Tuesday, November 11, 2003
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What happened while I was gone?
Back from Berkeley. I had to get into a cab to race to campus to teach a class. Just sitting down now and catching my breath for the first time.
So, a very belated thanks to David Brooks for citing my recent Slate essay in today's column. I first heard about it via my brother, for those who care [You mean Brooks didn't give you a heads-up?--ed. It's funny, people who've congratulated me on this are assuming I know Brooks. I'd like to, but as of now we've never communicated.]
For those New York Times op-ed readers expecting to find more on the subject here, go to this post, which was the genesis of the Slate article. Then click over to this post, which elaborates on a few points that got cut from the Slate essay, and deals with the inevitable statistical contretemps that such essays produce. Finally, click here for a further discussion of Halliburton and Bechtel -- there's some stuff there that Brooks did not mention in his able op-ed today that nevertheless bolsters his case. [You know that David Adesnik already did this for you--ed. D'oh! Advantage: Adesnik!]
UPDATE: Via Tom Maguire, I find this letter to the editor of the Washington Post from Bill Allison, the "managing editor [?] at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, responding to the Steven Kelman op-ed. A similar statement has now been placed at the bottom of my Slate piece. Among the key tidbits:
If CPI's story is now that there needs to be more transparency in the bidding process, that's fine with me -- I say, here, here.
However, while I will flatly concede that they never use the words "clear quid pro quo," that's what they're implying. Stating that, "There is a stench of political favoritism and cronyism surrounding the contracting process in both Iraq and Afghanistan" sounds like a completely different kind of accusation from one of a lack of transparency. The first charge implies disorganization and inefficiency. The second charge implies malfeasance and, well, quid pro quo corruption. The first graf of the CPI report reads:
The link between campaign contributions and contracts was also the lead of all of the initial media coverage of the report. I'd say it was pretty damn clear that CPI was implying a quid pro quo.posted by Dan on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM
The CPI article and follow-on are replete with innuendo; I especially like the following:
No one has a clear picture of what's going on with the awarding of contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some in the government have admitted as much. "Now the whole contracting procedure is confusing," John Shaw, deputy undersecretary of defense for international security, told a London conference in mid-October, when he announced a new office under the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq that is supposed to bring order to the process. "This new procedure we hope is going to bring greater accountability and transparency."
The reason there’s no clear picture is that all sorts of federal agencies are using existing contracts to do work in Iraq, and there’s no easy way to aggregate the information for management review; you can’t identify ongoing contract activities with the keyword “Iraq”. For example, if you go to this Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)">http://www.disa.mil/acq/contracts/"> site you’ll find a list of IDIQ (indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity) contracts that DISA has awarded as a result of competitive procurements. Any or all of these contracts may have task orders that have sent one or more folks to Iraq, Kuwait, or Bahrain to support the war effort. You might assume that DISA’s contracting arm, DITCO, knows how many contractors are in Iraq at any given instant, but you’d be mistaken because some of the contracts are for fixed-price maintenance (extended warranty) coverage of equipment in-country. A contractor will deploy an individual or team to fix something under a maintenance task at any time, just as you might get service at work or home based on a phone call.
DISA is just one part of DoD. Factor in all of the federal agencies and you’ve got what appears chaotic at a high level (how many contractor personnel do we have in Iraq? – Who knows), yet the folks at the lower level ordering the services generally know what they are getting for their money.
The services’ post exchange manager, AAFES, is running a Burger King at the Baghdad Airport. Do they know how many folks are involved? Probably not, but the contract probably has the requirements and incentives properly scoped to keep the troops happy and taxpayers protected.
The CPA contracting office (go ">http://www.rebuilding-iraq.net/"> here) will handle a bunch of the locally generated requirements, but will by no means give the full picture of who’s doing what there.
But I am not concerned about waste, fraud, abuse, or political influence because I know how federal contracting works, how the folks in the procurement offices tow the line, and how the audit system works – slowly but surely. Do the top managers know every aspect of every contract? Nope, but the system was not designed for that level of precision. It was set up so that contracting offices could fairly procure and administer the support the users needed.
CPI wants every bit of information from every agency in real time, an impossible task. If Wal-Mart can get daily sales, why can’t the Feds? Simple, Wal-Mart customers pay on their way out of the store; the government’s suppliers invoice monthly, a week or three after the month’s close. Moreover, an agency may order 1,000 hours of a company’s bridge repair personnel for delivery during the month of November, but may get fewer hours; it won’t find out what was delivered until sometime in December. If all of the timecards were properly filled out, but the travel vouchers may not have been submitted, the contractor’s subcontractors may not have submitted timely invoices, etc. You may find this hard to believe, but it’s not unusual for the lag between incurring an expense and invoicing the feds for the expense can take more than thirty or even sixty days.posted by: The Kid on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
"However, while I will flatly concede that they never use the words "clear quid pro quo," that's what they're implying. "
"The link between campaign contributions and contracts was also the lead of all of the initial media coverage of the report. "
Those are two compelling arguments. So why can't I use them to talk about the adminstration's implication of "imminent threat" prior to the war?posted by: Opus on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
Opus, because the administration's policy of pre-emptive war precludes the idea that the Bush administration claimed Iraq was an imminent threat. Plus, they really never claimed so, no matter how much you want to believe it.posted by: linden on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
The Kid has a good point or three regarding the chaos of the process. The General Accounting Office published a report on USAID and NGO's in 2002 that's worth looking up, as well as a report on World Bank processes recently... either will give an idea of how buggy and inconsistant the oversight systems is... even without partisan heckling.
To be honest, it's not clear to me why the CPI should be taken as a legitimate "watchdog" instead of the appropriate OIG or the GAO? A quick peek at the CPI's donor list should at least evoke a degree of skepticism... the Streisand Foundation? This isn't to say I think the charges are necessarily false, or that the Iraqi contracting procedure isn't rife with cronyism or political favoritism... Just that I trust the GAO about a MILLLION times more than a bunch of former press hacks funded mainly from one side of the political spectrum who don't seem to appreciate that there's more to auditing than unsubstantiated accusations and innuendo. GAO good. CPI, ???posted by: A Crawford on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
CPI is a legitimate watchdog that has done good work in the past. They blew it on this issue, forming a picture of what they wanted to say and counting on the facts to justify them later. Government contracting is not one of the things CPI staff is expert on, and I think if you went back to them now you might well be told, though perhaps off the record, that they wish the contracting report had never been issued.posted by: Zathras on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
I'd be surprised if CPI said that they wished the contracting report had never been issued. While I haven't read the report itself, when I heard CPI on CSpan radio talking about it, they emphasized the lack of transparency and the unwillingness of the government to release information much more than they talked about a relationship between campaign contributions and contracts.
I find this assertion:
The GAO does great work, but it doesn't preclude the need for outside watchdog groups, and such groups need to be funded somehow. Nor is the CPI a bunch of partisan hacks -- the last time they went to court with an FOIA demand was when they were after Vice President Gore.posted by: PG on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
I agree that it is highly unlikely that there was any form of *quid pro quo* and the CPI was in error to suggest so without evidence. Seeing as the law of the land generally requires evidence of "quid pro quo", there was likely nothing illegal going on.
HOWEVER, in real life that's not how most agreements are done. Agreements are done by mutual understanding. Conspiracy law recognizes this in dealing with RICO and organized crime. There need be no overt "quid pro quo". It's more like "I know if I scratch your back, you'll like me more and maybe scratch mine later." Most relationships, including good marriages, function somewhere on this level. To say that there is no evidence of an overt arrangement, is being naive to the level of expecting a young man taking out a young woman to dinner and treating her relatives nicely without at least the hope of winning his way into her good graces and her budoir. Likewise in my experience, job searches are often markedly more focused in the beginning than overtly what the spec's say they are. Often they have a single person or a type of person in mind before they even go looking. It would be too crass to say there was a quid pro quo, but all grown-ups understand about mutual reciprocity.
So no overt deals, but in all likely-hood an unhealthy mutual reciprocity in this case.posted by: Oldman on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
A Crawford: To be honest, it's not clear to me why the CPI should be taken as a legitimate "watchdog" instead of the appropriate OIG or the GAO?
Because they qualify for 501(c)(3) status, which prevents them from political campaigning and restricting their lobbying. They do tend to criticize both parties fairly equally. Which makes them a lot less partisan than Dan seems to be.posted by: fling93 on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
Did CPI claim that there was an imminent threat of corruption in Iraq? I'd say so.posted by: Crank on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
Opus, because the administration's policy of pre-emptive war precludes the idea that the Bush administration claimed Iraq was an imminent threat.
I'd like you to amplify this remark. Because it doesn't make any sense.posted by: GFW on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
Easy, GFW - the whole argument was over the Bushies claiming that preemptive war was justified even if the threat was not imminent. At the time, the Dems were ripping Bush for NOT claiming the threat was imminent, but wanting war anyway. Now the Dems are ripping Bush for saying the threat WAS imminent, when it was not.
Bush has been consistent. The Dems have not.posted by: R C Dean on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
Bush has been consistent.
Just because you said it doesn't make it so.
Trying to impute logic to Bush's argument is a non-starter. They're a PR firm masquerading as government.posted by: GFW on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
I'd have to agree with the "implied" stuff. I can see the truth in what Drezner is saying about the article. When I first saw the article, and saw the measly figure ($500,000) I thought, "that's it"?" And then I read Drezner's response, and it made sense to me.
And when Drezner says the article "implies" quid pro quo, I can see that as well.
But Daniel, how can you so easily see this "implication", and then so blindly NOT see that the march into Iraq, the whole "marketing" focus, was based on the "implied" imminent threat? I mean, it is so clear, its absurd not to see it.
Johnposted by: JWC on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
"A Crawford: To be honest, it's not clear to me why the CPI should be taken as a legitimate "watchdog" instead of the appropriate OIG or the GAO?
"Because they qualify for 501(c)(3) status, which prevents them from political campaigning and restricting their lobbying. They do tend to criticize both parties fairly equally. Which makes them a lot less partisan than Dan seems to be."
yeah, sure. Mike Wallace's producer, Charles Lewis, is the founder of CPI. Do you really imagine he's non-partisan? Look at the books he's written, and tell me these jokers at CPI have anything on GAO other than a journalistic shield that allows them to hire freelancers unburdened by any legal restraint. Oh yeah, the CPI tax filing also notes that they have an "agreement" (not included on line) with a major network to 'publicise' their findings, but the CPI doesn't say WHICH network!!! Don't you want to know if it's Charles Lewis' old boss?
Now THAT'S "Public Integrity"! If they were serious they'd put their information on the BBB charity site (give.org), and wouldn't put their IRS filings up without the documents that were attached with line detail.
How much do you think they spent on that web site in 2002? according to their IRS filing, $555,501 for the year (kind of a pricey web site!). How much did CPI spend in 2002 on a yet to be finished data base? $879,546, which also seems quite high. Moreover, that doesn't include CPI's, "international" wing, which has it's own funding.
My point is that a very notable degree of skepticism, which honest journalists would agree with totally, should be applied to CPI because of it's founder, funding sources, questionable accounting, unknown partnership with a major news network, and failure to fully upload the complete charitable filing with the IRS. CPI SAYS all the correct and catchy things, but it doesn't seem to want to disclose as a true watchdog should.
Again, this isn't to say they aren't telling the truth per say. Merely that they certainly don't look non-partisan, and have claimed some questionable accounting without opening their books.posted by: A Crawford on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
But the GAO and the OIG are part of the government. The reason we need watchdogs outside of the government is the same reason we need a free media. Checks and balances between the three branches aren't enough to ensure there isn't any corruption. Those in power are primarily motivated by staying in power, and thus have a vested interest in maintaining the system by which they obtained power in the first place.
Skepticism is good, and perhaps I should be more skeptical of CPI, and if you know of any campaign finance watchdog that does a better job than they do, I'd be more than happy to learn about them. But I'd argue you should be much more skeptical of those in the government than on those that report about them.posted by: fling93 on 11.11.03 at 04:09 PM [permalink]
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