American military commanders made clear they neither needed nor wanted a new headquarters building in the Helmand province of southwestern Afghanistan.

A year after these objections got passed along, Defense Department officials awarded a $34 million contract for its construction.

In a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill questioned a Pentagon procurement and acquisition director about how American tax dollars went for an unwanted structure that will never be occupied and likely be demolished.

“We can’t even give it away to the Afghanistan government for free because they don’t want a building that they will have to spend millions to rewire because it was built to U.S. electrical codes,” the senator said.

Ms. McCaskill chairs the Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight and convened the hearing to check the status of agencies in conforming to wartime contracting reforms approved by Congress last year.

While the Democratic lawmaker noted that federal agencies have made progress in implementing revised wartime contracting provisions, the 64,000-square-foot command facility in Afghanistan got considerable attention.

In May 2010, Marine generals in southern Afghanistan told superiors the building would not be needed for their mission. The next spring, a British firm got the construction bid and started work later in 2011. The building was completed this year as American troops prepare to exit Afghanistan.

(As perspective on the $34 million structure, the construction bids awarded for two new St. Joseph elementary schools totaled $23.1 million in April.)

“We have a brand new building (and) the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing,” Ms. McCaskill said at the hearing. “Or, even worse, the right hand ignored the left hand.”

Richard Ginman, director of Defense Department procurement and acquisition policy, could offer no explanation about why the project went forward after generals objected to it.

“Clearly, we now have a building that’s not needed, and I do not know how it might be disposed of,” the witness said, noting a Pentagon investigation has started. “Certainly in the face of being told we don’t need this, and then proceeding, that just doesn’t make sense.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and ranking member of the subcommittee, used his background in manufacturing to add some dimensions to the waste. He said the building cost $531 per square foot to complete.

“I’ve done a lot of construction, plants and pretty complex manufacturing structures, and we’ve never had anything that cost $531,” the Republican lawmaker said.

Ms. McCaskill said the expenditure might have represented a systemic problem with the wartime contracting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“To most Americans, $34 million sounds like a lot of money,” she said. “I’m worried about, to the people who are making these decisions, this is chump change.”

Ken Newton can be reached


Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.

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