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JIEDDO: The Manhattan Project that bombed

Pentagon unit created to fight IEDs has spent billions, but casualties remain high

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 Updated:

A U.S. Army Bradley armored vehicle burns near a junction on the Baghdad airport highway in October 2004. An improvised explosive device blew up as a military convoy passed, injuring six soldiers.

Hadi Mizban/Associated Press

As the invasion of Iraq turned into an occupation, a new and deadly threat to U.S. troops emerged, one for which the U.S. was ill prepared: the roadside bomb.

So in February 2006, with casualties mounting, the Pentagon responded by creating a new agency designed to attack the problem by harnessing the full might of America’s technology community. The new organization was dubbed the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, and a retired four-star general was tasked to run it.

The launch of JIEDDO eventually turned what had been a 12-person Army anti-homemade bomb task force into a 1,900 person behemoth with nearly $21 billion to spend.

Yet after five years of work, hundreds of projects, and a blizzard of cash paid to some of America’s biggest defense contractors, JIEDDO has not found a high-tech way to detect or defeat these so-called Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from a safe distance. In fact, the rate at which soldiers are able to find IEDs before they explode has remained mostly steady, at roughly 50 percent, since JIEDDO was formed. And while in the past few months the detection rate of IEDs has improved a bit, it is not clear whether this trend can be maintained.

JIEDDO’s outgoing director, Lt. General Michael Oates admits “there are no silver bullets that are going to solve this problem,” Indeed, the most effective IED detectors today are the same as before JIEDDO, and they don’t hum, whir, shoot, scan, or fly. They talk. And they bark. The best bomb detectors, Oates says, are still dogs working with handlers, local informants, and the trained soldier’s eye.

Oates nevertheless says that JIEDDO has scored numerous successes in the fight against IEDs and that its work has saved many soldiers’ lives. That is no doubt true. But objectively evaluating JIEDDO’s worth has been maddeningly difficult, its overseers say, as the secretive agency has violated its own accounting rules, failed to harness data on what works, and has often seemed loathe to disclose to Congress just how all that money was spent, according to interviews and documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity and McClatchy Newspapers. Critics say some of the agency’s projects were poorly chosen or managed. And not all soldiers feel they got tangible benefits from JIEDDO’s largesse.

One Marine who served in Afghanistan in 2009 said the only IED detectors supplied to his unit were hand-held devices similar to those used by beachcombers. He said whenever a convoy came to a place where IEDs might be buried, two Marines with detectors would walk up front and sweep.

“I remember thinking, ‘Here I am sitting in this quarter-million-dollar armed vehicle and we’re still out there searching for pennies on the beach,’ ” said Todd Bowers, a former staff sergeant and now deputy staff director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Bowers characterized the intelligence his unit received on IED emplacements as “very shaky.” He said the unit’s jammers designed to thwart radio-controlled IEDs were usually broken, and the dogs they were given were not trained to sniff ammonium nitrate, the key ingredient in homemade bombs in Afghanistan. “It was a struggle,” he said.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, (R-Calif.) a former Marine and Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, takes an equally harsh view. He is sure, he says, that the Pentagon and its anti-IED agencies and task forces (JIEDDO is far from the only one) could do better in preventing IED casualties, especially in Afghanistan, where more than 9,000 devices killed 368 coalition troops in 2010.

“So as long as the IED metric keeps going up, and as long as we keep taking the majority of our [killed in action] casualties from IEDs, then they’ve all been unsuccessful,” he says. “Period.”

Oates, JIEDDO’s third director in five years, acknowledges missteps. But he notes that JIEDDO was formed to reach out for anything that might help, that it was tasked with producing devices quickly, and that in such an environment mistakes would be made.

“I’m the VC (venture capitalist) guy,” he said in an interview. “We fund things. Sometimes we fund things that don’t work. Some call that waste — I call it risk.”

Still, a review of government reports, and interviews with auditors, investigators, and congressional staffers raise serious questions about how well JIEDDO has managed that risk and spent its billions. Among the specific complaints:

  • Congressional reports cite concerns that some JIEDDO money was shunted into programs that had little to do with fighting IEDs.
  • JIEDDO has not retained data that would allow the organization itself or outside overseers to know what works and what doesn’t. “You want to be able to say, ‘This is a piece of crap. Don’t buy any more of them’,” said Bill Solis, Director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the Government Accountability Office.
  • JIEDDO has been riddled with mismanagement, including a lack of financial accountability, and a tendency to violate its own rules, says the GAO. JIEDDO officials have misreported the cost of pricey projects, apparently to get them more easily approved, and mislabeled others as “overhead” expenses when they were not.
  • Some of JIEDDO’s counter-IED projects have been terminated because they duplicated the efforts of others, just didn’t work, or were not wanted by the military services, say a variety of government reports. Among the terminated initiatives: devices to zap buried IEDs with man-made lightning bolts. “In a rush to solve the problem, we just threw money and technology at the problem like multiple massive bowls of spaghetti, looking to see what stuck,” said Dan Goure, a former defense official who is now vice-president at the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-area think tank.
  • JIEDDO has paid billions of dollars to defense contractors, not just to develop anti-IED devices, but just to staff its offices. The ratio of contractor personnel to government employees is more than six to one, a ratio that Oates acknowledges needs improving. “When you get ready to spend money or make decisions with regard to the government’s money, there has to be or should be a government person, a military or GS [government service] person, who makes that decision,” he said.
  • When JIEDDO was formed, its charter said it was to “focus (lead, advocate, coordinate)” all DoD actions to defeat IEDs. Yet more than one hundred agencies, inside and outside the DoD, continue “to develop, maintain, and in many cases expand” their own anti-IED work, the GAO found. “It all goes back to lead, advocate, coordinate,” said Solis, at the GAO. “And I don’t think that’s happened.”

Indeed, in a report on potential duplication in government programs issued on March 3, the GAO complained that JIEDDO and the services “continue to pursue counter-IED efforts independent of one another that may be redundant or overlapping.” Moreover, the Congressional auditors said, there is still no military-wide overview of all counter-IED investments and resources. That’s partly because, according to JIEDDO, the services “are not inclined to share this information,” the report said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Oates acknowledged that many of the complaints were valid. He supplied a lengthy chart showing how JIEDDO was addressing those problems, but noted that some, such as the overabundance of contractors and the use of data to determine the value of JIEDDO projects, remained “challenges.” He also said that one of the biggest issues JIEDDO still faces is detecting IEDs from outside the range of the blast — that is, finding the IED before someone gets blown up.

A giant is born

JIEDDO’s origins date to 2003, when U.S. troops in Iraq suddenly found themselves under siege from IEDs. The next summer, Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, sent a memo to the secretary of defense calling for a “Manhattan Project-like” effort to quash the threat. The Army formed a 12-person task force to do so, and in 2004 it was given $100 million. In 2005 the task force was turned into a joint forces team with a budget of $1.3 billion, but as the threat accelerated — IED deaths in Iraq had gone from 50 in 2003 to 400 in 2005 — a grander effort was sought. In 2006 JIEDDO was created and given nearly $3.6 billion its first year.

Led by Montgomery Meigs, a retired, four-star Army general, the organization went to work. Word passed quickly to defense contractors, inventors, universities and government labs that JIEDDO had more than $3 billion to spend and was looking for high-tech solutions.

In March 2007, three student officers at the Joint Forces Staff College, a defense school for combined forces and multi-national warfighting, authored a skeptical paper: “Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO): Tactical Successes Mired in Organizational Chaos.” They noted that JIEDDO had gone in just a year from a tiny Army task force to a massive high-tech monster.

“[N]ot only is JIEDDO a large bureaucracy, it is still built around a technical solution approach focused on research and development, testing, and fielding the elusive ‘silver bullet’ to defeat IEDs,” they wrote. They cited a separate Pentagon report which reportedly chided JIEDDO: “Its emphasis on multi-million dollar contracts to develop high-tech sensing equipment has been ineffective at curbing attacks by homemade bombs.”

But the warning was moot. According to a briefing by Meigs, JIEDDO investigated 857 new technologies for countering actual IED devices in 2006, started work on 282 of them, eventually fielding 52. To attack bomb-making networks, it looked at 182 new technologies and fielded 21; it considered 42 new training technologies and fielded 9 of them. By the end of 2010, JIEDDO says, it had invested in approximately 1,000 counter-IED initiatives, of which 219 had been approved to be taken over by the military services or commands.

Building on the work of the earlier task forces, JIEDDO developed a series of jammers to counteract devices like telephone triggers for IEDs in Iraq, and it helped armor vehicles like Humvees. In 2007, JIEDDO spent $113 million to buy mine-rollers, World War II-era devices attached to the front of vehicles to explode pressure-detonated mines and bombs. It developed cameras on towers and balloons to watch the roads outside bases, and robots and vehicle-mounted arms to disarm IEDs.

As JIEDDO matured, it moved away from anti-bomb gizmos and into devices like airborne cameras and radars to see insurgents placing IEDs along roads. Since 2006, JIEDDO has spent about $10 billion on devices to defeat IEDs, and more than $7 billion on intelligence analysis to defeat IED networks and train troops.

And in doing so, JIEDDO grew. In September 2006, it had 360 people. By May, 2007, at least 1,466 people worked for JIEDDO, the GAO said.

To structure its efforts, JIEDDO divided into four channels: Defeat the Device, Attack the Network, Train the Force, and Staff and Infrastructure. “Defeat the Device” contained hundreds of technology projects, and it still does. But oversight has been a severe problem. The GAO has never been tasked to evaluate JIEDDO’s individual projects, and Congress is too swamped to fly-speck them, staffers said.

Capitol Hill also became frustrated that it was not getting the information it needed to evaluate JIEDDO’s performance. The issue finally came to a head when the House Armed Services Committee threatened in its report on the 2010 defense budget to withhold half of JIEDDO’s money “until the Committee is provided JIEDDO’s detailed budget and program information.”

Such threats were ultimately toothless, since no one in Congress wanted to be tagged with giving short-shrift to the IED fight. In spending bill conferences, the Senate would not go along with the threat. Indeed, year after year, Congress handed JIEDDO what it said it needed — it authorized $3 to $4 billion most years, including $3.466 billion in December for fiscal year 2011. Over six years, Congress had authorized $20.8 billion for JIEDDO to spend. Because spending lags behind authorization of funds, and because Congress has stalled in appropriating the federal budget for 2011, JIEDDO had spent close to $17 billion by the end of 2010.

Enter the contractors

Launched in February, 2006 with an urgent mandate to save lives, JIEDDO staffed up quickly, turning to an assortment of contractors to do so. Contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars were awarded to major defense firms, and by September 2010, JIEDDO had 110 military employees, 142 Army civilians, and 1,666 contractors on board, the agency says. Using its own cost multiplier of $225,482 per individual, JIEDDO’s estimated cost for contract staffers in 2010 alone was more than $375 million.

In June 2010, for instance, JIEDDO signed a set of contracts with Lockheed Martin to provide analytical support for JIEDDO’s Counter-IED Operations Integration Center. According to a Congressional source, the center near Dulles International Airport, which gathers and analyzes IED-related intelligence for use by units in the field, employs more than 600 people. The contracts were for $460 million — Lockheed Martin said “more than 500 people will be required to support the mission.”

In December 2009, Lockheed Martin had been given a $318 million contract for operations support services to JIEDDO’s analytical support teams. In August 2009, five contractors — SAIC, Lanmark, GS5, Wexford-CACI, and ITT — were awarded a $494 million contract to support JIEDDO with strategic planning, intelligence analysis, and operational and training and management support.

In April, 2008, Lockheed Martin and three other contractors — Wexford-CACI, BAE, and ITT — were awarded a $453 million contract for “support services.” JIEDDO data shows also that from 2008 to 2010 it committed more than $511 million to eight government and university labs. “A lot of people were feasting off of JIEDDO,” said Goure of the Lexington Institute.

Keeping track of them, however, was not JIEDDO’s forte. In early 2008 the GAO said JIEDDO “does not fully identify, track and report all government and contractor personnel” in accordance with DoD rules. Oates says JIEDDO has now set up systems to do so.

Last summer, the issue of staffing came into sharp focus when the Senate Appropriations Committee pressed for a full accounting of JIEDDO’s budget for its military, civilian, and contractor personnel. In past years, JIEDDO had budgeted for staff under a line called “Staff and Infrastructure,” and for the 2011 budget the number submitted was $215 million. But the Senate pressed JIEDDO to look for personnel in other parts of the budget, and the search found $420 million more. And most of the staffers were contractors.

In a report for the 2011 budget, the Senate Appropriations Committee changed the Staff and Infrastructure line to $635 million; JIEDDO did not object.

Misguided management

As far back as 2007, Congress was growing concerned about JIEDDO. The House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations took a hard look at JIEDDO’s practices and accomplishments, while the Senate asked the GAO to examine JIEDDO’s management practices. Between 2008 and 2010, the GAO delivered three stinging reports, and the House panel issued one of its own.

The reports portray an agency often in violation of its own rules. In one study, the GAO found 18 funding transactions totaling $795 million that were not authorized according to JIEDDO’s own spending procedures. For instance, DoD rules require that a deputy secretary of defense sign off on JIEDDO projects of more than $25 million — while JIEDDO’s director alone can approve projects of under $25 million. In one instance JIEDDO started a project which it believed would cost $57 million in 2007 without the required high-level approval by logging its cost as $8 million in the first quarter. JIEDDO broke another project of more than $25 million into smaller pieces — avoiding the need for higher-level approval.

Projects could also escape deputy defense secretary scrutiny if they were termed program “overhead.” The GAO found that in 2008 and 2009, JIEDDO had labeled 26 of its 56 most expensive initiatives as “overhead,” a term that is generally reserved for administrative and business costs. One example: a $67.4 million Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar that could be mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles to detect insurgents placing IEDs. JIEDDO officials said the radar was listed as “overhead” because it was essentially still under development.

The GAO also said JIEDDO sometimes failed to coordinate with the services before building anti-IED devices. And sometimes the Pentagon failed to coordinate with itself. For instance, JIEDDO funded a man-portable jammer because CENTCOM said it needed it, but the Army and Marines had not asked for it. JIEDDO built one anyway and fielded it in 2007. Soldiers in Iraq said it was too heavy. Now JIEDDO is working on a lighter version.

Oates has said the “greatest return on the dollar” has been training the troops to operate in an IED environment, but not all training money was well-spent. In 2008, for instance, JIEDDO spent $454 million to support counter-IED training by the various services. But more than $30 million of those programs were not first vetted by the Army, and some of them were duplicative, the GAO said.

GAO also questioned JIEDDO’s training initiatives, noting that between 2007 and 2009 it had spent $70.7 million on “role-players in an effort to simulate Iraqi social, political and religious groups” at DoD training centers.

At one training site, JIEDDO spent $24.1 million to make steel shipping containers resemble Iraqi buildings. “I just couldn’t believe it,” said a former Congressional staffer.

Data dump

One persistent criticism: that JIEDDO has not collected data to inform decisions on what is effective. Several critics note that collecting useful data or “metrics” on counter-IED devices and programs is not easy, but is also not a military priority. An Army unit, they said, would be disinclined to haul around one soldier whose job it was just to record what frequencies were being jammed, or where the mine-rollers rolled.

“I’ve heard the same things, “says the GAO’s Solis. “But if you don’t know whether things are working or not working, how do you judge your effectiveness?”

The GAO cited one case in which JIEDDO pointedly ignored useful data collected by the Institute for Defense Analyses. “JIEDDO officials stated that JIEDDO did not analyze these data because they would not demonstrate effectiveness,” the GAO said.

The author of the IDA report, who asked that his name not be used because he still does business with the Pentagon, said his analysis showed that the military was targeting exactly the wrong people in the IED emplacement networks. His report showed who should be targeted instead, but, he said, “JIEDDO wasn’t interested.” He said he quit his job with IDA in frustration. “If this was a normal money thing, I could not care less,” he said. “But this was about lives.”

GAO investigator James Reynolds suggests that the data analysis issue has two parts. One part is whether the technology actually works. “Like, were they jamming the right frequencies?’ he asks. The other problem is assessing how well JIEDDO is doing countering IEDs as a weapon of strategic influence, considering all the other influences on the use of IEDs — counterinsurgency strategy, local security forces, the political environment, or the drawdown of troops. “It’s very difficult to unwind all that is going on out there.”

“Measuring JIEDDO’s success beyond anecdotes … remains difficult,” said a 2008 report by House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. It noted that JIEDDO had begun collecting data on such measures as numbers of IED incidents and the ratio of found and cleared IEDs versus IEDs detonated. Still, said the report, all this data can point to success only if there is “an actual decrease in effective IED attacks.”

The report noted that JIEDDO had been citing one measure, the ever-increasing number of IEDs that it took to inflict one U.S. casualty, as a measure of JIEDDO’s success. But the report’s authors argued that if the enemy were able to emplace many more IEDs to achieve the same or better results, that “is arguably not a good indicator.”

“The Nation does not yet know if JIEDDO is winning the C-IED fight,” said the subcommittee in its 2008 report. A follow-up assessment last March said “it is still difficult to associate funds spent with positive effects.”

In July, 2010, the GAO said JIEDDO had developed neither a process nor a plan to evaluate, or even collect, data on its projects. JIEDDO said that it was working to develop more and better measures, but in its own 2010 Statement of Assurance, an annual report, it noted that this remained a weakness.

Lightning bolts, balloons and rhinos

One of JIEDDO’s first initiatives, and in the end its most expensive, involved radio frequency jammers that were designed to counteract the large number of “radio-controlled IEDs” set off electronically — by signals from gadgets like garage-door openers or cell phones. The Navy had been jamming radio signals for decades, and the Army had a device to jam the radio signals of incoming artillery fuzes.

So JIEDDO adapted that technology to jam the IED-triggers. JIEDDO created a whole family of jammers it eventually called CREW — Counter Radio-Controlled Electronic Warfare. By 2008, the organization reported, it had developed and bought 47,000 of them; they were mounted on vehicles, on towers, and even in soldier backpacks. The effort cost more than $3 billion.

The early versions, however, were not all tested with the vehicles on which they’d be mounted, or with other military equipment. In some cases, the CREW jammers jammed the radio communications of the units they were trying to protect. A 2006 Congressional Research Service report noted that some troops had to choose between turning off their radios or turning off their jammers. The jammers also interfered with the electronic systems on vehicles, such as GPS devices, and the radio-control links to unarmed aerial vehicles. Still, no one doubts that they did jam signals that were attempting to set off IEDs, and thus did save soldiers’ lives.

“There was a sense of urgency and imperative because of the high cost we were paying,” said one high-ranking officer involved in the effort to establish JIEDDO. “The emphasis was on results.” So, he said, “Basically, all comers were considered.”

One such “comer” was the Joint IED Neutralizer (JIN), which was created in 2002 by an Arizona start-up company, Ionatron. Looking like a pair of boxy golf-carts, the JIN had a gun-like apparatus in front that fired ultra-short pulse lasers followed by a half-million volt lightning bolt of electricity. Its maker said it could detonate blasting caps, the things that set off IEDs, from well outside the blast range.

In 2005, the JIN attracted the attention of then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who authorized $30 million to be spent on it. Some members of Congress, especially those from Mississippi where Ionatron had leased some space, were enthused too, and JIEDDO took it on, despite skepticism from scientists, who said the device would be rendered useless by damp ground or dust. In fact, the JIN was disappointing during testing in 2006 in Afghanistan. It had trouble climbing steep mountain terrain, and experienced safety problems as well — reportedly it kept shooting out lightning bolts after its switch was turned off. JIN also needed to be nearly on top of a bomb to blow it up. Worse, after the JIN received some publicity, an insurgent website published ways to defeat it. The test vehicles were shipped back home and JIEDDO killed JIN. Or so it was believed.

In mid-2006, two class action suits were filed against the JIN’s maker by shareholders, who charged that the firm “concealed that the vehicle was at best an improvisation” and was not capable of meeting government specifications. The company, which had changed its name to Applied Energetics Inc., denied all the claims but settled the suit in September, 2009, by paying $5.3 million in cash and another $1.2 million in stock to the complaining shareholders. Applied Energetics did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Still, the project would not die. With a $400,000 earmark from Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and $1.5 million more from JIEDDO, the Marine Corps set out to hang the JIN on the front of a mine-roller. The combination of the JIN and the roller was called a “JOLLER,” and the Marines bought the program last October. A slide from a May 2009, Marine Corps briefing shows a Tesla-ball-like device labeled JOLLER attached to mine rollers shooting a bolt of electricity straight down into the ground. “Lightning Bolt: Pricele$$” says the slide.

Others wonder. “People have been trying to use a Tesla coil for years to defeat mines. It has never worked,” says Goure of the Lexington Institute.

Oates said that in its early days, JIEDDO opened its aperture “about as wide as you can go. And inside that aperture, you’ve got some really good ideas and you’ve got some crazy ones,” he said. “But at that point I think it was a good idea to take a really wide look.”

Not all of JIEDDO’s devices represented new technology, however. There was old tech, like mine rollers, or adaptations of devices invented by soldiers. Rhino, for instance, is a hot metal box on the end of a long pole extending out in front of vehicles, to counter roadside bombs triggered by heat signatures. According to military lore, the Rhino was invented by a soldier who bought a toaster at a local bazaar.

He removed the sides, wired it up, and hung it on a pole in front of his Humvee. The idea was that the hot box out front — not the hot engine of the vehicle — would set off the heat-seeking IED. JIEDDO spent $59 million to improve it and to buy 16,000 of them for Iraq. They worked pretty well until insurgents decided to re-orient the aim of their IEDs so that even when triggered by the Rhino, they still hit the vehicle.

Another device using long-standing technology is ground-penetrating radar. The unit developed by JIEDDO is comprised of four flat panels about 4 feet wide and 9 feet long, mounted on the front of a Husky mine-detecting vehicle. Adapted from radars used by industry to find underground pipes, it sends microwaves down into the ground and can detect anomalies buried there. However, it can only look straight down, and the operator sits only a few feet behind it.

JIEDDO also fielded aerostat balloons to hover over bases and observe nearby roads with infrared and video cameras. And it funded special vehicles for explosive ordnance disposal teams to use in disarming IEDs. Both are considered successful.

Rep. Hunter says he has no problem with JIEDDO seeking high-tech gadgetry. But he thinks the best answer to IEDs lies with Task Force Odin, a program deemed highly successful in Iraq, in which planes and drones patrolled the highways and sent back video to cue attacks on insurgents planting bombs. Hunter is furious the idea has not been more widely implemented in Afghanistan.

“The best time to stop the IED from going off is not after [it has been placed.]” he says. “That’s what costs billions of dollars, to try to see underground, to try to make blasting caps go off … the best opportunity you have is to stop the guy while he is planting the IED.”

JIEDDO helped develop Task Force Odin’s cameras, but the project was mainly funded by the Army. Moreover, critics note that what many consider the most effective anti-IED program, the purchase of the heavily armored MRAPs — for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — was only marginally funded by JIEDDO. The first 250 MRAPs were bought by JIEDDO for disarming IEDs. However, it was a separate MRAP Task Force — not JIEDDO — that bought more than 22,000 of them for $36 billion. Many are being used in Afghanistan.

The devices JIEDDO designed to detect buried or hidden IEDs at a significant distance — what is known in the military as “stand-off range” — didn’t work out, asserts the Lexington Institute’s Goure. Airplane or drone-based ground penetrating radars. Long-range radars to see buried control-wires. Detectors to sense the odors of explosive ingredients like ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Other projects were started and then terminated. “We were throwing new technologies into this like fast-food orders at a diner,” Goure says. The list includes projects called Alexis and Electra-C, which emitted wave forms to pre-detonate IEDs. They interfered with the jammers then in use. There was an unmanned Humvee called Forerunner with a counter-IED system, but soldiers rejected it because “it induced operator vertigo” and was hard to control. A high-powered microwave emitter called BlowTorch to defeat IEDs triggered by the heat of a vehicle was cancelled when insurgents figured out how to shield their IEDs from it. Also terminated: A vehicle-mounted radio-controlled IED neutralizer called Hotshot and a high-power radio transmitter to neutralize IEDs called Trailblazer II which “failed during testing.”

JIEDDO officials say it is a virtue of their organization that it quickly terminates programs that are not promising. But the GAO and some Congressional staffers say the organization has never been good at choosing or shepherding its projects. “It’s been a weakness from the beginning. They don’t have good controls over start-ups,” said Solis.

Funny money

Another major concern on Capitol Hill: JIEDDO had so much money and such license to spend that some cash strayed from its urgent purpose. Two well-placed sources said that JIEDDO had been used to fund Special Operations programs that were only marginally aimed at IEDs, and had been funding other projects which were really the responsibility of the services. The Senate Appropriations Committee, in September, 2010, noted its belief that “certain [JIEDDO] programs fall outside the IED-specific focus.” The Committee recommended cutting or transferring more than two dozen programs, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, “where JIEDDO funding would only increase an ongoing program of a service or agency.”

In an interview, Oates insisted that JIEDDO was “not a slush fund.” He said he understood where that criticism might come from: some “have complained that the services have used us because we can rapidly respond rather than use their own money.” But he asserted that every transfer of money to start every project is sent to Congress for inspection. He said all potential projects, including those requested by the services, go through a strict JIEDDO approval process that assures they are purely for anti-IED work.

One project that attracted high-level scrutiny last year: a program started by DoD senior civilian strategist Michael Furlong that hired professional contractors to scoop up information in Afghanistan. Furlong, an ex-Army officer, said through his attorney Nancy Luque that the project was approved by Army Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and by the newly nominated Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus.

JIEDDO funded the project, code-named Information Operations Capstone, with more than $24 million, because part of it would develop intelligence on the Taliban’s IED network. The program blew up, however, when Furlong’s operation clashed with that of two ex-journalists offering to do similar work, and upset the CIA as well. A New York Times story revealed the contretemps, and raised questions about whether the information Furlong’s contractors gathered was used to kill insurgents. Furlong said through his lawyer that Capstone’s information was sent to the military, and what it did with it was its own decision. The matter is currently under investigation by the DoD and Air Force Inspectors General. A classified DoD report on the matter, leaked to The Associated Press, said Furlong had created an “unauthorized” intelligence network that was used to strike militants. Furlong’s lawyer says the report’s allegations are inaccurate. Oates declined to comment other than to say the appropriation of JIEDDO money was approved by Central Command.

Still, when the Furlong story broke last March, Congress was furious. “JIEDDO provided $24,600,000 for information operations, despite congressional direction to cease funding such efforts,” the Senate Appropriations Committee declared in May. “The funds were then allegedly used to hire private contractors to carry out intelligence operations, over the objections of the intelligence community.”

In the wake of the episode, Congress directed that JIEDDO get out of the information operations business. The Senate Appropriations Committee also questioned JIEDDO’s funding of medical research. The Senate panel directed that JIEDDO stop doing medical research, noting that the Pentagon has several other offices better equipped for such tasks.

Another questionable use of JIEDDO money involved the agency’s expenditure of $400 million last year on Army “force protection.” Congressional investigators found that the money was slated for two Army programs that previously had been funded by the Army, but for which the Army found itself short of cash.

“Rather than directing the Army to fund the remainder of this requirement and submit a reprogramming request,” the DoD told JIEDDO to fund these programs, a Senate report states. “JIEDDO should not be viewed as a funding source and a mechanism to circumvent service funding … rules,” the report said.

New horizons

In November, JIEDDO announced that Oates, would be stepping down, to be replaced by Lt. Gen Michael Barbero, who has arrived straight from duty in Iraq. The change-of-authority ceremony took place in early March. Oates said he was leaving the job to someone with “more current combat credibility.” Oates had been in the job less than a year, and Barbero is the fourth JIEDDO director since 2006.

Shortly after he was appointed, Oates said he wanted to take JIEDDO away from its “shadowy” past and make its work more transparent. GAO auditors said Oates had been taking steps to address management problems. Indeed, a detailed matrix provided by Oates lists all the GAO’s recommendations and states how JIEDDO is addressing them. Meanwhile, sources in the Senate said Oates had been working with them to trim JIEDDO’s budget and to re-focus purely on defeating IEDs.

In an interview, Oates acknowledged some of JIEDDO’s shortcomings, but said he talks daily to field commanders, trying to learn what they really need for the anti-IED fight and how to get it to them quickly. He noted, though, that trade-offs are essential: “You’ve heard the old saw that you can have things fast, good or cheap, pick two of them? Well that’s a very applicable approach,” he said. “We tend to focus on time and speed. So we take some risk with performance and we take some risk with funding in order to reach the speed that we want.”

In a press briefing last October, Oates was clear, however, about technology’s limits. He said the Pentagon’s anti-IED strategy should include strategic anti-insurgency initiatives, indigenous security forces, and political stabilization, in addition to more IED-focused tactics like surveillance, road clearance, trained soldiers with dogs, and intelligence analysis. That mix has helped reduce the number of IED attacks in Iraq, he said, which have dropped from almost 2,000 a month back in 2007 to about 500 a month in 2010. Of note, however: the dropoff also parallels the drawdown of coalition troops in Iraq, from a high of 182,000 in 2007 to less than 50,000 today.

But Afghanistan is a different story. The number of IED attacks there is ever-increasing, running about 1,500 per month at the end of 2010. Last year 268 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan by IEDs, compared with 349 over the course of the entire previous nine years. (See chart.) The number of U.S. troops wounded by IEDs skyrocketed to 3,366 last year, compared with 2,386 during all the nine years through 2009.

Oates points to one apparent measure of improvement: in 2010, though the number of enemy IED attacks increased, the percentage of IEDs that actually killed or injured people dropped from September to December. “We’ve seen a downturn from a high of about 25 percent effective down to about 17 percent countrywide. In some places it’s even less than that,” he said.

“Effective IEDs”, in military parlance, are those that blow up and cause casualties. “Ineffective IEDs” are those that either explode and cause no casualties, are pre-detonated by ordnance disposal units, are found by soldiers or dogs, or are pointed out by locals. Despite years of JIEDDO efforts, the early detection rate — that is, the rate at which IEDs are found by soldiers before exploding — had stubbornly hung at about 50 percent.

The latest signs of success: a recent increase in the early detection rate to more than 60 percent, a drop in the IED effectiveness rate to 17 percent, and a drop in actual casualties as well. Oates said the improvement is due to a major increase in IED-scouring teams, tips from locals, and more surveillance by airplanes, fixed balloons, and unmanned aircraft.

Whether the numbers indicate a long-term positive trend, however, is hard to know. JIEDDO data shows that in March, 2009, the IED effectiveness rate in Afghanistan dropped to 17 percent also, and as recently as January, 2010, it stood at 18 percent. In both cases, within a few months, it climbed back to 25 percent.

Oates has also shown a willingness to work with Congress on refocusing JIEDDO more narrowly on directly countering IEDs. In 2010, Congress denied JIEDDO $400 million it had asked for in the year-end supplemental budget because the Pentagon had used $400 million of JIEDDO’s money to pay for those Army force protection programs. For fiscal year 2011, some projects were terminated and some were transferred to the services, cutting JIEDDO’s budget request by $441 million to $2.8 billion. As of this writing, JIEDDO was stuck under Congress’s continuing budget resolution for fiscal year 2011, meaning it had to operate in 2011 at its 2010 funding level: $1.9 billion. For fiscal year 2012, President Obama’s budget requested a total of $2.8 billion for JIEDDO.

Still, the future of JIEDDO is unclear. Some in Congress believe JIEDDO should last only as long as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Oates’ predecessors, though, argued that the fight against IEDs is global, involving suicide-bombers and truck bombs, and so JIEDDO should be a permanent part of the landscape.

Even so, a concerted effort by JIEDDO’s previous director, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, to make the organization permanent did not gain much purchase, as only a small amount of cash for JIEDDO was put into the Pentagon’s annual recurring budget. Oates, in response to a written question, said JIEDDO “is not a permanent organization, and we do not seek to be one.”

This piece is a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and McClatchy Newspapers. Peter Cary is a freelance writer working for the Center. Nancy Youssef is the Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy.