Janine Jackson interviewed the Center for Defense Information’s Mandy Smithberger about the military budget for the March 6, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Over the course of ten debates, Sarah Lazare reports for In These Times, Democratic presidential candidates were asked 21 questions about how they would pay for proposed agenda items like Medicare for All, climate mitigation and free college—and zero questions about how they would pay for war.
What is it that drives corporate media to credit as merely reasonable demands for a thorough accounting of the relative pennies spent on, for instance, food stamps for low-income families, while literal billions are blithely signed over to the Pentagon with hardly a blink? And any who challenge that spending are vilified as unconcerned about “national security,” or simply left out of the conversation. We even hear talk of underfunding of what we know to be the planet’s largest war-making power by far.
It’s hard to have an informed debate when the information you’d need to have it is studiously hidden from view. Mandy Smithberger is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mandy Smithberger.
MS: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: Untethered, I guess, is the word that comes to mind for Pentagon spending. It’s not just the mind-boggling amount of money; it’s the opacity about what happens to it. But let’s start with the mind-boggling money, which your recent article breaks down. Keeping in mind, as you do, that the costs—the financial costs—of war are much more than even what we see in the Pentagon budget. But get us laypeople situated, if you would, in these big numbers. What are we talking about?
MS: Yeah, it is a really mind-boggling number. Even when you look at what we consider to be the traditional Pentagon budget, I think it’s hard for any of us to picture what $740 billion looks like. And within that account, only $69 billion of that is for “war spending,” even though, as you dig into those numbers, you find out that, oh, a lot of this is for enduring requirements, or for sustaining weapons systems. And it’s been used by the Department of Defense as a mechanism for continuing to increase their budget, on already pretty high caps on their spending.
And then the numbers grow even larger when you look at how much we spend on nuclear weapons, so that’s another $27.6 billion. There’s the cost of intelligence, that’s $85 billion. Obviously, when people come home from war, we need to pay for the care of our veterans, so that’s another $239 billion. And you look at what we pay for Homeland Security, the interest on the debt for all of the spending, and it all comes to $1.2 trillion.
JJ: Trillion. That’s amazing. And, for purposes of scale, like when you stand a person next to a whale: in 2008, the UN said that $30 billion a year could end hunger on the planet.
I think also, when we think about Pentagon money, besides just the scale of it, a lot of what comes to mind is waste. A lot of us remember that $600-some toilet seat, and cost overruns. And that does sort of lead into accountability, but I wonder if I could just ask you, that waste is still very much a thing, too?
MS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, now we have the $10,000 toilet seats; they’ve kept up with inflation. We’re still seeing that kind of waste. We have weapons systems like the F-35 that are going to cost us $1.5 trillion over the lifetime of that program. We’ve had a number of IT systems that have cost billions of dollars, with really nothing to show for it. And it’s a bipartisan problem, with people on both sides of the aisle just wanting to throw more money at these problems, and not really hold anyone accountable.
I think what’s most troubling to me about that is that it doesn’t help our men and women in uniform if they have weapons systems that aren’t safe, that aren’t going to be effective. So not having accountability in this space has led to horrific disasters, and it’s really not doing a service to anyone but defense contractors to give them free rein over our taxpayer dollars.
JJ: And one of the things that you spell out very clearly in the work that you’ve done on this, including for TomDispatch.com, is that there’s this incentive to build new things, even when older things might work better, because it’s such a pork barrel thing. You want to build a new shiny machine, even if that’s not the one that is necessarily going to protect servicepeople, or function in a way that we need.
So let’s talk about what is behind that lack of accountability. It’s absolutely bipartisan. I think of it as almost like Murder on the Orient Express—you know, “everybody did it”—so it can be hard to trace it back to one smoke-filled room. I think it was Bill Hartung who introduced me to the idea of spreading weapons-building among various states, and then you’ve got buy-in from lots of congressmembers, right?
MS: Absolutely, yeah, we refer to that. Chuck Spinney came up with the idea of politically engineering a program so it would be too big to fail. So you see that problem through spreading out of jobs, through campaign contributions. Something else that we are particularly concerned about is the revolving door that occurs between Pentagon officials and defense contractors and congressional staff. We did an investigation and we found that, for the top 20 contractors, 90% of the former officials that they were hiring, it wasn’t for their expertise, it was for influence-peddling. So they were trying to use, not what they know, but who they know, to increase their company’s profits.
JJ: I want to talk about that revolving door some more, particularly as it involves media. But I did want to pick up on one thing that I found really interesting, because I’d heard this story of, OK, you want to build a plane, you have the engine made in one state and you have, you know, the body made in another state, and then you have that support, because it’s jobs in these various states. But one of the things that you reveal is that that’s not even appeasing the public; the public are not even in favor of that kind of political engineering, right?
MS: Absolutely. So there’s been recent polling showing that the public really wants our money to be spent for what we need for our national security, but not for this kind of crony capitalism of spreading out these contracts, so that there isn’t any kind of accountability. So I think it’s one of the many areas where you have a corrupt Washington way of thinking that’s not really reflecting what the public wants our democracy to reflect.
JJ: Yeah, and it’s sort of written off, as well, “they’re appeasing their constituents.” But it turns out they aren’t even doing that.
Speaking of that revolving door, I’m sure you remember, and listeners may remember, back in 2008, David Barstow at the New York Times broke a story about how the Pentagon was sending this coterie of retired generals out to act as “message force multipliers” in support of the Iraq War. And they got special briefings with the Pentagon, they got talking points, and then they would go on national TV and deliver information, even information that they themselves suspected was false or was exaggerated. I mean, that revolving door, it’s not just the cronyism between defense contractors and defense policymakers; it affects the public’s ability to know, as well.
MS: Absolutely. It’s horrific propaganda, when you don’t have transparency about those kinds of connections. And we’ve had debates about the strike in Iran, debates about Syria; over and over, the pundits that are put on television have connections to defense contractors, and they see their stocks going up as there’s talk about “will America go to war again?”
JJ: You note that every time the Pentagon budget comes up, first of all, it is a bipartisan thing. People just, Oh, it’s a billion here, a billion there, it’s almost a one-day story, you know? It happens and it goes through. But there are complaints; and it seems that every time there’s a budget, the Pentagon says there’s going to be “reforms,” they’re going to do some things differently. But there’s a reason to question what they put forward as reforms, and then I’d also like to ask you, what would real reform look like?
MS: So unfortunately, a lot of the reforms that we’re seeing be put forward would actually reduce oversight and accountability. That tends to be the convenient place to make cuts: “We don’t need so many auditors and people testing these systems to see if they work. I mean, that’s overhead.”
MS: But really, those are key accountability tools. So a lot of the real reform that you’d want to see is, how do you increase competition? It all starts with cutting the budget; there’s not going to be real accountability and better management unless the Pentagon understands that they don’t have limitless resources, and that they have to be good stewards of what they receive. And we need to clean up our ethics laws so that we don’t have this revolving door, we need to have regular contract audits, and more transparency over what’s happening at the Department of Defense generally. My colleague, Jason Paladino, did an investigation, just showing all the ways that this administration, like every one before it, has increased secrecy, and that’s really to the public detriment.
JJ: And I guess a role for journalists, investigative journalists, as well.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mandy Smithberger. She is director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. Work, including her recent article, “Creating a National Insecurity State: Spending more, Seeing Less,” can be found, as well as on POGO.org, on TomDispatch.com and TheNation.com. Mandy Smithberger, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MS: Thank you so much for having me.Print