The Army Corps of Engineers' Iron Triangle

June 22, 2016 - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin 06/22/2016 Views: 18,371

Roy Wood Jr. finds out how lobbyists influence the Army Corps of Engineers and looks into the questionable infrastructure projects that the unit takes on. (5:51)

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The U.S. Army Corpsof Engineers--

it's not justthe military's nerd squad,

it's also the place you want togo if you want something built.

Even if no one needs it.Roy Wood Jr. has the story.

WOOD: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--

it's the largest public engineering organization

in the world.

700 military personnel,over 30,000 civilians.

And these guys build things like

the Washington Monument. Damn.

The Panama Canal. Damn.

And dams. Damn!

These guys are bad asses, and I'm sure

journalist and Corps expert Michael Grunwald agrees.

Lately, they built

a lot of environmentallydestructive boondoggles.

WOOD: Wait, what the hell did he just say?

They build a lot of stuffthat nobody needs

that tend to do a lotof environmental damage.

WOOD: So what? I'm an American.

I don't care about the environment.

Well, are you paying for it.

-Who paying for it?-You're paying for it.

-You's a liar. I ain't payingfor it. -American taxpayers

-are paying for it.-(scoffs) I ain't got no bill.

I didn't get no billfrom the Army Corps.

They've never really beenaccountable to the taxpayers.

Members of Congresshave always protected them.

WOOD: Man, shut your hatin' ass up. Talking about

they wasting taxpayer dollars. But here's a billion-dollar

transformer thing on the Mississippi River

that the Corps built to handle barge traffic.

Looks like a great investment to me.

-No.-WOOD: Hater number two,

environmentalist Brad Walker.

This was built to, uh,

handle barge trafficthat has never come.

Nowhere near what they usedto project its construction.

But how do you knowit's not coming yet?

How are you so sure

that there aren't multiplebarges coming in late at night

that you don't even see?

It's barge night lifegoing, bruh.

You know the river don't evenget popping till 3:00.

It's crazy on the riverat night.

Yeah, it doesn'treally matter what time,

because the Corpskeeps track of all this.

It's their statisticsthat we use to check

how much barge trafficis going up and down the river.

WOOD: Oh, is that right, Mr. Hater?

Well, let's check out those statistics then.

The blue line represents actual barge traffic

and the green line represents

the Corps of Engineers projections.

Looks like those projections are pretty accurate to me.

Look... Oh, wait, why is the blue line doing that?

Come back, blue line. Damn it!

Soon it's gonna hardly be any damager traffic,

and the Corps knows this.

If the Army Corps of Engineerskeeps track of barge traffic,

why didn't they just go,"Hey...

we ain't building that (bleep).That's stupid."

I wish they would.

But the Army Corps consideredthe barge industry their client.

WOOD: Oh, a client. Is that why the Corps is involved

with seven new projects for the barge lobby

that would cost billions of dollars?

Well, you got to rememberthere's this

kind of iron triangle that goeson between the Army Corps,

members of Congressand the special interests

that benefitfrom these projects.

WOOD: Iron triangle? Man, I hadn't tried that position

since my girlfriend and her sorority sister

was with me and we had that... (clears throat)

Uh, n-never mind.

Look, I had to get to the bottom of this.

So I went to the man at the top-- the head

of the Corps of Engineers, General Thomas Bostick.

The Corps of Engineersdoesn't decide

on which projects to do.

The congressauthorizes projects.

It's good that you getyour orders from Congress

and not the lobbyists, correct?


Not the lobby,'cause you can't all be in bed.

That's just awkward.That's... ugh.

Now, what I will say is we workwith a lot of the leaders,

uh, on... in...

that-that may have tiesto the-to the lobby

that help with ideason what they recommend,

uh, the Corps of Engineersand Congress,

uh, pursue as priorities.

WOOD: So, lobbyists convince Congress

to fund certain projects, Congress authorizes

the Corps of Engineers to do those projects,

and the Corps builds those projects,

which pleasures the lobbyists.

Damn, I guess that is like my iron triangle.

Except, in this case, taxpayers get (bleep).

But it turns out this goes beyond wasting tax dollars,

as hater number two showed me in New Madrid, Missouri.

To benefit the farm lobby the Corps plans to drain

these wetlands right here

by building a new levee. Just one problem.

WALKER:If we put that levee in here,

other areas are gonna be at riskof getting flooded.

It'll affect people in Kentucky,it'll affect people

in southern Illinois,it'll affect

people upstream in Missouri.

WOOD: Wait, the Corps levees could cause flooding?

Where have I heard that before?

The worst Army Corps failurein its history

is the drowning of New Orleans.

WOOD: Oh, yeah. The Corps poorly engineered the levee system

that failed during Katrina. And the Corps drained

nearby wetlands that may have further protected New Orleans

in the first place. And now critics say

proposed levees like this one in New Madrid

create flood risks upstream? Hold on.

That's St. Louis.

I don't want to loseSt. Louis, man.

That's the home of Nelly.

I love St. Louis.

So you're saying Nelly is safe?

I'm not saying Nelly's safe.

We're talking Nelly, man.This made classics.

Down, down, baby,

yo' street in the Range Rover.

Boom, boom,

street sweeper.

Cocked back, ready to let it go.

Well, anyway, uh,

we want to protect the Americanpeople to the degree we can,

or reduce their risk.

With some of the projectsthat you do,

I think we should just assignpriority levels.

This is priority A,

for "absolutely,let's do this project"

all the way down to priority D,

as in "dumb",

as it "don't do this",

as in "demolish the idea".

We don't even considerpriority D projects.

Except for New Madrid.

Yeah, New Madrid, the concrete transformer thingy,

those other barge projects...

Here's the thing-- the corps does

do plenty of A and B projects,

but as long as they keep getting these Ds...

man, Nelly, you better carry a life vest with you.

Learn how to swim or something.