Tilting at Windmills

January/February 2013 Petraus’s demands … Fox News’s GOP ambitions … Washington’s merry-go-round

By Charles Peters

Langley’s Bartlebys
I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about “the talking points,” but it’s fascinating to discover that the real culprit was not Susan Rice or a sinister White House plot, but, according to Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous of the Wall Street Journal, a daylong debate at the CIA involving “more than two dozen intelligence officials, in which they contested and whittled the available evidence into a bland summary with no reference to al Qaeda.” As a former public employee,

I can testify that one of the most reliable rules of bureaucratic behavior is that the more officials involved in drafting a document, the more likely it is to be watered down, often to the verge of absolute meaninglessness.

A tale of two budgets
If you suspect that I have been overly cynical in my portrayal of government contractors, here is an example of how I got that way. It comes from a suit by the Department of Justice against the Gallup Organization. A whistleblower named Michael Lindley had helped prepare cost estimates for the organization when it was bidding for a government contract. Lindley says he was told to create two budgets—one considerably higher, to be given to the government, and another much lower, to be used within the organization to guide how much was actually spent carrying out the contract.

As a result of this practice, reports Sari Horowitz of the Washington Post, Gallup partners “frequently boasted that profit margins on government contracts were among the highest in the company.” It’s no wonder, then, that the Justice Department accuses Gallup of submitting $13 million worth of false invoices.

Washington’s merry-go-round
The Gallup case also illustrates how the revolving door works in Washington. The Justice Department lawsuit alleges that Gallup conspired to hire a Federal Emergency Management Agency executive, if that executive succeeded in procuring a hefty contract for Gallup. In an email, which is now in the court records, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton writes that if the FEMA executive “gets us a big deal at FEMA … i think we should hire him.” The FEMA executive, who Clifton interviewed while he was still an employee of FEMA, then sent Gallup an email about the proposed contract with FEMA: “I got another 500k for the contract. Cool huh?”

Hey, we were learning something there
I have seldom found a kind word to say about the Style section of the New York Times. So I feel some obligation to note when they nail it, as Henry Alford did recently in the article “If I Do Humblebrag So Myself,” with this example of the fine art of false humility, from a tweet by Paula Broadwell: “Honored and humbled to be included in @claudiachan’s profiles of ‘global remarkable women.’”

I must say that I regret the media’s apparent loss of interest in Ms. Broadwell, as well as in Jill Kelley and Kelley’s sister, Natalie Khawam. Each fact revealed about this trio has not only had the appeal of irresistibly juicy gossip, but has also raised serious questions about the judgment of two of our most highly esteemed generals.

Drop and give me fresh pineapple
Speaking of David Petraeus, when he arrived at the CIA in 2011 to take up his new duties as its head, he raised a few eyebrows by informing his aides that he expected a fresh bottle of water to be handed to him at the exact points he specified along his jogging route—and, by the way, while he was traveling he wanted fresh sliced pineapple at his bedside each night.

What the CIA officials may not have known is that such accoutrements are only a small part of the imperial trappings enjoyed by our top generals and admirals. Their perks have become so lavish, in fact, that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered an investigation. According to the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, however, the conduct of the investigation has been assigned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who does not seem to be the most disinterested of possible observers.

Getting Stoned
Oliver Stone’s documentary miniseries The Untold History of the United States is more accurate than his movie JFK, in which he wove a few remotely plausible facts into an absurdly vast conspiracy to explain the assassination of John Kennedy. Our opinion of that film, and the book by Jim Garrison on which it is based, was captured by the headline of an article we ran in 1976, “Was Sirhan Sirhan on the Grassy Knoll?”

Stone has one fact right that few other historians have acknowledged. Henry Wallace was indeed deprived of the 1944 vice presidential nomination by Democratic political bosses, who ordered the adjournment of the 1944 Democratic National Convention when it seemed clear that if a vote had been held that night, Wallace would win.

I was listening to the radio as Chairman Samuel D. Jackson called for the yeas and nays on the motion to adjourn and heard the weak yeas, followed by a thunderous chorus of nays. On the other hand, Stone does not mention that Wallace’s original nomination to the vice presidency in 1940 had also been forced down the convention’s throat by the bosses. I was there and witnessed the loud booing whenever Wallace’s name was spoken.

As for Harry Truman, if David McCullough’s beguiling biography tends to airbrush the blemishes on his record, Stone tends to exaggerate them to the point of painting Truman as more responsible for the Cold War than the Soviet Union, which is just plain not true. This kind of tilting, emphasizing the sins of the United States while minimizing the misdeeds of the other fellows, mars the entire series.

Sheep’s clothing: A shopping guide
I could not believe it, but there was CBS’s Scott Pelley, who heretofore had struck me as a serious, if sometimes too serious, journalist, respectfully interviewing Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein about the fiscal crisis. Then I heard Blankfein had been invited to the White House to counsel Barack Obama. I recalled noting in this space last
year that Blankfein had managed to get himself named national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage for the Human Rights Campaign.

Remember, this is a man who presided over an organization that encouraged its own clients to accept what employees referred to in internal emails as a “shitty deal.” Blankfein’s apparent success in recreating himself as a sage adviser and crusader for worthy causes all goes to show what skillful public relations can do. I have long marveled at the ability of Wall Street sharks to get good press for supporting the arts and socially liberal causes, while amassing immense wealth for themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.


  • Richard Fox on January 15, 2013 2:57 PM:

    Regarding your item about AARP and Medicare, medical providers agree as a condition of participating in any insurance to accept what the insurance authorizes as total payment for a bill. This works the same with Medicare as with any private insurance. Therefore the difference between what Medicare pays and what it authorizes becomes the total amount owed. There is no "gap" as you imply.

  • Sparky Satori on February 21, 2013 4:04 PM:

    "...is more accurate than his movie JFK, in which he wove a few remotely plausible facts into an absurdly vast conspiracy to explain the assassination of John Kennedy."

    Why is it that those who have never bothered to acquaint themselves with the "facts" expect to be taken seriously when they pontificate about which among them are "plausible?"

    Oliver Stone got more right than wrong in JFK, but in order to know that, one would have to read more than just the Warren Commission Report, which is apparently where your own education on this ended.