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House Republicans Might Have Found a Real Scandal -- And It's Not Benghazi

Think of it as the tale of two scandals.

In the last week, Congress slapped a pair of Obama administration cabinet officials with subpoenas. The first was handed to Secretary of State John Kerry, ordering him to appear before the House Oversight Committee and testify about the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The second came Thursday when the House Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously voted to subpoena Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, in effort to obtain documents related to allegations that delays in care at an Arizona facility resulted in the deaths of some 40 former service members.

It's extremely unusual to subpoena one cabinet secretary, let alone two. But what may be most unusual is that the same Democrats who dismissed the Kerry subpoena as the latest move in a politically-motivated and partisan witch hunt are bucking their own party and strongly supporting the Shinseki subpoena.

Supporting military veterans is always a winner politically. In this case, though, lawmakers are also responding to several reports in recent weeks that appear to bolster the claims of the department's critics that the episode in Arizona may be part of a wider pattern of mismanagement and negligence in providing healthcare to American veterans. According to a December report authored by the VA's own investigators, employees at a veterans clinic in Colorado were instructed to falsify medical records in order to lower the facility's reported wait time to receive an appointment. Another VA report linked the deaths of 23 former service members to delays in endoscopy screenings.

Unlike Benghazi, this time around Republicans find themselves with willing allies across the aisle. "Unfortunately, I do not believe the VA has provided sufficient answers to our legitimate questions which is why I supported the serious next step of issuing a subpoena," Rep. Julia Brownley, a California Democrat and a member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "Furthermore, I am deeply concerned that these practices may be more pervasive within the VA medical system."

Having joined the administration in January 2009, Shinseki has long-standing ties to the Obama administration, and it will be difficult for the retired four-star Army general to shrug off allegations of mismanagement as inherited problems. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Tuesday, Shinseki described himself as an embattled reformer within a department with entrenched problems. "I serve at the pleasure of the president," he said in response to whether he might resign over the allegations. "I signed on to make some changes, I have work to do."

The subpoena issued Thursday focuses on a decision by a VA facility in Phoenix to destroy what department officials have described as an interim wait list that was used while the facility was transitioning to a new wait system. VA officials have told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that they believe this list may be the "secret" wait list that CNN reported was used to create the appearance of shorter wait times. That interim list was apparently destroyed, and the committee would like to find out why.

A committee staffer, speaking to Foreign Policy on background to preserve his relationship with the department, said he wasn't sure which account to believe and said that the subpoena was issued in part to get to the bottom of the matter. In a letter sent Wednesday, Shinseki attempted to address the committee's concerns about the list, arguing that it was well within department policy to destroy such material. But the committee didn't find that response sufficient and proceeded to issue the subpoena.

In response to that surprisingly confrontational move, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it will conduct "a national face-to-face audit" at all its clinics. "Our most important mission is to make sure veterans know VA is here to care for them and provide the high quality care and benefits they have earned and deserve," the department said in a statement.

When asked by Foreign Policy to respond to concerns that the Arizona allegations are emblematic of the care offered by the VA system, the department said in a statement that it thoroughly investigates claims of misconduct and that it has made important progress in improving care. "If the VA Office of Inspector General's ongoing investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken," the department said, referring to an ongoing investigation of the Arizona facility. "Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care."

But on Capitol Hill, frustration is mounting with both Shinseki and his department. While the department has come under heavy fire since CNN aired the allegations about delays in care at the Phoenix facility and the alleged use of a secret waiting list used to create the appearance of reduced wait times, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee have long been badgering the department for information about other allegations of misconduct only to be, in their opinion, stonewalled. The committee has gone so far as to set up a website devoted to tracking outstanding requests for information.

Discontent with the department is also mounting among veterans groups. This week, the American Legion, one influential such group, called on Shinseki and two other VA officials to resign, the first time the group has called on a public official to step down since 1978. When the Legion's commander, Daniel Dellinger, asked Shinseki why he hadn't fired anyone despite a long history of problems within the department, Shinseki once more emphasized his role as a reformer. "He said he didn't need to fire anyone; he needed to retrain them," Dellinger said, recalling his conversation with Shinseki to the New York Times. "That was a red flag."

When asked whether the Legion agrees that allegations about the Arizona facility are part of a broader pattern of VA failings, a spokesman for the group forwarded a list of 28 alleged instances of problems and a lack of accountability at VA medical facilities nationwide. Beyond lapses in care, the examples provided by the Legion reveal a pattern of department officials receiving bonuses despite overseeing increases in backlogs of medical claims. One example cited by Marty Callaghan, the spokesman: "Diana Rubens, the VA executive in charge of the nearly 60 offices that process disability benefits compensation claims, collected almost $60,000 in bonuses while presiding over a near seven-fold increase in backlogged claims."

Shinseki will reportedly testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 15. Expect fireworks.      

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

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Obama, Don't Take It Personally, North Korea Just Hates Black People

"In 1965, the Cuban ambassador to the DPRK, a black man, was squiring his wife and some Cuban doctors" around Pyongyang, the scholar of North Korea B.R. Myers wrote in his 2010 book, The Cleanest Race. "Locals surrounded their car, pounding it and shouting racial epithets. Police called to the scene had to beat the mob back with truncheons."

I thought of this anecdote after reading about an anti-Obama rant published on May 2 by the Korean Central News Agency, which contained such quotes as "it would be perfect for Obama to live with a group of monkeys in the world's largest African natural zoo and lick the bread crumbs thrown by spectators." While news agencies run by the North Korean government regularly insult foreign officials, they usually don't use language redolent of Nazi pulp novels. I don't read Korean, but the translated excerpts are the angriest pieces of writing I've seen in a long time.

Myers argued in his book that North Korea is best understood not as a Communist society, but one where race-based nationalism is the state ideology. The country's forced cult of personality has fashioned the Kims into "motherly leaders," who are guardians of the Koreans purity and innocence, and protect them from the danger and contamination of the outside world. This helps explain the regime's longevity -- 64 years and counting. Indeed, racial purity is the only thing that North Korea -- whose population includes so few foreigners that it can plausibly claim to be 100 percent Korean -- does better than everywhere else.

Like in many places around the world, North Korea reserves special vitriol for blacks. After Dennis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited Pyongyang in January, a journalist from the online newspaper Daily NK claimed that a North Korean source told him people were "asking each other, 'where did they find that group of goblins?'"

In a paper on North Korean relations, the researcher Benjamin R. Young cites several examples of the official media's degradation of blacks, including the 1985 anti-American film The Tale of 15 Children. In the movie, Americans capture 15 North Korean children and debate selling them into slavery. The children meet a cartoonishly incompetent African-American slave -- played by a Korean in blackface -- who is too dumb to speak. "The North Koreans understood that African-Americans were second-class citizens in the U.S. but they were also represented as less intelligent (if not subhuman) in North Korean propaganda," Young writes. (North Korea has decent ties with many African nations, but state ideology often doesn't interfere with foreign policy.)

In their 2009 book The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh relayed the story of a May 2006 meeting between North and South Korean military officers. The southerner offhandedly mentions that rural farmers in South Korea sometimes take foreign brides -- incensing the North Korean officer. "Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance," he snapped. "Not even one drop of ink must be allowed to fall into the Han River."

The Han River is a major river flowing between the two Koreas -- and it's hard to think of a more visceral symbol of North Korean racism than its fears of black ink polluting a clear river.