GAO: White House Used Questionable Data in Iraq Benchmark Report

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The Bush administration, in its last so-called Iraq benchmark report, used questionable financial data to assert that the Baghdad government was making progress in managing its budget, a new study says.

The study released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, focused specifically on whether Iraqis were spending their capital budget, that is money for infrastructure needed to boost the country's lagging economic growth and improve poor public services.

The administration reported in its September Iraqi benchmark assessment that Iraq's central government ministries had spent 24 percent of their 2007 capital projects budget as of July 15, 2007. "This report is not consistent with Iraq's official expenditure reports," which show that the central ministries had spent only 4.4 percent of their investment budget as of August, the GAO said. It said capital projects are 90 percent of Iraq's investment budget.

The benchmark report was ordered by Congress to measure Baghdad's progress in 18 areas including political and economic activities. It was aimed at judging whether Iraqis were working hard enough at reconciliation and other issues to warrant continued American support.

The new GAO report said the administration number in the September assessment greatly exaggerated capital project spending partly because it had included money from 2006 as well as money that the Iraqis had committed themselves to spending but had not yet spent.

"We do not believe these data should be used to draw firm conclusions about whether the Iraqi government is making progress in executing its capital projects budget," the GAO said of the administration's figures.

Iraqis have been slow to execute their capital budgets partly because violence and sectarian strife has reduced the number of contractors willing to bid on projects. Also, their procurement and accounting systems are weak and many professionals and skilled workers have fled the country, the report noted.

Shown a draft of the study, U.S. Treasury Department and State Department officials said the GAO's much lower figure had not counted capital spending put in other parts of the Iraqi budget. But they could not provide any documentation to verify that, GAO said.

The GAO recommended that Treasury work to improve its "ability to report accurate and reliable expenditure data from the ministries and provinces" in Iraq.