A shortened version of this piece originally appeared in The American Conservative.
In 2015 things weren’t looking great for the Marine Corps’ F-35B fighter jet. Reports from the Government Accountability Office and Department of Defense inspector general had found dozens of problems with the aircraft. Engine failures, software bugs, supply chain issues, and fundamental design flaws were making headlines regularly. The program was becoming synonymous in the press with “boondoggle.”
Lockheed Martin, the program’s lead contractor, desperately needed a win. The Pentagon was considering cutting the number of F-35s it planned to purchase after Senator John McCain (R-AZ), then the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned if the number was realistic. International customers were growing skeptical of the aircraft as the price ballooned. It is Lockheed Martin’s biggest program, and will cost taxpayers $1.5 trillion over its lifetime. A reduction in purchases, or loss of international customers, could have cost the company billions.
Luckily for Lockheed, it had a powerful ally in the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Joseph Dunford. Five years later, Dunford would be out of the service and ready to collect his first Lockheed Martin paycheck as a member of its board of directors.
Back in 2015, the F-35 program, already years behind schedule, faced a key program milestone. The goal was to have the F-35B ready for a planned July initial operational capability (IOC) declaration, a major step for the program, greenlighting the plane to be used in combat. The declaration is a sign that the aircraft is nearly ready for full deployment, that things are going well, that the contract, awarded in 2006, was finally producing a usable product. The ultimate decision was in Dunford’s hands.
About a week before the declaration, some in the Pentagon expressed serious doubts about the aircraft. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) obtained a memo through the Freedom of Information Act that revealed the performance of the jets to be poor. The memo, from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, called foul on the test that was meant to demonstrate the ability of the F-35B to operate in realistic conditions. “[The test] did not—and could not—demonstrate that the Block 2B F-35B is operationally effective or suitable for use in any type of limited combat operation, or that it was ready for real-world operational deployments, given the way the event was structured,” the testing office concluded.
Dunford, however, said he had “full confidence” in the aircraft’s ability to support Marines in combat, despite the testing office’s report stating that if the aircraft encountered enemies, it would need to “avoid threat engagement”—in other words, to flee at the first sign of an enemy.
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Ignoring the issues raised internally, Dunford signed off on the initial operational capability. Lockheed Martin was thrilled. “Fifty years from now, historians will look back on the success of the F-35 Program and point to Marine Corps IOC as the milestone that ushered in a new era in military aviation,” the company said in a statement.
Lockheed’s CEO was apparently elated, calling it a “huge milestone” that would “send a strong message to everyone that this program is on track.”
Problems continued to plague the “combat ready” aircraft in the months after the declaration. Flaws in the design of the ejection seat meant that pilots under 165 pounds had about a 25% chance of death and certainty of serious neck injury when ejecting. The software system was riddled with bugs that made maintenance a nightmare. The $400,000 helmet was proving to be a mess, with one test pilot complaining that “aft visibility will get the pilot gunned [down] every time.” While the aircraft was barely able to fly half the time, Dunford’s career soared. He was confirmed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just a few months after the initial operational capability declaration.
Dunford’s cheerleading of the F-35 didn’t stop there. Dunford downplayed cost overruns and sang the aircraft’s praises at a press event in 2017. When the moderator asked routine questions submitted by the audience (Will the aircraft continue as a program? Is it too expensive to maintain?), Dunford responded by calling the questions loaded and accusing the audience member of having an “agenda.”
Retirement and a Reward
On September 30, 2019, Dunford, the military’s highest ranked official, stepped down from his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He had served in the Marine Corps since 1977, working his way up to the highest tier of the armed services over 42 years.
Just four months and 11 days later, he joined the Pentagon’s top contractor, Lockheed Martin, as a director on the board.
In announcing Dunford’s hire, a January press release from Lockheed Martin quotes CEO Marillyn Hewson: “General Dunford's service to the nation at the highest levels of military leadership will bring valuable insight to our board.”
Dunford’s consistent cheerleading of the F-35 and his subsequent hiring at its manufacturer create the perception of a conflict of interest and raised the eyebrows of at least one former senior military official.
“Here he is having been an advocate for it, having pressed it, having pushed for it … and now he’s going to work for the company that makes the aircraft, that just, to me, stinks to high heavens,” retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as special assistant to Colin Powell when he led the Joint Chiefs, told POGO. “You are saying, general, that money is more important to you than the perception you are creating by doing what you're doing.”
Dunford’s Rolodex of Pentagon decision-makers is valuable to defense contractors, and with just over four months to “cool off,” many of those relationships will likely be intact.
Lockheed Martin, which also commands tremendous influence over policy makers, Pentagon officials, and U.S. foreign policy, was the top recipient of Department of Defense dollars in fiscal year 2019, taking in over $48 billion, according to government data. The company spent over $13 million lobbying the federal government in 2019, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
POGO reached out to five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs but none offered comments for this story.
The Revolving Door Spins On
“I think anybody that gives out these big contracts should never ever, during their lifetime, be allowed to work for a defense company, for a company that makes that product,” then-President-elect Donald Trump said in a December 2016 rally in Louisiana. “I don’t know, it makes sense to me.”
Fast forward more than three years and the revolving door is spinning right along, defense stocks are surging, and Lockheed Martin has a record backlog of unfulfilled contracts. While Trump did issue an ethics executive order for his appointees, it did not include a lifetime ban on lobbying for contractors.
A POGO analysis of the post-government employment of retired chairs of the Joint Chiefs found that only four of the 19 people who previously held the position went immediately to work for a major defense contractor within two years after leaving the government. In addition to Dunford, Admiral William J. Crowe joined General Dynamics, General John Shalikashvili joined the boards of Boeing and L-3, and General Richard Myers joined the boards of Northrop Grumman and United Technologies Corp.
When Myers joined Northrop’s board, the company boasted in its annual report of his “extensive experience with Department of Defense operations and requirements and in-depth knowledge on issues related to the intelligence community.”
Former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs have many lucrative career opportunities that don’t create conflicts, actual or implied. Retired General Martin Dempsey, who held the position before Dunford, went on to teach at Duke University and was elected chairman of USA Basketball. Admiral Michael Mullen, who preceded Dempsey, joined the board of General Motors and later telecom giant Sprint.
According to Wilkerson, then-Chairman Powell was conscious of the appearance of conflicts of interest and instilled in his employees a sensitivity.
Wilkerson recalled a conversation he had with Powell right after his retirement. “What’s next, boss?” Wilkerson asked Powell. "Well, it'll not be some defense contractor or some beltway bandit. That practice is pernicious," he responded. Powell spoke to various members of Congress about their responsibility to rein in the practice, and tried to raise awareness of how widespread it was becoming, according to Wilkerson.
Current ethics laws include various cooling off periods that limit a former government employee’s job options. These periods range from a few years to a lifetime, depending on how much an individual was personally involved in the decisions to award contracts. This means top officials actually have fewer restrictions than contracting officers that were directly involved in the awards, even though they have more influence and likely more valuable connections. And the restrictions mostly prevent former officials from taking positions that involve representing or lobbying for a contractor, which is why there was no restriction on Dunford joining Lockheed’s board.
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The Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told POGO that Dunford “has certain post-government employment restrictions,” but wouldn’t go into more detail. Dunford “at all times complied with his ethics obligations related to post-government employment,” according to the emailed statement. The office would not release the underlying documents laying out the department’s ethics opinions. POGO has filed Freedom of Information Act Requests to learn more about Dunford’s ethical restrictions.
A POGO study of the revolving door in 2018 found that current ethics regulations are insufficient, rely on self-reporting, and are full of loopholes. For example, the current ethics rules do not apply to senior officials who shape requirements, drive policy changes and could influence the award of substantial contracts. In addition, the law does not ban “behind-the-scenes” work, meaning a new hire can help a contractor win contracts as long as they aren’t personally picking up the phone or attending meetings.
Thousands of Pentagon employees who do fall under the ethics regulations pass through the revolving door each year. Enforcement of the regulations is rare, though, with only four people prosecuted for violations in the past 16 years. Because the current system requires voluntary disclosure of employment plans, and because the current laws are vague and complex, prosecutions for violations are unlikely to serve as a deterrent to illegal behavior. It is impossible to know if the low frequency of prosecutions in the current system is due to inadequate enforcement or high compliance with lax laws.
Loading Boards with Political Influence
POGO has tracked hundreds of instances of high-level defense officials as they traveled the familiar path from the Department of Defense to contractor. For the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps, those ranks include colonel and above; for the Navy, those ranks are captain and above.
Since 2008, POGO found 42 senior defense officials “revolved” into Lockheed within two years of leaving the government. This includes the former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Steven Walker, who joined Lockheed as its chief technology officer shortly after leaving his government position. DARPA is responsible for developing and fielding new technologies for the armed services. Under Walker’s tenure as director, the agency awarded Lockheed Martin over $285 million in contracts, according to government data. Records obtained by POGO indicate that he began talking to his future employer in October 2019, three months before he left DARPA, and disqualified himself from working on anything that would benefit Lockheed Martin, as the law requires. Walker left DARPA on a Friday and started at Lockheed on the following Monday. This move is possible because nothing in the law bars a senior official from immediately working for a defense contractor that benefits from the agency’s contracts, or even from plotting their next career move while in government service.
POGO examined the boards of the top five defense contractors and found that all have at least two sitting former high-ranking military officials. General Dynamics and Raytheon had four each, Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman had two each.
The full number of revolvers is difficult to determine. Our database currently contains 408 individuals who either went to work directly with defense contractors that were awarded over $10 million that year or went to work with lobbying firms that list defense industry clients. The POGO database relies on open source information. Another study, by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found that between 2009 and 2011, 70% of three and four-star generals and admirals who retired took gigs with defense contractors or consultancies.
In 2008, the National Defense Authorization Act required the Department of Defense to maintain its own database to track officials that seek employment with contractors. Multiple inspector general reports have found the department’s record keeping to be spotty and incomplete. A Government Accountability Office study of that data found that in 2006, about 86,000 military and civilian personnel who had left service since 2001 were employed by 52 major defense contractors. The study also found that 1,581 former senior officials were employed by just seven contractors. The office estimated that 422 former officials could have worked on contracts related to their former agencies. Attempts to obtain the database through FOIA have resulted in only highly redacted copies being released.
Wilkerson believes a message is being sent down from the top. “I think people have lost sight of this being any kind of ethical matter at all and it doesn’t help to have a president, a commander in chief, who has pretty much articulated that it doesn’t matter. We’re all in life for profit, we’re all in life to transact,” he said.
From 25 Hearings in One Year, to None in 60 Years
This issue is far from new. In a 1959 House hearing, then-Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover put it this way, when asked about the influence of the revolving door: “I myself don’t get pressured by outsiders, but they do go higher up and get pressure put on me that way. … It is generally in the nature of urging me to undertake new projects which we consider not worthwhile ... it is almost subversive not to want to spend Government money.”
That year alone, there were 25 hearings before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee for Special Investigations on the topic of the revolving door and its malign influences. President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous farewell address warning of the military-industrial complex just two years later.
“I sense there is an odorous aura created by the extensive hiring of retired military personnel. This practice of hiring retired officials smells to the high heavens and races with missiles and aircraft to outer space,” Representative Alfred E. Santangelo (D-NY) said in another hearing on September 1, 1959.
In 1969, Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) warned that the revolving door was “solid evidence of the military industrial-complex in operation” and that it was a “real threat to the public interest because it increases the chances of abuse.” McCain was a more recent critic of the dynamic and quoted Proxmire in a 2011 speech on the Senate floor decrying the corrosive effects of the military industrial complex.
Despite this sort of occasional criticism, an analysis by POGO did not find a congressional hearing explicitly on the issue of the Pentagon revolving door in over 60 years.
When the highest ranked military official in the country joins the board of the largest defense contractor in the world shortly after retirement, this is the very situation that Ike warned against. There is some hope that the law will soon start to catch up. In May of last year, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced legislation that would, as Warren put it, “[end] the stranglehold of defense contractors.” The legislation would impose a four-year ban on contactors hiring senior officials who managed that company’s contracts, and extend existing bans. It would also require contractors to submit annual reports on the employment of former senior officials and would ban senior officials from owning stock in major defense contractors. Another piece of legislation, passed by the House in March 2019, would broaden ethics rules and expand prohibitions on former officials receiving compensation from contractors. It is currently sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk.
The American public should be able to be confident that our top military officials are making decisions in the interest of national security, not to secure a cushy board position.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.