This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
A few moments later I explained my reaction via e-mail to Dreazen and his associate Neil King, Jr. ‘The call (from the Pentagon) was polite enough, but clearly some folks are not pleased with Nash’s rising profile and hold me responsible,’ I wrote. ‘Frankly, I can’t blame them, given the pressure. It’s an exaggeration to say Washington is aflame, but obviously some are working overtime. Interest in the $18.6 billion will not go away, however, even if I should get hit by a tank or Nash by a meteor.’
The same day a piece appeared in The Boston Globe by Stephen J. Glain, under the headline: Pentagon freezes Iraq funds amid corruption probes. Quoting Nash as saying, ‘We’re on hold and we’ll be on hold until we hear differently,’ the piece went on to say that ‘lawmakers in Washington and businesspeople in Iraq say the bidding process lacks transparency and favors a growing class of monopolists and oligarchs.’ This wasn’t my theme at all ’ the charges pertained to work performed before Nash came on the scene ’ but it helped fuel the debate and therefore potentially contributed to help solving the problems holding us up.
The wave of news and criticism came to a climax at a December 30 meeting at the White House, reported by King and Dreazen in The Wall Street Journal the next day. Although I had several conversations with both before the article appeared, I contributed little except context. But the article reported evidence that the administration was ready to act, finally. It was a nice New Year’s present, in any event:
The Bush administration has decided, after weeks of infighting, to defer about $4 billion in Iraq reconstruction work until the U.S. cedes political control to an interim Iraqi government this summer.
‘The decision substantially lowers the amount of work to be handled by a special Pentagon-run office in Baghdad that was originally created to manage most of the $18.6 billion set aside for Iraq reconstruction. But U.S. officials said they wanted to postpone some work until after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty, in part to help maintain leverage over the next Iraqi government … .
‘The spending compromise was struck at a White House meeting yesterday morning. It is meant to end nearly a month of confusion that has delayed plans to award as many as 26 huge contracts by early February to rebuild Iraq’s battered infrastructure and government … .
‘The administration’s top reconstruction official in Baghdad, Ret. Adm. David Nash, threatened to resign at the height of the infighting earlier this month. He has now agreed to stay on with a reduced workload.’
This seemed to say that while Nash’s job was safe, he would have less money than initially envisioned for managing the construction.
Word of the White House meeting was news to me and everyone else in Baghdad. None of us had the slightest inkling that the White House was joining the game. It was also welcome news to Admiral Nash.
Some in the Pentagon didn’t like the article and expressed intentions to rebut the negative implications. I disagreed. It made the point that administration officials, under some congressional and media scrutiny, reacted responsibly. And late in the day on New Year’s Eve we were told in Baghdad that Secretary Rumsfeld had just issued the order to get the RFPs on the street by Monday, January 5.
Sue Pleming of Reuters captured all of this later in a round-up piece carried by Forbes.com on New Year’s Day: ‘Following a month of delays and bickering over who can bid for $18.6 billion in rebuilding work in Iraq, the Pentagon is expected to open up bidding on a slew of contracts next week, officials said Wednesday.’ About $5 billion would be awarded in the first wave of contracts, she reported, ‘a month after first promised.’