WASHINGTON — Militant groups in Afghanistan could still obtain U.S. government contracts and siphon off American taxpayer dollars because administrative flaws and misunderstandings are hampering a law aimed at weeding out corruption, a top auditor warned Thursday.
The special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, John F. Sopko, said weaknesses mar procedures that the Defense Department tightened in 2012 to comply with a new federal law aimed at preventing militants from obtaining U.S. contract payments. Sopko said nearly $2 billion in government contracts was awarded in 2012, but he did not identify how much money was in jeopardy.
The U.S. military has estimated that up to $360 million ended up in the hands of Taliban and criminal elements in Afghanistan over the past decade, according to a 2012 Associated Press report.
Sopko said his new audit detected flaws in a provision that Congress added last year to a defense authorization bill. The provision gave the Defense Department the authority to "restrict, terminate or void" any contracts with individuals or organizations opposing U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Sopko said his audit found that language in some contracts did not contain the new provision, which is legally necessary to sever any contracts unwittingly given to militants. Sopko said that in some cases, military contracting authorities were not given up-to-date lists of militants and their supporters, preventing them from voiding ineligible contracts.
In testimony Wednesday before a House committee, Sopko also said that in one instance, Army officials ignored classified information that would have enabled them to void contracts obtained by Afghan militants and sympathizers. During testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Sopko said Army officials failed to debar contractors "affiliated with the Haqqani network, the Taliban and/or al-Qaida" because they ignored documents that had been made available to them in a room designated for classified material.
"They apparently did not read — did not take the time to walk 150 feet to a classified skiff to read the classified appendices," Sopko said. "I took the time. I went to the skiff. I read them."
Sopko said that when he urged Army officials to void deals with those Afghan contractors, the officials refused. "So it's probably easier to use a drone strike than it is to stop somebody from contracting with the U.S. government," he said. Sopko said he has since provided the committee with the list of the suspect contractors.
In the audit, Sopko urged Congress to tighten the law further. One change he suggested was to eliminate a $100,000 threshold that prevents lesser contracts from being covered by the anti-militant provisions. Sopko also said the provision only affects Defense Department contracts but should be expanded to contracts overseen by the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other government departments working in Afghanistan.
Sopko also warned the Pentagon that it needed to develop a standard process for tracking suspect contractors and notifying contracting officials and contractors about suspect contractors and their obligations under the law.