Tuesday, February 15, 2005

War News for Tuesday, February 15, 2005 Part Three – Your Tax Dollars At Work

The War That Would Pay For Itself: President Bush on Monday urged Congress to approve quickly his request for $82 billion to cover the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and a myriad of other internationally related expenses, such as training Iraqi security forces, aiding tsunami victims and helping military forces in other nations.

Included in the request is $74.9 billion for the Defense Department. About $5 billion is for reorganizing Army divisions and brigades and $5.7 billion for training and equipping Iraqi military and police, according to a federal official familiar with the request.

Last week, Bush submitted an overall $2.5 trillion budget for fiscal 2006. That document called for restraining spending across a wide swath of government programs from popular farm subsidies to poor people's health programs. Spending on the military, the biggest part of discretionary spending, would rise by 4.8 percent in 2006 to $419.3 billion.

The money requested for the military did not include the additional $82 billion.

Where does the money go, part one: A government contractor defrauded the Coalition Provisional Authority of tens of millions of dollars in Iraq reconstruction funds and the Bush administration has done little to try to recover the money, an attorney for two whistle-blowers told Democratic lawmakers yesterday.

The lawyer, Alan Grayson, represents two former employees who charged in a federal lawsuit that the security firm Custer Battles LLC of Fairfax was paid approximately $15 million to provide security for civilian flights at Baghdad International Airport, even though no planes flew during the contract term. Grayson said the firm received $100 million in contracts in 2003 and 2004, despite a thin track record and evidence the government was not getting its money's worth.

Lawyers representing Custer Battles have denied the charges and have argued that the case should be dismissed because the money that was allegedly stolen belonged to Iraqis, not to Americans. Grayson said that argument has the potential to turn Iraq during the authority's administration of the country into "a fraud-free zone," with contractors not subject to Iraqi or American law.

Where does the money go, part two: U.S. officials in postwar Iraq paid a contractor by stuffing $2 million worth of crisp bills into his gunnysack and routinely made cash payments around Baghdad from a pickup truck, a former official with the U.S. occupation government says.

Because the country lacked a functioning banking system, contractors and Iraqi ministry officials were paid with bills taken from a basement vault in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces that served as headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority, former CPA official Frank Willis said.

Officials from the CPA, which ruled Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, would count the money when it left the vault, but nobody kept track of the cash after that, Willis said.

Where does the money go, part three: The Pentagon is falling short on efforts to keep elite special forces units at full strength and now is fighting back dollar by dollar, offering up to $150,000 bonuses to commandos to keep high-paying private security firms from cherry-picking the teams. Special operations units such as the Green Berets and Navy SEALs are running slightly below their authorized strength, in part because private firms are luring away those troops for work in Iraq and elsewhere by tripling or quadrupling their pay, military officials said.

Military officials seeing a drop in special-forces retention say they have little choice but to compete in the marketplace with companies like Blackwater Security Consulting and Halliburton, who advertise on their Web sites to recruit employees with U.S. special forces training. "Outside organizations want to come in and steal away our talent," said Lt. Kyle Raines, a spokesman for the Navy's personnel chief. "We'll do whatever it takes to keep these high-quality folks.

Where does the money go, part four: Soldiers, diplomats and private contractors in Iraq are all putting their lives on the line.

But should anyone be paid $350,000 a year to work in Iraq?

That's the basic labor rate for a liaison officer under the contract that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded Charlotte's Zapata Engineering to help dispose of captured munitions. It's 10 times what the average soldier or member of the National Guard earns, even for full combat duty.

The Army Corps has set aside as much as $1.47 billion for explosives-demolition contracts with 10 private companies. Neither Zapata nor the Army Corps of Engineers would reveal exact salaries, but the first one-year contract the company received in September 2003 totaled $3.8 million for five management positions in Iraq.

The single liaison officer cost taxpayers not just the $350,000 in salary, but $850,000 in overhead, insurance and profit costs, according to a Winston-Salem Journal analysis.

Four project managers were budgeted for a total of $2.7 million, which includes $275,000 in annual pay for each and a total of $1.6 million for overhead, insurance and profit.

Those figures do not include security, food and lodging, which were provided under separate contracts.

Is it just me or does anyone else think it may not be the best use of tax dollars to hire contractors at such inflated prices that they can afford to outbid our military to hire away their soldiers and then give the military money so they can offer the same soldiers incredible bonuses in the hopes that they won't get hired away? Hello?

Where does the money NOT go: Starting Tuesday, as fresh troops continue to cross the dusty berm from Kuwait into Iraq in the largest troop rotation in U.S. military history, no American military vehicle can travel outside a protected base without some sort of armor, military officials said last week. The announcement was the result of a concentrated push to armor trucks after a National Guardsman asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in December why soldiers were forced to scavenge for makeshift armor to protect themselves on trips into Iraq. Nevertheless, the effort to further protect American soldiers, much of it undertaken on an ad hoc basis at military bases in Kuwait, is not finished. Even after the order takes effect Tuesday, about a quarter of the 25,300 military vehicles venturing outside bases will have only the makeshift steel plates known to soldiers as "Mad Max" or "hillbilly" armor. About 6,000 unarmored vehicles will be confined to the base camps.

Just to keep the above article in perspective: The war began March 20, 2003, almost two years ago. Around eight or nine thousand vehicles are still using hillbilly armor.

Oh, and we’d like some more money, part one: Sen. John Kerry called for tens of thousands of new U.S. troops on Monday and said the country should adopt a series of initiatives to support military families.

Kerry said he plans to file legislation to increase the size of the military by 40,000 -- 30,000 in the Army and 10,000 in the Marines -- to help support the country's efforts in Iraq and the larger war on terrorism.

He also said the country needs to do more to help families of those serving in the military, from boosting death benefits to extending psychiatric care to veterans returning from Iraq.

Oh, and we’d like some more money, part two: Many soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from the so-called patriot penalty – the gap between what deployed Guard and Reserve troops are paid and their civilian salaries. Legislation being proposed would eliminate that penalty by reimbursing troops for up to $50,000 of lost income.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, is proposing a measure to eliminate the "patriot penalty" and offer tax breaks up to $15,000 annually to corporations that supplement the incomes of employees called to service.

About half of all troops in Iraq are in the Guard and Reserves. Based on a Pentagon study, Mr. Bayh estimates 40 percent of those troops make less money while deployed.

Hey, no problemo. Let’s just cut a few more social programs.



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