McCaskill scraps with State over training cash

McCaskill scraps with State over training cash
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Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillElection Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' FBI investigated cyberattacks targeting Dem opponent to Rohrabacher: report Progressives fume as Dems meet with Brett Kavanaugh MORE on Tuesday sparred with Obama administration officials over their funding request for a new facility that would be used to train diplomatic security personnel.

McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former state auditor, grilled the assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security about the plan for a consolidated training facility in Virginia. When the official couldn’t give a dollar figure for how much training currently costs at the 19 training sites, she questioned the level of “confidence” that Congress should have in the process.

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“We are talking about whether or not this is a cost efficient facility and you can’t tell me what it costs now?” she said.

“This is a business decision, it’s a cost-benefit analysis and its very clear to me the State Department said in the beginning, ‘We want to be here and we don’t need to do the kind of cost-benefit analysis that anyone should do if they want to spend this kind of money.’ ”

The Senate hearing was the latest chapters in the State Department’s more than two-decades long quest to consolidate its training into one location.

State settled on a site at Ft. Pickett in Blackstone, Virginia in 2011 and later developed a plan that cost $413 million. The scaled-down plan, which dropped from an initial proposal costing more than $900 million, would rely on private business building hotels and restaurants around the area to cater to the influx of trainees.

The administration asked State to also consider a proposal from the Department of Homeland Security to augment an already existing site, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Ga. FLETC said it could deliver the project for $273 million, including the dormitories and other soft skills that Ft. Pickett stripped out.

That piqued the interest of members of Congress, especially among members of the Georgia delegation excited by the prospect of the expansion coming to their state.

But the Obama administration eventually settled on the Virginia plan after State decided it met the agency’s needs. That drew ire of many lawmakers and prompted calls for more studies by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) into whether FLETC really was an inferior site. A House panel has also subpoenaed the Office of Management and Budget to ask whether the agency had previously recommended FLETC before walking that back.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill in a statement that internal OMB documents show that “career analysts and senior leadership recommended that the State Department use the existing FLETC facility in Georgia,” because it met State’s needs at the lower price and that the committee is “looking at why OMB changed course, rejecting its own thorough analysis.

The State Department has been adamant that the FLETC site won’t give diplomatic security agents the training they need, and said that an upcoming GAO report will prove Ft. Pickett the best site.

David Mader, the acting deputy director for management at OMB, told senators during the hearing’s opening remarks that OMB did not want to “second-guess diplomatic security requirements” and “ultimately relied on the State Department’s unique understanding of diplomatic missions abroad.”

Starr argued that a location close to Washington makes travel easier on trainees and their families, and allows for synergies with special military units close by. The majority of diplomatic security agents live between Washington and New York City, he told The Hill in an interview last week.

In his view, State’s ability to have dedicated use of the facilities will give it total control of the training as well as the flexibility to respond to unplanned needs, like President Obama’s trip to Kenya surrounding the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.

More than 225 agents and support staff are in Nairobi, all of which had to be brought to State’s interim facility in West Virginia for immediate training.

Starr’s main argument at the hearing was that while FLETC’s sticker price may be lower, Ft. Pickett is not only what the administration believes is right, but it would be cheaper over the life of the facility because it cut airfare costs and lost training hours due to travel.

He added in last week’s interview that FLETC’s figure has only been calculated internally, while the General Services Administration and two independent companies certified the Ft. Pickett plan.

“I can’t tell you FLETC can’t do it, I don’t know enough about FLETC,” he said, noting that DHS and State agreed in a consensus document that FLETC would have to build about 90 percent of what’s required to meet the Ft. Pickett plan.

“But if I have to build 90 percent of the same stuff, the cost for building is about the same, and our estimates are through GSA for the complete master plan and vetted individually by two independent companies, who do I believe?”

But after she was unable to get Starr to give detailed numbers about the plan, McCaskill said that she heard “nothing compelling” from State and that Congress needs to “try to stop this dead in its track.” She told The Hill after the hearing that while she won’t threaten Congressional action to block the construction, she wants much more information from State before she’d feel comfortable with the plan.

A State Department official told The Hill that State’s preexisting timeline begins construction at Ft. Pickett in August and that it’s unclear whether that calculus would change based off of the tepid reactions at Tuesday’s hearing. Starr said last week that despite some pushback from Congress, the administration is dead-set on Ft. Pickett.

“The diplomatic core, as the military pulls down in Afghanistan, is what’s going to be left behind with a very small residual military force. The times are coming where we are going to have to reengage in Libya and in Yemen. I’m not saying that’s tomorrow, but are we not going to go back into those places?’ Starr told The Hill.

“We are moving ahead because I’ve got people in harms way.”