Monday, April 24, 2006

Pentagon reconstruction officials are privately complaining that the special inspector general for Iraq is drafting error-prone reports and hampering their work in Iraq, according to defense officials.

But the office of Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the White House-appointed special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, rejects the complaints, saying Mr. Bowen issues accurate reports and solid advice.

Mr. Bowen is generally hailed in the press and in Congress as the man who has brought oversight to a $24 billion program of U.S. taxpayer funds that at times lacked proper supervision and accountability. Mr. Bowen, a lawyer and former aide to President Bush, separately investigated the spending of Iraq oil money and found significant mismanagement and fraud.

But within the Pentagon and among some defense officials in Iraq, Mr. Bowen’s staff is viewed as inaccurate and meddlesome at times, according to interviews with defense officials and e-mails between Army Project and Contracting Office officials in Washington and Baghdad.

Defense officials complain that SIGIR, the acronym for Mr. Bowen’s office, has 55 inspectors in Iraq, nearly one for every program manager, forcing the managers to spend increasing amounts of time answering their questions.

Their most serious complaint is that SIGIR’s draft reports contain too many errors.

“The quality of the SIGIR reports has been so poor that the government agencies who are the subject of the reports have become the quality assurance for the documents,” said a defense official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the department. “Countless man-hours are expended correcting the SIGIR’s mistakes and inaccuracies.”

James P. Mitchell, chief spokesman for Mr. Bowen, rebutted the complaints by saying most draft report findings are returned from the contracting office with the notation “concur.”

The complaints, Mr. Mitchell said, “come with oversight.”

“But oversight has its value. And we feel we have made a lot of difference in how Iraq reconstruction has been managed in making it more efficient and effective, and we believe we are deterring fraud,” he said. Five persons have been arrested on fraud and bribery charges based on Mr. Bowen’s investigations. There are still 70 open cases.

James Jeffrey, the State Department’s chief policy adviser on Iraq, had nothing but praise for SIGIR in testimony in February before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

“I want to particularly highlight the signature work of SIGIR in evaluating management operations and big-picture issues related to our [reconstruction] strategy,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “We listen closely to SIGIR’s suggestions, and many of our actions from direct contracting, including with Iraqis, to our focus on cost-to-complete, and plans for operations and maintenance of our projects reflect SIGIR’s input.”

On consuming too much time of contract officers, Mr. Mitchell said it is SIGIR policy to immediately report findings to managers and not wait until filing a report.

A senior Pentagon contracting official declined to comment when asked about Mr. Bowen’s work.

The unnamed defense official showed a reporter e-mails between reconstruction officials in Washington and those in Baghdad complaining about SIGIR’s methods. This official contended that SIGIR misstated an important statistic to measure progress in Iraq: how many citizens have access to drinking water. The official said SIGIR reported that fewer Iraqis were getting water compared with prewar levels. The State Department hotly disputed the numbers.

Mr. Bowen tried to settle the dispute in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“SIGIR is reviewing newly received data indicating that approximately 20.5 million Iraqis now have access to drinking water,” he said in the March 7 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “As SIGIR noted in its January quarterly, best prewar estimate indicated that 12-13 million Iraqis had access to drinking water in 2003. Thus, it appears that access to drinking water has increased since 2003.”

Defense officials say the letter was Mr. Bowen’s way of admitting a mistake without expressly saying so. But Mr. Mitchell said there are various numbers from different government groups on potable water and the issue “took a lot of hashing out.” He said SIGIR stood by its numbers.

Administration officials provided a November 2005 draft of the SIGIR management report to The Times, with numerous paragraphs circled by Pentagon officials to indicate they believed the assertions were inaccurate. For example, one section quoted “some reports” that said the now-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority filled jobs with “a disproportionate number of ideologically motivated but inexperienced young people.”

The final report in January omitted that section and reduced the assertion to a small footnote.

L. Paul Bremer, who ran the authority that ruled Iraq for the first year after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, was willing to openly criticize Mr. Bowen. He sent a terse letter to the inspector general after one of his first reports in 2004 skewered the former ambassador’s management of billions in Iraqi oil money.

“In my view, this draft report does not meet the standards Americans have come to expect of the inspector general,” Mr. Bremer wrote.

Mr. Mitchell said Mr. Bremer did not point out any instance in which a SIGIR report was factually wrong.

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