Skip to content

Warren: Hundreds of former feds working for defense corporations

Revolving-door practice gives 'at minimum, the appearance of corruption and favoritism,' report says

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wants tighter limitations on former officials who become lobbyists after leaving the Defense Department.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wants tighter limitations on former officials who become lobbyists after leaving the Defense Department. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Nearly 700 former top federal civilian officials, generals and admirals now work for major defense contractors, and the lion’s share of them are lobbyists, according to a new Senate report obtained by CQ Roll Call.

The report, compiled by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is titled, “Pentagon Alchemy: How Defense Officials Pass Through the Revolving Door and Peddle Brass for Gold.” It will be made public Wednesday as Warren chairs an Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearing on the movement of senior decision-makers between the top echelons of the U.S. government and the executive suites of the largest U.S. defense contractors.

The hearing will also examine how some retired brass net huge contracts from foreign governments.

The defense industry is hiring former top government officials precisely because of their ability to influence Pentagon budgets, Warren suggested in the report, and she said that this activity must be more rigorously restricted.

“This practice is widespread in the defense industry, giving, at minimum, the appearance of corruption and favoritism, and potentially increasing the chance that DoD spending results in ineffective weapons and programs, bad deals, and waste of taxpayer dollars,” Warren’s report said.

Four-star suits

Warren found 672 cases in 2022 of “former government officials, military officers, Members of Congress, and senior legislative staff” working for top-20 American defense contractors. Some of the ex-officials have become board members or senior executives, but almost all — fully 91 percent — have taken jobs as registered lobbyists for the contractors, either working in-house or hired by the companies.

The report indicates that the universe of ex-officials peddling influence for defense contractors might be larger than 672. That is because many former government employees are not registered lobbyists but still perform advocacy work for defense corporations using titles such as consultant.

Nearly half the contractor executives worked for the top five Pentagon defense contractors — those that build major weapons, military aircraft, warships, ground vehicles, rockets and satellites.

Examples cited in the report include retired Adm. John Richardson, a former chief of naval operations, on the Boeing Co. board of directors; former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, a member of Raytheon’s board; former Defense Secretary James Mattis, a member of the General Dynamics Corp. board; and Adm. Pete Giambastiani, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who headed the military council that sets weapons requirements, now a top lobbyist for General Electric.

The report does not name many other former top officials, lawmakers and senior staff who work directly for defense contractors or who are hired by them from advocacy organizations.

For instance, former House Armed Services Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who is not named in the report, has his own lobbying shop and is a registered lobbyist for Lockheed Martin.

The defense contractors employing former government officials also include drug companies such as Pfizer, Humana, Moderna and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Foreign angle

Besides U.S. defense companies hiring former government officials as representatives and advocates, foreign governments are also hiring them.

Some of these governments’ human rights records are questionable, or their policies clash with America’s, as The Washington Post has reported. On Tuesday, the Post disclosed that Army Gen. Keith Alexander, a former National Security Agency director, has since his retirement reaped $2 million in consulting contracts from Saudi Arabia and Japan.

Warren and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Monday asking for a list of names of former military officers and Defense Department officials who are working for or have applied to work for foreign governments.

The phenomenon of former government officials who now work for defense contractors may be growing. The 672 cited in Warren’s report is slightly higher than the 645 found by the Project on Government Oversight in a 2018 study that used comparable methodology. But the 672 cases is considerably more than the 291 cases that group found in a similar review in 2004.

Divided loyalties

Some national security experts argue that it is not only natural but also beneficial for America if people with defense-related skills can work for defense contractors or the government, or both.

But Warren and others are concerned about the possibility of a government official occasionally tilting a contract or a policy to favor a future employer.

In 2004, for example, Darleen Druyun, a former top Air Force acquisition official who later went to work for Boeing, was sentenced to jail for corruption. While she worked at the Air Force and before going to work for Boeing, Druyun had forced the Air Force to pay more than necessary for Boeing midair refueling tankers and provided Boeing with proprietary information about a rival’s bid on the program.

Warren also worries that a former government official who works for a defense contractor may provide the company with sway over federal policy and acquisition decisions that is more a product of that ex-official’s connections than the merits of the company’s products or services.

Restrictions

Wednesday’s hearing is the opening salvo in a 2023 version of a long-standing debate over whether to tighten restrictions on the revolving door.

Over the years, many laws and rules have been put in place to more closely regulate the back-and-forth traffic between the top levels of government and the defense industry.

Current law sets a number of conditions governing former Defense Department officials’ work for defense contractors. The restrictions vary depending on the rank of the individual, the kind of government work the person performed in the public sector, and the sort of contractor work or advocacy the person might do in the private sector.

The more senior the official — or the closer the private sector work relates to contracts or other business over which the former government official had once been involved — the stricter the rules are.

In most cases, for example, officials must wait one to two years before lobbying for or representing a company.

Warren is once again championing a bill she first filed in 2019 that would impose a four-year waiting period before former Defense officials can be hired by defense contractors.

Ironically, perhaps, in January 2021, during Austin’s confirmation hearing, Warren obtained from him a promise to recuse himself for four years, not two, from major decisions pertaining to one of his former employers, Raytheon.

Uncertain path

Warren’s measure, which she has not yet filed in this Congress, would also bar contractors from hiring former Defense officials to manage contracts.

The measure would also mandate that companies provide detailed reports on former Defense officials whom the companies employ.

Moreover, the bill would ban senior Defense officials from owning any stock in a major defense contractor and would bar all Defense employees from owning any stock in contractors if the employee can use their official position to influence the stock’s value.

When individuals move the other way through the revolving door — from industry to the Pentagon — the bill would require them to recuse themselves from participating in any matter that affects the financial interests of their former employer for four years.

“These safeguards would slow the revolving door, improving government ethics, and bolstering the integrity of the DoD contracting process — actions that, as this investigation demonstrates, are desperately needed,” Warren’s report said.

Warren’s bill has yet to get close to clearing Congress. It is not clear which House lawmakers might sponsor the bill in this session. In the past, the House champion was Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., but she retired at the end of the last Congress.

Recent Stories

Lee, Fitzpatrick win primaries as fall matchups set in PA

Aid finally set to flow as Senate clears $95.3B emergency bill

Flag fracas: Republicans ‘infuriated’ by show of support for Ukraine  

Justice Department settles claims on USA Gymnastics investigation

Senate looks to clear aid bill Tuesday night with no amendments

‘Cruelty and chaos’: Biden hits Trump in Florida over abortion bans