Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford is commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. (ISAF)
Salang Hospital in Afghanistan is seen in a photo taken in November. (SIGAR)
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In an attempt to blunt a critical audit, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan praised a hospital built in eastern Afghanistan with $600,000 in U.S. funds, although Army officials thought the hospital was in an area too dangerous to visit for an inspection, documents obtained by USA Today show.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) issued a news release this week praising the hospital that was the topic of a critical audit by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
ISAF issued its Jan. 28 release before SIGAR's release of a critical audit and said the 20-bed hospital "represents a significant step forward in medical services for local Afghans." It quotes an Afghan provincial official refuting some of the audit's more damning findings: infants were bathed in untreated river water, and electricity was unreliable.
Internal Army documents obtained by USA Today indicate that no U.S. officials have recently inspected the hospital. On Jan. 7, commanders called for experts to visit the hospital to its structural integrity because of the building's "location in a high seismic activity zone." But on Jan. 21, the Army responded that it could not re-inspect the hospital because "reduced combat forces, threats in the area and reduced technical engineering assets" in the region made that impossible.
An inspection from March 2013 found water damage, mold, unusable toilets and "significant structural cracks." In November, SIGAR visited the hospital and found it plagued with problems and so poorly built it could collapse in an earthquake.
The ISAF release is part of an aggressive spin campaign to counter audits from SIGAR, which has detailed repeated failures to deliver on billions of dollars worth of contracts there, according to documents obtained by USA Today and interviews with military officials.
Last summer, following a series of blistering SIGAR audits, top aides to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford briefed him on a way to blunt the IG's findings, according to a briefing slide. As ISAF commander, Dunford is the top officer in Afghanistan.
Titled the "Audit Plan of Action," the slide recommends releasing news of how the military has addressed problems cited by IG John Sopko before his report was released to the media. It was created by the Commander's Action Group, akin to an internal think tank for Dunford.
"This plan of action ensures proactive measures are executed well ahead of the auditor's decision cycle," the plan states. "To borrow a hunting analogy from General Richardson…In the past we may have shot where we saw the duck, but now, with our plan of action, we will bag our limit of birds before Mr. Sopko wakes up to feed his dogs." Richardson is the two-star Army general who oversees U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Sopko said "it's disappointing to see that funds appropriated by Congress are being used by elements of the Department of Defense to misrepresent the work of an independent inspector general. American taxpayers would be better served if ISAF spent less time writing misleading press releases and more time fixing the problems we've identified."
The reference to Sopko was removed before Dunford was briefed on the action plan in September, said Col. Jane Crichton, a spokeswoman for the International Security Assistance Force, the top command in Afghanistan. The plan to release details of the military's efforts regarding the audits, she said, was designed to ensure that reporters had immediate access to information "in order to provide balance."
In 2013, there were 121 audits of military activities in Afghanistan by government agencies, including SIGAR, she said. The plan was implemented last year and allowed public affairs officers to educate themselves on the issue involved and identify subject matter experts who could explain to reporters the military's response to audits.
Releasing information about the military's response simultaneous to the audit's release means that the military is "better able to provide you with a response," Crichton said.