Skip to content Skip to footer

The Buying and Selling of the Pentagon (Part II)

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

Two weeks ago, in part one of this two part series, I laid out the problems of the military, the Department of Defense (DoD) civilian, contractor and Congressional staff going through the “revolving door” and greatly blurring the lines between working for the military and lobbying for contracts for the military. There are many, many individuals who revolve through these various roles throughout their long career to the determent of national security. These self-dealing practices make weapons cost more, allow weapons manufacturing and design errors to go unstopped through procurement process and wind up on the battlefield. These same practices, done by the superiors of our troops, also greatly degrade morale in the lower-level officers and troops, which further degrade our overall national security. I laid out a lobby plan that I discovered in the 1980s showing that the DoD, Air Force and Lockheed had banded together in illegal ways to make sure that the Lockheed C-5B cargo plane was funded despite its many problems.

As most Truthout readers know, Truthout was vandalized just a few days after part one of this series came out, so you may want to revisit that column to understand the background to the rather drastic solutions that I will lay out in this column today.

Let me give you a few more examples of why we need to totally change the personal incentives of those who are serving in the military, contracting with the military, serving as civilian workers in the military and members of Congress and their staff who are overseeing the military's success and funding.

In the course of researching and writing my 2007 book, “Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War,” I tell the story of a military officer who was working with a general on a base in Iraq to oversee KBR's contract with the Army to provide food, water, barracks, supplies, and other logistics for the Army. This was an unusual situation since the Army had, in past wars, supplied most of their logistics in the danger zones of a war. The base manager for KBR, as his right as a civilian contractor for the DoD, insisted that their bills be paid. The Army was late in providing the contract money, but that was because the Army and DoD auditors were worried about the lack of backup for the enormous costs that KBR had been running up. The KBR manager told the general of the base that if he didn't have his bills paid for ASAP, that the KBR workers would not come out of their trailers and feed the troops the next day, nor deliver vital supplies. This was tantamount to a work stoppage on the battlefield, and although the general tried to bluster his way through, he had to cave and get KBR's poorly reviewed bills paid, no matter what.

My sources told me that this was happening on a rolling basis throughout the military bases in Iraq and that the generals had caved in to KBR each time. What was so astounding and disheartening to me was that, to my knowledge, not a single general, based on pressure from his top command, quit rather than give in to an unscrupulous contractor, or even, after their tour in Iraq, quit his command and went to the Congress and/or the media to tell them that KBR was blackmailing the Army with work stoppages during a war. I was following all the attempts of reform and oversight on KBR in the Congress and, to my knowledge, no general even had the courage to leak this problem anonymously to the media or the Congress to try to fix the problem. The result was that the troops did not get what they needed in equipment and supplies and the unscrubbed costs of maintaining this and other wars have become prohibitively expensive because KBR has set the baseline for all other private logistic contracts in wartime.

I often wonder what Gen. George Patton would have done if a contractor had tried to blackmail him in the battlefields of World War II. I suspect that he would have drawn his pearl-handled pistol and threatened to rearrange the nose of the blackmailing contract manager.

Last December, Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe wrote a series of articles outlining other outrages of military generals retiring with large pensions, but still self dealing and angling with contractors and consulting firms to cash in to the detriment of the morale of the troops left behind.

Members of Congress and their staff and DoD civilian personnel are also very guilty of this self-dealing and flip back and forth from the government and contractor side of the fence. A new book, “The Pentagon Labyrinth,” has an excellent essay by G.I. Wilson called “Careerism” and by Winslow Wheeler called “Congressional Oversight: Willing and Able or Willing to Enable?” This book has a free electronic download.

As I wrote in part one of this series, I don't believe that the US can make real changes to DoD procurement until we change the incentives of the individuals who work in this corrupt system. All other attempts at reform have quickly been deformed because there are too many careerists who are making money gaming the system – a system that also severely punishes those who don't go along with the corruption.

Having worked for decades on trying to slow or close the revolving door to no avail, I believe rather drastic action needs to be implemented. These are not easy solutions, but I am now convinced that nothing else will stop the self-dealing.

The US military, especially the senior officers, claim that being in the military is a special calling with special rules and special status. It is true in many ways. When you become a member of the US Armed Forces, you take an oath of office and put yourself under military rules, called the Uniform Code of Military Justice. You no longer have all the constitutional rights and freedoms of civilians; you can't just quit your job and you can't refuse orders except under very special circumstances. This is necessary in order to have cohesion and to get men and women to risk their lives and work against their own self-interests in defending the country, especially when we are at war. Many in the military will tell you that it is a special and different world, and the generals often bring this up before Congress when their program management is questioned. It is much easier for members of Congress to publicly criticize the top civilian managers of the Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Health and Human Services for mismanagement, but it is much harder to criticize a general in uniform for lack of management when he is telling them that he wants “the best for our troops.”

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.

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 $44,000 in the next 7 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.