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GAO: Pentagon didn't fully evaluate costs, readiness effects of deploying troops to border

GAO: Pentagon didn't fully evaluate costs, readiness effects of deploying troops to border
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The Pentagon did not fully evaluate potential costs and effects on readiness before deploying troops to the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration, a watchdog report said Tuesday.

In addition, the Department of Defense (DOD) has not provided its full cost estimates to Congress and internally has not tracked some costs associated with the border mission, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The watchdog report also stated Pentagon data places the cost of the deployment from 2018 to 2020 at least at $841 million.

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“By providing more timely and complete information to Congress, DOD would enhance Congress’s ability to conduct oversight and make funding decisions for DOD and” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the report said.

The Trump administration deployed thousands of troops to the southern border, at its height reaching more than 2,500 National Guardsmen and more than 5,800 active-duty troops, part of what former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE believed would strengthen national security and prevent illegal immigration.

While the National Guard has been deployed to the border in the past, the deployment of active-duty troops broke norms and only happened after Trump declared a national emergency in 2019 to acquire funding to build a border wall. 

Lawmakers at the time expressed concerns the deployments would drain resources from the budget and negatively affect troop readiness.

President BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it MORE has since ended the national emergency, but the Pentagon has said it has no plans right now to end the deployment of the 3,600 troops, mostly National Guardsmen, before the approved end date in September.

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In its report Tuesday, the GAO found the DOD fully examined the legality, potential for lethal force, safety risks to troops and whether supporting the requests was in the interest of the department when evaluating requests for assistance from the DHS. 
 
But the GAO also found the Pentagon “developed rough cost estimates that were not reliable” and “did not fully evaluate the effect on military readiness of providing support.”

“Without reliable cost estimates and a timely readiness analysis, DOD is limited in its ability to evaluate the effect of supporting DHS on its budget and readiness rebuilding efforts,” the report said.

GAO specifically looked at the Pentagon’s cost estimate for deploying troops to the border in fiscal 2019 and found it only “minimally” met the criteria for a reliable projection.

The GAO also found Pentagon reports to Congress on costs of the deployment did not match internal data. For example, reports to Congress indicated the Pentagon obligated about $234 million for the mission in fiscal years 2018 and 2019, but GAO’s review of internal Pentagon data found the department obligated about $490 million during that period.

Defense officials told the GAO the discrepancy was due to the fact that it hadn’t completed one of the reports for fiscal 2019, which was due to Congress in March 2020 but hadn’t been sent as of December, according to the report.

The Pentagon also did not track some costs associated with the border mission, including costs to installations supporting the mission, to oversee wall construction and to provide benefits to National Guard members, the report said.

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On readiness, the GAO found that some potential unit-level effects were not reported to the Defense secretary before approving the requests for assistance.

For example, a battalion of UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters from an active duty Army Combat Aviation Brigade missed a large-scale training opportunity at the National Training Center because of the deployment, and pilots also had trouble fulfilling individual training requirements such as night flying, military personnel told the GAO. But those issues were not identified in the collection of information used to decide whether to approve the request, according to the report.

The lack of information on readiness may have led to the Pentagon providing DHS with less support than it approved in a least one case, GAO said, adding that defense officials “confirmed that the department made adjustments because it did not have sufficient ready units to provide the level of support approved” for 2020.

The report released Tuesday is the public version of a classified report initially issued earlier this month and excludes information about force protection and threats to troops the Pentagon deemed “sensitive,” according to the GAO.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment on the GAO report. But in a response dated in December included in the report, the department disagreed with all but one of the GAO’s six recommendations.

The cost estimates the Pentagon used to approve the requests were meant to be “a rough order of magnitude cost estimate that informs senior-leader decision making,” the department said in its response. The department is also “confident that the process used to assess readiness prior to approving support is appropriate,” it added.

The Pentagon also disagreed its comptroller needs to clarify guidance to ensure all associated costs are tracked, but agreed it should “provide reports to cognizant congressional committees on time,” blaming the delay of sending a report to Congress on a belated congressional extension of the deadline and the COVID-19 pandemic.