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We can finally stop saying “Thank you for your service.”

The Department of Justice recently announced a deferred prosecution agreement with three former technicians of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) who were accused of illegally exporting information regulated by U.S. export control laws. The information was used by a company in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to provide hacking operations for the benefit of the UAE government. The technicians agreed to pay large fines, to cooperate with U.S. government investigations, and to relinquish their U.S. security clearances.

What they did was illegal, but was it wrong?

Not if you examine the example set by their higher-ups.

The twenty years since 9/11 have seen a surge in enrichment opportunities for former high-ranking military officers, diplomats, and intelligence officials.

Retired generals and admirals have joined the boards of defense contractors, the current U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin of Raytheon, and his predecessor, James Mattis of General Dynamics, being prime examples. A 2012 study found that from 2009 to 2011, 76 of 108 top officers took contractor positions, and an earlier review found that from 2004-2008, “80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives.” Several served on the Defense Policy Board while in the employ of contractors.

Industry is OK, but it was hard to beat the Pentagon’s “senior mentor” program that hired retired flag officers as advisors to active-duty flag officers, even while 80 percent had financial ties to defense contractors. When then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates required them to file financial disclosure statements, 98 percent quit the program.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Retired diplomats have found opportunities at think tanks funded by foreign governments, a hookup your average guy in flyover country might think is suspicious. This is a more nebulous process than a defense contractor hiring the retiring head of the Pentagon’s arms sales office, a reliable feeder job to industry, but it keeps old warhorses in the policy game with business-class air travel to boot.

The think tanks prepare policy recommendations for incoming administrations, send experts to appear on TV to opine on current events, write syndicated editorials, act as a bullpen for ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the political party out of power, and provide a convening space where foreign officials can meet administration officials, or cement existing relationships.  

Think tanks are an unregulated vehicle for lobbing by foreign governments and they have an  academic veneer (some even have “.edu” web domains) that is more respectable than a lobby shop of former Hill staffers and campaign officials. And the First Amendment protects advocacy regardless of whom you are advocating for. In addition, they don’t have to disclose the names of their foreign donors (though they are reported to the IRS.) Many of the donors are friendly foreign governments – Norway, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Japan — but a friendly foreign government is still a foreign government.

On the unfriendly foreign government side, two former U.S. ambassadors to China have been notable boosters of ties with China, and critics of U.S. policy, regardless of Beijing’s actions, and have been rewarded with board seats and consulting contracts, and favorable media coverage in China.

Foreign governments have spent almost $3 billion since 2016 on influencing U.S. government policy, and that number probably under-reports the true amount as much cash to think tanks is unreported to the Department of Justice which tracks foreign influence efforts. That level of spending was probably one of the motivations for the Trump administration’s push for public disclosure by think tanks of foreign funding, which conditioned the availability of State Department officials on disclosures of foreign cash from governments or businesses, which may be acting as middlemen for their capitals.

The U.S. Congress recently strengthened the “truth in testimony” rule for witnesses at committee hearings, but many think tankers refuse to play and claim to be just representing themselves, not their organizations. (Can we assume then they won’t be paid for the day of testimony or all that prep time?)

The influence was momentarily visible in 2019 when it was disclosed that Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company that employed Hunter Biden when his father was Vice-President was a donor to the Atlantic Council. A Council official, and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, natch, wrote “uneasiness remains” about the transaction, but it wasn’t enough uneasiness to make anyone say “No, thanks.” In 2020, the Council partnered with Facebook to fight election disinformation, which apparently included stories about the Biden Burisma connection, which Facebook promptly censored. (The Council, which does more than many think tanks and reports the names of donors on its web site, though it accommodates anonymous donations, ended the relationship when it hit the front pages.)

The Council has long been a reliable advocate for U.S. military support for Ukraine against Russia and was so before the Burisma cash arrived. And that’s one thing about money to think tanks: It’s not to make someone say something they wouldn’t otherwise say: it’s to reward “your guys,” to provide the “mother’s milk” to keep the fellows addressed as “Your Excellency” (and those who want to be) motivated to keep writing those op-eds and advocating on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.

Former spooks have likewise benefitted from the post-9/11 firehose of cash.

Much of the work of the security services (2021 budget $85 billion) is contracted out. As post-9/11 spending surged, many security service officials traded in the government “blue badge” for a contractor “green badge” and returned the next week to the same desk, doing the same job. The Congressional Research Service reported that 70% of the security service budget may be spent on contracts. Contracted tasks include building cover identities for field operatives, the stuff you think would be considered “inherently governmental” - but not in today’s brave new world of outsourcing.  

The security services bookended the past two decades by missing the 9/11 attacks and underestimating the life span of the Afghan government in the wake of the U.S. pullout. Then there’s that Iraq WMD issue…

But, no matter, a bureaucrat can always excuse any disaster, and avoid individual accountability, by pointing out that it was a group decision, thus escaping any barriers to future earnings. Those vacation homes don’t buy themselves, you know.

The increasing use of technology for intelligence collection and espionage has broadened the income opportunities beyond doing due diligence for law firms and corporate clients by rummaging through old contacts in Cairo or Kuala Lumpur. An example has been Keith Alexander, former head of the National Security Agency, who started a cybersecurity company to service private sector clients. He likely didn’t repurpose the NSA’s classified techniques that worked in the past but, just as important, he knew what didn’t work which is worth a lot. In fact, it’s worth $110 million in two rounds of startup funding.

It looks like a career in government doesn’t involve selfless sacrifice to the nation, but is really just a deferred compensation scheme.

What’s going on with these people?

There’s just so much money sloshing around out there that hard-working (kidding!) civilian and uniformed bureaucrats feel they deserve a little something-something for having defended “the homeland” against terrorism. This is despite America’s public shaming in Afghanistan and what can only generously be called a tie game in Iraq — after two decades of unlimited funding and no real restraints on their actions on the battlefield.

And some senior officials live like rich people, but they really aren’t, so they want to be the real thing.

For example: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lives in a 7,000 square foot grace-and-favor mansion on Fort Myer with a great view of the capital, is attended to by cooks, drivers, and various lords and ladies in waiting, and has 24/7 access to the military’s air fleet. The chiefs of the military services and the regional combatant commanders have access to lesser dwellings and a variety of business jets, ranging from airliner size to Gulfstreams, some with interiors patterned after that of Air Force One. And American ambassadors live at the best addresses in New York City, Paris, and Tokyo.

It’s called the “wealth-status gap.” Many government positions have high status, but that status is temporary as few appointments are permanent; wealth, on the other hand is less transitory. It is manifest when the official is the main attraction at that USO fundraiser but is also the lowest paid guy in the room.

Retired three-start and four-star officers make more in “retired pay” (what the military calls a pension) than they do on active duty. If the U.S. had chalked up victories in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of blowing over $6 trillion and seeing home over 7,000 dead soldiers, that might not look so bad, but the U.S. is rewarding failure.

Guys who won wars, like George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, stayed in public life. (Eisenhower was president of Columbia University then was President, and Marshall ran the American Red Cross.) Ike made money from his memoirs, but Marshall turned down a million dollars (when that meant something) for his memoirs at a time when he had $1,300 in the bank.   Would any former U.S. official do that today?

Per Barack Obama, “I think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”

But based on the American government’s woeful performance since 9/11, many of America’s national security officials lack the skills to successfully persecute America’s enemies, but have perfected their ability for rent-seeking.

I’ll have to feel sorry for U.S. diplomats the next time they complain to Egypt or Pakistan that their military officers and spooks are enriching themselves and interfering in elections, but at least their opposite numbers in Cairo and Islamabad will appreciate the humor.    

Senior military officers go on and on about ethics, but many senior officials are forgetting the power of example. If you command troops in two “no wins” and then get fired for disclosing classified material to your mistress, you can still anticipate a soft landing at a leading private equity outfit. But if you’re a corporal who loses a set of night vision goggles, you’ll be under the jail, not in it.

So, what’s wrong with some NSA technicians working for U.S. allies or some Special Forces troopers opting for a big pay raise from Blackwater?

This oblivious, self-seeking behavior is contributing to accelerating declining trust in institutions, especially after the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles.

The last half-century has seen a collapse in public trust in the media, Congress, organized religion, and public schools, according to Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions survey. In the case of the media, the slide started in 1980 with the advent of CNN and 24/7 news and was accelerated by the rapid growth of social media in the 2000s. The military is typically highly regarded but the February 2021 Reagan National Defense Survey found “a great deal” of trust in the military declined from 70% to 56% from 2018 to 2021, and that before the shambolic retreat from Afghanistan and abandonment of America’s Afghan friends, and military leaders’ eager, public adoption of divisive social trends in an attempt at reputational rehab.

And the self-promoting  eagerness of former and serving  FBI and CIA officials to involve themselves in national  elections is probably reflected in declining poll numbers, though they are still numbers Congress would kill for.

The State Department if suffering a retention crisis out of sight of the public. A recent survey found one-third of U.S. diplomats are “actively exploring exit options,” a trend that “predates the pandemic and the Trump administration,” to the disappoint of many in the foreign policy community. Most of the causes are rooted in long-term Foggy Bottom leadership pathologies, but the Foreign Service relies on its officers (and their families) to serve in uncomfortable locales without the support infrastructure enjoyed by the military. In this case, it’s important that the rank-and-file officers know their bosses are now and forever aligned with U.S. national interests, not their potential future opportunities.

The senior officers in the military, State Department, and the security services are responsible for nurturing in their institutions the sense of duty and public interest necessary to motivate the rank and file to arduous service with little or no public recognition. A sincere demonstration of humility for money wasted and lives lost, American, Iraqi, and Afghan, would start the process of redeeming the sad reputation of the national security “leaders” responsible for our current predicament in Central Asia, and for weakening important institutions — just when we may need them to confront China’s aggression in Asia.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

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