Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and other lawmakers are outraged over recent revelations that the Pentagon squandered $43 million on a natural gas filling station in war-torn Afghanistan that no one is willing to explain or justify.
The shockingly expensive and marginally useful compressed gas station was built in 2011 as part of an initiative by the Defense Department’s Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFBSO), which was established in 2006 to bring a capitalist economy to Iraq and later Afghanistan. The group spent $766 million on Afghan reconstruction before it was disbanded. Investigators said that the gas station should have cost $500,000 at most to build, and questioned whether there was any market for natural gas to run automobiles and trucks in the country.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, began probing the task force’s operations in December 2014, after receiving tips about mismanagement related to the petroleum and mining sectors, according to Quartz. But TFBSO’s operations were shut down last March and its records were archived before Sopko and his investigators could get their hands on them.
The Defense Department has been treating the documents like top secret intelligence and will only allow Sopko’s staff to review them in a supervised Pentagon reading room. Officials reportedly are worried that the documents will be leaked to the press.
But now Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is in an uproar over the task force, which he considers to be a $766 million “slush fund” at the Pentagon. He has demanded that copies of all documents related to the task force operations between January 2009 and March 31 of this year be delivered to him by Nov. 30.
Grassley said in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter this week that the Pentagon’s resistance to sharing the documents appears to violate the Inspector General Act and “raises concerns about waste, fraud and abuse of federal funding.”
Sopko has been sounding the alarm for years about wasteful U.S. spending in Afghanistan on a far grander scale that frequently fell on deaf ears, or was greeted with denial and evasion by the Pentagon and State Department.
Over the past 14 years, the U.S. has pumped more than $110 billion into building roads, bridges, schools, hospitals – and even a gas station -- in Afghanistan. The Defense Department has also trained and equipped the country’s military to help wean Afghanistan away from U.S. military support.
Sopko spent years documenting waste, fraud and abuse in the U.S. military’s efforts in that country. And in trying to put the magnitude of all that spending in perspective, he once explained that when adjusted for inflation, the total exceeds the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
“Even now, 14 years on and with the U.S. military presence much diminished, nearly $12 billion more in reconstruction funds wait in the financial pipeline, appropriated but not yet spent,” he said in a speech in September. “The United States and our allies have pledged billions more for years to come.”
As The Fiscal Times previously reported, Sopko’s independent government organization over the past four years has issued 136 reports containing nearly 400 recommendations and identified over $1 billion of potential savings. Moreover, SIGAR's investigative unit has conducted 538 investigations. Those produced 73 arrests, 69 convictions or guilty pleas, and more than $500 million of savings.
But an often frustrated Sopko has said that progress has been limited and that many times officials have moved ahead with projects opposed by his office, which led to “massive U.S.-sponsored failures.” Those include: more than $8 billion of spending on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan that failed by every conceivable measure; the purchase of nearly $500 million worth of airplanes that couldn’t fly and had to be scrapped; and the construction of a $500,000 health clinic that lacked water and electricity.
As for the costly natural gas station, Sopko had this to say in his report: “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.”