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Navy Admiral’s bribery charges expose greater rot in the system

Navy Admiral’s bribery charges expose greater rot in the system

When will members of Congress who place shilling for special interests above crafting an effective defense policy face the music?


Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

The indictment of four-star Navy Admiral Robert Burke on bribery charges late last month raised eyebrows about the extent of corruption in the Navy and beyond. The scheme was simple. Burke allegedly steered a $355,000 Pentagon contract to a small workforce training firm — described unhelpfully in the Justice Department’s description as “Company A." Less than a year later he took a job at Company A in exchange for a $500,000 annual salary and 100,000 stock options.

The Burke indictment comes on the heels of Washington Post writer Craig Whitlock’s illuminating book on the Fat Leonard Scandal, the biggest, most embarrassing corruption scheme in the history of the U.S. Navy. In the words of his publisher, Simon Schuster, Whitlock’s book reveals “how a charismatic Malaysian defense contractor bribed scores of high-ranking military officers, defrauded the US Navy of tens of millions of dollars, and jeopardized our nation’s security.”

Obviously, the Navy needs to clean up its act, and, if found guilty, Burke should face consequences for his participation in a blatant case of old school corruption.

But this is just part of a pernicious system of corrupt dealings and profiteering in Pentagon procurement practices, and much of it is completely legal. It involves campaign contributions from major weapons contractors to key members of Congress with the most power to determine the size and shape of the Pentagon budget, and job blackmail, in which companies place facilities in as many congressional districts as possible and then stand ready to accuse members of cutting local jobs if they vote against a weapons program, no matter how misguided or dysfunctional it may be.

It also involves the revolving door, in which arms industry executives often do stints in top national security posts, even serving as secretary of defense, or, on the other side of the revolving door, when high ranking Pentagon and military officials go to work for weapons makers when they leave government service.

In fact, this is, by far, the most common path for retired senior military officers. As a Quincy Institute analysis found, over 80% of four-star generals and admirals that have retired in the last five years (26 of 32) went on to work in the arms sector. In short, most retiring four-stars, like Burke, go on to lucrative positions in the arms industry. Unlike Burke, they follow the rules, so this is all perfectly legal corruption.

The revolving door from the Pentagon is also spinning feverishly to foreign governments. A Washington Post investigation found that more than 500 former Pentagon personnel, including many high ranking generals and admirals, have gone on to work for foreign governments known for political repression and human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Last, but certainly not least, there are the lobbyists. Last year alone, Pentagon contractors spent nearly $138 million on lobbying and had 905 lobbyists working on their behalf, according to OpenSecrets. That’s almost two lobbyists for every member of Congress, and more than 600 of them had gone through the revolving door —previously working at the Pentagon, Congress, or the Executive branch.

All of the above is about money and jobs, not crafting an effective defense strategy or buying weapons systems that are appropriate for carrying out that strategy. A case in point was a hearing last October to review a report on America’s strategic (meaning nuclear) posture from a Congressional commission, almost all the members of which have financial ties to the arms industry.

First off, the commission co-chair who testified at the hearing was former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, a lifelong opponent of nuclear arms control who also did a stint as a lobbyist for Northrop Grumman, which makes nuclear bombers and land-based nuclear missiles. Surprise, surprise, Kyl recommended that Congress pony up more for nuclear weapons on top of the Pentagon’s current $2 trillion, three decades long nuclear weapons “modernization” program.

But surely the gathered members of the Senate Armed Services Committee would ask some tough questions before accepting the commission’s proposals for an accelerated nuclear buildup. Think again. The bulk of the questioners essentially touted nuclear-related missiles or facilities in their states and asked a variation on the penetrating question, “shouldn’t we spend more on this wonderful weapon [or facility] in my state?”

What wasn’t mentioned at the hearing was the fact that defense contractors — including Northrop Grumman, which makes the nuclear weapons in question — are some of the top campaign contributors to members of the Committee, according to OpenSecrets.

It fell to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to bring the discussion down to earth by asking how much the commission’s ambitious plan would cost. With a straight face, Kyl said that the commission hadn’t calculated a cost, since the investments proposed were so urgently needed. This seems highly unlikely given that the United States already deploys over 1,700 nuclear warheads that can hit targets thousands of miles away, with thousands more in reserve.

But Kyl’s statement went largely unchallenged in the rush by members to flak for their local weapons of choice.

If skipping a serious conversation on the future nuclear policy of the United States to engage in pork barrel politics isn’t a case of blatant corruption and dereliction of duty, what is? If even a conversation that touches on the future of the planet can’t rouse money-conscious Senators to engage in an actual debate, what will? And isn’t this dereliction of duty ultimately more dangerous than trading cash or a cushy job for doing the bidding of a weapons contractor?

It’s great that our legal system is seeking to hold participants in illegal schemes to account. But when will members of Congress who place shilling for special interests above crafting an effective defense policy face the music? If not soon, we can expect much of the tens or hundreds of billions of new money likely to be thrown at the Pentagon in the next few years to go to waste. If that’s not a scandal of the highest order, we don’t know what is.

English: Pentagon, Arlington, VA (Oct. 17, 2005) - Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Mullen congratulates former Commanding Officer, USS Hampton (SSN 767), Cmdr. Robert P. Burke during the Twenty-fifth Annual Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Leadership Award Ceremony, held in the Pentagon Hall of Heroes. The annual award recognizes two commanding officers that demonstrate superior leadership and conspicuous contributions to the improvement of Navy leadership while in command of a single ship, submarine or aircraft squadron. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Johnny Bivera (RELEASED)

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