Who'll spend $18.6 billion?

Robert Novak
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Posted: Feb 26, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Charles A. Krohn, the U.S. Army's top civilian public affairs officer, is back at the Pentagon after three months in Baghdad. What his superiors may not yet know is that he brought with him a 5,000-word manuscript, to be published next week in the Columbia Journalism Review. His article exposes the bureaucratic infighting over American taxpayer money to rebuild Iraq.

It is no secret the Defense Department's internal struggle delayed spending $18.6 billion appropriated by Congress for Iraqi infrastructure, though a decision has been made to put back part of that money. Krohn now provides the details of a nearly successful money-grab by Washington-based agencies.

Krohn also suggests a deeper problem. The Bush administration's fetish for secrecy is most pronounced in the Pentagon and especially Iraq. Krohn dissents. As a lifelong Republican and a "taxpayer-funded public affairs officer," he writes, "I know that the party and the country are best served when people in my position act as a funnel, not a filter."

This is no young wannabe causing trouble. At age 66, Krohn's career is near the end after 20 years' Army service in the infantry and public affairs, retiring as a lieutenant colonel with a Silver Star and Bronze Star. No naysayer, he believes the U.S. can build a safe and prosperous Iraq. "Fortunately," he writes from Iraq, "I haven't met a defeatist here yet."

Krohn came to Baghdad last November as public affairs adviser to retired Adm. David Nash, a civil engineer who as director of the Project Management Office (PMO) was to spend the $18.6 billion. But on Dec. 21, Nash told Krohn he planned to quit.

On Dec. 15, Nash had been informed that the $18.6 billion for PMO "might" be reduced to $1.9 billion, an amount described by Krohn as "hardly enough to start the program promised by Congress and the administration." On Dec. 19, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Nash his staff looked too small to rebuild Iraq and the work might have to be turned over to U.S. AID (Agency for International Development), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies accustomed to big spending.

"Someone had Wolfowitz's ear," Krohn writes, "but we had no idea who it was."

An educated guess is Robin Cleveland, the Office of Management Budget (OMB) national security specialist who has a pipeline to the Pentagon. Krohn referred to "those who wanted their hand in the till."

Just before Christmas, Nash argued with the Pentagon for "one point of contact, one line of authority and management chain-of-command." Nash, who ran a construction firm after he left the Navy, wanted to apply businesslike procedures to replace bureaucratic confusion. The response from Washington was not reassuring: "There'll always be a place for you somewhere."

That's when Col. Krohn stepped in for his boss and the program. He informed the Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen that requested proposals to rebuild Iraq were being held back. When I wrote a column Dec. 29 reporting this slowdown, Krohn said it upset officials "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."

On Dec. 30, Krohn writes, "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." But he could only mean Assistant Defense Secretary Larry DiRita. This official told Krohn that he "was making life too difficult for Washington bureaucrats" and that it "was not my concern" if construction stalled.

Yet, Krohn may have had the last word. Nash's operation was not dismantled, Nash remained with a diminished budget, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the issuance of "requests for proposal," and the work in Iraq will begin a month late.

Charles Krohn has been replaced in Baghdad and now encounters startled stares in Pentagon corridors. "Adm. Nash and I share the view that we are paid by the taxpayers and spending the taxpayers money and everything we do should be transparent," Krohn writes. Regrettably, those words are unwelcome in Don Rumsfeld's Pentagon.