THE GREAT PENTAGON CREDIT-CARD HEIST

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

An Army officer, who made me swear I wouldn't use his name to preclude his being shot at dawn with bullets that are in critically short supply, told me: "I wanted to fire my pistol at the range. I called the Brigade Operations NCO, who said, 'Sure, if you bring your own ammo -- there's an Armywide shortage of pistol and rifle ammunition.' I went out the gate just like thousands of other soldiers and bought my bullets from the local gun shop."

Our Army out of ammo! Those creeps in North Korea and Iraq must be ecstatic. Talk about a dictator's answered prayers!

Word in the Pentagon is that there's simply not enough money to buy the bullets our trigger-pullers need just to practice putting holes in the bad guys -- let alone fight a real war. Yet while there's no money for ammo, millions of bucks are being ripped off annually by too many of the 1.8 million civilian and military Pentagon employees who've been issued Defense Department credit cards.

If the purpose of our armed forces is to defend, not spend, why are there more credit cards then active-duty rifles?

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, says, "Pentagon credit cards are being taken on a shopping spree, and the taxpayers are footing the bill."

A sample of the stealing recently uncovered as a result of the mass issue of Pentagon credit cards:

* A Marine sergeant ran up a $20,000 bill on clothes and other personal goodies. He even made cash withdrawals totaling $8,500. Then he left the service, leaving Uncle Sam holding his overdrawn sea bag.
* An Army soldier blew $3,100 in a nightclub. A champagne-and-caviar night for the perp and pals on the taxpayers.
* A dead sailor somehow spent $3,565.
* A soldier's wife spent $13,053 during a shopping spree and a holiday in Puerto Rico.
* Other scams include a $13,000 Nordstorm designer briefcase, expensive computer monitors, Palm Pilots, cosmetics and gift certificates.

According to General Accounting Office investigators whom Grassley put on the case, none of these spenders bought bullets.

When I enlisted, it was "Join the Armed Services and See the World." Now it's "Join the Armed Services, Get a Government-Issued Credit Card and Get Out There and Spend Taxpayer Dollars."

Grassley, an ever-vigilant watchdog of the public purse, is fit to be tied. He says one bank company alone wrote off $59 million in bad debts from military credit cards. "There were no effective internal controls in place," Grassley says. "Stealing money was a piece of cake. Fraudulent activity -- if detected -- was detected by chance and not as a result of (Pentagon) effective controls."

The Pentagon got into a credit-card giveaway program without even a minimal credit check for its cardholders because, so the thinking went, the cards would reduce paperwork and thus save money. You know, model it after the streamlined better-business practices of IBM.

"In the private sector, credit cards are a big success," Grassley says. "That's because the control environment is good. Monthly bills are reconciled and paid promptly. In corporate America, if you abuse your card, you lose it or get fired. At the Pentagon, there is no accountability and no control."

Should we expect anything else from an outfit that loses billions of dollars in that maze every year?

The solution is obvious. The Pentagon must stop issuing credit cards indiscriminately to everyone who can lace up their boots all by themselves. It must give the banks authority to decide who can be trusted with a card and what the credit limit should be on each account. Grassley says this rule must be applied not only to the purchase cards but also to travel cards -- since Pentagon users and abusers are pulling similar scams on fake or nonmilitary- related travel.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has publicly stated his commitment to clean up the financial mess at the Pentagon that he inherited from Clinton, Cohen & Company. A big step would be to treat the Defense Department's wheeler-dealers like he would his kids if they went nuts with the family card: Get the scissors out and cut up about a million-and-a-half cards.

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(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.