Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Fine Print

Plenty of magazines to go around

The Pentagon is quietly slicing away at low-profile, multi-million-dollar programs once buried in the overflow of funds that used to be the hallmark of Defense Department budgets.

While officials continue warning about the impact on national security that reductions are having on operations and maintenance activities, there is no similar publicity given to ending smaller programs that would have been considered luxuries in any other government department.

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For example, Special Operation Command (SOCOM) has halted paying for publication of slick, military quarterly magazines issued in the name of each of the six geographic combat commands. That cost some $29 million over the past three years.

Sixty to 80 pages an issue, published in 12 languages, distributed in 171 countries, the Trans Regional Magazine Initiative promoted “themes and objectives relating to any overseas contingency operations or any Special Operations activities in support of U.S. Government objectives,” according to an Oct. 21, 2009, government description.

Another part of the contract was the requirement to print six calendars annually, one for each command, and to distribute them to recipients of the quarterly.

This appears to be a Pentagon version of what the old U.S. Information Agency once did. Lately, it’s been executed through the Joint Military Information Support Command with dollars supplied by SOCOM, which appeared to have had surplus funds to get it done. Before this centralized contract, some commands had published their own quarterly for years.

Unipath, for example, is Central Command’s quarterly that serves “as an international forum for military personnel in the Middle East and Central Asia region,” according to its Web site. The articles are in English, Russian, Arabic and Dari.

Some 9,000 copies are published, roughly 5,000 in Arabic, 2,500 in Urdu and 1,500 in English, with distribution to military and diplomatic personnel in the area.

Dialogo, the Southern Command publication, is also both a Web site and a quarterly magazine, which runs some 20,000 copies for each edition in Spanish, English and Portuguese. The Asian Pacific Defense Forum is Pacific Command’s publication and also a Web site, APDForum.com. It also has versions in multiple languages.

SOCOM contracts out production of the magazines, in this case to Virginian-based Booz Allen Hamilton, which in turn has hired journalists to work on the quarterlies. According to the original 2009 contract solicitation, the journalists had to have clearance for “secret” materials, and two or more were expected to make four trips a year to each of the geographic commands for content ideas.

With SOCOM dropping financial support for the quarterlies, geographic commanders must decide the future of their magazines, said Kenneth S. McGraw, a SOCOM spokesman. “They will have to fund their publication and do the contracting,” he said via e-mail.

SOCOM itself has contracting issues. The magazine initiative was part of a larger Global Battlestaff and Program Support contract, which over three years and two more option years had a potential value of $1.5 billion.

The contract, awarded in April 2010, covered many potential tasks, and four prime contracts were chosen. SOCOM areas of work included operational and intelligence support, acquisition and engineering support, and business operations and financial management. It was a way for SOCOM to hire outsiders to work with its service personnel and full-time civilian employees.

“It may be cheaper and faster for the government to use contractors to meet a require-ment than to create a new organization, acquire the right equipment and wait for the personnel system to fill the positions,” McGraw said.

In the first 18 months of this particular contract, from April 2010 through mid-November 2011, SOCOM awarded about $231 million to the prime contractors through 73 task orders, according to a report released April 26 by the Defense Department inspector general.

Among the tasks listed for contractors, the IG reported, were preparation of “congressional testimonies, briefing books, trip books and Commander USSOCOM discussion papers.”

The report said SOCOM did not ensure the task orders had “measurable outcomes” or review them so that contractors where not doing “inherently governmental functions,” which are barred by law.

The report said that one immediate response from SOCOM was to remove the task order language that appeared to involve an inherently governmental function, saying it was “an error” that such language appeared in the task order and “contractor personnel did not actually perform those duties.”

However the Defense Contract Management Agency, which was delegated to oversee the contract, returned that function to SOCOM in August 2011, saying in part that it does not accept delegation when the “contractor is integrated into government operations and the contracted work is not . . . separated from organic or government performed work.”

SOCOM contracting has been a target before. In March 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered the first round of Defense cuts, and among the proposed reductions was to “eliminate sixty (60) contractors from USSOCOM’s proposed table of personnel. This recommen-dation has an estimated Fiscal Year 2012 savings of $15,210,000.”

Late Wednesday, it appeared there was a chance Defense might be following through: McGraw said at this point the option to extend the SOCOM Global Battlestaff contract two years had not been picked up.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

 
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