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Protecting Pentagon Contractors From The Pandemic

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Washington has initiated its largest spending binge in history. In the process, you might assume that the unparalleled spread of the disease would have led to a little rethinking when it came to all the trillions of dollars Congress has given the Pentagon in these years that have in no way made us safer from, or prepared us better to respond to, this predictable threat to American national security. As it happens, though, even if the rest of us remain in danger from the coronavirus, Congress has done a remarkably good job of vaccinating the Department of Defense and the weapons makers that rely on it financially.

There is, of course, a striking history here. Washington's reflexive prioritizing of the interests of defense contractors has meant paying remarkably little attention to, and significantly underfunding, public health. Now, Americans are paying the price. With these health and economic crises playing out before our eyes and the government's response to it so visibly incompetent and inadequate, you would expect Congress to begin reconsidering its strategic approach to making Americans safer. No such luck, however. Washington continues to operate just as it always has, filling the coffers of the Pentagon as though "national security" were nothing but a matter of war and more war.

Month by month, the cost of wasting so much money on weaponry and other military expenses grows higher, as defense contractor salaries continue to be fattened at taxpayer expense, while public health resources are robbed of financial support. Meanwhile, in Congress, both parties generally continue to defend excessive Pentagon budgets in the midst of a Covid-19-caused economic disaster of the first order. Such a business-as-usual approach means that the giant weapons makers will continue to take funds from agencies far better prepared to take the lead in addressing this crisis.

There are a number of ways the Pentagon's budget could be reduced to keep Americans safer and better protected against future pandemics. As the Center for International Policy's Sustainable Defense Task Force has pointed out, the biggest challenges we now confront, globally speaking -- including such pandemics -- are not, in fact, military in nature. In truth, hundreds of billions of dollars could be cut with remarkable ease from U.S. military spending and Americans would be far safer.

Recently, some members of Congress have started to focus on this very point. Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), for instance, proposed diverting money from unnecessary intercontinental ballistic missile "modernization" into coronavirus and vaccine research. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has gone further, suggesting a 10 percent reduction in the Pentagon's budget, while Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), the only member of Congress to vote against the post-9/11 war resolution that led to the invasion of Afghanistan, has gone further yet, calling for the cutting of $350 billion from that budget.

But count on one thing: they'll meet a lot of resistance. There's no way, in fact, to overstate just how powerfully the congressional committees overseeing such spending are indebted to and under the influence of the defense contractors that profit off the Pentagon budget. As Politico reported years ago (and little's changed), members of the House Armed Services committee are the top recipients of defense industry campaign contributions. Even the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, which should be advocating for the strengthening of American diplomacy, has drawn criticism for the significant backing he receives from the defense industry.

Focusing on Weaponry That Can't Fight a Virus
Defense contractors have consistently seen such investments pay off. As my colleague at the Project on Government Oversight, Dan Grazier, has pointed out, despite repeated warnings from independent watchdogs and medical professionals, even military healthcare has been significantly underfunded, while both the Pentagon and Congress continue to prioritize buying weapons over taking care of our men and women in uniform. Congress's watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, warned in February 2018 that the health system of the Department of Defense (DOD) lacked the capacity to handle routine needs, no less the emergencies of wartime. As Pentagon spending has continued to escalate over the past 20 years, military healthcare funding has stayed largely flat.

Under the circumstances, I doubt you'll be surprised to learn that Congress has also written additional arms contractor giveaways into its coronavirus relief bills. Though its CARES Act authorized trillions of dollars in spending, ProPublica unearthed a provision in it (nearly identical to one proposed by industry groups) that allows defense contractors to bill the government for a range of costs meant to keep them in a "ready" state. The head of acquisition for the Pentagon, Ellen Lord, estimated (modestly indeed) that the provision would cost taxpayers in the low "double-digit billions." Additional language offered in the House's next relief bill, likely to survive whatever the Senate finally passes, would increase such profiteering further by including fees that such companies claim are related to the present crisis, including for executive compensation, marketing, and sales.

In such a context, it was hardly surprising that, during a recent hearing at the House Armed Services Committee on how the DOD was responding to the Covid-19 crisis, the focus remained largely on ways that the global epidemic might diminish arms industry profits. Representatives Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) both argued that the Pentagon would need yet more money to cover the costs of any number of charges that defense contractors claim are related to the pandemic.

Most ludicrous is the idea that an agency slated to receive significantly more than $700 billion in 2020 can't afford to lose a few billion dollars to the actual health of Americans. Of course, the Pentagon remained strategically mum earlier this year when, in an arguably unconstitutional manner, the White House diverted $7.2 billion from its funds to the building of the president's "great, great wall" on our southern border. In fact, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even admitted that it wasn't exactly a major blow for the government agency with the largest discretionary budget. "It was not a significant, immediate, strategic, negative impact to the overall defense of the United States of America," he assured Congress. "It's half of one percent of the overall budget, so I can't in good conscience say that it's significant, immediate, or the sky is falling."

A Chicken Little Congress, however, doesn't consider taking more funds from the Pentagon budget to shore up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) anywhere near as crucial as, for example, approving the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a slush fund that will be part of this country's new Cold War with China -- starting with a modest $1.4 billion in seed money, while the homework is done to justify another $5.5 billion next year. Similarly, even in such an economically disastrous moment, who could resist buying yet more of Lockheed Martin's eternally troubled and staggeringly expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighters than the Pentagon requested? Comparable support exists, even among senators unwilling to fork over any more dollars to desperate out-of-work Americans, for the president's Space Force, that new service now in the process of creating a separate set of rules for itself that should allow it free rein over future spending. That, of course, reveals its real mission: making it easier for contractors to profit off the taxpayer.

If anything, the main congressional criticism of the Pentagon is that it's been too slow to push money out the door. And yet, in an institution that has never been successfully audited, there are red flags galore, as a recent Government Accountability Office assessment of major weapons programs suggests. The costs of such new weapons systems have cumulatively soared by 54%, or $628 billion, from earlier GAO assessments. That, by the way, is almost 90 times this year's budget request for the CDC.

And that's just the waste. The same report shows that any number of weapons systems continue to fail in other ways entirely. Of the 42 major programs examined, 35 had inadequate security to prevent cyber attacks. General Dynamics Electric Boat's $126 billion nuclear submarine program has been plagued by faulty welding for two years. The new Ford class aircraft carrier, built by Huntington Ingalls for $13.2 billion, includes a General Atomics launch system that continues to fail to launch aircraft as designed. In addition, as Bloomberg first reported, the ship's toilets clog frequently and can only be cleaned with specialized acids that cost about $400,000 a flush. As my colleague Mark Thompson has pointed out, "escalating costs, blown schedules, and weapons unable to perform as advertised" are the norm, not the exception for the Pentagon.

That track record is troubling indeed, given that Congress is now turning to the Pentagon to help lead the way when it comes to this country's pandemic response. Its record in America's "forever wars" over the last nearly two decades should make anyone wonder about the very idea of positioning it as a lead agency in solving domestic public health crises or promoting this country's economic recovery.

Broken Oversight
As the first wave of the pandemic continues and case numbers spike in a range of states, oversight structures designed to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse when it comes to defense spending are quite literally crumbling before our eyes. Combine weakened oversight, skewed priorities, and a Pentagon budget still rising and you're potentially creating the perfect storm for squandering the resources needed to respond to our current crisis.

The erosion of oversight of the Pentagon budget has been a slow-building disaster, administration by administration, particularly with the continual weakening of the authority of inspectors general. As independent federal watchdogs, IGs are supposed to oversee the executive branch and report their findings both to it and to Congress.

In the Obama administration, however, their power was undermined when the Office of Legal Counsel, the legal expert for the White House, began to argue that accessing the "all" in "all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations, or other material" didn't actually mean "all" when it came to inspectors general. Under President Donald Trump, the same office typically claimed that then-Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson did not have the authority to forward to the House and Senate Intelligence committees a concern that the president had improperly withheld aid to Ukraine.
In fact, in the Trump years, such watchdogs have been purged in significant numbers. Shortly after Department of Defense principal Deputy Inspector General Glenn Fine was named to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, for instance, the president removed him. Not only did that weaken the authority of the body overseeing trillions of dollars in spending across the federal government, but it jeopardized the independence and clout of the Pentagon's watchdog when it came to billions already being spent by the DOD.

In a similar fashion, the Trump administration has worked hard to stymie Congress's ability to exercise its constitutional role in conducting oversight. A few months after the president entered the Oval Office, the White House temporarily ordered executive branch agencies to ignore oversight requests from congressional Democrats. Since then, the stonewalling of Congress has only increased. Mark Meadows, the president's latest chief of staff, has, for example, reportedly implemented a new rule ensuring that executive branch witnesses cannot appear before Congress without his permission. In recent weeks, it was invoked to stop Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from appearing to justify his latest budget request or to answer questions about why his department's inspector general was removed. (He was, among other things, reportedly investigating Pompeo himself.) Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley have both resisted calls from Congress to answer questions about the use of military force against peaceful protesters.

Congress has a number of tools at its disposal to demand answers from the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the committees overseeing that agency have seldom demonstrated the will to exercise them. Last year, however, Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) added an amendment to a defense bill limiting funds for the secretary of defense's travel until his department produced a report on disciplinary actions taken after U.S. troops were abushed in Niger in 2018 and four of them died.

That tragic incident was also a reminder that Congress has taken little responsibility for the costs of the endless conflicts the U.S. military has engaged in across significant parts of the planet. Quite the opposite, it continues to leave untouched the 2001 authorization for use of military force, or AUMF, that has been abused by three administrations to justify waging wars ever since. The Congressional Research Service estimates that it has been used in that way at least 41 times in 19 countries. According to Brown University's Costs of War project, that number should be 80 countries where the U.S. has been engaged in counterterror activities since 2001.

And there are significantly more warning signs in this Covid-19 moment that congressional oversight, long missing in action, is needed more than ever. (Trump's response, classically enough, was "I'll be the oversight.") Typically, among the trillions of dollars Congress put up in responding to the pandemic-induced economic collapse, $10.5 billion was set aside for the Pentagon to take a leading role in addressing the crisis. As the Washington Post reported, among the first places those funds went were golf course staffing, submarine missile tubes, and space launch facilities, which is par for the course for the DOD.

Implementation of the Defense Production Act also betrayed a bizarre sense of priorities in these months. That law, passed in response to the Korean War, was designed to help fill shortfalls in goods in the midst of emergencies. In 2020, that should certainly have meant more masks and respirators. But as Defense One reported, that law was instead used to bail out defense contractors, some of whom weren't even keeping their employees on staff. General Electric, which had laid off 25% of its workforce, received $20 million to expand its development of "advanced manufacturing techniques," among things unrelated to the coronavirus. Spirit Aerosystems, which received $80 million to expand its domestic manufacturing, had similarly laid off or furloughed 900 workers.
While Americans are overwhelmed by the pandemic, the Pentagon and its boosters are exploiting the emergency to feather their own nests. Far stronger protections against such behavior are needed and, of course, Congress should take back what rightfully belongs to it under the Constitution, including its ability to stop illegal wars and reclaim its power of the purse. It's long past time for that body to cancel the blank check it's given both the Pentagon and the White House. But don't hold your breath.
In the meantime, as Americans await a future Covid-19 vaccine, the military-industrial complex finds itself well vaccinated against this pandemic moment. Consider it a Pentagon miracle in terrible times.


Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).



Copyright 2020 Mandy Smithberger

How The Warfare State Left Us Undefended Against Pandemics

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

At this moment of unprecedented crisis, you might think that those not overcome by the economic and mortal consequences of the coronavirus would be asking, "What can we do to help?" A few companies have indeed pivoted to making masks and ventilators for an overwhelmed medical establishment. Unfortunately, when it comes to the top officials of the Pentagon and the CEOs running a large part of the arms industry, examples abound of them asking what they can do to help themselves.

It's important to grasp just how staggeringly well the defense industry has done in these last nearly 19 years since 9/11. Its companies (filled with ex-military and defense officials) have received trillions of dollars in government contracts, which they've largely used to feather their own nests. Data compiled by the New York Times showed that the chief executive officers of the top five military-industrial contractors received nearly $90 million in compensation in 2017. An investigation that same year by the Providence Journal discovered that, from 2005 to the first half of 2017, the top five defense contractors spent more than $114 billion repurchasing their own company stocks and so boosting their value at the expense of new investment.

To put this in perspective in the midst of a pandemic, the co-directors of the Costs of War Project at Brown University recently pointed out that allocations for the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health for 2020 amounted to less than one percent of what the U.S. government has spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone since 9/11. While just about every imaginable government agency and industry has been impacted by the still-spreading coronavirus, the role of the defense industry and the military in responding to it has, in truth, been limited indeed. The highly publicized use of military hospital ships in New York City and Los Angeles, for example, not only had relatively little impact on the crises in those cities but came to serve as a symbol of just how dysfunctional the military response has truly been.


Bailing Out The Military-Industrial Complex In The Covid-19 Moment
Demands to use the Defense Production Act to direct firms to produce equipment needed to combat Covid-19 have sputtered, provoking strong resistance from industries worried first and foremost about their own profits. Even conservative Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a longtime supporter of increased Pentagon spending, has recently recanted, noting how just such budget priorities have weakened the ability of the United States to keep Americans safe from the virus. "It never made any sense, as Trump's 2021 budget had initially proposed, to increase spending on nuclear weapons by $7 billion while cutting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding by $1.2 billion," he wrote. "Or to create an unnecessary Space Force out of the U.S. Air Force while eliminating the vitally important directorate of global health by folding it into another office within the National Security Council."

In fact, continuing to prioritize the U.S. military will only further weaken the country's public health system. As a start, simply to call up doctors and nurses in the military reserves, as even Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has pointed out, would hurt the broader civilian response to the pandemic. After all, in their civilian lives many of them now work at domestic hospitals and medical centers deluged by Covid-19 patients.

The present situation, however, hasn't stopped military-industrial complex requests for bailouts. The National Defense Industrial Association, a trade group for the arms industry, typically asked the Pentagon to speed up contracts and awards for $160 billion in unobligated Department of Defense funds to its companies, which will involve pushing money out the door without even the most modest level of due diligence.

Already under fire in the pre-pandemic moment for grotesque safety problems with its commercial jets, Boeing, the Pentagon's second biggest contractor, received $26.3 billion last year. Now, that company has asked for $60 billion in government support. And you undoubtedly won't be surprised to learn that Congress has already provided Boeing with some of that desired money in its recent bailout legislation. According to the Washington Post, $17 billion was carved out in that deal for companies "critical to maintaining national security" (with Boeing in particular in mind). When, however, it became clear that those funds wouldn't arrive as a complete blank check, the company started to have second thoughts. Now, some members of Congress are practically begging it to take the money.

And Boeing was far from alone. Even as the spreading coronavirus was spurring congressional conversations about what would become a $2 trillion relief package, 130 members of the House were already pleading for funds to purchase an additional 98 Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighters, the most expensive weapons system in history, at the cost of another half-billion dollars, or the price of more than 90,000 ventilators.

Similarly, it should have been absurdly obvious that this wasn't the moment to boost already astronomical spending on nuclear weapons. Yet this year's defense budget request for such weaponry was 20 percent higher than last year's and 50 percent above funding levels when President Trump took office. The agency that builds nuclear weapons already had $8 billion left unspent from past years and the head of the National Nuclear Security Agency, responsible for the development of nuclear warheads, admitted to Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) that the agency was unlikely even to be able to spend all of the new increase.

Boosters of such weapons, however, remain undeterred by the Covid-19 pandemic. If anything, the crisis only seems to have provided a further excuse to accelerate the awarding of an estimated $85 billion to Northrop Grumman to build a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), considered the "broken leg" of America's nuclear triad. As William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, has pointed out, such ICBMs "are redundant because invulnerable submarine-launched ballistic missiles are sufficient for deterring other countries from attacking the United States. They are dangerous because they operate on hair-trigger alert, with launch decisions needing to be made in some cases within minutes. This increases the risk of an accidental nuclear war."

And as children's book author Dr. Seuss might have added, "But that is not all! Oh, no, that is not all." In fact, defense giant Raytheon is also getting its piece of the pie in the Covid-19 moment for a $20-$30 billion Long Range Standoff Weapon, a similarly redundant nuclear-armed missile. It tells you everything you need to know about funding priorities now that the company is, in fact, getting that money two years ahead of schedule.

In the midst of the spreading pandemic, the U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command similarly saw an opportunity to use fear-mongering about China, a country officially in its area of responsibility, to gain additional funding. And so it is seeking $20 billion that previously hadn't gained approval even from the secretary of defense in the administration's fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. That money would go to dubious missile defense systems and a similarly dubious "Pacific Deterrence Initiative."


How Not To Deal With Covid-19
Along with those military-industrial bailouts came the fleecing of American taxpayers. While many Americans were anxiously awaiting their $1,200 payments from that congressional aid and relief package, the Department of Defense was expediting contract payments to the arms industry. Shay Assad, a former senior Pentagon official, accurately called it a "taxpayer rip-off" that industries with so many resources, not to speak of the ability to borrow money at incredibly low interest rates, were being so richly and quickly rewarded in tough times. Giving defense giants such funding at this moment was like giving a housing contractor 90 percent of upfront costs for renovations when it was unclear whether you could even afford your next mortgage payment.

Right now, the defense industry is having similar success in persuading the Pentagon that basic accountability should be tossed out the window. Even in normal times, it's a reasonably rare event for the federal government to withhold money from a giant weapons maker unless its performance is truly egregious. Boeing, however, continues to fit that bill perfectly with its endless program to build the KC-46 Pegasus tanker, basically a "flying gas station" meant to refuel other planes in mid-air.

As national security analyst Mark Thompson, my colleague at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), has pointed out, even after years of development, that tanker has little hope of performing its mission in the near future. The seven cameras that its pilot relies on to guide the KC-46's fuel to other planes have so much glare and so many shadows that the possibility of disastrously scraping the stealth coating off F-22s and F-35s (both manufactured by Lockheed Martin) while refueling remains a constant danger. The Air Force has also become increasingly concerned that the tanker itself leaks fuel. In the pre-pandemic moment, such problems and associated ones led that service to decide to withhold $882 million from Boeing. Now, however, in response to the Covid-19 crisis, those funds are, believe it or not, being released.

Keep all of this behavior (and more) in mind when you hear people suggest that, in this public health emergency, the military should be put in charge. After all, you're talking about the very institution that has regularly mismanaged massive weapons programs like the $1.4 trillion F-35 jet fighter program, already the most expensive weapons system ever (with ongoing problems galore). Even when it comes to health care, the military has proved remarkably inept. For instance, attempts of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense to integrate their health records were, infamously enough, abandoned after four years and $1 billion spent.

Having someone in uniform at the podium is, unfortunately, no guarantee of success. Indeed, a number of veterans have been quick to rebuke the idea of forefronting the military at this time. "Don't put the military in charge of anything that doesn't involve blowing stuff up, preventing stuff from being blown up, or showing up at a place as a message to others that we'll be there to blow stuff up with you if need be," one wrote.

"Here's a video from Camp Pendleton of unmasked Marines queued up for haircuts during the pandemic," tweeted another. "So how about 'no'?" That video of troops without masks or practicing social distancing even shocked Secretary of Defense Esper, who called for a military haircut halt, only to be contradicted by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, desperate to maintain regulation cuts in the pandemic moment. That inspired a mocking rebuke of "haircut heroes" on Twitter.

Unfortunately, as Covid-19 spread on the aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt, that ship became emblematic of how ill-prepared the current Pentagon leadership proved to be in combatting the virus. Despite at least 100 cases being reported on board -- 955 crewmembers would, in the end, test positive for the disease and Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr. would die of it -- senior Navy leaders were slow to respond. Instead, they kept those sailors at close quarters and in an untenable situation of increasing risk. When an emailed letter expressing the concerns of the ship's commander, Captain Brett Crozier, was leaked to the press he was quickly removed from command. But while his bosses may not have appreciated his efforts for his crew, his sailors did. He left the ship to a hero's farewell.

All of this is not to say that some parts of the U.S. military haven't tried to step up as Covid-19 spreads. The Pentagon has, for instance, awarded contracts to build "alternate care" facilities to help relieve pressure on hospitals. The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences is allowing its doctors and nurses to join the military early. Several months into this crisis, the Pentagon has finally used the Defense Production Act to launch a process to produce $133 million worth of crucial N95 respirator masks and $415 million worth of N95 critical-care decontamination units. But these are modest acts in the midst of a pandemic and at a moment when bailouts, fraud, and delays suggest that the military-industrial complex hasn't proved capable of delivering effectively, even for its own troops.

Meanwhile, the Beltway bandits that make up that complex have spotted a remarkable opportunity to secure many of their hopes and dreams. Their success in putting their desires and their profits ahead of the true national security of Americans was already clear enough in the staggering pre-pandemic $1.2 trillion national security budget. (Meanwhile, of course, key federal medical structures were underfunded or disbanded in the Trump administration years, undermining the actual security of the country.) That kind of disproportionate spending helps explain why the richest nation on the planet has proven so incapable of providing even the necessary personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers, no less the testing needed to make this country safer.
The defense industry has asked for, and received, a lot in this time of soaring cases of disease and death. While there is undoubtedly a role for the giant weapons makers and for the Pentagon to play in this crisis, they have shown themselves to be anything but effective lead institutions in the response to this moment. It's time for the military-industrial complex to truly pay back an American public that has been beyond generous to it.

Isn't it finally time as well to reduce the "defense" budget and put more of our resources into the real national security crisis at hand?


Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

Copyright 2020 Mandy Smithberger