Where Stories Go to Die: Page A23

Okay, you tell us if this isn’t big news. Look at this lede from the back pages of the Washington Post today:

“The Pentagon has no accurate knowledge of the cost of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or the fight against terrorism, limiting Congress’s ability to oversee spending, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report released yesterday.”

It’s almost hard to believe, but with the Pentagon budget ballooning more than six-fold in the past three years — from $11 billion in 2002 to a projected $71 billion in 2005 — “neither DOD nor Congress can reliably know how much the war is costing and details of how appropriated funds are being spent,” according to the GAO’s report.

Among other problems, the report found that in 2004 the Pentagon overstated by $2.1 billion the cost of mobilizing army reservists. The GAO also found what they called “inadvertent double accounting” by the Navy and Marine Corps from November 2004 to April 2005, amounting to almost $1.8 billion.

According to the Post, the report has the number of inaccuracies “totaling billions of dollars.”

We have two questions.

Why does this story get buried on A23?

More important, why was the Post the only paper to write about the report at all? With worries mounting daily about how to responsibly fund the reconstruction of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities, shouldn’t pressure be applied on the government to account for all its expenditures? How does the press let such a damning report fall by the wayside, when it could be the trigger for more thorough accounting?

Perhaps newspaper editors have become insensitive to the idea of a few billion dollars misplaced or, worse, just missing. But from the looks of things down south, with New Orleans in ruins and Hurricane Rita barreling toward land with 165 mph winds, the federal government is going to need every cent it can find.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.