Oversight hearing turns focus to embattled U.S. head of Afghan recovery agency

Images from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.
By Josh Boak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:35 PM

The mission to uncover waste and fraud in the billions of dollars spent rebuilding Afghanistan has become entangled in a campaign to fire the lead U.S. official tracking the money.

A bipartisan group of senators has asked the president to remove Arnold Fields as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, after a negative review this summer put his agency's law enforcement status at risk.

Critics question the quality of reports by the agency, which goes by the acronym SIGAR. They note in some instances how SIGAR duplicated the work of other agencies, or that it veered beyond its mandate to look instead at the participation of women in Afghan elections.

"My examination of Mr. Fields's record is that he would best serve his country by stepping aside from this particular job," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the subcommittee on contracting oversight at which Fields will testify Thursday.

The hearing comes at what Fields described as a pivotal point for the two-year-old agency. It has 34 completed audits and 81 ongoing investigations of contracts totaling $6.1 billion. And because most contractor personnel are Afghans, SIGAR is in the process of partnering with Afghan investigators to pursue criminal charges in that country's judicial system.

Fields, a retired Marine general, said he hoped McCaskill's hearing would not resemble a trial.

"Any reasonable person would say that these matters have been a distraction," said Fields, who has led SIGAR since its formation.

"The depth and breadth of criticism by which this organization has been characterized," Fields said, "is unprecedented."

A major complaint is that SIGAR tends to follow the lead of the joint contracting corruption task force, which is composed of officials from various agencies.

One participant in the review said that SIGAR should perform more audits that expose contracting fraud and then find mechanisms to ban those contractors.

SIGAR investigations have led to four convictions, nine dismissed contracts and $6 million recovered, according to its most recent quarterly report.

By contrast, investigations since the 2004 creation of the inspector general for Iraq are credited with 41 convictions and $71.3 million recovered, while audits have recovered or saved $151.4 million.

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