Ultimate Mistake 

The price of incompetence is high -- and getting higher.

The administration's competence problem is already at the yadda, yadda, yadda stage. They were supposed to protect us from terrorist attack. They said Iraq would be a cakewalk, that we only needed 130,000 troops. They failed to plan for the occupation or Hurricane Katrina or the prescription drug plan. Yadda.

But when you look at the details of what incompetence means, it becomes both chilling and really, really expensive. The Army announced this week it has decided to reimburse Halliburton for nearly all of the disputed costs in the more than $250 million in charges the Pentagon's own auditors had identified as excessive or unjustified.

According to the Pentagon's figures, it normally withholds an average of 66 percent of what the auditors recommend. In this case, the Pentagon wound up paying all but 3.8 percent of the disputed costs, a figure so far outside the norm it was noticed immediately. Rick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The New York Times, "To think that it's that near zero is ridiculous when you're talking these kinds of numbers."

You may recall Bunnatine Greenhouse, a senior civilian contracting official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who said the Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) contract was "the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career." (Greenhouse was later demoted for her honesty.) Congressman Henry Waxman said, "Halliburton gouged the taxpayer. Government auditors caught the company red-handed. Yet the Pentagon ignored the auditors and paid Halliburton hundreds of millions of dollars and a huge bonus." In addition to costs, the Army, which blamed the excess to "haste and the perils of war," also awarded the company additional profits and bonuses provided in the no-bid contract.

And now comes a curious new contract for KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary. The contract provides for establishing temporary detention and processing capabilities to augment existing immigration and customs enforcement. It's a contingency contract -- the contingency they have in mind apparently being "in the event of an emergency influx of immigrants into the United States." Canadians drowning from global warming? Mexicans feeling the return of PRI? Ah, but the contract also specifies the detention centers are to "support the rapid development of new programs." New programs? Far be it from me to speculate.

The alarm-meisters in the blogosphere, whose imaginations know no bounds, are already positing any number of horrors. What surprises me is that the administration has planned for ... whatever it is it's planning for. How forethoughtful of them to have something in place in case ... a lot of citizens need to be rounded up or something.

What else are these people planning for? How to get body armor to the troops after all this time? Improved port security? Unlikely.

One of the problems we have here is that in order to fix a mistake, it is first necessary to recognize that you've made one. But we're dealing with George W. Bush. We should be getting ready for three Katrinas next year, but first the administration would have to recognize that global warming is taking place.

One of the most discouraging morsels of news in recent days is that President Bush was so enchanted by Michael Crichton's novel purportedly debunking global warming that he asked Crichton to the White House to chat with him. HELP! Why can't we ever get a break? Think what would happen if the president read The Da Vinci Code.

And so we are back to the ultimate mistake. I'm all in favor of saving face in Iraq; they can call it Iraqification or whatever they want to. Declare victory and go home, fine by me. But somewhere, somehow, some grown-ups are going to have to admit that this whole endeavor was a terrible idea. I'm for democracy. I'm against Saddam Hussein. I'm sorry it didn't work out the way they wanted it to. Now let's go. Because anybody who tells you it couldn't possibly get worse is a fool.


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