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Analysis

Probing the PentaCon

Is the Boeing tanker lease fiasco the work of a few bad apples at the Pentagon, or is the weapons acquisition system broken? That was essentially the question being asked by Senators at an Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday on the new Pentagon Inspector General (IG) investigation into who did what, where, and when in the now-defunct $23 billion deal to lease, rather than buy, 100 Boeing 767 tankers.

The IG's finding was pretty much that some bad judgments were made—there could be one criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney—but nothing really criminal. But that was only because the leasing contract was never signed. Had it actually been finalized, he noted after being pressed by Senators, the deal would have violated five statutes. In which case, former Air Force acquisitions czar Darleen Druyun could have had a few more tennis partners at Club Fed.

Although the IG report called for a “cultural change” at the Pentagon and answered a number of questions, it raised even more: Did Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pressure his senior acquisition officials to get the deal done, no matter what? Did the White House lean on the Pentagon to aid the bottom line of one of its corporate friends? (All references to White House staffers and emails were blacked out in the IG report.) Did the Pentagon's former chief civilian acquisition official Edward “Pete” Aldridge (who was not even interviewed by the IG) employ an ends-justifies-the-means stance in moving the deal forward?

And what the Inspector General failed to emphasize is that one of the biggest culprits in this nefarious deal were our Senators and Representatives themselves. After all, it was a select group of those legislators who came up with the original idea to lease the tankers rather than buy them—which would have added an extra $6 billion to Boeing's bottom line. The proposal breezed through no less than three Congressional committees with virtually no oversight (Senator John McCain, R-AZ, being the notable exception).

Of course, the coziness of all the players—Congress, the Pentagon, and the defense contractors—is a big part of the reason the acquisitions process has become corrupted. There can be no question that the system is broken and New York Times reporter Tim Weiner did a good job explaining the myriad problems with the current system.

As for the Boeing tanker deal, here's perhaps the scariest thought of all: What if Senator John McCain hadn't taken his oversight role seriously? What if McCain hadn't asked for, then demanded after being stonewalled, the thousands of documents and emails that gave us an uncommon glimpse into the soul of a troubled system? It's alarming to think that a deal this bad could have been executed, and even more alarming to think that other, less obvious schemes have already sailed unscathed through the system.