Oink oink at the Pentagon (Letter to the Editor)

This letter first appeared inThe Washington Timeson Nov. 6, 2005.

It's a major step forward when significant pro-defense publications such as The Washington Times express heartburn about the sorry state of financial management in the Defense Department ("Finding pork at the Pentagon," Editorial, Thursday). That you counterpointed former Congressional Budget Office Director Dan Crippen's Op-Ed column ("Defense Needs Auditing," Thursday) on the need to move forward to achieve financial-management competence in the Pentagon with your own editorial will be noticed in the halls of the only major federal agency that remains unaudited and indeed unauditable.

Mr. Crippen ended with an assertion that the size and complexity of the Pentagon is not an excuse for inaction but a reason for moving ahead. Your view seems different: that being the world's largest and most complex organization is a reason to be patient.

In fact, the Pentagon has already been indulged with decades of patience. Since the 1980s, I have been reading studies from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Defense Inspector General and the Congressional Research Service about the Defense Department's books not just failing audits but being incapable of being audited. Promises to fix the problem from both Republican and Democratic secretaries of defense are routine. Plans to get financially healthy pass through the building like the changes of the seasons. The promise of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his comptroller to pass an audit by 2007 surely will pass just as unrealized as former Secretary William J. Perry's and his comptroller John Hamre's did during the Clinton administration.

Why do I think President Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld are no different? In September, the GAO released two new reports showing no progress. Indeed, it found that the Pentagon had "lost visibility of" $7.1 billion appropriated to it by Congress for the war against terror. That means the Pentagon spent it but doesn't know how, when or where.

Moreover, in Mr. Rumsfeld's major drill for departmental "transformation," the Quadrennial Defense Review, due out in February, needed financial-management reforms are being buried under slogans about using "best business practices." What successful business would, or could, tolerate the same chaos in its finances as the Defense Department has permitted for the past 25 years? What competent business would tolerate it for a quarter of that time? Could The Washington Times?

The Pentagon's financial-management incompetence has been so virulent for so long, it is inappropriate to say, as you do, that the Pentagon wants to clean up its books. The building's actions, or lack thereof, speak louder than the words of its transient managers.

You raised very important issues, but indulgence is not a remedy.