Friday, January 25, 2008

Blunt planned campaign just days before quitting

JEFFERSON CITY | On the weekend before his State of the State address, Gov. Matt Blunt convened his campaign team for a strategic retreat at a luxury Ozarks resort just south of Branson.

Confidence filled the room. Blunt's trusted advisers discussed a fundraising goal that could have shattered the state record, developed a TV ad blitz to begin airing before spring and honed a campaign message for a competitive challenge from Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon.

Although the Republican governor never said so directly, he left little doubt: Blunt was running for re-election, and he was running to win.

So perhaps no one was more shocked than those in Blunt's inner circle when, just 10 days later, Blunt announced his exit from the race.

"Everyone was convinced we would win this race," said John Hancock, a Republican consultant and pollster who attended the campaign retreat. Hancock, Blunt's campaign spokesman, learned the governor was not running just hours before he publicly announced his decision Tuesday.

The Associated Press confirmed Blunt's campaign retreat with multiple participants, several of whom recounted the details on condition of anonymity.

The gathering at the Big Cedar Lodge south of Branson included top-ranking staff from the governor's office, pollsters, media specialists, fundraisers and people responsible for Blunt's communications and grass-roots organizing. It had been a while since any similar such meeting. The gathering, in essence, amounted to a kickoff for the campaign year.

Participants described the governor as inquisitive, engaged, involved in all aspects of the planning.

Before their meeting, Blunt already had shot video footage for a first-round of campaign commercials. The plan developed that weekend called for Blunt's commercials to begin running before spring. The goal was to beat Nixon to the punch, to get a couple of weeks of uncontested air time in which Blunt could lay out his accomplishments directly to voters before they got bombarded with competing messages.

Blunt already had raised almost $10 million since he was elected in 2004, though his campaign had barely $4 million on hand as a result of previous expenditures and refunds required by a Supreme Court ruling. Blunt's campaign still needed to refund about $2.3 million, which would put him nearly even with what Nixon had on hand.

But Blunt had shown the ability to rake in large amounts of money before. Some people thought he could take in about $20 million — twice what he raised for the 2004 election and far more than the Missouri candidate record of almost $15.7 million set by Republican Sen. Jim Talent in his unsuccessful 2006 re-election campaign.

The campaign team discussed various factors that could influence the governor's race — even several initiative petitions being circulated, mindful of how a stem cell ballot initiative spilled over into the 2006 Senate race. Blunt also reviewed internal polling data, which meeting participants said showed him closing the gap, but still down, to Nixon.

Blunt's message, as sharpened during the meetings, would proclaim he converted a $1 billion inherited shortfall into three straight years of budget surplusses, significantly boosted education spending, presided over the creation 90,000 new jobs since he took office and transformed a broken health care system.

That same message formed the foundation for Blunt's televised State of the State address several days later, on Jan. 15.

Those who attended the campaign retreat believed it could be a successful message, even though Nixon would highlight Blunt's cuts to the Medicaid health care system, warn the economy was faltering and assert that the governor had not done enough for education.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Embattled KC parks board member Frances Semler steps down

Frances Semler, the Board of Parks and Recreation Commissioners appointee whose membership in the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps caused a political controversy for Mayor Mark Funkhouser, has resigned.

In a statement faxed to area media outlets, including The Kansas City Star, Semler writes “ENOUGH, I am resigning.” In the letter she cites repeated and ongoing personal attacks against her character as a reason, and blasts her most vocal opponents and levels her own criticisms at Kansas City Police Chief Jim Corwin and unnamed City Council members, saying some on the council have made “vicious, false and irresponsible claims about me.”

Also apparently, in recent days, Semler has taken issue with comments made in published reports by Mayor Mark Funkhouser and his wife, Gloria Squitiro.

“I do believe I have been a positive asset. There are many projects I eagerly wanted to pursue,” Semler writes. But after reading quotes from Funkhouser in the The Star last week, “I feel BETRAYED.”

Semler could not be reached Tuesday morning for comment.

Funkhouser in June appointed Semler, a neighborhood association president, to be the sole Northland representative on the five-member park board.

The appointment triggered sharp protests from several minority organizations, including the National Council of La Raza, In October, of La Raza voted to pull its convention from Kansas City, at a projected loss of $5 million, because of Semler’s connection to the Minutemen, a divisive group that takes a hardline stance on immigration issues.

On Jan. 15, the leader if the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said that the SCLC had decided to move it’s convention from Kansas City to New Orleans and would call for a boycott of Kansas City if Semler was not removed from the park board.

Rita Valenciano, head of the local Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, said Semler’s decision to step down was a welcome outcome. But she, added, she would have preferred if the mayor had taken action himself.

Semler had offered to resign last year when controversy first erupted over her appointment, but Funkhouser declined the notion and publicly backed her appointment.

“It’s something that should have been taken care of in the very beginning,” she said. “It was a lack of leadership … my concern is if the mayor is going to accept her resignation.”

Before launching into her criticisms of city officials, Semler writes “as a United States citizen I have always felt able to express my views freely. Out of respect for the Mayor, I have allowed my voice to be stilled. No longer.”

While referring to illegal immigration as a “well-organized invasion of illegals,” she defends the Minutemen as an unjustly attacked group dedicated to the enforcement of immigration laws.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Canada manual: U.S. prisoners face torture

Associated Press Writer

A training manual for Canadian diplomats lists the United States as a country where prisoners risk torture and abuse, citing interrogation techniques such as stripping prisoners, blindfolding and sleep deprivation.

The Foreign Affairs Department document, released Friday, singled out the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. It also names Israel, Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Syria as places where inmates could face torture.

The listing drew a sharp response from the U.S., a key NATO ally and trading partner, which asked to removed from the manual.

"We find it to be offensive for us to be on the same list with countries like Iran and China. Quite frankly it's absurd," U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins told The Associated Press. "For us to be on a list like that is just ridiculous."

He said the U.S. does not authorize or condone torture. "We think it should be removed and we've made that request. We have voiced our opinion very forcefully," Wilkins said.

Michael Mendel, the Israeli Embassy spokesman, said Israel's Supreme Court "is on record as expressly prohibiting any type of torture. If Israel is included in the list in question, the ambassador of Israel would expect its removal," he said.

A Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr, is in custody at Guantanamo, but Canada has long publicly said it accepts U.S. assurances that Khadr is being treated humanely.

The government inadvertently released the manual to lawyers for Amnesty International who are working on a lawsuit involving alleged abuse of Afghan detainees by local Afghan authorities, after the detainees were handed over by Canadian troops.

Canada said the manual is for training, and does not amount to official government policy.

"It is not a policy document or any kind of a statement of policy. As such it does not convey the government's views or positions," said Neil Hrab, a spokesman for Canada's Foreign Affairs Department.

"The training manual purposely raised public issues to stimulate discussion and debate in the classroom."

Human rights groups have long called on Canada to pressure the United States to return Khadr from Guantanamo. They say Canada has not done enough for Khadr, who has been in custody since he was 15. Khadr is accused of tossing a grenade that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded another in Afghanistan in 2002.

He is the son of an alleged al-Qaida financier, and his family has received little sympathy in Canada, where they've been called the "First Family of Terrorism."

Dennis Edney, one of Khadr's lawyers, said the foreign affairs document shows that Canada says one thing publicly but believes something else privately.

"Canada was well aware that Omar Khadr's allegations of being tortured had a ring of truth to it. Canada has not once raised the protection of Omar Khadr when there are such serious allegations," Edney said. "What does that say to you about Canada's commitment to the rule of law and human rights? It talks on both sides of its face."

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Friday, November 30, 2007

US withdraws Mideast resolution at UN

Associated Press Writer

In an about face, the United States on Friday withdrew a U.N. resolution endorsing this week's agreement by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to reach a Mideast peace settlement by the end of 2008, apparently after Israel objected.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Alejandro Wolff informed the Security Council that the United States was pulling the resolution from consideration less than 24 hours after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad introduced it.

Khalilzad had said he needed to consult with the Israelis and Palestinians on the text of the resolution to ensure that it was what they wanted following the decisions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md.

Wolff said the U.S. had held intensive consultations in the past few days "and the upshot was that there were some unease with the idea" of a resolution.

Diplomats said Israel, a close U.S. ally, did not want a resolution, which would bring the Security Council into the fledgling negotiations with the Palestinians. The diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Khalilzad introduced the draft resolution without getting broad support from the Israelis, Palestinians and the Bush administration.

[Keep reading...]

"It's not the proper venue," Israel's deputy ambassador Daniel Carmon said after Friday's council meeting. "We feel that the appreciation of Annapolis has other means of being expressed than in a resolution.

"We were not the only ones to object," Carmon said.

He added that the Americans had told the Israelis that the Palestinians also objected.

Abbas, speaking to reporters in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, said Friday that while he didn't know the details of the draft resolution it was a sign of the seriousness of the United States, which he also perceived at the Annapolis conference.

"This means, if what we have learned is verified, that there are serious steps that speak to the existence of an American position supporting the negotiations," Abbas said.

Wolff said the United States realized that "the focus, we all realized again, should be placed and remain on Annapolis and the understanding that was reached there."

"It's a momentous decision ... and rather than dilute from that and in respect to both parties in terms of what they thought would be most helpful, we reached a conclusion that it would be best to withdraw it," Wolff said.

Normally, the United States would have consulted Israel in advance of introducing a Security Council resolution, as well as the Palestinians, to gauge their reaction.

But on Thursday, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he knew "very little" about the proposed resolution, adding "we will be discussing it, and no doubt in very good spirit."

The State Department said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had decided such a resolution was unnecessary.

"We have looked at this and, at the end of the day, the secretary believes that the positive results of Annapolis speak for themselves and there is really no reason to gild the lily," spokesman Sean McCormack said. "I am not sure that we saw the need to add anything else to the conversation. Sometimes, the results and the event speak for themselves."

Two U.S. officials, who on condition of anonymity described Rice's decision to withdraw the draft document, said there were several concerns about the resolution, including the failure to consult the Israelis and Palestinians on the language and the possibility that some on the Security Council might try to add anti-Israeli language to it.

Ambassador Nassir Al-Nasser of Qatar, the only Arab member on the Security Council, said Thursday "we are happy with the language as it is" in the U.S. draft resolution. "I am happy that the council is dealing with this issue," he said. "For me, this is the main thing."

The Annapolis conference drew 44 nations, including Israel's neighboring Arab states. A joint understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians, in doubt until the last minute, was salvaged and Abbas and Olmert reiterated their desire to reach a peace settlement by the end of 2008.

Indonesian Ambassador Marty Natalegawa, the current council president who had hoped the resolution would be adopted Friday, said he wanted to highlight the strong support in the council for the Annapolis conference. Council members were "welcoming, supporting and encouraging the parties to diligently follow up," he said.

"We are more focused at this time on the substance, that there is an absolutely clear message of council unity in supporting Annapolis conference and its achievements," he said.

Deputy Ambassador Konstantin Dolgov of Russia said it was the U.S. right as the sponsor to withdraw the resolution.

"What is important is that discussions showed that there is a lot of support for the outcome," he said. "We think that it would be important, of course, for the Security Council to express itself on this issue because the discussions showed that all Security Council members supported the outcome of Annapolis meeting."

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Marines to cut armored vehicle orders

A Category I mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle,
is driven on a test course during a media demonstration at
Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. in this Aug. 24, 2007 file photo.
The Marines plan to buy fewer bomb-resistant vehicles
than planned despite pressure from lawmakers who are
determined to spend billions of dollars on the vehicles

The Marines plan to buy fewer bomb-resistant vehicles than planned despite pressure from lawmakers who are determined to spend billions of dollars on the vehicles.

The Marine Corps' requirement for mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles would drop from the planned 3,700 to about 2,400, The Associated Press has learned. The Marines would not comment on the decision, but defense officials confirmed the cut. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.

About a month ago, Marine Commandant Gen. T. James Conway signaled the possibility of a new examination of the commitment to the vehicles, saying he was concerned his force was getting too heavy. "I'm a little bit concerned about us keeping our expeditionary flavor," he said.

At the same time, an independent study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington questioned whether the Pentagon was buying too many of the pricey vehicles, which can cost as much as $1 million each. The study found that in some cases, the heavily armored vehicles, with their bomb-deflecting V-shaped hulls, might not be the answer that many believe they are.

Military officials and other experts have said that while the vehicles, known as MRAPs, are lifesavers in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are not as useful or mobile in some terrain.

The Marine Corps was criticized this year for not responding quickly enough to urgent requests for the vehicles from troops in Iraq. In May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the vehicles were the military's highest priority acquisition program.

In his comments last month, Conway said the Marine Corps has emerged as a "second land Army," assigned to secure Iraq, and must buy heavy equipment, including the mine-resistant vehicles, for protection against roadside bombs.

"Can I give a satisfactory answer to what we're going to be doing with those things in five or 10 years? Probably not," Conway said at an event sponsored by the Center for a New American Security. "Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point. And as expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers money."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, buoyed by the vehicle's solid record - to date no troops have died in one - have consistently said the military must buy more and must buy them faster.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ex-Iraq commander says bring troops home

Associated Press Writer

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq shortly after the fall of Baghdad, said this week he supports Democratic legislation that calls for most troops to come home within a year.

His comments come as welcomed ammunition for the Democratic-controlled Congress in its standoff with the White House on war spending. This month, the House passed a $50 billion bill that would pay for combat operations but sets the goal that combat end by Dec. 15, 2008. The White House threatened to veto the measure, and Senate Republicans blocked it from passing.

The Pentagon on Tuesday said that as many as 200,000 civilian employees and contractors will begin receiving layoff warnings by Christmas unless Congress approves a war spending bill that President Bush will sign.

"The improvements in security produced by the courage and blood of our troops have not been matched by a willingness on the part of Iraqi leaders to make the hard choices necessary to bring peace to their country," Sanchez said in remarks to be aired Saturday for the weekly Democratic radio address.

"There is no evidence that the Iraqis will choose to do so in the near future or that we have an ability to force that result," he said.

Sanchez added that the House bill "makes the proper preparation of our deploying troops a priority and requires the type of shift in their mission that will allow their numbers to be reduced substantially."

Critical assessments on the war from former Pentagon brass are nothing new. But Sanchez's newfound alliance with Democrats is particularly noteworthy because he was directly in charge of combat operations in Iraq, from 2003 to 2004.

He also is somewhat controversial. The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal happened under his watch, and some have pointed to leadership failures as a contributing factor. While he was not charged with any misconduct, Sanchez said upon retiring from the military in November 2006 that his career was a casualty of Abu Ghraib.

In October, the three-star general told a group of reporters that the U.S. mission in Iraq was a "nightmare with no end in sight." He also called Bush's decision to deploy 30,000 extra forces to Iraq earlier this year a "desperate attempt" to make up for years of misguided policies in Iraq.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Iraq says 2 American guards detained

Iraqi soldiers detained two American security guards along with several other foreigners traveling in a private security convoy after they opened fire Monday in Baghdad, wounding one woman, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

U.S. military and embassy officials had no immediate information about the report, which follows a series of recent shootings in which foreign security guards have allegedly killed Iraqis. Last month, the Iraqi Cabinet sent parliament a bill to lift immunity for foreign private security companies that has been in effect since the U.S. occupation began in 2003.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the convoy was driving on the wrong side of the road in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah when the shooting took place about midday.

Those arrested included two American guards, along with 21 people from Sri Lanka, nine from Nepal and 10 Iraqis, the Baghdad military spokesman said.

"We have given orders to our security forces to immediately intervene in case they see any violations by security companies. The members of this security company wounded an innocent woman and they tried to escape the scene, but Iraq forces arrested them," al-Moussawi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The role of private security guards has become particularly controversial following a Sept. 16 shooting in which Blackwater Worldwide guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Baghdad's Nisoor Square.

The FBI is continuing its investigation into the shootings, although the Iraqi government has concluded that the security guards were unprovoked when the began shooting at an intersection at Nisoor Square in western Baghdad. The North Carolina-based company, the largest private security firm protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has said its security convoy was under attack before it opened fire.

The Iraqi Cabinet's initiative to lift immunity for private security companies would not be retroactive and therefore not affect the Blackwater employees who were involved in the Sept. 16 shooting. Parliament has yet to act on the measure.

A top U.S. commander, meanwhile, said violence in northern Iraq has declined at a slower rate than it has in other regions, as al-Qaida and other militants move there to avoid coalition operations elsewhere.

As a result, the north is now more violent than other regions. Most of the 27 U.S. deaths this month were north of Baghdad.

Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, who commands U.S. troops in the region, said al-Qaida cells still operate in all the key cities in the north.

"What you're seeing is the enemy shifting," he told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Tikrit. "The attacks are still much higher than I would like here in the north but they are continuing to decrease in numbers and scale of attacks."

He said 900 roadside bombs were placed in his region last month, compared with 1,830 in June.

Sporadic violence nationwide left at least 22 people were killed or found dead Monday.

The deadliest attack occurred near the southern city of Basra when a rocket slammed into a house, killing five children and their mother, police said. Police said they believe the rocket was targeting the nearby airport, which is the headquarters of the British military in the area, but fell short.

British-led forces plan to hand over security responsibilities to Iraqis in the predominantly Shiite province in mid-December, saying the levels of violence have dropped despite fears of escalating rivalries between Shiite militia fighters battling for power.

In another mostly Shiite province, Qadisiyah, U.S. and Iraqi troops detained about 70 suspected extremists and seized weapons caches, Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimy said.

In other developments:

- Iraq's chief prosecutor said a trial would begin "within days" for two former Health Ministry officials accused of letting death squads use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings and siphoning millions of dollars to the Mahdi Army, a case that will test the government's commitment to crack down on Shiite militias.

- The head of Iraq's largest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, returned home from Iran after undergoing another round of chemotherapy there for lung cancer.

- U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker, said several Iranians who have been detained by U.S. forces in Iraq were being allowed family visits starting Monday.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Army to review Iraq contracts for fraud

A 105mm M1 Abrams tank is shown outside the
Tank-Army Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM)
at the Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Mich., in this Aug. 24, 2005 file photo.

Associated Press Writer
This article was posted to
The Kansas City Star Website
26 October 2007

A team of specially trained investigators will hunker down in an Army office north of Detroit on Monday to begin poring over hundreds of Iraq war contracts in search for rigged awards.

This team of 10 auditors, criminal investigators and acquisition experts are starting with a sampling of the roughly 6,000 contracts worth $2.8 billion issued by an Army office in Kuwait that service officials have identified as a hub of corruption.

The office, located at Camp Arifjan, buys gear and supplies to support U.S. troops as they move in and out of Iraq. The pace of that operation has exploded since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

Based on what the team finds, the probe may expand and the number of Army military and civilian employees accused of accepting bribes and kickbacks could grow, U.S. officials told The Associated Press. Nearly two dozen have been charged so far.

Signs of trouble include contracts continually awarded to vendors without the usual competition and awards that were competed but went to the bidder with the highest price rather than the lowest. A mismatch between the original product to be purchased and what was actually delivered is another red flag.

"Is there anything in there that might indicate to us that there might be some potential fraudulent activity?" Jeffrey Parsons, director of contracting at Army Materiel Command, said in an AP interview. "If there are patterns that we start to identify, then we're going to do further review."

Contracts with significant problems will be forwarded to the Army Audit Agency and the Army Criminal Investigation Command. If there's credible evidence of wrongdoing, the FBI and prosecutors from the U.S. Justice Department are called in.

In Warren, Mich., home to a large Army acquisition center, the contracting review team will examine 314 of the Kuwait contracts, each worth more than $25,000 and issued between 2003 and 2006.

In Kuwait, a separate team of 10 at Camp Arifjan is already going through 339 contracts of lesser value and awarded during the same time period, according to Army Materiel Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Both reviews are to be finished before the end of the year.

A probe of 2007 contracts out of Kuwait has been completed; investigators found numerous problems with the office, including inadequate staffing and oversight, high staff turnover, and poor record-keeping.

In the midst of those shortcomings came billions of dollars in war funding, creating an environment ripe for misconduct and malfeasance.

The teams in Michigan and Kuwait will go through paper records and also use data-mining tools to electronically search data stored on computers.

"Do we have contractors with different names but the same address?" Parsons said. "That would cause some suspicion."

Tips from individuals familiar with the contracts are another tool for finding flawed awards, he said.

The contract review process isn't foolproof, however.

If a contracting officer and a vendor are determined to break the rules for personal gain, it can be difficult to pinpoint corruption, according to Parsons, who also is serving as senior adviser to a contracting task force recently established by Army Secretary Pete Geren.

"You can have a contract file that is pristine - all the documentation is there," Parsons said. "Just going through the contract files doesn't necessarily give you 100 percent assurance that something else might not have been going on."

The efforts in Michigan and at Camp Arifjan are parts of a broader inquiry being conducted by the task force, which was formed by Geren following a spike in the number of criminal cases related to the acquisition of gear and supplies for U.S. troops.

Many of the cases stemmed from fraudulent or mismanaged contracts issued by the Kuwait office, prompting Geren to call for a detailed probe of the work done there.

The Army Criminal Investigation Command has 83 ongoing criminal investigations related to contract fraud in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, according to spokesman Chris Grey.

Grey said 23 individuals have been charged with contract fraud and more than $15 million in bribes has changed hands.

One of the largest cases involves Army Maj. John Cockerham, who is accused of bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction. Prosecutors allege Cockerham, along with his wife and sister, took at least $9.6 million in bribes in 2004 and 2005 while Cockerham was a contract officer stationed in Kuwait

From the 6,000 Kuwait contracts flowed 18,000 transactions - numerous orders could be placed on a single contract - for items such as bottled water, laundry services, barracks, food, transportation, and warehouse services.

In 2005, Lt. Gens. Steven Whitcomb and John Vines, then both top Army commanders in Iraq, became so concerned over allegations of corrupt contracting that the Criminal Investigation Command established field offices in Iraq and Kuwait.

Deceiving the checks and balances in the federal procurement system takes careful planning, Frank Anderson, president of the Defense Acquisition University at Fort Belvoir, said in a separate interview.

"You had some smart bad apples," said Anderson, who leads the organization that trains the military's acquisition officials. "It had to be someone who understood the business well enough to figure out how to get around the system."

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