In 2014, the Pentagon commissioned a study to identify wasteful practices and improve efficiency, but when the researchers found too much waste – approximately $125 billion worth – the officials who asked for the report tried to bury the findings. As reported in the Washinton Post, Pentagon officials worried that “Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget.”
The Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings. A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website.
Particularly telling are a series of comments by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, the Pentagon’s second-highest-ranking official, and Frank Kendall III, the Pentagon’s chief weapons-buyer.
“At first,” the Post explains:
Work publicly touted the efficiency drive as a top priority and boasted about his idea to recruit corporate experts to lead the way.
After the board finished its analysis, however, Work changed his position. In an interview with The Post, he did not dispute the board’s findings about the size or scope of the bureaucracy. But he dismissed the $125 billion savings proposal as “unrealistic” and said the business executives had failed to grasp basic obstacles to restructuring the public sector.
Kendall, meanwhile, wasn’t buying what the researchers were selling almost from the very beginning. He “challenged the board’s data and strenuously objected to the conclusion that his offices were overstaffed.”
Mostly, however, he worried about what it would mean for extracting more money from Congress for military spending.
Kendall knew that lawmakers might view the study as credible. Alarmed, he said, he went to Work and warned that the findings could “be used as a weapon” against the Pentagon.
“If the impression that’s created is that we’ve got a bunch of money lying around and we’re being lazy and we’re not doing anything to save money, then it’s harder to justify getting budgets that we need,” Kendall said.
President-elect Donald Trump largely bought into the notion that the U.S. military has been gutted by the supposedly devastating effects of the bipartisan Budget Control Act. This is a myth, as my colleague Benjamin Friedman explained at a Capitol Hill briefing last month. The U.S. military remains eminently capable of defending the United States and U.S. vital interests. The greatest threat to American security is U.S. officials’ collective inability to prioritize, and their tendency to be drawn into others’ disputes.
Still, Mr. Trump has pledged to rebuild the military, and dismissed critics who scoffed at his claim that he could find the money that he needs without raising taxes or cutting other popular domestic programs. The key, he said, was “eliminating government waste and budget gimmicks.”
He should thank the Pentagon for helping to identify some of that waste, and the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock and Bob Woodward for making the findings public. Actually extracting the savings, including by getting Congress to stop treating the Pentagon as a particularly inefficient jobs program, is likely to prove tougher.