While Congress continues to debate how to reform the practice of using taxpayer dollars to fund pet projects, key reforms are needed in the area of national-security earmarks.
I have seen how abuse of national-security earmarks resulted in lost opportunities on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps even - shockingly - lost lives as well.
Earmarks for contracts at the Pentagon, CIA or elsewhere in the intelligence community are especially ripe for abuse. Operational security requires minimal public scrutiny regarding sensitive or classified programs. Unfortunately, abuse of national security earmarks has occurred too often, with politicians from both parties funneling taxpayer dollars for critical programs straight to unqualified contractors who were also campaign contributors, cronies and even bribers.
In one case, federal prosecutors revealed how Congress used earmarks to give a $132 million contract to one company for CIA aviation activities worldwide. CIA aviation contractors usually have unmatched experience in challenging, dangerous and unconventional flight operations. Yet the contractor who received the money had no experience in aviation - other than hiring corporate jets to shuttle powerful members of Congress around the country.
One of the most egregious examples of national security earmark abuse was a previously classified program called the Counter - IED Targeting Program, or CITP.
CITP was to deliver intelligence support to enable our combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to target enemy networks that employ the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that wound and kill our troops.
In 2004, when IEDs became the number one killer of American forces, counter-IED targeting capability was a top priority request from the military command in Iraq. Thus, the program was quickly funded and implemented.
But Congress used earmarks to ensure the lucrative, expedited, no-bid contract went straight to inexperienced contractors who, as federal prosecutors have shown, enriched the same elected officials with millions in bribes and hundreds of thousands in “legal” political contributions.
Meanwhile in Iraq, CITP proved dysfunctional, leaving our troops without a critical capability to engage the most dangerous threat.
I served in Iraq as the lead intelligence advisor for the Pentagon’s counter-IED effort, and served previously in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia and Colombia as a counter-terrorism operative and military intelligence officer. In early 2005, I evaluated CITP in Iraq at the request of general officers in the Pentagon and Baghdad who were concerned about its effectiveness.
They were right. CITP was broken. If CITP had been implemented through the normal merit-based wartime contracting process, our troops would have had what they needed. Instead, the IED networks run by al Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni insurgents, relatively free from being effectively targeted, increased their attacks several fold from 2004 to 2006. More U.S. casualties and deaths resulted, not to mention a dramatic decline in public support for the mission.
While politicians were abusing national-security earmarks for personal and political gain, our troops were paying the price - and our war effort was jeopardized.
Yet even today, little has changed to prevent similar recurrences, so real reform is needed.
With thanks to the earmark watchdogs at Citizens Against Government Waste, Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Club for Growth, three simple changes are proposed.
First, Congress should no longer designate money for classified or sensitive national-security projects to specific companies, directly or indirectly. The temptation for abuse is too great. Instead, Congress should only designate needed capabilities, thereby allowing the defense and intelligence communities, with appropriate oversight, to select those best qualified.
Second, Congress should require greater transparency. Financial contributions to elected officials from employees of contractors who bid on sensitive or classified projects should quickly be made public. The added disclosure and transparency should apply to members’ campaign accounts as well as political-action committees and nonprofit organizations.
Third, members of Congress should require greater accountability of themselves. Each classified earmark spending authorization should be reviewed by at least two cleared members from each political party on the appropriate intelligence or armed-services committee. This will help to reduce individual abuses, minimize partisan finger-pointing, and start to purge the clubby, see-no- evil atmosphere that invites abuse.
These three common-sense reforms can be quickly and easily implemented and would help Americans regain confidence in congressional stewardship of our national treasure during wartime.
Congress can demonstrate its oft-stated support for the troops by enacting these three simple reforms.
Air Force Reserve Maj. Eric Egland, a career intelligence officer and former counterterrorism operative, is an Iraq War veteran.