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Oversight Detected

Without help from any one else in Congress and despite unrepentant opposition from the Pentagon, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., has fought to a standstill the first big defense procurement scandal of the twenty-first century. The Air Force, the Boeing Company, and scores of congressional advocates are today discarding the wreckage of their scheme, hatched in the aftermath of 9/11, to acquire Boeing 767s as air refueling tanker aircraft. They attempted to rush ahead without the benefit of assessing when the existing fleet of KC-135 tankers actually needs to be replaced, what aircraft can best fill the mission, and how to buy them without the taxpayers forking over at least $5 billion more than we should.

What Senator McCain has done in response is a model of how Congress should perform one of its core constitutional responsibilities — oversight. The constitutional separation of and balance of powers between the legislature and the executive, one of the building blocks of our democracy, requires the Congress to uncover and check abuse in cabinet agencies, such as the Department of Defense. It is a function that has been sparsely exercised in Congress of late, as we now know all too well from the shortage of armor for Humvees and trucks in Iraq. Indeed, as I and some other Senate staffers used to darkly joke when I worked in the Senate over three decades, what passes for oversight of national security issues in Congress is often better described as “overlooking.”

The unraveling of the deal is the inevitable result of evidence Senator McCain pried out of the Boeing Company and the Pentagon. In 2003, the first batch of information caused investigations inside Boeing, the Defense Department, and the Justice Department. As a result, two senior Boeing managers were fired, one of them a new hireling from the senior ranks of the Air Force who was a driving force, along with Senator Ted Stevens, R ­ Alaska, behind the deal. When the former Air Force official pleaded guilty to the charges against her, she described a “parting gift” of extra billions she engineered for the Air Force to give to Boeing.

McCain also prompted a series of studies from the Defense Department’s Inspector General, its Defense Science Board, the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the Institute for Defense Analyses. Each stripped away key tanker scheme underpinnings. In addition, McCain employed the Senate’s right to withhold its consent to several civilian and military appointments and promotions unless and until he received answers to still more questions.

In September 2004, the senator achieved a real legislative victory: prior statutory permissions for the deal were swept away in the fiscal year 2005 National Defense Authorization Act, and the Air Force was required to go back to square one and sort out whether new tanker aircraft are actually needed, if so when and what type, and to pay for them using standard acquisition funding. The sitting Secretary of the Air Force and yet another department acquisition executive resigned, just as the senator released e-mails revealing the officials’ confusion over just who they worked for, Boeing or the taxpayers.

The fight is far from over. The Air Force has ordered up an embarrassingly quick “Analysis of Alternatives” of what to buy, when from a favored research contractor, and its institutional leadership shows no hint of intent to decide the issues based on reliable data and thorough, objective analysis.

McCain is not wilting. He is seeking hearings, and there is every sign the usually vapid answers Defense Department witnesses get by with at Senate hearings will not work and officials making poorly grounded decisions will find themselves being held accountable.

The bad news is that the tanker scandal is just the tip of a gigantic national security iceberg that the American ship of state is bearing down on. There are other, more important, and even more troubling, issues: the corrupting, if not corrupt, relationship between defense manufacturers and Members’ of Congress, Congress’ more than doubling the pork spending in defense bills since September 11 and, worse, raiding operating and other war-related accounts in defense bills to pay for it. Those are all tough issues, and it is unfair to ask just one man in the Senate to be the only one to step up to them. However, so far there has been no one else who seems to know both how to probe issues and act commensurately with the knowledge developed.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information. He contributed an essay on the defense budget to CounterPunch’s new book: Dime’s Worth of Difference.

Wheeler’s book, “The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security,” is published by the Naval Institute Press.