“It is much better than it was in 2007 in every single one of your agencies,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.,  said. “Everyone is making progress.”

“It is much better than it was in 2007 in every single one of your agencies,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. “Everyone is making progress.” Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Senators Spar With Agencies Over War-Zone Contracting Reforms

No answers yet to explain $34 million unusable building in Afghanistan.

Officials of three agencies running contracting operations in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq on Tuesday defended their progress on implementing reforms required in the last defense authorization bill. Topics ranged from white-elephant construction projects to contractor suspensions to the politically disputed September 2012 fatalities at the U.S. outpost in Benghazi.

Representatives from the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development highlighted their own “proactive” initiatives to curb contractor corruption, save money and better protect U.S. personnel facing danger.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called the oversight hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to gauge progress on reforms she was instrumental in passing as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. “It is much better than it was in 2007 in every single one of your agencies,” McCaskill said. “Everyone is making progress.”

But she lamented that the majority of the reforms implemented after a bipartisan commission recommended them “apply only to future contingencies, not Iraq or Afghanistan,” she said.

“I get that you all are doing councils and working groups, but it feels like blah blah blah,” she said after the witnesses presented. “But I need you to find a project you’ve stopped due to risk assessment, not because of sequestration or because we cut your budget, but because you found a bad guy and the contract was not sustained,” such as a power grid in a spot where it might get blown up, she said.

“We need success stories,” McCaskill said, “then I’ll make you stars of my website for as long as you want.” But without such successes, “you’ll be back here every six months until Missourians kick me out.”

McCaskill’s examples of ongoing problems included a contractor who refused to cooperate with an inspector general’s investigation and a recent debacle involving a $34 million Marines facility in Helmand Province that sits empty, with no plans for U.S. troops to use it.

“How in the world did this thing get built when the people on the ground were saying ‘stop, stop, don’t do this—we don’t need it and it won’t be used,’?” McCaskill asked. “We can’t even give it away,” she added, noting that the Afghans would have to spend millions getting the electrical work up to local code.

“I don’t have an explanation,” said Richard Ginman, the director for Defense procurement and acquisition policy. “It’s very difficult to sit here and say, as it’s been reported, that we now have a building that we do not know how it will be disposed of.” He said the Army’s probe might take what he considers a normal 30-60 days, “so we don’t yet know who’s accountable.”

McCaskill said, “I’m on the edge of my seat, and I won’t stop until we know who let the contract. I’m worried that some who’re making these decisions think $34 million is chump change.”

The Pentagon official described the task force and board his department set up to track progress on contracting reforms. “The board measures progress against an action plan for fiscal 2013 to 2016 that addresses 142 major actions to close the 10 highest-priority capability gaps [and] strengthen our ability to execute” overseas contingency operations, he said.

Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary of State for management, outlined improvements, such as increasing the number of contracting officer representatives “in regional and functional bureaus to perform day-to-day contract oversight,” as well as creation of related training and use of databases to track contractor performance. Suspensions and debarments have risen from zero in fiscal 2008 to three suspensions and 31 debarments so far in 2013. The State Department’s contracting bureau in Kuwait, he said, “could be a model for future overseas contingency operations.”

Kennedy defended the current mixture of federal employees and contractors in Afghanistan as the most cost-effective. “Issues will always arise during times of contract transition,” he said, “but currently in Kabul, we have a well-managed, effectively functioning contract in place that provides security services to protect our people and facilities.”

Aman Djahanbani, senior procurement executive at USAID’s Office of Acquisition and Assistance, gave highlights of an “aggressive, proactive” reform agenda executed over the past several years titled USAID Forward. They include enhanced authority for suspension and debarment officials and bringing the official into the Bureau of Management. “Many of these changes are in line with the recommendations of the subcommittee and of the Commission on Wartime Contracting,” he said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., citing “a lack of accountability in government,” went after Kennedy on the controversial issue of whether State was neglectful in the run-up to the murder of four lightly protected U.S. emissaries by terrorists. He asked whether Kennedy had reviewed cables sent in July 2012 asking for enhanced security, whether he’d passed them up the chain of command to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and whether the four department officials criticized in the subsequent independent accountability review board report were on administrative leave. (They are, and their next assignment is unclear, Kennedy said.)

Kennedy said he had reviewed the cables and did not send them to a higher level. “If the situation rises to point where we feel we can’t mitigate the risk, we act,” he said. But, he continued, “no intelligence generated directed a threat of the nature that later appeared in Benghazi.” He continually challenged Johnson’s characterization of the cables as referring to the need for heightened security in Benghazi, saying the units in question were in Tripoli.

McCaskill praised the panelists for agreeing to supply her with precise data on the number of outstanding contractors, their costs, and the ratio of employees versus contractors involved. “In my world,” she said, “when you said that, the balloons should have dropped from the ceiling.”