IG slams ‘ill-con­ceived’ project

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

The De­fense Depart­ment spent $43 mil­lion on a com­pressed nat­u­ral gas fu­el­ing sta­tion in Afghanistan, while a sim­i­lar project in Pak­istan cost just $300,000 — and now the Pen­tagon can’t even ac­count for who made the de­ci­sions be­hind the waste, ac­cord­ing to an in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port.

John F. Sopko, the in­spec­tor gen­eral who over­seas U.S. spend­ing on Afghanistan re­con­struc­tion, called the cost for the green en­ergy project ex­or­bi­tant and deemed the project ill-con­ceived.

Just as trou­bling, he said, was the fact that the De­fense Depart­ment said be­cause it had shut down the Afghanistan busi­ness task force that built the project, it was no longer an­swer­ing any ques­tions about the de­ci­sions it made.

“Frankly, I find it both shock­ing and incredible that DOD as­serts that it no longer has any knowl­edge about [the task force], 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,” Mr. Sopko said in a stern let­ter to De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter.

The waste is be­ing re­vealed at a time when the Pen­tagon is about to re­ceive an ex­tra $25 bil­lion in fund­ing for the year, thanks to the debt agree­ment Congress reached last week.

De­fense hawks on Capi­tol Hill, and the Pen­tagon it­self, have said they can­not op­er­ate with­out a huge in­fu­sion of cash.

But the very day the House was vot­ing to ap­prove the deal, a bil­lion-dol­lar mil­i­tary blimp broke free of its moor­ings and floated from Mary­land to Penn­syl­va­nia, drag­ging ca­bles and tear­ing down power lines at it roamed, un­manned. It was even­tu­ally shot down.

The blimp fi­asco left some law­mak­ers ques­tion­ing Pen­tagon spend­ing — par­tic­u­larly since the depart­ment’s own watch­dog has said the De­fense Depart­ment has grown so big so quickly that it is im­pos­si­ble to per­form a com­plete au­dit to cer­tify its fi­nances.

That was ev­i­dent in the case of the gas sta­tion, where the Pen­tagon couldn’t pro­duce some ba­sic doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing backup for an as­ser­tion to Congress about the suc­cess of the pro­gram.

In the case of the gas sta­tion, the goal was to try to demon­strate to Afghanistan the fea­si­bil­ity of us­ing com­pressed nat­u­ral gas, which the coun­try has, rather than re­ly­ing on im­ported oil to fuel ve­hi­cles.

It was a project of the Task Force for Busi­ness and Sta­bil­ity Op­er­a­tions, a Pen­tagon pro­gram de­signed to try to help the econ­omy re­cover from Tal­iban oc­cu­pa­tion and the Amer­i­can-led war that be­gan in 2001.

But Mr. Sopko said the task force didn’t reg­u­larly bother to con­duct fea­si­bil­ity stud­ies for its projects, so in the case of the gas sta­tion it failed to re­al­ize Afghanistan doesn’t have trans­mis­sion or dis­tri­bu­tion in­fras­truc­ture for nat­u­ral gas, mak­ing the project likely a waste from the be­gin­ning.

Afghans couldn’t even af­ford the con­ver­sion nec­es­sary to make their cars able to run on com­pressed nat­u­ral gas, Mr. Sopko said.

The task force plowed ahead any­way, spend­ing $42,718,739 from 2011 through 2014 to build and op­er­ate the sta­tion, though such projects in Afghanistan should cost only about $200,000.

“To date, DOD has been un­able to pro­vide doc­u­men­ta­tion show­ing why the She­berghan CNG sta­tion cost nearly $43 mil­lion,” Mr. Sopko said.

Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, Iowa Repub­li­can, called the gas sta­tion project ridicu­lous but said the Pen­tagon’s at­tempt to stymie the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and not pro­duce the in­voices and pay­ment vouch­ers made mat­ters even worse.

“If those doc­u­ments don’t ex­ist, that’s a huge prob­lem,” he said. “The lack of ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency is dis­grace­ful. The De­fense Depart­ment needs to come clean, drop the ob­fus­ca­tion and hold peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for a colos­sal waste of tax dol­lars.”

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