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Laughter may not be the correct response to government waste—bitter tears would seem more appropriate. But writer John J. Kohut sees ironic humor in federal snafus, and in his new book, Stupid Government Tricks: Outrageous (But True!) Stories of Bureaucratic Bungling and Washington Waste, he paraphrases some dismaying news reports from the ’60s to the present. D.C. resident Kohut, who co-authored the “News of the Weird” book series with Chuck Shepherd and Roland Sweet, began Tricks as a chronicle of porky Pentagon contracting, then expanded it to include the entire federal government. The following excerpt includes some of Tricks‘ highlights. As you read, count the ways your tax dollars have made a difference.
How the Pentagon Makes Fudge Brownies
After six months and 175 work hours, the Pentagon finally issued its official recipe for fudge brownies. The document, file MIL-C-44072C, is 22 pages long. Some of the directions are as follows (verbatim):
The texture of the brownie shall be firm but not hard.
Pour batter into a pan at a rate that will yield uncoated brownies which, when cut such as to meet the dimension requirements specified in regulation 3.4f, will weigh approximately 35 grams each.
The dimensions of the coated brownie shall not exceed 3 1/2 inches by 2 1/2 inches by 5/8 inch.
Shelled walnut pieces shall be of the small piece size classification, shall be of a light color, and shall be U.S. No. 1 of the U.S. Standards for Shelled English Walnuts. A minimum of 90 percent, by weight, of the pieces shall pass through a 4/16-inch-diameter round-hole screen and not more than 1 percent, by weight, shall pass through a2/16-inch-diameter round-hole screen.
Son of the $2,000 Toilet Seat
In early 1994, three whistle-blowers in the U.S. Navy came forward and told the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations subcommittee that the service was currently being charged $544.09 for a spark plug connector that was currently available at local hardware stores for $10.77, tax included. Subcommittee Chairman Norman Sisisky (D-Va.) noted that his investigators were able to locate a retailer for the connector and purchase it in one day. The Pentagon contractor required a five-month delivery period. The connector is used in a drone aircraft that costs $850,000 total.
Yeah, But They Got a Killer Football Team
Since 1946, the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, has trained more than 56,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency skills. Currently budgeted at $3 million annually (part of a $42-million-a-year program to train 4,000 troops annually), the school is supposed to instill democratic values and a sense of professionalism that the soldiers will take back to their troops. While studying here, the soldiers routinely get free tickets to Atlanta Braves baseball games and free trips to Disney World.
Among the program’s shining graduates are:
19 of the 27 Salvadoran officers implicated in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests at El Salvador’s Central American University
Four of five Honduran officers accused of organizing a secret death squad in their country
Six Peruvian officers linked to a death squad that butchered nine Lima college students
105 of the 246 Colombian officers accused of human rights violations at home
Roberto d’Aubuisson, class of ’72, who managed Salvadoran death squads and ordered the assassination of a Catholic bishop while he said Mass
Voted Most Likely to Succeed by Assassinating Rivals and Making Lots of Money in the International Drug Racket: Manuel Noriega, class of ’65
Since 1991, the school has required graduates to take four hours of “mandatory human-rights awareness training.” The following is a question on a test given as part of the course:
The squad leader gives an order to cut off the ears of dead enemy soldiers as proof of the number of casualties. You should:
a. Obey the order but denounce it to your superiors.
b. Obey the order.
c. Disobey the order and tell your superiors about the incident.
d. Order a squad member of the lowest rank to obey the order.
In 1988, Army Dr. Michael Cosio of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the dangers of falling soda machines. Cosio reviewed 15 cases, all involving males at U.S. military installations abroad between July 1985 and September 1987. Three of the victims were killed, and 12 were hospitalized. The machines fell because the soldiers, either trying to get their change back or hoping for a free drink, rocked the machines vigorously back and forth. Cosio also looked at 32 more cases, some involving civilians, in which eight more people were killed by the machines. Wrote Cosio: “In essence, each victim said, “It came down faster than I thought. I pushed up, but it was too heavy and it kept coming. I tried to get out of the way but it caught me.’ ” Each soda machine weighs between 800 pounds and 1,000 pounds. Cosio, urging that the machines be anchored so that they can’t tip over, said, “If they get hurt because a machine lands on them, they have a 20 percent to 25 percent chance that they get killed.”
This Answers a Lot of Questions
Every Friday morning the Pentagon Meditation Club meets in a windowless room deep in the complex to discuss inner peace, world peace, and meditation. Members of the group say that they are trying to establish a “peace shield” around planet Earth by means of their meditation practices. They call this their “Spiritual Defense Initiative.” The group, which numbers about 80, was established in 1976 by now-retired Air Force Capt. Edward Winchester. It was first known as the TMClub, for transcendental meditation. Winchester believes that each person has a “peace shield” or natural aura and that it can be measured by means of a “peace shield gauge,” which the club sells for $65 each. According to one member, “Meditation can exert some psychic influence on people and world events.”
Mr. Science Gets Government Funding
A study undertaken at the genetics department at the University of Washington in Seattle is investigating irregularity among worms. Scientists observing the 1-millimeter-long worms defecating are also monitoring a mutant strain they created which is constipated. Funded with U.S.-government-certified tax dollars? You betcha.
NASA: No Alternative Space Agency
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s widow disclosed in 1994 that sometime after his death his ashes were taken into space aboard a space shuttle mission and then brought back down to Earth. It was later revealed that the ashes flew as the personal effects of mission commander James Wetherbee on board a shuttle Columbia mission in October 1992. It was Roddenberry’s last wish.
Wait, I’ve Got It! A Really, Really Big Moat!
Since 1989, the Rocky Flats weapons plant in Colorado has sat dormant. The plant produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, but production was stopped that year because of safety concerns. With the Department of Energy now faced with the problem of how to clean up the site, the plant manager suggests that it should be buried. Mark Silverman, calling his plan “a monument to the Cold War,” said that the 14.2 tons of plutonium now sitting in seven buildings in the complex could be moved and consolidated in just one. Then the buildings could be buried. “For the foreseeable future, which is in excess of twenty-four thousand years, people aren’t going to use this land,” Silverman wrote.
Not a Moment Too Soon
Columnist Jack Anderson reported that at the close of the first year of the Clinton administration, a senior official at the Office of Management and Budget received the following letter. The envelope was stamped SPECIAL, PRIORITY, and SPECIAL HANDLING, and was taped shut; inside was an envelope stamped PROPERTY OF U.S. GOVERNMENT and VIA COURIER that was taped shut; inside that was an envelope stamped SECRET three times. Inside the final envelope was a letter from a Cabinet official concerning the appointment of an aide to become a member of the President’s Management Council. The council was entrusted with implementing the administration’s reinventing government plans.
He Would Have Spent It If He Had the Chance
Among Richard Nixon’s personal papers now in the National Archives is his memo to White House staff with instructions planning his state funeral, if by chance he had died while in office. Nixon would have had himself lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda for two days to allow the throngs to pass by and offer their last respects. Meanwhile, he wanted music played which ranged from patriotic songs to religious hymns. His send-off song was to be “California, Here I Come,” played softly and slowly.
You Should See Their Decoder Rings
So secret is the National Reconnaissance Office that members of Congress are forbidden by secrecy laws to utter its name in open sessions. Although its headquarters is housed in the Pentagon, and its “black” budget is estimated at $7 billion per year, there is no official acknowledgement of the agency’s existence. The NRO conducts high-tech spying, operating this country’s secret spy satellites to monitor everything from troop movements to telecommunications. However, congressional criticism of the agency surfaced in 1992, after it was revealed that the Pentagon was dissatisfied with the high-tech intelligence provided during the Gulf War. The military called the satellite photographs provided by the NRO “neither timely nor adequate,” and blamed them for “unnecessary” bombing of civilian targets during the fighting.
We’ve All Got a Secret
According to the annual report by the federal Information Security Oversight Office, in 1993 the government declassified 18,051 pages of secret information each day. However, it also classified 17,558 pages each day. For all of fiscal 1993, the government created more than 6.4 million new secrets (or 6,408,688 documents), up 1 percent from 1992. Of the 9 million pages of classified material that came up for review in 1993, the government declassified 6.6 million pages. That was 3 million fewer pages than were released in 1992.
Sisyphus, Call Your Office
In November 1993, the Library of Congress held a party celebrating the three-year effort to reduce the backlog of uncataloged materials by one-third. The next day, the staff went back to work to catalog the remaining 27 million items. With the passing of each week, the library receives 30,000 new books, magazines, videotapes, comic strips, recordings, movies, and other items to be processed.
And Just Where Do They Get That?
The National Institute of Standards and Technology sells freeze-dried urine containing marijuana samples so that laboratories can calculate the accuracy of their urine-testing equipment. Three jars sell for $159.
Take One Home as a Souvenir
Next time you’re at the Grand Canyon, try to determine which of the boulders at its bottom are government-bought fakes. The U.S. Geological Survey wanted to disguise a water-sampling station at the base of the canyon, so it paid Cemrock Landscapes Inc. $6,000 to install two fake boulders down there. The fake rocks are made from polyester and fiberglass. They are hollow and stand about 4 and 5 feet high.
Son of Swine Flu Shots
President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975. In 1977, several states began changing mileage signs to kilometers along highways, but loud public opposition forced them to back down and abandon the project. In 1982, the U.S. Metric Board, established in 1977 to promote the concept, was disbanded as a money-saving move. As of the late 1980s, the United States, Liberia, and Burma were the only countries in the world that had still not gone metric.
Everyman Speaks Out, Gets Busted
Glen Kozubal, 23, of Whitehall, Pa., sat quietly in the Senate visitors’ gallery observing a long quorum call. Finally fed up with the lack of action, he leaned over the railing and asked, “You guys going to stand around here all afternoon?” After a Capitol Police officer told him to remain quiet, Kozubal asked, “What, I can’t talk to them?” That got him arrested and charged with a misdemeanor: “disruption of Congress.”
From Stupid Government Tricks: Outrageous (But True!) Stories of Bureaucratic Bungling and Washington Waste by J.J. Kohut. Copyright J.J. Kohut, 1995. Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin USA.