Military watchdog to re-open probe of $34M facility built in Afghanistan but never used

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The independent auditor who postponed a probe into a $34 million "white elephant" of a military facility the Pentagon built in Afghanistan over objections from top leaders is reopening his investigation.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko delayed his initial probe last summer, after the Pentagon vowed to investigate why millions were apparently wasted on the hulking headquarters at Camp Leatherneck in southwestern Afghanistan. But Sopko said defense officials have not addressed concerns he initially raised, leaving him no choice but to restart his inquiry.

“Following delivery of my July letter, I was advised that an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding construction of the building was ongoing, and upon its completion answers to my questions would be forthcoming,” Sopko wrote Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other military heads. “Accordingly, I delayed my investigation of this matter assuming a speedy and fulsome review by your staff.”

But all Sopko said he ever got from the Pentagon was documents regarding an Army probe of the 64,000-square-foot building, which he said "raises additional questions, and has prompted my decision to restart SIGAR’s investigation.”

Sopko also charged in his letter that the Army report did not respond to his initial inquiry and that it did not address any of the issues raised about the building at Camp Leatherneck and that it lacked transparency.

Maj. Gen. James Richardson, who conducted the Army report, determined that building the facility was justified as the southwestern region of Afghanistan needed an "enduring base."

But Sopko has maintained that the building is too large for the few hundred U.S. troops remaining in the region.

"This is a white elephant that the Marines said they don't want and don't need," Sopko said in a statement to "It's frankly a mystery to us why the Army would want to continue pouring money into this. “That's why we're re-launching this investigation -- because American taxpayers aren't getting the accountability they deserve."

Last July the Washington Post reported on how Sopko’s first inquiry to Hagel and other military leaders had exposed the problems and that the construction of the building continued for years despite warnings that it was not needed.

At the time, the military stated that it would conduct its own probe of what went wrong, and try to figure out what to do with the empty facility.

"The building will probably be demolished, or possibly give it to the Afghans, but doing so would require another major overhaul," Sopko said then.

Sopko and others are raising alarm at the fact the project continued despite the diminishing need for it and the Army suggestion in their report that the facility should have even more funding pumped into it.

Sopko said in his July letter that the empty facility appeared to be one of the "best constructed" buildings he's seen in the country.

"Unfortunately, it is unused, unoccupied, and presumably will never be used for its intended purpose," he said. "Military officials explained that this is an example of what is wrong with military construction in general -- once a project is started, it is very difficult to stop."

The project started after President Obama ordered a surge in southern Afghanistan in 2009. Planners wanted to install a sophisticated facility.

Yet a top commander later sent U.S. headquarters in Kabul a memo, according to the Post’s July report, telling them the building was not needed and that the warning was ignored by contract officers.

"What the hell were they thinking?" a two-star Army general, who was not named, told the Post at the time.