Senator cites progress in Afghanistan contract oversight

Sen. Claire McCaskill was encouraged by what she saw. Sen. Claire McCaskill was encouraged by what she saw. Harry Hamburg/AP
Civilian and defense agencies are making progress establishing structures to prevent the contracting mistakes of Iraq from being repeated in Afghanistan, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., during a Tuesday conference call from India.

McCaskill, who was on the last leg of a trip that included visits to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Pakistan, said she was encouraged by what she saw in Afghanistan.

"In Iraq, there were no systems in place for real oversight of how the contracts were being drawn up, how they were being given out or how they were being managed," said McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. "It's a much different environment [in Afghanistan] in terms of them having the structures in place to provide the oversight necessary."

During the trip, auditors told McCaskill oversight agencies are working together "on a consistent basis" to make sure reviews of contracts have an appropriate scope, are not duplicative and don't have gaps. She said she saw indications that training for auditors, contract managers and others with procurement oversight responsibilities has been expanded.

"I'm encouraged that you have the right people in the room talking to each other and acknowledging that they have a very big responsibility to make sure the money is being spent how it should be and we're getting value; in Iraq that didn't happen," McCaskill said. "They have made significant progress. It's too early to tell how successful the effort will be, but the effort is being made."

McCaskill said that, during the contracting oversight portion of her trip, she focused particularly on logistics pacts and spending under the Commander's Emergency Response Program. The CERP funds -- sometimes called walking around money -- are designed for working with locals to complete small projects, such as fixing windows or drilling small wells. Previously, most projects under CERP were in the $20,000 range, but now about half the programs cost $500,000 or more, McCaskill said.

"Both in Kuwait and when we moved into Afghanistan, I was trying to get a handle on how CERP funds were being used and whether we have appropriate accounting and aggressive enough oversight," McCaskill said. "I learned a lot about how it is being used, and it's an area I'll be following up on when I get back to Washington."

She said the military services and contractors are working hard to properly account for equipment coming out of Iraq and, in many cases, being transferred to Afghanistan. She added agencies have to get a handle on the massive amount of machinery being moved, but are making progress.

The senator noted that despite progress, monitoring of U.S. Agency for International Development contracts for reconstruction, humanitarian and other development work in Afghanistan remains an area of concern.

"There's an awful lot of oversight being done there by e-mail because the work is done outside the wire," McCaskill said. "The work is being done in places government officials cannot easily get to, to oversee them."

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