House Panel Hearings Focus on Iraq Spending

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform begins hearings Tuesday on waste and fraud in the reconstruction of Iraq. This comes on the heels of an audit last week that called oversight of the spending in Iraq "less than adequate."

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Okay. So that stalled Senate debate on Iraq was definitely good news for the White House. Now to the not-so-good news. A House oversight committee has just started three days of hearings looking into Iraq's reconstruction -specifically how millions upon millions of dollars were spent. An audit released last week called the oversight less than adequate, which if you ask some lawmakers, is probably the understatement of the year. How about $4.2 million for an Olympic-size swimming pool that the U.S. didn't actually authorize?

Joining me now is NPR's Michele Kelemen. She's been following the hearings. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Hi, Luke.

BURBANK: So Paul Bremer, who headed up the Coalitional Provisional Authority, he was kind of the boss of a lot of this stuff. He was the first witness today. Some people say he's going to kind of take the fall for this. What have they been saying to him, and what did he say back?

KELEMEN: Well, that's right. I mean, he was, you know, the viceroy, in essence, of Iraq. And basically, this whole hearing is focusing on how this coalition provisional authority - which was the effective governing authority of Iraq -handled money, and particularly, handled Iraqi money - Iraqi oil revenue. And what he talked about in his opening statement - he said, look. You know, my job was to kick start the economy. The economy was flat on its back, and we had to move quickly to lay the groundwork for a new and democratic Iraq.

He said I understand I made mistakes. With hindsight, I could have done things differently. But the lesson he said he came away with all of this is that it was poor planning. I mean, that's something also pretty obvious around town here, that there was little planning ahead of the invasion on Iraq of what to do after Saddam is toppled.

The other thing that was interesting in his opening statement, the written statement, was he tried to dispel this - what he called a myth that the CPA was dominated by young, inexperienced ideologs. I mean, there's a lot of stories that you have kids just out of college with no background in finance…

BURBANK: If you could get a…

KELEMEN: …running ministries, and he said that's not…

BURBANK: …if you could get a plane ticket over there…

KELEMEN: That's right.

BURBANK: …if you could get a ticket, you pretty much have a gig.

KELEMEN: Right. And he said that's nonsense. And he actually listed all the people that were in the CPA, the higher ups, those that had resumes in this - in this statement, so that the members of the committee could take a look at that.

BURBANK: Well, were there any specific examples of kinds of spending that they were taking or going to be taking kind of a hard look at?

KELEMEN: Well, Henry Waxman, who is overseeing - who's the chairman of this committee and has been dying to hold these kinds of hearings for a while started out with this image that the Federal Reserve had to put billions of dollars, cash dollars, and send it to Iraq. He said today's hearing provides us with 12 billion reasons to be concerned about fraud, waste and abuse. And he's talking about $12 billion in cash sent over, packed in these bundles. He described it as 363 tons of cash sent into a war zone.

He said that's what the U.S. did. What happened to it? And that's sort of the focus of his questions. And this was money that was - much of it going to Iraqi ministries to pay salaries and staff, etc. Bremer's argument was, look. We didn't have - banks weren't functioning, and we had to pay these people.

BURBANK: This will be interesting to watch as the president is asking for a lot more new money to go over to Iraq.

NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks for joining us.

KELEMEN: You're welcome.

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