If you contract to the tune of $64 million for a counternarcotics plane and it never flies, should you keep your job?
That’s what Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wondered in a Sept. 20 letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis blasting the Defense Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration for their seven years of work on a “hangar queen,” as the senator called it.
The ATR-42-500 aircraft was adopted for the joint-agency Global Discovery Program aimed at curbing the opium trade in war-torn Afghanistan. But it became the subject of probes for waste by inspectors general for both the Justice and Defense departments.
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“Aside from a small number of routine transport missions, it has been up on jacks in a hangar and never flew a single counter-narcotics mission in Afghanistan as intended,” Grassley wrote. In line with the secretary’s call to “take aggressive steps to end waste in the department,” the Judiciary Committee chairman said in routine language that he wants Mattis to conduct a review to determine who in the department is responsible, and take “appropriate measures of accountability, including potential disciplinary action.”
But Grassley then referenced the two U.S. Navy ship collisions in the Pacific this summer, in the aftermath of which commanders were relieved of their posts. In a more pointed, handwritten post-script, Grassley wrote, “Common sense dictates that if an admiral can be fired or the captain of a vessel can be dismissed because their ship rams another (if that action is taken because of dereliction of duty), then these people connected with this farcical plane need to be fired. If heads don’t roll, nothing changes.”
The problems with the ATR-42-500 laid out by the watchdogs began after 2008, when the Defense Department was brought in to modify the DEA’s plane with surveillance equipment at a time when the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was flagging. In a report released this month by the Pentagon IG, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats was accused of not tracking costs, using inexperienced managers and of changing too many personnel.
“Despite the [deputy assistant secretary’s office ] knowing in late 2013 that DEA personnel were significantly reducing their presence in Afghanistan in 2014,” the report said, that official “stated that she decided not to cancel the program because she believed the ATR 42-500 aircraft was near completion. As a result, the DASD CN> wasted at least $64.8 million.”
Justice’s IG had released a similarly critical report in March 2016, after performing an audit of the DEA’s contracting memoranda and finding violations of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, cost overruns and missed deadlines, based on whistleblower complaints. It reported that the plane never flew (it is now to be auctioned off).
A Defense spokeswoman confirmed the department had received the letter and said officials would respond directly to Grassley. The Pentagon Counternarcotics and Global Threats office agreed with the IG’s recommendations for lessons learned from the mishap. But Grassley asserted in his letter that “not a single official took any responsibility.”