What Buying the Support of Top Think Tanks Gets You

Nuclear weapons contractors aren’t the only ones benefiting from nuclear modernization.

The US spends a lot of money on nuclear weapons. Last month, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) authorized tens of billions of dollars to bolster the US nuclear arsenal, most of which will go to government contractors who develop, build, and maintain these weapons — for a price.

With nearly $2 trillion for nuclear modernization on the table over the next three decades, it’s no surprise major nuclear weapons contractors are doing everything in their power to capture these coveted, costly projects. These companies spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbyists every year. Capitol Hill is no stranger to the revolving door of lobbyists that funnel in and out of its hallowed halls. It turns out that neither are the nonpartisan, independent think tanks who steer our public policy.

A COZY RELATIONSHIP

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) found that, in 2020, nuclear weapons companies donated upwards of $10 million to at least 12 think tanks that research and write about nuclear policy. These aren’t anonymous think tanks either, but rather leaders in the industry, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Atlantic Council, Hudson Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Brookings Institution. These donations are not nominal. For example, CSIS, which received around $2.7 million from nuclear weapons contractors in 2020, operates the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI). PONI identifies as the “premier networked community of next generation professionals prepared to meet the nuclear challenges of the future” and hosted a virtual conference sponsored by Northrop Grumman on nuclear modernization policy last month. Senator Angus King (I-ME), the keynote speaker who received more than $230,000 in campaign contributions from nuclear weapons contractors himself, explained nuclear modernization was a strategic imperative and called for “a new B-21 bomber, Columbia-class nuclear submarines, and a new ground-based strategic deterrent.”

Capitol Hill is no stranger to the revolving door of lobbyists that funnel in and out of its hallowed halls. It turns out that neither are the nonpartisan, independent think tanks who steer our public policy.

I do not dispute the need for think tanks to solicit donations or grants to fund their research. There is, however, a clear conflict of interest when think tanks pursue or forgo research that would go against their bottom line, and that of the companies funding said research. Ultimately, many of the think tanks that advocate for fully funding the Pentagon’s nuclear “modernization” plan received funding from the contractors that will benefit from those expenditures.

Think tanks have an undeniable influence on our public policy discourse, and lawmakers rely on their expertise to help them inform policy decisions. Experts frequently testify before Congress on their research, and to achieve full transparency, the House of Representatives has a Truth in Testimony rule. The initial iteration of the rule, passed in 1997, only required witnesses to disclose what organizations they represented at a hearing. The House further tightened the rule in January 2021 to require witnesses to “disclose whether they are the fiduciary of any organization or entity with an interest in the subject matter of the hearing.”

While the strengthening of the Truth in Testimony rule is a critical step to eliminate “any risk of self-dealing,” the rule is not sufficient to close all loopholes. Witnesses can declare they represent themselves rather than an organization, for example, and they can decide whether any funding their organization receives is related to the hearing. Tim Stretton, the director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project for Government Oversight, told The New Republic that allowing witnesses to self-select whether they testify on behalf of themselves or their organization keeps the existing loopholes open. “Since it’s all self-reporting, it’s up to Congress to determine how to enforce this rule,” he said. “[…] you’re not going to see individuals or organizations doing a better job of disclosing more information if they don’t think it’s going to cost them.”

Furthermore, the Senate does not require nongovernmental witnesses to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, which leaves a major opening for think tanks to exploit —something that those think tanks advancing hawkish nuclear policy recommendations often do. In June 2021, for example, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held a hearing on nuclear deterrence policy and strategy. One of the witnesses was Dr. Matthew Kroeing, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council and professor at Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Kroeing recommended modernizing all three legs of the nuclear Triad and called for new “low-yield” submarine-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. Given that the Atlantic Council receives upwards of $1.7 million per year from nuclear weapons contractors, their claim that their recommendations are “nonpartisan” is a red herring. Nuclear weapons are not necessarily a partisan issue and has supporters on both sides of the aisle who are unwilling or unable to speak out against weapons of mass destruction. “Nonpartisan,” therefore, is not the comforting display of intellectual independence it once was.

Tim Morrison, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, offered a “bipartisan approach” to aggressive nuclear modernization in his statement before the House Armed Services Committee in February 2021. According to Morrison:

“This bipartisan plan means modernizing the complementary three-legged stool of nuclear weapons delivery systems   heavy bombers capable of fielding gravity bombs and air launched cruise missiles and dual-capable aircraft; ballistic missile submarines, with missiles capable of carrying low-yield and larger-yield warheads; and, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.” 

Conveniently, increased production of these nuclear weapons would benefit contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, who each donated at least $100,000 to the Hudson Institute in 2020. These donations, far from altruistic, are a key strategy for nuclear weapons contractors to drive new business. A new brief from the Center for International Policy puts the full force of donations, campaign contributions, and lobbying by nuclear weapons contractors into context: With $27.7 billion for nuclear activities with the Department of Defense and $15.5 billion on for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the FY 2022 NDAA alone, these companies will rake in profits as the producers of the next generation of nuclear weapons. Not a bad return on a few million dollars invested.

So, next time you read a report or hear congressional testimony that calls on the US to aggressively fund nuclear modernization programs, remember to ask: Who benefits? The answer may surprise — and disappoint — you.

Taylor Giorno is a fall researcher at the Center for International Policy’s Arms and Security Program and Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.