The Bush administration is facing another scandal that is quietly bubbling away in the background as most press attention is focused on the Valerie Plame-CIA leak probe.
Defense officials tell us the scandal involves massive corruption in Iraq related to U.S. and international funds meant for reconstruction efforts and the failure of the administration to control those funds.
The officials say conservative estimates put the amount of stolen money at about $9 billion, and that it could be as high as $15 billion.
Huge amounts of money were taken by Iraqis and international scoundrels who flocked to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is thought that they pocketed the funds through shady contracts and payoffs in the months after Baghdad was seized and a new Iraqi government was set up.
Stuart W. Bowen, the former White House attorney and current special inspector general for Iraq, is investigating the losses, along with Iraqi auditors.
Most of the cash was pilfered from $17 billion in U.S. and foreign funds. That money included seized funds captured by coalition forces ($926 million); funds held in frozen Iraqi accounts ($1.7 billion); donor funds from various nations given to the U.N. World Bank Trust Fund ($13.6 billion); and other humanitarian aid ($851 million).
The United States last year provided Iraq with $18 billion in reconstruction funds, about $15 billion of which has been obligated.
In covering the grand jury investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame‘s identity, the press has repeated uniformly the purported reason for the disclosure. They have repeated the charge from her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, that it was done to ruin her career.
While that may turn out to be true, there is another explanation: The White House was trying to figure out why, of all people, Mr. Wilson, a partisan Bush basher, would be selected by the CIA to go to Niger to determine the critical question of whether Iraq tried to buy uranium.
Information to date shows that the White House learned of his mission to the African nation only after the fact, via an op-ed piece Mr. Wilson wrote in the New York Times in July 2003. In it, he implied Vice President Dick Cheney approved his 2002 mission.
After the column appeared, the White House tried to find out why the CIA picked Mr. Wilson. It learned that his wife, Mrs. Plame, a covert officer assigned to CIA headquarters’ Counter Proliferation Division (CPD), had recommended him. George J. Tenet, who was CIA director at the time, said he had no role in the selection.
When reporters started making inquiries about whether Mr. Cheney tapped Mr. Wilson, they were steered away from that assumption and pointed in the direction of Mrs. Plame.
Under normal circumstances, this would be normal “spin” from a White House trying to set the record straight. And it is certainly appropriate for any reporter to inquire about why Mr. Wilson, a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, was picked. Trouble was, the trail led to Mrs. Plame, who deserved to keep her job secret since she was deployed from time to time as a covert officer.
That it was Mrs. Plame who got her husband the mission to Niger was later confirmed by a bipartisan report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in July 2004.
The report said CIA officials told the committee that Mrs. Plame “offered up his name.” The committee also uncovered a memo from Mrs. Plame to her boss that said, “my husband has good relations with both the [prime minister] and the former minister of mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity,” the report stated. The next day, CPD sent out a cable requesting concurrence with sending Mr. Wilson to Niger.
The committee report is in conflict with Mr. Wilson’s account. In a best-selling book, Mr. Wilson stated flatly that his wife played no role in his selection for the trip.
The committee report said Mr. Cheney, who wanted the supposed Niger-Iraq deal investigated, was not informed of the trip beforehand by the CIA.
Bin Laden watch
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that the lack of visibility of Osama bin Laden in recent weeks has raised questions about whether the al Qaeda terrorist leader is still alive.
“You know, one interesting thing … is we haven’t seen Osama bin Laden on film for one whale of a long time,” Mr. Rumsfeld said during a town-hall-style meeting with U.S. troops in Seoul. “I hadn’t thought about that until recently. Apparently, if he’s around, he’s very busy hiding. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Unlike al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, who has made several recent public statements, bin Laden has not been heard from since December when an audiotape of him surfaced. His last video appearance was on a tape recording in October 2004, prior to the presidential election.
“There isn’t evidence to suggest that he’s dead,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told us yesterday. “Given that, you have to work from the assumption he’s alive.”
The new commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Navy Adm. William Fallon, recently traveled to China to meet with Chinese military leaders, and defense officials tell us the visit did not go well.
The reason, we are told, is that Adm. Fallon made the visit without being invited. He traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong for meetings with Chinese military officials, but most of what he heard were complaints and lectures about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Adm. Fallon has become a major booster of U.S.-military exchanges with China and has sought to play down the growing military threat from the communist country.
Despite the recent visit to China by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, military relations with China remain chilly. They have been on ice since the April 2001 EP-3 incident, when a Chinese interceptor jet had a midair collision with a U.S. surveillance aircraft. The EP-3 pilot saved the 23-member crew and made an emergency landing at a Chinese military base, only to see the crew imprisoned for 11 days.
Adm. Fallon declined our requests for an interview but has met with reporters for the Associated Press and the New York Times.
Nearly 70 percent of Iraqis voted in this month’s constitutional referendum. The Bush administration and Iraq allies consider it a success. Here are some statistics that might explain why, compared with January’s elections for the interim government.
Polling centers: 6,235 vs. 5,677
Poll workers: 171,000 vs. 102,000
Applications to be poll workers: 450,000 vs. 110,000
In violence-ridden al Anbar Province: 171 polling places vs. 33
Thanks to the alert readers who pointed out the typographical error in last week’s column on where North Korea’s 800 medium-range No-Dong missiles are deployed. The missiles are based in North Korea and targeted at South Korea and Japan.
Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Mr. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at bgertz@WashingtonTimes.com. Mr. Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at rscarborough@WashingtonTimes.com.