WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s marked her populist presidential campaign with disruptive ideas, unveiled a plan Thursday that took aim at the military-industrial complex.
The Massachusetts Democrat also used the announcement to blast U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive and now acting defense secretary, as a symptom of the revolving door she wants to close between the Pentagon and the defense industry.
“The coziness between defense lobbyists, Congress and the Pentagon — what former President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex ― tilts countless decisions, big and small, away from legitimate national security interests and toward the desires of giant corporations that thrive off taxpayer dollars,” said Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In a Medium post to announce the plan, Warren said she asked the Department of Defense Inspector General to investigate allegations Shanahan used his position in the department to benefit Boeing, where he worked for more than three decades. He was cleared earlier this month, but Warren was not satisfied.
“Shanahan’s obvious potential conflicts of interest remain,” Warren said. “The truth is that our existing laws are far too weak to effectively limit the undue influence of giant military contractors at the Department of Defense. The response of Congress shouldn’t be to confirm Shanahan. It should be to change the rules.”
Warren is among key Democrats who are signaling that Shanahan will face tough questions and possibly significant resistance in what has already been a bumpy path to him taking over the military’s top civilian role. His confirmation hearing will include interrogation from Warren and one other Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
On Thursday, Warren suggested her plan to dampen corporate influence at the Pentagon would make it easier to curtail Pentagon waste and over-investment in “the wrong things — too much investment in the technologies of the past, and not enough focus on the needs of the future.”
It’s an oft stated but elusive goal for a variety of stakeholders in America’s national defense community, but Warren’s plan is notable for helping lift it into Democratic presidential politics. The move also sets her at odds with Trump, who repeatedly and vocally casts his expansive defense spending proposals as supportive of industry and as an economic engine.
“If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now,” Warren said. “It is time to identify which programs actually benefit American security in the 21st century, and which programs merely line the pockets of defense contractors — then pull out a sharp knife and make some cuts.”
Under her proposed legislation, “giant defense contractors” would be banned from hiring senior Pentagon officials and officers for four years after they leave office. Those contractors would also be subject to federal open records law and have to report who they’re lobbying at the Pentagon and why.
Warren’s “Department of Defense Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act” would also ban both senior DoD officials from owning or trading stock in these contractors and DoD employees from owning or trading stock in a company whose profits they can influence.
Amid an outcry over a former Obama administration cybersecurity official lobbying for Huawei, Warren is also proposing a legal means to prevent foreign governments from hiring American national security officials.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, introduced the bill with Warren in the House.
“We need to stop making it easy for predatory contractors to make a fast buck off American taxpayers by price gouging the Pentagon with bloated contracts,” Speier said. “Our laws and rules are too lax and give contractors too much power and access. Industry should be a tool of national defense, not the other way around. This bill goes a long way toward fixing that imbalance.”
In justifying their proposals, Warren pointed to a study that found the top 20 defense contractors last year hired nearly 400 former senior government officials, top military brass, former members of Congress and senior legislative staff as lobbyists, board members or senior executives.
“We have to call this what it is: corruption, plain and simple,” she said.
In the run-up to her candidacy, Warren made a foreign policy speech that called for a smaller defense budget, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and a “no first use” nuclear weapons policy. Then, she said it was time to end “the stranglehold of … the so-called Big Five defense contractors.”
Yet, Warren has also fought publicly for the interests of major defense contractors in Massachusetts, where Raytheon and General Dynamics are significant contributors to the local economy. A 2015 Politico article detailed her boosterism for the Army’s Warfighter Information Network—Tactical and Army manpack radios, both programs of General Dynamics.
In August 2017, Warren hosted SASC ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., at the General Dynamics facility in Taunton, Massachusetts, where ― according to Warren’s own news release ― the lawmakers viewed a demonstration of WIN-T, intended to be the Army’s battlefield communications network.
At the time, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester had faulted WIN-T technical performance, usability and vulnerability to enemy jamming. The Army scrapped the beleaguered program in September 2017 after $6 billion in sunk costs.
In a Senate floor speech last year, she opposed former Lockheed Martin executive John Rood for the position of undersecretary of defense for policy because he could act in the job to benefit his former employer. She said the president was wrong to stock the DoD with “an unprecedented number of nominees directly from the defense industry.”
At the time, she noted that Army Secretary Mark Esper was a Raytheon lobbyist, Army Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy was a Lockheed executive, and that then-Deputy Chief Management Officer John Gibson led XCOR Aerospace and that Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ellen Lord spent her career at Textron.
“Industry experience, in and of itself, does not disqualify someone from public service. But there must be balance,” she said at the time. “When too many top government jobs are filled by industry insiders, we risk corporate capture of the whole policymaking process.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.