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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

GAO urges changes in budgeting for national security

The Government Accountability Office has recommended that the U.S. government establish a central national security budget and then set aside money by responsibilities, breaking with the current arrangement of letting departments and agencies decide how best to arrange their budgets.

That setup has created "a patchwork of activities that waste scarce funds and limit the overall effectiveness of federal efforts," said Gene L. Dodaro, the GAO's director and acting U.S. comptroller general.

"Different organizational structures, planning processes and funding sources to plan for and conduct their national security activities . . . can hinder interagency collaboration," Dodaro said, with the result being "budget requests and congressional appropriations that tend to reflect individual agency concerns." His comments came in a speech about national-security budgeting at National Defense University this month.

Dodaro cited a couple of examples for his position. Since 2005, he said, separate efforts to improve governance within Iraq's ministries -- by the State and Defense departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development -- have "contributed to U.S. efforts not meeting the goal for key Iraqi ministries" to take more responsibility for reconstruction projects.

He also said the Pentagon's regional commands -- such as Central Command, which includes the Middle East and Central Asia -- "are aligned differently" and cover different areas than do the State Department's regional bureaus. That makes coordination "more challenging and [creates] the potential for gaps and overlaps in policy implementation," Dodaro said.

His call for developing and implementing "overarching strategies to achieve national security objectives" reflects the findings of a December 2008 report by the Project on National Security Reform. The report recommended "issuing an integrated national security strategy and creating a unified national security budget"; several leading members of the Obama administration were involved in that project, including Adm. Dennis C. Blair, now director of national intelligence, and James B. Steinberg, now deputy secretary of state.

More recently, the Center for American Progress -- a think tank led by John Podesta, President Obama's transition chief -- came out with a similar recommendation. Last November, in a report titled "Integrating Security," it called for "a unified national security budget that enables policymakers to more readily make the trade-offs necessary between defense, economic development and diplomacy."

That report went further than did Dodaro, saying a unified national security budget could be put together by the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, and would "identify . . . security priorities within budgetary constraints." It would also include "a prioritized list of critical missions; and identify the major federal programs, infrastructure and budget plan designed to implement the strategy," the center suggested.

Dodaro also focused last week on other weaknesses in the Pentagon's dealing with taxpayer dollars. He started with the oft-repeated fact in such reports that, the Defense Department "is one of the few federal entities that cannot accurately account for its spending or assets," even though it represents a major part of the federal budget.

For 20 years, he said, the GAO had urged changes in the department's financial management, with little success. But he said: "Problems with asset accountability further complicate critical functions such as supporting current plans to withdraw troops and equipment from Iraq."

The Marine Corps this year, he added, will audit its 2010 statement of budgetary resources as a test case for the rest of the Defense Department.

- Walter Pincus, WashingtonPost.com


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