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McCaskill brands wartime waste 'disgusting' at time of budget cuts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 31, 2011 - WASHINGTON - A scathing report released Wednesday on wartime contracting in Afghanistan and Iraq may offer a roadmap for congressional efforts -- at a time of severe budget cuts -- to tighten oversight of wasteful spending by the Pentagon, officials say.

"It is disgusting to think that nearly a third of the billions and billions we spent on contracting was wasted or used for fraud," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who had worked with Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., to persuade Congress to establish the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting, which issued the assessment.

The commission's report estimated that contracting waste and fraud have amounted to at least $31 billion -- and possibly as much as $60 billion -- during the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The waste resulted from ill-conceived projects, lax planning and oversight by the U.S. government, weak performance by contractors, and corrupt behavior by a few contractors.

The commissioners warned that at least as much additional waste may develop if host countries cannot or will not sustain U.S.-funded projects and programs after the United States hands them over. Total spending on contracts and grants to support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to be $206 billion by the end of this fiscal year.

The report made 15 strategic recommendations, including creation of a permanent inspector general's office to monitor contingency contracting and the naming of a senior official to improve the coordination and planning of such contracts. It suggested that the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies overhaul the way they award and manage contracts in war zones so such mistakes are not repeated.

McCaskill, in a statement and a phone discussion with journalists, said the report "offers a roadmap for bringing accountability to government contracts and rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars." She pledged to use her position as chair of the Senate's contracting and oversight subcommittee "to go at this as hard as I know how." She and other senators may offer amendments this fall to military spending bills in an effort to implement some of the commission's recommendations.

Comparing the commission to the Truman Committee that scrutinized military spending during World War II, McCaskill said the Pentagon and other federal departments "need to have the kind of oversight so they realize that, particularly in this budget climate, we cannot waste this kind of money under the umbrella of contracting practices."

Missouri National Guard Project Questioned

Among the many U.S. initiatives in Afghanistan that were questioned by the commission were the National Guard Agribusiness Development Teams (ADT) -- deploying guard units from Missouri and eight other states -- that have been "mobilizing hundreds of soldiers each year to provide agricultural expertise in a dozen key Afghan provinces."

While she said the Missouri guard units had "done great work," McCaskill said the commission questioned the changes to the ADT mission as a whole.

"What started out as a manageable program has morphed into something that the Commission believes we need to take a hard look at," she told reporters. "What started out as teaching people has become an alternative sustenance to a lot of these farmers, in terms of just the money that's being paid. We have to be careful about how that is implemented."

Among the examples of wasteful or unsustainable spending cited in the commission's report was $35 billion appropriated by Congress since 2002 to train, equip and support the Afghan National Security Forces. Another program was the establishment of scores of health-care centers in Iraq "that far exceed the Ministry of Health's ability to maintain them," the report said.

Michael Thibault, a co-chair of the commission and former deputy director of the Defense Contract Audit Agency, said the U.S. government has known for two decades that contractors would be a key part of any major response to sustained hostilities, but clearly it "was not prepared to go into Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003 using large numbers of contractors, and is still unable to provide effective management and oversight of contract spending that will have exceeded $206 billion by the end of September. That has to change."

The other commission co-chair, former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, said in a statement Wednesday that "the government is over-relying on contractors." As many as 260,000 contractor employees have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan -- at times outnumbering the military they support -- and Shays said that "some contractors have been performing tasks that only federal employees should perform, while others are doing work that is permissible but still too risky or inappropriate for contractors."

McCaskill agreed that "the dirty little secret that's now been exposed - and this goes governmentwide, not just in wartime contracting" is the over-reliance on contractors. She said the government has "hollowed out our acquisition personnel. We have to make the investment in government employees that know how to police this."

At a time when Congress is looking for areas to pare in the Pentagon's budget, McCaskill said lawmakers should "cull these numbers and look at what we've spent on logistical support. Look at what we've spent on projects in theater -- such as power plants and health centers, roads and bridges. Look at how we've been able to sustain those projects. And begin to question: Should we be making those kinds of investments? If we know that, in the next 10 years, they're going to sit empty and crumbling. That is the most insulting thing of all to the American taxpayer."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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