2006.06.04: June 4, 2006: Headlines: Figures: COS - Fiji: Politics: Congress: Iraq: Connecticut Post: Shays admits errors on Iraq

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Shays admits errors on Iraq

Shays admits errors on Iraq

In the leadup to the war, Shays says, he should have demanded more accountability from the Pentagon on cost estimates, which seemed low. The United States will have spent more than $320 billion by the end of the year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shays admits errors on Iraq

Shays admits errors on Iraq
PETER URBAN purban@ctpost.com

WASHINGTON More than three years into the Iraq war, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, regrets that he did not provide aggressive enough oversight of the Pentagon's war plan as he now believes was needed.

As chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations, Shays has taken a special interest in Iraq.

He was the first member of Congress to step on Iraqi soil after Baghdad fell on April 9, 2003, traveling across the Kuwaiti border with aid workers from Westport-based Save the Children. He has since made 11 trips to Iraq.

In the leadup to the war, Shays says, he should have demanded more accountability from the Pentagon on cost estimates, which seemed low. The United States will have spent more than $320 billion by the end of the year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I fault myself," Shays says. "I was hearing voices in my own head that this was going to cost more and I accepted the Pentagon numbers that were too low," he says. "I should have had hearings early on."

The subcommittee did hold hearings in 2002 and 2003 on troop preparedness focusing on "the toxic battlefield." Shays was convinced that U.S. troops would encounter chemical weapons going into Iraq and wanted to make sure the Pentagon equipped each soldier properly.

At the time, Shays was unaware that troops would be sent into battle without the body or vehicle armor needed to protect them from improvised explosive devices. The Pentagon attributes 823 of the nearly 2,500 U.S. deaths in Iraq to IEDs.

"We were adamant about chemical protection, but we learned early on that they needed body armor," Shays says.

The Pentagon kept telling Shays that they would have the problem resolved in short order, but its solution was not adequate. If he had held a hearing on the body armor issue, Shays believes, the Pentagon may have responded more aggressively.

Shays spoke candidly about his eight-year tenure as subcommittee chairman during an interview at his Capitol Hill office. He was asked to respond to criticism against him by his Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell.

Farrell, a former Westport first selectwoman, claims that Shays has failed to oversee the Iraq war effort.

Farrell criticizes Shays for stubbornly supporting President Bush's Iraq policy rather than demanding a sensible plan to win the peace. "If people like Chris Shays President Bush's most loyal supporter of the war in Iraq would demand a workable plan to win the peace in Iraq, maybe we could accomplish the mission," Farrell says. "Instead, Chris and his allies in this Republican-controlled Congress continue to pat the president on the back and tell him he's doing the right thing in Iraq."

Farrell also issued a news release complaining that Shays failed to properly oversee Iraqi reconstruction efforts, pointing to an April government audit that detailed millions in government waste.

The audit found that a private contractor was paid $190 million to build 150 health centers throughout Iraq, but completed only six of them before the contract was canceled.

"I think Chris has fallen down on the job in terms of oversight," Farrell said. "He has abrogated his fiduciary responsibility to the American people by not watching the money more closely. The health centers are probably the best case in point."

Farrell sees the problem as one of partisanship. "When one party is in charge, it is much less likely to perform that critical oversight function," she says.

Farrell says there would be more oversight of the Bush administration if Democrats were in the majority in the House and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, was chairman of the subcommittee. He is currently the ranking Democrat.

"Someone like Representative Kucinich would have been a lot more conscientious about brining administration officials to hearings. There would have been no 'noblesse oblige' going on between party members," she said.

Kucinich declined to be interviewed. Two other high-ranking Democrats on the subcommittee and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member of the full committee, also declined interviews.

Aside from Farrell and his own self-criticism, Shays has received generally favorable reviews for his leadership of the subcommittee.

"There's not enough oversight going on in Congress, but this subcommittee is clearly an exception to that general rule," Comptroller General David M. Walker said at an April hearing.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., echoed that sentiment.

"With the exception of this subcommittee pursuing some oversight within its limited jurisdiction, I think the House of Representatives has been totally AWOL when it comes to oversight on this issue and has failed to live up to its constitutional responsibilities," Van Hollen said.

A year earlier, Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., commended Shays for holding hearings into "many, many important topics.

"You are doing almost more with this subcommittee than I've ever seen any chairman do with any subcommittee in the Congress," Duncan said.

Shays has chaired 26 subcommittee hearings during the 109th Congress, and 154 since taking the reigns of the subcommittee in 1999. Recent hearings have focused on Iraq reconstruction, nuclear security, secrecy, whistleblowers and cruise line safety.

"He has been doing a fantastic job," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight. "There isn't another chairman in the House that has conducted the serious oversights that he has on issues of consequence."

POGO, a nonprofit Washington watchdog group, has worked with Shays on a number of investigations into nuclear power plant security, nuclear weapons, overclassification of federal documents and whistleblower protection.

Brian said she is impressed with the way Shays conducts his hearings.

"It is refreshing to see someone so serious about doing his job well," she said. "Most chairmen are putting on a performance, but with Shays you can absolutely see he is listening to the testimony and actually trying to gain information."

Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Commonsense, considers Shays one of his favorite lawmakers.

"Representative Shays is one of the only Republicans on the Hill who believes in oversight and practices what he preaches," Ashdown said.

But Ashdown said Shays is limited in what he can accomplish because House Republican leaders are "allergic" to oversight and reform.

"They have drawn and quartered the Congressional schedule so much that there is really no time to do anything outside of appropriations and a few symbolic votes," he said.

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