The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1997 · VOLUME 18 · NUMBER 6

T H E I R    M A S T E R S '    V O I C E

A Rotten Fish Story

IN YET ANOTHER CAVE IN to the arms industry, the Clinton administration in May authorized Lockheed Martin to offer F-16 fighters for sale to Chile. This step ended a 20-year-old ban on the sale of advanced weaponry to South America, imposed during the Carter years when the continent was largely ruled by military regimes. A key player in overturning the ban, though one who operated well behind the scenes, was retired Lieutenant General Howard Fish, a former Pentagon official who now works as a lobbyist for the Merchants of Death. Fish is one of thousands of retired Pentagon officials who have established lucrative second careers working as consultants to the arms industry. They press for development of needless new weapons systems, urge the Pentagon to increase its subsidies to the arms industry and lobby the government to approve weapons sales to foreign governments.

During the Nixon and Ford administrations, Fish headed the Defense Security Assistance Agency (DSAA), the Pentagon bureau that handles foreign military sales. As head of the DSAA, Fish was an exuberant promoter of selling weapons to any and all buyers. According to William Hartung of the World Policy Institute, Fish played a key role in watering down the Arms Export Control Act of 1976, which would have placed a ceiling on total foreign arms sales and given Congress the right to veto sales on human rights grounds.

During the early 1970s, says a former Pentagon staffer, Fish was among several officials who were found to have leaked classified information about contractual matters to Lockheed and LTV Aerospace & Defense. The affair caused a huge scandal inside the Pentagon, but Fish managed to escape censure.

Fish's work at the Pentagon provided him with the perfect resumé when he decided to retire from government in the late-1970s. He quickly found work with LTV, one of the two firms to which he had leaked classified information a few years earlier. One of his first acts at LTV was to hire von Marbod -- whose narcolepsy had apparently abated -- to work at the company's Paris offices.

Fish later worked as the head of international marketing for Loral, another big weapons maker, and then took charge of the American League for Exports and Security Assistance (ALESA) in the late 1980s.

An impressive display of Fish and ALESA's lobbying abilities came in the early 1990s, when weapons makers banded together to form the Middle East Action Group to press for deals then in the pipeline with Saudi Arabia. This coalition of weapons makers, which included GE, Ford, Bechtel and Boeing, assigned individuals to work with the White House, the State Department, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, Congress, the media, think tanks, veterans groups and patriotic organizations. It also called for member companies to mobilize their workers, middle managers and executives to flood Washington with telegrams and phone calls supporting arms sales.

More recently, Fish turned his attention to the ban on sales to South America. Fish wore two hats during the South American campaign, one as a representative of ALESA and the other as a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Advisory Committee on Trade (DPACT), an industry-dominated panel that provides confidential recommendations to the Secretary of Defense.

Until 1994, the Clinton administration stood in favor of maintaining the arms embargo. That year it prevented Lockheed from attending an international air show in Chile. A further obstacle to renewed sales was that South American nations had not expressed any real interest in buying advanced weaponry, least of all the fighter planes the arms makers were so keen to off load.

To start the ball rolling, DPACT's export policy subcommittee, where Fish holds a seat, issued a study in 1995 calling for a "balanced policy" that would allow South American nations to meet "the demands ... for needed equipment modernization."

During the 1996 campaign, the arms lobby got the Republicans to include a plank in the party's platform promising that the Clinton administration's "policy of denying most Latin American countries the opportunity to replace their obsolescent military equipment ... will be reversed by a Republican administration."

That same year, more than 100 members of Congress signed on to two separate letters to the Clinton administration -- letters drafted by the merchants of death themselves -- claiming that the Latin ban had cost U.S. companies $4 billion in exports and 40,000 jobs.

The arms lobby had also moved to sweep away demand side barriers. As Time magazine reported, the Pentagon in March 1996 sent advanced fighters to Chile for an air show. The Defense Department also arranged for Puerto Rican National Guard pilots to fly Brazilian generals in F-16s. The marketing strategy worked well. Within months, both Brazil and Chile had contacted the Pentagon to inquire about possible sales.

The rest was simple. When William Perry resigned as secretary of defense in 1997, he wrote a letter to Clinton urging him to remove the ban. Perry's successor, William Cohen, also began lobbying for the change shortly after he joined the administration. This spring witnessed Clinton's virtually inevitable capitulation, with the president giving Lockheed the green light to open talks with the Chileans about the sale of F-16s.

Fish, who could not be located for comment, was no longer at the American League when the final victory was attained. He recently left his post there to become a consultant to Lockheed -- the second company he leaked classified data to back in the 1970s and the prime beneficiary of the end of the South American ban.

-- Ken Silverstein

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