May 3, 2007

Another Investigation Worth Watching

Although appointed by President Bush, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), Stuart Bowen has bucked the norms of cronyism and corruption that have been so emblematic of the current Administration. Indeed, Mr. Bowen appears to take his responsibilities seriously, and has not been shy about criticizing either mismanagement of the reconstruction effort or the overall state of affairs in Iraq (from SIGIR's April, 2007 quarterly report to Congress):
Violence continues to exact a deadly toll on reconstruction contractors, journalists, and Iraqi citizens.
  • Since Iraq reconstruction began, 916 death claims for civilian contractors working on U.S.-funded projects in Iraq have been filed. In the quarter ending March 31, 2007, the Department of Labor reported 146 new death claims.
  • DoS [Department of State] reports that 16 U.S. civilians died in Iraq this quarter. Since the beginning of the U.S. reconstruction effort, 224 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq.
This quarter, 9 journalists were killed in Iraq, bringing the total number to 100 since March 2003. Also, 37 media support workers have been killed in Iraq since hostilities began, including one this quarter, according to the Committee To Protect Journalists.

Violence continues to force thousands of Iraqis to leave their homes each month. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that during and after the Saddam Hussein regime, more than 4 million Iraqis have been displaced. According to UNHCR, “the international community is facing a much larger and more complex humanitarian crisis than the one aid agencies planned for during the run-up to the 2003 war."
Likewise, SIGIR's frank assessments of the realities plaguing the neoconservative fantasy of a democratic Iraq have pulled few punches. Testifying before Congress, Mr. Bowen has called attention to, among other issues:
In short, he has represented a welcome, if lonely, instance of public oversight from a Bush appointee. Predictably then, when the original mandate for SIGIR neared the end of its authorization, few on the GOP side of the aisle or at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue mourned what they believed would be its imminent passing. Democrats called attention to the office's imminent closure however, and largely forced the last vestiges of a dying Republican Congress to extend SIGIR operations in the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections.

Despite the respite, security for SIGIR appears to have been short-lived. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Bowen was under investigation by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a board made of up of federal inspectors general. From the Post article:
Former employees filed complaints last year about Bowen not showing up for work for long periods of time in 2004, according to a former employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Complaints were also made alleging that Bowen had employees work on a book that is to explain the lessons of Iraq reconstruction, which pulled them away from audits.
While it is unquestionably possible that these charges have merit, it is curious that complaints about behavior alleged to have taken place in 2004 were not lodged until 2006. In an environment that has seen what strongly appears to be the purging of U.S. Attorneys who would not use their positions to further the Republican political agenda, the investigation of Mr. Bowen clearly merits close attention.

If Mr. Bowen has violated the trust of his office, he should be sanctioned appropriately and/or removed, but given the vital role he has played in providing visibility and accountability for reconstruction efforts in Iraq - not to mention the political death spiral of the Bush White House - that his actions will be honestly evaluated by the Council cannot be taken for granted. Likewise, if Mr. Bowen is dismissed, expectations for the performance of his successor must remain high. While the number of scandals surrounding this president and the recently unseated Republican congressional majority continues to mushroom, this is an investigation that must not be lost in the shuffle.

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