Rules Skirted, Millions Wasted on Navy Boat Barriers
Thursday, May 24, 2007
The men from al-Qaeda guided their bomb-laden skiff through the harbor and drew near the USS Cole, detonating a quarter-ton of C-4 plastic explosive that killed 17 sailors and tore a 40-foot hole in the side of the Navy destroyer.
Pentagon officials vowed that nothing like the Oct. 12, 2000, attack in the Yemeni port of Aden would happen again. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service embarked on a plan to shield U.S. ships around the world with rings of floating, rubberized barriers.
The investigative service is responsible for security and probing criminal wrongdoing, including fraud in Navy contracts. But auditors concluded that NCIS hired companies that did little or no significant work on the boat barriers yet collected millions of dollars in fees.
Invoices, e-mails and audit documents obtained by The Washington Post also show that the General Services Administration, the agency that awards and oversees federal contracts, allowed the Navy to sidestep federal procurement rules designed to ensure competition and protect taxpayers from abuse and fraud.
"Millions of taxpayer dollars went out the window, given to companies who did nothing in return," said Eugene L. Waszily, a former deputy GSA inspector general who reviewed spending under the boat-barrier contract. "This was particularly disturbing because it was a national security project."
Another problem emerged for the project, which cost at least $100 million. "Navy officials advised us that the barriers were prone to leaks, can deflate completely, and that defects caused barrier gates to remain open," the GSA auditors said in a 2004 report.
Eventually, NCIS investigated its own contract. NCIS officials said the GSA had "responsibility for ensuring that contracts are properly awarded and executed." An NCIS spokesman declined to elaborate or discuss the allegations, saying "there is a joint, ongoing criminal investigation into this matter."
GSA spokesman Edward Blakely said his agency had no comment.
After the Cole bombing, the Navy decided it would deploy hundreds of 82-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, floating rubberized barriers to prevent terrorists from getting close to its ships while in port. The barriers would be held in place by a system of anchors, large foam buoys and chains. A network of underwater sensors would detect potential threats.
NCIS had preferred contractors it wanted to hire for the job, auditors would find, and it did not want to undertake an elaborate and time-consuming open competition for the work.
So NCIS turned to the GSA and a program at the time reserved for small businesses that permitted government agencies to hire companies without seeking traditional bids. The program allowed government officials to buy products and services directly from companies after their prices for labor and overhead had been approved by GSA contracting officials. GSA collects user fees from companies for helping to facilitate those kinds of transactions.
In the boat-barrier case, the GSA, at the request of NCIS, selected Northern NEF of Colorado Springs as the prime contractor for the project, documents show.