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Jeffrey St. Clair on the new war profiteers
"The system is irretrievably corrupt"

April 14, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, coeditor of the muckraking Web site and newsletter CounterPunch, is the author of a new book, Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror. He talked to Socialist Worker about what's responsible for the crooked system in Washington.

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WHEN THE mainstream media report on the issues you examine in your book, they focus on the $600 hammers. But the corruption that you're talking about is on a whole other level, isn't it?

I THINK that you're right. The Pentagon scandals of the 1970s and early '80s did focus on the more ludicrous aspects--the expensive hammers, the gold-plated toilets for the generals. And that's still going on.

But there was more to it, even at the time. When you look back to some of the really courageous whistleblowers--like Ernie Fitzgerald, who's immortalized on one of Nixon's tapes--he was a kind of systems analyst inside the Pentagon in the '60s, '70s and '80s, and his probes show there's a continuity to these scandals.

There's no difference between Republicans and Democrats. If you go back to the Lockheed scandal during the Vietnam War, Ernie began probing them during LBJ's time in office, and they were trying to find a way to boot him out of the Pentagon then.

Nixon comes in, and the probe continues--the scandal is the same, because Lockheed shifts its allegiances as if it were shifting gears in a Ferarri. The money flows directly into the coffers of the Nixon political machine, and Ernie's there--the lone fly in the ointment, exposing this enormous scandal, where billions of dollars of contracts are handed out by virtue of political favoritism.

And a lot of times it's for weapons systems that don't work. We often talk about how Star Wars will never work. My attitude is we can expose that, but maybe we should be supporting these weapon systems that don't work. Do we want a really efficient Star Wars missile shield, or do we want one that doesn't work? The problem with Star Wars is that it's destabilizing--it may encourage these sort of preemptive strikes. But everyone knows it doesn't work.

So there's a continuity to these scandals. But the press likes to play up the ludicrous angles, because it doesn't have time to go into a really detailed story about the level of corruption that permeates our politics.

Admittedly, it's gotten to an entirely new level these days--like moving from the Louvre to Versailles.

There's a kind of lack of guilt now. It used to be that the worst thing you could be called in American politics was a war profiteer--that was the death knell. Even the robber barons, when they were caught peddling shoddy bullets or uniforms that dissolved in the rain during the Civil War, went in the doghouse for a decade or two, and could only wrench their way back through their philanthropic tithing.

Now, I think we've seen a sea change of sorts, where the attitude is: If you're making a profit, it must be good. If you look at the annual reports and prospectuses of corporations that have their snouts in the troughs, they brag about how much money they're making off of Bush's "war on terror."

But it would be a mistake to only focus on the Bush administration. Perhaps we should thank them for bringing this all out into the open, because a lot of the truly grandiose rip-offs got their start during the Clinton-Gore administration.

Gore is largely responsible for this, through his Reinventing Government scheme--where the Reagan dream of privatizing the federal government reached its apotheosis. Gore's scheme thought of ways to privatize a lot of Pentagon operations via contract. It got its test run during the Somalia operation, and the Bosnian war and the war on Serbia.

This is where you see Halliburton, Bechtel, Parsons--the big companies that Michael Moore in his film Fahrenheit 9/11 was trying to associate as being in a kind of symbiotic relationship with Bush--really getting their tentacles on these Pentagon contracts. What you saw was no-bid, no-oversight, endless-war, permanent contracts.

I don't think they work very well. The GAO was saying from the very beginning--in the very early reports on the Somalia contracts and the ones in Bosnia and Serbia--that this Pentagon contracting had corruption and disaster written all over it. They were very, very critical. And of course, what happened to them? The reports received no press coverage.

AND NOT only are these companies making billions off Pentagon contracts, but they're using their influence to drive foreign policy--for example, in pressing for an occupation of Iraq intended to get their hands on Iraq's oil.

THAT SHOULDN'T be a surprise to anyone. It's a corporate government. The two parties have consolidated into one corporate body, with two heads--one of which happens to be bigger than the other at this point.

Corporations are driving U.S. financial policy, and they're driving U.S. foreign policy. They own our political system, from top to bottom.

I think most Americans realize this. It's why they've soured on politics, and I don't blame them. They realize that there's no entrance into our political system, unless your calling card comes with a Fortune 500 company on it. Or maybe you're an Indian tribe, and you hire yourself someone like Jack Abramoff to press your interests. And Abramoff, of course, takes your money and screws you over because you're Indians.

Oil companies, the big defense contractors--they've always been directing foreign policy. But now I think what you've got is a situation where the boundaries between the corporate world and the political world and the military have dissolved.

They used to speak of an iron triangle. It's not a triangle anymore. It's like sub-atomic particles, where you're a general in the Pentagon one moment, and at the very same time, you're a lobbyist for Boeing. At the same time you're handing out contracts for weapons systems, you're also working for the companies that are getting the contracts. You're in two places at once--you're a sub-atomic particle. That's what our political system has become.

Finally, you get somebody like Darlene Druyun of Boeing, who takes it a little bit too far. Also, I think there's the fact that she's a woman, and that she had burned a lot of bridges during her days in the Pentagon. But it really took some flamboyantly corrupt behavior for her to get nailed.

So she goes down, and she takes a few of her colleagues with her, but there's no talk of reforming the system. You had your sacrificial scapegoat, and the beat goes on.

It's the same thing with Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Here you had a congressman who was writing down his bribe list on his own congressional stationary pad, as he got sloshed in the Dubliner Pub off Capitol Hill--his wish list from the retinue of defense contractors who parade into his office.

It takes that kind of flagrant flouting of ethical standards to get him indicted and tossed in the slammer. But again, is there any talk about reform of these relationships between congressmen and lobbyists? Not at all.

So the system is, I think, irretrievably corrupt. The cancer has gone to phase five and metastasized through the body politic. And no one has clean hands.

OF ALL the best-known political leaders in Washington, Sen. John McCain may have the best reputation as a reformer and a maverick. But in your book, you describe a different person altogether.

JOHN McCAIN, in my view, is the most fraudulent politician in Washington. He is a complete fraud--from campaign finance reform to his attempts to reform Pentagon pork.

The typical McCain thing is to come up with a sound bite about pork-barrel spending at the Pentagon and how outrageous it is--but do nothing. You have Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska attaching bills to fund airports in his own name or bridges to nowhere, and does McCain object to it? Does he do anything to stop it? No, he doesn't.

And this is the Senate, where one senator could monkey-wrench the entire system if they wanted to. What McCain wants is the reputation as a maverick. But he doesn't want to monkey-wrench the system, because he knows--as well as anyone, being the son of an admiral--that he needs the support of the defense-imperial complex.

He's the biggest hothead in the Congress as well. If you had your dream match-up in the 2008 presidential elections, it would have to be McCain and Hillary, because either of them could blow--their heads would just pop off. They're both alike politically, and they're both so tightly wound that they're both on the verge of blowing up.

McCain is a hypocrite from top to bottom. In the book, I quote a Phoenix physician, Robert Witzeman, a human rights activist who works very closely with some of the poorest tribes--the San Carlos Apaches in particular. They've been battling for 20 years to keep this deep-space telescope that the University of Arizona--which in a lot of ways runs the state--and the Vatican, of all places, wants to put on top of Mount Graham, which is a sacred mountain for the San Carlos Apaches, who live right at its base.

And McCain has played a really malign role in all this. He wants to present himself as a friend of the tribes, a friend of the environment. But when it comes down to it, he has been a vicious supporter of the Vatican and the University of Arizona on this. And when he was confronted by Doctor Witzeman in his office, McCain just exploded, and came within an inch of physically attacking this elderly physician.

So he's right on the edge. In 2000, when McCain was running for president, Witzeman said that this is the man who's most likely to start a nuclear war.

I saw him this morning as he was going on about his bracero bill. It's just disgusting. He thinks so highly of himself.

And then you think about where the moral fiber to this person is. After all, when he was running for president in 2000, what was the Christian Right saying about him, in collusion with Karl Rove and his Bush hatchet team? That his wife was a drug addict, that McCain may have sired an illegitimate child with a Black woman. This was the whispering campaign in South Carolina, a lot of it coming out of Falwell and the Bush camp.

And so here's McCain now, cozying up to Bush and giving the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty College. It's like: "Sorry, dear, I know they said some unkind things about you, but I'm not going to let that stand in the way of my ambitions."

EVEN AMONG people who genuinely oppose the U.S. war on Iraq, there's a perception that the preceding war on Afghanistan to topple the former Taliban government was a good thing. But your book tells a different story.

BASICALLY, THE U.S. was offered Osama bin Laden and his inner cabal. The Taliban offered them up, and the Bush administration refused. We interviewed the intermediary for the Taliban.

They wanted to get rid of bin Laden. He was a huge liability to the Taliban. It began in Clinton times and really picked up steam after September 11. And both the Bush and Clinton administrations' response was: "Fuck that. He's useful to us." There's no question they wanted war.

Afghanistan was a kind of a replay of the wars from Clinton times. It was an air war and a cruise missile war. The U.S. had a proxy army in the Northern Alliance that they could work with, along with a few special forces divisions and the CIA and the interrogators/torturers.

They weren't suffering under any illusions about rebuilding Afghanistan as a model of democracy. Basically, what they wanted was to set up a government there quickly, and then get the hell out, because their grand ambition was in Iraq. There were flirtations with pipelines and military bases, but I think they needed a kind of fire show in Afghanistan, which they got.

But it still turned into a quagmire. I think the death and injury rate for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan is inching up now, so that it's getting close to what it is in Iraq. And that's totally uncovered in the media. Ninety percent of the people in this country don't know that we're even in Afghanistan any more. But it's sucking them down slowly and silently.

IN IRAQ, all the pretexts for the invasion--weapons of mass destruction, promoting democracy--have crumbled. So who was it that really benefited?

THAT'S THE $64 billion question. I don't think that there's one answer to it, frankly. I think it's evident to everyone now that we're not dealing with rational people, and that we do have morons running this government. They're political morons, and they're inept at what they're doing, militarily and strategically. It has been a resumé of failure unlike anything I've ever seen in politics.

So you're asking for a kind of rational explanation of the motives behind this war, and I don't think that there is one.

A lot of things came together. You have the neo-conservative agenda, for one. But on the other hand, you have to recognize that Dick Cheney isn't a neo-con. He has neo-cons in his office, but he isn't one himself. Bush isn't a neo-con. Rumsfeld isn't a neo-con. Powell and Armitage weren't neo-cons.

I think the neo-cons were useful to them, and they sort of bore into the inner sanctums of the Bush administration and strutted their stuff. But I don't think that they're the total answer. I think the left gets fixated on the neo-cons, instead of what I think is the one rational motivation that you can pick out--economic control of the Middle East.

The administration wants to laugh about the war not being about oil. I don't think it is all about oil, but look at the profits of ExxonMobil. Croesus would have been envious. Wal-Mart is road kill in their wake.

But it goes way beyond oil. Right now, you have the last vestige of Keynesian economics at work in the billions of federal dollars being spent in these Pentagon contracts. It's an astounding transfer of wealth--the likes of which I don't know that we've ever seen.

The war has been very good for the oil companies, and it's been very, very good for the defense companies. One thing that we have to realize now is that we've gone way beyond the traditional defense companies, like Boeing and Lockheed. Now, the dot-coms are defense companies.

The contracts have been saturated across the economic spectrum. If you're a corporate CEO, and you haven't found out a way to become part of this orgy of spending, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Pentagon, you should be fired by your board of directors. Because it's all there for the taking.

To a certain extent, I think this has created a fissure within the Pentagon, because there's a price that's going to be paid. The original idea was that we could cut taxes and have these wars, because we'd take over Iraq, and the war would pay for itself.

Iraq was a kind of sitting duck. The U.S. knew they didn't have any weapons of mass destruction. That's why it went to war against them. We don't go to war against countries that have weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was a kind of prisoner country, battered by sanctions and 13 years of war before Shock and Awe.

And it has one of the largest untapped oil reserves in the world, which had been off the market. So the war would pay for itself, because we would have our hands on all of that oil. We could get production up and going, thanks to handing out big contracts to Parsons and Halliburton and Bechtel, and we would sell that oil on the market, and use those revenues to pay for the war.

Well, they were in for a surprise--that didn't happen. Now, the cost of this war is reaching into the trillions of dollars. So what's happened is that there's a kind of civil war in the Pentagon.

You have the traditional defense companies, like Boeing and Lockheed and Raytheon, who are building the baroque weapons systems that are relics of the Cold War, but we haven't stopped building them yet. Like the F-22 fighter--there's no enemy for this, unless we're invaded by aliens. Or Star Wars, or the joint strike fighter and all these big stealth systems--from when everybody was into stealth, and all you had to do was attach the name "stealth" to any project or weapons system, and you immediately got billions in contracts.

Those days may be gone. For a lot of these generals, particularly in the procurement office in the Pentagon, their mission in life was to steer those big contracts to the defense companies. They would get their two or three stars, they would retire, and they would go to work for Boeing and Lockheed, and become millionaires and powerbrokers.

Now, those big projects are being put at risk, because of the fact that the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars can't pay for themselves. And you have this new retinue of contractors, like the Halliburtons, which are getting the reconstruction and logistics contracts. They've now become almost as powerful as the old-line defense contractors. So there's a kind of civil war going on inside that microcosm.

My view is that the war could end because of this civil war inside the Pentagon--between the corporations, as the pie gets consumed, as it inevitably will.

Who else is going to end this war? The peace movement in the U.S. is flat on its back. It's sad to say so, but there's no energy to it--it's not threatening in any way. It's nothing like what's going on in France, it's nothing like the immigrant rights protests.

There are a lot of reasons for that. For one thing, there's no draft. The war hasn't had a personal effect on most people. How many people do you know who have served or are serving in Iraq? One of my son's friends is in the Marines, and he may, at some time in the future, go to Iraq. Otherwise, the only way I come in contact with people who are immediately affected is at speaking events--with Military Families Against the War.

I don't think the peace movement is going to end the war. It probably will be ended by the Iraqi resistance--they'll boot the U.S. out of Iraq. But if it's going to be ended at all from the U.S. side, it could also be ended by this internal war inside the Pentagon. We can't have our Star Wars, our F-22, our aircraft carriers and have these petty wars in Iraq, so let's get out.

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