Good ole Bob Woodward – famed investigative journalist who exposed the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation – is at it again:
The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.
Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.
The Pentagon employs just over 1 million military personnel and nearly as many bureaucrats at desk jobs around the world to manage the clerical needs of the armed forces. After commissioning a study to find ways they could save money on overhead and divert extra cash to military spending, the Pentagon covered up the study’s findings for fear of being seen as the bloated, money-wasting bureaucracy they are.
Pentagon officials worried that if Congress saw this study, they would move to slash the defense budget in response. Worse, officials feared that the study would undermine their own public statements about the military’s being strapped for cash, especially since the sequestration imposed by the Congressional Republicans in conjunction with the Obama administration. So to preserve their own careers and the reputation of the institution, these officials decided to cover up the findings rather than publicize them.
It remains to be seen if the Washington Post’s exposé will lead to any changes at the Pentagon. Since president-elect Trump campaigned on hyperbole about our weakened military and the need to strengthen the armed forces, it’s safe to assume that a Trump administration will want to spend more money on defense, not less, even if a great majority of it is being wasted.
So what is the public excuse for dismissing the cost-saving study’s findings? According to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, the second-highest-ranking official at the Pentagon and the man who ordered the study be conducted in the first place, the study’s recommendations were, “unrealistic:”
[T]he business executives had failed to grasp basic obstacles to restructuring the public sector.
“There is this meme that we’re some bloated, giant organization,” he said. “Although there is a little bit of truth in that . . . I think it vastly overstates what’s really going on.”
Work said the board fundamentally misunderstood how difficult it is to eliminate federal civil service jobs — members of Congress, he added, love having them in their districts — or to renegotiate defense contracts.
He said the Pentagon is adopting some of the study’s recommendations on a smaller scale and estimated it will save $30 billion by 2020. Many of the programs he cited, however, have been on the drawing board for years or were unrelated to the Defense Business Board’s research.
At least Work was honest in that Congressional deal-makers are partially responsible for the glut of civil service jobs and that re-negotiating defense contracts is a Sisyphean task . Works’ comments are an admission of the politicized nature of the Pentagon and the Federal government’s defense contracts. Implied is that these defense contracts also are exchanges of deals made between lawmakers and private corporations. It’s common knowledge these days that defense contractors get away with charging the government outrageous prices and that taxpayers routinely pay the bill, especially when a terrorist attack scares citizens into blindly supporting the military.
These defense contracts are not necessarily given to the best candidates, but rather the candidates who are most well-connected to the Washington establishment. For example, consider Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil field services companies that was awarded 52% of the contracts during the Iraq War – totaling more than $39 billion. Who was the former CEO of Halliburton? Vice President Dick Cheney, who received a handsome payment of $34 million from Halliburton when he resigned to join the Republican ticket. So Cheney leaves his oil company with a fat severance, becomes Vice President, then uses his authority to instigate the war in Iraq, and his administration ultimately awards his former company more than half of the contracts to manage the oil fields there. When Work says that it’s difficult or impossible to renegotiate these defense contracts, a quid pro quo like the one between Cheney and Halliburton is a good example of why: these deals are made to financially benefit the parties involved, not to get the taxpayer the best deal.
Perhaps these military officials genuinely understand something about the way defense spending works that the average person doesn’t. After all, a sprawling bureaucracy covering the whole planet is naturally going to have some financial inefficiencies. Work himself says it’s naive to think that the public sector could ever been run as efficiently as a business. So perhaps there is simply a high price to pay for security.
The real issue is not necessarily that the Pentagon is frivolously wasting taxpayer dollars, but that politicians are always willing to fund defense projects while claiming that there’s not enough money to invest in education, housing or infrastructure. Taxpayers are not only being ripped off by private defense contractors, but also by private pharmaceutical companies, private healthcare providers, and private schools. Sadly, in spite of Trump’s campaign promises to drain the swamp and eliminate wasteful spending, the likelihood is that these trends will continue under a business-friendly Trump administration that will revel in crony capitalism rather than fight it.