- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

Poor planning, weak oversight and greed combined to soak U.S. taxpayers and undermine American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, government watchdogs tell a new commission examining waste and corruption in wartime contracts.

Since 2003, the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have paid contractors more than $100 billion for goods and services to support war operations and rebuilding.

There are 154 open criminal investigations into allegations of bribery, conflicts of interest, defective products, bid rigging and theft stemming from the wars, said Thomas Gimble, the Pentagon’s principal deputy inspector general.

The Associated Press obtained the prepared testimony of Mr. Gimble and Stuart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, in advance of Monday’s first hearing by the Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Congress created the bipartisan panel a year ago over the objections of the Bush White House, which complained the Justice Department might be forced to disclose sensitive information about investigations.

Mr. Gimble notes that contracting scandals have gone on since the late 1700s when vendors swindled George Washington’s army.

“Today, instead of empty barrels of meat, contractors produced inadequate or unusable facilities that required extensive rework,” Mr. Gimble says. “Like the Continental Forces who encountered fraud, the [Defense Department] also encounters fraud.”

A report from Mr. Bowen, “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” reviews the problems in an effort that has cost the U.S. $51 billion. Before the war, the Bush administration projected $2.4 billion would be needed for reconstruction, he says.

His findings are based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of documents.

The U.S. government “was neither prepared for nor able to respond quickly to the ever-changing demands” of stabilizing the war-torn country and then rebuilding it, Mr. Bowen says. “For the last six years we have been on a steep learning curve.”

Styled after the Truman Committee, which examined World War II spending six decades ago, the eight-member panel has broad authority to examine military support contracts, reconstruction projects and private security companies.

It is more blue-collar than blue-ribbon. The first members were not named until July; there still is a vacancy. They had no offices, no support staff and no work plan.

The commission found space in an unassuming building in Rosslyn, just down the road from the Pentagon. It has spent the past few months getting organized. The leaders are Mike Thibault, a former deputy director at the Defense Contract Audit Agency, and Grant Green, a former State and Defense department official.

The panel has until August 2010 to produce a final report. Along the way, it can refer to the Justice Department any violations of the law it finds.

Mr. Gimble and Mr. Bowen, in their prepared testimony, focus on different aspects of the wars, but with the same bleak tone.

Mr. Gimble’s office found that a small number of inexperienced civilian or military personnel “were assigned far-reaching responsibilities for an unreasonably large number of contracts.”

He cites an account tapped frequently by U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to build schools, roads, and hospitals. More than $3 billion was spent on these projects, which were not always properly managed.

“In some instances, there appeared to be scant, if any, oversight of the manner in which funds were expended,” Mr. Gimble says. “Complicating matters further is the fact that payment of bribes and gratuities to government officials is a common business practice in some Southwest Asia nations.”

In an advance copy of the “Hard Lessons” report, Mr. Bowen says his office found fraud to be less of a problem than persistent inefficiencies and hefty contractor fees that “all contributed to a significant waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Also scheduled to testify at Monday’s hearing are the inspectors general at the State Department and USAID.

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