Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, May 07, 2007

  Reconsidering "Bush & Co. fires back at SIGIR"

A commentary I posted here last Wednesday about a harsh news report concerning Stuart Bowen seems to have helped to generate some controversy. I thought I should alert you to the criticisms of my argument—though I also believe that these have lost sight of the central issues, as I framed them.

On May 2nd I drew attention to the highly suspicious timing of a Reuters report that cast negative light upon Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq (SIGIR). It revealed the existence of an investigation begun many months earlier into alleged improprieties by Bowen, most of which sounded fairly inconsequential. The investigation is being conducted by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency (PCIE), which is headed by George Bush's long-time friend Clay Johnson, a notorious political hack. Indeed, Reuters quoted both Johnson and a WH spokesperson about the investigation.

The Reuters story appeared only one day after SIGIR released to Congress a quarterly report on reconstruction projects in Iraq that was getting a lot of bad press for the administration at a most inconvenient time. As I commented on May 2, SIGIR "investigated 8 large reconstruction projects in Iraq that recently were declared successes. The study found that 7 of the 8 were not operating as designed any longer because of incompetence and looting." News stories were highlighting those findings at the very time that Bush & Co. were criticizing Democrats in Congress for failing to recognize the "progress" that's been made recently in Iraq.

Although none of the initial news reports commented on the issue, I argued that the leak of information to Reuters at precisely that time was unlikely to be a mere coincidence. It looked like the WH had decided to try to undercut Bowen, or at least change the topic to his own alleged failings.

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The following day, on May 3rd, WH spokesmans Tony Snow was pressed about the matter. Snow denied that either the White House or Clay Johnson were involved in the investigation of Bowen in any way.

The White House has no role in this, zero...Clay [Johnson] is not, in fact, involved in the process, nor was he involved in the referral [to PCIE].

That appears to sidestep the broader question of why Johnson and the WH spokesperson were talking about Bowen now.

Ken Silverstein wrote an informative post the same day at Harper's, though he too ignored the question of the timing of the leak.

From what I hear, the investigation, based on a complaint that former SIGIR employees filed last year with the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, concerns possible misspending by Bowen himself. Bowen is also accused of lesser crimes like dating on government time. A second senior SIGIR employee is accused of cooking the books as well as sorcery and sexual harassment.

The most serious allegation is that Bowen, a former aide to President Bush, may have violated waste and fraud rules in commissioning a print run of about 4,000 copies of a 4-color book telling the history of the SIGIR. The printing cost of the project is said to be roughly a quarter-million dollars, but it is alleged that the true cost is in the millions as a number of agency employees were assigned to work on the book. SIGIR also is said to have retained the Center for Strategic and International Studies to assist with the project, increasing costs even more.

A question that arises here is why taxpayers should be footing the bill for this sort of self-congratulatory project. Bowen, I’ve heard, has expressed interest in running for congress in Virginia down the road; if he does, the book could be quite helpful in boosting his public profile. Bowen is also accused of long, frequent and unexplained absences from work, and doctoring time sheets to cover up the absences. Former employees accuse him of taking non-work related trips to Texas and France, but counting it as paid time...

Among the charges is that [Bowen's advisor, Ginger] Cruz pressured an employee to come up with bogus numbers proving that SIGIR’s work had saved taxpayers some $10 billion, a figure that was used to justify the agency’s request of $30 million in the Fiscal Year 2007 budget. The true savings were said to be only in the tens of millions at best.

It’s hard to know what to make of some of the allegations I’m told are in the report; it’s possible that they are being made by people out to get Bowen...But Bowen is apparently charged with spending many hours on and arranging dates during work hours...

SIGIR has done some excellent work and it’s possible that some of the allegations are coming from disgruntled employees. But some of the charges, especially those regarding the book project, look bad.

Granted, the charge against Cruz may be a sign of corruption and the alleged cost of the book does look exorbitant (though I fail to see how it would assist in a putative congressional campaign). I'm also prepared to believe that Bowen is doing little more than affixing his name to the investigations done by others. Still, I can't shake the feeling that this motley collection of charges resembles a circus parade.

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On the 4th, the NY Times examined the matter in detail (raising some of the issues I had done). The Times pointed out that Bowen was under investigation both by PCIE and by ranking Republican on the House Government Reform Committee, Thomas Davis.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe involvement of the sublimely crooked Davis—one of the chief recipients of Jack Abramoff's dirty money and in his own right a shameless peddler of influence—makes me more, not less, suspicious that a political witch-hunt is afoot. Davis is a political hack of the first order. He's the clown who subpoenaed Terri Schiavo. Davis should be trusted about absolutely nothing, particularly in regards to oversight of Pentagon contracts. One of his first acts as the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was to eliminate "Oversight" for the committee's name; and that is how he ran the committee. His refusal to permit oversight hearings on Iraq makes Davis one of the Republicans most responsible for the unfolding debacle there. Now, however, he's investigating the watchdog there. Isn't that just darlin?

Anyway, the Times says that the Bowen investigation...

originated with a complaint put together by roughly half a dozen former employees who appear to have left his office on unhappy terms, said several officials familiar with the case...

Both the White House and a spokesman for the Republican congressman, Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, said yesterday that the investigations were not started in retribution for the work undertaken in Iraq by Mr. Bowen...

One of the former employees who filed the complaint, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern that he would face reprisals, agreed that all of those who brought the misconduct accusations had been unhappy with demotions, terminations or other sanctions during their time in the inspector general’s office...

A letter from [PCIE] to the inspector general’s office dated May 8, 2006, and obtained by The Times says that the council decided that three of the accusations were credible enough to investigate.

Those accusations involve fairly narrow issues: a payment to a contractor that the employees believed was unjustified; a project to produce a type of report on reconstruction that they maintain is outside the Congressional mandate of the office; and what the employees contend is an inflated estimate of how much money investigations by the office have saved American taxpayers.

The Times also quotes a spokesman for Rep. Henry Waxman: “At this point, there isn’t any way to know whether there are credible allegations against Stuart Bowen or just frivolous attacks.” That was my original impression, too.

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Today, Ken Silverstein at Harper's responds to my observations.

Some bloggers are wondering out loud whether the Special Inspector is the target of a campaign by the Bush Administration to silence its critics. The New York Times has raised the same possibility, saying in a May 4 story, “A federal official whose investigations of waste and corruption in Iraq have repeatedly embarrassed the Bush Administration is now being investigated himself by an oversight committee with close links to the White House.”

I can understand why people are suspicious that the administration is behind the charges against Bowen–Bush does, after all, have a lengthy record of attacking his perceived enemies, as the current U.S. attorney scandal well illustrates–but in this case the allegation makes no sense.

I think that's putting the matter a bit too strongly, and in any case it misses the central point of my May 2nd post.

Silverstein points out (and I concur) that before his appointment as SIGIR, Bowen had a record as a disingenuous Republican ideologue.

Now, however, the argument goes that whatever Bowen’s origins, SIGIR put out a series of damning reports during his tenure, which embarrassed the administration and led it to retaliate against him. There’s some truth to the first part of that statement, but that doesn’t make the second part accurate.

People familiar with the story tell me that a group of SIGIR auditors in Iraq raised the first complaints against Bowen back in mid-2004. One problem was that Bowen rarely turned up for work. Instead, he spent as many as four days a week in his trailer, where he’d have staffers deliver his meals. Work meetings set up for Bowen were repeatedly canceled, because he claimed he wasn’t feeling well. Yet I’m told he never sought medical help, never took sick leave, and always billed the government for full-time services.

A steady stream of other complaints ensued from SIGIR employees in Iraq and Crystal City, Virginia, the U.S. headquarters for the Special Inspector. The most serious allegation, as I noted the other day, is that Bowen may have violated waste and fraud rules in commissioning a glossy, expensive history of the SIGIR. Other complaints included cronyism and retribution and wrongful termination of people who ran afoul of Bowen.

The current investigation was triggered when six former SIGIR employees filed a complaint in February 2006 with the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which polices Inspectors General offices. Thus the origins of the case are not political pressure from the White House, but action by whistleblowers. And I’m confident that these whistleblowers are not a cabal of Republicans doing the administration’s bidding. I’d also note here that while the SIGIR reports are politically embarrassing, the general news out of Iraq is so relentlessly negative that it’s hard to imagine at this point that Bowen’s work is a chief concern to the administration.

I'm willing to take Ken's word that he knows from his contacts that the allegations are not politically inspired (he was similarly emphatic last week in private correspondence). But even if the charges are entirely true, that doesn't mean the leaking of the allegations now was not politically inspired. That is where Ken Silverstein and I diverge.

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Ken tells me that reporters learned of the investigation some time ago. Again, even granted that, no news reports were filed until last week. That suggests that those who were talking to the Reuters reporter (Andrea Shalal-Esa) this time were either revealing more information, or putting the allegations more insistently.

We know that people working for Bush were prepared to be quoted on the record. Shalal-Esa also spoke to a former SIGIR employee, perhaps one of the whistleblowers, but she identifies no further sources for her details regarding the investigation.

Looking at this from a distance, it still appears to be a politically inspired hatchet-job on Bowen (even if he's guilty as charged). Over the years many members of the Bush administration, guilty of the most astounding mal- and non-feasance, none the less have been protected fiercely and (yes) even promoted. But for several years, by contrast, this administration has been waging an "undeclared war" against Bowen (as I commented in my first post).

I think Ken Silverstein may have missed some of the implications of the news stories about the latest SIGIR quarterly report (PDF). They gave striking prominence to the 8 recently completed projects SIGIR investigated for "sustainment". They pointed out that, though declared "successes", nearly all were crumbling. The point, clearly, was that the administration's alleged successes in Iraq are, at best, fleeting if not illusory or falsified. Here for example is the opening paragraph to the NY Times story on the quarterly report:

In a troubling sign for the American-financed rebuilding program in Iraq, federal inspectors have found that in a sampling of eight projects that the United States had declared successes, seven were no longer operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of maintenance, apparent looting, and idle equipment.

Now, one thing that struck me, as I read the SIGIR quarterly report, was this: Though fact-filled, it does not emphasize the significance of those 8 "sustainment" investigations in remotely the same way nor to the same degree as the news stories based on the report did. Indeed, they aren't so much as mentioned in any of the introductory or summary sections to the SIGIR report. You have to read through nearly the entire report before you get to the relevant information, which all the news stories treated as the centerpiece of the report.

I would theorize that journalists were given a briefing on the SIGIR report, at which the significance of those 8 "sustainment" investigations was emphasized. If true, that implies a certain kind of willfulness on the part of somebody at SIGIR, looking perhaps to rough up the White House a bit.

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Whether or not the WH was looking to push back against an overly stroppy Inspector General, the ultimate goal is to rebuff Democratic attempts to force a withdrawal from Iraq. If Bush & Co. left the SIGIR report unchallenged, then they would lose one of their few remaining weapons—the claim that Democrats are intervening just at the moment that successes in Iraq start to become a reality.

It would be one thing to argue that attacking the messenger who shatters their fantasy-world makes "no sense". But that's very far from saying that Bush & Co. do not resort to savaging those who spill the beans. That has in fact been their modus operandi for years.

crossposted from Unbossed

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