Is Robert Gates Fit to Serve? Are the Senators?

How can senators exercise their constitutional responsibility to vote on President Bush’s nomination of Robert M. Gates to be secretary of defense? In the past there have been two typical methods.

One is to explore past failings involving ethics or the law. There are, indeed, two clouds in Gates’s history: one involving the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s and another that involves the testimony of co-workers in the CIA that he allowed his personal biases–and more importantly those of his superiors–to guide intelligence analysis. That’s not a happy precedent in today’s context. Some currently sitting senators voted against Gates’s previous nomination to be Director of Central Intelligence in the George H. W. Bush administration for those reasons. However, it is unclear if those same senators, such as Carl Levin (D-Mich) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass), will find what were good reasons in 1991 to be good reasons in 2006.

The facts may not have changed, but the politics could have, and the latter will control. Accordingly, it seems pointless to probe those issues here–unless some sharp reporter out there has come up with some interesting new information.

The other method senators have used on past nominations is to assess how the nominee aligns with their individual biases. Some typically say they disagree with the nominee, but “the president should have the person he wants.” Others say they disagree, and that is sufficient reason for adamant opposition–a stance both parties’ ideologues take with Supreme Court nominees on issues like abortion.

Neither method–politics or ideology–can give senators a useful guide to whether Gates is fit to serve as secretary of defense. Perhaps Gates has learned a useful lesson about intelligence analysis, and whether he agrees or disagrees with some senator’s personal biases on some defense issue means almost nothing about his fitness to be secretary of defense.

There is a much better way, which has been used only rarely in the Senate: does the nominee acknowledge the existence of various problems, and if they are serious, does he have a rational plan to address them?

There are at least two horrifying problems in the Pentagon that Gates should address:

Today’s Department of Defense may be the worst managed agency of the federal government.

The Pentagon does not know what it does with the half trillion dollars Congress appropriates to it each year.

The existence of these problems is pretty much incontrovertible. People who don’t think so have not been doing their homework or are wearing blinkers. More to the point, a nominee who does not acknowledge them will be both unwilling and incapable of addressing them and is clearly not qualified to be secretary of defense.

Who says DOD is the most incompetently managed agency in the federal government? Try George Bush. His Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rates the competence of federal agencies; it’s called the “President’s Management Agenda” and OMB releases Bush’s scorecard every quarter of every year. (Click here to see the latest one.) Scroll down through the agencies; it is correct that some are rated even lower than DOD, but only a very few, all of them known losers. Plus, there’s reason to suspect that true ratings for the Pentagon may be worse than the ones reported.

OMB is a partisan office run by political appointees. It may not be the most objective rater, especially of an important agency like DOD. It’s conceivable OMB is letting the Pentagon off easily. Let’s try the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has a legitimate claim to be reliable on an issue like this.

GAO produces a series of studies called “High Risk Reports.” They address the most serious problems GAO finds in government. The most recent GAO contribution shows that DOD is the subject of more high risk reports than any other federal agency and–quite plausibly–is the worst managed agency of the federal government.

What about the other assertion that the Pentagon doesn’t know what it does with its appropriations from Congress? How can that be? DOD has huge stocks of equipment and literally hordes of military personnel and civilian bureaucrats. Both the equipment and the people–and their operations–are all paid for. Clearly not a case of the money getting lost. Waste? Sure, but isn’t it overstatement to say that the Pentagon doesn’t know what happens to the money?

Ask the Pentagon, specifically its Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In its testimony to Congress on August 3, 2006, OIG declared $3.8 trillion (that’s with a “t”) in assets, liabilities, and costs of operations to be impossible to audit. Note well; they didn’t say “flunked an audit;” they said it was all un-auditable. They said they couldn’t track the money; not that they could track it and found some problems. The Pentagon would literally be in better financial management shape if it were able to take an audit and flunk. This, the OIG stated further, is “the single largest and most challenging impediment” to financial integrity in the entire federal government (see page 2).

As in the management assessment above, GAO took the gilt off the lily. In its testimony to Congress on the same day, GAO stated that the financial mess in the Pentagon has “left the department vulnerable to billions of dollars of fraud, waste, and abuse annually.” (Click here and go to page 2.) GAO described just some of the consequences: debt collectors chasing soldiers wounded in Iraq because of inaccurate pay records, billions of dollars appropriated for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being miscounted, double-counted, or simply lost, and DOD’s bills being paid twice or not at all.

OK, so how do we use this information to write questions for senators to ask Gates?

Simple; we don’t.

If we write out questions for the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the senators will simply read them off (the smart ones will summarize on their own). Knowing little more than the information conveyed in the question itself, the inquiring member will have no ability to identify a bilge-water response. The one they will likely get will be that DOD has a good plan to deal with those oh-so important issues. Sure, just like the “good” DOD plan to deal with the financial management mess promised by Messrs. Aspin, Perry, Cohen, and Rumsfeld when they were asked about it.

Those with a sharp memory will recall that when Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) asked Donald Rumsfeld in December 2000 what he would do about the $2.8 trillion in transactions DOD could not audit, Rumsfeld quipped he would “resign the nomination.” Just the kind of non-answer a poorly informed senator is likely to let slide today.

Note, however, that the $2.8 trillion in un-auditables in 2000 is today $3.8 trillion. That’s some plan! Perhaps Gates would like to tell us how he is going to make it better, not worse.

It is pointless to try here to micromanage an exchange between any senator and Gates on serious defense issues. The point is that the senators must prepare themselves not by seeking scripted questions but by getting into the weeds of the issues–to study them and to be able to give as good as he or she takes on the facts. That’s why we’ve provided links to some of the information. Therein, senators, find not pre-written questions but a discussion of the issues crammed with facts from GAO, OIG, and even OMB.

Go read about it, senator. Then, well-informed, perceptive questions will come easily to you, and you will have a basis for real probing of Gates on his fitness for office.

And, yes, we will also have some basis for assessing the senators and their fitness for office.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues. He can be contacted at: winslowwheeler@comcast.net.

This commentary was prepared for the Nieman Watchdog.



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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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