Senators were already questioning why the Defense Department was restricting a government watchdog. Now there are criminal investigations and questions about retaliation against a whistleblower
The Pentagon is scrambling to justify its actions in restricting the government watchdog investigating a $766-million task force in Afghanistan 2014 with more controversy seemingly erupting by the day. Now there are allegations that Defense Department officials retaliated against a whistleblower and news of several ongoing criminal investigations.
Earlier this month, we reported that the Pentagon was making it difficult for the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction to investigate reports of gross waste and mismanagement by the now-defunct, five-year Task Force for Business Stability Operations. One of its projects, a gas station, cost 140 times what it should have.
How U.S. Commanders Spent $2 Billion of Petty Cash in Afghanistan Read more.
The $25 Million Building in Afghanistan Nobody Needed Read more.
Since then, several members of Congress have demanded that the Pentagon cooperate fully with SIGAR.
The Defense Department has been unable to provide a reasonable explanation for why it only restricted SIGAR when the inspector general turned his attention to the troubled task force and how the department will work with SIGAR in the future. The DOD has been legally required to provide free access to the inspector general since SIGAR'S inception in 2010.
Here's the background: After receiving numerous complaints about the task force, called TFBSO, SIGAR launched an investigation. As it typically does, the inspector general requested task force documents. But the Pentagon refused to comply, telling SIGAR that it was placing new rules and restrictions on access. The Pentagon told SIGAR that it must review the documents in a DOD-controlled "reading room" in Washington and any documents SIGAR wanted to take must first have names redacted. The DOD said it believed SIGAR had inappropriately released documents with names of service members in response to an unrelated Freedom of Information Act request from ProPublica.
In response to questions from ProPublica, Lt. Col. Joseph Sowers, a DOD spokesman, insisted this wasn't a new policy, but a "common sense safeguard."
That safeguard, however, has only applied to task force documents 2014 not any other material requested by SIGAR that contained names. That contradiction prompted SIGAR to call DOD's explanation a "red herring."
When ProPublica asked the Pentagon why the restrictions weren't applied across the board, the agency fumbled to find an answer.
First DOD officials said that "the same ground rules" would apply to all future SIGAR requests. But when asked how this would work in Afghanistan, where SIGAR has 35 people and there is no reading room, officials backpedaled. They couldn't answer questions about where SIGAR staff would read the documents, who would redact the sometimes thousands of pages in a SIGAR request, or even whether Army Gen. John Campbell, who oversees the military in Afghanistan, was involved in the decision.
The Pentagon then said the restrictions would not, after all, apply to every future SIGAR request. Instead the Pentagon would decide on a "case by case basis." DOD officials wouldn't say what criteria would be used to decide whether the documents would be restricted or who would make the decision.
Sowers said that regardless of the reading room requirements, SIGAR has "unfettered access" to do its job and evaluate the TFBSO. SIGAR, however, called the restrictions borderline obstructive and said at the very least they violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the inspector general act and the law that established SIGAR.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and several other senators have said they are concerned not just with the Pentagon's policy for SIGAR, but also with the wasteful spending of the task force. That includes building the gas station, which cost $43 million dollars when it should have cost between $200,000 and $500,000. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has called a hearing next month on the gas station. Grassley has demanded the Pentagon turn over all the task force documents to his office, and has asked the DOD inspector general to launch its own investigation into the task force.
In addition to auditing the task force, SIGAR's criminal division is also conducting several investigations into the task force, but cannot comment on specifics, according to Grassley.
"I expect the Pentagon to cooperate fully with the inspector general and with my office in all inquiries involving the task force," he said in a statement. "With the poor track record reported on the auditing side, there's reason to be skeptical on the level of cooperation with the inspector general on the criminal side."
Grassley is also seeking answers about the allegations of Army Col. John C. Hope, the former director of operations of the task force. Hope said he is being retaliated against for "speaking the truth" about a lack of accountability with the task force in an official Army report, according to a letter Grassley wrote to Defense Secretary Ash Carter this week. Hope claims his evaluation is being purposefully withheld, which jeopardizes his next assignment and affects possible promotion.
Brian McKeon, the deputy under secretary of defense who made the decision to restrict SIGAR's access to the documents, is Hope's senior evaluator. McKeon, as well as the former task force director, Joseph Catalino, are responsible for completing Hope's evaluation.
"Neither has reportedly signed [the evaluation]," Grassley wrote to Carter, and "both would have received Hope's highly critical [report] about a total 2018lack of accountability' at TFBSO."
The Pentagon said it was agency policy not to speak about individual officer evaluations. "We welcome continued review by SIGAR in their effort to ensure the TFBSO activities are properly assessed and analyzed," Sowers said.
Grassley has asked Carter to step in personally.
"If the Pentagon is retaliating against someone for speaking out on poor accountability and wasteful spending, that's unacceptable," Grassley said in a statement. "It's detrimental to the individual and to the taxpayers."
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.