Congress Tells Auditor in Iraq to Close Office
Published on Friday, November 3, 2006 by the New York Times
Congress Tells Auditor in Iraq to Close Office
by James Glanz
 

Investigations led by a Republican lawyer named Stuart W. Bowen Jr. in Iraq have sent American occupation officials to jail on bribery and conspiracy charges, exposed disastrously poor construction work by well-connected companies like Halliburton and Parsons, and discovered that the military did not properly track hundreds of thousands of weapons it shipped to Iraqi security forces.

And tucked away in a huge military authorization bill that President Bush signed two weeks ago is what some of Mr. Bowen’s supporters believe is his reward for repeatedly embarrassing the administration: a pink slip.

The order comes in the form of an obscure provision that terminates his federal oversight agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, on Oct. 1, 2007. The clause was inserted by the Republican side of the House Armed Services Committee over the objections of Democratic counterparts during a closed-door conference, and it has generated surprise and some outrage among lawmakers who say they had no idea it was in the final legislation.

Mr. Bowen’s office, which began operation in January 2004 to examine reconstruction money spent in Iraq, was always envisioned as a temporary organization, permitted to continue its work only as long as Congress saw fit. Some advocates for the office, in fact, have regarded its lack of a permanent bureaucracy as the key to its aggressiveness and independence.

But as the implications of the provision in the new bill have become clear, opposition has been building on both sides of the political aisle. One point of contention is exactly when the office would have naturally run its course without a hard end date.

The bipartisan opposition may not be unexpected given Mr. Bowen’s Republican credentials — he served under George W. Bush both in Texas and in the White House — and deep public skepticism on the Bush administration’s conduct of the war.

Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who followed the bill closely as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, says that she still does not know how the provision made its way into what is called the conference report, which reconciles differences between House and Senate versions of a bill.

Neither the House nor the Senate version contained such a termination clause before the conference, all involved agree.

“It’s truly a mystery to me,” Ms. Collins said. “I looked at what I thought was the final version of the conference report and that provision was not in at that time.”

“The one thing I can confirm is that this was a last-minute insertion,” she said.

A Republican spokesman for the committee, Josh Holly, said lawmakers should not have been surprised by the provision closing the inspector general’s office because it “was discussed very early in the conference process.”

But like several other members of the House and Senate who were contacted on the bill, Ms. Collins said that she feared the loss of oversight that could occur if the inspector general’s office went out of business, adding that she was already working on legislation with several Democratic and Republican senators to reverse the termination.

One of those, John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Mr. Bowen was “making a valuable contribution to the Congressional and public understanding of this very complex and ever-changing situation in Iraq.”

“Given that his office has performed important work and that much remains to be done,” Mr. Warner added, “I intend to join Senator Collins in consulting with our colleagues to extend his charter.”

While Senators Collins and Warner said they had nothing more than hunches on where the impetus for setting a termination date had originated, Congressional Democrats were less reserved.

“It appears to me that the administration wants to silence the messenger that is giving us information about waste and fraud in Iraq,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform.

“I just can’t see how one can look at this change without believing it’s political,” he said.

The termination language was inserted into the bill by Congressional staff members working for Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and who declared on Monday that he plans to run for president in 2008.

Mr. Holly, who is the House Armed Services spokesman as well as a member of Mr. Hunter’s staff, said that politics played no role and that there had been no direction from the administration or lobbying from the companies whose work in Iraq Mr. Bowen’s office has severely critiqued. Three of the companies that have been a particular focus of Mr. Bowen’s investigations, Halliburton, Parsons and Bechtel, said that they had made no effort to lobby against his office.

The idea, Mr. Holly said, was simply to return to a non-wartime footing in which inspectors general in the State Department, the Pentagon and elsewhere would investigate American programs overseas. The definite termination date was also seen as helpful for planning future oversight efforts from Bush administration agencies, he said.

But in Congress, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, there have long been accusations that agencies controlled by the Bush administration are not inclined to unearth their own shortcomings in the first place.

The criticism came to a head in a hearing a year ago, when Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, induced the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, Thomas Gimble, to concede that he had no agents deployed in Iraq, more than two years after the invasion.

A spokesman for the Pentagon inspector general said Thursday that Mr. Gimble had worked to improve that situation, and currently had seven auditors in Baghdad and others working on Iraq-related issues in the United States and elsewhere. Mr. Gimble was in Iraq on Thursday, the spokesman said.

Mr. Bowen’s office has 55 auditors and inspectors in Iraq and about 300 reports and investigations already to its credit, far outstripping any other oversight agency in the country.

But Howard Krongard, the State Department inspector general, said that the comparison was misleading, because many of those resources would probably flow to State and the Pentagon if Congress shuts Mr. Bowen’s office down.

“I think we are competitive to do what they ask us to do,” Mr. Krongard said, referring to Congress.

Mr. Kucinich and other lawmakers said that Iraq oversight could also be hurt by the loss of Mr. Bowen’s mandate, which allows him to cross institutional boundaries, while the other inspectors general have jurisdictions only within their own agencies. Mr. Krongard said that issue could be handled by cooperation among the inspectors general.

Officials at the State Department and the Pentagon made it clear that in general terms they supported Mr. Bowen’s work and would abide by the wishes of Congress.

While the quality of Mr. Bowen’s work is seldom questioned, he is sometimes accused of being a grandstander who is too friendly with the news media. Mr. Bowen has responded that it is standard procedure to publicize successful investigations as a way of discouraging other potential wrongdoers.

Among the disagreements on the termination language in the defense authorization bill was exactly how much it would have shortened Mr. Bowen’s tenure. An amendment in the Senate version of the bill actually expanded the pot of reconstruction money his agents could examine.

Because the tenure of his office is calculated through a formula involving the amount of reconstruction money in that pot, the crafters of that amendment figured that it would have extended Mr. Bowen’s work until well into 2008 — or longer if Congress granted further extensions.

Mr. Holly agrees that the Senate language would have expanded that pot of money, but he says that in the Republican staff’s interpretation of the formula, Mr. Bowen’s tenure would have run out sometime in 2007 whether the money was added or not.

In any case, as the bill came out of conference, the termination date of Oct. 1, 2007, was inserted, effectively meaning that Mr. Bowen would have to start working on passing his responsibilities to other agencies by early next year.

Capitol Hill staff members said that after House Democratic objections were overridden, Senate conferees agreed to the provision in a bit of horse-trading: the amount of money Mr. Bowen could look at would be expanded, but only with the hard termination date.

Mr. Bowen himself declined to comment on the controversy surrounding his office, saying only that he was already working with the other inspectors general to develop a transition plan in accordance with the defense authorization act. “We will do what the Congress desires,” Mr. Bowen said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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