Out of Control Costs of the Iraq War: The Bridge to Nowhere

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET
  • Dina Rasor Investigative reporter, Federal fraud investigator, and author

Professor Seymour Melman of Columbia was right. He was calling me in the fall of 2004 because he was finishing a new book and I was working on the problem that the DOD had lost track of billions of dollars. He told me that one of the main points in his new book was that America's infrastructure was falling apart while we were allowing out of control defense budget costs to consume ever larger parts of our national treasury. He told me that he was going to take the American Society of Civil Engineer's estimates of what it would take to fix our infrastructure for a new report that they planned to publish and contrast it to the billions of dollars that the DOD could not account for. He was known for his work on what he called a permanent war economy and he feared that this new war would further erode our economy with perpetual wasteful and ineffective defense spending.

At the time we spoke, the DOD had been forced by a new law to audit its past transactions and could not account for over a trillion dollars. Melman was intrigued and incensed by these new numbers because it was very close the ASCE's estimate of what it would take to fix all our infrastructure problems, aviation, bridges, roads & transit, brownfields, dams and levees, drinking water & wastewater and inland waterways.

Unfortunately, Professor Melman died in December 2004 at the age of 89 and his book was not published.

Now, in 2007, we awake to several headlines this week. Earlier in the week, the Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England tells the House Budget Committee that they won't have enough money for the war after October 1 and the Congress needs to be ready to put up more. But he told the committee that he did not have a detailed budget because of the fluid situation. DOD Comptroller Tina Jonas told the committee that if there is a shortfall, they will start taking money out of depo maintenance (the budget that fixes all the broken war equipment) and soldiers' pay. Not a word about maybe withholding money from the contractors who have run up huge unscrubbed bills while demanding to be paid. The DOD knows that if there are pictures of unfixed Humvees in depos and complaints from soldiers for not getting paid, the Congress will look mighty bad if they don't pony up whatever the DOD asks for.

The DOD had asked for $147 billion for the war effort but Rep. Jack Murtha thinks the DOD will come back and ask for $30-40 billion more. He is talking about giving them money short term, in two to three month intervals until it is clearer what they really need for the war. He is also skeptical that they really need the money now. "'Their spending is out of control', he said of senior administration and defense officials." During this same week, U.S Adm. Michael Mullen, in his confirmation hearings to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Democratic Freshman Senator Claire McCaskill, "You know more than I do," when she asked him about waste and abuse by military contractors in Iraq. No wonder she and Senator Webb have introduced legislation to form a new Truman Committee to look exclusively at the contractor fraud and waste in this war.

Then we hear about the nightmare bridge collapse in Minnesota. Reporters are racing to go to the ASCE webpage to see what it would take to fix our infrastructure, especially our bridges. Here is what the reporters are finding on the website:

Between 2000 and 2003, the percentage of the nation's 590,750 bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete decreased slightly from 28.5% to 27.1%. However, it will cost $9.4 billion a year for 20 years to eliminate all bridge deficiencies. Long-term underinvestment is compounded by the lack of a Federal transportation program.

We are spending approximately $10 billion a month in Iraq. Whatever your politics on the war, all of us should agree that we must get control of this spending now. We need to start by reining back the out of control contractor billings so that the predictions that this war will cost $1 trillion will not come true and we can begin to rebuild our country. Professor Melman spent his career warning us about our fraudulent and wasteful war spending. Will we begin to listen now?