US President Barack Obama applauds CIA Director Leon Panetta at...

US President Barack Obama applauds CIA Director Leon Panetta at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Credit: Getty Images/JIM WATSON

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.



As he walks out the door of the CIA to take over the keys to the Pentagon, Leon Panetta has the chance to add another line to his already fabulous resume: The Man Who Stopped the Waste.

But don't bet on it.

Chances are that President Barack Obama's nominee, like previous defense secretaries, will be captured by an institution that is second to none at the fine art of spending -- and losing -- immense piles of money, with little or no real accountability.

Panetta has vast experience in government. He's been a staffer in the U.S. Senate, at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in the office of New York City Mayor John Lindsay. He was a member of Congress and chaired the House Budget Committee. He ran the White House Office of Management and Budget for President Bill Clinton, then served as Clinton's chief of staff. Before the CIA, he chaired the Pew Oceans Commission, which produced a landmark ocean policy report.

Panetta has been involved in top-level budget negotiations, producing a balanced federal budget. But he has never before had day-to-day control of an agency that has admitted to simply misplacing $1 trillion.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said that his department was unable to account for $2.3 trillion. (Its whereabouts must have been a Rumsfeldian "unknown unknown.") Later, the Pentagon decided that only a trillion was actually AWOL.

Imagine the bloodcurdling screams that would arise from Congress if the Department of Education, say, or the Department of Health and Human Services managed to mislay a trillion in taxpayer money. That would unleash a tsunami of hearings, legislation and 24/7 talk-show fury.

But Congress has not yet summoned that torches-and-pitchforks level of fury toward the Department of Defense. That's because Congress is an unindicted co-conspirator in the waste. In fact, our federal lawmakers look on weapons systems as jobs for their constituents -- far more than as essential tools to defend the nation. Defense contractors reinforce that thinking by spreading the subcontracting work to as many states as possible. That gets them an army of legislators who'll not only resist cuts but also force the Pentagon to buy systems military leaders do not really need -- like fighter planes that can't fight the battles the nation is currently fighting.

As long as Congress shovels defense dollars endlessly, what incentive does the military have for frugality? Why should generals and admirals bother to establish priorities among the defense missions, spending less on the less important ones and more on the crucial ones? The money keeps coming, and authentic priority-setting just doesn't happen.

In his closing months on the job, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has talked about cutting $78 billion over five years. But critics question what Gates really means. He seems to want to do away with some weapons systems, but redirect that money to others. That's not real savings. Obama, for his part, has set a goal of trimming $400 billion over a dozen years.

In a smart piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Gordon Adams, a former White House official responsible for military spending, called Obama's cuts an illusion, a "nothingburger." He agrees with those who say we need to cut $500 billion to $1 trillion over the next decade. Adams credits Gates for trying to rein in the Pentagon's huge overhead, but adds: "Panetta is going to have to get tougher, a lot tougher."

To cap his impressive career, all Panetta has to do -- at a time when Obama plans to spend a lot more annually on average in the coming years for defense than President George W. Bush did -- is to bring the Pentagon under control. What a closing act that would be.