Skip to content Skip to footer

Pentagon Solutions: Slices of Change Could Save Billions

(Image: Truthout)

Part of the Series

Last year, Truthout started this new “Solutions: Making Government Work” column to give me a platform to explore different areas of government and how we could reform them and make them work better for the public. I have addressed other areas of government such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Securities and Exchange Commission oversight and nuclear waste issues.

In February of last year, I decided to do a series on solutions for the intractable problems in the Department of Defense (DoD). I was eager to tackle some of the obstacles that have prevented reform because, while I have investigated other areas of government, most of my experience has been looking at the Pentagon.

I started investigating the DoD while I was just one and a half years out of college. Thirty years later, this new Solutions column for Truthout gave me another platform to explore how to try to finally get control of the Pentagon's spending and procurement process.

What started out as a two month, eight-column effort grew into 39 columns that were read with enthusiasm by Truthout readers. The readers' comments on the first few columns were insightful and they seem to like slogging through my sometimes esoteric descriptions of why the military procurement, auditing and oversight weren't working and how to make it better. So, I tackled new issues each month with current DoD issues and comparing them to efforts since the 1980s to reform the Pentagon. What was disheartening, but also enlightening, to me was how much worse the self-dealing, influence peddling, waste, cronyism, and other corruption have infiltrated the Pentagon since the Reagan defense buildup in the 1980s. Since the Pentagon budget has almost doubled since 9/11, these problems threaten our national security, our national fiscal security and the security of the troops that we have sent into two wars.

But what was heartening was to see how many people inside and outside of the DoD bureaucracy are still trying to reform this mess. Each week's column showed a new solution for a long-term problem, and after 39 columns, I realized that, put together, these columns paint what a daunting task we have as a nation to finally get control of our defense spending. But the Truthout readers only saw a slice of problems and solutions each week – something to read and be steamed about until the next week's column appeared with yet another DoD problem and another solution.

So, the editors of Truthout and I decided to illustrate the enormity of the problem and the bevy of solutions that need to be incorporated and put all 39 columns into a new book. This book, the second of our Truthout Reader series, is called “Pentagon Solutions: How to Actually Get Control of Defense Spending.” Since Truthout is a totally electronic news web site, it was natural for us to make this a Kindle e-book. The book is available through Amazon. You don't need the traditional Kindle device to read it. You can download free Kindle apps for your iPad, iPhone, any PC computer, all MAC computers, Blackberry, android, and more on the Amazon site.

(Our first Truthout Reader entitled “FEMA and Disaster: A Look at What Worked and What Didn't From a FEMA Insider” is a great five-part series of Solution columns on the history of FEMA and on what worked and hasn't worked since its inception in 1979. This Truthout Reader was written by Leo Bosner, a longtime FEMA employee, who had been with FEMA from the very start.)

“Pentagon Solutions” has 39 columns; seven that were written by guest columnists. The columns are grouped into chapters on pricing of weapons, contracting, budget, audit, oversight and reform. Weapons buying, influence peddling, stymied oversight efforts and the inability of the DoD to pass audits are just some of the issues tackled in the book.

In the course of editing this book and rereading my weekly struggle to come up with sections of solutions to fix the Pentagon, I was struck by how so many of the problems were caused or made worse by all the self-dealing and influence peddling. Fueled by yearly budgets of over half a trillion dollars, it would be expected that there would be some people taking advantage of the situation to enrich themselves. However, the Pentagon bureaucracy, the Congress and the executive branch have tolerated or promoted so much collusion between the DoD and their contractors that it is now just part of doing business, with few willing to attempt to reform it.

In the column called “How the DoD Allows Contractors to Grade Themselves and Write Their Own Contract Terms,” I wrote about how much this system reminded me of the of one of the last lines in George Orwell's novel “Animal Farm”:

No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man and from man to pig and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

So, this book has dozens of solutions to various DoD problems, with some easy fixes and some more difficult fixes. I listed some of my most hard-hitting, but important, solutions in a column entitled “The Buying and Selling of the Pentagon, Part II.” Here are some of those solutions that, if ever really enacted, would elicit howls of protest from many of the self-dealing agents in the military-industrial complex:

Solution for the General Officer Corps

The general officer corps, in which I include the ranks of colonel to four-star generals, have been one of the worst in acquiescing to contractors while they are in military service, so that they can get lucrative defense contractor jobs after they retire. What many people do not understand is that the generals are not being paid so much for their knowledge after they start working for a contractor, but for “services rendered” while they were still on active duty. It is important to note that generals don't totally separate themselves from the service when they retire; they just go on retired status and can be called back into duty. They still use the title of general, have sizeable retirement pay and lots of perks for their service to their country. Still being connected to the military retirement pay and perks with the title and a chance to be recalled back into duty gives them an immediate conflict of interest when they go to work for a defense contractor or a consulting firm that gets contracts from the DoD or a defense contractor.

So, my reform solution for the general officer corps requires them to make a choice. If they want to go work for or invest money in a defense contractor, they must give up their title of general and lose their military retirement pay and perks. If they think it is unfair because they earned the retirement and the military rank, they can keep to a higher calling and work in some other civilian industry, as many generals did after World War II. (See my January article on the corruption of the general officer corps.) If the generals still want to work on military issues and strategy, they can go work for one of the myriad of nonprofit organizations that look at military issues or oversight, as long as they strictly stay away from any lobbying efforts with the DoD or the Congress. They also cannot go work for a nonprofit organization that accepts contributions from defense contractors unless they give up their rank and pensions. They should also not be allowed to fill a civilian political office in the DoD because of the necessary authority of civilian rule and they are still considered military. These rules would not be subject to any type of executive or Congressional waivers.

If the generals realize what they would have to forfeit to go work for a defense contractor, they may decide to stick to the higher calling and drive the contractors to deliver what is best for the troops, not for their retirement.

Solutions for the Congress

Members of Congress often go to work or sit on boards of defense contractors after they leave office and they accept campaign contributions from defense contractors while they are still in office. Those conflicts of interest hurt their ability to seriously oversee Pentagon spending to the detriment of national defense. Therefore, members of Congress and their senior staff (legislative assistants and directors) must follow the same rules as the general officer corps if they decide to go work for a defense contractor or consultant. They must give up their Congressional titles, perks and retirement in order to work for a defense contractor. They may accept political appointments to the DoD and keep their title and pensions, but they cannot go to work for a defense company after their service in the DoD and Congress because of the inside knowledge they have gained during their government work. This will help focus the members of Congress and their staff on tough oversight, something that they might be reluctant to do if they thought they were going to get a cushy contractor or consultant job.

Solutions for Defense Contractors and Consultants

DoD contractors make a good profit and their work is vitally important to the success of our troops. Because their work with the DoD is so clearly a life-or-death situation for our troops and affects the very base of security for our country, DoD contractors must be given a very special status from other corporations. Defense contractors must be forbidden to use any of their money to lobby or influence the government with the threat of disbarment as the punishment. They also must be forbidden to contribute to any political campaigns or nonprofit organizations involved in national security. There cannot be any acceptations. This will be the price in order to work on supplying weapons and logistics for our national defense.

Their senior employees also must recognize their special status and if they decide to go work for the DoD or the Congress, they must give up all stock and pensions they accrued during the work with the contractor. If these employees decide to go work for the DoD or Congress, they will not be allowed to go back and work for a defense contractor after they leave government service. They can go to work with any civilian contractor or even in other branches of the federal government. This is vitally necessary in order to stop the insidious revolving door, spinning from contractor to government and back again. One of the problems is that many of these defense contractors have made themselves to big to fail, so it is very hard to disbar them (there will be a Solutions column on this problem in the near future). So, there may have to be some legislation to fine their profits (not the overhead paid by the taxpayers!) if they are caught illegally lobbying or using other efforts to influence the government. No more expensive ads on the Sunday talk shows or full-page ads in The Washington Post touting overpriced, defective or ineffective weapons.

I have made it a point in the Solutions columns that the solutions suggested for each column should be realistic and feasible. These solutions sound like draconian measures, but after so many years of trying to regulate the revolving door just to have waivers, loopholes and just plain mocking of the existing mild rules, I believe that it is necessary to make everyone who is connected in working on our national security have a special status of sacrifice for our national security. Our troops are sacrificing their constitutional rights and their lives everyday for us. The people that are supposed to be serving them should do no less.

So, if you are interested in exploring all areas of problems in the DoD and suggested solutions, download “Pentagon Solutions” and be ready to get a heavy, but necessary. dose of why our DoD needs drastic change in order to truly serve our troops, our national security and our public.

I will now work on tackling problems and solutions in other areas of government, but will still keep the Truthout readers on top of the current problems in the DoD as they emerge and work on suggesting solutions for this troubled government department.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $34,000 in the next 4 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.