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Police Academy in the Alps | The Nation

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Police Academy in the Alps

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This November marks the ten-year anniversary of the Pentagon's George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, which is based in the small resort town of Garmisch, Germany. The Defense Department describes the Marshall Center as an important part of American efforts to reform former Soviet-bloc nations by teaching the principles of democracy to military leaders of the new Eastern European governments. A few years ago, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen hailed the center and its "international reputation for excellence."

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is a Washington, DC–based investigative reporter.

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For its many critics, though, the Marshall Center enjoys a reputation for other things: administrators who squander taxpayer money and punish whistleblowers; professors who live high on the hog thanks to taxpayer subsidies; and third-rate, hard-drinking students who do virtually no academic work. "Euphemisms abound," says Daniel Nelson, a former scholar-in-residence at the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency who until recently taught at the school. "I'm called a professor, but I'm a discussion leader at best. What we call 'students' are actually invitees and what we call 'courses' are really the equivalent of vacations."

The larger problem at the Marshall Center is the manner in which the Pentagon has protected the school, despite having full knowledge of its troubled record. The cover-up seems to be motivated by a number of factors: The top brass have been outspoken supporters of the center, thus putting their prestige on the line and making critics of lesser rank think twice about rocking the boat; employment at the school provides a wonderful sinecure for high-ranking military retirees; and the center has insured support by putting important Pentagon officials on rubber-stamp advisory boards whose membership perks include annual sojourns to Garmisch for wining and dining.

The result has been a near blackout of critical reporting about the Marshall Center. Hence, while the Defense Department's Inspector General (IG) has launched several investigations of the school, the Pentagon has aggressively and successfully covered up most problems, even killing a piece that was set to run on NBC Nightly News. One member of the center's PR arsenal is Vice President Dick Cheney, who created the school in 1992 when he was serving as Defense Secretary in the first Bush Administration. Cheney later offered support for Alvin Bernstein, the center's first director, who was forced out after committing flagrant abuses.

Located near the Austrian border and about seventy-five miles southwest of Munich, Garmisch is an affluent, picture-perfect gingerbread town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and deep blue lakes. Garmisch's narrow streets are lined with shops that sell homemade chocolate truffles, bars that serve ice-cold German beer and pricey stores that offer imported designer clothing. Retired US Air Force Col. John Lieberherr, a former commandant of the NATO School at Oberammergau, Germany, who is familiar with the Marshall Center's origins, says this choice setting was a major attraction for school planners. "The Army was thinking of closing down operations in Garmisch after the [Berlin] wall came down," he recalled. "One of the driving factors in creating the school was the idea that 'We need to come up with something to keep us here.'"

The Marshall Center sits on the grounds of a former World War II Wehrmacht Army barracks, adjacent to an alpine meadow. The school is jointly run by the United States--the Pentagon picks up almost 90 percent of the costs, which thus far have come, directly and indirectly, to about $400 million--and the German government.

Several thousand students have passed through the Marshall Center and gone on to hold positions as Cabinet ministers, ambassadors and defense attachés. In seven Eastern European countries, center graduates were selected to write their countries' new national security policies. The school's "Hall of Fame" includes Lieut. Gen. David Tevzadze, Georgia's defense minister; Col. Josip Stimac, commander of the Croatian air force; and Adm. Gaidis Zeibots, chief of the defense staff in Latvia. Lieut. Gen. Michael DeLong, deputy commander in chief of the US Central Command, said earlier this year that the Pentagon "would not have access to Central Asia bases to fight the war against terrorism were it not for the relationships established" in part through the Marshall Center.

Center director Dr. Robert Kennedy says his organization has had a huge impact in Eastern Europe. "For the large majority of those who attend our programs, their entire attitude toward the US, NATO and the West changes," he says. "They want their nations to be a part of the trans-Atlantic community of nations."

Yet from the very beginning, the Marshall Center has been plagued by troubles. A primary cause was Bernstein's failed leadership. A former Pentagon staffer during the Bush Sr. Administration and professor of history at Cornell, Bernstein operated without an internal budget or spending plan. Soon after taking command, he arbitrarily doubled the size of the faculty and altered the curriculum, which led to a huge budget shortfall and delayed classes for a year. Bernstein received a salary of $113,000 and lived in a lavish home (it had been expropriated from a wealthy Jewish businessman by the Nazis and later turned into a German officers' club) that the government purchased and spent $165,000 to renovate. Meanwhile, he spent about $40,000 on office furniture for his work quarters and another $237,000 on furniture for a college conference center.

In March 1994, five months before the first group of students arrived, the IG began an audit of the school after receiving a hotline tip. Two years later, Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for American armed forces personnel overseas, ran a series that chronicled a variety of scandals at the Marshall Center. Phil Robbins, who served as the Stars and Stripes ombudsman at the time, said Bernstein tried hard to suppress the series. "He called and said that the reporters were browbeating witnesses and violating journalistic ethics," Robbins said. "I investigated and found that his complaints were totally unwarranted."

The top brass at the Pentagon publicly dismissed the Stars and Stripes account, with then-Defense Secretary William Perry calling the charges "exaggerated and overblown." Still, the newspaper's series led to further investigations, and the IG subsequently concluded that Bernstein had exhibited a "wide-ranging pattern" of inappropriate behavior and had "ignored ethics regulations."

Perry continued to ignore troubles at the school, even though he and other officials had access to a separate investigation of the Marshall Center by a Pentagon-appointed team. The investigation was never made public, but a copy of a summary, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Judicial Watch and provided to The Nation, shows that it was withering in its criticism. Dated October 4, 1996, the summary said that the team was "besieged by people" at the Marshall Center who wanted to voice their complaints, which included sexual harassment, misuse of official vehicles and cronyism. The lead member of the team, Randy Jayne, reported that "allegations of misconduct and lack of accountability were mentioned by scores of people from different perspectives. The concerns were not confined to a particular group--but spanned the entire population.... Seasoned 30-year federal employees told the team it was the worst management they had ever seen."

Jayne also criticized the IG process at the Marshall Center, saying it had been far too indulgent of problems and assumed that "as things settled down, the processes would stabilize and get under control." Jayne said that belief was "absolutely not true," and charged that the IG had been "co-opted by [the center's] top management."

Investigators also found that Bernstein rewarded toadies--especially a group of retired colonels whom he had appointed to top administrative posts--and treated critics brutally. The most notorious case involved Col. Ernest Beinhart, the commandant of the Marshall Center's principal division, the College of Strategic Studies and Defense Economics. When Bernstein addressed the first group of students in August 1994, he singled out Beinhart for praise, saying he had "poured himself" into the job of getting the college started. Four months later, Bernstein fired the commandant, saying he had "failed to develop a mentor relationship."

Beinhart, a highly decorated Marine, charges that he was axed because he questioned Bernstein's decisions, said they were potentially illegal and correctly predicted that they would produce budgetary problems. The IG found that Beinhart had been fired without warning, and that his "peers indicated they had no indication the commandant was ever counseled because of his performance." Kenneth Hill, the State Department's ambassador-in-residence at the Marshall Center during much of this period, says that he witnessed numerous examples of fraud, waste and mismanagement, which Beinhart tried to stop. "Ernest Beinhart was dismissed for doing his job and doing it well, and with the flimsiest of pretexts," he says. "He is a man of total integrity and principle." Beinhart's firing also angered foreign nationals at the center. "The whole story looked as if it had happened to a Soviet colonel in the times of Stalin," says Victor Kremenyuk, a Russian professor who taught at the school. "For the majority of the students, all the ideas they learned about 'democracy' and the 'rule of law' were immediately destroyed when they learned about Beinhart's dismissal."

In the midst of all these investigations and uproar, NBC News caught wind of the unfolding scandal at the Marshall Center and sent a team to Garmisch. The network ran a teaser for the story on June 11, 1996, which was set to air as a Nightly News "Fleecing of America" segment the following evening. Soon after the promo ran, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon called Jim Maceda, the correspondent on the story. "[Bacon] was livid," Maceda recalled in an e-mail. "Between many expletives, he made it clear that if NBC News ran the Marshall Center story as a Fleecing of America, he wud personally bury my career. How could we be so wrong, so unjust, so f'ing this and f'ing that--I was pretty shocked by the threatening tone." Maceda stood by the story, as did Tom Brokaw, but after being informed of Bacon's criticism a show producer suddenly decided that the piece didn't have strong enough images or interviews. For his part, Maceda says he "had done hundreds of pieces for Nightly which had much less going for them, from a production point of view." Nonetheless, the segment was pulled; in its place NBC aired a report about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. (Bacon, now the head of Refugees International, says he has "no recollection" of calling Maceda, but he says it could have happened. "We always felt that it was a very mixed picture at the center," Bacon recalls. "There were some good things, but there were some problems, which we were trying to fix.")

In late 1996 Bernstein was finally forced to resign, though the circumstances were hushed up. Cheney, then the recently hired CEO of Halliburton, and Perry helped arrange for him to land a job as chancellor of the State University of New York, but at the last minute the school's board found out about his disastrous tenure at the Marshall Center and nixed the appointment. Bernstein (now deceased) was quietly posted to a slot at the National Defense University, where he kept his senior executive service rank and six-figure salary. (Cheney continues to be a Marshall Center booster and had agreed to speak at a tenth-anniversary celebration but a scheduling conflict prevented it. His office did not provide a response to questions about his support.)

There are certainly talented, hardworking staff and students at the Marshall Center, but in many ways little seems to have changed since Bernstein was pushed out. Since 1998 the school has been the subject of three separate IG investigations. In December 2000 Stars and Stripes reported ongoing troubles at the center and said that the paper had been contacted by at least a dozen past and current staffers who complained of a management climate "in which employees who speak up about perceived abuse...are subjected to reprisal and retaliation by the senior leadership." Professors and administrators continue to draw bloated salaries and are given a monthly housing allowance of up to $1,800. Their vast offices are equipped with a TV and refrigerator, not to mention expensive furniture whose cost has alarmed the Marshall Center's own budget analysts. Many top staffers are former military officials--meaning they draw military pensions of as much as $60,000 annually on top of their salaries--leading some local wags to dub the Marshall Center "The Retired Colonels Benevolent Society."

Staffers are required to do little in exchange for their compensation and perks. Professorial duty doesn't go beyond giving an occasional lecture and running seminars. "The level of instruction at the school does not reach the level of a community college," says former teacher Dan Nelson. Meanwhile, employees have plenty of time to vacation on the cheap at resorts run by the US military or, while in Garmisch, to swim in an Olympic-size pool and work out at a superbly equipped gym--about to be improved to the tune of $700,000, which will pay for, among other things, the installation of hot tubs. The center's deputy director, retired Maj. Gen. Michael McCarthy, is an avid skier and spends so much time working out that some staffers call him "The Chest." Meanwhile, McCarthy pulls in $125,000 a year and in July of last year, after just four months on the job, was granted a performance award of $4,000, despite having created a number of bitter personnel problems. (Kim Walz, a spokeswoman for the Marshall Center, says McCarthy goes to the gym on his lunch break and doesn't ski on company time.)

Junketeering also abounds. A huge travel budget--this year it worked out to more than $10,000 per professor, though a small group of favorites hogs a preponderant share of it--allows faculty and staff to roam widely. One pair of professors, accompanied by their spouses, headed to Italy and the south of France--strange choices, given the school's supposed focus on Central and Eastern Europe.

Just as in the days of Bernstein, the Marshall Center remains a good old boys' bastion (of the twenty-eight faculty members, one is female). A good example of the school's "colonel culture" came in an e-mail McCarthy sent in August 2001 to a small group of male staffers, inviting them to "a manly man dinner" at a local hotel in honor of a visiting general. "The chef is preparing a beef and wine dinner," said the invitation. "We will follow the dinner with single malt scotch and, should you wish, cigars on the terrace."

The weak leadership at the center is matched and possibly surpassed by the poor quality of the student body. In theory, students are the cream of the Eastern European crop. In reality, many bring to mind Bluto Blutarsky of Animal House. The reasons are easy to see: There are no admissions requirements, and students are picked by their governments, in consultation with US defense attachés. "Very few students here were sent because of their intellectual rigor," explains one professor, who, like many people I spoke with, asked to remain unidentified for fear of being targeted for retaliation. "Most are intelligence operatives, or were picked as a reward for being good bureaucrats or sycophants to important leaders." Others refer to a small "Bimbo Brigade"--girlfriends of Eastern European military VIPs. Some students have little command of any of the three languages in which instruction is offered, English, German and Russian. "I had one student whose English was limited to 'hello,' 'nice day' and 'want a beer,'" says the professor.

Like the faculty, students--there's been an average of about 300 per year--have an easy life. They are not tested or graded. They get paid a generous per diem rate that dwarfs what they would make at home. Not a few have returned to their native lands with a used Mercedes or BMW, paid for by American taxpayers. A number of center students have been arrested for shoplifting. A visiting Russian official was put up at a local hotel. He stole the comforters and curtains and emptied the minibar every night, leaving a tab that had to be picked up by taxpayers. Shortly after arriving at the Marshall Center, Dan Nelson says, he naïvely held a reception for students at his home. Many of his guests got bombed; they stole things from his house, tossed household items from the balcony and made offensive comments to his wife.

Students in the Marshall Center's Executive Program are treated to two "field studies" trips, one to Berlin and Brussels, and the other to New York and Washington. The combined annual cost to the US Treasury runs to roughly $400,000, according to a source familiar with the program. On one 1996 trip a lieutenant from Kazakhstan got so drunk and abusive to flight attendants and passengers that he had to be tied to a chair. Last October some members of a group of about sixty-five Marshall Center students on a United Airlines flight to the United States became drunk, unruly and dangerous; local police were contacted so they could meet the plane.

Meanwhile, the harassment of internal critics continues. In 1999 Air Force Lieut. Col. Timothy Killam, the division chief for the school's conference center, reported to a superior about what he believed was fraud and abuse at the center. The Military Whistleblower Protection Act should have protected Killam, but his superiors swiftly retaliated. He was given a poor evaluation that contrasted sharply with his past reviews, and he was denied a previously approved transfer to an Air Force base in England. A Pentagon IG report concluded late last year found in Killam's favor.

The Nation has learned that the IG has recently concluded yet another report that focuses on complaints filed by three women at the center against deputy director McCarthy. A former director of resource management told the IG that McCarthy "has treated women...as if they were worthless and disposable, creating an extremely hostile work environment." Samantha Nerove, the center's chief of protocol, has also complained about McCarthy. In a letter to Gen. Joseph Ralston, who is in charge of overseeing the Marshall Center from his post as commander in chief of the US European Command, she said that McCarthy had been verbally abusive on several occasions and once chased her down the hall. Nerove wrote, "I am an experienced professional woman with a long history of achievement. I know what constitutes normal and acceptable behavior in a US government workplace. What has been going on here is neither normal nor acceptable."

The third case involves Lieut. Col. Deborah Parson, who until arriving at the center had enjoyed an impeccable twenty-year military career. Her performance reports called her an "exemplary leader" and an "absolute professional." But at the center, Parson claims, McCarthy repeatedly made offensive remarks to her, including once telling her that one black female general was "a real loser, everyone knew it, and she was only promoted because she was a minority female." Last September 7 Parson had an altercation with Susan Denike, McCarthy's secretary. Parson says that in seeking to calm down Denike she put her hands on her shoulders. Denike claims that Parson grabbed her and blocked her from leaving her office. Center director Kennedy as well as the investigating officer in the case recommended that Parson receive a formal admonishment, a relatively mild penalty, but McCarthy fought for and won an official "letter of reprimand." That sanction--which Parson notes was roughly equivalent to the one imposed on the commander of the US submarine that in February 2001 sank a Japanese fishing vessel, killing nine people--effectively ended her military career.

The IG report, issued on August 14, marked yet another attempt at damage control. Seven of twenty-seven women interviewed by the IG reported sexist remarks by McCarthy, including four senior women with whom he developed "contentious relationships" during his first six months on the job. No male officials reported similar problems. The center's former spokeswoman told investigators that McCarthy repeatedly referred to women as "a bunch of whiners" and called him "the most direct misogynist I have ever seen." The report also criticized McCarthy for seeking the tougher penalty against Parson, and said most witnesses had described her as "a professional, dedicated, and compassionate officer." Yet the report dismissed most of the specific allegations made by the three primary complainants, saying that any actions McCarthy had taken were due to "his genuine displeasure with their performance," not gender bias. And investigators made no recommendation to soften the penalty against Parson.

The report was sharply critical of McCarthy's management style, saying he had "resorted to threats of career harm on occasion as a tactic to obtain compliance with his guidance." One military officer said that the deputy director threatened to "crush him" if he ever betrayed a confidence. The report also said that many people interviewed, even those who made no complaint against McCarthy, "acknowledged that the work environment at the Marshall Center was dysfunctional to a degree that they had not experienced in other Government organizations," and described "a persistent state of employee apprehension" at the center. McCarthy took "strong exception" to the report's findings about his leadership style, but investigators stood by their conclusions.

But once again the IG failed to call for any remedial action. The report stated that "McCarthy's forceful leadership style was well intended, [but] he failed to appreciate the impact of that style." It concluded that General Ralston of EUCOM should "take appropriate corrective action with respect to Mr. McCarthy," even though the report made clear--and various sources confirmed to The Nation--that Ralston and McCarthy are close. (McCarthy denied to The Nation that he treated female employees unfairly and termed Parson's actions in the Denike case "unacceptable.")

Beinhart, who now resides in Bethesda, Maryland, is still seeking to clear his name. He has lined up support from retired generals, active-duty officers and senior Pentagon civilians, including Lieut. Gen. Robert Chelberg, Alvin Bernstein's former deputy director. In December 2000, ten of Beinhart's backers wrote incoming President Bush, saying, "On moral and legal grounds, we appeal to you...to redress wrongs done an exemplary military officer." They have yet to receive a reply.

Spokeswoman Walz calls the complainants "a vocal minority" (as did several Marshall Center employees that she had asked to contact me) and said that a recently completed survey, administered by an independent contractor, showed that most workers were happy. Director Kennedy says that the school "spends an extraordinary amount of time...making sure that people are treated fairly." He also defends the center's record on financial management, saying he has made a number of changes in recent years to insure that funds are spent wisely. "We are incessant stewards of taxpayer money," he says.

The majority of center detractors, even the most vociferous, want the college to stay open but believe that it needs to be overhauled and held accountable. They say that an independent outside investigation is necessary, as the Pentagon has shown itself to be more interested in protecting the Marshall Center's reputation than in policing abuses. "I arrived here full of optimism and idealism," says one staffer. "I thought we were going to help [Eastern European nations] by teaching democracy and transparency. Instead, we're setting the worst possible example."

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