War Zone Watchdog

By Charles S. Clark

April 1, 2013

Few inspectors general labor under conditions that are both dangerous and fraught with high-profile controversy. John Sopko is tackling that dual challenge in his first year as special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, traveling regularly to the war-ravaged country and delivering sobering audits that could affect the success of the planned U.S. troop withdrawal.

Like all inspectors general, the SIGAR audits agency spending and contracting for waste, fraud and abuse. But unlike its peers, the SIGAR must confront the troubled nation of Afghanistan and a work environment fraught with dysfunction.  

“One reason I took the job is I realized it’s an important national security issue,” Sopko says, sitting in his ninth floor office in Arlington, Va., with its panoramic view of the Washington skyline. “But there are also great challenges in oversight issues.”

The former congressional staffer and public prosecutor signed on with the SIGAR team in July 2012, after his predecessor, retired Marine Corps Gen. Arnold Fields, was removed under fire from senators dissatisfied with efforts to expose waste and corruption. “The agency had a lot of problems, including an attrition rate of 62 percent,” he says. “It was rudderless and didn’t have a mission, vision or strong leadership.”

Sopko quickly set up a series of face-to-face visits with his “clients”— Congress, all the U.S. agencies working in Afghanistan, and on-site military leaders, including the top commander, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who recently retired. The upshot of those meetings was that many previous SIGAR reports had been “useless, late or on the wrong topic,” Sopko says. “If our reports are not useful, we fail. If the authorizing and appropriations committees don’t read the reports, we fail. Same if the Justice Department can’t prosecute shady contractors.”

Sopko also met with Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who stressed the uncertainties about the fate of Afghans in 2015 after the U.S. military is gone. “The next two years is an opportunity,” Sopko says.

The SIGAR says that exposing problems and “catching bad guys” in a $100 billion, decade-long reconstruction effort is not always going to make him new friends. Some are likely to consider him a headline hunter. But Sopko’s years working for Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., taught him that “if you don’t get headlines, people don’t pay attention, and reports end up in the round file. In oversight, you have to bang the drum,” he says.

Among his staff, Sopko is known for demanding that they share his “fire in the belly” for the government’s most dangerous oversight mission. His recruits range from law enforcement annuitants to alumni of the Government Accountability Office to young new hires right out of graduate school. “They all know it’s a temporary agency, so there’s a sense of urgency, a limited time to do good,” Sopko says. He’s proud that the agency of fewer than 200 employees has cut the attrition rate by more than half.

Everyone hired agrees to go to the war zone, traveling in rotations that keep just under 60 staffers there at a time. They wear helmets and flak jackets, and investigators carry machine guns. “So far, no one’s been hurt,” Sopko says, though he noted a recent Taliban bombing in Salerno blew some personnel across the room. 

Sopko has been to Afghanistan twice and plans to return there quarterly. “You have to go to Afghanistan to appreciate it, a real awakening,” he says. “And you must get out of the embassy to kick the tires and lay eyes on the dams and roads. The farther you get out, the more honest the assessments.” 

Geographical challenges make the job difficult. “Afghanistan is not like Northern Virginia—there are no street addresses,” Sopko says. “You can’t ask someone, ‘have you seen this school?’ because you might be greeted by an improvised explosive device.” That’s why it was so important, he adds, that his team discovered the U.S. Agency for International Development was using inaccurate spatial coordinates to help Americans find buildings.

IG investigations often are viewed as slow and plodding. But Sopko aims for speed and prevention, rather than documenting waste or fraud after the fact. “We’re supposed to be aggressive, independent and fast,” he says. 

He named Monica Brym, a former top GAO auditor, to head his rapid response team at the Office of Special Projects. The division employs six to nine core program and investigative analysts, criminal investigators, and a lawyer to review emerging issues. The team received a tip that U.S. government funds might have been used to purchase oil from Iran for projects in Afghanistan in violation of international sanctions—not implausible given that Iranian fuel is the region’s least expensive. “The team ran it down in 30 days, and we issued an alert,” Sopko says.  The emailed warning letter to multiple agencies said the U.S.-led coalition should monitor local transactions for potential violations since the U.S. military has no internal controls to prevent such purchases.  Whether sanctions were violated remains unclear.

Such quick punitive action once prompted a complaint by a federal program manager who said more time is needed to address problems. “We are cognizant of the tough situation” for many government and contractor employees, Sopko says. “But you can’t give someone a pass for stealing money from U.S. taxpayers just because they’re living in a lousy country. If I catch you stealing, I’ll put you in jail. They need to learn from the tough situation for next time.” 

Sopko cites a recent audit exposing a contractor’s failure to install proper roadside culverts to counter the threat of IEDs. “When a major company does shoddy work, it not only steals money, it kills Americans and allies,” he says.

Future SIGAR audits will investigate whether the Afghan government is inappropriately taxing U.S. contractors, look into planning for the drawdown and re-construction, and assess the state of con-tracting for the country’s electrification.

“I didn’t take the job to play gotcha,” Sopko says. “I made my bones as a young prosecutor.  I’m not here to get press for me but to make a difference on the issues. This is probably my last job.” 

The U.S. story in Afghanistan may or may not end well. The final audit by Sopko’s counterpart, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen, brought discouraging news that many American-funded projects were not appreciated by the locals.

The SIGAR team is working to improve the war-zone situation and bucking up this “little agency that most people had written off as a failure,” Sopko adds, noting that was the challenge given to him by President Obama. “We can make a difference. The cruelest joke would be to turn over to the Afghans programs that don’t work.” 

By Charles S. Clark

April 1, 2013