Thankless DOD Inspector General routinely ignored

What do you call someone with all of the authority to hold public officials accountable, but none of the power required to enforce anything? An inspector general.

At the office of the Department of Defense Inspector General (DOD IG), a roster of 63 unfinished cases reveals how Pentagon offices have ignored or not completed, sometimes for several years, IG recommendations to take corrective “actions” for various degrees of Pentagon mismanagement, poor accounting and other legal concerns.

According to the DOD IG’s latest semiannual report to Congress, at the end of fiscal 2012 the types of “actions pending” on IG audits ranged from updating Defense Department security clearance guidance, some of which dated as far back as 1987, to accurately tabulating overtime hours at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, cancelling poorly-planned wind turbine projects in Alaska, and determining the legality of using military surveillance assets to fight wildfires in the United States.

The list reveals how the inspector general is trying to make the Pentagon a somewhat more efficient $600 billion-a-year behemoth. It also is a microscope into bureaucratic minutiae preventing it from happening. At DOD, the IG does not publish full reports until the corrective actions are completed, so the public has no way of knowing exactly what actions have been taken as long as the case remains “pending.”

“Our position is agencies should either implement IG recommendations in a timely fashion or make very public in the record why they disagree,” said Michael Smallberg, who tracks inspector general performance at the Project on Government Oversight. “It seems troubling to me the public can’t see the full version of these reports.”

The topics of pending IG reports range widely from organizational management to combat. After one July 2011 audit of Marine Corps spending in 2008 on the global war on terror, the inspector general called for the Marines to update their “Financial Management Standard Operating Procedure Manual,” which was by then four years old. One year later, the Department of the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, said it needed more time.  

A November 2009 report following DOD’s support for California wildfires the previous two years called for clearer rules on how the military staffs Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) missions. Two years later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon comptroller said they, too, needed more time.

A July 2009 report by the inspector general called on DOD to review the Defense Emergency Response Fund, a kind of slush fund for the former Global War on Terror. The action called on the Pentagon to pull back unused funds passed out to DOD offices and return them to the U.S. treasury. The reason that has not happened? The comptroller needs more time to coordinate, withdraw, and transfer the funds.

In fact, the excuse of needing “extended time” to complete the inspector general’s recommended action is given by 27 government offices.

Some uncompleted recommendations seem to have been overtaken by events. In December 2008, the inspector general asked the Marine Corps to update its guidance for rushing Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPS) to the field -- a top priority of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Marines told the IG they waited for the Joint Staff to revise its guidance first. The Joint Staff did not finish that revision until January 2012. The Marines, as of September, had updated theirs.

Bridget Serchak, spokeswoman for the DOD inspector general, in an emailed response to the E-Ring, said: “Due to the complexity of DoD programs and operations, some of the recommendations made in DoD IG audit reports are expected to take extended periods of time to resolve.”

“While it is the responsibility of the recipients of the recommendations to implement them, our role is to continue seek resolution of our recommendations through our follow up process. In each Semiannual Report, we provide an accounting to Congress of the status of open recommendations more than a year old, as required in the IG Act.”

But POGO has said federal inspector generals should not get off the hook so easy. In a detailed 2009 report, the watchdog argued that IGs must use “the power of persuasion…. To have impact, the IG's work must be shouted from the rooftops, not hidden modestly behind protestations that ‘we don't leak,’ or ‘we aren't aiming for headlines,’ or even, ‘IGs don't talk to the press.’”

In 2009, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) pressed the Pentagon and other agencies on their backlogs. The Pentagon at the time was the third-worst in government. In 2010, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), then-ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, pressed agencies to follow Waxman’s recommendations.

“The more effective IGs know how to work with Congress and the media,” Smallberg said. He cited two examples: Neil Barofsky, former special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (SIGTARP), and the Securities and Exchange Commission inspector general, who went to Congress to press for reforms after the SEC missed the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, Smallberg argued.

The bottom line, he argued, is that IG reports are about the bottom line.

“Sometimes these issues can get buried…you don’t know how many of these ongoing investigations involve taxpayer dollars still going wasted.”

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