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Watchdog Accuses Pentagon of Evading Questions on $800 Million Afghanistan Program

Despite lacking access to key documents and personnel, the inspector general determined that nearly $43 million had been spent on a natural gas station that should have cost closer to $300,000


This story has been updated.


The watchdog charged with overseeing U.S. spending in Afghanistan says the Pentagon is dodging his inquiries about an $800 million program that was supposed to energize the Afghan economy.


John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said the military is restricting access to some documents in violation of law and has claimed there are no Defense Department personnel who can answer questions about the Task Force for Business Stability Operations, or TFBSO, which operated for five years.


"Frankly, I find it both shocking and incredible that DOD asserts that it no longer has any knowledge about TFBSO, an $800 million program that reported directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and only shut down a little over six months ago," Sopko wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter released today.


The Pentagon's claims are particularly surprising since Joseph Catalino, the former acting director of the task force who was with the program for two years, is still employed by the Pentagon as Senior Advisor for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism.


In June, the DOD wrote in an official response to Sopko that it "no longer possess[es] the personnel expertise to address these questions," a point the Pentagon reiterated in October. However, in response to questions from ProPublica Friday, a Pentagon spokesman said in an email that Catalino will be made available for questions. SIGAR had previously spoken to him before the task force shut down in March.


The Pentagon has also refused to allow SIGAR to freely review all the task force documents. Normally the inspector general is simply given the documents it requests, but the Pentagon is insisting that anything related to the task force be read in a DOD-controlled room on DOD computers, and any documents SIGAR wishes to take must first be reviewed and redacted by the Pentagon.


"We have established a reading room at the task force document storage facility specifically for SIGAR use," said Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Department of Defense spokesman, in his email.

These "appropriate security safeguards," as Principal Deputy Under Secretary Brian McKeon called them in a letter to Sopko, "are necessary due to SIGAR's actions that revealed Personally Identifiable Information [PII] in an unrelated incident."


The incident McKeon referenced involved information requested by ProPublica under a Freedom of Information Act request last November. ProPublica sought the Commander's Emergency Response Program database from Afghanistan, which documents how commanders spent money on local projects. SIGAR provided the database, but did not redact names of military personnel, which the Pentagon said should have been done. ProPublica used the database to create an interactive that allows readers to search and sort how the troops spent $2 billion in petty cash.


ProPublica has been analyzing how the Pentagon spent money in Afghanistan, closely tracking waste, such as this $25-million headquarters that no one needed and was never used.


In SIGAR's report, Sopko said he didn't buy the Pentagon's reasoning for not cooperating. SIGAR has refused to abide by the Pentagon's terms because it believes the law does not allow for them.

"SIGAR believes this vague accusation is a red herring intended to divert attention from DOD's continued refusal to answer any questions related to TFBSO activities," the report says. "For example, in response to SIGAR audits and investigations of other matters, DOD has continued to provide unrestricted information and unfettered access requested by SIGAR auditors and investigators."


But in a follow-up email, Sowers said that the Defense Department's general counsel said that it "would expect same ground rules for future requests for unclassified docs containing [personally identifiable information] or other sensitive FOIA exempt info." A SIGAR spokesman said today that the inspector general would wait to comment until officially informed of the broader change in policy.


Despite the Pentagon's restrictions, SIGAR has documented serious problems with at least one chunk of the $800 million tab. The task force spent nearly $43 million to build a compressed natural gas station in Afghanistan with the hopes of helping the country develop its natural resources and become less dependent on foreign fuel imports. The single station was intended as a model that would be replicated in other areas of the country.


The project, SIGAR found, was ill-conceived from start to finish. Were a similar station built in neighboring Pakistan, SIGAR noted, it would cost about $300,000. The task force spent 140 times that. Even factoring in the extra security costs to build in Afghanistan, "this level of expenditure appears gratuitous and extreme," SIGAR wrote.


Cost aside, military planners also failed to account for Afghanistan's lack of a viable local infrastructure to move the natural gas and for the hundreds of millions it would take to build one, SIGAR said.


On an even more prosaic level, the task force forgot to account for one more key item: customers. Besides the 120 cars the United States paid to convert to natural gas, most Afghans have no use for the station. That's because it costs at least $700 in Afghanistan to convert a car from gasoline to natural gas — more than an average Afghan makes in a year.


SIGAR's report has generated outrage among some members of Congress who are unhappy not only about the $43-million gas station, but the Pentagon's lack of cooperation.


"This is shocking in multiple ways. The cost of an unnecessary gas station in Afghanistan skyrocketed to a ridiculous height. Now, the Department of Defense is blocking access to documents and personnel that would shed light on how the money was spent" said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a statement. "The lack of accountability and transparency is disgraceful."


Update, Nov. 2, 2015: This story was updated to include additional information provided by a Pentagon spokesman in an email Sunday afternoon. The email was not released by ProPublica's spam filter until after publication.


ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Courtesy: ProPublica
















Blackmoney: HSBC whistleblower seeks protection to reveal to India
HSBC bank whistleblower Herve Falciani on Monday said he was willing to cooperate with the Indian investigative agencies in probing black-money cases provided he was given protection.
"I have a lot of information about Indians stashing away money abroad but for that I need cooperation and support of the Indian investigation agencies towards the safety of whistleblowers," said Falciani while addressing mediapersons here through videoconferencing.
"If I come to India to help investigators, I will be arrested. I'm not able to share information because of lack of coordination," he added.
Asked if he was looking for money to share information with India, he said, "It is not about the money or becoming rich. I want to help India in tracking down the intermediaries."
Falciani is facing charges in Switzerland of leaking details of bank account holders in Geneva branch of HSBC. The French government, which later accessed the list, shared with India information relating to Indian clients of the bank.
He said that millions of crores are flowing out of India, Russia, Brazil, and Argentina every year.
"We are at economic war and information is the only tool through which we can hold our ground. For a country like India it is necessary to protect the whistleblowers or the insiders who give information," he said.
The central government had formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) on the directions of Supreme Court to probe black money cases. SIT is led by two former apex court judges -- Justices M.B. Shah and Arijit Pasayat.
Earlier in August, Falciani had written to the SIT pointing out how the Indian government did not appear serious about pursuing and tracking down this black-money.
In the letter addressed to SIT head retired Justice Shah, Falciani had pointed out SIT advisor KV Chowdhary had met him on December 15-16, 2014 in Paris where he (Falciani) had advised the Indian investigators to join in and continue the investigation with other countries rather than work with data alone to get limited results.
"There is an urgent need to focus on unraveling the role of financial intermediaries. If this is not done status quo will prevail as far as the black money problem in India is concerned," he had written in the letter to SIT.
Former Aam Aadmi Party leaders Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav were also present in the press conference.
Hitting out at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led-central government for adopting a lax attitude in dealing with black-money Bhushan said the government was not serious in bringing black-money back.
SIT told the government that around Rs.2,71000 crores were invested in the stock market through participatory notes and the anonymity of these holders should not be allowed and their names should be known to the authorities.
"The government has not accepted this recommendation of SIT. Why the government is not implementing the SIT's recommendation for doing away with the anonymity of participatory notes?" he asked.
"It is not willing to provide protection to whistleblowers ready to co-operate and provide crucial data."
Bhushan asked from the government that what action it had taken regarding the foreign accounts of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh's son, as revealed in International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) website.
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.


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