02/11/2008 11:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Audacity of Hope and Iraq Contracting: Dare I hope that something will be done?

Several weeks ago, I testified before a Senate subcommittee on the problems of Iraq contracting. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and members of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were also on the panel. Our testimony was followed by various officials from the DOD, State Department and USAID with testimony that acknowledged the problem but, as I have seen in investigating DOD contracting for 29 years, no one seemed to know how to get control of the situation.

The subcommittee also asked Perry Jefferies, a first SGT whose Iraq experience is detailed in my book in painful detail, to testify. His straight talk reaction to the hearing is below, as it appeared in the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) blog. Senator Claire McCaskill came in and bluntly asked who needed to get fired to try to inject some type of accountability into the system. (I was relieved that I wasn't the only pushy female in the room.)

I certainly understand Perry's frustrations since I have sat through many years of mind numbing and ineffective hearings, but I, for the first time in years, dare to have the audacity of hope that something may be done. I think that we may have hit bottom on this fraud, waste and manipulation by the DOD and contractors in Iraq and that gives us an opportunity to have some real change.

To see the video or testimonies of the hearing, click here. To see an ABC News piece about the hearing featuring Perry Jefferies and me, click here.

The freshman Democratic senators have already pushed through some important reforms, especially starting a new Truman Committee (called the Wartime Contracting Commission) to examine failures but also to go after the Iraq contractors who have abused the government and the troops. The Commission will be set up within a few months (see my last blog post on how President Bush tried to silence it with a signing statement) and they are looking for people to appoint. I have let them know that they must have some true reform mavericks on the Commission or it will turn out as most commissions do--write an "ain't it awful" report, suggest tame or pseudo reforms that can be ignored by the DOD and military and declare a victory. The war service industry in Iraq has to be hoping that the commission will be toothless with commissioners who are part of the problem...the same old retreads of the status quo.

The chair of the subcommittee who held the hearing, Senator Tom Carper, is not one of the freshmen senators but he also seems serious about real reform and is working on legislation to actually follow up the hearing to make the DOD and contractors more accountable. The military actually has a requirement to make a plan on what contractors do and should not do in hostile zones and how their role needs to be strictly defined in the military mission but there is no enforcement mechanism. The lack of planning, and the explosion of contractors in Iraq without planning, made Iraq the land of unintended consequences...those unintended consequences were that the troops did not get the supplies and equipment that they needed and we have lost a hellacious amount of money to the contractors. I will be watching to see what he does.

The DOD Inspector General and the GAO tell the Congress that the DOD is basically unauditable. I hear from my past reform colleagues that there is nothing that can be done...the DOD is unable to be reformed. But, in this new climate of hope and change, I have the audacity of hope that, if we start with the most egregious waste and fraud, the contracting in Iraq and then spread outward, we may be able to get control of the burgeoning costs and failures of the DOD, which spends more money than all other countries combined on defense.

I could tell you more details about the hearing but Perry Jefferies cuts straight to the chase:

Last Thursday (January 24) I had the opportunity to testify in front of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee: Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security. This rather lengthy title is bestowed on a panel of Senators concerned about the manner in which tax dollars flow out of the treasury. In this case - to private contractors on the battlefield in Iraq and what their effect is on our troops. As I prepared to depart for the hearing my director asked me "what makes you such an expert?"

That gave me pause but I told him, as I did Senator Carper and the others on the panel "because I lived it." I sat next to Dina Rasor and Bob Baumann, authors of "Betraying Our Troops" and long time waste-chasers in DC.Although I felt pretty much like a color commentator as I described the conditions my Soldiers found in Iraq and why I thought it wasn't right, I felt less bizarre as I listened to the supposed expert panel that followed. The gentlemen were all well spoken and at least as well-versed in acronymage as I was but I was pretty surprised by their conclusions. In short the hearing went something like this:

Stuart Bowen, Special Instructor General for Iraq: There were huge problems with contracting in Iraq. The planning, supervision, and current execution is all jacked up and should be fixed. Major changes are needed - get a contingency force of contractors and auditors. Mr. Solis: Contracting's all jacked up and DoD's not fixing it. Dina Rasor: Contracting's all jacked up and is doubling in cost every year - there is about a one to one ratio of contractors in Iraq and they are a big rip-off. Me: Contracting's all jacked up in Iraq - it affected my Soldier's missions and welfare. We should go back to the old doctrine and let commanders control their logistics. Then the next panel stood up, a collection of retired generals and state department types. Basically they said: We thought that contracting was great but realize that it is all jacked up. We want to fix it by adding five generals, more contractors, and less bids. Oh - and one guy said that he should get to do it all for USAID because they had teams ready right 'friggin' now (except of course - they aren't really ready to go anywhere) To be fair - the only one that I thought made much sense was retired General Maddox, who wants to add the five generals back in (because basically there is no one to watch over all the contractors).

I guess my biggest problem with all of this (besides the camouflage of bewildering technical detail, unneeded acronyms and a lack of focus on results) is that no one even considered fewer contractors or letting the combat commanders have MORE control over their logistical chain. They only considered and made recommendations on how to add or better supervise the current or an even higher amount and rate of contracting. I may seem a bit flippant in all of this but it was pretty amazing to me. Some of the gentlemen testifying have previously insisted that there were NO problems with contracting in Iraq. I was happy to refute that and to remind them that Soldiers and Marines executed their plans and ideas - we weren't just spreadsheet calculations. But in this session, they seem to have all realized that but then to only consider pouring more money and effort into a plan that had demonstrably failed.

I'd like to point out too that the Pentagon is still not able to be audited because their books are so (you guessed it) jacked up. It's probably germane to mention that Iraq may not be the biggest war we'll ever face. If the contracting corps can't monitor the effort there, how big and how costly would the failure be on a truly grand scale? The costs in Iraq have gone up by 50% each year we're there - how long could our treasury (or our great-grandkids' treasury) sustain a really big effort?

There are some real issues here. For sure there will be contracting and a discussion about where, when, and with what supervision is long overdue. Senators Carper ( a twenty-three year Navy Vet who graciously explained my "hoo-ah" when given as an answer, Akaka, Collins, and McCaskill should be saluted for the time they are spending on this matter. But the polyannish assumptions of Mr. Bell and others should be put aside or looked at in a realistic fashion. As Senator McCaskill asked, with no serious answer from anyone - after this greatest failure, after all the wasted dollars, after the destruction of lives, equipment and property - who has been fired or even held accountable? And the answer, so far, is no one, and no plan to do so.