A Baghdad Journal

At stake: $18.6 billion for the rebuilding of Iraq. The players: The Pentagon, the White House, the press, and one loyal public affairs officer worrying about his job. Here is his unofficial story.

Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, December 21, 2003.

After a chilly daybreak, my mind is racing with recollections of the past few weeks, churning an irresistible urge to express them. I’m still bothered by the call yesterday from my boss, Dave Nash, announcing he’s planning to quit. He’s the one who brought me from the Pentagon to the presidential palace in November to be his public affairs officer. Neither Baghdad nor Iraq inspires me at a personal level, but it’s exciting to sit near the center of the $18.6 billion effort he heads to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, even in its earliest planning stage. His quitting before we start construction means I’ll have to return to Army public affairs. (I had been a special assistant to the secretary of the Army, Tom White, but he resigned on May 8, derailing my professional life in the process.) When the job went flat, I jumped at Nash’s offer. Nash is a retired rear admiral, formerly in charge of Navy construction. As I tell reporters, he knows how to build stuff ’ big stuff. He is the right man for the job.

Nash isn’t a victim. Well, he is and he isn’t. It would be easier to say one way or the other if his charter weren’t so ambiguous. He had a vision worthy of a master builder and others shared it. The short version is that, in September, Nash was hired by Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to create, from scratch, a self-contained organization of assorted technicians and specialists that, as an integral part of the CPA, would supervise the reconstruction of the Iraqi infrastructure. This means fixing things relating to oil, water, electricity, and roads. But on the verge of letting the first tier of contracts to get things rolling, voices in Washington jerked his authority to proceed, apparently while they decide if the organization Nash created is really the way they want to go. On December 15, he was informed that his program, originally budgeted at $18.6 billion, might be reduced to $1.9 billion. That is still a lot of pocket change, but hardly enough to start the program promised by Congress and the administration.

Then, in a private meeting on December 19, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, told Nash that perhaps the staff Nash had created was too small for such a large project, and that maybe the work should be turned over to others, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Army Corps of Engineers, which manage large projects, reducing the risk of trying something new. Someone had Wolfowitz’s ear, but we had no idea who it was.

As Nash wrote to his staff, ‘They are suggesting that I possibly would be the titular head of this new organization. I told him (Wolfowitz) that I was not interested in being a part of that approach,’ indicating he was not interested in being a figurehead. Nash said he would gladly step down and let the agency of their choice take over. Wolfowitz said more study was required before any decision could be made, and Nash advised him that ‘now is the time to make a decision and not start one way and then switch approaches downstream.’

Since Nash hired me as part of an organization about to be abolished, if he walks, I’ll be expected to follow. In fact, I will be given no choice by others in the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority. I’m writing this in present tense, because Nash has not officially tendered his resignation, nor has Wolfowitz decided if Nash’s Program Management Office will be disbanded, merged, or reorganized. It’s still possible that Nash will be left in charge of the PMO as presently configured, chartered to get contracts on the street as soon as he can. This means construction could start close to February 2004, as originally planned.

Since I’m already in Baghdad, armed with credentials, clearances, and badges, it might make some sense to fold me into CPA’s strategic communication (Strat Comm) office, headed by Gary Thatcher but really under the discipline of a White House official, Dan Senor. Technically, I’m already assigned to Strat Comm, on loan to Nash. My job is to help Nash explain technical construction issues to the trade press and others interested in the nuts and bolts of business news. This frees Thatcher and Senor to deal with issues under the White House communications microscope.

Nash and I have the same chemical relationship that Torie Clarke had earlier with Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, when she was the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Once I coveted that position myself.

Senior officials deserve a trusted PAO to hold the trivial at bay so that they are free to worry about the job. Too many meetings, too little time. In the case of Nash and me, I quickly became an unfettered spokesman who didn’t have to check every time I opened my mouth or dispatched an e-mail. If this lasts, it promises to be a productive relationship. Our project is too big not to be noticed. Criticism being a more natural state than praise, I assume my hands will be busy juggling media balls, just as Nash predicts.
I wrote my views on this in an unpublished letter to the editor of The New York Times, triggered by an article suggesting there was too much politics in the public affairs establishment in Baghdad:

The program is headed by a retired Admiral, David J. Nash. I am his public affairs assistant, and my role is to translate what we’re doing to the media for wider dissemination to the people who are footing the bill. Reelecting the President is not part of my job description, although I am a political appointee. I am also a retired soldier who believes unconditionally that war is a national commitment, absorbing the combined resources of all the nation, not just its partisan components.

I’ve been a Republican all my life. But as a taxpayer-funded public affairs officer, I know that the party and the country are best served when people in my position act as a funnel, not a filter. If we do the public’s business well, facts speak for themselves. In the end, the truth comes out anyway, so if one starts with the truth, there’s no need to worry about facing a painful moment of reconciliation later.

I confess to being a news freak. And most of my friends are also afflicted. News is our narcotic. When it comes to the Army, I’m better informed than almost anyone I know outside my circle of friends. We use, need, and trust one another. For instance, I’ve known for several months about Time magazine’s project to pick as its Man of the Year an Army platoon serving in Iraq, because I helped Time embed a team there. Around Thanksgiving I received a note from Michael Duffy, Time’s Washington bureau chief. ‘We have made great progress on our previously discussed idea about The Squad,’ he wrote. ‘Our guys are now embedded and will be for the next month. Please keep that under your hat, but I wanted you to know that it is going well.’

The test of my commitment to the Time story came by surprise several weeks later when Duffy called me at midnight. I was groggy and hostile when I answered the phone. He said that a Time reporter and photographer working on ‘our story’ were injured in some accident, perhaps fatally. His voice was controlled, but there was panic in the tone. I grabbed my bathrobe and ID and rushed toward the palace. Within two minutes I was in the media center, the so-called Green Room. Colonel Bill Darley, an Army public affairs officer, was on the telephone, telling higher headquarters that some media people had been hurt. After I explained my previous relationship with Duffy (not mentioning the Man of the Year project), Darley provided the name and telephone number of the doctor attending the two Time people at the nearby Army medical center. First word (later confirmed) was that the reporter, Michael Weisskopf, had lost a hand and Jim Nachtwey, the photographer, had taken a lot of shrapnel but was expected to recover. They had been in an Army Humvee when a terrorist dropped a grenade in the vehicle. Weisskopf struggled to throw the grenade away, but it exploded.

I passed this on to Duffy by cell. I visited the men the next day just before they were evacuated to Germany on their way to Walter Reed. Duffy appreciated my help in keeping him and the families informed, and sent my wife a bouquet. Just as all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill famously said, all public affairs is personal.

It was a bittersweet victory when the Time edition appeared. But it gave me a rush to see the three soldiers on the cover, including the medic who was first on the scene to provide aid to Weisskopf and Nachtwey.

It’s depressing to think about leaving here if Admiral Nash resigns. This has easily been one of the most exciting episodes of my life, vying with recollections of the Vietnam War nearly forty years ago. I don’t kid myself that I’m still the soldier I was outside Hu’ during Tet ‘68. When I decided to go to Iraq, it wasn’t because I harbored any ambition of reliving a lost youth. I just wanted to help win the war, and I knew I’d fit in. Most people predisposed to serve in a war zone have some military connection and tend to be optimists. Fortunately, I haven’t met a defeatist here yet, so when I compare Iraq with Vietnam, I’m very selective about what I say to avoid giving the wrong impression.

It’s possible a couple of things I’ve done in just a month have made a difference and may deserve recording in the family archives. Near midnight on December 8, I was called by a reporter stationed in Baghdad who had heard that Ambassador Bremer was planning to visit the 101st Airborne Division the next day. I didn’t know about this, because travel plans of the CPA administrator are closely held for security reasons: there is supposed to be a price on his head. I gave the news of the security lapse to Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Durr of the Army secretary’s office, who scolded me for discussing classified information on the cell phone. I reminded him that I learned of the trip from a reporter, which meant that a lot of other people must know, too. Chuck got the message and called the security people, who immediately canceled the trip. The next day there was a suicide bombing at a 101st Airborne Division location, feeding the fear that Bremer’s helicopter might have been attacked, too, as he arrived. All this is a little far-fetched, but may be true and certainly makes an interesting story. Regardless, I was the main topic of conversation at headquarters for a day, all because of a telephone call from a friendly reporter.

It’s not my job to work on issues unrelated to construction, but when a reporter from my old Pentagon network calls, I answer. Usually I can add something to the story, engaging sympathetic contacts within CPA headquarters willing to share information, so long as I protect the source.

I think Dan Senor knows what I’m doing, too. I respect his position as White House commissar and try hard not to step on his toes even if I don’t obey all the team rules. The only rule I routinely violate is that all interviews be on background; I talk on the record. Admiral Nash and I share the view that we are spending the taxpayers’ money, and everything we do should be transparent. So far, no one has complained, but I wonder if someone isn’t suspicious. Last week I was told that I’d be getting an assistant from Strat Comm, so maybe they’re catching on.

The assistant did arrive, in the form of the impressive, 240-pound Steve Susens. There’s no question of his competence or sense of humor. The story he tells is that he was brought over by Thatcher, but when he arrived Thatcher said he wasn’t needed after all. Rather than send him home, they assigned him to me. If he’s a spy, he’s now my spy. I couldn’t get along without him. Steve is thirty-eight and has been around the block a few times. Like me, he has a knack for networking.

Thursday, January 1, 2004.

For the past ten days I put off adding to this journal, waiting to see what happens to the admiral. Nash may be light on ego, but he’s heavy on character. Of course he resented that his program was being gutted without his being consulted. He was not insulted personally, but professionally he had turf to defend. Nash had expressed his astonishment to Bremer’s top deputy in the Pentagon, Reuben Jeffrey, on December 16.

‘Reuben, I am deeply disappointed in the latest turn of events that I was informed about 11:00 pm last night … . We now have the smallest program to implement and the way this is lining up, we may not need a PMO or me. Reuben, all those who are participating in this debate over the last few weeks have essentially disassembled my approach completely and I personally feel that we are setting ourselves up for failure.’

This e-mail was followed by a little give-and-take, temporarily raising Nash’s morale and boosting spirits in the PMO staff in Baghdad and back in Rosslyn, Virginia. Everything was quiet again for a few days, but the dam finally burst under pressure from the media’s expressing renewed interest in how $18.6 billion would be disbursed and who would do the disbursing. Interagency bickering soon followed. For the first time, apparently, some started thinking seriously of the post-June 2004 period when Iraq regains its sovereignty. We heard about a lot of second-hand chatter from those who wanted their hand in the till.

Nash watched and waited. Hoping to resolve the future of the PMO, he sent another memo to Jeffrey a few days after Christmas, but really directed to the secretary of defense or his deputy. ‘There is increasing concern amongst the contractor community, Congress, and the staff about the status of CPA/PMO after 1 July,’ Nash wrote. ‘Yet the original concept of a Program Management Office remains the most managerially viable and cost effective path forward. Having one point of contact, one line of authority, and management chain-of-command is essential.’

Other messages forwarded from Nash to the higher reaches were more explicit about the implications of his vanishing role in the reconstruction effort. A reply to one of his missives tried to placate him by suggesting ‘there’ll always be a place for you somewhere.’ This failed to satisfy, leaving those on the staff wondering once more where they’d be working next.

The surprise ending to this tale began to unfold a few days later, triggered by a media campaign I initiated with two goals: (1) to protect Nash’s reputation, which others would attempt to soil to protect themselves, if he resigned, and (2) to push in front of administration elites evidence that our program was being marginalized, in hopes they’d move to save it. To protect Nash personally, I needed a sympathetic local reporter, someone especially insightful who wouldn’t write that his resignation was an act of desperation. The day before I’d had a short meeting with a Wall Street Journal reporter, Yochi Dreazen, to explore the notion of a profile. His stuff usually appeared on page one, according to Nexis. I found him affable, worldly, and, above all, compassionate.

Back on December 17, Dreazen had hoped to fly to Washington with Nash, but it was too late to make the arrangements. The idea had been for Dreazen to observe a bidders’ conference scheduled for December 19, but the conference was postponed at the last minute after we failed to get permission from the Office of Management and Budget to release to industry the Requests for Proposal that solicit bids from prospective prime contractors. We could have held the conference if we had received permission, even as late as December 18. But without RFPs on the street, there was nothing to be gained by a bidders’ conference because there would be nothing on the table for potential bidders to discuss. When we were told by OMB not to release RFPs and to make no plans to release them until further notice, we began to suspect that our program was spinning downhill, out of our control.

Now Dreazen and I cut a deal: I would tell him everything I could off the record, with the understanding that he’d be the first to have news of Nash’s resignation and free to use everything he had. And if Nash didn’t resign because others agreed to fix what he said had to be fixed, then Dreazen could write that story if he felt it was worth it. My part of the bargain was unconditional, his was not. There was always the possibility that there would be no story at all, or, worse, that the facts would unfold in such a fashion that a sympathetic treatment would be impossible. This was putting a lot of trust in an untested relationship, but there wasn’t much choice. The only option was to let Nash walk away from his office in the middle of the night, leaving others to wonder who did what to whom.

The plan for saving Nash and his construction program was to get the story featured prominently in the media, creating enough pressure to force a decision either to restore the program or throw Nash overboard. This approach carried inherent risk to me personally, but there was no course that was risk-free. Taking risks is a professional responsibility, and I’m supposed to be the civilian leader of the Army’s public affairs community here.

On Christmas Day I sent Dreazen my take on how the PMO world was falling apart, expressing a belief that Nash’s resignation was imminent. There was no indication that anyone at the Defense Department wanted our RFPs released.

The essence is that everyone is talking about Nash but no one is talking to him,’ I wrote. ‘The preponderance of opinion seems to be that Nash’s staff will never reach critical mass … . The big question remains: Will there be a role for him or not, and if someone offers him something inferior, will he take it’ One midlevel person in D.C. was quoted yesterday as saying, ‘Nash is in over his head.’ My view continues to be that Nash was given a mission by Bremer and he’s worked hard to pull everything together to make it work. His approach is both realistic and visionary, carrying the onus of many who are ahead of their time.’

Meanwhile, Nash was getting good copy from the reporters I rotated into his office before his departure, including John Hendren of the Los Angeles Times and Peter Spiegel of Financial Times. This fit neatly into the strategy of making Nash into a national figure, a poster child for reconstruction, something I thought could be useful after he left the PMO job. For now, it would help bring our dilemma to national attention.

Regardless of what happened to Nash, I believed the program must succeed. Despite problems in setting up the management scheme, ‘this must be fixed one way or another, because it’s in our national interest,’ I wrote to one confidant.

The Financial Times featured an interview with Nash on December 29 under the headline: cpa’s king of reconstruction faces a daunting task to rebuild war-torn Iraq. The lead was this:

David Nash’s small and sparsely furnished office is housed in a distant outer wing of the Republican palace, which serves as the headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. But if inter-agency bickering in Washington can be resolved in the coming weeks, the retired admiral’s quarters will suddenly become the most important in the sprawling CPA compound.

On December 29, the syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote a column that brought the program into crisper focus, upsetting some who took out their wrath on me as the most likely suspect feeding Novak. (Associates in Baghdad who were helpful in the past signaled their intent to distance themselves from what I was doing. I didn’t blame them. I instinctively knew there was some point where I would have to stand alone.) Novak’s piece began:

A pall was cast over Christmas for U.S. government civilians in Baghdad when they received word two weeks ago that the $18.6 billion for Iraq’s reconstruction rushed through Congress in November was indefinitely on hold. They have been told not to issue requests for proposals, which surely will extend the promised Feb. 1 date for contract award and, therefore, the beginning of reconstruction. No official announcement of the slowdown has been made, though the Pentagon has confirmed published reports … . Nobody is more disappointed by these latest developments than retired Rear Admiral David J. Nash, a civil engineer in Baghdad managing the $18.6 billion infrastructure reconstruction program.

I could have written the penultimate paragraph myself:

There is no disagreement inside the American team that the national interest will be better served the more quickly Iraqi rebuilding begins. This will cut into Iraq’s huge unemployment labor pool and invigorate the economy. In addition, it may provide evidence of the U.S. long-term commitment to the country. ‘If the people see siding with us as the wave of the future,’ one official told me, ‘maybe they will help frustrate the terrorists.’

The column closed with a trenchant observation that must have opened some eyes like ice water: ‘What’s needed now is the rapid utilization of that $18.6 billion to rebuild Iraq, and that is why the unexplained slowdown is so frustrating.’

The next day I found myself in a counseling session via telephone with a high-level Pentagon public affairs official, who must be nameless so long as I’m still operating in the chain of command. On the surface he thanked me for being in Iraq to assist with the war effort. His subtext was that I was making life too difficult for Washington bureaucrats responsible for dealing with the reconstruction issues, carrying implications far greater than I could possibly understand. If things seemed stalled, that was not my concern. He reminded me that my client was the US government, not Dave Nash. I promised to be more careful in the future, a face-saving gesture for both of us.

Evidence that the plan to force a high-level decision was apparently working provided some satisfaction, but still the results were inconclusive. I’d walk the plank, if I had to, but it was too early to alert the sharks. I also reminded myself that my residual client was more than the US government.

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.’

A friend from Washington astute enough to think he recognized my fingerprints on the media campaign had warned earlier that I’d better have another job lined up soon. Now he sent a note of congratulations, praising me for filling an inside straight. Another, connecting force protection with our success at providing new jobs, observed that every day we’ve been delayed meant another day of combat for American soldiers. The hope is that anti-American fanatics will have a harder time finding support among Iraqis once we put tens of thousands of unemployed people back to work rebuilding infrastructure. It’s commendable for the United States to help rebuild Iraq. But shielding our soldiers from attack is a moral obligation, particularly for all who swear an oath to defend the Constitution.

It’s easy to say that the reconstruction program once teetered on the verge of extinction, but this overstates the case. The money Congress appropriated would be spent by someone, however inefficiently. Nash understood from the beginning that his approach, while conventional in the civilian world, is relatively unknown and untested in the public sector where the bureaucrats reign. He should not have been surprised to find himself caught in a clash between wartime’s frenetic demands and less flexible peacetime rules where time doesn’t seem to matter as much. But if this story has a hero, it’s Nash. I hope he will prove correct, but it’s too early to tell until the program is complete and the money all spent.

The upshot is that we will announce the contract awards in early March instead of early February, as initially expected. Small projects may get under way almost immediately; others more complicated and costly will take longer. But several things are certain: the construction program authorized by the $18.6 billion supplemental legislation in mid-November will soon begin, and Nash will run it. All things considered, not bad.

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Charles Krohn is the author of The Lost Battalion: Casualties in the Battle of Hué, and the recipient of the Silver Star and several Bronze Stars.