How does the Pentagon keep track of its $500 billion budget?

acarlson@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 18, 2013 

The U.S. Defense Department's budget ($565.8 billion for fiscal year 2012) is larger than the next 10 military spenders (including countries like Russia and China) — combined. The Pentagon hasn't undergone a full audit of its books in two decades. A large part of the computer code which powers crucial military payroll and accounting systems was written in the 1960s.

These seemingly paradoxical facts, and many more, make up the backbone of an ongoing Reuters investigation into the Pentagon's "bad bookkeeping," the second part of which ("Faking It") debuted today.

Both pieces are striking — highly, often incredibly detailed, and full of people such as U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken, whose monthly pay was garnished after a logistical error prevented him from receiving "wounded warrior" status after he was transported to a German hospital after he was wounded in Afghanistan.

Many of the most surprising errors (those involving soldiers not getting paid, or not getting paid correctly) are produced by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which oversees payroll for America's active-duty and Reserve soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. But those problems are only products of a federal bureaucracy that hasn't been able to upgrade its payroll and personnel systems successfully in decades, even as it has spent more than $1 billion trying.

But it isn't just DFAS: "Faking It" shows how little the Pentagon may know about how much money it has, or spends, or loses to waste or theft. The piece begins, "Linda Woodford spent the last 15 years of her career inserting phony numbers in the U.S. Department of Defense’s accounts." It then explores the Pentagon's ability, and often inability, to keep track of its supplies as well as its money.

In a national political climate that has stressed debt and deficit reduction, Reuters' series — highlighting chronic mismanagement and dysfunction at a federal agency whose budget faces comparatively little federal scrutiny — is politically instructive and incredibly bizarre. It must be read to be believed.

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