Conflicts of Interest Abound on Congressional QDR Review Panel

Panel of Honor

Kudos to Ray Locker and Ken Dilanian at USA Today who recently published a story on the rampant conflicts of interest within a study panel that evaluates the Department of Defense's (DOD) Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) for Congress. Locker and Dilanian's analysis found that "more than half of the panel members appointed to review the Pentagon's latest four-year strategy blueprint have financial ties to defense contractors with a stake in the planning process."

According to the article, Congress created the 20-member review panel in 2006 "to provide an independent 'alternate view'" of the QDR, "which shapes future military policy and spending on weapons and other needs." Both DOD and Congress appoint the unpaid panelists, with the Secretary of Defense selecting 12 members and the top Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee diving up the other eight.

The 11 members with ties to the defense contracting industry include:

  • Richard Armitage: Member, board of directors, ManTech International
  • J.D. Crouch: Head of technology solutions group, QinetiQ
  • Joan Dempsey: Senior vice president, Booz Allen Hamilton
  • David Jeremiah: Member, board of directors, ManTech International; chairman, Wackenhut Services; chairman, Technology Strategies & Alliances, a consulting firm with defense contractors as clients
  • George Joulwan: Member, board of directors, General Dynamics
  • Alice Maroni: Member, board of trustees, LMI Government Consulting, which provides consulting services for the military
  • Jack Keane: Member, board of directors, General Dynamics; adviser to chairman, URS Corp.; chairman, Keane Advisors, a consulting firm with defense contractors as clients
  • John Lehman: Chairman, J.F. Lehman & Company, a private equity firm that owns defense contractors; member, board of directors, Ball Corp., and EnerSys
  • Robert Scales: Chairman, Colgen LP, a consulting firm with defense contractors as clients

Last year, according to Locker and Dilanian, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mandated that his appointees conform to federal ethics rules, which, among other things, requires them to disclose their assets and sources of income to the Pentagon and recuse themselves from recommendations that could affect a company with which they are affiliated. The congressional appointees have been under no such requirement. Shortly after USA Today began inquiring about the connections that some members of this year's panel had to the defense contracting industry, however, the Pentagon and Congress decided that federal ethics rules would apply to all panelists.

My first question is why Congress didn't require all panelists to conform to federal ethics rules from the beginning. Like any congressional committee that deals with powerful special interests, I think most members of the Armed Services committees operate with a certain benign outlook toward defense contractors. If you truly want an independent, alternate view of the QDR, though, why not, at a minimum, institute the commonsense rules that are already available to help ensure that outcome.

As Locker and Dilanian point out in their article, there are two sides to this issue. Some, like John Lehman, a panelist who works for a private equity firm that owns several defense contractors, point out that "most defense experts have some financial affiliation with the defense industry" and that those "with defense ties are capable of offering unbiased advice." While others, like Jordan Tama, a professor at American University, claim it is possible to find experts who don't have defense industry ties. In addition, some, like Janine Wedel, a professor at George Mason University, maintain that federal ethics rules hardly provide a guarantee of impartiality in these instances.

While I don't doubt that it's possible for someone with ties to the defense industry to offer unbiased advice on a defense matter, the whole issue with a conflict of interest is that you can't be sure, no matter if the advice directly impacts a company the individual is connected to or not. I think that largely stems from the fact that, like a member of the Armed Services committees, a panelist with defense ties defaults towards a sympathetic viewpoint of the military-industrial complex. With that said, it's not as if this committee is going to weigh the option of spending $200 billion on defense versus $600 billion. Of course, if DOD and Congress wanted to alleviate fears of conflict of interest, they could just appoint panelists that don't have ties to the defense industry, like the other nine members of the panel.

Image by Flickr user Nick Sherman used under a Creative Commons license.

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