I've said for a while now that the worst scandal of the Iraq War is the one that's getting talked about the least. There's so much to hate about the invasion: the trumped-up pretexts for a war of aggression; the blatant fabrications about weapons of mass destruction; the paper-thin commitment to democracy and the freedom of the Iraqi people; the way that we're hanging the whole country out to dry now that things look less rosy than the unconscionably ill-planned pre-war predictions indicated; the near-universal scorn and ill will it's generated amongst our allies; the bitter division it's created within our own country; the way it's shown us to be weak at a time when we need to be seen as strong; the way it's involved us in torture, murder and false imprisonment; the necessity it's generated of making allies of some of the worst people in the region; and the incalculable cost in money, material and human lives.
But worse than all of that is the grotesque looting of public money by the very people who pushed for the war in the first place. The G.O.P. talks a high-minded game of democracy, freedom, and protection against terror, but their real priorities can be seen in the way profiteering businesses have taken the billions of dollars in taxpayer money earmarked for the war and stuffed it into their pockets -- and then going back to do it again and again and again. One compelling reason to think that George W. Bush is the worst president in American history is the way he combines elements of other rotten leaders in a repulsive synthesis: he blends the 'bog-America-down-in-an-unpopular-and-unwinnable-war' quality of Richard Nixon with the 'hand-over-as-much-public-money-as-possible-to-your-crooked-cronies' quality of Warren Harding. Independent estimates by non-partisan groups have indicated that the amount of money mismanaged, overcharged, or outright stolen by American forces, contractors and corporations in Iraq is far and away the largest in the history of the United States. Dozens are on trial or in jail already, but government prosecutors say that most cases aren't pursued and most guilty parties will never be charged (how much of a role political pressure plays in this reluctance to prosecute is unknown, but it doesn't take a genius to guess that it's a big factor).
The most recent audit is just that -- the most recent. Not the most damaging, not the worst, not the widest or the most damning; simply the latest. And even though it's less horrific in the picture it paints of American businessmen using taxpayer money meant for Iraq as a personal feeding trough than certain previous audits, it's damning enough:
- Desks at the Provisional Authority's Hillah office were stacked a foot high with $100 bills; Coalition authorities -- many of them young interns with no experience, hired because they put their resumes on Heritage Foundation job sites -- took them out of the central vault at their leisure, with no documentation of where the money was going. The amount of money taken out of the vault with no paperwork indicating who took it, who deposited it, or where it was spent may be as much as $20,000,000.
- One PA agent kept three-quarters of a million dollars -- money earmarked for Iraq reconstruction -- in an unlocked foot locker. An American soldier took over $50,000 of it to use on a gambling junket in the Phillipines.
- A large amount of Iraqi oil revenue, meant to be used to finance reconstruction, has gone missing -- auditors could account for only $23 million of a total of $120 million in revenue. (Beyond the missing $97 million, only $8 million of the $23 million accounted for was documented in a proper manner.) Many of the agents in charge of the money were former Bush campaign workers.
- American contractors fattened themselves off of gargantuan contracts but did little actual work. One received over $600,000 to repair an elevator at Hillah's General Hospital, but he didn't do the work, and three Iraqi orderlies fell to their deaths when the elevator collapsed. Another American contractor received over $100,000 to replace the plumbing at a public pool in Hillah; he merely polished the old pipes to make them look new and pocketed the money. And another was paid $14,0000 four times for a job he only did once. (Auditors estimate that for every case of contractor fraud of this nature they discover, there are possibly as many as a dozen more they don't.)
- Two PA agents simply absconded with nearly a million and a half dollars. Their manager, when confronted with evidence of the loss, tried to clear them using fraudulent paperwork. (None of the three have yet been referred for prosecution.)
- Nearly $2,000,000 of reconstruction funds for the library at Karbala was wasted, with hundreds of thousands still unaccounted for. The American contractor in charge of the project promised to install almost 70 computers, but he only delivered 18, and didn't provide internet access or a LAN; the computers only work as stand-alones and are thus nearly worthless.
- $23,000,000 was given to PA officers and agents to pay contractors. Only $6,000,000 was disbursed.
- U.S. security forces spent nearly a million dollars on seven armored cars; not only did they prove to be too lightly armored to use, but one of them is missing.
Keep in mind, this audit deals only with south-central Iraq -- one of the least hostile, most stable parts of the country following the cessation of active combat. Most auditors expect the amount of fraud, theft and misappropriation in other parts of the country to be much, much higher.
It's too bad that calling this Halliburton's War has become such a leftist cliche. It's never been about oil, but it's always been about money -- and in the end, the war will end up costing hundreds of billions of dollars, not just in legitimate expenses, but in terms of the fraud, overcharging, double-dipping, misappropriation, and outright theft that is being perpetrated by American corporations with a wink and a nod from the most corrupt White House administration since the Ohio Gang. Next time someone tells you they vote Republican because only the G.O.P. can protect us, remember those un-armored cars shuttling around crooked timeservers with their fingers in the till; next time they tell you they vote Republican because they're against big government wasting their tax dollars, remember those 22-year-old Bush interns sitting behind a desk piled high with cash that used to be in your wallet.