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The Bunker: The Pentagon’s Revolting Door

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Welcome back! In The Bunker this week: revolving-door wretchedness; how many contractors does the Pentagon need, Marine amphibs treading water; prying info from the U.S. military, and more.

THE PENTAGON’S REVOLTING DOOR

Apparently, even insiders can’t detect the stench

Given the way the Defense Department buys its weapons—a shrinking pool of contractors chasing an exploding defense budget—you’d think suppliers wouldn’t be so brazen when it comes to disobeying the rules. But you’d be wrong. Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc., the Pentagon’s 17th-biggest contractor in 2020, improperly harnessed information from a pair of just-retired Navy officers to land a $372 million contract, the Government Accountability Office recently concluded. The case has been dragging on for 10 months. It highlights the rapaciousness among some defense contractors, even amid Pentagon procurement profligacy, and their willingness to flout regulations designed to protect U.S. taxpayers. But that wasn’t the worst of it, the GAO said: the Navy was Booz Allen’s willing accomplice.

It’s also complicated, which creates a smoke screen behind which so much defense procurement hides. In part, that’s because the contract is for services, not hardware (it involves managing programs designed to keep the Navy’s non-nuclear ships ready for war). Such deals are always murkier than those buying boats, boots, or bullets. Booz Allen wanted to take over a follow-on contract to an existing contract held by Serco, Inc. (the Pentagon’s 84th biggest contractor). Booz Allen had lost the original 2014 contract (the opacity of both companies’ names doesn’t help).

Each unnamed Navy captain involved “left government service and was immediately employed by a firm that was teamed with [Booz Allen] for purposes of winning” the follow-on contract, the GAO found in a decision(PDF) released December 20 (the GAO has been the arbiter of contested federal contract awards for more than a century). “Although the details differ somewhat, both played significant roles in the [Booz Allen contract] proposal preparation efforts.” That included cost information they had gleaned from Serco’s original contract, as well as information about where Serco had, in the Navy’s opinion, fallen short.

The Navy awarded the follow-on contract to Booz Allen in February, citing its 15% lower cost. Serco filed a bid protest with the GAO, contending the inside information Booz Allen got from the two retired officers made the competition a sham. Two weeks later, the Navy said it would take “corrective action” by reviewing the deal. So the GAO dismissed Serco’s protest. But in August, the service decided to stick with Booz Allen, triggering a second Serco protest. The Navy had told the GAO it “found no evidence that current or former government employees provided [Booz Allen] with unequal access to non-public, competitively useful information that would have provided it with an unfair competitive advantage.”

That’s a breath-takingly wrong reading of the evidence as collected by the GAO. “In concluding that there was ‘no evidence’ that [Booz Allen] obtained access to non‑public, competitively useful information and, therefore, did not gain an unfair competitive advantage, the [Navy] relied heavily on [the two retired Navy captains’] assertions regarding the limited nature of their prior activities, as well as their representations regarding the limited scope of their inputs to [Booz Allen’s] proposal,” the GAO said. “However, the declarations of both individuals are inconsistent with documents provided in the record.”

That hardly squares with federal contracting rules. “Government business shall be conducted in a manner above reproach,” they say. “The general rule is to avoid strictly any conflict of interest or even the appearance of a conflict of interest in Government-contractor relationships.” Yeah (wink-wink) right. So the GAO has recommended that the Navy throw out Booz Allen’s proposal or recompete the contract a third time after taking steps to “avoid, neutralize, or mitigate” Booz Allen’s insider advantage.

Predictably, like day follows night, Booz Allen disagreed. “We take strong issue with the accuracy and characterization of the protest allegations and have filed a request for reconsideration,” a spokesperson said. The Navy remains mum.

But unless the GAO is misrepresenting what its probe found, it’s not even a close call. Booz Allen and the Navy plainly broke conflict-of-interest rules designed to ensure fair competition. The fact that Booz Allen and the Navy apparently remain oblivious to that fact is gobsmacking.

…AND SPEAKING OF CONTRACTORS…

There are more than you think

Bodies are tougher to hide than dollars, which is one reason The Bunker suspects so many civilians doing work for the Pentagon are not Pentagon civilians, but civilian contractors doing work for the Pentagon. There are 759,000 Pentagon civilians(PDF) in that first group. But there also are the equivalent of 464,000 civilian workers employed by contractors tending to Pentagon business, according to this December 17 accounting(PDF) from the Congressional Research Service (the figure dates back to 2017, the last time the Pentagon produced such information; the CRS says a new push for a more current number “is ongoing”).

Two things worth noting about hiring contractors: first, they cost more than having U.S. government employees do the work. The Project On Government Oversight reported a decade ago that outside help cost about twice as much per worker as a government employee. “POGO’s study shows that the federal government approves service contract billing rates—deemed fair and reasonable—that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services,” the study found. In 2017 the Pentagon’s own cost shop found contractors cost more most of the time.

Second, if you want even more recent information, you can check out this December 31 headline from the Wall Street Journal: “Who Won in Afghanistan? Private Contractors,” it reads. “The U.S. military spent $14 trillion during two decades of war; those who benefited range from major manufacturers to entrepreneurs.” The victorious alliance consisted of the Taliban and U.S. defense contractors. Turns out the only ones who lost were the U.S. military, the U.S. taxpayer, and the Afghan people.

NOT SHIPSHAPE

Sub-Marine amphibious vehicles

The Marines have decided they will no longer deploy their aging Amphibious Assault Vehicles on real-world missions following a 2020 offshore training accident that killed nine (the Reagan-era swimming tanks require eight hours of maintenance for each hour of operation). It has decided to push ahead with the procurement of its replacement, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, which also recently was barred from at-sea ops (it has failed to meet its goal[PDF] of 69 hours of operation without significant repairs). The Amphibious Combat Vehicle is the replacement for the corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which the Pentagon killed in 2011 following cost overruns and delays.

That’s a lot of effort (and money, including $3 billion on the halted EFV program) for the Marines’ bread-and-butter mission—moving troops from ship to shore. Of course, the corps hasn’t carried out a major amphibious mission since the Korean War. The Marines themselves are wondering about the wisdom of such vestigial operations. But it does so at its peril: without the amphibious mission, the justification for the corps might just sink out of sight.

THE PENTAGON’S PAPERS

Prying records from the Defense Department

Reporters are always dumbstruck when defense officials say: “We have nothing for you on that.” That’s because, for good and for ill, ever since the Department of Defense was known as the Department of War, there have been brigades of record-keepers writing down everything the battalions of trigger-pullers are doing.

The latest example is the December 18 New York Times’ accounting of “the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children,” caused by U.S. air strikes in the Middle East since 2014. “A hidden Pentagon archive" of more than 5,400 pages, unearthed via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and lawsuits dating back to 2017, detailed the carnage, the Times said. In 2019, the Washington Post detailed the futility of the war in Afghanistan, thanks to “a confidential trove of government documents” totaling more than 2,000 pages that the newspaper obtained “under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.”

It’s telling that none of these records had been classified, which is why fuzzy words like “confidential” and “hidden” are used to describe their contents. The legal battles erupted because the FOIA requests went to senior officials, who had a vested interest in keeping embarrassing information locked away. For its part, The Bunker always had more luck filing such requests with lower-ranking officials. They tend to be more interested in FOIA than CYA. That’s made clear in this exchangeThe Bunker had with an Army engineer nearly 40 years ago, about an uncorrected helicopter flaw that killed more than 200 troops.

WHAT WE'RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

Fair warning

This is tough to read, but a trio of retired generals fear that last January’s storming of Congress may have been only a dress rehearsal. “As we approach the first anniversary of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, we—all of us former senior military officials—are increasingly concerned about the aftermath of the 2024 presidential election and the potential for lethal chaos inside our military, which would put all Americans at severe risk,” Paul D. Eaton. Antonio M. Taguba, and Steven M. Anderson warned in a December 17 Washington Post op-ed. “In short: We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.” One-in-three Americans recently polled said violence against the government is sometimes warranted, a sharp increase.

Guarding democracy

The fog of war still surrounds the Pentagon regarding its flat-footedness in responding to the mob that stormed the Capitol a year ago this Thursday, January 6. In part, that’s built into the jury-rigged system that denies the mayor of the District of Columbia the power to command her National Guard units, unlike the nation’s 50 governors (the D.C. Guard is under the president’s command). While the House wanted to bring D.C. in line with the states in its version of the 2022 defense authorization bill, the Senate kept it out of the final version of the legislation, which President Biden signed December 27. Although the Pentagon streamlined the process(PDF) three days later, D.C. remains powerless in terms of ordering its National Guard into action. As the Project On Government Oversight and 30 other organizations argued last summer, this is a change that is long overdue.

Speaking of storming Capitol Hill…

It’s hard to tell that Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress based on that legislation. “Liberals who spoke loudly to limit defense spending and change certain military policies still largely came up empty handed in this year’s $768 billion defense policy bill,” Jacqueline Feldscher noted over at Defense One on December 14. “Republicans, meanwhile, walked away with a $25 billion win.” That’s because, she argues, progressive lawmakers shy away from serving on the key military-related committees where critical negotiations take place. “If progressives ever want to get serious about influencing defense, they must develop the expertise to know what to change and how to change it,” says Todd Harrison, defense-spending major domo at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That means they need to get on the defense committees and start shaping defense policy and spending bills from the inside.”

Carved in stone

The first of more than 43,000 names of U.S. troops and their South Korean allies killed during the Korean War have been engraved and added to the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Mike Ruane reported in the December 23 Washington Post. Vietnam’s war echoed Korea’s, and now Korea’s memorial will echo Vietnam’s.

Women at the helm…

When The Bunker interviewed the first woman to command a U.S. Navy vessel 30 years ago, it was a big story. When The Bunker spent time in the Pacific with the first female commander of a U.S. Navy warship during her inaugural command 22 years ago, it was an even bigger story. And sure, when Captain Amy Bauernschmidt left San Diego harbor January 3 as the first female commander of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, there were reports of her feat. Yet the novelty is wearing off. There were also stories like this one from the U.S. Naval Institute, which was more interested in the deployment of Marine F-35s aboard the flattop than the gender of its skipper.

Just another day, it seems, on the bridge of the most powerful warship that the world has ever seen.

Well, that’s it for this week. Thanks for tagging along. Forward on to friend and/or foe and let them know they can sign up here for email delivery Wednesday mornings.