Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Iraq: Dog-and-Pony Shows and Criminal Investigations

Brian Baird's constituents gave him some feedback on his decision to reverse his opposition to the Iraq war:

For more than three hours Monday night, Rep. Brian Baird was verbally flogged by hundreds of his constituents for no longer supporting the quick withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

More than 500 people packed a high school auditorium in Vancouver while another 175 or so were unable to get inside. And virtually everyone who got a chance to address the Vancouver Democrat were harshly critical - including several who said they had been long-time supporters and friends.

"You have just broken my heart," said Phil Massey, a Vancouver ship's pilot who wasn't swayed by Baird's explanation that the U.S. was finally starting to make some progress in bringing peace to Iraq. "You have screwed up, my friend. You have screwed up and you have to change course."

That was two hours into the meeting and the crowd was still loaded for bear as the room broke into loud applause. At several points in the evening, Baird simply leaned against the stage with his arms folded, his head down as he let the crowd vent. But he also vigorously disputed several points made by the speakers and defended his independence from the Bush administration. He insisted that he is taking the courageous path.

"The easiest thing in the world would have been to go over there...and just say, using partisan rhetoric, 'Get out now,'" he said.

I might be more willing to believe that if Baird's "change of heart" were not based entirely on a two-day visit arranged and directed by the U.S. military. As it is, I don't buy it.

And speaking of dog-and-pony shows, Kevin Drum has some thoughts on Gen. Petraeus's the White House's report to Congress on how splendidly "the surge" is going:

The Washington Post reports that Gen. David Petraeus managed to get the recent intelligence assessment of Iraq toned down:
The NIE, requested by the White House Iraq coordinator, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, in preparation for the testimony, met with resistance from U.S. military officials in Baghdad, according to a senior U.S. military intelligence officer there. Presented with a draft of the conclusions, Petraeus succeeded in having the security judgments softened to reflect improvements in recent months, the official said.

... [U]ntil recently my guess was that Petraeus's September report to Congress would be pretty sober. My thinking was that he's a smart guy, and realizes that trying to paint too pretty a picture would ruin his credibility. So instead he'd present a basically realistic assessment, but stud it with just enough signs of progress to convince everyone that he deserved more time to make the surge work.

Now I'm not so sure. Petraeus has been very shrewd about providing dog-and-pony shows to as many analysts, pundits, reporters, and members of Congress as he could cram into the military jets criss-crossing the Atlantic to Baghdad on a seemingly daily basis this summer. And those dog-and-pony shows don't seem to have been subtle: rather, they've been hard-sell propositions complete with "classified" PowerPoint presentations (always a winner for people with more ego than common sense); visits to a handpicked selection of the most successful reconstruction teams in the country; a plainly deceptive implication that the surge played a role in the Anbar Awakening; feel-good stories about how local power generation is a good thing; the recent insistence that civilian casualties are down, which increasingly looks like a book-cooking scam that wouldn't stand the light of day if Petraeus allowed independent agencies access to his data; and, of course, the ongoing campaign to scare everyone by kinda sorta claiming that Iran and al-Qaeda are ramping up their activities and then getting suddenly slippery whenever anyone asks if they have any real evidence for this.

Petraeus is still a smart guy. He won't go too far overboard. But he's obviously been treating the September report like a military operation, trying to generate as much good press and congressional change of heart as he possibly can in the weeks leading up to 9/11. I now expect him to provide just the opposite of what I thought before: a consistently upbeat report studded with just enough accomodations to reality to keep him from seeming completely ridiculous.

Spencer Ackerman's must-read today is the New York Times breaking story about a federal investigation of fraud and corruption in the purchase and delivery of weapons to Iraqi and American troops:
The New York Times reports that a plethora of criminal investigations, all part of a new Pentagon anti-corruption push, are open into what exactly happened to "weapons, supplies and other materiel" dispensed in that country as part of over $40 billion in reconstruction aid. And one of the investigations -- though it's maddeningly unclear as to what the charge even is -- centers around a former aide to General David Petraeus, now the commanding general in Iraq.

Contracting fraud in the effort to supply and equip Iraqi security forces, Afghan soldiers and U.S. troops is suspected to be immense. Over 70 cases are currently under investigation in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, according to the paper, for contracts worth more that $5 billion. So far, investigators have uncovered evidence of upwards of $15 million in bribes.

One such case involves Lieutenant Colonel Levonda Joey Selph, a master logistics officer who worked with Petraeus when he commanded the effort to train and equip Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005. Petraeus has already commented that he considered the rapid preparation of Iraqi soldiers and police to be a greater priority than scrupulous bookkeeping. As yet, Petraeus is not suspected of any wrongdoing -- and indeed, even what Selph is suspected of having done is unclear. But here's what is: Selph ran a massive logistics operation, and one that was ripe for abuse.
Even outside of Selph's command, the paper reports, there are indications of how corruption nibbled around the edges of a variety of contracts. Iraqis, U.S. contractors, foreign contractors, U.S. military officials, and U.S. civilian workers are under investigation for everything from "conspiracy, bribery, product substitution and bid-rigging or double-billing involving large dollar amounts or more senior contracting officials."

But by far the most alarming charges involve the laxity of controls over the weapons distributed to Iraqi security forces. After government reports indicated serious problems with accounting for the weapons -- raising the possibility that they've gone to the black market and are being used to attack U.S. forces -- the Pentagon's inspector general, Lieutenant General Claude "Mick" Kicklighter, launched an investigation. He's about to leave for an "indefinite" period in Iraq at the helm of an 18-investigator team. That inquiry comes at the behest of Sen. John Warner (R-VA), the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and it's most likely only the first salvo of a broader Pentagon anti-corruption effort.

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