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How a Highly Secret DoD Agency Does Business

In the words of the man in charge, the Air Force’s “Big Safari” is “a secretive and shadowy organization that has been in existence for over 60 years.” That man is Col. Edward Topps, and in a story on Vocativ last week, he said the agency works on some of the Air Force’s “most sensitive projects…all along the lines of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations.”

Vocativ provides more startling info on the more than 60-year-old, highly confidential project. Since 2005, the organization has given out $31 billion in contracts, 96 percent of which were awarded without competition. This is surprising, since Congress passed a 1984 law mandating competitive bidding, except in extreme cases.

Vocativ writer Aram Roston hoped Topps would address this issue when they spoke.

During our brief phone conversation in September, Topps confirmed that his office shuns competitive bidding. “We have used the same contracting procedures for the past 61 years,” he added.

But everything Big Safari does, according to Topps, is within the confines of the law. There are legal exemptions, he told me, “that allow us to do things quick and secretively so that we can make sure that our enemies [don’t find out about it].”

For years, [Charles Tiefer, a] Baltimore law professor, has worked on contracting issues with Congress. But when I told him about my conversation with the colonel, he was surprised. Big Safari, he says, “sounds like a rogue agency. They think none of the laws apply to them.”

There is no group in government, Tiefer says, that has blanket exemptions from the law. They just have to engage in a bidding process in a secretive way. The exemptions, he says, even for national security reasons, are supposed to be made case-by-case. “The head of this agency is a one-man wrecking crew,” he says, “for the federal system of competitive contracting.”

The Project On Government Oversight supports full and open competition in government contracting. Unfortunately, Big Safari’s modus operandi seems to be one example of a well-established pattern. POGO reported earlier this year that a recent Government Accountability Office study found the Department of Defense’s competition rate has been steadily declining in recent years, from 63 percent in 2008 to 57 percent in 2012.

Read more about Big Safari on Vocativ.

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman At the time of publication Avery Kleinman was the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Contract Oversight

Related Content: DOD Oversight, Competition in Federal Contracting, Defense

Authors: Avery Kleinman

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