The Pentagon’s PR War Against SIGAR

Last week, USA Today reporter Tom Vanden Brook revealed that commanders of U.S. forces in Afghanistan are deploying an aggressive public relations strategy against the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which frequently criticizes the $100 billion (and growing) Afghanistan rebuilding effort.

For example, SIGAR last week released an inspection report that found a hospital in northeastern Afghanistan costing U.S. taxpayers $600,000 lacks adequate water, sewer, electrical, and heating systems and is in danger of collapse in the earthquake-prone region. On the same day, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), the central command for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, issued a news release lauding the hospital and refuting some of SIGAR’s alarming findings—even though, as this Army memo reveals, military officials have not inspected the hospital in recent months due to the worsening security situation in that part of the country.

It turns out that the content and timing of this news release is part of a larger public relations campaign by the military to counterbalance the often-unfavorable findings of SIGAR, which is led by the outspoken John Sopko. A slide presentation prepared last year for Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top American commander in Afghanistan, outlines a meticulous, coordinated strategy to push the military’s spin before the public sees SIGAR’s audit and inspection reports. In the blunt military parlance of the slide presentation, the goal is to “[build] the right combination of ammunition to achieve desired effects on a specified target.” The bottom of this particular slide contains a rather amusing duck hunting analogy, which was reportedly removed before General Dunford saw the presentation: “In the past we may have shot where we saw the duck, but now, with our plan of action—we will bag our limit of birds before Mr. Sopko wakes up to feed his dogs.”

Sopko responded to this revelation in his characteristically pugnacious manner. “It’s disappointing to see that funds appropriated by Congress are being used by elements of the Department of Defense to misrepresent the work of an independent inspector general,” Sopko told USA Today. “American taxpayers would be better served if ISAF [International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan through which USFOR-A issued the news release] spent less time writing misleading press releases and more time fixing the problems we’ve identified.” When it comes to SIGAR, you need to get up pretty early to beat this (watch)dog.

The military’s duck hunting strategy is a somewhat clumsy attempt to undermine SIGAR’s oversight efforts. Other agencies, however, are pursuing more drastic methods. As the Project On Government Oversight blogged last week, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) tried unsuccessfully to stop SIGAR from publicly releasing its findings that $1 billion in aid to the Afghan government is at high risk of misuse and corruption.