True accountability

Published 8:42 pm Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ever since the news leaked in August that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates intended to close U.S. Joint Forces Command, folks in Suffolk, along with their Hampton Roads neighbors, have been understandably focused on the potential effects of that decision in regards both to the local economy and to national security.

Gates and his spokesmen at various meetings and hearings assured elected officials from the mayor on up that the Pentagon had thoroughly researched the matter before deciding on a plan of disestablishment. Closing the command would provide significant savings, they promised, and the safety of American military units would not be compromised.

But careful questioning on Capitol Hill, coupled with the pressure of an election that put the House of Representatives in the hands of Republicans, finally revealed that Pentagon officials had actually done precious little of the accounting that would bolster their case for savings at the expense of JFCOM. They seemed to be building a case to support their proposal, rather than making proposals based on collected evidence.

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Gates’ Capitol Hill defense on Wednesday of the Obama administration’s plan to cut an additional $78 billion from the defense budget was JFCOM in microcosm. The plan relies in part upon overly optimistic assumptions about our future in Afghanistan, for instance. And — as was the case with JFCOM — there was little or no communication with congressional armed services panels prior to its announcement.

Most notably, however, there is little reason for confidence in the Pentagon’s savings projections, considering a recent report by the nonpartisan General Accounting Office. The GAO stated in December that it could not render an opinion on the U.S. government’s financial statements, in large part because of “serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense (DOD) that made its financial statements unauditable.”

In fact, according to a 2009 report by Economist Robert Higgs, the Pentagon has failed to perform a financial audit since it was first required by law to do so in 1994, complaining to Congress each year that its accounts are in such a mess that an audit is impossible.

In retrospect, the most frightening thing about the JFCOM closure process was the shoulder-shrugging attitude the Pentagon displayed to questions that called on some knowledge of defense accounts. Pentagon officials seemed to be saying, “There’s no way to know exactly how much we’d save by closing JFCOM, but we’re sure it’s worth doing, nonetheless.”

Even more frightening is the realization that the entire defense budget — not to mention the fighting men and women and the tools of their trade that the budget buys each year — are all being held hostage to this financial indignity.

Whatever happens between Congress and the president this year regarding the defense budget, one thing that must be demanded is true and literal accountability on the part of the Pentagon. The time for excuses is long gone.