The U.S. government's biggest department is also one of the most prone to waste, fraud and abuse, raising concerns about the effectiveness of many of its programs, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.
The Department of Defense accounts for eight of the 25 federal programs, functions or offices that appear on the GAO's 2005 "high-risk" list. Two DOD functions -- inventory management and weapon systems acquisition -- have been on the list of problem programs since 1990.
"This is unacceptable and should not be tolerated," Comptroller General David M. Walker said yesterday at a news conference. He was joined, in sentiment and at the lectern, by several lawmakers, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).
Walker noted that the Pentagon also has several other programs that landed on the list, a compilation of the biggest managerial trouble spots across the federal government issued by the GAO every other year. He said the department's failure to turn around many of the problem areas "results in billions of dollars in waste each year and inadequate accountability to the Congress and the American taxpayer."
Areas of concern at Defense include financial and contract management, the personnel security clearance program, management of military bases and other infrastructure, and modernization of its computer systems, the report found.
Cheryl Irwin, a department spokeswoman, said yesterday that officials need time to study the report before commenting.
"We are certainly reviewing it," Irwin said. "It's a little bit premature at this time for us to have a full response."
New to the high-risk list this year is a government-wide problem of ineffective sharing of information related to homeland security. The report cited the "slow pace" of information sharing between fingerprint databases at the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. It also said that inconsistent agency policies and overlapping sets of data would impede efforts to consolidate information from 12 terrorist and criminal watch systems maintained by nine federal agencies.
The report's findings "essentially say to us that we haven't achieved the homeland security the law requires us to achieve," said Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. ". . . The risk here is to the personal security of the American people at home."
The GAO did say that information sharing has improved since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Congress created Homeland Security to serve, among other things, as a repository for information. The Bush administration established a terrorist screening center to help track terrorism suspects, and lawmakers passed legislation last year to reorganize the government's intelligence agencies.
Department officials dispute the notion that information-sharing problems were worthy of the high-risk list.
"Before the Department of Homeland Security was created, there was no capacity for information sharing, and we have created a comprehensive set of information-sharing capabilities," said Valerie Smith, a department spokeswoman.
Smith said the department, with the FBI, had released nearly 200 information bulletins to federal, state and local governments and private-sector entities, informing them about potential vulnerabilities and terrorist threats. The department created a Web portal that allows governments in 50 states and major urban areas to get information related to homeland security, she said. And improvements to fingerprint databases last fall helped the government arrest thousands of people here illegally, she said.
Several programs improved enough to be removed from the high-risk list, including the Education Department's student financial aid programs, which first made the list in 1990, and financial management at the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Forest Service, both first designated as high risk in 1999.
Lawmakers said the report provides a guide for agencies to improve and, in some cases, an indication of where Congress should step in with legislation.
Collins, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the report signaled the need for aggressive oversight. "Unfortunately there is no line item for waste, fraud and abuse in the [federal] budget that you can simply draw a line through," she said.