Fighting War Profiteering, Truman-Style

[Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.]

In choosing the Truman Library in Independence as the place for a major speech last Thursday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld no doubt hopes some of the World War II victor's sheen will rub off on him.

One important part of former President Harry S Truman's legacy that Rumsfeld seems unlikely to highlight is his crusade against war profiteering. As a U.S. senator in 1941, Truman drove thousands of miles around the country going from one defense plant to another documenting waste and fraud. He then headed the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program -- the Truman committee, for short. The process saved American taxpayers $15 billion (in 1940s dollars). And by uncovering faulty military equipment, he prevented the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of U.S. soldiers.

Contemporary military auditors have discovered corruption no less shocking than that which Truman observed on his muck-raking roadtrip, but the Bush administration has remained virtually silent on the subject. In 2005 alone, defense contracts totaled more than $270 billion, and the White House recently requested an additional $72 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given these vast sums, greater oversight is needed.

In Congress, bipartisan bills in both the Senate and House to create a Truman-style oversight committee sit in limbo. Since the Iraq War began, there have been only a handful of hearings on military contracts. Between 1941 and 1948, the Truman committee called 1,798 witnesses for 432 hearings and issued 51 reports.

Truman's investigatory team played a critical role in overseeing the military's overseers. In 1943, for example, it began looking into the aerospace firm Curtiss-Wright after getting tips that the company was delivering defective motors to what was then called the Army Air Corps. The military officials responsible for inspecting the plant insisted that all was rosy, but the committee pressed on, conducting a three-city investigation and taking more than 1,000 pages of sworn testimony.

The dirt it uncovered proved that the company had sold leaky motors to the government and covered it up with forged inspection reports. The military had protected the company by removing inspectors who attempted to block the flawed parts from being installed in airplanes. As a result of the investigation, heads rolled at Curtiss-Wright, and one general wound up in prison.

Similar investigative zeal is needed today. A modern-day Truman committee could start by looking into the Army's recent decision to reimburse Halliburton $253 million for delivering fuel and repairing oil equipment in Iraq, even though the Pentagon's own auditors had contested the bills. In a statement that did little to reassure taxpayers, an Army spokesperson explained that "the contractor is not required to perform perfectly to be entitled to reimbursement."

Rumsfeld has not always been silent on war profiteering or Halliburton. As a Republican congressman from Illinois in 1966, Rumsfeld raised questions about the 30-year association between Halliburton's chairman and then-president Lyndon Johnson. "Why this huge contract has not been and is not now being adequately audited is beyond me," Rumsfeld said. "The potential for waste and profiteering under such a contract is substantial."

At that time, of course, Rumsfeld was lobbing his criticism at a president of the opposing party. But oversight of war-time contracts need not be -- should not be -- a partisan issue. After all, Truman's crusade came with a member of his own party in the White House. In fact, although President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed some initial anxieties about Truman's efforts, he eventually was so impressed that he chose Truman to be his vice-presidential running mate.

On his trip to Independence, Rumsfeld would do well to dig through the library's files on the Truman committee and take its lessons back with him to Washington. The resurrection of a bi-partisan commission working for the good of U.S. taxpayers and troops would be a good start in bridging our polarized divide.

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