By R. Jeffrey Smith
Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan was not a particularly hospitable base for the tens of thousands of U.S. Marines and other troops who surged there toward the end of the last decade. Sandstorms regularly swept through the treeless landscape, and attacks on the base by Taliban forces claimed lives.
So it was perhaps understandable when the Marines declared an “operational need” in 2010 for a huge headquarters building at the site, to be outfitted with air conditioning, plush seating, and comfortable offices.
But the decision to construct a 64,000-square-foot command and control facility has since come to exemplify the U.S. military’s careless waste in Afghanistan. After $34 million was spent on its construction, the tall, windowless building was never, ever used, except perhaps for target practice by the Taliban, according to U.S. officials. The facility was officially turned over to the Afghan army last fall, but it remains empty and sits in a part of Afghanistan where U.S. personnel rarely if ever travel now.
The question posed by the initial exposure of this costly debacle in July 2013 is, who was responsible? And will anyone in the military be held accountable?
After two internal investigations, and considerable hemming and hawing, the Pentagon’s definitive answer is finally available in a newly released federal report: No one in particular made a bad call, and if the question arose again under similar circumstances today, the same cavernous facility would be still be ordered up. Therefore, no one in the chain of command can or should be held responsible.
This reply has outraged several key lawmakers. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Center for Public Integrity in a written statement that the project was a “boondoggle” and that the Pentagon’s claim that its construction was prudent is “patently false.”
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a ranking member of the governmental affairs permanent investigations subcommittee, similarly called the facility’s construction “one of the most outrageous, deliberate, and wasteful misuses of taxpayer dollars.” She expressed shock that the Pentagon “completely failed to hold any officials accountable after all the facts came to light.”
Their criticisms were shared by the author of the new federal report, John F. Sopko, the presidentially appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR). In the report, he accused a senior Army general of insisting in August 2010 that the facility be completed merely because Congress had already agreed to fund it.
This decision was made over the objections of three generals who were arguably closer to the U.S. military deployments in Helmand province, where Camp Leatherneck was situated, and who were aware that the surge of forces there was unlikely to be long-lasting. One of them sponsored a May 2010 review that declared the command center was “not necessary to execute our mission.” Another general agreed in a memorandum the following month that “this project is no longer required.” And a third said that month that the requirement for a facility “has already been met and thus this project is no longer required.”
These recommendations were rejected by then-Major General Peter M. Vangjel, the deputy commander of the Army’s forces attached to Central Command. He said in a note at the time that because Congress had already approved the construction, shifting those funds to another project was “not prudent”—an apparent reflection of the infamous “use it or lose it” ethos that federal bureaucracies use to keep their spending levels intact.
Vangjel, who went on to become the Army’s top inspector general before retiring in February, told one of Sopko’s aides that his decision was made with the “knowledge that there would be other opportunities to de-scope, or even cancel the project if the situation dictated.” Even though that never happened and the facility was almost fully finished before its abandonment, Vangjel said that in his opinion, proceeding was “the right decision.”
Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, endorsed that decision in a February 9 letter to Sopko, saying he was speaking on behalf of then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Work wrote that a review showed Vangjel’s decision to proceed over the others’ objections “was prudent” because Camp Leatherneck was then “being considered as a potential enduring location for the U.S. military.”
Sopko also said the two internal Defense Department probes of the facility’s construction were flawed. One of the investigators—an Army general named James M. Richardson, falsely claimed to have conducted interviews of key decision-makers, Sopko said. Instead, Richardson later said, all questioning was conducted by email.
Drafts of the second DOD investigation were sent in advance to the Army general who insisted that the construction proceed, to solicit his comments, Sopko said. Sopko further noted that the top legal adviser to a key Army commander advised colleagues not to cooperate fully with his investigation and called for a “slow roll” approach to answering his inquiries. Sopko called for a determination of “appropriate administrative or disciplinary action” against the adviser, Colonel Norman F. Allen.
“SIGAR believes Col. Allen’s actions constituted both misconduct and mismanagement, and violated his professional and ethical responsibilities as an Army lawyer,” Sopko said in his report. Allen, in a written reply to one of Sopko’s aides, denied trying to impede the inquiry or “coach the testimony of witnesses.” Allen, who subsequently moved to the U.S. Special Operations Command legal office in Tampa, said his motive in calling for slow responses to Sopko’s probe was merely to allow enough time for consideration of the legitimacy of its “scope.”
What really angered Sopko, however, was the failure of more senior officials at the Pentagon—including those at its own Office of Inspector General—to open their own inquiries into the flawed internal probes. “DOD stated that the DOD IG [had] decided not to investigate, while the DOD IG stated that he declined to investigate because DOD didn’t ask him to,” Sopko summarized.
This story is from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. To read more of their work on national security, go here or follow them on Twitter.