(The Iraqi) 911 is a Joke

If there is going to be a bill of indictment against Donald Rumsfeld, one of the charges will likely be his neglect of the reconstruction of Iraq. The buck quite literally stops with Rumsfeld when it comes to nation building. The reconstruction had hard and fast goals. And few of them have been met.

More seriously, Rumsfeld's inaction on at least occasion actually impeded U.S. efforts to win hearts and minds. As I tell in my new book Blood Money, the story of the Iraqi cellular phone networks is one of the darkest, strangest chapters in the reconstruction. One of Rumsfeld's own appointees, a deputy undersecretary named Jack Shaw, was directly involved.

Shaw was charged with helping restore telecommunications in Iraq. It was one of the most critical tasks of the reconstruction: The telecom infrastructure had been destroyed during the war. Ordinary Iraqis had no access to telephones, much less the Internet. Iraqi forces couldn't talk with each other, or with U.S. forces.

Shaw responded to his task by trying to steer a lucrative telecom contract to a company run by some of his friends, who were interested in starting up a new cellular phone company in Iraq. The whole deal collapsed amid an investigation by the FBI which, like most other criminal inquiries involving Iraq, resulted in no charges filed.

More striking was Rumsfeld's reaction. Rather than immediately firing Shaw and lifting the cloud surrounding the telecom initiative, Rumsfeld allowed Shaw to stay on until the November 2004 presidential elections. That's when Shaw had his swan song, telling reporters that Russian commandos, not Pentagon neglect, was responsible for the missing munitions at the famous Al Qaqaa weapons depot. Only after the elections were safely over was Shaw finally shown the door.

In the meantime, the telecommunication effort collapsed. Daniel Sudnick, the man who blew the whistle on Shaw's dealings, was dismissed from his position with the Coalition Provisional Authority. A bid to install a 911-style system to allow Iraqis to call for help languished for months.

Even today, nearly three years later, that system, called the advanced first responder network, has "fundamental and significant" limitations according to a recently released, but little-noticed, report by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Iraq. In most places, Iraqis still can't call police or the military to report trouble. Staffing levels at the call centers are woefully inadequate. The U.S. did not build a 911 system--it's a 9-no-1 system.

If Rumsfeld's man had allowed the system to work, how many suicide bombers could have stopped? How many tips could have been passed on to Iraqi and American intelligence operatives? We'll never know the exact answer--or the exact cost in human lives, Iraqi and American.