Get to Know Ben Freeman, POGO’s National Security Fellow

Fair warning to foreign lobbyists and defense contractors: POGO’s just added some major firepower to its national security team. In June we were joined by Ben Freeman—a corruption-busting, night-lecturing, Floridian who earned his Ph.D. in political science from Texas A&M University. The Watercooler recently caught up with Doc Freeman to find out how he wound up here, what it was like to write a book, and where his allegiances were in the NBA Finals, among other things. Read on, but don’t forget to follow Ben on Twitter.

Watercooler: What got you interested in working for POGO and in the realm of national security?

Ben Freeman: POGO was an easy choice. I’ve always been very patriotic and concerned with making our government the best it can possibly be. POGO has been doing precisely this for 30 years. What I like most about POGO is that the organization doesn’t just identify problems and complain about them, it tells policymakers and American taxpayers precisely how the system can be fixed. This is an invaluable service to America and a very noble calling. POGO’s task is not easy because it often works to change entrenched systems filled with very powerful people that thrive within those systems. POGO does what’s right regardless of who’s doing what’s wrong, and that makes me immensely proud to be a part of POGO.

I study national security and U.S. foreign policy because America enjoys phenomenal influence over the entire world—more so than any other country ever has. The flip-side is that with globalization, technological advances, and heightened political interconnectedness, America is also more open to foreign influence than it has ever been. So, it’s vital for us, as Americans, to be concerned about national security and to consider the impact of U.S. foreign policy on other countries. There’s just so much at stake on both counts that it’s impossible for me to NOT investigate national security and U.S. foreign policy.

Watercooler: What brought you to Texas?

Ben Freeman: I ended up in Texas because I fell in love with studying politics. I’m one of those crazy people who actually loves numbers, math, and statistics, so I was drawn to the Political Science Department at Texas A&M University, which has a top-notch quantitative methods program. Although I definitely missed Florida, where I was born and raised, Texas was awesome! Some of the greatest people in the world live in the great state of Texas. Aggieland and Austin, where I lived for a year, will always have a place in my heart.

Watercooler: Why did you decide to write a book, and what is it about? How was the experience of writing a book like?

Ben Freeman: At A&M, I was doing some work on U.S. foreign aid—the amount of economic assistance we give to other countries—and I kept noticing some very odd patterns. Basically, we give a lot of aid to a lot of countries that we probably shouldn’t. Something was missing from conventional, academic theories of aid allocations—lobbying by foreign governments. So, I wrote a dissertation explaining how this foreign lobbying drives U.S. aid allocations.

In effect, other countries actually buy aid, and the return on investment is enough to make Bernie Madoff blush. Estimates vary, but on average countries can expect $50 in additional aid for every dollar they spend lobbying for it, all else equal. My book, The Foreign Policy Auction (due out late 2011/early 2012), is based upon this, but it goes much, much deeper into foreign lobbying in America. The most sensational part of the book is that I was able to find dozens of instances where lobbyists made campaign contributions to representatives on the very same day they met with the reps to discuss their foreign clients’ issues. At the very least, these exchanges reek of quid pro quo; at worst, they’re illegal because the [Federal Elections Commission] FEC prohibits campaign contributions from foreign nationals.

In case you can’t tell, I LOVED writing the book! Obviously a very solitary task and I often wished I had someone else around simply so I could jump up and say, “Look at this! Can you believe this sh*t?! WTF?!” Research tourettes aside, I truly enjoyed exposing the rampant corruption that surrounds foreign lobbying in America. Hopefully, readers will share my enthusiasm and outrage, then we’ll work together to change policy and better insulate policymakers from corrupt foreign influence.

Watercooler: What’s the biggest difference between living in Texas and living in DC?

Ben Freeman: $8 beer. Are you kidding me?!?! In Texas I could, literally, get entire pitchers of good beer (Shiner, oh how I miss thee!) for less than $8.

Watercooler: Favorite place in the city?

Ben Freeman: Tough question. I’m such a patriotic guy, so I get awed just by walking down the street. It’s crazy just to be strolling along and see all the embassies, national museums, and even the White House! If I had to pick a single spot it might be the Jefferson Memorial. The location is great because it’s on the water and a great spot for watching sunsets, and the inscriptions on the interior walls rock—“Almighty God hath created the mind free…”—love it! Ok, I might be a nerd.

Watercooler: Team LeBron or Team Nowitzki?

Ben Freeman: Gotta go for Dirk and Big-D on this one. Though I’m from Florida, I’m a huge fan of the Orlando Magic, which are rivals of and in the same division as the Heat. Plus, many of my Aggie friends are from Dallas, so I had to cheer for the Mavs. That said, I believe LeBron is one of—if not the most—skilled basketball players ever. Hopefully, this will bring him back down to Earth and he’ll come back humble and hungry next year.

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5 Responses to “Get to Know Ben Freeman, POGO’s National Security Fellow”

  1. Elizabeth Joneson 27 Jun 2011 at 9:05 pm

    B.J…..I DOUBT you remember me, but we had journalism together back in ’97-98. VERY IMPRESSED!!

    Call me slow, but what exactly is POGO short for?
    -Elizabeth Jones

  2. mikeon 22 Jul 2011 at 1:49 pm

    I read, with interest, your recommendation to increase the tricare premium veterans pay to give them an incentive to opt for company insurance plans. And yet, almost in the same breath, you say you don’t want to punish any active duty personnel. Active duty personnel all have to retire at some point and clearly are mature enough to understand their earned entitlements. I say earned because they are. These entitlements mitigate the low salaries men and women accept in service of our country. That SSgt responsible for killing (very literally) any approaching threats to protect his team mates doesn’t make very much, not even middle class wages and he/she might be raising a family. A simple question for you: If at the beginning of your employment, you contracted for a certain salary, certain benefits and as long as your performance met goals, you would expect your salary and benefits to be honored, right? How would you feel if after 20 years of honorable service, your employer retroactively ammended it? Say by increasing your cost of guaranteed insurance at least 10-fold as an “incentive?” Would you still call that an incentive? Or maybe, just maybe, would you feel betrayed and dishonored?

  3. Ben Freemanon 25 Jul 2011 at 8:33 am

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for your comment and your service. In this post I assume you’re referring to the POGO/TCS budget recommendation plan we released last week. Our intent was to try and find the best middle ground of all the tricare reforms currently on the table, that would simultaneously save taxpayers money and ensure our soldiers continued to have a top-notch health plan that remained less costly than alternative plans. Unfortunately, the hypothetical scenario you described—of insurance increasing after contracts have been signed and performance criteria met—has been experienced by nearly every worker in America, public or private sector, over the last ten to fifteen years. The costs of health care have simply sky-rocketed, and tricare has not adjusted to this change. In a perfect world we would fix the healthcare system and not change tricare, but as that does not appear to be an option, tricare recipients will, unfortunately, need to shoulder more of the cost burden. I wish this wasn’t the case, but in this budget climate we have to make many hard choices. As Admiral Mullen has noted, the greatest threat to our national security is our debt. To fight this threat we will all have to make sacrifices that we would rather not. Our men and women who risk all, literally, deserve the very best we can offer them. Right now that very best is a government less reliant on foreign credit. My only hope is that we can all work together to combat this threat in the most effective manner possible.

    -Ben Freeman

  4. mikeon 03 Aug 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Hi Ben,
    I thought about your response for a while. I understand your position but I think there’s a fundamental difference between military service and private sector employment. Were I a private sector employee, I retain the option to refuse to do something and quit. Consequences? Absolutely! I’d potentially leave benefits and unvested monies on the table. I may be unemployed or even unemployable for a while–situation dependent. But even those consequences pale in comparison with what could happen to an active duty military member. When that four or six year contract is signed, a military member cannot refuse a lawful order nor can a military member quit and a strike is also forbidden. The consequences for any of these actions are much more severe and can be forever life altering. Personally, I think this is a good thing. There are some things that shouldn’t be voted on. Going into a fight, I need to know I can count on my people and they need to know they can count on me–no debate and crystal clear expectations around. I don’t know of a comparable private sector employer/employee arrangement. By and large, the members who serve mortgage these freedoms for the future, knowing that Uncle Sam will honor his committments. Philosophically, I agree that we, as a country, are in an untenable position financially. I submit though that a comparison between private sector employment and military service isn’t equal. In order to equalize the two and incorporate similar benefit plans, there could be unexpected ramifications such as a military WITH the rights of refusing, quitting and striking. Fair is fair after all and we do have a volunteer force.
    all the best

  5. Gunnar Myrbeckon 08 Jun 2012 at 7:27 am

    I was looking at your Time article on the F 35 and although a small point a recent $400 “vacume cleaner” caused fire raises similar questions about spending effectively. I think that the Navy should be made to choose its weapons- Cold War dinosaur make-work or effective weapons for today’s needs.

    USS Miami 3 sub classes ago Why rebuild ?

    Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Miami (SSN-755) launched on 12 November 1988 is designed for the purpose of attacking and sinking other submarines,surface combatants and Merchant vessels. They are also used to protect “friendly” surface combatants and missile subs. Some attack subs are also armed with cruise missiles mounted in Vertical Launch tubes, increasing the scope of their potential missions to include land-based targets.

    Seawolf class is a class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSN) in service with the United States Navy. The Seawolf class was the intended successor to the Los Angeles class, ordered at the end of the Cold War in 1989. At one time, an intended fleet of 29 submarines was to be built over a ten-year period, later reduced to twelve submarines. Now only 3. The end of the Cold War and budget constraints led to the cancellation in 1995 of any further additions to the fleet, leaving the Seawolfclass limited to just three boats. This, in turn, led to the design of the smaller Virginia class.They were intended to combat the then-threat of large numbers of advanced Soviet ballistic missile submarines such as the Typhoon class and attack submarines such as the Akula classin a deep ocean environment.

    Virginia class (or SSN-774 class) is a class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSN) in service with theUnited States Navy. The submarines are designed for a broad spectrum of open-ocean and littoral missions. They were conceived as a less expensive alternative to the Seawolf class attack submarines, designed during the Cold War era, and they are planned to replace the older of the Los Angeles-class submarines, twenty of which have already been decommissioned (from a total of 62 built).
    USS Miami isn’t likely to be retrofitted to Virginia class standards Seems like an opportune time to dump it with the previous 20 that aren’t damaged!

    The Virginia class incorporates several innovations not previously incorporated into other submarine classes.[3]
    [edit]Photonics Masts
    Instead of a traditional periscope, the class utilizes a pair of AN/BVS-1 telescoping photonics masts[3] located outside thepressure hull. Each mast contains high-resolution cameras, along with light-intensification and infrared sensors, an infrared laser rangefinder, and an integrated Electronic Support Measures (ESM) array. Signals from the masts’ sensors are transmitted through fiber optic data lines through signal processors to the control center. Visual feeds from the masts are displayed on LCD interfaces in the command center.
    In contrast to a traditional bladed-propellor, the Virginia class makes use of pump-jet propulsors, originally developed for theRoyal Navy’s Swiftsure class submarines.[4] The propulsor significantly reduces the risks of cavitation, allowing for quieter operations and reducing the noise signature of the submarines.
    [edit]Improved sonar systems
    The Virginia class submarines are equipped with a bow-mounted spherical active/passive sonar array, a wide aperture lightweight fiber optic sonar array (three flat panels mounted low along either side of the hull), as well as two high frequency active sonars mounted in the sail and keel (under the bow). The submarines are also equipped with a low frequency towed sonar array and a high frequency towed sonar array.[5]
    The USS California will be the first Virginia-class submarine with the advanced electromagnetic signature reduction system built into it, but this system will be retrofitted into the other submarines of the class.[6]
    We are already pacing out the Virginia Class for DOD make work
    The Virginia class is built through an industrial arrangement designed to keep both GD Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (the only two U.S. shipyards capable of building nuclear-powered vessels) in the submarine-building business

    Loehrke: Stop Sinking Dollars Into A Cold War Strategy

    By Benjamin Loehrke
    Special to Roll Call
    May 11, 2012, Midnight

    A strong Navy is sunk, not buoyed, by excessive nuclear capability.

    National security in the 21st century will require a strong economy and smart investments for national defense. Some in Congress want to violate both principles with a proposal to block retirement of excess nuclear-armed submarines. It’s up to Congress as a whole to determine whether to use its defense dollars to counter the threats on the horizon or overfund the strategies of the past.

    The Navy plans to replace its fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines over the next 30 years. With procurement of new subs lagging slightly behind planned retirements of the subs in service, the Navy expects the number of subs in service to dip from 12 to 10 for most of the 2030s.

    On the challenge of fielding a smaller fleet, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying, “We think that we can mitigate that risk.” Some in Congress think otherwise. The House Armed Services Committee is proposing to prohibit the Navy from having fewer than 12 ballistic missile submarines in service.

    The Navy plans to deploy about 1,000 warheads on its subs, in accordance with New START limits. How does the proposed mandated 12-sub fleet measure up? Such a fleet — capable of deploying 1,536 to 2,304 warheads — would far exceed our strategic needs. To put that in perspective, that is more warheads than Russia has in its entire deployed strategic arsenal.

    As Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson recently wrote, “Having more nuclear weapons doesn’t mean we are ‘winning’ — or will even succeed in deterring others from pursuing them. It merely reflects that our strategy is ill-suited to our times.”

    We can defend our national security interests and those of our allies with fewer nuclear-armed submarines. Analyst Tom Collina has shown that a fleet of eight submarines — Ohio-class or its replacement — would allow the Navy to meet its planned deterrence mission. A rigid requirement for 12 nuclear-armed submarines is simply out of touch with today’s strategic realities. It’s also costly.

    This proposal would keep older subs in the water for longer than necessary, pushing the limits of their expected service lives. Worse, if the U.S. military were to determine it needs fewer subs to meet its nuclear deterrence mission, the Navy will be forced to retain or possibly buy more subs than required.

    With defense budgets tipping downward, the military cannot afford to spend billions of dollars on wasting nuclear assets.

    As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out a year ago, every dollar spent on unneeded programs “is a dollar not available to support our troops and prepare for threats on the horizon.”

    For the Navy, keeping unneeded nuclear subs would tax its operations budgets. If the Navy were required to buy excess new subs — costing $5 billion to $6 billion each — it would devour funds for modernizing the Navy’s surface fleet. Keep in mind that the Department of Defense expects to spend $350 billion to acquire and operate the subs over the lifetime of the Ohio-replacement submarine program.

    There will always be those in Congress who have not retired their Cold War glasses and argue for excessive subs, more warheads and more nuclear spending. But those arguments are unnecessary and unaffordable.

    Benjamin Loehrke is a senior policy analyst at Ploughshares Fund.

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