Each year Conn Hallinan’s blog Dispatches From the Edge awards news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are 2011’s winners.
The Golden Lemon Award to Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms company, whose F-22 Raptor fighter has some “performance” problems: the pilots can’t breathe.The U.S. Air Force was forced to “stand down” its fleet of 160+ F-22s—at $150 million apiece, the single most expensive fighter in the world—when pilots began experiencing “hypoxia-like symptoms” from a lack of oxygen. But the company got right on it, according to Lockheed Martin vice president Jeff Babione, who said he was “proud to be a part” of the team that got the radar-evading aircraft back into the air—for five weeks. When pilots continued to have problems, the F-22 fleet was grounded again.
According to the Air Force, no one can figure out why oxygen is not getting to the pilots, but that pilots “would undergo physiological tests.” To see if the pilots can go without air?
Runner-up in this category is Lockheed Martins’ F-35, at $385 billion the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history. The cost of an individual F-35 has jumped from $69 million to $113 million a plane, and while this is cheaper than the F-22, the U.S. plans to eventually purchase more than 16 times the number of F-35s than F-22s. It seems the F-35 fighter has “cracks” and “hot spots” that, according to the director of the program, Vice Adm. David Venlet, are “hard to get at.”
Dispatches suggests that the Air Force issue ice packs and super glue to pilots.
The P.T. Barnum Award to Dennis Montgomery, a computer programmer who scammed the U.S. government for more than $20 million. Montgomery claimed he had software that could spot terrorist conspiracies hidden in broadcasts by the Qatar-based Arabic news network, Al Jazeera. He said his program could also detect hostile submarines and identify terrorists in Predator drone videos.
The Bush administration took his claims so seriously that in December 2003 it turned back flights from Britain, France and Mexico because the software had “discovered” the plane’s flight information embedded in an Al Jazeera crawl bar. The White House, fearing the planes would be used to attack targets in the U.S., actually talked about shooting the planes down.
The CIA eventually concluded the software was a fabrication, but rather than rebuking those in charge during the hoax—Donald Kerr and George Tenet—both men got promotions. The spy agency also didn’t bother to tell anyone in the military, so in 2009 the U.S. Air Force bought the bogus software for $3 million.
C. Northcote Parkinson Award to the U.S. Defense Department for upholding the British sociologist’s dictum that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson—a social scientist with a wicked sense of humor—was hired after World War II to examine the future of the Royal Navy. He concluded that, given the military’s deep love of fancy gold lace, as well as its addiction to bureaucracy, eventually there would be more admirals than ships. Needless to say, that is exactly what happened.But it is not just the Brits who yearn for the golden epaulets. According to the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), the U.S. military is adding brass to its ranks at a record pace. While the enlisted ranks have grown by 2 percent from 2001 to 2011, three and four star generals and flag rank admirals have increased 24 percent, one and two star generals and admirals by 12 percent, and lower ranking officers by 9.5 percent.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an attempt to cut the ranks of the top brass, but as soon as Leon Panetta took over the post, he reversed the cuts and added six more generals. In fact, at the same time as the Pentagon was cutting the enlisted ranks by 10,000 in anticipation of an end to the Iraq War, it added 2,500 officers.
According to POGO, “Today’s military is the most top-heavy force in U.S. history.” Between 2012 and 2021, POGO estimates that the six new generals Panetta appointed will cost taxpayers $14 million.
However, there may be a silver lining here. Generals and admirals don’t fight, that’s the job of enlisted men. At this rate the U.S. will run out of privates and the business of war will be left to generals and admirals. If that comes to pass, Dispatches predicts an outbreak of pacifism.
The Confused Priorities Award is a three-way tie between British Prime Minister David Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern.
In the midst of a savage austerity program, with massive cutbacks in social spending, Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal government will spend up to $40 billion on a new generation of missile-firing submarines. While British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said the submarine was necessary to maintain the country’s nuclear deterrence, critics say the program is really a boondoggle for BAE Systems, the United Kingdom-based arms company that will make the new weapon system.
Canada’s Harper got into the winner’s circle by spending over $100 million on summit meetings and pork barrel projects for Conservative cabinet member Tony Clement. The summit expenditures included $13,711 for “glow sticks,” $62 million for accommodations, and $4.3 million for a temporary fence to keep Canadians away from the lake where the Group of 8 meeting took place. Half of the summit money was used to build an office building in Fraser’s district, as well as develop airports and communities that the cabinet member could take credit for. In the meantime, Harper slashed spending for health care and education, and cut $200 million from environmental protection and monitoring.
Ahern, Taoiseach of the Irish Dail from 1997 to 2008, oversaw the bank speculation and real estate bubble that destroyed Ireland’s economy in 2008. Ahern claimed that no one told him that the financial situation was so dire, although an investigation by independent analyst Rob Wright found that the Fianna Fail government had repeatedly been warned that a crash was coming. Asked what his greatest regret was, Ahern replied that it was his failure to build a stadium to match those in Arab states. “I think unfortunately when I see little countries like Qatar and Kuwait…talking about their 10 stadiums and we never succeeded in getting one national stadium. That’s an achievement I tried hard to do but I didn’t get.”
The White Elephant Award to the Greek Army for considering taking 400 free M1A1 Abrams tanks from the U.S. “This is a free offer,” said Greek army spokesman Yiannis Sifakis.
Well, sort of free.
The Abrams, the U.S.’s main battle tank, is a 67.6-ton behemoth that burns 10 gallons of gas just to start, and gets 1.6 gallons to the mile. The tanks will also cost $11 million to transport to Greece.
In the meantime, the Greek Socialist government has laid off tens of thousands of workers, cut wages, slashed health care, increased sales taxes, and advanced the retirement age. Massive demonstration and general strikes have convulsed major cities, and the country is on the verge of bankruptcy.
Maybe the army is thinking that if German banks try to repossess the country, those 400 Abrams tanks might come in handy (if Greece can afford to gas to run them)?
The Dr. Frankenstein Award to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright for her sponsorship of Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a man accused of murdering Serb prisoners during the 1999 Yugoslav War and selling their body parts.
Reporting on the scandal in CounterPunch, reporter Diana Johnstone, author of “Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions,” cites a report by Swiss Senator Dick Marty implicating former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Thaci of running “safe houses” during the war where Serb prisoners were tortured and killed.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization with 47 member states, sponsored the Marty investigation.
“An undetermined but apparently small number of prisoners were transferred in vans and trucks to an operating site near Tirana international airport [Albania], from which fresh organs could be flown rapidly to recipients,” the Marty Report says. “Captives were killed, usually by a gunshot to the head, before being operated on to remove one of more of their organs.” Kidneys seem to have been the major harvest.
Thaci has also been linked to the heroin trade and prostitution.
Albright and her aide, the late Richard Holbrooke, pushed Thaci into the leadership of Kosovo during the Rambouillet negotiations leading up to the war. According to Johnson, far more prominent leaders of the Kosovo delegation to those talks were pushed aside, and Thaci—known in law enforcement circles as “The Snake—became the face of the Albanians secession movement.
Asked about the Marty Report, U.S. State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said the Americans would continue to work with Thaci because “any individual anywhere on the earth is innocent until proven otherwise.” Of course, it also helps that Thaci approved the construction of a massive U.S. base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel, giving the U.S. its first military foothold in the Balkans.
The Surreal Award to the U.S. Justice Department for finally agreeing that lawyers defending prisoners at Guantanamo can view classified files that were prominently displayed on the WikiLeaks website. The Department ruled that lawyers may access the documents, but cannot “download, save, print, or disseminate” the material, a ruling that attorney David Remes said was “still surreal.”
The Grinch Award to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for complaining that Colombia’s minimum wage was too high, and driving up the cost of labor. The minimum wage is $1.80 an hour and, for full-time workers, brings in around $300 a month.
The Historical Re-write Award to Jean-Francois Cope, general secretary of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative Union for Popular Movement and the man behind the “Burka Ban.” Cope organized a recent conference on secularization that, according to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, led to “a stigmatization of Muslims.”
Cope defended the conference as “controversial but necessary,” adding that “the values of France are like the Three Musketeers: liberty, equality, fraternity.” Except that the Alexander Dumas novel was set in 1625, and the Musketeers were fighting for Louis XIII and the Catholic Church. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” was the slogan of the 1789 French Revolution, and was not highly thought of in the Feudal court of Bourbons.
The creative Language Award to the Obama administration for its denial that the American bombing of Libya constituted a war. It was, according to the White House, a “time-limited, scope-limited military action.”
For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.