RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The secretary of defense has suspended a Pentagon order to thousands of veterans and those still in uniform in California's National Guard demanding they repay tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses. A few years ago, an audit revealed that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging, a large number were enticed to enlist with bonuses wrongly offered. Many went on to serve in those wars. In his announcement, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, quote, "while some soldiers knew or should have known that they were ineligible for benefits they were claiming, many others did not." For more on how this happened, we called up California Congressman Adam Schiff. He's a Democrat who serves as ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.
Welcome to the program.
ADAM SCHIFF: It's great to be with you.
MONTAGNE: Now, you know, you've come out, you could say even, swinging on this. You wrote a letter to the California National Guard saying - and I'm quoting, "seeking reimbursement for these funds when they were accepted in good faith imposes a substantial financial hardship on those who have served our nation and their families."
When did you first hear that these re-enlistment bonuses were going to have to be revoked?
SCHIFF: I first learned about it, I think, the way most members of Congress did - by reading about it in the newspaper last week.
MONTAGNE: The LA Times?
SCHIFF: Yes. And it seemed appalling to me that we would be going after these soldiers who were recruited to re-enlist and often went off to Iraq or Afghanistan and received these bonuses 10 years ago, had no reason to believe that they were not authorized bonuses. And now to have the Pentagon come after them for this money, it just seemed unconscionable to me, and I'd certainly like to get to the bottom of why nothing was done about this beforehand.
MONTAGNE: But - and the Pentagon does say that, by law, it had to ask for reimbursement - this was law - unless Congress waived that. So the Pentagon was doing something that was correct in the sense of the law. But would you have expected the Pentagon to really come to Congress and beat the drum?
SCHIFF: I would have expected that, yes. And I would have expected the guard also to come to Congress and beat the drum, not just to include it among a list of asks for the year. The Pentagon had a choice. It could, if it felt obligated by law, seek collection as, in fact, it did. Or it could come to Congress and say, this is terribly inequitable. This was the result of a fraud committed by people in management at the California National Guard and perhaps other guard units as well. This is a problem not of these soldiers' making, and we would ask you to help intervene.
I would be shocked if Congress didn't respond favorably to that kind of a request. But the bottom line is, these soldiers shouldn't be on the hook. And I'm not sure that the solution thus far, which is just a halt in collection, is really the full answer. I think there ought to be forgiveness of the debt. If there are select cases where soldiers understood that the bonuses were being offered fraudulently, that's one thing. But I don't think we want to throw the net over all those who answered the call of duty and just assume somehow they knew that they weren't authorized to receive these bonuses.
MONTAGNE: Well, I don't know much about how these bonuses work. But it would somehow surprise me if these bonuses were offered, that those in uniform who got them actually knew all the details. Is there any reason to think that they would have known if they're offered a bonus by a recruiter?
SCHIFF: I would think that any soldier that's offered a bonus by a recruiter ought to be able to rely on the representations of the recruiter that they're entitled to that bonus. Now, I suppose, in theory, it's possible that a recruiter told an enlistee - look, I can get you a bonus. You don't qualify for it, but, you know, I'm going to look the other way. I have to think that would have been exceedingly rare if that happened at all. But those cases could be handled differently. I don't think you go after everyone and then you put the burden on the soldier to prove their innocence.
MONTAGNE: So you are up for re-election. What are you going to promise, now that it's come up in these last days before the election, to do?
SCHIFF: Well re-election or no re-election, I think we all need to commit to make sure that these soldiers are made whole. Anyone who has paid back these bonuses ought to be able to recover that money with interest. Anyone who hasn't paid it should have that debt forgiven. They should all, frankly, be given a profound apology that they were even subject to this process. And the burden should be on the Pentagon to prove that a soldier knowingly accepted something they weren't entitled to.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
SCHIFF: Thank you. Good to be with you.
MONTAGNE: That's Representative Adam Schiff of California.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.