Should we be asking questions about the retired admirals’ and generals’ “foreign aid” letter?

Recently, 150 retired three and four-star generals signed a letter urging congressional leaders not to make cuts in the International Affairs Budget, otherwise known as foreign aid.  In the letter they listed their top military positions, but none provided their current affiliations that might be relevant to the position they were taking, or disclosed who organized the letter-writing effort.  They should have, and here’s why.

According to the Washington Examiner, the generals and admirals were “organized by the group U.S. Global Leadership Coalition” (or “USGLC”).  USGLC has what it calls its “National Security Advisory Council” or “NSAC.”  The NSAC says it “includes more than 200 retired three and four-star generals and admirals.”  According to the USGLC website, “over 120 members of NSAC” signed the letter.

What is the USGLC?  It characterizes itself as an organization that “brings together more than 500 businesses and non-profits from across the country” who believe “investing in America’s tools of development and diplomacy” is both the “right thing” and “smart thing” to do.

Maybe so, but USGLC’s education arm, the Center for U.S. Global Leadership, says it has “partners” whose “support allows the USGLC to educate and engage the American public and opinion leaders about the importance of America’s civilian tools of development and diplomacy.”

Who are those partners?  They are some of the largest contractors involved in foreign aid.  (Yes, most foreign development aid goes through private companies).  Here’s a sampling as to how some of “partners” that USGLC lists have fared: Devex reports that in 2016 Chemonics International was the “top contractor” for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) receiving $1,009,133,442. Tetra Tech came in at #2 with $ 471,061,443, and DAI at #3 with $343,817,396.  Other “partners” are also recipients of budget dollars.

The nation’s top defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, is also a “partner.”  Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, “foreign aid” isn’t all about economic and development assistance.   Actually, about 40% is security assistance and cooperation, often in the form of weapons and training.  (The Trump administration has sought to cut certain foreign security assistance.) The question then is this: do any of these retired three-and -four-star officers have any connections with an enterprise that might benefit from the foreign air/security assistance regime?

In fact, the chances are pretty good many do.  In 2012 the Huffington Post reported that “70 percent of retired three-and-four-star generals took jobs with defense contractors or consultants.”  The co-chairs of NSAC are, for example, on the board of directors of Michael Baker International a company that through its subsidiaries does work for the U.S. Departments of Defense and State, to include specifically USAID.

I’m not at all suggesting any of these officers have done anything illegal.  There is nothing wrong with retired officers being involved in the free enterprise system, to include specifically defense firms.  Indeed, there is much goodness in retired officers bringing their talent and expertise to these endeavors.  Ditto for affiliating in some way with non-governmental organizations, even if they might benefit from a USAID contract.

But why not make all that clear when advocating to Congress?  On 13 February, I contacted USGLC with these questions:

How many of those NSAC letter signatories are also board members of or otherwise connected with defense contractors involved in security assistance?  Similarly, how many of them are board members of, or otherwise connected with, USAID vendors?  

Of your top 25 donors, how many have been recipients of USAID contracts, grants, or other monies, and how many are involved in security assistance activities funded by the US government? 

Did the Global Coalition ever consider disclosing the connections that the signatories may have had with defense or USAID contractors who might stand to benefit from a larger foreign assistance budget? 

Since the NSAC is touting the letter on your website, why wasn’t the affiliation with the Global Coalition reflected in the letter itself?

To date, the questions remain unanswered.

You be the judge: should these officers have voluntarily disclosed any connection, financial or otherwise, that a reasonable person might conclude could influence what they are advocating?  If they list their former military positions (apparently to lend credibility to the letter), shouldn’t they also list their relevant affiliations (that might give context to their action)?   Shouldn’t the letter have reflected the USGLC link?

Doesn’t the public need this sort transparency in order to determine if the retired senior leaders are simply giving objective and unbiased advice…or something other than that?

As we like to say on Lawfire, get the facts, assess the law, and decide for yourself!

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