I was not alone in my shock that the FBI seized electronic data allegedly revealing former four-star General John Allen as a foreign agent. He secretly lobbied on behalf of the monarchy in Qatar, and the public only found out about the FBI’s action after a journalist noticed a curious US government filing in a federal court case. Since the revelations last week, Allen first went on administrative leave from his presidency of the Brookings Institution — a major think tank in Washington that also happens to take foreign government and corporate money — before resigning this weekend from the post.
However, that should not be the end of public attention to this story. Allen is just the latest in a long list of former US military officers and leaders who have lined up to push the interests of foreign governments in Washington — apparently within this country’s highest national security echelons.
If anyone in power is actually serious about not selling our foreign policy to the highest bidder — such as the Biden administration, which declared corruption a priority national security threat at the beginning of its term — there are a slew of reforms that are low-hanging fruit that can be achieved if it can muster the political courage.
THE REVOLVING DOOR RUN BY CORRUPTION
Despite all the focus on attacking President Vladimir Putin’s corruption in response to his illegal invasion of Ukraine, there has been little attention paid to the deep corruption at the Pentagon during the Biden presidency. Even though the rot at the Pentagon mimics the same lack of accountability for Wall Street and Big Oil CEOs that has so animated progressive social movements in recent decades, the opacity of the Pentagon’s global apparatus and entrenched pay-to-play culture in Washington has helped military elites elude scrutiny.
The revolving door from retired general to foreign government lobbyist has been wide open for years. Let’s start with Trump’s first (of many) national security advisors, and QAnon conspiracy theorist, General Michael Flynn. Flynn headed up the Department of Defense Intelligence Agency leadership for two years before then-President Barack Obama terminated him for “temperament” issues, after which he joined Trump’s electoral campaign. Then, after Trump was elected president, he appointed Flynn as his national security advisor. But he lasted just 24 days as one of the most powerful national security officials in the US government before he was outed as a foreign agent for both Russia and the Turkish government as part of its long-sought campaign to get the US government to extradite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political foe, Fetullah Gulen who lives in exile in Pennsylvania.
The revolving door from retired general to foreign government lobbyist has been wide open for years. And the Pentagon’s opacity has helped military elites elude scrutiny.
Then there’s Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Before the US Senate’s confirmation to head the Pentagon, Mattis was a paid advisor to the United Arab Emirates armed forces: the same forces involved in the war in Yemen. Mattis helped popularize “Little Sparta” as the Washington pet name for the UAE military, based on its counterterrorism operations. Yet, these same operations depended on paying off al-Qaida members to clear villages of the group in Yemen. Operations also consisted of recruiting militants into their fight against the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition’s military intervention against the Houthis, including the diversion of US-sold weapons to such forces. And it was after Mattis’ advising of the Emirati military, and during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, that reports leaked of former US special forces operators being hired by the UAE as mercenary assassins to take out political rivals in Yemen, and of the Emirati monarchy’s hiring of former US National Security Agency operatives being contracted to hack Americans.
It would be unwise to think the corruption of the US military, particularly amongst its uniformed leadership, stops there, or it began with the Trump administration. Like most things during his tenure, Trump just took existing policies to their logical, often corrupt, or abusive conclusion. Moreover, the revolving door at the Pentagon isn’t just with foreign governments and rogue agents that are usually interested in leveraging former military power players to achieve less than peaceful ends. The revolving door between military leadership and government-subsidized war corporations is perhaps even broader and just as concerning.
Lest we forget Trump’s last two Secretaries of Defense were former Boeing and Raytheon executives — the latter of which is a key US taxpayer-subsidized manufacturer of precision-guided munitions used by the Saudi-led coalition in its war crimes in Yemen. Meanwhile, General John Kelly, Trump’s once-Secretary of Homeland Security, later turned chief of staff — and whom the political media framed as one of the “adults in the room” — was in office just long enough to ensure that some of Stephen Miller’s (Trump’s senior advisor) most severe border restrictions, to terrorize families seeking safety at the US southern border, were in place. Never you mind, Kelly now stands to profit from these policies — which the Biden administration has largely kept in place — after joining the board of Caliburn International, a federal contractor operating the largest child migrant shelter in the country.
IT’S TIME FOR SOME STRUCTURAL REFORMS
Within this context, Allen’s secret lobbying for Qatar takes on a different meaning. The Trump years were rife with blatant foreign influence campaigns by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the UAE amidst these authoritarians’ push for a US war with Iran. Still, they certainly weren’t the first, so it’s really not surprising that exchanges of money were involved. What is surprising is that there appears to be potential accountability for these pay-to-play practices that, short of the rare enforcement of failing to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agent Registry Act, are by and large not outlawed by departmental policy or statute.
For example, while law dictates that retired military officers receive permission from their service branches and the State Department to be paid by foreign governments, they’re not required to make that list public. As a result of such secrecy, the public only became aware that Mattis had been a military advisor to the UAE because the Project on Government Oversight found out via a Freedom Of Information Act suit. Moreover, while the Department of Defense keeps a database of former military officials who have sought ethics opinions to work for military contractors after their military service — called the After Government Employment Advisory Repository database — it is not public. Like most Defense Department systems, it would be folly to think tracking equals oversight. Further, this advisory requirement only applies to certain levels of DOD employees and procurement and financial officials who also received a job offer from a military contractor within two years of their Pentagon employment. This unnecessarily narrows the scope of who has conflicts of interests and ethics requirements as they pass through the revolving door to an industry subsidized by the government they just served.
At a minimum, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should direct these data to be made public, or Congress can require their regular public disclosure in the statute. Doing either would provide a critical public oversight tool to reign in the grift, but it would ultimately only be a tourniquet on a gaping wound. If the Biden administration is truly committed to prioritizing anticorruption for US national security (as has been Democrats’ claim since 2018), it should not stop at one-off criminal probes or common sense transparency reforms. While important, this moment demands structural reform to close the revolving door, ban golden and brass parachutes, enforce and strengthen conflict of interest laws, and outlaw foreign government lobbying, to name a few.
Did you know Senator Elizabeth Warren already has a plan for that?
Kate Kizer is a senior non-resident fellow for US national security policy at the Center for International Policy and is a columnist at Inkstick.