The Cable

No White House action on Afghanistan oversight; McCaskill irate

A full year has passed since a bipartisan group of senators began calling for the sacking of Arnie Fields, the embattled Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and those senators are as frustrated as ever that the White House refuses to address the situation. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Susan Collins ...

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A full year has passed since a bipartisan group of senators began calling for the sacking of Arnie Fields, the embattled Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), and those senators are as frustrated as ever that the White House refuses to address the situation.

Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Susan Collins (R-ME), have been pressing the White House to fire Fields since December 2009, following complaints about both the conduct and the work product of the SIGAR office, which is charged with overseeing tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan reconstruction contracts managed by both the State and Defense Departments. Last July, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), which is meant to oversee the overseers, issued a scathing report on SIGAR, which only fueled the fire of lawmakers calling for Fields’ removal.

McCaskill and Coburn continued to press the case, but as the congressional session ended last week, McCaskill said she had still not gotten any substantive response from the White House to her many letters and calls for Fields’ sacking.

"I visited with people in the White House about Arnie Fields last week and I continue to push as hard as I know how for his removal," McCaskill told The Cable in an exclusive interview Dec. 20. "I have not gotten a satisfactory answer other than ‘we are working on it’ and that is not satisfactory."

"I’m frustrated. It’s not going as quickly as it should. I’ve been trying to move this person out of the position for over a year now," McCaskill told The Cable in October. "The White House needs to act. That’s where the buck stops. It is way past the time when they should have removed him."

In her capacity as chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, McCaskill called Fields to testify on Nov. 18.

"I would say that it’s a pleasure but I would be telling a lie if I were to say so," Fields told the lawmakers, who grilled Fields on his office’s work, which McCaskill said failed to meet the standards set forth by the law that set up the SIGAR office.

McCaskill pointed out that the taxpayers have given $46.2 million to SIGAR but their investigations have only resulted in collections of $8.2 million.

The hearing also examined General Fields’ decision to award a $96,000 sole-source contract for tracking SIGAR’s efforts to improve itself to Joseph Schmitz, the former Defense Department inspector general, who resigned in 2005 amid allegations of ethical misconduct and misleading Congress.

So why is Fields still around? The back story is one of bureaucratic inaction and what many on Capitol Hill see as the National Security Staff’s failure to deal with the SIGAR problem due to a lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to make a decision about Fields.

SIGAR is meant to oversee both State and Defense Department (DOD) contracts in Afghanistan. It was created in 2008 due to a realization that neither of these agencies had the capacity to oversee their own contracts in the warzone. But when the NSS first got the request to review SIGAR, they sent the request to the State and Defense Departments’ Inspector General’s (IG) offices for them to review, multiple Senate aides said.

But this made little sense, as the entire purpose of SIGAR was to do the job that the State and Pentagon IG offices weren’t capable of doing. That’s when the NSS tasked the review to CIGIE, which issued its harsh verdict on July 16.

The congressional calls for Fields’ head only increased after that, which led to an interagency meeting at the White House in the fall to decide what to do about Fields. A State Department official confirmed that both the Pentagon and the State Department were asked to weigh in on the SIGAR situation.

Both the State Department and the Pentagon declined to give a position on Fields at the meeting, noting that it was not their proper role. "We declined to give an opinion on the situation and we remain neutral," a State Department official close to the issue said.

On Capitol Hill, McCaskill said the NSS’s decision to seek consensus from State and DOD was a delaying tactic and inappropriate. She said it’s not the State or Defense Department’s job to act on replacing Fields as the head of SIGAR.

"That’s why the White House should just do this," McCaskill said.

The SIGAR can’t be evaluated by the two agencies he is tasked to oversee because it’s a clear conflict of interest, said one Senate aide close to the discussions.

"The problem is that the whole thing is perfectly ripe for inaction," the aide said. "If the NSS is waiting for consensus from State and DOD that Fields should go, they aren’t likely to get it.  From State and DOD’s perspective it might be good to have a weak SIGAR over there… This is why you don’t ask the agency under review whether or not the IG should go. They can’t answer."

But lawmakers such as McCaskill and Coburn also know their power to get rid of Fields is limited. He can only be fired by the president. Congress’s has the option to defund his office, but that would have the effect of weakening the oversight of contracts in Afghanistan further.

Fields is seeking a budget of $35.6 million in 2011 and wants to hire about 60 more employees to better track reconstruction spending in Afghanistan.

The United States has committed $51 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction since 2001, and that endowment will reach $71 billion by the end of 2011, according to the AP.

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