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Who Delivers the News?

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Last week, I wrote about the need for a new breed of MRAPs in Afghanistan. I picked the story up from the InsideDefense website. I failed to report that Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had pointed out that IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) posed "the biggest threat we have in Afghanistan right now...and from an equipment point of view the No. 1 priority is to get the MRAPs there as quickly as we can."

The reporter, to my knowledge, who first broke the news was Tom Vanden Brook, of USA Today. We were a day later on The Huffington Post. Then, on July 6th, a half-dozen American troops were killed in Afghanistan by IED explosions. Those deaths underline the importance of Vanden Brook's story, and the need to pay attention to the equipment with which American troops go into battle. So I expected that I would see more reporting on the issue this week. There wasn't any.

Erica, my able and expert assistant, has just finished checking the websites of AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, the BBC, and MSNBC and has found no reference to reference to Adm. Mullen's statement. Some of the news outlets had reported that on July 1st the DOD had awarded Oshkosh a contract to build a new generation of MRAPs, but none had pointed out the critical need for a new generation of troop carriers. And therein lies a major news story.

The news story should probably go back as the late nineties, when "the Pentagon was warned by its own experts" to "move beyond the Humvee." The Army responded in 1999 and ordered a new vehicle, the M1117, from Cadillac Gage. The M1117s cost $700,000 each. Humvees cost only $140,000, and in 2002 the Army canceled the program. At that time, according to The New York Times, assistant Army secretary Claude M. Bolten, Jr. sent to Congress a memorandum stating that "'The decision is based on budget priorities'...Existing vehicles, he added, can be used instead 'without exposing our soldiers to an unacceptable amount of risk.'"

The next part of the story might use as its source a December 2008 AP story still available on The Huffington Post, which reports on an inquiry into the Marines failure to meet a February 2005 urgent request for 1,169 MRAPs. The Marine Brigadier General who requested the MRAPs said that "Marines could not continue to take 'serious and grave casualties' caused by IEDs when a solution was commercially available..."

Nevertheless, although "The Marine Corps and other military branches were aware of the threat of mines and roadside bombs and the commercial availability of MRAPs" "the request was mishandled and eventually lost in bureaucracy." The Inspector General reported, "nothing was done to acquire the vehicles." MRAPs finally reached Iraq in 2007, after Robert Gates had been appointed Secretary of Defense.

Now begins part three of the story. The Inspector General's report on the Marine Corps/DOD MRAP fiasco was released in December, 2008. At about the same time, the Pentagon sent out a RFP for a new generation of MRAPs specially designed to meet conditions in Afghanistan. (Perhaps this was not a coincidence.) Ten days ago, just as 4,000 newly arrived troops went into battle in the Helmand Province, Oshkosh was awarded the MRAP contract. Since then, at least six of those 4,000 have been killed by IEDs. Adm. Mullen says the new MRAPs will begin to be delivered in October of this year, but more men will die in the meantime.

I don't think we can fault Mullen or Gates, I think the new DOD leaders are doing their best to protect our troops with better equipment. It's not like the Rumsfeld years when an Assistant Secretary of Defense used cost/risk analysis as the measure for protecting soldiers' lives. Nevertheless, men are going to die, killed by IEDs, while we wait for the new Oshkosh MRAPs.

It is comforting to know that this Pentagon is willing to pay $1,400,000 per MRAP in contrast to Rumsfeld's Pentagon willingness to see men die to save money. Clearly, Gates and Mullen are better men than Rumsfeld. That, by the way, is a story.

Having written all this, I realize that I've written a story myself. The original purpose of this piece was to encourage major news organizations to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan. The AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, BBC, and MSNBC should be the ones working, investigating, following up, to make sure that Oshkosh produces on schedule, and our troops get what they need, MRAPs and everything else.

This is also to commend USA Today and Tom Vanden Brook for delivering the news first.