COLUMN - Hagel's ignorance, Big Oil in the rain forest, and a drone story

Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:54am EST

(Steven Brill is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Steven Brill

Feb 12 (Reuters) - Stories I'd like to see -

The Hagel fiasco:

I can't get Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel's awful Jan. 31 Senate confirmation testimony out of my head. I went back last week and watched most of it again. It was stunning, by far the worst performance by a high-level appointee I've ever seen or heard about. I'm not referring to Hagel's gaffes, though there were some. I'm talking about pretty much everything he said after he read his opening statement. He seemed - is there a nice way to say this? - stupid.

Yet from what I've read, those who know him say he is far from stupid. I spent an hour interviewing him about 10 years ago and he seemed pretty sharp - though it was for a profile of a friend of his, so the questions were hardly challenging.

Why did Hagel stumble so badly? Is he an empty suit who showed his real ability or lack thereof when he faced the senators' tough grilling? Or was he ill? Does he have a health problem we should know about?

I'm serious. This testimony was more than a bad "performance." For example, he seemed not to understand even the basics of the Pentagon budget and the effects of the looming sequestration of a portion of its appropriated funding. Go back and watch it.

Before this hearing, Hagel's defenders brushed off the former Nebraska senator's past statements that suggested his positions on issues such as Israel, Iran or gay rights differed from Obama administration policy. Their point - beyond the fact that he has since repudiated those comments - was that the president sets policy, and the job of the defense secretary is to carry it out.

But that's an argument to pick a brainy manager who could reign in the Pentagon bureaucracy and wring all the waste out of its budget - for example, John F. Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who had been chief executive officer of Ford). Hagel has no experience running a large organization, and his Senate performance did anything but suggest that the world's largest bureaucracy is about to be wrestled to the ground by a savvy executive.

Politico or the Washington Post need to go back and piece together how and why Hagel came off the way he did in that hearing. Maybe it was simply poor preparation, which would also be a great story, given the awesomeness of the failure. Who on the White House staff screwed up so badly? But again, could any amount of poor preparation explain all of Hagel's stumbling answers? We need to know.

A related story has to do with Obama's Cabinet appointments in general. They have hardly featured the superstars one might have expected a president, whose 2008 election promised so much, would seek and be able to attract. The exceptions - Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta - were known brands, not picks that would lead one to marvel at the Obama team's ability to find talent. I'd like to know a lot more about who's responsible for the ho-hum White House talent operation.

Big Oil, big bribes, a contaminated rain forest, sleazy lawyers and $18 billion:

I've known about this story for a while but haven't suggested it in this column because it seemed so likely that publications from Bloomberg Businessweek to Vanity Fair to The New Yorker to the New York Times were working on long features about it. But while the story has been building for 20 years and is now red hot, I still haven't seen the full-blown coverage it deserves.

It involves an environmental class action against Chevron brought by U.S. plaintiffs on behalf of a group of Ecuadoreans living in the rain forest. The Ecuadoreans and their lawyers won $18 billion from Chevron in 2011. Then the fighting got even more brutal - and colorful.

The story has everything: the alleged contamination of the rain forest by a giant U.S. oil company; credible evidence that the plaintiffs' lawyers bribed a judge so he would let them ghostwrite his $18 billion ruling against Chevron; and an admission from another judge involved in the case (who informed on the judge who issued the verdict) that he had received money from Chevron. In addition, there's a racketeering counterclaim brought in New York by Chevron's blue-chip law firm against the plaintiffs' lawyers, which has prevented the $18 billion judgment from being enforced.

There's all that and more, including talkative and colorful (and heroic, shady or overzealous, depending on which side you're on) lawyers who've been fighting this case for 20 years.

All that intrigue and name-calling and claims and counterclaims among the lawyers and judges would make for a dramatic, fun narrative - like watching scorpions fight in a bottle. But there are also crucial legal issues involved, including not only who should pay how much for alleged rain forest contamination but also a fascinating and increasingly important international law dilemma about whether one country's courts can refuse to recognize the rulings of another country's.

I know all this because Alison Frankel, a former colleague at The American Lawyer, has been covering the case in the litigation newsletter she writes for Reuters. Here's her latest report.

So, a simple suggestion: If those other publications are going to continue to miss this story, Reuters ought to turn Frankel loose to write a full-blown feature or book about it.

Let's go inside the drone industry:

From Time's recent cover story, to the grilling and accompanying media coverage that CIA Director-designate John Brennan got at his Senate confirmation hearing, to the looming civil liberties and Federal Aviation Administration regulatory issues involving their increased use by local police forces, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have now taken center stage.

What I haven't seen is a comprehensive story about the drone industry. There are thousands of drones out there, up from dozens just a few years ago, with tens of thousands more on order. Defense contractor Raytheon sends out regular press releases about its drone sales. But I assume there is feverish competition from other giant defense contractors, like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, and from ambitious startups.

So who's out there trying to sell what? How do they differentiate their products? What are the profit margins? I suspect they are pretty high because technology like this - which provides a huge savings over the alternative manned vehicles - usually allows for prices well above the cost because everyone can point to all the money being saved no matter how high the profits are. Nonetheless, are any players trying to compete on price? If so, what lobbyists have been deployed to head off the price-cutter?

How many jobs is the new industry producing, and at what cost to job loss, if any, related to declining orders for manned aircraft? Were any of the big players late to the party because they made the classic mistake of not wanting to cannibalize their current businesses selling manned aircraft or ship-based missiles, only to allow their competitors a head start in cannibalizing it?

( Steven Brill, the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America's Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harpers, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer Magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content Magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative. )

(Steven Brill)

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