Earmark Offensive

Army major launches assault on backroom contracting deals in wartime.

The congressional earmarking process often is decried by critics as a shady system in which lawmakers seek to reward contributors and attract voters by cutting backroom deals to direct federal dollars to a favored few. While countless stories have been told of bridges to nowhere or research centers bearing the name of congressional sponsors, few can speak from personal experience about the adverse effects of earmarking.

Army Maj. Eric Egland is one of those few. He witnessed the drawbacks of the process firsthand on the battlefield in Iraq, where he says the lives of U.S. soldiers were lost as a result of Congress' shortsightedness. Now Egland is fighting a new battle-to curb a decades-old legislative practice that has become embedded in Washington culture. "If the public knew how little was being delivered compared to what they were paying for, they would be outraged," Egland said during an August phone interview from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he was training to return to Iraq. "And yet Congress continues to abuse its privilege of overclassifying or abusing the classification process to hide their payouts to campaign contributors."

Egland knows all too well what happens when wartime earmarks go awry. While serving as an intelligence specialist in Iraq, he watched as the men and women he served with fell victim to destructive roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices.

Determined to put a halt to the No. 1 killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Congress directed a multimillion- dollar, classified sole-source earmark to the little known firm MZM Inc. Through the Counter-IED Targeting program, MZM was given the task of delivering intelligence to troops on the ground about the location of roadside bombs, so American forces could root them out.

But the program didn't work. The number of deaths and injuries from IEDs continued to rise. The Pentagon ordered Egland to find out what went wrong. He says he found that MZM had hired only a third of the employees it had been paid for, and the money it spent under the contract was misdirected. Egland embarked on what would become a scavenger hunt to discover the root of the earmark. His findings would change the trajectory of his career and make him one of the more unlikely faces of a growing anti-earmark movement.

He traced the legislative provision back to disgraced former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. A federal court later revealed that Mitchell Wade, the owner of MZM, had bribed the California Republican with a yacht, jewelry, antique furniture and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Wade pleaded guilty to bribery charges and is scheduled to be sentenced in December. Cunningham was sentenced in 2006 to more than eight years in prison, although his attorney recently asked President Bush for a pardon.

"Had this [IED] program done what it was supposed to and what it was paid to do, I think we could have had a really different number of casualties," Egland says. "A lot more guys could have come home. The abuse of earmarks has cost us lives on the battlefield."

Egland has joined forces with a handful of government watchdog groups to propose targeted earmark reforms. The most significant would prohibit Congress from directing funds to specific companies for classified or sensitive national security wartime projects unless the firms first have been vetted and approved by the Pentagon.

The intelligence specialist also has called on Congress to disclose and identify all political contributions from employees of companies that bid on classified security projects. These would include contributions to members' campaigns, political action committees and nonprofit organizations. Finally, he wants all classified earmark spending to be scrutinized by at least two members of the Intelligence or Armed Services committees.

Egland says he faces an uphill battle on Capitol Hill. "Nobody wants the curtain to be pulled back and the public to learn how Congress' abuses are undermining our national security and specifically hurting our troops on the battlefield," he says.

His story is gaining national attention. Egland was profiled in July on the CBS Evening News and penned an op-ed on earmarks for The Washington Times. But tracking the congressional funding process is new territory for him. A former counterterrorism operative with more than two decades of military experience, Egland is an expert in unconventional warfare threats, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and narcotics trafficking.

Until he became immersed in the counter-IED contract, Egland admits to having little understanding of the earmarking process. But having an active member of the U.S. military at the front of the earmarking debate could cause Congress to stand up and listen, says Leslie Paige, media director of Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the groups working with Egland.

"His experience in Iraq gives him a vantage point and sightline into the long-term consequences of earmarks that none of us have," Paige says. "His credibility and ability to put up the moral argument is incredibly valuable."

So far, Congress has been mum on Egland's proposals. An aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee said the changes Egland has proposed would first have to be adopted by the Rules Committee. Some of the recommendations, the aide said, could be problematic to implement because of limitations on the public release of classified information.

The aide noted that a rules change that went into effect in January 2007 already has increased the transparency of classified earmarks. The change requires that bills or conference reports containing an earmark in a classified portion include, to the greatest extent practicable, "a general program description, funding level and the name of the sponsor of that earmark."

While Egland has yet to find much support on the Hill for his proposals, he hopes that shame-or at least political opportunism-will force Congress into action. If not, he fears that more earmarks will have deadly consequences.

"It really hits me at the core to think, if D.C. had been doing their jobs a little better, could just one of these guys have made it home safely?" Egland says. "We had the programs that the taxpayers were paying for, but they were not delivering."

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