Congress Must Step Up Oversight Activity, Act on Trade Deal

Posted April 1, 2008 at 2:11pm

Two topics in one today. First, a perennial: oversight. Multiple reports last week portrayed the Defense Department as beyond inept — as an outfit that would embarrass the Keystone Kops, and one posing serious dangers to the U.S. national interest.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Washington Post offered a detailed look at the mistaken shipment of nuclear detonators instead of helicopter batteries to Taiwan. The story makes one cringe — the cavalier treatment of the most sensitive materials, the failure to notice the huge error for more than a year — and wonder about what safeguards, if any, exist to protect nuclear weapons, nuclear-related materials and nuclear secrets.

The second, more immediately frightening, was a New York Times piece about a contract given by the Army to a fly-by-night operation to send ammunition to our Afghan allies. The Times noted, the company’s “rise from obscurity once seemed to make it a successful example of the Bush administration’s promotion of private contractors as integral elements of war-fighting strategy. But an examination of AEY’s background … suggests that Army contracting officials, under pressure to arm Afghan troops, allowed an immature company to enter the murky world of international arms dealing on the Pentagon’s behalf — and did so with minimal vetting and through a vaguely written contract with few restrictions.” In this case, by sending defective ammunition to people in the line of fire, the Army endangered our allies, our own troops working with the Afghans, and our objective of winning in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

A part of the explanation here is the Army’s urgency in getting ammunition out there, which raises its own questions about our readiness. But there are other questions, about privatization and the safeguards against corruption and incompetence that are essential when the real rush here has been to privatize almost anything.

Which brings us directly to the third major embarrassment, courtesy of The Washington Times: the State Department outsourcing many elements of U.S. passport production abroad. The story said that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security pooh-poohed any suggestions of a security or privacy threat. But combined with the earlier revelations about contractor employees in the United States improperly accessing the presidential candidates’ passport files, it could not help but raise huge warning flags.

Nothing could be more valuable to terrorists wanting to stage attacks in the U.S. than the ability to secure a bundle of the new, super-safe and solid American passports. Assurances of security, given what we have seen of security in Chinese pharmaceutical plants, are not very reassuring.

These stories, along with Blackwater, Halliburton and others, underscore the dark side of privatization and the appalling maladministration in our most significant executive departments. They all cry out for vigorous Congressional oversight. How could these things happen? How can we install safeguards to minimize the likelihood of them happening again? Who is to blame, and who should be held accountable? Oversight cannot prevent disasters from happening. Sometimes human error, or incompetence, occurs even when a solid regime is in place. Sometimes, corrupt individuals thwart good policy or administration despite our best efforts.

But vigorous oversight can minimize embarrassments or catastrophes. The disasters that flowed from the lack of it in President Bush’s first six years are becoming more apparent. The lesson to Democrats — that if they continue to run Congress and end up next year with a Democratic president, they must be just as firm in oversight as they have been in this Congress with a Republican in the White House — should be equally apparent.

The second topic is the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. We now have a growing body of persuasive evidence that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has encouraged and financed the insurgent forces trying to overthrow the Colombian government — insurgents who have engaged in kidnapping, murder and drug trafficking, and who apparently were trying to secure nuclear materials. It also appears that Chávez was at least abetted in his efforts by his allies in Equador. The Uribe government may be far from perfect, but it is a democratic regime trying mightily to operate well and fairly in a tough region — much tougher, in fact, than we knew a month ago. Colombia is a strong ally of the United States in a key region where we have very few allies.

The free-trade agreement the administration has negotiated with Colombia is fair, progressive and balanced. It would have a minimal impact on the American economy and a huge impact on a stalwart ally and on our hemisphere. Its failure in Congress would have an equally huge and negative impact. This is as close to a limiting case on trade as we can find. The foreign policy pluses so far outweigh the economic minuses, if any, that it should not be a close call. As Congress returns, it will face a vote on this agreement, and a test of whether the Democratic Congress is ready to accept the responsibilities of the majority.

This is a time for the leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to speak up and be joined by the leaders on the trade front, including Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). It should also be a time for Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to step up to the plate. Obama addressed the trade issue again recently, reiterating that he is for free trade in principle. Here is a great place to show that he means it.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.