Colonel Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), recently made a startling disclosure to Voice of America (VOA). AFRICOM, he said, is currently mulling over 11 possible locations for its second base on the continent. If, however, there was a frontrunner among them Cheadle wasn’t about to disclose it. All he would say was that Nigeria isn’t one of the countries in contention.
Writing for VOA, Carla Babb filled in the rest of the picture in terms of U.S. military activities in Africa. “The United States currently has one military base in the east African nation of Djibouti,” she observed. “U.S. forces are also on the ground in Somalia to assist the regional fight against al-Shabab and in Cameroon to help with the multinational effort against Nigeria-based Boko Haram.”
A day later, Babb’s story disappeared. Instead, there was a new article in which she noted that “Cheadle had initially said the U.S. was looking at 11 locations for a second base, but later told VOA he misunderstood the question.” Babb reiterated that the U.S. had only the lone military base in Djibouti and stated that “[o]ne of the possible new cooperative security locations is in Cameroon, but Cheadle did not identify other locations due to ‘host nation sensitivities.’”
U.S. troops have, indeed, been based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti since 2002. In that time, the base has grown from 88 acres to about 600 acres and has seen more than $600 million in construction and upgrades already awarded or allocated. It’s also true that U.S. troops, as Babb notes, are operating in Somalia — from at least two bases — and the U.S. has indeed set up a base in Cameroon. As such, the “second” U.S. base in Africa, wherever it’s eventually located, will actually be more like the fifth U.S. base on the continent. That is, of course, if you don’t count Chabelley Airfield, a hush-hush drone base the U.S. operates elsewhere in Djibouti, or the U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations, and other outposts in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad,Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda, among other locales. When I counted late last year, in fact, I came up with 60 such sites in 34 countries. And just recently, Missy Ryan of the Washington Post added to that number when she disclosed that “American Special Operations troops have been stationed at two outposts in eastern and western Libya since late 2015.”
To be fair, the U.S. doesn’t call any of these bases “bases” — except when officials forget to keep up the fiction. For example, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 included a $50 million request for the construction of an “airfield and base camp at Agadez, Niger.” But give Cheadle credit for pushing a fiction that persists despite ample evidence to the contrary.
It isn’t hard, of course, to understand why U.S. Africa Command has set up a sprawling network of off-the-books bases or why it peddles misinformation about its gigantic “small” footprint in Africa. It’s undoubtedly for the same reason that they stonewall me on even basic information about their operations. The Department of Defense, from tooth to tail, likes to operate in the dark.
Today, TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reveals another kind of Pentagon effort to obscure and obfuscate involving another kind of highly creative accounting: think slush funds, secret programs, dodgy bookkeeping, and the type of financial malfeasance that could only be carried out by an institution that is, by its very nature, too big to fail (inside the Beltway if not on the battlefield).
Rejecting both accurate accounting and actual accountability — from the halls of the Pentagon to austere camps in Africa — the Defense Department has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to keeping Americans in the dark about the activities being carried out with their dollars and in their name. Luckily, Hartung is willing to shine a bright light on the Pentagon’s shady practices. Nick Turse
The Pentagon’s War on Accountability
Slush Funds, Smoke and Mirrors, and Funny Money Equal Weapons Systems Galore
By William D. Hartung
Now you see it, now you don’t. Think of it as the Department of Defense’s version of the street con game, three-card monte, or maybe simply as the Pentagon shuffle. In any case, the Pentagon’s budget is as close to a work of art as you’re likely to find in the U.S. government — if, that is, by work of art you mean scam.
The United States is on track to spend more than $600 billion on the military this year — more, that is, than was spent at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War military buildup, and more than the military budgets of at least the next seven nations in the world combined. And keep in mind that that’s just a partial total. As an analysis by the Straus Military Reform Project has shown, if we count related activities like homeland security, veterans’ affairs, nuclear warhead production at the Department of Energy, military aid to other countries, and interest on the military-related national debt, that figure reaches a cool $1 trillion.
The more that’s spent on “defense,” however, the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used. As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting.
It’s not just that its books don’t add up, however. The DoD is taking active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate “war budget” as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret. Add in dozens of other secret projects hidden in the department’s budget and the Pentagon’s poorly documented military aid programs, and it’s clear that the DoD believes it has something to hide.
Don’t for a moment imagine that the Pentagon’s growing list of secret programs and evasive budgetary maneuvers is accidental or simply a matter of sloppy bookkeeping. Much of it is remarkably purposeful. By keeping us in the dark about how it spends our money, the Pentagon has made it virtually impossible for anyone to hold it accountable for just about anything. An entrenched bureaucracy is determined not to provide information that might be used to bring its sprawling budget — and so the institution itself — under control. That’s why budgetary deception has become such a standard operating procedure at the Department of Defense.
The audit problem is a case in point. The Pentagon along with all other major federal agencies was first required to make its books auditable in the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990. More than 25 years later, there is no evidence to suggest that the Pentagon will ever be able to pass an audit. In fact, the one limited instance in which success seemed to be within reach — an audit of a portion of the books of a single service, the Marine Corps — turned out, upon closer inspection, to be a case study in bureaucratic resistance.
In April 2014, when it appeared that the Corps had come back with a clean audit, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was so elated that he held a special ceremony in the “Hall of Heroes” at the Pentagon. “It might seem a bit unusual to be in the Hall of Heroes to honor a bookkeeping accomplishment,” he acknowledged, “but damn, this is an accomplishment.”
In March 2015, however, that “accomplishment” vanished into thin air. The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which had overseen the work of Grant Thornton, the private firm that conducted the audit, denied that it had been successful (allegedly in response to “new information”). In fact, in late 2013, as Reuters reported, auditors at the OIG had argued for months against green-lighting Grant Thornton’s work, believing that it was full of obvious holes. They were, however, overruled by the deputy inspector general for auditing, who had what Reuters described as a “longstanding professional relationship” with the Grant Thornton executive supervising the audit.
The Pentagon and the firm deny that there was any conflict of interest, but the bottom line is clear enough: there was far more interest in promoting the idea that the Marine Corps could pass an audit than in seeing it actually do so, even if inconvenient facts had to be swept under the rug. This sort of behavior is hardly surprising once you consider all the benefits from an undisturbed status quo that accrue to Pentagon bureaucrats and cash-hungry contractors.
Without a reliable paper trail, there is no systematic way to track waste, fraud, and abuse in Pentagon contracting, or even to figure out how many contractors the Pentagon employs, though a conservative estimate puts the number at well over 600,000. The result is easy money with minimal accountability.
How to Arm the Planet
In recent years, keeping tabs on how the Pentagon spends its money has grown even more difficult thanks to . . .