NORAD scandal is brewing 

Scandal. That's such an overused term in today's world, with media always on call, 24/7 at your service, to uncork an instant national or global frenzy.

Yet, the deeper we dig into the mushrooming controversy around the evisceration of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the downgrading of its home inside Cheyenne Mountain, the more that word fits.

Scandal: a situation or event that causes public outrage or censure.

No problem there, with the censure part already in place and the public outrage sure to be coming.

From a distance, some might look at recent developments to move NORAD operations out of the mountain as an inevitable, positive, smart step. Look closely at how this change has evolved, though, and you'll discover otherwise.

Instead, let's apply some different adjectives. Such as: ill-conceived, uncertain, foolhardy, imprudent, risky, unwise, irresponsible.

If we were talking about other military operations, there might be more room for debate and disagreement. But this isn't about office buildings, testing facilities or weapons research sites. This is about NORAD, whose job is merely to protect you and me from another 9/11 or any other kind of threat from the skies, seas or even cyberspace.

Yet, NORAD has become a huge political football within the military's highest ranks. Everybody wants a chunk of the command, the influence, the money, the power. Everybody wants home turf, even if it means compromising security. Everybody wants to press forward, even without vital studies to ensure feasibility and cost-efficiency.

It's difficult to say exactly when and how the "Break Up NORAD" bandwagon turned reckless, as generals played checkers with national security. Some members of Congress, including recently retired U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado Springs, became more concerned last year and began asking needed questions.

From various accounts, military leaders arrogantly ignored those inquiries and continued on the same course, budgeting millions for different steps in the process.

Here is a good place to emphasize that this matter isn't about congressional politics. There isn't a Republican side and a Democratic counterpoint, or vice versa. Hefley, a 10-term Republican, led the initial charge as chair of the House Readiness Subcommittee. Now Hefley's replacement as chairman, Solomon Ortiz of Texas, is leading the push as one of the House's longest-tenured Democrats.

Ortiz and his peers have sent a stern message to the Pentagon, seeking to stop any activities related to moving NORAD until solid explanations are provided and accepted. They also want the final say on whether the relocation moves ahead. It's not just about lawmakers stepping in, either. As the accompanying news story by Michael de Yoanna shows (see pages 10-11), the independent Government Accountability Office is documenting major concerns.

The draft GAO report obtained by the Independent shoots down any cost benefit to NORAD leaving the mountain, one of the military's pillars in arguing for the changes. It also exposes the lack of advance analysis or assessment of heightened risks, brings up the sensitive issue of computers becoming more vulnerable to after-effects of a nuclear attack if they are relocated, and suggests it's uncertain enough money and resources will be available, even with full approval.

Another outside report, four years ago, recommended more clearly defining and strengthening NORAD functions, with Cheyenne Mountain as the nucleus and other locations as alternates. Instead, the opposite is being pursued now.

Concerned? Angry? Do you have more questions? Can you see the holes and flaws, and don't you wonder how many more might lie beneath the surface?

The scariest part of this absurdity is that an operation as critical as NORAD does it get any more critical? could be susceptible to a tug-o-war between competing commands and missions. It deflates the long-held assumption that, regarding NORAD, everyone (including Canada) truly was on the same page.

We'll see where the story goes next. Rest assured, the military won't like it that the GAO's discoveries are coming into view now, without any "revising" or sanitizing.

That's how scandals happen, amid a simple search for the truth. And on the subject of NORAD, this particular scandal is just starting to boil.


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