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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. / MANDEL NGAN, AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON - The top commander in Afghanistan is being asked to explain why his staff attempted to diminish the findings of the government watchdog overseeing billions in construction projects there.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H, sent a letter Wednesday to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford citing a USA TODAY report last week that found the International Security Assistance Force had mounted a spin campaign to counter the audits.

"I write to you today to express my concern after reading a January 30 USA Today article‚?¶that suggests your staff made efforts to preempt and undermine audit reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Marine Col. David Lapan, Dunford's spokesman, said in an email Thursday that military commanders would "respond appropriately" to Shaheen's letter.

ISAF officials say they have not attempted to diminish SIGAR's findings or manipulate news coverage of them. Instead, their news releases are designed to provide reporters with more timely information.

USA TODAY reported that after a series of critical audits by SIGAR, aides to Dunford briefed him on a way to blunt the IG's findings, according to a briefing slide they had created. The "Audit Plan of Action," recommends releasing news of how the military has addressed problems cited by IG John Sopko before his report was released to the media.

"This plan of action ensures proactive measures are executed well ahead of the auditor's decision cycle," the briefing slide says. "To borrow a hunting analogy from General Richardson‚?¶In the past we may have shot where we saw the duck, but now, with our plan of action, we will bag our limit of birds before Mr. Sopko wakes up to feed his dogs." Richardson is the two-star Army general who oversees U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

ISAF officials say they have not attempted to subvert SIGAR, Sopko or his findings. In addition, the passage about Sopko on the slide was removed before it was briefed to Dunford. A request for a copy of the slide that was presented to Dunford has not been granted.

In the example cited by USA TODAY, ISAF sent out a news release praising a hospital built in eastern Afghanistan with $600,000 in U.S. funds, despite the fact that Army officials thought the hospital was in an area too dangerous to visit for an inspection. The release quoted a local Afghan official praising the 20-bed facility.

Army documents showed that no U.S. officials had recently inspected the hospital before the news release was distributed. On Jan. 7, commanders called for experts to visit the hospital to inspect its structural integrity because of the building's "location in a high seismic activity zone." But on Jan. 21, the Army responded that it could not re-inspect the hospital because "reduced combat forces, threats in the area and reduced technical engineering assets" in the region made that impossible.

An inspection in March 2013 found water damage, mold, unusable toilets and "significant structural cracks." In November, SIGAR visited the hospital and found it plagued with problems and prone to collapse in an earthquake.

"I respectfully request that you respond to these allegations, which whether accurate or not, create a perception that could cause serious public concern," Shaheen wrote. "In addition, I would hope that you continue to engage with SIGAR in a cooperative manner."

Shaheen is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and has advocated for SIGAR's funding.

Follow @tvandenbrook on Twitter.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Senator presses Afghanistan commander on critical audits

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