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Federal Report Finds $100B Failure in US Reconstruction of Iraq

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An unpublished federal report has concluded the US reconstruction effort in Iraq has been a $100 billion failure. It found that the rebuilding has not done much more than restore what was destroyed during the invasion and the looting that followed. We speak to journalist T. Christian Miller of the investigative website ProPublica, who obtained a copy of the report. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the United States prepares to expand its reconstruction and development programs in Afghanistan and into Pakistan, we turn now to an unpublished federal report that describes the US reconstruction effort in Iraq as a $100 billion failure.

The report is called “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” compiled by the congressionally mandated Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The New York Times and the investigative website ProPublica obtained copies of the draft report and published it Sunday.

The report asserts the United States invaded Iraq without a clear plan for reconstruction and that over five years and $117 billion later, the final success of the rebuilding project “remains in doubt.” It found the rebuilding has not done much more than restore what was destroyed during the invasion and the looting that followed.

T. Christian Miller is a reporter with the online investigative journalism project ProPublica. He’s read the 513-page report and wrote about it with the New York Times's James Glanz. Miller is also the author of Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq. T. Christian Miller joins us from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now! How did you get a hold of this report?

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: The report was written, or is being written, by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Iraq, a Republican lawyer named Stuart Bowen. And those drafts of that report are now kind of swirling around here in D.C. and in Baghdad and other places, as people look at them and read them and add comments. So, during that process, we were able to obtain several copies of these drafts, which are going to be formally released in February.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the major findings.

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: There’s a lot of stuff that’s interesting in there, Amy. A lot of it has been known before. The inspector general has been working in Iraq for several years now. He’s done hundreds of audits and reviews. What the report does, though, for us, what was significant, is that it combines it all into one place at one time. So you see some of the things we’ve heard before, but with more details: the fact that there wasn’t a lot of planning that went into the invasion in the first place, the fact that the Pentagon and the State Department were constantly warring over — had turf wars over what’s going to happen in Iraq.

For me, the most interesting thing or the interesting conclusions in the report is that, going forward, today — it’s been five years since the invasion of Iraq — the US government still doesn’t have in place the tools that it needs to undertake a big nation-building effort abroad. We just simply don’t have the capacity, the technical knowledge, the organizational skills to be able to do something like that. And that’s important, because that’s what President-elect Barack Obama is planning for Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the history of the money spent, where it went, who profited, and who didn’t.

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: Sure. As the war got kind of kicked into high gear in 2002 — and you have to remember, this is after the invasion of Afghanistan, before the invasion of Iraq — Pentagon planners started getting together with some White House counterparts and tried to figure out, “Well, what are we going to do over in Iraq?” And this is where you saw an ideological split.

You had part of the government, led by Rumsfeld and Under Secretary Doug Feith and others, who felt it was going to be an easy kill. They were going to go into Iraq, invade for a little while and pull out within a matter of months. That was sort of the most likely scenario, the one that the most planning was done for.

Then you had other people who were essentially shut out of the planning process, as this book recounts, as the “Hard Lessons” learned recounts, who felt like it was a, quote-unquote, “hostile takeover” — was the words they used — of this planning effort by the Pentagon. And so, people in USAID, which is the American agency that does development abroad, the US State Department, which is of course diplomacy, they felt like they were shut out of some of the planning processes. And so, you never really had a focus on a long-term occupation.

After the invasion, when it becomes obvious that we’re going to be there for a while, what happens is the US is caught flatfooted, and it begins turning to private contractors by the score, by the thousands, to kind of backfill the civilian positions, which were empty, because a lot of civilians weren’t coming over to Iraq. And so, what you had is sort of a Wild West situation, where you had people rushing to fill jobs who weren’t always qualified to do those jobs, and you had just billions of dollars going out as quickly as it could be spent, with not very concrete conceptions of how it should be spent. And nobody was really looking over this huge pool of cash. And so, what you got was — another phrase from that report that I really liked was, like, they describe it as a “pickup game.” It was like a pickup game of basketball. You pull a little here, you pull a little from there, and like a pickup game in basketball, there's not a referee, there’s not a real clear plan for where the game is going to go. And so, you ended up having a lot of projects fail or just simply not succeed at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the interaction between, the relationship between the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Jay Garner, the proconsul in Iraq for a few minutes?

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: Yeah. Jay Garner was a retired general at the time he was appointed, and he was appointed by the Pentagon, because he had played a very important role in the first Gulf War, when he had essentially handled the Kurdish region after the first Gulf War and the humanitarian disaster which was going on in the Kurdish region, which was as Saddam Hussein was trying to reassert control over that area. You had the threat of mass killings and people fleeing Kurdistan. And Jay Garner kind of had overseen that process. So he had had experience. He gets put in charge of the — what the Pentagon is anticipating to be a very similar humanitarian disaster. You might see some flights from the country, some food shortages, but there was no idea that this was going to be a long-term structural occupation.

Garner gets on the ground. He quickly sees that the facts on the ground are much different. He’s trying to arrange for things like keeping the Iraqi army in place, paying Iraqi civil servants. All of a sudden, he is replaced by Jerry Bremer by the Pentagon, who comes in and who fires all the Iraqi army, just dissolves the Iraqi army altogether, purges a lot of senior Baathist leaders in the Iraqi government, and essentially leaves Iraq without a governing structure or without a military structure.

Since that moment, Garner has increasingly — never directly, but it slips out here and there, and it’s certainly clear in the book — has shared his disagreements with former Secretary Don Rumsfeld, both before and afterwards. And there’s some wonderful exchanges in this official — in this draft history, at least, of Garner telling Rumsfeld, “You know, I think this is going to cost billions of dollars.” And this is what Garner says happened. Then Garner says that Rumsfeld responds, “If you think this is going to cost a billion dollars, you’re sadly mistaken.” And, of course, the count in Iraq at this stage of the game is $100 billion spent just on the reconstruction of Iraq and some $500 billion spent on military operations.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about how, just one example, a civilian official at USAID, the agency for international development, is given four hours to determine how many miles of Iraqi roads would need to be reopened and repaired.

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: Yeah, that was just one of many wonderful details in this book, or frightening details in this book, I should say, about how little preparation there was prior to the invasion of Iraq. There was a USAID official who essentially got a four-hour timeline to draw up a plan to repair and rehabilitate the entire road structure of Iraq, which is a country of 26 million people. He basically had to go to the library at USAID, look up what he could, and use that as the master plan for how we were going to rebuild the road structure in Iraq. Time and time again, this book, which you can actually access — the draft in its entirety, if you want to do some reading, is on both the New York Times and the ProPublica website. There’s just lots of little details like that that show that this was a very rushed job.

AMY GOODMAN: T. Christian Miller, you also wrote the book Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq. Who profited here? Which corporations? Who got these billions of dollars that Rumsfeld said would never be spent?

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: Right. It’s a good question, Amy. Very early on, again, a very clear, clear early decision, ideological decision, was made by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that these contracts would be only issued to those nations which were participating in the invasion. And so, most of the contracts ended up going to large Western companies, and, frankly, mostly American companies.

Kellogg Brown & Root, which was then a part of Halliburton, was the biggest beneficiary. They got the single biggest number of contracts. That was focused more on supplying troops rather than on the rebuilding effort. You had other names. Bechtel Engineering was another one; Parsons Corporation, which is a company based in Pasadena, California; Perini International — a lot of large American construction firms were given these contracts to do work. There’s also lesser-known companies at the time, like Titan, which was a company which had the contract to supply every single — almost every single interpreter to troops and to civilian officials. And that mushrooms into this huge, enormous contract, as the war expands and there’s a need for more and more translators. So you just saw an incredible amount of money going out the door.

And what this report actually makes clear, which is even more interesting to me, was just how thin the layer of government officials were to oversee all this. There’s one point where USAID has, I think, fourteen government USAID employees on the ground and 400 contractors who are working for them. So it’s just difficult to imagine in a wartime situation, with so much going on and so much money flowing, that there was sufficient oversight to be able to keep track of all those people.

AMY GOODMAN: You relate this, T. Christian Miller, to the economic crisis today. I mean, the history says that you’ve gotten a hold of $117 billion spent on reconstruction, including $50 billion of US taxpayer money.

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: I think there is a common theme, both to — that runs from Madoff to the subprime crisis to the reconstruction of Iraq, and that is accountability, that is government regulation, and that has been decimated. Beginning in the 1990s and after the Cold War, you’ve seen those agencies in the American government, which were responsible for regulation, agencies like the GAO, contacting agencies, oversight agencies, have just been devastated by cutbacks, by administrations which have not paid that much attention or provided them with the staffing or personnel they need to do their jobs. So you have seen, I think — through all these different crises, what you see is, the government wasn’t there at a time when it was supposed to be there.

There are different reasons in all those cases. In Iraq, certainly there was a lot of violence. Certainly, it was difficult to get people to go over to Iraq and pay attention. With Madoff, we’ll see what the Securities and Exchange Commission has to say about why they weren’t adequately regulating that issue. But time and again, the issue is, we’ve had a government which has been really shrunk and hollowed out in terms of its ability to oversee and regulate private businesses, private corporations and what it is they’re doing. And that is the function of government, is to make sure that everybody plays fair. They’re referees. And if there’s not enough referees around, the game gets ugly.

AMY GOODMAN: T. Christian Miller, [Stuart] Bowen, the man who led the report, shows a line from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations as the epitaph of the American-led attempt to rebuild Iraq: “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us.” Thank you very much for being with us, T. Christian Miller, a reporter for ProPublica, investigative news website, and author of Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives and Corporate Greed in Iraq.

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