For years, federal auditors have reported that millions of American dollars have been wasted or are unaccounted for in the effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq.
State Department employee Peter Van Buren gives a ground-level account of that waste and corruption in his book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Van Buren was a veteran Foreign Service officer who'd spent much of his career in Japan, Korea and Taiwan when he volunteered for Iraq service in 2009. He was sent to Baghdad as part of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team, where he was in charge of a group trying to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and economy. For the next year, he encountered oblivious bureaucrats, comically misguided projects, greedy contractors, a never-ending cash flow, and campaigns aimed at improving the lives of Iraqi people. But many of those campaigns were misguided, says Van Buren, and they often wasted a lot of money.
Van Buren's book isn't kind to American policymakers, and he has strong feelings about the futility of his efforts. Fresh Air contacted a spokesman for the State Department, who declined to respond to Van Buren's book except to say that the author's views are his own, and not necessarily those of the State Department.
"The State Department is not very happy about what I've done," Van Buren tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I was required to submit an early copy of the manuscript to them to determine that I wasn't releasing classified information ... It's pretty clear that I'm speaking for myself here."
Van Buren says many of his State Department colleagues who have read the book agree with him in private but have publicly shunned him for speaking out about what he saw in Iraq.
"Many of them accused me of picking on them or ... blaming them for things that I knew were institutional," he says. "They didn't make these decisions because they were stupid. I didn't make these decisions because I was stupid. We all knew we were told we were to do these things, and they're a little angry at me for labeling them as complicit in this when they knew that they weren't."
Garbage Removal in Baghdad
When Van Buren arrived in Iraq, he tells Davies that he was overwhelmed by the amount of garbage he saw on the street.
"I've never seen more trash in one place in my life," he says. "It was as if the only thing being manufactured in Iraq was garbage."
The State Department's reconstruction teams were told that they had to find a way to remove the trash in the street. They enlisted the help of local sheiks who had volunteered to find and pay workers to assist with the garbage removal.
"It was an amazing thing until we found that we were overpaying these people so much that we had distorted the local labor market, and several shops had closed down because people found it more profitable to have us pay them to pick up trash than to operate small businesses," says Van Buren. "And they were temporary jobs in the sense that when [the State Department] got bored with picking up trash, or some other shiny object caught our attention, we moved on to a different project."
Van Buren says some projects floundered and others never got off the ground because the thinking about the future of Iraq was never long term.
"Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one-year tours, myself included," he says. "Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we needed to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments, and pictures of smiling Iraqis and metrics and charts. It was impossible, under these circumstances, to do anything long term ... We rarely thought past next week's situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn't flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot a video that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work ... never existed in our world."
Peter Van Buren has served in the Foreign Service for 23 years. He has received awards for his work in Japan and Thailand. He speaks Japanese, Mandarin and some Korean.
On the cash flow in Iraq
"Working for the government for 23 years, the only constant is there's never money to do all of the things we wanted. There were times when I've bought my own office supplies and stolen yellow stickies from my kid's school so I had them in the office. In Iraq, we had money everywhere. It was literally in boxes you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in a safe in my office. I felt like a drug dealer pulling out bundles of money. There was so much money that the Iraqis invented a new slang term in Arabic that means 'a large pile of hundred-dollar bills.'
"One of the more amazing ways we spent money was a short-term project called microgrants. Someone, somewhere decided that if Iraqis were to open small businesses, this was going to solve a lot of problems. They would all become little shopkeepers and vendors, and therefore not be terrorists and everything would be OK, and we could go home. The way to implement this was through the microgrant program, which was literally us handing out $5,000 in cash to people and encouraging them to open a business with it. There was no follow-up, there was no accountability, there was nothing the Iraqi person had to do but sign a receipt and smile nicely at us, and we handed him $5,000."
On humanitarian assistance bags
"One colonel that I worked with thought that the best way to win hearts and minds was to give away stuff. Everybody likes free stuff. He characterized this as a humanitarian gesture. What would happen is the Army would load up some trucks with food bags. The amount of food in there might have given a family of four a meal or two. It was nothing special, nothing elaborate. ... What you saw in these instances was very interesting. If you imagined yourself as a camera and you focused very closely, you saw happy, smiling soldiers handing food bags to young children or women. If you zoomed out a little bit, you saw that the soldiers who weren't in camera range probably weren't smiling. If you zoomed out a little further, you found that the Iraqi men would stay in the background and give us hard stares. This is a country where pride and self-image are very important to people, and being handed food by Americans who had invaded their country was a shock to the Iraqi people, was a blow to their pride."
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How would you feel about spending millions of Americans' tax dollars to build a chicken processing plant in Iraq that never processed any chickens except to impress visiting journalists? That's just one of the projects described in a new book by our guest Peter Van Buren, a veteran foreign service officer who gives a ground-level account of the effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq.
Van Buren has spent much of his career in the Far East, when in 2009, he joined a surge of State Department personnel headed to Iraq to assist in reconstruction. Van Buren's experience working on a provincial reconstruction team is a dispiriting tale of waste, corruption and sometimes comically misguided approaches to the mission of improving the lives of Iraqis.
His account isn't kind to American policymakers, and as you'll hear, he has strong feelings about the futility of his efforts. We contacted a spokesperson for the State Department who declined to respond to Van Buren's book except to say that the author's views are his own and not necessarily those of the State department.
Van Buren's book is called "We Meant Well - How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were in the State Department for more than 20 years before you went to Iraq. Tell us just a little bit about your career.
PETER VAN BUREN: My work was primarily concerned with what I like to think is the benign side of empire. I helped American citizens overseas. When people got arrested, when people fell into trouble one way or the other outside the United States, it was my job to help get them out of trouble, to visit them jail, when people passed away to make sure their remains got back to their loved ones. It was very rewarding work.
It was social work on steroids at times, but dealing with people and being able to help them was very fulfilling, very satisfying.
DAVIES: I read you won a Superior Honor Award for helping a rape victim in Japan. What was that about?
BUREN: It was a terrible tragedy. An American citizen suffered a very violent attack in Japan, and it was our responsibility to help her. She decided very courageously that she wanted to go through the very difficult process of seeing her attacker put in jail, and it was a very difficult experience for her. It was my obligation to assist her with this, and the two of us together got her through it.
It was a difficult process in that many times the language that she needed to use to describe what had happened to her was language that was not typically heard in a Japanese courtroom. There were translation problems. There were times when the prosecution attempted to paint her as a person who might have brought on this attack somehow herself.
But we were able to get her through that and see that justice was done. Her attacker went to jail, and it was a moment when we really understood what it meant to have an American embassy overseas that was there to support you. She probably could have done it without us, but it was an honor to have done it with her.
DAVIES: Now, when you went to Iraq, this was in 2009, and this is far beyond the days when a lot of people would say American military policy was so misguided. By then, a lot of people think we had figured this out. The military was much more committed to friendly engagement with the Iraqi population and reconstruction and winning hearts and minds.
So you're there to do good things, to help rebuild the country. But as you tell the story, you certainly weren't out among the people. Just tell us a little bit about your living kind of situation and how that meshed with the mission that you had.
BUREN: What a PRT, Provincial Reconstruction Team, was supposed to do, was to operate at a grassroots level, embedded with the U.S. military, to bring stability and economic success to all of Iraq, particularly operating outside of the major cities. One of the key problems was the inability to reconstruct something while it was essentially still falling apart.
The American presence in Iraq basically had three components. You had the military command, which sat in a place called Victory Base - the Army has no irony in its naming conventions - and they had a very limited view of things. They were very isolated.
You had the American embassy, the world's largest embassy, surrounded by the world's largest walls that kept both bad guys and reality out. The joke was that the embassy kept an eye on events in Iraq from the roof.
And then you had the Provisional Reconstruction Teams, me. We were - are small groups of people - we were embedded with military units. We would roll out in military convoys, typically riding in a vehicle called an MRAP, which is like a giant monster truck. It has all sorts of armor and special electronics on it that make it less vulnerable to the IEDs, which plague the campaign in Iraq for its entire life.
It had machine guns on the top and full of soldiers with their game faces on; guns, rifles, grenades, the whole manner of stuff. Myself, I would wear body armor and a helmet just like the soldiers would. I wasn't armed. I didn't carry a weapon. But we made quite an impression on people when we rolled through town.
Sometimes when we rolled through the center of town, we made quite an impression because our vehicles were tall enough that they tore down all the electrical and phone lines that were strung across the roads. Sometimes we made quite an impression when we roared through fields and left ruts where there had been rice or wheat planted. And oftentimes we made quite an impression by attracting a lot of attention to people just by our presence.
It was difficult to say that we ever could have a normal interaction with anyone. The mere presence of us made us look like aliens descending from armored spaceships in the middle of nowhere. Every interaction with every Iraqi took place with soldiers with weapons standing around. Oftentimes, I was told to leave my body armor and helmet on while I was speaking with the Iraqi people for my own safety.
We rarely could stay in any one place for very long for fear of attracting too much attention and an attack. Setting up appointments was very difficult because it was dangerous to tell people too far in advance that we were going to be arriving. We didn't want to give the bad guys too much time to get ready.
And under those conditions, the ability to meet with people, to interact with them, was a failure.
DAVIES: And I believe kind of one of your first interactions with Iraqis involved this fellow named - I think he had the nickname McBlazer, and there was a particular issue you had to work out. Tell us that story.
BUREN: State Department people love to wear blue blazers with brass buttons. It's almost kind of a uniform. And one of the Iraqis that we interacted with regularly had adopted this as his form of dress. And so he was nicknamed McBlazer among us.
The embassy constantly was tasking us to put on presentations, shows, lectures. We were going to tell Iraqis how things were going to work. Here's how democracy works. Here's what women should be doing. Here's the way that you should be running your businesses.
These were hard to put on, and it required a lot of logistical arrangements, things that we couldn't possibly do on our own in a country where we couldn't travel freely, where telephone service was sporadic and where there was no infrastructure for us to work with.
It became necessary for us to seek out these middlemen, these operators, carpetbaggers, slick guys like McBlazer who for money could make things happen.
The very first day, as I arrived and met my team, the very first task I was handed was to commit fraud so that we could properly pay off McBlazer for the last thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BUREN: Now, fraud is a nasty word to use...
DAVIES: Well, let me just interrupt here. What do you mean commit fraud? What did you have to do?
BUREN: Well, it turns out that there limits the State Department put on how much we could spend on refreshments. This was very important because without refreshments, the Iraqis wouldn't come to our meetings. We simply couldn't get a crowd unless we fed them. To feed them costs money, and the cost of that food oftentimes exceeded the maximums that we were allowed to spend.
This doesn't stop a guy like McBlazer. He simply created fake receipts for printing that covered the cost of the food. And my very first diplomatic action in Iraq was to be told by my colleagues to sign the fake receipts so that we could pay McBlazer for the food, which we had to use to bribe the Iraqis to come to the meeting so that the embassy would be satisfied that we were reconstructing Iraq.
DAVIES: And did you object?
BUREN: It seemed like a wrong way to get started to me, and I have this aversion to going to jail for fraud, and so I said no, I'm not going to sign that. This was a problem. Well, McBlazer, it turns out, is married into a very powerful family that's connected to some very powerful Kurds, who happen to be connected to a lot of guys that apparently used to work for the mafia until they found out working in Iraq was more profitable.
And it was not going to be in our best interest to crisscross on McBlazer. In fact, McBlazer offered that he was setting up conferences for all of the PRTs all over Iraq and that if we didn't pay him the money that he wanted, he was going to stop servicing the other PRTs. And so simultaneously with my arrival to Iraq, I was going to be responsible for the countrywide breakdown of a system that had been running smoothly for about a year.
BUREN: Yeah, I signed.
DAVIES: OK. So you could see some immediate frustrations with what was happening in this State Department effort to assist the Iraqi people. But there were enormous needs around you. You write about trash disposal. Do you want to give us a little picture of what you saw?
BUREN: I'd never seen so much garbage in one place in my life. It was almost as if the only thing being manufactured in Iraq was garbage. This oftentimes didn't jive with other things. People were not very wealthy. People in fact in many cases were quite poor. But suddenly, everywhere I looked, there was garbage, garbage and garbage.
The garbage was a problem for the Iraqis. It was a problem for us. The bad guys used to hide bombs in it that would catch us as we drove down the road. So one day, we were told it was going to be our job to clean up the garbage.
Now, I'm a pretty energetic guy, but it seemed like I was going to need some help. Well, not a problem. There were oftentimes sheiks who would appear, sometimes without us even calling them, who would offer to take care of whatever problems we happened to have, in this case the garbage. They would be able to, for a very small fee, get their entire extended family and their family's families out there to pick up the trash for us.
It was an absolute amazing thing until we found, of course, that we were overpaying these people so much that we had distorted the local labor market, and in fact several shops had closed down because people found it more profitable to have us pay them to pick up trash than to operate small businesses.
DAVIES: And of course they were temporary jobs, right?
BUREN: They were temporary jobs in the sense that when we got bored with picking up trash, or some other shiny object caught our attention, we moved onto a different project. The garbage piled up. The city of Baghdad generates hundreds of tons of garbage every day.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is "We Meant Well." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran in the State Department who spent a year in Iraq on Iraqi reconstruction. He's written a new book called "We Meant Well - How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People."
There was also a tremendous need for clean water and sewage treatment, and it just seems like so obvious that meeting these basic needs would have done a lot to build meaningful relationships with the Iraqi people. Do you want to tell us - I mean, there's an example you tell of a treatment plant in Nahrawan, I believe, northeast of Baghdad.
DAVIES: OK. Yeah, go ahead.
BUREN: Ever since the Romans had occupied this part of the world, providing water to people was what government did. It was the essence of surviving in the desert. Saddam had built a number of water plants, oftentimes with Soviet or other people's money, and these water plants had pumped along without much success from the 1960s on up. Some of them were older than I was.
We were told to go out and see what we could do about a water plant not far from where we living out in the desert. The great news was that way back in the good days of 2003 and '04, when people were still enthusiastic for the war, apparently the Japanese had promised to pay for repairing this water plant.
This was good news. But when we contacted them, it turned out that they neither remembered paying for it nor had any interested in driving out through the dangerous parts of Iraq to see a water plant. It fell on our shoulders to go out and check up on things.
The water plant was run by a wonderful gentleman who I hope to the bottom of my heart is still alive somewhere in Iraq. We called him The Engineer. And The Engineer had been working at this particular water plant since the 1960s. He would tell us these wonderful stories about how during the glory days, Saddam would send him off to Russia or Bulgaria for water plant training, and he would trade his then-valuable Iraqi dinars for rubles and be very popular with the women that he would meet and come home with suitcases full of vodka. They were good times for him.
The war did not work out well. He had a number of people on his staff killed in the sectarian violence. Another larger group disappeared, some of them possibly killed; a lot of them running away to relatives in Jordan or nearby countries.
But throughout this all, The Engineer stayed at his post throughout the sectarian violence and the worst years of the war, even though the plant had long since ceased to process any fresh water, and raw sewage ran right through it into the beautiful Tigris River.
The Engineer was still optimistic, and when we arrived there, he brought out these incredibly dense three-ring binders full of plans that were drawn up by a Japanese engineering firm in Tokyo that had never been to Iraq and never seen his plant. But these were the plans for the water of the future.
The Engineer needed nothing from us except a lot of money and a lot of help. The way he saw it, he was going to work this all out by hiring an Iraqi contractor who would actually be a front for a Turkish country, which would hire Arabic-speaking Jordanian engineers to bring Chinese equipment into Iraq - rebuild his water plant.
He then planned on the Chinese equipment being left behind so he could sell it off on the black market and raise enough money for maintenance of the plant because unfortunately, our planning never extended past the end of next year, and we had no money for long-term maintenance.
DAVIES: So what happened?
BUREN: Nothing. Nothing happened. The problem is, is that you can't, with all the best intentions in the world, simply rebuild a water network. Our plant was one plant, was one plant in a long line of facilities that were necessary to take water out of the Tigris, process it, bring it all the way into Baghdad, then take the dirty water out, bring it all the way back, process it and bring it back in, put it back into the river.
This involved hundreds of facilities. We had authority to try to fix one of them.
DAVIES: It sounds like this was a case where there was a big, important problem like sewage treatment and water purification, but that you didn't have nearly the kind of resources that you would need to do something on that scale. People needed to think bigger?
BUREN: We were never able to do thing on a large enough scale to make a difference because the thinking was never long-term. Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one year tours, myself included. Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we needed to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments and pictures of smiling Iraqis and metrics and charts.
It was impossible under these circumstances to do anything as long-term as a water and sewer project, particularly with the need for our work to dovetail with work being done to the left and to the right of us.
We rarely thought past next week's situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn't flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot some video of something that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work, to do the very slow work that reconstruction and development takes place, the idea that development work is a pyramid, you build the base that creates the possibility of a top, never existed in our world.
DAVIES: Now, there were some efforts to do things on a smaller scale. They bought some of these Mobile Maxes, a trailer-mounted, what, a water filtration system. What happened there?
BUREN: One day, a soldier literally trolling through the Internet came across something called Mobile Max. Mobile Max seemed like the solution to our problems. It was a solar-powered, trailer-mounted water purification device. You put the hose into dirty water, the sun shone on Mobile Max, and clean water would pour out the other end.
The soldier told his boss, who told his commanding officer, who told some other people, and believe it or not, in the time it takes me to write a letter home to my wife, we found that the Army was buying five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes and paying to have them shipped all the way around the world to the middle of the desert at a place called Forward Operating Base Hammer.
It took months and months for these things to arrive, and the day that they showed up, it was like a fair at the base. They came on trailers. They were bright blue. People came out of their workstations and sleeping quarters to see this arrive, as if the circus had come to town.
DAVIES: And what happened?
BUREN: We set the first Mobile Max up, put the hose into a hole that we had dug and found water in, waited for the sun to warm up the engine. There was a hush, and poured out of the other end of it - nothing. It turns out that the groundwater in Iraq is too salty for Mobile Max. Mobile Max can clean all sorts of naughty stuff out of water, but it can't turn salty water into drinking water, and so it was a complete failure.
DAVIES: And you had 25 of these things. What became of them?
BUREN: The five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes were moved off to a corner of the base where they were parked in very neat rows and left to sit there for the course of the year that I was in Iraq. I'm told that soon after I left, and we closed the PRT down, the commanding general forces there, General Odierno, came out, asked what those blue things were, was told the story and ordered them to be gotten rid of.
My understanding is one of them ended up in a sheik's backyard, where it did some good work for him and his family. No one seems to know what happened to the other ones.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren is the author of the new book "We Meant Well - How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." We'll hear more of his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of our show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to Dave Davies' interview with Peter Van Buren, the author of "We Meant Well How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." It's about the sometimes comically misguided projects, wasted money and corruption he encountered while working with the State Department team on reconstruction efforts in Iraq in 2009.
DAVIES: Now this brings up the subject of all the money that was available. Did you ever want for cash for these initiatives?
BUREN: Working for the government for 23 years, the only constant was there's never money. There's never enough money to do all the things we wanted and there were times when I bought my own office supplies and stole yellow stickies from my kid's school so I had them in the office because it was easier than trying to get money for it.
In Iraq we had money everywhere. It was literally in boxes that you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in cash in a small safe in my office. I felt like a drug dealer, I kept pulling out bundles of money. There was so much money that the Iraqis invented a new slang word in Arabic that means a large pile of hundred dollar bills. What's the word?
My pronunciation may not be precise, but I believe it's duftar.
DAVIES: A stack of Benjamins, huh?
BUREN: A large pile of Benjamins. They were at first the most convenient way for us to put money out. There was no banking system. There were no electronic transfers. There were no checking accounts, no credit cards. And so when we needed to give someone money, we literally gave them money. I would travel around with $50,000 in a paper bag to hand out to one of the people who was taking over our project. We would have these counting sessions where we had to account for our money, where we would have $20,000, $30,000 out on a desk. This was all tracked on paper and through some Excel spreadsheets.
Most of the folks I worked with were honest people and I don't think we lost any money. But somewhere along the way millions and millions of dollars were just casually misplaced. The Army lost 60 million dollars at one point in time. And over the course of the eight years of the Iraq Project, the United States has spent 63 billion dollars on the reconstruction.
DAVIES: And there were reports by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that documented literally billions in waste and mixing funds. You were on this provincial reconstruction team doing the reconstruction, but you were embedded with an Army unit. I think the 82nd Airborne, right? And how much, to what extent did the Army actually call the shots in these efforts? Was the State Department in charge, or was the Army in charge, or was it a negotiation? How did it work?
BUREN: The original plan was that we were to be equals. The State Department and the Army were to work as equals on these projects and work as equals in making decisions. The problem was we couldn't leave the base unless the Army took us out. We couldn't make a phone call, use a computer, make a photocopy or get a meal without the Army's permission and consent. And so in situations where you couldn't get along with your colonel, the colonel in charge of your unit, you couldn't do your job. It created a terribly unequal relationship. The joke was that we practiced more diplomacy inside the wire than outside.
DAVIES: You write about one colonel that had - who really liked the idea of passing out humanitarian assistance bags, HA bags. Explain what they were and why they were appealing.
BUREN: One of the problems that plagued the whole reconstruction program, from its sad birth to whenever it finally passes away, it was the overall concept. The State Department imagined this as remaking an entire nation. The Army had a little harder time getting its head around that concept and tended to think in smaller units.
One colonel that I worked with decided that the best way to win the hearts and minds was to give away stuff. Everybody likes free stuff. He characterized this as a humanitarian gesture, and the project was called HA, humanitarian assistance. What would happen is the Army would load up some trucks with food bags. The amount of food in there might have given a family of four a meal or two. It was nothing special, nothing elaborate. He would load up these food bags, drive out to some village, and hand them out to people.
What you saw in these instances was very interesting. If you imagine yourself as a camera and you focus very closely, you saw happy smiling soldiers handing food bags over to young children or women, who were smiling as they accepted them. If you zoomed out a little bit, you found that the soldiers who weren't in camera range were probably not smiling. You zoomed out a little further and you found that the Iraqi men would stay in the background and give us kind of hard stares. This is a country where pride, where self-image is very important to people, and being handed food by Americans who had invaded their country and in many cases caused damage and violence around them was a shock to the Iraqi people, was a blow to their pride.
Imagine if the Chinese army appeared one day in Minneapolis and started handing out food to the people there. Would Americans feel proud about that?
DAVIES: Now why did the colonel do this? And was this ever evaluated? Did anybody ever look at whether this had any positive impact?
BUREN: The chances are that your listener's thinking about this constitutes the only time anything was evaluated what we did there. The entire process was one of improvisation, of please do something because something might work. There was never anybody who said, hey, that's not working. Let's not do that again. Or this seems to have promise, let's keep doing that. What we did was never examined, was never looked at. There was no sense of output. Everything we did we did for us. We did it for our personal satisfaction. We did it because we felt good doing it. We did it because we were told to do it. We did it because we wanted to get promoted and patted on the head. The sense was it wasn't about the Iraqis. It was about us.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is called "We Meant Well." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran Foreign Service officer in the U.S. State Department who spent a year in Iraq. His book about his frustrations with the Iraqi reconstruction effort is called "We Meant Well."
Did you have any contact with the media? I mean could you give them a sense of what was really going on?
BUREN: I saw very little of the media. And the embassy made sure that whenever someone from the media did go out into the field that the journey and the experience was stage managed to the final degree. We did have one experience that might illustrate how this works. The largest amount of money I ever spent was with the Army, a two million dollar chicken processing plant. The idea was that instead of these systems that had been in place for about 5,000 years, where people bought live chickens in the market, we were going to take those chickens and cut them up and put them in styrofoam and plastic just like you'd get at the Safeway. Problem was that that didn't work out very well. The farmers were had a system of selling to the markets. The people didn't have refrigeration at home to handle cutup chicken. And there was Brazilian frozen chicken being imported at that time that underpriced us. So the factory didn't produce any chicken.
One day we were told that the journalist was coming out and wanted to see our factory in action. This was a moment of panic for us, because we had not really admitted to the embassy at that point that it wasn't working.
DAVIES: I just want to understand this. So from scratch you imported all this mechanized equipment and built a chicken processing plant that simply was sitting idle?
BUREN: That's correct. Because when these projects were conceived - and this project actually was in conception long before I arrived, it had taken so long to spec out and to create - no one considered where those chickens were going to come from and how they were going to be paid for. And no one considered what was going to happen to our processed chicken once we put it in the plastic.
For example, there were no transportation networks. There were no trucks that could carry frozen or chilled food around Iraq. And even if we had those trucks, the roadways made it impossible for them to travel very long distances. No one bothered to figure out how we were going to buy the chickens, how we were going to pay for them, which farmers were going to sell, whether the farmers needed to raise the chickens specifically for us. None of that was thought out. Simply, we built something and hoped it would work in either direction.
DAVIES: All right. So it's time to prove to a journalist that you've done something good here. what happened?
BUREN: This was a real problem. We contacted the Iraqi sheikh who had taken possession of the chicken processing plant and explained our problem. He was a very clever man. He sent one of his sons out to the market that day and what every live chicken in about a five mile radius of the place. Lord knows what they paid for it, brought all those chickens in and the plant was humming like the middle of a speedway when the journalists arrived. We processed through about 150 chickens that day.
DAVIES: And nobody ever caught on. No one was the wiser.
BUREN: The good news was is that it was 100 percent productivity increase from the day before...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BUREN: ...so we were kind of happy about that. It turned out that the chicken that we actually served the journalists was bought at a different place, because we weren't quite sure if our machinery was clean enough and we were afraid to actually serve the person because the machinery hadn't been used so we bought chicken someplace to serve them.
This was a problem. The problem was is that the journalists said what a great day had happened out here and other people wanted to come out and see the plant too. So, every time someone came out we had to buy chickens to run them through the plant so there was something to see. This led to a new unit of measurement - the chicken measurement. We would try to figure out who was important and who wasn't because the chickens were expensive. So an important person might see 50 or 60 chickens processed. A journalist who comes from a smaller outlet for or a hometown newspaper, they might see 20 chickens processed. And so it became kind of a joke how many chickens we were worth.
DAVIES: Didn't - I mean were you ever in a position to pull someone aside and say - ask them if this is running tomorrow or was running yesterday?
BUREN: Dave, please don't be upset. We would've given you the full 50-chicken treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: No, everyone played the game.
BUREN: Everyone was looking the other way. There was an understanding that you wanted to get through your tour, and the way to do that was not make waves, not ask questions. It had been running before you got there, it was going to be running after you got there. Look away like everyone else was doing and things would work out for you. The only time I got into trouble, the only time I was called into my boss was when I canceled a project.
DAVIES: Well, I was going to ask you about that. You were called on the carpet at one point. What happened?
BUREN: I wasn't spending enough money. Early on, soon after failing to properly attend to the fraudulent receipts of McBlazer, I was presented with another opportunity to excel. My colleagues had arranged for us to pay about $5,000 a head for sheep to be delivered to widows. Good idea. Widows are it's a sad thing. We created more than enough of them ourselves in Iraq, why not help them out. We were going to give them sheep. They'd raise the sheep. Everybody would be happy. So I asked a few questions. How are we going to find the widows? Well, the guy we're buying the sheep from will find them for us. OK. How will the widows know how to raise the sheep? Oh, the guy we're buying the sheep from will teach the widows. OK. Who is going to pay him for that? Oh, he's going to take the lambs from the widows so that he'll get paid that way. It sure seemed to me that this was kind of a scam - that it was a pyramid scheme so that the guy we were buying things from was going to make all the money. I didn't see how the widows were going to benefit, and I canceled the project.
DAVIES: And then you were what, summoned to the embassy?
BUREN: This brought down the wrath of Mesopotamia on me. Because once I realized what the questions were and I started asking them, I found out that the women's rug-making cooperative that we were paying for had devolved into child labor. I found out that most of the things that we were paying for at the vocational school were actually nonexistent; that there were no vocational classes being held, and the equipment that we had paid for had long since been trundled off and sold off on the black market. I found that many of our projects existed solely in our own minds and our checkbooks, and so I started canceling them. This did not sit well with my bosses and I was called into the embassy and reminded that my predecessors had found ways to spend money, I should find ways to spend money. Don't rock the boat. Don't make trouble. You're one little guy in a big operation. Do what you're told. Get through your year. Go home. Maybe we'll promote you.
DAVIES: And when you got that speech how did you respond?
BUREN: I didn't know what to respond. I did know how to respond. I went through a period of trying to do what I was told was the right thing. I signed off on a lot of projects that would embarrass me to explain to you in great detail right now. I spent a lot of money. At some point, I realized that that was wrong. It was not true to myself. It was not true to the integrity that I believe is important for us, and so I stopped signing projects.
I found that not saying yes and not saying no gave me enough grey zone that my year ran out before they caught up with me.
DAVIES: Have any of your colleagues in the State Department read this manuscript? How is this being received?
BUREN: The State Department, as an organization, is not very happy about what I've done. I was required to submit an early copy of the manuscript to the State Department for them to determine that I wasn't releasing classified information, or the more hilarious one, that I wasn't misrepresenting this as official State Department policy. It's pretty clear that I'm kind of speaking for myself, here.
The State Department is unhappy about this. The organization is not one that is comfortable with its private parts showing in public. This is very clear in their reaction to the WikiLeaks scandal, where suddenly the internal workings of the State Department were on display. This makes everyone very uncomfortable, and my book does something of the same. My colleagues oftentimes will privately tell me that they saw many of the same things I saw, that they were - they're pleased that someone has written down what I wrote. But in public, many of them have shunned me, have accused me of not being fair to them, of blaming them for things that I knew were institutional. They didn't make these same decisions because they were stupid. I didn't make these same decisions because I was stupid. We all knew we were told to these things, and they're a little bit angry at me for sometimes maybe labeling them as complicit in this, when they knew that they weren't.
DAVIES: What kind of assignment do you have? Has your writing affected your work?
BUREN: Unfortunately, the State Department has started an investigation against me. They claim that a link on the blog connected with this book links to a WikiLeaks document, and that constitutes disclosure of classified information. And so the security people have begun an investigation against me that will probably end in my losing my job.
DAVIES: Well, you know, one of my reactions in attempting to judge this was that when I look at your account of these events, I mean, they're told with really telling detail, and it's quite funny in many places. But you're not very specific about, well, certainly people. You use only first names, or, in some cases, no names at all. You refer to people as my boss or the major.
DAVIES: Someone might say, well, aren't you kind of fudging of the details here, and that gives you some ability to exaggerate?
BUREN: To a certain extent. It's difficult. It turns out that when you throw pies at people's faces, they sometimes get upset about that. And so in these litigious days, it became important in many instances do not identify people by name, partially for legal reasons, partially because, in many cases, they were decent people trying to do the right thing who shouldn't be blamed personally by name for what they did because they were following orders. They were doing the things that they were told to do.
The book that I wrote is not a scholarly text. It's not a history. It's not full of footnotes and things like that. It's an impressionistic version of what I saw. It's the rough draft of the PRP, the Provincial Reconstruction Program that I helped administer. My hope would be that someone who is better at these things can write a book that has footnotes that can chronicle in great detail and with great accuracy what happened over there. Others will fill in the details. I don't know that it's important to know that the major I referred to was Major Jones or Major Smith. What's important to understand is at that time, at that place, this is what happened.
And we have your assurance that the details that you recount - I mean, the phony tours of the chicken processing plant that this...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: ...and the sheep for widows programs, all of those are as accurate as you can make them?
BUREN: If you were with me, you would've seen the things that I wrote in this book. My hope would be that at some point, some of the other people there will feel comfortable in speaking up. I don't doubt that someone in the State Department will claim that some of this is inaccurate, or that some of the details are exaggerated. What else can they do to defend themselves here, but try to assault my personal credibility? The book is there. The stories that I tell are there. You, as the reader, are in a position to judge them, to say this makes sense, this doesn't make sense.
Some readers will look beyond the book to the documents that the special inspector general for Iraq has written that chronicles some of the chronic episodes of waste. Some folks will talk to their friends who served in Iraq and say, hmm, this Van Buren guy is talking about this mobile max thing. You were there. What do you know about that? And hopefully come to the conclusion that the stories I tell are sadly accurate, that the things I saw are sadly representative of the failures that we experienced there, that unfortunately, "We Meant Well" is true.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
BUREN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Van Buren's book is called "We Meant Well." After recording the interview, we called the State Department. A spokesperson declined to comment on the book, saying only that it represents the author's views and not those of the State Department. He also said the department never comments on whether an employee is under investigation. You can read an excerpt of "We Meant Well" on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the Bangles' new album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.