World
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.

 

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Courtesy: ProPublica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons from Bejing: Why India must rethink industries, technology
As I write this, I spot over a dozen Chinese men outside my Beijing hotel room wearing air purifier masks on their faces - the price they paid for technology. It stirred some alarming thoughts about where India is heading, and why India has a need to rethink each of its steps towards technological advancement.
 
In this world of homogenization, all metros seem the same, Berlin to Beijing - glittering malls, tall building, fast food and speedy cars.
 
Beijing was also no different from Delhi except for Mandarin on its billboards and it gave the look of what Delhi could be few years ahead -- high speed metros, better looking cars, better looking buildings, cleaner and orderly streets, but men much petite.
 
As high as my expectations were, from a country pioneering in technology, to be battling its pollution levels and other effects of technology, the country seemed to have lost equally bad in its struggle.
 
Living in Delhi, pollution was something which I could see around, but Beijing also got me to experience it. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, my nostrils were flaring up, being an asthma fighter, immediately finding it difficult to breathe. Although there have been attempts from the Chinese government -- denying registrations to older cars and factories -- to fight their pollution monster, the issue seems to be not all that simple to settle the fight.
 
Some of China's pollution fighting technologies earlier, which ran on coal-generated electricity, thereby contributed to higher carbon emissions although air quality would get better - a technology to fight another technology.
 
Result was the sight of a huge population - young to old - donning air purifiers, attempting to breathe cleaner air. Although these air purifiers could filter particulate contaminants in the air there is no evidence that these filters could help in long-term.
 
According to the US Department of State Air Quality Monitoring Program's 'Mission China', the air quality index for Beijing on any average 24 hours of a day shows "unhealthy for sensitive groups" - nearly as unhealthy as smoking 40 cigarettes a day, as per a study.
 
The classic Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City shots at night that I sought as a tourist were rather hazy owing to the smog and were tough to crack them right.
 
The average PM2.5 levels figured between 101-150, as against the safe 0-50 level, and even touched the '"unhealthy" level (151-200) at night. These levels, according to the department, means "active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion"
 
India, which is still on its road to technological advancement, aims at replicating the Chinese ways, be it "Make in India", be it attracting Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) for its industries and businesses. But its capital city Delhi's air pollution already has touched "hazardous" levels.
 
As per the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the PM2.5 levels in Delhi's air are always above the prescribed safe levels of 60 with an average of 100 units of particulate matter pollution in the air, reaching levels as high as 300 during winters. Delhi has bagged the spot of its competitor Beijing, which was considered to be the most polluted city for long.
 
According to a World Health Organization study last year the concentration of PM2.5 was higher in Delhi than in Beijing, proving Delhi to have the filthiest air in the world.
 
Shouldn't these be indicators for India to rethink technology, industries?
 
Beijing has now assumed its path of green energy, and shut some of its conventional coal-run industries, electricity out of coal to adopt gas-run methods and other non-conventional methods and has improved its air quality much better than before.
 
It was a much needed move for Beijing, to have cleaner means of transportation. A simple move to have "only bicycle" track has helped Beijing a lot - persuading many to use their bicycles or electric bikes. On a majority of the days, there were more bicycles than there would be cars on the road, a solution Delhi needs.
 
Whereas studies on Delhi have been bringing out even horrific angles to the city's pollution. The most recent study by University of Surrey shows that Delhi's air has a "toxic blend" of geography, poor energy resources and unfavourable weather that dangerously "boosts" its pollution.
 
Delhi, I hope you're listening.
 
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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COMMENTS

Silloo Marker

2 years ago

The above article on very high pollution levels in China and now in Delhi, creates fear of worse things to come unless we clean up our act. Fear seems to be the key to a lot of things we do or not do in life today. This clouds our thinking and does not allow us to work out reasonable solutions with a calm mind. Breathing clean air is not just the responsibility of some government, it can only happen if everyone decides to drive less and walk more, to share more (yes, even one's prized car or TV or computer), to take what one needs and not give in to greed. Technology does not play a part till people put some common sense into play first. Silloo Marker

Volkswagen hit with Australian lawsuit over emissions scandal
 Troubled German carmaker Volkswagen has been hit with its first Australian class action lawsuit for selling vehicles that contained emissions defeating devices.
 
Bannister Law on Monday said it has filed two class actions against the German auto-giant in Australia's federal court which could amount to billions of dollars in financial compensation for the estimated 91,000 affected local cars, Xinhua news agency reported.
 
"In supplying cars containing the defeat device, the statutory guarantee was not complied with. If we're successful on that part of the claim, the customer may be entitled to a refund of the purchase," class principal Charles Bannister said in a statement.
 
Earlier in October, Volkswagen announced a recall of 91,000 Volkswagen and Audi automobiles, sold between 2008 and 2015 that have been caught up in the global diesel emissions-rigging scandal, putting it in line with the German head office's plans to start recalling up to 11 million diesel vehicles world-wide starting in January.
 
Volkswagen has suspended local sales of affected vehicles fitted with 1.6 or 2.0-liter EA189 diesel engines after talks with Australia's government over how it would deal with the problem.
 
Australian regulators are currently investigating the troubled auto-giant and have warned that the company faces millions of dollars in possible fines for breaking mandatory safety standards and misleading customers. 
 
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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