Time for Pentagon accountability

Published 9:39 pm Wednesday, February 23, 2011

By Congressman J. Randy Forbes

Throughout my time in Congress, one of my key priorities has been to protect and defend the United States of America. As Chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, I have been one of the strongest advocates for a robust national defense; it is the basis of our current national security efforts and is central in determining strategies for our future security needs.

However, I can only remain a strong advocate for a strong national defense that is efficient if we have access to good information.

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Last month, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on budget cuts and efficiencies at the Department of Defense. What came out of that hearing was alarming. Department of Defense officials testified that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates failed to comply with a law requiring auditable financial statements at the Department of Defense.

He didn’t just “miss” this compliance once. Secretary Gates failed to produce auditable financial statements in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 — every year since he has been at the helm of the Department of Defense.

Last week, I questioned Secretary Gates about the audits. Secretary Gates said he was unaware that the Department of Defense was in violation of the law when it did not file audit-ready financial statements in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. This, despite the fact that the Department of Defense’s own website reflects a “high priority” plan to be 100-percent audit-ready by 2010. When questioned about this inconsistency, Secretary Gates admitted that the Pentagon was 100-percent off in its “high priority” goal to be audit-ready by 2010.

In failing to the comply with the audit law, Secretary Gates has placed members of Congress in the untenable position of considering the President’s budget request when no one can even tell Congress where defense dollars have been or where they are going.

There is growing unrest in Congress with the failure of the Department of Defense’s to account for taxpayer dollars and to provide adequate information to establish our future national defense priorities.

Last year, members from 22 states called on the House Armed Services Committee Chairman to subpoena Secretary Gates, based on their frustrations with the unparalleled degree of secrecy at the Pentagon. During his tenure, Secretary Gates has managed $2.5 trillion of taxpayer dollars, and the Department still does not have the ability to show how it is using that money.

With the Pentagon refusing to provide information and showing blatant disregard for Congress’ oversight responsibilities, Congress and the American people should be apprehensive about our defense spending. Most importantly, though, they should be concerned about the enormous impact it has on national security.

Without confidence that the Department of Defense is complying with the law, how can we have confidence in the defense budget, which is, in essence, the structure of any plan to defend the United States? Regardless of where one stands on defense cuts, Americans deserve to know where defense dollars are going and that they are properly accounted for.

Last week, I offered an amendment to the Continuing Resolution, which funds the federal government until September, to cut the Secretary of Defense’s “party” fund, which includes dining and entertainment costs, until the Department of Defense audits its books. I believe the amendment sends a clear message that the Department of Defense is not above the law and that Congress is serious about making the most of all taxpayer dollars spent on defense.

This amendment is just the first in a series of steps to change the culture in the Department of Defense, to renew their accountability to the taxpayers and to Congress. Over the next several weeks, I and several of my colleagues will continue to press the Department of Defense for a full audit of the Pentagon.

Protecting and defending the United States remains one of my key priorities, and I intend to hold the Department of Defense accountable both in its stated priorities for the defense of our country and in the dollars it is spending.

Auditing the Department of Defense will let the Pentagon know that we are no longer going to accept the pattern of secrecy. Our national security is too important, and American taxpayers are too important.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District, which includes Suffolk.