Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Obama Knew

Call it the "Sergeant Schultz defense."  In response to almost any controversy, we are told that President Obama "knew nothing," recalling the famous line from Master Sergeant Hans Georg Schultz, the inept POW camp guard in the 60s TV sitcom, Hogan's Heroes.

Of course, the actor who played Schultz (John Banner) had a reason for feigning ignorance; he was potraying a character who was supposed to be bumbling.  Mr. Banner preferred it that way; he was a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in the late 1930s, a path followed by co-stars Werner Klemperer and  Leon Askin.  All three lost family members in the Holocaust, and they found it ironic that many of their on-screen roles were Nazis or German soldiers. 

So what is Mr. Obama's excuse?  Pick any scandal, from Benghazi to the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the President was out of the loop.  Never mind that he participated in a White House meeting on the security of our diplomatic facilities the day before the attack in Libya (emphasis ours), or that the IRS commissioner visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on numerous occasions, while the agency was systematically denying tax-exempt status to various Tea Party organizations.  Borrowing a line from another famous know-nothing (Vichy police Captain Louis Renault in Cascablanca), Mr. Obama must have been "shocked....shocked to learn such things were going on during his administration.

Ordinarily, such sophistry wouldn't get past the mainstream media, but with most of the press corps carrying water for the administration, they've been willing to take Mr. Obama at his word, however dubious it may be.  So whenever the President runs into trouble, he simply borrows a page from the guard at Stalag 13, and feigns ignorance.  Of course, it certainly helps that the mainstream media has helped sustain this charade; whenever the President claims he learned about the latest scandal in the morning paper, the stenographers in the White House press corps go to dramatic lengths to figure why he was uniformed.

Consider the latest revelations from the NSA global surveillance scandal.  In recent weeks, we've learned that the agency has spied on virtually everyone, including the Pope; leaders in Brazil and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  News that NSA intercepted Ms. Merkel's cell phone conversations prompted an angry call from the German leader to President Obama.  In response, we assume that he gave the same, lame explanation that he's been offering the American public.  That's right, the American President had no idea that the NSA was monitoring the communications of his foreign counterparts.

Naturally, that excuse has more holes than a block of Swiss.  First, isolating the phone traffic of the German Chancellor--out of billons of cell calls made daily--was a rather impressive feat of spycraft.  Secondly, the contents of such conversations aren't part of the daily haul, disseminated to all consumers with access to TS/SCI information, via JWICS.  If we had to guess, we'd say the Merkel conversations were part of a SAP/SAR initiative (Special Access Program/Special Access Required).  That means that only a handful of individuals in the U.S. government were briefed on the material, and participants had to sign a special non-disclosure agreement for that specific program.

It's also likely that such high-value intelligence found its way into the Presidential Daily Brief on a recurring basis.  So, if the reporting didn't identify Ms. Merkel by name, her identity was probably no secret, based on how the "source" was described.  If one of the participants in a phone call is identified as "a foreign leader," and the conversation relates to German government business, then it's fairly easy to deduce that we were eavesdropping on Ms. Merkel, even if you're as uncurious as Barack Obama.

And if that's no enough, there are enough senior intelligence officials involved with the PDB to answer any questions about sources and methods that might arise.  So far, no one in the press corps has bothered to ask if Mr Obama ever inquired about how we were getting such good information on the personal thoughts and positions of the German Chancellor.

To be fair, plausible denial is a standard tactic in the intelligence business.  When the Russians shot down that U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers in 1960, Washington first claimed that the aircraft (and its CIA pilot) were on a weather reconnaissance mission.  Needless to say, that excuse didn't last very long, despite Washington's best efforts to distance the Eisenhower administration from a major intelligence embarassment.  The U-2 incident reminds us that even plausible cover stories are sometime overcome by the truth, and there's a certain moment when you have to come clean.  It will be curious to see how long Mr. Obama and his handlers cling to the "no nothing" defense.    

Indeed, Mr. Obama's denials may be undercut by his own spooks.  Intel vets basically quickly dismissed at the President's claims, according to Shane Harris and Noah Shachtman at Foreign Policy:

A former White House official, who served in a prior administration, said it was essentially impossible that the president wouldn't know foreign leaders were being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, and principally the NSA, as part of regular operations aimed at keeping him informed about diplomatic relations and negotiations. Information on foreign leaders that is based on recorded calls or other signals intelligence is "unique," the former official said, and its nature is obvious to anyone reading or hearing an intelligence report or receiving a briefing. 

"If you saw it, you'd know that it came out of somebody's mouth," the former official said. "I cannot believe that [Obama's national security staff] didn't brief the president on foreign leaders when he was going in to visit with them." Much of that information would have comes from signals intelligence. And the failure to inform the president that a piece of information came from spying on a leader could be a fireable offense, the former White House official said. "It's almost a dereliction not to tell him."

To date, no one has been dismissed from the White House staff--or the NSA--because Mr. Obama "wasn't informed" about surveillance activities directed against dozens of world leaders. 

Draw your own conclusions.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nuclear Blues

The Air Force's troubled nuclear enterprise is in hot water--again. 

According to the Associated Press, at least two missile launch crews have been caught napping this year with the blast door open on their underground command post.  Regulations stipulate that the massive door--designed to keep terrorists and other threats from gaining access to the launch center and its nuclear codes--can remain open if both crew members are awake, but must be shut if one is asleep.

Sources tell the AP that numerous violations of the rule have occured, but so far, only two crews have been punished.  One of the crews was assigned to the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota, while the other is part of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana.  Both of those units (along with the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming) is responsible for 150 nuclear-armed Minuteman III ICBMs, dispersed in silos up to 100 miles from each installation.  Individual launch crews are responsible for 10 missiles and train for the unthinkable--unleashing nuclear armageddon, if directed by the national command authority.

The blast door violation is merely the latest black eye for USAF nuclear units.  Earlier this year, 17 missile launch officers at Minot were temporarily decertified for nuclear duty after an inspection revealed problems with their performance.  A separate evaluation led to a failing grade for the 341st Wing at Malmstrom, after discrepancies were discovered in a security forces group assigned to protect the missile fields.  The commander of that unit, Colonel David Lynch, was subsequently fired. 

And earlier this month, the Air Force relieved Major General Michael Carey, commander of 20th Air Force, the "parent" organization for the three missile wings.  An Air Force spokesman said Carey's dismissal was related to "personal misconduct" during a temporary duty assignment and was not sexual in nature, or related to U.S. nuclear operations.

Sadly, this latest round of dismissals, failed inspections and disciplinary actions is hardly new.  We've been documenting problems in Air Force nuclear units for more than six years, dating back to an infamous 2007 incident where nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly transferred from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.  Warheads on the missiles (which were being retired from active service) were supposed to be removed before being flown to Barksdale, but various Air Force personnel, ranging from munitions specialists to the crew of the ferry aircraft, failed to notice that the weapons were still armed. 

Since then, the service has suffered through more busted evaluations, more dismissals and more disciplinary actions, yet the problems persist.  In the interim, the Air Force has spent millions on additional training and the creation of a new organization (Global Strike Command), measures that were supposed to fix the problems and provide a new level of direction and leadership for strategic nuclear units. 

But if the recent rash of problems is any indication, GSC has a way to go.  And that invites some rather obvious questions, beginning with the issue of accountability.  How much blame (if any) should be assigned to senior leadership, beginning with Lieutenant General James Kowalski, the current commander.  In a recent interview with the Associated Press, General Kowalski blamed missile blast door problem on a breakdown in discipline among a handful of crews.  That's certainly a factor, but given the recent string of failures, it would seem that GSC's problems go beyond a few missileers who don't follow checklists.  Apparently, the AP didn't ask General Kowalski how much of the blame for the Air Force's nuclear woes fall on his shoulders, and those of his leadership team.   

Indeed, when the 91st Missile Wing experienced its latest failures, senior leadership at Minot expressed concern about "rot" within the crew force.  That's a rather damning indictment, given the gravity of the mission assigned to missile crews, most of whom are in their early 20s and serving their first or second operational assignment.  And, when you factor in the issues that have affected Air Force bomb wings in recent years, there should be genuine concern about problems facing the service's nuclear units and why they persist to this day. 

In fairness, it should be noted that the nuclear mission is extraordinarily demanding, with no room for error.  Failure in a single area during a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) means the wing flunks the entire evaluation, as evidenced by the security problems at Malmstrom earlier this year.  Additionally, inspections are now conducted on a no-notice basis, which means nuclear units must train and prepare constantly, never knowing when the evaluators will show up at the gate. 

But that doesn't excuse the epidemic of failures, either.  The Air Force isn't the only service entrusted with the strategic mission.  Much of the nation's nuclear deterrent resides with the Navy's fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and there have been virtually no reports of inspection failures among those units.  Similarly, there have been few failures among tactical nuclear units in all the branches of the military.  Those organizations must also meet exacting standards for nuclear security, maintenance and operations, yet their evaluation record has been much better in recent years.  Has anyone bothered to ask why the tactical nuke community has fared better, and what lessons (if any) might be adopted by Air Force strategic units?

And that brings us back to that nagging issue of accountability.  Back in the glory days of Strategic Air Command (SAC), the nation's bomber and missile forces remained razor-sharp, a legacy of General Curtis LeMay and his insistence on the highest standards for units under his command.  But with the end of SAC more than 20 years ago (and the end of the Soviet threat), focus on the nuclear mission became blurred and standards eroded.  Nuclear duty, particularly in places like North Dakota and Wyoming, became something to be avoided, if at all possible.  With the advent of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear specialists were sometimes deployed for jobs far beyond their expertise, serving as interrogators and prison guards.  Predictably, training and readiness continued to suffer, culminating in the Barksdale debacle and subsequent failures.  Along the way, a few Colonels and scores of lower-ranking personnel lost their jobs, but flag officers generally escaped blame. 

Case-in-point?  Colonel Michael Fortney presided over two failed inspections as commander of the missile wing at Malmstrom between 2008-2010.  Yet, he was still promoted to Brigader General and today serves as Director of Operations at Global Strike Command.  Some of the O-6s who lost their jobs over similar failures must be scratching their heads, along with those missileers who got hammered for various infractions in recent months. 

As for General Kowalski, he has been confirmed as the next Vice Commander of US Strategic Command, which directs all of the nation's nuclear bomber, ballistic missile submarine and land-based ICBM forces.  His predecessor, Navy Vice Admiral Timothy Giardina, was recently fired amid allegations that he used counterfeit chips while gambling at a casino in Iowa.  Giardina has been reassigned to the Navy staff in Washington (and reverts to two-star rank), but there seems little doubt that he will be allowed to retire as a flag officer.  As for Generals Fortney and Kowalski, their careers are still moving along, and some have speculated that Kowalski's new job is a stepping stone to command of STRATCOM. 

There is plenty of blame to go around for continuing problems in the Air Force nuclear community.  And those failures will likely continue, as along as accountability remains selective in nature.                    



Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Your Tax Dollars Take Flight

If you're near Andrews AFB in the Washington, DC area (or MacDill AFB in Tampa) later this week, look up and watch.  You'll see hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars fly by, in close formation.

The money is being spent to fly Congress to Florida for the funeral of long-time representative C.W. "Bill" Young, who died last week at the age of 82.  Mr. Young spent 43 years in the House of Representatives, and served as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1999-2005.  During his long career in Congress, Young was known as a tireless champion of the U.S. military and veterans' causes.  He was the longest-serving Republican in the House at the time of his death.

By all accounts, Congressman Young was an able public servant, and deserving of an appropriate send-off from friends and colleagues.  So, it's not surprising that Congressional leaders decided to suspend the current session for a couple of days, so members could attend Mr. Young's funeral.  Nothing wrong with that.

But there's something disconcerting about plans for getting Congressmen and Senators to Florida for the memorial service.  It was announced today that the Air Force will fly the Congressional contingent to the Sunshine State, so they can pay last respects to their late colleague.  That certainly simplifies transportation arrangements for the trip, but it also incurs a rather large tab for the taxpayer.

Let's say 150 members of the House and Senate decide to attend Mr. Young's funeral; given his decades of service, that sort of turn-out wouldn't be unprecedented.  So, you've got to fly scores of members from both chambers to Florida, along with a smaller number of staffers.  For argument's sake, we'll put the total contingent at 200.  By mobilizing most of its C-32 fleet (five of six aircraft), the Air Force can get the group from Andrews to Tampa (and back again) for "only" $847,920.

Figure it this way: each C-32 (the military version of a Boeing 757) seats 45 people very comfortably.  So, you need five C-32s to haul the Congressional delegation to Florida.  It costs $42,396 to operate a single C-32 for one hour of flying time; round-trip between Andrews and MacDill is just over four hours.  So, it will cost the taxpayers at least $169,584 for each C-32 flight, and a whopping $847,920 for five aircraft.  That assumes, of course, that the Air Force can muster five C-32s, since those aircraft are sometimes out of service for maintenance, or assigned to other missions.

Other options for the trip include the VC-25, the Boeing 747 that has the callsign of Air Force One when the President is on-board.  The VC-25 has room for 75 passengers, but it's operating cost is pegged at $181,000 a hour.  So, the cost of flying that jet to Tampa is somewhere around $750,000.  The Air Force also has a fleet of business jets, including Gulfstream IIIs and G550s, which can carry up to 19 passengers--at a cost of $32,000 per flying hour.  Obviously, you'd need quite a few business jets to ferry the Congressional delegation to Florida, but hey, when you've just raised the debt limit (again), who's going to quibble over a paltry million or so?

Are there cheaper options?  If it was up to us, we'd cram the legislative group into the cargo bay of a C-17 transport, in troop seats, with a grumpy loadmaster passing out box lunches.  A single C-17 can carry up to 134 passengers in that configuration, so you'd only need a couple of Globemaster IIIs to carry the Congressmen (and women) to Tampa.  And at $23,000 per flying hour, it's a relative bargain.  Of course, our legislative betters wouldn't stand for those spartan accomodations, so don't expect the Capitol Hill crowd to travel in C-17s.

We should also mention that any member of Congress can purchase a round-trip ticket from Reagan National to Tampa International for for an average of $468, on USAir or Jet Blue, with plenty of convenient departure and return flight options.  Total cost for flying 200 Congressmen and staffers to Florida?  Only $93,600, roughly the cost of 30 minutes flying time on a VC-25.  If the delegation is smaller, the savings to the taxpayer would be even greater.  But then again, this is the same "group" that voted a $174,000 death benefit to the widow of a recently-deceased U.S. Senator who left an estate valued at $50 million.  They will provide a similar gratuity to Congressman Young's wife in the coming weeks.  Saving money isn't exactly at the top of their agenda. 

Bill Young deserves to be remembered as a dedicated and honorable public servant who did much for the men and women who wear the nation's uniform.  But it's also a shame that the public observation of his life brings out the worst in Congress, which is happy to stick taxpayers with a huge bill for military airlift, instead of traveling like The Rest of Us.         
ADDENDUM:  Reader Vigilis reminds us that Congress adopted new austerity measures earlier this year, aimed at reducing their use of military aircraft.  Naturally, those restrictions went out the window when large delegations flew to Hawaii for the funeral of Senator Daniel Inouye, and to New Jersey for services honoring the late Senator Frank Lautenberg.  So, when a ranking Republican member died, the GOP was happy to follow protocol, and requested VIP airlift from the USAF.

One more note: while the aircraft used to ferry Congressmen around the world belong to Air Mobility Command (AMC), the actual flights are coordinated through the office of the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General Larry Spencer.  Nothing unusual about that; the vice chief has been the point man for VIP flights for decades.  Can't leave those missions up to some low-ranking staff officer; after all, the Air Force is keenly aware of who approves its budget, so when Congress needs a jet for a funeral or junket, the service is only happy to comply.                                        

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Gathering Storm (Long-Range Training Edition)

Like other modern militaries, the Israeli Air Force routinely conducts long-range training missions, sharpening navigation and air refueling skills that would be needed for a strike against a distant target like Iran. 

However, the IAF doesn't always publicize such efforts.  For starters, such missions occur on a regular basis, and the Israelis don't see a need to publicize routine training.  There's also the matter of operational security; no reason to give your enemies any "free" information. 

That's why it was a bit surprising that the Israelis announced a recent long-range training mission in Greece.  According to Haaretz, IAF "fighter squadrons" took part in an exercise with Hellenic air and ground units earlier this week.   The Israeli Air Force even posted pictures of the event on its website, though the location was not disclosed.  Still, it didn't take much effort for the Israeli and Greek media to discover where the IAF was training, and what the drill was aimed at replicating--a mission against Iran:

"Israeli Air Force fighter squadrons have carried out exercises testing their capability to conduct missions at long ranges from base, the Israeli military said Thursday. The drills included air-to-air refueling and dogfights against foreign combat planes.

A report on New Greek TV last Friday, citing the Hellenic Air Force, said the Greek air force took part in the exercises "under a joint military cooperation program."

The drill, with the participation of Israeli F-15s and F-16s and Greek aircraft and naval units, will be carried out in the western Peloponnese and the Myrtoon Pelagos on October 8-9, the report said.

Obviously, the drill sent a not-so-subtle signal to Iran, which recently reaffirmed its "right" to enrich uranium.  During his recent speech at the U.N., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the "softer" rhetoric of Iran's new leader, Hasan Rouhani is nothing more than a trick, aimed at persuading the west to remove sanctions against Tehran.

Not too many years ago, Israel conducted this type of training in Turkey.  But with the rise of Islamists in Ankara, the IAF has found a new partner in Greece.  Flying north across the Mediterranean not only gives the Israelis a chance to rehearse long-range missions, they can also train against a NATO air force, operating fourth generation fighters. 

But training in Greece offers one more attraction.  The Greeks operate the advanced, Russian-made S-300 SAM system, acquired from their Cypriot brethren.  And while Moscow has never made good on expected S-300 sales to Iran and Syria, the system will likely show up sooner or later in one--or both--countries.  As part of their drills, it's a fair bet that IAF pilots flew against the S-300, allowing them to further refine tactics that would be used when they face those missiles in Syria, or Iran.       


Told Ya So...

We predicted more than two years ago that Katie Couric wasn't exactly a good fit for daytime TV.  But that didn't deter the suits at Disney/ABC, who green-lighted her afternoon talk show, in Oprah Winfrey's old time slot. 

It was supposed to be a sure thing; after all, Ms. Couric ruled the roost as co-host of the once-dominant "Today" show.  Of course, her stint in the anchor chair at the "CBS Evening News" was something of a debacle; the evening newscast remained mired in third place throughout her five years on the job and ratings actually declined with her at the helm--no mean feat, considering the hole dug by her predecessor, Dan Rather. 

Still, the smart boys at girls at Disney were undeterred.  The Couric talk fest was given an annual budget of $50 million, roughly twice that of competing shows.  The host's salary accounted for roughly 40% of total, meaning that Couric actually got a pay raise from the $15 million a year she was making at CBS.  It was supposed to be a smart investment; plenty of TV executives saw "Katie" as a sure thing. 

Now, that "sure thing" appears headed for cancellation.  From The Hollywood Reporter:

"One of the TV's priciest daytime experiments soon could be coming to an end. Stations throughout the U.S. are contracted to carry Katie Couric's syndicated talk show through summer 2014, but the decision on whether Katiewill score a third season likely will be made this month -- and renewal seems a long shot.


Disney/ABC projected the reteaming of Couric with her Todayexecutive producer Jeff Zucker would average a 2.5 household rating, which would have made Katie one of the biggest syndicated launches. Instead, it averaged a 1.7 during its first season and a 1.8 so far this season. (A Couric spokesman insists she never approved the 2.5 projection.)


Katie insiders say the problem is that Couric has refused to shape shows with softer features to appeal to daytime's key 25-to-54-year-old female demo, insisting instead on the kind of harder-edged interviews she enjoyed on Today and her stint as anchor of CBS Evening News.

Couric's show has also been plagued by a constant turnover of key personnel.  Still, the biggest problem may be the host herself.  In a previous article, The Hollywood Reporter cited results of recent "likeability" surveys on various daytime TV hosts; Couric finished near the bottom, viewed favorably by only 10% of the audience and unfavorably by 21%.  By comparison, Ellen DeGeneres has favorable and unfavorable "Q" scores of 29 and 10% respectively. 

It's worth noting that the survey was conducted among female viewers, the key demo for any daytime talk show.  If women aren't watching Katie now, there's little reason to believe they will tune in next year.  Incidentally, the likeability data was almost certainly leaked by Disney execs (to signal an impending cancellation), or by rival production firms, who would like to put their own shows on stations now carrying Katie. 

Meanwhile, Couric's smaller-than-expected audience is driving down ratings for the late afternoon/early evening news shows on many local stations.  Among that group are the eight TV stations owned by Disney/ABC; most dominate the local news ratings in their markets, but with a poor lead-in from the Couric show, their audience may also shrink, driving down revenues from an all-important profit center. 

There are also reports that Disney is working on a vehicle for "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts, though both the host and the network deny those claims.  Still, there is no doubt that Ms. Roberts is far more popular than Couric; since assuming the lead role on GMA, that program has become the dominant morning program on network TV, ending "Today's" long run in the top slot. 

While I never reached the executive suite during my days in the broadcasting salt mines, Katie Couric's  failure as a talk show host is anything but a surprise.  Many viewers consider her shrill, strident, and biased, qualities that don't wear well on an afternoon talk show. 

But don't shed any tears for The Perky One.  by various accounts, she is already in talks with Yahoo and CNN about possible deals when her current contract with ABC expires next summer.  Other speculation centers on a possible return to "Today," although her long-time co-host Matt Laurer is expected to depart next year, and it's doubtful NBC would give her the type of contract she wants.  On the other hand, Couric's former executive producer Jeff Zucker is now running CNN, which remains ratings-challenged.  Given their long association, it's not hard to envision Couric getting a fat contract with that network, giving her the opportunity to "fail up" once more. 

A final note for the program development folks at Disney/ABC.  If you need a consultant to help you find a replacement for Katie, give us a call.  We'll give better advice (and at a lower price) that you received two years ago, when Couric in the afternoons seemed like such a good idea.                       


Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Simply Shameful

If you're looking to make a charitable donation in the near future, please consider the Fisher House Foundation.  Not only does that wonderful organization provide temporary lodging for military families visiting their wounded warriors--at no cost--they also stepped up when the Pentagon failed the familes of armed forces personnel recently killed in Afghanistan. 

As you might have heard, the military stopped paying the $100,000 death benefit to the survivors of military members who died in the line of duty.  That meant the families of four soldiers and one Marine who were killed recently not only had lost the death gratuity; they also had to pay their way to Dover AFB, Delaware to meet the remains of their loved ones.  From Dan Riehl at

""Unfortunately, as a result of the shutdown, we do not have the legal authority to make death gratuity payments at this time," said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense Department spokesman. "However, we are keeping a close eye on those survivors who have lost loved ones serving in the Department of Defense."

That must be reassuring for spouses, parents, siblings and other relatives who must deal with the loss of a loved one and a military that can't pay promised benefits.  So, the Fisher House stepped in and agreed to pay the gratuity (and travel expenses for family members) until the government can get its act together.  Supposedly, the feds will reimburse the charity at some point down the road.     Realizing it had a p.r. disaster on its hands, the Obama Administration tried to blame Congressional Republicans and dispatched both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Secretary John McHugh to Dover, as the remains of four soliders returned to American soil.  It was Mr. Hagel's first visit to Dover after more than seven months in his post.      Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner claimed there was no reason for the interruption in payments.  Mr. Boehner said a bill passed by Congress last week--and signed by President Obama--gave the Pentagon wide latitude to pay all kinds of bills, including the death benefit.   And he may have a point.  Republican staffers on the Hill began hearing rumblings about the suspension of death benefits--after the funding bill was approved.  But if you believe the administration's version of events, lawyers and accountants at the Pentagon analyzed the measure and decided it didn't cover death benefits.     As a retired officer, I can assure you there are plenty of insensitive and stupid people in the DoD bureaucracy.  Still, it's absolutely stunning that senior officials could interpret an omnibus military funding bill and decide it didn't cover the death gratuity and related benefits.  Then again, these "leaders" are part of the same cabal that determined the government shutdown required the closing of open-air monuments.  Such "decisions" suggest a deliberate effort to inflict pain--and score political points.     That's not to say the GOP is not without blame.  If there was any doubt about the continuation of death benefits, Republicans should have passed a separate measure to cover those accounts.  The Pentagon Comptroller warned that death benefits might be suspended back on 27 September, giving lawmakers--and the White House--plenty of time to ensure that funding continued.  Ed Henry of Fox News also discovered that Obama aides knew about the situation "a few days ago," but did nothing.                    Asked about the scandal at the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney couldn't say when the president became aware of the situation, only that he expected Congress to "fix" the problem.  What leadership.     Here's a dirty little secret.  Even during shutdowns, DoD has large sums of money squirreled away in accounts and programs that are little more cutouts.  Some of the funds are used to pay for covert operations and other sensitive programs.  It takes a little fiscal maeuvering to move that money to other accounts, but it can be done.    A friend of mine, a retired Air Force budget officer, once related the story of how the U.S. paid a European ally for "special" basing rights for U-2 flights over Libya during the 1980s.  The money was transferred through an account that belonged to another federal agency, under the aegis of an insect eradication program.  Are today's Pentagon comptrollers any less creative than their counterparts from 30 years ago?       And if that's not bad enough, here's the final insult.  While the Fisher House is temporarily paying death benefits for fall service members, Secretary Hagel's executive dining room at the Pentagon remains open for business, according to military analyst Ralph Peters.  After all, the SecDef can't go without his gourmet fare, especially after those short-notice trips to Dover.                             

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Silver Lining (Government Shutdown Edition)

Contrary to what you hear from Harry Reid and the mainstream media, there is (at least) one silver lining to the current government shutdown. For at least a few days, the slackers, activists and criminals who inhabit the federal workforce won't be on the job.

Case in point?  Meet John Beale, the former EPA official who bilked the government out of at least $1 million dollars by (among other things), running a bogus research project that allowed him to visit family members in California, and faking a back injury that required him to fly first class on government business trips.  A single jaunt to London cost taxpayers at least $14,000, when a coach seat was available on the same flight for only $1,000.

But Beale was just getting started.  His masterpiece was wrangling a four-day workweek at EPA (with full pay) by claiming that he had a one-day-a-week gig at the CIA.  More on the environmental "secret agent man" from Fox News:

A high-ranking federal Environmental Protection Agency official who admitted to cheating the government out of nearly $1 million by pretending to be a secret agent, smugly refused to answer questions from lawmakers Tuesday, invoking the Fifth Amendment – even though he’s already pleaded guilty.

John Beale, who got himself a cushy four-day workweek for years by telling his bosses he had a one-day-per-week gig at the CIA, refused to answer even the most basic questions from Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Although Issa said his committee hauled Beale, 64, in not to “ridicule” him, but to ensure that the fraud he committed wasn’t being duplicated by other government employees, Beale calmly refused.

“I will be asserting my Fifth Amendment privilege this morning,” Beale, who also lied to superiors about serving in Vietnam, told a visibly frustrated Issa.

Beale’s trickery, which began more than a decade ago, cost taxpayers an estimated $886,000, much of it in the form of unearned pay over some 13 years. Under his plea agreement, he must pay that money back, as well as an additional $507,000, and serve 30-37 months in prison. His lawyer told the panel that his plea agreement did not require him to cooperate with lawmakers, though Issa said he would seek to make it a condition of acceptance of the plea and sentencing by U.S. District Judge Ellen Segel Huvelle.  

Mr. Beale began his deception in 2000, when he claimed to be part of an inter-agency task force that was based at CIA Headquarters.  So, every Friday for more than seven years, his EPA calendar indicated he was working at Langley.  But until recently, no one bothered to confirm his "association" with the spy agency.  In fact, Beale took six months off from his EPA duties in 2008, while supposedly serving with the CIA in Pakistan.  Cell phone records from period indicate that Beale was actually at his vacation home in Massachusetts.

The charade finally came to an end when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy questioned some of the expenses claimed by Beale.  An investigation by the agency's assistant inspector general quickly uncovered the long-running fraud.  In other words, someone finally picked up the phone and called the CIA, which confirmed that Beale had never worked for them.

During its probe, IG personnel interviewed more than 40 EPA staffers.  Only one suspected that Beale's claims of being a secret agent were false.  Apparently, there are a lot of stupid people employed at the agency, or they didn't want to rock the boat by making accusations against a high-ranking official. 

Beale was called before Congressman Issa's committee in an effort to determine the scope of the problem.  But don't expect answers from the soon-to-be-federal-inmate, or his former colleagues at EPA.  Investigators found an "absence of even basic controls" at the agency, suggesting that employees can work outside their office or travel for official-sounding reasons, and no one bothers to validate their claims.

If your taxpayer blood isn't boiling by now, here are two more facts that should provoke immediate outrage.  Under federal rules, IG personnel cannot compel former federal employees to talk.  Reading between the lines, it sounds like there was a mini-exodus from EPA about the time the brown matter hit the fan.  So far, we don't know how many of the 40 personnel contacted by the IG were "retired" by the time the investigation began.

Leading that parade was none other than John Beale.  He submitted his retirement papers just before the IG began its work.  That means Mr. Beale is already collecting a federal pension and will continue to receive a check during his stay in the federal pokey.  Who says crime doesn't pay?


And just because some of those EPA employees may be retired, it doesn't mean they still aren't latched onto the government teat.  It's almost certain that some who left under the cloud created by Beale are back in the building as consultants or contractors.  It's the federal way.

A few years back, there was a wave of dismissals at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) office in Dayton, OH, after it was discovered that a military staffer had stolen almost $1 million by creating phony invoices from non-existent vendors.  Because all of the invoices were for less than $100,000 ("budget dust," in the federal lexicon), no one caught onto the crime until he had pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the wake of this rampant fraud, a number of personnel, military and civilian, were fired.  Investigators believed that some of the staffers may have engaged in similar activity, or ignored what was going on.  Predictably, most of the civilians who lost their jobs were eventually rehired after arbitration, or they were brought back as contractors, because of their essential "expertise." 

As for the military member (Air Force) who actually went to jail, he never cooperated with investigators and served a five-year sentence at Levenworth.  After being released, he returned to Ohio and reportedly bought a house.  Pretty remarkable, considering that federal prisoners only earn $25 a month.     

With much of the federal bureaucracy now idle, taxpayers can take comfort in knowing that the crooks and deadbeats are at home for a few days, and not getting paid.  Then again, fraudsters in the John Beale mode were either already at home (with pay), or had themselves classified as "essential personnel."

In fairness, there are federal employees who earn every dime of their paycheck--and then some.  But in my own experience as a civil servant, I found those hard-working federal staffers were far out-numbered by the goldbricks, malcontents, office politicians, incompetents and yes, criminals, who dominate Uncle Sam's workforce.  For them, the government shut-down should be considered a reward for a job badly done--assuming, of course, they actually attempt to work.