|Raise your hand if you're fed up with Jason Chaffetz|
The hearing was unenlightening, and the performance of our elected officials met my low expectations. OBO Director Muniz, however, did much better this time than she did in last year's hearing on design excellence. The Committee website might link to the video in case you want to watch the hearing tonight. Personally, I'll be surfing Netflix.
Here are the highlights.
GAO's witness, Mr. Courts, opened by making his two big points. First, that a purported lack of strategic facilities planning on the part of Overseas Buildings Operations has led to challenges in addressing the embassy’s future facility needs. (Say, did the U.S. Government as a whole ever have a larger strategic plan for its presence in Kabul? If so, I missed that.)
Ms. Muniz rebutted that by saying OBO did, indeed, do strategic planning, and re-planning as our national requirements in Kabul changed. She backed that up by noting that office space requirements grew from 500-some desks at the beginning of the endless Kabul project to over 1,000-some desks now. Also, there was the rather large matter of Pakistan closing its border and cutting off our main supply route to Kabul. Lots of material changes that were not known and could not have been anticipated when the project began, in other words.
Courts' second big point concerned the State Department's rejection of GAO's recommendation that it create explicit security standards for application to temporary buildings. He noted that State says it applies the same standards to temporary buildings as to permanent ones, in so far as that is possible, and waives standards case-by-case when it is not possible. However, Courts went on, in his interpretation of State's position on temporary buildings, it is never possible to fully meet those standards except in permanent, or at least purpose-built, buildings.
That one was more in Greg Starr's ballpark, and he answered it by saying that it is, in fact, possible to approximate or even fully meet security standards in temporary buildings. For example, by constructing a hard shell around a soft-skin trailer. Or by fielding hardened trailers that actually do meet 'permanent building' security standards albeit in a temporary platform. There is more than one way to get to the same level of physical protection, including down and dirty options that have been expressly developed for expeditionary situations. As he said in his opening statement, “simply put, our physical security countermeasures work.” And so they have, through several unsuccessful attacks on our presence in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Chairman Jason Chaffetz returned again and again to blaming OBO for not implementing cost containment recommendations that were made in a 'value engineering' study of the Kabul project. Chaffetz, who opening the hearing by modestly claiming "I'm not an expert" about these matters, certainly played one on TV when it came to OBO's management practices.
Like Chaffetz, I’m not an expert either - or am I? - but unlike Chaffetz, I have participated in value engineering studies, and I’m on Ms. Muniz's side here. She noted that no gain in cost containment from the VE recommendations would have outweighed the additional time imposed on the project as a result. What's more, any VE savings would have vanished in the wake of major impacts such as the closure of the Pakistani border to OBO shipments. No harm no foul.
I completely agree with my good friends in OBO on this. In a normal construction project there is a time and a place for VE studies, but not so in an urgent, constantly changing, effort being conducted in a war zone. "So close your rule book on that one, Poindextor,” to quote White Goodman from the great movie Dodgeball.
In other highlights, Representative Mica expressed amazement at the $2 billion cost of the Kabul projects, especially in comparison to the paltry Gross National Product of Afghanistan. "This must be the biggest infrastructure project in Afghanistan” he guessed. Well, maybe, except for the actual infrastructure projects that have cost USAID $17 billion since 2002, and the futher $21 billion in DOD's reconstruction spending (google Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report 15-40 SP for details). Did Rep Mica forget about those? It had been a long morning and was getting close to lunchtime, after all.
Rep Lynch provided a refreshing change of pace during his question period by going in the opposite direction and asking why OBO doesn't add a helicopter landing zone to the Kabul project at this late date. There has not been enough infrastructure or construction costs yet for his taste.
Late in the hearing, Chaffetz had the considerable gall to say that State's Assistant Secretary Starr was not testifying truthfully regarding, if I recall correctly, the matter of protecting temporary buildings. He offered to straighten Starr out in a classified setting. That's bold talk from some twerp who was a marketer for a Utah-based pyrimid scheme business before he got elected. If Congressional oversight hearings were not fundamentally a harmless form of Kabuki theater, Starr might have taken offense.
Rep Ron DeSantis of Georgia broke ranks during his question period and frankly stated that he doesn’t care about Afghanistan construction costs. Instead, he wants to score a boondoggle project for his district by forcing State to place its new hard skills training center there rather than in Fort Pickett where it belongs. Starr explained why that won't work. DeSantis didn't care. His colleague from Georgia, Rep “Buddy” Carter, backed up DeSantis on this. Who the hell cares how much you waste in Kabul, he all but said, we want that sweet, sweet, money spent in Georgia.
Towards the end of the hearing, Rep Russell wanted to know how Starr justifies the need for 5,500 USG employees to be located in Kabul in the first place. What? He wants Starr to justify that? He’s the elected official, so that question ought to go to him. What programs did he and his fellow Congressmen and women vote for? We have 5,500 people in Kabul because our elected representatives wanted them there.
Actually, that was the whole hearing in a nutshell right there. The witnesses ought to have asked the Congressmen why our national mission requirements in Afghanistan have been repeatedly changed on them. Why have we been fighting some kind of a war in Afghanistan for four times as long as this nation was in WWII, and what exactly are we doing?
Figure that out and you’ll have your answer as to why embassy facility planning wasn’t simple and consistent over those many years.