US Air Strikes on IS Targets in Syria to be Considered Aggression – Syrian Official


Any US air strikes against Islamic State (IS) positions in Syria conducted without consent from the Syrian authorities shall be regarded as aggression, Fayez Al-Sayegh, a member of the Syrian parliament, told RIA Novosti on Wednesday.

“We reject bombing of IS targets in Syria without coordination with the country’s government. Syria’s Foreign Minister has declared [the government’s] readiness to cooperate with a regional or international coalition against IS, owing to the fact that Syria possesses all the information and expertise on battling this terrorist organization. But if [the fight] is conducted without consent with Syria, it will be considered as aggression towards Syria,” Al-Sayegh said in an interview with RIA Novosti.

According to the lawmaker, Syria is ready to use “any necessary measures” against those who carry out aggression towards the country.

How bout it, warhawks? Should we violate international law and Syrian sovereignty [again] in order to stop DA EBIL ISIS BAD GUY TERRORISTS?

Russia And Iran Put Oil-For-Goods Deals Into Motion As Iran Signals Similar Arrangements Coming With China


Representatives of the Russian and Iranian governments met in Tehran yesterday for the 11th meeting of the Iran-Russian Trade Council, where details of a ground breaking oil-for-goods swap between the two heavily sanctioned countries were revealed.

With both countries now sanctioned by the West, Russia and Iran have been in extensive negotiations on how to facilitate Iranian oil exports without breaching the UN Security Council nuclear deal that was agreed between Iran, Germany and the five UN Council permanent last January.

Sanctions on Iran had reduced Iranian oil production from 2.5 million barrels per day (BPD) down to between 1 million - 1.5 million BPD. Under the UN’s nuclear deal, Iran can only now export up to 1 million BPD. Iran has the world’s 4th largest oil reserves and both Russia and Iran are large producers and exporters of oil.

On August 5, Russia and Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on oil-for-goods exchanges under which Russia could take 500,000 BPD of Iranian oil exports in returns for providing goods, services and equipment to Iran. This deal was said by Russian media to have been directly negotiated previously by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

A Void in the History of September 11th: Bush-Saudi connection can no longer be ignored


On the bottom floor of the United States Capitol’s new underground visitors’ center, there is a secure room where the House Intelligence Committee maintains highly classified files. One of those files is titled “Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters.” It is twenty-eight pages long. In 2002, the Administration of George W. Bush excised those pages from the report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks. President Bush said then that publication of that section of the report would damage American intelligence operations, revealing “sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror.”

“There’s nothing in it about national security,” Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina who has read the missing pages, contends. “It’s about the Bush Administration and its relationship with the Saudis.” Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, told me that the document is “stunning in its clarity,” and that it offers direct evidence of complicity on the part of certain Saudi individuals and entities in Al Qaeda’s attack on America. “Those twenty-eight pages tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report,” Lynch maintains. Another congressman who has read the document said that the evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 hijacking is “very disturbing,” and that “the real question is whether it was sanctioned at the royal-family level or beneath that, and whether these leads were followed through.” Now, in a rare example of bipartisanship, Jones and Lynch have co-sponsored a resolution requesting that the Obama Administration declassify the pages.

The Saudis have also publicly demanded that the material be released. “Twenty-eight blanked-out pages are being used by some to malign our country and our people,” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi Ambassador to the United States at the time of the 9/11 attacks, has declared. “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.”

The effort to declassify the document comes at a time when a lawsuit, brought ten years ago on behalf of the victims of the attacks and their families, along with the insurers who paid out claims, is advancing through the American court system. The suit targets Saudi charities, banks, and individuals. In 2005, the government of Saudi Arabia was dismissed from the suit on the ground of sovereign immunity, but in July the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the Kingdom as a defendant. The plaintiffs believe that the withheld twenty-eight pages will support their allegation that the 9/11 hijackers received direct assistance from Saudi government officials in the United States. According to representatives of the families of 9/11 victims, President Obama has twice promised to release the material but so far has failed to do so. “The redaction of the twenty-eight pages has become a coverup by two Presidents, and coverup implies complicity,” Sharon Premoli, who is co-chair of 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, said. “The families and survivors have the right to know the whole truth about the brutal murder of three thousand loved ones and the injuries of thousands more.”

Those advocating declassification present a powerful and oftentimes emotional argument, but others offer compelling reasons that the document should remain buried under the Capitol. Immediately after the Joint Congressional Inquiry finished its report, in late 2002, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States—better known as the 9/11 Commission—began its work, under the leadership of Thomas Kean, the former governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana. The questions raised by the twenty-eight pages were an important part of the commission’s agenda; indeed, its director, Philip Zelikow, hired staffers who had worked for the Joint Inquiry on that very section to follow up on the material. According to Zelikow, what they found does not substantiate the arguments made by the Joint Inquiry and by the 9/11 families in the lawsuit against the Saudis. He characterized the twenty-eight pages as “an agglomeration of preliminary, unvetted reports” concerning Saudi involvement. “They were wild accusations that needed to be checked out,” he said.

Zelikow and his staff were ultimately unable to prove any official Saudi complicity in the attacks. A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations.

Stephen Lynch agrees that the twenty-eight pages were buried in order to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Part of the reason it was classified was the fact that it would create a visceral response,” he told me. “There would be a backlash.” But, thirteen years later, is that still a reason to keep the document a secret?

Read more

BREAKING: President Obama Will Fight ISIS With George W. Bush’s Legal Theories


Later today President Obama will unveil his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, through an expanded military campaign in Iraq and likely Syria. But by ordering the military into action without explicit congressional authorization, Obama is falling back, at least in part, on the same controversial legal theories of executive power that he once rejected.

Not everyone is surprised by the presidential about-face. John Yoo, a former Bush administration lawyer and one of the primary architects of the “strong executive” theory of presidential power, told BuzzFeed News, “Obama has adopted the same view of war powers as the Bush administration.”

In a preview of his speech on Sunday, Obama told Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press that he was “confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people.” Obama repeated that same line in meetings with foreign policy pundits on Monday and again in meetings with congressional leaders on Tuesday.

That authority is Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which names the president commander-in-chief of the military. But not everyone is convinced that the clause, which opens Section 2, gives the president the authority Obama currently claims. Among those doubters is Obama himself, or at least the pre-presidential version.

In late 2007, as part of a candidate Q&A, Obama told Charlie Savage, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” And as Obama made clear in his Sunday appearance on Meet the Press, this is not the case in Iraq or Syria. “I want everybody to understand that we have not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL. That’s not what this is about.”

This is about prevention and preemption, exactly the sort of thing that candidate Obama said presidents were not authorized to do without congressional approval. But Congress seems to have little desire to vote on military action ahead of midterm elections in November, and, after last year’s confused approach to military strikes in Syria, Obama seems to have just as little interest in asking permission. Instead, whether out of expediency or outlook, he appears to have altered his views on constitutional power, and in doing so found himself relying on the same theories he once criticized.

The most obvious precedent for Obama’s claim of expansive Article II power is a memo written nearly 13 years ago by John Yoo, who is perhaps most well-known as the author of the so-called “torture memos.” Like Obama, then-President George W. Bush was looking for a way to use military force as a preemptive tool. Frustrated with a Congress that, even in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks refused to give the president preemptive power, Yoo came up with an innovative solution: He read it into the Constitution.

Relying on Article II, Yoo wrote: “The president may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist attack of September 11.” The fact that Congress had explicitly rejected the preemption language didn’t matter because, in Yoo’s reading, the president already had that authority.

“This is precisely the logic of the current and planned use of force against [ISIS],” Jack Goldsmith, another former Bush administration lawyer and currently a professor at Harvard Law School, pointed out recently on Lawfare, a blog he co-founded.

“What is remarkable,” Yoo told BuzzFeed News, “is not that Obama eventually had to exercise the powers of his predecessors to protect American national security, but that his party in Congress, and his allies in the media and the universities, have remained so silent about it.”

In an apparent attempt to elide some of these inconsistencies in constitutional interpretation, the White House is also considering what amounts to a backdoor authorization that, according to the New York Times, would have Congress appropriate money for Obama’s military plans. A sort of gentleman’s agreement that gets around direct congressional authorization, the plan would allow for deniability on both sides. Obama could claim he has congressional authorization without ever asking for a vote, while Congress could signal its support without individual members being forced to take a stand. President Bill Clinton retroactively used a similar maneuver in 1999 for airstrikes in Kosovo.

But for all the maneuvering, on the key issues of preemption and the expansive powers that a president has to deploy the military without direct Congressional authorization, Obama seems to have come around to the John Yoo school of law.

Source: Gregory D. Johnsen for Buzzfeed News

BREAKING: What to Expect From President Obama Tonight: Airstrikes in Syria, No Troops


Tonight President Barack Obama will lay out his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.

The U.S. military is already conducting airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq. Now, Obama is reportedly ready to authorize airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria, expanding the operation against the radicals into new territory.

In the planned speech, scheduled for 9 p.m. ET, Obama will try to present a vigorous strategy only days after he told reporters he didn’t have one. But don’t expect boots on the ground just yet.

3 things to listen for in Obama’s speech

1. The end-game

Expect Obama to deliver an outline of the military strategy that includes articulation of an end-game. If the U.S. is going to strike inside Syria, for example, how can that be done without helping the murderous regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the ostensible enemy of the Islamic State?


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks out from a helicopter over Baghdad, Iraq on Sept. 10, 2014.

Image: Brendan Smialowski, Pool/Associated Press

Fighting insurgents is “messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife,” as T.E. Lawrence, the British explorer and army officer, once wrote. And

years in Iraq certainly showed that a purely military campaign can not defeat radical groups

years in Iraq certainly showed that a purely military campaign can not defeat radical groups.

The so-called Anbar Awakening — which sought to co-opt Al Qaeda-linked groups by (financially) supporting the local Sunni tribes so that sheiks could offer jobs in a destitute region — was partially successful because it took away the financial incentive to fight.

Defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, as the administration seems to realize, is as much a financial and ideological fight as it is a physical battle.

2. How much it will cost and where the money will come from

The U.S. has spent an average of $7.5 million a day on military operations in Iraq since the air strikes began in August. That money is coming out of the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which has a $79.4 billion annual budget, Pentagon Press Secretary Adm. John Kirby said on Aug. 29.

The Obama administration is preparing a possible request for a multibillion-dollar package to execute his latest strategy, according to Bloomberg.

3. An outline of further diplomatic advances

American officials have already announced the formation of an international coalition to combat the militants. The alliance includes nine other countries — Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark.

Figuring out how to get Saudi Arabia, which has funded radical Sunni rebels in Syria, to join the effort against the Islamic State, however, is more pressing than getting the help of Denmark.


President Obama speaks on the phone to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Sept. 10.

Image: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

In addition, the Obama administration is trying to find a delicate way to define Turkey’s role. The Muslim nation has been reluctant to take firmer action against the Islamic State, which is holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage.


Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with Turkish leaders on Sept. 8.

Image: Glenn Fawcett, White House

Charting a course?

Obama has come under criticism for not having a more clearly defined strategy, most recently after he told reporters during a White House briefing: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

He has also been criticized for not acting sooner as Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria became more radicalized, fueling the growth of the Islamic State.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the failure to arm more secular rebels in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

The White House –- and the president himself –- has pushed back against such criticism, reportedly referring to that line of argument as “horseshit.”

However, Obama isn’t yet ready to put troops on the battlefield against the Islamic State. As Josh Rogin and Tim Mak reported for the Daily Beast, a vote to authorize Obama’s war against the Islamic State is “near impossible to muster” before Congress breaks for the midterm elections.

"Caught between their desire to preserve their constitutional war-making authority and the fear of political backlash, Congress is paralyzed and leadership has no intention of forcing the issue before the break."

Source: Louise Roug for Mashable

Under Georgia Law, Not All Hot Car Deaths Are Treated Equally


Justin Ross Harris, the Georgia father who left his two year old son to die in a hot car, has been indicted for murder by a grand jury. Harris has claimed that he forgot to drop off his son at daycare on the hot July day that the death occurred, which is how he was left in the car. However, the investigation later revealed that both parents had researched hot car deaths on the Internet, and Harris was also sexting with various women while the car was parked at his father’s office. He and his wife had two life insurances policies on their son. 

Harris faces eight criminal counts: malice murder, cruelty to children in the first degree, cruelty to children in the second degree, criminal attempt to commit felony exploitation of children, two counts of felony murder, and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors. Harris was not granted bond. He has pled not guilty to the felony murder and second degree child cruelty charges. 

Across the U.S., there is an average of 38 cases per year of child heatstroke deaths linked to being left in cars and 606 such deaths since 1998. Jan Null at the San Jose State University determined that of these 606 deaths, 111 occurred when the child was intentionally left in the car. 

So far this year, there have been 26 deaths. Two of these have been in Georgia; Harris’ son and the other was an unnamed two-year old girl. In the case of the young girl, her mother went inside to change a sibling’s diaper and asked a relative to watch her daughter. When the mother left, her daughter was playing outside. The girl had been missing for about an hour when she found inside the car. They believe she climbed into the car herself. In this case, no charges were filed, though it seems she was neglected enough to be stuck in a car alone for an hour.

There were no cases of hot car deaths for children in 2013 or 2012 in the state of Georgia. In 2011, Andrew Leighlan Calloway’s three-year-old son died in a hot car. The boy was left in a car by the owner of his day care, Shelia Henderson. Henderson left him in the car when she took her sister and two other children out to lunch. She was charged with similar charges to Harris, but far fewer of them: second degree cruelty to children, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless conduct. She pled guilty and was sentenced to ten years in prison. The same year, a five-month old was found locked in a car for five hours. A family member had forgotten her in the car, and its unclear if the parents ever pressed charges.

Hot car deaths have been few and far between for the children of Georgia, but clearly the case that have happened were are all handled quite differently. In multiple cases of neglect, the outcomes ranged from felony murder charges to involuntary manslaughter to nothing at all, though in each case, the child was left alone, directly leading to their death. 

Georgia does not have a specific law on the books to deal with these cases. There are 19 states that have “Unattended Children in Vehicles Laws," and in 2004, Georgia proposed one of their how. It did not pass. Each state has their own particular version of the law. Florida, one of our warmest states, has a very comprehensive law:

FLA. STAT. ANN. § 316.6135 (2010). Leaving children unattended or unsupervised in motor vehicles; penalty; authority of law enforcement officer

(1) A parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for a child younger than 6 years  of age may not leave such child unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle: 

(a) For a period in excess of 15 minutes;
(b) For any period of time if the motor of the vehicle is running or the health of the child is in danger.

(2) Any person who violates the provisions of paragraph (1)(a) commits a misdemeanor of the second degree punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
(3) Any person who violates the provisions of paragraph (1)(b) is guilty of a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable by a fine not less than $ 50 and not more than $ 500.
(4) Any person who violates subsection (1) and in so doing causes great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement to a child commits a felony of the third 
degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(5) Any law enforcement officer who observes a child left unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle in violation of subsection (1) may use whatever means are reasonably necessary to protect the minor child and to remove the child from the vehicle.
(6) If the child is removed from the immediate area, notification should be placed on the vehicle.
(7) The child shall be remanded to the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services pursuant to chapter 39, unless the law enforcement officer is able to locate the parents or legal guardian or other person responsible for the child.

Other states have a version of this law, taking bits and pieces as they deem appropriate. Florida clearly defines violations of this law as a felony, as do Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Missouri.  

In Georgia, however, the charges are open to more creative interpretation. In a 2013 case in which a child was left in a running car that was then stolen, Columbus, Georgia, Police Sgt. Art Sheldon of the Patrol Service Division explained that technically, it is up to the judge to determine if the law was broken by leaving the child in the running car before it was stolen. ”At the convenience store, you are not supposed to leave your car running to begin with,” Sheldon told the Ledger-Enquirer at the time. "You are not supposed to leave a child in the car. There was two violations. Basically you are putting that child in danger. It’s up to the judge to make the decision. Sometimes parents just don’t know any better."

There is also the case of determining exactly what kind of child cruelty occurred. In Georgia, there are two kinds of child cruelty: first or second degree, determined by the difference between malicious intent and negligence. Because of the life insurance policy and a search history showing research into hot car deaths, prosecutors believe intent can be established. This will affect how the case is presented, and how the jury will handle the charges if Harris is found guilty. 

Because of the human element involved in weighing intent, circumstance and relative relations into hot car deaths — and the nature of Georgia’s less specific laws — each case is handled and charged quite different. This is why Henderson and Harris faced harsh charges and sentences, whereas others responsible for similar deaths faced nothing at all. Because Henderson received only 10 years in prison, it is possible Harris’ legal team will push for something similar on the counts of cruelty. However, due to the higher number of counts and wider range of charges, he may find himself in prison for much longer or perhaps even on death row. Malice murder alone carries a 20-year charge, and combined with felony murder makes Harris eligible for the death penalty. The prosecution has stated they will seek the death penalty in this case.

Source: Polly Mesendz for The Wire

This May Be The Strongest Voting Rights Decision Since The Justices Hobbled The Voting Rights Act


Ohio’s attempt to reduce the number of days voters may cast an early ballot is unconstitutional and violates the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act (VRA), according to a decision handed down Thursday by a federal court in that state. Though the decision has a difficult road to travel before Ohio voters can be certain that it will stand — it will appeal to the Sixth Circuit, which has a conservative majority, and ultimately to the same Supreme Court that struck down a key provision of the VRA — Judge Peter Economus’ decision may be the strongest voting rights decision handed down since the justices’ attack on the VRA. Or, at least, it may be the strongest decision in the sense that it calls for a very strong shield to be erected around the right to vote. If his reasoning is ultimately upheld by a higher court, that would be a serious blow to efforts by many state lawmakers to enact laws restricting the franchise.

Much of Judge Economus’ opinion is devoted to explaining how limits on early voting disproportionately impact African-American voters. Many black churches, for example, conduct “Souls to the Polls” events that encourage churchgoers to vote after attending Sunday services — as an Ohio NAACP leader explained, “Sunday was a focal point also because many churches already provide transportation to take people to church, and carpools are also arranged so that everyone is together” — yet the new restrictions on early voting limit these churchgoers’ opportunities to vote on Sunday. Additionally, the new early voting schedule eliminates “Golden Week,” a period when voters can register and vote on the same day. The same NAACP leader testified that African-Americans are especially likely to take advantage of this period because “people in the African-American community in [his community] move frequently, especially since the 2008 recession.”

Empirical data also demonstrates that black voters are more likely to take advantage of early voting. Indeed, according to University of Florida Research Professor Daniel Smith, an expert witness who testified in this case, the rate of early voting in areas that are entirely African-American is more than twice the rate in areas that are entirely white. Additionally, Smith explained that “there is strong empirical evidence in Ohio that a greater proportion of blacks not only cast [early] ballots than whites but do so on early voting days that have been eliminated by” the new voting schedule.

This data matters because, under one of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that was not struck down by the Roberts Court, “[n]o voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Moreover, as a precedent cited by Judge Economus explains, this provision of the VRA “does not require proof of discriminatory intent. Instead, a plaintiff need show only that the challenged action or requirement has a discriminatory effect on members of a protected group[.]”

The VRA prohibits laws that abridges black people’s right to vote. Restricting early voting abridges black people’s right to vote. Therefore it violates the VRA. Q.E.D.

Yet, while this is the strongest argument presented by Economus’ opinion, that doesn’t mean that it will be upheld on appeal. For one thing, as Sean Trende, a political analyst for the news site Real Clear Politics explained in expert testimony on behalf of the state, “’Ohio maintains one of the most expansive systems of early voting in the country,’ with an early-voting period twice the national median.” Though reducing the number of early voting days in Ohio reduces the opportunities for African-Americans to vote from its previous baseline, it is far from guaranteed that a Supreme Court which has been hostile to the Voting Rights Act in the recent past will hold that Ohio is required to maintain its prior baseline.

Indeed, just last month a George W. Bush-appointed judge in North Carolina refused to suspend cuts to early voting in that state, arguing that it was “speculative” to assume that black voters will not shift their voting patterns to other days when voting is allowed. This argument could resonate with a conservative Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, it this decision stands it will be a very important victory for voting rights. Among other things, as Attorney General Eric Holder noted in a press conference Thursday afternoon, Economus’ decision uses some of the “same legal reasoning that underlies the Department’s pending challenges to voting measures” to states like Texas and North Carolina, where lawmakers and state officials are aggressively taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down much of the VRA.

Source: Ian Millhiser for ThinkProgress

BREAKING: Thousands Converge On U.S. Capitol To Demand Mental Health Care Reform


Days after a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Conn., President Barack Obama issued a challenge to congressional leaders to create a bill that would reform the national mental health care system. Nearly two years later, the legislation has yet to reach the Oval Office.

This week, thousands of people from across the country hope to reinvigorate the movement for mental health care reform during their visit to Washington, D.C. The visitors converged on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday afternoon and spoke with their elected officials as part of the “National Day of Action for Mental Health,” an effort to make comprehensive mental health care reform come to fruition.

The country is still waiting for Congress to act.

“It’s been two years,” Mary Giliberti, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), said in a press release. NAMI, the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by mental illness, led National Day of Action for Mental Health activities as part of its annual conference, themed Advocates for Change: From Dialogue to Action. “There has been dialogue and some progress since last year’s White House Conference on Mental Health, but the country is still waiting for Congress to act,” said Giliberti.

Congressional leaders have been slow to build consensus around comprehensive mental health reform due in part to the ascent of two pieces of legislation: Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) Helping Families in Mental Crisis Act and Rep. Ron Barber’s (D-AZ) Strengthening Mental Health in Our Communities Act.

Murphy introduced his bill in December and garnered support among 96 lawmakers, including more than 20 Democrats. His bill contains provisions that would make the receipt of funds from mental health block grants contingent on states expanding its civil commitment — a process by which courts order severely mentally ill people to receive psychiatric treatment. The bill would also strengthen oversight of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, change the relationship between caregivers and patients’ families as outlined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and allow psychiatric treatment in hospitals through Medicaid.

Barber’s bill, unlike that of Murphy’s, would provide treatment resources for veterans. While lawmakers have noted some key differences between both bills, Ron Honberg, the director of policy and legal affairs at NAMI, highlighted many similarities — including resources for suicide prevention, the allocation of funds that divert mentally ill people from correctional facilities, funds for school-based mental health services, protection of access to psychiatric medication in Medicaid and Medicare, the improvement of health information technology for mental health records, and the integration of mental and physical healthcare.

“The way our mental health system works is that they wait until the crisis unfolds,” Honberg told ThinkProgress. “That’s not only the worst possible way but also the most expensive way of responding to someone in need. There has been some talk about this issue since Sandy Hook but little progress has been made in addressing it. There are so many similarities between Murphy’s and Barber’s bills, so lawmakers should be able to find common ground and pass comprehensive mental health care legislation this year.”

Lawmakers should be able to find common ground and pass comprehensive mental health care legislation this year.

A group of speakers that included former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-VA), and recording artist and health advocate Demi Lovato kept the theme of collaboration and destigmatization alive and well during on Thursday morning during the Opening Legislative Plenary in the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel Ballroom.

Before taking coach buses to the U.S. Capitol, more than 1,500 members of NAMI state affiliate organizations listened as the trio touched on their personal bouts with mental illness and that of their family members. Each speaker drew parallels between mental illness and other chronic diseases, like diabetes and cancer.

“Don’t those with brain illnesses deserve the same care as any other care?” Kennedy asked audience members on Thursday. “[Today] you’re going to go up there and make sure it’s about treating the brain like any other organ of the body. Rather than letting Congress get lost in the details, we should keep it simple. If it were cancer or diabetes, there would be a revolution. This is a simple issue. We should never think about turning away people with mental illness.”

Deeds, this year’s recipient of the NAMI Richard Greer Advocacy Award, later expressed his determination to make Virginia a leader in mental health care. Last year, Deeds’ son Gus injured the senator before taking his own life, a traumatic event that compelled the older Deeds to take on mental health care issues with vigor. Deeds, a state legislator for nearly 23 years, challenged the audience to do their part to ensure that the stigmatization of the mentally ill no longer persists.

“I would give anything to not be in this position today,” said Deeds shortly after receiving his award. “When my world changed last November, I knew I had to… devote my life to help people discuss mental health openly and reduce the likelihood that this would happen again. I know that too many people and their families live in crisis. It’s unconscionable that so many people suffering from mental illness are locked away.”

While more than 61 million Americans suffer from a mental illness, less than 30 percent of them seek mental health care, according to a survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. People who do not seek treatment for their mental disorders will most likely have fewer opportunities to enjoy school, work, and social activities. Experts say that cuts in mental health services have shifted resources from community-based treatment centers to prisons. The mental patient population in American prisons as a result has more than quadrupled between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, as outlined in a Treatment Advocacy Center report released in April.

I know that too many people and their families live in crisis.

That’s why for many NAMI members, including Rachelle Martin, the fragile state of the national mental health care system requires the immediate attention of congressional lawmakers. Martin, executive director of NAMI’s Franklin County chapter in Ohio since 2009, said she joined the fight against mental illness after seeing her cousins suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia without much institutional support.

During an interview with ThinkProgress, Martin expressed her plans to chat with U.S. Congressional Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) about the feedback she’s received during sessions of Tea & Tears, a NAMI support group that allows people with mental disorders to chat among one another.

“People take part in our support group because they know that they’re among people that they can talk to,” said Martin. “People always ask me how they can get help. The mentally ill are getting discriminated against and the stigma is too powerful. This affects people of different colors so racism goes out of the window during our Tea & Tears meetings. It’s about people coming together and sharing what’s happening in their families.”

Source: Sam P. K. Collins for ThinkProgress

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