washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Mary McGrory
Mary McGrory

Shortcuts To Missile Defense

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, August 8, 2002; Page A17

The Pentagon believes in Santa Claus.

Why shouldn't it? Every day is Christmas over there. Programs for health care, schools, playgrounds and day-care centers get killed, casualties of war, but at the Pentagon, economy is not a watchword; it is a wimpy, lefty kind of word used by people who don't want to invade Iraq or build the missile defense system, the commander in chief's dearest dream.

You think the Pentagon is spoiled? You are right. It is like a child in a custody fight in which estranged parents compete in giving extravagant presents to court their offspring. Republicans see in the military-industrial complex the only worthy recipients of government welfare. The Democrats dare not squawk because there's a war going on against terrorism and they are terrified of being found "weak on defense."

_____More McGrory_____
'The Saddest Loss' (The Washington Post, Apr 23, 2004)
Blossoms and Bombs (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2003)
Tony Blair in the Doghouse (The Washington Post, Mar 13, 2003)
About Mary McGrory

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards

That is why the Defense Department makes arrangements that mere mortals think are profligate, as for instance the matter of waiving oversight and audits for missile defense contractors. Even one of the Pentagon's top officials, the recently retired deputy inspector general Robert Lieberman, thinks that the move to call off the watchdogs is not a good idea.

"Given the events of the last year in the country as a whole," Lieberman told John M. Donnelly, editor of Defense Week, "we should be worried about more effective auditing everywhere, not finding ways to exempt people from oversight."

Donnelly estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade will go to contractors under the special "other transactions" provision and will be exempt from the usual oversight. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prefers "other transactions" arrangements for missile defense contractors.

Lieberman's cautions make you wonder what planet the rest of the defense establishment is living on. Defense Department employees doubtless read the same papers we all read, which show billionaire CEOs being led away in handcuffs by men wearing dark suits and grim expressions. The Pentagon pays no mind to those sad scenes, which compress the current history of millions of bilked investors who have lost all hope of a comfortable retirement and are humbly applying for jobs as supermarket cashiers and taxi drivers.

And what did these fallen mighty, snatched from their playgrounds in the Hamptons or Aspen, do to be so humiliated before all the people they had fleeced? All they did was to exaggerate their earnings and minimize their costs. The Pentagon is the last place in the world to judge them. Cost overruns and budget-busting enterprises are the stuff of daily life to our desk-warriors. In the land of the $700 coffee pot and the $22 billion B-2 bomber, the lapses of the hot-dog moguls are venial sins.

Supposedly, the maximum-temptation, maximum-opportunity deals closed with the missile defense contractors will make for a leaner and lard-free performance on their part. The theory behind these waivers was that smaller, fleeter defense contractors refused to bid on Pentagon jobs because of the red tape. But the two biggest missile defense procurers are Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two giants who pride themselves on mastery of Pentagon-speak and the military mind at work.

So anxious are the president and his civilian cohorts to get this highly dubious undertaking underway that they are reverting to the "buy before you try" standard of Caspar Weinberger, to whom the bang was more important than the buck. George Bush is trying to push missile defense so far and so fast that no successor will be able to reverse course, and hang the tests, which so far have proved nothing.

A bobtailed system of accounting and review will help keep unfavorable developments shrouded from the public and a prying press.

Nuclear missile defense has been off the radar lately as George Bush's civilian defense advisers beat the drums for war with Iraq. They are so confident that U.S. progress to Baghdad will be a cakewalk that they want to extend hostilities to Saudi Arabia. Pentagon officials have been busy explaining that Thomas Ricks's story in The Post does not represent "dominant opinion" in the administration. But they have not been asked about hanky-panky in military contracts -- or to answer the excellent point made by critic Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) at a July 16 hearing on missile defense: "So we're testing every kid in grammar school all the way through high school every damn year and we're not going to test this program against any benchmarks at all. . . . We're just going to occasionally look at it and see whether we want to keep on slugging up the hill or not."

That's the way of the Pentagon, whose stocking is always full.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company