War Stories

The CPA’s Multiple Personality Disorder

Conflicting accounts about the authority’s status are helping it shirk accountability rules.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

While everybody is wondering who will take the reins—at least symbolically—in Baghdad come June 30, there’s another, more timely mystery in play: Exactly what kind of entity is running Iraq now?

The Coalition Provisional Authority, Proconsul Paul Bremer’s outfit, is in charge, of course. But what, bureaucratically speaking, is the CPA? A new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, posted online by the good-government folks at the Federation of American Scientists says, “It is unclear whether CPA is a federal agency.” Noting that its “organizational status is uncertain,” the report speculates that the CPA may be a part of the Pentagon (the Army cuts Bremer’s checks), it may be a stand-alone executive agency, or it may be an international institution, like NATO.

The confusion—which, the report notes, raises questions about “whether, and to what extent, CPA might be held accountable for its programs, activities, decisions, and expenditures”—stems from the White House, which hasn’t released information delineating the CPA’s authority, structure, or place in government. (It also didn’t return calls seeking clarification.) The best information congressional researchers could find on the CPA’s structure was “an undated organization chart” that “provides some insight into the structure of the authority, although it does not include some key offices and positions.”

In last fall’s $87 billion war and reconstruction bill, Congress described the CPA as an “entity of the United States Government.” Presidential memorandums reiterate that view. But the U.S. Army has a slightly different take: Its legal office said the “CPA is not a federal agency. Like NATO, CPA is composed of [an] international coalition.”

The uncertainty goes back to the CPA’s birth, which seems to have happened via immaculate conception. The White House doesn’t appear to have announced it. References to the CPA just started showing up in government documents. The congressional researchers write, “[N]o explicit, unambiguous, and authoritative statement has been provided that declares how the authority was established, under what authority, and by whom.”

The report posits “two alternative explanations for how the CPA was established.” One is that Bush may have created the CPA via a presidential directive. The researchers caution, “This document, if it exists, has not been made available to the public.” The other explanation, suggested by the Army and others, is that the CPA was created by a U.N. Security Council resolution. However, as the congressional sleuths point out, while the resolution does recognize the United States and Britain as “occupying powers,” it “does not establish, or authorize the creation of, a specific organization to carry out this responsibility.”

All this ambiguity can have benefits. There’s the fig-leaf factor of course—trying to put an international veneer on a U.S. enterprise. And there’s another consequence: By not clearly defining the CPA specifically as a federal agency—the report notes that the administration repeatedly refers to the CPA as an “entity,” “group,” and “activities” but not as an “agency”—the CPA is not subject to the government’s accountability and disclosure rules. For instance, the General Accounting Office, the government’s auditor, usually has the power to investigate bidding processes by a federal agency when the losing contractors suspect something fishy has happened.

At least two companies have requested that the GAO investigate specific CPA contracts; they were denied. After all, a federal procurement office insisted, whatever Congress may have said in the $87 billion Iraq bill, the “CPA is not an entity of the United States Government.”