Meet the Empire Watchdogs

This is the first profile in an occasional series about individuals taking on the Goliaths of war from inside the belly of the beast — Washington, D.C.

In Washington, there are those who rattle the sabers, and then there are those who use them. The Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, does both, and according to its Executive Director Danielle Brian, there is no better time than now for the defense budget to be on the receiving end of a sharp sword.

Nearly 30 years old, POGO is an independent watchdog organization that employs attorneys and investigators to identify waste, fraud and abuse in the nation’s capital, and then works to get rid of it. Where the various Goliath industries and their front groups have a phalanx of dark-suited lobbyists maintaining their financial and political interests on Capitol Hill, POGO has its own battle-hardened unit, often working with other watchdogs to provide a counterweight, raising alarms about specific projects, budgets and programs, pushing for greater oversight and transparency, and building contacts in Congress.

Danielle Brian of POGO

Some might say it’s quixotic, but that’s only because POGO’s victories — against real agencies, real abuse of taxpayer money, not windmills — don’t often make the headlines, at least not outside the storied Beltway. POGO nonetheless takes credit, among a laundry list of achievements, for helping to improve safety and security at the nation’s nuclear power plants, winning a lawsuit against former Attorney John Ashcroft for retroactively classifying 9/11-related intelligence documents, and working to stop wasteful giant contracts like the $11 billion Army Crusader, the $13 billion Superconducting Super Collider, and the F-22 stealth fighter plane.

POGO also says its dogged pursuit of the oil and gas industry and the federal agencies tasked to regulate them, have resulted in not only tougher laws protecting the environment and the taxpayer, but the recovery of oil royalties owed by major corporations and the dismantlement of the Minerals Management Service due to “sex, drugs and graft” allegations and longstanding mismanagement in 2008.

This summer, and more just recently, POGO released two studies identifying room for painless and productive cuts in the national security budget. One, released Sept. 13, compared what the entire federal government paid contractors across the board to what it costs to do the same work in-house. Pointing out that Uncle Sam pays out some $320 billion a year in service contracts and employs an estimated 7.6 million contractors (compared to 2 million federal employees, a number that has remained steady for a decade) POGO found “shocking” results — that the government pays contractors 1.8 times more than federal workers on the same task and more than double than private sector workers in similar jobs.

In some cases, contractor billing rates were five times the amount federal workers were being paid performing the same service in-house.

For overseas security work specifically, POGO pointed out that the federal government spent $6 billion between 2003 and 2007. In particular, the government gave Blackwater Worldwide a $98 million contract for one year of private security services in 2004. POGO estimates, based on available Congressional Budget Office (CBO) figures, that the same work could have been done by U.S. military soldiers for $55.4 million.

Then, in July, POGO released a series of recommendations to cut the DoD budget and reduce the deficit by $586 billion, including the elimination or scaling back of several controversial weapons systems and naval vessel procurements, halting the further expansion of nuclear facilities, reforming the military’s TRICARE healthcare system, bringing 20,000 U.S. troops home from Europe, and reducing spending on DoD contractors by 15 percent.

Of course, POGO isn’t the only watchdog in the hunt, and some have called for more drastic measures. But the common quarry is bureaucratic bloat, and in recent days the Pentagon brass has signaled it will defend the current spending as vigorously as POGO attempts to assail it. In fact, outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen told a group of defense industry fat cats this week that he doesn’t even like the $350 billion cuts (over 10 years) already approved in the August debt deal, much less the threat of more cuts if the so-called super committee can’t find $1.5 trillion in savings, which Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta further bemoaned on Friday.

That means POGO has its work cut out for it. Brian is awfully busy these days, but she was generous enough to sit through a Q&A  with, to tell us how it really is, to be an empire watchdog.

Antiwar: The other day I had a rather candid conversation with a lobbyist for a major defense contractor here in Washington. She said the whole industry is shaken up by the prospect of deep budget cuts. How much do they really have to worry about, especially with Secretary Panetta out there saying he will “not see the budget cut.” Truly?

Danielle Brian: I think that — and I’ve been doing this for 22 years now — I haven’t seen a moment where serious cuts in defense were as possible in Washington today. If there weren’t the national concern over the deficit, then the secretary of defense making those statements would just perpetuate the status quo, but I think just him saying that is not going to be powerful enough to push against what is a national focus on government spending. …

There is no question there are a number of dynamics that have changed in Washington, and have turned what used to be a real business-as-usual approach to defense on its head, pushing the entrenched industry on their heels. Part of it is the arrival of tea party members, who aren’t as beholden to the traditional Republican constituencies. There is also a new focus on how we’re spending our money, and the combination of those things, and the fact that people are now realizing that when we are talking about cutting spending (to nonmilitary programs and services) it’s cutting to the bone and affecting people directly. They are now wondering why we are spending this money overseas and asking, “What is it really doing for me?” I think people are questioning it in a way they have never before.

Antiwar: POGO’s Ben Freeman recently testified to Congress about your investigation into the top-heavy military or “brass creep.” What can we possibly do about it now, after the fact, especially since the top brass are the ones with the coziest relationships on the Hill?

DB: It’s really interesting … we’ve actually reduced the number of enlisted and increased the number of officers — three and four stars — since the war began. It doesn’t make any sense. …

It’s just one thing we are flagging for the Congress to look at. Right now, we can’t tell them how much we could save [readjusting], but we are looking at the trends. When you have more admirals than ships, then something is going on.

Antiwar: How do you come to your conclusions regarding places in the defense budget that are prime to cut? Who do you work with? And what do you say to those who suggest you could find even more savings in the budget, like retiring say, two aircraft carriers, rather than just the USS George Washington, in 2016?

DB: We’re out talking to industry analysts, getting their insights, talking to people who do not have any financial interest in the outcomes of our investigations. We are voracious readers of industry journals and independent reports and investigations — not just looking to what the [armed] services and the contractors and lobbyists are saying. We talk to the users [of systems], too. …

Basically, were looking at the cost of maintaining the capability we need — if we had endless resources we could work the Joint Strike Fighter until it was functioning in all three models — but we don’t, so we have to look at our resources and say, “What is the alternative?”

We always used the most conservative, the lowest number [in our conclusions] so we don’t oversell. We see a lot of sugarcoating around, proposals for cutting systems that are already cut. There is a lot of gamesmanship going on. We wanted the policymakers who are serious about looking at places to cut to know we are reliable and they can trust our numbers.

Antiwar: On the flip side, what about those critics who say jobs would be lost from so much reduction, particularly at a time when the country needs jobs?

DB: If you accept that government spending is appropriate for creating jobs — I actually do accept that premise — defense spending is the least efficient way of doing that. You just aren’t producing a commodity that will have a ripple effect in the larger economy. Second, there is a huge amount of these contractor jobs overseas that are not actually American jobs. In Afghanistan and Iraq, these are often third-country nationals or in-country nationals.

Antiwar: What about cancelling the weapons systems or the ships? Won’t that shut down production lines?

DB: When it comes to things like the LCS [littoral combat ship], we’re not talking about cutting the number of ships. We are talking about having some discipline, choosing one design and making the entire fleet from that design. You get cost savings from the efficiencies in operations and maintenance expenses as well as crews being trained to be able to operate across the entire fleet, but the number of ships produced would remain the same.

Talking about the Joint Strike Fighter — rather than just losing that capability, were saying we should be buying more F-16s and F-18s (instead of the F-35) … we’re just going for alternatives, but at much lower cost. …

Clearly, in a number of cases the Pentagon has said they don’t need or want more of certain systems. When the Pentagon says, “We have enough,” we know the DoD has not had a problem with having an appetite for weapons systems. The last thing we need is for the Congress to second-guess them and force-feed the Pentagon to advance their parochial political agenda.

Antiwar: Let’s talk contractors. Your report makes it pretty clear that the federal government is paying nearly double to contractors what it would be to do the same job in-house. Is Washington so addicted to outsourcing war that it’s impossible to break the habit? Or is DoD already in the midst of scaling back on privatizing its business?

DB: Beginning with intelligence and other agencies, they [Obama administration] were starting to in-source, but it stopped a year ago … no explanation, no analysis.

Now … we’re getting asked to come in to brief extensively on the Hill on our [contracting] report, for both Democrats and Republicans. I think what we’re finding is a new interest in realizing that we’re not privatizing. All we did was create a pseudo-private sector entirely supported by the taxpayer. …

It’s going to come down to public pressure being wielded over elected officials to actually do something about spending. As long as they are afraid of being thrown out of office for not taking this seriously, there is only so much the lobbyists can do.

Antiwar: How is POGO’s access on the Hill these days? How does your access compare to say, those defense lobbyists?

DB: We’re feeling very welcome on the Hill right now.

We have a reputation for really working with blinders on when it comes to partisanship. We are coming to the door with real solutions to the problems they have to face. We say, “We know you are facing a crisis and this is how you can deal with it.” Both House and Senate Democrats and Republicans. We have briefings for Hill staff on our defense cuts. We’ve had a number of staff from members of the super committee participate, which I was really excited to see. I think that at the staff level there is a real sense that this is serious. That we just can’t stonewall anymore, we actually have to do something.

Antiwar: How difficult is it to counter what Mullen and Panetta and other brass are saying today about potential defense cuts in the media, that it will hurt military readiness?

DB: [Mullen] was talking to people in the industry that are defending the status quo. I feel both parties are sort of divided on this. … There are those who are trying to protect spending on defense and related agencies who are immediately trying to get people to think that cutting spending is either going to hurt the troops or deny access to the weapons we need. But if you look at the cuts we recommend, very little affects weapons. Over the last 10 years there have been a number of weapons systems we have been whacking away at … the big cuts we are suggesting now are in private contacting. That is where we find enormous savings. … This has become this huge cash cow and it’s all just government spending.

Antiwar: You know Washington from the inside. You see how the mechanics of the military-industrial complex work. If there was one extraordinary thing you could convey to readers outside the Beltway about the sheer enormity or obdurateness of the MIC — what they might not know already — what would it be?

DB: One of my favorite examples that show what is going on in Washington: our investigators found, in the early years of the war, that the Senate was taking money for the line item in the budget designated for night goggles and putting it into [procurement for] the MV-22 [Osprey aircraft]. We wrote a letter to Congress. … There couldn’t be a more blatant example of how this was hurting the troops, but we didn’t get a single senator to stand up against it. That was a real eye-opener for me. It ended up going through, we couldn’t stop it. They took money out of night-vision goggles. When you look at what they are really doing, it really makes you sick when they claim they are “defending the troops.”

I think people assume that throwing money at the defense budget helps the troops, but it doesn’t. It helps the lobbyists and the corporate executives.

I think the successes we’ve had over time have been accomplished because the people who are our constituencies are really the troops and the weapons testers and the auditors — the people who are trying to protect the troops and the taxpayers. That’s what we do. We aren’t there to protect the lobbyists. It’s uphill, but that’s what motivates us because we now who we are working for.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.