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'Washington Post' Finds The Pentagon Buried Evidence Of Wasteful Spending

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People in Washington are always talking about bloated government and wasteful spending. Now The Washington Post has a $125 billion example. The Pentagon asked an advisory group to find examples of inefficient Defense-Department spending. And what that panel found amounts to $125 billion over five years. The Pentagon's annual budget is $580 billion. Craig Whitlock from The Washington Post joins us to discuss why the Pentagon didn't act on those recommendations. Welcome to the program.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Thanks very much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, describe what some of these inefficiencies are.

WHITLOCK: Well, you know, we've all heard tales in the past about $500 toilet seats at the Pentagon and overpriced fighter jets. But this waste - or this inefficiency - was all focused on something a little more boring but even more expensive, which is overhead spending, people in business operations - essentially people in the Pentagon's back office bureaucracy, people who hold jobs like auditors or health-care management or property managers, people who buy stuff. And the contractors and civilians and troops who do this - it all adds up to more than 1 million people who hold these kinds of jobs.

SHAPIRO: And that's for some - you say - 1.3 million active-duty troops.

WHITLOCK: Exactly. It's almost equivalent to the size of the active-duty military.

SHAPIRO: Once you've identified inefficiencies and waste like this, why is it so hard to get rid of it?

WHITLOCK: Well, that's a good question and one we put to the Pentagon. The recommendation from the Pentagon's own study was that, as you pointed out, they could save 125 billion over five years, really, just by attrition, early retirements for a lot of people, better use of information technology. You know, it seemed pretty sensible.

The Pentagon's response was that this isn't practical. It's very hard to cut in government. Congress doesn't like losing jobs in their congressional districts. And, you know, over time, this would result in a loss of jobs. But, you know, a legitimate question is why they didn't even try.

SHAPIRO: There does seem to be an important congressional piece, though, because, while lawmakers will likely complain about wasteful spending, they will also defend that wasteful spending if it brings money into their district in the form of jobs or contracts or manufacturing.

WHITLOCK: Absolutely. There's a long history of that. If you look at how the Pentagon budget is spent, it isn't always very strategic based on national security threats. A lot of the airplanes, ships, things like that are billed in multiple congressional districts. And that's done to gain congressional support - no question.

SHAPIRO: Do you expect the Pentagon to ever act on any of these recommendations of their own accord?

WHITLOCK: I think they do - in their defense, they do take attempts over the years to save money and become more efficient. I think they do it on a much smaller scale. But what was different about this case was when the results came back to the Pentagon, they acknowledged that one of the reasons they tried to bury this study is they were worried about the political ramifications from Congress - that Congress would use this as an excuse to slash the defense budget.

As you know, Pentagon leaders over the last several years have been complaining in public that they don't have enough money to train troops, to put aircraft overseas and have ships on missions - that they need more money. They're really strapped. And what this study showed is that, yes, maybe they need more money for those things. But they're wasting an awful lot of money on the bureaucracy on the back office.

SHAPIRO: You say the Pentagon buried the report. It was briefly posted online. There was some reporting on it when this came out in 2015.

WHITLOCK: That's absolutely right. What we documented in our story today, though, is the degree to which they silenced public discourse about it. We obtained some confidential emails and memos that showed that, for instance, the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, made a public complaint about what they were spending on overhead and the waste involved. And he was emailed immediately by some senior Pentagon officials, including the deputy Defense secretary, Robert Work, who told him to pipe down. He said, I don't want any more public discourse on this subject.

And the other thing that the Pentagon did is - the data that was used to put together this study - all the figures and databases showing where all these contractors and civil servants work in these business operations in the bureaucracy and what they did - all that was put under lock and key. That's all been labeled classified or confidential. Now, we think that should be public information. But it's also an example of how they've tried to bury the results.

SHAPIRO: That's Craig Whitlock, a reporter with The Washington Post. Thanks for joining us.

WHITLOCK: Sure thing. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.