Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Army Charity Hoards Millions

Posted in Afghanistan by allisonkilkenny on February 22, 2009


aer_logoFORT BLISS, Texas (AP) — As soldiers stream home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the biggest charity inside the U.S. military has been stockpiling tens of millions of dollars meant to help put returning fighters back on their feet, an Associated Press investigation shows.

Between 2003 and 2007 – as many military families dealt with long war deployments and increased numbers of home foreclosures – Army Emergency Relief grew into a $345 million behemoth. During those years, the charity packed away $117 million into its own reserves while spending just $64 million on direct aid, according to an AP analysis of its tax records.

Tax-exempt and legally separate from the military, AER projects a facade of independence but really operates under close Army control. The massive nonprofit – funded predominantly by troops – allows superiors to squeeze soldiers for contributions; forces struggling soldiers to repay loans – sometimes delaying transfers and promotions; and too often violates its own rules by rewarding donors, such as giving free passes from physical training, the AP found.

Founded in 1942, AER eases cash emergencies of active-duty soldiers and retirees and provides college scholarships for their families. Its emergency aid covers mortgage payments and food, car repairs, medical bills, travel to family funerals, and the like.

Instead of giving money away, though, the Army charity lent out 91 percent of its emergency aid during the period 2003-2007. For accounting purposes, the loans, dispensed interest-free, are counted as expenses only when they are not paid back.

During that same five-year period, the smaller Navy and Air Force charities both put far more of their own resources into aid than reserves. The Air Force charity kept $24 million in reserves while dispensing $56 million in total aid, which includes grants, scholarships and loans not repaid. The Navy charity put $32 million into reserves and gave out $49 million in total aid.

AER executives defend their operation, insisting they need to keep sizable reserves to be ready for future catastrophes.

“Look at the stock market,” said retired Col. Dennis Spiegel, AER’s deputy director for administration. Without the large reserve, he added, “We’d be in very serious trouble.”

But smaller civilian charities for service members and veterans say they are swamped by the desperate needs of recent years, with requests far outstripping ability to respond.

While independent on paper, Army Emergency Relief is housed, staffed and controlled by the U.S. Army.

That’s not illegal per se. Eric Smith, a spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service, said the agency can’t offer an opinion on a particular charity’s activities. But Marcus Owens, former head of IRS charity oversight, said charities like AER can legally partner closely with a government agency.

However, he said, problems sometimes arise when their missions diverge. “There’s a bit of a tension when a government organization is operating closely with a charity,” he said.

Most charity watchdogs view 1-to-3 years of reserves as prudent, with more than that considered hoarding. Yet the American Institute of Philanthropy says AER holds enough reserves to last about 12 years at its current level of aid.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said that AER collects money “very efficiently. What the shame is, is they’re not doing more with it.”

National administrators say they’ve tried to loosen the purse strings. The most recent yearly figures do show a tilt by AER toward increased giving.

Still, Borochoff’s organization, which grades charities, gives the Army charity an “F” because of the hoarding.

The AP findings include:

– Superior officers come calling when AER loans aren’t repaid on time. Soldiers can be fined or demoted for missing loan payments. They must clear their loans before transferring or leaving the service.

– Promotions can be delayed or canceled if loans are not repaid.

– Despite strict rules against coercion, the Army uses pushy tactics to extract supposedly voluntary contributions, with superiors using language like: “How much can we count on from you?”

– The Army sometimes offers rewards for contributions, though incentives are banned by program rules. It sometimes excuses contributors from physical training – another clear violation.

– AER screens every request for aid, peering into the personal finances of its troops, essentially making the Army a soldier’s boss and loan officer.

“If I ask a private for something … chances are everyone’s going to do it. Why? Because I’m a lieutenant,” says Iraq war veteran Tom Tarantino, otherwise an AER backer. “It can almost be construed as mandatory.”

Neither the Army nor Sgt. Major of the Army Kenneth Preston, an AER board member, responded to repeated requests for comment on the military’s relationship with AER.

AER pays just 21 staffers, all working at its headquarters at Army Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Va. AER’s other 300 or so employees at 90 Army sites worldwide are civilians paid by the Army. Also, the Army gives AER office space for free.

AER’s treasurer, Ret. Col. Andrew Cohen, acknowledged in an interview that “the Army runs the program in the field.” Army officers dominate its corporate board too.

Charities linked to other services operate along more traditional nonprofit lines. The Air Force Aid Society sprinkles its board with members from outside the military to foster broad views. The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society pays 225 employees and, instead of relying on Navy personnel for other chores, deploys a corps of about 3,400 volunteers, including some from outside the military.

Army regulations say AER “is, in effect, the U.S. Army’s own emergency financial assistance organization.” Under Army regulations, officers must recommend whether their soldiers deserve aid. Company commanders and first sergeants can approve up to $1,000 in loans on their own say-so. Officers also are charged with making sure their troops repay AER loans.

“If you have an outstanding bill, you’re warned about paying that off just to finish your tour of duty … because it will be brought to your leadership and it will be dealt with,” says Jon Nakaishi, of Tracy, Calif., an Army National Guard veteran of the Iraq war who took out a $900 AER loan to help feed his wife and children between paychecks.

In his case, he was sent home with an injury and never fully repaid his loan.

The Army also exercises its leverage in raising contributions from soldiers. It reaches out only to troops and veterans in annual campaigns organized by Army personnel.

For those on active duty, AER organizes appeals along the chain of command. Low-ranking personnel are typically solicited by a superior who knows them personally.

Spiegel, the AER administrator, said he’s unaware of specific violations but added: “I spent 29 years in the Army, I know how … first sergeants operate. Some of them do strong-arm.”

Army regulations ban base passes, training holidays, relief from guard duty, award plaques and “all other incentives or rewards” for contributions to AER. But the AP uncovered evidence of many violations.

Before leaving active duty in 2006, Philip Aubart, who then went to Reserve Officer Training Corps at Dartmouth College, admits he gave to AER partly to be excused from push-ups, sit-ups and running the next day. For those who didn’t contribute the minimum monthly allotment, the calisthenics became, in effect, a punishment.

“That enticed lots and lots of guys to give,” he noted. He says he gave in two annual campaigns and was allowed to skip physical training the following days.

Others spoke of prizes like pizza parties and honorary flags given to top cooperating units.

Make no mistake: AER, a normally uncontroversial fixture of Army life, has helped millions of soldiers and families. Last year alone, AER handed out about $5.5 million in emergency grants, $65 million in loans, and $12 million in scholarships. Despite the extra demands for soldiers busy fighting two wars, AER’s management says it hasn’t felt a need to boost giving in recent years.

But the AP encountered considerable criticism about AER’s hoarding of its treasure chest.

Jack Tilley, a retired sergeant major of the Army on AER’s board from 2000 to 2004, said he was surprised by AP’s findings, especially during wartime.

“I think they could give more. In fact, that’s why that’s there,” said Tilley, who co-founded another charity that helps families of Mideast war veterans, the American Freedom Foundation.

What does AER do with its retained wealth? Mostly, it accumulates stocks and bonds.

AER ended 2007 with a $296 million portfolio; last year’s tanking market cut that to $214 million, by the estimate of its treasurer.

Sylvia Kidd, an AER board member in the 1990s, says she feels that the charity does much good work but guards its relief funds too jealously. “You hear things, and you think, “`They got all this money, and they should certainly be able to take care of this,'” she said. She now works for a smaller independent charity, the Association of the United States Army, providing emergency aid to some military families that AER won’t help.

Though AER keeps a $25 million line of bank credit to respond to a world economic crisis, its board has decided to lop off a third of its scholarship money this year. “We’re not happy about it,” Spiegel says.

AP Reporter’s Tough Gaza Questions Disappeared

Posted in media, politics by allisonkilkenny on January 8, 2009


apDuring Monday’s State Department press briefing, Associated Press State Department Correspondent Matthew Lee posed the most pointed question about the conflict in Gaza and the Bush administration’s position: “What’s wrong with an immediate cease-fire that doesn’t have to be sustainable and durable if, during the pause that you get from an immediate cease-fire, something longer-term can be negotiated?” Lee didn’t tread lightly either when Deputy Secretary of State Sean McCormack failed to provide a sufficient answer and continued to challenge McCormack on the same point in Tuesday’s press briefing.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to print: the substance of these exchanges never made it into Lee’s corresponding articles.
First, here’s the main exchange between Lee and McCormack on Monday:

LEE: If it’s true, as you say, and I think that you agree because you do say this humanitarian situation is dire, that lives are at stake, that there have been civilian casualties despite the efforts to minimize them.
LEE: What’s wrong with an immediate cease-fire that doesn’t have to be sustainable and durable if, during the pause that you get from an immediate cease-fire, something longer-term can be negotiated?
LEE: I don’t understand the calculus. If you say you want to save lives and protect people, why not accept something that is less —
LEE: — than perfect if you can get to that point?
LEE: If you can use that to get to a point that is (inaudible)?
MCCORMACK: I guess the calculation is, Matt, fundamentally that you’re not going to get to that point under those circumstances.
LEE: How do you – how do you figure? How do you —
MCCORMACK: Well, you know, we’ve gone through circumstances like this before, and it – look, it’s – well, there are no sureties in these things. You know, you take a look at the facts, you take a look at history, and you make your best set of calculations and you do what you think is right in order to achieve the objectives that you have laid out. And it doesn’t – it perhaps helps the situation in the immediate term —
LEE: Well, if this is something that can perhaps do that, what’s wrong with that?
MCCORMACK: That’s exactly my point, Matt. Are you trading off against lives in the future that will be lost if you don’t go for a durable, sustainable cease-fire? We’re not willing to do that. Now, this may – of course, we have seen various protests, you know – capitals in the region as well. We’re aware of that. And we’re aware of the fact that lives have been lost, innocent life has been lost. In none of this are there any easy decisions. But you have to take the set of decisions that you believe will ultimately best benefit the people of the region, whether it’s the Palestinians or the Israelis. And people may disagree with our approach, our —
LEE: But isn’t the best benefit keeping people alive?
MCCORMACK: It is, Matt, but I – you know, I —
LEE: If there’s a chance that you can save some lives by going for an immediate cease-fire rather than one that is going to be – you know, that you know is going to be long-term and that meets your conditions, I don’t understand what’s wrong with that.
MCCORMACK: Well, again, Matt, there are people who are advocating that position. I understand that. But ultimately, we don’t think that you address the underlying issues if you don’t try to get a sustainable, durable, non-time-limited cease-fire. And if you don’t get that, you’re going to be right back here again, whether it’s – and you’re going to have somebody else up here three months from now, four months from now, five months from now, talking about the same kind of tragedy. Again, nobody wants to see the sort of humanitarian suffering that you’re seeing in Gaza. We’re not blind to that. We’re trying to address the immediate circumstances, as well as to try to address something that is more durable, so those people in Gaza and the people on the other side of the border can maybe perhaps have some more semblance of a normal life.

Lee also has some other fine moments in this press briefing, including this follow-up to another State Department correspondent’s question about what signals the administration gave Israel regarding the military action in Gaza and if it approved of the newer ground incursion. McCormick answers the other correspondent and then Lee jumps in with a dose of reality regarding US foreign policy.

MCCORMACK: Well, this is – you know, this is a question that always comes up. We don’t give green lights, red lights, yellow lights. I think you heard from the Vice President they’re – they didn’t seek our permission or advice, and we didn’t seek to offer any of that. As I – as I said —
LEE: You know, that’s not – that’s just manifestly not true.
MCCORMACK: As I – yes, it is.
LEE: No, no – maybe in – maybe in this, but all over the world you are involved in giving green lights, red lights and yellow lights. I remember when –
MCCORMACK: Am I talking —
LEE: — when Musharraf —
MCCORMACK: Am I talking about anywhere else in the world, Matt? Am I talking about a specific circumstance? Look —

According to a LexisNexis and Google News search, Lee didn’t publish a report after this briefing on Monday.

Lee returns to his original question in Tuesday’s press briefing:

LEE: The point is, though, Sean, that if it – if what is proposed has a time limit or you don’t think it’s durable or sustainable, you’re not going to support that; correct?
MCCORMACK: That’s correct.
LEE: That – so while you want one immediately —
LEE: — you will not accept one that is just a short or a temporary pause?
MCCORMACK: Again, we have deep concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza and for the innocent lives on both sides —
LEE: Well, if you do —
MCCORMACK: — both sides of —
LEE: If you do —


LEE: Sean, can I go back to the question I asked yesterday?
LEE: I don’t – I still am not sure I understand your reasoning as to why, if innocent life can be saved —
LEE: — even one innocent life can be saved by a temporary pause —
LEE: — ceasefire, what’s wrong with that? Why —
MCCORMACK: There’s – look, I know that that is a point of view that is supported by many. And we value every single life, absolutely. But you also don’t want to get into a situation where you are trading off – you know, trading off saving even one life now, against losing 30, 40, 50 or more in the future and being right back in the same situation.
LEE: But you don’t know that you’re going to —
MCCORMACK: I know, Matt. Look, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to trying to solve these problems, absolutely not. And I would be the first one to acknowledge that these are tough, sometimes gut-wrenching decisions when you see some of the humanitarian suffering on the ground there. I fully acknowledge that. But we have to stand back from that and try to make what we believe are the best decisions possible that will improve the situation in the region for Israelis, Palestinians, and others who have an interest in seeing a different kind of Middle East. And I know there are different points of view on this matter, and I fully respect those points of view. But we are pursuing the course that we believe is in the best interests of the United States, as well as the people in the region.
LEE: But do you understand the impression that that gives or the – that that gives? I mean, that position that you take appears to many people to be a – the proverbial green light for the Israelis to go ahead and do whatever they want until they think that they’re done.
MCCORMACK: Look, you know, I can – all I can do is try to disabuse people of those impressions and those perceptions. Whether or not they listen to what I have to say or the reasoning behind it, I can’t control that. Look, we have seen this – you know, we have been in – the United States has been in similar circumstances — you can cite many throughout history – of making very, very tough decisions. We had to make similarly tough decisions, for example, back in 2006 when there was a war between Israel and Hezbollah, one provoked by Hezbollah. At the end of that process, as difficult as it was, we believed that the status – you know, the status quo is much preferable and better than the status quo ante. As difficult as that was, and as great as the costs that were incurred in terms of human life and other ways–
LEE: And you’re saying that – so you’re saying that you have the same – that the calculus is the same in this case? That the status quo – what is happening on the ground right now is preferable to what it was before?
MCCORMACK: No, that’s not what I’m saying, Matt. Listen to what I’m saying. What I’m saying – the situation at the end of the conflict between — you know, between Hezbollah and Israel, and currently, is better and preferable. It’s better for the people of Lebanon. It’s better for the people of Israel. It’s better for the region than the status quo ante.
LEE: So at that —
MCCORMACK: That’s not to say – that’s not to say there weren’t great costs that were incurred in that and that there weren’t difficult decisions that were taken in that regard. But what we can do, and what we have to do as stewards of our national interest as well as doing what we think is best for the interests of the people in the region, is the course that we are currently on.
LEE: So if we take that – this situation, you believe that once Israel is finished with what it’s doing, whatever it’s going to do, the situation in Gaza is going to be better than it was before?
MCCORMACK: You know, again, you’re viewing it through a particular – you know, the particular prism of somehow the United States is offering some sort of counsel about Israeli military operations. We are not.
LEE: No, no, no.
MCCORMACK: Our interest is in bringing about a durable, sustainable ceasefire so that the – what you have after conflict has ended is better than what you had before conflict began. Yeah.

After this Tuesday briefing, Lee wrote up and filed his story. With the misleadingly hopeful headline “Rice Traveling to UN to Push Gaza Cease-Fire” (please note: traditionally speaking, reporters don’t write their own headlines), the article opens:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to New York and the United Nations on Tuesday in a bid to broker a sustainable cease-fire as soon as possible to end the crisis in Gaza.

Lee knows there’s a stark difference between a “ceasefire” and the administration’s “sustainable” or “durable” ceasefire. Most of his back and forth with McCormack for two days pivoted on these semantic but very consequential points of distinction. AP editors surely know this as well.

Yet the AP — America’s leading newswire service — either carelessly or willfully misled its readers and all the news providers it supplied with this headline, many of which, as is often the case, then use it to frame this unfolding story. A headline much closer to the truth would’ve read “Rice Traveling to UN to Push Conditional Gaza Cease-Fire.” Omit “conditional” or some such synonym and the headline gives the false impression that Rice is coming to the Palestinians’ rescue. Lee and his editors at the AP realize as well that Rice is coming to the Palestinians’ rescue like she came to the Lebanese civilians’ rescue in 2006.

The piece continues:

Rice plans to hold several separate meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab and European foreign ministers to lobby for a three-tiered U.S. truce proposal and will then attend a U.N. Security Council meeting on Gaza, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The talks are intended “to further her efforts to bring about a cease-fire that is sustainable and durable concerning Gaza,” he told reporters. The U.S. wants to see three key elements in any agreement: an end to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and securing border crossings between Gaza and Israel and between Gaza and Egypt.


McCormack said it was not clear if the council would adopt any resolution on Tuesday and said the United States could only support an immediate cease-fire if it is not time-limited and addresses the three U.S. points.

“We would like to see the violence end today,” he said. “But we also want to see it end in a way that is sustainable and durable.”

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino repeated that position.

“We want to get to a durable cease-fire as soon as possible,” Perino said. “And if that is immediate, then we would certainly welcome that.” […]

Lee pressed McCormack on this administration position for two days, pinpointing and questioning the transparency of its illogic and brutal disregard to what is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis. But none of Lee’s related questions, or McCormack’s answers framed by those questions, ever appear in this article. Nor do they appear in Lee’s article published the next day, “Rice Extends UN Visit Amid Gaza Truce Debate,” which opens:

The Bush administration held off Wednesday from backing an Egyptian-French ceasefire proposal in Gaza, but urged a lasting agreement that would end ongoing violence between Israeli and Hamas forces that have killed more than 670 people.

If you watch or read what Lee said during the corresponding press briefings, it’s hard to believe he decided to scrub those exchanges with McCormick. Of course it’s possible. But the only thing that’s certain is somewhere between Lee’s exemplary work in those two prior press briefings and the AP’s editorial process, someone decided to censor the pertinent truth about the reckless stupidity and grisly inhumanity of the administration’s current Gaza stance.

Israeli Ground Forces Enter Gaza in Escalation

Posted in politics by allisonkilkenny on January 3, 2009


Palestinian relatives of Hamas militant Sami Lobad, who was killed in an Israeli missile strike, react during his funeral in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday. (AP)

Palestinian relatives of Hamas militant Sami Lobad, who was killed in an Israeli missile strike, react during his funeral in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday. (AP)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli tanks and infantry rolled into Gaza after nightfall Saturday, launching a ground offensive in a widening war against Hamas that the Israeli defense minister said “will not be easy and will not be short.”

The ground operation was preceded by several hours of heavy artillery fire after dark, igniting flames in the night sky. Machine gun fire rattled as bright tracer rounds flashed through the darkness and the crash of hundreds of shells sent up streaks of fire.

Artillery fired illuminating rounds, sending streaks of bright light drifting down over Gaza’s densely packed neighborhoods. Gunbattles could be heard, as troops crossed the border into Gaza, marching single file. They were backed by helicopter gunships and tanks.

“Gaza will not be paved with flowers for you, it will be paved with fire and hell,” Hamas warned Israeli forces. Spokesman Ismail Radwan said in a televised speech Gaza will “become a graveyard” for Israeli soldiers.

“This will not be easy and it will not be short,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a televised address shortly after the ground invasion began. “I don’t want to disillusion anybody and residents of the south will go through difficult days,” he added.

“We do not seek war but we will not abandon our citizens to the ongoing Hamas attacks.”

Israeli security officials said the objective is not to reoccupy Gaza. The depth and intensity of the ground operation will depend on parallel diplomatic efforts, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Eight days of fighting so far have left more than 460 Palestinians dead and four Israelis were killed by rocket fire. Gaza is densely populated, and intense urban warfare in those conditions could exact a much higher civilian toll. The U.N. estimates that at least a quarter of the Palestinians killed so far were civilian.

“We have many, many targets, Israeli army spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich told CNN. “To my estimation, it will be a lengthy operation.”

Before the ground incursion began, heavy Israeli artillery fire hit east of Gaza City in locations were Hamas fighters were deployed. The artillery shells were apparently intended to detonate Hamas explosive devices and mines planted along the border area before troops marched in.

A text message sent by Hamas’ military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, said “the Zionists started approaching the trap which our fighters prepared for them.” Hamas said it also broadcast a Hebrew message on Israeli military radio frequencies promising to kill and kidnap the Israeli soldiers.

“Be prepared for a unique surprise, you will be either killed or kidnapped and will suffer mental illness from the horrors we will show you,” the message said.

Hamas has also threatened to resume suicide attacks inside Israel.

Hamas has long prepared for Israel’s invasion, digging tunnels and rigging some areas with explosives. At the start of the offensive, Israeli artillery hit some of the border areas, apparently to detonate hidden explosives.

The Israeli government said tens of thousands of reserve soldiers are being mobilized as the offensive in Gaza widens. Before the ground incursion began, defense officials said about 10,000 Israeli soldiers had massed along the border in recent days.

The offensive began last Saturday with a week of aerial bombardment of Hamas targets, in an attempt to halt Hamas rocket attacks that were reaching farther into Israel than ever before.

Despite the military onslaught, Hamas kept firing at Israeli towns, and Israeli officials said diplomatic efforts did not produced a satisfactory plan so far to guarantee a halt to rockets.

Israel initially held off on a ground offensive, apparently in part because of concern about casualties among Israeli troops and because of fears of getting bogged down in Gaza.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said before the ground operation began that Israel might have no choice but to move in on the ground.

“There are targets that can be done from the air and targets that cannot,” Livni told Channel 2 TV.

She said Israel had broader objectives than just trying to stop Gaza militants from firing rockets into the country’s south. She told the interviewer that toppling Hamas was “a strategic Israeli objective” but said that more than one military offensive might be needed to achieve Israel’s aims.

“I cannot accept a state controlled by a terror organization in Gaza,” Livni said.

Israeli airstrikes intensified just as the ground operation was getting under way, and 28 Palestinians were killed. One raid hit a mosque in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing 13 people and wounding 33, according to a Palestinian health official.

One of the wounded worshippers, Salah Mustafa, told Al-Jazeera TV from a hospital that the mosque was packed.

“It was unbelievably awful,” he said, struggling to catch his breath.

It was not immediately clear why the mosque was hit, but Israel has hit other mosques in its air campaign and said they were used for storing weapons.

Artillery fire is less accurate than attacks from the air using precision-guided munitions, raising the possibility of a higher number of civilian casualties.

An artillery shell hit a house in Beit Lahiya, killing two people and wounding five, said members of the family living there. Ambulances could not immediately reach them because of the resulting fire, they said.

Resident Abed al-Ghoul said the Israeli army called by phone to tell them to leave the house within 15 minutes.

Palestinian militants kept up their fire as well, launching 29 rockets into Israel Saturday, hitting four houses and lightly wounding three people.

One rocket scored a direct hit on a house in the southern city of Ashkelon and another struck a bomb shelter there, leaving its above-ground entrance scarred by shrapnel and blasting a parked bus.

The ground operation sidelined intense international diplomacy to try to reach a truce. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the visit the region next week, and U.S. President George W. Bush and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both spoke in favor of an internationally monitored truce.

Israel has already said it wants international monitors. It is unclear whether Hamas would agree to such supervision, which could limit its control of Gaza. Hamas has ruled the area since seizing control in June 2007.

In Hamas’ first reaction to the proposal for international monitors, government spokesman Taher Nunu said early Saturday that the group would not allow Israel or the international community to impose any arrangement, though he left the door open to a negotiated solution.

“Anyone who thinks that the change in the Palestinian arena can be achieved through jet fighters’ bombs and tanks and without dialogue is mistaken,” he said.