This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – Are government agencies trying to suppress or soften reports of waste and corruption in how billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on projects in Afghanistan?
That’s the assertion of the top U.S. auditor for Afghanistan reconstruction. And U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill – who pressured the White House to force out one of his predecessors for being too lax in his audits – is vowing to probe the new allegations.
“Our inspectors general are the eyes and ears of taxpayers within each federal agency – they’re the ones protecting our tax dollars from waste, and they’re the ones to call out federal officials for abuse of power,” McCaskill, D-Mo., said Friday.
McCaskill, a former Missouri state auditor, sent a letter to the current Afghanistan inspector-general, John F. Sopko, asking for more details. She said she would “bring this fight to every corner of the federal government” to stop any efforts by the administration to suppress audit results.
In a talk this week at the non-partisan New America Foundation, Sopko complained that officials at federal agencies have asked to screen or edit – and, in some instances, stop publicizing – audits that detail examples of waste and corruption in the use of U.S dollars in Afghanistan.
“Over the last 10 months, I have been criticized by some bureaucrats for not pre-clearing my press releases with them, for not letting them edit the titles of my audits, for talking too much to Congress, for talking too much to the press … and, basically, for not being a ‘team player’ – and undermining our country’s mission in Afghanistan,” Sopko said.
Sopko, a professional auditor and former counsel to U.S. House investigative panels, was named last year as the latest Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). He has tripled the number of SIGAR audits and has been more aggressive than his predecessors in his oversight of the $93 billion spent so far to implement reconstruction projects in Afghanistan – including about $54 billion to bolster the Afghan National Army and its federal police.
His office’s most recent audits have criticized the government for faulty planning in spending $5 million for unused incinerators and the continued use of hazardous open-air burn pits and poor management by U.S. agencies of the $88 million spent to help commercialize Afghanistan’s national power utility.
“I am not a cheerleader. I’m a watchdog. It is my job to point out what isn’t working, so it can be fixed. To do it any other way is to just muddle along and then nothing will change,” Sopko said in his talk.
“Many in our government, even some surprisingly senior officials you think would know better, seem to believe that an inspector general should be their partner — or, more correctly, their silent partner,” he added.
“In their opinion, my reports should be slipped in a sealed envelope in the dead of night under the door — never to see the light of day -- because those reports could embarrass the administration, embarrass President (Hamid) Karzai, embarrass Afghanistan.”
While the vast federal PR apparatus has long been adept at stifling or softening the impact of bad news, McCaskill said Friday that such political pressure was inappropriate when applied to auditors or inspectors whom Congress has asked to be independent.
“Their work is what can give the American people confidence that their government is functioning the way it should,” McCaskill said in a statement provided to the Beacon. “And if their independence is being threatened with political interference, then I’m going to bring this fight to every corner of the federal government, to protect the integrity of their work.”
In general, spokespeople for federal agencies say they appreciate audits. “We value inputs from independent oversight, including from inspectors general, who play a key role in advancing the missions of the Department of Defense,” the Pentagon’s chief spokesman told Politico.
But McCaskill said it was not surprising that the three federal agencies whose Afghanistan spending is overseen by SIGAR – the Pentagon, State Department and Agency for International Development – might be apprehensive about investigations by an independent watchdog like SIGAR. All three of those agencies lack a permanent inspector general at the moment, with the State post vacant for five years and the other two left unfilled since 2011.
“I find it appalling that these people have not been appointed,” McCaskill said at a Senate hearing last year, adding that “there is a long list of qualified people to hold these jobs.”
McCaskill, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight, has held several hearings about waste and mismanagement of reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan. Late in 2010, McCaskill ripped into then-SIGAR Arnold Fields for lax oversight and called on the White House to name another auditing watchdog.
Fields left about a month later, and – after another SIGAR’s relatively brief tenure – Sopko took over the post last year. Since then, he has stepped up the number of probes and audits by about threefold. So far, SIGAR has made more than 70 recommendations to government agencies that, in theory, would save nearly $500 million if carried out.
Sopko said he wants the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to be successful and emphasized that the audits were meant to be constructive. “I believe in the mission” in Afghanistan, he told the New America Foundation, “but I believe in a mission that’s done correctly.”
“I believe in a mission that doesn’t end up just diverting the money to some warlord or terrorist or to Dubai.” He added that “the American people can take bad news” as long as they feel the government is being honest about its oversight.
“We have spent more money on Afghanistan than we have spent on any other country in the world – even Germany post World War II,” he said.