'Tiny Fraction' Took Advantage During Iraq's Reconstruction

This week, Morning Edition has been marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Steve Inskeep talks to Inspector General Stuart Bowen about his audit report on U.S. spending and waste in the reconstruction of Iraq.

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All this week on MORNING EDITION, we've been marking the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That invasion was followed by years of war and reconstruction, the war and reconstruction taking place at the same time.

And today, to get a better idea of the monetary costs, we speak with Stuart Bowen once again. Since 2004, he has been the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. And earlier this month, he released the final report from his office.

Stuart Bowen is in Baghdad. Welcome back to the program.

STUART BOWEN: Thank you, Steve. It's good to be with you again.

INSKEEP: So $60 billion were spent on Iraq reconstruction. How bad was the fraud and abuse?

BOWEN: Well, our office achieved 82 convictions, recovered about $200 million from those cases, and expect to get at least 20 more convictions and recover at least $100 million more.

INSKEEP: Given there's inevitably going to be some fraud and some waste, is it possible to quantify how much of it was well-spent and how much of it was not?

BOWEN: Generally speaking, yes. As we point out in "Learning from Iraq," our latest and final lessons learned report, at least eight billion of that 60 was wasted. Let me put it in perspective. Well over 95 percent - 99 percent of the people that served with the U.S. government in Iraq as part of the reconstruction program did so honorably. This is a tiny fraction of individuals who took advantage of a very chaotic set of circumstances, aggravated by the fact that so much of the reconstruction effort was paid for here on the ground in Iraq, with cash. And that was one of the things I noticed during my very first trip nine years ago - I'm now on my 34th.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

BOWEN: You know, cash in duffel bags being a carted of the Republican Palace, which then served as the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority - that was a sign to me that this oversight mission was going to be very challenging.

INSKEEP: Why was it that way? Because this was a country where there simply was no functioning banking system?

BOWEN: It was a country that was simply not functioning. The banks were all closed. The Central Bank of Iraq had been looted. The ministries had been figuratively and literally destroyed. Only the Ministry of Oil was effectively protected. And there was no governance and no infrastructure that was functioning, and thus, the rebuilding program you might say, started the country up from scratch.

INSKEEP: You do hear stories of buildings that were built or half built and then they could not be finished because the security situation was too bad or they could not be used...

BOWEN: True.

INSKEEP: ...because the security situation was too bad.

BOWEN: Well, that's right. This was one of our key findings in something that I derived from the interviews with the Iraqis. In this latest report, I conducted 44 interviews with 17 Iraqi leaders and as well as U.S. senior leadership. And a couple of key themes emerged from those interviews - especially from the Iraqis, that the fact we didn't consult well enough with them about the projects, and that meant that when it came time to transfer projects to Iraqi control they frequently didn't want them. And hundreds of projects were transferred to the Iraqis, simply unilaterally - signing a piece of paper, handing it over to them saying it's yours. And I've had Iraqi leadership say to me, you gave us partially completed projects, why didn't you finish them?

INSKEEP: What were some of the projects that the U.S. handed over to the Iraqis that they didn't want or couldn't use?

BOWEN: The prison up in Diyala Province, something that the Minister of Justice told us when we carried out our review of that project, that they never really wanted it. And as a result, there now is no prison in Diyala Province, and yet we spent $40 million trying to build one there.

INSKEEP: Given that you name the report "Learning From Iraq," if this president or any other president were to call you and ask for advice about another war, another reconstruction effort, Afghanistan or someplace else, what would you tell them?

BOWEN: Now is the time for the United States to seriously consider reforming and improving its approach to planning, executing and overseeing stabilization in reconstruction operations. The opportunity is before us. The evidence is here. The secretary - the Deputy Secretary of State, Bill Burns, said to me that the real challenge was that we came here and we tried to do it all and do it our own way. And that's a serious and meaningful insight. And when we undertake future operations that we fully consult and we recognize and embrace and understand the host nation's culture.

INSKEEP: Stuart Bowen, is the U.S. inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction. Thanks for joining us once again.

BOWEN: Thank you, Steve.

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