Congressional Battle Over GAO’s Iraq Report Continues

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Building on yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, today the House of Representatives grilled U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker about the contents of a new GAO report, which concludes that the Iraqi government has achieved only 3 of 18 political, economic, and security benchmarks. Walker fought off attacks from Congressional Republicans in a morning hearing with the House Armed Services Committee and again in an afternoon appearance before the House Foreign Relations Committee.

At yesterday’s event, senators from both parties grimly accepted Walker’s determination that the Iraqi government is “dysfunctional.” But today, Republicans seem to have gotten their talking points and came out swinging. Numerous GOP congressmen assailed the GAO’s methodology, accusing Walker of downplaying recent “progress” in Iraq and complaining that his metrics for assessing the benchmarks (met, partially met, and did not meet) were insufficiently flexible to reflect accurately the difficult and fluid situation on the ground. Walker responded that his task, unlike that of similar Bush administration assessments, was to examine whether the benchmarks had been achieved, not whether progress had been made. He suggested that the Congress take both approaches into account, but warned that the forthcoming Petraeus/Crocker report would probably paint a rosier picture, as both men ultimately report to President Bush. “The GAO represents the only independent and professional assessment that the Congress will receive based on these 18 benchmarks,” he said. This caused something of a stir until Walker acknowledged that both Petraeus and Crocker are “professionals.” He stuck to his opinion, however, that their conclusions, whatever they may be, would not be completely independent.

The primary argument at both of today’s hearings centered on Benchmark 13: “Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.” All parties are in agreement, Walker said, that militias remain the primary arbiters of local security. But, as reported in today’s Washington Post, serious disagreement exists with regard to the number of recent sectarian attacks. The figures are classified, but the Pentagon insists sectarian attacks are down as a result of the ‘surge,’ and reportedly requested in advance of the GAO report’s release that this be recognized. Walker, however, insisted that he was “not comfortable” with the military’s methodology in differentiating between sectarian attacks and random violence. Jim Saxton, the ranking Republican in the House Armed Services Committee, referred to the Post article and suggested that the feeling of discomfort was mutual. Walker’s response was blunt. “It’s not uncommon for those being held accountable to be uncomfortable,” he said, adding later, “There is still significant sectarian violence.”

During the afternoon hearing, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, encouraged Walker to discuss matters outside of the GAO’s mandate, such as the unequal sacrifice for the Iraq War being asked of a small portion of the population and the war’s effect on the U.S. military. Walker accused the Bush Administration of passing the buck. “We’re not paying for this war; we’re debt-financing this war,” he said. “Our children will pay it off with compound interest.” He went on to describe the U.S. Army as “stressed and strained,” stating that the current approach is “unsustainable.” This invited the ire of Republican ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who asked, “What in the world qualifies you to say that?” She went on to thank Walker for his efforts, but expressed frustration with his conclusions. The GAO report “seems to be having a lot of credibility with the American people that I think is unwarranted,” she said.

The battle will continue tomorrow with the delivery of Marine General James Jones’ report on the training and capabilities of Iraq’s security forces. Click here for a complete schedule of upcoming events.

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