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Pentagon blames lack of 'maturity' for spending questions about aid to allies

By Phillip Swarts

Thursday - 3/7/2013, 2:44pm  ET

So what is a four-year-old government program to do when it is given the weighty job of improving the warfighting capabilities of U.S. allies, spends $20 million in tax dollars and is declared unable to justify its spending or prove it accomplished anything?

Blame it on immaturity.

That's essentially what the Pentagon did to defend the launch of the Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI) program.  Created four years ago to improve the warfighting capabilities of U.S. allies, it has instead turned into a $20 million rudderless mission marred by unsupervised spending and foreign junkets, the Pentagon's internal watchdog has found. 

The recordkeeping and supervision of the DIRI program was so lax that officials can't account for the program's impact and could not even show they had approval for 149 events  and 173 engagements with countries it staged, the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General reported this week. 

"Program officials did not have a framework from which to determine the effectiveness of the program or attest to its success or lack thereof," the report said, adding that auditors couldn't even check travel expenses because the program managers didn't properly account for spending on contractors, travel or lodging.

For failing to keep a close eye on funds at a time when the government is facing severe budget cuts, the Pentagon's DIRI wins this week's Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by the Washington Guardian to examples of mismanaged federal spending.

To defend against the criticisms, Pentagon officials responded that DIRI was just now reaching "maturity" to develop guidelines like performance measures. The inspector general, however, didn't buy the explanation, declaring that federal programs shouldn't wait until they reach "a certain level of maturity" before creating accountability.

DIRI was created in 2009 to be the Defense Department's liaison to 17 partner countries to ensure military readiness and capabilities.  The idea was to promote stability in and between nations, thereby preventing conflict.

Investigators found, however, that the program's paperwork was "incomplete and disorganized" and that the operation launched "without a defined and published program mission and goals, program strategy, or performance measures." In fact, it took two years for DIRI to issue a memo detailing its roles and goals, investigators noted.

Pentagon officials agreed there is room for improvement in the program's oversight, and argued the money has not been wasted. Foreign partnerships have been developed, and the response from the international community has been positive.

"Demand for the program has been higher than we initially estimated," said James Schear, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Partnership Strategy and Stability Operations, the office which oversees DIRI.  "We have been able to respond to that demand because DIRI's mission, goals and strategy are, in fact, clearly articulated utilizing a range of suitable and established methods."

Investigators disagreed, saying that DIRI's goals and methods were never clearly defined.

"In the current fiscal environment, program officials need to account for program results through defined performance measures so that both the taxpayers and Congress have assurance that those funds were efficiently and effectively spent," the inspector general said.

Improvements will need to be made, investigators said, to warrant the $12 million that's been requested for the program in 2013.