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The Pentagon's Dirty Deal

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Should U.S. taxpayers be forced to subsidize the mass murder of Syrian civilians?

Despite objections from both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, the Pentagon believes so. That is why it is fighting congressional attempts to shut down a no-bid contract worth $1 billion to the Russian state-owned arms dealer Rosoboronexport, which happens to be the chief supplier of weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad's forces have now killed at least 9,000 civilians in response to protests over its regime, according to the United Nations' last update in March.

Secretary Clinton has passionately urged nations doing business with Syria to cut off trade and arms sales to Assad: "Get on the right side of history!" she admonished. Apparently her cabinet colleague at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, didn't get the memo about which side of history the administration wants to be on. Pentagon Undersecretary for Policy James Miller acknowledged evidence that Rosoboronexport weapons "are being used by Syrian forces against Syria's civilian population" in a letter to lawmakers. Nonetheless, being a good customer of Assad's accomplices is, in his words, "critical to building the capacity of Afghanistan security forces." So critical, apparently, they get a contract that no one else is allowed to bid on. Not bad for a firm that spent years on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran.

Apparently, in order to move U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, the Pentagon must turn U.S. calls to stop fueling Assad's killing machine into hypocritical diplomatic blather.

Enter the U.S. Congress and evidence that, while it may be an endangered species in Washington, bipartisanship is not extinct. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) -- not a duo accustomed to teaming up on anything -- were the lead signers of a letter to Secretary Panetta in March that admonished him to stop contracts "helping to finance a firm that is essentially complicit in mass atrocities in Syria." Fifteen of their Senate colleagues from both parties joined them.

Recently, the House unanimously passed an amendment to the House Defense Authorization bill that bans the purchase of weapons from any firm "controlled, directed or influenced by" a country providing weapons to state sponsors of terrorism, including Syria. It was offered by Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Kay Granger (R-Texas) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). The Senate Arms Services Committee is now considering a provision in the Senate version of the bill that requires an investigation of the Rosoboronexport contract by the Comptroller General. It is being offered by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Having served on the House Armed Services Committee I can assure you that anything can happen between floor action and law -- even when it is passed unanimously and has strong bipartisan support. The House-Senate conference that will reconcile the two versions of the Defense bill can be a place where good and timely ideas go quietly to die if the right people want them to. Secretaries of Defense have become accustomed to members of key congressional committees asking "how high?" when asked to jump.

What is required now is that Congress not allow the Pentagon to bury this issue and disappear what has been put into the Defense bills of both chambers. For this to happen, the bills must see the light of day. And, for this to happen, citizens and taxpayers who don't like subsidizing mass murder need to say so to their representatives in Congress.

Who knows, maybe bipartisan cooperation to save the next victims of mass murder in Syria could carry over to other matters. It turns out that even in an election year, there may be something more important than partisan political advantage.