Colonel John C. Hope is a decorated West Point graduate with a sterling 32-year service record. On Monday, he went public and accused the Pentagon of punishing him for speaking out against waste and inefficiency he saw in Afghanistan.
Hope worked for the Task Force For Business Stability Operations (TFBSO), which he says blew millions of dollars on ill-conceived projects and then purposefully tried to mislead investigators appointed by Congress. Hope says his superiors at the Pentagon have retaliated against his criticism of TBSO and jeopardized his career by holding up his performance review — a step necessary for bonuses, promotions, and new assignments — for eight months.
On Monday, after months of fighting behind the scenes, Hope spoke to VICE News. "I didn't want it to go this way," he said. "The Pentagon is trying to silence me, and that's not going to happen."
Asked about Hope's accusations, Pentagon spokesman Joseph Sowers told VICE News that the "a matter of policy, we do not comment on individual officer ratings."
Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, quickly came to Hope's defense on Monday and demanded an explanation from Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Grassley's spokeswoman Jill Gerber characterized Hope as a "whistleblower," and told VICE News the senator intervened in the colonel's case "on behalf of the American people."
Hope spent nine months as the top military official for TFBSO in Afghanistan. The program, which was disbanded last year, was designed to promote "free market" principles in war zones. It recruited CEOs and private businesspeople to invest in Afghanistan, and it spent more than $800 million in taxpayer money from 2009 to 2014.
'The Pentagon is trying to silence me, and that's not going to happen.'
From Hope's perspective, the program was a colossal failure. "There were so many things about the Task Force that were so screwed from the get-go," he said. "You can't get your hand around a single success story."
TFBSO's most famous project, a natural gas pipeline through the city of Sheberghan, is still incomplete despite hundreds of millions of dollars in US taxpayer investment. "They just left the country without finishing the last 7 kilometers," Hope said.
In Hope's telling, TFBSO's leadership in Washington had no understanding of the realities of investing on the ground in Afghanistan. "It was a whole bunch of people who had no idea what they were doing, spending lots of money," he said. "When the program was disbanded all the top guys decided it was time to get out of town… before someone comes around and asked for accountability."
Since the program was shuttered last spring, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — a team of investigators appointed by Congress— has been poking around, trying to document where the $800 million actually went.
"SIGAR has received more allegations about TFBSO than any other program in Afghanistan," Inspector General John F. Sopko told VICE News, noting that the investigation is still underway. "We are currently talking with numerous individuals, including Colonel Hope."
Watch the VICE News documentary Embedded in Northern Afghanistan: The Resurgence of the Taliban:
Last month, SIGAR released a report highlighting a $43 million project to build a natural gas station that should have cost less than $1 million. SIGAR was unable to account for the missing $42 million, and Sopko accused the Pentagon of stonewalling by denying investigators access to documents and personnel who could shed light on the money trail.
When Sopko asked the Pentagon to hand over invoices and contact information related to TFBSO this past October, Defense Department (DOD) officials said no one who worked at the task force was available to speak about it. "DOD spent nearly $800 million on TFBSO, but now they claim no one knows anything about it," Sopko said. "DOD made $800 million disappear, and now they have made the agency disappear too."
A number of US senators have accused the TFBSO of wasting taxpayer dollars. "Of all the examples of wasteful projects in Iraq and Afghanistan… this genuinely shocked me," Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said last month. "It's hard to imagine a more outrageous waste of money than building an alternative fuel station in a war-torn country that costs more than 8,000 percent more than it should."
Pentagon officials did not deny the waste, but they told VICE News that all the documents related to the project are available for SIGAR investigators to review in a special reading room.
Grassley's office maintained that the Pentagon is not allowing SIGAR to do its job. "Auditors are normally given documents they request. And they should not have to review them under the watchful eye of the audit target," Gerber said. "DOD offered access [to documents] under very controlled conditions for the SIGAR review… That doesn't strike Senator Grassley as appropriate."
On November 11, Grassley gave the Pentagon 21 days to turn all documents related to TFBSO over to his office. The senator has yet to receive any documents.
Hope claims the highest levels of the Pentagon initiated a strategy to block any investigation into TFBSO. He recounted a meeting earlier this year on January 29, when Joe Catalino, the outgoing head of the task force, went over a letter that SIGAR had sent. The SIGAR letter requested documents and access to TFBSO employees.
"Catalino was obfuscating and scheming how to not come forward with the truth," Hope said, alleging that Catalino made it clear that cooperating with any investigation was discouraged, and that employees should "circle the wagons." The strategy, Hope said, was to delay turning over information until the task force was disbanded later that spring, and then to claim that the personnel with knowledge of specific projects no longer worked at the Pentagon.
If was after that meeting, Hope said, that he decided to blow the whistle and approach SIGAR directly. Asked to explain his reasoning, he quoted the West Point cadet code. "We do not lie, cheat, or steal: it's about duty honor and country," he said. "We chose the harder right, and avoid the easier wrong. As a West Point graduate, this whole thing angers me to the core."
'This whole thing angers me to the core.'
Hope wasn't responsible for processing invoices or keeping track of money, and could not provide specific information about what happened to the funds that disappeared. He did say, however, that TFBSO was set up in a way that made it hard to keep track of things. "From the beginning, there was no property book officer, " he said. "We even had weapons that had gone missing for two years, and no one was keeping track."
Before reaching out to SIGAR, Hope tried to sound the alarm within the Pentagon. As director of operations in Afghanistan, he was asked to draft a report about the "termination" of the project back in February 2015. He wrote a scathing review that said "TFBSO lacked property accountability practices and methodologies," and that task force personnel "were relegated to 'making it up' as they went along."
The Pentagon did not respond to request for comment on the specifics of Hope's allegation. The colonel claims that his superiors at TFBSO began retaliating against him after he submitted that termination report by refusing to evaluate his job performance, which he says has basically frozen his military career.
"After the Task Force disbanded, I basically became unemployed, because I never got Officer Evaluation Report (OER) you need to get your next assignment," he said, explaining that he had previously been recommended for promotion to brigadier general. "It's now eight months late, and I'm still waiting. Right now, I'm stuck."
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons