Lawmakers Battle Pentagon Over War Information




 
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Boots
 
May 20th, 2007  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: Lawmakers Battle Pentagon Over War Information


CQ Weekly
May 21, 2007
By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff
On his periodic trips to Iraq, Rep. Gene Taylor often roams the Camp Victory military base, outside Baghdad, in the middle of the night to talk with enlisted personnel and junior officers.
During a recent visit this spring, “I just kind of walked around the base and visited the guys who were on duty,” the Mississippi lawmaker said. “If you want the perspective of the E-3 [private] or lieutenant colonel, you just about have to go to Iraq.”
It’s the only time, he says, he gets straight information about the war. Taylor, a senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, is expressing a widespread and bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill about the Pentagon’s control of information about the war, including its refusal to supply sensitive documents and data to Congress.
“Congress must have this information in order to carry out its constitutional oversight responsibilities,” House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., wrote in a March 15 letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates requesting information on the training of Iraqi security forces, which is vital to the U.S. exit strategy. Congress has been trying to get the information for more than a year, but the Pentagon provided some of the data just this month.
Congress’ complaints have mounted in recent weeks. Administration officials have refused to provide defense committees with copies of the Pentagon’s classified war strategy and have withheld data on the use of contractors in Iraq. Even the results of public opinion polls in Iraq have been denied. The Pentagon has also barred junior officers and non-commissioned officers from testifying on Capitol Hill or briefing lawmakers and their staffs on the record.
Indeed, members are so dissatisfied with the administration’s responsiveness to requests for war data that two pending defense bills would require officials to turn over some of these long-withheld documents or the information they are believed to contain.
Pentagon officials say they are cooperating with Congress and that requests for reams of documents can take time to fill. In some cases, though, they acknowledge that they have denied Congress data because it might jeopardize the security of U.S. forces if it became public.
Taylor and other lawmakers suspect that politics, not security, is behind such withholding of information. It reflects, they say, administration fears that Democrats will use the data against them.
But when Congress is denied access to information, no matter how sensitive, a larger issue than politics is at stake, said Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, a war critic who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
“To me, that threatens the democracy,” he said.
Ready or Not
Members of Congress trying to understand the lack of progress in Iraq are not content with the often optimistic and broadly worded summaries they receive in quarterly reports from the Defense and State departments or in testimony or briefings. The press, they know, is limited in what it can learn.
Instead, lawmakers want the military documents that describe the detailed assumptions behind the plans and chronicle the realities on the ground, such as the Defense Department reports on the readiness and reliability of Iraqi military and police units.
“If the information isn’t provided, it’s very difficult to get to the crux of this issue, which is the central issue of the war in Iraq,” said Martin T. Meehan, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
President Bush has said that U.S. forces can begin to leave Iraq once there are enough trained Iraqi troops to replace them and keep order. “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,” Bush has said.
While the number of trained Iraqi military and police personnel has roughly doubled to more than 330,000 in the last two years, U.S. troops have not been withdrawn. In fact, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is being increased by roughly 20 percent, to about 160,000, this year. Meanwhile, the level of violence and the number of casualties are increasing.
Congress has appropriated $15.4 billion to train and equip Iraqi forces, and the administration has requested another $5.8 billion for fiscal 2007 and 2008. Defense officials concede that the United States lacks the forces necessary to sustain the surge in personnel indefinitely, and eventually Iraq will need to be left to Iraqis.
Skeptical lawmakers have asked the Pentagon for details on the readiness of Iraqi forces beyond the quarterly reports listing how many units are at certain readiness levels. Crucially, Congress wants to know whether any of the soldiers being armed have been implicated in sectarian killings.
Documents turned over last week and still being analyzed have been the focus of more than a year of negotiations between the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon. In a sign of congressional impatience, both of the House-passed war spending bills — the one Bush vetoed and the one now pending — would require the Pentagon to give Congress the readiness reports.
“Without that information, Congress is unable to assess independently the progress in the development of Iraqi security forces,” said the report accompanying the House-passed version of the first supplemental.
The defense authorization bill the House passed May 17 would require the Pentagon to turn over the kind of information contained in the reports.
Denials and Delays
Pentagon officials say they have satisfied 21 of 52 outstanding congressional requests for data, sending along 107,000 pages of material to the Hill. But on several key requests, members say the officials’ record is one of delayed and incomplete responses — if they respond at all.
For example, Meehan and Todd Akin of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, asked in March for a series of military documents about the war.
They are still waiting for one of the more important ones: the Joint Campaign Plan, a classified document that describes how U.S. forces are supposed to hand over control of security to Iraqis. Lawmakers and their staff are cleared to review many types of classified information, but a Pentagon spokesman suggested that Congress should not expect to get the campaign plan, because the military is worried about leaks.
“It is fairly routine that we don’t provide information if its release could compromise ongoing operations on the ground,” said Army Lt. Col. Brian Maka.
The House version of the defense authorization bill would require the Pentagon to describe the implementation of the campaign plan in an unclassified report to Congress, with a classified annex if necessary.
Members also are still waiting for information on the Pentagon’s growing use of contractors in Iraq. The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, for example, has sought for months to get data on, among other things, the number of contractors hired in Iraq, what they are doing, who has hired them and how many are U.S. citizens. Few answers have come back, according to Pennsylvania Democrat John P. Murtha, the subcommittee chairman and a vocal critic of the war. Murtha said he is not concerned about not getting these and other documents because he doesn’t believe them anyway.
“The policy in the White House is for the military to be dishonest in their reports, because they are being intimidated,” he said.
The administration is not even providing Congress with U.S. government-sponsored polls by Zogby International on Iraqi public opinion, according to Taylor. Results were available in the early months of the war, he said, but not since then.
Bipartisan displeasure with the Pentagon’s secrecy was evident in April when the Pentagon took steps to restrict congressional access to lower-ranking personnel.
During an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee closed briefing by military officials, a Pentagon attorney objected when the chairman announced that the briefing by mostly junior Army and Marine Corps officers would be transcribed. The reason was that a new Pentagon policy set “guidelines” that forbid testimony or on-the-record briefings by non-commissioned officers or those below the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Members of both parties were outraged.
A Republican member of the subcommittee, K. Michael Conaway of Texas, said the behavior of the Pentagon officials was “high-handed.” Walter Jones called it “unacceptable.”
Pentagon spokesman Maka said this month that the guidelines are not set in stone and can be adjusted, depending upon the situation.
Standoffs Brewing Over Iraq Information
Congress’ difficulty in getting detailed information from the Defense Department about the conduct of the war in Iraq has complicated its oversight of the military. In some cases, documents were provided only after lawmakers personally appealed to senior Pentagon officials; some records provided were found to be incomplete. Here are some examples lawmakers and their aides cite:
Joint Campaign Plan — The House Armed Services Committee has tried for three months to get a copy of the plan, which is the military’s classified war strategy. The Pentagon has not supplied it.
Transition Readiness Assessments — The Pentagon gives Congress overall figures for the number of Iraqi units it considers combat-ready, but resisted providing details from more than a year. Some documents were turned over last week.
Iraqi public-opinion polls — A 2003 Zogby International poll found most Iraqis optimistic about their country’s future. The firm has since done several polls paid for by the U.S. government, but Congress has been unable to obtain the results.
Contractors in Iraq — House appropriators have been trying for months to get detailed information on contractors hired by the government for jobs in Iraq, but lawmakers say only limited data has been turned over.
 


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