Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Coast Guard is in something deep, and it ain't water.

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a story about a program called Deepwater, which was supposed to modernize and upgrade the capabilities of the Coast Guard. To put it mildly, the program has been a failure. Here's how the report opened:
After 9/11, few government entities were as poorly prepared to take on an expanded role as the U.S. Coast Guard. Already charged with sea rescues, drug interdictions and immigration enforcement, the Coast Guard became the primary maritime force for homeland security, tasked with protecting 95,000 miles of coastline and 361 ports with an old and antiquated fleet.

So five years ago the Coast Guard undertook a massive modernization program called "Deepwater" and ended up way over its head. As correspondent Steve Kroft reports, the $24 billion project has turned into a fiasco that has set new standards for incompetence, and triggered a Justice Department investigation.
I will not share the specifics of the report, instead choosing to direct people to the 60 Minutes website for all the details. I will, however, make two observations.

First, the entire program was privatized, meaning that both the execution and oversight of the program was placed in the hands of major defense contractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. As retired Coast Guard Captain Kevin Jarvis said,
People say that this is like the fox watching the henhouse. And it's worse than that. It's where the government asked the fox to develop the security system for the henhouse. Then told 'em, "You're gonna do it. You know, by the way, we'll give you the security code to the system and we'll tell you when we're on vacation."
Privatization is not some sort of magical panacea that automatically works. If big corporations were primarily interested in doing a good job in the most efficient way possible, privatization would be great, but corporations are primarily interested in making lots of money. For them, doing the job is nowhere near as important as getting the job. Greed plays a major role. This sort of waste and corruption has been rampant under the Bush administration, but it has happened continuously long before now and can certainly continue once Bush is gone. I have long been in favor of reducing government, but the objective of such reduction is efficiency, both in terms of getting the job done and money spent. Privatization can be a means to do that, but unless the basic attitude of private companies changes and the government still maintains some oversight, privatization is not going to be any better than bureaucracy.

The second observation deals with the Bush administration and its horrendous record regarding Homeland Security. As noted in the opening of the 60 Minutes report, the Coast necessarily is our first line of maritime defense, meaning it is one of the most important organizations in protecting us from terrorism. And yet what has happened under the Bush administration? The Coast Guard has been weakened while private defense contractors make billions. And that is another part of the Bush legacy.

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