New Day, a New White House Scandal: First Solyndra, Now LightSquared

Bob Beauprez
Posted: Sep 17, 2011 12:01 AM

It must feel like SSDD at the White House – same stuff, different day.  While the stink from the Solyndra political corruption scandal continues to grow, a new one involving a 4-star Air Force General and military intelligence erupted yesterday from Capitol Hill.

According to reports published by The Daily Beast, General William Shelton, Commander of the Air Force Space Command Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, said the "White House tried to pressure him to change his testimony to make it more favorable to a company tied to a large Democratic donor. "

The company is LightSquared, a Virginia wireless broadband provider seeking approval for a coast-to-coast wireless network.  The majority owner of LightSquared is Harbinger Capital Partners an investment fund whose CEO, Philip Falcone, is a large Democrat Party donor.

The bandwidth spectrum proposed to be used by LightSquared would be very close to the global GPS system used by private industry as well as the U.S. military and intelligence communities.  Although LightSquared maintains their proposal would be "quiet neighborhood" network, the Pentagon and industry experts have voiced serious concerns that the "tens of thousands of ground stations for a wireless network could drown out the GPS signal."  

Prior to appearing before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, the White House reviewed and recommended changes to General Shelton's testimony that would have been favorable to LightSquared.  "There was an attempt to influence the text of the testimony and to engage LightSquared in the process in order to bias his (Gen. Shelton's) testimony." Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), the Committee Chairman told The Daily Beast.  "The only people who were involved in the process in preparation for the hearing included the Department of Defense, the White House, and the Office of Management and Budget." 

According to the report, the White House pressed Gen. Shelton to alter his testimony on two critical points: first, that the General supported the White House policy to add more broadband for commercial use (a campaign pledge by Obama), and secondly that the Pentagon would try to resolve the questions around LightSquared with testing in just 90 days.   Instead of caving to the White House pressure, General Shelton "chafed at the intervention" and blew the whistle.

Consistent with what has become standard-operating-procedure, the White House issued a statement denying any wrong doing or pressure on the General. 

LightSquared was granted conditional approval for their system in 2004, but the go-ahead for build out of the whole system has been stalled because technical experts have warned that the "proposal to build tens of thousands of ground stations for a wireless network could drown out the GPS signal." 

Indeed, General Shelton testified that preliminary tests concluded that only a portion of the band that was licensed in 2004 "would cause significant disruptions to GPS."

Members of Congress have smelled a rat in the LightSquared deal for some time recognizing that the Administration and the FCC have been trying to rush through an approval for the proposal.  "The FCC's fast-tracking of LightSquared raises questions about whether the government is rushing this project at the expense of all kinds of other things, including national security and everyone who uses GPS, from agriculture to emergency medical technicians," said Sen. Chuck Grassley who has been suspicious since at least last April.  "Without transparency, and with media coverage of political connections in this case, there's no way to know whether the agency is trying to help friends in need or really looking out for the public's interest."

In April, Grassley asked the Chairman of the FCC Julius Genachowski to hand over all records of communications, including emails between Falcone and the FCC, and LightSquared and the FCC.  Genachowski declined to turn over those records. 

Genachowski is a political appointee of Barack Obama.  He cut his teeth as an aid to New York Senator Chuck Schumer before making millions in the telecommunications industry.  He was a classmate of Obama's at the Harvard law school, and became a critical member of the 2008 campaign and transition team credited for the development of the sophisticated campaign communications system utilizing social media networks.  

Perhaps trying to get ahead of a developing scandal involving one of the military's top commanders, on Tuesday the FCC issued a public notice prohibiting LightSquared from further build out until more testing proves GPS would not be damaged.