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Commission on Wartime Contractors Discovers…Afghanistan

Residents of Sadr City watch as a construction crew mend the neighborhood's main fresh water and sewage pipes. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images) The congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan met for the first time in Washington D.C. today, the start of a two-year long probe into corruption, abuse and fraud in the ongoing conflicts that may one day top a trillion dollars in cost.

Front and center was a 456-page report on greed and waste in Iraq written by the Special Inspector General of Iraq, Stuart Bowen. The draft of Bowen’s report, entitled “Hard Lessons,” was first revealed in December in a joint reporting project between ProPublica and the New York Times.

The final version contained much of the same details about poor planning and oversight that led to billions of dollars wasted in the $50 billion effort to rebuild Iraq. But the director’s cut included some notable new sound bites.

One was a kinda comic, kinda terrifying “Who’s on First” exchange between then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then National Security Council chief Condoleezza Rice. Six months after the invasion of Iraq, the Secretary of State’s Richard Armitage quotes the two arguing about who was in charge of directing the top official on the ground, Amb. L. Paul Bremer.

Rumsfeld said “’he doesn’t work for me.’

[Rice] said, “Yes he does. Who does he work for?

And [Rumsfeld] said, ‘He works for the NSC.’”

The commission will hold hearings with agencies, contractors and non-profits to figure out exactly why those kind of basic decisions weren’t worked out early on—and why they continued to be a problem years later.

It might be too little, too late. The commission is known on the Hill informally as the “Truman Commission,” a reference to the World War II era anti-corruption committee started by then Sen. Harry S. Truman. (To make sure no-one escaped the comparison, the hearing was held in the same ornate room of towering marble columns and a gilded ceiling as the original committee.)

But the old Truman committee was different in a lot of ways. Most notably, Truman formed his committee in March 1941 – nine months before Pearl Harbor because of his alarm at the potential for profiteering as the American military geared up for war. The current commission is starting more than seven years after Special Forces crossed into Afghanistan.

Another concern that the remix won’t play as well as the original is that Republicans have been slow to make appointments – the Republican co-chair of the current eight-man committee was an empty seat Monday. Finally, the commission has no subpoena power, an ability stripped during turf battles between the Senate and the House when the commission was created.

A final concern raised at the hearing was Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the new Iraq – the U.S. is dumping money into the country as the Obama administration prepares to up troops by 30,000 by this spring. In fact, commissioners asked almost as many questions about Afghanistan as they did Iraq.

But nobody seemed quite able to answer the question of who was watching the store in Afghanistan, where some $32 billion has already been spent. While the Inspector General for Iraq presented his hundreds of pages of learned lessons, his newly appointed counterpart for Afghanistan, the retired Marine Corp Major General Arnold Fields, wasn’t even invited to the hearing. Hearing Chairman Mike Thibault said that the Special Investigator for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan organization was so new, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect expect testimony on their findings.

The Truman committee held hearings throughout World War II, put at least one general in jail for corruption and was estimated to have saved $15 billion. It remained to be seen on Monday whether the new commission could match that record.

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