Establish a Special Inspector General for War
We should not repeat the same oversight mistakes that have characterized every war from Bosnia onward.
Finding something objectionable in legislation providing nearly $900 billion to the Department of Defense—in peacetime, no less—is difficult. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has; naturally, it concerns accountability. As the National Defense Authorization Act proceeded through the House, the Biden Administration has stated its opposition to the provision establishing a special inspector general for Ukraine-related matters, arguing the investigations already underway are sufficient. The preceding two decades prove otherwise.
Proponents have sought to establish a special inspector general for the past two years. Last year, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky single-handedly held up the passage of the $40 billion supplemental in his unsuccessful effort.
This year, Ohio’s Senator J.D. Vance took lead by circulating a letter demanding the administration produce a "full crosscutting report on U.S. government-wide expenditures for Ukraine...before a vote on any additional Ukraine-related appropriation occurs.” Vance then co-sponsored a Senate amendment to establish the office with Senator Josh Hawley. Congressman Chip Roy of Texan has led the effort in the House.
Specifically, the Biden Administration argues the ongoing efforts of the Department of Defense Inspector General (DODIG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will suffice.
The administration’s high regard for these two organizations is justified; during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, each conducted comprehensive investigations and reliably exposed mismanagement and inefficiency.
However, the DODIG examines fairly narrow management issues—adherence to accounting regulations, contracting rules, internal control standards, installation security, and end use monitoring of equipment. Additionally, the office lies within the executive branch and is answerable to the president.
The GAO has the virtue of being answerable to Congress. The comptroller general is appointed to a term of ten years and the breadth of their reporting spans the nation’s precarious fiscal state, persistent high-risk issues, and, in the case of the Department of Defense, its massive portfolio of weapons programs.
During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, GAO investigated many of the same matters examined by the DODIG. Nonetheless, the former distinguished itself by highlighting one particular aspect of the fiscal legerdemain that typically accompanies war.
Even though “major combat operations” had ended, successive administrations continued to request billion-dollar “supplemental” budgets to pay for “contingency” operations.
Accordingly, the comptroller general testified that DOD should be prepared to transition wartime costs into the annual budget, pointedly noting that “once an operation reaches a known level of effort and costs are more predictable, more funding should be built into the baseline budget.”
The testimony occurred in 2006. It was based on the agency’s observations a decade earlier during operations in Bosnia.
Few things are more permanent than a government-declared emergency and the annual multi-billion dollar “overseas contingency operations” budgets were tantamount to a “slush fund.”
As the war in Ukraine surpasses 500 days, the same risk emerges.
In 2008, Congress belatedly established the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the model for the current proposal. SIGAR investigated many of the same matters as the DODIG and GAO, but it was a genuinely independent body and had the cross-cutting perspective that advocates now seek for Ukraine.
The DODIG has served as the Lead Inspector General in coordinating its activities with those of the inspector generals at the Department of State (State) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, DODIG’s appointment to the role occurred in 2014, thirteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan and six years after SIGAR had been established.
To their credit, the three offices have proactively established a working group to coordinate their various investigations and the three I.G.s have already visited Kiev. According to the working group’s Joint Strategic Oversight Plan, the three offices have completed fourteen projects and have sixty-four either underway or planned. Moreover, each department inspector general’s jurisdiction remains limited to its own department.
Over the course of its existence, SIGAR has had purview over all reconstruction funds, regardless of their origins, as well as other U.S. initiatives, such as Drug Enforcement Administration counterterrorism funding and Department of Justice rule of law programming, and international efforts such as the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF).
After the war in Ukraine, the cost of reconstruction will be enormous; as of March 2023, the estimate is $411 billion.
In the main, SIGAR repeatedly cited the risk to reconstruction arising from systemic corruption in Afghanistan, a problem that is also endemic to Ukraine. In 2012, Ukraine ranked 144th on Transparency International’s corruption index; in 2022, its rank had improved, but only to 116. Only six months ago, President Zelensky had to fire a senior presidential office official, four deputy ministers, and five regional governors for corruption.
Operating in an active war zone only compounds the issue. Last December, Politico reported on a recent embassy cable that had outlined the challenges hindering oversight—limits on the number of officials, restrictions on their movements, and difficulty recruiting personnel.
President Biden has no credibility when it comes to Ukraine or rigorous oversight.
Regarding Ukraine, Biden’s proudest boast before becoming president was that he forced the dismissal of the country’s prosecutor general in 2016 for being insufficiently aggressive against corruption. The accomplishment has since been clouded by revelations of his son's being employed by a Ukrainian energy firm during the same time. In June, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa reported that a June 2020 FBI document alleged that an executive at the same Ukrainian energy firm recorded multiple phone calls with Biden and his son, intimating that suspicions of corruption could be true.
Regarding oversight, the Department of Defense announced last month that it had overestimated the value of weapons transferred to Ukraine. The apparent "accounting error" conveniently provided the department with an additional $6 billion to support the country on the eve of its long-planned counteroffensive.
Furthermore, the inspector general positions at both State and USAID have been vacant—for 1,000 days and 900 days, respectively. The current DOD I.G. has only been in his position since last December, three months before the invasion began. The qualifications and reputations of the current and acting inspector generals are outstanding, but, invariably, lengthy vacancies impart a low priority on oversight. (For anyone who is “Interested in becoming an Inspector General,” the Oversight.gov website has a convenient link. Seriously.)
Unsurprisingly, the administration has not touted the role to be played by auditors at NATO. Its most recent audit concerned the recreational and commercial activities at the alliance headquarters.
SIGAR, in contrast, just issued two reports dissecting the twin catastrophes that punctuated the American withdrawal from Afghanistan—Why the Afghan Government Collapsed and Why the Afghan Security Forces Collapsed.
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John F. Sopko, the special inspector general himself, endorses the proposal: “I think the Special I.G. model is perfect for a situation like Ukraine.” Sopko pointedly commented, “We are the only inspector general among the seventy-some independent I.G.s in the United States that has a dedicated lessons learned team, and it produced these twelve reports. ... [Our] lessons learned are like red lights or flashing yellow lights. You as a policy-maker should know what happened there and see if it’s going to be a problem in Ukraine.”
On July 13th, President Biden issued an executive order calling up 3,000 reservists to support Operation Atlantic Resolve—which will now be designated a “contingency operation.”
Without SIGAR, the American public would have never received unvarnished assessments of the most calamitous strategic undertaking since Vietnam. Congressional proponents should hold fast and ensure this provision’s passage.