WASHINGTON-In February 2006, with roadside bombs killing more and more American soldiers in Iraq, the Pentagon created an agency to defeat the deadly threat and tasked a retired four-star general to run it.
Five years later, the agency has ballooned into a 1,900-employee behemoth and has spent nearly $17 billion on hundreds of initiatives. Yet the technologies it's developed have failed to improve significantly U.S. soldiers' ability to detect unexploded roadside bombs and have never been able to find them at long distances. Indeed, the best detectors remain the low-tech methods: trained dogs, local handlers and soldiers themselves.
A review by the Center for Public Integrity and McClatchy Newspapers of government reports and interviews with auditors, investigators and congressional staffers show that the agency - the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization - also violated its own accounting rules and hasn't evaluated properly its initiatives to keep mistakes from being repeated.
Meanwhile, roadside bombs remain the single worst killer of soldiers as more U.S. forces have been transferred out of Iraq and into Afghanistan. Known in military parlance as improvised explosive devices, the crude, often-homemade bombs killed 368 coalition troops in Afghanistan last year, by far the highest annual total since 2001, when the U.S.-led war there began, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Among the serious questions about how well JIEDDO has spent its billions:
- The agency failed to collect data on its projects, leading a congressional investigative subcommittee to conclude in 2008: "The nation does not yet know if JIEDDO is winning the (counter-IED) fight."
- Some of its spending went to programs that had little to do with its core mission, including $400 million for Army force protection in 2010 and $24.6 million to hire private contractors for intelligence operations in Afghanistan.
- Agency officials misreported $795 million in costs, the Government Accountability Office said, circumventing its own rules requiring high-level Defense Department approval for projects with price tags greater than $25 million.
- JIEDDO's staff comprises six contractors for every government employee, a ratio that its outgoing director acknowledged needs to be reduced.
- While the agency was mandated to "lead, advocate [and] coordinate" anti-roadside bomb initiatives, more than 100 groups and initiatives inside and outside the Defense Department continue "to develop, maintain and in many cases expand" their own work, the GAO found.
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., a former Marine and an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, said the Pentagon and its anti-IED agencies, including JIEDDO, could do far better in preventing casualties from roadside bombs.
"So as long as the IED metric keeps going up, and as long as we keep taking the majority of our KIA [killed in action] casualties from IEDs, then they've all been unsuccessful. Period," he said.
One U.S. soldier who was based in Baghdad in 2008 said: "We were out there every day. We studied our destroyed vehicles, and [the enemy's IED tactics] kept changing. So we kept trying new ideas, anything, to stop them. JIEDDO didn't help us." The soldier declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, who recently stepped down as the agency's director, acknowledged missteps but said they were inevitable because the agency was tasked with producing devices quickly.
"We fund things," said Oates, who was the agency's third director in five years. "Sometimes we fund things that don't work. Some call that waste; I call it risk."
One of the things that apparently didn't work was the Joint IED Neutralizer, created in 2002 by an Arizona startup called Ionatron. Looking like a pair of boxy golf carts, the JIN fired ultra-short pulse lasers followed by a half-million-volt lightning bolt of electricity, and its makers said it could detonate the blasting caps that triggered IEDs from well outside blast range.
In 2005, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz authorized $30 million for the JIN despite skepticism from scientists, who said damp ground or dust would render the device useless. During test runs in Afghanistan in 2006, the JIN was disappointing: It had trouble climbing steep mountain At one training site, the agency spent $24.1 million to make steel shipping containers resemble Iraqi buildings.
"I just couldn't believe it," said a former congressional staffer, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.
The agency's new director, Lt. Gen Michael Barbero, took over earlier this month fresh off a tour in Iraq. Among his tasks will be collecting data on what works and what doesn't, and improving relations with Congress, which had complained in the past about a lack of information to evaluate the agency's performance.
In debate over the 2010 Pentagon budget, for instance, the House Armed Services Committee threatened to withhold half the agency's money "until the committee is provided JIEDDO's detailed budget and program information."
Few in Congress wanted to be seen giving short shrift to the fight against roadside bombs, however. Year after year, the agency has received the federal funding it requested, to the tune of $20.8 billion over six years.
Roadside bomb attacks continue to increase in Afghanistan, averaging roughly 1,500 per month at the end of last year. The number of U.S. troops wounded by IEDs skyrocketed to 3,366 in 2010, compared with 2,386 during the previous nine years combined, according to data JIEDDO collected.
Despite years of effort, soldiers long have had only a 50-50 success rate in detecting bombs before they explode. That ticked up to 60 percent in Afghanistan in recent months, Oates said - thanks largely to better local intelligence and aerial surveillance as well as on-the-ground technology - but it's too soon to tell whether this marks a long-term trend.
The agency's future is unclear. While some of Oates' predecessors argued that the agency should be a permanent part of the Pentagon because the fight against roadside bombs is global and ongoing, some in Congress have argued that it should be terminated at the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Oates, for his part, said that JIEDDO "is not a permanent organization, and we do not seek to be one."