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Pentagon owns fewer buildings than previously thought: audit

Then-Pentagon Comptroller David L. Norquist, Feb. 12, 2018. (Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Department of Defense)

The Pentagon doesn’t appear to have as many facilities as it had thought, a recent government audit found, calling into question whether it needs a new round of base closures, as frequently requested by U.S. Defense Department leaders in recent years. That emerged from last year in the Pentagon’s much-publicized first-ever financial audit.

“We thought we had more square footage, more equipment, more facilities than we did in fact have available to us,” David Norquist, the Pentagon comptroller and chief financial officer, who is also performing the duties of the deputy defense secretary, said Wednesday at a Center for the National Interest event in Washington. “The accuracy of this matters — and it drives and it plays a role in decision making.”

The audit found, for example, that 6.5 percent of buildings and other infrastructure on the Navy’s property books did not exist. “They were either demolished or replaced, but no one had gone back to the property books to take them off,” Norquist said. “There was misunderstanding of what they had available to them.”

The Army could account for all of its buildings, but the quality of those facilities was subpar.

“Their auditors’ concern was they had a number of buildings listed as being in usable condition and the auditors’ answer was: ‘No, these are not usable condition buildings. You should either knock them down or acknowledge that these building are not in working condition,’” Norquist said.

Few Defense Department agencies passed the audit. Norquist said Wednesday that a new audit is under way.

For years, Pentagon officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations have argued they have too much infrastructure. In 2017, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis argued for a round of base closures. But it’s been 12 years since members of Congress, perennially afraid of losing jobs in their districts, approved the most recent Base Realignment and Closing round.

If nothing else, the audit reveals the accounting for the military’s infrastructure is not perfect.

“If the accounting isn’t done correctly, that also might mean that the costing is not done correctly and we could be talking about a lot of money,” said Travis Sharp, a defense budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It probably merits further scrutiny about whether or not DoD’s infrastructure spending is properly connected to the actual usable infrastructure currently on DoD’s books.”

Asked whether the audit’s infrastructure findings might affect the argument for another base closure round, Norquist said: “There are decisions that will come from [the audit] over time. One of the reasons we haven’t been pushing back is when you realize you don’t have quite an accurate assessment of what your current inventory is, then you want to be cautious about pushing for it. You get better data, you’ll have a more realistic understanding of your situation.”

Norquest said that applies, not just to infrastructure, but writ large.

“The better data you have, the more credible your conversation can be,” he said.

The new infrastructure figures call in question just how much excess space the Pentagon has on its books. The revelation comes as the U.S. military is growing and forces are planning to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan.

The revelation of excess Pentagon infrastructure also comes as President Trump decides whether to declare a national emergency on the southern border with Mexico, potentially allowing him to raid military construction budget accounts to fund his much-desired wall. Military construction funds are often used for projects like base housing, runways and unit headquarters buildings.

“In local communities, [military construction] issues are huge,” Sharp said. “At the national level, military construction issues are pretty obscure.”

© 2018 By National Journal Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.