Senate Dems seek probe of wartime contracting

More than 60 years ago, Harry Truman, then a relatively unknown U.S. senator from Missouri, embarked on an ambitious and unprecedented campaign to root out government mismanagement and fraud during World War II. The Truman Committee established as part of that effort conducted more than 700 hearings and issued 51 reports into military wastefulness, saving taxpayers an estimated $15 billion.

Now, with reports surfacing of rampant procurement irregularities by U.S. contractors and federal acquisition officials in Iraq, Senate Democrats are seeking to revive the accountability and transparency efforts of the Truman Committee.

Late last week, Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri filed an amendment to the fiscal 2008 Defense authorization bill (H.R. 1585) that would create a Commission on Wartime Contracting. The Senate took up the bill Tuesday, but as of late afternoon, had not voted on the amendment.

The bipartisan panel would be charged with investigating virtually all contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, including funds devoted to reconstruction, logistical support for coalition forces, and security and intelligence functions.

Authorized with subpoena powers, the commission would examine individual contracts and the "extent that those responsible for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement have been held financially and legally accountable." The group also would study the overarching issue of the government's reliance on contractors during the war.

"For a variety of reasons, we have developed this quasi-military apparatus in this country that has its own weapons and has its own tactics that it employs freely in places like Iraq without true accountability," Webb said Friday at a hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. "It's a disturbing evolution."

Military officials acknowledged last week that $88 billion in contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan are being audited for "irregularities." Meanwhile, contracts in excess of $6 billion are being scrutinized as part of a wide-scale corruption and fraud probe that has led to 78 criminal investigations and 20 indictments.

"As a former auditor, I've seen waste before," McCaskill said. "But I don't think I've ever seen anything as outrageous as what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of contracting. This commission is an urgent necessity in order to stop the massive mistakes that are costing us billions of dollars. The military will not do this on its own."

Half of the eight-member commission would be appointed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, would each appoint one member, as would Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The committee would issue an interim report within a year and a final report within two years, at which point it would be disbanded.

The amendment also would expand the auditing powers of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction to include oversight of Defense Department logistical contracts and deals signed by federal agencies that outsource wartime security, intelligence and reconstruction.

On Monday, the chamber's nine freshmen Democratic members -- all co-sponsors of the bill -- sent a letter to Reid and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., requesting a formal vote on the amendment.

"This amendment helps fulfill the promise of a Democratic Senate to return more vigorous oversight and accountability to the federal government," the letter stated.

In total, the amendment has the support of 26 co-sponsors, including Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and from a number of watchdog and public advocacy groups. A spokesman for McConnell's office did not respond to a request for comment.

A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department does not comment on pending legislation.

The language that would create the commission was originally introduced as a free-standing bill (S. 1825) in July, but the measure languished in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The amendment introduced last week contains virtually the same language, with one notable exception, calling on the commission to investigate the "extent of the misuse of force or violations of the laws or federal statutes by contractors."

Webb spokeswoman Jessica Smith said the language was inserted because of incidents like the recent the shooting of 11 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater USA, a private U.S. security contractor. A joint U.S-Iraqi commission is investigating the incident.

Webb and McCaskill have introduced a second amendment to the Defense authorization act that would direct the Pentagon to keep closer tabs on private security contractors involved in combat operations by tracking problematic individuals, registering all military vehicles and reporting all incidents where contractors or civilians are killed or injured.

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