William Hartung on Press the Button

an interview with Joe Cirincione

This is a transcript of a recent interview from the podcast Press the ButtonWilliam Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, sits down with Joe Cirincione to discuss the corporate connection to US arms sales abroad, and whether or not companies manufacturing weapons of war should bear responsibility for the casualties incurred as a result of their use. Listen and subscribe to our weekly podcast today! 

Interview with William Hartung, August 20, 2019

JOE: I'm delighted to be here in the Washington headquarters of Ploughshares Fund with Bill Hartung – William Hartung – who is the Director of the Arms & Security project at the Center for International Policy. Bill, thank you so much for joining us.

BILL: Yes, thanks for having me.

JOE: And I want to tell our listeners what you can see out the window.

BILL: Yeah. Uh, well, as Joe often says, you can see the Washington monument, which I didn't believe, but it's true.

JOE: It's true. Okay. It's not a complete view, but it's a pretty good shot of the Washington monument.

BILL: You can tell what it is.

JOE: You CAN tell what it is. Thank you. Billl is gonna talk to us about US arm sales to Saudi Arabia, the corporate connection to the Saudi lobby machine here in Washington DC, about contracts for the new ICBMs, about his new report on sustainable defense – more security for less spending. In short, Bill, there's more to talk with you about that we can possibly get in so I want to start off by having you promise that you'll come back for another conversation.

BILL: Absolutely.

JOE: Great. So we're going to go as far as we can into this with as much as we can and then we'll continue it in part two in the weeks ahead. First can you just tell me a little bit about yourself? How'd you get started in this business?

BILL: Well, I grew up in a conservative suburb of Buffalo, New York. And I fled, I went to Columbia University. My first exposure to this issue was, uh, I worked in the anti-Apartheid movement as a student. And I specialized in writing about companies that were violating the arms embargo on South Africa. And then I got a job at a think-tank called the Council on Economic Priorities writing about corporate social responsibility. I did a newsletter on the global arms trade, on the top defense contractors, wrote about missile defense. So that was really my training ground.

JOE: And when was this? What time period?

BILL: It was from late-Carter through Mid-Reagan. So I'm dating myself.

JOE: Well, let me date myself with you. I think that's when I first started reading you, it was on your writings on missile defense in that period when I was in the House Armed Services Committee doing missile defense issues.

BILL: Oh see I should claim credit for that. Um, and then a series of think tanks. So I was at the World Policy Institute in New York. I did a stint at the New America Foundation and now I'm at the Center for International Policy. So essentially I've been doing the same work, uh, you know, at different organizations for quite a long time.

JOE: And what does the Arms & Security Project do?

BILL: Well, our main focus at the Arms & Security Project are the global arms trade, the Pentagon budget, and nuclear policy, and basically how we can be safer by doing less of all those things.

JOE: Well those are our sweet spots. So let's get going. What I want to particularly talk to you about is this new report, US Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia: The Corporate Connection. Why did you write this report?

BILL: Well, you know, Donald Trump is a big fan of bragging about his role as a deal maker. Uh, and even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi he was saying, “well, we got some great companies. We've got some great deals. We can't jeopardize that.” Essentially he was saying, “arms contracts trump murder. This guy's murdered, but hey, there's deals to be made, there's money to be made.” And this is not a new phenomenon. These companies have lobbied for arm sales for decades, but Trump has embraced it in a way that no other president has. He shouts it from the rooftops. He's not at all embarrassed at putting the interests of these companies ahead of human rights and ahead of our strategic interests.

JOE: So what did you find? What does your report conclude?

BILL: Well, I'm not often surprised, but I was surprised that 90% of the value of the deals with Saudi Arabia since 2009, $125bn worth of deals, involve just four companies: Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics. So they sold the fighter planes, they sold the bombs, they sold the combat ships, the attack helicopters, sort of an entire arsenal made in the USA. And that's how they're waging the war in Yemen, it’s primarily weapons from the US as well as the United Kingdom.

JOE: I want to walk through a little bit of this report with you, but first put this in context, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin – you wrote a whole book on Lockheed Martin.

BILL: I did

JOE: What was it called?

BILL: Prophets of War.

JOE: [And] Boeing and General Dynamics. So these are the big four. Are there any other companies that big in the arms trade?

BILL: These are really the big players. I mean there's VA Systems, which makes howitzers, there's the small arms manufacturers who don't make nearly as much money, but of course their weapons do a great deal of damage.

JOE: And this is the result of the tremendous consolidation that's taken place in this field. As long as you and I have been in it, we've seen go from dozens of firms down to these big four. Northrup Grumman I guess you'd have to add it in there as well.

BILL: Yes, they’re significant.

JOE: And that's it. Those are the big ones. And so these guys, these four got 27 offers worth over $125 billion in these last 10 years, 2009 to 2019.

BILL: Exactly.

JOE: And you start breaking it down. This really makes it very personal and I think very moving even though this is a dry report – it is a “just the facts” report. But you talk about this in a very personal way. In 2016 there was a General Dynamics 2000lb bomb with a Boeing guidance system that hit a marketplace, and I remember this strike, and killed 97 civilians in Yemen, including in 25 children. Just last year, in August, 2018, a Lockheed Martin laser guided bomb hit a school bus. I remember this attack, it briefly made the papers. It killed 51 people, including 40 children. And on, And on. And the Raytheon bombed, GBU12-paveway, I remember the Armed Services Committee when this was first developed. It's a very impressive system. This is a very capable bomb that was used to kill 21 people. I think that one involved a wedding party. These are brutal attacks. And we usually think about them as, you know, a “Saudi bombing raid”, a “Saudi attack”. But it would be accurate to talk about a Boeing bomb that killed these people, a Lockheed Martin bomb that killed these people. Is that why you're writing in this way? To give corporate responsibility to these killings?

BILL: I think these companies are as responsible as our government for these killings. But you know, their position is “we're just doing what the government allows. We're just following government policy.” And even if that were true, I think they'd bear moral responsibility. But in fact, they lobby the government to create the policy that allows them to sell the bombs that then kill the civilians. So they're part and parcel of the problem. They're standing back just following orders.

JOE: The most recent part of this arms trade between the US and Saudi Arabia happened with Donald Trump's proposal to sell $8.1 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Congress is required under normal conditions to approve that deal. They did not approve that deal. Donald Trump then declared an emergency and said he had to get it through. Congress then voted against it, explicitly voted to disapprove the deal, but Trump vetoed that congressional resolution and went ahead with the sale. Am I getting that right?

BILL: Yes. I mean, basically what happened was after the Khashoggi murder, and even prior, there had been a hold on a sale of precision guided munitions by Senator Menendez. Then after the murder what they were hearing from the Hill, both the administration and the contractors was, “don't you dare bring an arm cell up here. We are not gonna arm this reckless regime.” And even people like Lindsey Graham were saying this. So Trump tried to do a maneuver around that. He used these emergency procedures, which would have done an end run around a congressional vote. Congress voted anyway. They voted on every element of the package of which there were 22 different tronches and then Trump turned around and vetoed it. Then the Senate tried to override but couldn't get enough votes. So there's been this huge contention, which really has been, in my experience, kind of the most assertive Congress has been over and arm seller particular country since I can remember.

JOE: [It’s been] decades. I mean, you really have to go back to ‘72 and the fight over selling AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, which Israel opposed and was eventually disproved. But since then, I can't remember a big fight over arm sales.

BILL: Not like this. I mean, in the 70s, they created the Arms Export Control Act, which made them have to notify Congress – [we] set up this voting procedure because of the army of the Shah of Iran, we're going to have Saudi Arabia. Arms deals were turning up in the papers and it was the first time members were hearing about them. So they wanted to clamp down on the system, but then that system was rarely used once they created it. And now Congress is looking for every way possible to try to stop these sales.

JOE: So of this $8.1 billion, how much goes to the big four contractors?

BILL: More than half. About 4.3 billion.

JOE: Wow. And what kind of weapons are we talking about?

BILL: Well, the biggest problem, the biggest issue is the precision guided munitions made by Raytheon, basically guided bombs. And there are 64,000, either bombs or components of bombs, that are part of this deal.

JOE: 64,000?!

BILL: Yes. And some of those components will be built in Saudi Arabia. So president Trump has always bragging about the jobs that come from these deals. But in this case a lot of the jobs will be in Saudi Arabia, not in Arizona and not anywhere in the United States.

JOE: So it's creating jobs alright. Just not here.

BILL: Yes. In fact, there was a headline earlier and Trump's kind of touting these sales where they said, “Yes, indeed, You know, US arm sales are creating jobs...in Saudi Arabia.”

JOE: Let me ask you a question. What if we didn't sell these bombs to Saudi Arabia? What would happen to the Saudi war effort?

BILL: Well, first of all, the bombs themselves are the kind of fuel for the war. They're doing the killing. So without those bombs they wouldn't be able to do this kind of killing. But then within that also is the spare parts, the maintenance – and Bruce Reidel has pointed out if we weren't maintaining and giving them the spare parts, they'd have to ground their air force.

JOE: So we could stop this war if you wanted to? We don’t have to wait for Saudi Arabia to decide. It's in a quagmire, tt's got to pull out the way UAE has just done. We could stop it if we want to. There's administration doesn't want to.

BILL: We have the leverage to do it. And a lot of people from the Obama years where they had kind of a conflicted approach to this war are now saying, “This is the time. We should stop the arms sales and we should stop the maintenance and support. We should basically ground their air force.”

JOE: Right. Obama officials went ahead, gave the Saudi Arabians the green light to engage in this Yemen civil war, but then came to regret it.

BILL: Right, exactly. And at the end of Obama's term, he suspended the sale of precision guided munitions, which then Trump turned around and overturned early in his first term.

JOE: So let me bring another part of this in. And this is something else you've written about, which is the Saudi lobby machine. Your colleague Ben Freidman at The Center wrote an April 17th global opinion for the Washington Post, called “The Saudi lobbying machine, continues to exert influence on Congress. And Trump.” So in addition to the contracts that are going to these contractors, who are doing their own lobbying, what’s Saudi Arabia doing and how effective is it?

BILL: Well, they're one of the most effective lobbies in Washington. It's interesting. We hear a lot about Russian interference in our democracy. We don't hear as much about Saudi interference in our foreign policy, but it's equally important I would say. And you know Ben found that for example, they employ more than two dozen lobbying firms. They spent $15 million in 2018 on those firms. They had 2000 contacts either with the media, with members of Congress. They contacted virtually every Senate office. [They contacted] 200 house offices [and], in a number of cases, right after the lobbyist met to pitch arm sales to Saudi Arabia, they gave a contribution to that member's campaign.

JOE: Yes. Ben specifically calls out Inhofe and a few others who got significant contributions to the campaign after the lobbyist visited.

BILL: And these countries can't do it directly. But this is the way I've kind of laundering the contribution. You do it through your lobbying front.

JOE: You said it's the most effective. How do you judge that?

BILL: Well, I think because for so many years they went unchallenged. I think it's changing now because of the Khashoggi murder, because of the focus on the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. They haven't been able to stop Congress from acting. And I think the most effective lobbyist they have now is Donald Trump. And he's really the sticking point and trying to change the policy.

JOE: And do you see the Saudi influence lessening in this town? I think Ben talks mainly about the congressional lobbying, but there's a whole other aspect – and tell me if you have studied this – but the contributions to the think tanks, the academic institutions, the kind of general PR that the Saudis do.

BILL: There's been a few institutions that have pulled back. Brookings a step back from a Saudi contribution. Center for American progress stopped taking money from the UAE after huge controversy over that. But the money's still flowing and there are places like the Middle East Institute, which gets UAE money, which essentially pushes the UAE line on this stuff to a significant degree. So that may almost be more insidious because it's very hard to find out who's getting funded by these companies. Ben Is actually doing a study on that as well. He’s sort of like the Saudi lobby hunter in Washington.

JOE: Yes, to sort of expose this a bit at, be transparent about it.

BILL: We should at least know where the money's coming from.

JOE: Right. It isn't necessarily true that if you get Saudi money, therefore you parrot the Saudi line. But we should at least know that, that there's a potential conflict of interest here; if you’re commenting on Middle East policy and a lot of your money is coming from one Middle East country, we should know about it.

BILL: Exactly. Cause there's some great analysts across the spectrum in DC, some of whose institutions undoubtedly get money from Saudi and UAE. But I think the overall picture needs to be out there in the public eye.

JOE: Let me ask you something.  It's a personal story. I was at a Georgetown dinner discussion months ago when the effort to block the Saudi arms sale came up and I was in a group of former Obama and Clinton officials and I took the position that we should cut off the arm sales. We should just block it, period. And one of the former officials, who is now at a consulting firm said, “No, you're not going to be able to block it. We should condition it. We should require the Saudis to take a greater care to make sure the bombs are not used against civilian targets.” I won't tell you my opinion on that, but I want to know yours. What do you think of that kind of approach?

BILL: Well, it's a family program, so I'll sanitize my remarks.

JOE: I don't know if it's a family problem. Do you think I think people gather around their iPhone and listen together to this?

BILL: Oh, of course! Of course. They're sharing earbuds and, yeah. Anyway, I think that argument, if it ever had any currency is, long past, I mean they've been bombing hospitals, marketplaces, water treatment plants, a wedding, a school bus. Many of these were marked as no-go targets. So basically they're not even trying not to hit civilians. And the Obama administration did try for a time to get them to be more careful with very little result. And of course the argument was, “Well if they have precision guided munitions, then they'll miss the civilians, they'll get the targets they want.” But it appears that they're engaging in some kind of exercise and collective punishment basically saying, “we're going to bombard your country until you turn against the Houthi and you support the government that we want to see in Yemen.” Because it's not just a question of mistakes. There's too many of these for them to just be mistakes. And I think there might be other situations, other countries, but not this regime, I don't think conditioning it on them being careful is really going to get us anywhere at this late date.

JOE: Right. So this kind of position which is presented in Washington as the realistic position in faculty is profoundly unrealistic. It's not going to accomplish anything. It's not going to stop the war. It's not going to stop the civilian casualties.

BILL: Exactly. I mean, we have to stop the killing. That's really what we need to do.

JOE: Thank you. Bill, let me shift you over into another subject away from the Middle East and into the Great Plains of America where we have our ICBM fields. Something very interesting just happened. One of the big four, Boeing, pulled out of the competition for the contract for the new intercontinental ballistic missile. You and Jessica Sleight wrote about this, “ICBMs, Who Needs Them” or some such title. We had Jessica on just a week ago talking about that article. But I want to get your take on this. What does it mean that Boeing is not competing for this contract anymore?

BILL: Well, I think in the narrow sense it's going to cost the government more money. I mean, if there's no competition up front than the remaining competitor, who doesn't have a competitor, has a freer reign to -

JOE: Who’s the remaining competitor, Northrop?

BILL: Northrop Gumman. So basically they'll be in the catbird seat in terms of the negotiations with the Pentagon because the Pentagon will have nowhere else to turn.

JOE: It’ll be a single source.

BILL: And this is a small part of the larger $1.5 trillion nuclear weapons build up over the next decade. So it's hard to believe that you could push that number higher, but this could actually do that.

JOE: And the total amount we're talking here – I saw one figure on an $85 billion contract. I had seen an estimate that the new ICBM project was going to cost about $120 billion. This is just this one part of it then? The biggest part, I guess.

BILL: And then of course there's operations and all the follow-on expenses after you build the thing. And most of them have cost overruns well beyond the initial estimates.

JOE: So if you could make the decision on this, what would you do about this contract?

BILL: Well, I think we're focused on the wrong question. It's not, “Who's competing for it?” It is, “Why do we build these things in the first place?” And I think global zero and Jessica Sleight made an excellent case in their alternative nuclear posture that, first of all, submarine launched ballistic missiles are a better deterrent – they're invulnerable. Second of all, ICBM is our target to draw attention to the areas where they're deployed. And worst of all, the president has to decide in a matter of minutes, you know whether or not to launch these things, which means an accidental nuclear war is much more likely. Bill Perry called them probably the most dangerous weapons on the planet. So instead of worrying about a billion here, a billion there, can we compete it? Let's just get rid of them altogether.

JOE: Right. ICBM were important when they used to be a prompt-launch, hard-target killers. So I remember this, but it was when when we couldn't do that from submarines, but now we can! We can do everything a land-based missile can do from a submarine, which is invulnerable; the enemy doesn't know where it is; you can have it stay under water; you can keep it in reserve; you can take your time and decide whether you want to launch it. So the case for ICBMs have largely disappeared, but the programs haven't. The states that have them still get jobs from them. This is still basically a contractor-driven program.

BILL: And there's an ICBM coalition,which is made up of senators from the states where these things are based,and they've been very successful. They tried to limit the number that were reduced under New START. They tried to make sure -

JOE: Right, they warned Obama saying if he got a number from the New START agreement with the Russians that was too low then they wouldn't support it. And every vote counted in the Senate and Obama had to change the number just to please the ICBM caucus.

BILL: And even destroying the empty silos, they said, “Oh no, we might need those. We might build up again.” So they really draw a line [of] no possible change in ICBM policy. And they make strategic arguments, but of course they have parochial interests.

JOE: Let me ask you this before we end, let me start with a story. I was recently in San Diego where I talked at something that's called the nuclear bootcamp for young graduate students who are not just entering the field. And I was the sort of the opposition voice here, giving the other point of view. And I talked about this and I really have come to the view that it's contracts that are driving the strategic debate in this country more than ideology, more than than a difference over grand strategy. But we just don't see it because, especially here in Washington or at these academic institutes, we debate strategy. But I see us as just sort of ants on the dragon that are having this debate. But the dragon is what's driving it and it’s a $55 billion a year industry. That’s what we spend on nuclear weapons related programs every year, 55 billion. And it just drives through this town. And it's not really so much about us arguing with those ants who think that the dragon is good. It's about stopping the dragon. As Game of Thrones has taught us, you can kill dragons. But I was wondering what, what do you think? Am I being too materialistic here? Am I giving too much power to the industry? How do you see the drivers of the nuclear policy debate?

BILL: Well, I did a piece awhile ago, in a book by Helen Caldicott called “Sleepwalking to Armageddon”, and it was an edited volume but, guess what? It wasn't on the bestseller list. But my focus was the nuclear industrial complex and how it really went back to the beginning of the nuclear age. You know, one of the reasons Ike gave the military industrial complex speech is because the air force and the contractors and hawks in congress were trying to get them to build a strategic bomber that he didn't want to build. He was a fiscal conservative. He was like, “well, why don't we need all these things? Why do we in three different ways to do this?” But they were able to ultimately prevail in that fight. And likewise the doctrine; the Navy had a doctrine that favored submarine launched ballistic missiles; the Air Force had a doctrine that favored land-based missiles. And it was all about really fighting over turf and money. In fact one of the air force admirals rather described the air force as, “worse than the Communists” because they were, “sneaking around behind our backs and getting access to control who targets”. And if you control targeting, then you can argue what kind of weapons you need to hit those targets and then you're in gravy. So even way back then as those doctrines that are still being debated were being formed, there was this economic turf war going on. And you even had one of the centers, Stuart Symington was tight with somebody from Convair, which made the Atlas missile. So he wanted to build as many Atlas missiles as possible before the next generation came in because Convair wasn't going to get the contract for the next generation, the Minute Man. So let's build them all now. So there was a lot of very kind of gross lobbying and it was that kind of thing that motivated Eisenhower to give the military industrial speech. So really a lot of it was about the nuclear enterprise.

JOE: That is fascinating. You're right, it's the targeting doctrine. People don't talk about that enough. They don't understand that these, these requirements that you have to have, for example, at least two, sometimes three or four warheads on each target, and that they have to be delivered by different delivery vehicles. I mean, what is that but a of requirement for the system that you build? Does it have strategic logic? Some, but in this day and age, do you really need to hit a target with a bomber, a sub launch missile, and an ICBM?

BILL: Absolutely not. I mean you've got these economic roots, but also the ideology takes on a life of its own. You know, the tribe become sacrosanct. 

JOE: The Holy Trinity.

BILL: And anybody who questions it is viewed as unrealistic, as soft, and so forth. But in fact, it's the highest form of realism to say, “We don't need a lot of these things and they're making our lives more dangerous”.

JOE: Well Bill thank you very much for coming in and sharing some of your recent research with us. I hope you'll come back again.

BILL: Be glad to.

JOE: Thank you very much.


Listen to the full interview here:

Learn more about our podcast, Press the Button.

Read William Hartung's new report, US Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia: The Corporate Connection.

.@WilliamHartung talks with @Joe Cirincione on the corporate connection to US arms sales. #YemenCantWait.

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