Two corporate-style jets that the FBI persuaded Congress to lease for fighting global terrorism have instead been used the majority of the time to ferry Attorney General Eric Holder, his predecessor in the Bush administration and FBI Director Robert Mueller on business and personal trips at an expense of millions of dollars to taxpayers, an investigation has found.
The bureau's state-the-art, sleek Gulfstream V jets logged 60 percent of their hours between 2007 and 2011 on "non-mission flights" that cost taxpayers $11.4 million, according to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office obtained by the Washington Guardian.
The travel included 88 personal trips for Holder and former Republican Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who stepped down in 2009, and 10 for Mueller, the review found. Taxpayers were reimbursed only pennies on the dollar for those personal trips under the current rules, the audit found.
On at least one occasion a trip by Holder in 2011 left the FBI without access to a Gulfstream during a counterterrorism operation, forcing agents to scramble to charter a private plane, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Guardian.
For many years, the White House has required attorney generals to use government aircraft for all business and personal travel for security reasons. And in 2011, Mueller was added to the list of officials who was required to fly on government planes fulltime.
The FBI, however, had a smaller Citation jet that was used for years to transport former FBI Director Louis Freeh on business trips, as well as a Haviland Dash 8 turboprop that other officials have used. Those are much cheaper to operate. But since 2007, those smaller aircraft were used only about a third of the time for Mueller, Holder and Mukasey, as the bureau opted for the larger, more luxurious Gulfstream counterterrorism jets for executive travel, the GAO found.
A key senator said Wednesday the diversion of the counterterrorism jets for everyday travel, especially personal trips, runs contrary to the purpose that Congress approved the aircraft and costs taxpayers needlessly when cheaper options are available.
"If somebody asks for the expenditure of federal money for the Gulfstream, it's to be used for the purpose it was meant to be be used for," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department and FBI.
Bureau officials said they saw no problem using the Gulfstream counterterrorism jets for travel for Mueller, Holder and Mukasey, adding the trips complied with the White House rules and simply made use of idle time when the aircraft weren't needed for terrorism work.
“Counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction operations, whether transporting investigators or other forensic experts, critical evidence, or apprehended terrorists, are the first priority for all FBI aircraft," the bureau said Wednesday night in a joint statement with the Justice Department. "As the GAO confirmed, the Department of Justice always adheres to these priorities in scheduling use of its aircraft. As demonstrated, the overwhelming majority of travel by the Attorney General and the FBI Director is official business travel, including essential meetings with state, local and foreign government and law enforcement officials in furtherance of the Department’s national security and public safety mission.”
The White House and bureau security experts believe the Gulfstream's special, encrypted communication systems are also important for ensuring traveling officials have secure communication, officials explained. In addition, bureau officials argued, nearly every trip the FBI director takes furthers the counterterrorism mission of the bureau, even when visiting local offices or giving speeches.
The Justice Department declined further comment, but referred a reporter to a letter officials sent Congress last fall in which the bureau sought to use more favorable figures for the corporate jets. If the total number of flights are used as a measure -- instead of flight hours -- the travel of the top executives only accounted for about a third of the jets' travel, the letter argued, while investigative work accounted for about 60 percent of the flights.
The GAO, however, used the percentage of total hours to reflect the amount of time the corporate jets weren't available for counterterrorism work if needed, officials said.
The FBI letter from last fall also disclosed that on one occasion in fall 2011, one FBI Gulfstream was in maintenance and the other was being used by Holder for executive travel when FBI officials sought at the last minute to use the jets for a counterterrorism operation.