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In television interviews and press conferences, Gen. David Petraeus has described the Joint Campaign Plan as the key military and diplomatic strategy to stabilize Iraq.
Developed by the “big brains” on the ground, Petraeus points to a “unified” effort with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to achieve political and military security in Iraq by 2009.
Yet despite repeat efforts at the highest levels and Pentagon promises, Congress has been unable to get a current copy of the plan.
After persistent requests from House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the issue has moved up the Congressional chain of command to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). According to an aide, Pelosi asked President Bush for the document several months ago in a White House meeting. Since then, Pelosi’s staff has “repeatedly” requested a copy, her aide said, but has not yet received one.
The struggle over the key classified document demonstrates just how difficult getting information from the Bush administration can be for the Democratic Congress. But the problems seem to have been magnified by a reluctant Pentagon operating in a time of war.
“From the perspective of the committee, the relationship with the Pentagon has been a mixed bag,” said Lara Battles, a spokeswoman for the Armed Services Committee. “It really is a case-by-case kind of situation.”
Battles added: “I don’t know that it’s necessarily due to partisan politics. It’s probably always hard on some level to deal with bureaucracies.”
Congressional aides and lawmakers stressed that oversight of the Pentagon has always posed problems, no matter which party was in charge. They emphasized that things have improved greatly since Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the helm from Donald Rumsfeld.
But securing crucial information such as the Joint Campaign Plan is still frustrating, they said.
“Secretary Gates has been a breath of fresh air in a whole lot of ways, one of them being dramatic improvement in the confidence level of Congress in the secretary of Defense,” said Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations — a panel that had been abolished under the former Republican majority.
But Snyder acknowledged frustration at Congress’ difficulties obtaining the current version of the plan that has been discussed publicly by Petraeus, Crocker and Bush, and details of which have been leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post, angering lawmakers.
The latest twist involves Government Accountability Office staff, who apparently received a copy of the plan on a trip to Iraq. Joseph Christoff, director of the GAO’s international affairs and trade office, used the plan as an example of interagency cooperation at an Oct. 30 hearing of Snyder’s subcommittee.
“When we hear people from GAO obtained a copy of it when they were in Iraq, you would think Members of Congress would have that opportunity,” Snyder said, adding that he formally requested the document again in an Oct. 29 letter to Gates, signed by subcommittee ranking member Todd Akin (R-Mo.).
“It’s hard to know if anything is crucial when you don’t know what you don’t see,” Snyder said, chuckling as he added that the phrase sounded very “Rumsfeldian.” “It’s the known unknown,” he said.
When called for comment about why the plan had not been provided to Congress, the Pentagon referred the question to the legislative affairs shop at the White House.
The White House press office returned the call and referred the question to Multi- National Force — Iraq.
“I do not know why the White House would refer you to us regarding these questions,” a Multi-National Force — Iraq spokesman responded. “We are in no position to answer questions regarding the Pentagon’s providing or not providing the newest Joint Campaign Plan to Congress, the GAO, or whomever.”
“Only the Department of Defense can tell you why they did or did not do something,” the spokesman added. “You are going to have to [go] back to the Pentagon.”
The Pentagon did not answer a further request for comment.
Rick Barton, co-director of the Post- Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the relationship between Congress and the Pentagon has become unproductive.
Barton and colleagues are releasing a new report called “The Steep Hill” about how to involve the legislative branch constructively in foreign policy.
“It’s our feeling that there just needs to be a higher level of transparency on the part of the administration, but then there has to be less of a ‘gotcha’ slam approach on the part of the Congress,” Barton said.
Tensions have been relatively high between the Defense Department and the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee since Democrats took control in January.
The first public spat came at an April 19 hearing in which a Pentagon lawyer interrupted testimony by lower-ranking Army officers because it was being transcribed against alleged Defense Department policy. The Army officers left the hearing on Iraqi Security Forces training.
“I’ve never, ever seen such a lack of responsiveness in terms of working with the committee,” ex-Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), then subcommittee chairman, told Army Times.
Lawmakers bridled at an April 16 memo penned by Robert Wilkie, the assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs and a former staffer for Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and ex-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
That memo banned junior officers from testifying on the record before Congress. But lawmakers pointed to the fact that junior officers had been permitted to testify at hearings before other committees and that the policy appeared directly aimed at the oversight committee’s work.
After fierce complaints, Wilkie withdrew the directive on June 27.
“We will endeavor to do what we can to assist you as you carry on your important new duties,” Wilkie wrote in a conciliatory letter to Snyder.
But Democrats say it continues to be difficult to get lower-ranking officers to testify because the individual services like the Army feel intimidated by the previous Defense directive.
Members of the Armed Services Committee began asking for a copy of the Joint Campaign Plan in March and gave the Pentagon until March 30 to produce it.
In an April 11 letter to Erin Conaton, the Armed Services Committee’s staff director, Wilkie wrote that the department was receiving an “unprecedented number of requests” for documents from Congress.
“Even with the use of a full-time staff dedicated to this process, the work is time- consuming since we must determine what documents can be properly shared with the legislative branch,” Wilkie said.
At the end of May, the oversight subcommittee finally received a copy of the 2006 plan and an April “interim” plan for 2007.
But that was a day after The Washington Post first reported on the plan’s details. Lawmakers still don’t have a copy of the current plan for 2007 and beyond.