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 reporter noticed a curious filing by the US government in a case in federal court. Since the revelations last week, Allen first took administrative leave from his chairmanship of the Brookings Institution – a major think tank in Washington that also takes money from foreign governments and corporations – before resigned post office this weekend.
However, that shouldn’t be the end of public attention on this story. Allen is just the latest in a long line of former U.S. military officers and leaders who have lined up to defend the interests of foreign governments in Washington — apparently within that country’s highest national security echelons.
If anyone in power is actually serious about not selling our foreign policy to the highest bidder – like the Biden administration, which declared corruption a priority threat to national security early in his term – there are a host of reforms that are low hanging fruit that can be achieved if he can muster the political courage.
THE REVOLVING DOOR MANAGED BY CORRUPTION
For all the attention given to President Vladimir Putin’s fight against corruption in response to his illegal invasion of Ukraine, little attention was paid to the deep corruption at the Pentagon during the Biden presidency. Even if the rot at the Pentagon mimics the same lack of accountability of CEOs on Wall Street and big oil that has so Animated the progressive social movements of the past decades, the opacity of the Pentagon’s global apparatus, and the ingrained pay-for-play culture in Washington have helped military elites escape 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 advisers, and QAnon’s conspiracy theorist, General Michael Flynn. Flynn headed the Department of Defense’s Intelligence Agency directorate for two years before then-President Barack Obama fired him for temperament issues, after which he joined Trump’s election campaign. Then, after Trump was elected president, he appointed Flynn as his national security adviser. But he only lasted 24 days as one of the US government’s most powerful national security officials before being unmasked as a foreign agent for Russia and the Turkish government as part of his much sought-after program. country to get the US government to extradite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political enemy, 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 escape scrutiny.
Then there’s Trump’s Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Prior to US Senate confirmation as head of the Pentagon, Mattis was a paid advisor to the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates: the same forces involved in the war in Yemen. Mattis helped popularize “Little Sparta“like Washington’s name for the UAE military, based on its counterterrorism operations. Yet those same operations depended on paying al-Qaeda operatives to clear the group’s villages in Yemen. The operations also involved recruiting militants in their fight against the Saudi-Emirati-led coalition’s military intervention against the Houthis, including the diversion of weapons sold by the United States to these forces. And it was after advising Mattis to the UAE military, and during his tenure as Defense Secretary, that reports leak of former US special forces operators being hired by the UAE as mercenary assassins to eliminate political rivals in Yemen, and of the Emirati monarchy hiring former agents of the United States National Security Agency being hired to hack Americans.
It would be unwise to think that the corruption of the US military, especially among its uniformed leaders, ends there, or that it started with the Trump administration. Like most things during his tenure, Trump simply carried existing policies to their logical, often corrupt or abusive conclusion. Moreover, the revolving door at the Pentagon is not only with foreign governments and rogue agents who are generally interested in leveraging former military power actors to achieve less than peaceful goals. The revolving door between military rulers and government-subsidized war corporations is perhaps even wider and just as worrying.
Let’s not forget that Trump’s last two defense secretaries were former Boeing and Raytheon executives – the latter is a key manufacturer, subsidized by American taxpayers, of precision-guided munitions used by the Saudi-led coalition in its war crimes in Yemen. Meanwhile, General John Kelly, Trump’s former Homeland Security Secretary, later became Chief of Staff – and whom the political media portrayed as one of the “adults in the room” — was in office just long enough to to assure that some of Stephen Miller’s (senior Trump adviser) toughest border restrictions, for terrorize families seeking safety at the US southern border, were in place. Regardless, Kelly can now take advantage of these policies — which the Biden administration has largely held in place — after joining the board of directors of Caliburn International, a federal contractor operation of the largest shelter for migrant children in the country.
IT’S TIME FOR SOME STRUCTURAL REFORMS
In this context, Allen’s covert lobbying for Qatar takes on a whole new meaning. The Trump years have been rages with blatant campaigns of foreign influence by Saudi Arabia, Israeland the United Arab Emirates in the midst of these authorities to push for an American war against Iran. Still, they certainly weren’t the first, so it’s really no surprise that money exchange were involved. What is surprising is that there appears to be potential liability for these pay-to-play practices which, barring the rare enforcement not to have registered as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registry Actare generally not prohibited by departmental policy or law.
For example, while right dictates that retired military officers receive permission from their service branches and the Department of State to be paid by foreign governments, they are not required to make this list public. Due to such secrecy, the public only learned that Mattis had served as a military adviser to the UAE only because the Government Control Project discovered via a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. Additionally, while the Department of Defense maintains a database of former military officials who sought ethics opinions to work for military contractors after their military service – called the After the Government Employment Advisory Directory Database — it’s not public. Like most Department of Defense systems, it would be foolish to think that tracking is synonymous with surveillance. In addition, this notice requirement only applies to certain levels of DOD employees and procurement and finance officers who too received a job offer from a military contractor within two years of their employment at the Pentagon. This unnecessarily narrows the reach of those with conflicting interests and ethical demands when they walk through the revolving door of a government-subsidized industry they have just served.
At a minimum, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should order that this data be made public, or Congress can require its regular public disclosure in the statute. Doing either would provide an essential public surveillance tool to reign in the crisis, but it would ultimately be just a tourniquet on a gaping wound. If the Biden administration is truly committed to prioritizing the fight against corruption for US national security (as Democrats have been claim since 2018), it should not stop at one-off criminal investigations 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 ban foreign government lobbying, to name a few. some.
Did you know that Senator Elizabeth Warren has already a map for that?
Kate Kizer is a nonresident Senior Fellow for United States National Security Policy at the Center for International Policy and a columnist at Inkstick.