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The best new estimate for the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the "global war on terror" more broadly, is $15 billion per month. According to the Congressional Research Service, operations and maintenance costs for the wars have risen to $81 billion in fiscal 2008 from $72 billion in fiscal 2007. (Washington Post)

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) presided over a nine-second Senate session on December 26. Webb kept the Senate in session over the holiday in order to block Bush's efforts to make a recess appointment of Steven Bradbury, acting chief of the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Counsel, who has signed two secret torture memos in 2005. (USA Today)

About 1,500 heavily armored, V-hulled Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRPA) trucks have arrived at long last in Iraq, but the vehicle that is saving lives has a major shortcoming: it lacks the maneuverability for urban warfare necessary to fight the Iraqi insurgency. But with nearly 12,000 of the trucks on order in a program that has a projected cost of more than $17 billion, the expensive new Army weapons system is likely to influence how the Army fights. (LA Times)

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Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan and linchpin of a post-Musharraf U.S. strategy in the turbulent South Asian country, was assassinated today in Rawalpindi.

"She has been martyred," said party official Rehman Malik.

Bhutto, 54, died in hospital in Rawalpindi. Ary-One Television said she had been shot in the head.

Police said a suicide bomber fired shots at Bhutto as she was leaving the rally venue in a park before blowing himself up.

"The man first fired at Bhutto's vehicle. She ducked and then he blew himself up," said police officer Mohammad Shahid.

Police said 16 people had been killed in the blast.

Earlier, party officials said Bhutto was safe.

The most likely culprit is the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. But it's not exactly an event met with tears by the Pakistani military, which thoroughly controls the government and the economy. After the summer's turbulence with Islamic radicals and Pervez Musharraf's subsequent declaration of martial law -- designed to crack down not on Islamist militants but the remnants of Pakistan's democratic opposition -- the U.S. prevailed upon Musharraf to ally with Bhutto in the interest of broadening Musharraf's base of support. But the event that would consummate the alliance, next month's election, represented a threat to continued military rule. "The military didn't really want civilian politicians in power," says New York University's Barnett Rubin, a South Asia expert. "They wanted to use them to legitimate indirect [military] rule, and they were going to do it by rigging the election."

U.S. strategy didn't exactly find that so offensive. "The idea was to consolidate the alliance of the so-called moderate forces in the Pakistani military through this election that the military was going to rig but we were going to certify anyway," Rubin observes. That is, as long as Bhutto was in the picture -- since the U.S. had reduced the democratic opposition to the figure of Benazir Bhutto, although her corruption as PM was manifest. Without Bhutto, it is unclear what the U.S. will do.

Bhutto's assassination presents an opportunity for Musharraf. "It's very possible Musharraf will declare [another] state of emergency and postpone the elections," Rubin continues. "That will confirm in many people's minds the idea that the military is behind" the assassination. For it's part, the U.S. will likely "be scrambling to say the election either needs to be held as planned or postponed rather than canceled, but Musharraf is in a position to preempt that."

As a result, Rubin says, U.S. strategy is "in tatters."

A spokeswoman for Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said the senior State Department official will have to get back to TPM.

More outrageous tales from the State Department car dealership: it turns out that contractor DynCorp didn't have to even prove that it in fact purchased dozens of SUVs for which it charged the government. Try to follow the money on this one.

[O]ne Civilian Police task order [on which DynCorp is the contractor] included a requirement for 68 armored Ford Excursions at a fixed price of $113,064. The [State] Department was billed for 68 "armored vehicles" at a unit cost of $123,327. The property list contained 61 Ford Excursions, of which some were described as armored, others uparmored, and others had no notation of armoring. The costs shown on the property list for these 61 Ford Excursions ranged from $43,990 to $150,000 with nine at $122,190, seven with higher costs, and the remaining 45 with costs of $77,000 and below. Thus, OIG could not conclude that the 68 "armored vehicles" in the vouchers were the 68 armored Ford Excursions specified in the task order.

Let's just assume for a minute that they are. To do the math: 68 Excursions at the State Department contract's fixed unit price works out to $7,688,352. But 68 Excursions at the price DynCorp billed the department is $8,386,236. So that's an overcharge of almost $698,000. Nice.

But what the report's saying is that it has no way of knowing if DynCorp really spent the $8,386,236. It's not easy to work out the numbers given the vague way the report describes the expenses cited on the 61 Excursions DynCorp documented. But nine Excursions at $122,190 is $1,099,710. Add another 45 at $77,000 (the maximum cited here), and that's $3,465,000. Take a conservative estimate of the remaining seven with "higher costs" than the $122,190 -- let's say $122,200, a mere $10 more. That's $855,400. Add it all up and you get in the ballpark of $5,420,110.

And that means the State Department's lax bookkeeping requirements allowed DynCorp to, potentially, pocket around (by my calculation) $2,996,126. Whether that in fact happened is unclear by definition. But what's crystal clear is that State's shoddy accounting is practically an invitation to abuse. Why not just have the State Department open its petty cash drawers and save the inspector-general's office the trouble?

For a moment, leave aside the question of missing property. The September 2007 State Department inspector general report provides a blueprint for how lax department rules let contractors in Afghanistan shoehorn all manner of purchases into their conctract costs -- regardless of whether the contract required those specific purchases. As they say on the streets, DynCorp, essentially, got to charge it to the game.

Take one example. On one of DynCorp's task orders for the Civilian Police training contract, the company bought $1.1 million worth of trucks, unspecified in its contract, and charged it to the government. And that was just the start.

Under one of the Civilian Police task orders, the vouchers included charges for 20 Ford F-250s, with a cost of $1.1 million, that were acquired before the modification authorizing their purchase was issued; 18 vehicles consisting of Ford Excursions, John Deere Gators, and Yamaha motorcycles, with a cost of $384,590, that were not specified in the task order; and an additional unknown quantity of John Deere Gators and Ford Excursions, with a cost of $1.4 million, that were not specified in the ask order.

That worked for DynCorp so well on the police contract, the company ran the same game on its ordnance-removal contract:

Although weapons and weapon accessories were not among the property specified for purchase under the WRAP contract, the vouchers included charges of $30,000.

The inspector general concedes that contractors might legitimately need to buy new property during the course of the contract. But the department's requirements -- apparently still in place -- don't allow outside observers enough visibility to determine what's a legitimate expense and what isn't. (Or, in the IG's words, "the Department should assess whether additional property items are needed to meet program requirements, approve new acquisitions before they are made, and modify the contract accordingly.") The absence of such protections is practically an invitation for a contractor to walk into a Ford dealership and hand over Condoleezza Rice's credit card -- which, incidentally, you pay for.

A September 2007 State Department report, obtained by TPMmuckraker, found that contractors DynCorp and Blackwater can't account for $28.4 million in U.S. government-issued property in Afghanistan, including armored cars, guns and radios.

The report, prepared by the State Department inspector-general's office, hits the department for its lack of "adequate internal control over the government property held by contractors." It calls the property lists provided by State officials managing the contract in Afghanistan "incomplete and, therefore, unreliable." The $28.4 million worth of missing or poorly-documented property represents 21 percent of the government property held by DynCorp and Blackwater.

In some cases, the property has disappeared into a bureaucratic morass, thanks to State's improper bookkeeping. But in other cases, the property appears to be simply gone. For instance, the report finds:

OIG [the Office of the Inspector General] found all of the selected WPPS [Worldwide Personnel Protective Service] items on the property list but was unable to locate some of the items (see Table 3), including vehicles, a weapon, generators, computers, radios, and phones, on the Civilian Police and WRAP [Weapons Removal and Abatement Program] lists.

DynCorp holds the Civilian Police and WRAP contracts. The WPPS contract is held by Blackwater, and the report doesn't accuse Blackwater of mishandling government property. But it does say that Blackwater didn't include the cost of 91 percent of items on its property list reviewed by the inspector general. As a result, inspectors were unable to verify that the money cited by Blackwater for the purchase of "any of its vehicles and much of its communications equipment" was properly spent.

It wouldn't be the first time inspectors hit the department for inadequate bookkeeping. In October, Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, chided State for its inability to account for $1.2 billion it had awarded to DynCorp in Iraq.

TPMmuckraker obtained the September 2007 report thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request. We'll have it for you in our Documents Collection shortly. And we'll be presenting you with more from the report throughout the week.

A new development this morning in the criminal investigation of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. The Seattle Times reports on its interview with David Anderson, a foreman for the corrupt oilfield services company, Veco, who supervised the renovation of Stevens' Girdwood, Ak., home. Anderson is the nephew of former Veco chairman Bill Allen, who has pleaded guilty to bribery in the wide-ranging federal criminal investigation into political corruption in Alaska.

According to Anderson, Veco provided $150,000 worth of labor renovating the Stevens home, which the FBI raided earlier this year as part of its investigation into Stevens and his connection with the Veco. That's compared to the "more than $130,000" Stevens claimed last summer to have paid for the renovation. So if labor alone was $150,000, what does that make the total price tag on the project? That's not clear:

Anderson, 48, said the total remodeling cost, including materials and subcontractors, was way above $130,000.

"We did all kinds of stuff, so it's ludicrous to think that it's only $130,000," Anderson said in a November interview. "Labor alone was more than that."

Anderson said he cannot provide a full account of all the costs because he never received a project budget from Allen and did not review all the expenses. Also, he said Stevens never asked for an estimate.

Anderson had a falling out with his uncle several years ago. Anderson claims he was fired from Veco because he started dating his uncle's ex-girlfriend. Allen has, in turn, accused Anderson of blackmail.

Among the political tasks Anderson undertook during his 25 years working for Veco was "the welding of a pork rotisserie used at annual campaign fundraisers hosted by Allen for U.S. Rep. Don Young, Alaska's lone House member." As longtime readers know, Young's annual Pig Roast is just one of his connections to Veco, which have also come under scrutiny from federal investigators.

With all the scandals to choose from in 2007, it's hard to pick a favorite. But here's one that qualifies: remember when Dick Cheney tried to evade oversight of his procedures for handling classified material by claiming that the vice presidency is outside the executive branch? And remember when the head of the classification-security office for the National Archives, a fellow named J. William Leonard, arched an eyebrow? And how that just made the vice president's men attempt to abolish Leonard's job?

Leonard certainly does. And now that he's retiring, he recounted the whole sorry story to Newsweek's Mike Isikoff.

So how did matters escalate? The challenge arose last year when the Chicago Tribune was looking at [ISOO's annual report] and saw the asterisk [reporting that it contained no information from OVP] and decided to follow up. And that's when the spokesperson from the OVP made public this idea that because they have both legislative and executive functions, that requirement doesn't apply to them.…They were saying the basic rules didn't apply to them. I thought that was a rather remarkable position. So I wrote my letter to the Attorney General [asking for a ruling that Cheney's office had to comply.] Then it was shortly after that there were [email] recommendations [from OVP to a National Security Council task force] to change the executive order that would effectively abolish [my] office.

Who wrote the emails? It was David Addington.

No explanation was offered? No. It was strike this, strike that. Anyplace you saw the words, "the director of ISOO" or "ISOO" it was struck.

What was your reaction? I was disappointed that rather than engage on the substance of an issue, some people would resort to that…

The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay has been opened for since just after the September 11, 2001 attacks yet the military tribunal system there has produced only one conviction (through a plea bargain). Hundreds have been freed after having never been charged with any crime, yet Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a year-end Pentagon news conference that the government has made little progress toward its "vowed goal of closing" the prison. (AFP)

Experts in interrogation assert that “the United States is behind the curve of current best practices, and that videotaping is an essential tool in improving the methods - and results - of questioning terrorism suspects.” According to the specialists, the lack of videotapes in “as many as 100 ‘high-value’ terrorism suspects has prevented” the “capturing” of details that should be “archived, compared, and analyzed in-depth by a range of government experts.” (Boston Globe)

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The Ramones once implored us not to fight on Christmas. But the Turkish general staff doesn't like the Ramones. Nor, to understate matters, does it like the Kurdish terror group known as the PKK. With the approval of the U.S. to violate Iraqi airspace, Turkish warplanes and invasion forces have killed an estimated 150 Kurds in the last week-plus, according to the Turkish military. The New York Times:

Turkey’s assertions came as Kurdish and American officials said that Turkish jets crossed into Iraqi airspace again on Tuesday, in what American officials said was the fourth such flight over the border in two weeks.

Turkish officials did not comment on claims that it flew into Iraq on Tuesday, but confirmed that it had carried out an air and ground operation early Tuesday on its side of the border in southeastern Turkey. An army statement said five rebels were killed, including two women, part of a rebel group preparing an attack.

None of these raids could have occurred without the support of the United States, which controls Iraqi airspace. At the risk of inducing strategic vertigo, here are the stakes. Turkey is a crucial NATO ally, and the major launching point for all U.S. air cargo into Iraq. It fought a war against the PKK in the 1990s, since it thinks that the strength of the PKK bolsters the desire for independence in Turkey's heavily-Kurdish southeast. Plus it says to George W. Bush that the PKK are terrorists -- rather truthfully -- the U.S. is fighting its own war on terrorists, it's all one fight, etc. So we're helping them. And how!

Rear Adm. Greg Smith, director of communications for the American-led forces in Iraq, said Turkey had notified American officials in advance of the latest raid, as is customary, telling them it was a reconnaissance flight, not a strike mission.

“They tell us where they are going and what their mission is,” he said. “The first three missions were all identified as strike missions. They said their intentions were to go and drop ordnance and they told us that at the time.”

“On this occasion they told us it was a reconnaissance mission,” he continued. However, he confirmed that while the Americans monitor all such Turkish flights, they would not necessarily know if, having crossed the border, the Turkish pilots changed their mission from reconnaissance to bombing.

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More goodies from our Blackwater FOIA: the security company employed such creative accounting methods that it charged the State Department from the profit it made off its 2004-edition Iraq contract.

A January 2005 audit performed for State's inspector general discovered several of Blackwater's accounting irregularities. But how the company accounted for its profit is perhaps the most impressive. Blackwater hid its profits within its "dedicated overhead" -- that is, the expenses it incurred in the cost of fulfilling its contractual obligations. Here's what happened:

This results not only in a duplication of profit, but also a pyramiding of profit because, in effect, Blackwater is applying profit to profit. As a result, we have questioned the proposed amount in total.

That might not be a traditional pyramid scheme per se, but conceivably, it could have yielded an infinite regression -- Blackwater makes money, charges State for it, makes more money, and so forth. So did it work like that?

I don't know! And why don't I know? Because, in its release of the 2005 report, State blacked out every section that detailed exactly how Blackwater's bookkeeping ripped off the taxpayer. For instance, here's what it says about the profit-pyramiding effort.

Note 6 -- Profit [redacted] Profit is a matter under the purview of the contracting officer.

It's worth remembering that classification procedures exist to protect national security. They don't exist to protect giant corporations that fleece the public. Someone should tell the State Department.