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A Government by the People, for the Military-Industrial Complex

September 27, 2000|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — What's behind Washington's huge, expensive military intervention to combat drugs in Colombia?

Last week, the actions of the House Republican leadership suggested one possible answer: procurement. The Republican Congress, it appears, wants to help American defense firms sell helicopters for use in Colombia--and to obtain the prices they want for these copters.

This is not all that unusual. In fact, it's a classic example of how Congress sometimes works harder for private defense contractors than for taxpayers.

Last summer, the Clinton administration and Congress approved the $1.3-billion Plan Colombia, a package of aid (most of it military) designed to bolster the Bogota government's efforts to eradicate drugs and to combat traffickers.

On Sept. 21, the House International Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere summoned representatives of the State and Defense departments to a hearing on the progress of Plan Colombia.

The executive branch officials came armed with facts and figures on the details of the program.

But they had barely started before Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) made plain what the Republican leadership cared most about: concluding a deal for the use of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.'s Black Hawk helicopters in Colombia.

Ordinarily, Bereuter wouldn't even have attended this hearing, because he isn't a member of the subcommittee. But he announced that he had come at the "personal request" of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Hastert, he said, was dismayed that it was taking too long for Sikorsky to obtain a contract for its Black Hawks.

The Republican leadership wanted to know why there had been so many delays. Congress had approved the purchase of 18 Black Hawk helicopters, but U.S. officials had subsequently said they might buy a lower number. Sikorsky was willing to sell 16 Black Hawks for $234 million, Bereuter said.

What was going on here? At first, it seemed as though the Republicans might be concerned only about speeding up Plan Colombia. The record shows that Hastert, to his credit, has taken a personal interest in the issue of stopping drugs for years, even before he became the House speaker.

Still, Bereuter persisted, growing more and more specific. "The Sikorsky offer still stands, $234 million for 16 Black Hawks," he told the executive branch officials. "Is that an understanding?"

Finally, Rand Beers, assistant secretary of State for narcotics programs, pointed to the underlying issue: In the original Plan Colombia, $234 million was supposed to purchase 18 Black Hawks, and now Sikorsky seemed to be proposing to supply 16 helicopters for that same $234 million.

"Sikorsky is giving you a number for a lower number of helicopters, and that's not our objective," Beers said.

In short, the dispute wasn't just about timing but also about price. And the House Republican leadership seemed to be weighing in on Sikorsky's side in its contract negotiations with the Pentagon.

This week, Sikorsky suggested that, in Bereuter's effort to help, perhaps he had gotten his numbers wrong.

"We have said consistently that we would be prepared to deliver 18 helicopters, appropriately configured, for $234 million, presuming timely contract negotiations with the government," said Scott Seligman, a spokesman for Sikorsky's parent company, United Technologies.

The point here is not that Republican lawmakers behave differently than the Democrats. In Congress, being solicitous of defense contractors is a bipartisan cause.

Sikorsky is located in Connecticut. Earlier this year, Connecticut's two Democratic senators, Joseph I. Lieberman and Christopher J. Dodd, pushed hard for Sikorsky to win congressional approval for the use of Black Hawks in Colombia.

Rather, the point is that the pressures for contracts and sales in America's defense industry are so strong that neither of the major parties can resist them.

In the wake of the end of the Cold War, American companies have been eager to find new sorts of missions for which they can supply planes and helicopters. The drug war in Colombia is one such effort.

"The market for military equipment abroad is not great these days, and obviously these [helicopter] companies have to sustain their production base," says Gabriel Marcella, a specialist on Latin America at the U.S. Army War College.

Sikorsky is merely one of many U.S. companies that hope to take part in Plan Colombia. Last month, the Financial Times listed others, such as Textron, which is upgrading Huey helicopters, and Lockheed Martin, which makes early-warning systems. Other smaller, private companies will hire former U.S. soldiers to help train the Colombian military.

Nearly four decades ago, in January 1961, President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address about the influence of what he famously called the "military-industrial complex."

What we're witnessing now is something new. It's the emergence of a narco-industrial complex: a proliferation of U.S. companies lining up, with congressional support, to obtain public money for anti-drug campaigns overseas.



Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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