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The Bunker: Truth Decay

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


In The Bunker this week: Professor Bunker grades the U.S. government on its post-9/11 wars, the still-spinning revolving door, costly troops, your chance to rename an Army post, and more.

TWENTY YEARS AFTER

A report card on the past two decades

There’s been a fair amount of talk recently about how the U.S. government warrants an F for its post-9/11 actions. Given that there hasn’t been a major terror attack on the U.S. since then, that’s unfair. But not by much: The Bunker covered 9/11 and the wars that followed earnestly, if not always expertly. Grading on a curve, the U.S. national-security state deserves a barely-passing grade. Back when The Bunkerwas in school, in the days of slates and dunce caps, that meant a D. That D is for:

DECLARATION—If Congress had done its duty to debate a declaration of war before invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the resulting conflicts would have been shorter and more successful. The Bunker believes Congress would have declared war on Afghanistan in those fevered weeks following 9/11, but not on Iraq 529 days later. That one decision would have saved U.S. taxpayers more than $3 trillion, and 4,598 American families the loss of a loved one who wore a U.S. military uniform. Congressional timidity since 9/11 has been a profile in cowardice.

DURATION–U.S. troops should have started coming home from Afghanistan by mid-2002, with nearly all out of the country by 2004. The fact that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at 100,000(PDF) in 2011—a decade into the war—pretty well sums it up. The nation would have been far better served with banners saying Mission Good Enough rather than Mission Accomplished. Instead, we’ve ended up with Mission Snafued in both theaters.

DETERMINATION–Half-hearted efforts, even with full-hearted weapons, just don’t work. It was the height of hubris for top officials of the U.S. government to blame the Afghan military’s collapse on an Afghan lack of will. They were only emulating their U.S. enablers; perhaps we trained them too well.

DIFFIDENCE–Or the lack thereof. Diffidence means lacking in confidence. The Bunker is blown away by the legions of losers who are now cashing in on their U.S. military service, selling their skills to the highest bidder. The U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan. Have you no sense of shame?

DISINFORMATION—The American people were misled about the Afghan war’s progress almost as soon as it began. That truth decay is one reason why 9/11, and all that followed, are increasingly seen by Americans as something that has changed the nation for the worse.

DOMESTIC—It is becoming increasingly clear that the real threat to the U.S. may not be foreign fundamentalists but homegrown insurgents. “We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within,” George W. Bush said this year on September 11. He spoke at the site where brave passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 sacrificed their lives to bring their 757 down in rural Pennsylvania rather than the hijackers’ intended target. That would have been either the Capitol or the White House—125 miles, and less than 20 minutes, away. While the former president invaded Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses, he spoke clearly about the homeland insecurity we witnessed January 6. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

DEMOCRACY–That very same President Bush and his administration felt Afghanistan and Iraq were hungry for some kind of democracy that could only be imposed by an outside power. But their public selling and private strategizing about those wars peddled that promise to U.S. citizens like a patent medicine.

These grades are yesterday’s scores. Our concern needs to be tomorrow’s. Unfortunately, with the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan, and Iranian influence in Iraq continuing to rise, the only true final grade for the past two decades of U.S. blood and treasure is an I, for incomplete. Given the black-and-white Taliban flag flying over the presidential palace in Kabul on September 11, and the new all-male, all-Taliban government’s recent actions, it could end up earning a failing grade. The Bunker recalls visiting the palace during the war, a sense of hope of better times to come sharing the sky with Afghanistan’s traditional tricolor flag. “Now we are back to where we were 20 years ago,” one Afghan told the Washington Post.

But enough on this sour topic. It’s time to turn the page. No one wants to keep fighting the last war, save for those planning the next one.

REVOLVING DOOR

Talk about stating the obvious

Guess where former Pentagon officials end up working? Here’s a clue from a headline in a September 9 report(PDF) from the Government Accountability Office (GAO):

Weapons Development Contractors Hired Far More Former DOD Officials than Nonweapons Development Contractors

As General Homer Simpson himself might say: “D’oh!”

This is a perennial Pentagon problem. It has sent people to jail, and costs taxpayers untold millions, as Bunker boss Mandy Smithberger detailed three years ago (for a deeper dive into the issue, check out POGO’s Pentagon Revolving Door Database). It’s so persistent that it’s the focus of a pair of amendments to the pending House authorization legislation for next year’s defense budget. The first(PDF) would require the Pentagon to implement the GAO report’s recommendation that the Defense Department update its acquisition rules requiring contractors to ensure that their employees comply with DOD’s post-employment lobbying restrictions. A second(PDF) would extend the “cooling-off” period to two years for senior executive-branch officials who leave U.S. employment before they can lobby their former government colleagues.

The GAO report takes a look at how good a job the Pentagon does at monitoring how many of its former employees, both in and out of uniform, end up working for defense contractors. “Situations in which senior and acquisition officials leave the Department of Defense (DOD) and go to work for defense contractors can lead to conflicts of interest and affect public confidence in the government,” the GAO said (apparently with a straight face). “There are federal laws that place limitations on the employment of former DOD officials. The 14 major defense contractors GAO reviewed hired about 1,700 recent former DOD senior civilian and military officials, such as a general or admiral, or former acquisition officials.” The contractors with the most such senior officials on their payroll in 2019 (and hired after 2016) were Raytheon, with 315; Northrop, 289; General Dynamics, 287; and Lockheed, 253. Frankly, The Bunkertends to be shocked, shocked, whenever Lockheed, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, doesn’t rank No. 1 on such lists.

The GAO noted that its audit turned up more former Pentagon officials working for defense contractors than the defense contractors’ own reporting revealed. “The 10 contractors that provided personnel data reported they employed 816 potentially covered former DOD officials in 2019, while our analysis of DOD and IRS data for those contractors identified 1,149 individuals,” the agency said. “We were unable to reconcile the differences, however, due to restrictions on the use of taxpayer information.”

Those 14 firms surveyed by the GAO account for about four of every five dollars the Pentagon pays to major defense contractors. So who do these firms hire? Those crafty GAO bookkeepers matched Pentagon personnel data with taxpayer info from the Internal Revenue Service and contractor payroll records. “Of the 1,718 former DOD officials employed with the 14 defense contractors in our review, we found that 1,616—or about 94 percent— were former acquisition officials,” the GAO said.

Well, as General Willie Sutton purportedly said, you rob banks because that’s where the money is.

WILD BLUE YONDER

What do you expect a drone-sponsored report to say?

U.S. troops cost too much. “While today’s U.S. military is near its smallest size since the end of World War II in terms of active-duty end strength, personnel costs are at a historic high,” a September 9 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says. “Left unaddressed, high personnel costs may limit resources for Department of Defense (DOD) modernization initiatives and could threaten the long-term sustainability of the force.”

True enough. According to a new Congressional Budget Office study released the same day, “regular military compensation substantially exceeds DOD’s benchmark goal, which equals the 70th percentile of earnings for comparable civilians (meaning that 30 percent of comparable civilians would earn more).”

One way to cut spending on people is to buy weapons that don’t need them. Although the word “drone” doesn’t appear in the CSIS report, it was paid for by General Atomics, which has sold pilotless drones like the Predator and Reaper worth billions to the Pentagon over the past 25 years. The company is the largest privately-held Pentagon contractor. It is owned by Neal and Linden, the billionaire Blue brothers.

Move along. No conflict of interest here.

THE NAME GAME

Panel seeks your input for new post names

On September 8, Robert E. Lee’s statue bowed out from its lofty perch in Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy. Lee and his mount, Traveller, spent the last 130 years high above the city’s Monument Avenue. That reminds The Bunker that now would be a good time for readers to consider submitting new names for the nine U.S. Army bases named for Confederate military officers or other Pentagon real estate, including Navy ships, with dubious monikers. “The Naming Commission has the important role of recommending names that exemplify our U.S. military and national values,” says the congressionally-created panel, officially known as the Commission on the Naming of Items of the Department of Defense that Commemorate the Confederate States of America or Any Person Who Served Voluntarily with the Confederate States of America. “We are determined to gain feedback and insight from every concerned citizen to ensure the best names are recommended.”

As The Bunker noted four years ago, the Army said in 2015 that it had no intention of changing the forts’ names. “Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history,” the service said. “Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies. It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division.”

Perhaps so. After all, then-President Trump vowed to veto any bill requiring such name changes. But history moves on, and there already are new names floating around. Submit your recommendation for a specific post or ship right here. And thanks for asking, but don’t bother recommending The Bunker for such an honor. We figure the Navy cruiser USS Bunker Hill is close enough.

WHAT WE'RE READING

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

Air Force’s F-35 buy imperiled

The service has begun scrubbing its future budgets, trying to see if there is any way it can afford the 1,763 F-35 fighters it wants to buy. “Quite honestly, I don’t think there is any good news that will come out for the F-35 program for this,” Todd Harrison, a top Pentagon budget dweeb at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Valerie Insinna for a September 7 story in Defense News. “It’s only potential downsides. That’s real risk to the program.” It’s been plain from the skywriting on the wall that the Pentagon was never going to be able to afford the 2,456(PDF)F-35s it wants to buy for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. “The arc of military spending is long,” a Pentagon procurement official told The Bunker long ago, “but it ultimately bends toward affordability.” Not by buying cheap weapons mind you, but by buying fewer costly ones.

Better living through medicine?

Up to 20% of U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in any given year. PTSD has thwarted all kinds of efforts to calm the anxiety, dramatic mood swings, and other symptoms they have experienced. Such strategies have ranged from dogs(PDF) to marijuana(PDF). But “a new company, with funding from the U.S. Army, may have found the secret to treating PTSD with a pill or some other direct form of medicine,” Defense One reported September 3. It involves blocking a protein that helps make memories. We can only hope.

“Never mind.”

A secretive Pentagon program that delegated management of a huge chunk of the Internet to a shady outfit just minutes before President Trump left office has ended as strangely as it began. The Defense Department has taken back control of the 175 million Internet Protocol addresses, the Washington Post reported September 10. The Bunker has noted that a growing number of defense contracts in recent years seem to be going to unknown companies with scant Internet evidence of their existence. That’s also the case here. “Adding to the mystery, company registration records showed Global Resource Systems at the time [it was given control over the IP addresses] was only a few months old, having been established in September 2020, and had no publicly reported federal contracts, no obvious public-facing website and no sign on the shared office space it listed as its physical address in Plantation, Fla.,” Craig Timberg reported. “The company also did not respond to requests for comment, and the Pentagon did not announce the program or publicly acknowledge its existence until the Washington Post reported on it in April.” Those of us of a certain age can hear Stephen Stills and his Buffalo Springfield bandmates: “There’s something happening here,” they sang in 1966. “What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

The Pentagon’s pandemic pocket change

COVID-19 has cost the U.S. military at least $13.6 billion so far, Defense One reported September 8. That’s a lot of money, to be sure. But it’s mere small potatoes alongside $8 trillion for the post-9/11 wars and $750 billion annual defense budgets.

One of the last stealth fighters…

Gilbert Seltzer, among one of the few surviving members of World War II’s “Ghost Army,” has died at 106. The 1,100-soldier unit “fooled German forces with inflatable tanks, dummy airplanes, fake radio transmissions and sound effects that mimicked troop movements,” the New York Times reported September 11. 1914-2021. R.I.P.

Once again, thanks for drilling down all the way to the end of The Bunker this week. Forward on to fans and foes, letting them know they can sign up here for email delivery Wednesdays at dawn.