Updated: Jun 5, 2020
Big brass and government executives play both sides of the military revolving door, including "the only adult in the room."
Before he became lionized as the “only adult in the room” capable of standing up to President Trump, General James Mattis was quite like any other brass scoping out a lucrative second career in the defense industry. And as with other military giants parlaying their four stars into a cushy boardroom chair or executive suite, he pushed and defended a sub-par product while on both sides of the revolving door. Unfortunately for everyone involved, that contract turned out to be an expensive fraud and a potential health hazard to the troops.
According to a recent report by the Project on Government Oversight, between 2008 and 2018, 25 generals, 9 admirals, 43 lieutenant generals, and 23 vice admirals retired to become lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for the defense industry. They are part of a much larger group of 380 high-ranking government officials and congressional staff who shifted into the industry in that time.
To get a sense of the demand, according to POGO, which had to compile all of this information through Freedom of Information requests, there were 625 instances in 2018 alone in which the top 20 defense contractors (think Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin) hired senior DoD officials for high-paying jobs—90 percent of which could be described as “influence peddling.”
Back to Mattis. In 2012, while he was head of Central Command, the Marine General pressed the Army to procure and deploy blood testing equipment from a Silicon Valley company called Theranos. He communicated that he was having success with this effort directly to Theranos’s chief executive officer. Even though an Army health unit tried to terminate the contract due to its not meeting requirements, according to POGO, Mattis kept the pressure up. Luckily, it was never used on the battlefield.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise but upon retirement in 2013, Mattis asked a DoD counsel about the ethics guiding future employment with Theranos. They advised against it. So Mattis went to serve on its board instead for a $100,000 salary. Two years after Mattis quit to serve as Trump’s Pentagon chief in 2016, the two Theranos executives he worked with were indicted for “massive” fraud, perpetuating a “multi-million dollar scheme to defraud investors, doctors and patients,” and misrepresenting their product entirely. It was a fake.
But assuming this was Mattis’s only foray into the private sector would be naive. When he was tapped for defense secretary—just three years after he left the military — he was worth upwards of $10 million. In addition to his retirement pay, which was close to $15,000 a month at the time, he received $242,000 as a board member, plus as much as $1.2 million in stock options in General Dynamics, the Pentagon’s fourth largest contractor. He also disclosed payments from other corporate boards, speech honorariums—including $20,000 from defense heavyweight Northrop Grumman—and a whopping $410,000 from Stanford University’s public policy think tank the Hoover Institution for serving as a “distinguished visiting fellow.”
Never for a moment think that Mattis won’t land softly after he leaves Washington—if he leaves at all. Given his past record, he will likely follow a very long line, as illustrated by POGO’s explosive report, of DoD officials who have used their positions while inside the government to represent the biggest recipients of federal funding on the outside. They then join ex-congressional staffers and lawmakers on powerful committees who grease the skids on Capitol Hill. And then they go to work for the very companies they’ve helped, fleshing out a small army of executives, lobbyists, and board members with direct access to the power brokers with the purse strings back on the inside.
Welcome to the Swamp
“[Mattis’s’ career course] is emblematic of how systemic the problem is,” said Mandy Smithberger, POGO’s lead on the report and the director of its Center for Defense Information. “Private companies know how to protect their interests. We just wish there were more protections for taxpayers.” When everything is engineered to get more business for the same select few, “when you have a Department of Defense who sees it as their job to promote arms sales…does this really serve the interest of national security?”
That is something to chew on. If a system is so motivated by personal gain (civil servants always mindful of campaign contributions and private sector job prospects) on one hand, and big business profits on the other, is there room for merit or innovation? One need only look at Lockheed’s F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive weapon system in history, which was relentlessly promoted over other programs by members of Congress and within the Pentagon despite years of test failures and cost overruns, to see what this gets you: planes that don’t fly, weapons that don’t work, and shortfalls in other parts of the budget that don’t matter to contractors like pilot training and maintenance of existing systems.
“It comes down to two questions,” Smithberger noted in an interview with TAC. “Are we approving weapons systems that are safe or not? And are we putting [servicemembers’] lives on the line” to benefit the interests of industry?
All of this is legal, she points out. Sure, there are rules—”cooling off” periods before government officials and members of Congress can lobby, consult, or work on contracts after they leave their federal positions, or when industry people come in through the other side to take positions in government. But Smithberger said they are “riddled with loopholes” and lack of enforcement.
Case in point: current acting DoD Secretary Patrick Shanahan spent 31 years working for Boeing, which gets about $24 billion a year as the Pentagon’s second largest contractor. He was Boeing’s senior vice president in 2016 just before he was confirmed as Trump’s deputy secretary of defense in 2017. Last week he recused himself from all matters Boeing, but he wasn’t always so hands off. At one point, he “prodded” for the purchase of 12 $1.2 billion Boeing F-15X fighter planes, according to Bloomberg.
But the revolving door is so much more pervasive and insidious than POGO could possibly catalogue. So says Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, who worked as a civilian and military officer in the Pentagon for 31 years, beginning in 1968. He calls the military industrial complex a “quasi-isolated political economy” that is in many ways independent from the larger domestic economy. It has its own rules, norms, and culture, and unlike the real world, it is self-sustaining—not by healthy competition and efficiency, but by keeping the system on a permanent war footing, with money always pumping from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon to the private sector and then back again. Left out are basic laws of supply and demand, geopolitical realities, and the greater interest of society.
“That’s why we call it a self-licking ice cream cone,” Spinney explained to TAC. “[This report] is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more subtle stuff going on. When you are in weapons development like I was at the beginning of my career, you learn about this on day one, that having cozy relationships with contractors is openly encouraged. And then you get desensitized. I was fortunate because I worked for people who did not like it and I caught on quickly.”
While the culture has evolved, basic realities have persisted since the massive build-up of the military and weapons systems during the Cold War. The odds of young officers in the Pentagon making colonel or higher are slim. They typically retire out in their 40s. They know implicitly that their best chance for having a well-paid second career is in the only industry they know—defense. Most take this calculation seriously, moderating their decisions on program work and procurement and communicating with members of Congress as a matter of course.
“Let’s just say there’s a problem [with a program]. Are you going to come down hard on a contractor and try to hold his feet to the fire? Are you going to risk getting blackballed when you are out there looking for a job? Sometimes there is no word communicated, you just don’t want to be unacceptable to anyone,” said Spinney. It’s ingrained, from the rank of lieutenant colonel all the way up to general.
So the top five and their subsidiaries continue to get the vast majority of work, usually in no-bid contracts ($100 billion worth in 2016 alone), and with cost-plus structures that critics say encourage waste and never-ending timetables, like the $1.5 trillion F-35. “The whole system is wired to get money out the door,” said Spinney. “That is where the revolving door is most pernicious. It’s everywhere.”
The real danger is that under this pressure, parties work to keep bad contracts alive even if they have to cook the books. “Essentially from the standpoint of Pentagon contracting you are not going to have people writing reports saying this product is a piece of shit,” said Spinney. Worse, evaluations are designed to deflect criticism if not oversell success in order to keep the spigot open. The most infamous example of this was the rigged tests that kept the ill-fated “Star Wars” missile defense program going in the 1980s.
Everyone talks about generals like Mattis as though they’re warrior-gods. But for decades, many of them have turned out to be different creatures altogether—creatures of a semi-independent ecosystem that operates outside of the normal rules and benefits only a powerful minority subset: the military elite, defense contractors, and Congress. More recently, the defense-funded think tank world has become part of this ecology, providing the ideological grist for more spending and serving as a way-station for operators moving in and out of government and industry.
Call it the Swamp, the Borg, or even the Blob, but attempting to measure or quantify the revolving door in the military-industrial complex can feel like a fool’s errand. Groups like POGO have attempted to shine light on this dark planet for years. Unfortunately, there is little incentive in Capitol Hill or at the Pentagon to do the very least: pull the purse strings, close loopholes, encourage real competition, and end cost-plus practices.