An upcoming Charlottesville conference highlights the importance of whistleblowers when addressing the corruption present in military contracting
YOU MAY have heard something about a budget crisis in Washington this summer. Were you aware that in the midst of it the House of Representatives passed a military spending bill larger than ever before?
U.S. military spending across numerous departments has increased dramatically during the past decade and now makes up about half of federal discretionary spending. Yet the Defense Department has not been fully audited in 20 years, and as of 2001 it could not account for $2.3 trillion out of the $10 trillion or so it had been given during that time. More recently, President Obama has been waging his “days, not weeks” war in Libya for months without a dime appropriated by Congress, relying instead on the loose change lying around at the Pentagon.
The United States could reduce its military spending by at least 80 percent and still be the world’s top military spender. If the purpose of all this profligacy were truly defensive, wouldn’t a military merely as large as any other country’s do the job? When little cuts around the edges were forced into the discussion, wouldn’t the top priorities for elimination be unpopular wars, foreign bases, nuclear weapons and space weapons rather than health care for veterans? If something shameful were not motivating our self-destructive imperial overreach, wouldn’t the wonders of market competition be given a chance, instead of the current practice of handing out cost-plus contracts to cronies for jobs they are never expected to complete?
Paying our debts
When someone inside the military contracting process gives us a peak at what is done with half our income taxes, we owe that person a debt of gratitude. And the person who has opened the widest crack in the wall of secrecy around Pentagon spending in recent years is probably Bunnatine “Bunny” Greenhouse, who will be speaking in Charlottesville along with more than 20 other experts Sept. 16-18.
In February 2003, just before the United States invaded Iraq, Greenhouse, the chief contracting officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, found herself in a Pentagon meeting discussing the terms of an Iraq contract to be awarded to Halliburton, the company for which then-Vice President Dick Cheney had served previously as CEO. Greenhouse whispered to the general running the meeting that she objected to the presence of several Halliburton representatives in the room, and when they had left she recommended against awarding the company a $7 billion emergency, no-bid contract for five years. While it was ludicrous to pretend that a contracting “emergency” would last that long, Congress has continued ever since to fund our wars with off-the-books “emergency supplemental” bills.
Despite Cheney’s claim to the contrary on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sept. 14, 2003, he had been involved in creating that Halliburton contract. This is shown by an email that Time Magazine published in June 2004, as well as by the testimony of political appointee Michael Mobbs. Mobbs had worked with Halliburton to create the need for the contract and then to fill it, much as then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had, years earlier, created needs for Halliburton’s services that he had then been able to fill as its CEO.
Cheney hired Halliburton to recommend privatizing military services with a company like Halliburton. Halliburton, in turn, hired Cheney to share in the spoils. And then Cheney, while still receiving deferred compensation from Halliburton, made sure his company continued to rake in the profits. This chutzpah was matched only by the Halliburton drivers hauling empty trucks across Iraq and reporting that they had transported “sailboat fuel.”
Greenhouse’s resistance to the corrupt cronyism that predated and outlasted Cheney cost her the job of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief contracting officer. This summer she finally was awarded $970,000 in restitution. If that award legitimizes Greenhouse’s concerns in the eyes of many, so much the better. We really should not need a stamp of approval from our government, however, before approving of serious criticism of governmental wrongdoing.
The Greenhouse effect
The lesson that Greenhouse would have us learn is not that the system finally worked, but that it is fundamentally broken. Our representative government is under the thumb of the military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned 50 years ago this year. “In my actions, there were no thoughts of repercussions,” Greenhouse said. “My thoughts were about doing the right things for the best interest of the government.”
Greenhouse eventually sent a letter to then-Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee, which somehow ended up in the hands of Congressional staffers who in turn shared it with media outlets. Greenhouse said she has no knowledge of how the letter got to Congress, which suggests the possible existence of another whistleblower. Such anonymous whistleblowers deserve our thanks as well.
“The following Monday after the letter was received,” Greenhouse said, “Lieutenant General [Carl] Strock, in his introductory statements in our weekly Directors and Office Chiefs Meeting, stated: ‘I understand we have a whistleblower in our midst, but don’t worry about it because the system will take care of itself.’ … He was letting my fellow SES [Senior Executive Service] and Senior Leaders know that he felt that I was a ‘skunk in the park,’ which elevated their fears and their treatment of me. My top secret clearance was taken away. I was moved to a cubicle in Civil Works where I was placed on an over-hire position unknown to me.” Greenhouse was demoted but told she could keep her SES rank if she retired, which she refused to do.
Greenhouse described to me the contract abuses she witnessed and explained their illegality. “Appropriate laws and regulations are on the books,” she said, “but if contracting officials are continually intimidated and removed from their positions when they highlight improprieties … our laws and regulations are not worth the paper they are written on.”
Asked about the compensation she has been awarded, Greenhouse said, “I feel blessed in that the best and most dedicated lawyers came to my rescue. I am disheartened because the legal process does not provide adequate protection or remedies to federal whistleblowers. I am relieved that my ordeal has come to an end and I take comfort knowing that I would do it all over again because doing what’s right is a sacred duty.”
A call to attention
But the problem remains. “There has been a chill over the contracting and SES communities since my demotion,” Greenhouse said, “and many contracting folks believe if one tries to curb contracting abuse, they will not be thanked, but fired.” Notice the present tense. Greenhouse is not suffering under the delusion that changing the president’s political party transforms the Pentagon.
In fact, retribution against whistleblowers has intensified under President Obama, as exemplified by the cases of Thomas Drake, James Risen, Shamai Leibowitz and Bradley Manning. A Justice Department openly taking its direction from Obama has gone to great lengths to protect and conceal the war crimes of recent years and to prosecute or punish whistleblowers. Drake was prosecuted unsuccessfully for leaking to the public information on the actvities of the National Security Agency. Risen is threatened with imprisonment if he does not betray his source or sources for a chapter in a book he published about an embarrassingly dumb and dangerous CIA attempt to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program. Leibowitz, too, was prosecuted for whistleblowing. And Manning, who is accused of leaking to Wikileaks more information on what our government has been doing in recent years than has been provided by any other source, has been imprisoned for the past year, often in conditions bordering on torture, without being brought to trial.
We should judge the contributions of someone like Manning for ourselves, without awaiting a government stamp of approval that may never come or may come too late. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” We will not be well-informed, however, until whistleblowers are honored rather than punished.
David Swanson, a blogger and author, graduated from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1997.