Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Truman Committee: One of a Kind?

In 1941 a special committee in the Senate began chasing down fraud and carelessness in the defense program. While editorials today still call for a new Truman Committee on this, that, or the other, the bipartisan magic of the original "Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program" has never been duplicated.

But it could be.

The committee’s obscure junior senators and their hired investigators began by following up on citizen letters complaining about waste and monopolies in Army camp construction. The committee acted and voted on a strictly bipartisan basis. Because the Democratic majority on the committee was willing to expose neglect and fraud within a Democratic administration, it set the tone for rigor in overseeing the entire war production effort.

Harry Truman took so much criticism from conservative radio commentators that FDR considered shutting the committee down but decided to work with Truman instead. Truman's determination to pursue fraud and ineptitude wherever it led astounded the press. Citizens responded by sending in thousands of new leads for investigation.

Contractors and the Army learned the new rules rather quickly. The U.S. Navy was the last to yield. One of the most controversial steps of the Truman Committee was to publish the horrific shipping losses from U-Boat attacks in the Battle of the Atlantic. That's what it took to force the Navy to adopt convoy tactics, which it had strongly resisted.

A few observations: To have any effect in keeping contractors and agencies honest during a protracted crisis, an investigative committee must begin work immediately, since that's when the waste and fraud starts. The Administration must cooperate even when embarrassing facts about its programs come to light. Rather than grandstanding for the press (as in members’ indignation in 2008 about auto execs’ use of private jets in getting to Washington), committee members have to do enough actual homework themselves that they avoid depending excessively on staff, which is the usual road to senatorial incompetence. Members must believe that federal money is limited, so using it wisely is important.

And here's another element, often neglected. Slaying the dragon once isn't enough -- checking back is vital. Truman sent his investigators back to drop in on miscreants a year later.

(Coincidentally, I’m related to Truman by marriage. Truman's uncle was James J. Chiles, an ex-Confederate saloon owner who died in a gunfight with the Independence, MO, sheriff in 1873).

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