Waste, Fraud, and Abuse: Another Day at the Pentagon

When I was a teenager apprenticing at being a trade unionist and a left winger both, two of my favorite books were Labor’s Untold Story and History of the Great American Fortunes.  I recommend them to any readers desiring a review of our own history as working people here in the United States.  Both are monuments to working-class scholarship as well.  Way back then, I was introduced to dog-eared copies by union old-timers who figured that a young militant like me might benefit from their contents.  I sure did.

It was in the pages of these two volumes where I first discovered that — over the course of U.S. history — countless unscrupulous businessmen made instant and often massive fortunes by bilking and defrauding our government.  More often than not, this meant our armed forces.  Back in the 1800s, millions were made selling inedible foodstuffs to the Army, providing ships to the Navy that were not seaworthy, and selling arms and munitions at top-dollar prices that were so poor in quality as to be useless, even dangerous to soldiers in the field.  Every imaginable kind of fraud was perpetrated by these incipient Robber Barons, who all systematically took advantage of whatever conflict was underway or looming as a means to get rich quick at taxpayers’ expense.

The last 100 years has seen this criminal phenomenon grow exponentially.  The overcharging and stealing is often done more professionally than in the past, but the price paid by our government is larger than ever.  But, that said, nothing could have prepared any of us for the kleptomaniacal bonanza that has followed on the heels of September 11th and the Iraq invasion.  For the sheer size and scope of the fraud and looting, no moment in human history can compare to what is happening today.  The schemers and stealers of past years were small-time operators by today’s standards.  Every expensive restaurant around the Pentagon is jammed on a daily basis with operators in the pay of today’s Robber Barons, all looking to coax lucrative and do-nothing contracts out of their armed forces procurement staff lunch guests.

Working here in Washington, D.C. has provided me with a front-row seat to the crime of robbing the Pentagon.  In addition to our uniformed armed forces service members — now quite visible as their enlarged numbers go to-and-from their daily duties here in the D.C area — one can see the steady growth of every conceivable kind of military contractor, service provider, vendor, hardware or software salesman, equipment peddler, consultant, etc.  Never in the history of the world has a military agency — our Pentagon — had so much money to spend in so short a time.  This is what a “money for nothing” moment looks like, I am sure.

My observations and disgust in this regard multiplied when I opened the pages of the defense industry publication Defense News back in November of last year.  Their November 6th issue contained an editorial entitled “U.S. Defense Funding — Budget?  What Budget?”  This gem went on to lambaste Republicans for their reckless defense spending, and to skewer the armed forces for going before Congress proposing big increases in funding requests that were nothing but “WAGs.”  That’s military speak for “Wild Ass Guesses.”  The publishers of this military business magazine seemed to understand that, if the stealing and robbing and just plain sloppiness of Pentagon spending got any more out of hand, the gravy train would someday soon come to a crashing end.  The sober business elements get nervous when their good thing gets a little too good for too many and begins to make headlines and draw the attention of the politicians.

That editorial in Defense News was but the tip of an iceberg, however.  When acting Pentagon Inspector General (IG) Thomas Gimble testified before the Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 17th, the lid blew off.  Gimble is the “acting” IG because his predecessor bailed out to go to work for the Prince Group, which has as one of its subsidiaries Blackwater USA, a private security contractor doing big business with the Pentagon in Iraq and elsewhere.  Acting IG Gimble unloaded an astonishing report on the Senate panel.  The average Senate hearing is pretty boring, but I can assure you that no one slept during this one.  And remember; the IG is the in-house guy who is supposed to — or at least try — to safeguard the integrity and honesty of the agency, its staff, and its processes.

Here are just some of the nuggets revealed at the hearing by acting IG Gimble, in no particular order: the Pentagon has so much money pouring in that it cannot spend it fast enough.  In fact, the Defense Department has set up a scheme where other federal agencies are now spending vast sums of monies appropriated to the Pentagon.  Billions of dollars under tens of thousands of contracts, in fact.  Laws governing the procurement process are routinely ignored.  Competition, price limits, and oversight have been “abandoned.”  Auditing of contracts and contractors is either non-existent or so slow and superficial as to be ineffective.  The Pentagon has so much money left over at the end of the year that it has concocted yet another scheme to hide billions of dollars at other federal agencies.  I think my favorite was the case of a rookie Navy contracting staffer who was allowed as a beginner to let contracts with a maximum combined value of $5 million dollars.  He spent $135 million.  Get the picture?

Our friends at Defense News did a story on this hearing and its bombshell testimony by acting IG Gimble: William Matthews, “Pentagon IG: Procurement Laws Are Routinely Broken: Blames DoD for Hiring Other Agencies To Help Spend Funds” (January 22, 2006).  See it at the Defense News Web site.  If you want to review the full report by IG Gimble, see it online at <www.dodig.osd.mil/Audit/reports/FY07/07-044.pdf>.

This out-of-control shenanigans is transpiring at the Pentagon, right here in Northern Virginia, and within sight of the U.S. Capitol.  I think we are all fully aware of the equally bad — or even worse — situation regarding the waste, fraud, and theft which have been rampant since the first boot hit the ground in Iraq four years ago.  The “legitimate” cost of maintaining the world’s most massive military machine is staggering.  The exorbitant costs of an illegal adventure like Iraq adds to this expense exponentially.  Last, when profit-driven companies milk the corrupt and broken procurement and contracting system to the extent that is apparent, then the military budget grows into the malignant and parasitic growth on the national body that it has become.  No nation in the history of the world has ever endured for long under such pressures.

Such colossal fraud and theft should add to our resolve to bring the Iraq war to an end as fast as possible.  It should serve as notice to our new Democratic Party Congressional majority that its work is cut out for them in this regard.  Vast budget cuts at the Pentagon are in order, in fact required.  A complete top-to-bottom audit of expenditures and those doing the spending and those cashing the checks is next.  Third, it is obvious that a special federal court will need to be improvised in order to prosecute what is likely several tens of thousands of criminals — both Pentagon and private-sector — who have engineered this massive disregard of the law and subsequent robbery of U.S. government funds.  This must go all the way up the command chart, to the ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to Vice President Dick Cheney, and to President George W. Bush.

Don’t expect any of this to happen, however.  But so as to add something practical to my advice, try downloading this article for starters.  Then whip it out the next time you are talking to a Republican or Democrat politician who starts on the “We Can’t Afford National Health Care” or “Everyone Has to Sacrifice a Little” Baloney.  We have plenty of money to fix our problems.  What we lack are civilized and sane priorities, the political will to implement them, and the motivation to prosecute those white-collar hoodlums who are carting away public money by the truckload.  You’ll feel better if you do this, even if we are headed to the poorhouse because of the Pentagon.

Chris Townsend is the Political Action Director of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE).

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