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The Bunker: Another Failed Audit

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: Accountability MIA for U.S. drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians; how well does the DOD spend your money; military no-shows when it comes to wish lists; and more. Gobble-gobble: no Bunker next week.

(LACK OF) ACCOUNTABILITY 101

What a different six years makes

When the U.S. military attacked a hospital in Afghanistan in 2016, killing 42, it released 726 pages trying to explain the error. When the U.S. military attacked an innocent car in Afghanistan on August 29, killing 10, it released a single page summarizing what happened.

“The Report of Investigation is classified because the required detailed analysis included highly-classified information,” the synopsis said, in one of the strangest circular sentences ever to emerge from the Pentagon. The Defense Department has never been shy about deleting key intelligence information from such investigations and releasing the rest. That makes classifying the entire report puzzling. Traditionally, the Pentagon meekly tries to buffalo its way through such embarrassments by releasing a deluge of documents to explain away what happened. In pre-PDF days, there were many paper-cut casualties among defense reporters.

“The report of investigation is classified and I know you're probably not happy about that,” Air Force Lieutenant General Sami Said, who led the inquiry, told reporters November 3. “But let me tell you, it has to be because the sources and methods and tactics, techniques and procedures used in executing such strikes are classified.”

But don’t worry. “I'm going to do my best to give you the data that you need,” General Said said.

The Bunker is not making this up. But frankly, we’d rather decide what it is we need. “Keeping the investigative report classified is a good way to ensure that the facts are kept from the American people, the victims of the drone strike, the people of Afghanistan, and our military allies,” argues Eugene Fidell, a veteran military legal expert.

Said, the Air Force’s inspector general, said that breakdowns in communications and intelligence were to blame for the errant missile strike. But, he added, there there was no misconduct or negligence warranting discipline for those responsible. Their decision “was not unreasonable,” he said. “It just turned out to be incorrect.” That’s seems like a breathtaking abdication of accountability, especially when the U.S. military elects to withhold the written record used to justify that decision. An active-duty U.S. military officer, writing under a pseudonym in National Review on November 10, said Said’s investigation “simply cleared low-level operators” without holding those higher up in the chain of command to account.

Let’s contrast the two deadly snafus. The 2016 hospital attack occurred mid-war. That’s when the Pentagon pixie dust known as “sources and methods” would have logically led to the release of less, not more, information. In contrast, the August 29 strike happened 48 hours before the U.S. role in Afghanistan came to its ignominious end. Plus, the weapon in the hospital strike was an AC-130 gunship and its crew, crammed with high-tech arms and communications links, not a puny MQ-9 Reaper drone armed with a handful of small missiles. The AC-130 fired 211 rounds at the hospital over 29 minutes; the drone fired a single Hellfire at the white Toyota Corolla. All these facts argue for releasing more information about the 2021 strike than the 2016 attack.

Yet the opposite happened.

It’s depressing to realize we learned more about this strike from a September 10 investigation in the New York Times, published two months before the Pentagon issued its non-report. Such opacity is becoming a habit, as the Times reminded us in its November 13 inquiry into a previously-undisclosed 2019 U.S. air strike on ISIS rebels on the Syrian-Iraq border that killed as many as 64 civilians.

The August 29 Afghan drone-strike report is AWOL—Absent Without Logic. It is an affront to those who died, to the U.S. military which claims it wants to eliminate such tragedies, and to the U.S. taxpayers, who paid $71,000 for the missile that killed three adults and seven kids, and will pay for those yet to come.

DEFENSELESS BUDGETING 101

Consider the source, and follow the money

If you want to know how good a job the Pentagon is doing at spending your money(PDF), be careful who you ask. If he is a former Pentagon chief financial officer, ex-Defense Department comptroller, and a one-time executive director of the American Society of Military Comptrollers, you might not be surprised to a rosy assessment. And, by the way, he also currently serves as a part-time “senior executive adviser” to one of the Pentagon’s biggest contractors (Booz Allen Hamilton, #17), and “senior adviser” to one of the nation’s most Pentagon-dependent think tanks (the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), #6) (PDF).

Bottom line? “Overall, both history and the author’s experience suggest that budget execution performs many tasks well, and DoD should maintain and nurture these successes,” Robert Hale says in his November 2 report for CSIS. Sure, the Pentagon could (1), spend money more efficiently, and (2), its books should be auditable, but it gets “its best marks for helping meet national security objectives—the third and arguably most important goal.”

“…for helping meet national security objectives…”?

We lost our last two wars. We spend more on our military than the next 11 nations combined. What he really means is that “World War III hasn’t broken out and we haven’t all been annihilated, so be grateful.”

Even the Pentagon itself doesn’t see things quite as rosy. “Longstanding financial management challenges continue to impair the DoD’s ability to provide reliable, timely, and useful financial and managerial information needed for accurate budget forecasting and decision making,” Sean O’Donnell, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, said in a November 12 report(PDF) outlining the problems his office plans on tackling next year. “With the DOD’s budget making up about half of the U.S. Government’s discretionary spending and the DOD owning approximately 78 percent ($3.1 trillion) of the U.S. Government’s total assets, the DOD must demonstrate that it is a good steward of taxpayer money.”

That’s not possible so long as the Pentagon’s records are so poor it cannot get a “clean” audit that tracks where its money is coming from, and where it is going to. The Defense Department failed to get a military-wide clean audit for the fourth year in a row in fiscal 2021 (which ended September 30; go figure), according to the official accounting(PDF) released November 16. Yet Mike McCord, the current Pentagon comptroller, says the Defense Department is making “steady progress” even as only eight of 24 military agencies (but none of the services) are likely to get such passing grades this year—the same as last year. That gives the Pentagon’s goal of a military-wide clean audit by 2027 as much a chance of happening as an effective national missile defense system.

But back to that CSIS report. Who does Hale rely on for his conclusions, beyond his own experience? Ten “former military commanders” he interviewed, who maintain “that DOD’s financial people and processes are quite effective at helping meet national security needs.” In fact, when it comes to defense spending, USA is #1: “Interviews with former military commanders strongly suggest that budget execution processes succeeded during the Afghan and Iraq Wars and provided adequate flexibility, but that has not always been the case,” he writes.

Well, guess you have to take your successes where you can find them.

In high school, we called this grading on the curve.

That, of course, has long been the problem with the insidery world of U.S. national security. It reminds The Bunker of those high school days, and the kids eager to win election to the student council. Too often, they were asking the wrong questions. So it should come as no surprise when they’d come up with the wrong answers.

WISH LISTS 101

Who are the skunks at the gorging party?

The gang over at the Congressional Research Service does a great job preparing small summaries on big issues for lawmakers. Think of the CRS as (Olde Fogey Alert) Cliffs Notes for Lawmakers, which gives them more time to solicit campaign contributions.

One of the congressional researchers’ newest such digests is Defense Primer: Department of Defense Unfunded Priorities(PDF). Here at The Bunker, we refer to these annual pleas for more money as “wish lists,” which we have been complaining about for years.

The CRS is a strictly nonpartisan outfit that takes no sides, only quoting what others say. “Some observers have described DOD unfunded priorities as ‘wish lists’ that reduce budget discipline and increase unnecessary spending,” the November 9 report said. “Others have described them as ‘risk lists’ that identify items intended to support strategic objectives.” (Although a quick Google search turns up 20 times more hits for “Pentagon unfunded ‘wish lists’” than it does for “Pentagon unfunded ‘risk lists,’” which suggest such even-handedness may be misleading.)

Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to do away with the lists in 2009, and he succeeded in cutting them by 90%. But the defense chiefs who followed didn’t keep it on their unfun priorities list. Then, Congress passed a law in 2017 requiring the military services, the war-fighting commands, and the Missile Defense Agency, to submit annual reports “listing military programs, activities, or mission requirements that were not included in the President’s annual budget request but that the department would fund with additional appropriations.”

The brass went for the gold. The Army is seeking $6.4 billion more, on top of its $173 billion request(PDF); the Navy and Marines want an additional $9.3 billion atop their $212 billion request; the Air Force needs a $4.2 billion plus-up from its $213 billion request. A dozen other commands did their best impersonations of a skinny, starving Oliver Twist, holding out his tin cup: “Please sir, I want some more.”

Given the way Washington works, who can blame them? What kind of Pentagon idiot is going to spurn free money? Well, two of them, in fact. You’d need a magnifying glass to read it, but a CRS footnote(PDF) to a chart listing the $23.8 billion in wished-for weaponry says that “Strategic Command and Transportation Command did not submit unfunded priorities for FY2022.”

Strategic Command is the outfit in charge of the nation’s nuclear triad, which the Pentagon says is on its last three legs. And Transportation Command is the Pentagon’s Federal Express, shipping troops, arms, and ammo around the world at a moment’s notice.

How could these two vital Defense Department agencies opt out of such a deal? The Bunker’s betting that some hapless colonels neglected to file the right paperwork on time, effectively ending their careers. But one can always hope that Navy Admiral Charles Richard, chief of Strategic Command, and Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost, head of Transportation Command, decided they were satisfied with the amount allotted their commands by the Pentagon’s civilian leaders.

Just don’t expect their fellow generals and admirals to admire their fiscal fortitude the next time they gather in the Pentagon tank. They’ll be silently echoing the line The Bunker sometimes got on his elementary-school report cards: “Doesn’t play well with others.”

WHAT WE'RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Burn pits…are the pits

The Bunker has spent decades reporting on war’s collateral damage. And we’re not using that phrase in its traditional sense, meaning civilian casualties. We’re talking about what happens to the troops who aren’t wounded in combat, but poisoned—often for the rest of their lives. From World War II tests of mustard gas and Lewisite on unknowing military personnel, to nuclear fallout, Agent Orange, and Gulf War Syndrome, the U.S. military has too often treated its personnel as guinea pigs. President Biden has ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to take steps likely to expand how many veterans are eligible for disability payments due to their exposure to toxic smoke from trash-burning pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, Leo Shane III reported in Military Times November 11. About half of the VA’s nearly $250 billion annual budget goes toward such disability payments.

Bombs away!

The Pentagon is pushing against President Biden’s desire for less reliance on nuclear weapons, Bryan Bender, Alexander Ward, and Paul McLeary reported in Politico November 5. Sounds like the latest Nuclear Posture Review, expected early next year, will be another rubber-status-quo-stamp like those that have come before it. The Defense Department’s estimate of China’s nuclear-weapons goal—still far short of what the Pentagon already has—is cited as a major justification for business as usual.

China is trying to close that gap because it is facing growing U.S. pressure over Taiwan and other matters, Tong Zhao, a Beijing-based atomic-arms expert, argued in the November 15 New York Times. “It’s clear to me that Beijing’s nuclear buildup is ultimately an attempt to force Washington to drop the perceived strategic assault and accept a ‘mutual vulnerability’ relationship—in which neither country would have the capability or will to threaten nuclear war without risking its own destruction,” he writes.

Mutually Assured Destruction 2.0, anyone? Madness, indeed.

Sharpshooter

A woman has completed the U.S. Army Sniper Course for the first time, the Montana National Guard reported November 8. “We are extremely proud of this soldier’s achievement and recognize that this is a milestone for not only Montana, but the entire National Guard and Army,” Major General Peter Hronek, the state’s adjutant general, said. “This soldier had to volunteer several times to reach this goal, which is a demonstration of her dedication and commitment to service.” For the time being, the military is not naming her. Guess “Killer” will have to do for now.

Veterans halls…

Membership in the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars has dropped sharply since 9/11. Maureen Drennan photographed some of their “lonely poetry” meeting places in this Veterans Day ode for The Atlantic.

The Reign in Spain Ain’t Interested in the Plane

Spain isn’t interested in buying the U.S.-built F-35 fighter, Defense News reported, squashing rumors that it wanted to purchase Lockheed’s fifth-generation jet. “The case of the prospective F-35 sale to Madrid was particularly sensitive, as Spain is working to establish itself as an equal partner with Germany and France in the Future Combat Air System,” it said (don’t confuse the FCAS with the NGAD—Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter—that the U.S. Air Force is developing). “Giving the impression of flirting with the American product at the same time would have undercut Madrid’s aspirations toward that end.”

And giving the impression of interest in The Bunker could get you branded a ne’er-do-well in the insider world of U.S. national security. But you can take it. And take it Wednesday mornings by signing up signing up here. Once again, we’re taking Turkey week off. See you December 1.