Tag Archives: Government Accoutability

‘Millions’ Stolen in Decade-Long Buying Fraud At Florida VA Hospitals

Standard
Image: “Projectriskcoach.com

MILITARY.COM

At least 15 Department of Veterans Affairs employees and vendors in Florida were engaged in an “elaborate” fraud scheme that cost the government “millions” since 2009, two government agencies announced in a joint press conference .”

_____________________________________________________________________________

“Declining to give the exact amount allegedly stolen or say what tipped them off, the U.S. Attorney General for the Southern District of Florida and the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General said people affiliated with the Miami and West Palm Beach VA clinics were charged and arrested on charges including conspiracy to commit health care fraud, committing health care fraud and bribery.

Nine of the suspects were “low-level” procurement staff, officials said. They allegedly defrauded the VA by letting vendors charge inflated prices for products or saying vendors supplied an order that was completely or partially unfilled. The employees would then receive a kickback on what the VA paid those vendors, officials said.

“This fraud scheme was clearly carried out, not only by the VA employees but deceptively with those vendors. And both of them are equally culpable in this scheme,” district Attorney General Ariana Fajardo Orshan said.

Officials also announced a separate but similar alleged fraud scheme that they suspect involved disabled veteran Lisa Anderson, 48, of Delray Beach. The attorney general has charged Anderson with false statements on her Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business application, accusing her of selling her preferred VA contract status to businesses she was not connected to.

OIG and AG officials praised their work in apprehending the suspects, but they called the investigation “ongoing” and did not comment on whether there will be any more arrests.

Orshan emphasized those arrested in the alleged kickback schemes were not representative of the VA at large.

“However, that does not reflect on the many, many well-intended, hard-working individuals that work for the VA medical services, she said, “and I want to clearly state that so it’s just a couple of bad apples.”

The maximum prison sentence for the charges are as follows: 10 years for conspiracy to commit health care fraud, 15 years for bribery and 20 years for falsifying records.”

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/12/11/millions-stolen-decade-long-buying-fraud-florida-va-hospitals-officials-say.html

Government Contract “Bad Actor” Awarded $400 Million Border Wall Contract

Standard

UPDATE: The Number 2 – Historical “Bad Actor” in terms of government contract fines and violations cited in this “Project on Government Oversight” article earlier this year has now been awarded a $400 Million Contract for border wall construction.

Time for the competition protests; but none of them have a clean slate either.

Image: Matassii.com

“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (POGO)”

“The past conduct of three contractors—Caddell Construction, W.G. Yates & Sons, and Fisher Sand & Gravel—should concern contracting officers and prompt stronger oversight in future contracts to ensure that these companies play by the rules.”

______________________________________________________________________________

“Caddell Construction and W.G. Yates & Sons

“While Customs and Border Protection (Border Patrol) invited four companies to design one border wall prototype, Caddell Construction and W.G. Yates each designed two—one made of concrete and the second of other materials—giving them half of the prototypes that Border Patrol assessed. Both Caddell and Yates are currently the subjects of an unreported years-long whistleblower lawsuit alleging that they, through a joint venture, fraudulently misrepresented their use of small business subcontracts for a 2009 Camp Lejeune project. The government partially intervened in the case, securing a guilty plea from the owner of the subcontractor involved—Pompano Masonry. She pleaded guilty in 2015 to lying to investigators and received a 30-month prison sentence.

The lawsuit, filed by former Pompano Masonry employee Rickey Howard, alleges that Caddell and Yates, while engaged in a $190 million construction project for the Navy at Camp Lejeune, encouraged Pompano to create a sham small business that they would then use to route Pompano’s payments through. Doing so would allow Caddell and Yates to count the work done by Pompano (a large business) as if it were being done by a small business, helping them fulfill their small business subcontracting plan. For this service, the lawsuit claims, they offered and paid Pompano an additional 2 percent of the subcontract’s almost $15 million value—over $250,000.

Aside from the creation of a fake small business that existed only on paper, Caddell and Yates appear to have regularly used “pass-through” small businesses on that project. The lawsuit alleges a dozen different instances where Caddell and Yates chose large, trusted contractors to perform the work, and then paid small businesses one to two percent of the subcontract value to act as middlemen so Caddell and Yates could meet their small business subcontracting goal of 77 percent. This resulted in some rather unusual arrangements, such as Caddell and Yates routing a $1.4 million subcontract for food service equipment through a small landscaping company called Power Mulch—for a 1 percent fee.

Don’t write Howard off as just a disgruntled employee. After leaving his job at Pompano Masonry and filing the lawsuit, Howard went to work at Harper Construction. Within a few short months, he discovered that Harper was using sham small businesses as well. A much shorter lawsuit ensued, and in June 2016, Harper Construction paid the government $5.4 million to settle those allegations. “This type of fraud siphons taxpayer dollars and takes away opportunities for legitimate small businesses for which this money was set aside,” said then-U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy in a press release.

A spokesperson for Yates responded to our questions about the case with the following statement:

“Yates Construction believes that the plaintiff’s qui tam case against it is baseless. Plaintiff’s allegations are just that—allegations—untested and prove nothing. The government declined to join the case after conducting its own inquiry into this matter. Moreover, the Navy gave Caddell-Yates an outstanding rating for the construction project at issue. Yates Construction is vigorously defending the case, and is seeking summary judgement. Yates Construction fully expects to prevail in the matter.”

On a different contract in 2011, Caddell was caught abusing two different small business programs to defraud the government. Ironically for a border wall contractor, the fraud was discovered during a joint General Services Administration and Department of Laborinvestigation of a Caddell subcontractor that was hiring immigrants who were working in the country illegally. Caddell ended up paying $2 million in criminal penalties and $1.15 million in civil penalties.

As the investigation progressed, investigators found that Caddell was billing the government for time spent “mentoring” a Native American small business it subcontracted with, when in reality there was no mentoring going on. In fact, this small business, Mountain Chief Management Services, wasn’t even doing any work. Caddell was using the small business as a pass-through entity to claim incentive payments and boost their small business contracting goal statistics.

The investigation found that this wasn’t the only project in which Caddell had been found to have defrauded the government. According to a report obtained by POGO, Caddell claimed over $1.2 million from the two programs by “citing Mountain Chief as a subcontractor on various U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects from 2003-2005.”

In 2014, after the investigation was complete and the settlement agreed to, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still sent the Army’s Procurement Fraud Division a recommendation to debar Caddell, according to documents obtained by POGO through FOIA. The referral asserts that “it is in the Government’s interest to debar Caddell Construction Co. … based upon the submission of numerous false statements and/or false claims to obtain payment.” Debarment—which prevents a company from extending, renewing, or bidding on government contracts—usually lasts at least three years. It would have been a major problem for Caddell, which has received over $5 billion from the federal government in the last decade. In the end, Caddell escaped debarment, receiving only a warning.

The Caddell employee deemed most responsible for the fraud, Mark Hill, pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and was debarred in 2015. His debarment will end July 1, 2018, but debarring individuals only prevents them (or a company they run) from bidding on and receiving a federal contract or grant. It does not prevent them from working on federal contracts as an employee. Despite the wrongdoing, a company news article appears to indicate that Hill remains employed with Caddell as the Director of Operations for Caddell Power, a subsidiary of Caddell Construction.

Caddell has had a previous run-in with the debarment process. In 1999, the U.S. Air Force officially proposed to debar Caddell, making them immediately ineligible for any government contracts and giving them a chance to argue against it before it became final. The details of the proposed debarment are unclear, but in the end Caddell was ineligible for just eight days.

Caddell told POGO that it does not comment on its government contracting work. Caddell also did not respond to POGO’s request to verify Mark Hill’s continued employment. However, the 2017 article showing a picture of Mark Hill accepting an award on behalf of Caddell was removed the day after the request for comment was sent.

Fisher Sand & Gravel

Fisher Sand & Gravel has a rap sheet that is too long to list here, racking up around two thousand violation notices from city, county, state, and federal regulatory bodies, many relating to the company’s disregard for air pollution standards. Completely aside from the then-owner of the company being sent to prison for tax fraud in 2009, the city of Phoenix reportedly filed 467 criminal charges against the company in 2010, stemming primarily from violations at one facility’s asphalt plant. The company ended up shutting down the offending plant a month later and paying the city at least $243,000 in fines. Early the next year it settled a lawsuit with Maricopa County for $1 million, stating that it was “relieved to finalize this settlement and to move forward with a clean slate.”

Three months later, in April 2011, the company paid $312,000 to settle a civil case brought by the State of Arizona for air and water quality violations that spanned six counties. That settlement covered issues such as illegally dumping waste into a river, operating for up to 16 hours a day instead of the permitted 3.3 hours, and having exhaust stacks that were half as high as they were required to be. Instead of requiring Fisher Sand & Gravel to pay the full amount to the state, the settlement allowed them to put two-thirds of the fine towards an Environmental Management System that would prevent future problems. In 2013, however, the state found more violations and the company was forced to pay $500,000.

Also in 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fined Fisher Sand & Gravel $150,000 for “failing to comply with dust mitigation regulations” at three sand and gravel producing facilities in 2010. “Some nights there was so much [dust] in the air, it looked like fog outside,” a nearby homeowner told azfamily.com. “If you took a deep breath, it would make you cough.” That fine also included a requirement to install water spray bars in and around the machinery at one Phoenix area plant to help control the dust. While the dust problems at that location appear to have been addressed, the county air-quality department issued a $2,160 citation related to dust control as recently as January 2017 over a different Phoenix facility.

Other federal bodies have fined Fisher Sand & Gravel for additional issues. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fined them $150,000 in 2011 for discrimination and retaliation, the EPA fined them again in 2016 for $18,654, and there are several fines from the Mine Safety and Health Administration ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 between 2008 and 2016. Azcentral.com also reports that the company has faced environmental complaints and violations in other states including Michigan and Montana.

“Fisher Sand & Gravel Fisher is a good environmental steward and we take environmental responsibility very seriously,” the company wrote in a 2018 statement to Fox News. “We complied with all orders and everything has been resolved.” Given the company’s history of recurring violations and the recent county-level citations, however, it would be wise to take these words with a grain of salt.

Fisher did not respond to POGO’s request for comment.

Contractor Misconduct Rarely Leads the Government to Meaningfully Debar Companies

Unfortunately, contractor misconduct is not rare, and the government does little to punish frequent abusers—especially when they are large companies. POGO’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database is full of contractors that have together paid out over $100 billion for various kinds of misconduct but continue to receive hundreds of billions each year in taxpayer funds. If the government ends up awarding one of these three contractors a future contract, it would be wise to build in additional safeguards and oversight.

What future contracts they might be involved in remains unclear. The Trump Administration appears dedicated to fulfilling the campaign promise of a “big beautiful wall,” but both Congress and Mexico have so far declined to pay for it. While the recently passed appropriations bill includes $1.6 billion in funding for border security, the vast majority of that funding is specifically dedicated to additional fencing, personnel, and border security technology. None of the fencing funds can be spent on new designs (aka “the wall”), and only $38 million is allocated towards border wall “planning and design” (Section 230, starting at p. 673). That is far below the $18 billion that Border Patrol requested from Congress in January for the first phase of the wall. President Trump, however, remains committed to the project and has requested that the states deploy the National Guard to bolster security—despite the fact that the Guard is prohibited from performing civil law enforcement duties. “The Guard will provide air support, reconnaissance support, operational support, construction of border infrastructure, and logistical support,” according to an Arizona National Guard statement. Exactly how involved they will be in “border infrastructure” is unclear, although California Governor Jerry Brown made clear that “this will not be a mission to build a new wall.” Adding to the uncertainty, California yesterday rejected the Trump Administration’s proposed duties for the troops because they were too closely related to immigration enforcement.

There has been speculation that President Trump might attempt to divert military funds to build the wall, but that would be a complicated process requiring Congressional approval. It is far more likely that the Administration will simply wait and request more funding for the wall in the next appropriations bill, which is due this October.

Despite President Trump’s early statements that he will personally select the winning border wall design, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “does not anticipate that a single prototype design will be selected,” according to an email from Southwest Border Branch Chief Carlos Diaz. “Rather, the eight different prototypes are each anticipated to inform future border wall design standards in some capacity.” As far as the DHS is concerned, the “contract for [prototype] construction has been completed” and agency leadership is evaluating potential next steps.

When asked about the potential for military funding for the wall, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to provide details, instead stating that “the continuation of building the wall is ongoing, and we’re going to continue moving forward in that process.”

https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2018/04/bad-actors-among-border-wall-contractors/

Why The Pentagon Wants To Be More Like McDonald’s

Standard
Image: Deafness News

“DEFENSE NEWS”

“The department would be lovin’ it if they could mirror some of McDonald’s supply chain strategies. “taking a page from McDonald’s, who is very good at managing and acquiring goods and services by category.”

The example of the humble two-by-four, [lumber] for which the Pentagon had 22 different acquisition contracts. “We necked it down to two contracts — $18 million in savings, which seems small, but when you have 40,000 contracting officers, those small items start to add up very quickly.”

______________________________________________________________________________

“If the U.S. Department of Defense wants to find efficiencies and bring down waste, it should look to McDonald’s, the nominee for the department’s No. 3 job said Tuesday.

No, the department isn’t ready to drop its rifles for Big Macs, nor is it taking a side in the perpetual Great Fast Food Competition between Ronald and Col. Sanders. But according to Lisa Hershman, the acting chief management officer who on Tuesday had a confirmation hearing to permanently fill the role, the department would be lovin’ it if they could mirror some of McDonald’s supply chain strategies.

Asked how the Pentagon can trim waste during her hearing, Hershman told senators that there are best practices that can be learned from big corporations in the private sector, including “taking a page from McDonald’s, who is very good at managing and acquiring goods and services by category.”

“We have a large DoD-wide category management reform initiative underway. We are looking at everything from what type, how many contracts we have for certain goods and services,” Hershman said. She held up the example of the humble two-by-four, for which the Pentagon had 22 different acquisition contracts.

“Here’s the problem: We found that amongst those 22, several of the contracts were from the same vendor at different price points,” Hershman said. “We necked it down to two contracts — $18 million in savings, which seems small, but when you have 40,000 contracting officers, those small items start to add up very quickly.”

Several times during her hearing, Hershman drew back upon her private sector experience and expressed her belief that common-sense contracting reforms such as the two-by-four case could net the Pentagon savings. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked few probing questions and largely gave the impression that Hershman should face limited, if any, opposition for the job.

Hershman formally became acting chief management officer on Dec. 1, 2018, after her predecessor was forced out of the position. But she was not nominated for the full job until August 2019.

The CMO position is not as high-profile a gig as other top Pentagon jobs, but the holder is the third-ranking official in the department, thanks to a series of congressional reforms in recent years. Capitol Hill’s intention was to empower the CMO to find efficiencies inside the Pentagon. Through February 2019, Hershman said her team found $4.4 billion in efficiencies and savings — a number she expects to grow in the future both through CMO-directed efforts and savings discovered through the Pentagon’s ongoing annual audit.”

https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2019/10/29/why-the-pentagon-wants-to-be-more-like-mcdonalds/

DHS (CIS) Freedom of Information Act Record System (“FIRST”) Cuts FOIA Backlog By 64%

Standard
Image: DHS

FEDERAL NEWS NETWORK

“Citizenship and Immigration Services attributes its success — a 64% drop in its FOIA backlog in 2019 — to its new FOIA tracking and processing system, called the Freedom of Information Act Record System (FIRST).

It’s the only end-to-end system in government that handles FOIA submissions, manages them and then responds to the public online.”

____________________________________________________________________________

“The Department of Homeland Security and one of its busiest components, Citizenship and Immigration Services, both say they’ve made notable progress on their Freedom of Information Act backlogs this year, even though they’re fielding more requests than ever.

But, like many aspects of the department, various components have their own disparate approaches, and processing and tracking systems, to handle incoming FOIA requests. A departmentwide approach, which the Government Accountability Office said is key to DHS’ attempts to address its FOIA backlog, isn’t finished yet.

CIS received more than 200,000 FOIA requests in 2019. Meckley said processing times for a CIS FOIA case are down, on average, by more than 22 minutes. She attributed the improvements to FIRST.

CIS alone handles about half of the department’s FOIA requests, which represent about a quarter of all governmentwide inquiries.

Requests to DHS represent nearly 45% of all FOIA inquiries across government.

DHS in fiscal 2019 processed nearly 430,000 FOIA requests, a 14% increase over the previous year’s total of roughly 400,000 requests, James Holzer, deputy chief FOIA officer for the department, said.

The department said it ended 2019 with a backlog of 32,500 FOIA requests, a 40% decrease over the previous year’s backlog.

DHS also has its own enterprise FOIA tracking and processing system, which six out of nine components currently use, Holzer said.

But members on the House Homeland Security Oversight, Management and Accountability Subcommittee expressed some concern that DHS components still use disparate FOIA systems.

Previously, CIS only accepted FOIA requests by mail, fax or email. Requesters received a CD in the mail with the appropriate documents, Meckley said.

Requesters using the new system can create an online account to submit and receive documents digitally.

“Early indications are that FOIA processors are almost doubling productivity,” Meckley said. “The digital request, management and delivery process will save time, improve efficiency and eliminate potential errors that can occur when manually handle paper.”

Meckley acknowledged CIS and other DHS components have vastly different lines of business, but she sees an opportunity for other pieces of the department to tap into her agency’s services.

“For us the concentration has been focusing on a technical solution that not only met yesterday’s needs but today’s needs and tomorrow’s needs,” she said. “We are in that position now. We are poised to share information about FIRST with other DHS components. I think that solution is one that is scalable.”

On occasion, the components have shared information with each other and processed FOIA requests on the other’s behalf, especially when it comes to immigration.

CIS and ICE, for example, once had a memorandum of agreement where CIS had processed certain requests for ICE.

That agreement isn’t in place today, and lawmakers questioned whether it should be.

“I don’t believe that’s been established, that there would be a significant cost savings to ICE,” Holzer said. “If we were to transfer resources from ICE to pay for CIS to process those records, it could actually impact further operations at ICE.”

The structure of FOIA within DHS has changed, he said, the new end-to-end tracking systems that agencies like CIS are building could

“When we had those memorandums between the components, it was almost necessary because the components were not able to utilize the technology that we had in place,” Holzer said. “The technologies that we currently have in place will allow the record sets to be transferred. I would assume that with a solution such as FIRST that we could grant access to other components to be able to process those records within that solution. If not then we could work with our colleagues to take a look at how we could utilize technology. But my big concern is that I do not want to take resources that are limited at ICE and have them shift it over to CIS to fund a solution that they’re not really interested in participating.”

Meckely said other agencies could easily begin to use the new CIS FOIA system. FIRST uses open source code, and the system is stored on an Amazon Web Services cloud, she said.

“If any DHS component or government agency wants us to expose that code and allow them to use that, we’re ready to have those technical conversations,” she said.”

Bestselling Pentagon Fiction

Standard
Image: Matt Wuerker -“Politico dot Com Gallery

THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (POGO)

Revolving-door hires and former defense executives in government remain a powerful force for the status quo in Pentagon spending.

They exert influence as needed to keep big-ticket weapons programs like the F-35 combat aircraft up and running, whether they are needed or not, whether they work as promised or not.

____________________________________________________________________________

“This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.

For the Pentagon, happy days are here again (if they ever left). With a budget totaling more than $1.4 trillion for the next two years, the department is riding high, even as it attempts to set the stage for yet more spending increases in the years to come.

With such enormous sums now locked in, Secretary of Defense (and former Raytheon lobbyist) Mark Esper is already going through a ritual that couldn’t be more familiar to Pentagon watchers. He’s pledged to “reform” the bureaucracy and the spending priorities of the Department of Defense to better address the latest proposed threats du jour, Russia and China. His main focus: paring back the Pentagon’s “Fourth Estate” — an alphabet soup of bureaucracies not under the control of any of the military services that sucks up about 20% of the $700 billion-plus annual budget.

Esper’s promises to streamline the spending machine should be taken with more than the usual grain of salt. Virtually every secretary of defense in living memory has made similar commitments, with little or nothing to show for them in terms of documented savings. Far from eliminating wasteful programs, efforts pursued by those past secretaries and by Congress under similar banners have been effective in only one obvious way: further reducing oversight and civilian control of the Pentagon rather than waste and inefficiency in it.

Examples of gutting oversight under the guise of reform abound, including attempting to eliminate offices focused on closing excess military bases and sidelining officials responsible for testing the safety and effectiveness of weapon systems before their deployment. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, for instance, the slogan of the day — “reinventing government” — ended up, in Pentagon terms, meaning the gutting of contract oversight. In fact, just to repair the damage from that so-called reform and rebuild that workforce took another $3.5 billion. Gordon Adams, former associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Management and Budget, noted accurately that such efforts often prove little more than a “phony management savings waltz.”

Secretary of Defense Esper has also pledged to eliminate older weapons programs to make way for systems more suited to great power conflict. Past efforts along these lines have meant attempts to retire proven, less expensive systems like the A-10 “Warthog” — the close-air-support aircraft that protects troops in combat — to make way for the over-priced, underperforming F-35 jet fighter and similar projects.

Never mind that a war with either Russia or China — both nuclear-armed states — would be catastrophic. Never mind that more effort should be spent figuring out how to avoid conflict with both of them, rather than spinning out scenarios for fighting them more effectively (or at least more expensively). Prioritizing unlikely scenarios makes for a great payday for contractors, but often sacrifices the ability of the military to actually address current challenges. It takes the focus away from effectively fighting the real asymmetric wars the U.S. has been fighting since World War II. It leaves taxpayers with massive bills for systems that almost invariably turn out to be over cost and behind schedule. Just as an infamous (and nonexistent) “bomber gap” with the Soviet Union was used by the Pentagon and its boosters to increase military spending in the 1950s, the current hype around ultra-high-speed, hypersonic weapons will only lead to sky’s-the-limit expenditures and a new global arms race.

Esper’s efforts may end up failing even on their own narrow terms. Reforming the Pentagon is hard work, not only because it’s one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, but because there are far too many parochial interests that profit from the status quo. Under the circumstances, it matters little if current spending patterns aren’t aligned with any rational notion of what it would take to defend the United States and its allies.

A Revolving-Door World

The Department of Defense regularly claims that it has implemented “efficiencies” to ensure that every penny of your tax dollars is being wisely spent. Such efforts, however, are little more than marketing ploys designed to fend off future calls for cuts in the Pentagon’s still-ballooning budget. Here are just two recent examples of this sadly familiar story.

In September 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report stating that the Department of Defense had provided insufficient evidence that $154 billion in alleged “efficiency savings” from fiscal years 2012 to 2016 had been realized; the department claimed credit for them anyway.

Just this month, the GAO came to a similar conclusion regarding a proposed Pentagon reform plan that was to save $18.4 billion between fiscal years 2017 and 2020. Its report stated that the Pentagon had “provided limited documentation of… progress,” which meant the GAO “could not independently assess and verify” it. Consider that a charitable way of suggesting that the Department of Defense was once again projecting a false image of fiscal discipline, even as it was drowning in hundreds of billions of your tax dollars. The GAO, however, failed to mention one crucial thing: even if those alleged savings had been realized, they would simply have been plowed into other Pentagon programs, not used to reduce the department’s bloated budget.

Esper and his colleagues have argued that it will be different this time. In an August 2nd memo, his principal deputy, David Norquist, stated that “we will begin immediately and move forward aggressively… The review will consider all ideas — no reform is too small, too bold, or too controversial to be considered.”

Even if Esper and Norquist were, however, to propose real changes, they would undoubtedly run into serious interference within the Pentagon, not to mention from their commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump, a man determined to plough ever more taxpayer dollars into the military, and from members of Congress in states counting on jobs generated by the military-industrial complex. Inside the Pentagon, on the other hand, resistance to change will be spearheaded by officials who previously held jobs in the defense industry or hope to do so in the future. We’re talking, of course, about those who have made use of, or will make use of, the infamous “revolving door” between weapons companies and the government. Consider that the essence of the military-industrial complex in action.

Such ties start at the top. During the Trump administration, the post of secretary of defense has been passed from one former defense industry figure to another, as if it were literally reserved only for key officials from major weapons makers. Trump’s first secretary of defense, retired General James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis, came to the Pentagon straight from the board of General Dynamics, a position he returned to shortly after leaving the department. Interim Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who followed him, had been an executive at Boeing, while current Secretary Esper was Raytheon’s former chief in-house lobbyist. The Pentagon’s number three official, John Rood, similarly comes courtesy of Lockheed Martin. And the list only goes on from there.

This has been a systemic problem in Democratic and Republican administrations, but there has been a marked increase in such appointments under Donald Trump. A Bloomberg Government analysis found that roughly half of the Obama administration’s top Pentagon officials had defense contractor experience. In the Trump administration, that number has reached a startling 80%-plus.

That revolving door, of course, swings both ways. Defense executives come into government, where they make decisions that benefit their former colleagues and companies. Then, as retiring government officials, they go to work for defense firms where they can use their carefully developed government contacts to benefit their new (or old) employers. This practice is endemic. A study by the Project On Government Oversight found 645 cases in which the top 20 defense contractors hired former senior government officials, military officers, members of Congress, or senior legislative staff as lobbyists, board members, or senior executives in 2018 alone.

There is, of course, nothing new about any of this. The late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) pinpointed the problem with the revolving door back in 1969:

“The easy movement of high-ranking military officers into jobs with major defense contractors and the reverse movement of top executives in major defense contractors into high Pentagon jobs is solid evidence of the military-industrial complex in operation. It is a real threat to the public interest because it increases the chances of abuse… How hard a bargain will officers involved in procurement planning or specifications drive when they are one or two years from retirement and have the example to look at over 2,000 fellow officers doing well on the outside after retirement?”

For his part, President Trump has repeatedly bragged about his role in promoting defense-related employment in key states, both from Pentagon budget increases and the sale of arms to repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. In March, he held a one-hour campaign-style rally for workers at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, at which he typically suggested that his budget increases had saved their jobs.

As for Congress, when the Army, in a rare move, actually sought to save a modest amount of money by canceling an upgrade of its CH-47 transport helicopter, the Senate struck back, calling for funding that the Pentagon hadn’t even requested in order to proceed with the program. The reason? Protecting jobs at Boeing’s Philadelphia-area factory that was scheduled to carry out the upgrades. Unsurprisingly, Trump seems fine with this congressional initiative (affecting the key battleground state of Pennsylvania), which still needs to survive a House-Senate conference on the defense bill.

The bottom line: Donald Trump is likely to oppose any changes that might have even the smallest impact on employment in states where he needs support in election campaign 2020. Defense industry consultant Loren Thompson summed up the case as follows: “We’re too close to the presidential election and nobody [at the White House] wants to lose votes by killing a program.” And keep in mind that this president is far from alone in taking such a stance. Similar reelection pressures led former President Jimmy Carter to increase Pentagon spending at the end of his term and caused the George H. W. Bush administration to reverse a decision to cancel the troubled V-22 Osprey, a novel part-helicopter, part-airplane that would later be implicated in crashes killing dozens of Marines.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

What would a genuine Pentagon reform plan look like? There are areas that could easily yield major savings with sufficient political will and persistence. The most obvious of these might be the Pentagon’s employment of more than 600,000 private contractors, many of whom do jobs that could be done by government civilians for less. Cutting that work force to “only” about half a million, for example, could save more than a quarter of a trillion dollars over the next decade, as noted in a recent report by the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force (of which both authors of this article were members).

Billions more could be saved by eliminating unnecessary military bases. Even the Pentagon claims that it has 20% more facilities than it needs. A more reasonable, restrained defense strategy, including ending America’s twenty-first-century forever wars, would make far more bases redundant, both at home and among the 800 or so now scattered around the planet in an historically unprecedented fashion. Similarly, the president’s obsession with creating an expensive Space Force should be blocked, given that it’s likely only to increase bureaucracy and duplication, while ensuring an arms race above the planet as well as on it.

Real reform would also mean changing how the Pentagon does business (not to speak of the way it makes war). Such savings would naturally start by simply curbing the corruption that comes from personnel in high positions who are guaranteed to put the interests of defense contractors ahead of those of taxpayers and the real needs of American security. (There are also few restrictions on former officials working for foreign governments and almost no public disclosure on the subject.) The Project On Government Oversight found hundreds of Pentagon officials leaving for defense industry jobs, raising obvious questions about whether decisions they made were in the public interest or meant to advance their own future paydays.

Real reform would close the many loopholes in current ethics laws, extend cooling-off periods between when an official leaves government and when he or she can work for an arms contractor, and make far more prominent information about when retired national security officials switch teams from government to industry (or vice versa). Unfortunately, since Esper himself has refused to pledge not to return to the world of the corporate weapons makers after his stint as secretary of defense, this sort of reform will undoubtedly never be part of his “reform” agenda.

One outcome of his initiative, however, will definitely not be money-saving in any way. It will be to boost spending on high-tech systems like missile defense and artificial intelligence on the almost laughable grounds (given the past history of weapons development) that they can provide more military capability for less money. Whether you look at the Navy’s Ford aircraft carriers — the first two costing $13.1 billion and $11.3 billion — or the Air Force’s aerial refueling tanker (which has taken nearly two decades to procure), it’s not hard to see how often vaunted technological revolutions prove staggeringly costly — far, far beyond initial estimates — yet result in smaller, less effective forces. As longtime Pentagon reformer Tom Christie has pointed out, to really change the acquisition system would require building in significantly more discipline. That would mean demonstrating the effective and reliable use of new technology through rigorous field-testing before advancing fragile weapons systems to the production stage, ensuring future maintenance and other headaches for troops in combat.

There is, in addition, a larger issue underlying all this talk of spending reform at the Pentagon. After all, Esper’s “reforms” are visibly designed to align Pentagon spending with the department’s new priority: combatting the security challenges posed by Russia and China. Start with one crucial thing: these challenges have been greatly exaggerated, both in the Trump administration’s national defense strategy and in the report of the industry-led National Defense Strategy Commission. That document, when you analyze its future math, even had the nerve to claim that the Pentagon budget would need to be boosted to nearly $1 trillion annually within the next five years, reports Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Russia has much to answer for — from its assistance to the Syrian army’s ongoing slaughter of civilians to its military meddling in the affairs of Ukraine — but the response to such challenges should not be to spend more on ships, planes, and advanced nuclear weapons, as current Pentagon plans would do. In reality, the economy and military of Russia, a shaky petro-state only passing for a great power, are already overshadowed by those of the U.S. and its NATO allies. Throwing more money at the Pentagon will do nothing to change Russian behavior in a positive fashion. Taking measures that are in the interests of both countries like renewing the New START nuclear reduction treaty and beginning new talks on curbing their massive nuclear arsenals would be extremely valuable in their own right and might also open the door to negotiations on other issues of mutual concern.

China’s challenge to the U.S is significantly more economic than military and, if those two nations wanted to make the planet a safer place, they would cooperate in addressing the threat of climate change, not launch a new arms race. Genuine reform of the Pentagon’s massive budget is urgently needed, but rest assured that Secretary of Defense Esper’s claims about implementing real changes to save taxpayer dollars while making the U.S. military more effective are the equivalent of bestseller-list Pentagon fiction. The motto of Congress, not to speak of the White House and the public, with respect to the Pentagon’s latest claims of fiscal probity should be “we won’t get fooled again.”

https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2019/09/bestselling-pentagon-fiction/


“The True Cost Of Government Shutdowns” -U.S. Senate Investigative Subcommittee Report

Standard
Image result for United States Senate

The Subcommittee surveyed 26 federal agencies and found the last three government shutdowns cost taxpayers nearly $4 billion

At least $3.7 billion in back pay to furloughed federal workers, and at least $338 million in other costs associated with the shutdowns, including extra administrative work, lost revenue, and late fees on interest payments.

______________________________________________________________________________

“Agencies reported to the Subcommittee that the combined total of furlough days during all three shutdowns was about 14,859,144, representing an estimated 56,938 years of lost productivity for those agency employees.

These figures, however, do not include data from some of the largest government agencies, which were unable to provide complete shutdown cost estimates to the Subcommittee, including the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Justice, and Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency.

This report also documents the impacts that shutdowns have on important core government functions. “

https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2019-09-17%20PSI%20Staff%20Report%20Government%20Shutdowns%20Final.pdf

Pentagon Plans to Triple Audits Amid Surge in Defense Spending

Standard
Image: https://www.smalltofeds.com/2008/02/dcaa-audits-and-small-business-job-cost.html

BLOOMBERG.COM

A surge of defense spending is prompting the Pentagon’s audit agency to triple the number of evaluations it will undertake in order to uncover or prevent unjustified profits based on incomplete, flawed or inaccurate cost data.

The Defense Contract Audit Agency intends to complete as many as 60 Truth In Negotiations Act reviews in the coming fiscal year, compared to about 20 in the year ending Sept. 30.”

______________________________________________________________________________

“According to spokesman Christopher Sherwood. The agency completed 21 such audits in 2018 and 26 in 2017. About half the reviews focused on the top 25 defense contractors.

Efforts to bolster defense spending were aided by Congress’s decision to revise spending caps for the final two years of the 2011 Budget Control Act. That effectively added tens of billions of dollars potential defense spending to the Pentagon budget: $90.3 billion in fiscal year 2020 and $81.3 billion in the following year.

Congress has signaled its concern that the money could be misspent. The staff of Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, as well as investigators for Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, are already reviewing the Pentagon’s enforcement of the law intended to prevent unjustified profits based on incomplete, flawed or inaccurate cost and pricing data for military unique items.

“The committee is investigating whether defense contractors are providing complete and accurate cost data, as required by law,” Cummings said in an emailed statement.

The 1962 Truth In Negotiations Act sought to put government contracting officers on equal footing with company counterparts, requiring firms during negotiations to provide government buyers all the variables that influenced the final price of a product or service unique to the military. They must also legally certify that the information is accurate, complete and current.

The TINA audits are separate from Pentagon reviews that uncover instances of overcharging for basic spare parts such as nuts and pins. Those types of goods are considered “commercial items,” normally exempt from the law’s price data requirements since there is already publicly available data to compare them with.

Fraud Alert

Under the ramped up audit policy, the number of “work years,” or time devoted to compiling compliance audits, will increase by approximately 500%, Sherwood said.

Previous reviews show there’s reason to be concerned. As an example, Shay Assad, the Pentagon’s former director of defense pricing and contracting, said evaluations during his tenure showed that essentially 100% of the contracts examined at one top-25 defense contractor had suspect pricing.

“If one looks deep enough there is some element of fraud typically lurking,” he said.

Sherwood said the contracts most prone to significant risk of “excess profits” are large, firm-fixed price types. In 2015, the audit agency formed a specialized, 20-person unit to handle reviews of “high-risk” contracts.

Based on initial reviews commissioned before the team was formed, Assad said in a written statement that “it became obvious to us that we needed to step up defective pricing review efforts.”

80% Profits

“In a number of cases we expected profit outcomes of 12% to 15%,” Assad said, but they found levels of between 25% and 80% on some sole-source weapons contracts. “That does not happen by outstanding performance” but by faulty contractor cost estimating “or in the worst case, fraud,” he added. Assad retired this year.

Since 2015, the unit has conducted audits on 108 high-risk contracts totaling $74 billion. Of those, 79 — or nearly 75% — uncovered potential defective pricing of $589 million that could eventually translate into contractor repayments after the contested charges go through a negotiations process.

“If both parties arrive at a mutually agreeable settlement, the contractor will make a payment to the government,” Sherwood said. But if not, the government’s principal negotiator “issues a demand for payment, at which point the contractor may elect to make the payment or pursue legal action,” he added.

In that same period, the audit agency has referred 10 compliance audits with “suspected irregular conduct” to the Pentagon’s Defense Criminal Investigative Service. Eight of those 10 have resulted in active cases, Sherwood said.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-13/pentagon-plans-to-triple-audits-amid-surge-in-defense-spending

How DOD Will Survive Its Next Audit

Standard

DEFENSE SYSTEMS

“The Defense Department famously completed — and failed — its first financial audit in 2018. The ordeal highlighted gaps and inefficiencies in the organization’s IT infrastructure, but it also served as a bastion for tech innovation.

Here’s what some of the Defense Department’s chief financial experts had to say about how they plan to survive DOD’s second audit and how using automation and robotics is easing the process”

______________________________________________________________________________

Simply put, how do you all plan to pass the next audit for 2019?

Douglas Glenn, the Pentagon’s assistant deputy chief financial officer

Same way we did last year. We got through it last year — that’ll have been the hardest — we’re going to do it again next year. And you know, it’s that question of how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So we just chip away at the NFRs [notices of findings and recommendations], which will lead to reducing the material weaknesses, which will lead to more clean opinions and we’ll get there.

Fredrick Carr, associate deputy assistant secretary for the Air Force

We’re more efficient now. The first full audit was in 2018. Getting all the documentation to the auditors, timely, entering all the PBCs [provided by client lists], that was really a ruckus. But we really learned from that. We put a tool in place — we don’t have any late PBCs now. That I think is the biggest piece. And we learned from the corrective actions, how to write them, getting at root costs.

Wesley Miller, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for financial operations

With the Army, I don’t think we’re at a breakthrough point. We’re still focusing on the different types of audits that we’re performing — our working capital fund, our conventional ammo — and taking care of those particular items and then tackling the big general fund as of late.

Victoria Crouse, chief strategy officer for the U.S. Navy’s financial operations office

I think we’re open to any and all findings that we get from the auditors. We try to be pretty transparent on where we think some of our issues are. We’re getting some positive feedback on corrective actions that we’ve implemented. But they’re getting in some areas where they’re able to dig a little bit deeper than they did last year. It’s a continued learning experience, and we’ll go through that prioritization process again and just keep moving forward one step at a time.

All of you might have mentioned robotics during your presentations, how important is this? I know from the Army side, Army Futures Commander Gen. John Murray has talked about using artificial intelligence and automation to improve the Army’s budgeting process. Can you talk a bit about how that’s developing and how each of you is using robotic processes?

MILLER: Compare functions. You look for compare functions where you can take one item and have it do the checking. Rather than have someone swivel from one system to another system, you have the robot do the comparison function for you. We want to use a robot to look at individuals who are leaving the service and then comparing that back to individuals who are still remaining and have permissions remaining on the systems. Those are the types of functions that I see initially. They will grow bigger, become more complex after that.

CARR: Across the board, anything we see that is typically not high-value added and repeatable, we can program it. And our goal is to take all that stuff that’s low value added and see if we can add robotics to it and get it out of the hands of people manually processing. Because every time you have to put something in a system manually, it’s probably going to generate a DFAS [Defense Finance and Accounting Service] bill that’s manual — and that’s a huge cost. We can pay $34 for a transaction or we can use an electronic and do it for $2 or $3 a transaction. So that’s huge.

Any new areas for robotic processes that you’re looking into?

CARR: So the leave balance for our active duty military is the newest one. Being able to do that instead of having a person go in and see where did Airman Snuffy come back from leave because he didn’t clock back in. There’s no incentive to do that when you come back from leave because you’re back at work the next day. But it’s still in the system that way and it shows that you’re still gone. Well if robotics can take all that stuff and clean it up, then the [supervisor] doesn’t have to worry about that. It’s done.

Where’s the Navy on this?

CROUSE: We’re in the early stages. Similar to Air Force, we’re looking at any of those processes that are highly manual where we might have an opportunity to use robotics. One of the areas we’re looking at is retrieval of supporting documentation for the audit.

MILLER: And remember, what we’re attempting to do is open up more time for people to actually do analytical work. We don’t want them to get hung up on the … work of doing comparisons. We want them there to spend more time analyzing what’s behind, what the numbers mean.

Back to DOD, anything to add?

GLENN: There’s a positive ROI [return on investment] there. I forget the numbers, but we estimate that we’re saving more annually than we spend on it, just in the few that we’ve deployed at the office of the secretary level.

At the Pentagon, Fourth Estate level, are there any new areas that you’re looking to apply this sort of automation?

GLENN: We’d love to get into accelerating the de-obligation process and contract close out. I think almost every agency out there is wrestling with closing out old obligations and getting their contracting community to focus on that as opposed to getting new contracts out. So if we could deploy some robots to accelerate that closeout process, lift some of the burden off the contracting officers, it would be a win-win across the government.”

https://defensesystems.com/articles/2019/08/15/dod-survive-audit-williams.aspx?s=ds_220819


How The Pentagon Can Save Over $1.2 Trillion

Standard
Image: “The Fiscal Times

DEFENSE NEWS”

To reach the $1.2 trillion-plus reduction, spending cuts would come from three general areas:

  • Force structure and weapons procurement reductions.
  • Overhead and efficiencies.
  • Nuclear weapons, missile defense and space.

______________________________________________________________________________

“The Pentagon could save more than $1.2 trillion with a number of tweaks to its spending plan for the next decade, including canceling the creation of a Space Force and nuclear weapons projects, according to a report by the Center for International Policy.

The report, “Sustainable Defense: More Security, Less Spending,” offers new strategies that challenge the National Defense Strategy by encouraging more diplomacy (specifically in regard to the Iran nuclear deal) and less military confrontation to cut costs. It also says the NDS “exaggerate[s] the challenges posed by major powers” like China and Russia.

The report offers Congress several solutions to reduce Defense Department spending in the short term, including restricting overseas contingency operations funds, cutting the Pentagon’s private contractor workforce by 15 percent, blocking plans for the Space Force, avoiding placing weapons in space and rolling back the nuclear modernization plan. Capitol Hill is in the middle of a funding debate over fiscal 2020 military spending.

The Defense Department’s top-line budget hit $691 billion in FY10 and generally decreased until FY16, when the budget saw an increase and continued since, reaching $686 billion in FY19. The White House has proposed a $750 billion budget for FY20.

Recommendations from the report call for a reduction in end strength for the Army and Marine Corps. If this approach is adopted, the Army’s active-duty force would see about a 13 percent reduction in planned end strength, from 488,000 to 426,000. The Marine Corps would see a reduction in its active infantry battalions and combat and support units, and an approximately 15 percent reduction in end strength, from 186,000 to 157,000.

The Navy would also face cuts to the current size of its fleet from about 297 ships to 264 under the report’s recommendations. This would interrupt the Navy’s goal of building a 325-ship fleet by 2028, the report adds.

The report suggests eliminating efforts to produce a new nuclear, air-launched cruise missile, known as the Long Range Standoff Weapon, which it calls “redundant.” This would save $13.3 billion over a 10-year period, the report claims. The Pentagon could also save $30 billion over 10 years by canceling plans for a new intercontinental ballistic missile.

On the U.S. nuclear strategy overall, the report recommends the country move toward “a posture of sufficiency — a large enough arsenal to deter attacks on the United States and its allies. No additional capability is needed.”

Canceling plans for a Space Force would save the department $10 billion over the same period, the report says. Plans for the Space Force were adopted by the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday during its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act. The language of the bill renames the organization Space Corps and places it under the purview of the Department of the Air Force.

The report states that the U.S. is much safer today than it once was, adding that while international terrorist organizations remain a threat, their existence does not warrant an expansion of military force.

“[T]the wars of the last 18 years — including large-scale counterinsurgency efforts, nation building, and global terrorist-chasing, as occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond — have done more harm than good, in some cases disastrously so,” the report asserts. It suggests abandoning policies that led to war and reducing the size and geographic reach of the military to “stop unnecessarily risking the lives of U.S. troops.”

The report also claims Russia and China pose no threat to the U.S. in terms of conventional military power. Rather, the competition with those countries lies in “economic dominance (particularly with China) and diplomatic influence.”

The report says the most urgent national security risks lie in climate change, cyberattacks, global disease epidemics, and income and wealth gaps. “

https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2019/06/19/how-the-pentagon-can-save-over-12-trillion/

The Real Versus Perceived Power Of The U.S. Presidency

Standard
Image: “Vox

STRATFOR ” By George Friedman

The American presidency is designed to disappoint.  What the winner actually can deliver depends upon what other institutions, nations and reality will allow him or her.

To achieve anything substantial, the president must create a coalition of political interests to shape decision-making in other branches of the government.”

______________________________________________________________________________

[A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR]:

Below are selected excerpts from a classic article by George Friedman, prior to the 2012 National Election. Considering what has occurred since, it is our hope that the content will continue bringing reality to American citizen expectations.]:

STRATFOR GEOPOLITICAL WEEKLY 

Each candidate must promise things that are beyond their power to deliver. No candidate could expect to be elected by emphasizing how little power the office actually has and how voters should therefore expect little from him. 

So candidates promise great, transformative programs.  Though the gap between promises and realities destroys immodest candidates, from the founding fathers’ point of view, it protects the republic. They distrusted government in general and the office of the president in particular.

Congress, the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Board all circumscribe the president’s power over domestic life. This and the authority of the states greatly limit the president’s power, just as the country’s founders intended. To achieve anything substantial, the president must create a coalition of political interests to shape decision-making in other branches of the government. Yet at the same time — and this is the main paradox of American political culture — the presidency is seen as a decisive institution and the person holding that office is seen as being of overriding importance.

The president has somewhat more authority in foreign policy, but only marginally so. He is trapped by public opinion, congressional intrusion, and above all, by the realities of geopolitics. Thus, while during his 2000 presidential campaign George W. Bush argued vehemently against nation-building, once in office, he did just that (with precisely the consequences he had warned of on the campaign trail). And regardless of how he modeled his foreign policy during his first campaign, the 9/11 attacks defined his presidency. 

Similarly, Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to redefine America’s relationship with both Europe and the Islamic world. Neither happened. It has been widely and properly noted how little Obama’s foreign policy in action has differed from George W. Bush’s. It was not that Obama didn’t intend to have a different foreign policy, but simply that what the president wants and what actually happens are very different things.

The power often ascribed to the U.S. presidency is overblown. But even so, people — including leaders — all over the world still take that power very seriously. They want to believe that someone is in control of what is happening. The thought that no one can control something as vast and complex as a country or the world is a frightening thought. Conspiracy theories offer this comfort, too, since they assume that while evil may govern the world, at least the world is governed. There is, of course, an alternative viewpoint, namely that while no one actually is in charge, the world is still predictable as long as you understand the impersonal forces guiding it. This is an uncomfortable and unacceptable notion to those who would make a difference in the world. For such people, the presidential race — like political disputes the world over — is of great significance.

Ultimately, the president does not have the power to transform U.S. foreign policy. Instead, American interests, the structure of the world and the limits of power determine foreign policy.

In the broadest sense, current U.S. foreign policy has been in place for about a century. During that period, the United States has sought to balance and rebalance the international system to contain potential threats in the Eastern Hemisphere, which has been torn by wars. The Western Hemisphere in general, and North America in particular, has not. No president could afford to risk allowing conflict to come to North America.

At one level, presidents do count: The strategy they pursue keeping the Western Hemisphere conflict-free matters. During World War I, the United States intervened after the Germans began to threaten Atlantic sea-lanes and just weeks after the fall of the czar. At this point in the war, the European system seemed about to become unbalanced, with the Germans coming to dominate it. In World War II, the United States followed a similar strategy, allowing the system in both Europe and Asia to become unbalanced before intervening. This was called isolationism, but that is a simplistic description of the strategy of relying on the balance of power to correct itself and only intervening as a last resort.

During the Cold War, the United States adopted the reverse strategy of actively maintaining the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere via a process of continual intervention. It should be remembered that American deaths in the Cold War were just under 100,000 (including Vietnam, Korea and lesser conflicts) versus about 116,000 U.S. deaths in World War I, showing that far from being cold, the Cold War was a violent struggle. 

The decision to maintain active balancing was a response to a perceived policy failure in World War II. The argument was that prior intervention would have prevented the collapse of the European balance, perhaps blocked Japanese adventurism, and ultimately resulted in fewer deaths than the 400,000 the United States suffered in that conflict. A consensus emerged from World War II that an “internationalist” stance of active balancing was superior to allowing nature to take its course in the hope that the system would balance itself. The Cold War was fought on this strategy.

Between 1948 and the Vietnam War, the consensus held. During the Vietnam era, however, a viewpoint emerged in the Democratic Party that the strategy of active balancing actually destabilized the Eastern Hemisphere, causing unnecessary conflict and thereby alienating other countries. This viewpoint maintained that active balancing increased the likelihood of conflict, caused anti-American coalitions to form, and most important, overstated the risk of an unbalanced system and the consequences of imbalance. Vietnam was held up as an example of excessive balancing.

The counterargument was that while active balancing might generate some conflicts, World War I and World War II showed the consequences of allowing the balance of power to take its course. This viewpoint maintained that failing to engage in active and even violent balancing with the Soviet Union would increase the possibility of conflict on the worst terms possible for the United States. Thus, even in the case of Vietnam, active balancing prevented worse outcomes. The argument between those who want the international system to balance itself and the argument of those who want the United States to actively manage the balance has raged ever since George McGovern ran against Richard Nixon in 1972.

If we carefully examine Obama’s statements during the 2008 campaign and his efforts once in office, we see that he has tried to move U.S. foreign policy away from active balancing in favor of allowing regional balances of power to maintain themselves. He did not move suddenly into this policy, as many of his supporters expected he would. Instead, he eased into it, simultaneously increasing U.S. efforts in Afghanistan while disengaging in other areas to the extent that the U.S. political system and global processes would allow.

Obama’s efforts to transition away from active balancing of the system have been seen in Europe, where he has made little attempt to stabilize the economic situation, and in the Far East, where apart from limited military repositioning there have been few changes. Syria also highlights his movement toward the strategy of relying on regional balances. The survival of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime would unbalance the region, creating a significant Iranian sphere of influence. Obama’s strategy has been not to intervene beyond providing limited covert support to the opposition, but rather to allow the regional balance to deal with the problem. Obama has expected the Saudis and Turks to block the Iranians by undermining al Assad, not because the United States asks them to do so but because it is in their interest to do so.

Obama’s perspective draws on that of the critics of the Cold War strategy of active balancing, who maintained that without a major Eurasian power threatening hemispheric hegemony, U.S. intervention is more likely to generate anti-American coalitions and precisely the kind of threat the United States feared when it decided to actively balance. In other words, Obama does not believe that the lessons learned from World War I and World War II apply to the current global system, and that as in Syria, the global power should leave managing the regional balance to local powers.

As I have argued from the outset, the American presidency is institutionally weak despite its enormous prestige. It is limited constitutionally, politically and ultimately by the actions of others. Had Japan not attacked the United States, it is unclear that Franklin Roosevelt would have had the freedom to do what he did. Had al Qaeda not attacked on 9/11, I suspect that George W. Bush’s presidency would have been dramatically different.

The world shapes U.S. foreign policy. The more active the world, the fewer choices presidents have and the smaller those choices are. Obama has sought to create a space where the United States can disengage from active balancing. Doing so falls within his constitutional powers, and thus far has been politically possible, too. But whether the international system would allow him to continue along this path should he be re-elected is open to question. Jimmy Carter had a similar vision, but the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan wrecked it. George W. Bush saw his opposition to nation-building wrecked by 9/11 and had his presidency crushed under the weight of the main thing he wanted to avoid.

Presidents make history, but not on their own terms. They are constrained and harried on all sides by reality. In selecting a president, it is important to remember that candidates will say what they need to say to be elected, but even when they say what they mean, they will not necessarily be able to pursue their goals. The choice to do so simply isn’t up to them. The degree to which the winner matters, however, is unclear, though knowing the inclinations of presidential candidates regardless of their ability to pursue them has some value.

In the end, though, the U.S. presidency was designed to limit the president’s ability to rule. He can at most guide, and frequently he cannot even do that. Putting the presidency in perspective allows us to keep our debates in perspective as well.”

STRATFOR Geopolitical Weekly – July 31, 2012

stratfor-ceo-george-friedman

George Friedman is a geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyzes and forecasts the course of global events. Prior to founding Geopolitical Futures, Friedman was chairman of Stratfor, the private intelligence publishing and consulting firm he founded in 1996.