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Profile: Senators Are Upset Over the Bush Administration's Invitation For Bids From Companies to Rebuild Iraq Without their Knowledge or Involvement

All Things Considered: March 11, 2003

Congress Angry about White House Secrecy



MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Bush administration is offering companies nearly a billion dollars in contracts for postwar reconstruction in Iraq, but only a handful of major corporations have been invited to place bids for the work. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill reacted angrily to the news today and complained about the Bush administration's secrecy in postwar planning. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, said he was startled by the news that the US Agency for International Development has already been in touch with major corporations to work on contracts for rebuilding Iraq. Democrat Christopher Dodd, another member of the committee, said some US corporate leaders know more about the administration's plans than senators and taxpayers do.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): I find that terribly disturbing. There's an arrogance to that. That is, we've seen evidence in allied reaction to the effort in Iraq, and it's now showing up here, and I don't think that's going to be very helpful. That's going to make the job of winning my support for those kind of efforts a lot more difficult in the coming months.

KELEMEN: The members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were angry because the Pentagon official in charge of postwar planning failed to show up at their hearing on the topic today. And the senators complained that they only learned about the proposed reconstruction contracts by reading The Wall Street Journal. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, called it a slap in the face at a time when the Bush administration should be trying to build trust on Capitol Hill. Hagel said senators have been pushing for answers as to how much it will cost to rebuild Iraq.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): We all pushed to give us some sense of this. No answers. The administration chose not to have witnesses today. No answers. I think the president was asked in his news conference the other night. No answers. And I think the best that they have come up with is, `Well, you'll know about it when we bring up the supplemental appropriation.' I don't think that's a good way to do this.

KELEMEN: Today's State Department briefing will do little to allay congressional concerns about secrecy. Spokesman Richard Boucher would only say the US asked a handful of companies recently to submit bids to rebuild schools, hospitals and airports. He said a decision would be made this month. Among the companies bidding on what could amount to $900 million in contracts are Bechtel and Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, a company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn't question the choice of companies or the fact that only US firms will be chosen. Richard Lugar and the others are mainly worried that the administration has not been up front with Americans about the costs.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): 900 million, as we listen today, is not a small sum, but it's still a small percentage of what was being prophesied down the trail.

KELEMEN: The experts that did testify today, none of whom were government officials, gave cost estimates in the tens of billions of dollars in the first year alone to occupy and rebuild Iraq. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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