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The Growing Problem of Defense Industry Profiteering
by David Sirota    Working for Change
Entered into the database on Wednesday, November 30th, 2005 @ 18:04:48 MST


Untitled Document

If you thought it impossible to top the image of Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) driving around a Rolls Royce and living on a yacht thanks to defense industry cash, just stop and take a look Lloyd Grove's story today in the New York Daily News. Yes, you are reading it right – a defense contractor has gotten so rich off taxpayer cash he actually held a $10 million bat mitzvah for his daughter, featuring 50 Cent, Tom Petty and Aerosmith, among others. That's right - a $10 million. On a bat mitzvah.

What do the Cunningham and $10 million bat mitzvah stories have to do with each other? In their own ways, they each touch on a subject that we rarely ever discuss in America: defense industry profiteering.

We hear a lot out of Washington about how we need to cut programs for the poor and middle class, in order to deal with the deficit or finance new tax cuts. The rhetoric makes it seem as if these programs are the real culprit driving our country into oceans of red ink.

But a quick look at the numbers shows that it is defense/security spending that is soaring, while non-defense discretionary spending has been flat. For a more local view of how most of your tax dollars go to defense and not "social programs," just see this 2005 study by the National Priorities Project.

To be sure - there has been a real need to shift more resources into homeland security and other specialized programs targeting terrorists. But few can argue that the stink of defense industry profiteering hasn't been wafting out of Washington since the Bush administration took over. We've heard countless stories of private defense companies with connections to the Bush administration pocketing multi-billion dollar contracts and then overcharging our government. We've seen sweetheart deals that have raised the ire of nonpartisan watchdogs. And now, with Cunningham, we've gotten a glimpse at the pay-to-play auction that is going on the Defense Appropriations Committees. Even many necessary defense programs get sucked into this profiteering net, with defense contractors charging exorbitant prices for their goods/services (for instance, the $10 million bat mitzvah sponsor produces armor - but having that much cash means there's likely more going on there than just "doing well by doing good").

Most politicians of both parties are either too bought off, or too frightened of being labeled "weak" to even talk about defense industry profiteering. They simply throw more and more money at the defense industry, with almost no regard as to whether what we are spending money on will actually help us effectively shore up our national security in a 21st century where we face unconventional threats. They are rewarded with huge campaign contributions from a politically well-connected defense industry swimming in cash.

But while politicians may be too corrupt or too pathetically wimpy to address defense spending seriously, former Reagan Pentagon official Larry Korb notes that there's one group of people who clearly support a major reevaluation of defense spending: the vast majority of Americans. As Korb notes:

"[A] survey conducted by the Program for International Policy Alternatives shows that 65 percent of the American public believes the federal government should transfer tax dollars out of several areas of the defense budget that have nothing to do with fighting the global war on terrorism."

And Korb points out there are ways to immediately start seeing savings - savings that could be put either into more important national security priorities, or other pressing priorities altogether:

"Over $40 billion in savings from wasteful Pentagon programs could be achieved quickly – by cutting only the most egregious examples of misplaced priorities. These programs include the F-22 Raptor fighter jet and Virginia Class submarines, designed to achieve superiority over Soviet jets and submarines that were never built; missile defense, proposed when terrorists were not our primary enemy; bases in Asia, Europe and here at home that are irrelevant in today's geopolitical reality."

Before anyone tries to paint these facts with the pathetically hackneyed "weak on national security" brush, remember - it was none other than neoconservative poster boy Donald Rumsfeld who recently advocated for military "transformation" - including major cuts to outdated weapons systems that contractors were getting fat off of.

And though Rumsfeld has since backed off his efforts, the Cunningham fiasco and the fact that a defense contractor has $10 million to throw around on a bat mitzvah should remind us that the defense industry is getting hugely wealthy off of America's misguided national security policy - a policy that allows defense industry profiteering to go on with no restriction, a policy clearly pushed by this industry as a way to make more money.

Whereas in eras past, courageous leaders like Harry Truman opened up investigations into this kind of profiteering, today, lawmakers go out of their way to actually prevent scrutiny. Remember, it was the Senate last year that voted down legislation to create stiffer penalties for war profiteers, and it was Vice President Cheney who went to the Senate floor to curse off the bill's sponsors for having the nerve to even raise the issue.

When will it end? When lawmakers of both parties start putting America's national security concerns over the concerns of their defense industry campaign donors. In an era where every politician wants to be "pro-national security" - allowing defense industry profiteering is exactly the opposite. It drains resources away from the programs that actually protect our troops but have been underfunded, and it undermines a more effective 21st century defense policy that would better protect America.

UPDATE: Joe Bua points out that the defense contractor whose owner held a $10 million bat mitzvah actually produced potentially defective products that may unnecessarily have put our troops in harms way.

David Sirota is a writer and veteran political strategist. He just completed a book for Random House's Crown Publishers entitled "Hostile Takeover" - it will be released in the Spring of 2006. Sirota is currently the co-chairperson of the Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN). - a position he took after finishing a two-year stint at the Center for American Progress. Sirota is currently a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, and a regular contributor to The Nation magazine. He is also a twice-weekly guest on the Al Franken Show.