'Top Gun' of travel

Spy plane's maker spent roughly $660,000, targeted legislators' aides

By

 Updated:

Among the top corporate sponsors of congressional trips is a little-known California defense contractor that far outspent its industry competitors on travel for more than five years — and that in 2005 landed promises of billions of dollars in federal business.

San Diego-based General Atomics largely targeted congressional staff members, spending roughly $660,000 on 86 trips for legislators, aides and their spouses from 2000 to mid-2005, according to an analysis of travel disclosure records by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service.

While on trips to Turkey in 2004 and Australia in 2005 — some valued at more than $25,000 — staffers attended meetings with officials of foreign governments being solicited to buy the company's unmanned spy plane, the Predator.

"[It's] useful and very helpful, in fact, when you go down and talk to the government officials to have congressional people go along and discuss the capabilities of [the plane] with them," said Tom Cassidy, chief executive officer of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the company's aircraft-manufacturing subsidiary.

Dennis Thompson, a Harvard professor of public policy and founding director of the university's Center for Ethics, called the arrangement "a corruption of the system."

"There are legitimate reasons for members of Congress and staffers to travel," Thompson said, "but I find it almost impossible to find any justification of staffers participating in sales meetings."

According to a company spokesman, General Atomics has about 4,000 employees worldwide — small in comparison to the roughly 120,000 employees of Northrop Grumman Corp. and the 150,000 of Boeing. But political ties have been a key ingredient in General Atomics' success.

Chairman and CEO James Neal Blue, who bought the company in 1986 with his brother, Linden, noted those connections in a May 2005 Defense News article. Asked about the company's ability to hold its own against larger contractors, James Blue was quoted by the trade publication as saying: "For our size, we possess more significant political capital than you might think."

The study found that Microsoft Corp. solely financed almost $395,000 during the 5½-year period; telecommunications giant SBC Communications Inc., which since has merged with AT&T, spent about $205,000. The analysis found that among General Atomics' competitors, Northrop Grumman spent about $12,000 on congressional travel over the period, and Boeing spent roughly $13,000.Despite its size, General Atomics' spending on congressional travel — much of it to Europe and Australia — was significantly higher than that of other defense contractors and of much larger companies in general. The total doesn't count trips the company co-sponsored.

Records show that two of the General Atomics trips were taken by Republican members of Congress, 68 by aides to Republican lawmakers and 16 by aides to Democrats. (The Democratic total includes a 2002 trip taken by a staff member of Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas; Hall became a Republican in 2004.)

Courting the staffers

Despite early performance problems, the Predator has enjoyed strong support in Congress. James Blue estimated that the drone accounts for about a third of General Atomics' revenue. Sales grew tremendously after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as the U.S. government recognized its growing reconnaissance needs, according to unmanned systems analyst Larry Dickerson of Forecast International, a market research firm that studies the aerospace and defense industry.

General Atomics' recent success appears to be linked to its ability to influence key members of Congress — including those whose staffers traveled with the company abroad. The firm has tended to sponsor travel for the top aides to legislators serving on panels essential to its interests, rather than for the lawmakers themselves."A few years ago, no one in Congress knew anything about what the Predator was," Dickerson said. "Now it's in everyone's lexicon."

The study found that only two members of Congress — Bob Riley, R-Ala. (now the state's governor), and Jerry Lewis, R-Calif. — took trips paid for by General Atomics [correction]. However, staffers in 51 congressional offices accepted them.

Among those aides was J. Scott Bensing, chief of staff to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland subcommittee. Two of his trips cost more than a combined $46,000.

Bensing said that he and his wife, Lia, went to Italy and Turkey in 2004 and Australia in March 2005 on the company's tab. His disclosure forms list more than $37,000 in transportation expenses and nearly $4,400 worth of meals for the two weeklong trips.

Bensing indicated on his forms that the Australia trip's purpose was to discuss "the international war on terror," while the Turkey trip included discussions on "NATO interoperability and other international military issues." However, other aides who went on the trips indicated that staffers also sat in on meetings with officials of foreign governments interested in buying the Predator and other robotic planes developed by General Atomics.

"I was not there to advocate [for General Atomics]," he said. "That was not our purpose. It certainly wasn't why I was there."Bensing asserted that he did not go on the two trips to help sell aircraft. He said the meetings were focused on national security, and that if the Predator came up in conversation, it was because foreign officials raised the topic.

Other staffers who went on at least one of the March 2005 trips to Australia and Italy sponsored by the company include top aides to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va.; Reps. James Moran, D-Va., and Kay Granger, R-Texas, both members of the House Appropriations Committee's Defense subcommittee; and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a member of both the Homeland Security and Defense subcommittees of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In mid-March, eight staffers and their guests were flown to Melbourne, Port Douglas and Sydney, where they had a series of meetings with officials from the Australian government and the U.S. embassy. According to the disclosure forms, topics of discussion ranged from drone spy planes to immigration to the "U.S.-Australian alliance." General Atomics spent more than $136,000 on transportation, lodging, meals and other expenses for the weeklong excursion, according to disclosure documents.

Shortly after the Australia trip, company officials traveled to Italy to play host to a delegation of eight staffers and their guests in Rome, Venice, Bellagio and Florence through early April. The aides reported visiting U.S. and Italian defense and civil technology companies, while racking up expenses in excess of $110,000, according to travel disclosure documents.

"He's quite a hero, really, but he is a very modest man," said Susan Magill, Warner's then-chief of staff.Congressional staffers were joined on the Australia trip by some of General Atomics' highest-ranking executives. Among them was Cassidy, the aeronautics subsidiary CEO. A former fighter pilot and Navy admiral, he also had a cameo role in the 1986 film Top Gun. Almost to a person, staffers who traveled with him spoke glowingly of him.

Magill took the trip to Australia with her husband, John, at the time chief of staff to Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., a member of the House Ways and Means Committee's Trade subcommittee. The couple accepted more than $26,000 in travel expenses during the trip.

Travel, sales abroad both rise

General Atomics began increasing its spending on travel at the same time it stepped up its efforts to sell its drones abroad.

From 2000 through 2003, the study found that the company spent more than $167,000 on 20 foreign trips. By 2004, with the U.S. military regularly using the Predator in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Atomics began concentrating on overseas sales, and spent nearly $207,000 on 15 foreign trips.

All of these trips took congressional travelers to countries that were contemplating buying the company's robotic planes or expanding their existing fleets.By early April 2005, General Atomics already had exceeded its 2004 total, spending nearly $248,000 on 16 foreign excursions.

Cassidy and some of the Capitol Hill staffers who traveled with him to Australia said that the congressional delegation sat in on General Atomics meetings with Australian defense officials. Asked what those meetings were about, Cassidy said, "Trying to sell [missile-firing] Predator B's to Australia."

In an initial interview about the trip, Susan Magill said, "There was some advocacy for the Predator program and the American program in general."

In a subsequent interview, however, she stressed that the delegation was not part of a company sales effort. "We did not push the Predator," she said. "We were not asked to push the Predator."

Her husband, Herger's former aide, agreed.

"General Atomics made this opportunity possible, but it is not like they gave us a booklet of information about the Predator and expected us to help them sell it," John Magill said. "I was not there to advocate. It was not a big heavy sell."

Also along for the Australia trip was Robert Cochran, chief of staff to Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon — a California Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.Robert Herbert, senior policy adviser to Senate Minority Leader Reid, also went on the 2005 Australia trip. Herbert said he met with officials from the Australian Embassy, Coast Guard, and Department of Defense, but that conversation was limited to homeland security. Specific weapons systems, such as the Predator, were not mentioned, he said.

Cochran said he also attended General Atomics' meetings with foreign government officials while on the company-sponsored Italy/Turkey trip in 2004.

"I was with Admiral Cassidy in Italy in 2004," Cochran said. "We met with officials there to talk about the Predator and we also met with officials in Turkey. It was much like what happened in Australia."

One Turkish procurement official "spent a lot of time talking to us about Turkey's limited ability to sell defense goods in the U.S.," he said. "It was an opportunity to meet with congressional staff and gripe."

Still, Harvard's Thompson said he finds the trips to Australia and Turkey troubling.

"It is not just that they were promoting the company," he said. "The staffers' very presence suggests that the United States Congress will grant favors to the Italian government or the Australian government if they buy this particular weapon from this particular company."

Predator's rocky takeoff

While privately owned General Atomics doesn't make revenue figures public, its hometown San Diego Union-Tribune reported in March 2005 that the Air Force had announced plans to spend $5.7 billion over five years on "roughly 144 Predators," ground control equipment and other unspecified expenses.

The Predator is widely used for air support in the Iraqi theater. But in the beginning, it was a troubled system disliked by many in the Pentagon.

In a 2001 report by the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Directorate, Thomas P. Christie, the office's then-director, cited "numerous shortcomings" in the original Predator A model, including poor target location, ineffective communications and limitations imposed by "benign weather," like rain.

When the Predator A was first deployed over Bosnia in NATO's 1995 air campaign, it was unable to fly almost 60 percent of its missions because its wings iced up so easily, according to a 2003 report by the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the reliability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

While Predators make up only a small fraction of the Air Force's fleet, they were involved in almost 10 percent of major crashes from October 1999 through June 2005, according to an analysis of Air Force accident reports. It was not until March 1, 2005, that the plane was officially declared to have reached Initial Operating Capability, meaning it met maintenance and other standards, according to a news release from Air Combat Command in Langley, Va.

Operators say that the drone, which is flown remotely by pilots from a stationary control center, is a finicky plane. "Most of the pilots out there would agree it is the hardest plane they have ever had to put on the ground — very tough plane to land," said Lt. Col. John Harris, who commands a squadron of Predator pilots at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

However, the Predator's ability to loiter over a target for days while feeding live video to troops on the ground has made it a valuable surveillance asset. The Predator B made headlines Jan. 13, when several of the drones executed an air strike on a Pakistani village believed to have been the location of al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. (According to media reports, Pakistani authorities later said that the strike was based on faulty intelligence; al-Zawahiri was not in the village and 18 civilians were killed.)

Strategically targeting support in Congress

General Atomics began developing its unmanned planes in the 1980s, before it had any Pentagon contracts. The company drafted the Predator specs, then the Blue brothers and Cassidy went about convincing allies in Congress to buy the planes.

James Blue said the strategy was essential in allowing his small company to compete with its larger and more well-established competitors. "A somewhat smaller enterprise is at a disadvantage in competing with very large embedded defense companies," he explained. "It became imperative upon us to find a better way … independent of the bureaucratic procurement grind."

Support for the weapons system in Congress has been unwavering. The House Appropriations Committee's Defense subcommittee has earmarked millions for the program year after year, ensuring the Predator's survival.

"Without congressional support in the beginning, I am not sure the Predator would have ever seen the light of day," Cassidy acknowledged.

Early on, one of the drone's biggest advocates was then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican who served on the Defense subcommittee and the House Intelligence Committee. The former fighter pilot's district encompassed San Diego, where General Atomics has its headquarters.

From 2002 to 2005, records show, Cunningham's office accepted more than $53,000 in trips to Europe and Australia sponsored by General Atomics. On four occasions, the traveler was his legislative director, Nancy Lifset.When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared before the Defense subcommittee in July 2001, Cunningham's first question was about the Predator B. He suggested that the Pentagon speed up funding for the plane while it was waiting on delivery of a Northrop Grumman drone, reminding Rumsfeld of "the value the Predator gave us [in Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Kosovo]."

(Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years in prison in March for accepting $2.4 million in bribes from two defense contractors not related to General Atomics and for evading more than $1 million in taxes.)

The Blue brothers credit Congress with having the foresight to buy the weapons system when the Pentagon was skeptical.

"I would rather have them buy Predators without having to talk to so many people and be so convincing, but that is just not the real world," General Atomics Vice Chairman Linden Blue said. "If you have something, you have to sell it. You have to let people know what its virtues are and let them make an honest decision about whether that is something the public should invest in."

But Bill Whitehurst, a former Republican member of Congress from Virginia and a one-time member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he finds it disturbing that staffers accepted lavish trips from a company intent on influencing their bosses.

"I call it crossing the line," Whitehurst said. "It is more than having the lobbyist come in and talk to you and persuade you that his product is a good one and should be funded when you go out and be entertained on a lavish scale. That, in my judgment, goes beyond the bounds. It is something you ought to avoid doing in public life."

Rep. Jim Cooper, a member of the Armed Services Committee, also said the staffers' presence at the foreign meetings raises ethical questions.

"Sounds pretty suspicious to me. I don't want to prejudge, but I think we have to be worried about foreign military sales … [and the appearance of doing] anything to give the imprimatur of the United States government approving a private contractor sale," the Tennessee Democrat said. "You have to be very careful that the good name of the U.S. government is not abused."

Steve Henn is a reporter with American Radio Works.


Correction: It was incorrectly stated that Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., accepted a trip to Italy sponsored by General Atomics, because of a filing error by McKeon's office. His staffer, Brandi Ballou took the trip.