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GAO should be watched, as well

What others say

Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2005

Supporters of keeping Eielson Air Force Base open and active could have an ally — or not — in a government agency that so far has gained little public attention in the debate over the Defense Department's plans to close or downsize several major military installations across the country.

The Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, has until July 1 to submit a report that in part will evaluate how the Defense Department applied the congressionally set criteria when choosing which installations to close or reduce. Eielson's supporters argue that defense officials and military leaders strayed from the criteria in proposing to gut Eielson and leave it largely as a training base.

The GAO has found flaws in the past. In the 1995 round of base closings, GAO investigators questioned several aspects of the process and the base-closing recommendations that came from it.

''For example,'' the GAO says in a brief about the 1995 report, ''some excess facilities were spared only because of high upfront shutdown costs. GAO singles out the Air Force process as particularly subjective and poorly documented. Also, the Navy did not consistently apply Defense Department criteria when it decided to retain some facilities because of the economic impact their closure would have on local communities. Meanwhile, DOD's estimate of $1.8 billion in annual savings did not take into account potentially costly environmental cleanup activities at military bases.''

The GAO's director for defense infrastructure issues said last week that GAO personnel were allowed to watch Pentagon and Defense Department officials as they gathered and analyzed information about the nation's military installations. The GAO report, he says, will make broad comments about how the department conducted the base-closing process but may also comment on specific bases selected for closure or reduction.

But just what will happen if the GAO finds flaws is unclear. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which (had) its hearing Wednesday in Fairbanks, must submit its base-closing and realignment recommendations to the president by Sept. 8. Congress, which will eventually have to decide to accept or reject the list in its entirety, could use a critical GAO report to slow or abort the process, though any effort would have to come with support sufficient enough to overcome a potential presidential veto of any delaying legislation.

For Eielson's supporters, meanwhile, the July 1 due date of the GAO report is unfortunate. If it contains information useful to the cause, it will come two weeks after the public hearing at the Carlson Center. In fact, all but five of the regional hearings are to be held before the deadline for the GAO's findings.

That leaves the onus on Congress and the members of BRAC Commission to decide what to make of the GAO report if it finds fault with how the Pentagon and the Defense Department conducted the base-closing process, whether in its entirety or with regard to specific installations.

The GAO plays an important watchdog role and has conducted several reports on the base-closing process (Available online at www.gao.gov). Once again, communities and their members of Congress await the agency's dispassionate assessment of government's workings.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

June 10



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