WASHINGTON – Stung by the bleak findings of a congressional audit of progress in Iraq, the Pentagon has asked that some of the negative assessments be revised.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Thursday that after reviewing a draft of the Government Accountability Office report — which has not yet been made public — policy officials "made some factual corrections" and "offered some suggestions on a few of the actual grades" assigned by the GAO.
The GAO report was on track to conclude that at least 13 of the 18 benchmarks set to judge the Iraqi government's performance in the political and security arenas haven't been met.
"We have provided the GAO with information which we believe will lead them to conclude that a few of the benchmark grades should be upgraded from `not met' to `met,"' Morrell said. He declined to elaborate or to spell out which of the benchmark grades the Pentagon was disputing.
At the White House, officials argued that the GAO report, which was required by legislation President Bush signed last spring, was unrealistic because it assigned "pass or fail" grades to each benchmark, rather than assessing whether the Iraqis have made progress toward reaching the benchmark goals.
"A bar was set so high, that it was almost not to be able to be met," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. "On the other hand, one of the things it does not take into account, which is not on the benchmark list, is the cooperation of the Sunni tribes, who have decided to fight back against Al Qaeda."
The administration said it agreed that Iraq had not reached the objectives.
"I think we have said they have not met the benchmarks," Perino said. "I don't see how it would be news for them to come out today and say they have not met benchmarks. We have said that."
By Sept. 15 President Bush is to give a detailed accounting of the situation in Iraq.
The GAO gave lawmakers' staffers a classified briefing about its findings on Thursday. An unclassified version of the report is due to be released on Tuesday. It comes amid a series of assessments called for in January legislation that authorized Bush's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Iraq, where there is now a total of more than 160,000.
Among those Bush will hear from are the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus; and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said Bush was likely to get a variety of views from different military officials. Bush will then deliver his own report to Congress by Sept. 15.
The GAO report comes at a pivotal time in the Iraq debate. So far, Republicans have mostly stood by Bush on the war and staved off Democratic demands of troop withdrawals. But in exchange for their support, many GOP members said they wanted to see substantial progress in Iraq by September or else they would call for a new strategy, including possibly a withdrawal of troops.
Democrats are expected this fall to push for another round of votes on their legislation ordering most troops out by spring. A likely target for the debate will be a $147 billion bill the military needs to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The money covers the 2007 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday suggested Bush should not be asking Congress to approve "tens of billions more dollars" when independent voices like GAO find the Iraqis are failing to make progress.
"With the president continuing to stay the course in Iraq, Republicans will have to decide whether they will continue to vote with him or join Democrats and the vast majority of Americans who are demanding a new direction in Iraq and refocusing America's efforts on fighting the real threats of terrorism around the world," she said.
The GAO, the congressional watchdog, is expected to find that the Iraqis have met only modest security goals for Baghdad and none of the major political aims such as passage of an oil law.
The White House declined to comment on the specific findings of the GAO report, which one official said would put the Iraqi government's success rate at about 20 percent.
"While we've seen progress in some areas, it would not surprise me that the GAO would make this assessment given the difficult congressionally mandated measurement they had to follow," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council.
An internal White House memorandum, prepared to respond to the GAO findings, says the report will claim the Iraqis have failed on at least 13 benchmarks. It also says the criteria lawmakers set for the report allow no room to report progress, only absolute success or failure.
The memo argues that the GAO will not present a "true picture" of the situation in Iraq because the standards were "designed to lock in failure," according to portions of the document read to the AP by an official who has seen it.
By contrast, the memo says, a July interim report on the surge called for the administration to report on "progress" made toward reaching the wide-ranging benchmarks.
The July report said the administration believed the Iraqis had made satisfactory progress on eight of the 13 benchmarks. It graded six as unsatisfactory and said two were mixed. It said it was too early to judge the remaining two.
The GAO, however, has been told to "assess whether or not such benchmarks have been met," and the administration plans to assert that is too tough a standard to be met at this point in the surge, the officials said.
"It's pretty clear that if that's your measurement standard a majority of the benchmarks would be determined not to have been met," said one official. "A lot of them are multipart and so, even if 90 percent of it is done, it's still a failure."
Morrell said Bush's top military advisers, including Gates, would give the president their opinions "directly and in an unvarnished way."
"The objective ... is not to reach consensus," he said. "That may be the end result, but that's not what he (Gates) is looking for. He is looking for a way to sort of make sure that the normal bureaucratic massaging that sometimes eliminates the rough edges or the sharp differences between individuals does not victimize this process, so that the president can get distinct — if that's the way it turns out to be — points of view on where we are and where we need to go."