The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Almost two years into Trump presidency, Pentagon’s revolving door still spins

(Charles Dharapak/AP)

Almost two years after Donald Trump came to Washington pledging to “drain the swamp” of special interests and clear waste from the Pentagon’s supply chain, a steady stream of retired generals, admirals and government procurement officers are still accepting lucrative positions with companies that do business with the military.

A report released Monday by the advocacy group Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found that major U.S. defense contractors have hired hundreds of former high-level government officials in recent years, including at least 50 since Trump became president. The report lends new visibility to long-standing concerns about a revolving door between the government agencies that award major contracts for military supplies and services and the businesses that profit from those contracts.

Corporate influence in Washington was a campaign trail rallying point for Trump, who said soon after the 2016 election that there should be a “lifetime restriction” on top defense officials going to work for defense contractors. “The people that are making these deals for the government, they should never be allowed to go work for those companies,” he said on Fox News Channel.

In early 2017, Trump signed an executive order imposing a five-year ban on administration officials lobbying agencies in which they have served and a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments. But Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler noted that Trump has weakened lobbying restrictions put in place by previous presidents.

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Although it is hard to say whether revolving-door activity has increased or decreased during the Trump presidency, it is clear that defense firms are still eager to hire those with high-level military experience.

POGO identified 645 instances in the past 10 years in which a retired senior official, member of Congress or senior legislative staff member became employed as a registered lobbyist, board member or business executive at a major government contractor. It counted many more “instances” of revolving-door hires than actual people because some retired officials had stints with multiple companies during their post-military careers.

By POGO’s accounting, those walking through the revolving door included 25 generals, nine admirals, 43 lieutenant generals and 23 vice admirals. About 90 percent of those people became registered lobbyists, POGO found.

Although the report did not point to direct violations of the law, it said the U.S. national security establishment is “skewed by undue influence” because public officials might try to curry favor with the hopes of obtaining future employment.

“Many of the instances do, however, show the revolving door spinning out of control due to ethics laws that are insufficient to protect the public interest,” wrote Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at POGO.

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The individuals’ names have been published online in a database maintained by POGO, something that may raise hackles in a beltway lobbying sector where public scrutiny is usually not desired. Most of the people named in POGO’s database appear to have already publicized their roles in news releases or government disclosures, however.

The top five defense contractors by federal contract receipts — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — each hired more than a dozen former high-level officials in the past decade, POGO found. Major defense contractors contacted by The Washington Post said the report showed their commitment to hiring veterans.

“We pride ourselves in hiring those who have served,” said General Dynamics spokesman Jeff Davis, whose company reported last year that about 17 percent of its workforce had some military experience.

Boeing spokesman Dan Curran said the aircraft contractor “is proud that our workforce includes more than 20,000 veterans and that we have given millions of dollars to help train service members and support their families as they transition into civilian life."

Spokespeople from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman declined to comment, and a Raytheon spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The White House and the defense secretary’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Boeing’s Arlington-based defense business, which has experienced a surge in new program wins in recent years under chief executive Leanne Caret, has been a favored landing place for departing high-level military officials, according to POGO’s analysis. POGO identified 19 retired high-level military officials who were hired by Boeing.

General Dynamics, which is building the Navy’s Columbia-class nuclear submarine and has expanded its work in the military IT space, hired five former high-level officials by POGO’s accounting and employed 63 registered lobbyists who had government experience.

POGO’s database identified 19 former high-level officials hired by Raytheon, 37 for Lockheed Martin and 24 for Northrop Grumman.

Among hundreds of high-profile revolving-door hires highlighted in POGO’s report: retired Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, who oversaw Navy aircraft programs before joining Boeing’s “Phantom Works” research and development unit; retired Rear Adm. James Murdoch, who oversaw the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship as program executive officer before joining Lockheed Martin, one of the prime contractors on that program; retired Rear Adm. Thomas Wears, who oversaw Navy submarine programs before joining Northrop Grumman in a technology development role; former F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program executive Christopher Bogdan, who recently joined the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton; former U.S. Strategic Command deputy commander James Kowalski, a retired Air Force general who joined Northrop Grumman last year; and former deputy defense secretary Robert Work, who joined Raytheon’s board last year.

Several of them have direct experience in business areas that are relevant to their new employers. Retired Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey was director of the Pentagon agency that coordinates U.S. arms sales abroad before joining Lockheed Martin last year as vice president of international program support.

In an interview with Politico Pro, Rixey noted the international sales opportunities that defense companies can find in Saudi Arabia.

“That’s a large opportunity as well with the Kingdom’s desire to procure systems from the United States,” he told Politico Pro.

The report also draws attention to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s work with the now-dissolved blood testing start-up Theranos. When he was head of U.S. Central Command, Mattis pressed the Army to procure the company’s blood-testing system in 2012, before leaving the military in 2013 and joining the Theranos board.

In another incident that was covered in depth by the Los Angeles Times, a Marine Corps general, James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, worked to extend a major Army radar system, which benefited Raytheon, before joining Raytheon’s board.

In other cases, a sort of “reverse revolving door” has come into play in which defense executives have been appointed to high-profile government roles. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had been a senior vice president at Boeing before his appointment, something that became a point of contention during his confirmation hearing last year.

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POGO’s findings were unsurprising to many in Washington, where former government officials can make a healthy living leveraging their experience and connections for consulting and lobbying jobs.

Loren Thompson, a defense consultant whose think tank gets funding from defense contractors, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, said it is extremely rare for former high-level officials to become full-time lobbyists, although many may register as lobbyists so they are cleared to have discussions with lawmakers.

“This report reflects the same concerns that president Eisenhower did when he coined the phrase ‘military industrial complex.' . . . He was worried about a self-serving community of people who benefit from military spending, and that, implicitly, is what POGO is addressing,” Thompson said. “But obviously senior military officers have very specialized skills, and they have many years ahead of them when they retire from military service. If you used to command a fighter wing in the military, where are you supposed to put those skills to work once you retire?”

A 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office, the government’s primary auditing agency, found that the 52 largest defense companies employed 2,435 people who had been generals, admirals, military program managers or acquisitions officials. It found that 422 of them were in a position to work on projects they had overseen during their government service. Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Raytheon made the most prolific use of the Pentagon’s revolving door, the GAO found.

Although most of the high-profile hires POGO identified were publicized by the hiring companies or the employees themselves, POGO’s list may be the only public attempt to identify all of them.

Under a 2008 law, the Pentagon is required to maintain a database of ethics opinions issued for senior officials and officers who seek employment with defense contractors. But advocacy groups say that list has never been made public, and the Defense Department’s inspector general said in 2010 and in 2014 that the Pentagon had not completed that database, concluding that it “may not have fully complied with the intent of this law."