Military survey finds deep dissatisfaction with family housing on U.S. bases

FILE PHOTO: Swab tests at residences in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S. reveal in red the presence of lead in this undated handout photo obtained by FOIA from the US Army, received by Reuters August 15, 2018. U.S. Army FOIA/Handout via REUTERS

By M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A new survey of military families living on U.S. bases found most are dissatisfied with their housing, often citing serious health and safety hazards results that counter years of Pentagon reports claiming soaring satisfaction rates among military housing tenants.

The survey results, collected from nearly 15,000 families currently or recently living in privatized military housing, were released hours before Senate hearings called to probe living conditions on U.S. bases. Wednesday’s hearings were prompted by Reuters reports that found widespread housing hazards and poor safety oversight on bases nationwide.

The survey, conducted by the nonpartisan Military Family Advisory Network, found that just 16 percent of respondents had a positive view of their base housing and 55 percent had a negative one. Many families reported unsafe conditions including lead-based paint, rampant mold, exposed asbestos, faulty electrical wiring, vermin infestations and gas leaks.

The results contradict the overwhelmingly positive metrics of resident satisfaction presented in years of Defense Department reports to Congress, which say that nearly 90 percent of tenants polled would recommend privatized military housing.

The Defense Department reports rely on data collected by the private real estate firms that operate base housing in partnership with military branches. The companies’ compensation is partly determined by the results of resident satisfaction surveys.

“It has become apparent that there is a disconnect between our findings related to resident satisfaction and what has been reported by privatized housing companies,” the nonprofit military group’s report said. “Military families are living in dangerous situations.”

The Department of Defense declined to comment on the survey findings. The military has often credited its privatization program with enhancing living conditions for service families through new construction and renovations. The Defense Department said it is committed to remediating problems.

Around one-third of U.S. military families, some 700,000 people in all, live in privatized housing across more than 100 federal military bases. Whether families choose to live on base or in civilian communities, their rent is covered by DOD housing stipends. The online survey found that many families see little choice but to live in base housing: Rental housing off base can be scarce and costly, and deployments can limit their options.

The survey results will be entered into testimony at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Among those slated to testify: Defense Department officials and top executives of five major companies who operate base housing in a public-private portfolio of more than 200,000 family homes. Senators will also hear from military families who will share their own stories.

Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force families living in 46 states with privatized military housing responded to the survey, the organization said. The respondents currently live on base or have in the past three years. Some described respiratory ailments and neurological disorders they blamed on poor water quality, sewage backups, water leaks, toxic soil and shoddy construction.

“Our results show a systemic problem that does not discriminate among location, rank, or branch of service,” the report said.

Families said their concerns are sometimes ignored, or that their landlords or command threatened discipline if they continued to complain.

One California spouse whose husband served in the Marines for 20 years said she had to hire her own environmental firm to confirm mold in the house. The report didn’t name her.

Others reported vermin, from black widow spiders to rodents, bats and snakes. “Rats would die in our attic, and they’d only remove them once maggots were falling from the ceiling,” said a survey respondent living in Hawaii.

The Military Family Advisory Network, a support organization that represents service members and their families, said it decided to conduct the survey after hearing from families about housing concerns.

The findings echo a year-long Reuters investigation that found hazards and maintenance lapses in privatized military housing. Service families can be left powerless in disputes with the private landlords who are in business with their military employers. Those landlords, Reuters found, stand to earn billions in fees from 50-year contracts.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Mattis signs order withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attend the 119th Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has signed an order withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, a Defense Department spokesman said on Monday, following through on a decision by President Donald Trump that helped trigger Mattis’ resignation last week.

The signing, which had been expected, occurred after Trump announced on Sunday that he would replace Mattis two months earlier than expected, a move officials said was driven by the president’s anger at a rebuke of his foreign policy contained in Mattis’ resignation letter.

“The execute order for Syria has been signed,” a Defense Department spokesman said in an email to Reuters that provided no operational details.

Officials have cautioned against a timeline but the withdrawal could begin in weeks. A senior official said a specific plan was being worked on.

On Wednesday, Trump said he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, citing its cost in terms of U.S. military lives and taxpayer money.

Mattis, whose embrace of NATO and America’s traditional alliances often put him at odds with Trump, had advised against the Syria withdrawal – one of the factors in his resignation.

Mattis is highly regarded by Republicans and Democrats alike and his departure added to concerns over what many see as Trump’s unpredictable go-it-alone approach to global security.

In his resignation letter, Mattis had said he would step down at the end of February to allow for a successor to be confirmed and to attend congressional hearings and a key NATO meeting.

But Trump, who was irked by the attention given to Mattis’ letter, said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would take over on an acting basis from Jan. 1.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Idrees Ali; Editing by Bill Trott)

Pentagon creating software ‘do not buy’ list to keep out Russia, China

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington, June 15, 2005. REUTERS/Jason Reed

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon is working on a software “do not buy” list to block vendors who use software code originating from Russia and China, a top Defense Department acquisitions official said on Friday.

Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters the Pentagon had been working for six months on a “do not buy” list of software vendors. The list is meant to help the Department of Defense’s acquisitions staff and industry partners avoid buying problematic code for the Pentagon and suppliers.

“What we are doing is making sure that we do not buy software that has Russian or Chinese provenance, for instance, and quite often that’s difficult to tell at first glance because of holding companies,” she told reporters gathered in a conference room near her Pentagon office.

The Pentagon has worked closely with the intelligence community, she said, adding “we have identified certain companies that do not operate in a way consistent with what we have for defense standards.”

Lord did not provide any further details on the list.

Lord’s comments were made ahead of the likely passage of the Pentagon’s spending bill by Congress as early as next week. The bill contains provisions that would force technology companies to disclose if they allowed countries like China and Russia to examine the inner workings of software sold to the U.S. military.

The legislation was drafted after a Reuters investigation found that software makers allowed a Russian defense agency to hunt for vulnerabilities in software used by some agencies of the U.S. government, including the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

Security experts said allowing Russian authorities to look into the internal workings of software, known as source code, could help adversaries like Moscow or Beijing to discover vulnerabilities they could exploit to more easily attack U.S. government systems.

Lord added an upcoming report on the U.S. military supply chain will show that the Pentagon depends on foreign suppliers, including Chinese firms, for components in some military equipment.

She said the Pentagon also wants to strengthen its suppliers’ ability to withstand cyber attacks and will test their cybersecurity defenses by attempting to hack them.

The Pentagon disclosed the measures as the federal government looks to bolster cyber defenses following attacks on the United States that the government has blamed on Russia, North Korea, Iran, and China.

The Department of Homeland Security this week disclosed details about a string of cyber attacks that officials said put hackers working on behalf of the Russian government in a position where they could manipulate some industrial systems used to control infrastructure, including at least one power generator.

(Reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by Chris Sanders, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

Pentagon to lease privately owned Trump Tower apartment for nuclear ‘football’: letter

The West facing entrance to Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in New York City, U.S., is seen April 26, 2017. Picture Taken April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Mark Hosenball and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Defense Department is finalizing a lease on a privately owned apartment in New York’s Trump Tower for the White House Military Office to use for supporting President Donald Trump without providing any benefit to Trump or his organization, according to a Pentagon letter seen by Reuters.

The Military Office carries and safeguards the “football,” the device that contains the top secret launch codes the president needs to order a nuclear attack, as well as providing him secure communications wherever he is.

The White House, Secret Service, and Defense Department had no comment on whether similar arrangements have been made at other properties Trump frequents – Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida and the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where Trump is spending this weekend.

In a letter to Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat on the House Armed Services and intelligence committees, Defense Department official James MacStravic, said the apartment is “privately owned and … lease negotiations have been with the owner’s representatives only.”

MacStravic, who wrote that he was “temporarily performing the duties of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics,” said any acquisition of leased space with “an annual rental in excess of $1 million must first be approved by my office.”

He “approved this action” after consulting with the White House Military Office and other officials, he said.

Officials declined to reveal the cost of the lease or identify the owners of the apartment.

MacStravic’s letter, dated March 3, added: “We are not aware of any means through which the President would personally benefit from a Government lease of this space.”

The letter explained that the White House Military Office, a Pentagon unit, “requested approval to lease space in the Trump Tower for personnel assigned to support the President when at his private residence.”

The letter said such arrangements are “typical of support provided” by the Military Office to previous U.S. presidents and vice presidents at their private residences. It is not clear, however, whether the office has ever paid to rent space to house the classified equipment presidents need when they are staying at homes they own outside Washington.

A White House spokeswoman said the White House had no information on the leasing issue. The Defense Department and U.S. Secret Service declined to comment.

The Trump Organization did not reply to an email requesting comment.

When the Pentagon in February first acknowledged that it was seeking to lease space in Trump Tower, some Democrats questioned whether such a move would produce a financial windfall for Trump.

“I am concerned by the appearance that the President of the United States will financially benefit from this deal at the expense of the Department of Defense – and ultimately, taxpayers,” Speier wrote to Defense Secretary James Mattis shortly after the Trump Tower issue became public in February.

By negotiating only with representatives of the owners of a private apartment, the Pentagon said it was seeking to avoid such concerns.

(Reporting By Mark Hosenball,; Phil Stewart, and Jonathan Landay.; Editing by John Walcott and Grant McCool)

U.S. Army fudged its accounts by trillions of dollars, auditor finds

U.S. army soldiers are seen marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, March 16, 2013

By Scot J. Paltrow

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States Army’s finances are so jumbled it had to make trillions of dollars of improper accounting adjustments to create an illusion that its books are balanced.

The Defense Department’s Inspector General, in a June report, said the Army made $2.8 trillion in wrongful adjustments to accounting entries in one quarter alone in 2015, and $6.5 trillion for the year. Yet the Army lacked receipts and invoices to support those numbers or simply made them up.

As a result, the Army’s financial statements for 2015 were “materially misstated,” the report concluded. The “forced” adjustments rendered the statements useless because “DoD and Army managers could not rely on the data in their accounting systems when making management and resource decisions.”

Disclosure of the Army’s manipulation of numbers is the latest example of the severe accounting problems plaguing the Defense Department for decades.

The report affirms a 2013 Reuters series revealing how the Defense Department falsified accounting on a large scale as it scrambled to close its books. As a result, there has been no way to know how the Defense Department – far and away the biggest chunk of Congress’ annual budget – spends the public’s money.

The new report focused on the Army’s General Fund, the bigger of its two main accounts, with assets of $282.6 billion in 2015. The Army lost or didn’t keep required data, and much of the data it had was inaccurate, the IG said.

“Where is the money going? Nobody knows,” said Franklin Spinney, a retired military analyst for the Pentagon and critic of Defense Department planning.

The significance of the accounting problem goes beyond mere concern for balancing books, Spinney said. Both presidential candidates have called for increasing defense spending amid current global tension.

An accurate accounting could reveal deeper problems in how the Defense Department spends its money. Its 2016 budget is $573 billion, more than half of the annual budget appropriated by Congress.

The Army account’s errors will likely carry consequences for the entire Defense Department.

Congress set a September 30, 2017 deadline for the department to be prepared to undergo an audit. The Army accounting problems raise doubts about whether it can meet the deadline – a black mark for Defense, as every other federal agency undergoes an audit annually.

For years, the Inspector General – the Defense Department’s official auditor – has inserted a disclaimer on all military annual reports. The accounting is so unreliable that “the basic financial statements may have undetected misstatements that are both material and pervasive.”

In an e-mailed statement, a spokesman said the Army “remains committed to asserting audit readiness” by the deadline and is taking steps to root out the problems.

The spokesman downplayed the significance of the improper changes, which he said net out to $62.4 billion. “Though there is a high number of adjustments, we believe the financial statement information is more accurate than implied in this report,” he said.

“THE GRAND PLUG”

Jack Armstrong, a former Defense Inspector General official in charge of auditing the Army General Fund, said the same type of unjustified changes to Army financial statements already were being made when he retired in 2010.

The Army issues two types of reports – a budget report and a financial one. The budget one was completed first. Armstrong said he believes fudged numbers were inserted into the financial report to make the numbers match.

“They don’t know what the heck the balances should be,” Armstrong said.

Some employees of the Defense Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS), which handles a wide range of Defense Department accounting services, referred sardonically to preparation of the Army’s year-end statements as “the grand plug,” Armstrong said. “Plug” is accounting jargon for inserting made-up numbers.

At first glance adjustments totaling trillions may seem impossible. The amounts dwarf the Defense Department’s entire budget. Making changes to one account also require making changes to multiple levels of sub-accounts, however. That created a domino effect where, essentially, falsifications kept falling down the line. In many instances this daisy-chain was repeated multiple times for the same accounting item.

The IG report also blamed DFAS, saying it too made unjustified changes to numbers. For example, two DFAS computer systems showed different values of supplies for missiles and ammunition, the report noted – but rather than solving the disparity, DFAS personnel inserted a false “correction” to make the numbers match.

DFAS also could not make accurate year-end Army financial statements because more than 16,000 financial data files had vanished from its computer system. Faulty computer programming and employees’ inability to detect the flaw were at fault, the IG said.

DFAS is studying the report “and has no comment at this time,” a spokesman said.

(Edited by Ronnie Greene.)

Defense Department Labs Reportedly Mishandle Plague; Encephalitis

The allegedly accidental shipments of live anthrax bacteria to various labs around the nation by Defense Department labs is apparently just one of many possible breaches of deadly organisms.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says they are now investigating reports that Army labs mishandled plague bacteria as well as encephalitis.  The Army had previously stopped all production, shipping and handling of materials at nine labs but had left the impression it was due to the unauthorized shipments of anthrax.

“Additional testing is being conducted to try and verify once and for all whether or not [anthrax] was labeled correctly and placed in the right location,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.

When asked by reporters about the apparent deception, Cook said that officials wanted to release info “without alarming the public.”  He said they are waiting for results of the investigation.

Army spokesman Dov Schwartz told reporters that there is no risk to the general public from the plague involved in the current situation.

If not treated quickly after infection, the untreated pneumonic plague has a 93% fatality rate and can be spread person to person through coughing.

“Anthrax being mishandled is disconcerting enough, but now the mishandling also includes other potentially dangerous viruses including plague. The committee has zero tolerance for these widespread mishaps and will continue working to ensure that the Department corrects these failures so that the nation’s bioterrorism response efforts are not hampered further,” House Energy and Commerce Committee  Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and ranking Democrat, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, said in a joint statement.