WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., grilled Defense Department lawyers on Wednesday over the “revolving door” between former Pentagon officials, military officers, lawmakers and congressional staff going on to lobby for the defense industry.

Warren, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, convened the hearing the same day her office released a report that found 672 instances in 2022 of former government and congressional officials working as “lobbyists, board members or senior executives” for the top 20 defense contractors. The study found that 91% of those employees became registered lobbyists for the contractors.

“Because federal contracts are so profitable for defense companies, these companies want the inside track on how to win those contracts,” Warren said at the hearing. “A preferred strategy is to hire former Pentagon employees to put together the bids and then to present them to their former colleagues in government.”

“After all, if a defense industry staffer used to work in the next cubicle over from a Pentagon acquisitions officer, there’s a better chance that the industry staffer can get his phone calls and emails returned,” she added.

The report refers to these as “revolving door hires.” It found that Boeing – the third largest defense contractor – made the most of these hires with 85 former Pentagon or congressional officials, comprised of 77 lobbyists, six executives and two serving as either a director, board member or trustee.

The report also lists Pfizer as a defense contractor, arguing that it did “extensive” Pentagon contracting during the COVID pandemic and noted that the pharmaceutical company retained 73 former officials. Pfizer aside, the more traditional top five defense contractors came in third, fourth and fifth on Warren’s list: Raytheon at 64 hires, General Dynamics at 57 and Lockheed Martin at 53.

Warren argued that federal ethics laws on Pentagon lobbying are too narrow and pointed to legislation she previously introduced to “close influence peddling loopholes” to expand the definition of lobbying, extend recusal periods that prevent defense contractor employees from working for the Defense Department and enhance reporting requirements when the companies hire former government officials.

Caroline Krass, the Defense Department General Counsel, defended current ethics laws and pushed back against Warren’s calls to expand them.

“There’s always room for improvement, and [the Defense Department] supports well-coordinated, integrated efforts to enhance executive branch-wide laws,” said Krass. “But imposing additional ethics restrictions that apply only to [the Defense Department] can be counterproductive if they diverge from long-standing and well-known executive branch ethics laws.”

“They can crate unnecessary complexity and confusion and may also put us at a disadvantage in our recruitment and retention perspective,” she added.

The Pentagon is reviewing the impact of ethics laws on recruiting and retention as required under the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.

Danielle Brian, president of the Project on Government Oversight, argued at the hearing that the current ethics laws hinder military readiness and effectiveness. She pointed to the Navy’s failed efforts last year to retire nine littoral combat ships early because of design flaws that created numerous problems — retirements that Congress partially prevented.

“An intense lobbying campaign led by former Navy officials who had gone to work for companies with contracts to support those ships successfully prevented the Navy’s retirement of five of those ships,” said Brian. “Current lobbying restrictions did not prevent this because they only prohibited a very narrow definition of lobbying activities for very senior officials.”

Foreign influence

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., joined Warren in highlighting former Pentagon officials who had gone on to work for foreign governments, including those who have committed serious human rights abuses. He pointed to a Washington Post report that found the Defense and State Departments approved 95% of some 500 veterans’ requests to work for foreign governments since 2015.

The Defense Department – at the request of Warren and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa – sent Congress a report in March detailing former military personnel who went on to work for foreign governments, with the majority of the names redacted. (Warren and Grassley sent a follow up letter to Defense Secretary Austin on Monday asking him to submit an unredacted report.)

An analysis of the Pentagon report from the dovish Quincy Institute found that more than half of these veterans worked for the UAE. It also noted that the list included 77 former senior officials working for foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Army General Counsel Carrie Ricci noted at the hearing that “the vast majority of Army personnel” who were approved to work for the UAE and Saudi Arabia had not been general officers.

“They are largely connected to our foreign military sales programs,” said Ricci “They’ve been maintainers who have been hired by these countries to help maintain the equipment through security cooperation.”

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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