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Money for Iraq’s rebuilding has vanished into thin air

Published: Sat, August 4, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

Where’s the outrage from the self-styled paragons of budgetary virtue, led by tea party adherents and right-wing Republicans, over the final U.S. audit of the reconstruction effort in Iraq that says billions of dollars have been wasted?

Is it possible that the Republican majority in House of Representatives, which has been harshly critical of the way Democratic President Barack Obama has managed the public treasury, won’t delve into the waste of taxpayer dollars in Iraq because Republican President George W. Bush was the architect of the military invasion of that country?

We hope not.

Spending on domestic programs that the tea party and the GOP find so unpalatable pales in comparison to the $1 trillion-plus cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were launched in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America’s mainland. Tales of pallets of plastic wrapped $100 bills being shipped to Iraq and then simply disappearing are legendary.

But now, with the final audit report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Funds, the public has been given an upclose look at how well its money was managed. It isn’t a pretty picture.

Indeed, the one line in the audit report that should trigger bipartisan congressional hearings is this:

“The precise amount lost to fraud and waste can never be known.”

The auditors did say, however, that a range of accounting weaknesses put “billions of American taxpayer dollars at risk of waste and misappropriation.” A total of $51 billion was appropriated for the rebuilding of a broken Iraq.

The report provides some examples of how money was wasted. For instance, a contractor got away with charging $80 for a pipe fitting that its competitor was selling for $1.41. Turns out that the company’s billing documents were reviewed sloppily by U.S. contracting officers or were not reviewed at all.

Of the $51 billion Congress approved for Iraq reconstruction, about $20 billion was for rebuilding Iraqi security forces and about $20 billion was for rebuilding the country’s basic infrastructure. The programs were run mainly by the Defense Department, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

To be sure, the reconstruction project was the largest of its kind in U.S. history, but that does not excuse the cavalier attitude of the managers of the public funds. The lack of properly trained, trustworthy monitors is glaring.

‘Hard Lessons’

In a 2009 inspector general’s report titled “Hard Lessons,” it was acknowledged that the auditors, much like the reconstruction managers themselves, faced personnel shortages and other hazards.

In the report, the inspector general, Stuart Bowen, recalled what then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked when they met shortly after Bowen started in January 2004: “Why did you take this job? It’s an impossible task.”

If the Bush administration knew how difficult it was going to be to track the spending of public dollars, why wasn’t a system developed that took into consideration the challenges of operating in a war zone?

The final audit of the Iraq redevelopment program is disturbing on many levels. Congressional hearings are demanded.

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