- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Stuart W. Bowen Jr. was only out of government work for eight months when he decided he wanted back in, a decision that has made him one of the most important bureaucrats in the war to democratize Iraq.

Ensconced at a well-paying lawyer’s job at powerhouse Patton Boggs, Mr. Bowen telephoned the White House personnel director in late 2003 with a simple message: After nearly 10 years of experience with President Bush in Texas and at the White House, he wanted to rejoin the president’s team.

“I wasn’t as content in the private sector as I had been in the public sector,” Mr. Bowen said earlier this year, as he prepared for his 11th trip to Iraq — he has made 12 in all — as the administration’s special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (SIGIR).

His office in the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington across the Potomac offers a stunning view of the Washington power structure that created one of the most influential investigative jobs in the world. He has near carte blanche to probe how the administration has managed nearly $70 billion in Iraqi and U.S. taxpayer rebuilding money. His rapid-fire series of reports on the reconstruction at times have seared the White House and delighted its Democratic critics.

He has found an $8 billion gap in spending accountability by the defunct Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under L. Paul Bremer’s direction, significant theft and fraud by military officers and an American businessman in the town of Hillah, incompetence in the construction of health care centers and oil pipelines, and a shortfall in what needs to be built with the money on hand. Incessant insurgent attacks have forced planners to eat up more money for security, leaving less for construction.

If the White House thought it was getting a pushover by hiring a longtime legal adviser to Mr. Bush, well, it was wrong.

“We’re friends, I would say that,” said Mr. Bowen of his long relationship with the president. “In a broader sense, he has 10,000 friends … . I haven’t talked to him in two years, though. Part of that has been, I think, appropriate. He’s not in my chain of command, and this is a sensitive topic. ”

He added, “I always took on tough jobs in Texas for the president and was pretty much a straight shooter. I think they knew I would engage and be fairly direct and honest in my execution of the mission. I don’t think there was a political agenda behind my appointment.”

Uncovering corruption

Mr. Bowen has become the public face for a network of financial watchdogs taking root in Iraq. They are warriors in a campaign to rid the country of rampant corruption that was as much a part of dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime as was the torture and repression. To win Iraq, the U.S. and the new Iraqi government must not only defeat insurgents and al Qaeda, but also track down public officials who may have stolen more than $1 billion.

“For the Iraq democratic initiative to succeed, corruption has to be defeated; not just the insurgency,” Mr. Bowen said.

Mr. Bowen’s staff and other U.S. government agencies have aided Iraq in setting up its own watchdog entities designed to tackle corruption, such as:

• Commission on Public Integrity: Established by the old CPA, the panel focuses on white-collar crime. It is headed by a judge, Radhi Hamza al-Radhi. The commission has set up a complaint hot line and relies on inspectors general in each ministry to refer cases. The commission has a staff of about 1,000 for more than 3,000 investigations.

The U.S. considers Judge al-Radhi, a foe of Saddam’s Ba’athist rule who was imprisoned in the 1990s, one of Iraq’s most honest men.

“Here’s why I believe he’s honest,” said Mr. Bowen, who met in April with Judge al-Radhi in his Crystal City office. “Here’s a man who leaves his house for work every day … with a death warrant on him by the criminals that are out there, and his investigators get killed. The price they pay in blood is, to me, a testament to their trustworthiness.”

Besides investigations, Judge al-Radhi has established a code of conduct and financial-disclosure requirements for government workers:

• Board of Supreme Audit: The panel examines the books of each Iraqi ministry, such as the Defense Ministry, where it found widespread irregularities in the awarding of million-dollar cash contracts. The government has accused former Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan and his aides of stealing huge sums of Iraqi oil money, perhaps totaling $1 billion.

• Inspectors general: Like the commission, the system of 31 Iraqi IGs was set up by Mr. Bremer’s CPA. It is modeled after the U.S. government system, in which independent investigators look into complaints of crimes or mismanagement and, if necessary, make referrals to criminal investigators.

• Central Criminal Court of Iraq: In the main forum for trying both white-collar and violent crimes, the same person serves as prosecutor and judge, a setup that has created a large backlog of cases, according to U.S. officials. There are 57 judges countrywide, with about a dozen dedicated to insurgency cases and four to public-integrity investigations.

Stabilizing the effort

There is much at stake for these U.S. and Iraqi watchdogs as huge sums of reconstruction money pour into Iraq. The United Nations released $37 billion in oil money (called the Development Fund for Iraq), much of it in cash because the country still lacks a banking system for wire transactions and check-writing. Added to that is $31 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds approved by Congress.

Since taking office in January 2004, Mr. Bowen’s staff of more than 160 federal and contract employees have churned out an impressive array of work — 55 audits, 165 recommendations, 42 project assessments and 112 reports based on satellite imagery.

The work product today seems essential to tracking taxpayer money, but the White House and many Republicans were cool to the idea of a special inspector general. It was Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, who led the effort to get the SIGIR created by law in the fall of 2003. When Mr. Bowen took the reins, he did not get a lot of support from the Pentagon inspector general, whose agency at the time was overseeing all reconstruction and the CPA, a role the State Department now fulfills.

Mr. Bowen pointed out that the Pentagon IG did not send an investigator to Iraq to monitor the CPA after the March 2003 invasion. In October 2004, Joseph E. Schmitz, the Pentagon IG, sent an “info memo” to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, which noted that as the law was written, the SIGIR was not accountable to him unless Mr. Rumsfeld signed a directive, which Mr. Schmitz offered to prepare. Mr. Rumsfeld stayed out of the power struggle, leaving Mr. Bowen’s independence in place.

Today, Mr. Bowen continues to face critics within the administration. They dare not speak out publicly for fear of being branded as opposed to badly needed oversight. The critics contend that Mr. Bowen gives little emphasis to a broad list of achievements in Iraq. Mr. Bremer, after being stung by a Bowen report that sharply criticized his oversight of Iraqi oil money, dashed off a letter accusing the inspector general of not meeting “the standards Americans have come to expect of the inspector general.”

Anonymous critics also say Mr. Bowen is trying create an “empire” with expanded power to investigate all sorts of operations in Iraq, not just rebuilding.

Mr. Bowen’s Senate backers, most of them Democrats, are sponsoring an amendment to the 2007 defense authorization bill that would lengthen SIGIR’s tenure and powers.

His supporters say he both praises and criticizes. In fact, his latest report to Congress states, “Although the story of Iraq reconstruction has been punctuated by shortfalls and deficiencies, the infrastructure overview provided [in] this quarterly report presents a picture of significant progress achieved through a substantial U.S. investment of time, talent and tax dollars in Iraq’s relief and reconstruction.

“We’re the only entity going out and visiting construction sites and eyeballing them,” Mr. Bowen said in the interview. “We have been supporting the anti-corruption efforts in Iraq. I think corruption is an endemic problem and continues to be so.”

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