When the beefsteak mine bonds salesman J. Frothingham Waterbury in the W.C. Fields movie The Bank Dick wanted to unload his worthless paper he put his hand on his heart and said with a straight face, “I want to show you I’m honest in the worst way.” Well, Frothingham Waterbury had nothing on today’s masters of the sharp deal former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and ex head of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. The problem with the two gentlemen and many others who have formed the detritus of both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past twenty years is that they sometimes fail to understand where private interests end and the public interest begins. They and others like them are a valuable commodity to large private contractors because they can exploit their former positions to obtain access to colleagues who remain in government. They also give a measure of credibility to their new employers based on their former status, which can be used to sell goods and services. The relentless pursuit of the fast buck obscures that there is a public trust that is being betrayed. Because the American people want to believe in the integrity of the message being conveyed by the Chertoffs and McConnells it is easy to forget that they are really just salesmen offering wares that may not actually be needed.
If the public wonders how the US government has gotten so big and expensive they might well look at the huge security industry that has grown dramatically enabled by senior managers like McConnell and Chertoff moving between government jobs and the private sector, often a revolving door that spawns fat government no-bid contracts. Did Dick Cheney get rich with Halliburton because he was a business genius or because he was put in a position where his government contacts could be exploited to bring in the cash even when the American taxpayer had no need of what was being purveyed? How did people like Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle become multi-millionaires?
McConnell has surfaced most recently, in the Washington Post, in a lengthy opinion piece warning about the cybersecurity threat. Now, I’ll admit that I don’t know much about cyber-terrorism, but I would bet that McConnell’s argument that the US is facing something like a new Pearl Harbor is just a tad overstated. It is essentially the same argument that has been played and replayed over the past nine years by those who want big government and large budgets. What McConnell does understand very clearly is that if the United States government spends some hundreds of billions of dollars in protecting the country against cyber attack, his company, Booz Allen Hamilton, will get a very large slice of that pie. Booz is currently one of the largest government contractors and it is already advising clients on cybersecurity, which makes the article in the Washington Post pretty much free advertising combined with special pleading.
McConnell cites two instances of cyber-threat, one the hacking of Google late last year “emanating from China” and an attack in 2008 that compromised the security of 2,500 companies. McConnell would like to see a huge government-funded effort to deal with the threat both preemptively and through deterrence. Now I am sure McConnell knows perfectly well that al-Qaeda does not have a cyber division and that a computer or information threat does not actually kill anyone. Cyber attack is primarily an economic weapon, used to steal valuable information, often somewhat akin to vandalism when it interferes with the ability of systems to communicate and exchange information. And there are commercially available defenses against it that already exist. If you can hack into a system there are ways to build walls to prevent that. Companies that have identified cyber threats can go out and buy software and engage IT experts who can and do protect their systems. It is just a matter of weighing risk and providing protection that is commensurate. A massive government program to involve the private sector would make everyone buy into the same level of security, which is just not needed in most cases. And the key word is “buy.” It would also make McConnell and Booz Allen even richer.
And then there is Michael Chertoff. Chertoff seized the bully pulpit in the wake of the Christmas underwear bomber, writing op ed pieces and appearing all over the media to advocate the use of expensive scanners at airports to prevent such incidents. There were only two problems with the hype. First, tests revealed that the scanners would not necessarily have detected the device used by the bomber and second, Chertoff’s company The Chertoff Group had a consulting relationship with the company Rapiscan Systems that made the scanners. Which means that Chertoff, who appeared to be providing disinterested expert advice, would benefit personally if the scanners are placed in airports. It was reported last week that Chertoff has also decided to become a board member at BAE Systems, a top defense contractor that has defrauded the US government. The British company has agreed to pay $447 million in fines to the American and British governments to settle charges of corruption, including an alleged $2 billion bribing of Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar, who was Ambassador to the US at the time.
McConnells and Chertoffs have always been around. During the Civil War contractors in Philadelphia made army boots out of cardboard and uniform jackets that fell apart after being worn once or twice. Trying to make money off of government contracts goes back even farther than that with Cicero having prosecuted corrupt governors who robbed the treasury of the Roman Republic. Today’s snake oil vendors will always be with us, particularly as both Republicans and Democrats appear to be enamored of the war on terror which will apparently go on forever and everywhere. As it is global and terror is a tactic you can bet it will never end until it bankrupts the United States, which just might come sooner than most people think likely.
What is lacking is any restraint on the activity of the promoters of the war economy. The salesmen for total war would not be so dangerous if they were not portrayed as experts and given a platform to parlay their former government positions into private gain. A skeptical media would be nice, asking hard questions about what financial interests former senior government officials might have. But we are long past the point where we might expect the media to do its job or do anything at all but promote the long war, which presumably sells newspapers and ad time on television. It would also be nice to stop senior government officials from setting up their own companies like The Chertoff Group that then turning around to do contracting with the government. That’s not only unseemly, it involves potential conflict of interest and could lead to more serious forms of corruption. It would be far better to close the revolving door completely and send the Chertoffs and McConnells off to a comfortable retirement somewhere where they would no longer be reaching into in the taxpayers’ pockets to fund scanners we don’t need and a new global conflict, which, if the pattern holds true to form, will no doubt be dubbed the war on cyber.