Half a Trillion Dollars

Ever since President Eisenhower’s farewell address, there have been sporadic warnings about the Military Industrial Complex. Over the last couple of decades, critics like Ernest Fitzgerald and Chuck Spinney have performed a valuable public service by uncovering the Pentagon’s lunatic potlatch schemes and dragging them before the bar of public opinion. Lately, organizations such as the Project on Government Oversight, the Center for Defense Information, and the Committee against Government Waste have been in a continuous pother about the riot of pork-barrel spending in the military budget.

These critiques, entirely accurate as far as they go, yet lull us into a false sense of security. If only we were to institute reform of the Congressional appropriations process, or ban earmarks, or establish a line-item veto, the “good” defense spending (the paean in these critiques is always to “readiness accounts”) would no longer be at the mercy of the “bad” defense spending (inserted in the black of night by such felonious rogues as Duke Cunningham).

Let us be plain. Any organization that employs lethal force, operates in secrecy, always gets what it wants, and is unaccountable to the citizens is indistinguishable from a protection racket. And if, in return for surrendering their wallets, the citizenry is made less safe (as the more objective intelligence reports have repeatedly warned about the $300+ billion Iraq war), then some hole-in-corner reform is not going to get us anywhere. The Soviet Union in its senile post-Brezhnev phase had numerous anti-corruption drives, to no avail. The whole rotten edifice collapsed only when the Russian people ceased to believe in the system they had suffered under and placed such childish hopes in.

Although the Duke Cunningham saga achieved screaming headlines, one aspect of it gained almost no notice. When it did, its importance was misinterpreted: Precisely what was MZM Corp., and its spin-off ADCS, ostensibly doing when they weren’t pillaging the taxpayers? According to Marcus Stern, the Copley News Service reporter who broke the corruption story, Cunningham was handing out contracts to MZM involving CIFA, the Pentagon’s secretive Counterintelligence Field Activity.

Discussing this matter with Brian Lamm on C-Span’s 3 March 2006 Washington Journal, Stern misconstrued the significance of the MZM-CIFA link. As Stern would have it, the connection demonstrated Cunningham’s perfidy in so far as he was compromising post-9/11 national security by bestowing contracts on a corrupt business that overcharged the government for conducting activity intended to keep us safe from terrorists.

Would that it were that simple, but that would be the facile interpretation. CIFA, as we now know, is a Department of Defense organization that spies on American citizens, in violation of post-Vietnam directives prohibiting the military from conducting surveillance against U.S. citizens on American soil. Precisely replicating the abuses that instigated the ban in the first place, CIFA is collecting dossiers on citizens engaged in lawful political activity, e.g., a group of elderly Quakers in Lakeland, Florida who opposed the government’s policy in Iraq.

The charitable interpretation is that a lot of shiftless bureaucrats at the Office of the Secretary of Defense have way too much time and money on their hands.[1] It’s not enough that they do a miserable job at what they are constitutionally charged to do — fight wars — they apparently can spare the manpower to poke through people’s dresser drawers even as they complain about how thin they are stretched due to the Iraq war.

But it is no coincidence that a secret organization which abuses constitutional rights would be mired in corrupt contracting. Inevitably, secrecy without accountability leads to abuse, which in turn leads to rampant corruption. It is a prevalent myth that “toughness,” or, if you like, “taking the gloves off,” is a sign of business-like efficiency and rectitude. A police department that routinely beats suspects and covers it up is invariably a corrupt one, with officers casually perjuring themselves in trials and valuables conveniently disappearing from evidence lockers.

Thus it is no surprise that CIFA, whose reason for being is abuse of the Constitution, is connected with criminals like Duke Cunningham and Brent Wilkes, ADCS’s CEO. Nor should it surprise us that Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, the Executive Director of the CIA, is under investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general for his links to Wilkes. [2]

Is it an occasion for shocked disbelief that Halliburton, the beneficiary of billions of dollars of no-bid contracts, should charge the government (meaning you, the taxpayer) for meals never provided for U.S. troops, gouge for fuel, and simultaneously threaten employees who object to these practices? It is merely an illustration of the nexus between greed and abuse.

The people at the top who ultimately order such things are insulated from accountability by multiple layers of bureaucratic operatives. At the sharp end of the spear, unlettered lieges carry out the plans, and take the fall should anything go wrong.

While Kapos (not S.S. men, but the criminal element among prisoners) actually ran the concentration camps and squeezed the prisoners of their possessions and paid off the S.S. guards, Reinhard Heydrich played the violin (by all accounts well) and joked with his staff. While the criminal element ran the Gulag, Director of the KGB Andropov gulled the Western media with stories about his affinity for single malt Scotch and jazz.

So it is with our National Security State: poor West Virginia hillbillies in reserve units are ordered to carry out the wet work. Should plans go awry, they take the fall. A slap on the wrist, perhaps a career-killing reprimand, might be meted out to junior officers. General officers are probably secure from even a hint of opprobrium, regardless of what they ordered or knew.

Although responsibility ultimately rests with the Secretary of Defense (who in October 2001 made a big public point of saying that prisoners — does this mean in all future wars? — would not be treated according to the Geneva Convention), he has insulated himself, or so he thinks, by not writing down the specific orders.

Like his historical models, Secretary Rumsfeld keeps well clear of the sordid details of what trouble our half trillion dollars is buying. By choice, he would rather turn his full attention to dressing down Pentagon stewards who fail to slice the garnishes in the approved manner, or humiliate career officers who fail to grasp the crony capitalist potential of Transformation for the corporate bottom line. But the principal effect of his half trillion dollar protection racket is to make us all a little less prosperous, and to stir up such insensate hatred abroad as will trouble the sleep of our grandchildren when they are adults.

WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] Yes, we know they all work nominal 14-hour days. They simply do not produce anything remotely useful to the republic. Staff meetings to determine the amount of loot to pry out of a somnolent Congress, memo-writing on how to evade the Geneva Convention, and fending off tirades from the Secretary of Defense about meal presentation in the executive dining room do not count.

[2] “Exclusive: Top CIA Official Under Investigation,” ABC News, 3 March 2006.