Tilting at Windmills

By Peters, Charles | The Washington Monthly, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview
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Tilting at Windmills


Peters, Charles, The Washington Monthly


Langley's Bartlebys

I'm sure you're sick of hearing about "the talking points," but it's fascinating to discover that the real culprit was not Susan Rice or a sinister White House plot, but, according to Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous of the Wall Street Journal, a daylong debate at the CIA involving "more than two dozen intelligence officials, in which they contested and whittled the available evidence into a bland summary with no reference to al Qaeda." As a former public employee, I can testify that one of the most reliable rules of bureaucratic behavior is that the more officials involved in drafting a document, the more likely it is to be watered down, often to the verge of absolute meaninglessness.

A tale of two budgets

If you suspect that I have been overly cynical in my portrayal of government contractors, here is an example of how I got that way. It comes from a suit by the Department of Justice against the Gallup Organization. A whistleblower named Michael Lindley had helped prepare cost estimates for the organization when it was bidding for a government contract. Lindley says he was told to create two budgets--one considerably higher, to be given to the government, and another much lower, to be used within the organization to guide how much was actually spent carrying out the contract.

As a result of this practice, reports Sari Horowitz of the Washington Post, Gallup partners "frequently boasted that profit margins on government contracts were among the highest in the company." It's no wonder, then, that the Justice Department accuses Gallup of submitting $13 million worth of false invoices.

Washington's merry-go-round

The Gallup case also illustrates how the revolving door works in Washington. The Justice Department lawsuit alleges that Gallup conspired to hire a Federal Emergency Management Agency executive, if that executive succeeded in procuring a hefty contract for Gallup. In an email, which is now in the court records, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton writes that if the FEMA executive "gets us a big deal at FEMA ... i think we should hire him." The FEMA executive, who Clifton interviewed while he was still an employee of FEMA, then sent Gallup an email about the proposed contract with FEMA: "I got another 500k for the contract. Cool huh?"

Hey, we were learning something there

I have seldom found a kind word to say about the Style section of the New York Times. So I feel some obligation to note when they nail it, as Henry Alford did recently in the article "If I Do Humblebrag So Myself," with this example of the fine art of false humility, from a tweet by Paula Broadwell: "Honored and humbled to be included in @claudiachan's profiles of 'global remarkable women.'"

I must say that I regret the media's apparent loss of interest in Ms. Broadwell, as well as in Jill Kelley and Kelley's sister, Natalie Khawam. Each fact revealed about this trio has not only had the appeal of irresistibly juicy gossip, but has also raised serious questions about the judgment of two of our most highly esteemed generals.

Drop and give me fresh pineapple

Speaking of David Petraeus, when he arrived at the CIA in 2011 to take up his new duties as its head, he raised a few eyebrows by informing his aides that he expected a fresh bottle of water to be handed to him at the exact points he specified along his jogging route--and, by the way, while he was traveling he wanted fresh sliced pineapple at his bedside each night.

What the CIA officials may not have known is that such accoutrements are only a small part of the imperial trappings enjoyed by our top generals and admirals. Their perks have become so lavish, in fact, that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered an investigation. According to the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock, however, the conduct of the investigation has been assigned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who does not seem to be the most disinterested of possible observers.

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