The Pentagon dashed any hopes that it might soon be able to pass a simple audit, when it provided a surprisingly unhelpful response late last month to a simple question about how many widgets of a particular kind that it had in stock.
Understanding the worrying significance of the Pentagon’s statement that it essentially had no idea what the number is requires a bit of detail.
The widget that was being asked about has a narrow purpose: It’s basically a portable power station that looks like a small, plastic toolbox. Dubbed the HotPlug, it was crafted to allow government investigators to transfer suspects’ computers to their laboratories for forensic analysis, without first shutting the computers down. And so an Oregon-based software developer, Martin Peck, who worries about privacy issues and government secrecy, in July 2015 sent the Defense Department a Freedom of Information Act request, asking how many such devices it had in its possession.
Answering this simple question, the Pentagon said, would take the department — hold your breath now — 15 million labor hours. Doing so would cost — no, don’t breathe yet — $660 million, the Pentagon said.
While this sum is essentially chump change at the Pentagon — a bit more than one-tenth of one percent of its annual budget — in the world outside the five-sided building it’s enough to buy the Washington Nationals baseball team, a 600-acre island off the coast of Australia, twelve of the most expensive Ferrari racecars, or about as much as the Pentagon is currently spending to train Iraqi soldiers in combat.