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Shays Shuns Pentagon Tour to Seek Answers in Iraq
Shays Shuns Pentagon Tour to Seek Answers in Iraq
Shays Shuns Pentagon Tour to Seek Answers in Iraq
By: Jonathan Broder, CQ Weekly
May 1, 2004
BAGHDAD — The highway between the Baghdad International Airport and the city is one of those roads in Iraq known as an “ambush alley.” It is most deadly in the morning, after insurgents have set their roadside bombs in the pre-dawn darkness. That is when U.S. patrols suffer their worst casualties.
So Rep. Christopher Shays’ decision to travel that road on the morning of April 18 did not go down well at the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority in downtown Baghdad, Shays’ destination.
CPA chief L. Paul Bremer III, in two separate letters, had warned Shays to stay away. He said the insurgents had killed numerous Americans along the road and were now looking to kidnap foreigners as bargaining chips. The road was so dangerous, Bremer told Shays, that the authority’s congressional liaison would not be sent to the airport to meet him.
At the airport that morning, it became clear that Shays would not be getting the customary reception extended to a visiting member of Congress, much less any special security detail from the CPA. The alternative, then, was for Shays to make his own way to the authority’s headquarters, where he hoped he could, as chairman of a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the operation, ask some questions as part of a fact-finding mission. With the help of U.S. soldiers eager to assist the visiting lawmaker, Shays was able to arrange a ride with an Army convoy that was heading to Baghdad that morning.
He put on a helmet, strapped a flak jacket over his yellow windbreaker and climbed into an armored Humvee with a gunner manning a .50-caliber machine gun on the roof, the second of four vehicles in the convoy. With the morning mist lifting off the Tigris, the convoy rumbled onto the highway. The driver shouted “Go red!” to the gunner, signaling that they were now in hostile territory. The gunner threw the bolt on his machine gun, and for 15 tense minutes he swiveled the weapon back and forth in a 180-degree arc, scanning the roadsides and overpasses for insurgents, as the convoy rolled down the road.
The vehicles reached the authority’s headquarters without incident, but the experience seemed to energize Shays. “I told you it would be all right,” Shays told his aide, Nick Palarino. A retired Army colonel and Vietnam veteran, Palarino just shook his head and laughed nervously; he was already thinking about how they would get back to the airport that afternoon.
The Bush administration is not making it easy for members of Congress to learn firsthand what is happening in Iraq. While more than 200 lawmakers, including 37 senators, have visited Iraq over the last year, according to the Pentagon, members say those trips have been tightly controlled day trips that rarely allow them to get a feel for how the American mission is really doing.
As a result, lawmakers such as Shays, whose oversight responsibilities include tracking the expenditure of $166 billion Congress has appropriated so far for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, say they have to go around the administration to get information beyond the Pentagon’s packaged tours. On this trip, for example, and on three others, Shays arranged his travel through humanitarian groups that are on the ground in Iraq, implementing U.S.-funded aid programs. Including the two he made with the Pentagon, Shays has been on a total of six congressional delegations — or “Codels,” as they are known on the Hill — to Iraq, more than any other member of Congress.
Upon his arrival at the CPA, a heavily fortified compound of faux Babylonian buildings that used to be Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace, Shays was granted a private meeting with Bremer, but neither man was happy with the other. According to Shays, Bremer dressed him down for coming to Iraq in the first place. “What you did was totally irresponsible,” Shays quoted Bremer as telling him. “You endangered your own life and lives of my troops.”
Infuriated, Shays said he shot back that he, too, was angry — at the authority’s lack of cooperation and at the difficulties it had thrown in the path of Congress’ oversight efforts. The rest of their half-hour meeting was perfunctory.
“As a journalist, you’re allowed to be here, but as a member of Congress, I have to get a permission slip?” Shays told a CQ reporter traveling with him on this trip. “I’m not playing that game.”
‘A Headache or a Nuisance’
Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, considers himself a strong supporter of the war in Iraq. But as chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, he said his role is also to independently gather information to sort out the mixed messages from media and the government on the situation in Iraq.
In hearings before congressional committees, Shays said, Bremer has been unceasingly — and unrealistically — upbeat in his assessments of coalition progress on the ground over the past year. And the media, in Shays’ view, focuses relentlessly on the negative news.
But Shays and other lawmakers say it is almost impossible to assess the situation through Pentagon-sponsored trips. While the Pentagon extends visiting lawmakers the same courtesies given to a four-star general, such delegations are not allowed to spend the night and are restricted in their time on the ground — when, that is, the Pentagon allows members of Congress to visit at all. In Shays’ experience, most of his efforts to get military support during non-Pentagon visits have been rebuffed.
“From day one, the Defense Department told me, ‘Forget it. You can’t come in. It’s too dangerous,’ ” Shays said. “Basically, the Pentagon views members of Congress as either a security headache or a nuisance. They think they can do a better job without us.”
Shays says he does not let his treatment by the Pentagon cloud his political views, however, nor his sense of institutional prerogative. “I believe with all my heart that we’re doing the right thing in Iraq,” he said. “But I also believe that to succeed, we have to get it right. And Congress can help the administration do that.”
Pentagon officials say the current security situation in Iraq and the lack of soldiers to protect lawmakers does mean that members may not get to spend as much time or see as much as they would like. Congress represents “a separate and equal branch of government,” and members can go wherever they want, said Powell A. Moore, assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs. “We’ve been accused of trying to tell members where they can go and where they can’t go,” he said. “What we do tell them is where they can go with DoD support.”
On a broader level, though, Congress has struggled with the administration for information on its plans for Iraq’s reconstruction and the supplemental spending required to fund operations there. Even supporters have been left out of the loop if they raise basic questions about the operation.
Though it is small consolation to lawmakers such as Shays, experts say that successive administrations since the Vietnam War have attempted to limit Congress’ ability to conduct oversight of military operations overseas.
In the case of Iraq, not only does that make meaningful oversight difficult, it means that members of Congress are left to take a political stance either for or against the administration’s actions, said Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Congress can either go along fully, or, like in Vietnam, it can say no,” he said. “But that’s a pretty stark choice.”
An Unwelcome Guest
Shays rejects the choice, seeing himself as one who can support the war but at the same time ask tough questions about the administration’s stewardship in Iraq. For instance, Shays wants to see for himself how the $18 billion that Congress allocated for Iraq’s reconstruction last October is being spent. He wants to talk to aid workers in the field who are actually carrying out some of the reconstruction programs.
His attitude reflects an indefatigable idealism about congressional responsibilities — and his own role as a fact finder.
Others suggest that Shays is testing the boundaries of prudence. “Chris Shays is a great friend of mine and a wonderful guy,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is well known for his own streaks of independence from the administration. “I just think we should probably have the advice and counsel of the State Department and our security people as to how we go. I think everybody agrees now Iraq is a very dangerous place.”
That was Bremer’s sentiment on March 29, after he heard that Shays was planning another trip with the help of a humanitarian group. Bremer faxed the lawmaker a letter to his Capitol Hill office, warning that insurgents were now targeting such groups’ personnel. He also said that CPA security forces were stretched so thin that he could not offer Shays protection.
Indeed, earlier that month, four aid workers had been ambushed and killed while driving near the northern city of Mosul, and a gunman had killed two Finnish businessmen as they drove to the Baghdad airport. In another incident, a roadside bomb hurled a six-ton armored Humvee into the Tigris River, where the driver and his gunner drowned.
“Regrettably, I have to strongly recommend that you do not make this kind of visit at this time,” Bremer wrote.
The next day, Shays faxed back his reply: “After giving your recommendation considerable thought, I believe it is important to proceed with my original plan.”
In the letter, Shays explained his rationale: The U.S. public was hearing two conflicting versions of the situation in Iraq — one from the media, which focused on U.S. casualties and political unrest, and another from the Bush administration, which highlighted its successes in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure.
“Since Americans can expect to hear more of the same mixed messages, thorough independent assessments are necessary to accurately assess progress in Iraq,” Shays told Bremer.
Meanwhile, Bremer had persuaded several lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., to cancel their Iraq visits during the spring recess. Shays went ahead with his trip, which included a tour of the relatively peaceful Kurdish north before flying on to Baghdad.
Upon arrival at the U.S. military base near the airport, which involved a corkscrew landing from 23,000 feet, spiraling downward at 4,000 feet per minute to evade ground fire, a second letter from Bremer was waiting for Shays.
“I am now informed that you are, despite my recommendation, traveling in Iraq, and plan to drive from the Baghdad airport to the city of Baghdad,” Bremer wrote. “This road has become a major area for attacks. . . . We also know that insurgents are looking for additional foreigners to kidnap.”
To emphasize how dangerous conditions on the airport road had grown, Bremer said he had forbidden Bob Kelly, his congressional liaison officer, to meet Shays at the airport and accompany him to CPA headquarters.
“Again, and with even stronger emphasis, I must tell you that you’re running an extremely high, and in my view, unacceptable risk,” Bremer wrote. “I advise you not to travel on the airport road nor to go into the city of Baghdad.”
Shays was convinced he was receiving a runaround, and he ordered his aide, Palarino, to arrange alternative transportation to the CPA. Palarino was subsequently told that the authority had classified the Shays trip as a “Nodel,” a Hill term for a trip being paid for by someone other than the U.S. government. The Pentagon does not provide support to members on Nodels.
The soldiers at the airport base were nonetheless eager to help the visiting congressman. Eventually, they located a convoy that was leaving for the CPA the next morning.
On this trip, Shays came face to face with a number of realities about the breakdown of security in Iraq.
In Baghdad, at a briefing with coalition bomb experts, Shays was shown how insurgents were fashioning deadly roadside bombs from ordinary parts — washing machine timers, garage door openers, cell phones, even the remote control for a toy truck — to detonate their payloads.
An officer missing an arm explained that by capturing and studying the devices, bomb experts had been able to come up with effective countermeasures. For example, he said, coalition convoys were now equipped with electronic gear that could scramble the detonating radio signals.
But he also told Shays that bomb experts could make even more progress against those devices by inspecting incoming Iraqi cargo shipments for potentially lethal dual-use parts, such as timers. The problem, the officer said, was that their unit had a total of only nine people. Shays jotted down notes on the briefing for future reference.
“A few guys are searching for these roadside bombs, which are killing our people every day,” he said later. “Meanwhile, more than 100 people are still searching for the weapons of mass destruction, which may not even exist. Something is wrong here.”
In an April 16 meeting with U.S. troops at a dusty Army base in Khaniqin, an Iraqi town a few miles from the Iranian border, Shays heard that soldiers were discovering Iraqi ammunition dumps everywhere and that a number of Iraqis were making their living by selling explosives and weapons to Sunni insurgents. Just that day, U.S. troops had arrested one man for selling explosives. “It’s business,” Capt. Sean Moser told the lawmaker.
Shays is not a Middle East expert, despite his half-dozen trips to Iraq and separate visits to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. He does not speak Arabic, and typical scenes in the Arab world — a woman carrying a heavy bag of rice while her husband walks unencumbered ahead of her — make him stare uncomprehendingly.
But Shays is intent on learning and understanding Iraqi culture. He cites a lesson he learned from an earlier visit, when he met a surgeon in Basra who told him that his hospital lacked sufficient oxygen for operations. Yet if a patient died on the operating table, tribal tradition obligated the patient’s family to kill the doctor in revenge.
“That’s the Iraqi version of tort reform,” Shays said. “The lesson is, we have to make sure their hospitals are sufficiently supplied, and we haven’t done that yet.”
His time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Fiji Islands from 1968 to 1970, he said, taught him the importance of establishing personal contact.
“I know that by interacting with people, living with them, eating their food, learning about their culture, you learn far more about them that just meeting with them once, especially when you come fully armed, he said. “That sends the message, ‘I don’t trust you.’ ”
The focus on Iraq is a major change for Shays, who made his legislative name for himself as a champion of the campaign finance overhaul (PL 107-155) enacted two years ago.
It is also somewhat politically risky. As he seeks a ninth full term in November in southwestern Connecticut's 4th District, which generally votes Democratic, Shays is preparing for the most difficult re-election race of his career — against Democrat Diane Farrell, the Westport first selectman, who accuses him of losing touch with the domestic concerns of voters.
“I’d like him to focus on the issues that district has,” Farrell said in a recent telephone interview. She cited the need for more federal dollars to alleviate clogged traffic along Interstate 95 in Connecticut. “I certainly recognize the importance of understanding the issues in Iraq, but I don’t think it requires six visits.”
Shays’ response is that he does both. “I don’t know of a more important issue facing the United States than the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq,” he said. “And I’m playing an essential role on that issue.”
Aid Under Fire
One of the issues that Shay’s committee follows is how the reconstruction funds are being spent. In a briefing in Baghdad with U.S. Agency for International Development officials who administer the money, Shays learned that at least 35 percent of the $2.5 billion spent so far on current reconstruction projects is going to pay for security.
James Stephenson, the director of the USAID mission in Iraq, told Shays that for some projects, security costs have claimed as much as 50 percent of the funding. With less money going to the projects themselves, Stephenson said it would take longer than anticipated to repair Iraq’s roads, ports, and power and communications grids “We’re working in a permissive environment,” Stephenson said.
Shays discovered that security is also causing serious problems for the humanitarian aid organizations that the administration has contracted to help in the reconstruction effort.
In Suleimaniyah, a northern Kurdish city of 300,000, Shays spoke with David Holdridge, the director of Iraq operations for Mercy Corps, which is working under a $14 million grant from the State Department to implement clean-water and hygiene programs all over Iraq. Holdridge informed Shays that virtually all of the organization’s personnel in south and central Iraq had to be evacuated to the north recently because of threats and attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shiite radicals.
Holdridge, a Vietnam combat veteran who has been directing humanitarian relief efforts in the world’s war zones for the past 35 years, said the violence had reached the point where he was now seriously considering pulling Mercy Corps out of Iraq altogether.
“We’re apolitical,” Holdridge told Shays. “But it’s enough that we’re Americans and that we’re getting our money from the United States” to draw attacks.
Holdridge is one of Shays’ most trusted sources on the ground in Iraq and, as such, has a unique influence on the chairman’s perceptions about the U.S. mission in Iraq.
In his talks with Holdridge and other aid officials on the ground, Shays learned about a number of the administration’s “mistakes” — Holdridge’s term — that he said are now threatening the success of President Bush’s plan for a stable Iraqi interim authority after the June 30 handover.
Holdridge told Shays that the administration’s errors began when conquering U.S. forces decided not to stop the widespread looting that broke out after Saddam’s regime collapsed last April. He said the looting, which plundered offices, hospitals and schools, not only made the job of reconstruction more difficult but also caused many Iraqis to lose faith in the United States as their new protectors.
“There was chaos in Baghdad,” Holdridge told Shays. “There was nothing — no electricity, no schools, no work — for month after month.”
Holdridge’s deputy, Paul Butler, a Princeton-trained Middle East expert who is fluent in Arabic, added that while the looting went on, U.S. troops protected the offices of the oil ministry, a gesture that caused many Iraqis to doubt U.S. intentions.
Holdridge and Butler said Bremer’s decision last May to disband the Iraqi army, police and civil service had put more than 400,000 men on the street with no paychecks or pensions but still in possession of their weapons. Disenfranchised, many had joined the insurgents. Meanwhile, occupation authorities were left with insufficient forces to subdue unrest.
Bremer’s move to dissolve the Iraqi civil service denied the CPA the services of the country’s experienced bureaucrats, Holdridge said. The move, taken because of the now outlawed Ba’ath Party affiliation of civil service members, could have been avoided by weeding only the top echelon of Ba’ath officials, Holdridge said.
Instead, Bremer has “thrown every Tom, Dick and Harry into the CPA to be responsible for entire provinces,” Holdridge said. “You have people here with no area expertise.”
Another mistake, as Butler characterized it to Shays, was the CPA’s assumption that because coalition forces had toppled Saddam, they would have the support of Iraq’s Shiite majority, which suffered severe persecution under Saddam’s regime.
Butler reminded Shays of something that the congressman had heard on previous trips to Iraq: that the U.S. failure to help a Shiite uprising in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War had left many Shiites deeply distrustful of the United States, which had encouraged them to revolt in the first place.
Now, as U.S. forces besieged the forces of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr in the holy southern city of Najaf, respected Shiite elders were largely keeping silent, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s most influential Shiite cleric.
“They don’t want to be seen as puppets of the U.S.,” Butler told Shays.
There is yet another problem brewing among Iraq’s already restive Sunni population, Shays learned. Thousands of Kurds who had been expelled from their towns under Saddam’s program of “Arabization” in the 1980s had flooded back to their homes after the regime’s collapse, evicting the Arabs, many of them former Ba’ath Party officials, who had been living there. Now there were some 150,000 displaced Sunni Arabs, with no work and nowhere to live. Mercy Corps workers warned Shays that unless the administration provided money to resettle those internal refugees, they also could join the ranks of the insurgents.
At the end of one particularly gloomy conversation with Holdridge, Shays asked, “So, what’s the solution?”
“That’s what you guys are supposed to tell us!” Holdridge exclaimed. “We’re just here in the trenches.”
Shays does not have any grand solutions. But he does have a platform for holding the administration’s feet to the fire, and as a result of his first-hand experiences in Iraq, he is developing some recommendations for the White House that he feels will make its mission in Iraq easier.
Shays says he wants to see the number of bomb experts in Iraq increased to about 100. He also wants to see a greater effort made by the new U.S.-funded satellite TV stations, Al Iraqiyah and Al Hora, to counter the often inflammatory reporting of Al Jazeera, the popular Qatar-based Arabic news channel. And he would like to see CPA officials — and U.S. embassy officials in Iraq after the June 30 handover — consult more with humanitarian aid workers, whom Shays feels often have a better sense of the national mood than U.S. soldiers and civilian officials inside the bubble of the CPA.
And though the CPA has announced that it is reversing its policies and recruiting both former Iraqi soldiers and Ba’ath Party officials for the army and civil service, Shays wants the administration to acknowledge the mistakes he feels it has made in Iraq. He said he plans to hold hearings May 11 that will examine the decisions to disband the army, police and civil service.
“We will hold hearings on what went right and what went wrong,” he said. “There has to be some accountability for these decisions.” An acknowledgement of error by the administration would help it restore its credibility, he said.
Shays’ concern for White House credibility underscores a central truth about him and his feeling toward the situation in Iraq: He remains strongly supportive of the U.S. mission. He may disagree on some tactics and actions, but he still embraces the overall strategy of transforming Iraq into a viable democracy.
Indeed, even though the Pentagon has tried to keep him out of Iraq, Shays says some of his experiences have only reaffirmed his belief that he did the right thing by voting to support the use of force in Iraq.
For example, Shays met an attractive 32-year-old Iraqi airline employee who told him how her parents had kept her at home for the past 10 years because they were afraid that Saddam’s son Uday might pluck her off the street, take her to one of his hunting lodges and rape her, as he had done with many other women. Now, she told Shays, she was working at her first-ever job and saw a bright future for herself. Her story electrified Shays.
“That’s the kind of thing you never hear unless you come over here,” he said.
Still, at the end of his visit, Shays was forced to return to the Baghdad airport the same way he arrived: by his own devices. In order to catch his flight out of the country that day, he found a ride with a private security company on contract for USAID.
Bremer’s office had offered only to let him join a regularly scheduled convoy the next morning.