Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point the other day, President Bush made the most improbable comparison anyone could make of American presidents. He tethered himself to the memory of Harry S. Truman.
Probably because Truman also stood low in the polls in wartime, the administration has been pushing the comparison. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured the Truman Library a few weeks earlier and expressed his high admiration for the crusty president who told it like it was.
This is peculiarly bad timing for Bush, as evidence of war profiteering and cover-up mounts. It reminds us of one more reason that Bush is the worst war president in history — a reason that reflects better than anything else the vast difference between him and Harry Truman.
Truman was the scourge of war profiteers, George W. Bush is their protector.
Is that too strong? Maybe he is only passive and Dick Cheney is the protector.
A few weeks ago, a federal jury ordered a defense contractor headed by a Republican acolyte of Bush — Mike Battles, a White House-backed candidate for Congress from Rhode Island in 2002 — to pay more than $10 million in damages and fines for defrauding the United States in Iraqi war contracts, including one to manage a currency exchange program in Iraq.
Bush’s Defense and Justice Departments would not bring charges and refused even to participate when two former employees who had sheaves of evidence of overcharging and deception in defense contracts brought their own civil fraud case against the company under the Civil War-era False Claims Act.
Battles’ company, set up after he lost his congressional race, inflated its expenses with fake invoices run through shell subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands. Battles and his partner accidentally left a spreadsheet revealing the fraud on the table when they met with military staff in 2003, but it was another year before the Air Force quit dealing with them. The government will get 70 percent of the jury award, even though the Bush administration refused to have anything to do with it.
Its reluctance should not have been surprising. Soon after the war began, the Senate inserted language in a supplemental war appropriation to subject contractors who deliberately defrauded the United States to jail terms and fines. But House Republicans took the provision out because the White House did not want it.
So what would Truman have done?
As the United States was gearing up for war in 1941, Sen. Harry Truman got in his car and drove thousands of miles from one defense plant to another documenting waste and fraud. He chaired the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, the so-called “Truman Committee,” which called 1,798 witnesses for 432 hearings and issued 51 reports. You can read them on the web.
Truman’s committee proved, for example, that the aerospace company Curtiss-Wright had sold leaky motors to the Army Air Corps and covered it up with forged inspection reports. The Pentagon collaborated by removing inspectors who tried to keep the flawed parts out of engines. Defense profiteers paid big fines and people went to jail in those days. The Truman committee’s work saved the lives of hundreds and maybe thousands of soldiers and the government saved $15 billion in 1940 dollars.
Here’s the amazing part: The president, Franklin Roosevelt, did not accuse Truman of being unpatriotic and not supporting the troops, which would be the case today, but booted his vice president and put Truman on the ticket with him in 1944.
There is no Senator Truman today, at least not in the controlling party. Congress has shown no interest in fraud and waste or the failure of supplies and equipment, even medicine to stop battlefield hemorrhaging. The Pentagon has spent more than $50 billion on private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of it without bids, and vast sums of it already have been documented as total waste.
Late last year, Rumsfeld had the Army reimburse Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, the leading Iraq contractor, $253 million for delivering fuel and repairing oilfield equipment that the Pentagon’s own auditors contested. Contractors don’t have to be perfect, the Pentagon explained.
Congress has not issued a single subpoena for war spending.
But Speaker Dennis Hastert and other House leaders went ballistic when the Bush Justice Department, which only wanted to change the subject in Washington from Republican corruption by nabbing a crooked Democratic congressman, got a subpoena and raided the offices of the congressman. Hastert said it was unprecedented and a violation of separation of powers and Bush pulled back. If government agents get really righteous they could subpoena other congressmen on the take.
They did that in World War II.
The Democratic lawmakers in 1943 got suspicious of one of their own, Rep. Andrew Jackson May of Kentucky, chair of the House Military Affairs Committee. He was subpoenaed before the Truman committee but became conveniently ill. Eventually, the congressman was convicted of taking bribes to use his influence to get munitions contracts to a company run by two thuggish brothers. The elderly congressman was fined and spent nearly a year in prison.
Unlike World War II, we may not know for many years what the crooks and profiteers of the Iraqi war cost us in treasure and the suffering of soldiers. Democrats promise that the work will start if they win control of one house this fall. That is another good reason to vote.