This lecture was given by POGO's Executive Director, Danielle Brian, before the students and faculty of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF). ICAF is part of the National Defense University at Fort McNair and one of the five colleges that collectively constitute the senior level of the U.S. military's professional education system.
Thank you so much for inviting me here, and a special thanks to General Brown, Professor Foster, and Ms. Mazur for your wonderful welcome. It is an honor to be asked to speak to you today. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the important discourse envisioned by President Eisenhower during the laying of the cornerstone of this Hall. At that time, he said: “Our liberties rest with our people, upon the scope and depth of their understanding of the nation’s spiritual, political, military and economic realities.”
My talk today raises the question of whether our expectations for ethical behavior, government accountability, and oversight are in fact at odds with some of those realities. And if they are, what does that mean?
A few years back, HBO made a movie based on the book, The Pentagon Wars, written by Colonel Jim Burton. He had been assigned to oversee the testing of several new weapons in development in the early 1980s, and became concerned about the unnecessary danger to troops riding in the early version of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The ammunition was originally being stored inside the lightweight aluminum hull along with the troops being transported in the vehicle. The problem was that aluminum burns and melts at high temperatures, and Burton knew what that would mean for the troops if the Bradley was subject to enemy fire. As a result, he refused to sign off on the design without subjecting the Bradley to live-fire testing.
In order to keep the program on track, contractor personnel and uniformed officers falsified the tests, including filling the gas tanks with water and the ammunition with sand in order to prevent them from exploding. As the movie and book painfully detail, the Pentagon brass did everything in their power – including literally transferring Burton to Alaska – to stop him. Why? Because Burton’s demand for live-fire testing of the Bradley prototypes was inconveniencing the program. Kelsey Grammer brilliantly portrayed a General who was more concerned about his next star and future career in the private sector, which might be threatened by a delay in the program, than he was about the safety of the troops. The film used comedy to help the viewer understand what seemed to be an utterly absurd situation, but in fact accurately depicted real events. In this story, the political, military, and economic realities President Eisenhower spoke of were personal advancement, bureaucratic self-preservation, and profit motives, and they were directly at odds with duty, honor, country, ethics, and accountability.
Because of his tenacity in the face of those realities – and because of his bravery under bureaucratic fire – Colonel Burton has as a legacy the live-fire testing that led to the Bradley being retrofitted with reactive armor and the ammunition being moved outside the vehicle. At the end of the story, the question you ask yourself is, “Why did he have to fight so hard to just make sure our troops were not unnecessarily put in harm’s way?”
Colonel Burton was part of a larger group known as “the Pentagon underground” – a cadre of uniformed and civilian personnel who were deeply concerned about wasted taxpayer dollars and falsified weapons testing. They saw themselves as “closet patriots” who believed it was their duty to fight what they saw as the problem of “more bucks and less bang.” They were determined to fight the practice of putting bureaucratic and corporate interests ahead of the interests of the troops and taxpayers. They certainly never thought of themselves as whistleblowers, but simply as people who were not going to allow the realities of life in the Pentagon weaken their ethical standards.
My organization, the Project On Government Oversight (also known as POGO) was created over thirty years ago because there was a need for an organizational home for the Pentagon underground – insiders who wanted to fix problems without having to suffer the kind of retaliation Colonel Burton endured. These insiders helped our organization, then called the Project on Military Procurement, expose the infamous $7,600 coffee pot, $436 hammer, and $640 toilet seat. Together, we also helped expose the failures of the Sgt. York DIVAD Gun, and championed bureaucratically unpopular but fabulously successful systems such as the A-10 Warthog. And together we were instrumental in helping to create the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation.
|"Being willing to challenge misbehavior is not being a tattletale or a snitch. It is being willing to do your duty to your country regardless of personal consequences."|
The idea behind our group was that the most effective oversight begins from the inside. That idea has not changed. Bad news is rarely offered up for scrutiny by an institution itself. As a result, it typically takes brave insiders with access to that information to bring uncomfortable truths to light. And only by revealing uncomfortable truths – those important truths that don’t appear in annual reports or even in congressional testimony because they are embarrassing, not because they don’t matter – only then can problems be fixed before they turn into disasters, or an institution be held accountable when the disasters occur.
And let me be clear, I am not using the word “disaster” lightly. In the world of national security, the impact of wrongdoing can be profound. Being willing to challenge misbehavior is not being a tattletale or a snitch. It is being willing to do your duty to your country regardless of personal consequences. For example, you may remember the case of the Kabul Embassy security contractors having drunken, naked parties in front of Afghan citizens. As many as twenty whistleblowers from Camp Sullivan ultimately came forward to POGO with evidence of a pattern of blatant, long-standing violations of the security contract, and of a pervasive breakdown in the chain of command, guard force discipline, and morale. Of course the media picked up on the men in grass skirts urinating on each other. But what mattered far more was the chronic understaffing of the guard force, the hiring of guards who didn’t speak English, and the total breakdown in command structure – in part because some of the guard force senior officers were engaged in the partying. All this risked compromising security at the Embassy. When the story hit the news, the focus at Camp Sullivan became figuring out who had exposed the problems, and one of the whistleblowers was met with a threatening poster on the door to his room that said, “Rats can cost you your job and your family.”
This is where realities and ethics come head to head. Truth-tellers, or whistleblowers, are not embraced as heroes in most quarters, and particularly not in the military environment. That’s why whistleblowers need protection from retaliation by those who feel threatened by the attack on their institution’s public image. I am using the word whistleblower in a broad sense. I know some of you may be thinking of a person who has gone public or even filed a lawsuit, but I am talking about anyone who is brave enough to try to stop illegal or unethical behavior – whether through channels, or by going public. In fact, I believe a person should nearly always try to fix a problem by going through channels first. But experience has shown that bureaucratic channels are not typically welcoming.
I expect you have heard this warning before from Admiral Rickover: “If you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy; God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.” This is not a partisan phenomenon. And adding to the realities that compound the problem is that there are no meaningful safe channels for disclosure. The painful irony is that people who are trying to do the right thing are actually driven to the media to expose wrongdoing because there is no effective or safe way of doing so internally, and then they get nailed for it. Currently national security whistleblowers are more at risk of prosecution under the Espionage Act than ever in our history.
As a result, in order to lessen the tension between the realities you face and the right thing to do, we have always promoted “anonymous activism.” In other words, we work to document a problem, identify solutions, and then advocate for policy change – all while protecting the identity of the original source. Back in 1981, those people loosely associated with the Pentagon underground would help each other to create public pressure to fix problems without having to go public and sacrifice their jobs. Whether it was their weekly evening gatherings at the Fort Myer Officers Club, long phone calls to keep each other’s spirits up, or teaching each other how to back-flush a document to help protect the identity of the person who would leak it – they were there for each other. (From some of the blank stares I see I should explain that last one. If you wrote a memo in your official capacity and only sent it to one person, it would be easy to determine that one of the two of you leaked the document to the public. If, however, you copied a whole bunch of people throughout the building regarding some particular wrongdoing, the source would be much harder to identify and punish.)
I suspect I may be making some, or all of you, uncomfortable with the idea that leaking documents can be a good thing. I am only advocating this as a last resort after internal channels have not worked. I mentioned above that the best oversight begins from the inside. But the other half of that equation is that often, oversight also requires pressure from the outside. And usually to successfully stop wrongdoing, it requires documentation that proves the misconduct is happening. I am not talking about indiscriminate leaking like Bradley Manning is accused of. I am definitely not recommending or defending that. I am talking about specific documentation of wrongdoing.
Now each individual whistleblower is isolated, and this brotherhood barely exists. Why do you think that is? Is there no more wrongdoing or wastefulness to stop? Or is it clear that the system is not designed to work: almost never – and I really mean never – does the person who tells the truth survive in their career.
Let’s explore this concept a little bit. I realize all of you are well-versed in ethical matters, but I ask that you indulge me while I break down what might seem obvious, to explore the dichotomy between what is on paper and what is reality. Here are some codes of ethics that you are probably familiar with:
Danielle Brian, before the students and faculty of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF). March 2012
The Navy says, “Place loyalty to the Constitution, laws, and ethical principles above private gain” and “Disclose fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption to appropriate authorities” in its code of ethics.
West Point explains the purpose of its honor code as follows: “In professions such as the military where life is endangered by virtue of the institution’s purpose, trust becomes sacred and integrity becomes a requisite quality for each professional. An officer who is not trustworthy cannot be tolerated; in some professions the cost of dishonesty is measured in dollars – in the Army, the cost is measured in human lives.”
The Air Force core values are, “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.”
The Civil Service Code of Ethics says, “Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or Government department.”
The Federal Acquisition Regulation Standards of Conduct states: “Government business shall be conducted in a manner above reproach and…with complete impartiality and with preferential treatment for none. Transactions relating to the expenditure of public funds require the highest degree of public trust and an impeccable standard of conduct. The general rule is to avoid strictly any conflict of interest or even the appearance of a conflict of interest in Government-contractor relationships. While many Federal laws and regulations place restrictions on the actions of Government personnel, their official conduct must, in addition, be such that they would have no reluctance to make a full public disclosure of their actions.”
And the Defense Industry Initiative signatories commit to “act honestly in all business dealings with the U.S. government, protect taxpayer resources and provide high-quality products and services for the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Given all these codes of ethics we should have no problems, right? All the codes say they want honor (honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions) – but do they really?
I would like to suggest that there are few large institutions in the world that honestly, actually, want you to reveal their wrongdoing. Almost none. For example, there used to be a program run through the DoD Inspector General where contractors could voluntarily disclose waste, fraud, and abuse they had identified within their own shop. At first, there were about 40 disclosures a year, but quickly that hotline turned cold and the disclosures reduced to a trickle. Finally, at the request of the Justice Department, the regulations changed to becoming mandatory disclosure of waste, fraud, and abuse – no longer voluntary. And suddenly, there have been more than 600 disclosures in the past three years. Institutions generally have to be pushed to do the right thing. So the question is not whether the institution will encourage you to do the right thing. The question is whether it will tolerate you doing it.
I suspect that by this time, you believe I am only seeing people engaging in waste and fraud around every corner. That could not be farther from the truth. I have spent nearly 25 years working around the military industrial complex and have no trouble saying that some of the MOST honorable people I know are your colleagues. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of extraordinary people I have worked with who have, at great personal risk, stepped forward and exposed corruption and other misconduct, or supported their colleagues as they took that step – all from the military, public service, or contractor workforce. But I ask you: How is it that institutions filled perhaps almost entirely with people of high integrity end up engaged in questionable activities?
Your world – the military industrial complex – also has more money and personal power at stake than any other institution on the planet. As a result, there are nearly irresistible incentives constantly tempting people to succomb to human nature and make bad choices.
I think when ethics is taught, that it is often as a concept disconnected from real life application. In the end, all the oversight and accountability mechanisms – Inspectors General, ethics programs, codes of conduct, fading posters hanging in government buildings – are only as robust as the strength of that individual on the ground who stops and thinks about speaking up in the face of wrongdoing.
Oversight, accountability, ethics – these grandiose concepts ultimately lead to a bottom-line question: what does the person who encounters wrongdoing do about it? Do they keep walking, or do they care enough about these values and about the lives impacted by the failure to uphold them, to take responsibility for honoring them?
I have a sense that most people feel favorably towards the concept of government accountability, and are glad somebody else is working on it, but don’t think about how it is accomplished. A little secret is that oversight and accountability are not remote activities conducted by people with green eyeshades in back rooms. Studies conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners both found that the majority of fraud findings were the result of tips from insiders, or whistleblowers. In fact, whistleblowers were determined to have revealed misconduct more than twice as often as internal controls, including audits. It is the person going about their day, minding their own business, who encounters an activity that makes them pause that is the real standard bearer for accountability. No one plans on it. It just happens.
When you are faced with some sort of ethical dilemma – and I do believe it is when and not if – what will you do? Will you tell the truth? Will you support your subordinates when they try to do so? Accountability and oversight simply cannot exist without that truth-telling by the person on the ground who knows what is really going on, and that may be you, or those under you. The responsibility to embrace truthtelling, whether by yourself or your subordinate, is a responsibility all of you bear no matter your job or title.
But how will you balance your personal success with the integrity of the institution and the values it is based on? Do you believe you are helping or hurting that institution by overlooking its failings? When does an ethical dilemma rise to the level of being worth confronting? Of course not all issues are equally significant, but what constitutes an issue worthy of blowing the whistle? Is the threshold question how much money is at stake or how many lives are unnecessarily at risk? If it is only a few million dollars, or maybe just a handful of lives affected – or even just one – then is it worth risking your career to stand up and say something? By the way, silence may be a safe harbor, but there is no room for Switzerland in the battle of right and wrong. By remaining silent, you are actively making a choice.
I suspect, or hope, you have learned about Colonel John Boyd, the brilliant military strategist who was a leader of the Pentagon underground. I had the great honor of knowing him, and learning from this modern philosopher. Here is how he posed the question I am asking:
One day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can be somebody. You will have to make your compromises and…turn your back on your friends, but you will be a member of the club, and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way, and you can do something, something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself….You may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors, but you won’t have to compromise yourself….In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision: to be or to do.
Sometimes the misconduct that occurs is just tax dollars improperly going into someone’s pocket. Ok, that is an outrage, but maybe you wouldn’t consider that worth tanking your career over. But sometimes misused funds leads to cutting corners, which in turn may mean counterfeit parts going into weapons, risking the success of the mission and the lives of service people. For example, recently the Senate Armed Services Committee reported that counterfeit electronic parts installed on military equipment manufactured by Boeing, L-3, and Raytheon are currently in use on aircraft flying missions in Afghan combat zones.
In most cases, dozens – maybe hundreds – of people are aware of the problem. But typically only one person has the guts to say something. In the case of Abu Ghraib, it was young then-Specialist Joseph Darby who came forward to expose the systematic wrongdoing occurring at that prison. He turned photos over to the Army Criminal Investigation Division, and was sitting in a mess hall in Iraq with 400 other soldiers when then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld named him on TV as the person who had exposed the misconduct of his peers. Darby and his family met with death threats and had to go into protective custody. Not because he had been the one committing the outrages – but because he had been the one to expose them.
This brings me to another question: Is it actually dishonorable to dissent in the military? Is there a fundamental conflict between telling the truth and the command structure? Enlisted personnel take an oath to obey orders. And that is clearly necessary for a functioning military. One might assume that we have, as a society, moved beyond the Nuremberg defense of following illegal orders, but is it always clear when just following orders is the wrong thing to do? Does the “I’ve got your back” commitment that is essential for people to be willing to risk their lives in combat extend to covering up their wrongdoing? This was the central crisis in the 1976 West Point cheating scandal, when nearly half of the Junior Class was expelled because they believed loyalty to one’s classmate – including helping him cheat on a test and cover it up – trumped adherence to integrity.
Recently I saw evidence that the mentality of unquestioning loyalty, even to a demonstrably craven policy, is still alive. You may be familiar with the terrible story of water contamination at Camp Lejeune – an environmental disaster that is believed to have caused many types of cancers in the Marines and their families based there, as well as increased miscarriages, birth defects, and deaths of the children born there. The Marine Corps shockingly covered up their knowledge of the contamination – meaning that as many as one million people have been endangered. Documents reveal not only that the Marine Corps knew about the contamination years before they acknowledged it, but also that a conscious decision was made not to let the victims know.
There is a very moving documentary called Semper Fi: Always Faithful out now – it was shortlisted for the Academy Awards – that follows one Marine’s struggle to uncover the truth behind his beloved daughter’s death. In one of our action alerts, we encouraged people to watch the screening of the film on TV and push the Department of Navy to stop hiding behind Freedom of Information Act exemptions to withhold information from the victims. This information is necessary because many of the victims were in utero or born on Camp Lejeune and therefore do not have veteran’s health care benefits, and have been forced to deal with significant medical expenses they have accrued on their own dime. Furthermore, informing the people who have cycled through Camp Lejeune about their possible contamination would help those who are not yet exhibiting symptoms to inform their doctors of particular cancer risks. Here is a response we got back to our action alert from one Marine:
I spent 4 [effing] years in the marine corps...
I love the marine corps...
You clearly were never in the marine corps...
You dont put [an effing] poodle in a junk yard to guard it...you put in a mean mutt and that gets the job done
thats the marine corps...
You never criticize the marine corps!
Mind you – this was in response to our trying to help the victims – victims who were Marines and their families. But incredibly, this Marine believed blind faith in the Marine Corps – even in the face of evidence that the institution was harming its own people – was more important than all the values articulated in the ethics codes we have reviewed.
As the West Point code says, the cost of dishonesty is measured in human lives. Tolerating a lack of integrity rips at the very fabric of trust necessary to ask people to risk their lives for their country. It is a betrayal of those individuals who rely on their superiors to use their power over them justly. This is what makes the Camp Lejeune story particularly painful. Those Marines could not believe the Corps would unnecessarily harm them, and it justifiably shook their faith when they learned that it had. That breach of trust may be more dangerous to the strength of commitment to military service than any enemy fire.
|"Just remember that in your world, the consequences for not doing something may be far greater: the unarmed battles fought by you here can determine the success or failure of the armed battles being fought elsewhere."|
Conversely, what happens if the responsibility for the misconduct lies within your chain of command? You need to be extra careful how you handle information coming up from below. How willing are you to allow your subordinates to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within your area of responsibility? Frankly, all of you in this audience are more likely to be in this particularly challenging position because of your seniority. A natural first instinct on learning bad news coming up through your ranks is to want it to go away. Or not to listen to that annoying person that no one likes – but just because the person is annoying doesn’t mean they aren’t right. Many years ago I worked with a whistleblower at the Department of Interior who had repeatedly gone up his chain of command about a wasteful spending program. He had documented billions of dollars of waste. Several years later that whistleblower’s supervisor and I were having coffee, and he brought up the whistleblower and said, “I guess you’re wondering how I could have allowed that to happen.” He confessed that he was blinded to the situation because the whistleblower was kind of a jerk in the office. Only later did he realize that he was ignoring what the whistleblower was saying because of who he was. My point is not that all whistleblowers are annoying – in fact some are my very favorite people. But, experience has taught most people that, chances are, they will be subject to the whack-a-mole treatment if they send bad news up the chain. Remember, people are only forced into being whistleblowers because they don’t have faith that the traditional chain of command will honestly deal with the problem. As leaders, you will need to explicitly demonstrate that the messenger of bad news will not be punished under your watch. That instead you will only punish those who engage in the misconduct, hide evidence of misconduct, or retaliate against truth-tellers.
Let’s look at a few more recent examples of what happens to people who do the right thing:
When Navy JAG lawyer Matthew Diaz internally raised his concerns that it was unconstitutional to hide the names of Guantanamo detainees, he met total resistance. He finally leaked the names to the Center for Constitutional Rights because his study of law taught him that our legal system was based on affording all prisoners due process. The Supreme Court later ruled that the Administration must provide habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees, but not until after Diaz served six months in the brig and was dishonorably discharged. So Diaz was defendng the Constitution, and was even backed up by the Supreme Court itself, but the military justice system believed obeying the command structure was more important than the Constitution and the very ideals the military swears to defend.
In another example, ten-year Air Force and twelve-year intelligence agency veteran Tom Drake was a contractor at the National Security Agency. He reported up his chain of command an out-of-control multi-billion dollar program called “Trailblazer” that violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, because it was indiscriminately collecting electronic data from American citizens. Drake was not only outraged at these violations of law, but also that fully legal and significantly less expensive alternatives for improving national security were being ignored. After his chain of command ignored his concerns, he and a couple of colleagues went to Congress, which also ignored these disclosures. He reported his concerns to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, which ultimately issued a classified report confirming his findings, but still nothing was done. Finally out of desperation, he began working with a Baltimore Sun reporter, making only unclassifieddisclosures. For his efforts to protect the constitutional rights of American citizens, he was met with prosecution under the Espionage Act, the sixth such prosecution under the Obama Administration. The Justice Department’s case ultimately collapsed, and the Trailblazer program was cancelled, but only after extraordinary cost to the taxpayer and to Tom Drake and his family.
In another case, that of then-thirty-three year Marine Corps veteran Franz Gayl, when he was deployed in Iraq, he saw how IEDs were shredding Humvees and the troops inside them. He discovered that an urgent request for MRAPS had been sent from the field two years prior, but had been ignored by a complacent Pentagon bureaucracy. That is not my description – even then-Defense Secretary Gates said of the situation that, “Nothing was happening.” Gayl also petitioned the Secretary of Defense’s office, and finally decided to come to Congress and show them the ignored request. He also went to the media. It was only after a USA Todaystory that Gates himself stepped in and ordered the expedited procurement and delivery of MRAPs to the field. While this move was ultimately responsible for an estimated 40,000 lives saved, Gayl did not receive a ticker tape parade. Instead he was met with retaliatory investigations, loss of security clearance, and removal from duties. In the end, Gayl was saved, and he is today back at work. But not because the system worked – he and his family paid the price for his not being willing to stand by and watch troops face unnecessary danger – it was because outside organizations POGO and the Government Accountability Project mounted a major public campaign on his behalf that this hero is back at work at the Pentagon.
Yes, there are laws on the books that are supposed to protect whistleblowers, but for the most part they don’t. We, at POGO, are actively working to create meaningful whistleblower protections for federal employees (especially in the intelligence field), military personnel, and contractor employees. Currently, protections exist on paper, but are really not going to be very helpful to any of you.
In fact, just this past January, the Ethics Resource Center reported that according to their 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, over a two-year period, 45 percent of employees observed a violation of the law or ethics standards at their places of employment. Reporting of this wrongdoing was at all-time high – 65 percent – but so, too, was retaliation against employees who blew the whistle: more than one in five employees who reported misconduct experienced some form of retaliation in return.
You did not sign up for this work expecting it to be easy. Most of you have already made profound sacrifices in serving your country. That call to serve – that call to defend principles – is no small thing. You are separated from your families and friends for extended periods of time and are even risking your lives to defend our Constitution and country. You knew that going into this career.
But you may not have realized that, in addition to those extraordinary hardships, you may also be faced with choices that force you to take on a lonely battle that may distance you from your peers.
So why do it? I have painted a picture of reality that is in nearly direct conflict with ethical principles. Will you allow those realities crush to the idealism that drew you to serve your country? Or will you be inspired by the fundamental values behind the founding of our country?
I don’t want to suggest that you should figuratively run through the streets with your hair on fire to The New York Timesor CNN. In fact I will almost always argue against doing that. There are thoughtful ways of disclosing wrongdoing that can allow you to get the necessary policy changes made without your having to go public and suffer loss of job, isolation, divorce, even prosecution. Give me a call if you need advice some day.
So why do it?
When then-Specialist Darby, the Abu Ghraib whistleblower, was interviewed on 60 Minutes, he stated: “Ignorance is bliss they say, but, to actually know what they were doing, you can’t stand by and let that happen.” When Anderson Cooper asked him if he would do it again, given what he and his family endured in the aftermath: “Yes. They broke the law and they had to be punished.” “And it’s that simple?” asked Cooper. “It’s that simple,” Darby replied.
I do not have any simple answers. No call to action that I am asking you to take. I just want you to come away from this talk thinking about experiences you have already had. Did you place too much weight on personal or instutional preservation? And I ask that you contemplate whether, on reflection, you could have handled the situation better. And what will you do next time? When does one of those uncomfortable truths that everyone around you accepts without question rise to the level where you believe that institution – the government, a contractor, your military service – has to be held accountable for wrongdoing? No matter what consequences you face? There isn’t a formula here or a recipe that can instruct us. Just remember that in your world, the consequences for not doing something may be far greater: the unarmed battles fought by you here can determine the success or failure of the armed battles being fought elsewhere.
Thank you all for your service and for asking me to spend time with you today.