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The Pentagon’s Window of Vulnerability?

When it comes to the Pentagon and the U.S. military, wherever you look, there’s money being handed out.  Wildly and in staggering amounts.  Early this month, for instance, the U.S. Army announced that it had awarded KBR, the private contractor which was once part of Halliburton, a contract worth up to $568 million through 2011 “for military support service in Iraq.” 

This is the same KBR that has regularly been accused of improprieties of all sorts.  As it happened, the Army made its announcement, noted Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News, “only hours after the Justice Department said it will pursue a lawsuit accusing the Houston-based company of taking kickbacks from two subcontractors on Iraq-related work.”  Even though the company has been the object of numerous investigations and law suits, and is the Blackwater (now Xe) of construction firms, as well as a prime victor in the Bush administration’s military privatization sweepstakes, this was a no-bid contract.  Given the Pentagon’s spending track record, none of this should surprise you.

Or consider Mission Essential Personnel, a firm that, unlike KBR or Halliburton, you’ve undoubtedly never heard of.  No wonder: only three years ago, it was a tiny military contractor taking in $6 million a year.  Recently, however, it garnered a one-year $679 million contract to “field a small city’s worth of translators to help out American forces in Afghanistan.”  (And again -- surprise, surprise! -- a no-bid contract.)  “Not bad,” writes the invaluable Noah Shachtman at his Danger Room website, “for a company that’s been accused of everything from abandoning wounded employees to sending out-of-shape interpreters to the front lines.”

Or here’s another Shachtman find: defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton managed to corner a bevy of contracts worth $400 million in recent weeks to help fight future cyberwars, despite a stated Pentagon policy of relying less on outside contractors. In fact, the Pentagon is only now -- and only modestly -- reining in its long-running “senior mentors” program in which retired generals and admirals on the payroll of defense contractors (and on military pensions ranging up to $220,000 a year) are brought back as consultants at prices that run to $440 per hour.  “In some cases,” reports USA Today, “mentors were paid by the military to run war games involving weapons systems made by their consulting clients.”

Theoretically, the military is known for discipline -- but not, it seems, when what's at stake is either spending our money or keeping track of it.  Unfortunately, when it comes to the Pentagon budget, few in this country have cared to pay much attention.  Fortunately, the National Priorities Project has.  It has been trying to put the realities of that ever more bloated budget on the national agenda for a while.  In a recent piece, “Putting the Pentagon on a Diet,” NPP’s Christopher Hellman suggests that a window of opportunity is opening, even if only a crack at the moment, for doing just that.  The question is: Will we pry it open further or slam it shut? 

 

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