An investigation released last week into why the U.S. military built a $25-million headquarters in Afghanistan that it never used condemned the behavior of one officer in particular: the top commander‘s lawyer.
In a series of emails to other officers in 2013 and 2014, Army Col. Norm Allen said that he wanted to “slow roll” investigators, that he wouldn’t personally cooperate out of loyalty to the command, and that he would consider it inappropriate for others to do so. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recommended that Allen be disciplined.
Turns out not only did the Pentagon disagree, but Allen has moved up the military’s food chain. Today he is the legal advisor for the prestigious command that oversees Special Forces, such as the Navy SEALs.
The U.S. military built a lavish headquarters in Afghanistan that wasn’t needed, wasn’t wanted and wasn’t ever used—at a cost to American taxpayers of at least $25 million. Read more
(Megan McCloskey and Vince Dixon, ProPublica)
But his emails are drawing renewed scrutiny from both his peers in the military legal community and from U.S. senators charged with the military’s oversight.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter to the Pentagon that “it was disturbing to read some of the comments” in Allen’s emails.
The Defense Department, McCain said, “should do everything necessary to ensure” that people comply with inspectors general, “including when it comes to investigations into the decisions made at all levels of the chain of command”–a direct rebuke to Allen’s assertions that SIGAR didn’t have the authority to look into top commanders.
Some retired and active duty judge advocates, what the military calls its lawyers, said they were appalled by how Allen had seemed to openly conspire to conceal fraud, waste and abuse–the very things that staff lawyers are supposed to keep from happening.
During the military’s own investigation into the 64,000-square-foot headquarters, Allen also appeared to coach a witness, SIGAR said. He emailed Lt. Gen. Peter Vangjel, who overruled three other generals and approved the building, and told him what investigators believed happened before getting the general’s testimony. Later, Allen emailed Vangjel to say he had appreciated his support in the past and would “try and reciprocate on this one.”
Allen declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an earlier response to SIGAR, he denied the allegations in the agency’s report that he had coached Vangjel and interfering with the investigation.
In his current job, Allen provides legal and ethical guidance to the U.S. Special Operations Command, the umbrella for all the military’s Special Forces. It has 66,000 in personnel, a more than $10-billion annual budget, and ever-increasing authority and responsibility around the world. The United States’ reliance on units such as the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force has increased significantly since 9/11.
In light of Allen’s conduct with SIGAR, one retired lieutenant colonel and judge advocate, who has had several Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, said he could “only imagine” what kind of advice Allen is giving to a “command that spends much more than [the U.S. military in Afghanistan] and is in overall command of our Special Operations Forces.”
Calling the command the 800-pound gorilla of the military, he said that was not where you wanted a lawyer “playing fast and loose with the rules.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. and several other senators are calling for the Pentagon to hold those who advocated for the unneeded Afghanistan headquarters or obstructed its investigation accountable.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that the headquarters was a “classic example of Pentagon waste” and “actively impeding a watchdog investigation adds insult to injury.”
McCaskill called the project “one of the most outrageous, deliberate, and wasteful misuses of taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan we’ve ever seen.”
So far the Pentagon has declined to discipline anyone, deeming the building “prudent.”
In his letter, McCain wrote that he was unclear how the building “can be viewed as anything other than a failure of fiscal stewardship, let alone be described as ‘prudent.’”
The Senate Armed Services Committee will get a full briefing on the matter from the Pentagon, which will include the topic of training military lawyers to ensure they understand their ethical obligations are to the government and not to their commanders.
The headquarters controversy is likely to come up at the nomination hearing for Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford, whom Allen worked for in Afghanistan, ordered and signed off on the military’s investigation into the headquarters. SIGAR questioned the independence and rigor of that investigation.
Related coverage: To learn more about Boondoggle HQ, please see our in-depth interactive or explore how U.S. commanders spent $2 billion in petty cash in Afghanistan in our news app, Money As a Weapons System.
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