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Report Finds U.S. Failed to Consult Iraq’s Needs in Rebuilding

March 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen wrapped up a review of nine years' worth of Iraq rebuilding projects with a report that cites massive waste of resources and life. Judy Woodruff talks to Bowen about where the money went and what the U.S. government must learn for the future.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I’m joined now by the author of the report, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen.

And we thank you for being with us.

STUART BOWEN, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction: Thank you for having me, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you were appointed to this position nine years ago. It was during the Bush administration, the very beginning of all this. What was your mission? What did they — what were you originally told you were supposed to do?

STUART BOWEN: To audit and inspect the programs and projects of the Coalition Provisional Authority and to provide advice and recommendations to the Congress on Iraq’s reconstruction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you have any idea then of the magnitude of what you were going to be doing?

STUART BOWEN: Well, the first sign of it was my first trip to Iraq in February of 2004, when I was walking the halls of the Republican Palace behind two people, and one turned to the other and said, we can’t do that anymore. There’s a new inspector general here. That sent me a signal that the challenges before me were quite substantial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as we said, $60 billion dollars, and you write it’s the largest relief and reconstruction effort for one country in U.S. history.

What happened to the money?

STUART BOWEN: Well, it was spent, about half of it, on security, on training the Iraqi police and the army.

And why? Because the security situation deteriorated gravely in 2004 and 2005 into a virtual civil war in 2006 and 2007 that required the surge, a multilevel strategy to push back that violence, and which eventually it did. The other half was spent on capacity-building, major reconstruction projects. And I say in our report, “Learning From Iraq,” at least $8 billion dollars was wasted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you do signal — single out security.

STUART BOWEN: Yes. That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So was that — that was essential to the ability of the reconstruction effort to be complete?

STUART BOWEN: That’s right.

When Ambassador Negroponte arrived in the middle of 2004 and reviewed the Coalition Provisional Authority spend plan, he realized that not enough was being spent on security. And he re — he ordered the reprogramming of over $3 billion dollars into security, but then the Iraqi Security Forces Fund was created by the Congress, and it spent $20 billion over the next seven years, beginning under Gen. Petraeus’ leadership.

And it did so, I think, to good effect. Iraq’s security forces today are better equipped and better trained than they have ever been.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying something good did come out of some of …

STUART BOWEN: Yes.

The Iraqis I interviewed said things like, I fly over Baghdad, I can’t point at a construction, piece of construction that the United States built. Well, a lot of that money was spent on building capacity, providing equipment. And it is true that a lot of our infrastructure efforts fell well short of what was expected because of the failure to consult.

But a lot of our money paid off in the capacity-building side of the security sector.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Failure to consult, what does that mean?

STUART BOWEN: That’s right.

Well, this report, I interviewed all the Iraqi leadership, present and past, the previous two ministers, as well as Prime Minister Maliki, and they said almost to a person their chief complaint was that the United States didn’t consult with them about what Iraq really needed and instead pursued a program that it desired.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns said this to me in my interview with him, that we tried to do it all and do it our open way. And I think that’s a core lesson from Iraq, that you have to, as Gen. Petraeus said, understand the culture, understand the politics, understand the economy to do it right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me.

So, for example, the children’s hospital we mentioned in Basra, the wastewater treatment plant in Fallujah, are you saying the Iraqis wouldn’t have wanted those things built?

STUART BOWEN: Actually, they didn’t want the water treatment plant as we were initially pursuing it, but the challenge there was building it in the middle of a war zone. And that was the problem there.

In Basra, yes, I think that they needed a health — a significant health care center, but it was chosen in a very difficult part of the city. And that’s what caused so many delays.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about abuse? We heard the quote from Sen. Susan Collins.

She said the level of waste, fraud, and abuse was she said appalling. So, in terms of fraud — you have talked about the waste. What about the level of fraud?

STUART BOWEN: We have achieved 82 convictions of U.S. contractors and government personnel who committed crimes in Iraq and recovered over $191 million dollars from those cases.

We have 60-plus ongoing cases which we will continue to pursue through the balance of this fiscal year, and I expect at least 20 more convictions and the recovery of at least $100 million dollars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was that — is that par for the course when that much money is being spent, or was there something particular to Iraq?

STUART BOWEN: There was something particular to Iraq, Judy.

The lack of controls at the outset created what some — what one person called a free fraud zone in Iraq. And the Bloom/Stein conspiracy, we broke in Hillah, Babylon in 2004, convicted a colonel, three lieutenant colonels. Philip Bloom, the contractor, who has had a previous felony conviction, and Robert Stein, the comptroller for the south-central region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These were Americans.

STUART BOWEN: Yes, essentially, the comptroller for the south-central region had a previous felony conviction. This is a man who had control over hundreds of millions of dollars.

And he told me when we interviewed him a few years ago that, hey, if there had been a powerful, robust oversight presence on the ground, that the crimes that they engaged in wouldn’t have happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stuart Bowen, you were observing all this from the very beginning. Did you see as you went along the mistakes that were being made?

STUART BOWEN: Yes, I did, and we reported on them.

And that’s why is this is the ninth lesson learned report that we produced. I just — I didn’t want to run just a police blotter of convictions or a long list of auditor findings. I wanted to take what we were learning, what we saw along the way, and turn them into recommendations to the Congress and to the agencies, to the State Department, the Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, into useful best practices.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But my question is, was the government, was the State Department, the Pentagon, were they listening to you as the years went by and you were submitting these preliminary reports?

STUART BOWEN: Yes. Yes, they were.

I mean, the Department of Defense did engage in a significant reform of its entire approach to contingency contracting. And I think the State Department also absorbed the need for on-the-ground oversight. Early on, there wasn’t enough. Later, there was more. There always can be more oversight I think in a stabilization operation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are the lessons for the future? Well, let me ask you this. How should the American people view this? Should they be angry about this much money? You said some of it was well-spent, but a lot of it was not.

STUART BOWEN: Well, in an era of very difficult economic circumstances, $8 billion dollars in waste, a report of such would make anybody angry. So I understand that.

But the lesson from Iraq to draw from that waste, from that fraud is that we have to plan better. We have to execute better. We have to oversee better these kinds of operations. Stabilization and reconstruction operations are a reality with us to stay, hopefully never again the size of Iraq and Afghanistan. But we have had them before, the Balkans, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and we will have them again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I guess my — with all due respect, that sounds like common sense, plan ahead, look at all the contingencies.

STUART BOWEN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, why wouldn’t that be part of a reconstruction?

STUART BOWEN: Excellent point, Judy.

And you’re right. Some of these — many of these lessons do appear to be commonsense realities, but — but the activities on the ground in Iraq drive these lessons. And the 45 interviews that I conducted with the Iraqi leaders, U.S. leaders, and congressional members framed these lessons, and they are straightforward. They are simple, and — but — and they must be learned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And direct lessons for Afghanistan. There will be reconstruction there.

STUART BOWEN: Absolutely right. There is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is.

STUART BOWEN: There is …

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there will be more.

STUART BOWEN: … $90 billion dollars in U.S. funds going into Afghanistan. And the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction has his hands full in accounting for all of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is he looking at what you have discovered in Iraq?

STUART BOWEN: Yes, he is. Yes, he is.

And quite a number of the auditors and investigators who served with me have now moved over to work in his office. And I’m confident that — that we’re — he’s going to be cracking down and be very effective in imposing the necessary oversight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even more money, $60 billion dollars here, $90 billion dollars in Afghanistan.

STUART BOWEN: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general, we thank you very much for being with us.

STUART BOWEN: Thank you, Judy. It was a pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if you want to read the full report on Iraq reconstruction, you can find a link on our website.