Former journalism adviser in Iraq says U.S. officials steered
coverage to themselves
By Larry Margasak
WASHINGTON (AP) A journalist who helped Iraq form a new broadcast
network in 2003 testified Monday that U.S. occupation officials were
more interested in airing their own activities than stories
essential to Iraqis.
Don North, who served as a U.S. government adviser to the Iraqi
Media Network, said the network became an irrelevant mouthpiece for
the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority.
The network was given ''a laundry list of CPA activities'' to cover
instead of stories on security, the lack of electricity and jobs,
said North, an independent journalist who has reported for National
Public Radio and NBC.
North testified at a hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy
Committee, a party organization. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., head of
the panel, said Democrats had asked Republican-led Senate committees
to conduct hearings on U.S. waste and missteps in Iraq but the GOP
In addition to North, another former U.S. adviser in Iraq Frank
Willis testified he thought he was in the Wild West in 2003 as he
watched colleagues pull $2 million in fresh bills from a vault and
stuff them in a contractor's gunnysack.
North told the hearing he wanted the media network to be like the
Public Broadcasting System in the United States. Instead, he said,
U.S. authorities told him ''we were running a public diplomacy
operation'' for the occupation government.
Willis testified that cash payments that weren't stuffed in sacks
were made from a pickup truck that bore the name of Iraq's grounded
airline. American authorities thought the vehicle would ''meld into
the environment,'' Willis, said.
Much of the money was Iraqi funds, Willis said.
Army Lt. Col. Joseph Yoswa, a Defense Department spokesman, said the
occupation authority ''strived earnestly for sound management,
transparency and oversight.'' He said U.S. funds were subject
to ''contract and accounting practices required by U.S. law.''
Separate standards applied to the Iraqi money, he said.
Yoswa said he could not comment on the testimony about the Iraqi
Monday's hearing was designed to spotlight the waste of money in
Iraq by the former occupation agency, the Coalition Provisional
Because Iraq had no functioning banking system in 2003, money was
kept in a basement vault in CPA headquarters, a former palace of
Officials from the CPA, which ruled Iraq from June 2003 to June
2004, would count the money when it left the vault, but nobody kept
track of the cash after that, Willis said.
''In sum: inexperienced officials, fear of decision-making, lack of
communications, minimal security, no banks and lots of money to
spread around. This chaos I have referred to as a 'Wild West,'''
Willis said in testimony submitted to the Democratic Policy
''This isn't penny ante. Millions, perhaps billions of dollars have
been wasted and pilfered,'' said the chairman of the Democratic
panel, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. He said the hearing was
arranged because the Republicans who run Congress have declined to
investigate fraud, waste and abuse in Iraq.
James Mitchell, spokesman for the special inspector general for Iraq
reconstruction, said in an interview that cash payments in Iraq were
a problem when the occupation authority ran the country, and they
continue during the massive U.S.-funded reconstruction.
''There are no capabilities to electronically transfer funds,''
Mitchell said. ''This complicates the financial management of
reconstruction projects and complicates our ability to follow the
The Pentagon, which had oversight of the CPA, did not comment in
response to requests Friday and over the weekend. But the
administrator of the former U.S. occupation agency, L. Paul Bremer,
in response to a recent federal audit criticizing the CPA, strongly
defended the agency's financial practices.
Bremer said auditors mistakenly assumed that ''Western-style
budgeting and accounting procedures could be immediately and fully
implemented in the midst of a war.''
When the authority took over the country in 2003, Bremer said, there
was no functioning Iraqi government and services were primitive or
nonexistent. He said the U.S. strategy was ''to transfer to the
Iraqis as much responsibility as possible as quickly as possible,
including responsibility for the Iraqi budget.''
Iraq's economy was ''dead in the water'' and the priority ''was to
get the economy going,'' Bremer said.
Also in response to that audit, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman had
said, ''We simply disagree with the audit's conclusion that the CPA
provided less than adequate controls.''
Willis, who served in the State and Transportation departments
during the Reagan administration, worked in Iraq during the last
half of 2003 and said he was responsible for civilian operations at
Describing the transfer of $2 million to one contractor's gunnysack,
Willis said: ''It was time for payment. We told them to come in and
bring a bag.'' He said the money went to Custer Battles of
Middletown, R.I., for providing airport security in Baghdad for
Willis' allegations follow by two weeks an inspector general's
report that concluded the occupying authority transferred nearly $9
billion to Iraqi government ministries without any financial
The money was designated for financing humanitarian needs, economic
reconstruction, repair of facilities, disarmament and civil
administration, but the authority had no way to verify that it went
for those purposes, the audit said.
Willis concluded that ''decisions were made that shouldn't have
been, contracts were made that were mistakes, and were poorly, if at
all, supervised, money was spent that could have been saved, if we
simply had the right numbers of people. ... I believe the 500 or so
at CPA headquarters should have been 5,000.''
On the Net:
Democratic Policy Committee: http://democrats.senate.gov/dpc/