Nomination Still Stalled For Pentagon Oversight Job

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Even as the Senate moves quickly to consider Robert M. Gates's nomination to be defense secretary, the nomination of the man who would be looking over Gates's shoulder on behalf of taxpayers remains bogged down nearly six months after he was tapped to fill one of the government's most important oversight roles.

The nominee for Pentagon inspector general, David H. Laufman, is a veteran prosecutor who has vowed to be an aggressive watchdog -- especially of work in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Laufman, nominated by President Bush in June, has met resistance from Democrats who question his independence. Republicans, meanwhile, have done little to advance his nomination since confirmation hearings in July. The inaction has prompted Laufman to take the unusual step of speaking out.

"Given the nature and magnitude of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hundreds of billions of dollars at issue in defense acquisition and contract performance, the need for aggressive oversight and accountability at the Department of Defense is critical," he said yesterday. "Yet for more than a year, there has been a void of leadership in the Office of the Inspector General and a corresponding absence of essential oversight and accountability."

The Pentagon last had a permanent inspector general in September 2005, when Joseph E. Schmitz left to become general counsel for the parent company of security firm Blackwater USA. Since then, the office of 1,250 military and civilian officers and employees has been led by acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble.

Gimble withstood heavy criticism last year when it came to light that his office had no personnel on the ground in Iraq, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent there. Since then, a handful of auditors and inspectors have been rotating into Iraq from an office in Qatar. Gimble has also been faulted for not delving into the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program.

Laufman, an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia who last year successfully prosecuted a man for conspiring to assassinate Bush, has said the inspector general's office should have a regular presence in Iraq. He told senators in July that the Pentagon's inspector general has the jurisdiction to investigate the NSA program and that "it is unclear why the DOD IG did not exercise its jurisdiction at the outset."

Some of Laufman's other statements to senators, however, ran afoul of the Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat, Carl M. Levin (Mich.), who is likely to become chairman when the new Congress convenes in January. In particular, Levin was displeased that Laufman said he would consult the defense secretary before issuing reports on certain national security matters.

Laufman said his answer was based on his reading of the law, but Gimble wrote in a letter to Levin that such consultations "would be a significant change to current practice." Gimble also contradicted Laufman's statement that the two men had not talked about the issue.

At a news conference yesterday, Levin said he has "real problems with that appointment" and added that he "will continue to oppose" Laufman's confirmation.

Since July, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the committee's chairman, has declined to allow a vote on Laufman. If Laufman is not approved during the lame-duck session, the nomination will expire.

"The president strongly supports David Laufman's nomination," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said yesterday. "He believes that it's an important position and that Mr. Laufman should be able to serve in it as soon as possible."

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said the lack of permanent leadership at the Pentagon inspector general's office has "diminished the role of the office."

"Something needs to happen," she said. "Gridlock is not an option."

Laufman has won fans among others in the inspector general community, notably Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. "I've met David Laufman, and he's explained his vision for oversight in Iraq. He would be an excellent IG," Bowen said in a statement.

Congress recently passed legislation that would terminate Bowen's office by October of next year and turn over the job of overseeing Iraq's reconstruction to other inspectors general -- notably the Pentagon's.

The move to eliminate Bowen's office was spearheaded by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. But members of both parties have objected. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators and House Democrats introduced competing versions of legislation that would extend the life of the office.

The Senate version would keep the special inspector general in business into 2008; backers of House language say their bill would prevent the office from expiring until well into 2009.

"There is no question that the Special Inspector General's office has proven to be a much-needed watchdog, auditing reconstruction contracts in Iraq and spotlighting numerous cases of waste, fraud and abuse," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement. "We must keep the watchdog on the job."

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