Lobbyist's Recusal Freaks out the Pentagon (II) … or … Why Lewis Carroll Would Feel Right at Home in the Howling Wilderness of Acquisition Reform

February 3, 1999

Comment: #232

Discussion Thread:  #s 223, 225, 227, 228

Reference: [1] DALE EISMAN, "Navy asks former Boeing consultant about F/A-18," The Virginian-Pilot, Jan. 29, 1999

The elite power players in the salons of Versailles on the Potomac have long realized language is just another tool for manipulating the fantasies of the unwashed masses. Nevertheless, a recent emanation from Sound-Bite Central has left even cynics agog in admiration. I speak of Dale Eisman's mind-bending revelation that an Assistant Secretary of Navy asserts a lobbyist can RECUSE himself temporarily from his consulting activities so the lobbyist can stand in judgment of a product he lobbies for. [Excerpt:  "The Navy has called on a lawyer and defense industry consultant, who until recently counted Boeing Inc. among his clients, to conduct an independent review of issues surrounding development of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, a Boeing-built fighter/bomber … The arrangement has aroused the ire of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who complained about it last week in a letter to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. … Carl Smith, the lawyer and consultant, is doing the assessment free of charge along with two other retired military officers, former Air Force Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze and former Marine Corps Gen. John R. Dailey. The trio was recruited for the work by Assistant Navy Secretary Lee Buchanan, a Navy spokesman confirmed Thursday."]

The verb 'RECUSE' denotes an action taken to assure a dispassionate exercise of judgment in an impartial legal proceeding. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a judge "RECUSES" himself by WITHDRAWING from hearing a case because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality. Oxford elaborates on this theme with the noun "RECUSAL," which is a judge's voluntary WITHDRAWAL from a case he or she can not or should not hear.

Recall Comment #228 where Elaine Grossman reported that Lee Buchanan, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, asked Carl Smith, a well-known Washington defense consultant and former Republican staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, to lead an independent inquiry into questions about the Navy's F/A-18E/F fighter/bomber. This was newsworthy because Smith had a long-standing business relationship with the F/A-18E/F manufacturer, the McAir Division of Boeing, which he terminated a few days after Buchanan made his request [Attachments 1 & 2, Comment #228]. Although Smith is now performing the review without compensation from the Navy or Boeing, according to Ms. Grossman, he reportedly he left open the option of working for the F/A-18E/F's prime contractor sometime in the future.

Now bear also in mind, Smith's inquiry was triggered by the controversy surrounding a series of simple (and simply answered) questions about the F/A-18E/F raised by Democratic Senator Feingold in a November 1998 letter to William Cohen, the Secretary of Defense. Feingold asked Cohen to direct the Defense Department's Inspector General to determine if crucial information was suppressed prior to the E/F's production decision in March 1997 and, more importantly, if information regarding its questionable or inferior maneuvering performance is being fully considered prior to the pending Lot III production decision [see Comment #225, Attachment 2].

Feingold's questions are important because (1) the lives of pilots will be placed at risk in the F/A-18E/F over the next 25 to 30 years and (2) taxpayers will be asked to pony up over $45 billion for this program. Despite the fact that these questions are easy to answer, and the fact that Article I of the Constitution gives Feingold the right and power to ask such questions, the Pentagon, as of this writing, has refused to answer them. On the other hand, the Navy saw fit to dispatch Mr. Smith to question Feingold's staff (and other critics) about their concerns!

Dale Eisman, a savvy old-time political reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, now adds an even more bizarre twist to this amazing story [Attachment #1 below]. Eisman tells us that Buchanan acknowledged through an official spokesman that, like Feingold, he ``was not initially aware'' of Smith's work for Boeing, but after discussing it with the consultant he was ``more than satisfied with the arrangements Mr. Smith made to RECUSE HIMSELF [emphasis added] from any potential conflict of interest'' when doing his independent assessment of the Boeing F/A-18E/F.

This sound bite has cosmic implications. Consider, please, the following—Senator Feingold makes a constitutionally legitimate request for an DoD/IG investigation of existing government documents, but his staff ends up being questioned by Mr. Smith, a consultant/lobbyist for Boeing, the company put at risk by Feingold's questions. The Navy authorized and justified Smith's investigation with the claim that Smith RECUSED himself from his consulting contracts with Boeing. Now if we believe the Oxford Dictionary, the verb 'RECUSE' and the noun 'RECUSAL' imply Smith's role is that of a judge and the key action is a withdrawal. But evidently, the Navy has made Smith a very special kind of judge, because he is not required to WITHDRAW from the act of judging. No … according to the Navy, it is "more than satisfied" with the kind of judge who WITHDRAWS temporarily from the contractual relationship that creates the conflict of interest, while this judge apparently reserves the right to reestablish that contractual relationship AFTER rendering his judgment (see Comment #228).

When a senior decision maker claims a defense consultant can recuse himself like a judge, but in a way that would put a real judge in jail, and is 'more than satisfied' with the result, it is easy to see why Lewis Carroll would love to work in the Pentagon.

The continuing pattern of deception and dissimulation surrounding the F/A-18E/F is making this program into the penultimate case study of what is WRONG with an acquisition reform process that is grounded on the principle that the Defense Department must build a CLOSER partnership with the defense industry.

A better pathway to real reform would be grounded on the explicit recognition that (1) companies have different interests and goals than the Defense Department, and (2) decision makers in the Pentagon have a fiduciary obligation to protect other people's money (i.e., the taxpayers), other people's lives (soldiers, sailors, and airmen), not to mention the checks and balances of the Constitution.

A first step in this direction would be to treat our pilots and taxpayers with a little more respect by forthrightly and promptly answering Senator Feingold's constitutionally-legitimate questions [see Comment 225, Attachment 2].

Chuck Spinney

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