Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The U.S. Military—What a Waste

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From spending$150 million on private villas for a handful of personnel in Afghanistan to blowing$2.7 billion on an air surveillance balloon that doesn’t work, the latest revelations of waste at the Pentagon are just the most recent howlers in a long line of similar stories stretching back at least five decades.  Other hot-off-the-presses examples would include the Army’s purchaseof helicopter gears worth $500 each for $8,000 each and the accumulationof billions of dollars’ worth of weapons components that will never be used. And then there’s the one that would have to be everyone’s favorite Pentagon waste story: the spending of $50,000 to investigatethe bomb-detecting capabilities of African elephants. (And here’s a shock: they didn’t turn out to be that great!) The elephant research, of course, represents chump change in the Pentagon’s wastage sweepstakes and in the context of its $600-billion-plus budget, but think of it as indicative of the absurd lengths the Department of Defense will go to when what’s at stake is throwing away taxpayer dollars.

Keep in mind that the above examples are just the tip of the tip of a titanic iceberg of military waste.  In a recent report I did for the Center for International Policy, I identified27 recent examples of such wasteful spending totaling over $33 billion.  And that was no more than a sampling of everyday life in the twenty-first-century world of the Pentagon.

The staggering persistence and profusion of such cases suggests that it’s time to rethink what exactly they represent.  Far from being aberrations in need of correction to make the Pentagon run more efficiently, wasting vast sums of taxpayer dollars should be seen as a way of life for the Department of Defense.  And with that in mind, let’s take a little tour through the highlights of Pentagon waste from the 1960s to the present.

How Many States Can You Lose Jobs In?

The first person to bring widespread public attention to the size and scope of the problem of Pentagon waste was Ernest Fitzgerald, an Air Force deputy for management systems.  In the late 1960s, he battled that service to bring to light massive cost overruns on Lockheed’s C-5A transport plane.  He risked his job, and was ultimately fired, for uncovering$2 billion in excess expenditures on a plane that was supposed to make the rapid deployment of large quantities of military equipment to Vietnam and other distant conflicts a reality.

The cost increase on the C-5A was twice the price Lockheed had initially promised, and at the time one of the largest cost overruns ever exposed.  It was also an episode of special interest then, because Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had been pledging to bring the efficient business methods he had learnedas Ford Motors’ president to bear on the Pentagon’s budgeting process.

No such luck, as it turned out, but Fitzgerald’s revelations did, at least, spark a decade of media and congressional scrutiny of the business practices of the weapons industry.  The C-5A fiasco, combined with Lockheed’s financial troubles with its L-1011 airliner project, led the company to approach Congress, hat in hand, for a $250 million government bailout.  Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, who had helped bring attention to the C-5A overruns, vigorously opposedthe measure, and came within one vote of defeating it in the Senate.

In a time-tested lobbying technique that has been used by weapons makers ever since, Lockheed claimedthat denying it loan guarantees would cost 34,000 jobs in 35 states, while undermining the Pentagon’s ability to prepare for the next war, whatever it might be.  The tactic worked like a charm.  Montana Senator Lee Metcalf, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the bailout, said, “I’m not going to be the one to put those thousands of people out of work.”  An analysis by the New York Times found that every senator with a Lockheed-related plant in his or her state voted for the deal.

By rewarding Lockheed Martin for its wasteful practices, Congress set a precedent that has never been superseded.  A present-day case in point is—speak of the devil—Lockheed Martin’s F-35 combat aircraft.  At $1.4 trillionin procurement and operating costs over its lifetime, it will be the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon (or anyone else on Planet Earth), and the warning signs are already in: tens of billions of dollars in projected cost overruns and myriad performance problems before the F-35 is even out of its testing phase.  Now the Pentagon wants to rush the plane into production by making a “block buy” of more than 400 planes that will involve little or no accountabilityregarding the quality and cost of the final product.

Predictably, almost five decades after the C-5A contretemps, Lockheed Martin has deployed an inflationary version of the jobs argument in defense of the F-35, making the wildly exaggerated claimthat the plane will produce 125,000 jobs in 46 states.  The company has even created a handy interactive mapto show how many jobs the program will allegedly create state by state.  Never mind the fact that weapons spending is the least efficient way to create jobs, lagging far behind investment in housing, education, or infrastructure. 

The Classic $640 Toilet Seat

Despite the tens of billions being wasted on a project like the F-35, the examples that tend to draw the most attention from the media and the most outrage among taxpayers involve overspending on routine items.  This may be because the average person doesn’t have a sense of what a fighter plane should cost, but can more easily grasp that spending$640 for a toilet seat or $7,600 for a coffee pot is outrageous.  These kinds of examples—first exposed through work done in the 1980s by Dina Rasorof the Project on Military Procurement—undermined the position taken by President Ronald Reagan’s administration that not a penny could be cut from its then-record peacetime Pentagon budgets.

The media ate such stories up. Pentagon overpayments for everyday items generatedhundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines, including front-page coverage in the Washington Post.  Two whistleblowers were even interviewed on the Today Show, and Johnny Carson joked about such scandals in his introductory monologues on the Tonight Show.  Perhaps the most memorable depiction of the problem was a cartoonby the Washington Post’s Herblock that showed Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger wearing a $640 toilet seat around his neck.  This outburst of truth-telling, whistleblowing, investigative journalism, and mockery helped put a cap on the Reagan military buildup, but—you won’t be surprised to learn—didn’t keep the Pentagon from finding ever more innovative ways to misspend tax dollars.

The most outrageous spending choice of the 1990s was undoubtedly the Clinton administration’s decision to subsidize the mergersof major defense firms.  As Lockheed (yet again!) and Martin Marietta merged, Northrop teamed with Grumman, and Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, the Pentagon provided funding to pay for everything from closing down factories to subsidizing golden parachutes for displaced executives and board members.  At the time, Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders aptly dubbed the process “payoffs for layoffs,” as executives of defense firms received healthy payouts while laid-off workers were largely left to fend for themselves.

The Pentagon’s rationale for giving hundreds of millions of dollars to these emerging defense behemoths was laughable. The claim—absurd on the face of it—was that the new, larger companies would provide the Pentagon with lower prices once they had eliminated unnecessary overhead. Former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, who opposed the subsidies at the time, notedthe obvious: there was no evidence that weapons programs grew any cheaper, cost overruns any less, or wastage any smaller thanks to government subsidized mergers. As in fact became clear in the world of the weapons giants that followed, the increased bargaining power of companies like Lockheed Martin in a significantly less competitive market undoubtedly resulted in higher weapons costs.

It Took $6 Billion Not to Audit the Pentagon

The poster child for waste in the first decade of the twenty-first century was certainly the billions of dollars a privatizing Pentagon handed out to up-armored companies like Halliburtonthat accompanied the U.S. military into its war zones and engaged in Pentagon-funded base-building and “reconstruction” (aka “nation building”) projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) alone seems to come out with new examples of waste, fraud, and abuse on practically a weekly basis Among Afghan projects that stood out over the years was a multimillion-dollar “highway to nowhere,” a $43 million gas stationin nowhere, a $25 million“state of the art” headquarters for the U.S. military in Helmand Province, with all the usual cost overruns, that no one ever used, and the payment of actual salaries to countless thousands of no ones aptly labeled “ghost soldiers.” And that’s just to begin enumerating a long, long list. Last year, Pro Publica createdan invaluable interactive graphic detailing $17 billion in wasteful spending uncovered by SIGAR, complete with information on what that money could have purchased if it had been used productively.

One reason the Pentagon has been able to get away with all this is that it has proven strangely incapable of doinga simple audit of itself, despite a Congressionally mandated requirement dating back to 1990 that it do so. Conveniently enough, this means that the Department of Defense can’t tell us how much equipment it has purchased, or how often it has been overcharged, or even how many contractors it employs. This may be spectacularly bad bookkeeping, but it’s great for defense firms, which profit all the more in an environment of minimal accountability. Call it irony or call it symptomatic of a successful way of life, but a recent analysis by the Project on Government Oversight notesthat the Pentagon has so far spent roughly $6 billion on “fixing” the audit problem—with no solution in sight.

If anything, in recent years the Pentagon’s accounting practices have been getting worse.  Among the many offenses to any reasonable accounting sensibility, perhaps the most striking has been the way the war budget—known in Pentagonese as the Overseas Contingency Operations account—has been used as a slush fundto pay for tens of billions of dollars of items that have nothing to do with fighting wars. This evasive maneuver has been used to get around the caps that were placed on the Pentagon’s regular budget by Congress in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

If the Pentagon has its way, nuclear weapons will get their very own slush fund as well. For years, the submarine lobby floated the idea of a separate Sea-Based Deterrence Fund(outside of the Navy’s regular shipbuilding budget) to pay for ballistic missile-firing submarines. Congress has signed off on this idea, and now there are callsfor a nuclear deterrent fund that would give special budgetary treatment to bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles as well. If implemented, this change would throw the minimalist budget discipline that now exists at the Pentagon decisively out the nearest window and increase pressures to raise the department’s overall budget, which already exceedsthe levels reached during the Reagan buildup.

Why has waste at the Pentagon been so hard to rein in?  The answer is, in a sense, not complicated: the military-industrial complex profits from waste.  Closer scrutiny of waste could mean not just cheaper spare parts, but serious questions about whether cash cows like the F-35 are needed at all.  An accurate head count of the hundreds of thousands of private contractors employed by the Pentagon would reveal that a large proportion of them are doing work that is either duplicative or unnecessary. In other words, an effective audit of the Pentagon or any form of serious oversight of its wasteful way of life would pose a financial threat to a sector that is doing just fine under current arrangements.

Who knows? If the Department of Defense’s wasteful ways were ever brought under genuine scrutiny and control, people might start to question, for example, whether a country that already has the capability to destroy the world many times over needs to spend$1 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of ballistic missiles, bombers, and nuclear-armed submarines. None of this would be good news for the contractors or for their allies in the Pentagon and Congress.

Undoubtedly, from time to time, you’ll continue to hear outrageous media stories about waste at the Pentagon and bomb-detecting elephants gone astray. Without a concerted campaign of public pressure of a sort we haven’t seen in recent years, however, the Pentagon’s runaway budget will never be reined in, that audit will never happen, and the weapons makers will whistle a happy tune on their way to the bank with our cash.

The American Media Is A CIA Front

Several weeks before Ukraine’s 2014 coup, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nuland had already picked Arseniy Yatsenyuk to be the future leader, but now “Yats” is no longer the guy

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In reporting on the resignation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the major U.S. newspapers either ignored or distorted Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s infamous intercepted phone call before the 2014 coup in which she declared “Yats is the guy!”

Though Nuland’s phone call introduced many Americans to the previously obscure Yatsenyuk, its timing – a few weeks before the ouster of elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – was never helpful to Washington’s desired narrative of the Ukrainian people rising up on their own to oust a corrupt leader.

Instead, the conversation between Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt sounded like two proconsuls picking which Ukrainian politicians would lead the new government. Nuland also disparaged the less aggressive approach of the European Union with the pithy put-down: “Fuck the E.U.!”

More importantly, the intercepted call, released onto YouTube in early February 2014, represented powerful evidence that these senior U.S. officials were plotting – or at least collaborating in – a coup d’etat against Ukraine’s democratically elected president. So, the U.S. government and the mainstream U.S. media have since consigned this revealing discussion to the Great Memory Hole.

On Monday, in reporting on Yatsenyuk’s Sunday speech in which he announced that he is stepping down, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal didn’t mention the Nuland-Pyatt conversation at all.

The New York Times did mention the call but misled its readers regarding its timing, making it appear as if the call followed rather than preceded the coup. That way the call sounded like two American officials routinely appraising Ukraine’s future leaders, not plotting to oust one government and install another.

The Times article by Andrew E. Kramer said: “Before Mr. Yatsenyuk’s appointment as prime minister in 2014, a leaked recording of a telephone conversation between Victoria J. Nuland, a United States assistant secretary of state, and the American ambassador in Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, seemed to underscore the West’s support for his candidacy. ‘Yats is the guy,’ Ms. Nuland had said.”

Notice, however, that if you didn’t know that the conversation occurred in late January or early February 2014, you wouldn’t know that it preceded the Feb. 22, 2014 coup. You might have thought that it was just a supportive chat before Yatsenyuk got his new job.

You also wouldn’t know that much of the Nuland-Pyatt conversation focused on how they were going to “glue this thing” or “midwife this thing,” comments sounding like prima facie evidence that the U.S. government was engaged in “regime change” in Ukraine, on Russia’s border.

The ‘No Coup’ Conclusion

But Kramer’s lack of specificity about the timing and substance of the call fits with a long pattern of New York Times’ bias in its coverage of the Ukraine crisis. On Jan. 4, 2015, nearly a year after the U.S.-backed coup, the Times published an “investigation” article declaring that there never had been a coup. It was just a case of President Yanukovych deciding to leave and not coming back.

That article reached its conclusion, in part, by ignoring the evidence of a coup, including the Nuland-Pyatt phone call. The story was co-written by Kramer and so it is interesting to know that he was at least aware of the “Yats is the guy” reference although it was ignored in last year’s long-form article.

Instead, Kramer and his co-author Andrew Higgins took pains to mock anyone who actually looked at the evidence and dared reach the disfavored conclusion about a coup. If you did, you were some rube deluded by Russian propaganda.

“Russia has attributed Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster to what it portrays as a violent, ‘neo-fascist’ coup supported and even choreographed by the West and dressed up as a popular uprising,” Higgins and Kramer wrote. “Few outside the Russian propaganda bubble ever seriously entertained the Kremlin’s line. But almost a year after the fall of Mr. Yanukovych’s government, questions remain about how and why it collapsed so quickly and completely.”

The Times’ article concluded that Yanukovych “was not so much overthrown as cast adrift by his own allies, and that Western officials were just as surprised by the meltdown as anyone else. The allies’ desertion, fueled in large part by fear, was accelerated by the seizing by protesters of a large stock of weapons in the west of the country. But just as important, the review of the final hours shows, was the panic in government ranks created by Mr. Yanukovych’s own efforts to make peace.”

Yet, one might wonder what the Times thinks a coup looks like. Indeed, the Ukrainian coup had many of the same earmarks as such classics as the CIA-engineered regime changes in Iran in 1953 and in Guatemala in 1954.

The way those coups played out is now historically well known. Secret U.S. government operatives planted nasty propaganda about the targeted leader, stirred up political and economic chaos, conspired with rival political leaders, spread rumors of worse violence to come and then – as political institutions collapsed – watched as the scared but duly elected leader made a hasty departure.

In Iran, the coup reinstalled the autocratic Shah who then ruled with a heavy hand for the next quarter century; in Guatemala, the coup led to more than three decades of brutal military regimes and the killing of some 200,000 Guatemalans.

Coups don’t have to involve army tanks occupying the public squares, although that is an alternative model which follows many of the same initial steps except that the military is brought in at the end. The military coup was a common approach especially in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.

Color Revolutions’

But the preferred method in more recent years has been the “color revolution,” which operates behind the fa├žade of a “peaceful” popular uprising and international pressure on the targeted leader to show restraint until it’s too late to stop the coup. Despite the restraint, the leader is still accused of gross human rights violations, all the better to justify his removal.

Later, the ousted leader may get an image makeover; instead of a cruel bully, he is ridiculed for not showing sufficient resolve and letting his base of support melt away, as happened with Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala.

But the reality of what happened in Ukraine was never hard to figure out. Nor did you have to be inside “the Russian propaganda bubble” to recognize it. George Friedman, the founder of the global intelligence firm Stratfor, called Yanukovych’s overthrow “the most blatant coup in history.”

Which is what it appears if you consider the evidence. The first step in the process was to create tensions around the issue of pulling Ukraine out of Russia’s economic orbit and capturing it in the European Union’s gravity, a plan defined by influential American neocons in 2013.

On Sept. 26, 2013, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, who has been a major neocon paymaster for decades, took to the op-ed page of the neocon Washington Post and called Ukraine “the biggest prize” and an important interim step toward toppling Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the time, Gershman, whose NED is funded by the U.S. Congress to the tune of about $100 million a year, was financing scores of projects inside Ukraine training activists, paying for journalists and organizing business groups.

As for the even bigger prize — Putin — Gershman wrote: “Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents. Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

At that time, in early fall 2013, Ukraine’s President Yanukovych was exploring the idea of reaching out to Europe with an association agreement. But he got cold feet in November 2013 when economic experts in Kiev advised him that the Ukrainian economy would suffer a $160 billion hit if it separated from Russia, its eastern neighbor and major trading partner. There was also the West’s demand that Ukraine accept a harsh austerity plan from the International Monetary Fund.

Yanukovych wanted more time for the E.U. negotiations, but his decision angered many western Ukrainians who saw their future more attached to Europe than Russia. Tens of thousands of protesters began camping out at Maidan Square in Kiev, with Yanukovych ordering the police to show restraint.

Meanwhile, with Yanukovych shifting back toward Russia, which was offering a more generous $15 billion loan and discounted natural gas, he soon became the target of American neocons and the U.S. media, which portrayed Ukraine’s political unrest as a black-and-white case of a brutal and corrupt Yanukovych opposed by a saintly “pro-democracy” movement.

Cheering an Uprising

The Maidan uprising was urged on by American neocons, including Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Nuland, who passed out cookies at the Maidan and reminded Ukrainian business leaders that the United States had invested $5 billion in their “European aspirations.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, also showed up, standing on stage with right-wing extremists from the Svoboda Party and telling the crowd that the United States was with them in their challenge to the Ukrainian government.

As the winter progressed, the protests grew more violent. Neo-Nazi and other extremist elements from Lviv and other western Ukrainian cities began arriving in well-organized brigades or “sotins” of 100 trained street fighters. Police were attacked with firebombs and other weapons as the violent protesters began seizing government buildings and unfurling Nazi banners and even a Confederate flag.

Though Yanukovych continued to order his police to show restraint, he was still depicted in the major U.S. news media as a brutal thug who was callously murdering his own people. The chaos reached a climax on Feb. 20 when mysterious snipers opened fire, killing both police and protesters. As the police retreated, the militants advanced brandishing firearms and other weapons. The confrontation led to significant loss of life, pushing the death toll to around 80 including more than a dozen police.

U.S. diplomats and the mainstream U.S. press immediately blamed Yanukovych for the sniper attack, though the circumstances remain murky to this day and some investigations have suggested that the lethal sniper fire came from buildings controlled by Right Sektor extremists.

To tamp down the worsening violence, a shaken Yanukovych signed a European-brokered deal on Feb. 21, in which he accepted reduced powers and an early election so he could be voted out of office. He also agreed to requests from Vice President Joe Biden to pull back the police.

The precipitous police withdrawal opened the path for the neo-Nazis and other street fighters to seize presidential offices and force Yanukovych and his officials to flee for their lives. The new coup regime was immediately declared “legitimate” by the U.S. State Department with Yanukovych sought on murder charges. Nuland’s favorite, Yatsenyuk, became the new prime minister.

Throughout the crisis, the mainstream U.S. press hammered home the theme of white-hatted protesters versus a black-hatted president. The police were portrayed as brutal killers who fired on unarmed supporters of “democracy.” The good-guy/bad-guy narrative was all the American people heard from the major media.

The New York Times went so far as to delete the slain policemen from the narrative and simply report that the police had killed all those who died in the Maidan. A typical Times report on March 5, 2014, summed up the storyline: “More than 80 protesters were shot to death by the police as an uprising spiraled out of control in mid-February.”

The mainstream U.S. media also sought to discredit anyone who observed the obvious fact that an unconstitutional coup had just occurred. A new theme emerged that portrayed Yanukovych as simply deciding to abandon his government because of the moral pressure from the noble and peaceful Maidan protests.

Any reference to a “coup” was dismissed as “Russian propaganda.” There was a parallel determination in the U.S. media to discredit or ignore evidence that neo-Nazi militias had played an important role in ousting Yanukovych and in the subsequent suppression of anti-coup resistance in eastern and southern Ukraine. That opposition among ethnic-Russian Ukrainians simply became “Russian aggression.”

This refusal to notice what was actually a remarkable story – the willful unleashing of Nazi storm troopers on a European population for the first time since World War II – reached absurd levels as The New York Times and The Washington Post buried references to the neo-Nazis at the end of stories, almost as afterthoughts.

The Washington Post went to the extreme of rationalizing Swastikas and other Nazi symbols by quoting one militia commander as calling them “romantic” gestures by impressionable young men. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ukraine’s ‘Romantic’ Neo-Nazi Storm Troopers.”]

But today – more than two years after what U.S. and Ukrainian officials like to call “the Revolution of Dignity” – the U.S.-backed Ukrainian government is sinking into dysfunction, reliant on handouts from the IMF and Western governments.

And, in a move perhaps now more symbolic than substantive, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is stepping down. Yats is no longer the guy.