Investigating What Went Wrong in Iraq (and Congress’ Blissful Indifference)


Some $9 billion managed by the Coalition Provisional Authority and intended for the rebuilding of Iraq has gone missing, journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele report in Vanity Fair, and the U.S. government doesn’t seem particularly interested in finding out where it went. Barlett and Steele describe the Wild Wild Middle East atmosphere, in which two guys with no experience can get millions from the C.P.A. to protect civilian flights in and out of Iraq, and Bahamanian P.O. Boxes are the business addresses of choice for those supposedly keeping the books. Perhaps the most disturbing bit among many was just how out of touch Congress was on the doings in Baghdad during the C.P.A.’s tenure starting in 2003:

Over the next year, a compliant Congress gave $1.6 billion to Bremer to administer the C.P.A. This was over and above the $12 billion in cash that the C.P.A. had been given to disburse from Iraqi oil revenues and unfrozen Iraqi funds. Few in Congress actually had any idea about the true nature of the C.P.A. as an institution. Lawmakers had never discussed the establishment of the C.P.A., much less authorized it—odd, given that the agency would be receiving taxpayer dollars. Confused members of Congress believed that the C.P.A. was a U.S. government agency, which it was not, or that at the very least it had been authorized by the United Nations, which it had not. One congressional funding measure makes reference to the C.P.A. as "an entity of the United States Government"—highly inaccurate. The same congressional measure states that the C.P.A. was "established pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolutions"—just as inaccurate. The bizarre truth, as a U.S. District Court judge would point out in an opinion, is that "no formal document … plainly establishes the C.P.A. or provides for its formation."

"Confused members of Congress" seems like both a phrase that should be far more common in news coverage, and an inappropriately charitable description. In any case, it’s an incredible story from two of the best investigative reporters in the business — well worth reading (and don’t miss the Q&A with the authors). An addendum — note how Barlett and Steele describe the result of a FOIA request for a government contract:

On October 25, 2003, the C.P.A. awarded a $1.4 million contract "to provide accountant and audit services" to help "in the management and accounting of the Development Fund for Iraq." In other words, the purpose was to help Bremer and the C.P.A. keep tabs on the billions of dollars under their control, and to help make sure that the money was properly spent. The one-year C.P.A. contract was awarded to a company called NorthStar Consultants. When a request was made to the U.S. government for a copy of this contract, officials at the Pentagon, which has oversight, dragged their feet for weeks. The document they eventually supplied had been strategically redacted. Nearly all the information about the contractor had been blacked out, including the name and title of the company officer who had executed the contract, the name of the person to call for information about the company, the last four digits of the company’s phone number, and the name of the U.S.-government official who had awarded the contract in the first place.

This is something Anu and I run into on RealTime all the time. So much for transparency…