President Joe Biden will soon nominate a new chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By all accounts, the president has excellent candidates for the role. When the nominee appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he will field questions about the nation’s most pressing national security challenges. The nominee should also address an urgent question about public integrity at the Pentagon — the revolving door. This is a chance for the nominee to set a high ethical standard by agreeing in advance that he will not immediately jump from a position of public trust to a lucrative job working on behalf of a defense contractor or a foreign adversary.
The Department of Defense is full of talented, patriotic leaders who show up to work every day to keep Americans safe. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin set a new course for the department by personally committing not to join a defense contractor board or lobby on their behalf once he leaves public service. The secretary demonstrates true leadership, but there are still too many Pentagon employees who are cozy with a vast industry of influence peddlers. The revolving door between the Department of Defense and the high-priced world of defense contracting and consulting threatens our national security — and it’s time to slap a padlock on it.
Every year, the Department of Defense receives more discretionary taxpayer dollars from the federal budget than any other part of the government. The defense industry produces the weapons we need, and it also produces enormous rewards for its executives and investors. Companies want to keep the money flowing, so they hire Pentagon officials to help them win multibillion dollar government contracts — contracts that are awarded by their own former colleagues. For example, Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest contractor, added the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to their corporate board. The boards of the Pentagon’s other top weapons contractors include former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chiefs of Naval Operations John Richardson and Gary Roughead, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh, and Vice Chairman James Winnefeld.
The defense industry revolving door pays off — for the defense industry. In 2019, a government watchdog found that the Pentagon’s 14 largest contractors had hired 1,700 former Department of Defense senior civilian and military officials. That’s an entire small town of Pentagon officials going to work for the defense industry — and the vast majority of them came straight from jobs managing contracts for the department. That same year, DoD’s six largest contractors reported $18.4 billion in profits. To many Americans, this looks like corruption.
This isn’t just about former acquisition officials winning big contracts for Boeing or Lockheed Martin. Our top national security officials commonly leave public service to hang out a shingle, providing their strategic and military advice in exchange for lucrative fees. Many end up on the payroll of foreign governments. The Washington Post found officers working “mostly in countries known for human rights abuses and political repression” like Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the United Arab Emirates. Since 2015, more than 500 retired military officers, including admirals and generals, retired from the U.S. military only to sign up to be on the payroll of foreign governments. In response to a letter I sent with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Department of Defense provided information that strongly suggests that the Pentagon routinely rubberstamps approvals for former American military officials to work for foreign governments.
Our national security policy is distorted when defense contractors have an outsized influence over the Pentagon or when senior leaders see no problem with selling their credentials to the highest bidder. The next chair of the Joint Chiefs should set an example from the top by making strong ethics commitments. In addition, the Pentagon and Congress should make other structural changes.
It’s time to tighten up our nation’s lobbying laws. That means closing loopholes that allow corporations to avoid reporting their influence-peddling activities and ending the practice of companies giving officials golden parachutes before they enter government service.
All senior military and civilian officials at the Pentagon should be barred from working for or on behalf of major contractors for at least four years after they leave service. The Constitution barred officers from working for foreign governments; we should return to that standard. Any exceptions granted by DoD should be made available to the public.
In 1959, Congress held 25 hearings to investigate the revolving door between defense contractors and senior military officials. Gen. Omar Bradley, our country’s first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified he did not believe any former government official should “bring any influence” to win contracts for a company.
Self-dealing through the revolving door undermines public confidence and fails to honor the sacrifices service members and their families make to keep this country safe. The best way to show our gratitude is to make sure national security decisions are driven only by what keeps Americans safe.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., serves as chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.
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