October 7, 2005

October 7, 2005 | Commentary on

Katrina: Investigating the Right Way

Sure, it'll take a lot of money to rebuild the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast. All the more reason to ensure that money isn't wasted.

It won't be easy. The federal government will find itself dealing with a wide array of contractors, from landscapers and highway-construction firms to mold removers and cleaning operations. It will play a part in rebuilding entire communities, reconstructing the port of New Orleans and reopening hospitals, schools and myriad other public facilities.

And unfortunately, anytime government cranks up the check-writing machine, it is beleaguered by the incompetent, the unknowing and the inscrutable. Plumbers who never have connected a pipe, electricians who don't know what a grounding rod does and landscapers who've never operated a trimmer, will appear in droves.

It happened in Iraq. Billions of dollars "disappeared" in the first few weeks after the government of Saddam Hussein fell. And it will happen on the Gulf Coast unless something happens quickly.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have suggested that the same agency that got control of spending in Iraq help out on the Gulf Coast. That seems like a good first step. The Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) can bring a level of oversight, preparedness, focus, dedication and expertise that probably can't be found elsewhere in government.

Iraq and the Gulf Coast present similar challenges. In both cases, massive public and private efforts have been mobilized to repair infrastructure, look after people and re-establish economic life. In both cases, the federal government -- along with other governments -- will be letting contracts big and small. The potential for mistakes, mismanagement and abuse are vast.

The Gulf Coast reconstruction effort will require a big, fast, agile unit that adjusts swiftly and can shrink or expand quickly according to need. Contracting in Iraq is, in general, an orderly process today thanks largely to SIGIR, which has performed more than 700 audits and more than 500 inspections since being assigned to the case.

All federal departments have IGs, but none are suitable for this mission. The project is too big and will involve too many federal agencies. Establishing a new office specifically for Katrina won't work either. It will take too much time. Reconstruction has begun. Contracts are being signed now. Governments are spending $1 billion to $2 billion in the region daily. A task force of investigators already has begun to look into the 2,300 bogus Web sites and other smooth operators that have sprung up to defraud donors and victims.

That's why it's critical that inspectors be ready to jump in today -- and that they have a credible track record of overseeing multiple federal agencies and limiting abuse. SIGIR has an experienced core staff and a stack of resumes at the ready to recruit quickly for this new task. Perhaps most importantly, it has a set of in-place, tried-and-true processes and procedures for which they can be trained from Day 1.

It would be prepared, in its first week, to get control of what is being spent, get all the oversight and investigative organizations on the same page, begin dealing with those who will procure, finance and perform the work, and establish and publicize "hotline" numbers for governments, contractors and others who need real answers in real time.

SIGIR knows how to provide much-needed advice as the process of reconstruction moves along. And it is experienced at coordinating among various levels of oversight -- federal, state, local and non-government groups. As demonstrated in Iraq, its quarterly reports provide transparency, diagnose challenges and give managers and policymakers a complete picture of what is happening on the ground. No other IG comes close in depth and detail to SIGIR's reports.

The Iraq IG operation makes the most sense for a variety of reasons. As a temporary "3161" operation, it can hire the best and the brightest. It can choose from private-sector workers, recent retirees and others with experience in these chosen fields. Yes, the Iraq IG operation does have an important "other" task to attend to -- its duties in Iraq -- but other options, such as the Department of Homeland Security's IG operation, have far more missions to oversee.

In short, what is needed is an IG operation with credibility, experience and expertise that can begin work immediately, finish the work on time and on budget, and retreat to its current size afterward. No organization in government better fits that bill than SIGIR.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D, is a senior research fellow who specializes in defense and homeland security issues at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), where Laura Keith is a researcher.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Laura Keith Research Assistant
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire