Ask and ye shall receive.
This past Wednesday, I published an article here enjoining President Trump’s new Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, to undo the damage wrought by the much feted but overly conventional Gen. James Mattis during his tenure. Among the complaints against Mattis, I paused to note that he had practically handed Amazon a $10 billion contract to service all of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) data on its cloud computing servers, up to and including stacking the people in charge of awarding that contract with Amazon toadies. “Thankfully, President Trump is interested in listening to [these] complaints, now,” I wrote. “Esper would be well advised to do the same.”
What happened next is an experience that I doubt any policy commentator has more than a handful of times in a lifetime. The day after my article’s publication, Esper announced that, in keeping with President Trump’s welcome newfound skepticism about the program, he would be probing the process by which it was created, putting the entire ill-advised boondoggle on hold until he could be sure the whole thing had been done above-board. I, and so many other Republican lawmakers, pundits, and policy experts, were vindicated at last. Just a mere day after asking Esper to be the anti-Mattis, I found that he was committed to being just that.
I don’t expect the reader to believe that my humble scribbling was the determinative factor on this question. That would be arrogant to the point of delusion. One doesn’t often see one’s demands in print met, however, merely a day after they are published. As such, I for one feel compelled to give an “attaboy” to the real decision-makers in this case: namely, President Trump and Mark Esper. In a world where warnings about swamp-style corruption are often muzzled by huge influxes of corporate dollars, consultant-driven smear campaigns, and chumminess between contractors and their government clients, Trump and Esper’s willingness to put the whole sordid process under the microscope shows that both are entirely committed to draining the swamp against which President Trump in particular rails so often. On those grounds alone, they deserve congratulation.
Mind you, this doesn’t mark the end of the Defense Department’s quest for cloud computing services. Nor, as you’ll see, does it mark the end of wasteful government contracting decisions. DoD will still need a place to put its data and will likely renew the search for corporate partners to help them once Esper’s probe is concluded. When DoD begins that search, it should be guided by all the things that conspicuously failed to inform the now disgraced effort by Amazon to pull a fast one on American taxpayers. That is, the search should put all competitors on a level playing field. It should demand innovation of the highest caliber. It should be dedicated to finding the most secure solution possible and should be secured against corporate influence just as strongly. If necessary, it should be prepared to accommodate multiple platforms for DoD data for the sake of not laying all of America’s military data on a single plate for hackers to find. And it should be guided by not what is best for the people looking to feather their nests as lobbyists for this or that company, but rather by what is best for the actual beneficiary of such a contract: America’s war fighters.
Whether that will be how the process shakes out or not can only be known in the fullness of time. But Esper has, at least, signaled that when it comes to the military side of the administrative state, there is a new — and much better — sheriff in town.
Esper will need the kind of toughness he displayed in taking this decision again, and fast. After all, bald-faced corruption aside, the cloud computing contract was just the ugliest example of a trend whereby major companies with chummy relationships to the military swindle the American taxpayer. The military industrial complex is alive, but it is not well, having long since become an instrument for graft as much as promoting America’s military readiness.
At the risk of repeating myself, one very clear example of such grifting by defense contractors is the disastrous example of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a boondoggle brought to you by Lockheed Martin decades late and hundreds of billions of dollars over-budget in the making. If Lockheed Martin were not already being sued for overcharging and defrauding the United States government, the F-35 would provide an excellent cause for that sort of legal action. Not a week goes by without the plane encountering some seemingly new and intractable problem, whether it be making pilots nauseous, flaking off the material that makes it “invisible” to radar at supersonic speeds, or having its supposedly revolutionary onboard computer system crash. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), no foe of military readiness, accused the project of “hemorrhaging money,” and so it is. If Esper was prepared to shut down a similarly wasteful and dangerous project with only $10 billion at stake, why on earth should he let it slide when over 10 times that much money has already been flushed down the gold plated toilet?
With any other Defense Secretary, this sort of question would fall on deaf ears. But Esper is clearly willing to listen to concerns from those of us who favor both military superiority and the accountability required to maintain it. Will he tackle the F-35 with the same speed that he tackled the Amazon disaster? One can only wait, and hope.