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More Oversight Needed To Protect U.S. Troops

I was at a breakfast meeting not long ago where I asked a former commander of U.S. Strategic Command how he found being required to report to Congress. His reply: He dreaded it but found it helpful. Unfortunately, the current House of Representatives fails to conduct serious oversight of the war in Iraq and other defense activities.

Oversight is sometimes viewed as a “gotcha” exercise, but the real

purpose should be to improve how government gets things done. At the moment, with our main mission being the war in Iraq, it is critical that Congress, and especially the Armed Services committees, exercise our constitutional responsibilities to provide appropriate, bipartisan oversight.

Abuses in prisons, missing weapons of mass destruction, shortages of equipment, overcharges by contractors, bad planning, poor execution of reconstruction, and unclear political and transition planning are all problems alleged to have plagued the U.S. effort in Iraq and have, for the most part, taken Congress and the U.S. public by surprise. This is unfortunate and unhelpful to our effort there.

Had Congress been effectively examining and asking questions about the war planning and intelligence from the beginning, it is possible that some of the issues listed above could have been brought to light and some of the problems avoided. Surely, at least, the Defense Department would have found it impossible to miss or ignore the State Department’s “Future of Iraq” project if Congress had been asking questions about it.

Much has been written about how the current administration plays its cards close to the chest and attempts to marginalize Congress, and this is largely true. The initial fault, however, lies squarely with us. The House Armed Services Committee has, for example, had inadequate open hearings about Iraq both before and since the war. In addition, the hearings and closed briefings before the war focused almost entirely on the case for or against war, a vitally important issue for Congress to debate. But wars are fought to accomplish specific goals. Examining what those goals are and how we intend to accomplish them can help clarify how a war should be fought; and if war is, in fact, the best tool for accomplishing that mission.

Since the conventional part of the war ended, the committee has certainly had the occasional update hearing, and we have had at least two hearings on the Abu Ghraib situation (and some closed briefings). This is fine so far as it goes, but, contrary to what some may claim, it isn’t oversight and it certainly isn’t oversight of the whole war.

Oversight involves the aggressive monitoring of ongoing situations. It requires, more than open hearings, the dedication of time and staff by individual members of Congress and especially by the committees of jurisdiction. Without this time and staff, Members cannot get the information to ask the right questions to bring forward the best answers. And it is those answers that are the real point of oversight. As Senate Foreign Relations hearings on Iraq, led by Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), have shown (some of the best oversight hearings in recent years), oversight isn’t really about playing gotcha; it’s about finding new solutions to current problems.

The second fault also lies with Congress —we have let politics interfere with our constitutional duty to oversee the administration, and in some cases been very quick to accuse those who offer criticism of trying to undermine the troops. There is nothing unpatriotic about real oversight. Dwight Eisenhower is quoted as saying, “Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels — men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”

Fulfilling one of our constitutional duties does not undermine the troops, and those who argue it does should be politely ignored. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report, “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols,” put it best, “the Department [of Defense] benefits considerably from serious questioning of its plans, policies, and programs by the Congress.” In other words, oversight is Congress’s patriotic duty, and failing to fulfill out duty lets down those who rely on us, including most importantly, our troops.

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) is ranking member of the Armed Services subcommittee on total force.

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