The Complex

Navy Secretary on Prostitution and Bribery Scandal: 'We Go After People'

For months, the U.S. Navy has weathered a titillating scandal involving a fat-cat defense contractor from Malaysia who allegedly used cash bribes, prostitutes and posh hotel rooms to lure top Navy officials into providing classified information he used to defraud the United States. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus addressed the controversy for the first time Friday, pushing back against the notion the service is a soft target for corruption while acknowledging even more Navy officers could be take down by an ongoing investigation.

"We go after people," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "We have set up procedures to try to prevent fraud, but any time -- any time -- you have this kind of money, there are going to be people trying to steal. Trying to defraud the government."

Mabus' comments came three days after a senior agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, John Bertrand Beliveau, pleaded guilty in federal court in San Diego after admitting to serving as a mole for the contractor, Glenn Defense Marine Asia. According to court documents, he tipped off the company's CEO, Leonard Glenn Francis - widely known as "Fat Leonard" - and enjoyed luxury trips in which prostitutes would meet him on Francis' dime. Francis is accused of bribing Navy officials in exchange for information he allegedly used to overcharge the U.S. military millions of dollars to service the ships, a process known in the mariner world as husbanding. He has pleaded not guilty.

Mabus defended the Navy's ability to ward off crooked contractors on Friday, but also highlighted several new efforts to crack down on billing problems with contractors. In September he directed a senior official, Assistant Navy Secretary Sean Stackley, to review acquisition strategy for husbanding contracts worldwide. That has since led the service to develop so-called "red teams" that are scrutinizing the process, and will eventually lead to change, Mabus said. The Navy also is conducting a broad audit of its service contracts that is due in June.

The Fat Leonard scandal already has reached the highest ranks of the Navy. On Nov. 8, the service announced that it barred two admirals from being to access their access to classified information, effectively relieving them from duty. Vice Adm. Ted Branch and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless -- the service's director for naval intelligence and director of intelligence operations, respectively -- have not been charged with any crimes, but were suspended due to unspecified links to the scandal. Navy officials said the allegations against the two senior officers "involve inappropriate conduct prior to their current assignments and flag officer rank."

Two active-duty Navy officers -- Cmdr. Jose Luis Sanchez and Cmdr. Vannak Khem Misiewicz -- have been charged by authorities with accepting bribes and women in exchange for ship schedules and other sensitive information. The others charged in the case are Francis, Beliveau and Alex Wisadagama, another Glenn Defense employee who allegedly participated in the plot.

Mabus said he was briefed about the investigation for several months before authorities made the first arrest in the case. The Navy began investigating the case in May 2010 after contracting officials noticed suspicious billing by the Glenn Defense, and eventually planted false information about the status of the case when it realized Beliveau was effectively acting as a mole for Francis, Mabus said. Meanwhile, the service continued to award multi-million dollar contracts to Glenn Defense because it didn't want to jeopardize the investigation.

"If the Navy suspends a company's ability to compete for contracts or refuses to award a contract to a low bidder, we are required by federal law to give that contractor a reason why," Mabus said. "In this case, a notification would have tipped off GDMA that something was wrong."

In addition to the five men charged and the admirals who lost their security clearances, the Navy also has suspended Capt. David Haas as deputy commander of Coastal Riverine Group One in San Diego and relieved of command Capt. Daniel Dusek, who commanded the amphibious ship Bonhomme Richard, in connection with the investigation. The officers implicated in the scandal nearly all share one of two commonalities: service on the Blue Ridge, the command ship for the Navy's 7th Fleet, or service at Fleet Logistics Center Yokosuka in Japan. The facility provides repairs and maintenance to a variety of U.S. and allied ships and equipment.

The Navy's problems with awarding contracts to service its ships has widened in recent weeks to include another company, Inchcape Shipping Services, which the service cut ties with last month after concluding that it had "questionable business integrity." On Friday, the New York Times reported that a third company, Multinational Logistic Services, had suspended a senior executive, Akbar Khan, who had worked previously for Inchcape.

Mabus left little doubt more officers will be implicated in the scandals. And if federal authorities decide not to pursue criminal charges against some of those involved, the Navy will review allegations against them itself. A single four-star admiral with no connection to the case -- yet to be identified -- will lead the service's own investigation if that becomes necessary and oversee each case, the Navy secretary said.

"I would rather get bad headlines," he said, "than let bad people get away."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Exclusive: How Diplomacy Helped Cause an F-18 Crash

High over Afghanistan, a two-man team of U.S. naval aviators found itself in trouble April 8 after an aerial refueling mishap damaged their supersonic F/A-18F Super Hornet. Turbulence ripped the fighter away from an Air Force KC-135's refueling hose, leaving a piece of the tanker's refueling apparatus attached to the Super Hornet and causing the fighter to suck airborne fuel through its right engine. It began to stall, and a piece of the tanker plane remained stuck to the fighter as the aircraft parted ways.

What followed was a series of miscommunications and judgment mistakes that ultimately forced the $60 million fighter -- call sign "Victory 206" -- into the North Arabian Sea. The aviators safely ejected about 1.5 miles from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the aircraft carrier to which they were trying to return, according to the findings of a new Navy investigation. And while the primary causes of the mishap were attributed to the aircrew failing to recognize the severity of the damage and land their plane in Afghanistan, officers aboard the aircraft carrier effectively took one of their options -- landing at the closest airfield in Oman, a U.S. ally with ties to Iran -- off the table because it would have caused diplomatic headaches for the United States, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act.

Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula near Yemen, has two main airfields available to U.S. planes in distress, according to the Nov. 7 findings of the investigation into the Super Hornet's crash. The first, and preferred, option would have been an Omani air force base on Masirah, an island off the country's southeastern coast. However, the other option -- the international airport in Muscat, Oman's capital -- was 84 miles closer to the fighter when it requested permission to land there minutes before it crashed in the North Arabian Sea, Navy investigators found.

Navy officers aboard the Eisenhower denied the troubled aircraft's request, noting there were "significant sensitivities regarding diverting U.S. military aircraft, even unarmed, into Muscat," according to the report. The pilot did not clearly communicate how dire the situation was at the time, but there also was a perception that Muscat was basically off-limits to the jet.

"Although weather conditions [were] the reason that VICTORY 206 did not divert to Muscat, there is widespread perception that although it is listed as one of two primary divert fields for carriers operating in the North Arabian Sea ... it is not a viable option due for diplomatic reasons," the Navy investigation found.

The decision was made as U.S. diplomats met secretly with Iranian officials in Muscat to hammer out a bilateral agreement on Iran's nuclear ambitions. The discussions began in 2011, but reportedly shifted to include higher ranking officials picked by President Obama in March -- the month before the Super Hornet would have landed there.

A Pentagon official, Navy Cmdr. William Speaks, confirmed that Navy pilots are discouraged from landing in Muscat. While pilots are allowed to land in Oman's capital in an emergency, the high volume of air traffic and limited facilities there has led the United States to push aviators to use other airfields whenever possible, he told Foreign Policy. Still, it does happen occasionally. Two aircraft with the Navy strike group currently deployed with another aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, have been diverted into Muscat, most recently on Dec. 7.

"We work closely with our Omani partners as each situation warrants," Speaks said. "The Defense Attaché Office in the U.S. Embassy Muscat maintains an on-call duty person to handle emergency landings and coordinate with our Omani partners."

State Department officials referred comment to the Pentagon.

* * *

The problems began for the Super Hornet about halfway through a scheduled eight-hour mission over Afghanistan. The plane, part of Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 103, of Oceana, Va., took off from the Eisenhower around 8 a.m. the morning of the crash to provide close-air support to ground troops in the combat zone. The refueling mishap happened after the fighter and the KC-135 tanker plane hit turbulence near thunderstorms, jarring the refueling boom, documents say.

The aircrew of both the damaged Super Hornet and another fighter pilot who could see the distressed plane from his own aircraft underestimated the problems that had taken root. They determined the aircraft was damaged, but thought the plane was capable of flying back to the Eisenhower, Navy investigators found. Had the situation appeared more serious right away, they likely would have landed the plane at Kandahar Airfield, a sprawling coalition base in southern Afghanistan, the pilot of the other fighter later told investigators. However, the pilot of the downed aircraft said he felt discouraged from doing so because the Eisenhower did not have a group of service members serving in Afghanistan to maintain the carrier's jets.

The aircrew of Victory 206 did not relay the full extent of the damage to the aircraft, or that a piece of the tanker's refueling apparatus was still attached to the fighter, Navy documents say. The determination was initially made that the Super Hornet would make one pass at landing on the Eisenhower, and then be diverted to the Omani air base in Masirah if it couldn't land on the aircraft carrier. A senior Navy commander listening to discussions about what to do over military radio grew concerned, however, and diverted the jet directly to Masirah, believing doing so had the best chance of allowing the fighter to land safely.

The Super Hornet's aircrew was ordered to jettison three bombs totaling about 2,200 pounds that it still had on board to lighten the aircraft, and to proceed to Masirah. Two requests from the pilot to land in the Omani capital were denied. Naval officers directing the aircraft from the Eisenhower were aware of the diplomatic sensitivities of doing so, but poor weather -- aircrews could see less than one mile -- also played a role in the decision, Navy documents say. As conditions for the aircraft continued to deteriorate, however, the Super Hornet was told to turn back to the Eisenhower because of fears that it wouldn't have enough fuel to get to the air base in Oman.

The Super Hornet experienced a series of additional problems as it closed in on the aircraft carrier, including a struggle to deploy its landing gear, Navy documents say. Then, its good engine flamed out -- and the pilot pulled the ejection handle less than 1,000 feet above the North Arabian Sea.

"The mishap pilot blacked out momentarily upon ejection, but regained consciousness as he was floating under his parachute," Navy documents say. "He sank approximately 10 feet before his [life preserver] automatically inflated. As his mask was still on, he was able to breathe while submerged."

The pilot sustained severe lacerations to his hands and was "bleeding profusely." His backseat weapons systems officer, meanwhile, was not even aware an ejection was coming, and also blacked out momentarily. He, too, regained consciousness while floating in 76 Farenheit degree water with his parachute on top of him. They were rescued by a helicopter crew from the Eisenhower, and eventually recovered from their injuries, Navy documents say.

The Navy determined the Super Hornet crew should not be found responsible for the mishap. However, it also criticized them for not recognizing the severity of the damage to their aircraft early on and communicating it to higher command. While the fighter was eventually diverted to the Eisenhower and Oman, it could have landed safely in Afghanistan when the air crew was still there, the investigating officer said.

"With a damaged right engine and inability to airborne refuel, the crew of VICTORY 206 should have realized the severity of this situation and the cascading effects that could compound this emergency," the investigation found. "Despite the lack of [an] air wing maintenance detachment [in Kandahar], a suitable airfield was available in Afghanistan to safely land this aircraft."

Still, the investigating officer did address the confusion about Oman. He called for the Navy to forward a copy of the investigation's final report to Vice Adm. John Miller, the commander of U.S. Navy Central Command, which oversees the service's operations in the Middle East and southwestern Asia. The admiral's staff, the investigating officer said, should continue to see Muscat as a "viable divert option."

 

Super Hornet Crash - North Arabian Sea by Dan Lamothe

Defense Department photo