19 March 2001

The tragic collision of a Navy submarine with a fishing boat off Hawaii last month claimed the lives of nine Japanese, ruined the careers of a dozen U.S. Navy sailors and will cost millions of defense dollars in investigations, court proceedings and reparations.

When the Navy plunged into max damage control after the accident, it also put the Pentagon's relentless Propaganda Machine smack under the spotlight.

Only after four days of dodging and deceiving the press was Pacific Fleet spin champion Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Chun finally forced to admit that 16 civilians were on board the USS Greeneville, which was supposed to be on stand-down. The civvies were there to "spread the word about the Navy," he said to justify their Sub World for a Day visit aboard the billion-dollar nuclear sub. Apparently, the brass in Hawaii decided PR was more important then crew rest or combat readiness, and the $25,000 it cost to run the tour was seen as taxpayers' money well spent.

Granted it was a public-relations tsunami, but Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, the Navy's head spinner, made bad worse by offering one bumbled sea story after another.

No question that he and Chun need to retake Spin 101. You'd think after all the Navy's fumbled cover-ups -- the USS Cole, the suicide of Adm. Michael Boorda and the shame of being caught blaming a seaman for the USS Iowa turret explosion -- they'd have figured out how to conduct their hype with more finesse.

Chun and Pietropaoli are part of the team that makes up the Pentagon's worldwide PR apparatus. Their job is not about combat readiness or defending America but to make their service look good. And looking good is what counts when it comes to divvying up the hundreds of billions of bucks the Pentagon bank doles out annually.

Last year, more than 11,000 civilians took part in 238 trips aboard Pacific Fleet Navy ships and subs alone. VIPs from Corporate America, the media and Hollywood, as well as other connected folks, flew in fighters and bombers, rode in tanks, fired weapons and jumped out of planes.

This practice has been going on for decades. But since the Clinton years, when renting a seat on Air Force One or a mattress in Lincoln's bedroom became a pop sport, there's been a quantum leap in VIPs partying on carriers and playing martial fun-and-games.

Ask any CEO what's spent on PR and you'll be told to the penny

But no one seems to know the cost or scope of the Pentagon's PR machine. I've tried to get the number of hustlers and size of the annual hype budget for years. The Pentagon's Susan Hansen told me last week that she couldn't get the figures because they were "buried in other programs." She did say there were 72 folks in her department, the same lash-up where a-hundred-grand-a-year Linda Tripp and "that woman" Monica Lewinsky were stashed.

It's no small wonder the PR budget is guarded like a nuclear weapon. It's too close for comfort to what dreaded North Korea spends each year on defense. My guess is that when you add up all the PR types and roll in the cost of the Blue Angels, the Golden Knights, the bands and combos, the ceremonial troops, the B-2s doing Super Bowls and all the air shows and open-house gigs, we'd be looking at enough funding and folks to run an Army fighting division.

These VIP happenings might win the hearts of Harrison Ford -- who flew in a Marine F-18 -- or Tipper Gore -- who joy-rode on the Greeneville. But they don't do zilch for our fighting men and women, who resent the time wasted on VIP dog-and-pony shows when they could be training or with their families.

It's time we vetted the secret PR army and cut it down to an appropriate size. And it's more than time we demanded that most of its top-secret budget be transferred to the troops to buy the bullets in such shockingly short supply.

Holes in enemy soldiers win wars, not PR sputtering and stuttering. We need to concentrate on protecting our warriors, not impressing the rich and famous with -- as Dubya says -- our "second to none" war machine.