Democrats regained control of Congress last year in large part by promising to end the “culture of corruption” that sent Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Bob Ney and lobbyist Jack Abramoff off to prison. More than a year later, however, Congress continues to hide the truth about Cunningham’s misdeeds. Why? Because the truth hurts.
Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times has managed to get his hands on a 23-page unclassified report by the staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on the Intelligence that helps flesh out the picture. That in itself is an amazing feat, since the committee has refused to release the report to other members of Congress. Democrats joined Republicans two weeks ago to make sure the report remained hush-hush, after Rep. Pete Hoekstra (right), the GOP’s ranking member, insisted it stay that way. (Cunningham has written Hoekstra from prison and invited him to come have a chat.) The report was narrowly constrained to focus only on Cunningham’s actions, not those of any other member. Even so, it was bad enough to shame the committee into silence.
Last year, Rep. Jane Harman, then the Democratic ranking member, had the temerity to release an executive summary of the report last year, which revealed that the committee approved $70 million to $80 million of Cunningham’s requests for his cronies. Republicans were outraged by the release. Hoesktra, then the committee chairman, suspended a Democratic committee staffer, ostensibly over the leak of a National Intelligence Estimate. Asked if the suspension was payback, GOP Rep. Ray LaHood told Fox News “There are some of us on the other side who can equally play politics, and I’m not afraid to do it.”
Most, if not all of the money Cunningham squeezed out of the committee went to the congressman’s new best friend, Mitchell Wade, president of defense contractor MZM Inc. Wade’s masterful manipulation of Cunningham over many a bottle of fine wine at The Capital Grille helped his company grow almost overnight from a one-man consulting firm into a mid-sized Washington defense contractor. In return, Cunningham used his position to help Wade by pushing for programs like Project Fortress.
Project Fortress was designed to get a handle on the foreign visitors who had been gathering intelligence on U.S. weapons systems. It was hatched by the Counterintelligence Field Activity and the U.S. Air Force to develop an analytical program that would provide an understanding of which foreign professionals visited which labs and bases to observe military exercises.
After Sept. 11, the Air Force and the Counterintelligence Field Activity decided to pay close attention to these visitors, especially during annual Air Force “Red Flag” exercises in Alaska and Nevada, which are attended by delegations from NATO, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Mongolia, and the Republic of Singapore. In 2006, China was invited for the first time to watch U.S. wargames in Guam. In the photo below, a Chinese reporter and his military friends ask questions about the F-15, which the U.S. has sold to Taiwan (click here for link):
Over time, Fortress grew into a multimillion dollar program that involved dozens of people gathering human and signals intelligence at bases around the country. MZM employees ushered the foreigners around bases, while technicians sat in vans with equipment trying to pick up signals from laptops. The program is classified, which means there’s no real way to determine whether it served any value.
Cunningham has indicated he would have supported Fortress even if he had not received $1 million in gifts from Wade, who has pleaded guilty and admitted providing antiques, a Rolls-Royce, a yacht, a hunting video game the Duke installed his office and money that helped the congressman by a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. In a letter from prison, Cunningham wrote that Fortress “will today save lives” and he would have fought for it “even if Nancy Pelosi had started the program.” House intelligence committee staffers were not quite so deluded. In a staff e-mail about Fortress, Miller’s story notes, one aide wrote, “HOOAH! Another $5 million of taxpayer money wasted.”
Nor was Cunningham the only member of Congress who wasted money on Wade and his company. Rep. Virgil Goode inserted a classified earmark into a defense appropriation bill to fund the Foreign Supplier Assessment Center in his Virginia district. State officials described it as “Project Goode” in internal e-mails. What was Project Goode? According to documents I obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, a former civilian Army official working for MZM said that the program had been specifically requested by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. MZM intended to create databases on foreign companies and individuals that sought to supply equipment to the U.S. military. That way, the Defense Department could “track certain individuals” with a poor performance history. Subsequently, Project Goode – the Foreign Supplier Assessment Center – was revealed as little more than a cash cow. In June 2006, the Pentagon quietly closed the center.
MZM had many friends. It had people in the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Robb-Silverman Commission and the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center. The White House turned to MZM for help scrutinizing e-mails for potential threats to the president. A team of MZM translators was on the ground in Iraq providing support to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional U.S. government in Iraq. One MZM linguist appeared in the company newsletter shaking hands with Sen. Hillary Clinton. Another translated for L. Paul Bremer and when he wasn’t translating, pulled duty with Bremer’s team of bodyguards.
Many of these contracts were and remain classified, shrouded from oversight under the rubric of national security. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the lingering secrets of the Cunningham scandal have more to do with potential embarrassment to members of Congress or the Bush administration. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle can play politics, as Congressman LaHood noted. But if they can’t even police themselves, how can they be expected to provide badly needed oversight of the intelligence community? By covering up its misdeeds, Congress is blocking the necessary disinfectant of sunlight from shining on the darkest corners of the “black budget” that funds secret operations. That is a far greater threat to our democracy than any revelations about Project Fortress, Project Goode or the other, unknown boondoggles that helped make a greedy Washington contractor like Wade into a wealthy man.
UPDATE: Apparently, what was left of Project Fortress was significantly scaled back in the last week or so, by as much as 75 percent.