Arnold Fields, charged with targeting Afghan fraud, came under fire himself

PARTING SHOT: Fields, here on Capitol Hill, resigned last month as special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
PARTING SHOT: Fields, here on Capitol Hill, resigned last month as special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. (Charles Dharapak)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 4:37 PM

The day before Arnold Fields left his position as the government's top official for detecting and preventing the waste of taxpayer money in Afghanistan, he serenaded his staff with one last song.

"Thank you all for your service," retired Maj. Gen. Fields said at a farewell luncheon in Crystal City after completing 100 push-ups and playing the final chord of "The Impossible Dream" on his guitar. "And remember the mission."

Fields, a decorated Marine combat veteran who, at 64, has military posture, bifocal glasses and a gentlemanly manner, resigned from his position atop the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) last month in the wake of a scathing peer review and a brutal congressional hearing at which senators called for his head. On the morning of Feb. 3, he sat in a freshly wallpapered corner office amid packed boxes, polished furniture and his guitar case to discuss what went wrong and what lay ahead.

"There is a certain amount of relief," Fields acknowledged, blaming political pressures and a lack of early funding for debilitating his leadership. "I'm going to be frank with you, sir. Much of this that I have experienced in this capacity, I did not expect."

In a war where countering corruption is critical to success, the watchdog agency tasked with examining the more than $56 billion in Afghan reconstruction funding is, according to some of its own officials, in need of oversight. Accusations of influence-buying, internal debate over whether auditors should put dollar figures on waste and arguments about which reconstruction projects deserved investigation led to the formation of bitter factions and intense office politics.

"I don't feel that I was set up to fail," said Fields, "but I don't feel that I was set up for success."

On June 12, 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Fields, who commanded a Marine infantry battalion in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and had a role in the reconstruction effort there.

Former national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones, who called Fields "a great leader who rose to the rank of major general and raised his hand to serve his country again," said that he wondered why the Bush administration chose Fields for the job.

"The missing piece is what led them to hire him," Jones said. "Why wouldn't you get an accountant, or someone who has been a businessman, rather than a field Marine? You would have looked for somebody with a more technical background in major financial issues. It's an odd fit."

Within SIGAR, Fields is widely considered an honest and decent soldier deeply committed to the oversight mission. The general consensus is that indecision, an inability to forcefully articulate SIGAR's case to its critics on the Hill, a lack of experience navigating Washington's competing political agendas and internecine conflicts cost him dearly. The distractions kept the watchdog agency from keeping as close an eye as possible on the government's reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

Transition of power

Last Friday, President Obama named Fields's deputy, Herb Richardson, to replace him as the acting inspector general.

Richardson, a 61-year-old former FBI special agent who served as principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Energy, has gained a reputation within SIGAR for consolidating power, leading with a firm hand and exercising control. A former champion rower who has assumed a more bureaucratic build, Richardson leaned back in his chair during a Feb. 3 interview and spoke with evident relish of his reputation as agency strongman.

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