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Linda Woodford spent the last 15 years of her career inserting phony numbers in the U.S. Department of Defense's accounts.
Every month until she retired in 2011, she says, the day came when the Navy would start dumping numbers on the Cleveland, Ohio, office of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Pentagon's main accounting agency. Using the data they received, Woodford and her fellow DFAS accountants there set about preparing monthly reports to square the Navy's books with the U.S. Treasury's—a balancing-the-checkbook maneuver required of all the military services and other Pentagon agencies.
And every month, they encountered the same problem. Numbers were missing. Numbers were clearly wrong. Numbers came with no explanation of how the money had been spent or which congressional appropriation it came from. "A lot of times there were issues of numbers being inaccurate," Woodford says. "We didn't have the detail … for a lot of it."
(Read more: The most expensive military programs)
The data flooded in just two days before deadline. As the clock ticked down, Woodford says, staff were able to resolve a lot of the false entries through hurried calls and emails to Navy personnel, but many mystery numbers remained. For those, Woodford and her colleagues were told by superiors to take "unsubstantiated change actions" - in other words, enter false numbers, commonly called "plugs," to make the Navy's totals match the Treasury's.
Jeff Yokel, who spent 17 years in senior positions in DFAS's Cleveland office before retiring in 2009, says supervisors were required to approve every "plug"—thousands a month. "If the amounts didn't balance, Treasury would hit it back to you," he says.
After the monthly reports were sent to Treasury, the accountants continued to seek accurate information to correct the entries. In some instances, they succeeded. In others, they didn't, and the unresolved numbers stood on the books.
At the DFAS offices that handle accounting for the Army, Navy, Air Force and other defense agencies, fudging the accounts with false entries is standard operating procedure, Reuters has found. And plugging isn't confined to DFAS (pronounced DEE-fass). Former military service officials say record-keeping at the operational level throughout the services is rife with made-up numbers to cover lost or missing information.
U.S. Defense Department on course to miss audit deadlines
A review of multiple reports from oversight agencies in recent years shows that the Pentagon also has systematically ignored warnings about its accounting practices. "These types of adjustments, made without supporting documentation … can mask much larger problems in the original accounting data," the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a December 2011 report.
Plugs also are symptomatic of one very large problem: the Pentagon's chronic failure to keep track of its money—how much it has, how much it pays out and how much is wasted or stolen.
(Read more: Slideshow: Post military careers)
As the use of plugs indicates, pay errors are only a small part of the sums that annually disappear into the vast bureaucracy that manages more than half of all annual government outlays approved by Congress. The Defense Department's 2012 budget totaled $565.8 billion, more than the annual defense budgets of the 10 next largest military spenders combined, including Russia and China. How much of that money is spent as intended is impossible to determine.
In its investigation, Reuters has found that the Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn't need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn't known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.
The consequences aren't only financial; bad bookkeeping can affect the nation's defense. In one example of many, the Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies between 2003 and 2011 as it shuffled equipment between reserve and regular units. Affected units "may experience equipment shortages that could hinder their ability to train soldiers and respond to emergencies," the Pentagon inspector general said in a September 2012 report.
Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China's economic output last year.
Congress in 2009 passed a law requiring that the Defense Department be audit-ready by 2017. Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2011 tightened the screws when he ordered that the department make a key part of its books audit-ready in 2014.
Reuters has found that the Pentagon probably won't meet its deadlines. The main reason is rooted in the Pentagon's continuing reliance on a tangle of thousands of disparate, obsolete, largely incompatible accounting and business-management systems. Many of these systems were built in the 1970s and use outmoded computer languages such as COBOL on old mainframes. They use antiquated file systems that make it difficult or impossible to search for data. Much of their data is corrupted and erroneous.
"It's like if every electrical socket in the Pentagon had a different shape and voltage," says a former defense official who until recently led efforts to modernize defense accounting.
'Amalgam of fiefdoms'
No one can even agree on how many of these accounting and business systems are in use. The Pentagon itself puts the number at 2,200 spread throughout the military services and other defense agencies. A January 2012 report by a task force of the Defense Business Board, an advisory group of business leaders appointed by the secretary of defense, put the number at around 5,000.
"There are thousands and thousands of systems," former Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England said in an interview. "I'm not sure anybody knows how many systems there are."
In a May 2011 speech, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described the Pentagon's business operations as "an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources, track expenditures, and measure results. … My staff and I learned that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to questions such as 'How much money did you spend' and 'How many people do you have?' "
The Pentagon has spent tens of billions of dollars to upgrade to new, more efficient technology in order to become audit-ready. But many of these new systems have failed, either unable to perform all the jobs they were meant to do or scrapped altogether - only adding to the waste they were meant to stop.
Mired in a mess largely of its own making, the Pentagon is left to make do with old technology and plugs - lots of them. In the Cleveland DFAS office where Woodford worked, for example, "unsupported adjustments" to "make balances agree" totaled $1.03 billion in 2010 alone, according to a December 2011 GAO report.
In its annual report of department-wide finances for 2012, the Pentagon reported $9.22 billion in "reconciling amounts" to make its own numbers match the Treasury's, up from $7.41 billion a year earlier. It said that $585.6 million of the 2012 figure was attributable to missing records. The remaining $8 billion-plus represented what Pentagon officials say are legitimate discrepancies. However, a source with knowledge of the Pentagon's accounting processes said that because the report and others like it aren't audited, they may conceal large amounts of additional plugs and other accounting problems.
The secretary of defense's office and the heads of the military and DFAS have for years knowingly signed off on false entries. "I don't think they're lying and cheating and stealing necessarily, but it's not the right thing to do," Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said in an interview. "We've got to fix the processes so we don't have to do that."
(Read more: Pentagon's defensecuts get creative)
Congress has been much more lenient on the Defense Department than on publicly traded corporations. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a response to the Enron Corp and other turn-of-the-century accounting scandals, imposes criminal penalties on corporate managers who certify false financial reports. "The concept of Sarbanes-Oxley is completely foreign" to the Pentagon, says Mike Young, a former Air Force logistics officer who for years has been a consultant on, and written about, Defense Department logistics.
Defense officials point out that most plugs represent pending transactions - like checks waiting to clear with a bank - and other legitimate maneuvers, many of which are eventually resolved. The dollar amounts, too, don't necessarily represent actual money lost, but multiple accounting entries for money in and money out, often duplicated across several ledgers. That's how, for example, a single DFAS office in Columbus, Ohio, made at least $1.59 trillion - yes, trillion - in errors, including $538 billion in plugs, in financial reports for the Air Force in 2009, according to a December 2011 Pentagon inspector general report. Those amounts far exceeded the Air Force's total budget for that year.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to comment for this article. In an August 2013 video message to the entire Defense Department, he said: "The Department of Defense is the only federal agency that has not produced audit-ready financial statements, which are required by law. That's unacceptable."
DFAS Director Teresa McKay declined to be interviewed for this article.
In an email response to questions from Reuters, a Treasury spokesman said: "The Department of Defense is continuing to take steps to strengthen its financial reporting. … We're supportive of those efforts and will continue to work with DOD as they make additional progress." While the Treasury knowingly accepts false entries, it rejects accounts containing blank spaces for unknown numbers and totals that don't match its own.
Senators Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, and Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, introduced legislation earlier this year that would penalize the Pentagon if it isn't audit-ready by 2017. Under the proposed Audit the Pentagon Act of 2013, failure to meet the deadline will result in restrictions on funding for new acquisition programs, prohibit purchases of any information-technology systems that would take more than three years to install, and transfer all DFAS functions to the Treasury.
"The Pentagon can't manage what it can't measure, and Congress can't effectively perform its constitutional oversight role if it doesn't know how the Pentagon is spending taxpayer dollars," Coburn said in an email response to questions. "Until the Pentagon produces a viable financial audit, it won't be able to effectively prioritize its spending, and it will continue to violate the Constitution and put our national security at risk."
This is the second installment in a series in which Reuters delves into the Defense Department's inability to account for itself. The first article examined how the Pentagon's record-keeping dysfunction results in widespread pay errors that inflict financial hardship on soldiers and sap morale. This account is based on interviews with scores of current and former Defense Department officials, as well as Reuters analyses of Pentagon logistics practices, bookkeeping methods, court cases and reports by federal agencies.