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William Fisher: That's a Joke, Son

That's a Joke, Son

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 10 October 2006

When I was a kid growing up in the 1940s, my favorite radio program was the Fred Allen Show, hosted by one of the funniest comics who ever lived. A key chararacter on this weekly show was Senator Beauregard Claghorn. Portrayed by actor Kenny Delmar, Claghorn became the archetypal caricature of a Southern politician - blustering, fumbling, repetitive, endlessly spouting bad puns.

Senator Beauregard Claghorn was obsessed with the South. He proudly told his audiences he refused to wear a "Union suit" and claimed to drink only out of Dixie cups. When asked a political question by host Allen, Claghorn would respond with a rapid stream of utterly incoherent hot air. After a quip, the senator would laugh uproariously, then deliver one of his favorite catchphrases: "That's a joke, son!"

Well, sadly, old Beauregard is long gone, but arguably his shoes are being well filled by another Senatorial caricature, Congressman Duncan Hunter of California.

In the fine art of (unintended) black comedy, Hunter has few equals in a House filled with cartoon congressmen and congresswomen.

Take his performance some months ago in the House pressroom. Hunter, the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had just returned from a Pentagon-sponsored tour of Guantanamo Bay, and he was eager to share his observations with the media.

Far from reporting any detainee abuse, Hunter was sounding more and more like the PR man for the new Club Gitmo on the Caribbean, in particular touting the haute cuisine meticulously prepared for the suspected terrorists.

Someone from his staff set a small table next to the pressroom lectern. On the table a number of appetizing-looking dishes were set out to help Mr. Hunter demonstrate his point. Prisoners, he proclaimed, had a daily choice of two entrees, beautifully prepared fresh fish or succulent chicken. Then came a succession of fresh vegetables, followed by a yummy-looking dessert.

The prisoners, he commented, were eating better than their guards! Whereupon, he ate the lunch.

No matter that Gitmo detainees were being held indefinitely as enemy combatants, even though many had already been found to be "no longer a threat" to US security or "of no further intelligence value." No matter that many were scheduled for release, yet remained behind barbed wire. No matter than not a single one of these detainees had been tried for any crime. No matter that their right to appeal their status was in the hands of the very military folks who put them there in the first place.

Gitmo was good!

The San Diego congressman's stellar performance was in fact a microcosm of his record since he was elected in 1981. Recent example: When Senators John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham announced their "compromise" with the White House on new detainee treatment legislation, Hunter denounced it as too soft on terrorists. He relented under White House cajoling, since the president got almost everything he asked for, and then some.

Hunter, a former member of the US Army Airborne, is a warrior, and his campaign contributors know it. These include such major defense contractors as Northrup Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics, to mention only a few.

You will recall that when Congressman Duke Cunningham resigned last year after pleading guilty to bribery charges, the alleged co-conspirators who bribed Cunningham included two San Diego-based defense contractors, Brent Wilkes and Mitchell Wade. Well, Hunter also had ties to Brent Wilkes, the owner of ADCS Inc. and Perfect Wave Technologies.

USA today reported that since 1994 Hunter received $40,700 from Wilkes and his companies. In 1997 Hunter and Cunningham worked to extend a multi-million-dollar earmark for Wilkes's ADCS to perform document conversion tasks for the Pentagon, despite protests from the Defense Department, which claimed that ADCS's services were not needed and a waste of resources. Senator John McCain denounced the House Armed Services Committee for wasting resources in the Defense appropriations bill.

Hunter is a lover of earmarks. One of these, worth $9.7 million, was for ADCS to convert maps of Panama into electronic documents. Hunter and Cunningham both warned, at the time, that China was planning to invade Panama and that America should have electronic documentation of the buildings in the country. They used this premise to justify their inclusion of the $9.7 million earmark that the Pentagon itself did not want in the appropriations bill.

In 2003, Wilkes threw a gala in honor of Hunter called "Salute to Our Heroes."

But it doesn't stop there. In June 2006, Public Citizen reported that Hunter received $11,750 from lobbyist Van D. Hipp Jr., chairman of American Defense International. Hipp's firm represents more than 100 organizations in 11 countries on "government affairs" strategies. Hipp, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Army, was sentenced to five years' probation and three months' house arrest for accepting illegal campaign gifts during a failed 1994 Congressional campaign. He also was fined $5,000 and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

Further, Hunter's 2004 financial disclosure form revealed co-ownership of a rural Virginia cabin with former congressman Pete Geren (D-Texas). Following his stint in Congress, Geren served as an aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon from 2001-2005. According to USA Today, one of his primary responsibilities was "keeping Congress off Rumsfeld's back" during the Abu Ghraib detainee controversy. So, as Chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, Hunter dutifully discouraged any Congressional investigation into Abu Ghraib.

Despite their affiliation, Hunter's financial disclosure makes no mention of Geren's Defense Department affiliation. In addition, Geren's disclosures simply refer to the "Hunter/Geren partnership," never referring to the fact that "Hunter" is the chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services.

According to POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, Hunter's top corporate campaign contributor, San Diego-based defense contractor Titan Corporation, suffered from the publicity of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Titan Corp. served as interrogators at the prison, and were subsequently implicated in the mistreatment allegations that followed. Despite this, and the fact that Titan pled guilty to three criminal counts of bribery in March 2005, the Defense Department waived its right to disbar Titan from any contracts. This chain of events has led to questions about Hunter's ties to the Defense Department.

As reported in a May 29, 2006, Inside the Navy story, Titan Corp. has received several government earmarks beyond what the Pentagon requested for two Navy projects: the experimental Sea Fighter LCS (X) craft and the Affordable Weapons System (AWS). According to the report, there are a number of other missile concepts that provide solutions similar to LCS and AWS, but at a lower cost. Both projects have been championed by Hunter, and are contracted by Titan Corp.

So Senator Claghorn can continue to rest in peace, knowing that even if he's lost his title as Congress's premiere caricature, at least he has a worthy successor.

The only thing missing from Duncan Hunter's schtick is the tagline, "That's a joke, son."

That's okay. Because it's no joke.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher - for more.

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