by former Iraq War commanding Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, but Moulton is quick to say unprompted that the war all three men served in “was a mistake.”

More military engagement in Iraq would be doubling down on that mistake, he said.

“You have to make decisions in the present; you can’t just make decisions based on past mistakes,” Moulton said. “But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the past. We have to be very thoughtful about the long-term effects of our actions.”

Progressives have warned the White House in recent days that a new engagement with Iraq could divide the Democratic base ahead of the 2014 elections, turning the anti-war left against Obama (who in 2008 was the movement’s champion). Moulton said a Democratic split over Iraq could be in the cards if Obama goes ahead with military action.

It’s a sentiment shared by Ruben Gallego, a former enlisted Marine and Democratic member of the Arizona state legislature. He’s running in an open Democratic-leaning seat, and has taken a strong stance opposing new military action in Iraq. He said he’s watching the run-up to new military action in Iraq, strongly favored by many advocates of the last Iraq War, in disbelief.

“It’s like a horrible sequel to a horrible movie,” he said. “The people that caused us to launch the invasion of Iraq are coming out for the after vaudeville show and trying to basically recuperate their reputations with further potential bloodshed. It’s ridiculous.”

“The men and women who died on the errors of these men and the hubris of these men should never be forgotten,” he continued. “To think that they have any kind of validity in Washington or in the media in terms of their opinion when it comes to Iraq is absolutely sickening. It would be like asking Bernie Madoff to give advice on how to reform Wall Street.”

Moulton says airstrikes are a bad idea, full stop. Gallego said it’s possible to use military assets in Iraq, but the bar he set for military action was very high.

“[Obama] has to prove that there’s an absolute national interest in us getting involved and that Iraq cannot handle it themselves,” he said. “He has to prove that it will be done with minimal impact to the United States military in terms of putting actual people in harm’s way and also, at the same time, the Iraqi people. We cannot engage in another war where civilians are killed because it’s only going to cause more of a problem.”

Both Democratic vets favor a political, non-military solution to the current chaos in Iraq — a solution that is a difficult one to see — and insist that military intervention will only cause long-term problems. Moulton and Gallego say Obama needs to consult with Congress before taking military action, but they’re not entirely sure that Congress is all that helpful when it comes to war.

“They’re completely out of touch. We’ve never had fewer veterans in Congress in our nation’s history,” he said. “And there are very few people in Congress today who have any first-hand knowledge or experience with the Middle East.”

“Statistically, that means we’re more likely to go to war,” Moulton said. “Which shouldn’t be hard to understand. Veterans understand the costs. And it means that when we have to make very difficult decisions about places like Syria, Iran, and Iraq, we don’t have as many people in Congress with the background or experience to make those decisions wisely.”

Moulton and Gallego are Democrats running in blue states, where taking an anti-war stance is an easy move for a candidate to make. But some of their concerns about new military action in Iraq are shared by Sen. John Walsh, a Montana Democrat and Iraq War vet appointed to replace Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who retired. Walsh is in one of the toughest races in country and on Wednesday he took to the Senate floor to urge Obama and Congress to use caution before engaging in new military action.

America cannot afford another Iraq financially or the human costs that are associated with war,” said Walsh, who earned a Bronze Star after leading his regiment from the Montana Army National Guard in Iraq. Though Walsh didn’t expressly warn against airstrikes, he called on members of Congress itching to put forces back into battle in Iraq to slow down before it’s too late.

“I think that too many of my fellow members of Congress are too abrupt and think too quickly about what we should do in Iraq,” he said. “I think they need to take a a step back and think about the impacts, the second and third order effects of continuing to send our men and women over to Iraq.”

Not all Democratic Iraq War vets are speaking out. Staff for Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who was severely wounded serving as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq, did not make her available for an interview. Hawaii Rep. Tusli Gabbard, who served in Iraq, said this week about airstrikes, “Not only will they not be effective, they will actually be counter-productive” because “they will strengthen this Shiite-led government in Iraq, which is a puppet government for Iran, and will strain those tensions and further entrench us in what is a generations-old civil war.”

Obama has ruled out ground troops in Iraq. But just about everything else — including unilateral military action without a vote in Congress — is still on the table. In a meeting with top congressional leaders at the White House Wednesday, Obama reportedly said the options he’s considering don’t need congressional approval.

Meanwhile the White House has been explicit in keeping military options on the table.

“The only thing the president has ruled out, and I want to be clear here, is sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at Wednesday’s briefing. “But he continues to consider other options.”

To veterans of the last Iraq War who politically side with Obama, the continued focus on military options is missing point of the the legacy of Iraq War, Gallego said.

“We have to be engaged in Iraq in one manner or another. But we need to be doing it in a constructive manner,” he said. “We broke the country, we violated the Powell doctrine, and we do need to fix it. We need to do it without risking more men and women’s lives, and also to create a sustaining, long-lasting democracy that is accepting of all the tribes and cultures of Iraq.”

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