WASHINGTON — Eric Shinseki served his country honorably as a twice-wounded officer in Vietnam, as Army chief of staff, and finally as President Obama's secretary of veterans affairs.
But his maddeningly passive response to the scandal roiling his agency suggests that the best way Shinseki can serve now is to step aside.
Reports have documented the deaths of about 40 veterans in Phoenix waiting for VA appointments — the latest evidence of widespread use of bookkeeping tricks at the agency to make it appear that veterans are not waiting as long for care as they really are. The abuses have been documented over several years by whistle-blowers and leaked memoranda, and confirmed by a host of government investigators.
That's bad enough. Worse was Shinseki's response when he finally appeared before a congressional committee Thursday to answer questions about the scandal. He refused to acknowledge any systemic problem, and declined to commit to do much of anything, insisting on waiting for the results of yet another investigation.
"If any allegations are true," Shinseki told the Senate veterans affairs committee, "they're completely unacceptable to me."
"If any are substantiated by the inspector general," he said, "we will act."
Is there not already evidence of VA appointment schedulers cooking the books?
"I'm not aware other than a number of isolated cases where there is evidence of that," Shinseki told the senators.
How about the September 2013 letter to President Obama from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel describing abuses that had been documented by the Office of Medical Inspector?
"I can't say that I remember it."
And is he not aware of the April 2010 memo by the deputy undersecretary for health at the VA describing "gaming strategies" being used at VA facilities for medical appointments?
"I was not. I am not."
Would he change his management team, given the evidence of systemic failures over years?
"I don't want to get ahead of myself."
Is he concerned about a VA culture of circumventing rules?
"I'm sure someplace in a large organization, you're always going to have something like that."
Shinseki's denial and sluggish response to an obvious problem (his department tarried eight days before complying with a House committee's request to preserve documents for review) is reminiscent of the whitewash of the neglect of wounded troops at Walter Reed. This isn't some phony, Republican-hyped allegation aimed at embarrassing the White House and inflicting political damage; this looks to be a serious and long-standing problem, where official wrongdoing has led to needless deaths.
The Government Accountability Office and others have been warning for a few years of problems with the waiting lists at VA facilities across the country. After years of VA failure to respond, a CNN report last month that at least 40 died in Phoenix waiting for treatment prompted the American Legion and some lawmakers to call for Shinseki's resignation.
Shinseki has declined to ask the Justice Department to investigate, even though he acknowledges the alleged activity would be illegal. The most significant action so far: The White House dispatched a deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to help Shinseki respond to the allegations. (Shinseki told the Senate panel he served with Nabors' father and knows his parents well.) Another indication of the attitude of Shinseki's team: Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the panel's top Republican, disclosed at the hearing that a top Shinseki lieutenant, in a recent conference with other VA officials, declared that that the medical director of the Phoenix office had "done nothing wrong" and that the decision to put her on leave was "political."
"I was not aware of the phone call," Shinseki replied.
Shinseki assured the Senate panel that he was "mad as hell" about the allegations. But Democratic and Republican senators alike observed that his anger was not matched by action.
"It's not 'we think this is happening,' it's 'we know this is happening,'" Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said, asking Shinseki to interpret part of the 2010 VA memo outlining the "gaming" practices.
"I'm going to take your direction here," Shinseki demurred.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reminded Shinseki that "we have more than allegations at this point. We have evidence, solid evidence, of wrongdoing within the VA system and it is more than an isolated instance of wrongdoing, it's a pattern and practice."
Blumenthal asked Shinseki if he would call in the FBI. Shinseki said he would "make that available" to the inspector general — "if that's his request."
There's that "if" again, and here's another: If Obama wants to resolve this VA debacle, he'll need a less passive secretary.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.