An article in last Wednesday’s USA TODAY caught my attention because of its “military nature.”
Actually, it didn’t just catch my attention. With its front page column titled “Military’s ‘senior mentors’ cashing in,” and another two-page spread on the inside, it jumped at me, grabbed and kept my undivided attention.
The article dealt with what has apparently become common practice among high-ranking, retired military officers: Consulting for the Pentagon (“mentoring”), working and/or consulting for defense contractors, and sitting on various boards for defense contractors—sometimes all at the same time.
“Senior mentors” are retired military officers who “help run war games and offer advice to former [military] colleagues,” some making “as much as $330 an hour as part-time government advisers.”
USA TODAY lists the names and roles of 158 senior mentors and says, “Of that number, 80% had financial ties to defense contractors, according to public records and interviews, including 29 who were full-time executives of defense companies.”
USA TODAY emphasizes that performing such dual roles is not prohibited by law or regulation.
In one case, according to USA TODAY, a retired admiral who mentors for the Pentagon is also a defense consultant, a board member of a weapons maker and a registered lobbyist for a city in Florida, lobbying the Navy and Defense Department “on military basing issues”—apparently all at the same time.
My initial tongue-in-cheek reaction in a letter to USA TODAY was:
As a retired Air Force officer, I found USA TODAY’s investigation of the various Pentagon “senior mentor,” defense contractor and consultant roles that our retired generals and admirals are serving in — often simultaneously — fascinating and eye-opening (“Military’s ‘senior mentors’ cashing in,” Cover story, News, Wednesday).
Whether these activities by our high-ranking retired military pose conflicts of interest, or ethical issues, is a tough call. I would think that in the vast majority of cases, the integrity and professionalism of these retired officers would prevent any abuse of the system.
Even so, in my opinion, being a Defense Department lobbyist, Pentagon senior mentor, consultant and board member of a contractor, all at the same time, might be pushing the envelope just a bit.
Then again, this view might just be sour grapes on the part of a lowly retired major, who rose to the rank only of defense contractor employee and consultant (not at the same time) after military retirement.
On Thursday, USA TODAY published McCain’s reaction, which was not so tongue-in-cheek, along with reactions by other members of Congress, under the headline “McCain wants review on defense work by retired brass.”
According to USA TODAY, McCain was among several members of Congress who called for changes in the wake of the USA TODAY investigation:
McCain said he would prohibit officers from mentoring at war games that deal with weapons systems or other issues of interest to the defense companies that pay them. Mentors should also have to disclose their financial ties to defense contractors, McCain said. “I’m sure most of them would have no problem with that,” he said.
Also on Thursday, in USA TODAY:
A spokesman for Marine Corps Commandant James Conway said in a statement that the program offers a high return for a modest investment. “We are comfortable that a clear line separates the work our mentors do for us and any outside corporate interests they might have, and to assume otherwise is unfair,” Maj. David Nevers said.
“Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Air Force, Army and Navy declined to comment on USA TODAY’s findings or the reaction from Congress….Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the House subcommittee that writes the defense budget, called for Pentagon officials to explain the mentor programs. “The committee was not aware of this program, and we have told the Defense Department to immediately provide us with the justification and criteria for this kind of work,” Murtha said in a statement.
Then, on Friday, USA TODAY reported:
A Senate oversight panel launched an investigation Thursday into the Pentagon’s use of retired admirals and generals as paid advisers, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said defense officials also are reviewing the practice.
Adm. Michael Mullen said the military services were examining their “senior mentor” programs because of concerns raised by a USA TODAY investigation published Wednesday.
“This is a group of individuals who provide incredibly valuable, seasoned, wise advice,” Mullen said. “But at the same time, we have to be terrific stewards of the taxpayers’ money. We have to be aware of any conflicts of interest or a perception of conflicts of interest.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, said that she will investigate this issue and in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, McCaskill said that the USA TODAY story “raised disturbing questions about the ways in which defense contractors might be influencing the (Defense) department through the ‘senior mentors.'”
The letter asked Gates for five years’ worth of data, including the identities of mentors, what they worked on, their pay and any disclosures about potential conflicts of interest.
In an interview, McCaskill said the retired generals may provide a valuable service, “but until we know everything about what they’re getting paid and what services they are providing, I think the public has the right to raise eyebrows about what could be a very big conflict of interest.”
We’ll see where the investigations lead to and what new legislation or regulations, if any, arise out of them.
Certainly there is the perception of impropriety and perhaps the possibility of conflict of interest.
But I still maintain—and this time not tongue-in-cheek—that the vast majority of our former flag rank officers are doing what is in the best interest of our military and the nation with honor and integrity, albeit the taxpayers’ generosity and credulity are being sorely tested in the face of such “triple, quadruple dipping.”
What do you think?
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.