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One Pentagon Agency Lost Track of $800 Million—But Now We're Spending Even More on Defense

Because national defense is our government’s top priority, Pentagon spending demands close scrutiny

"Keeping track of the people's money," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has mused, "may not be in the Pentagon's DNA." And last Monday's Politico report on the audit results for a Pentagon division, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), is unlikely to raise his hopes.

The DLA, which Politico describes as "the Walmart of the military," does not know what happened to more than $800 million U.S. taxpayer dollars. The money is thought to have gone to construction expenses, but there is no documentation to that effect. Worse yet, the loss apparently did not come as a surprise to the auditors, who reportedly warned that "across the board," the agency's "financial management is so weak that its leaders and oversight bodies have no reliable way to track the huge sums it's responsible for," sums like a budget of $40 billion per year.

Such stories of Department of Defense (DOD) waste and irresponsibility are a dime a dozen—this is, after all, the department of the infamous $640 toilet seat and the $435 hammer.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study in 2015, for example, found the Marine Corps could not account for the same whopping sum of $800 million. Even more appalling, the Pentagon lost track of $45 billion—one-third of its entire reconstruction budget—in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2015.

Also in Afghanistan, in 2010, a McClatchy investigation found, the DOD concealed bad spending by simply deciding that any result of a major expenditure was an acceptable result: "Rather than scrap a project that's failing, the government sometimes rewrites the contract to require only the work that's been done and declares the effort a success." In Iraq in 2004, the military spent $75 million to build a police academy. By 2006, it became evident "the building was so poorly constructed that feces and urine rained from the ceilings in student barracks," with one room so perpetually wet it was nicknamed "the rain forest."

These fiscal failures are not anomalies. Again and again, the military has sunk billions into weapons systems that were never used while maintaining an enormous and costly facilities surplus because Congress prohibits downsizing through a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) even though Defense Secretary Mattis has pleaded for it. A comprehensive Reuters probe in 2013 found some "$8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out to the Pentagon since 1996 … has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China's economic output [for 2012]." It also exceeds $26,000 from every person in America—and it seems safe to assume that number has only increased in the five years since.

It is against this stunning backdrop of waste that the Defense Department is about to get even more money. President Trump signed a $700 billion military budget in December, and assuming Congress eventually gets its spending negotiations settled, the Pentagon will be able to lose money at record levels. For 2019, Trump wants to hike that budget yet again.

This is madness. The DLA is responsible for less than 6 percent of that $700 billion, and it just got caught wasting $800 million. Imagine what is being wasted in the other 94 percent of the DoD. We gloss over these astronomical figures when the Pentagon is involved, but $800 million is a lot of taxpayer money. It is hundreds, maybe thousands, of times more money than you or I will ever see in our entire lifetimes. And that is the waste of just one small portion of the military bureaucracy.

We don't know the full extent of Defense Department waste because the Pentagon's first full audit (of which the DLA inspection is a portion) is still underway. All federal agencies have been subject to mandatory annual audits for more than two decades, but the DoD has avoided this basic accountability measure until now.

As a DLA statement for the Politico story noted, it is to be expected that these first-year audit results will not be good. We already know the Pentagon's books are a mess, so there is no reason to be surprised when auditors demonstrate exactly that. As the DLA representative said, "The key is to use auditor feedback to focus our remediation efforts and corrective action plans and maximize the value from the audits."

Like any other agency of the federal government, the key is not simply to paper over deep mismanagement problems with so much funding that the Pentagon feels little urgency to fix itself. Without accountability, this type of mismanagement will continue.

We can tell from these preliminary results and the patchwork of past exposés of fiscal mismanagement that the Pentagon has more money than it needs to meet current policy benchmarks. In other words, even before we address whether our foreign policy is what it ought to be—even before we ask whether our military needs to be doing everything it currently does—we already know the Pentagon has money to waste. We know because it being wasted right now.

To give the Defense Department more money without making sure the waste is addressed is foolish and strategically unwise.

Photo Credit: Ben Sheldon/flickr

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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  • Rich||

    the agency's "financial management is so weak that its leaders and oversight bodies have no reliable way to track the huge sums it's responsible for"

    "Leaders"? "Responsible for"? Apparently these words have strange technical meanings for the DLA.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    What pacifist poppycock! What next, count every bullet fired and only hire soldiers with Accounting degrees?

  • gordo53||

    The Pentagon budget is the largest single source of illicit political money. It is in essence a political slush fund. Money "disappears" every day. Billions are pilfered every year. Why do you think there are Pentagon contractors in EVERY SINGLE congressional district? And please, don't take my word for it. Look it up.

  • Wizard4169||

    They call it "political engineering". Spread production out over as many congressional districts as possible, since no congresscritter is going to be eager to shut down even the most wasteful program when it's "providing jobs" in his district.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    No need for the link - the article tells how to make that kind of money and then some.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    I think they're laundering money out of the Pentagon.

  • Conchfritters||

    By 2006, it became evident "the building was so poorly constructed that feces and urine rained from the ceilings in student barracks,"

    Is that the proper way to "make it rain"?

  • Jr12||

    "Because national defense is our government's top priority..." Haha, this is a joke. There certainly is national defense from armies of conquest, but only the foreign terrorists and criminals that cooperatively stop at border checkpoints for background vetting is a priority. All foreign terrorists and criminals that sneak over the border are not only not a priority, but are completely ignored, thereby transferring all the risks of illegal foreign entry to the population as well as all the costs of illegal foreign criminality to state and local funding.

    This double dipping into the tax kitty, so as confiscate local taxes to resolve as criminality, the very same foreign aggression for which the population is already taxed federally as national defense, is one of the most successful political scams ever perpetrated on a population. Even the official Libertarian Party supports it; apparently no different from the rest of D.C.'s money grubbers.

  • Hank Phillips||

    When the Saracens and Communists went broke buying war toys the news called it aggressive stockpiling. So why is ours defense spending when all we do is bomb non-Saudi primitives on the other side of the planet?

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    You have to love how we're told we have a massively shrinking navy that is being out built by the Chinese, however, with the spending we do you have to ask why. Is anyone shocked that when Rand Paul wanted to audit the Pentagon not a single other person in government was backing him up?

  • Longtobefree||

    Maybe if we didn't ship money out of the country on pallets?

  • retiredfire||

    $800 million out of a budget of $40 billion is only 2%.
    Yes, it is a lot of money but a pretty small percentage.
    Other government agencies consider a 10% loss to "waste, fraud and abuse" as not only acceptable but the effort to address would be too costly to make it worth it.
    Let's face it; we have a large country, with a huge population (third in the world) and the size, and subsequent cost, of government that has grown to accompany it is really beyond what the average person could imagine.
    $800 million, spread out over our population is about $2.50 per person.

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