Unusual Trip to Iraq in '03 for Wolfowitz Companion
WASHINGTON - The Defense Department directed a private contractor in 2003 to hire Shaha Ali Riza, a World Bank employee and the companion of Paul D. Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense, to spend a month studying issues related to setting up a new government in Iraq, the contractor said Monday.
The contractor, Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC, said that it had been directed to hire Ms. Riza by the office of the under secretary for policy. The head of that office at the time was Douglas J. Feith, who reported to Mr. Wolfowitz.
After her trip to Iraq, Ms. Riza briefed members of the executive board of the World Bank on efforts to rebuild after the American invasion and specifically on the status of Iraqi women, according to Ms. Riza's supervisor at the time.
Victoria Toensing, a lawyer representing Ms. Riza, said this evening that Ms. Riza went to Iraq as a volunteer and took a leave of absence from the World Bank, paying for her own benefits while she was on leave.
Ms. Riza has been at the center of a controversy at the World Bank involving the role of Mr. Wolfowitz, now the World Bank president, in giving her a raise, promotions and a transfer from the bank in 2005, when he arrived to assume the bank presidency.
Mr. Wolfowitz has apologized for his role in her arrangements. But on Sunday, he rejected calls by the bank's staff association to resign. An oversight committee of the bank on Sunday expressed "great concern" about the situation involving Mr. Wolfowitz, and the bank's board is studying the matter.
Mr. Feith, the former under secretary of defense, said he had no recollection of any request by his office to have Ms. Riza hired. The office of Mr. Wolfowitz said it had insufficient information to be able to comment on short notice.
Associates of Mr. Wolfowitz and Ms. Riza said they had been acquainted at least since the 1990s as a result of their joint interest in promoting democracy in the Middle East. Ms. Riza had served as a communications officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank until Mr. Wolfowitz arrived.
There have been reports in Vanity Fair and on the Web site of the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group, that Ms. Riza did work for SAIC in 2003.
The spokesman said that Ms. Riza was "directed" by the office of the under secretary for policy to work for a unit known as the Iraq Governance Group, which was helping to set up a governing body in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The contract ran from April 25 to May 31, 2003, the spokesman said.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Feith said: "It doesn't ring any bells. I just do not recall any such thing." He said that the Pentagon policy office had a large staff, budget and number of contracts, and that the SAIC disclosure could mean the contract was arranged by "somebody in the Pentagon or somebody in my office."
It was not clear why the Pentagon specifically asked for Ms. Riza to travel to Iraq. At the time, however, the World Bank did not have a relationship with Iraq. Normal bank rules do not allow the bank to provide economic assistance to an area under military occupation.
Ms. Riza's trip raised concerns among some bank officials, who said they did not know under whose auspices she had traveled to Iraq at a time when it was against bank policy for its officials to go there.
Bank officials said, however, that after the ouster of Mr. Hussein, the Bush administration tried to get the bank to help assist in the redevelopment of Iraq and that it was trying to involve the United Nations in the occupation to provide a rationale for the bank's assistance.
"The bank was under a lot of pressure at the time to do something in Iraq very quickly," said Jean-Louis Sarbib, a former vice president for the Middle East and North Africa at the bank. "Shaha went to Iraq, I believe, with a U.S. delegation to talk to civil society groups and, in particular, women."
Mr. Sarbib, who has retired from the bank, was Ms. Riza's supervisor at the time. He said he "was not really privy to the arrangements" under which she went to Iraq. Upon her return, he said, she briefed members of the bank's executive board and was "rather upbeat" about the country's future, and the status of women.
"Coming from her, that had some credibility," he said. Mr. Sarbib said some of the bank's directors were "very concerned about why she was briefing the board, under which authority and with whom she had gone there." "I did not know anything about this at the time, and I was the vice president, and she was reporting to me," he said.
Ms. Toensing said that Ms. Riza was part of a State Department delegation to Iraq and that she was asked to brief World Bank officials by the bank's president at the time, James Wolfensohn.
Thom Shanker contributed reporting.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company