Tuesday, July 26, 2005
By Yochi J. Dreazen, The Wall Street Journal
During a routine audit last summer of an American office in charge of doling out reconstruction funding in Hillah, Iraq, U.S. government investigators made a series of startling discoveries.
The office had paid a contractor twice for the same work. A U.S. official was allowed to handle millions of dollars in cash weeks after he was fired for incompetence. Of the $119.9 million allocated for regional projects, $89.4 million was disbursed without contracts or other documentation. An additional $7.2 million couldn't be found at all.
To many officials in both Baghdad and Washington, the only thing more surprising than the problems was the identity of the man who had uncovered them: Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
Mr. Bowen is a Texas lawyer who parlayed a job on George W. Bush's first gubernatorial campaign into senior posts in Austin and Washington. He began the Iraq war lobbying for an American contractor seeking tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction work. Last October, California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman singled him out in a report on "The Politicization of Inspectors General" in the Bush administration. The report suggested that such auditors wouldn't be "independent and objective."
Instead, Mr. Bowen has become one of the most prominent and credible critics of how the administration has handled the occupation of Iraq. In a series of blistering public reports, he has detailed systemic management failings, lax or nonexistent oversight, and apparent fraud and embezzlement on the part of the U.S. officials charged with administering the rebuilding efforts.
White House officials declined to comment on Mr. Bowen. But he has drawn harsh criticism from other quarters.
Aides at both the State Department and the Defense Department have tried to curb the independence of his office. L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority until June 2004, has criticized Mr. Bowen for "misconceptions and inaccuracies" and for expecting the occupation authority, amid postwar chaos, to follow accounting standards that "even peaceful Western nations would have trouble meeting." Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, has called Mr. Bowen's staff "dramatically out of touch with the practical realities of waging war and setting up a new government in a war-torn country."
Mr. Bowen acknowledged in one report that "the CPA operated in a dangerous working environment under difficult conditions." But the report said the U.S. still should have "established controls and provided oversight over" reconstruction funds "precisely because there was no functioning Iraqi government."
In 1994, Mr. Bowen was a senior member of Mr. Bush's campaign team in his successful run for governor of Texas. After Mr. Bush took office, Mr. Bowen served as assistant general counsel in the governor's office and then deputy general counsel under Alberto Gonzales, now U.S. attorney general. Mr. Bowen crafted some of Gov. Bush's most controversial legal decisions, such as ousting a Democratic judge and dismissing widespread questions about the guilt of a death-row inmate.
When Mr. Bush ran for president, Mr. Bowen spent 35 days in Florida during the recount, and then served as deputy counsel to the Bush transition team. He rejoined Mr. Gonzales at the White House as associate counsel. In a 2002 ceremony marking the unveiling of Mr. Bush's official gubernatorial portrait in Austin, the president singled out Mr. Bowen as one of the aides who followed him to the presidency. "I truly believe America is better off as a result of the influx of Texans who showed up" in Washington, he said.
Mr. Bowen left the administration in March 2003 for a job at Patton Boggs, a prominent Washington law firm with a big lobbying operation. The U.S. launched the invasion of Iraq a few weeks later, and Mr. Bowen began lobbying for reconstruction work on behalf of URS Group Inc., a San Francisco-based company specializing in international construction planning and management. Mr. Bowen, one of three Patton Boggs attorneys on the account, says his only work for the company involved organizing an April 2003 meeting with a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development. URS didn't win any AID contracts as a result of that meeting, but the company ultimately won a series of CPA contracts valued at as much as $30 million to oversee reconstruction projects.
The effort to rebuild Iraq quickly became the largest U.S. reconstruction effort since the end of World War II. The funds eventually included $18.4 billion in U.S. money and more than $22 billion in seized Iraqi assets turned over to the U.S. by the United Nations.
In the fall of 2003, Congress created a CPA inspector general to oversee how the money was spent -- a post that eventually morphed into the job of inspector general for all Iraq reconstruction. The official would answer to Mr. Bremer, who headed the occupation authority, and present reports to Congress at least once every three months. The office was given a budget of $75 million.
At the request of the Bush administration, the job was created with many strings attached. Unlike other federal inspectors general, the new official was to be appointed by the secretary of defense, not the president, and wouldn't be subject to Senate confirmation. The White House also won the right to block the inspector general from releasing a report on national-security grounds -- though none have been blocked so far. Administration officials and many Congressional Republicans argued that the situation in Iraq was too chaotic to require normal oversight. They also cited the danger that an unfettered release of information could help insurgents plan more effective attacks against U.S. forces there.
Critics were skeptical that, under those conditions, the inspector general could offer real oversight. The skeptics weren't encouraged when, in January 2004, the White House tapped Mr. Bowen, perceived as a loyal Bush ally, to fill that position.
Mr. Bowen, 47 years old, has an athlete's build and the bearing of the Air Force captain he once was. He usually keeps packed bags in his office near the Pentagon, along with his bulletproof vest, handy for his frequent trips to Baghdad.
He traveled to Iraq for the first time in February 2004, riding from the airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone in an armored bus built to withstand direct hits from rockets and roadside bombs. He and his staff slept in trailers and crammed their entire operation into two small offices.
One of his flights out of Baghdad had to bank sharply and release flares to avoid an insurgent missile. An auditor on his staff resigned after seeing a friend decapitated in a rocket attack.
Mr. Bowen's arrival in Iraq coincided with a significant ramp-up in the pace of the American rebuilding effort. The U.S. had initially planned to maintain full control of Iraq for several years. But with violence raging and influential Iraqis expressing impatience with the American timetable, the Bush administration announced plans to turn over power to an interim Iraqi government by June 30.
Hoping to give the incoming government a public-relations boost, Mr. Bremer ordered American rebuilding officials to use captured Iraqi money to fund as many small-scale rebuilding projects as could be completed by the handover date.
Mr. Bowen's audits later found evidence that the push led contracting officials to take shortcuts that made it difficult to determine where the money actually went. In Hillah, for instance, a contracting officer told Mr. Bowen's investigators that he had been given $6.75 million in cash on June 21 with the expectation that he would spend the entire amount before the handover, which ultimately took place two days earlier than planned on June 28.
He soon found other examples of apparently lax oversight. An employee of the CPA comptroller in Baghdad, for example, kept the key to a safe containing more than $140,000 in cash in an unattended backpack.
In one of his most attention-grabbing reports, issued on Jan. 30, 2005, Mr. Bowen concluded that the American occupation authority failed to keep track of nearly $9 billion that it transferred to Iraqi government ministries, which lacked financial controls and internal safeguards to prevent abuse. One Iraqi ministry cited in the audit inflated its payroll to receive extra funds, claiming to employ 8,206 guards when it actually employed barely 600.
The report sparked harsh responses from both Mr. Bremer, the former occupation chief, and the Pentagon. Mr. Bremer chided the auditor for expecting conventional levels of accountability, saying that "given the situation the CPA found in Iraq at liberation, this is an unrealistic standard." The Pentagon also questioned Mr. Bowen's conclusions. Spokesman Bryan Whitman noted that "the CPA was operating under extraordinary conditions, from its inception to mission completion."
Mr. Bowen says that many of the management problems identified in his reports stem from structural failings in the broader reconstruction venture. He argues that the rebuilding effort has been understaffed. In one report, he noted that the central U.S. contracting office was unable to fill nearly a third of its authorized slots. That meant contracting personnel worked "13 to 15 hours each day, six days a week, with a shortened shift of six to 11 hours on the seventh day."
"An inspector general shouldn't play 'gotcha,' " he says. "My job is to help promote success in Iraq by identifying inefficiencies and helping correct them. I want to be part of the solution."
In a November 2004 report, Mr. Bowen took on the big contractor Halliburton Co. in two separate reports. He urged the Army to withhold nearly $90 million in payments to Halliburton because the company couldn't justify what it had charged the government. The report added that "weakness in the cost-reporting process" was such a problem that his investigators couldn't do a standard audit of Halliburton's bills to the CPA. Halliburton spokeswoman Cathy Mann says the Houston-based oil-services and contracting company is working with the Army to resolve the matter and "we expect to work through any remaining issues in a cooperative manner."
Mr. Bowen's audits have also described what appears to be outright criminal behavior by several government officials. In one case, an Army soldier serving as the assistant to an American boxing coach admitted to gambling away half the $40,000 he was given to cover the expenses of an Iraqi athletic team during a trip to the Philippines; his case was referred to the military's justice system for a court-martial. Mr. Bowen also recently gave the Justice Department information on possibly criminal behavior on the part of U.S. contracting officers in Hillah, the first time government officials have been implicated in potential fraud in Iraq. The officers left the country with no record of how they had spent nearly $1.5 million that couldn't be found by investigators.
With his caseload increasing, Mr. Bowen is hiring new investigators and lawyers in both Virginia and Iraq. He has numerous audits under way, including one looking at the efficiency of a military program that has allowed commanders to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars in cash without going through normal contracting channels. His aides recently began sending engineering teams to U.S.-funded reconstruction projects across the country to assess the actual quality of the work.
The future of Mr. Bowen's job has been embroiled in politics.
Shortly before the June 2004 handover of political sovereignty in Iraq, the State Department proposed folding Mr. Bowen's office into its own inspector-general system. Under heavy fire from Democrats, the plan was dropped.
Another bureaucratic fight erupted in the fall of 2004 as lawmakers debated a bill sponsored by Sen. Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, that would convert Mr. Bowen into a standing special inspector general. The new job would probe the entire rebuilding effort while being only loosely overseen by the secretaries of defense and state. The Pentagon's inspector general warned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a memo that such a bill would effectively leave Mr. Bowen "accountable to no one" and said he would prepare a directive tying him to the Pentagon's inspectors.
Nonetheless, the bill was signed into law on Oct. 29, 2004, expanding Mr. Bowen's role. Mr. Bowen assumed his new post immediately and currently has a staff of 32 in Baghdad and 70 in Arlington, Va.
Now defenders of Mr. Bowen's office are trying to keep it from being shut down next year. The bill that created Mr. Bowen's position empowered him to probe the rebuilding effort until 10 months after 80 percent of the reconstruction funds were contracted out. That point is likely to be reached this month, which means that the office will close next summer -- well before the money will actually have been spent. Earlier this month, Sen. Feingold introduced a bill extending the life of Mr. Bowen's office, but the measure's prospects are uncertain.
Despite endorsements from initially skeptical Democrats, Mr. Bowen insists that his work shouldn't be seen through the prism of partisan politics. He says he rarely hears from anyone in the White House these days -- either professionally or socially. He says he remains an admirer of President Bush. The only picture in Mr. Bowen's suburban Virginia office other than a photograph of his children is a framed shot of the two men at a White House dinner.
Some findings of Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction:
A third of the $10 billion in contracts signed in fiscal 2003 were awarded without competition.
A contractor charged the U.S. $3.3 million for phantom employees assigned to an oil-pipeline repair contract.
Iraqi construction firms allegedly paid U.S. soldiers to help steal construction equipment from the interim government.
At least a third of the government-owned vehicles and equipment that Halliburton was paid to manage were believed lost.
The U.S. failed to keep track of nearly $9 billion it transferred to the new Iraqi government, much of which appears to have been embezzled.