The Bridge: Come, You Masters of War

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Long ago, President Dwight Eisenhower cautioned the nation about the insidious influence of what he dubbed the “military-industrial complex.” But today, the defense industry has the Pentagon in a vise grip, thanks to presidents tapping appointees with defense contractor ties.

Presidents rely on the Pentagon for recommendations about the effectiveness of defense systems, the military’s readiness for action, and whether to go to war. The public suffers if the war machine prioritizes profits over national security and shareholder returns over lives.

“You That Build the Big Guns, You That Build the Death Planes, You That Build All the Bombs…” ♫

The prospect of rotating out through the Pentagon’s revolving door creates a temptation for officials to curry favor with defense contractors. One former Pentagon official who succumbed to that temptation has admitted that she agreed to an inflated contract price so she could “ingratiate” herself with Boeing. The company later hired her — that is, before she went to jail.

Officials rotating into the Pentagon are subject to influence too. Time spent working for a defense contractor can shape an official’s perceptions of contractor performance and potentially shape their outlook on war. Just last week, for example, Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes offered investors this ghoulish assessment of the rising tensions in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea: “I fully expect we’re going to see some benefit from it.” Hayes cautioned shareholders not to be too disappointed if the possible bloodshed doesn’t yield a quick return on investment, saying, “You’re not going to see an immediate benefit here because what you'll see is a reallocation of inventory that we already have out there with the services.”

Raytheon, the company that shaped Hayes’ view of war, also has ties to President Joe Biden’s defense secretary. Before joining the Biden administration, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sat on Raytheon’s board of directors, where he and other board members oversaw Hayes and the rest of the company’s executives.

In the last seven years, all four Senate-confirmed defense secretaries came from the defense industry, as did three of the five acting defense secretaries. President Donald Trump appointed many of them, including Patrick Shanahan, who spent over three decades at Boeing. But Trump was neither the first nor the last president to fill the Pentagon with defense contractors.

I recently surveyed filings with the Office of Government Ethics to see how many of President Biden’s Pentagon picks had contractor ties. Turns out, he’s giving the nation more of what it always gets: I counted 17 nominees and appointees to top Pentagon posts who served as defense contractor directors, executives, lawyers, consultants, and shadow lobbyists. That includes the big four: the secretaries of Defense, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. It includes the president’s picks for three undersecretary and nine assistant secretary positions. (An 18th individual, the department’s general counsel, was a lawyer for an insurance company that was investigated for allegedly denying too many claims by overseas military personnel.)

The number of officials rotating out of the Pentagon to defense contractor jobs is just as troubling. In a November 2018 report, POGO identified 645 instances of defense contractors hiring former senior government officials, military officers, members of Congress, and senior legislative staff as lobbyists, board members, or senior executives in the first 10 months of 2018 alone. That figure was based on a survey of just 20 top contractors, so the total number was likely even higher. In fact, the Government Accountability Office reports that, during 2019, 14 major defense contractors were employing a whopping 37,000 former defense officials who had left government between 2014 and 2019 — including over 1,700 former government contracting officials.

A more focused review that POGO published in 2022 identified 36 top officials who went to work for defense contractors in 2021. One of them, Heidi Grant, was once called the “top Pentagon arms sales official.” She publicly touted Boeing’s F15-QA jet as the “most capable fighters in the world,” after having told ethics officials she was negotiating for a job with Boeing. Sounding like a Boeing salesperson, she said, “These aircraft represent a transformational leap in capability.” Who knows? Maybe they do, but I’d rather hear it from someone who wasn’t trying to land a job with Boeing.

“Is Your Money That Good? Will It Buy You Forgiveness . . .” ♫

The public should wonder if the Pentagon’s coziness with companies has led it to overlook contracting failures. Take the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system, the F-35 fighter jet, for example. The plane has been plagued by design flaws, leading one prior supporter in Congress to call it a “fiasco.” Then there’s the report that said the Pentagon decided to arm Afghan troops with aircraft “that few but U.S. contractors knew how to maintain.” And American soldiers died as a result of faulty wiring that a contractor, KBR (formerly Halliburton), maintained in Iraq, despite the Army’s awareness of the contractor’s failures. When contractors, instead of military personnel, have engaged directly in war fighting, the government hasn’t exercised enough control over them to prevent atrocities, and the public has lacked access to information about their activities.

A new inspector general report reveals that the Pentagon has been overpaying a contractor, TransDigm, for spare parts. Mandy Smithberger, then-director of POGO’s Center for Defense Information, testified in Congress last month that “TransDigm isn’t the only company collecting excess profits at the expense of taxpayers and other defense programs.” For a catalogue of more contracting disappointments, check out POGO’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

The Pentagon should always put the public’s interest before the defense industry’s bottom line, but that just isn’t happening. There’s a saying in government that “personnel is policy.” My time in government taught me that’s true. If presidents and members of Congress keep putting the Pentagon in the hands of defense contractors, the real masters of war will continue to sit in corporate board rooms and corporate executive suites. Their focus will always be on money, not lives. They helped give us two decades of war. They’ll help give us more if the revolving door keeps spinning for individuals who, like Raytheon’s CEO, see deadly hostilities and the bottom line as one in the same.