Can Hagel Resist Assimilation?

Which would Hagel be: Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet, or a captain-turned-Borg?
Which would Hagel be: Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet, or a captain-turned-Borg?

Chuck Hagel will face a panel of senators on Thursday over his nomination for the next Secretary of Defense. The buzz in the hive suggests he may closer to a confirmation than was thought a month ago, when President Obama threw his name into the ring and a swamp of smear threatened to eat him whole.

A host of well-heeled forces (read: Sheldon Adelson) still threaten to make Thursday a spectacle. But be warned, the real gauntlet — not entirely unlike the one Clint Eastwood’s character traveled in the 1977 movie of the same name — will be along the hallways of the Pentagon, which today represents a institutional military industrial leviathan that is poised to defend itself both with sheer entrenchment and political obstruction – not to mention a force of lobbyists fronting the very contracting machine that makes this Goliath go.

The only difference between Hagel and Eastwood’s Ben Shockley is that Hagel won’t be shot at on the way to exposing the corruption at City Hall. Instead, he’ll find his way to the five-sided Oz, only to confront a maddening maze of bureaucratic self-interest and red tape threatening to strangle him at the first wayward step off the Yellow Brick Road.

While it may sound melodramatic, people like Mike Lofgren, who worked on the purse-string side of the MIC (military industrial complex) on Capitol Hill, tell that Hagel would have to be near-superhuman to overcome the chimera, the Borg, the hoodoo in Dr. Caligari’s cabinet – whatever you call this test of strength that awaits him in the Beltway.

"I think Hagel is perceived to be more than he can deliver," said Lofgren, who recently retired after 30 years as a military and budget aide in Congress, and then authored, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted. He gives Hagel some points for identifying the folly of Vietnam and bucking the brass as the Number 2 guy at the Veterans Administration in the 1980’s, but he warns that the Pentagon is truly a horse of a different color.

Hagel and Goliath
Hagel and Goliath

"It is when the stakes are so high, which they will be in the Pentagon – which they were not in the VA – and involve the maintenance of the national security state status quo and all the cash flow that entails, that it would take an extraordinary character to resist being assimilated," Lofgren charged.

"The history shows that it has managed to assimilate anyone."

Clearly there those who want to believe that Hagel will be different than his immediate predecessors, like Leon Panetta, who came in as a Steady Eddie for Obama in 2011, to guide him through the national security shoals to re-election. As Lofgren points out, "he did not have a big defense background" but "got assimilated into the Borg," now prone to repeating "this ridiculous speech saying if you cut this or that (from the budget) you will endanger the security of the United States."

Panetta replaced Robert Gates, who was also brought in as another lifeline, this time from the Bush Administration. Like Donald Rumsfeld before him, Gates talked a great game about "transformation" and reform, but much of his cost cutting was a shell-game, targeting low-hanging fruit while overseeing increases every year of his tenure. He has now joined the others in throwing around the words "crisis" and "risk" in regard to sequestration and the looming drawdown.

Where Hagel may be different is that Obama has chosen him not as someone who might carry on that tradition, but despite it. The president is clearly signaling a shift, bucking the impulse to promote one of Panetta’s qualified underlings, like Michele Flournoy, a darling of the E-Ring and someone the bureaucracy would most certainly embrace as "of the body."

Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear what that shift is. While some would like to think that a Secretary Hagel would counsel against pursuing military force as a means to resolve America’s disputes, meddle in others’ problems and impose our will overseas, it’s also clear that the secretary does not set national security policy and right now, the administration has shown no interest in slowing down the drone war or expanding its "footprint" – light or otherwise – in the Global War on Terror (read: Africa). It has also been inscrutable in its plans for Iran (some suggest the recent "early retirement" of CENTCOM Commander Gen. Jim Mattis was tied to the general’s own misgivings about pursuing force against Iran). Others see the "pivot to China" as a sign the administration will continue to indulge the MIC’s need to sustain itself through conflict.

So says national security expert Chuck Spinney, who argues that Washington has perfected the art of protecting the military’s budgetary interests by turning to the latest global "threat."

From Spinney’s recent article in TIME magazine:

… (Obama) is laying the seeds for a new and entirely unnecessary Cold War by approving the MICC’s (military industrial congressional complex) reckless plan to "pivot" to a grossly exaggerated, non-superpower threat posed by China. The China "pivot" will placate the MICC by providing the needed justification to maintain high defense budgets far into the future, backed up, of course, by the budget requirements of Obama’s never ending war on terror. Score game, set, and match for the exigencies of domestic politics trumping the rationale needs of a foreign policy.

So where does Hagel come into all of this? Like Lofgren, Spinney, who spent 33 years working in the DoD, expresses no confidence that Hagel can stop the madness, saying, “Hagel’s record of supporting unnecessary and bloated cold-war pork programs like ballistic missile defense suggests he will support the ‘pivot’ and what it implies for high-tech boondoggles.”

As an optimist who’s been observing these rituals for some time, this writer is inclined to believe Obama nominated Hagel to follow through on a painful and politically-charged military drawdown, which is already underway, and will no doubt escalate with another $500 billion cut if the so-called sequestration occurs this spring. But as Lofgren points out, Hagel is one man against the machine. Let’s quickly review some of the major institutional challenges that await him.

The Defense Contracting Industry. At no time in history has war been more privatized. To say that major contractors like Northrop Grumman, Kellogg, Brown & Root, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, not to mention private security outfits like Blackwater, made money "hand over fist" in Iraq and Afghanistan is a gross understatement.

Meanwhile, the acquisitions & procurement processes within the DoD have become more byzantine and dysfunctional than anyone on the outside could fathom. At a December panel discussion in Washington about the looming defense cuts, former Navy Secretary John Lehman told his audience of mostly contractors and active duty types, that the system "is so broken it will take a crisis to fix." Money is thrown at projects that become more protracted and expensive by the year (see: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter), in many cases before they even get out of design phase. A nifty chart of the greatest boondoggles, here.

According to Lofgren, contractors and congress have worked together to protect projects by subcontracting them out across myriad congressional districts. The result: more inefficiency and expense to the taxpayer, but its almost impossible to get rid of them. "(It creates) an unbeatable coalition…. If Chuck Hagel says he is going to cancel the xyz system, there will be a wide number of congressman opposing it, some you wouldn’t even think of working together before."

In addition, the industry spends a dizzying amount of money lobbying the Hill every year (more than nearly $100 million in 2012 alone, a 40 percent increase over the last five years) through individual companies, Beltway Bandits and member organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers or the Aerospace Industries Association.

And why not? According to a recent report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the DoD committed to spending nearly over $100 billion in 2011 with the top five defense contractors – Lockheed, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northop Grumman and Raytheon. They’ve got a lot to lose.

Congress. If Hagel truly believes the budget "needs to be pared down," then one of his biggest obstructions will be congress, which in addition to be being a revolving door for the lobbying and defense industry, is perfectly soft in the head for military spending, thanks to a total of $140 million in campaign contributions since the 2000 cycle — $24.3 million in 2012 alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and top recipient of defense industry contributions.
Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House
Armed Services Committee and top recipient of defense industry contributions.

Nowhere can you see Capitol Hill’s complicity in the industry’s storming of the federal trough in starker relief than in Rep. Buck McKeon, R-CA., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon is the top recipient of defense money every year, getting $699,000 in leadership PAC money and direct contributions in 2012, far ahead of the next top recipients, Sen. Scott Brown, R-MA., ($376,000) who served on both the Senate Armed Services and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee before losing his seat in November, and Rep. C.W Bill Young R-FL., ($253,000), chair of the House Appropriations’ defense subcommittee.

McKeon has been one of the most vocal legislators against sequestration, holding no less than five hearings on the subject and declaring to an audience during a campaign debate, "my job is the defense." Defense industry, more like it. "McKeon has been a loyal servant of the defense industry," wrote investigative journalist Lee Fang, for The Nation in October. "Name a weapons program the Pentagon doesn’t want, and it’s likely McKeon has gone to bat for it," Fang added, noting that McKeon is one of the biggest proponents of the F-35, which is shaping up to be a $1 trillion system.

In addition, McKeon is now chairman of the Unmanned Systems Caucus (yes there is one), the go-to guy for expanding drone technology and pursuing "effective engagement of the civilian aviation community on UAV use and safety." In other words, a tool of the drone industry.

But don’t worry, he won’t come right out and say it. As his bio makes clear:

"McKeon has worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between industry and military leaders in order to ensure that our warfighters on the ground continue to receive the support they need and deserve." Orwell would have been proud. Now multiply that by dozens and dozens of politicians and you begin to see the pork through the piggies.

Revolving Door. We all know the deck is stacked but how much is always a shock. Right now it’s perfectly legit for members of congress, staff and military officers to revolve in and out of Capitol Hill and into lobbying positions serving the top contracting companies and back again. The most corrupting of these rotations are the industry’s hiring of ex-generals and admirals to front for them on the Hill, putting them in paid board positions or hiring them as "consultants" through prominent lobbying firms like Burdeshaw Associates Ltd., a Beltway Bandit if you’ve ever seen one.

According to CREW’s November report, of the 108 three- and four-star generals who retired between 2009 and 2011, 70 percent took jobs with the defense industry. "Retired generals, with their strong relationships, robust contacts and insider knowledge, are valuable assets in the competition for contracts and can clearly make more than their base pay" — currently $164,221 for a three star, or $179,700 for a four star.

(Ret.) Gen. Jack Keane spreads the love around by serving on corprate boards, while advising the Pentagon and running his own defense consulting business.
(Ret.) Gen. Jack Keane spreads the love around by serving on corprate boards, while advising the Pentagon and running his own defense consulting business.

Some, including Gen. General Jack Keane, the grandfather of the Iraq "Surge" who retired as a four-star in 2003, continue to advise the Pentagon and Congress on policy while taking money from the industry. Among other perches, Keane serves on the board of General Dynamics and the private security company AlliedBarton, is a senior consultant to Academi (formerly Blackwater), and is the founder of his own consulting firm. One sees him on television a lot, shaping the military’s message about war and foreign policy. He also has an appointment on the prestigious Defense Policy Board, a federally mandated panel that is supposed to give "independent, informed advice and opinion concerning major matters of defense policy" to the DoD brass. Right.

Sometimes the payoff is painfully obvious, but is simply accepted as "normal" – and sadly, it is. For example, CREW points out that on the day Adm. Jack Dorsett retired from his duties in 2011 as deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance (cybersecurity) and director of naval intelligence, Northrop Grumman announced it had hired him as vice president of government relations for cybersecurity. Then – surprise – six months later the company announced it received a $16.3 million contract to provide cyber security and information operations support to several major Navy organizations. Cha-ching!

Only when a major newspaper gets involved – like when USA Today reported in 2009 that 80 percent of the Pentagon’s "mentors" (retired generals and admirals who got upwards of $330 an hour to advise the Dod) were paid executives for top defense companies, too, did the red-faced Pentagon institute new transparency rules. As a result, 98 percent of the mentors quit, presumably, to redirect their cozy relationships back under the radar.

All this combined makes for a formidable challenge to any new secretary of defense, especially Hagel. "It’s like a huge oil tanker and turning that thing around is very difficult," said Lofgren. "It’s just institutionally difficult."

So, maybe Hagel will be a Shockley and make it to City Hall despite the bullet holes and betrayals, or maybe he will "assimilate" and end up talking and operating just like everyone else. For our part, as long as we keep the blinders off, we should keep our hopes up – and "nag, nag, nag"* all the way.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

*The last line in The Gauntlet, as Shockley, just shot down by the police commissioner, responds to love-interest Gus Mally, who implores him not to die. He doesn’t.

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.