Friday, November 03, 2006

Reconstruction auditor gets a stealth pink slip

A recent bill signed by President Bush contains an overlooked provision that fires the auditor charged with overseeing the reconstruction effort in Iraq.

Investigations led by a Republican lawyer named Stuart W. Bowen Jr. in Iraq have sent American occupation officials to jail on bribery and conspiracy charges, exposed disastrously poor construction work by well-connected companies like Halliburton and Parsons, and discovered that the military did not properly track hundreds of thousands of weapons it shipped to Iraqi security forces.

Mr. Bowen’s office has inspected and audited taxpayer-financed projects like this prison in Nasiriya, Iraq.

And tucked away in a huge military authorization bill that President Bush signed two weeks ago is what some of Mr. Bowen’s supporters believe is his reward for repeatedly embarrassing the administration: a pink slip.

During closed-door meetings to reconcile the House and Senate version of the bill, Republican aides working for Rep. Duncan Hunter inserted a clause terminating Bowen's office on Oct. 1, 2007. Neither the House nor Senate versions of the bill contained the provision.

The Republican explanation is that the move allows time to plan a transition to more traditional oversight, through inspectors general in various federal agencies. And the 11-month deadline doesn't exactly cut Bowen off at the knees, although it does mean that by January or so he'll have to start shutting things down, which will hamper his effectiveness for the remainder of his term.

But it does seem to continue a long tradition of hobbling oversight of administration actions. The story notes one such gem:

The criticism came to a head in a hearing a year ago, when Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, induced the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, Thomas Gimble, to concede that he had no agents deployed in Iraq, more than two years after the invasion.

Given that history, the stealthy way in which the termination was executed doesn't do much to allay such concerns. And even if oversight functions are transferred to other agencies, it's doubtful they will execute the job with as much energy as Bowen has -- which may itself be another reason for the move:

Mr. Bowen’s office has 55 auditors and inspectors in Iraq and about 300 reports and investigations already to its credit, far outstripping any other oversight agency in the country.

On the plus side, revelations about the provision have sparked growing opposition from representatives and senators on both sides of the aisle. But it doesn't excuse the fact that the provision, after being inserted, was agreed to by the conferees. They, at least, should be held accountable for their decision.

I don't have a huge problem with Bowen's office being phased out, although it seems to be a poor idea given how poorly managed our Iraq finances have turned out to be. But the process needs to be conducted in the sunshine, not behind closed doors without telling members what you're doing.

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