Great New York Times article yesterday on the curious case of Michael Cantrell, an engineer who bilked the government out of millions of dollars in missile defense money. Much of the money went to a useless alternative missile defense project, while the rest went into the pockets of Cantrell and an accomplice. Cantrell took advantage of loopholes, connections, and poorly structured lines of authority to lobby Congress for a missile defense side project that the military was largely uninterested in. By pushing the project, Cantrell was able to generate kickbacks from various defense contractors. When the military tried to quash the project, Cantrell used his political connections to stop the inquiry.
It’s not quite right to say that such a scam could only happen to the missile defense project, because there are other cases of military contractors bilking the government. But certainly scams like this are easier when they’re committed projects will ill-defined goals, poorly understood parameters, and deeply politicized motivation. Missile defense is intended to pay off in the distant future; as such, it’s difficult to evaluate progress. Proponents can legitimately say that even unsuccessful tests represent steps in the right direction. In such an environment, projects that don’t really go anywhere can not go anywhere for a very long time before anyone notices. Moreover, because missile defense is so distinct from most of the tasks performed by the military, both civilians and military officers can fall victim to confident sounding charlatans.
This problem is magnified when the project itself is basically a scam. The primary justification for missile defense has never been the actual defense of the United States from ballistic missiles, but rather a combination of political entrepreneurship on the part of the Republican Party (Democrats go along, but Republicans have always been the motivators) and a desire on the part of contractors and Congressmen to acquire as much pork as possible. Since a successful missile defense isn’t really the goal in the first place, it’s hard to differentiate the extreme fraud from the every day fraud, and difficult to explain to Ted Stevens why he shouldn’t get his piece of the action.
I suspect that this will not be the last incidence of severe corruption in the National Missile Defense project. Such small scale scams, however, shouldn’t make us forget the that the project is, itself, a big scale scam.