There's a lot more to the story of congressional angst over the performance of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) than was told in today's article by the Associated Press.
The AP story mentions a letter from Sens. Tom Coburn, R-OK, Susan Collins, R-ME, and Claire McCaskill, D-MO, sharply criticizing the SIGAR office for failing to recruit competent staff, focusing on the wrong issues (like female participation in the Afghan elections), and an overall lack of auditing and investigative reports since the office was established over a year ago.
But the letter is only the latest in a long series of congressional criticisms of the office. SIGAR was established in 2008 to oversee some $39 billion of U.S. taxpayer funds that have been appropriated for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. To date, the office has received $23 million for its work.
McCaskill and others have been critical of SIGAR all year, and not just based on the three items found in Tuesday's letter. This October memo being circulated by Hill staffers, and obtained by The Cable, gets at a more fundamental concern: that the quality and content of SIGAR's audits and reports are seen in Congress as shoddy and substandard.
For example, SIGAR's first audit on the Defense Department's Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), which oversees the development of the Afghan security forces, is only four pages long and makes no mention of whether the $400 million spent on a training contract there was well used.
"It appears to have been written in such a way that SIGAR could say they had at least one audit complete before they were in existence for a year," the congressional memo states.
SIGAR's second audit is only two pages long, not counting appendices and the title page and table of contents, and devoid of any real breakthroughs as well, according to the memo. The criticisms go on and on.
When writing about the Afghanistan presidential elections in SIGAR's sixth audit, SIGAR said that the U.S. should "continue to build the [Independent Election] Commission's capabilities so that democratic principles and the electoral processes are sustained," barely mentioning the widespread fraud in that election and also failing to comment on what happened to the some $500 million of U.S. funds committed to that effort.
In an audit about the Commander's Emergency Response Program, which is a pool of money given to military commanders to address short-term needs with little oversight, auditors "did not visit any CERP sites nor did they cite any examples of wasted taxpayer dollars or funding that could have been better utilized," according to the memo.
SIGAR's assistant inspector general in charge of audits, John Brummet, defended the organization's work in an interview Wednesday with The Cable.
For example, regarding CSTC-A, Brummet said that his office's audit "was high-value work and we were able to get some significant changes in the contract oversight performed by CSTC-A." As for why SIGAR didn't examine the contractor directly, Brummet said he simply didn't have enough auditors to do the job, a problem that both SIGAR and Congress have been working on.
Regarding the Afghanistan elections, Brummet said SIGAR is conducting public-opinion polls in Afghanistan to gauge how much fraud was present in the elections. He again pointed to the lack of personnel needed to do more investigative work.
Overall, Brummet acknowledged that SIGAR's audits and investigations has resulted in zero returned taxpayer dollars, and that zero contractors have been disbarred as a result of SIGAR's audits and investigations.
"Our critics want us to spend more time focused on the performance of contractors and that's what we're trying to do right now, to expand that work," he said.
Brummet also commented on some of the numerous stories circulating about SIGAR's interactions with both the State and Defense Departments. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul won't give SIGAR enough housing space for its employees there, packing four to six employees into a single shipping container-sized unit in some cases.
"Having people that have distinguished professional careers and asking them to go share a hooch with five other people is tough," he said.
He also responded to the concern that SIGAR is too close to the Pentagon, specifically Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn. Lynn is said to be the administration's point man on engaging Congress regarding concerns about SIGAR, and Brummet confirmed that Lynn has written a response to Congress regarding another letter senators sent to SIGAR. He couldn't explain why Lynn and the Pentagon were charged to write on behalf of SIGAR, which Hill sources expressed concerns about considering that SIGAR is supposed to be overseeing the work of the Defense Department.
The SIGAR website also is hosted by the military.
Lastly, Brummet confirmed that SIGAR's chief, Special Inspector General Arnold Fields, was scheduled to travel to Kabul to attend the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai but then cancelled his trip after discussions with the State Department.
The posture of McCaskill's office in the SIGAR scandal is curious as well. After coming to Congress and joining the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2006 pledging to be an outspoken champion of oversight and reform, McCaskill has been relatively quiet this year, perhaps so as not to openly criticize the administration of the president whose campaign she cochaired.
There will be a hearing on SIGAR's oversight work on Dec. 17, but that's nine months after McCaskill wrote her first letter, which said that 2009 would "be a critical year for the fledgling democracy in Afghanistan."
UPDATE: A SIGAR spokesperson called into The Cable to add some more information to the story. The problem of bad living conditions in Kabul is widespread and doesn't represent a specific embassy action against SIGAR, the spokesman said. Also, the spokesman relayed that the lack of auditors that hampered SIGAR's investigative abilities early on has now been largely corrected.
UPDATE2: Adrianne Marsh, the communications director for McCaskill, called in to vigorously dispute the characterization that the senator has been "relatively quiet this year" in chairing the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. "This is a commitment and it doesn't matter who the president is," she said, pointing to numerous press statements
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.