On Sunday night, Sixty Minutes aired an important story exposing Iraqi war profiteering that has stolen billions, crippled reconstruction and put the lives of troops at fatal risk.
As Steve Kroft reported, "The United States has spent over $1/4 trillion in three years in Iraq and more than 50 billion of it has gone to private contractors, hired to guard bases, drive trucks and shelter the troops and rebuild the country." This money, more than the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security, "has been handed out to companies in Iraq with little or no oversight. Millions of dollars are unaccounted for. And there are widespread allegations of waste, fraud and war profiteering." The segment focused on a company called Custer Battles, which is the subject of a civil lawsuit that goes to trial today.
The $2 million given to Custer Battles was only the first installment--of $100 million--on a contract to provide security at Baghdad International Airport. What's significant is that the
company was started by two guys with absolutely no security experience. What one of them had was (a claim of) ties to the Republican Party and connections at the White House. In a memo obtained by Sixty Minutes, the Baghdad airport's director of security wrote to the Coalition Authority, "Custer Battles have shown themselves to be unresponsive, uncooperative, incompetent, deceitful, manipulative and war profiteers. Other than that, they're swell fellows."
The company continued to work in Iraq even after one of Custer Battles' main subcontractors went to federal authorities with allegations of criminal misconduct--bilking the government out of $50 million. (The subcontractor and another whistleblower are suing the company on behalf of US taxpayers to recover some of the money.)
What's happened since. Well, as Kroft reports, "To date, the only action that's been taken against [the company] has been a one-year suspension from receiving government contracts. It has since expired."
"I think what's happening over there is an orgy of greed here with contractors," says North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, whose committee has held hearings on the giants of war profiteering -- Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root, who've collected half of all the money awarded to contractors in Iraq and, according to the Defense Department's own auditors, have overbilled taxpayers by more than $1 billion.
If there's any chance of oversight, it won't come from Republicans who refuse to hold hearings into the reconstruction racket. Expect to hear more in coming days from Stuart Bowen, the special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, whose staff--in two lengthy reports--has already laid out suspected fraud and incompetence. According to Sixty Minutes, it is of "staggering proportions, like the $8.8 billion that the Coalition seems to have lost track of."
War profiteering ties the corruption and cronyism that people have seen in Congress and Katrina to the failure and agonies that they witness in Iraq. It highlights how unaccountable this Republican Congress is. And it shows clearly, despite Karl Rove's core contention --"we'll protect you"-- that, in fact, this Administration has undermined the security of this country in the muck of its lethal cynicism, corruption and cronyism.
What Sixty Minutes' important expose also reveals is the need for an independent war profiteering commission which would investigate the multi-billion dollar, unaccounted for, expenditures in the Iraq war and publish a report for public distribution that includes tough recommendations for legislative action and, if found, criminal action. It would be modeled on the Truman Commission, which then-Senator Harry Truman chaired during World War II to expose and eliminate waste, mismanagement, and corruption, and consist of a group of dedicated, visible current and former public servants--Democrats, Republicans, Independents--committed to examining the financial and military transactions related to the Iraqi war effort.
The Commission's public hearings--although lacking subpoena power to compel the production of relevant documents--could draw significant coverage. It should be a platform for citizen whistleblowers, military families and veterans of the Iraq wars. (By holding public hearings in towns and cities which have suffered disproportionate military casualties, the link between corruption and human lives would be drawn sharply and painfully.) In addition to live public hearings, the Commission could use the Internet as a way of collecting and disseminating its information and findings.
Given the revulsion that decent people--of all political hues--feel about war profiteering, this is a project that could have a real impact in these coming weeks and months. I will be working to explore interest in establishing this war-profiteering commission. I welcome your comments and ideas below.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2006 The Nation