"The Army has always understood the primacy of civilian control. In fact, we are the ones who reinforce that principle with those other armies with whom we train all around the world. So to muddy the waters when important issues are at stake, issues of life and death, is a disservice to all those in and out of uniform who serve and lead so well.''
Gen. Eric Shinseki, former Army chief of staff, as he retired in 2003.
Somewhere along the way, our military appears to have forgotten who's really in charge. Last week, some well-orchestrated news came from the Army, which backed off its initial, stubborn (and, many would say, misguided) request to add 418,000 more acres to the Pion Canyon Maneuver Site.
Oh, wait, the Army brass said. On second thought, we'll only need an additional 100,000 acres, not 418,000 acres, thus increasing the total size of PCMS to "only" 335,000 acres. And that'll be easy, they insisted, because we already have ranch owners who are willing sellers, and we've got money to make that happen. Oh, and this will be the last time the Army will need to acquire land for Pion Canyon.
It all sounds so nice and neat, and even politically correct.
Just one problem. Last year, both houses of Congress voted to halt all expenditures related to growing Pion Canyon for all of 2008. The message was clear: Lawmakers were telling the Army, in no uncertain terms, it had to make a better case for expansion before they would approve the idea and before they would agree to fund it.
Instead, the Army pressed on, making its own interpretation and ignoring Congress' clear directive.
Does anybody else see a pattern developing here? Does anybody else grasp the ominous similarities between expanding Pion Canyon and moving NORAD out of Cheyenne Mountain?
In both cases, the military decided on making bold changes without consulting Capitol Hill. In both cases, Congress reacted negatively, even passing legislation to express its concerns. In both cases, the military was ordered to produce clear-cut documentation proving the need, justification and motives for its strategy.
In both cases, Congress made known its uncertainty and authority. After all, it's still true the Pentagon doesn't run the country (though some might wonder now), and it's still true Congress must approve the military's funding. We learned that as kids in school. It's called checks and balances.
Yet, in both cases, the military's response to Congress has been unmistakable. As in, screw you. We're going to continue figuring out ways to do whatever we want, no matter what you say.
That's what happened with moving NORAD, as the Air Force brazenly forged ahead despite damning reports from the Government Accountability Office, and despite Congress halting a chunk of the money flow.
Now we have Pion Canyon, with a different set of circumstances in that private property is affected. Many landowners in that area east of Walsenburg and Trinidad have made it clear they don't support any expansion. Last year, they won a major victory when Congress took away expansion funding for 2008 and demanded more answers.
But instead of first going back to Congress and presenting a stronger case, the Army has belligerently made its plans public. U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican who helped push for the one-year ban, sent a letter late last week to Army Secretary Pete Geren, sternly asking for the Army to rationalize what amounts to its insubordination toward Congress.
Here's a sample of congressional reactions, assembled by the Pueblo Chieftain:
Sen. Ken Salazar: "The Army needs to respect the moratorium that is currently in place. The fact is, [the Army] can't acquire or condemn land without congressional approval and funding. Neither exist."
Rep. Mark Udall: "If the Army is planning an end-run around Congress in order to move forward with the expansion before the Bush administration ends, then I'm outraged. If that is what the Army has in mind, Congress should not only renew the expansion prohibition, we'll need to make it stronger, and I will lead that charge."
Rep. John Salazar: "That shows the arrogance the Army has shown the House. If they believe they can go forward with land acquisition despite our ban, then we'll have to do something about that."
That's a lot of strong talk, but then, we've heard similar babble regarding NORAD. At some point, you have to conclude our military, from the top down, has decided it doesn't have to answer to a Democrat-led Congress, but only to itself and, of course, the Bush administration.
After the initial news and reaction, the Army quickly tried to cover its backside, telling politico.com it had no intention of circumventing Congress, then adding: "What the Army can do, and is doing, is conducting basic research on this issue, studies, and refining its training land requirements. Talking to affected landowners, answering queries from the public, and doing the basic due-diligence that the public has a right to expect, is not a violation of the Congressional ban on acquiring land, nor does it violate the spirit of the ban."
Says who? Just the Army, apparently, if you listen to those members of Congress. And our own Gazette, which ran a supportive editorial Sunday but undercut its own credibility by referring to the Army not pursuing imminent domain. Uh, guys, that should be eminent domain.
The military hasn't always snubbed Congress, as confirmed by a local retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who had to deal with lawmakers during his service that ended in the early 1990s: "Back then, if any question or request came to us from Congress, you dropped everything to take care of it."
That's not happening anymore. Here we have two blatant instances of the military defiantly telling Congress to take a flying leap. We can only wonder how many other times the same script is replaying elsewhere.
Congress has to stand up to the Pentagon, and it's not enough to wait and hope the Democrats take the White House.
The confrontation has to start now.