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Seeing Red

Welcome to the Pentagon, where money is no object

By Christopher Weir

WHEN THE General Accounting Office released its scathing condemnation of the Pentagon a few weeks back, the story was all but overlooked by the mainstream press. What with O.J. trial analysis, Oscar nominations and Michael Jackson's baby, the Pentagon scored a public relations coup in what could have been a national scandal.

"No military service or other major Department of Defense component has been able to withstand the scrutiny of an independent financial statement audit," the GAO concludes wearily in its 1997 "high risk" report. "This situation is one of the worst in government and is the product of years of neglect."

The GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, found that the Pentagon is still "vulnerable to billions of dollars being wasted on excess supplies and millions of dollars in contractor overpayments." The report is the latest in a GAO effort to review the federal program areas "identified as high risk because of vulnerabilities to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement."

The report also echoes concerns raised in a recent Metro cover story, "Black Hole" (Jan. 9), which explored the hazards of secret or "special access" defense programs. Collectively known as the "black budget," these programs operate without broad congressional or internal oversight.

Says Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, "One has to be concerned that special access programs are receiving even less oversight than others. ... Of course, a lot depends on the people involved. There are some program managers who are capable of running an honest program in secrecy. But the less oversight, the more prone the activity is to abuse."

Indeed, the GAO's recommendations suggest that secrecy is incompatible with sound program management: "Continued close Congressional oversight is key to helping to ensure that financial resources are not wasted through the acquisition of additional inventories that are not needed and that DOD obtains the tools necessary for efficient and effective inventory management."

George Stalcup, the GAO's associate director for defense financial audit issues, maintains, however, that the Pentagon is on the right track, secret or not. "We're pleased that the Department of Defense has acknowledged the significance and severity of the problems," he says. "But the mere size of the department, and the size and complexity of some of the programs, make it a big challenge. It's not something that's going to happen overnight."

The GAO report nevertheless contains several passages hinting that the Department of Defense is mired in an institutional lethargy that is hobbling its commitment to fiscal and managerial reform. "As a result of the lack of progress with some of the key initiatives," the GAO says, "it has become increasingly difficult for inventory managers to manage DOD's multibillion-dollar inventory supply system efficiently and effectively."

There are those who would suggest that a bloated and unaccountable Pentagon is what allows us to sleep well in a volatile world. But the GAO's findings can hardly constitute a comforting lullaby for the average taxpayer.

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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