“Obama Confronts a Choice on Copters” read this week’s New York Times. The President soon “will have to decide whether to proceed with some of the priciest aircraft in the world — a new fleet of 28 Marine One helicopters that will each cost more than the last Air Force One….The choice confronting Mr. Obama encapsulates the tension between two imperatives of his nascent presidency, the need to meet the continuing threats of an age of terrorism and the demand for austerity in a period of economic hardship.”
This is a gross misrepresentation of the choice Obama faces. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) and others have alleged that the contract for 28 Marine One helicopters was awarded to the Italian firm Finmeccanica as a thank you for Italy’s participation in the Iraq War. The evidence, however, indicates that the contract was more specifically a payoff to the Italian government for supplying the forged documents showing Saddam had obtained weapons grade uranium from Niger. President Bush famously used this fraudulent “yellowcake” intelligence to justify launching the war.
When reviewing the helicopter contract, President Obama can either be actively complicit by continuing with Finmeccanica; he can duck and cover by simply switching to the proper supplier, Sikorsky; or he can use the mandated review of this purchase decision to root out those in military, the aerospace industry and Congress who were willing to compromise the security of all subsequent American presidents so that Bush could cover up his core war crime.
Officials up and down the chain who awarded the contract knew that they were doing something extraordinarily wrong. The rigged bidding process bypassed, for example, Marine One pilots who repeatedly sought to give input. They had many safety concerns. At the time of the bid, the helicopter chosen was not certified to fly in the U.S. It was an old model made of heavy materials; this flew in the face of why the President supposedly needed a new fleet: i.e., so many extra security devices had been added to Marine One after 9/11, it was struggling to lift off. In its losing bid, the Connecticut-based Sikorsky, which had manufactured virtually all presidential helicopters since Eisenhower first ordered one, proposed a new model made of much lighter, composite materials.
But the Marine One pilots’ prime objection, which was raised repeatedly by many other officials in private, was national security. Finmeccanica was doing business with Iran, China and Libya. Why outsource so sensitive a project? At the time of the bid, the security clearance necessary to manufacture and maintain Marine One required U.S. citizenship and prohibited Marine One team members from being married to citizens of another country.
After the bid was awarded, John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, told us: “Analyzing the defense industry for nearly 30 years, I try to stay calm and nonpartisan. But the Finmeccanica deal raised every hair on my neck. Apparently no one else sees the irony in a foreign military contractor building Marine One and Ayatollah One.”
Many others did see the irony but were intimidated or paid off. For example, right after Finmeccanica won the contract, Kim Weldon, the daughter of then-Congressman Curt Weldon (R – Pa), landed a full-time job with the company. Previously she’d been a social worker. Finmeccanica also paid consulting money to Weldon’s real estate agent, who subsequently pled guilty for attempting to destroy bribery evidence sought by the FBI. Weldon’s chief of staff, his wife and other Weldon aides were given free trips to Italy. The chief of staff subsequently pled guilty for failing to disclose income funneled to his wife. Like many other Congressmen, however, Weldon looks as if he will escape unscathed.
At Finmeccanica promotional events, Weldon was accompanied by Giovanni Castellaneta, the Italian ambassador to United States and simultaneously a Finmeccanica vice president. Today Castellaneta sits on Finmeccanica’s Board of Directors on behalf of the Italian Government. Ambassador Castellaneta is the key figure in Italy’s exchange of forged intelligence for U.S. defense dollars.
According to Italy’s La Repubblica, Nicola Pollari, the head of the Italian spy agency SISMI, had failed to dispel the CIA’s misgivings about the authenticity of the yellowcake papers. Giovanni Castellaneta then arranged for Pollari to bypass the CIA and meet directly with then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, Rice’s chief deputy at the time. The meeting took place on Sept. 9, 2002, in the White House, and was confirmed by White House officials.
“It is completely out of protocol for the head of a foreign intelligence service to circumvent the C.I.A.,” former C.I.A. officer Philip Giraldi told Vanity Fair‘s Craig Ungar. “It is uniquely unusual. In spite of lots of people having seen these documents, and having said they were not right, they went around them.”
“To me there is no benign interpretation of this,” Melvin Goodman, a former C.I.A. and State Department analyst said to Ungar. “At the highest level it was known the documents were forgeries. Stephen Hadley knew it. Condi Rice knew it. Everyone at the highest level knew.”
Nonetheless, after the White House meeting that Castellaneta arranged for Pollari, the story of the yellowcake shipments to Saddam was treated as hard proof despite multiple attempts by America’s top spies to discredit it.
Especially when no WMDs were found, President Bush needed to find a way he could control to repay the Italians for their help. Bush pressed for a new fleet of Marine Ones. He demanded the contract be awarded through an expedited bidding process because of heightened security concerns. A senior Finmeccanica executive told us that long before the Navy announced the award in January 2005, he and other company executives were told that the fix was in.
Finmeccanica hid the payoff by cutting U.S. companies Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin into the deal. Although Lockheed doesn’t make helicopters, it acted as the ostensible lead partner.
“Lockheed pimped itself out,” says Lt. Col. Gene T. Boyer, a retired Army pilot who flew three presidents in Marine One for 10 years. Boyer thinks the mushrooming of the Marine One fleet is a disgrace. “Many of the Marine Ones are used just to ferry around Washington VIPs who brag afterwards that they’ve flown in the same chopper used by the president.”
Boyer believes that the Pentagon officials and members of Congress who pushed this contract through should be investigated not just because of the massive cost overruns, but “because they didn’t cover the country’s back.”
The ballooning of Finmeccanica’s contract from $6.1 billion to $11.2 billion ($400 million per chopper) was predictable given Bush’s push to bypass procedures and sign a deal with Finmeccanica. The massive cost overruns now compel the Secretary of Defense to re-certify to Congress that this acquisition program is essential to national security. It isn’t. President Obama needs to appoint an independent, public commission to examine who drove the Marine One procurement process, which many officials say (off the record) was the most secretive, rigged award they’ve ever seen. Put all officials involved on the record, and under oath. Rarely does one bloated contract connect both to military fraud and to the corruption of our intelligence agencies. Fiscal austerity and our future safety demand a full accounting.
Jeffrey Klein is an investigative journalist who co-founded Mother Jones; directed exposes of Newt Gingrich, Big Tobacco and the introduction of offensive weapons into space; co-produced for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer a series on China’s economy that won a Gerald Loeb Award; and taught journalism at Stanford, San Francisco State and Cal.
Paolo Pontoniere is a New America Media European commentator.