Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Accountability Not a Part of Iraq Strategy

Former Republican congressman from Georgia and U.S. attorney Bob Barr practices law in Atlanta.

By Bob Barr

Last week, former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned his seat in the Congress. Witnessing a friend, who served America with great distinction in Vietnam and in the House of Representatives, fall so hard was heart-wrenching.

However, I did admire the fact that Cunningham confronted his crimes, entered a plea without first blaming someone else and seeking a bargain, and voluntarily stepped down from his elected office to await a certain prison term.

He accepted responsibility. The corruption-tainted buck stopped with him, and he was man enough to admit it. Too bad there aren't more public servants willing to admit error, take responsibility and do something about it. In Iraq, for example.

The news coming out of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities with names becoming all too familiar to us has been especially bad recently; and not just the fact that our high-tech-equipped troops keep falling prey to low-tech improvised roadside bombs.

We now know that our government, which misses no opportunity to tout the great strides the Iraqi people are making toward building a free society, has been secretly paying Iraqi journalists to disseminate self-serving stories about how great things are over there. Apparently, we expect the Iraqis (and the rest of the world that is watching with great interest how we comport ourselves in Iraq) to watch what we say — "a free press is essential to a free society" — not what we do — control the Iraqi media to serve our needs.

When he addressed this problem this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a graduate of the Bush School of the Never-Admitted Error, refused to take responsibility and instead blamed the contractors who placed the stories in the Iraqi press, for not placing them properly (after all, the U.S. company responsible for placing the self-serving articles has only a $6 million contract for its work; hardly enough to do an adequate job). If Cunningham had been secretary of Defense, and he was caught with his hand in the Iraqi inkwell, at least he'd admit a mistake was made, and heads would roll, perhaps even his own.

The lack of leadership and responsibility is evident also in the news seeping out of Iraq and Washington that corruption – perhaps on a scale that would make New Orleans politicos green with envy – in the funding of the "reconstruction effort" may be much more widespread than previously admitted. While a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves recently became the first American officer charged with graft in the awarding of contracts in Iraq, such a step appears decidedly timid when one considers the scope of the potential loss of taxpayer dollars as a result of the lack of accountability that seems to permeate the funding of the entire Iraq operation.

Of the nearly $360 billion set aside for U.S. military operations since Sept. 11, more than $250 billion has been shoveled into Iraq. The low priority the federal government places on trying to account for that huge sum of taxpayer money, however, is evident in the fact that the Department of Defense inspector general's office reportedly maintains not a single auditor in Iraq.

Also telling is the fact that only a small percentage of the funds appropriated for the Iraq effort have been audited. The Pentagon's apparent disinterest in accounting for the massive amount of money under its control is evident in an investigation conducted recently by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which found that at least $7 billion supposed to be used for the war on terrorism was unaccounted for. Reportedly, all government audits of the anti-terror funds have pinpointed more than $20 billion that seems to have been lost.

Here again, eschewing the Duke Cunningham principle that if you screw up, you admit it and take your punishment like a man, the Congress and the White House are responding to the accounts of massive mismanagement of monies by — you guessed it — preparing yet another supplemental spending package of some $45 billion to be tacked onto the nearly $50 billion already set aside for next year.

Unfortunately, the same perspective that has given us such massive potential lost tax dollars in Iraq enabled Cunningham to reap a few million dollars in bribes from some relatively minor defense contractors. The Defense Department team of auditors, the men and women who just might catch some of this mismanagement and corruption, has shrunk dramatically in the past few years (by some 2,000, according to press accounts). Who's in charge here?

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