Setting The Record Straight On Attempted Suicides

As part of his testimony before Congress this week the man in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs – Secretary James Peake – criticized the credibility of a CBS News report from March 20, 2008, that said the VA told us there were 790 suicide attempts among veterans under the VA's care in 2007.

In both written and oral statements before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Peake, a medical doctor and retired Lt. General in the Army, characterized the 790 figure as -- "not reliable" and "misleading" – questioning the manner in which it was obtained.

"VA has since reviewed its records to try and understand where CBS might have gotten their information," said Peake, seen in the above photo on the near left, "and believes the number stemmed from a response to a Freedom of Information Act Request CBS made…"

According to Peake, "CBS apparently counted" the total number of veterans for a one specific clinical code -- "Suicide and other Self-Inflicted Injuries" and "came up 790 attempts in 2007." He went on to say: "That number, unfortunately, is not at all useful" to determine the total number of attempted suicides because the network failed to take into account certain psychological aspects related to attempted suicide.

Peake finished off by telling the committee the CBS number "while arithmetically correct, is actually misleading."

But two internal documents obtained by CBS News bring Peake's criticism into question and once again raise serious issues of honesty and integrity when it comes to the VA.

In fact, one internal VA document dated 1/24/08 titled "Executive Briefing Summary" details a conference call held between four VA officials, including Dr. Ira Katz, its head of mental health. The sole purpose of the call: to specifically review a December 2007 CBS News Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request - for all attempted suicide data they had on file -- and decide exactly what numbers to release to the network.

According to the briefing summary, the FOIA request produced four separate sets of coded clinical data -- suicide tendencies, suicide ideation, suicide trauma and suicide and self-inflicted injury. But "it was determined by Pam Heller, Dr. [Ira] Katz and Dr. [Han] Kang, that it would be erroneous" to provide all the categories "since the request is for attempted suicides."

So, in the end, CBS News received none of the psychological data and only that coded as "suicide and other self-inflicted injury."

In another email titled "CBS FOIA Data Review," written right after the conference call, Larry Hughes, a VA employee who worked on the FOIA request, states he will be "generating revised reports" he hopes will be "ready for Dr. Katz and Dr. Kang to review…"

In other words, the VA made a clear-cut determination as to what attempted suicide data CBS News would receive for its FOIA request. Yet there was Secretary Peake on Capitol Hill undercutting the credibility of the 790 figure customized and approved by Dr. Katz, citing the very information the VA had purposely left out.

Ironically, I was sitting right behind Secretary Peake and Dr. Katz at the hearing holding these very emails in my hand as Peake spoke about the need for more truth and transparency inside the VA.

"If we have something to hide, we shouldn't be hiding it," he said at one point.

If that's truly the case perhaps the Secretary should set the record straight about the number 790 and hold those accountable for his misleading testimony before Congress and the American public.