Dems want GAO in Iraq to monitor funds

Twenty-two Democratic senators yesterday petitioned the State Department to allow Government Accountability Office (GAO) employees to spend several months in Iraq analyzing how reconstruction funds are being used.

“GAO’s longer-term presence in Baghdad is essential to providing Congress with direct and continuing oversight over U.S. programs and activities,” the senators wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Following a January hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) expressed concern to Rice about the misuse of funds in Iraq and urged the agency to allow GAO employees to assess the reconstruction efforts.

The State Department denied Harkin’s request for longer-term visits by GAO analysts to Iraq.

“The security environment and resource and logistical issues in Baghdad at present make accommodating the GAO requests to conduct longer-term visits a serious challenge to mission resources,” Jeffrey Bergner, assistant secretary of legislative affairs at the State Department, wrote. Bergner added that the agency could approve a two-week visit, even though GAO’s presence “will place considerable burden on embassy staff and resources.”

The senators who signed yesterday’s petition, including presidential hopefuls Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), cited several reports that found large amounts of funding to have “been stolen or squandered” as evidence that the GAO needs to have an extended presence in Iraq.

“It is imperative that GAO be given the access it needs to serve as the eyes and ears of the United States Congress as we continue our efforts to train and equip Iraqi security forces, provide these forces with a more robust logistics capability, build Iraqi ministry capacity, and restore essential services such as water and electricity,” the senators wrote.

The senators expressed concern about reports that the State Department has refused to grant GAO officials necessary access to monitor how reconstruction funds are being spent.

“American taxpayers are currently being asked to spend approximately $3,240 every second and $280 million per day in Iraq,” wrote the lawmakers.