November 29, 2017

1970. Bloated Defense Establishment Reels from High-Profile Crises

Pentagon's Mistakes in the Spotlight
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird (right) meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1969. From left to right: Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Moorer, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Earle Wheeler, Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland, Air Force Chief of Staff General John Ryan, and Marine Corps Commandant General Leonard F. Chapman, Jr. (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

August 12, 1970

It's been more than a month now since that Blue Ribbon Panel of distinguished civilians issued its recommendations for a major reorganization of the Defense Department.

Panel chairman Gilbert Fitzhugh proposed some 113 changes in the Pentagon system; changes urgently needed because, as Fitzhugh says, the excessive cost overruns, the expensive failures of new weapons systems, duplication of effort in the separate services, and the general overall waste and inefficiency in the sprawling defense establishment due mainly to one thing.

Everyone has a hand in running so much that goes on at the Pentagon, therefore no one has the responsibility for anything.

In a discussion with the panel chairman yesterday, Fitzhugh revealed that the Blue Ribbon investigation turned up a number of horrible examples of top-level snafus that are so sensitive and embarrassing that they have been classified top secret in the interests of national security.

Since these secret failures of the defense establishment must have occurred during recent crises in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, I went back to the Fitzhugh critique on military intelligence, because the two most embarrassing, painful, and costly foul-ups to become public in the past few years were the incidents involving the spy ship Liberty—which lost thirty-four men killed when it was in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Israeli-Arab Six Day War—and the other monumental snafu, the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo.

Fitzhugh refused to say that these incidents were involved in the report's blast at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which was supposed to collate information from the Army, Navy, and Air Force for a combined military assessment.

But, says the Fitzhugh panel, this unified service effort was a flop; a case of the DIA having too many jobs and too many masters. Also the Service Chiefs increased their own little intelligence empires, presumably to prevent derogatory information about their particular service branch from getting into channels.

Also edited out of the Fitzhugh report was any discussion of the military's relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency or the more mysterious National Security Agency. It was widely reported that both the Liberty and the Pueblo were under the overall direction of the National Security Agency when they got into trouble, and that intelligence communications were so bad that emergency messages ended up in some very strange places.

Publicly, these intelligence foul-ups were never fully explained. I wonder if the Blue Ribbon Panel ever got the real story behind the Pueblo and Liberty—or if anyone ever will.

Just about everyone agrees that the inter-service rivalry between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines is a good thing—up to a point. And that point is when jealous generals and admirals begin interfering with the facts, no matter how distasteful. The Fitzhugh report indicates something like this happened during the Pueblo and Liberty incidents.

Because if the president and his National Security Board do not have the truth about our weaknesses as well as our own strengths, then the Pentagon might as well shut up shop.

This is Bill Downs in Washington.