Sopko, a former federal prosecutor who made history by bringing down an Italian mob family in Cleveland during the 1980s, seems to relish the criticism. As he sees it, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, has little time left to correct the course of a massive, wayward ship and to spotlight a flawed wartime appropriations system. To that end, he’s more than happy to name names, bruise egos, chase headlines and, well, go to war with much of Washington.
“I didn’t take this job to be liked at the State Department or USAID or the Department of Defense,” he said in an interview. “We’re the umpire. My job is to call strikes.”
Bureaucratic battles within America’s wars are legion. But none has played out quite this publicly, and all sides agree that the stakes could hardly be higher. To a large extent, the U.S. ability to disengage smoothly from Afghanistan and retain influence after combat troops leave — by the end of 2014 — will depend on the work U.S. agencies are able to accomplish, as well as the amount of political will and confidence in the mission they can engender.
For years, SIGAR was the butt of jokes in the auditing world. Arnold Fields, a retired Marine general, resigned as head of the agency in January 2011 after the Council of Inspectors General issued a critical assessment of SIGAR’s audits and said it lacked a clear vision. The White House was unable to get a permanent leader in place until July 2012. On his first day at work, Sopko, 61, sought to rally a demoralized team with what agency employees came to call the “fire in the belly” speech.
“We must be more aggressive,” Sopko told his employees. “We have a limited amount of time.”
They began cranking out reports, public letters and audits at an unprecedented rate. Always eager to deliver a punchy quote and to entice journalists by offering exclusive, embargoed copies of reports, SIGAR has been a steady bearer of bad news about the war effort, which has record-low approval ratings. The agency takes to Twitter, a YouTube channel and a growing mailing list to ring the alarm.
In doing so, SIGAR has painted “a narrative of failure that is grossly inaccurate,” charged David S. Sedney, who recently stepped down as the deputy assistant secretary of defense overseeing Afghanistan policy. “Individual reports always seem to generalize, but they draw false conclusions and fail to understand what’s going on.”