Watchdog on Iraq is booted from job

Investigator has uncovered corruption cases

November 03, 2006|By New York Times News Service

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Investigations led by a Republican lawyer, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., in Iraq have sent American occupation officials to jail on bribery and conspiracy charges, exposed disastrously poor construction work by well-connected companies such as Halliburton and Parsons, and discovered that the military did not properly track hundreds of thousands of weapons it shipped to Iraqi security forces.

And tucked away in a huge military authorization bill that President Bush signed two weeks ago is what some of Bowen's supporters believe is his reward: a pink slip. An obscure provision terminates the federal oversight agency that he heads, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

The provision, inserted by the Republican side of the House Armed Services Committee over the objections of Democratic counterparts during a closed-door conference, has generated surprise and some outrage among lawmakers who say they had no idea it was in the final legislation.

Bowen's office, created in January 2004 to examine reconstruction money spent in Iraq, was always envisioned as a temporary organization, permitted to continue its work only as long as Congress saw fit. Some advocates for the office, in fact, have regarded its lack of a permanent bureaucracy as key to its aggressiveness and independence. By some interpretations, the office might have run through its list of projects around the time of the October 2007 deadline set by the new legislation anyway.

But as the implications of the provision in the new bill have become clear, opposition has been building on both sides of the political aisle. That bipartisan reaction might not be unexpected, given Bowen's Republican credentials - he served under George W. Bush both in Texas and in the White House - and deep public skepticism on the Bush administration's conduct of the war.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who followed the bill closely as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, says she does not know how the provision got into what is called the conference report, which reconciles differences between Senate and House versions of a bill.

Neither the House nor the Senate version contained such a termination clause before the conference, all involved agree.

"It's truly a mystery to me," Collins said. "I looked at what I thought was the final version of the conference report, and that provision was not in at that time."

A Republican spokesman for the committee, Josh Holly, said that lawmakers should not have been surprised by the provision closing the inspector general's office because it "was discussed very early in the conference process."

Like several other members of Congress, Collins said she feared a loss of oversight if the inspector general's office goes out of business, adding that she is working on legislation with several Democratic and Republican senators to reverse the termination.

The language was inserted into the bill by congressional staff members working for Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and who declared Monday that he plans to run for president in 2008.

Holly, who is a member of Hunter's staff, said politics played no role and there had been no direction from the administration or lobbying by companies whose work in Iraq has been severely critiqued by Bowen's office.

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