WASHINGTON — I’m going to start by stating the obvious: Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan was nominated for a Pentagon post (deputy secretary at that point) because of his industry experience.
And while we’re at it, so was Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord. And so was Army Secretary Mark Esper, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood. And there are others that I’m forgetting.
They were all nominated because of their industry experience. We all know this. So can we just please allow them to do their jobs?
As a reminder, part of the reason we all know about their industry experience is because the nominations were dissected on the Hill, among the think tank community, watchdog groups and, yes, in the media.
And appropriately so. The risk of Pentagon leadership coming from top defense companies is favoritism, either for a particular company or for the industrial base at large. That risk, or the potential of a conflict of interest, is hard to ignore. During Shanahan’s nomination hearing in 2017, then-Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain said it this way: “I’m not overjoyed that you came from one of the five corporations that receive 90 percent of the taxpayers’ dollars. I have to have confidence that the fox is not going to be put back into the henhouse.”
But remember: they were all appointed. Quite easily, in fact. All of those skeptics on the Hill, McCain included, accepted what was fed to them, as well as to the think tanks and to the watchdog groups and to the media — assurances that the proper safeguards were in place, that firewalls would prevent handing out favors.
And for almost two years, we haven’t heard much to lead anyone to believe that those safeguards weren’t serving their purpose.
But then came murmurings about Shanahan’s likely nomination to defense secretary. People pointed to all the recent wins for his former employer, Boeing. They talked of an investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general that some heard was underway. And they were right. We all waited to hear what would come of it.
Overshadowing the fact that 32 witnesses had no concerns regarding Shanahan’s adherence to his ethical obligations was the fact that one did — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. We heard about her concern that Shanahan’s office had received a copy of her memo related to the KC-46 (the IG report said it didn’t appear he had read it). We heard about her “concern that
Mr. Shanahan or his staff may have created the appearance of favoritism” for Boeing.
To be clear, she didn’t say there was favoritism. Just that it might have seemed that way. None of the concerns noted in the report appear to have any merit in fact — at least not to the IG.
She also said Shanahan may have said, “'We would never have done it this way. Or we wouldn’t do it this way,'” adding: “It was more comparing his experience and criticizing a contractor that he felt wasn’t getting the supply chain right.”
And that’s a bad thing?
As I said before, acting Defense Secretary Shanahan was brought to the Pentagon because of his industry experience. That experience could and should provide valuable insight into a number of areas that are forever challenging the department — from gaps in the supply chain, to flaws in how procurement programs are structured, to how contractors work together on programs, to best practices in trimming overhead in manufacturing. And, yes, it means comparing what he sees now to how he saw it work (or fail) in his prior life.
Proper oversight is important. If concerns were voiced, an investigation was appropriate. But if government is going to overly restrict these individuals from tapping their expertise or create proverbial muzzles that prevent or dissuade them from performing, then why are they there in the first place?
Jill Aitoro was editor of Defense News. She was also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brought over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.