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FBI jets for war on terror used for top officials’ personal, business travel
Question of the Day
The GAO report, expected to be made public on Thursday, provides extraordinary detail on America’s top three law enforcement officials’ travel.
The bureau has said the Gulfstreams, a favorite jet of CEOs in the corporate world, are housed in a secret Washington area location, and were needed to whisk FBI counterterrorism agents on a moment’s notice to global hotspots for investigations, transporting terrorists, dispatching equipment and returning evidence to Washington for testing. The bureau, in seeking budget approval, has told Congress over the years that the jets were used for “crucial missions” into Iraq and “fast-moving investigations and crisis situations” in places such as Afghanistan.
And in 2010, when the FBI sought additional money and eventually the second Gulfstream jet, officials told Congress that the original jet was being taxed by the counterterrorism mission. “Aviation missions transport personnel for counterterrorism operations throughout the world, and increasing usage of the Gulfstream V has placed a strain on available maintenance/fuel funds necessary to successfully carry out crucial missions,” the budget request argued.
But the GAO review found the jets were used only used about 40 percent of the time for counterterrorism since 2007, with their primary function becoming executive travel.
“From fiscal years 2007 through 2011, 60 percent (2,206 of 3,657) of all flight hours for the FBI’s two Gulfstream V aircraft were associated with non-mission flights to transport the Attorneys General, FBI Director, and other DOJ executives,” the GAO found. The smaller aircraft were used only about a third of the time for the executive travel, the audit found.
In fact, the FBI has now scrapped its smaller Citation jet in favor of the second Gulfstream, officials said.
Grassley questioned the judgment of the bureau to use the larger aircraft regularly.
“The law requires the folks to travel,” Grassley said, “but they don’t have to travel in the Gulfstream if they’ve got Citations, particularly if it’s for personal use. … When you’re going to some private event or personal event, that’s unrelated to your government service, and you’re using these planes, you ought to take the cheapest method of travel you can.”
The GAO report follows other recent controversies in which top government and political leaders have created perks or conveniences for themselves that are unavailable for average Americans and cost taxpayers money. Over the last few years, lawmakers who have used military aircraft for travel or White House officials who used government cars as limousine service have stirred their own controversies.
FBI officials point out that Holder, who took over in 2009 from Mukasey, and Mueller, who has been FBI director since 2001, were forced by a White House order to use government aircraft, and that the decision on what aircraft to use each time falls to career officials in the FBI flight operations unit.
Nonetheless, the cost to taxpayers – especially when the Gulfstream Vs are used for personal travel – can be large.
Take for instance the personal travel aboard the aircraft. When Holder, Mueller or Mukasey took personal trips, they reimbursed taxpayers at a rate equivalent to coach air fare on commercial flights, but that amount hardly covers the true cost of the flights. In fact, the 88 trips by Holder and Mukasey for personal reasons cost about $1.6 million, yet the taxpayers were reimbursed only $46,982, or about 2.9 percent of the actual tab.
The report cited one specific example by Holder, who took a personal trip in November 2010 using the FBI’s Gulfstream V. The flight “had an estimated flight cost of $15,894, but the reimbursement at the equivalent commercial fare was $420.80,” the report noted.
Mueller used the aircraft far less often for personal trips, making just 10 trips and reimbursing the government a total of $4,556, the report said. One factor contributing to the lower total was that Mueller was not required to use government aircraft for personal travel until 2011. In fact, the report noted, Mueller almost always flew on commercial airlines for personal travel before the White House order was extended to him.
The GAO also cited another potentially avoidable cost for taxpayers: The FBI jets are kept at a secret location outside Washington and must be flown each time to Reagan National Airport to pick up Mueller and Holder. The cost of those brief transitional flights was $1.5 million between 2007 and 2011 — roughly 10 percent of the total cost of all their flights.
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