The Bridge: Coming Out of Retirement

Some retired members of the military are working with foreign interests — and that’s a problem

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It’s no longer en vogue to retire to Florida

Since 2010, more than 500 retired or reserve U.S. service members have taken jobs working for foreign interests. And some of these jobs are lucrative really lucrative. In some cases, former service members were raking in six- and even seven-figure salaries. More than half of those jobs were for work with the United Arab Emirates, a country the U.S. government has publicly criticized for its gross human rights violations. Bizarrely, our government is rubber stamping the emoluments waivers that allow for all this.

In this edition:

  • What are emoluments waivers?
  • What’s happening on paper is bad…
  • But what’s happening off paper could be worse

Late last year, we won a nearly two-year-long Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit for access to emoluments waivers from the State Department. My colleague, POGO Research Associate Julienne McClure, wrote a fantastic investigation into what the waivers revealed about an apparent pipeline between U.S. military service and later work for foreign interests. I chatted with her to get a clearer picture of the issue.

Read Julienne’s investigation

But first, some context.

 What is an emoluments waiver?

The emoluments clause in our Constitution bars holders of federal office (including members of the military) from receiving emoluments (gifts, payments, or anything of financial value) from a foreign state. An emoluments waiver — which demands an intensive vetting and approval process — allows former service members to circumvent the clause and take jobs working on behalf of foreign interests. Since 2015, 95% of submitted waiver requests have been granted.

What we don’t know 

Most of the names on the waivers are redacted, and any information about new titles or job descriptions are vague things like “battle trainer,” “consultant,” or “advisor.”

What’s really interesting is that the waivers don’t specify what countries these former service members have gone on to work for. “The boilerplate template tells us what company the service member is working for, but the template doesn’t always ask or tell where they are going,” Julienne told me. “We were able to find many locations through our research, but thereare still a couple dozen waiver recipients working for an undisclosed foreign interest.

What’s worse: There’s absolutely no monitoring of what these former U.S. service members do once they start their new jobs with foreign governments — as in, there’s no mechanism for ensuring they don’t disclose sensitive or classified U.S. defense intel to their new employers.

What we do know 

is that these jobs can pay very handsomely. According to documents obtained by the Washington Post in a similar lawsuit, four lower-ranking retired officers consulting for the Saudi Ministry of Defense earned salaries ranging from $200,000 to $300,000. A retired Air Force general was offered a consulting gig in Azerbaijan at the rate of $5,000 perday. The financial incentive to consult for these foreign interests is high.

Retired U.S. generals, admirals take top jobs with Saudi crown prince

There’s a looming question here:

Isn’t it possible that these poached service members either had pre-existing relationships with the countries that hired them or pre-conceived plans to work for those countries after retirement? Were service members, then, acting in the U.S.’s best interests before retirement, or were they working toward foreign interests after mentally putting in their two weeks’ notice?

There’s a huge potential for conflicts of interest here. What if service members were looking to curry favor with future employers by advancing foreign interests while still working for the U.S.?

Take Charles Frank Bolden, former administrator of NASA. During his nearly eight years at NASA, Bolden often pushed the importance of bolstering stronger scientific collaboration between the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. Six months before he retired, he signed and formalized a deal that operationalized this collaboration on space development and research between the two countries. About a year later, Bolden received a waiver to accept a job working in the United Arab Emirates as a member of the Emirati Space Advisory Committee. Julienne wrote in her investigation, “There is little doubt of a preexisting relationship between the former NASA chief and the United Arab Emirates” before there was even a waiver.

There’s a lot at stake 

This is just what’s happening on paper. What’s happening off paper is a lot worse.

The Washington Postfound that there are many retired service members who take on foreign job offers without notifying the government at all. There’s no mechanism to identify or track these cases, and no criminal punishment for failing to get a waiver. That means there could easily be service members getting paid by foreign interests while influencing U.S. national security policy and swaying public opinion right now, and we’d have no way of knowing.

“Most of the names on these waivers were redacted. But the names that weren’t redacted — these were people who were opining on national security matters and potentially influencing policy, and it wasn’t public knowledge that they had these foreign ties,” Julienne said.

As taxpayers, we have the right to demand that the loyalty of our federal officials, including members of the U.S. military, lies with us and not elsewhere. The good news is that Congress is taking notice. A bipartisan group of members from both the House and Senate is demanding answers from the Biden administration. Since Congress created this problem by enacting the emoluments waiver process into law, it is up to Congress to fix it now by advancing reforms and restrictions like:

  • Prohibiting working for certain problematic regimes, like foreign adversaries, countries with poor human rights records, nations that don’t respect religious freedoms, and authoritarian governments, among others.
  • Implementing “cooling-off periods” between career switches.
  • Expanding the information collected in the waiver applications.
  • Making sure there’s a robust examination of potential conflicts of interest.
  • Increasing public transparency of the process as a whole.