Congress eyes US effort to defeat roadside bombs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the troubling days of 2005, as insurgent attacks mounted in Iraq, the Bush administration created a special task force to defeat the No 1 threat to US troops: homemade roadside bombs.

But while the Pentagon has raised the organization's profile by putting a retired Army four-star general in charge and thrown billions of dollars at it, it is not clear how much it has helped, since the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, continue to cause the majority of troop fatalities.

The group operates secretly to avoid tipping its hand to US enemies. But last year, Senate appropriators directed the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog of Congress, to investigate the agency. Now, they may get some answers.

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This week, the GAO was scheduled to brief committee members on its classified report behind closed doors, says a GAO official. There is some concern in the House of Representatives, too. Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the organization has spent only about 25 percent of the money it's been given.

"They just haven't spent it," said Representative Moran. "I don't want to require [them] to spend it on things that are not necessary. But on the other hand, we need to figure out how to stop these deaths of these kids riding in convoys."

Moran said he is "not entirely" satisfied that the organization is adequately accountable or transparent, even though he believes Montgomery Meigs, the retired Army four-star general who heads the agency, is "trying to do the right thing."

Others say the agency, called the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), has what been given an impossible task. IEDs are simple bombs, cobbled together using technology from remote-control toys, garage-door openers, and cellphones.

The organization has remained a mystery because its work is so sensitive, and many officials inside the Defense Department believe sharing almost any information about what JIEDDO does could tip off insurgents about US tactics and put American troops at fatal risk. The agency, meant to serve as a kind of clearinghouse of information in an effort to prevent redundant efforts within the Defense Department, employs nearly 300 uniformed military personnel, civilians, and contractors in its offices in a secure building in Crystal City, Va., about a mile from the Pentagon, and in teams working in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The agency's success is hard to talk about publicly, Mr. Meigs acknowledged during a media roundtable earlier this month. But he pointed out that while IED attacks on American forces are up dramatically since 2005, the number of attacks that result in US casualties has remained relatively stable. While Meigs points to that trend as a success story, he provided no evidence to show how much his organization has contributed to that trend.

Much of the agency's budget is spent on "capabilities," he said. That includes communications, equipment, jammers to disrupt bomb-triggering devices, and some force protection equipment. The agency also spent $20 million on medical research in mitigating casualties from IED blasts. Nearly 10 percent of its budget is spent on training, Meigs said.

"We buy a lot of gear," Meigs said. "We invest in a lot of things that result in a capability."

Efforts include learning more about a new, more powerful roadside bomb called an Explosively Formed Projectile, or EFP. Defense officials say materials for EFPs are shipped in from Iran.

But technology may not be the answer, if a look at the agency's shifting budget priorities is any indication. The agency is beginning to invest heavily in "offensive operations" to defeat the networks that place roadside bombs – and de-emphasize the gadgetry that can be used to clear such bombs from the road. In 2006, the agency spent 13 percent of its budget on offensive operations, while this year's budget allocates 31 percent to those activities.

JIEDDO's proposed budget for fiscal 2008 is $4.4 billion, more than 30 percent higher than this year's budget. Congressional staffers said it has been given $5 billion in the past 18 months. Noting its rapid growth and massive budget last year, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, then a subcommittee chairman under the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked the GAO to look into JIEDDO's effectiveness at fielding equipment, sharing information and spending.

Senate and House appropriators have received a draft of the GAO report on the JIEDDO and are expecting a final report "shortly," said Mike Yuen, a spokesman for Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii.

JIEDDO personnel and a Web-based system that allows troop units to securely share information about IED attacks are useful, Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of Multinational Division-North in Iraq, said during a video-conference with reporters at the Pentagon March 9. "But it's that soldier on the ground, those engineers that are out there clearing, and our soldiers that are out there operating, understanding the terrain, seeing differences in things on the roadways, and that's one of the reasons that our detection rate has gone way up."

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