WASHINGTON - The Bush administration repeatedly ignored corruption at the highest levels within the Iraqi government and kept secret potentially embarrassing information so as not to undermine its relationship with Baghdad, according to two former State Department employees.
Arthur Brennan, who briefly served in Baghdad as head of the department's Office of Accountability and Transparency last year, and James Mattil, who worked as the chief of staff, told Senate Democrats yesterday that their office was understaffed and its warnings and recommendations ignored.
Brennan also alleged the State Department prevented a congressional aide visiting Baghdad from talking with staffers by insisting they were too busy. In reality, Brennan said, office members were watching movies at the embassy and on their computers. The staffers' workload had been cut dramatically because of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's "evisceration" of Iraq's top anticorruption office, he said.
The State Department's policies "not only contradicted the anticorruption mission but indirectly contributed to and has allowed corruption to fester at the highest levels of the Iraqi government," Brennan told the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.
The US Embassy "effort against corruption - including its new centerpiece, the now-defunct Office of Accountability and Transparency - was little more than 'window dressing,' " he added.
Iraqi government officials could not be reached for comment.
Deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the administration takes corruption seriously and pointed to its recent appointment of Lawrence Benedict as coordinator for anticorruption initiatives at the US Embassy in Baghdad.
Benedict's appointment "is another demonstration that we are working at very senior levels to help the Iraqis deal with this issue," Casey said.
"Any assertion that we have not taken this issue seriously or given it the attention it deserves is simply untrue."
The Office of Accountability and Transparency was intended to provide assistance and training to Iraq's anticorruption agencies. It was dismantled last December, after it alleged in a draft report leaked to the media that Maliki's office had derailed or prevented investigations into Shi'ite-controlled agencies.
The draft report sparked hearings in Congress and prompted a showdown between Democrats and senior State Department officials on whether the public has a right to know the extent to which Maliki was involved in corruption cases.
Brennan charged the State Department never responded to his team's report, which was retroactively classified because agency officials said it could hurt bilateral relations with Iraq. Other recommendations by the group also were kept secret, including a negative assessment of Iraq's Joint Anti-Corruption Committee, Brennan said.
In July, the accountability office concluded that the committee's only purpose was to provide a forum for complaints against Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, a top anticorruption official in Baghdad whom many US officials have hailed as the most effective in exposing fraud and abuse.
But information later released by the embassy ignored the team's assessment and ultimately "failed to even mention what a disaster" the committee was, Brennan said.
Brennan said he approved the embassy report against his better judgment, but regretted it.
Mattil, who worked with Brennan, made similar allegations. Specifically, he said the United States "remained silent in the face of an unrelenting campaign" by senior Iraqi officials to subvert Baghdad's Commission on Public Integrity, which had been led by Radhi. Then, the United States turned its back on Iraqis who fled to the United States after being threatened for pursuing anticorruption cases, he said.
"Since we have done so little [to undercut corruption], it's easy to see why the government of Iraq has not done more," said Mattil, who left the accountability office last October after having served for a year as its chief of staff. "We have demanded no better."
Brennan was appointed director of the accountability office last summer and arrived in Baghdad in July. He left a few weeks later after his wife was diagnosed with cancer.
He stepped down from his position in August.