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Afghanistan Watchdog Hunts $36 Million White Elephant

Photograph of the Afghanistan White Elephant Building

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concluded a nearly two-year investigation into the construction of a $36 million U.S. Marine command and control center in southwestern Afghanistan. The 64,000 square foot facility at Camp Leatherneck, the so-called “64K building,” was completed in 2013 but was never used by the Marines.

In July 2013, Special Inspector General John Sopko sent an alert letter to then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the commanders of U.S. forces in Afghanistan expressing concern that the 64K building would either be razed or turned over to the Afghans, who lacked the ability to maintain it. Sopko was dismayed to learn that the military had determined long before construction began that there was no need for the facility, yet they still went ahead with the project and continued to make improvements and upgrades until early 2013.

“Military officials explained this is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general—once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop,” Sopko wrote. SIGAR launched an investigation into the ill-fated project. On Tuesday, it released a report of its findings.

The report recounts the troubling backstory of the 64K building. The Pentagon requested funds for the facility in early 2010 to prepare for the upcoming troop surge. Three generals requested that the facility not be built, finding that existing resources at Camp Leatherneck were sufficient. That request was countermanded by a more senior general, “who believed that it would not be ‘prudent’ to cancel a project for which funds had already been appropriated by Congress,” according to SIGAR.

The contract to build the facility was awarded in February 2011 to AMEC Earth and Environmental. Construction began in May 2011, shortly before the surge started drawing down and the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan began shrinking. It was completed in April 2013—about seven months after the surge ended. In October 2014, the unused building was transferred to the Afghan government. According to ProPublica, the 64K building—or at least part of it—currently serves as the headquarters of a small Afghan regiment.

As readers of this blog know, the Pentagon and the Afghanistan reconstruction watchdog have a somewhat strained relationship. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that military officials attempted to “slow roll” and otherwise frustrate SIGAR’s investigation. The report documents how a senior officer coached witnesses and advised personnel not to respond to SIGAR’s questions and document requests.

SIGAR recommended disciplining the general who green-lighted the construction, as well as the officers who tried to undermine the investigation. The Department of Defense disagreed, asserting that their conduct did not “represent misconduct warranting consideration of administrative or disciplinary action.” Aside from a vague promise to improve cooperation with SIGAR audits and investigations, the Department rejected all of the report’s recommended reforms and will not hold anyone accountable for the 64K building boondoggle.

Meanwhile, another SIGAR investigation touched off a minor firestorm in Washington. On Tuesday, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) took to the House floor to decry the ongoing fraud, waste, and abuse in Afghanistan. His outrage was stirred by a recent SIGAR audit that found defense contractor Jorge Scientific, already in hot water for employee alcohol and drug abuse in Afghanistan, could not account for $135 million in contract costs.

By: Neil Gordon
Investigator, POGO

Neil Gordon, Investigator Neil Gordon is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Neil investigates and maintains POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

Topics: Contract Oversight

Related Content: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Contractor Accountability, Iraq & Afghanistan Reconstruction Contracts

Authors: Neil Gordon

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