Sunday, February 25, 2007

A federal indictment hits home

"A grand jury indicted three Army Reserve officers and two civilians Wednesday on charges they steered more than $8.6 million in Iraqi reconstruction funds to a contractor in exchange for kickbacks that included vehicles, jewelry and real estate."


I knew the three Army officers and one of the civilians named in an indictment issued in a federal court in New Jersey earlier this month. The Army officers worked with me at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) South Central Office in south central Iraq from October 2003 until my departure in February 2004. The indictment alleges that Phillip Bloom, an American civilian contractor, paid money to the three officers in return for lucrative reconstruction contracts received and incomplete work overlooked.

The officers indicted were Colonel Curtis Whiteford, the Chief of Staff for the CPA office, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Wheeler and Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Debra Harrison. All three officers are Army Reservists. Debra Harrison was in my Army Reserve unit, the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, out of Norristown, Pa. Debra worked directly for me during this period and volunteered to stay behind in Al Hilla until June 2004. Since I departed at the end of February 2004, I was not present during much of the activities alleged in the indictment.

Two other members of the conspiracy who worked at the CPA office in Hilla have already plead guilty to charges and one has been sentenced to jail. Former Army reserve Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hopfengardner plead guilty to the conspiracy last August and has yet to be sentenced. Robert Stein, who was a civilian employee of CPA, plead guilty and was sentenced last months to nine years in a federal prison.

I worked closely with all these individuals during the five months that I was at CPA Hilla. Not everyone there was a criminal. Not all of the Iraq reconstruction money was misspent. I am terribly saddened that I have to make these disclaimers but the information about Iraq and about this specific situation has been terribly distorted in the media. Kellogg, Brown and Root, better known in the New York Times and Washington Post as the scandal plagued, Cheney-supported KBR, kept me fed, watered and fueled in a combat zone for ten months, a not-inconsiderable feat.

I met a lot of KBR employees when I was in Iraq and they weren't thieves and criminals, like they are portrayed in any news report you can read when you Google "KBR" and "Iraq". They had tough jobs in Iraq, like we all did, and they don't deserve to be tainted by an association with KBR. But they will be.

I don't deserve to be tainted by my association with the criminals who inhabited the offices of the CPA South Central Office. The commissioned officers in the Army and other Americans who abused their good offices for personal gain. For an expensive watch or a car or an automatic weapon. They sold themselves so cheaply. I don't deserve to be associated with such people.

But I will be. And I can't do anything about it.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

I've seen this before

"[This resolution] will signal a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home safely and soon."
- Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives

"[W]e can only describe this week's House debate on a vote of no-confidence in the mission in Iraq as one of the most shameful moments in the institution's history."
- Wall Street Journal

I've seen this before.

I believe that the war in Iraq has more differences than similarities to the war in Viet Nam. The pro-war and anti-war debate playing out in the country right now has not approached the virulence of the debate over Viet Nam, but there are signs that we are heading down that road.

In 1971, as a freshman member of ROTC at the University of Florida, I avoided wearing my uniform around campus because of the hostile stares that I received. In the Spring of 1972 President Nixon mined the harbors of Hanoi and Haiphong and unleashed a wave of Air Force and Navy bombers carrying new "smart" bombs on North Viet Nam. Those True Believer students at the University of Florida, as well as at other universities around the country, took to the streets seeking the opportunity to show there displeasure for the President's actions by getting tear gassed and arrested. Police from five counties showed up in Gainesville to oblige them.

No student's rioted in the streets when President Bush announced his change in policy in Iraq but one result of his decision was to cause many more people around the country to harden their positions about the war on one side or the other. For many the debate on the war is not a political issue but a moral one, and this can be said for both sides of the issue.

Hardened opinions and moral indignation provide very poor lubrication for a rational discussion on any subject. The debate on Viet Nam disintegrated into people believing the opposing side was immoral merely because of the position on the war. The stares that I received when I wore my uniform on campus were strained with moral indignation. The mere fact that I as a 17 year old boy would wear a U.S. Army uniform demonstrated to them that I was morally suspect.

We don't need to be going down that road. I am saddened by the fact that I see some already treading down that old path again.

What makes me even sadder is that the primary purpose of the suicide bombs that have afflicted Iraq the last four years was to divide this country. I am afraid that they have succeeded all too well.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Translation problems

I have translated words from one language to another. I speak Spanish fairly well yet I quickly discovered the difficulties of transforming the stern, engineering textbook phrases of my native tongue into the soft, beautiful paragraphs of a Romance language. I felt as if I was painting a sunset in autumn on a New England forest with a palette of eight crayons. I was similarly troubled converting Spanish to English. My translations appeared to impart a clarity on intent and meaning that was never present in the original.

I am having the same trouble translating the experiences that I had in Iraq to my family, friends and readers. Whether verbally or in writing, English doesn't give me the necessary tools the describe what I saw, felt, heard, smelled or tasted.

In the February 5th "New Yorker" Ryszard Kapuscinski, a "legendary travel writer", wrote of his first trip abroad in 1956, when he traveled from his native Poland to India. He returned home chastened by the experience. "India was my first encounter with otherness, the discovery of a new world. It was at the same time a great lesson in humility. I returned from that journey embarrassed by my own ignorance. I realized then what seems obvious now: another culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of my hand. One has to prepare oneself thoroughly for such an encounter."

In the fall of 2002, I found myself suddenly reassigned to an Army Reserve unit alerted to prepare for deployment to Iraq. I had never been to the Middle East nor had I read much about it. I had spent the previous twenty years learning Spanish and traveling to almost every country in Latin America. Despite having lived in Colombia, and then returning on numerous visits, and despite having learned their language, with the dialects and different regional viewpoints, I knew enough about Colombia to fully grasp how much I really didn't know.

Although I lived in Kuwait for two months and Iraq for ten, and I made an effort to learn the language and read numerous books about the region's geography and culture and religion, I still have no idea what I don't know about that country. I suspect that the Rosetta Stone for all this may lie in fiction, that a novel may indirectly convey what I want to say.

Whether a populace that actually cares about the life history of Anna Nicole Smith will want to read what I have written is another story.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Robert Stein is going to jail

[Robert Stein, a] former civilian contractor for the Defense Department was sentenced ... to nine years in prison and ordered to forfeit $3.6 million for his role in a bribery and fraud scheme involving contracts to reconstruct Iraq.

- LA Times, January 30, 2007

Robert Stein, along with an Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel named Bruce Hopfengardner, steered Iraqi reconstruction money to an American contractor named Phillip Bloom. Stein and Hopfengardner worked in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) South Central headquarters in Hilla during late 2003 and early 2004, the time when I also served there. The service of all of those men and women who were there during that time was besmirched by the actions of these men.

Two additional Army reserve lieutenant colonels have been charged but not yet convicted of crimes related to the actions of Stein, Hopfengardner and Bloom during that time. One of the those lieutenant colonels, a major at the time of the incident, worked directly for me. This is one thing about my service in Iraq of which I am not very proud.

I departed Iraq in February 2004 and the officer in question remained in Hilla until June 2004. According to news accounts, this officer allegedly received money for unspecified actions performed. I don't want to reveal the officer's name because of a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. My strong suspicion that the officer's alleged illegal actions took place after my departure is small consolation. Yet in the end my association with this scandal, however indirect, is painful to me.

Mike Gfeller, a State Department officer with experience in the Middle East and a fluency in Arabic, was the man in charge of CPA South Central at the time and, of course, must accept some responsibility. In my judgment he is a good and honorable man who worked long hours and achieved many notable accomplishments during his service in Iraq. His mistake was that he trusted the wrong people.

The big question to the outside observer is: How could something like this happen? I can give some reasons, but these points can by no means excuse the crimes that were committed.

I interacted with Stein and Hopfengardner almost every day but I had no supervisory responsibility over them, nor did I play any role in the process or oversight of the millions of dollars that were spent by CPA South Central for Iraqi reconstruction. The money being spent came from the hoards of cash hidden throughout Iraq by the former regime and seized by the Coalition forces during the invasion. None of these funds were provided by the U.S. taxpayer, yet the CPA had a responsibility for oversight and wise use of these monies.

The money was allocated by Ambassador Bremer to Mr. Gfeller with the objective of keeping the Shia dominated south central region of Iraq peaceful and content. All transactions in Iraq at that time were on a cash basis and CPA South Central had to literally drive to Baghdad, load up the cash in a vehicle and drive it back to Hilla, where it was kept in a safe at the former Babylon Hotel, the headquarters for South Central.

I observed some of the administrative procedures that were used to control the dispersal of this money. Project worksheets were prepared and approved and money was signed for when it was received. The money was paid to the contractors on a % completion basis and a U.S. Army Corps of engineers team was assigned to oversee the projects to verify that the work was done.

A lieutenant who worked for me was a project officer for some of the smaller projects in the Hilla area and I traveled with her as she inspected the projects to verify that the work was being completed. I also traveled with the Corps of Engineers Team as they inspected projects and I could see with my own eyes that work was being done.

There was considerable pressure to get these projects funded, worked and completed. I even felt the pressure because I knew the situation in Iraq. Electrical power was intermittent, gas lines were long and there was very little employment. We couldn't fix the electrical grid or the gas lines so we needed to demonstrate that we were doing something constructive for the long suffering Iraqi populace. To achieve this end, I saw no problem in approving the use of a lieutenant assigned to me on a part time basis to help get the money spent.

At the time (Fall 2003) we were all very frustrated at the progress of the reconstruction. In fact, the institution of spending controls by CPA in Baghdad seemed an unnecessary aggravation. They required that the proposed projects be publicly posted and that at least three bids be received. One source of my aggravation was that some local Iraqi contractors, not fully understanding the bidding process (a radical concept in Iraq at the time) were losing out to more savvy contractors in Baghdad. The results of the spending requirements appeared to be having an effect contrary to our goals.

Why all the rules, why the bids? we asked. We need to put these people to work before they start shooting at us. Someone shooting at us was on our mind every time we left the compound. The fact that I wasn't getting shot at, but others in my area were, was small consolation to me. As the number of attacks progressively increased I knew that the danger was increasing. So the pressure to get the money spent, to put the Iraqis to work and show them that something in their miserable lives, however small, was improving, came not only from my sense of duty in seeing the mission succeed but from a personal sense of increasing danger to myself and my soldiers.

No system or process, however complex, will prevent misappropriation of funds if the persons responsible are unethical. The rules governing oversight of public corporations in the United States would fill volumes but the corporate officers at Enron were able to get around them. Something else in Iraq, I believe, was one source of the problem. Seeing $50,000 or $100,000 written on a ledger is quite different than seeing the cash, in stacks of wrapped $100 bills, stacked on a table before you.

And there were numerous opportunities to see large amounts of cash. One morning, for example, my lieutenant project officer mentioned that she had $60,000 in cash in her bag. To me this was an astounding amount of money, more cash by many orders of magnitude than I had ever seen or handled. I didn't ask to her to open her bag so that I could look because I sensed that that much money displayed in the open was an unnecessary temptation for the others in the room.

I suspect, but not do not know, that the amount of fraud in Hilla increased after I left in February 2004 for several reasons. First, people began rotating out and weren't replaced. Unfortunately, some of these people leaving were involved in the oversight process and therefore weren't there for the plotters to worry about. Secondly, as CPA saw the June deadline approach for the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, the CPA employees began to frantically spend money on as many projects as they could. They did not have enough people to properly supervise such a large number of contracts. They saw their ability to influence the course of events slipping away and they had to compress their objectives into a unmanageable period of time.

I wasn't ever worried that my lieutenant would steal any of the money. In fact, at the time, I remember feeling a sense of pride that we were doing such a good job of using this money for its intended purpose. Little did I know.

Little did I know. Should I have known? Should I have done something about this? If I had known then I would have done something to correct the matter. If I had suspected something then I would have investigated. I truly believe that. But I didn't know. I didn't even suspect. I had many jobs in Iraq but auditing the expenditures of CPA South Central was not one of them.

Does any of that make me feel any better? No. Stein, Bloom and Hopfengardner have tainted me. Forever. And there's not anything that I can do about it.