SecDef Telecommutes? Shocking!

In the 2 September 2011 Los Angeles Times there’s an article titled: Panetta’s commute raises eyebrows. The gist of the story is that many Washingtonians are shocked, shocked that the Secretary of Defense could even consider boarding a U.S. Air Force jet to fly home to California for a three-day weekend. Almost every weekend. Never mind that Panetta’s ranch in the Carmel Valley is fully equipped with the telecommunications technology to allow him to keep in constant touch with the Pentagon 24-7.

What memories this situation arouses in me. Flash back to the mid-1960s when I was still a “rocket scientist” engaged in some highly classified research for the Air Force. In Los Angeles. One afternoon I got a call to brief the Undersecretary of the Air Force at 9:30 the next morning. In the Pentagon. One does not refuse such a request so I dutifully boarded the “redeye” to Washington, arriving the next morning at about 6:30 AM. Upon arriving at the Pentagon I was told that the briefing had been postponed to 2:00 PM. At 1:00 P:M I was told the briefing was cancelled. So I climbed on the evening plane back to LA, never having briefed the Undersecretary. I thought: there must be an easier way.

A short time later I was told that there was a secure color TV link to the Pentagon in an office about 50 meters from my office in LA. Had I been a General I could have used that link instead of making that fruitless and expensive round trip to the Pentagon. To borrow a phrase from Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town: “What a waste of money and time!”

Now, almost four decades later, I don’t have to be a General to make an easy, inexpensive¬† virtual trip to the Pentagon, Buenos Aires, Brussels, or wherever else, to deliver a briefing. No jet lag, no fuss, no muss, no problem. Face-to-face interaction. At a distance. Using the technology to cut the commute.

So what is the problem with the Secretary of Defense using technology infinitely better that what could have been available to me in the 1960s? Well, there is the expense of the plane to get him between Carmel and DC. At $3,200 per flight hour, according to the article. Secretary Panetta only has to reimburse the Air Force the equivalent coach fare but that’s because he is required to fly only on Air Force planes with all the latest communications technology so that he can keep in touch with the Pentagon and the President at all times. The article didn’t say who else accompanies the Secretary on these trips and whether they also have to cough up coach air fare.

So why doesn’t Secretary Panetta simply stay in Carmel half the time and cut down on those expensive, polluting plane rides? Not to mention his increased productivity resulting from fewer interruptions. It’s simple. As Tevye would say.

Tradition.

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