IG says DoD hindered investigation into controversial Afghanistan rebuilding program

The Pentagon and the IG charged with Afghanistan reconstruction oversight sparred Wednesday over alleged obstructions to the IG's probe into a controversial rec...

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction accused the Defense Department Wednesday of “institutional amnesia” and of hindering his office’s access to records during ongoing investigations into a DoD task force that was supposed to help revitalize the economy of Afghanistan.

SIGAR has issued several reports critical of the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) over the past year, saying the organization lacked oversight, failed to perform feasibility analyses for the $759 million in projects it funded and generated more complaints of waste, fraud and abuse than any other U.S. entity operating in Afghanistan.

John Sopko, the special inspector general, said his office has yet to perform a full financial or programmatic audit, partially because DoD has been less than helpful in providing information about the defunct task force, which was officially disbanded in March 2015.

The department has so far declined to provide subject matter experts to respond to SIGAR’s written questions about the task force’s operations, saying instead that none of its current employees have any expertise on the program since most of the task force’s more than 100 members have already departed government service.

“DoD has been telling us that they have no authority, no money and no bodies to explain this important program to an inspector general who’s required by statute to investigate reports of waste, fraud and abuse,” Sopko told the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday. “In more than 20 years working in Congress, I never heard that excuse. My deputy worked 38 years at GAO and looked and many closed programs and he’s never heard that excuse. USAID, the State Department and other elements of DoD have been reporting to us regularly on closed programs. Only TFBSO has this institutional amnesia. It would be like Harry Truman saying in 1945 that he can’t answer any questions about dropping the bomb because the war is over.”

Brian McKeon, the principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, said DoD’s inability to answer questions was a result of the unique nature of the task force, which started in Iraq as an effort to attract private investment to that country’s economy and then pivoted to Afghanistan in 2010.

“This is expertise that doesn’t normally reside within OSD Policy,” he said. “It’s far from the core competency of the Department of Defense. We don’t usually have investment bankers and energy sector experts working for us. But we thought we’d set SIGAR up for success. We provided a lot of information, they had a list of all the former employees, but we had already let most of those people go.”

Because SIGAR lacks subpoena authority it has not been able to compel any of the task force’s former employees to speak with its investigators. But Sopko disputed McKeon’s claim that DoD had provided the IG with all of the task force’s  records — almost all of which were unclassified. SIGAR was only allowed to view the documents in a Pentagon “reading room” and was not allowed to take copies back to its own offices, a situation Sopko said was highly unusual.

“This access was restricted only for our TFBSO work,” he said. “No other element of DoD has restricted our access to records, and we deal with classified information all the time. They put in restrictions that basically violate the Inspector General Act. ‘All records’ means all records under the IG Act.”

DoD says it instituted the reading room policy — only with regard to SIGAR — in reaction to a previous incident in which the IG office answered a Freedom of Information Act Request from the investigative news website ProPublica with documents that contained unredacted names of servicemembers. The media outlet later published the documents on its website.

DoD and SIGAR dispute whether the names should have been redacted as a matter of policy or law, but McKeon maintained that was the sole reason for restricting the IG’s ability to copy documents.

“We have concerns about the security of our servicemembers and our Afghan partners. We’ve asked this media organization to take those documents down, but they’ve refused to do so,” McKeon said. “That’s why we didn’t simply hand over these records to SIGAR. But they could read anything they wanted to.”

In some ways, the issue is moot. Six days before the congressional hearing, DoD gave SIGAR a hard drive containing what it said was all of the task force’s records. McKeon said the department did so after receiving assurances from the IG’s office that it was not its general practice to publicize the names of individuals.

But Sopko made plain his belief that DoD’s new disclosures to his office had much more to do with congressional oversight than disagreements over federal privacy policy or FOIA.

In addition to the hard drive delivery, one day before the hearing, the Pentagon provided clarification on the cost of a compressed natural gas station that SIGAR has been seeking for more than a year.

The IG’s earlier reports had called the project into question, saying the task force had spent $43 million to build a station to refuel natural gas-powered vehicles, very few of which even exist in Afghanistan.  The construction cost of a similar filling station in neighboring Pakistan would be about $306,000, auditors estimated.

The new analysis DoD provided to SIGAR on Tuesday suggested the task force probably spent less than $10 million on the CNG station, but the actual costs are essentially unknowable because of TFBSO’s lackluster recordkeeping procedures.

“This was an organization that I think would defend itself by saying it was entrepreneurial and was trying to do things quickly and didn’t follow the normal government rules,” said McKeon. “It’s a tradeoff. You’re breaking some china in the normal government systems, but the other side of the ledger is it’s hard to institutionalize it. I have a bias in that I think these reconstruction projects are better left to other elements of our government rather than DoD, but that’s something for Congress to think about.”




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