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Investigating an Outsourced War

We need the press to step up and get to the bottom of the corruption in Iraq, because the Bush administration is clearly uninterested.

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The United States government detained Donald Vance just outside Baghdad for 97 days. They hooded him, interrogated him ruthlessly, and blasted his cell with heavy metal music. He was accused of selling weapons to terrorists. His real crime appears to be telling the FBI about corrupt contracting practices in Iraq. Vance is among a select group of state enemies: whistleblowers.

We know this because of an Associated Press story that uncovered Vance’s ordeal. Vance, suspicious that the contractor he worked for was supplying weapons to insurgents, started supplying information to the FBI back in the States. But he was soon detained by Army Special Forces and brought to Camp Cropper for his 97-day stay.

The story also reported the fate of other whistleblowers who have tried to halt the massive boondoggles still ongoing in Iraq: they have been “vilified, fired, and demoted.”

Bunnatine Greenhouse, a high-ranking civilian in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who testified about the corrupt practices of a Halliburton subsidiary now “sits in a tiny cubicle in a different department with very little to do and no decision-making authority, at the end of an otherwise exemplary 20-year career.” Julie McBride testified about the same Halliburton company’s cost exaggerations and skimming. What happened? “Halliburton placed me under guard and kept me in seclusion. My property was searched, and I was specifically told that I was not allowed to speak to any member of the U.S. military. I remained under guard until I was flown out of the country.”

We need a press that will get to the bottom of this corruption, but so far there has been a paucity of stories about these problems. Part of the problem is the obvious difficulty of reporting in Iraq. Those reporters who continue to tough it out deserve our gratitude, as do the news organizations that pay for them. Yet the result is that there are significantly more stories about the money problems plaguing the Hurricane Katrina reconstruction than about Iraq reconstruction. This is understandable, but considering the amount of taxpayer money that’s been pouring into the place for the alleged purposes of reconstruction—$40 billion—and the underwhelming evidence that it is doing anything, more coverage should definitely be demanded. It’s not for nothing that Watergate turned on the old adage “follow the money.”

The New York Times followed the AP’s story days later with a major investigation that had clearly been in the works for some time. It reported on agencies “investigating a widening network of criminal cases involving the purchase and delivery of billions of dollars of weapons, supplies and other matériel to Iraqi and American forces, according to American officials. The officials said it amounted to the largest ring of fraud and kickbacks uncovered in the conflict here.” The investigations concern nearly $15 billion in bribes.

According to the Times, an Army officer who worked closely with Gen. David Petraeus is one target of an investigation into “serious discrepancies in military records of where thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces actually ended up.” A major and two family members were indicted for accepting bribes. Evidence was found of bid-rigging, prostitution, and overcharging. And the Government Accountability Office discovered that the Army “cannot fully account for about 110,000 AK-47 rifles, 90,000 pistols, 80 items of body armor, and 115,000 helmets reported as issued to Iraqi security forces as of Sept. 22, 2005.”

The Washington Post has more on the bribery aspect. In addition to the spy novel aspects—“a briefcase with $300,000 in cash in a Kuwaiti parking lot; handwritten ledgers that identify money sources with code names like Destiny Carter; and instructions telling co-conspirators to, in a pinch, toss safe-deposit keys out a window, stash key documents in the bosom and, lastly, destroy the instructions”—and the comically ridiculous excuses, such as the one that the bribes were to start a church, what strikes this reader is just this: What about everyone else? Or as the major’s defense lawyer, put it: “How can a guy that low on the totem pole be the only one sitting in the courtroom without anyone else?”

Justice aside, the American public deserves to know more about this war that’s being contracted out in its name. What is going on. A good place for reporters to start would be with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), whose investigations into Iraq reconstruction are chock full of multi-million dollar misappropriation. Oh, and for those doubting that investigations are productive, or that they hinder normal congressional business, note that Waxman claims he saved taxpayers $20 million in one of his first hearings. Or check out Thomas Mann’s recent op-chart in The New York Times, which points out that the new Congress has been more productive than the new Republican Congress in 1995—and there wasn’t even a war on then!

A key question to ask is whether Bush administration policy is causing so much of this corruption? The New York Times’ report implies as much, noting, “Weak oversight, poor planning and seemingly endless security problems have contributed to many of the program’s failures.” Clearly the administration, hobbled by so many simultaneously accusations of corruption, dishonesty, incompetence, and ideological obsession—all of which appear at work in its outsourcing of so much of this war—is not interested. That leaves only the press…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress, a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation and his seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Tim Fernholz contributed research to this piece.

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Eric Alterman

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