Senators question reconstruction oversight in Afghanistan

Freshman Senator Claire McCaskill.
Freshman Senator Claire McCaskill. Rafael Suanes / MCT

WASHINGTON — For the third time in less than two years, a bipartisan group of senators has raised alarms bells over problems with reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

Specifically, the four senators — Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Charles Grassley of Iowa — are upset about oversight of the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan and wonder why President Barack Obama has been slow to do something about it.

In a recent letter to the president, they called on Obama to remove Arnold Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general, from his post as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR.

“We have repeatedly raised concerns regarding the performance of the SIGAR,” they wrote. “We are disappointed by your administration’s ongoing failure to take decisive action.”

SIGAR is an independent watchdog over reconstruction spending in Afghanistan. Nearly $66 billion has been appropriated as of Oct. 1.

SIGAR spokeswoman Susan Phalen said Friday that the office has produced 29 audits and 90 recommendations, and has 76 active cases. She said Fields had just completed his eighth trip to Afghanistan and was “aggressively fulfilling the work that the Congress has mandated.”

McCaskill, a former Missouri state auditor, chairs a Senate subcommittee on government contracting. An early supporter of Obama, she became an unofficial adviser during his presidential campaign and remains close to him and his White House circle.

But “it is flat wrong that the president has not taken action to remove this inspector general,” she said. “Billions of dollars are at stake. We need our strongest inspector general in this position, not one who falls so short in an objective evaluation by other auditors.”

Since March 2009, McCaskill and her colleagues have claimed Fields’ office has done a poor job of overseeing how the money is being spent.

They first told the president in a March 2009 letter that Fields’ office was understaffed. In December they asked him for a comprehensive review of the office, suggesting that his oversight was less than aggressive.

A July report by the federal Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency buttressed their concerns. It said his office had problems with hiring, strategic planning, investigative policies and chose “to focus on productivity rather than ensuring that audits were conducted in accordance with professional standards.”

The council recommended that the Justice Department “consider revoking SIGAR’s law enforcement authority,” according to the senators’ letter.

A former staff member defended the office’s work in a recent column posted on PoliticMo, a Missouri political blog.

Michael McComas, who had been a deputy assistant inspector general under Fields, and a special agent with the FBI before that, called the senators’ letter an “outrageous distraction” and a “political witch hunt.” He said the problems cited in the July inspectors general council report were administrative, not operational.