Media ignored front-page Washington Post report that White House hampered Iraq rebuilding efforts by hiring unqualified individuals based on "loyalty to the Bush administration"

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

A Media Matters for America review of cable and broadcast networks and major newspapers showed no coverage of a September 17 front-page Washington Post report by Rajiv Chandrasekaran detailing the process by which many individuals who "lacked vital skills and experience" were assigned to positions in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq based on their "loyalty to the Bush administration."

A Media Matters for America review* of cable and broadcast networks and major newspapers showed no coverage of a September 17 front-page Washington Post report by Washington Post assistant managing editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran detailing the process by which many individuals who "lacked vital skills and experience" were assigned to positions in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq based on their "loyalty to the Bush administration." The CPA governed Iraq from April 2003 to June 2004 and was tasked with rebuilding the country. Chandrasekaran's report quoted multiple sources detailing a process conducted by a political appointee within the Pentagon, who screened applicants for key CPA posts and passed over more qualified candidates in favor of people, who, "because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation, which sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people." Despite the report's disclosure that the CPA's hiring process "is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2-year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors," the broadcast networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS, as well as the cable news channels, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, have all ignored it, as have all other major newspapers. Chandrasekaran's September 17 article was adapted from his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, which was released today by Knopf.

Chandrasekaran's report confirms the prediction of a December 2003 Washington Monthly article, co-written by then-Washington Monthly contributing writer Joshua Micah Marshall, The American Prospect senior correspondent Laura Rozen, and journalist Colin Soloway:

When the history of the occupation of Iraq is written, there will be many factors to point to when explaining the post-conquest descent into chaos and disorder, from the melting away of Saddam's army to the Pentagon's failure to make adequate plans for the occupation. But historians will also consider the lack of experience and abundant political connections of the hundreds of American bureaucrats sent to Baghdad to run Iraq through the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The Washington Monthly article quoted one CPA official as saying that many CPA appointees saw their jobs "as a stepping stone to a better job in the next Bush administration." Another CPA official was also quoted as saying: "Everything is seen in the context of the election, and how [many younger Republicans in Iraq] will screw the Democrats."

In his Washington Post report, Chandrasekaran reported that "[a]s more and more of" the individuals hired by Pentagon political appointee Jim O'Beirne "arrived in the Green Zone, the CPA's headquarters in Saddam Hussein's marble-walled former Republican Palace felt like a campaign war room." Chandrasekaran also wrote that several CPA appointees intended to pursue jobs with the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign.

Chandrasekaran cited, in particular, "[a] 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange."

Further, the article reported that, to oversee the "rehabilitation of Iraq's health care system," the administration tapped James K. Haveman Jr., "a 60-year-old social worker, [who] was largely unknown among international health experts, but ... had connections." According to Chandrasekaran, Haveman replaced Frederick M. Burkle Jr., a deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who had received a master's degree in public health and had worked in northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and later in Somalia and Kosovo. Burkle reportedly received an email from a "senior official at USAID," who wrote that Burkle was being replaced because "the White House wanted a 'loyalist' in the job." According to the article, "When Haveman left Iraq, Baghdad's hospitals were as decrepit as the day the Americans arrived."

From Chandrasekaran's September 17 Washington Post article:

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted all manner of Americans -- restless professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But before they could go to Baghdad, they had to get past Jim O'Beirne's office in the Pentagon.

To pass muster with O'Beirne, a political appointee who screens prospective political appointees for Defense Department posts, applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration.

O'Beirne's staff posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade.

Many of those chosen by O'Beirne's office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting. *

The decision to send the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2 -year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors. Many of those selected because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation, which sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people, according to many people who participated in the reconstruction effort.

The CPA had the power to enact laws, print currency, collect taxes, deploy police and spend Iraq's oil revenue. It had more than 1,500 employees in Baghdad at its height, working under America's viceroy in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, but never released a public roster of its entire staff.

Interviews with scores of former CPA personnel over the past two years depict an organization that was dominated -- and ultimately hobbled -- by administration ideologues.

"We didn't tap -- and it should have started from the White House on down -- just didn't tap the right people to do this job," said Frederick Smith, who served as the deputy director of the CPA's Washington office. "It was a tough, tough job. Instead we got people who went out there because of their political leanings."

Endowed with $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds and a comparatively quiescent environment in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion, the CPA was the U.S. government's first and best hope to resuscitate Iraq -- to establish order, promote rebuilding and assemble a viable government, all of which, experts believe, would have constricted the insurgency and mitigated the chances of civil war. Many of the basic tasks Americans struggle to accomplish today in Iraq -- training the army, vetting the police, increasing electricity generation -- could have been performed far more effectively in 2003 by the CPA.

But many CPA staff members were more interested in other things: in instituting a flat tax, in selling off government assets, in ending food rations and otherwise fashioning a new nation that looked a lot like the United States. Many of them spent their days cloistered in the Green Zone, a walled-off enclave in central Baghdad with towering palms, posh villas, well-stocked bars and resort-size swimming pools.

By the time Bremer departed in June 2004, Iraq was in a precarious state. The Iraqi army, which had been dissolved and refashioned by the CPA, was one-third the size he had pledged it would be. Seventy percent of police officers had not been screened or trained. Electricity generation was far below what Bremer had promised to achieve. And Iraq's interim government had been selected not by elections but by Americans. Divisive issues were to be resolved later on, increasing the chances that tension over those matters would fuel civil strife.

To recruit the people he wanted, O'Beirne sought résumés from the offices of Republican congressmen, conservative think tanks and GOP activists. He discarded applications from those his staff deemed ideologically suspect, even if the applicants possessed Arabic language skills or postwar rebuilding experience.

Smith said O'Beirne once pointed to a young man's résumé and pronounced him "an ideal candidate." His chief qualification was that he had worked for the Republican Party in Florida during the presidential election recount in 2000.

O'Beirne, a former Army officer who is married to prominent conservative commentator Kate O'Beirne, did not respond to requests for comment.

He and his staff used an obscure provision in federal law to hire many CPA staffers as temporary political appointees, which exempted the interviewers from employment regulations that prohibit questions about personal political beliefs.

There were a few Democrats who wound up getting jobs with the CPA, but almost all of them were active-duty soldiers or State Department Foreign Service officers. Because they were career government employees, not temporary hires, O'Beirne's office could not query them directly about their political leanings.

One former CPA employee who had an office near O'Beirne's wrote an e-mail to a friend describing the recruitment process: "I watched résumés of immensely talented individuals who had sought out CPA to help the country thrown in the trash because their adherence to 'the President's vision for Iraq' (a frequently heard phrase at CPA) was 'uncertain.' I saw senior civil servants from agencies like Treasury, Energy ... and Commerce denied advisory positions in Baghdad that were instead handed to prominent RNC (Republican National Committee) contributors."

As more and more of O'Beirne's hires arrived in the Green Zone, the CPA's headquarters in Hussein's marble-walled former Republican Palace felt like a campaign war room. Bumper stickers and mouse pads praising President Bush were standard desk decorations. In addition to military uniforms and "Operation Iraqi Freedom" garb, "Bush-Cheney 2004" T-shirts were among the most common pieces of clothing.

"I'm not here for the Iraqis," one staffer noted to a reporter over lunch. "I'm here for George Bush."

When Gordon Robison, who worked in the Strategic Communications office, opened a care package from his mother to find a book by Paul Krugman, a liberal New York Times columnist, people around him stared. "It was like I had just unwrapped a radioactive brick," he recalled.

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