Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Congress has set a 2007 termination date for the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction at the behest of the Bush administration, removing the source of a series of audit reports that have emboldened critics of the president’s war polices.

The just-completed Pentagon authorization bill ends SIGIR, as the post is called, on Oct. 1, 2007. The bill, which has yet to be signed by President Bush, calls for the work to be transferred to inspectors general for the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. State runs reconstruction in Iraq.

Stuart W. Bowen Jr., a former Bush aide whom the president appointed as special inspector general in January 2004, has issued a series of reports and audits on a reconstruction effort dogged by incessant insurgent attacks and mismanagement.

His critical reports generally pleased Democrats, whose 2006 campaign theme is that the White House has mismanaged all aspects of the Iraq war. But the audits rankle some in the military and at State, who say they glossed over progress made in the face of daily threats of violence.

Mr. Bowen’s tenure became a hot topic in the Senate-House conference this summer to reconcile the authorization bill’s two versions. Senate Democrats backed an amendment that gave Mr. Bowen authority over about $6 billion in new funds for Iraq. That language would keep SIGIR in operation past next fall, perhaps for several years.

House conferees agreed to the new authority, but then won approval of language shutting down SIGIR next Oct. 1. An administration source said the date was added at the behest of the State Department.

Mr. Bowen’s basic mission is to monitor about $21 billion in special money called the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund.

A State Department official, who asked not to be named, said yesterday that the department always has supported SIGIR’s work and endorsed the Senate proposal to expand its authority to new funds.

But, the official said, the department thinks that “at a certain point, when you are no longer spending special money, it is important to return to normal IG supervision, as has always been the case in the past and as is already ongoing in many parts of Iraq now. We are strong supporters of SIGIR, but when the special funds for Iraq have been expended, it is appropriate the office would close, as was originally envisioned.”

The original legislation creating SIGIR set up a formula under which it would go out of existence when the vast majority of all special funds were spent, likely sometime next year.

James P. Mitchell, Mr. Bowen’s spokesman, said, “Of course, whatever Congress wants us to do we will do.”

There is a loophole. The authorization bill states that if the U.S. obligates “a major new commitment of U.S. funds,” Congress may revisit the issue and extend the termination date. Another factor: If Democrats retake control of Congress, SIGIR’s supporters would be in a better position to extend its life.

In his last report to Congress in July, Mr. Bowen said his office had initiated 236 investigations and issued 65 reports that produced savings of more than $10 million. He warned of growing corruption in Iraq that threatened to sap rebuilding efforts at the rate of $4 billion a year in Iraqi funds.

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