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Don’t Be Shocked By Pentagon’s Treatment Of Heroic Commander

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Capt. Brett Crozier, fired this week from command of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, joins a growing list of Navy officers who attempted to raise concerns about the safety of their ships and crew, only to pay with their jobs.

Crozier wrote a letter dated March 30 warning that an outbreak of the coronavirus on his ship was a threat to his crew of some 4,000 sailors unless they disembarked and quarantined.

"We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily," Crozier wrote. "Decisive action is required now."

We do not know all the facts that prompted the letter. But we know that once it was published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, relieved Crozier of command. Crozier, 50, had been a rising star in the officer corps. He will remain in the Navy at his current rank, though his career future is uncertain. In viral videos, Crozier's sailors can be seen cheering him loudly as he disembarks the Roosevelt, alone, before driving away.

Navy experts believe that the cumulative effects of the service's decisions over the past several years to punish those who speak out will result in silencing sailors with legitimate concerns about their health and safety.

"This may have the effect of chilling the responses of other commanding officers because it will be perceived, fairly or not, as a shoot the messenger scenario," said James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former head of the United States Naval Institute, who called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the dismissal.

The Navy's top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, initially praised Crozier's attempt to warn his superiors. But the next day, Thursday, Modly, the Navy's civilian boss, reversed course, telling reporters that he fired Crozier because he lost confidence in the officer for not using a secure email network to properly route his complaint.

Crozier's unclassified email wound up with 20 or 30 other individuals and at some point was provided to the Chronicle reporters. Modly said the public airing of the complaint had unnecessarily alarmed sailors and provided enemies with information that exposed weaknesses on one of the country's most important warships.

As part of our 2019 investigation into the incidents in the Navy's 7th Fleet, its largest overseas presence, ProPublica found repeated instances of frontline commanders warning superiors of risks the fleet was facing — a lack of training, exhausted crews, deteriorating ships and equipment. Those warnings, all sent through the normal chain of command, were met with indifference.

Disaster in the fleet struck in June 2017, after the USS Fitzgerald, a destroyer, collided with a cargo ship in the Sea of Japan. Two months later, a second destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, collided with an oil tanker in the Singapore Strait. The two accidents cost the Navy 17 sailors — the biggest loss of life in maritime collisions in more than 40 years.

Navy investigations laid blame on nearly the entire chain of command in the 7th Fleet, punishing commanders and sailors for failing to properly train and equip its crews and ships.

Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the head of the 7th Fleet, was fired. Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, who oversaw training, was forced from his job. Cmdr. Bryce Benson, captain of the Fitzgerald, was recommended for court-martial.

But ProPublica reported that all three men had repeatedly tried to warn higher-ups of dangerous safety issues in the vaunted fleet, based at Yokosuka, Japan. They argued to their superiors that the Navy was running ships in the 7th Fleet too hard, too fast. Their warnings were dismissed.

Some of the Navy's criminal cases against the officers collapsed after court rulings found possible bias in the Navy's prosecution.

Benson, the Fitzgerald commander whose court-martial case was dismissed, said that Crozier "was right to strongly advocate for the safety of his crew and it was wrong for the SecNav [secretary of the Navy] to fire him for doing so."

Senior leaders "continue to under-resource ships at sea and are slow to respond to commanders' pleas for assistance," said Benson, who is now retired. "From one tragedy to the next, senior Navy leaders continue to break faith with the fleet."

Dismissing Crozier, Benson said, "sends a clear message to commanders: The authority and responsibility that you enjoy is yours alone and an absolute liability even when under resourced and thinly supported."

Modly emphasized that he did not intend his actions to discourage officers from coming forward to report their concerns through the chain of command.

"I have no doubt in my mind that Capt. Crozier did what he thought was in the best interests of the safety and well-being of his crew. Unfortunately, it did the opposite," Modly said at a press conference.

But Crozier's firing has raised alarm anew that the Navy is more interested in its public image than in fixing problems raised by its sailors. It did not go unnoticed by fellow officers that Crozier was dismissed within two days of his letter becoming public. Such haste is unusual, and raised questions about the due process afforded to Crozier.

Some now believe that the cumulative effects of the Navy's decisions over the past several years to punish those who speak out will silence sailors who have legitimate concerns about their health and safety.

"His removal sends a really strong message that coming forward will end people's careers," said Mandy Smithberger, a military expert at the Project on Government Oversight. "Before this I'd say that risk was more so implied through both social and professional retaliation. This is much more explicit."

Crozier's firing comes amid increased concern that the Pentagon is not acting quickly enough to protect whistleblowers. Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general for the Defense Department, testified that the agency has shown a reluctance to punish officials who take punitive action against whistleblowers.

"We have seen a disturbing trend in the DoD disagreeing with the results of our investigations or not taking disciplinary action in substantiated reprisal cases without adequate or persuasive explanations," Fine testified in January to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. "Failure to take action sends a message to agency managers that reprisal will be tolerated and also to potential whistleblowers that the system will not protect them."

Navy commanders may be fired at any time by their superiors. And the captains of Navy ships are uniquely responsible for any mishaps on their ships.

A study published earlier this year of more than 2,000 disciplinary cases found that Navy commanders were historically dismissed for "crimes of command" — such as a ship colliding with another vessel or running aground.

More lately, however, the study documented that it has become harder to tell if those punished are being disciplined less because of their performance and more because they had either internally or publicly called the Navy out for neglect.

"In the modern Navy," wrote Capt. Michael Junge in the Naval War College Review, "a commander is most likely to be removed for personal misconduct or when the crime of command includes one or all of the following elements: death, press coverage, or significant damage to the Navy, whether materially or to its reputation."

Do you have access to information about how the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, or the Army is responding to the coronavirus that should be public? Email t.christian.miller@propublica.org or megan.rose@propublica.org or robert.faturechi@propublica.org. Here's how tosend tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

Trump’s Wall: How Much Money Does The Government Have For It Now?

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
by T. Christian Miller 

During the campaign, President Donald Trump promised to build a wall across the southern border some 1,000 miles long. The number of miles the president currently has money for: seven.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials delivered the startling news this week at a conference in San Antonio for businesses eager to win contracts for beefing up security along the border.

Although estimates to build the wall soar past $20 billion, the agency has so far managed to scrape together only about $20 million, according to its top contracting official. The rest of the cash will have to come from Congress, which so far has proven reluctant to foot the bill.

That amount of cash would not go very far to build a real wall 2014 existing fence along the border costs roughly $2.8 million per mile.

Instead, the agency plans to spend the money on eight model walls, planning, engineering and early-stage land acquisition.

The two-day conference in a cavernous convention center packed with border security gear like aerial drones and radar-equipped pickup trucks was an opportunity for CBP officials to detail plans for Trump’s border wall 2014 and also the hurdles to its construction.

The contracts for the prototype walls 2014 some made of concrete, some made of other material, all to be “aesthetically pleasing” per Trump’s wishes for a beautiful wall 2014 will be announced later this summer.

The prototypes will guide construction for more permanent walls that will be built along 14 miles in San Diego and another six miles in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, on land the agency has plans to build on or has already obtained.

Although Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security to build a “contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier,” border officials made clear that the wall will not stretch the length of the border. Currently, about 650 miles of the 2,000 mile border has some kind of fence.

Instead, top officials said the agency will build physical barriers in some areas and use technology such as ground and radar sensors elsewhere.

“It’s not just physical structure,” said Ronald Vitiello, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. “We’re not just buying barrier. That would not be smart.”

But none of the new wall will be built unless Congress approves Trump’s request for $1.4 billion in the coming fiscal year. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., has indicated he will not include the money in a budget bill expected later this month to extend government funding.

If the money eventually comes through, it will take two years to start construction, said Mark Borkowski, the agency’s chief procurement official.

Other factors could also throw off the schedule. The cost of obtaining land along the Texas border, which is largely in private hands, and in California, where real estate is expensive, could in some cases cost more than the wall itself.

Borkowski said he also anticipates the possibility of bid protests filed by competitors who believe they were unfairly denied contracts. And, of course, protesters may attempt to block construction.

Business leaders at the conference, skeptical of the utility of a wall, were primarily focused on technological solutions.

Michael Pine drove a hulking gray and green camouflage tractor trailer onto the convention hall floor. Designed as a mobile command post, the trailer expanded on each side to hold 20 bunk beds, an office, two armories, 33 lockers, a television screen and an air purification system. A second tractor trailer provided supplies.

Pine, the vice president of business development for Florida-based Cinetransformer Group, said the system would allow border patrol agents to move up and down the length of the border for 20 days at a time without refueling. The cost: $1.5 million.

“To heck with a wall,” he said. “You can drive these guys up and down the border. That would take care of everything.”

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Trump’s ‘Buy American’ Pledge May Be At Risk With His Border Wall

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

In one of his first tweets as president, here’s how Donald Trump promised to spend taxpayer dollars:

“We will follow two simple rules: BUY AMERICAN & HIRE AMERICAN!” he tweeted 55 minutes after taking the oath of office on Inauguration Day.

In the first big test of that pledge, here’s the reality: The Trump administration has opened the doors for firms from Mexico, El Salvador, and other free-trade treaty countries to supply big-ticket items for the wall, the barrier along the United States’ southern border that Trump made a centerpiece of his campaign.

Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced a bidding contest to start building the wall, which Trump wants to stretch a thousand miles, perhaps up to 30 feet high. Buried in the bid notice is language that permits the purchase of non-American materials for any contract worth more than $10.1 million.

Homeland Security has estimated the total cost to build the wall at around $21 billion — leaving plenty of room for orders for tens of millions of dollars’ worth of concrete, steel and other construction material.

Allowing the wall to be built with non-American materials is no oversight — it’s what is required under U.S. trade law.

“If we’re going to comply with our trade agreements, you can’t say we’re only going to buy American,” said Jean Heilman Grier, the U.S. representative who negotiated procurement issues with the World Trade Organization and other international trade treaty partners.

The hurdles facing Trump in buying American-made goods on this signature project is emblematic of the larger problems he will face in implementing an “America First” agenda. The U.S. has made promises over the years in trade deals, and foreign countries and companies can seek to enforce them.

The Buy American Act was passed in 1933 to encourage the federal government to purchase materials made mostly in the U.S. But the law is superseded by many of the free trade agreements the U.S. has entered over the years, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which includes Mexico.

Under most such treaties, the U.S. cannot apply the Buy American law for contracts worth more than $10.1 million, an amount that adjusts every two years. Similar restrictions exist for partner nations that seek to impose their own local preferences.

The primary reason that trade deals include such language is that U.S. companies want the opportunity to compete in bidding sponsored by other national governments. Foreign military and construction projects can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the same time, trade negotiators agreed to allow favoritism for national companies, only on smaller, bread-and-butter projects under the $10.1 million cap. But even for those, a company can get around the Buy American provision if it can find foreign suppliers whose prices are 25 percent cheaper than U.S. firms.

A note: the Buy American provisions are riddled with arcane language and exceptions. For instance, many transportation projects operate under a separate set of Buy American rules. But the general idea is that the U.S. supports free trade — and gets cheaper prices — by allowing government contractors to buy their supplies from any trading partner nation.

Presidents have tried to get around the free trade agreements. President Barack Obama attempted to implement Buy American requirements as part of the Recovery Act stimulus package that followed the recession. He encountered resistance from trade partners and anger from U.S. companies that found the buying requirements complex.

Shortly after last year’s election, President-elect Trump’s Defense Department transition team set up a special “Buy American” working group to come up with ways for Trump to use executive orders to set aside treaty obligations, according to a Washington, D.C., attorney who participated in the discussions.

“I explained that this could not be done by the stroke of a president’s pen on an executive order,” said the attorney, who requested anonymity due to his contacts in the Trump administration. “This put the idea into the ‘too hard to do’ category. The result: the task force gave up on this idea.”

Most recently, Trump issued a directive in January that the Keystone XL pipeline be built with American steel. He boasted about inserting a “little clause” to enforce the requirement. But the directive became moot after it emerged that Keystone had already purchased much of the steel from companies based in India, Italy and Canada.

Trump has issued no directives regarding construction of the wall.

“It’s not as simple and straightforward as individuals not familiar with the process might think it is,” said Stephen Gordon, the program director for procurement and contract management studies at the University of Virginia.

If Trump insisted that contractors purchase from American companies, he could renegotiate the trade agreements — a path he has said he would like to take with NAFTA.

It is also possible for him to simply ignore the existing agreements. Such an action would invite a trade war or a trip to a trade dispute forum. But whether a trade partner would challenge the U.S. in such a way is an open question.

“The law school answer is no we can’t” ignore trade obligations with other countries, said David Drabkin, a former senior federal contracting officer with the Pentagon and the General Services Administration. “The practical answer [is], where would they go to challenge the U.S. decision?”

The White House did not respond to emailed questions. A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said the agency was too busy with questions from other media organizations to respond.

Further complicating Trump’s effort to buy American are the difficulties of acquiring material in the remote and potentially hostile border zone. Construction would require from 8 million to 12.6 million cubic yards of concrete, according to estimates. By way of comparison, the Hoover Dam required only 4.4 million cubic yards.

Two of the three companies best positioned to supply concrete and cement to the border region are based in Mexico, according to a research note by AllianceBernstein, an investment firm. They are Cemex and GCC, both major building suppliers with plants along the border. The third company is CalPortland, with headquarters in Glendora, California.

While the Mexican government has warned companies against participating in the wall construction, Cemex and GCC have both indicated interest. GCC’s top executive told Reuters in November that the company was willing to sell to contractors building the wall. Cemex has ruled out participating in the bid directly but has been cagey about whether it would be a supplier.

Trump has insisted that Mexico will pay for the wall. During his campaign, he suggested he would issue new regulations to stem the annual $24 billion flow of remittances sent by immigrants unless Mexico agreed to finance construction. More recently, the administration has floated the idea of a border adjustment that would tax imports from abroad. Mexican leaders have rejected the proposals.

In the meantime, Trump has proposed spending $4 billion of U.S. taxpayer money to build the wall over the next two years. Even that amount now seems in jeopardy. Republican Congressional leaders told Politico that they do not plan to fund the administration’s $1.4 billion request this year.

The First Brick In The Wall

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President Donald Trump’s administration announced a $600 million bidding contest late Friday night to kick off construction of The Wall, a towering physical barrier between the United States and Mexico.

The process will start with little walls — an unknown number of barriers of concrete and other materials that will serve as models for the bigger wall, which Trump made central to his political campaign.

Construction will proceed with unusual haste. Companies have just two weeks to submit proposals. Finalists will make a two-and-half hour long oral presentation to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which is overseeing the contest. Winners will be announced by late May.

Steven Schooner, a professor of government contracting at George Washington University, tweeted that the process was “extremely/uniquely complicated (and confusing).”

But CBP officials said the approach was designed to get the best value for the government.

“Through the construction of prototypes, CBP will partner with industry to identify the best means and methods to construct border wall before making a more substantial investment in construction,” the agency said in a statement.

The bidding documents released Friday provide important clues as to what the Trump administration hopes to erect on the 1,200 miles of border with no physical barriers. Some 650 miles are already fenced.

The little walls are supposed to be tall. They should be “physically imposing in height” — 30 feet is preferred, though 18 feet is acceptable. However, the prototypes will be as little as 30 feet long, and cost as little as $100,000.

The little walls are supposed to be strong. They must be able to withstand attacks from “sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch” for at least one hour, preferably four. They should also be able to span 45 degree slopes, and block tunneling. Contractors will build prototypes of concrete — Trump’s preferred material — but also other materials that will allow visibility between the two sides. Once the government has determined a model, the prototypes may be demolished.

Finally, the little walls are supposed to be pretty — at least on the U.S. side of the border. The agency wants the walls to be “aesthetically pleasing” so that the color and texture blends into the environment on the “north side of the wall.” There is no similar language for the Mexican side of the wall.

In addition to the tough building conditions, the agency clearly understands another difficulty will be political: Interested builders are urged to discuss their experience in “executing high profile, high visibility and politically contentious” construction projects.

Immigration activists are expected to protest construction of the wall, deploying tactics learned during the long, bitter protests over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The bid calls for companies to hire their own private security contractors to protect their projects.

The final cost of the wall — and even whether it will be built — is a matter of debate. Trump has said he anticipates the final bill to be from $10 billion to $12 billion. The Department of Homeland Security has suggested a cost of around $21 billion. Trump’s proposed budget has called for $2.6 billion to begin construction.

In Congress, some Republicans and many Democrats have opposed spending billions for an untested and possibly ineffectual border barrier. Trump has said he will force Mexico to pay for the wall. The Mexican government has rejected the possibility.

What is clear is that the Trump administration’s methods will favor large, experienced government contractors with demonstrated experience in big construction projects. Companies such as KBR, Tutor Perini Corp., Parson Corp. and Fluor Corp. have all indicated an interest in building the edifice.

At the same time, the agency has asked bidders to explain how they will meet the agency’s goals to deliver contracts to small, minority and veteran owned companies. Customs and Border Protection aims to pay 38 percent of its contract to small business, 5 percent to woman-owned firms and 3 percent to companies owned by disabled veterans.

In practice, the likely outcome is a few large government contractors overseeing a small army of subcontractors to build the wall.

More than 700 companies signed up for notifications about the building the wall, including more than 140 minority-owned firms — about 20 percent of the total. It is unclear how many of the firms possess the necessary experience and ability to participate in the bid.

Trump Invites Bids To Build Wall, Emphasizes Importance Of ‘Aesthetics’

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President Donald Trump built his campaign on the promise of a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border. Just a month after his inauguration, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to begin construction. And last Friday, the department took a step to make sure it will look good. In a little-noticed update, the department now says it wants a wall that will be “nominally 30 feet tall,” and, importantly, that bids will be judged on “aesthetics,” as well.The new language, perhaps coincidental but likely not, appears to be a bureaucratic translation of Trump’s oft-repeated promise to build a “beautiful” wall from 30 to 55 feet high.Of course, the federal government does not typically focus on beauty in building its walls, fences, and barriers. Procurement officers prefer to evaluate bids on concrete things such as price or a company’s past performance — or, for that matter, concrete itself. As a contract requirement, appearances usually only figure into high-end projects (think of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial).But the Trump administration’s apparent demand for a wall with style is only one of the oddities that has arisen in planning for the massive project, estimated to cost as much as $21.6 billion and cross hundreds of miles.The rush for raising the wall has veteran contracting officers comparing the process to the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan, multibillion-dollar efforts widely considered failures because of poor planning.“This isn’t normal,” said Steven L. Schooner, a professor of government contracting at George Washington University. “This is shoot first, aim later.”

A CBP spokesman said the agency was “not in a position” to conduct an interview for this story.

The initial request, released with fanfare on Feb. 24, was not for building the actual wall, but for a prototype of a “total wall solution.”

The real bidding specifications — where the government would lay out details about the size, shape, and construction of the wall — have yet to be announced. It’s not clear when they will be.

In another bidding document posted last week, the department’s “Procurement Innovation Lab” acknowledged that erecting the wall was going to be complex business.

Lab officials asked for help from industry to map out a comprehensive plan. America’s current 2,000-mile long border with Mexico is defended by a patchwork of physical and natural barriers, supplemented by the presence of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents.

“This strategy will need to accommodate the entire Southwest Border, which has a quite diverse range of terrain, foliage, population, wildlife, and other features,” explained the notice, known formally as a request for information.

The document raised an unusual question: How should the government pay for the wall?

The answer is usually straightforward. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress appropriates funding for government projects.

In this case, however, Trump has vowed to make Mexico foot the bill, a proposition the Mexican government has vigorously rejected. Trump has responded by seeking cost savings. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that White House officials have suggested raiding the budgets of the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to find money for the wall.

Perhaps reflecting the uncertainty, Customs officials asked interested parties for their own ideas, in the form of five-page white papers with “models for financing, constructing and maintaining the wall.”

Another question: Will building the wall require “major deviations” from federal law or regulation?

More than 500 companies have expressed interest in the project. They include the usual cast of giant construction firms involved in federal projects, such as Tutor Perini Corp, Fluor Corp, and KBR, Inc., a former subsidiary of Halliburton once known as Kellogg, Brown & Root.

But the list also includes more than a hundred smaller minority and veteran-owned firms, who receive special consideration under government contracting laws. Eleven percent of the companies are owned by Latinos.

Also among the interested parties: private security contractors, whose presence will almost certainly be necessary to protect the companies building the wall from protesters, vandals and thieves.

In war zones and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, such companies raised troubling questions about the use of force against civilians, including the murder of Iraqi and Afghan citizens. They also raised the price of some projects by as much as 25 percent.

IMAGE: Construction on the area around the port of entry from Mexico to the United States continues next to the border wall in San Ysidro, California, U.S., January 25, 2017.  REUTERS/Mike Blake