Monday, November 13, 2006

Democrats Aim to Save Inquiry on Work in Iraq

The New York Times
Democrats Aim to Save Inquiry on Work in Iraq

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 — Congressional Democrats say they will press new legislation next week to restore the power of a federal agency in charge of ferreting out waste and corruption in Iraq and greatly increase its investigative reach.

The bills, the first of what are likely to be dozens of Democratic efforts to resurrect investigations of war profiteering and financial fraud in government contracting, could be introduced as early as Monday morning.

The move would nullify a Republican-backed provision, slipped into a huge military authorization bill, that set a termination date for the agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The agency’s findings have consistently undermined Bush administration claims of widespread success in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Oversight, the power wielded by Congressional committees to demand information and internal documents and to haul executive branch officials to hearings, by subpoena if necessary, is reverberating through Congress as a Democratic battle cry.

“The unilateral decision made by House Republicans to shut down this critical office should be reversed immediately,” said Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is poised to become the majority leader.

The House version of the bill will be introduced by Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat likely to take over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a member of Mr. Skelton’s staff said Friday. Mr. Skelton also said he would resurrect a subcommittee on oversight and investigations that was jettisoned by Republicans to investigate military spending.

In the Senate, Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that seeking a new strategy for Iraq would be his primary focus, but that he would also look carefully at military contracting.

“There have been serious allegations and evidence of misconduct among suppliers,” Mr. Levin said. “And the taxpayers, of course, get socked on that. And the troops are not properly taken care of when that happens.”

Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said on Saturday that the administration was willing to have discussions with Congress on the proposal to extend the inspector general’s tenure. Mr. Fratto added, “We have a history of cooperating fully with and supporting inspectors general.”

Mr. Fratto said he could not speak more definitively on the subject because the legislation was yet to be released.

In a measure of the momentum behind the bill, it is expected to be introduced in the Senate by Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, along with co-sponsors Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, and Joseph I. Lieberman, who won re-election as an independent in Connecticut.

“It is inconceivable that we would remove this aggressive oversight while the American taxpayer is still spending billions of dollars on Iraq reconstruction projects,” Ms. Collins said.

Mr. Reid has said that after the lame-duck session ends, the Democrats will press ahead with Congressional oversight, particularly on Iraq. But Democratic leaders have also been conciliatory in discussing broader efforts to review the administration’s initiatives of the past six years.

The imperative to investigate financial misdeeds extends beyond the military. Congressional aides said that the House government reform committee under Representative Henry A. Waxman of California might also investigate spending related to domestic security and the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Appropriations Committee, which is likely to be led by Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, is likely to review more closely spending like large supplementary requests for Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition, after the negative political fallout of corruption cases involving lawmakers, the Appropriations Committee is under pressure to curtail earmarks, which are spending measures for specific projects not sought by a federal agency but sponsored by a lawmaker — sometimes anonymously and often for a financial supporter.

Potentially explosive confrontations over foreign policy issues between Democrats and the Bush administration may be unavoidable. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who is expected to become the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been a critic of the C.I.A.’s secret detention program and the National Security Agency’s domestic wiretapping program.

It is unclear how far chairmen like Mr. Rockefeller may push the administration to obtain more information about secret programs. The committee, like many others, has often degenerated into partisan rancor over the past two years, and Mr. Rockefeller, like other incoming chairmen, has told colleagues that one of his priorities is to restore the committee’s historic bipartisanship.

But there is unlikely to be much downside for the Democrats in going after waste and fraud in government contracting, particularly in the Iraq war, which is not only unpopular with the American public but also where corporate giants like Halliburton, Parsons and Bechtel have committed highly publicized missteps in the rebuilding program.

Investigations by the Iraq oversight agency, led by Stuart W. Bowen Jr., have already led to convictions of American occupation officials on bribery charges and uncovered many instances of substandard construction.

Mr. Bowen’s investigations of Halliburton have uncovered tens of millions of dollars of charges for work that achieved little in the way of results, but apparently met the letter of the company’s contract with the United States to repair oil facilities. Mr. Bowen has also found that Halliburton has been using federal loopholes to impede investigations of its work by declaring nearly all information about company activities in Iraq to be proprietary, or sensitive because it could aid the company’s competitors.

So it came as a surprise to many that Mr. Bowen’s office was directed to go out of business on Oct. 1, 2007, by an obscure provision in an authorization bill that President Bush signed last month. The termination language was quietly inserted into the bill by staff members working for Representative Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who now leads the House Armed Services Committee.

As in the bill that the president signed, the new Senate proposal would expand the pot of money that Mr. Bowen could investigate, but it would not set a hard deadline for the agency’s work to come to an end. Both the House and Senate measures extend the deadline at least into 2008, by most readings, but the House measure would also add about $2 billion — for training and equipping Iraqi security forces — to the amount that the agency could investigate, a Congressional staff member said. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is expected to become the House speaker, said she would strongly support that legislation.

“Democrats want the inspector general to stay at work until the job is done,” Ms. Pelosi said. “Those individuals and companies responsible for shoddy work or fraudulent billing practices must be held accountable.”

Several officials on Capitol Hill said that the locus of resistance to extending the tenure of Mr. Bowen’s office came from the State Department, which believes that its own inspector general should begin taking on the job of investigating reconstruction in Iraq. But that notion finds resistance among some lawmakers who distrust the administration’s will to investigate itself.

Outside the reconstruction program, some agencies are likely to be singled out for special scrutiny, not only the Pentagon, but also the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Incoming Democratic chairman have said they plan to review the C.I.A.’s secret detention and interrogation program for important terrorism suspects and what some lawmakers have said is the sluggish pace of the F.B.I.’s effort to transform itself into a counterterrorism agency.

The Homeland Security Department has had at least some scrutiny from Congress in recent years, most particularly related to its performance and that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But the new Democratic leaders, their aides said, intend to significantly broaden the oversight efforts, a step that may include more frequent subpoenas for administration officials who have declined to appear for some hearings, as was the case in the hurricane investigation.

One area that almost certainly will draw additional oversight is mass-transit security, said Dena L. Graziano, spokeswoman for Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who is expected to take over the House Committee on Homeland Security.

And Democrats have long argued that the administration is too focused on aviation security, and has failed to devote enough money or attention to preventing bombings like those that have occurred in Madrid and London. Some Democrats, nursing years of slights at the hands of Republican appointees in federal agencies who ignored or brushed aside hundreds of their letters asking for information, are eager for answers. The Senate Judiciary Committee has staff members trying to compile a complete list of unanswered questions.

Some Democrats said before the election that they would inquire more deeply into some issues, asking for fuller accountability among senior officers and civilian officials at the Pentagon over the harsh treatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

“I think the accountability for Abu Ghraib has not yet been accomplished in terms of finding out who was involved, at what level,” said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

For all the pledges of rigorous oversight, Democrats are moving warily, fearful of a misstep, mainly in national security areas, that could return them to the sidelines as a minority party.

That may explain the focus on less volatile issues like waste and fraudulent spending and why few Democrats are proposing inquiries on hot-button issues, like the underlying rationale for the war in Iraq or the underpinning for the administration’s counterterrorism policies.

Agendas are likely to shift over time, particularly in the House, where the leadership lineup will not be known with certainty for weeks. In addition, the transfer of majority control in both chambers means Republicans and Democrats must switch offices in the House and Senate. Republicans will be forced to dismiss some committee staff members, and Democrats will expand their workforce, in some committees nearly doubling staff size.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Skelton said that in the past, “the Congress has not worked, and has not asked the tough questions or held the administration to account.”

But he said it was the responsibility of every Democrat taking over a subcommittee chairmanship also to apply more scrutiny to government action, and not just those of subcommittees specifically charged with that mandate.

“Our subcommittee chairmen will be able to bring oversight back to their individual subcommittees,” he said.

David Johnston and Thom Shanker reported from Washington, and James Glanz from New York. Eric Lipton contributed reporting from Miami, and Mark Mazzetti and Rachel L. Swarns from Washington.