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General Atomics
by William Kistner and Steve Henn

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More than half of the trips paid for by General Atomics have taken congressional staffers to Europe or Australia. Check out all the trips, who went and how much the trips cost.

General Atomics makes the Predator - a satellite-controlled airplane that looks like an upside-down flying spoon. Its 25-foot wings are so light, you can lift them with one hand. But this delicate craft is lethal.

The plane became famous after the CIA used it to assassinate terrorism suspects in Afghanistan and Yemen. President Bush wants to use it to track illegal immigrants as they cross the U.S. border from Mexico.

Congress says the Predator is an indispensable tool in the war on terror. But when it was first built, the Pentagon wasn't interested in it. Neal Blue, the company's chairman and part-owner, says General Atomics took a big risk developing the plane.

"The Predator B," says Blue, "as well as the C, which has some stealth characteristics, have been developed totally on [the] G.A. nickel - not as a result of government funded contracts."

And these planes aren't cheap. A stripped down version of the Predator will set the taxpayers back more than $2.5 million. Once it's tricked out with high-tech imaging systems and weaponry, the price tag can triple.

Though there is a need for these planes, they have a spotty performance history. In 2001, Pentagon inspectors found the plane couldn't reliably identify targets. Pilots say it is hard to fly and easy to crash. Nevertheless, the Air Force announced in March 2005 that it wanted to spend $5.6 billion on Predators.

So just how did General Atomics land these deals?

General Atomics executives say they make a good plane and they are working to make it better.

They also work very hard to sell it. General Atomics is by far the largest corporate sponsor of free congressional trips. It has spent more than $660,000 to send members of Congress and their staff on 86 trips all over the world. The vast majority of these trips went to congressional staffers. By contrast, its rivals Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which are about 30 times larger, spent less than $60,000 combined.

Under House and Senate ethics rules, congressional staffers can accept these trips as long as the member of Congress they work for approve them, and the travel is related to the staffer's official duties.

All of the trips paid for by General Atomics were legal and followed congressional ethics rules. For the company, these all-expense-paid trips are a key part of the way the it does business with the U.S. government.

"I would rather have them buy Predators without having to talk to so many people and be so convincing, but that is just not the real world," says Linden Blue, vice-chairman and part owner of General Atomics. "If you have something, you have to sell it."

And that's why in March of 2005, General Atomics flew eight high-ranking congressional staffers to the Melbourne Air-show. The Australian Air Force was prepared to spend $1 billion to buy unmanned planes.

Susan McGill, who was then chief of staff for Senate Armed Forces Committee chairman John Warner, went along.

McGill, who declined to speak on tape, said the group met with the head of the Australian Air Force, but "did not push the Predator."

When we asked Tom Cassidy, the CEO of General Atomics, what this trip was about, he didn't mince words: "Trying to sell Predator Bs to Australia."

Susan Magill's week-long trip to Australia with her husband cost General Atomics more than $26,000. Cassidy said the company used congressional staffers as a complement to its international sales force.

"They are useful and very helpful in fact, when you go down and talk to the government officials, to have congressional people go along and discuss the capabilities of Predator B with them," says Cassidy.

Supporters of the practice say it helps American firms compete with foreign companies. But the Predator's only serious competitor for the $1 billion Australian deal was another U.S. company: Northrop Grumman. Northrop was at the Melbourne Air-Show but didn't bring along any congressional staff.

Dennis Thompson, a professor of government ethics at Harvard, says these trips raise a red flag.

"General Atomics clearly wants to send the message that if you buy, the U.S. government will be pleased," says Thompson. "The message that it also sends, I'm afraid, is that the way we do business in this country is through cronyism."

But sponsors of these trips value staffers equally for the influence they have at home.

"Staff can be extraordinarily effective in persuading you how to vote," says former Congressman Bill Whitehurst who served on both the Armed Service Committee and the Ethics Committee. "I recall when I first went onto the Armed Services Committee and there was a staffer, and this man was so knowledgeable about defense research projects that the first year I was on the committee, I just found myself being led by him."

During just two weeks in March of 2005, high-ranking congressional staff accepted more than $250,000 in free trips to Italy and Australia from General Atomics. Two months later, the House quadrupled the Air Force's purchase of the Predator B at a cost of more than $210 million.

Beth Daley is the Director of Investigations at the Project on Government oversight - an independent Pentagon budget watchdog.

"Why do big fancy trips seem to be driving the decisions about Pentagon spending rather than what the military really needs?" asks Beth Daley, Director of Investigations at The Project on Government Oversight, an independent Pentagon budget watchdog.

She worries that the government is buying Predators before all the bugs have been worked out. Yet year after year, Congress orders up more of these planes than the Pentagon has asked for.

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